Newport Harbor High School Athletic Field Parking Lot
Newport Beach, California
Fall of 1979
I believe every boy sometime in his childhood suffers a bully. I certainly did, and the experience was nothing less than pivotal in my upbringing. It certainly helped to shape the man I was later to become.
The bully in my life (let's call him "Greg") arrived when we were both approximately 12 years old. He was one of the boys at school whose bodies began to mature first, and who, if not particularly liked, often could be found at the center of playground life and was feared for his power. Children can be amazingly cruel to each other, and no one wanted to start any problems with Greg. On the other hand, I was a quiet boy who mostly kept to himself and my close friends; today most of my childhood schoolmates would probably be hard pressed to remember me. I liked it that way. If a little ahead academically, I was perhaps a year of so behind my peers socially.
One thing I never had problems doing with my peers was sports. And every afternoon I traveled back and forth to football practice as part of a carpool with Greg and a couple other boys. There was always some time spent waiting for our rides and Greg began to harass me. It started off innocently enough and I said nothing and kind of laughed along with it. This humiliation continued on and off for a period of months until it became acute. Having started out reacting passively, it became difficult to stand up for myself - the pattern had developed and it proved hard to break. The harassment became worse and worse until Greg actually began hitting me, and finally, spitting on me.
The physical abuse did not hurt so much, but it was devastating emotionally to be humiliated like this in front of my peers. Actually, I did not care too much what anyone thought except for my good friend John Barich. I remember being physically pushed around one afternoon by Greg and looking over and seeing a sadly disappointed look on John's face, and that hurt me some place deep down inside; I knew perfectly well that John was rapidly losing respect for me because I allowed myself to be treated in this way. As Cicero said about friendship between males: "He removes the greatest ornament of friendship who takes away from it respect." The situation with Greg had become unbearable.
I was not a "tough" kid. At twelve years of age, I did not yet enjoy the crunch of physical contact. I did not yet feel the testosterone course through my veins when directly challenged physically by an adversary. I was not yet capable of looking an opponent in the eye while waiting for him to take his best shot. All that came later. At 12, I was just a vulnerable boy learning the basics of life. And in the person of Greg, I was learning an invaluable life lesson.
One night, as we waited in the parking lot in front of the Newport Harbor High School football fields, I finally snapped. As was his custom, Greg jumped on my back and started screaming, "I am going to eat you!" What happened next surprised me as much as anyone. Suddenly, I grabbed Greg and flipped him over my shoulder whereupon he landed on the curb of the street. I then immediately jumped on him and started hitting him for all I was worth. This all happened in the flash of a moment without any conscious thought - I was simply so tired that night after practice that I didn't care anymore. I acted on pure instinct.
As I was down on the ground punching Greg, Steve (whom I never liked - I dare venture not many people liked) made a move from behind to pull me off his friend. My own friend John (already a solidly-built defensive linemen) stopped him cold with a forearm shiver and commanded firmly: "Let them fight!" A few moments later our ride arrived and I got off Greg, but now he wanted to keep on fighting, "Let's stay here and fight! I don't care if we have to walk home! You broke my rib on that curb!" I told him he was crazy and we all got in the car. Greg threatened me the whole way home, "Rich, tomorrow you and I are going to go at it!" He wanted me to show up at school at 6:30 in the morning to fight before classes started. I told him he was crazy. We left it at that as I arrived home and walked into my house still jittery from the adrenaline.
I confided in my mother about what had happened and she did not say much. My father popped his head in my room and asked, "I heard you had a bit of trouble with Greg this evening." I nodded in the affirmative and let the issue drop. In reality, I was scared to death. I was strung so tightly that evening that I could barely concentrate on my homework. I did not want to fight again and I wondered what was going to happen.
Opening my locker before school the next morning, I saw Greg across the quad looking at me fixedly with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face. I ignored him. Next, I saw Mr. Pavitch (the mean counselor in charge of discipline) walk straight across the quad, grab Greg by the arm, and drag him into his office. I went to class when the bell rang. I later put together what had happened: both our mothers had called the school and Mr. Pavitch - who knew Greg as a confirmed screw-up often in trouble and me as a total unknown - had immediately sought out Greg and threatened bloody murder if there was a fight. Greg came up to me later that day and asked, "Can I talk to you for a minute?" Sure, I answered. "My mother told me that if I get into another fight she is not going to let me participate in the magazine sale at school and I am hoping to win the trip to Hawaii. So if it is OK with you, we can't fight anymore." OK with me? Yeah, I was relieved as hell! We left it at that and walked back to our own groups of friends, and in all the years I knew him after that (through high school) he treated me with nothing but the utmost respect.
Many years later as an adult, a part of me would have dearly loved to have been locked in a room with Greg for ten minutes. After the trauma of those months of being tormented by him, it became very important for me as a young man to become expert in physically defending myself. I devoted years of my life towards this end, and by the time I was physically mature I was 6'3", 200 lbs., and easily able to bench my body weight, had studied for years various martial arts, run marathons, learned how to use firearms, etc. At 21 or 22 years of age, I could more than likely have taken Greg apart; as a man, the thought of avenging the scared boy held considerable emotional appeal for me. However, from an equally adult perspective, I could see that Greg had had a hard life: his often sick mother had died when he was a teenager, he had lived with friends through high school, etc. And the last I heard of him, he was smoking marijuana all day long and going nowhere in his life. My revenge on Greg then would be the following: I would live a good life, and he most probably would not. This would be my revenge, and I would not lay one finger on the man. I could live with this.
According to the pie-in-the-sky idealists, a person can always avoid a fight and the necessity of resorting to violence to defend oneself. This, in my opinion, is patently untrue. In this unfair world, people respect strength and all too often take advantage of the weak. The more a person allows oneself to be taken advantage of, the less respect they will be afforded in the future. And no one can fight your fights for you - in this world, you have to defend yourself. Even if it results in a beating, people will think twice about messing with a person who is willing to fight. It is, in my opinion, better to suffer a beating than to live on your knees. There are worse things in heaven and earth than a beating.