Whipping Boy For sin of breaking love beads, he had to prepare to take a beating

ESSAY

July 16, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen

Now we teach him a lesson. Twenty-five years later, it's time to track him down, bring him in, and sock him in the gut. Make him wheeze, make him suck pavement, make a boy out of him.

Jeff Green beat me up in the sixth grade. Our lockers were side by side in our middle school. Between, and often during, classes we sixth-grade boys would slink to our lockers and check the merchandise. One day, I accidentally bumped Jeff at the lockers. This was bad. It was the day he wore his love beads.

In 1970, boys did groovy things such as thread love beads into necklaces. Jeff spent the bulk of his sixth-grade time working with love beads. They did look good on him. Made him look older -- which was hard to do since he already looked 21. Jeff had more body hair than our fathers. In P.E., we all noticed his thatch of chest hair. "Hey, what you looking at?" he'd scream at his hairless inferiors.

I stayed clear of him, except when I bumped into him and his love beads flooded the floor. I had shot his dog, so to speak. I was a dead boy.

The only question was the time and the venue of the beating. Since we were a sporting bunch, we decided to schedule the "fight" on the handball court after school. It wouldn't last long, since conventional wisdom stated I was a gangly boy who lacked the most remedial survival skills. I had been convicted of de-stringing Jeff's love beads. I must atone.

Since we were an obedient bunch, we showed up on time at the handball court -- 3:30 p.m. We exchanged hellos, since we tolerated each other the rest of the time. Our referee, fellow sixth-grader Mark Hemphill, meticulously went over the ground rules for the fight:

1. Start when Jeff says start.

2. Stop when Jeff says he's done beating up Rob.

"You both got that?" Mark asked. Yes, yes, we said.

Before fighting Jeff, I had been in only one fight and one wrestling match. A few years earlier, my best friend, Steve, had started a war by committing an unspeakable act: He sneaked into my yard and ripped up my bean plants. We shared this hobby of planting little nature things and watching the South Florida sun burn them to death. During a lull in our relationship, Steve uprooted my beans. Saw him do it from my bedroom window.

My daddy didn't raise no wimp (or farmer), so I ran outside and sneaked up behind the fiend, as he crouched over my crop. I closed my eyes and swung hard. Aiming would have been fruitful. I grazed his shoulder; he thought a fly had landed on him. Steve then realized his best bud had turned on him in defense of green beans.

Sensing a confrontation, I ran. On a good day, Steve ran faster than I. On our worst day, he caught me quickly and punched my head. His daddy didn't raise no wimp, either. Taught his boy to aim, too. Ears ringing a lousy tune, I scurried into my house and conceded the beans. Two days later, we were replanting together.

At least I won my only wrestling match. Leo was a fifth-grader, another hairy brute but one who was all flab. Saturday mornings PTC we'd watch professional wrestling on television and imitate those authentic moves, such as the Boston Crab, the Sleeper and the Figure-Four Leg Lock. We were partial to the Russian Sickle, in which you got on top of someone who was belly-down. Putting your clasped hands under his neck, you reared up until he conceded, or until something tiny and important snapped in his back.

Leo got too playful one day and attempted the Russian Sickle on me. I rolled the tub over and applied the sickle myself. You never knew exactly how much pressure to apply, but I covered the spread. He conceded. We went and got a cola Icee. He made me promise never to tell anyone about our wrestling match. I had, after all, bullied him into sniveling submission. But I'll honor my promise and keep it to myself.

I considered using the Russian Sickle just before Jeff and I tangled. But Jeff was a stand-up kid who liked working with his hands. The only round began with Jeff and me arm-locked. I didn't have a plan and I remember thinking: I need a plan. Remember to aim, remember how Steve punched your head and that entire negative experience.

I was busy with these productive thoughts when Jeff had an idea. Turns out he wasn't a head-hitter but a body man. He slugged me once in the stomach. My newest thought was whether I'd be breathing again in the near future. As I rolled on the handball court, longing for better upright days, I saw Jeff walk away.

He had won, but he didn't look happy. He didn't even look that strong anymore. Hairy, sure. But in a way, he also looked defeated. I saw him the next day at our lockers. I was breathing again, and he was beaded again. We had nothing to say to each other.

I hadn't thought about our fight for years, but then my 6-year-old son asked me about bullies the other day. I don't know if Jeff Green was a bully or not. I do know that people sometimes punch you in the gut for snapping their love beads.

So, I told my son that.

ROB HIAASEN is a features writer for The Sun. He sincerely hopes Jeff Green does not subscribe to this newspaper.

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