I was just released from probation, albeit a self-imposed probation. I have been on probation since seventh grade, when I was a bad kid. Really, at the start of the year I knocked books out of Lance Cossia’s arms. I didn’t know him, but I tried to intimidate him. Years later, I think, he was a decent enough kid that lived in the adjacent neighborhood. I was the jerk kid trying to carve out some personal reputation in a big new school. He was a target. We tussled a bit, as I recall, on the second floor of Mark Twain Intermediate School on Franconia Road. Some negative consequence was attached later, no big deal. Why do I remember this incident? Perhaps because I knew even as I acted that I was acting out of malice, infused with hormones, covered in zits. For the same reason that I punched Steve Rice one Saturday morning. We fought until I broke my right thumb on his skull. I was the bad seedling then with a cast. Maybe that was a good thing, taking me out of the fight game for a while. The testosterone was overflowing and there was no counter balance of maturity to corral the chemical energy into something good.
It was a long year. I shared a locker with Dennis Johnson, a local kid I went to Catholic School with. He was wildly out of control. He needed Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, Electroshock, Duct Tape, concrete boots, embalming fluid– something that could neutralize his buzzing quest for trouble. Honest to Kim Il Sung, he once lit and smoked a cigarette in our second floor classroom when Mr. White stepped out for a few minutes. He opened the window, took a few puffs, and then flicked the butt away. It was awesome and scary, on the level of Timmy O’Brian driving a car into the neighbor’s house at 2:00 a.m. Dennis was clobbered by Mr. White, yanked by the hair, whacked with a college ring turned stone down, and likely paddled at an undisclosed location later. He probably enjoyed it. A few days or weeks later he lit and tossed a few firecrackers out of the same classroom window. That was the end. He went to special school after that. Years later I think he got into pcp weed and had to get married around age 17, just before he joined the U.S. Army and shipped out. I’m not sure what the reasoning was back in those days to offer budding criminals jail or the Army… an Army full of criminals? I could understand if you offered them a shot in the French Foreign Legion. The trail goes cold there, however.
We had an odd school arrangement that year. Our new school was not ready for occupancy, so we doubled up with another school, attending for four hours a day. My school started at 12:30 p.m. and ran till 4:30. Yeah, what a deal. Every day zipped by in a flurry. We could play a lot of sports before ever thinking about getting on the school bus. And we could get in a lot of trouble with that sort of schedule. We did both. I recall one morning at the bus stop a group of us boys decided to go over the big hill and beat up Jody Riccio, a kid who never seemed to know when his bragging and smack talk had gone too far. We had time to run down the hill, bull rush him before he could run in his house, smack him around, and get on our bus with a calm heart rate and blood pressure on time. Bad seedlings we were, but he had it coming. He was the kind of kid that would mouth off from his front porch and then run inside rather than suffer the just wrath of his peers.
I touched a few girls who wanted to be touched and a few who did not. Just plain bad willfulness that did not want to be good any longer. I wanted to break loose, not totally like Dennis Johnson or the wicked Jeff Hudson, but off the choke chain of elementary school. Yeah, Jeff Hudson was a bragging fool from a military family in Ft. Belvoir. He told tough guy stories of playing in elevator shafts that worked, how he rode on the top of the cars in the shaft. Wow, how can you top such a story? He always threatened to bring his motorcycle chain to school one day and whip up on anyone who dared cross him. He wore some sort of fake leather/vinyl cycle pants to school. One day they ripped and put a hole in his cool factor. I teased him about it, I’m sure. See, I did not take his crap and inevitably we had a showdown. I knew he was bigger and tougher than I was, but I stopped to respond to his taunts one day in the hallway. When the nearest teachers reacted, he ran. He had a lot more to lose than I did at that time. He was on the last inch of his last chance. My buddies slapped me on the back, “He ran away, dude” as if I was the cause of his cowardice. I wasn’t. It was a rare stroke of luck, that’s all.
In gym class I bullied a few kids. One was Lloyd Bradford. I don’t know why I recall his name. I just remember practicing the Vulcan death grip on his trapezius muscle when he went stone cold out and collapsed on the tile floor of the locker room. When our teacher discovered the hit, he helped revive Lloyd and dismissed class, except for me. He paddled my butt so hard that I can still remember running to my next class as if it were on fire. I wanted to stop and sit in a sink of cool water, but I didn’t. I fully deserved the brutality I received. It was no more than I’d given.
Before this awful year was over, I got into still another fight with two or three other boys I picked on. I have forgotten the details except for the end result of being suspended for the last few days of school. Somehow my parents never found out that I had been suspended. It magically disappeared. I dodged the school bus for a few days and just laid low during the daytime, always expecting some evil letter from school to report my criminal activities. None came. Now you would think that justice delayed is justice denied, right? But in my case I actually think I matured a bit from all the aggression and the near tragic misses I weathered. I started to behave better. I think my brain grew and the beginning of empathy began to take root.
That year was 43 years ago, and I am signing off on my misdeeds today. The statute of limitations has run out six times since then, and I don’t need these ugly moments in my mind a minute longer. As governor of what I think and how I feel, I am commuting my life sentence to time served. Amen.