Forty two years ago, when I was a scrawny teenager who weighed about 40 pounds less than I do now, I nervously walked the halls of my junior high school to quickly get from one place to another. Whether it was changing classes, standing in the cafeteria line, or meeting my band-playing friends in the band room after school, I always kept my eyes peeled for a dangerous brother-sister team.
The brother was big, strong, and although only a year older than me, he looked about 35 years old. Unlike the rest of us who were at least three years from using a shaver, this guy came to school each day clean-shaven but by 3:00pm he had a thick five o’clock shadow. There were football players and wrestlers slightly bigger than him, but absolutely none were tougher. I never once witnessed any of his purported fights, but they were legendary. You didn’t mess with the Big Guy. If by chance you came across him in the hallway, you looked down and walked away fast.
His sister was equally intimidating but for different reasons. She had a crush on me. Starting sometime in the eighth grade, I began to find love notes attached to my locker from her. It was hard enough getting through gym and algebra class let alone having to talk to girls. But now this very cute girl a year younger than me was writing notes, following me around the halls, and trailing me to my home after school. That she was as pretty as a picture only made it worse because I hadn’t quite developed a talent for speaking to girls yet. I recall that when I did, I would take a comb out of my back pocket and start combing my hair as I spoke. I needed somewhere to put my hands, and of all the choices that seemed to be the safest.
That she was the sister of Big Guy only made it worse. Legend had it– confirmed in later years– that he used to teach little sis how to fight down in their basement with a punching bag. I couldn’t imagine getting within two feet of him, and now I’m going to date the sister who could also pound me into oblivion? Just the thought of it back then sent me to my room and into the fetal position.
A couple of years later we all moved on to the much larger high school. Big Guy got even bigger, and his “fisticuffical” prowess became even more legendary. At one point he left our school for another, and I lost track of him. I eventually summoned up the courage to ask his sister out on a date. Although I remember being incredibly frightened when I pulled up to her home to pick her up, I luckily never saw the brother.
She and I one evening became each other’s first kiss. That becomes important in the later annals of my life.
Big Guy in fact barely knew of my existence. But It turned out that I had other problems. Starting in my senior year, I actually had two bullies who picked on me. They were bigger than me, they threatened me, and they used to vandalize my car. Somehow I managed to avoid getting beat up through a superior knowledge and usage of Peter Falk’s “Serpentine” maneuvers.
I found both of them recently on Facebook, and their now adult faces temporarily brought back the fears and anxieties of a then-17 year old boy. From the glimpses of their pictures and postings, it appears that they are living happy and full lives. In reading the comments on their pages, I still see a kind of bravado and swagger, albeit a harmless middle-aged one. To paraphrase the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof, “May God bless the former bullies… and keep them far away from us.”
After my first marriage was over, I was thrilled to hear from the pretty girl who left notes on my eighth grade locker. She grew up to be this incredibly gorgeous, sensitive, and extremely talented woman. She found me on Facebook, and we were instantly writing e-mails, speaking on the phone, texting, and eventually she flew out to California to visit me.
We married in short order, and like all fairy tales that’s how the story ends.
Except there is the little matter of Big Guy, now my brother-in-law. Years before Big Guy himself moved out to California, got married, and ended up raising a family with two two beautiful children. In addition to playing guitar in the occasional band, keeping a garden, and cooking all the meals for his family, he also drives a limo in and around L.A., taking fancy folk to their fancy award dinners. He’s no doubt got great stories, and someday I’m going to ply him with lots of beer and make him tell me all of them.
Big Guy loves his sister and couldn’t be happier that she reunited with her old school crush. In spite of his reputation back in school, he in fact was never was a bully. The reason I never truly had to fear him was because he treated everyone as he himself wanted to be treated. Those that challenged him in untoward ways paid a price. Not all tough guys are bullies, nor it seems are all bullies necessarily that tough.
Big Guy calls his sister on the phone regularly. Sometimes when she doesn’t answer, he’ll then call me. I try to always make sure to answer that call on the first ring. I don’t want to keep him waiting, you see.