Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2010
Images from the Internet
Like any other small kid, and I was the shortest and thinnest boy in my class for a number of years, I’ve had my share of bullies in my life. While most of them were my teachers and the Boy Scout leader, there were also some closer to my age that have moved in and out of my life.
Ah, yes, the bagel-making (his occupation) Boy Scout leader. He was a brute of a man who should never have been let be in charge of anyone, let alone kids. He seemed happiest when he found a reason to literally kick a helpless youth in the ass while he wore army boots that made Doc Martens look plush. He would make us play dodge ball with basketballs, and tell the throwers to aim at a single kid (usually the non-jock kind), so there is no way the ball could actually be dodged. I was often bruised.
Still I managed to stick around for a while, until I was a Second Class Scout, and needed only one more merit badge to become First Class. I decided to go for a cooking one, as the Troop was going on an overnight camping trip up at the Alpine Campgrounds, in the Jersey Palisades. The last Scout meeting before we left, I asked him, “Do I need to cook with or without aluminum foil?” He firmly said without, so I didn’t bring any.
On the camping trip, he did not come along, so a different Troop’s Scout Master watched over us. When I went to show my work, he said, “Since you’re cooking over an open fire, you need to use some foil, otherwise I won’t give it to you.” As hard as I tried, I could not find anyone who would part with any foil. I didn’t get the badge.
At the next Troop meeting, I approached our “leader” and said, quite perturbed, “You said I didn’t need foil when I did, and I didn’t get the badge.” He actually smirked at me with an evil grin, and said, handing me the Scout Manual, “You shoulda read it in the manual. Serves you right” (in other words, “I knew, and I fed you wrong information, so tough nuggies”). After years of abuse by this jerk, I had enough. “You know what,” I said seething with all the contempt my little frame could muster, as he leaned forward in a “what are you gonna do about it” stance, half sitting and half standing, “go to hell,” and I flung the book at him, and with karmic certainty, the point of the thick book hit him right in the groin, and he doubled over in sharp pain. I walked out, and never went back again. The next day I threw out my uniform and the sash with all my merit badges.
My first non-adult bully was in first grade by a kid named Francis, who was actually shorter than me, but was – and I mean this literally – mentally deranged. He would fly into a complete Mel Gibson rage at the drop of a hat, including fist flailing, and I had the pleasure of having to stand next to him at recess. He would glare at me and tell me all the ways he was going to hurt me, though for some reason I was one of the few who were actually left physically unscathed in the class, perhaps because I would bribe him with sweets; still, it was terrifying to be hearing this day in and day out. One day he didn’t show up for class anymore. A few days later, my mom told me that he had been playing hooky, and when the truant office came to the door, Francis attacked him, biting a chunk out of his leg. After that, he was expelled from our school and was sent to a different one for troubled kids, and I never saw him again. If he’s alive now, which I sincerely question, he’s probably either in jail, a cop, or a priest.
In junior high, because of the amount of books we had to carry, I started using an attaché case, which made it a bit easier to carry the load. This was the days before backpacks, when everyone just carried their materials in their hands: boys at the ends of their hands held tight against their leg (usually to be able to quickly hide their groin if the hormones kicked in), and girls with arms folded across their chest. However, I found the load to be too much to carry “boy style” and I could get beaten up carrying it “girl style” (which was actually a more comfortable to carry books), so I started using the attaché case, and was the only one who did. But then came along Craig.
Craig was in a grade higher than me, and whenever our paths crossed, he would grab the attaché case out of my hands, usually from the back before I saw him, and he would a) throw it down the hall, b) fling it down the stairs, or c) toss it out into the street, depending on where we were at the time. Needless to say, I went through quite a few of the cases, because they kept breaking due to the constant rough treatment by this dolt. At one point, he even told me that he didn’t have anything against me personally; it was just fun for him.
After a couple of years of this, on a non-school day, I was riding my bike along Cropsey Avenue near 21 Avenue (Bensonhurst), across the street from the park, when Craig was walking in the opposite direction. He walked into the street, and put his arm straight out as if to clothesline me. This happened fast, but I was able to pull the bike around his hand without him touching me, but had to go into the line of traffic coming from behind me (as I was going in the same direction as the traffic, I could not see what was there). It was only with grace that no cars were behind me at that moment along that very busy street.
I totally lost my cool. Despite his intimidating presence, I leapt off my bike, leaving it between two parked cars, and walked right up to him and yelled, “Are you out of your fucking mind?!? It’s one thing to wreck my stuff, but you could have fucking killed me! I have had enough of you. If you come near me again, I will call the cops on your ass and tell them about this. Just keep the fuck away from me!” Now, anyone who knew me then would know that I did not normally talk like that, and was actually quite shy. That was just a barometer of how angry I was at that moment.
After that, the first time I saw him in the school hall and he tried to grab my attaché case, I glared at him and he actually backed off, and never tried it again. Shortly after, I went to an Army & Navy store and picked up a canvas khaki knapsack, which was my choice of carryall for the next few years, even through my college / CBGBs days, until lighter and sturdier backpacks were more readily available.
During the summer of 1969, while I was 14, I went up to a sleepaway camp called H.E.S., nestled on Lake Stahahe at the base of High Peak in Harriman State Park, which is part of the Catskills. I had attended the camp for the previous six years and mostly had fun. The year they landed on the moon, however, it rained for about 17 of the 21 days we were there. The kids in my bunk were bored, and so they decided to pick on the two smallest of the group, who just happened to have the single bunk bed in the room. I always tried to get the top of a bunk bed because I liked being able to look out at the view over the netting, which could only be seen from that height. In fact, for a number of years, my nickname at camp was “Squirrel,” because I climbed up and made my nest. More people in camp knew me by that name, than by my real one.
So these brilliant kids, with nothing else to do, decided to give us new nicknames: they called me “Ho” and Harvey, they titled “Mo.” Yeah, they kept that up by calling us every gay slur word imaginable, and would trash our stuff, put shaving cream in our faces as we slept, and anything that would not leave a bruise. They made every day as tortuous as they could for their own amusement. The counselor must have been aware of what was going on, but bullying back then was not considered anything more than “kids stuff.”
One day about two weeks in, we went down to the mess hall for lunch, and we all sat in our usual spots. There on my slice of Wonder white bread was the word “Ho” cut out in cheddar, in big block letters, and Harvey’s, natch, had “Mo.” Despite all the harassment we’d been through, I burst out laughing, because I thought it was so ridiculous, and that startled them. Harvey, however, was not amused, and went to the director of the camp to complain. The next morning, he was found tied to a tree in the area among the girls’ bunks, with a gag in his mouth, and his pants around his ankles. He smartened up and did not say who was responsible. The director did not want any trouble, so he gave Harvey some extra rations, and bought him off.
The next year, I went back, and was fortunate to share a bunk with Alan Abramowitz, who remains my good friend/cousin/brother to this day. I was 15 years old in 1970, and got along with everyone just fine, including this huge kid named Laurence Rand, who everyone called Hulk due to his girth, strength, and his love of comics. That is where we bonded (and I made a point of it), because the two of us were the only ones who brought comics along.
Later, I found out that the same kids who were giving me trouble the year before were working as waiters on the other side of the lake, and they were coming to visit, as they knew (from outside camp) one of our bunk members. This was near the end of the three weeks, and I had a hard choice: do I tell them about what happened and hope they don’t start as well; not tell them and hope for the best; or not tell them and hide while the jerks were around. I swallowed my pride, and gathered the bunkmates the night before to tell them the whole story in sordid detail. I don’t remember what they said about it, but I do recall being nervous about the whole thing. Sure enough, the next night, the lugs/thugs showed up, and as they made their way through the bunk, they came across me, and pointed and said, “Hey, look, it’s the fagg…” That’s as far as he got when Hulk grabbed the speaker and literally hurled him out the door. “He’s a friend of mine; any of you got a problem with that?” Everyone in the bunk agreed, including the guy who knew them from before. The bullies backed down, and stayed on the other side of the bunk from my bed, and the guy who was thrown out walked sorely back around the lake by himself.
My worst bully though, lived in my building and was named HB (I will not give him the pleasure of his being able to Google this). He was three or four years older, slovenly fat, and intimidating for someone as small as I was. He gained great pleasure in torturing anyone he could, including the son of a local merchant who had Cerebral Palsy and was mentally impeded. Not a nice person.
My first consciousness of him was when I was when I was about five, and playing out front of the apartment building we shared. He had received a new double-barreled air gun, which he cocked/loaded with the dirt from the front garden. “Hey, Robby,” he called me. When I looked up, he shot both barrels just inches from my face, with a payload of dirt hitting each of my eyes. I was blind for about three days, and I still remember the doctor removing the dirt for hours saying, “Oh, my God” over and over. My brother beat the crap out of him for it, right in front of his mother.
But that didn’t stop him. He would continually call me names, loom over me threateningly, and once he took my scooter out of my hands and rode it for about half a block before his weight crushed the middle of it. He just left it there and walked away, laughing.
Even as a teen, he had this fascination with the fire department, so he bought a radio that could pick up the calls, whose signals would interfere with the television of everyone in the building, but by this time more people were intimidated by his bulk and enjoyment of cruelty. After a couple of years, he got involved with ham radios, which made it almost impossible to enjoy an entire program on television or radio without having to listen to his staticy talking over the airwaves. Usually his comments (one could only hear what he was saying because of his close proximity) were crude, misogynistic, and profanity-laden. Listening to his babbling, it was pretty obvious he was dumb as a stump.
Around the time I was in high school, he moved out with his mom to another building a couple of blocks away; I think she was tired of having to listen to everyone complain to her. The static stopped, but his in-person name-calling intimidation went on for a few more years, though as he was old enough to start working, I saw him less and less. And just what job did he get? Well, he tried to become a fireman, but failed the psychological tests, and besides, the fire department was well aware of him and wanted nothing to do with him. Instead, he became a prison guard. This was the perfect job for someone who wants to use his power to intimidate and find a release for his sadistic tendencies. He was there for a few years until he could find a way to claim injury, and he’s been on permanent disability since.
He still lives in the apartment a couple of blocks away from where I grew up, keeping it after his mom passed on, and hangs out with the low-level wiseguys at a corner close by. After 9/11 he had his white, unnecessarily huge SUV (better for intimidation on the road) painted with images of the fire department, its logo, and of the Towers. But he never married and as far as I know, never had a real relationship. Hell, who would want him?
Looking back, all of these guys were successful in their bullying, but losers in their life. Well, I’m assuming about Francis and Craig, but the bagel-maker, who died in his early 50s, was unhappy with his low-paying, hard-working job (though he had a pleasant wife and two sons who were a couple of years older than me). HB still lumbers around the neighborhood he’s lived in his whole life, never having reached out to anything beyond his limited scope, and while people he’s known forever will say hi, but he’s really alone.