If there were ever a competition for a natural born bully, Kenny would have won the blue ribbon. Hands down.
In the mid 1950’s Kenny was about eight years old. He was already the puppet master of our neighbourhood; terror being his only strings. This was when my family moved into his small Hatboro neighbourhood, near Philadelphia.
I was five, my brother Timmy was two-and-a-half and our older sister, Jeannine was eleven. Heather—who would later become the baby of our family—had a few years left to hang out in the ethers.
At two-and-a-half Timmy had a limited vocabulary and even more limited ability to pronounce the few words he knew. When he slipped and knocked his two front teeth out, just shy of his third birthday, what were slowly becoming coherent language skills, instantly slipped back into Timmy’s own language.
“Ah na peeny peeny pelly pelly thitch, ” Timmy said sweetly, to our next-door neighbour, Marlene, one day.
After politely asking him to repeat himself, several times, Marlene looked at me blankly and whispered, “What is he trying to say?”
To this day I recall wondering why Marlene couldn’t understand him. “He’d like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, “ I repeated. “But he forgot to say please.”
“Say please,” I said, looking sternly at my brother.
“Peath,” he said. Marlene chuckled as she made him a PB&J and, from then on, she always referred to them as peeny peeny pelly pellies when Timmy and I were around.
For the most part I loved our Hatboro neighbourhood.
Fortunately, I had completely mastered my brother’s language and so, I became his interpreter within the family and the community. This, and the fact that I was not yet in school, made me an extension of my brother—or him of me …
Timmy had one other constant companion: A small stuffed doll with a plastic freckled face, called Johnny Appleseed. Johnny had a shock of red hair peeking from beneath his green cap that matched the rest of his attire. After losing his front teeth, Timmy called his stuffed companion Chonny Appletheed. Although pretty much lacking compassion at that age, even I thought that was slightly pathetic …
Generally, however, I simply considered my brother to be an unavoidable nuisance. Timmy was my duty and responsibility; I don’t recall any warm fuzzy feelings for him … until the day Kenny stole Johnny Appleseed from my brother’s arms and beat the doll mercilessly while yelling things like, “What kinda sissy boy carries around a doll? Oh yeah, that’s right: The kind of sissy who lets his sister talk for him!” Kenny laughed maniacally.
I stood there helplessly, holding my sobbing, snotty-nosed baby brother, while Kenny brutally beat Johnny Appleseed to within an inch of his little cotton stuffed life; crushing his plastic face into the sidewalk while scraping it back and forth. There was nothing to be done. It was Kenny’s neighbourhood. We played by Kenny’s rules.
When the bully had tired of this latest cruelty, and walked away, I picked Johnny Appleseed up from the sidewalk and turned him over. “Look!” I exclaimed to my quietly sobbing brother, “Johnny is still smiling. He’s not hurt one bit … Wow! I guess he showed Kenny a thing or two.”
There was something strangely comforting about Johnny’s face—scratched and dirty—still smiling up at us. I’m not sure if, perhaps, I believed, just a little, that Johnny had shown Kenny up for what he really was, or not. I’m actually not even sure Timmy bought it. But we both (at least) pretended to believe Johnny Appleseed was the victor in that encounter, as we trudged up the street, with our heads hung low, to the safety of our home.
I learned something valuable that day: I actually loved that little nuisance of a brother, who prior to that event, had been more like a Vestigial organ: something that you just accept because, useless as it is, you have no choice. On that day, however, my little lisping appendix of a brother became a caring, feeling, tiny human being—sobbing and terrified. And I’d have done almost anything to see that he never experienced anything like that again.
Slight Digression:My father was a bible-thumping Christian. He was also a pacifist. He taught us to turn the other cheek and use words instead of weapons. We were to lead by Christian example; we were to let our little lights shine … Ironically, my father was also a stern, believer in spare the rod and spoil the child and I feared him nearly as much as I feared Kenny. My father, however, was easier to live with: Do as you were told and as the bible taught and you were pretty much okay. Otherwise say hello to Mr Switch.
Yep, there were a lot of mixed messages living in our house …
Now back to Kenny …
Kenny taught me a lot in that first year. He taught me that when my knees were kicked out from beneath me from behind, and I was suddenly thrown down on the pavement, slamming my head onto its hard surface, I could actually see real live, brilliantly flashing stars, just like in cartoons. He also taught me how quickly a wagon full of little kids could be capsized, by one sharp turn of the wagon handle and a hard kick.
But, It was a beautiful Sunday in the autumn of 1957—the year I would turn 6 in October—that some real learning was about to happen. Shit was about to get real for Kenny. As a matter of fact, there was about to be a paradigm shift for me, as well.
A small group of children—including myself—were playing on my best friend, Kathy’s, swing set, when Kenny unexpectedly rounded the corner of her house.
“Give me a swing!” he shouted, as he approached us.
Immediately the other children leapt from their swings. I wish I could say it was bravery that kept me swinging; that I’d had just about enough of Kenny … But factually, I was simply swinging too high to disembark swiftly. I did, however, (much to my terror) instantly realize that swinging was not high on Kenny’s list of priorities and my failure to promptly offer my swing did not bode for a happy ending to this story.
“But I wanted that swing,” Kenny predictably barked, pointing at my swing. And before I could even apologize for having been born, Kenny grabbed my feet and yanked me to the ground; almost instantly the swing seat slammed into the back of my head with a terrible thud.
And then something quite unexplainable—some might say miraculous— happened. I suddenly found myself sitting on Kenny’s chest, with his arms pinned beneath my knees, pummelling the living daylights out of him, without ever having had a conscious thought of doing it.
A few slugs in and I happened to glance across the street where my dad had been washing the car in our driveway, but was now staring at his normally quiet, compliant little girl, as she appeared possessed. My first thought was, “Oh man, hello Mr Switch!”
My second thought was, “There is no way of backing out of this, and seeings as I have Kenny all pinned down and he’s probably going to kill me first chance he gets, I’ve got a job to finish.”
And so I punched away. I punched for every little kid dumped out of a wagon that year and for every star that flashed before my semi-conscious eyes. I punched for every dog and cat that had met Kenny’s big black boots and I punched for Johnny Appleseed’s silly little smile. I punched for my brother Timmy’s muffled sobs and snotty baby nose. I punched for the collective dignity of every kid in our neighbourhood.
Kenny was bleeding and sobbing, by the time I completed my task and let him up. To my surprise he didn’t even turn around and make an attempt on my life; he just ambled off in the direction of his house.
I walked towards my waiting father; his arms crossed over his chest and wearing his stern lips.
“Go inside and get cleaned up,” he said, very quietly. I looked down at myself and for the first time, realized that I was grass stained, covered in dirt and wearing a fair share of Kenny’s bodily fluids.
I silently walked into the house and up to the bath.
I’m not sure if I knew the expression Waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I certainly knew the sensation, in the pit of my stomach, associated with that expression. I felt it all afternoon and into the evening as I waited for the switch.
The hours ticked by without even a mention of my unforgiveable behaviour and by dinnertime, I fleetingly thought perhaps I was only going to get a lecture.
As I climbed the stairs to go to bed, my father called out to me.
“Holly, come here,” he said.
I walked back down the stairs and stood next to my father, waiting, almost afraid to breathe.
“When you were punching Kenny today,” Oh man, here we go I thought …
“How were you making your fist?” he asked.
What? I wondered; had my father lost his marbles?
I said nothing, but clenched my fists, holding my thumbs tightly against my palms.
“Right,” my father said. He then opened my fingers and before closing them again he placed my thumb on the outside of my fist.
“I hope you never, in your life, need to make another fist, but if you do, remember: Don’t ever clench your thumb inside of your hand. You can easily break a thumb that way.”
Huh? No whooping … Not even a lecture … Just a tutorial on how to make a proper fist, a hug and goodnight and we were sorted?
My father had been a brick wall of harsh unyielding ideologies and inflexible rules, in my eyes, prior to that evening. He had been someone to avoid and fear for the most part. But a veil lifted that night and he was suddenly a father who wanted, in his own way, to say that he understood how confusing and fluid life could be. He was giving me permission to step beyond iron-clad rules when it was absolutely necessary. But he still taught, above all, The Golden Rule: Do unto others, as you would have them do to you. He still firmly believed it was supremely important to let your little light shine, set a loving and compassionate example, whenever possible … and never value violence over negotiation.
Oh yeah, but, if all else fails, don’t clench your thumbs …