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Early Years with a Disability - Part 5

Boyhood Fights

While we lived in the North Heidelbach neighborhood, I cannot remember making any effort to approach or get to know any other people with disabilities in my school or neighborhood, and I cannot, with one exception, remember any other kids with disabilities at St. Joseph’s, although I have little doubt that there were some. In retrospect, I think there was an element of avoidance on my part, of my not wanting to be associated with disability or people who exhibited one. The only other child with a disability I remember at St. Joe’s was a boy whom I will call “Anthony,” a couple of years older than me, one of whose legs had been damaged by polio. He had a brace on the leg and wore a shoe with a very thick sole and heel on that foot, with a hole drilled through the heel for attaching the brace to the shoe. He walked with a noticeable limp. I had seen him around school in the halls and on the playground but had never spoken to him.

When I was in the third grade, Jack and I were members of Cub Scouts. One night after our “den meeting,” we were walking home with some chalky plaster figurines and little bottles of paint that we had been given by the den mother. Having run out of time at the den meeting, we were supposed to finish painting the little figures at home. Mine was a wolf. We were talking excitedly about the meeting and how good our figurines would look when we had finished them. Suddenly, out of the blue, Anthony came up with some of his friends, and he started to bully us. He seemed to want to pick a fight with me. At this age, he was bigger than me, and he started mouthing random insults at us, then pushed me around when I tried to get him to leave us alone. Finally, he grabbed my wolf figurine and threw it forcefully down on the sidewalk, breaking it into several pieces. He and his friends all laughed. Feeling shocked and distraught, with tears in my eyes, I picked up the larger pieces of my plaster wolf and we ran away home. I do not remember ever having any other interaction with Anthony after that.

I have long wondered whether his picking on me as a target of his bullying had anything to do with both of us having a disability. While I generally tried to be a “good boy,” Anthony appeared to have opted to be a “tough guy.” And maybe his choice of me as a victim was motivated by a desire to reject, or distance himself from, the other kid at school with a disability. Whatever Anthony’s motivations and inner feelings were, this unpleasant encounter was my only significant interaction with a fellow student with a disability at our school. It clearly made a strong impression on me because I still remember it, rather vividly, after all these years. In retrospect I have come to recognize that, if it is true that Anthony wanted to disassociate himself from others with a disability, I shared some of the same disinclination to being identified as one of that group. I also suspect that each of us was carrying some anger about having been saddled with a disability through no fault of our own.

And in retrospect I have concluded that my view of myself as a good boy, in contrast to Anthony, the tough boy, was a big oversimplification. Some part of me too was drawn to appearing tough and fierce. I did not want anyone to think that I was a weakling or a victim. I gradually learned to be more robust and stalwart in conflict situations. In a scuffle, I believed I could handle most other boys of my own age and size. Ironically, as a guy with a significantly undersized shoulder joint, I may have come to have a bit of a “chip on my shoulder.” Jack and I were spirited, rough-and-tumble guys, who were drawn to sports and physical activities. We ran races against one another; and we often wrestled each other vigorously. Because I was almost two years older than Jack, I was considerably bigger than he was, which was a significant advantage, but Jack was a spunky, determined kid who was not particularly daunted about taking on his big brother. And perhaps the limited use I had of my right arm helped to even the contests to some extent. We had frequent, spirited, and sometimes prolonged wrestling matches using wrestling techniques we’d seen on TV, such as headlocks, hammerlocks, body scissors, half- and full-Nelsons, bear hugs, and various takedowns, including particularly charging forward, diving at your opponent’s feet, pulling his ankles together, and toppling him over. We both became pretty good non-trained grapplers.

When I ran into clashes on the playgrounds or streets that I felt unable to avoid, I always resorted to wrestling moves rather than fists. Whenever I could, I would tackle or trip my adversary, sit on his chest, and demand that he give up. While I did not go looking for fights, I had a tendency not to back down when confronted. My recollection is that my disability did not enter into my mindset when fight or flight situations presented themselves. Not wanting to be considered to lack courage, to be a “scaredy cat,” I often affected an air of boyhood bravado in such circumstances.

One memorable altercation occurred when I was eight or nine and went to the rescue of our neighbor Tommy. Jack and I were walking home from school and came across this bigger boy beating up Tommy who was an occasional neighborhood playmate of ours. Tommy was a nice kid, seven or eight at the time, younger and smaller than his tormenter. Considering their clash not to be a fair fight, I waded straight into it and told the other boy to “pick on somebody your own size.” He decided that I fit that description and came at me with fists blazing. My quickness and agility enabled me to dodge his blows and trip him up a couple of times. There was a big tree in the boy’s yard and after a few minutes of our scuffle I leaned my back against it to catch my breath. Frustrated by my evasive tactics, the boy launched himself at me headfirst, intending to smash the top of his head into my chest. At the last second, I ducked, and he slammed his head into the tree, not injuring himself seriously but certainly feeling pain and surprise (we had no awareness of concussions back then). I moved away from him, and Tommy, Jack, and I all laughed at his misfortune. He then went a bit berserk, and, in tears, ran over and picked up a long fallen tree limb, probably ten-feet long, that lay in his yard. He hoisted it up vertically and then ran at us, with the clear intention of hitting us with it. We decided it was time to make our escape, and ran a few paces away, at which point his older brother came out of the house, saw what the boy was trying to do, and stopped him. We heard the brother say, “You can’t hit people with that!” and the boy barked out some angry, blubbering response, as Jack and I, with our very grateful pal Tommy, trotted away, still chuckling. Obviously, my impaired right arm had not impeded my willingness to risk fisticuffs to play the hero and rescue a friend in need. For the most part, I simply ignored (denied?) my disability when I could.

Noble intentions on my part led to another scrap at around the same time. I got home from school one night with my clothes dirty and disheveled, and with some minor scratches and scrapes. My mom asked what had happened to me, and I admitted that I had gotten into a fight after school. When she asked me how it happened, I divulged that another boy had said that there was no Santa Claus. I told the boy that my mother had told me that there was a Santa Claus, and he responded, “Well, there isn’t!” I said, “You can’t call my mother a liar!” and gave him a shove. Soon we were wrestling around on the ground. Later, when my mom heard all this, she chose not to burst my Santa Claus/maternal-honesty bubble at that moment, although I was certainly old enough to have learned the truth (most of my peers were already in on it). She told me much later that, while my loyalty was touching, she felt very guilty for having misled me, by keeping the Santa Claus myth going. Apart from illustrating my excessive childish naiveté, the incident provides another example of my being willing to mix it up with other boys without any reticence owing to my impaired right arm.

Continue to Part 6: Contact with Others with Disabilities and Family Taboo on Talking about Disability