So a couple years passed. I was now in 8th grade, and about to turn 14.

These were the days of Motley Crue and Queensryche, my two favorite bands. These were the days of my reluctant-rocker phase, while the rest of my friends were growing their hair out and behaving like true bad asses. These were the days of setting fire to things I ought not be setting fire to (which is really the point, isn’t it?). These were the days of learning to cuss, and worrying if bands like Metallica and Megadeath that I was listening to with my friends really were of the devil. :) These were the days of testing the boundaries of just how far away from my parents’ guidance I was willing to wander; and while I always felt I was being far too rebellious, I was always the goody-goody in my little clan of friends . . . I was the one saying, “we shouldn’t do that.”

I still remember the look of absolute disgust on my friend’s face in response to a question I asked one day while we were hanging out in a seedy music store; he was wanting to buy a poster of Cindy Crawford posing in a “bathing suit” of sorts, her ta ta’s and hooha leaving little in question for our tender, pubescent imaginations . . . I laughed nervously, paused, and said, “Isn’t that kind of immoral?”

As I said, he was disgusted with me. :)

Anyway, that’s what my life looked like in the 8th Grade. Which brings us back to the fisticuffs.

So here it is. The only honest to goodness fist fight I’ve ever been in . . .

*     *     *

PG-13

After the mob incident at recess in 6th Grade, Troy and I didn’t have much interaction for the next couple years. When we saw each other in the halls, there was still an obvious sense that we were enemies. And by this time I was having a lot more attitude. And while he was always the bully–always the antagonist–I began to feed off of the back-and-forth of it all. When he launched some trash-talk my way, I wasn’t shy about returning fire with some sort of witty little quip fired from the hip. My friends ate it up, of course, making things that much worse.

By 8th Grade, Troy now stood at least 10″ taller than me, with his long red hair now well past his shoulders. He frequently walked around in a long duster-style coat, skin-tight jeans, and a t-shirt featuring either Iron Maiden or a monster truck (you get the idea). He had found his way into a clique of arguably THE scariest guys in our middle school. A thug, Mike B., was the leader of this band. His brothers were affiliated with local gangs and were always in trouble for having weapons on them and getting in bloody, bloody fights. I was terrified of Mike, and I stayed clear of him and his posse.

But Troy’s new-found friends were all too eager to stoke the fire and press Troy into challenging me to a fight.

One day in February–about a month before my 14th birthday–Troy showed up while I was at my locker.

“You know what time it is, Jeffy?” he asked in his pseudo-southern drawl.

“Let me guess . . . payback time?” I smirked.

He paused. I had stolen his line.

“. . . yup.”

“Relax, Troy . . .”

Blamb! He tossed me flat onto my back. The hallway was crowded, and everyone gathered, anticipating a fight. I jumped back to my feet. “What the hell, Troy?” He told me it wasn’t over and walked off.

The next day, Troy approached our table during lunch. With Mike standing behind him, Troy flat out told me he wanted to fight me after school. Everything Troy said was punctuated by Mike’s, “F***ing A, bro,” and the like.

I agreed to fight, of course, but it didn’t take me long to chicken out. I called my mom and told her I was sick to my stomach–which was true–and I needed to come home. I told my friends it was ’cause of the apple turnover I had at lunch–probably not very convincing. I knew how cowardly this looked (was it?), and how embarrassed I would be to not show up to the pre-arranged fight-location that day. But I wanted nothing to do with these thugs–I wasn’t scared of Troy as much as I was scared of Mike and his posse.

I found Troy’s phone number and called him later that afternoon. I tried to be diplomatic and talk some sense into him. I suggested that neither he nor I really wanted to fight, and this was about his friends egging him on. He tentatively agreed, and we came to some sort of peace about it. I even apologized for the things I had said in anger in the past. He did, too. He didn’t want to fight either.

Well that lasted about three or four days. Soon, I was approached by Troy and Mike, again while at lunch. Mike was infuriated that I had backed out before, and he had worked Troy up to real anger this time. They saw my backing out earlier as weakness, and they wanted to exploit it.

I agreed to the fight after school again.

This time Mike chimed in. “If you don’t f***ing show up, I’m gonna f***ing jump your ass with all my friends.”

*Diarrhea noises*

Well this time there would be no backing out. No calling my mom for a ride home, no calling Troy to give my diplomacy skills another go. This time I would be meeting him by the gully after school.

For the rest of the day I heard words of encouragement from friends and well-wishers, and occasionally some crappy kid would pass me and say, “Troy’s gonna kick your ass . . .” and keep right on walking.

*More diarrhea noises*

[ Middle school sucks, by the way. ]

The school bell rang all too soon that day, and we all headed toward the gully, a spot across the street from the school and out of view of most traffic and adult eyes. This is where the most serious fights took place. As I walked, my friends offered words of encouragement but everyone knew how much bigger Troy was than me, and he was backed by every thug in the school. Soon, it seemed there were a hundred kids all gathering to the spot. I didn’t know any of them, and it was clear who their money was on. They had come to see me get my ass kicked, and they were vocal about it.

This mass of shouting, blood-thirsty teens formed a circle around the two of us . . . a sort of makeshift Colosseum in which to brawl.

My friends stood near me, and reminded me to take off my coat. I removed it and handed it to them. I’m sure that February day was cold, but I didn’t feel it. Troy and I stood opposed, neither wanting to actually throw the first blow. Everyone was shouting even louder as the tension mounted. Hands started shoving us from behind, insisting that the fight begin now. They were pushing us closer and closer together.

A strategy instantly formed in my mind, and I acted out without hesitation . . .

I jumped in and pushed Troy in the chest with both hands, knocking him back a bit. He rebounded and sprung forward with a wild right hook . . . just as I had hoped. Like in the 6th Grade, his punch seemed impossibly slow. I dodged, and *ZONK* quickly landed a jab, right in his jaw.

I stood ready while he stumbled backward, a little stunned. He came at me again. Same strategy. Same result.

*ZONK*

At this point the fight became a little more furious. It’s kind of a blur, as I think back to exactly what took place. At one point, he did land a punch that fattened my lip a bit . . . I don’t remember seeing it (obviously) or even being hit. I just know it happened.

I do remember him getting me in his default headlock that I recognized from years past. Just like back then, I punched wildly up toward where I thought his face would be. It was. *ZONK* But this time he didn’t let go and run off.

The crowd shouted as my fist connected. Still looking straight down at the ground from within his headlock, from above the din I heard someone shout, “Knee him in the face!”

Shit.

His knee flew into my face with fury. I felt the crunch of my nose and heard the shouting voices turn into a buzzing, ringing sound. Nice shot, man.

Still stuck in this headlock, I reached up with my left hand and grabbed a fistful of his nasty, long hair and yanked back, exposing his neck; my right hand flew back up as I gave him a ridge-hand to the throat. This broke the headlock and I stepped back as he sputtered a bit. I heard Mike shout to Troy, “Remember that kick I taught ya?”

“Yeah!” he responded over his shoulder.

“Well USE it!”

Troy then came at me with a comical, spinning kick that was–I’m sure–supposed to be a lot more impressive than it was. It didn’t even connect . . . but as he regained his balance after this failed ninja-kick, I lept forward and cracked him right in the face with my fist (this would later be pretty sore–I nearly broke my hand). It got furious and fuzzy again, but I know I was landing more blows than he was as we half-wrestled/half-boxed for what seemed like an eternity. But I was really working him. I remember him calling out to his master:

“MIKE!! Hit him! GET him!!”

At this point, the fickle crowd was enjoying watching the underdog give Troy such a licking, and they held Mike back so that he couldn’t jump in and pummel me. “No, let ‘em fight! HE wanted to fight! Let him fight!” they shouted.

We both needed a rest, but the crowd shoved us back together each time we broke apart.

There were more exchanges, but mostly me dodging his punches and countering with my own. At one point he did catch me with one, and I just stood there staring for a second. I still remember watching and not reacting as he wound up with that same old punch and I did nothing to stop it.

*BLAMB* Stars. Another nice shot.

“JEFF?!?!” my friends shouted, seeing me stand there and take such a blow without so much as flinching. [ I still can’t explain why I stood there and watched him clock me. ]

Yet another exchange ensued, followed by the default headlock. He tried kneeing me in the face again, but I blocked it with both hands, then jammed my fist quick into his ribs.

My breath was heavy, my head pounded, my fists were numb, and my shoulders and arms burned. More wrestling, punching, dodging, and yet ANOTHER headlock followed.

At this point we had been going at it for over 10 minutes, and we were both exhausted.

Suddenly I felt a thousand hands grab me and tear me away from him.

“COPS!” they shouted in my ear. A police cruiser was slowly driving past. Everyone dispersed instantly. “Wipe your nose, wipe your nose,” one of my friends whispered urgently. I wiped away the blood as best I could, and walked off with everyone else.

Here’s where something changed inside me forever, and I remember it with clarity:

I heard wailing behind me. I turned to see Troy–this tall scary guy who had been bullying me for years–collapsed onto his knees, his nose, lips and teeth bloody . . . he tossed his head back and cried over and over, “Mike?! Why didn’t you jump in?? Mike?!”

Of course, Mike was gone.

Someone handed me my coat as we kept walking. It was over.

* * *

Not daring to go back inside the school to call my mom, I walked the whole way home with three of my friends. I was exhausted and had such a headache.

Once home, my mom was tender with me and didn’t scold me like I thought. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“Yeah.” My eyes filled with tears.

“Why don’t you go take a nice hot bath . . .”

I did.

Later that afternoon, my dad got home from work and I knew I was going to get a talking-to. I heard him come in from the garage, and I dutifully went back upstairs from the basement where I had been watching TV. He was sitting on the couch in the living room, still in his uniform.

I wasn’t positive, but I was pretty sure I was in big trouble. I sat down across from him.

“Your mom tells me you got in a fight today.”

“Yeah,” I said, looking at the ground.

“You’re okay?”

I shrugged. “Yeah.”

“Good.” A pause. Then he surprised me . . .

“So, tell me about it . . .” he smiled softly. “How did it go?–how did you do?”

My lip was a little swollen, and I had a scrape or a bit of a goose-egg on my forehead, but that was about it. “You should see the other guy.”

*     *     *

I learned a few things about myself and about people that day, and in the days that followed.

  1. I was conflicted. I had tried to avoid this fight. It was what Troy wanted. So I shouldn’t feel guilty, right? Well I did. I was ashamed that I had hurt Troy like I did, and I could see his bloody face (and still do) as he wailed for his friend. Mike had clearly told him he would jump in if it got ugly. Troy was talked into this fight by Mike and his friends. Troy didn’t want to fight any more than I did, but he wanted to belong to this group. Mike stirred up his heart to anger, as it were, but didn’t jump in as promised when Troy decided he’d had enough and started calling for him. Troy was on his own.
  2. I was at peace, in a sense, knowing I had avoided the fight at first, and made efforts to make peace and extend an olive branch to Troy. And I was proud of myself for fighting as valiantly as I did in the face of fear, against a much larger foe, amidst his friends . . . with only three of my own friends there to back me up. But the fight was meaningless.
  3. People believe whatever they want to believe. In most cases, they’ve made up their mind before they even realize it. In the days that followed, people who were not there to see the fight would approach me and say, “I heard you got your ass kicked by Troy.” I was at a loss, so I barely responded, if at all, with something like, “No. No I didn’t.”“Well, I heard he did a jump kick right in your face!” It wasn’t even worth responding. My face was fine. Had anyone seen his?

So what did I know now? What had I learned? I knew I could fight when I had to. I knew, given the choice, I had chosen peace over conflict. I knew I could take a punch; better yet, I knew I could give the other guy more than he can give me. I learned that most people will believe whatever they would like, and the details are unimportant when people are entrenched in their views and their preferred version of “reality.”

But I think one of the more important things I learned is that I would never again look at someone who I had bloodied up for no reason. Yes, he had insisted on fighting. Yes, he had provoked it, over and over. But, regardless, there was no reason to any of it . . . we weren’t fighting for something, we were just fighting. I could scarcely even call it self-defense . . . I did walk over to the gully under my own power, after all. I didn’t like that feeling of hurting someone; I would never be on the wrong side of that again. If I’m gonna hurt someone, there’s gonna be a damned good reason for it . . . we’re talking about preventing someone from inflicting serious injury or death to me, a loved one, or other innocents; and that threat has to be immanent . . . right here, right now. I don’t want to hurt anyone ever again–but God help the guy who’s actions meet those requirements.

*     *     *

Incidentally, I would end up not caring much for the requisites associated with belonging to my rocker clique. Later, early in the 9th Grade, I would make my exit as I found myself at home in the Civil Air Patrol, where I traded in my mullet for a high-and-tight Air Force regulations hair cut. It was the perfect place for me.

I took with me elements of this rocker-rebel pubescence phase . . . I still love fire, for instance. And while my taste in music has developed, I still love me some rock and roll. And (much to everyone’s surprise, I’m sure) I’ve been known to cuss. No really. :) I never really got that out of my system. I learned that I can fight, but I proved to myself that I’d rather have peace, when given the choice; later I would learn not just how to fight, but WHY to fight.

Zonk.