The human body is capable of absorbing massive amounts of punishment, but never so much as when you’re a kid. You seem to be composed mainly of rubber and steel, because what you don’t bounce off of you simply plow through. Usually, you’d collect an assortment of bumps and cuts and bruises – that was par for the course for kids in the ’60’s. Of course, nowadays it would land your parents in jail and you in protective custody, but back then it was only the local Poindexters that got through 6th grade without a scratch.
We wore our wounds with pride. We were manly boys.
Stupid, but manly.
Goodbye, PS 24
My 6th-grade year started in September 1969. It was early in the school year, right after the fall start-up, in fact – a Monday, which I recall mainly because it was such a switch from the usual Saturday disasters – and our 6th grade class had settled in after the first few hectic days and was readying itself for the last year at good old School 24 in Yonkers. After this year, we’d be splitting up and moving on to several different junior high schools, a sad but unchangeable fact of life.
We had gone through Kindergarten and the first five grades together as a team, a family almost, and like most families we were a dysfunctional lot. Of course, there were strong friendships made, but also strong hatreds.
Dennis Dimmack was #1 on the 10 Most Hated List of 1969.
Dennis – Mr. Bodily harm
Dennis was unusually big and strong for his age, was known to smoke and actually drank beer and hung out with the older teenagers in the park long after we were called home for the night. He cursed, he spit and he swaggered through the hallways and playgrounds of PS 24, his muscular frame cutting a wide swath through his tiny classmates. While most of us existed on allowances and the odd bit of income from lemonade stands or paper routes, Dennis chose the organized crime route and made his living through strong-arm extortion and terror tactics. His side businesses included selling individual cigarettes for a quarter and hiring himself out as a “bodyguard” for varying amounts depending upon the job, but it was in threats and extortion that his art truly achieved its highest level.
I, like most of my classmates, always tried to be somewhere else when Dennis was around because the only other option was to surrender your lunch or empty your pockets and try to explain to Mom and Dad why you were broke and hungry. Having grown up in an Italian family where at least a few of the members had been peripherally involved in criminal shenanigans, I knew enough not to name names.
Nobody liked a snitch, and nobody liked a snitch less than Dennis. We all remembered what happened when Richard Hague had squealed on him in fifth grade – his stitches and bruises lasted for weeks. So we all were of a similar mind to keep our mouths shut and just put up with the Godfather’s antics. Besides, in a few months we’d be rid of him when we all changed schools, or so we hoped – the one shared nightmare among the Senior Class of 1970 was that Dennis would end up in whatever new school we attended, only to continue and worsen his depredations.
So it was on that Monday in September, a warm and sunny day, that we all got through the morning’s classes without too much fuss. Miss Schwaggerman, our homeroom and math teacher, was in rare form, actually smiling several times during class. Normally she had all the facial dexterity of Leatherface, but for whatever reason, today she seemed in a good mood. Mrs. Progner’s English class was tolerable as was Miss. Brown’s Science class, and suddenly it was lunch time.
Ah, lunch time! Get out of slavery for an hour, eat some peanut butter and jelly and a cookie and some milk and burn off any calories accumulated in the school’s playground. Now PS 24, while it was considered a suburban school, still had the unfortunate fate of having concrete playgrounds. Plenty of trees and bushes around the edge of the property to swing from and hide behind, but the play surfaces themselves were all hard as – well, as concrete.
Including our cherished dodge-ball courts.
Long before dodge-ball was immortalized by the movie of the same name, even before parents and school boards began condemning it as a violent sport, dodgeball was our passion. Your social standing in the school was determined in large part by how good a dodge-ball player you were.
Emil Zibrin and Tony Coleman were our long-standing champions. Small of stature but supremely well-coordinated and fast as the wind, they could both destroy you with a blazing hit and scramble like monkeys around the chain-link fences surrounding the dodge-ball courts, never getting hit in return.
Scene of the Crime
The dodge-ball courts originally were designed as basketball courts and also served as handball courts for the few enthusiasts for those sports, but it was with dodge-ball that the courts fully came into their own. There were two courts, back to back, with an enormous 15′-high concrete wall dividing them. The western-most court had chain-link fencing around the three other sides, the fence soaring up to match the height of the concrete dividing wall. The eastern court had chain-link on one side and stone walls (!) on the other two sides.
Both courts had proper entry-ways, but to a kid dying to play dodge-ball they were superfluous – we always made use of the holes in the chain-link fences to enter and exit the courts. With all the scrapes and cuts we received from the rusty fencing it’s a wonder that our tetanus shots held up as well as they did.
I always did well in the western court. I don’t know why, maybe it was the huge old trees that embraced the fences and shaded the play area from the afternoon sun, or maybe it was just my lucky court, but for whatever reason I usually finished the games, if not in first place, then a highly-respectable second or third.
I was no physical slouch myself. Not quite at the same level of Emil and Tony, but able to hold my own against most opponents.
Except, of course, Dennis.
If Dennis threw the ball at you and totally missed, you were still Out. No argument about it – if he even LOOKED at you during the game you had to make for the hole in the fence and become an observer.
So as soon as the lunch-time bell rang we grabbed our brown-bag lunches and small waxed milk containers and raced each other to the courts. The girls would all be skipping and jumping rope and playing whatever other games girls played in the large open area adjacent to the courts, but with the exception of a single short glance at Donna Raguso I made for the courts along with the other guys. Today was Dodge-Ball Day! Tuesdays and Thursdays were reserved for that lesser sport, basketball, but Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were OURS!
We quickly chose sides and filled the courts. Dennis was nowhere in sight, and we considered ourselves blessed that perhaps we would have a few terror-free games. The games were usually well-populated, 20-25 kids on a side, so at the beginning of the games, it wasn’t so much a question of strategy and skill as much as it was just wholesale slaughter. Bodies flew in the courts, the cries of the wounded and dying echoing off the cold concrete and stone walls. Those still ambulatory enough would crawl or limp to the hole in the fence as soon as they could, in order to attend to their injuries and watch the destruction of their classmates.
As the games stretched on and fewer players were on the court it became more a matter of patience and skill, since your remaining opponents were stretched few and far between. Often a game would end with only two players left, each throwing with all their might and missing as the other one would adroitly maneuver to avoid the ball. We had commonsense time limits, though, to avoid a game going too long.
My Fall from Grace
Unfortunately, I had arrived at the games a few minutes late (darn that Donna!) and was left with only one court – the eastern one – to play in. I would have preferred my lucky western court but on this day of infamy that was not to be. The game had just started, so thinking I had time enough to join in I hopped through the ragged hole in the rusty-brown chain link fence. I looked at the other players, and everyone – my team and theirs alike – had frozen. Just for a second or two I couldn’t figure out why – was my fly open? Did I have traces of Donna’s lipstick on my face? But then awareness slowly returned and I realized why everyone had made like statues –
Dennis was holding the ball and standing five feet away from me, a look of blood-lust covering his hideous face. His right arm holding the ball was cocked far back, exposing the overly-developed biceps of this freak of nature. His mouth slowly ratcheted open, exposing his hideous gap-toothed smile.
“Are you playing?” The voice seemed to come from the bottom level of Hell, a voice that promised pain and blood and months spent in traction. The boys in the court were watching as if a train-wreck was imminent. The girls had stopped their games and watched. Even the birds stopped chirping. The world had come to a screeching halt.
“ARE YOU PLAYING???” Again that demonic voice rumbling across the playground, ensuring that at least a dozen or so little children would have vivid nightmares that evening. Mothers hugged their infants closer to their bosoms and even strong adult men paused in their travels and nervously looked around. Teachers in the school cautiously peered over the windowsills.
“… yes?” was the only reply I could force through my constricted throat. That’s when all hell broke loose.
The smile on Dennis’s face widened into a horrible rictus of death, the massive arm began moving and I froze like a deer in the headlights. Fight or flight? Neither one knew what to do at that moment. Then after a few short lifetimes, my instinctive need for self-preservation kicked in – I turned and took off at high speed in the opposite direction.
Right into the 15′-tall concrete wall.
You see, the hole in the fence was only perhaps five feet away from the wall, and in normal times, its placement wasn’t even a consideration. But at this moment, those five feet would determine my appearance for the rest of my life.
As I said, I had turned and, with my legs spinning in circles like Wile E. Coyote, burned rubber running away from the death threat on my right side. I bolted to my left and ran face-first, full force, into the unforgiving concrete. Later, from reports gathered from my chums, I determined that I had hit the wall with such force that they could actually FEEL the ground shake. I had hit hard and bounced backward, my body perfectly horizontal in the air for what seemed to be minutes, then slowly crashed to the ground on my back.
I was out for an indeterminate amount of time – some said a few seconds, some claimed I was gone for a minute or so – and finally came to find everyone kneeling around me, poking and prodding at my devastated body. “Is he dead?” I seem to remember hearing, and “Get Miss Schwaggerman!”. Luckily it was the latter statement that took hold and in a few minutes, my elderly German-born teacher was applying ice to the right side of my forehead, which had evidently taken the brunt of the blow.
But what was more amazing by far, even more amazing that I hadn’t snuffed myself, was that Dennis was standing over me, crying. This big, tough school bully was reduced to tears. Everyone was watching him – even Mrs. Schwaggerman had dropped the ice pack and was gazing at Dennis’ display of human emotion.
Some Kids Never Learn
I was on restricted play privileges for a week or so but then was granted a full pardon. Of course, the first place I went to was the dodge-ball courts. Once again I was in the eastern court, and once again the game had boiled down to two players – myself and Dennis. He seemed unwilling to throw the ball as hard as he usually did and, sensing my opponent’s reticence I guess I pressed my advantage by taunting him, calling his throws “girlish” and laughing at his Irish ancestors.
That did the trick.
Dennis wound up and released a powerful blast with the ball, which hit me dead-center in the gut and sent me reeling backward. Luckily, this time, I was far enough from the concrete wall that I didn’t add a matching lump to the back of my head, but I DID start losing my balance as I stumbled back. I finally lost the fight with gravity and fell backward, attempting to break my fall with my hands. This led to both of my wrists going “PING!” and intense pain radiating up and down my arms. I screamed.
Once again Dennis was reduced to tears as I walked, wounded and pale-faced, back to the school nurse. She sent me on to the hospital in the custody of my long-suffering Mom and it ended up that I had severely sprained both wrists and had to wear heavy braces on them both.
Back in school a few days later I found I had a new friend – Dennis. Like Lenny in Of Mice and Men he had turned into a gentle giant, hovering protectively over me and constantly carrying my books and opening doors for me. He even walked me half-way home every day for a month, fussing and flitting about like a mother hen.
The other students at PS 24 wondered what magic spell I had cast upon Dennis to turn him into such a devoted slave. I knew it was just bad luck, dodge-ball, and great bodily harm.