The Unknown Weakling

As I read about Osama Bin Laden’s violent end, I found myself thinking about all the revenge stories I’ve read and watched in my life. In forty-six years I have never once experienced the relief and satisfaction these stories would have me believe revenge is supposed to provide, though I supposed I did come close once.

It was high school. My friends and I sat at one lunch table, and a group of boys from Federal Hill sat at a table behind us. Federal Hill was the home of the New England Mafia, and these boys were all working class Italians who, in the early 1980’s, suspected that anyone wearing an earring was “a fag.” I didn’t wear an earring, but some of my friends, who were all actors and writers and musicians, did.

There were taunts and a few empty milk cartons thrown our way and once a group of the Federal Hill boys pushed my friend Adam up against a locker and threatened him – but that was it. Still, there was a sense among my friends and I that we had lost. If we had been tougher, if we had been manlier, we would have stood up to them, would have put an end to the taunting by force or sheer will; instead it petered out, and left behind a feeling that the boys had been right all along, for who else but a weakling would have quietly accepted this kind of abuse?

The boys’ leader was Pope. Pope was one of the few boys in my high school that clearly worked out. He always wore tight shirts that showed off his pectorals and biceps. The taunting happened at the end of my junior year, but at the beginning of my senior year I joined the football team – as did Pope. In fact, my first day at practice he chose the locker beside me and fixed me with a look that seemed to say, “This isn’t over.”

I should say that I was generally left alone by these boys because I was an athlete. I was skinny, but I was tall and I was fast. Yet there I was at the table with these actors wearing earrings. I remained under suspicion, and not long after that encounter in the locker room, Pope had a chance to test his suspicions.

It was the tackling drill. We formed two lines facing one another five yards apart. In one line were the runners; in the other line the tacklers. A whistle would blow and the boy at the front of the runners’ line would launch himself at the boy at the front of the tacklers’ line. The goal of the drill was to help the boys get used to hitting and being hit. It was the most violence usually allowed during practice.

Because we did this one at-a-time you could know whom you were going to face by counting where you stood in line. This is just what Pope did. I saw him counting heads in the runner’s line, and then positioning himself in the tackler’s line, ducking out now and again to be sure I didn’t change position. I did not change position. It was going to happen eventually, it might as well happen now.

Our turn came. He actually began to make sounds like a bull preparing to charge. It was frightening in one way, but at the same time he reminded me of someone girding himself to face some long held fear. I reminded myself that my legs were strong and that this was the football field and not the lunchroom.  When the coach blew the whistle, I lowered my head and ran straight for Pope. I closed my eyes and our pads and helmets made a great cracking sound, but I kept my legs moving and driving forward. When I opened my eyes again I was still standing and Pope was dragging along behind me clutching my ankle. The coach blew the whistle and it was over.

In a movie, this might be where the villain ups the ante. “You beat me this time, Kenower, but next time you won’t be so lucky.” In a movie, he might be waiting in a parking lot for me, without whistles or helmets or coaches.

But this is not what happened. Pope never gave me so much as another glare. In fact, a few days later I was allowed, along with a few other boys, to listen to a tale of his recent romantic conquest. I was in the club. I could see he was glad, relieved even to have me in this club. The club must have been formed somewhere on Federal Hill, where boys were taught what manhood was and what it absolutely was not. My only crime, it turns out, had been being unknown, a crime I had apparently cleared myself of by running him over. It’s probably luckier for Pope that he didn’t tackle me that day. That was one less weakling in the world the poor guy had to worry about.

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