I had my first run-in with Sam (I’ll call him Sam) when I was in the elementary school band. I played trumpet one night at a Jefferson High School football game. We played three songs, I think, but the only one I remember was Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
Steve Thorne, two years older than I, was also in the band. I can’t remember what he played, but it wasn’t tuba or bass drum. Steve had the body type to play tuba or bass drum, but I do think he might have played the clarinet.
We had finished dazzling the football crowd with our show and were back up in the concession area when Sam, who had the lower jaw and eyes of a bulldog, accosted Steve.
“You big enough to play football and you out there playing a girl’s instrument.”
Steve knew better than to respond. He was much bigger than Sam, but much more amiable. Steve could find the humor in most situations and probably thought Sam had a point. I could imagine him saying, “Hey, you’re right. I never thought about it. You’re really funny.”
So, Steve, nearly twice my size, just stood there smiling at Sam. I hollered at Sam.
“At least he’s out there doing something. What are you doing?”
It wasn’t the best question for a fourth grader to ask a boy who’d spent more than one year in fifth grade. Sam decided to teach me what he would do. He cursed me, telling what he thought the deity should do with my soul, though in much more concise language. He started to climb over the rail separating us. Me, I started running toward the concession stand.
I managed to escape, but I made my way close to my father who was there for the dazzling band performance, but insisted on staying for the rest of the game. I never saw Sam again that night. Nor did I have another encounter with Sam until two years later and the first week of 6th grade.
Like me, Sam rode “Second Bus,” one of those buses that delivered one load of children home before returning for us. There were no organized activities for us and nominal supervision, usually a teacher holding a gradebook and several stacks of papers.
For more than a week, Sam took every opportunity to taunt and to torment. He was one angry boy, a seventh grader now, and at the least, 14 years old. Thanks to my mother starting me early in school, I was still eleven and in sixth grade. Every day, Sam would demand money or berate my friends and me. The day he picked up a tree limb and began threatening my friend Carter was the day I’d had enough.
I don’t know why I decided to fight Carter’s battle. Carter was 11 months older than I and much stronger. But he was no match for Sam. There came Sam, his eyes glazed over with hatred for Carter and everybody, I suppose, and as he ran by me, I punched him right in the mouth. He fell, rubbed his lip, and stood, staggering. I punched him again and down he went. The television shows at the time had taught me that if you stood up to a bully, he would back down. Those shows were wrong.
Sam stood up and lunged at me, knocking me down. Next thing I knew, his knees were on my shoulders and he was punching my face, again and again. For how long I didn’t know. I had gone numb and just took the blows until Mrs. Jenkins pulled him off me. She took me to the office and tried to console me. “Looks like he got the worst end of it,” she said. I didn’t believe that for a minute.
I do remember that I had no more trouble with Sam. I have one more strong memory of him though. Mr. Turpin, our math teacher and a former military man, taught us how to march like soldiers during P.E. class. I remember one day that Sam took exception to military rule and suddenly turned his head up and began howling like a dog. It was a mournful sound, perhaps the saddest sound I’d ever heard. Mister Turpin, who always carried his ruler, paddled Sam, I supposed in military fashion. Sam stopped howling, but he stared at nothing in particular, or maybe at something a million miles away.
I don’t remember him much after that until my college years and I saw him again. He looked at me with that sad, blank stare. I spoke cordially, asked him how he was doing. He was alright, he said. But I don’t think he was.
He died young, I heard later. He had a hard life, a tough childhood. Someone told me his father often beat him, abused him. And sad to say, he looked beaten. Beaten in every way. And when I think back on him, a guy that once beat me almost senseless, I can only feel pity. His was a sad case of meanness.