Written by Rick Archer
Fred Camping Incident in the 7th Grade, my increasing
isolation made me bitter. Once the rumors of my
lowly status made the rounds after Fred took me home when I
was sick, my social interaction mysteriously seemed to
dwindle. Consequently, the 8th Grade
did not go well for me at all. I was lost to some
degree or another for the entire year.
I was too young
at the time to realize there could
be other explanations for my increasing isolation. The
8th Grade is when the hormones kick in and teenage boys
become more interested in pursuing romance than hanging with the moody
loner. I doubt seriously there was any ill will
towards me; I just was not important enough to attract
I came to believe I wasn't as good as
these other students... I wasn't witty,
I wasn't polished, but most of all, I wasn't interesting.
How was I supposed to become interesting? That
question plagued me for the entire school year.
Yes, these were the dark thoughts of a lonely,
introverted, troubled boy wrapped inside a thickening shell of self-pity.
self-pity, and loneliness
are a dangerous combination. I was becoming a very bitter kid.
had been the Underdog at St. John's
to some degree in previous years, it had never bothered me like it
did in the 8th Grade. This is when I
really began to lose confidence in myself.
Oddly enough, Katina Ballantyne
indirectly contributed to my downfall. Since we were in the same
grade, Katina and I shared several classes over the years. Due to my
fixation with her mother, I began to study Katina carefully. Katina was
my favorite role model. I had profound respect for Katina because she conducted herself with so much poise and grace
just like her mother.
Katina was a born leader, the kind of person people would follow
into battle if necessary.
A cursory glance at the 1968
says it all - Katina was
all-conference in field hockey, she was captain of the
volleyball team, she played lead in The Music Man,
she was a Prefect on the student council, she sang in the choir, and she was editor of
the yearbook. Katina was also an honor student.
During the 8th Grade when I
tried to figure out how to become more visible, every time I watched
Katina, she was trying out for this or volunteering to help with that.
Noting that Katina was always surrounded by friends, maybe I could make
some friends by joining activities as well. Take my cue from
Katina, I decided the time had come to do the same as a way
to cure my loneliness.
So far, the loss of my left eye
had left no impact on my life. However, when I went out
for the 8th grade football team, my coaches refused to let
me play due to my blind eye. I was really upset. This was my
school, I was a tall, rugged boy. I was also a good athlete,
so I wanted to play football very badly. However my coaches were deeply worried I could get hurt
by being blind-sided.
I begged them to
let me play, so finally Coach Skip Lee gave in. After my mother signed a waiver, I was allowed to play football
as an experiment. We did not play other schools. Instead
Coach Lee divided us into two teams that played each other. I played defensive left end to
protect my blind left eye. This way, I could see all the danger
coming at me from the right side and not have to worry.
Then came the day when I learned
my lesson the hard way. Literally!
set up wide to my left, my left being my blind side. After
watching him run downfield,
I turned my attention back to the quarterback and forgot about him. Unbeknownst to me, once
the receiver was behind my back, he turned around and came at me from my blind side. I had no idea he
was even there. Just as I was about to tackle the ball
carrier, the wide receiver pulverized me with a brutal block. Ordinarily I would brace myself for a hit, but
since I never saw the boy coming, he completely leveled me. I had never been hit so hard in my life.
Although it was a clean block, the blow knocked me unconscious.
When I finally came to,
I was really woozy. The first thing I saw was one of my coaches giving me that 'I told you so' look. After
that, I didn't argue with my coaches any more. I played one
more game. It was the final game of our season and it would also be my
final game of football. I am proud to say I made a solid goal-line tackle on
the last play of the game to save the victory.
And with that, my dreams of football glory ended.
My strong play indicated I had the ability to
play football. I could have made friends on the team and
perhaps come out of my shell.
However, due to the blind eye, I had lost a perfect opportunity to
lose my invisibility.
My next adventure was
the 8th Grade play. I think the play was Pirates of
Penzance. Mr. Chidsey was the play's director.
He cast me as a drunken
pirate. I was having a great time and even received a
compliment from Mr. Chidsey. My Headmaster said I was terrific in this role.
Then I got blind-sided
in another way. My mother said that when the play started in a few weeks, I would have to take
the bus home at night after each performance. I don't even remember what reason
she gave me. Maybe she was working late in those days, but
I doubt it.
Who knows? What I do remember was how angry I was at her.
The thought of taking a bus home at 10 pm at night for an entire
week upset me. I was beyond furious.
No other kid in my entire school had to put up with this crap.
Was I being immature?
Well, yes, sure, absolutely. However, at the same time
I did not accept her reason that she would not give me a ride at night.
If this meant riding my bike, I would have accepted her decision and
abided by it. However, we lived in an area different than
Montrose, so I did not like the thought of getting a bus transfer
downtown and having all those weird homeless people to contend with
late at night. Plus the bus ride was an hour long.
Furthermore, I did not know anyone who lived
remotely near us to beg for a ride.
I was so angry at the thought of taking the bus at 10 pm
at night that I decided to quit the play.
Poor Mr. Chidsey.
He begged me to stay. He wasn't angry at me, but rather
perplexed. Not only was I perfect for the role, he said it would be tough to replace
me at so late date. Consumed
with guilt and regret, I knew I had done the wrong thing, but I was too
ashamed of myself to change my mind. I hated myself for
days on end for not having the guts to go back to him and apologize
and offer to continue the role if it was still open. I
knew I had done the wrong thing.
Next up was basketball
I was a shoo-in to make the team. Not only was I the tallest
boy in my class, I loved basketball with all my heart.
Furthermore, I had some talent. One on one, no one could beat
me. The only question was how much of a handicap would it be
trying to play 5-man basketball with only one eye. Well,
there's only one way to find out, right?
To be honest, I never
got my answer about the blind eye handicap. That is because I
quit the 8th grade basketball team for the same reason I quit the
play. When I found out some of the away games were late at
night, my mother gave me the same line... take the bus home.
Considering I didn't know the bus routes to get home from these
different schools, I was worried about getting lost. So I
Big mistake. For
the entire basketball season, I seethed with resentment at my
mother. I wanted to play ball!!
Next up was the 8th
Grade spelling bee. I was faced with a dilemma.
I had finished second in
the 6th grade spelling bee to Nancy. Second place
wasn't bad at all, so I was encouraged.
The following year, the
I cracked down and studied even harder. I literally gave
it everything I had. To my dismay, I finished second in the 7th
spelling bee to Nancy. This time rather than be
happy, I was disgusted. Intimidated as well. No one can beat Nancy. She
was just too smart for me.
The following year I
was done with losing. I was in no mood for further humiliation. To hell with finishing second,
so I skipped the 8th Grade spelling
bee altogether. Then a funny thing happened.
A couple days after the spelling bee, Nancy
stopped me in the hall. "Dick, how did you do in the
spelling bee?" (My school nickname was 'Dick', short
for 'Richard' until I changed it to 'Rick'
in the 10th grade.)
At first I was angry
at Nancy. I thought she was taunting me. But she
didn't have that look on her face and now I was confused.
I simply muttered, "I wasn't in the spelling bee, Nancy. I didn't feel like doing it this year."
The strangest look
came over Nancy's face. "Oh my goodness, Dick, I didn't know! I
decided not to go out for the spelling bee this year because I really
wanted you to win!"
The creepiest feeling overwhelmed me. First, at that moment I hated myself for
disliking Nancy so much. What the hell was wrong with me?
If I didn't know better, Nancy was
trying to be nice to me. She even seemed to like me. However, I didn't say a word. For one thing, I was
embarrassed. Nancy had surely just realized I had quit due to
her superiority. Rather than open myself to more shame,
without a word I
just turned my back and walked away.
I regretted what I did
almost immediately. Nancy had made an
effort to reach out to me, but all she got in return was a moody boy who
rudely turned his back on her. Nancy and I never
shared another conversation. I blamed myself for handling
that situation so poorly. Maybe if I could
have swallowed my pride a little, we could have actually been friends. This
bitterness was killing me! No wonder I was so damn
lonely all the time. I was my own worst enemy.
So what did my mother
say about dropping out of the play? Nothing.
So what did my mother
say about dropping basketball? Nothing.
So what did my mother
say about skipping my third year of spelling bee? Nothing.
So what would Mrs.
Ballantyne have said? Funny you should ask.
Not long after my
failure to enter the Spelling Bee, I noticed Katina speaking to a
girlfriend prior to the English class we shared. Katina was talking
in a low voice, but I used my Invisibility to sit down close enough
to listen without being obvious. Katina said last night her mother had chewed out
her brother Dana for a poor grade on a test. She chewed
him out for slacking off on his homework in a class
he didn't like. Dana had tried to explain that
playing football had cut into his study time.
Mrs. Ballantyne did not buy any of it.
"What a bunch a bullcorn,
Boo hoo hoo, life isn't fair. I'm sure you deserved that
As I listened on in
startled fascination, Katina repeated more of the conversation.
"Young man, I don't believe in happy teenagers. I don't
want any excuses. You are going to work harder because I
I was in shock.
I thought about that story for days. I had never heard a
conversation like this before. Mrs. Ballantyne didn't pull
any punches. Obviously the woman was a strong believer in
tough love. My own mother had certainly never
chewed me out like this.
Now I was really upset with
myself. My depression and self-pity lasted for days.
I envied Katina because
she had a
dynamic, caring mother. I had a mother who was
a lost soul.
Katina had a support system to cheer her up if she had a bad day.
Katina had so many advantages that I would never have. All I had
was my dog and my basketball. I hated feeling like an Underdog. It just
came over me. I cursed my mother for letting me
down. I turned around and used my self-pity to justify
The 8th grade was a very bad time for me.
My self-pity was off the charts. I began to steal comic books
from a store on the way home. One day the owner caught me.
He grabbed the comic book, rolled it up and slapped me upside the
"Don't you ever
come back to this store again!"
I should have learned my
lesson there, but I didn't.
Every now and then on the way home from school,
I would feel sorry for myself because I had no spending
I would stop off at Weingarten's, the
nearby grocery store, lock up my bike, go inside to stuff a few candy
bars in my pocket. Later I would
eat the candy bars while I
took Terry out for a walk.
One day a plain clothes
cop came up from behind, grabbed me by the collar and hauled me into a room in the back
of the store. I was so stunned I never said a word. I was 13 at the time
and completely terrified. I thought I was being careful, but
he came up from my blind side.
The man dragged me into
a caged area where they stored their cigarettes. I do not know
if this was deliberate or not, but the effect of being in a cage
made me feel like I
was in a cell. No, he did not lock the door, but I got the idea
of imprisonment nevertheless.
Once we were out of
sight, the cop reached inside my jacket and watched
grimly as several candy bars worth about $1.50 spilled to the floor.
looking twice to make sure no one was around, he cuffed
me hard on the side of my head and yelled, "What the hell is wrong with you,
I was stunned by the
hard blow and humiliated by the rebuke. That got my attention.
As he wrote up a report, this man chewed me inside out and upside
down. First he called me a 'juvenile delinquent.'
Then he threatened me with jail downtown and Gatesville Reform School for Boys,
a fabled juvenile detention center near Waco where the worst boys in
Texas were sent for incarceration.
The plain clothes cop
smirked at me. "Hey, kid, do you know how to fight? You
Those tough boys at Gatesville are going to
beat the crap out of you."
I paled visibly. This guy
was scaring the bejeezus out of me.
No kidding, this cop had me shaking like a leaf.
This man took his job very seriously. Deliberately preying on my naivety, he had me convinced I was headed to the
penitentiary for stealing three candy bars.
Whether it was
deliberate or not, this man kept me waiting in that room for a full
minutes. Now that I give some it thought, it was probably deliberate. I
believe he wanted to give me extra time to think about what I had done
as a way to
ratchet up my fears. It worked. The longer I waited not
knowing what my fate was, the more my fears increased. I was scared out of my
wits. Gatesville, here I come.
So here I was, a
hardened criminal assuming I was soon to face beatings and prolonged
incarceration. Yet somehow, some way, this cop found a way to
punish me that hurt even worse than all his threats. Yes,
indeed, here I was scared out of my wits when the strangest thing
happened to totally humiliate me.
To pass the time, the detective
decided to leaf through my
Algebra book and my Latin book that I had carried in with me. Inside the Latin book, he
discovered a current test that I had folded and inserted between
the pages. In big red letters, the test was marked '94', the equivalent of an 'A'.
The teacher's bold handwriting in the margin said, "Great work, Dick!!"
The detective stared at that test.
Then he looked up and stared at me
incredulously. He held up my test to make sure he had my
"Hey, kid, what is
"That is my Latin test."
"Latin is the ancient
language of Italy."
"I've never heard of
Latin. Does anyone speak Latin any more?"
"No, not really, not
unless you are a priest or something. It is the language
Julius Caesar used."
You have to be kidding me. Are you saying that Caesar did
not speak Italian?"
"No, sir, Caesar spoke
"What happened to
"My teacher said Latin
died out over 1,000 years ago."
"I don't get it. Why are you learning a dead
"That's a good question,
sir. I ask myself that same question all the time. I learn
Latin because they make me learn it whether I like it or not."
"What kind of school
makes you learn a dead language?"
I did not answer.
I did not like where this line of questioning seemed headed.
understand a word on this test, but it looks like you got a good
grade. Did you made an 'A'
on this test?"
"Well, I'll be
damned. It looks like you might have brains although you could have
fooled me. I have another question for you. Why the hell did a smart boy like you do a dumb thing like this?"
You know, I had a really
big mouth in those days. I detested authority. But for once in my
life, I did not sass
back. This guy had me on that one. Unfortunately, the cop wasn't finished
"What the heck
use is there for Latin?
"They say it will
improve my vocabulary. My teacher says Latin will help me if I
become a lawyer."
The cop snorted at that
one. "Considering you are headed for a life of crime, you
won't be a lawyer, I can tell you that much. I have another
me where you go to school."
"I go to St. John's,
"What kind a
school is that, some church school? Do you go to a church school?"
"No, sir, St.
the same name as the church next to it, but it isn't religious. St. John's is a private
school next to Lamar High School."
"A private school?
You go to that private school next to Lamar? I think I know what school you are talking about. I've passed
that place. It's on
Westheimer. Hey, you're talking about that
rich kid's school over in River Oaks, right?"
I groaned. I knew
this was coming. "Yes, sir, that's the one."
"You go to St. John's? Are you
serious? You go to a good school like St. John's and here
you are stealing candy bars? How pathetic is that? Do you have any sense of pride?
Take a guess how many
kids would die to go to a school like yours."
Speaking of dying, I nearly died on the
spot with embarrassment. To be honest, the man
was not even being mean or sarcastic at the moment. He was actually curious to
understand what would make a kid with my advantages do something
inexplicable like this. This guy had asked a very good question.
It was such a good question that I began asking myself the same thing.
Was my life really so bad that stealing
candy bars was going to make any kind of difference? Why had I
sunk so low?
The detective snorted
with disgust. He had disgust written all over his face and
it was no act, either. All he could see was some pampered
little rich boy who was too cheap to pay for a couple of candy bars.
I wanted to tell him I was not a rich kid, but stopped when I
realized he wasn't interested in my excuses. Right now I saw
myself as a pathetic human being.
At this moment Mr. Ocker, the store manager, walked in.
Mr. Ocker recognized me immediately and a reflexive flash of disappointment shot across his face. He
quickly brought his hand to his face to mask his regret, but it was
too late... I had seen his expression of hurt. That expression cut me to ribbons. Oh, I was so
ashamed of myself!
Mr. Ocker was a tall, gentle, gray-haired man, 50.
He carried himself with great dignity and exuded kindness.
Mr. Ocker happened to be one of my mother's heroes.
Mr. Ocker knew exactly who I was because he knew
my mother quite well. Mom had bounced a check or two over the years. Mr. Ocker had patiently worked with
my mother each time. I remembered how grateful my mother felt towards him. Thanks to his
kindness, Mom made sure she always found a way to catch up on her debts.
Mom was always telling me how much she liked Mr. Ocker... and then
she would go ahead and bounce another check.
The mother bounces
checks and the kid gets caught stealing. Boy, weren't we a pair?
I could not imagine what crossed Mr. Ocker's mind as he looked at me with
his disappointed frown. I decided I didn't want to know the answer.
Now as I stood there shaking in the stockroom, Mr. Ocker took mercy on
me in the same way he did for my mother. First he asked me to
sign a form the detective had written up admitting my guilt.
Then Mr. Ocker took a long look at me.
"I am not
going to press charges,
But I do have a favor to ask. Please don't do this
"No, sir, you have my
word this will not happen again."
"Good. But I
am not done yet.
In addition, I want you to tell your mother what you did.
To be sure you keep your word, I want your mother to come speak to
me the next time she is in the
Chastened, I promised to do what he said.
With that, Mr. Ocker said I could go.
The detective couldn't
resist one last shot. He handed me my book bag, then quipped,
"Here's your Latin book, kid. Too bad they don't have
Latin classes at Gatesville."
His sarcastic tone was not lost on me. Playing his 'Bad Cop'
role to the hilt, he clearly disapproved of Mr. Ocker's decision to treat me lightly.
As I rode home on my
bike, I could not get it out of my head that Mr. Ocker had said
'please'. I could not get that word out of my mind. "Please."
That word was more powerful than the mean-spirited cop scaring me to
death. It worked. My days of crime were over because he
had said 'please'.
I never forgot the profound respect I felt for Mr.
Ocker based on the gentle way he treated me and my mother. It
really stuck in my mind that he had given me another chance.
Mr. Ocker had taught me an important lesson in decency.
I thought about naming
this moment Supernatural Event #3. Considering how careful I had been to
check and double-check for danger, the plain clothes cop must have
turned the corner at the exact moment to spot me. On the other
hand, more likely I looked suspicious and he followed me. So I
decided not to add it to the list.
Towards the end of the 8th
grade, I faced a crisis
regarding my future at St. John's. Mom said that Uncle Dick
had called last night. Uncle Dick told my mother he could not afford to send me
to St. John's for
another year even at half-price. He had four children
of his own plus he was starting a new business.
did not say a word in protest. She told Uncle Dick she
knew he would help if he
could. She thanked him profusely for what he had done and
made sure he wouldn't feel guilty. I agreed with Mom. Uncle Dick had done
more for me than my own father.
When Mom broke the
bad news, I was despondent. I did not see this coming.
I had desperately hoped to continue the 9th
grade at St. John's, but now I was sick with worry
about leaving my school.
For the past five years, St. John's had been my refuge. It was the
only place where I could hide from my crazy mother and her unwanted boyfriends. Considering how
important this school had become to me, one can imagine my despair
when it appeared I would be leaving to attend public school.
The likelihood of leaving my sanctuary left me totally depressed.
First Neal, now this.
Due to my problems at home, I hit a
serious tailspin. It looked like my time at St. John's
would be over.
In May 1964 my mother called Mr. Chidsey to
tell him the bad news. Could Mr. Chidsey perhaps recommend a
good public high school
for me? Since we were always moving anyway, Mom would
simply find an apartment nearby whatever school he suggested. Mr. Chidsey said he would research that
question and get back to her.
A couple nights later Mr. Chidsey called
my mother at home. If St. John's offered a full
scholarship, would she be able to pay for the books and meals?
This offer was completely unexpected. Stunned and
delighted, Mom said she would do her best.
Mr. Chidsey was
pleased with her answer. He said he was
proud of my record at St. John's and would hate to lose a good
student like me.
Pointing out that
St. John's had a five year investment in me, Mr. Chidsey
said he believed strongly in helping students who tried as hard as I did. So that is how I received a full scholarship for my four
years of high school. I burst into tears with relief.
Given a new
lease on life, I immediately began think about the 9th
Grade, my freshman year in high school. In particular,
I wanted to shed my Invisibility. Or, more to the
point, I wanted to start dating. Several of the boys
here in the 8th Grade had begun to date. By listening
to the Lunchtime Grapevine, I overheard that most of them
dated girls from other schools. However I had seen a
few of my classmates hold hands from time to time. I
was very envious. Next year, I wanted to date as well.
The 8th Grade had not gone well, but this full scholarship
was like getting a new lease on life.
Nancy weighed heavily on my mind. I finally
grasped that Nancy had been reaching out to me and that I
inappropriately. At the time I had just walked away to
find some rock to crawl under. Unfortunately, Nancy had no way
of knowing that I wasn't angry at her. I had been consumed with
self-loathing ever since. My inner voice suggested a
simple apology might be in order, but I brushed that thought
off. I was a little too bitter in those days for
something that sensible. My life boiled down to me,
myself, and I. No wonder I had few friends... I was so preoccupied
with my own misery I was not the most cheerful kid to be around.
I had made a fool of myself throughout the 8th Grade, so now
I vowed to do better next year.
had the most awesome mother on earth and I didn't have a
very good mother, so
Poor Me. But I didn't want to spend the rest of my life
feeling sorry for myself. I made a firm decision to right my
mistakes. But how?
About this same
time, one day I looked out the window and saw a young man
named Steve driving golf balls from his front yard.
What on earth was he doing? I found a window with a
different angle and realized Steve was lofting shots towards
Lanier, a nearby junior high school. This made me very
curious. There were six houses between Steve and
Lanier Junior High, so how did he avoid hitting any windows?
So I walked downstairs and crossed the street to
Steve was kind
of a friend. He was four years ahead of me in school.
He went to Lamar High School which was located just down the
street from St. John's. Steve had been friendly to me
on several occasions, but I was too young to be much more
than an acquaintance. Still, I liked talking to him
and this golf exhibition offered me a perfect excuse to go
I stood politely
behind Steve and admired his driving ability. Steve
was really good. He was hitting shots 200 yards onto
the giant front lawn of Lanier. One hook or slice and
he might put out a window of one of our neighborhood
windows. However, not one shot ever came close to
causing a problem. Then I noticed he was lifting his
shots over Woodhead, the street that separated Steve's house
from Lanier. Wasn't that dangerous? One bad shot
and he might hit a passing car. However, there was so
much loft on Steve's shots that an accident seemed unlikely.
Each ball went high over the cars below. I was very
impressed. Steve was putting on quite a show. To
me, he was so confident of his ability that he was inviting
danger. But not once did he mishit a single shot.
you worried you will break a window or hit a car?"
I am a very accurate driver. Did you know I have
been given a college scholarship in golf for next year?"
a private school in San Antonio."
"Wow, good for
I watched Steve
continue to practice with new-found respect. I did not
know golf scholarships even existed.
"What made you decide to
take up golf?"
"Back when I was a
freshman, I overheard some guys at Lamar brag about how good
they were at golf. My father had taken me with him to play
golf once or twice, so I began to talk to them. They said
they were on the Lamar golf team and suggested I try out.
I wasn't very good at first, but I had some raw power.
The coach liked what I saw, so he let me hang around. It
turned out that we practiced at the River Oaks Country
Club at the other end of the block from Lamar. I
liked hanging around this wealthy country club on a daily basis,
so I was hooked. I decided to practice golf with a passion
and it worked out for me. I made the golf team as a
"I know where the River
Oaks Country Club is, but don't you have to be a member to use their
"Not if you are on
the Lamar golf team. They have an understanding.
Besides, 9 out of the 12 guys on the Lamar team are also River
Oaks members thanks to their fathers. Haven't you ever
heard the joke?"
"What joke is that?"
"They say 'River
Oaks' is the only street in Houston with a country club at
either end. Lamar is the public high school where
rich boys and rich girls go who aren't smart enough to get into
St. John's like you did. The idea is that Lamar is so soft
academically that no one lifts a finger. Personally, I
wish I could go to good school like St. John's."
"Guess again, Steve.
Consider yourself lucky to go to Lamar. St. John's has turned
me into a hermit. No one even speaks to me anymore because I'm
the poorest kid in the school."
don't you go out for the golf team? That's what I did."
"Well, for one thing, I
don't play golf. Besides, what good would golf do for me?"
"You would be
surprised, Dick. Golf has been my ticket at Lamar.
It's a rich man's sport and it gave me an in with all the rich
kids. Now that I'm the best player on the team, I am one
of the gang. It doesn't matter that my mother and I aren't
exactly rich. They don't care. These guys invite me
to all their parties and I meet all their rich girl friends.
Right now I am dating a girl who lives in River Oaks. She
could care less that I am not rich because I'm cool and I'm good
"Are you serious, Steve?
This sounds a little far-fetched."
"First of all, yes,
I am pulling your leg a little bit about my immense popularity.
But I am also serious. For the past four years, I have
discovered the better I get at golf, the easier it is to get the
prettiest girls to go out with me. So maybe I am not quite
as popular as I claim to be, but I do very well for myself."
I had a hunch Steve was
being modest. I had never met a more confident guy in my life.
I stared at Steve in wonder like he was the second coming of
Casanova. Here at age 14, I was at a complete loss to figure
out how I would ever get a St. John's girlfriend at the rate I was
going. Steve had just said the magic words. Golf was out
of the question, but what about basketball?
I knew I had been wrong to give up on basketball, a sport
I excelled in.
Even with my blind eye, I thought I had a real shot here.
Based on Steve's
suggestion, basketball seemed like an obvious way to start over.
participate in high school extracurricular activities.
If it worked for Steve and it worked for Katina Ballantyne, then
this was the obvious answer.
Starting that afternoon, I was
practice shooting basketball at nearby Cherryhurst Park. My
goal was one hour a day after
school rain or shine. Well, maybe not if it was raining, but
you get the point.
shown me the way. I understood my academic
scholarship to St. John's did not include an automatic
invitation to social events outside the classroom. My
classmates ignored me because I was not part of
the social circles they ran in after school. It
did not help that I had no idea how to become
popular enough to rate inclusion into their
circles. But if I could develop a ploy
like Steve did with his golf, maybe I could change my
negative spiral. Summer was just around the
corner. If I practiced every day this summer, not only would I make the
basketball team, I might even be one of the best players. Then maybe I
would get enough confidence to talk to girls instead of shying away
from them like I had with Nancy. I was sick and
tired of quitting everything I started and I was sick and
tired of being Invisible. The 8th Grade had been a
wash-out, but in the 9th grade, I would
make my move.
and I made a trip over to Cherryhurst Park the following afternoon.
My summer basketball
- THE CHESS
St. John's gave us an entire
hour for lunch. Considering we could finish eating in 10 minutes
if it was important enough, lunch was a time for friendship, gossip, and fun activities.
I might add this is where I used my Invisibility to follow the lives of
One day when I was in
the 6th Grade, my friend Frank brought a chess board to lunch.
To his dismay, none of us knew how to play chess. So Frank offered to
teach anyone who was interested. I was curious, so I took Frank up
on his offer. Two other guys
did as well. From that point on, lunchtime chess became a regular
I do not claim to have
any great chess ability, but I will say I caught on fairly quickly. I was
tickled pink when I finally to beat Frank for the first time at his own game. Since I was
fighting a serious inferiority complex, lunchtime chess became
one of my few bright spots. That led me to ask Mom to buy me a chess set
for my 12th birthday in October.
As we recall, this was
around the time when
my mother's favorite activity was hustling Greek
at the Athens Bar and Grill.
Shortly after my birthday, Mom brought home a sailor named Kristos. Cute guy, good dancer, big shoulders,
The next morning, a
introduced me to Kristos. He spoke no English, but
he knew enough to say he was from Yugoslavia, not Greece. Kristos noticed I had a chess board, so he
beckoned to it. While my mother cooked breakfast,
my mother's latest paramour proceeded to advance his pawns one space at a time
until I was completely pinned back.
Kristos was so
overwhelmingly superior, he didn't even
bother taking my pieces. His moves forced to me to
constantly retreat until he
smothered me to death like an anaconda. I was
thoroughly beaten. Then he laughed at me. I
definitely did not see the humor. I had just
been crushed to death.
The sting of
that overwhelming defeat lingered for a long time.
I wasn't nearly as good as I thought I was. A few weeks later I noticed a book for chess beginners at my school's
fair. It was written for kids my age so I asked
Mom for money to buy it as a Christmas present in
advance. Now I began to teach myself the finer points
of the game.
That book really helped. Soon I was able to beat
not just Frank, but the
other boys in our group on a regular basis.
did not improve enough. I developed a nemesis.
As if I did not
have enough problems, shortly after my candy bar incident, Mom brought home a new loser to
live with us. His name was Neal and he was a taxi
driver. Neal was also a loud-mouthed, chain-smoking alcoholic.
Of all the strays my mother found in the dog pound, Neal was
the one I despised the most.
Neal, 40, was a
heavily-bearded, dark-haired man of Jewish descent with the thickest
eyebrows I have ever seen. He was six feet tall, seriously
overweight, and slovenly. However, Neal was bright, I'll grant
him that much. I knew he was trouble the moment he noticed my
chess set and began to
brag loudly about what a great chess player he was.
"You'll never beat me, kid, no one beats me."
all the men, 9 live-ins stretched across nine years, Neal is the only one who
lived with us besides Tom Cook that I flat-out detested. The rest I just ignored.
But not Neal. Not only did he irritate me no end with his big
mouth and lofty opinion of himself,
Neal was something of a bully. He liked to
taunt me. I soon discovered he had an unfailing ability to get my goat.
Because I had grown up alone, no one had ever picked on me before.
Unable to defend myself, I found myself seething at some of his
put-downs. Neal took savage pleasure in
humiliating me any way he could.
N-E-A-L. I shudder just typing the name. I have never met a more
repulsive man. About two months before the end of the 8th
grade, my mother inflicted Neal upon me. Neal smoked. Neal drank.
His giant beer belly and pale white skin reminded me of a beached
whale. He never shaved
considered himself an intellectual, a real deep-thinker, and he loved
to tell me how smart he was.
Despite my animosity, I
need to thank Neal for two contributions to my life.
Neal was the guy who showed me the cheap trick of winning a fight by slapping ears.
would come in handy one day. Thank you,
Neal, wherever you are, for teaching me how to fight dirty just in
case I get sent to Gatesville Reform School for stealing candy bars.
about the other contribution? Thanks to
never lost another game of lunchtime chess throughout high
school. It was a very peculiar story.
I was 14
when Neal came along. After Neal moved in, he
noticed my chess set and immediately challenged me.
As we played, I could see he took the game seriously.
Puffing away on his perpetual cigarettes, Neal studied
each move carefully. Neal valued his chess skills
highly. It did not take long to see that Neal was a lot better than the
boys at school. He was better than me too.
Neal seemed to know every sneaky trick play in the book.
Neal would laugh derisively
after each victory. Neal told me not to take it so hard;
after all, he was a great player. He reminded me I never
had much of a chance. After all, Neal beat
stand losing to Neal. Choking on the cigarette
fumes, how I hated this guy! But I didn't let on
how angry I was; after all, I
had to live with him. Privately, though, I chafed
at my defeats.
I noticed that even though I lost, each game was pretty
close. I believed Neal wasn't really that much
I knew I had some
ability; I just lacked polish. My problem was that I
couldn't figure out how to win the End Game. If I could
discover a way to
improve, I might win.
dislike of Neal grew and grew. I begged Mom to
throw the bum out. Please! I told her I could not stand to be around
him. Mom admitted she wasn't too keen on Neal herself, but
since he was helping with the bills, he could stay.
frown, Mom said,
"You will just have to find some way
to deal with the aggravation."
That gave me pause for thought. This was the first time I had
ever considered that money might be the reason Mom allowed these men to
come stay with us. Knowing how money was always a problem, I
resigned myself to Neal's presence.
now my worst nightmare came to pass.
was here and so was Neal. I wanted the
freedom to enjoy my summer before starting high school, but no such luck. Ugh! I
would have absolutely no privacy with this jerk living here.
Neal worked nights, that meant I would have to share the apartment
with him during the long summer days while Mom was at work.
that's exactly how it played out. Throughout
played Lord of the House all day long. I could not
bear the sight of him. Or the smell either.
Just to get away from him, in the early morning Terry
and I would head over to Cherryhurst Park so I could practice
shooting basketball, my official
summer project. I was determined to go out
for the Junior Varsity in the Fall, so I practiced jump
shots and layups until the summer Texas heat made it too hot to
I would return and
there would be Neal in the living room. He would
be puff puff
puffing away with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the
other while watching his soap
would head to my bedroom and hide. I felt like a prisoner in
in June, Terry and I returned from the park.
Neal was sitting at the kitchen table practicing his chess
moves. Neal saw me and ordered me to sit down and
play. The insistent tone of his voice made Terry
come closer to me and stare bullets at Neal. Mind
you, Terry did not growl or make a sound. He just stared at
Neal. Seeing the look in Terry's eyes, Neal did a double-take.
I quietly grinned.
Aha! Neal was afraid of the dog. As well he should be. Terry never left my side when Neal was
around. Thank goodness for my loyal bodyguard.
"Gosh, Neal, looks like
Terry doesn't like you very much."
"Keep that dog away from me."
"If I didn't know
better, you need to take a shower. Terry has a very sensitive
nose, so that's probably what's bothering him."
Neal had no comeback for
that one. He grumbled something under his breath, then said, "It's your move."
I could tell I had
scored with the shower quip. At first, I had let Neal pick on me at will
because I had never met anyone who was deliberately out to get me.
lately I had begun to fight
back. I developed a sarcastic,
biting style that surely got under his thin skin just like he got
under my skin. When I started asking him if he wanted me to
teach him how the shower worked, Neal would just glare at me. But
what could he do? Neal knew better than to get physical
with me if I smarted off to him... which I did all the time because
Terry to back me up.
So now chess became our
battlefield. There was no love lost
between us. The hostility had been growing ever since I had
begun to talk back. Although Neal outweighed me by a good 100
pounds, he did not dare lay a finger on me. Unable to smack me across the face like he
wanted to, instead Neal stuck to humiliating me on the
chess table. He could tell how aggravated I got
when he beat me.
Today Neal had just challenged me to
our first big
chess game of the summer. Okay, fine, let's play. I tried as
hard as I could, but Neal beat me soundly. Neal
always insisted on playing twice, once as White, once as
Black. So now he beat for a second time.
Bellows of raucous laughter emanated. Neal had just put the
smart-mouthed twerp in his place. Neal was Lord of the House.
Hear him roar.
I seethed inside, but
kept my mouth shut. I grabbed Terry and the
basketball and left the apartment to play basketball for
the second time that day, Texas heat be damned. Right now I
was hotter inside than it was outside. I really
needed to let off some steam. I cursed my inability to match
his chess skill. I screamed my head off, "Darn it! I wish
I could find a way to beat that SOB!!"
When I returned home, it was
more of the same. Neal was on a roll. For the
rest of the day, Neal laughed every time he saw me and
bragged about his victory. Then he told my mother
about his victories
when she came home and laughed again. Neal
enjoyed this humiliation immensely because it proved
he was smarter than me. With this guy around, my summer was off to a lousy
start. Neal was ruining my life.
latest defeat at chess to Neal, I cursed my futility.
I openly wished I
could find some way to improve at chess.
To my surprise, a very
odd coincidence took place the following afternoon... I got my wish.
After Neal left early to go
drive his taxi,
I was alone in the apartment. As I took a
shortcut through my mother's bedroom, I noticed a box of books lying
on the floor over in the corner. Curious, I put the box up on
the bed and began to leaf through. There were two Ayn Rand
books, Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged.
Jack Kerouac's On the Road was in there
too. I saw
a copy of Exodus by Leon Uris and several
Bertrand Russell books on philosophy.
with contempt. These were just the sort of books
an intellectual would read. I wondered if
Neal had actually read them or just kept them around to
impress whomever he was shacking up with.
And then my
eyes lit up. There hidden at the bottom of
the box, I discovered
Neal owned a book that covered the results
of the 1960 World Chess Championship. I opened the book.
Written by Mikhail Tal, the introduction said the tightly contested match had
resulted in an upset victory won by Russia's Mikhail
Tal over fellow countryman Mikhail Botvinnik.
This book contained the moves from every game played
written in chess notation. P-B4
(Pawn to Bishop 4), QxR (Queen takes Rook) and so
on. Even better, there were
detailed explanations for the reasons behind the most
My eyes grew
wide. I had just found a chess book that explained the strategy
of a chess grandmaster.
immediately grasped the potential.
By replaying each game in
the book, maybe I could improve.
I looked to
the sky and nodded my
gratitude to whatever unknown deity had sent this small
miracle my way. This quirk
could be easily dismissed as a silly coincidence, yet the
timing of the book's appearance caught my attention. A part of me wondered if this
book was the answer to my prayer.
This book had come out
of nowhere, so it became Supernatural
Event #3. Yes, this
was a small coincidence, so I will only give it a One-Star
rating. However, the impact of the coincidence elevated this moment beyond mere happenstance. Do coincidences prove
anything? No, especially not a minor one like this.
However, as you will see, they start to add up.
I carefully put the other
books back in order and placed the box where I had
Would Neal find out?
I doubted it.
The book was probably on the bottom because
he never looked at it.
The odds of Neal missing this book were one in a
Now I carried my prize
to my bedroom. Having this book appear
with such perfect timing felt like a good omen. I had a hunch this book might
just prove to be my secret weapon. I had to do something to keep
Neal from driving me mad.
I already my summer basketball project in the morning. Now I
decided to tackle an afternoon chess project as well.
I made it my
replay every single chess game in the book. On each page there
was a discussion of the reasons behind Tal's most
important moves. Every spare moment I would analyze
I had no idea if learning the secrets behind Tal's strategy would help my
own game, but I had to try something.
Terry and I would head over to the park so I could
practice shooting basketball. Terry would run
around the park chasing squirrels and I would shoot baskets for an
hour or so. I would ride my bike home
see Neal passed out on the couch with two empty beer
bottles on the floor.
I would walk over and turn
off the TV, then gaze at Sleeping Beauty. There
he was, Lord and Master of the house, snoring his head off in another drunken stupor.
Disgusted, that was the vision I kept in my
brain all day long as I studied that book with the fervor of a Bible
I would shower,
eat lunch, and then head to my bedroom to practice my chess moves with
the door closed. Terry would jump up on the bed
and take a nap while I carefully replayed the games on
my chess board.
Once in a
while, Neal would challenge me to more chess, but I
always refused. I was going to finish playing
every game in that book first. So Neal would
guffaw, call me a chicken, move his elbows like chicken
wings and make a few chicken squawks
for good measure. Then he would go smoke
another cigarette and turn on his soap operas. Humiliated, I would retreat to my
room, slam the door, and open the book. Every time
I heard Neal open the refrigerator door and grab another
my desire for revenge mounted.
It took a month, but I
finished every game in the book. Now I carefully returned
the chess book to the box and waited. I thought I understood the
reasons behind the moves, but I had no idea if it would make any
difference in my own game.
in July, Neal challenged me to another game of
chess. I tried to look casual. Sure, why not?
This time I was ready.
I gleefully cleaned Neal's clock. He never knew what hit
him. As expected, Neal demanded a
rematch. Since we had started late in the day, Mom came home in the middle of the second match.
She watched in surprise as I handily won the second game too.
This was the first time she had ever seen me have the upper
hand. It wasn't just that I beat Neal. In fact I beat him so soundly that
Neal was bewildered. His expression was priceless.
Neal stared at me like a wounded prize
fighter who has just been knocked down for the first time. No
one beats Neal. Neal beats everyone.
following day, Neal challenged me again.
Again I cleaned his clock. I smiled.
It was uncanny how much I had improved. It
wasn't even that difficult to beat him. That book had made a
second day victory really spooked Neal. It
wasn't just that I had won four games in a row,
it was the ease with which I beat him. Neal was
convinced my improvement could not be
attributable to a simple explanation like a bad
day on his part.
the rest of the day Neal
walked around the apartment slamming doors and
muttering to himself. He drove himself silly trying to
figure out how I had managed to improve so much. What was
I doing alone in my bedroom all those hours? Had I made some
secret deal with the Devil?
intellectual! Neal never had a clue what my secret
stare at me like I was
Damien from The Omen. Seeing how much it bothered
him, I refused to explain the circumstances. I guess he
got spooked by my supernatural powers. Good. Served
Neal left for taxi duty that night, I heard Neal and Mom arguing
about something. Neal was still upset.
Within the week, Neal moved out. I had
slain the dragon with a chessboard. My mother even thanked me
once he was gone.
She said good riddance.
I had found motivation in the unlikeliest of places.
My love of chess was sealed for life. Maybe I wasn't so
inferior after all.
it was time to see if my basketball project
brought similar results.
HIGH SCHOOL HELL
Cut my eye out
(01), Near Miss with the Stock Car (02)
Divorce, start 4th grade at St. John's,
Mom falls apart, Dad abandons me
inferiority begin to develop vis a vis the Mother's Guild
Dad refuses to send to SJS beyond
6th grade, Granted half-scholarship to SJS
Illness at boy
scout camp leads to invisibility
unconscious playing football due to blind eye
Caught stealing at Weingarten's,
Discovery of chess book (03),
Granted full scholarship to SJS, Summer Basketball Project