Inferiority
Home Up Leprosy


DESTINY


CHAPTER FIVE:
INFERIORITY

Written by Rick Archer
 

 


SUBCHAPTER 017
- THE QUITTER

 

Following the 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 attention.  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.  Envy, self-pity, and loneliness are a dangerous combination.  I was becoming a very bitter kid.  Although I 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 Senior yearbook 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 big chance!

Throughout middle 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! 

A receiver 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 season.  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 quit.

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 7th Grade, I cracked down and studied even harder.  I literally gave it everything I had.  To my dismay, I finished second in the 7th Grade 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 had 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. 

Apparently Mrs. Ballantyne did not buy any of it.

"What a bunch a bullcorn, buster.  Boo hoo hoo, life isn't fair.  I'm sure you deserved that grade!"

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 said so!"

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 wasn't fair!

A darkness came over me.  I cursed my mother for letting me down.  I turned around and used my self-pity to justify stealing. 

 


SUBCHAPTER 018
- THE JUVENILE DELINQUENT

 

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 head.

"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 money.  So 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.  After 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, kid!?"

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 better learn.  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 thirty 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 attention.

"Hey, kid, what is this stuff?"

"That is my Latin test."

"What is Latin?"

"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."

"Julius Caesar?  You have to be kidding me.  Are you saying that Caesar did not speak Italian?"

"No, sir, Caesar spoke Latin."

"What happened to Latin?"

"My teacher said Latin died out over 1,000 years ago."

"I don't get it.  Why are you learning a dead language?"

"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.

"I don't understand a word on this test, but it looks like you got a good grade.  Did you made an 'A' on this test?"

"Yes, sir."

"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 yet. 

"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 question.  Tell me where you go to school."

"I go to St. John's, sir."

"What kind a school is that, some church school?  Do you go to a church school?"

"No, sir, St. John's has 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, Dick.  But I do have a favor to ask.  Please don't do this again."

"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 store."

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. 

 


SUBCHAPTER 019
- THE BASKETBALL PROJECT

 

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. 

My mother 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. 

The Spelling Bee incident with Nancy weighed heavily on my mind.  I finally grasped that Nancy had been reaching out to me and that I had reacted 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.  

Okay, Katina Ballantyne 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 investigate. 

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 say hello. 

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.  Amazing.

"Steve, aren't you worried you will break a window or hit a car?"

"Nah.  I am a very accurate driver.  Did you know I have been given a college scholarship in golf for next year?"

"Really?  Where?"

"Trinity College."

"Where's that?"

"Trinity is a private school in San Antonio."

"Wow, good for you."

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 sophomore."

"I know where the River Oaks Country Club is, but don't you have to be a member to use their golf course?"

"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."

"Really?  Why 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 looking."

"Are you serious, Steve?  This sounds a little far-fetched."

Steve laughed. 

"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.  I could 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 determined to 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. 

Steve had 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 Junior Varsity 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.

Terry and I made a trip over to Cherryhurst Park the following afternoon.  My summer basketball project had begun.

 


SUBCHAPTER 020
- THE CHESS PROJECT

 

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 my classmates. 

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 activity. 

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 already 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 sailors over at the Athens Bar and Grill.  Shortly after my birthday, Mom brought home a sailor named Kristos.  Cute guy, good dancer, big shoulders, the perfect one-night stand.

The next morning, a Saturday, Mom 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 Fall book 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.  However, I 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."

Of 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 nor bathed.  Neal 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.  This 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.

 

And what about the other contribution?   Thanks to Neal, I 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 everyone. 

I couldn't 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 better me.  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.

Meanwhile my 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. 

With a 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.  So now my worst nightmare came to pass.  Summer 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.

Since Neal worked nights, that meant I would have to share the apartment with him during the long summer days while Mom was at work.  Sure enough, that's exactly how it played out.  Throughout the summer, Neal 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 continue.

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 operas.  I would head to my bedroom and hide.  I felt like a prisoner in own home.

One day 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."

Neal frowned.  "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.  However, 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 I had 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.  Following my 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.   

I snorted 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 important moves.  My eyes grew wide.  I had just found a chess book that explained the strategy of a chess grandmaster.  I 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 uncanny 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 found it.  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 million.  

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 mission to 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 those notes.  I had no idea if learning the secrets behind Tal's strategy would help my own game, but I had to try something.

Each morning 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 and 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 scholar. 

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 beer, 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. 

One day 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.

The 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 huge difference.

The 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.

 

For 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? 

What an intellectual!  Neal never had a clue what my secret was.  Instead Neal began to 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 him right.

Just before 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.

Now it was time to see if my basketball project brought similar results. 

 


part TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL

Chapter SIX:  LEPROSY
 

 

 

   TIMELINE

  1955   Cut my eye out (01), Near Miss with the Stock Car (02)
  1959   Divorce, start 4th grade at St. John's, Mom falls apart, Dad abandons me
  1960   Feelings of inferiority begin to develop vis a vis the Mother's Guild
  1961   Dad refuses to send to SJS beyond 6th grade, Granted half-scholarship to SJS
  1962   Illness at boy scout camp leads to invisibility
  1963   Knocked unconscious playing football due to blind eye
  1964   Caught stealing at Weingarten's, Discovery of chess book (03), Granted full scholarship to SJS, Summer Basketball Project
  1959-1968   St. John's

 

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