A tough old bastard with a crew cut taught 8th grade wood shop. The class was mandatory or I would have avoided it like the plague. I was more interested in reading at the time so I much more preferred Mrs. Say’s English Lit class to Mr. Splan’s any day.

And it wasn’t like we learned anything useful in wood shop. Our first project was using a hand plane to put a square edge on a board. Your work was disingenuously graded with a wood square. I think I got a D on that one. My final output if I remember correctly was a sloppily built birdhouse. I probably got a D on that one too.

Consequently Mr. Splan didn’t take me any more seriously than I took him. He thought I was a miserable pissant of a thirteen year old and I thought he was a loutish prick. But one day things kind of changed when he gave me a much deserved albeit grudgingly delivered reverse backhanded compliment.

By the by, it is interesting to note that two of the same old buzzards who taught my dad in middle school were still around to make my life miserable. That was Mr. Woodruff who taught history and Mrs. Cole who taught math. Woodruff was another mean old bastard. And I remember one time I got him so pissed off that pulled me out of my chair, drug me to the front of the classroom, and threw me into a full wrestling nelson in front of the entire class. Mrs. Cole on the other hand was entering her dotage so she was mostly shrewish and her biggest crime against students was an emphatic zero talking in class policy. I think my old man early on must have set the stage somehow as both Woodruff and Mrs. Cole always seemed to have their eye on me.

And just so you know, in public schools back in the 60’s, severe corporal punishment still existed. Beatings were meted out using ingeniously designed planks modestly called paddles. Getting a paddling – or a couple of swats as it was otherwise called – was tantamount to taking a beating.

The paddle I remember most was the one owned by the gym teacher; although it was probably made by some other sadistic bastard who had access to good power tools. It was a solid piece of hardwood a full 3 feet in length and at least an inch thick.

The first foot of it was the handle; rounded, the length of which allowed for a two-handed grip much like a baseball bat. The remaining two feet was the business end. And every two inches there was a drilled hole – the wood shop teacher, anyone? – with one side covered with leather. The holes reduced the weight factor allowing for the maximum possible swing velocity while the leather was whetted to make for that perfect red polka dot raised welt.

So anyway, one fine morning I was in the school foyer chatting with my girlfriend when out of nowhere Craig Wormell tackles me to the floor and proceeds to start a fight. We somehow got extricated and to save face in front of my girlfriend and all those kids who had witnessed the attack I told Wormell that I’d see him after school.

Word spread like wildfire. The fifteen or twenty kids that were there each told a couple of other kids and by second period even my teachers knew I was going to be in a fight. Mrs. Say liked me probably because I liked reading and enjoyed her class. And I remember her asking me not to fight.

And believe me I didn’t want to fight. Especially not that kid. Wormell was a strong farm boy who had 4 inches and thirty pounds on me. So I spent the entire day sweating it out, most certain that I was going to take a pretty serious ass-beating.

Finally the bell rang and I and my two main buddies at the time made our way across the street to the railroad tracks behind the local newspaper plant.

I about wet myself. Half the school was already there. Probably two or three hundred kids parted the way to where I found Wormell waiting for me with his fists bunched up.

I was so scared I smiled. That fight was the first time that I discovered that sheer terror makes me smile. Probably more of a rictus than an actual smile, but go figure because it’s the absolute truth.

So smiling, I walked up to him and hit him as hard as I could right in the face. And then again. And again. And again. I jabbed with my right and then nailed him with my left. Over and over again. I must have hit him fifty or sixty times in the first 2-3 minutes of the fight. And in that time he hadn’t landed a single punch.

But he wasn’t going down. He was just bleeding. My older 9th grade buddy, Horniman yelled at me to quit fucking around and end it already. Kids were thinking that because I was smiling that I was deliberately tormenting the guy when in reality I lacked the power to knock him on his ass. I was after all just a skinny, twitchy, fast white boy.

Finally out of the middle of nowhere he nails me with a powerful roundhouse to the side of the head and for an indeterminate period of time the world went dark. I didn’t feel the punch – there was no pain – but I was knocked out, yet was somehow still on my feet.
Just as remarkably as me still standing, he didn’t immediately follow up with another punch.

And then just like angels from heaven, the police arrived and broke it up.

So I ended up winning a fight that I had no right to win.

The next day in school just about everyone came by and shook my hand or pounded me on the back. Even Wormell stopped by my locker and apologized. And he looked like shit. Both eyes were swollen, one completely shut and his entire face was one massive reddish-purple bruise.

And Mr. Splan? On my way out the door after woodshop he wryly looked at me and said (and I quote), “Clark, I didn’t think you could lick your own lips.”