Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Embracing My Tormentor

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bob at 10:12 am on Monday, September 20, 2021

by Robert M. Katzman © September 20, 2021

A burning moment of humiliation with an unexpected resolution, which occurred in a Chicago playground nearly sixty years ago. Both parties were twelve, and no, it is unlikely you have read this before.

In 1962, in the Autumn when I was twelve and it was becoming cool and crisp outside, the leaves still on the trees surrounding my South Side of Chicago Grammar School were turning scarlet and gold, the mounds of dead brown ones next to the curb, ready for burning, crackling as I walked over them. 

Autumn was a serene time for me and the closest I ever came to smoking was when I inhaled the romantic fragrance of the Death of Nature, letting the clouds of white smoke envelope my head, permanently imprinting the sensual experience long after when burning leaves on the street was declared illegal.

By the age of twelve, I drew all the time; intending, I thought, that my future was becoming an artist or architect. Though I read all sorts of books, mostly biographies of famous men, the concept that my future would be a writer of books was as far away as the fluffy clouds above me in 1962.

My house was a dangerous place where angry words flew like arrows between my parents and my sister and me. My parents argued in Yiddish and English. Neither went to college and both — besides living through the Great Depression and World War Two — were the children of immigrants from the Jewish Pale of Eastern Europe where the Czar corralled millions of them. Both were street-wise second-generation Jews who were concerned with making a living and leaving the Old World of their parents behind them. 

A higher education for either of them seemed to be a brick around their necks, slowing down their chance to become real Americans with a house, a backyard, two cars, two kids and enough money left over to go drinking with their friends in Chicago’s many Downtown noisy smoky Cabarets with their flashy showgirl-floorshows on Saturday nights. 

But by the time Eisenhower was no longer president in 1960, the Cabarets were shutting down, and those World War Two romantics were getting divorced.  

So, consequently, I didn’t dwell in an intellectual atmosphere of great thoughts and reflections about the world condition. And this story is about the consequences of such a situation. Except — A mystery even decades later — where in the world did the resolution come from?

The rigid arrangement to our entering the back of my school in the morning and again after lunch was that we lined up in units of four across and four deep, like little army groups, by gender. Sixteen kids in a squad. When the school-bell rang, we marched silently into the school, dispersing into our respective classes.

On one particular Autumn day, one of the kids, Marcus, someone I clashed with sometimes, but also one I felt was very smart — smarter than I was — crossed a line. He was loud, brash and quick to announce another kid’s shortcomings if that situation arose in his presence. I tolerated his antagonism, endured his cutting words. That was the other thing: he knew more words than I did. 

With his endless sarcasm and abrasiveness, he frequently reminded me of the cartoon character Daffy Duck.

We were about the same size, both confrontational characters; and there would be violence between us in our futures, but not that one day. 

There was some joking around as we all waited for the bell to ring this one Autumn day, while we maintained our squad-like formation. Sex came up as a subject – a blank page for me – and there were a range of things said about girls in different situations, Marcus doing most of the talking. I said nothing because it was all misty for me at that time; and then this one particular word was used, which I didn’t understand. Everyone laughed at his joke, except me. I asked him what the word meant and he seized the moment to ridicule my ignorance not just of words, but of girls as well. This made everyone laugh again, except this time, at me. I burned.

The bell rang, we marched into school and all of us found our rooms and assigned seats. The teachers taught.

But I wasn’t present in my class. Not mentally. I was humiliated and wanted revenge. But what could I do to Marcus? He hadn’t punched me. It was just the words he used to make me the target of his joke. How does a guy fight back against that?  I saw the world in a clear way in that sense. Hit me, I hit you back. But words?

Then, from nowhere whatsoever, an idea formed in my mind, something unique and I felt, perfect to respond to Marcus’s choosing to humiliate me because of what I didn’t know. Well, I knew one thing, with all my after-school carpentry, push-ups and tree climbing, which he didn’t do, I knew I was stronger than Marcus was. And Marcus was in my class.

So, inspired by what I planned to do, I watched the clock, anticipated his reaction to my actions and simmered until the three-fifteen bell rang and all the slaves were freed. We swiftly left our classes and poured out of the rear doors into the playground.

Marcus was a bit in front of me, but as soon as we were outside and perhaps twenty feet from the exit doors, when all of the students were still filling the area, I ran around in front of Marcus and wrapped my arms around him, locking his arms to his sides. Not like a hug, more like a trap. With my left hand tightly clutching my right wrist, we were face to face, our faces inches apart and he was stunned. And he was my prisoner.

With his loud voice protesting and swearing, he soon attracted lots of attention. This was what Marcus liked: lots of attention. I wanted to make sure he got it. He screamed at me to let him go, causing a large ring of kids from the various classes to form around us, watching the unusual sight of what appeared to be two twelve-year-old boys about to kiss. I said nothing, until I felt there were enough people present, then I said to him, loud enough for all near us to her,

“Marcus, I am going to hold you like this until you cry.”

He shrieked at me, calling me everything he could summon, but no matter how hard he struggled, he was trapped like a rat in a cage. To him, I may have seemed insane. Then I repeated to him,

“Marcus, all you have to do is cry, and when I see that, your tears rolling down, I’ll let you go.”

This was a fascinating sight, I was certain. Not two kids rolling in the dust of the playground smashing each other with their small fists, just two boys embracing each other. Almost romantic.

The crowd now appeared to be about two hundred kids, quietly watching how this little drama played out, compared to the fifteen kids in our squad who witnessed my initial embarrassment over a single word. I wanted to share that emotion with him, so he understood that even words had consequences, not just punches. Maybe it would be a new idea he would remember in his caustic mind. Maybe he would better comprehend the word: humiliation.

Then, suddenly, his frustration and situation overwhelming his waterfall of angry words, he burst into tears.

Lots of tears. Easy to see in the bright afternoon sun. I dropped my arms; and let him go. He stumbled backwards, a couple of feet away from me, wiping his face with his sleeve, as the tears poured out. I was unafraid he would try to take a swing at me. That would be asymmetric in the Playground World. All I did was give Marcus a big, long, hug. 

“Marcus, be careful how you talk to me. I might have to hold you again. You understand?”

He nodded, said nothing, then he turned north to walk toward his house. The crowd swiftly dispersed, watching both of us as the moment ended.  I watched his back for a while, then turned south to go home myself.

Never again in the two remaining years at that school did Marcus ever seize the moment to mock my lesser skill with vocabulary. He was too aware that his own words might imprison him, again.

Oh, and that word he used I couldn’t understand? 

Since that following moment in the playground, I never did remember what it was. Most likely today, though, I’d know it. Doesn’t matter. After a couple of marriages and four children, I imagine I eventually knew enough with or without whatever that word was. All I remember today is my unbreakable embrace of Daffy Duck.

And Marcus, wherever he might be today, old and wrinkly like me, I bet he remembers it, too.


Publishing News!

(Currently seeking representation as a speaker/poet for hire)

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: http://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
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Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998 (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $29.95 each, plus shipping

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My two latest books are available in the Racine Wis Public Library. Both books are labeled: 921 KAT. ROB on their spines, in autobiography Dept.

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Comment by Brad Dechter

September 20, 2021 @ 10:42 am

Are you still telling this story to cover the fact you really liked Marcus? (It’s OK to hug another guy and at your age, experimentation was OK too.) YES, KIDDING!
Good tale! A good approach for a kid your age- non-violent persuasion!
Lastly, you are right- some things you never forget. You aced this with your response and won the day. Victories at that age are important.
Thanks for sharing!

Comment by Viv Kerwin

September 20, 2021 @ 12:28 pm

Another vivid story about growing up in Chicago to which most everyone can relate. What a wonderful example of how to handle a bully.

Comment by Jim Payne

September 25, 2021 @ 5:42 am

A new twist on hold your enemies close and squeeze them til it hurts. Even an invisible word can hurt our pride. From the animated scenery to going north and south I enjoyed your combat.

Comment by Beth

September 25, 2021 @ 10:18 am

The same…and yet not. This reminds me of an earlier story I shared with you. A time when Dad beat the crap of of me at age 7. My sister crying…begging me to cry because then dad would stop beating me if I did…

I missed a the last week of school that year at St Thomas the Apostle. Unable to walk or get out of bed for days after being savagely beaten by a man who alternately loved and hated me.

Time passes by, but I will never forget being urged to cry to avoid more horrors to come. I didn’t cry that day. I left my own 7 year old body, floating above, watching the carnage below. I felt nothing.

Count mine as another South Chicago story from the 60’s. Little did I know, a decade plus later, I would meet a kindred survivor in the form of a newspaper man on the streets of Hyde Park.

Thanks for sharing another slice of your life, Bob.

Comment by Dennis Mae

September 26, 2021 @ 1:03 pm

I thought I’d know it, although you said I wouldn’t.
I thought I’d lived it, although you lived it wiser.

You, at a loss for words – saying:
“the romantic fragrance of the Death of Nature”
“a new idea he would remember in his caustic mind.”
“That would be asymmetric in the Playground World.”
and I blush with envy!

Unfortunately, I was the Daffy Duck (later uncle duckie) in my crowd, hopefully not as abrasive, but much more wacky and silly. He and Donald were my cartoon heroes (well Scrooge McDuck and Richie Rich also played a part) so you surprised me, turning my icon into an anti-hero! But it made sense and I got it without offense.

Unfortunately, I remain in awe of your superb storytelling.

Fortunately we are kindred spirits.

great love,

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