Visiting my old grammar school neighborhood recently, caused me to puzzle again about why I got the treatment and taunting from my friends that I endured.
As I slowly drove past the well preserved and remodeled homes, some looked the same as I remembered from sixty-five years ago. Some houses were gone and replaced with million-dollar mansions. My old home looked smaller than I remembered. The perspective of age, I suppose.
It was my fourth or fifth-grade year that has pained me for so long as to why. Why would my friends treat me like that?
Neighborhood older bullies, sure, we all knew they got pleasure from detaining younger kids trying to get home from school on their bikes. Pushing, scaring, and belittling one of us caught alone just to put a scare into us, was their way to have fun, as they saw it.
It’s different when it’s your own age friends involved. A part of childhood that grew out of control was nicknames.
We all had them, and everyone was accustomed to them. Some referred to a physical trait. You can guess Shorty, Lefty, and others. There was Art, short for Arthur. Ashcan short for Ashby and also a way to poke some fun at the name, which was not unusual for us. My name was and still is initials, same as my father and grandfather. It was M.D., so my friends shortened it to just D.
I believe it might have been the song, Speedo, which was popular at the time that one of my friends added the word go to my single initial such that my nickname was now ‘D-go’ as an extension. This was the edge of where the name would lead that caused me to wonder what was going on.
Looking back, it may have been that this particular friend was a tad jealous of me getting a brand new bike for Christmas, two years in a row. He had an old rusty one. Also, usually having money in my pocket when a group of us kids would walk to the drugstore may have been another issue for him.
I haven’t mentioned yet that I was on the pudgy side in those years. My mother fought her weight all the time but loved Whitman’s chocolates, ice cream, and anything else in the way of desserts. I inherited that love and calorie intake desire. I lost the excess weight in the seventh grade when girls entered the picture, but that’s another story.
So, it was not beyond this friend of mine’s scope to call me ‘Pudgy’ and ‘Pudge-boy’ on some occasions. While I didn’t like it much, I knew I deserved it. On that thought, another term that signified fat and not likable, was the slang, Dago.
I had asked my parents about that term, and they told me it was an offensive term used about an Italian or Spanish speaking person. In the fifties in Alabama, there were a lot of offensive terms used about people. When I said that some of my buddies had called me that and now I knew it was to hurt my feelings, they told me the old adage,
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
It’s true, of course, but words did hurt in those days, especially coming from friends.
Some days passed, and once again, on a relaxed spring afternoon, we were gathered in the street in front of a central kid’s house in the neighborhood talking about nothing much other than what boys talk about in those years.
One of them remarked something innocent to me and tagged the comment with, “Don’t you think so---D-go?”
It caused me to say politely, “I wish you’d just call me D, instead.”
Immediately, the one who started the nickname said, “What-sa-matter? Doesn’t the little Dago like his name?” in a taunting voice.
Others jumped in immediately, seeing that I was upset by the Dago reference, and I was hearing, “Is the pudgy Dago upset with his name?” “Aww, is he gonna cry for us?” “The poor little D-go the Dago.”
I was fuming, I couldn’t answer them all at once. I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks. I was holding my breath, gritting my teeth, eyes shut, and tension in my body.
When my buddies saw this reaction, they knew it was working, and the insults came on heavier. I felt like a small dog when a whole pack of vicious bulldogs had piled on and wouldn’t let go.
I let out a blood-curdling, ear-splitting scream that lasted until the huge breath was exhausted. As I grabbed my breath, I saw the surprised look on the faces of my torturers. In those years, finding a small rock and throwing at the body of another kid was customary, little harm was ever done. At that moment, I looked down for a stone to grab and throw wildly. Furious anger had exploded within me.
I scanned the spoon-shaped gutter for a small rock, but all I could see was a part of a brick that I could grab. As I leaned down for it, my circle of friends changed their expression, and all started fleeing in every direction. With brick in hand, the center kid was the last to run and was the closest, so I let fly, barely looking.
My anger turned instantly to horror as I saw the sharp edge piece of brick strike him in the back of the head, just above the neck. He stopped and grabbed his head. He howled.
The tone of everything changed, including mine. Thoughts raced through my mind as I saw the bright red blood oozing between his fingers as he clasped his head and neck. The others saw it too. Thoughts raced through my mind. He hadn’t fallen and wasn’t knocked out, so that was a blessing. But so much blood was coming. Others gathered around and had grave comments like, “You could have killed him.” “He might need to go to the hospital.” “I hope he doesn’t bleed to death.”
Oh man, I thought, my mother’s going to kill me when his mother calls mine. My father might understand.
I don’t know how the mother of my friend appeared from their house. Maybe she heard the commotion with all the windows open. She had a dish towel and was applying it to the back of the bleeding head of the boy. She rushed him back inside her house saying, “I’m going to wash off some of this blood and call your mother to come get you.”
The son accompanied his mother and the injured boy inside. The other boys decided it was time for them to mosey on home and left without words other than, “You are in a heap of trouble now, D.”
I didn’t even notice the change from taunting names. I, too, was now fearing how bad he was hurt, and then what was going to happen to me that afternoon or evening. I gingerly walked on home. I hated to go inside and wait for the phone to ring, but that’s what I did.
All that evening, every time the phone would ring, I would get in the doorway of the next room as my mother spoke, dreading the call I was expecting. It never came.
The next day I found out my buddy had to get a couple of stitches to close the cut on the back of his head, but he was back in school with a small bandage over the area. He didn’t want to talk about it. I was glad. I didn’t want to discuss it either.
A few days later, my mother mentioned almost casually that she heard about the ‘incident’ with the brick and said she was glad the boy was going to be okay. That’s the way it was in the mid-fifties. No threatened lawsuits, no demands for medical reimbursement for the family doctor putting in a few stitches in at his office. It was simply over.
I don’t remember my friends using the name Dago to me ever again. That did solve one of my problems. But my puzzlement was always the ‘why’ of the name-calling.
It puzzled me that day visiting the old places. As a much older and wiser man, I know the reasons kids mercilessly will taunt another kid when young. They do not realize the more profound hurt that is happening beneath the smile of another.
Because they have been hurt in similar ways by other friends, parents, and other adults in the fifties, they do and say the same things to others. Adulthood teaches us differently. Except when one is nearly drunk, then all restraints go back to caveman behavior. That’s why shootings often occur on a Saturday night when good friends and family are drinking and it starts. Instead of a rock to the back of the head, it’s a bullet and a much more serious matter.
I still shudder at what I did way back then. I do understand the things that go on in the minds of boys, but in the mind of that particular friend, I can only guess. I guess I will never know.