A lot of people I knew in high school, and some I didn’t, made a reputation good or bad at Barney’s Garage. The place was just across the street from Chester High, the school I attended, my first year being 1967. It was a real garage and a real place of business. The man was as nice as could be and rarely ever complained about the patronage of students that frequented or spontaneously showed up there. The parents of a lot of the students were his customers for gas or minor work on their cars. Some of the older students themselves were customers and I believe one of his children was a student at the school too.
Sometimes the students would loiter out in back of the garage to have a place to smoke or just hang around talking. Often the students would go there for answers to challenges by one of their adversaries. You’d often hear someone shout out in the halls of the school, “I’ll meet you behind Barney’s Garage at lunch time.” But more often it was, “We’ll settle this behind Barney’s Garage after school tonight!” No matter what the adversaries looked like, there was always something to watch happening there. My reason for going to Barney’s was usually to buy a bag of chips or soda and candy bar out of the vending machines.
One day while I was standing there, two cousins with an age difference of a few years, and 50 to 75 pounds difference in weight, arguing and daring each other to do stupid things. They were trying to prove who was the bravest, or perhaps the results were to prove who was most foolish. I tried to talk the younger one out of taking one dare in particular of a most disgusting and what I’d call dangerous nature. He was dared to drink a sip out of the butt can, which was a coffee can with water in it where the patrons, or loiterers would extinguish their cigarettes. Sometimes there would be a tobacco chewer who would put his used chaw in the butt can. YUCK! There I was watching and the dare became louder and louder. A couple of bystanders or in legal terms, witnesses, were encouraging the guy to do it. I was agitated and vocally announced that he would be so sick and probably die. The others laughed and said, “It’s his life, let him do it!” Sure enough he did. I was speechless, and just shook my head and walked away feeling sorry for him. That was an image I will probably never forget. It’s already almost 50 years later, and still makes me cringe.
I remember I earned my reputation at the garage one early afternoon. I was walking down there to get a bag of chips and a chocolate bar, and arrived in time to see two students in a disagreement. They were obviously unmatched. The taller one was pulling on the shorter one and trying to dump him in a mud slick left by the last night’s rainstorm. I could see there was an uneven advantage for the taller, heavier guy and the smaller student was not interested in being part of the uneven contest. I yelled over as I was headed toward the garage door and said, “Hey, Leave him alone! He’s wearing white pants. What do you want to mess him up for?” He yelled back and told me to get lost and it was none of my business. I still felt bad, and somehow felt the need to help keep the smaller kid out of the mud. I walked closer and defiantly said “Leave him alone you f—ing Jerk!”
Well, now the other kid was off the hook and I was the target. He came over and tried to put me in the mud slick. We wrestled around for a few seconds and I slipped onto my knees. He grabbed my right arm and sat on my back, then began twisting my arm and demanding that I “say uncle”. I refused and told him he could rip my arm off and hand it to me and I wouldn’t say uncle. I was used to pain from my old man and never cried. My opponent reefed on my arm harder, and once again demanded I say uncle. It was obvious I couldn’t turn over as this big idiot was sitting on top of me. It was also obvious that I was in some sort of pain, but would not give in. Just then, a senior class student with a tough reputation pulled up with a couple of others in a white Chevy convertible. He was aware of some unspoken rule that said he could not pull the opponent off me and end it. Instead, he came over, put an open knife in my left hand and said, “Do him.”
The pain was almost enough to do just that, but I decided that wouldn’t be a good way to end my present plight. I threw the knife away from us and said, “Nah, I’m not giving in to this monkey.”
The fool on top of me uttered, “He’s so dumb he’ll let me rip his arm off. He just won’t quit!” He got up off of me, looked at me and just laughed.
I gave him a disgusted look in return and said, “You might as well hit me right in the head because I can’t use my arm now and you’ll have a chance to act like the big man, you f—ing asshole.” He took me up on my invitation in front of about a dozen onlookers and wound back and hit me right on the left side of my jaw. I looked back and asked him if he was satisfied. A bunch of students ran back across the road and up the hill to the high school front door. Before I had made it back inside the school building, people were standing in the halls saying, “There’s that freshman that took the hit.” “Holy shit, he must have a head made of iron.” “You should have seen it, he just stood there and asked for another and he’s still walking.” “Wow, he’s tough.”
From that day forward my next four years were branded. People thought of me as the one who’d stick up for the underdog and the one who could take a hit and win any fight I was in. I did have many occasions to protect my reputation while sticking up for others and I never lost any fights I participated in. Not the best way to get a girlfriend but good to keep people from harassing me. I graduated in four years, and the faculty began to notice I was more than just a tough guy, but had an actual softer side. I ended up receiving the “Most Improved Student Award” at my graduation, and even published a poetry book. I can still come back from a hit and live to write about it.
(c) Rick Wyman