1968: Confidence

WilliamSmithActor

There are many character actors in Hollywood who specialize in playing “heavies” but to me the most intimidating thespian in Hollywood is William Smith. Anthony Falconetti in the 1970s television mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man is his best known role but Mr. Smith’s career includes over 300 feature films and television productions, my favorites being the 1960s Texas Ranger drama Laredo and 1985 Disney Western Wildside where he was cast against type as good guy gunslinger/deputy Brodie Hollister.

He is an incredible man in both a mental and physical sense, holding several advanced degrees and speaking several fairly difficult languages…while at the same time being able to curl his own body weight. He is very scary looking; a big body-builder blessed/cursed with a dark piercing cold state you’d expect to find on a mafia hit man – TV.com describes him as the greatest bad-guy character actor of all time.

Kind of like my friend Will Satathite

High school did not start out as a happy place for me. I was a late bloomer, gaining strength, speed and coordination equal to that of my classmates only as the academic year was coming to a close. Running was less locomotion that it was a series of barely controlled stumbles and my voice cracked so bad in choir that the teacher routinely sent me on errands to the school office while everyone else was “warming up”. It should be no surprise that within two weeks of school starting I was being regularly pummeled by bullies. Within four weeks my older sister left school to get rather precipitously married, leaving me to explain the situation to all of her friends and classmates. When the ensuing conflict between loyalty and literal honesty was combined with the stress of getting used for a human punching bag, my body was unable to cope and I came down with mononucleosis.

I didn’t make a full recovery until after Christmas and even then life wasn’t that much more pleasant. However, as I got back into the swing of things I made an interesting discovery: While the upscale kids could be extremely judgmental and socially conscious, the thugs would be friends with anyone, provided there weren’t any “personal issues” involved. While he was not necessarily a thug, Will was definitely a tough guy and I found that if I stayed in reasonable proximity to him I was safe from the aforementioned punching. The price of such safety was the occasional shove from Will himself but for the most part any aggression from him involved glaring looks rather than swinging fists.  I was willing to swallow my pride and cower a bit if it meant less punching.

As winter slowly turned into spring, my life became less precarious –and as the second half of the academic year played out, I was able to build a normal life. I could come to school in the morning and be sure that I could retrieve text books from my locker without getting stuffed inside it. I was reasonably sure that I would be able to eat my entire lunch without someone snatching it out of my hands or walking across it with work boots. Waving to a friend in the commons wasn’t an automatic invitation for a punch in my stomach the minute I raised my hand, and I could walk out to the bus at the end of the day without the icy sensation in the pit of my stomach that came with a bully waiting for me in front of the door.

Summer came and school let out. I was fortunate to get work over the summer – a lot of work. I subcontracted for the post office janitor while he took a month long vacation in Texas, I worked as a stocker/bag boy at a local supermarket for another month and at various times over the entire three month break I dug, pruned, filled, and tied back branches as a freelance landscaper and handyman.

I had never had so much money in my life, but what I didn’t realize was that I had gained much more in other areas. My height went up a couple of inches, my waist drew in a couple more and I finally caught up to the level of strength and co-ordination that my peers had all achieved much earlier, though I didn’t realize it right away.

…and before I knew it the summer was over and I would be >gulp< Going Back to School. For the first eight years of my academic career going back to school in the fall had been a wonderful experience but it seemed that during the first few days of my sophomore year there were too many ghosts in the hallways, too many terror-filled memories of the bullying and beat downs…but during those first couple of days I found out something interesting.

No one tried to punch me. No one tried to knock my books to the ground or steal my lunch. I knew that times had changed but I’d passed it off as the side-effect of having a larger circle of friends than I did the year before – but then one day while I was on the way out the back door the enroute to one of the portable classrooms I was startled by a reflection I in the glass. It was me…only a much larger “me” than the self-image I had stored in my mind. I quickly compared that reflection to other reflections in glass (getting to the portables was rarely a quick trip) and I was shocked to see that I was as large – usually larger – than the other kids around me.

Hmmmmm.

That revelation came at just about the same time that I realized Will sat behind me in study hall. I half-consciously slid back into the side-kick role I’d played the year before, resigned to my fate. I would get very little done during any study hall shared with Will, the time instead being spent taking the occasional arm-slug and cowering in his shadow just enough to avoid being noticed by the punchers.

..but then something interesting happened.

It was about a week into the semester and I was trying to get my geometry homework finished but Will was making it difficult. I tried to reason with him, my voice blessedly staying a notch or two above the level of a whine when Will interrupted me with the following:

Deitrick – you’re a big guy. Be bad!”

It took a minute for the message to sink in. Sometimes it was easy to forget that behind the tough facade Will really was a nice guy and it was at this moment that he was demonstrating that friendship. The fact that I had gained size and strength over the summer had never really sunk in for me and Will was acting as what we’d call a life-coach in the decades to come, helping me establish myself socially. For the rest of the day and beyond I contemplated his words and the thought behind them, then slowly scaled back on cower-factor while turning up the machismo just a little bit.

At that point I found that the guys around me began to be a bit more respectful…

The next week

The day wasn’t starting out well. I had to change a flat on the way to school, I left my geometry book at home and someone horked my lunch which included the ever-so-rare roast beef sandwich. By the time I got to my seat in study hall I was in a foul mood; just how foul became apparent when Will started messing with me by moving my seat around while I was trying to sit down.

“What’s the matter Deitrick? Having a bad day? Are you going to start crying?”

My response was out before I even had time to think about it.

“>Bleep< you Satathite! This is turning into a real >bleep< day! I don’t need any of your >bleeping< >bleep< right now so just go >bleep< yourself!”

I froze. In vain I tried to snatch the words back but Will had already heard them. He transfixed me with that cold stare, leaned forward in his desk and growled.

Had I burned one of the few bridges in my life? The answer was not long in coming.

“Pretty good, Deitrick!”

“You’re coming along nicely!”

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