|Jul/Aug 2005 Nonfiction|
How the hell could I have let myself get into such a fix? Here I was president of the high school student body, member of the National Honor Society, a straight-A student—indications that I had enough sense to pour piss out of a boot—and yet I was getting ready to lock horns with the toughest son-of-bitch in Anson??? Big Mike Holloway was four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than I, and one rough, rawboned brawler. I had challenged him to a fight!? Talk about stone cold stupid.
What, you might well ask, could have precipitated this imbroglio? Well, folks, it was all a matter of West Texas justice—a philosophy so profoundly ingrained that it trumps all common sense. And it had brought me here to this confrontation in a cow pasture on a sunny Sunday afternoon in 1966—a day that would prove to have profound repercussions in my life.
The previous Friday night my good buddy, Jerry Wayne Burgess (who was vice president of the student body), and I had gone over to Anson to hang out at some truck stop, which was where the high school kids there congregated. We told our girlfriends that we were going to go stag to the annual smorgasbord at the Swede church so we could slip over to Anson and try our luck. He'd told me we could hook up with some girls he knew there. I had an uneasy feeling about this enterprise from the start, inasmuch as it was predicated on lying to our respective girlfriends—two of the best-looking girls at Stamford High School. Why, when we had bona fide babes who were crazy about us, would we go looking to score with some snuff queens in another town?
And Anson of all places! It was our chief rival in football—had been for years. The two high schools genuinely reviled each other. Moreover, the culture in Anson was the polar opposite of Stamford. For that era, Stamford was a progressive little town. Most of the kids went on to college and we were all hip to the pop culture and fashion of the time, e.g., the night we drove to Anson, Jerry Wayne and I were dressed in our camel blazers, pale blue oxford-cloth, button-down collar shirts, gray slacks and penny loafers. Long hair wasn't yet in fashion in West Texas, but we did have the supercool Beatle bangs that would flop on our foreheads when we did the monkey to "She's A Woman" or whatever. Drove the chicks crazy. Regrettably, our hair drove the Anson cowboys a little nuts as well.
For whatever reason, the high-school kids in Anson had a reactionary revulsion to the changes that were affecting most other American kids at that time. The guys all went out and bought themselves cowboy hats and boots and learned how to swagger and spit. They listened to George Jones and Buck Owens and despised the Beatles and the Stones and all that they stood for. Why would two such sharp, hip kids venture willingly into such a Podunk fraught with peril? Maybe Jerry Wayne and I thought we were doing the culture-starved Anson babes a favor by exposing them to our class and wit, and then surely they'd want to show their appreciation. Things didn't turn out quite the way we'd planned.
When we walked in the truck stop, Jerry Wayne saw an Anson girl he knew sitting with two others at a table. They asked us to join them, so we sat down and turned on our luminescent charm. The conversation was going swimmingly when someone shoved me from behind and said, "What's the idea of sittin' with my girlfriend, Beatle?" I turned around and there glowering over me was Big Mike Holloway in a big black Stetson and starched white cowboy shirt. "Meet me outside, Beatle! I'm gonna mess that hair up for you." Well, this little interruption just rained all over my savoir faire. Would that I'd had sense enough to ignore him and just continued to chat up the ladies, but no. I'd been called out, and the only manly thing to do was answer the challenge. Holloway and his retinue of cowboy sidekicks all went outside to wait for me in the parking lot. Jerry Wayne and I bade the ladies farewell and headed for the door.
Just as I exited the truck stop Holloway was waiting right outside the door and sucker-punched me in the face—busted me flush in the mouth. The cat packed one hell of a wallop. Given his overwhelming size advantage, I found this to be somewhat unsporting of Big Mike. Matter of fact, it was down right chickenshit.
Just then one of the cowboys yelled, "Haul ass! The cops are coming!" Apparently the management of the truck stop had phoned the police when they saw all the cowboys head for the door en masse. No doubt this kind of thing had happened before, given the Anson boys' predilection for fist fights. They all jumped in their pickups and peeled out.
Jerry Wayne hustled back into the truck stop and grabbed a wad of paper napkins for me to cover my mouth, which was bleeding profusely. I'm not sure if this was out of concern for me or because he didn't want my blood on the interior of his car. Before we pulled away, one of the Anson cowboys came over to the car to offer me some advice: "Don't come back over here to try to settle this. Holloway's one of the toughest guys in Anson, and he'll kick your ass like it's never been kicked. Be glad the cops came tonight or you'd be in a lot worse shape than you are. You Stamford boys just need to stay away from Anson—we've got no use for you Beatle-types over here."
As we pulled away Jerry Wayne scoffed, "Man, what a prick. ‘Beatle-types.' What a crock. Bunch of inbred red necks..." Although we had no way of knowing it at the time, the "prick" would get his richly deserved comeuppance later on in our story—much to my and Jerry Wayne's immense gratification.
It's relevant to interrupt the narrative briefly to inform the reader about my older brother, John Ed. Six years my elder, he was without any question the toughest guy in Stamford and the surrounding towns. He'd learned how to box in high school and had won his weight class in the Golden Gloves in Abilene. Subsequently, he began to gain a reputation as a badass street brawler. Wanna-be badasses would come from all over that part of Texas to fight him—sort of like a gunslinger in the old west. I'd never actually seen him fight, but I heard stories from upper classman about some of his melees. One night out at the Super Dog, the Stamford hangout for teenagers, a guy had driven over from Haskell to seek revenge for a whippin' he'd taken from John Ed a few years earlier. John Ed was sitting in a car with one of his buddies eating some fish sticks. The Haskell lad approached the car, leaned in the window and said, "You whipped my ass a few years ago when I was just a little boy, and I'm back to settle the score." Never looking up from his fish sticks John Ed inquired, "So—you're a big boy now?" The guy slugged John Ed in the face and that was the last blow he landed. It took four guys to pull John Ed off of him. They were afraid John Ed might kill him because he was banging the guy's head off the asphalt parking lot. This incident and many similar ones had made John Ed's searing temper and pugilistic prowess legendary throughout our part of West Texas.
Now, back to our story: It didn't take long for the incident in Anson to spread all over Stamford. When asked about it I just told people I planned to go back and settle things with Holloway once my mouth healed. My lips were swollen and it hurt to chew. The thought of taking another fist in the face right then wasn't particularly appealing.
The Saturday night after my altercation in Anson I'd gone to bed at eleven. I was rudely awakened by John Ed around midnight. He'd come home from my uncle's ranch where he'd gone to work after he got out of the army—he came back to Stamford every weekend to drink and carouse with his cronies. He'd been by the Super Dog and heard about what had happened to me in Anson.
With his customary subtlety he barged into my bedroom, turned on the light and shook me awake, demanding, "What the hell's this I hear about you gettin' suckerpunched in Anson and what the hell were you doing over there in the first place?" I conveyed my lurid tale to him and explained that I'd be going back over to find Holloway once I mended. John Ed thought otherwise.
"Like hell you'll wait! We're goin' back over there tomorrow and get this thing over with," he tenderly counseled. "Don't make no sense waitin' for your face to heal when it's just gonna get busted up again."
I wasn't altogether sure I agreed with John Ed's logic, but he'd had a lot more experience in these matters than I did, so I said OK and went back to sleep.
Jerry Wayne, stand-up guy that he is, had told me he wanted to go with me when I went back to fight Holloway, so John Ed and I went by and picked him up the next Sunday afternoon on our way to Anson. It was a quiet ride. At one point John Ed asked, "Can you whip him?"
"No," I replied succinctly and just a bit queasily.
"Well then," he observed, "I'll pull him off of you if it gets too bad."
I suppose I should have found this reassuring but it only added to my growing angst.
Circling the square around the Anson courthouse, we saw several pickups—the Anson cowboys' vehicle of choice—parked in front of a pool hall. Summoning up all the macho I could muster, I got out of the car and walked in along with Jerry Wayne. Talk about feeling like Daniel in the lion's den—the pool hall was full of good ol' Anson boys in their Stetsons and boots. Among them, in all his rawboned glory, was Big Mike.
"Let's go the country, Holloway, we've got a score to settle," I declared.
"Well, by God, let's just settle it right here!"
"No, I don't want the cops to come again. You drive to some place out in the country and I'll follow you."
"Well, by God, let's go then," he blurted with far too much enthusiasm and assurance for my taste.
Jerry Wayne and I got back into John Ed's '62 Olds and we followed the caravan of pickups out to some isolated cow pasture. To my escalating consternation, the moment of truth had arrived. I had a sinking feeling I'd stepped on my dick big time.
Holloway and I squared off in a clearing and jawed back and forth for a few minutes. Conversation not being his long suit, Big Mike got down to business and struck the first blow. It was a roundhouse right that caught me square on my left jaw. Damn, he could punch! I would find out later that he'd knocked the fillings out of two of my teeth. Straight up—no jive.
Bad as it was, the blow that really devastated me was still to come. Holloway knew how to fight—I knew squat. The last fist fight I'd had was in the third grade. Plus, he had a good six-inch reach advantage. My only tactic was just to wade into him, taking three licks for every one I landed. One of his punches caught me in my right eye. It drove my eyeball back into its socket, rupturing the eye muscles. Due to the subsequent bleeding and muscle damage, I couldn't move that eye—it was frozen in place, which caused double vision. Swell. I was having a hard enough time hitting Holloway when I could see him. Now I couldn't tell which image to swing at. It was almost cartoonish but I sure as hell wasn't laughing.
Jerry Wayne would tell me later that Holloway and I went at it like this for around ten minutes. That's like three rounds of boxing with no breaks between rounds. Although my adrenaline was gushing at flood tide, I was beginning to feel the fatigue. I expect Holloway was getting tired as well. I'm sure he was frustrated that he couldn't knock me down. For whatever it's worth, I found out that day that I can definitely take a punch. That was the good news. The bad news was that it prolonged the beating I was getting. Exhausted and aggravated that he hadn't put me away, Big Mike finally just grabbed me and wrestled me to the ground.
I knew his intention was to sit on top of me and pummel my face to pulp. As soon as we hit the ground, I rolled over on my stomach to deny him his intended target. He commenced to pound the hell out of the back of my head. I remember clearly holding two thoughts at the time: how good it felt to rest and catch my breath, and how his fists weren't hurting the back of my head. After a minute or so of flailing away, I noticed that Big Mike's blows were diminishing in power. He was punching himself out. What I'd inadvertently invented was the rope-a-dope defense that Mohammed Ali would later plagiarize in his fight with George Foreman.
Now rested and refreshed, I waited until Big Mike's licks were coming less frequently and with less clout. Picking my moment, I raised myself up on my left elbow, and swung my right elbow around catching Holloway right on the nose. Busted him good. My blow knocked him off of me and then we both got to our feet and squared off again about six feet apart. Our dukes were up but our spunk was down. Although Big Mike had clearly come out on the long end of our set-to, he was as spent as I was and we were both bleeding about the face. Neither of us made a move toward the other.
Just then, to my great relief, John Ed said, "Alright, that's enough—just quit. You had your shot. You can't whip Holloway. Let's go to the house."
I said to Holloway, "I'm ready to quit if you are."
He responded, "Hell, Kennedy, you started it. You called me out—I was just obliging you."
In true West Texas fashion, I walked toward him with my hand extended. He did the same and we shook hands like the good ol' West Texas boys we were. It had been a clean fight. Brutal, but clean. No kicking in the nuts, or scratching or clawing or biting. I respected Big Mike for that. I was leaving the field of battle with my honor intact and my face mangled. I had obtained justice of the West Texas variety.
Remember the prick who had offered me the unsolicited advice after the original altercation the previous Friday night? Well, he had been there to relish the entire spectacle and he couldn't wait to say I told you so. Just after Big Mike and I shook hands, he ran up to me and brayed, "I told you not to come back over here, didn't I? I told you that you'd get your ass kicked. How 'bout that Holloway!"
"How 'bout you shut your fuckin' mouth," John Ed retorted. "If you and all your cowboy buddies ain't seen enough fightin' for one day, I can sure as hell provide you some more entertainment. How'd you like a little taste?"
Shocked and visibly shaken, the prick backpedaled about thirty feet and said, "I ain't about to fight you. I know your reputation (John Ed had whipped the guy reputed to be the toughest man in Anson about a year before). But Cox (another Anson tough guy) is here. I bet he'd fight you."
John Ed slowly removed his glasses, took his Chesterfields out of his shirt pocket, handed them both to Jerry Wayne, and said, "I don't give a good damn who it is! Bring 'em on!"
At this point Cox and the rest of the Anson cowboys—wanting no part of John Ed—hopped in their pickups and took flight, raising clouds of red dust as they bolted out of the cow pasture. For us Stamford cats it was a moral victory of sorts.
John Ed walked over, opened his car trunk and opened a Styrofoam chest full of iced- down Coors. He handed Jerry Wayne and me each a bottle, took one for himself and slid in behind the steering wheel. Instead of opening my beer I placed it up against my right eye which was really beginning to hurt. I kept it there for the whole twenty minute ride back to Stamford.
En route John Ed told me, "Well, I'll say this for you, son—you got balls. But you don't know how to fight worth a damn. It's alright to duck once in a while."
So now he tells me....
We'd just driven into Stamford when the nausea hit me. "Pull over," I told John Ed. We were right in front of the Cashway grocery store at the time and he whipped the Olds into their parking lot. I opened the car door and unceremoniously puked my guts out.
We dropped Jerry Wayne off at his house and went back to ours. John Ed told me to take a hot bath and some aspirin and then lie down for a while. He left to go drink beer with his buddies. After about an hour John Ed came back to check on me. I was lying on my bed writhing in pain. My eye was killing me. Looking at it, he noticed that my right pupil was completely dilated. He decided it was time to go the hospital.
Stamford had four doctors and the one on call that day was Dr. Pryor, a very urbane, sophisticated gentleman who, I expect, looked with disdain and condescension on the plebeians he was obliged to care for. The first thing he noticed was the total dilation of my right pupil. "How did this happen?”
"I've was scufflin'.”
"Yeah, well it looks like somebody scuffled all over your face," he observed sarcastically. "Nurse, admit this boy immediately."
I subsequently learned that a dilated pupil can be an indication of a concussion. After checking me out, he found that I didn't, in fact, have a concussion, but that my right eye was severely injured. They put me in a hospital room and I vomited some more—so much so that I became dehydrated. I remember the nurses having a hell of a time finding a vein to start a glucose drip, and how embarrassed and apologetic they were. John Ed had called my girlfriend and she and her dad came to the hospital that night. She just laid her head on my chest and sobbed. I felt like a total asshole for putting her through this. I didn't have the heart to tell her that night that the genesis of this whole sorry episode was my lying to her about going to the smorgasbord at the Swede church with Jerry Wayne the previous Friday night.
I felt much better the next day, but I still couldn't move my eye. Dr. Pryor came in once a day, moved his index finger from side to side and told me to follow it with my right eye. That was the only "therapy" I was receiving. The doc and the hospital were just keeping me there to milk the insurance money. By Wednesday I'd had a gut full of this nonsense, got dressed and walked out. Didn't tell any of the hospital staff, I just split.
As fate would have it, the following Monday we were having a Southern Schools Assembly program. These programs featured various traveling acts such as gymnasts that performed in schools throughout Texas and the South. One of my duties as president of the student body was to introduce these programs which were held in our high school auditorium. I walked out on stage that morning from the audience's right side, which meant that my right eye wasn't visible to them. The whole student body—hell, the whole town—knew by now about the fight. To show their appreciation for my having stood up the big ol' boy from Anson, the students gave me a rousing ovation as I walked on stage. When I turned at center stage to face them, they saw my eye—an eye that contained no white and no iris, only blood red and black pupil. They leaped to their feet applauding. Only standing ovation I've ever had and I felt absolutely exuberant.
A new word was about to enter my vocabulary: ophthalmologist. Dr. Pryor had advised my dad that I'd need to go to Abilene to see Dr. Nystrom, an eye specialist. My dad drove me over to my appointment the next week and Dr. Nystrom examined my right eye thoroughly. After he'd finished the exam and read the X-rays he asked my dad and me to come into his office. "Son, the muscles that control the movement of your right eye are severely damaged," Dr. Nystrom told me. "You'll never have normal peripheral vision again unless they're surgically repaired."
Having already contemplated this possible eventuality, I asked Dr. Nystrom one question: "Will this eye injury keep me out of Vietnam?"
"Why, sure, son, you're legally visually impaired. The army won't take you as you are."
I turned to my dad and said, "OK, let's go."
Incredulous, my dad said, "Dr. Nystrom just told you that you'll never have normal peripheral vision again unless you have surgery."
"Yeah, and he also told me I wouldn't have to go to Nam if I don't. End of discussion. We're outta here."
My dad just looked at Dr. Nystrom, shrugged, and said, "Well, what the hell. It's his eye."
Trust me on this, dear reader, it was one of the happiest days of my life. Even as early as '66, young American men knew that a tour in Vietnam was tantamount to a death sentence or, at the least, getting maimed. I now had my Ace in the hole, irrespective of whatever cards Uncle Sam was holding. I was damaged goods but I'd never felt more whole.
Besides, I quickly adapted to my visual impairment. I learned that I'd now have to turn my head further than previously to compensate from my lack of lateral eye movement. Piece o' cake. And when shaving, I'd have to close one eye when trimming my sideburns or I'd see two of them. Big deal. What a small price to pay for the rock-solid assurance that I'd never have to go and get shot up for nothing in that wretched God-awful war.
Blessings truly can flow from adversity. God really does work in mysterious ways.
Thank you, Jerry Wayne. I owe you one, John Ed. God bless you, Big Mike.