"Hansen, on the last day of school you're going to get yours!" uttered a just-released-from-custody juvenile delinquent.
In today's world, school bullying seems to be making newspaper headlines as a top social concern. But back in 1957, getting harassed and threatened by jerks was a rite of passage.
I was in the sixth grade in Long Beach. The Lakewood suburb was a blue-collar neighborhood where incomes were primarily derived from aircraft assembly-line work. Kids grew up imitating James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause."
Our "duck" haircuts and our genuine imitation leather jackets with the collars turned up tried to model the actor's on-screen character.
I remember one day when the teacher asked what our parents did for a living. For the most part, mothers stayed home and worked in traditional roles. I was the only kid in class whose parents had graduated from college. Most of the others worked in the aircraft plants. One girl's father was a car salesman.
Not being too familiar with the cultural dynamics of this industrial town, it was quite a surprise when the two bullies accosted me. I knew nothing about self-defense, and was afraid these guys would follow through on their terrorizing threats.
I had a friend in the eighth grade who knew the ways of the street. I asked for help, but he just looked at me curiously and said, "Everyone needs to stand up and fight his own battles."
I was one of the two tallest kids in the class, but inside I felt three feet high. My primary defense was avoidance.
I asked my parents if they would pick me up on the last day of school, but they refused. After all, Patrick Henry Elementary was only three blocks away. I didn't want to admit to them that I was a coward. Going to the school authorities would not only have been the act of a wimp, but most likely would have been ignored anyway. Retribution could follow. I managed to get home safely by helping a teacher in his classroom who, in return, gave me a ride.
My father, a WWII veteran, somehow sensed the situation and, surprisingly, took me to meet a friend of his in China Lake. Bob was a Marine who spent his earlier years in a boxing ring. After several hours of training and advice, the man gave me the confidence I needed to survive the streets of Long Beach.
He taught me that physical fighting is the last thing that one with any brains should do in the real world. However, one must be prepared to handle any situation that may arise. Bob emphasized the importance of learning defensive techniques and practicing these moves not just a few times, but thousands of times in various situations.
"Stopping intimidation must be your primary objective when dealing with street punks," he said. "That doesn't mean putting up your dukes in every case, but instead using your head to figure out the best way to take control of a conflict. You don't want to go to prison over something you couldn't care less about in an hour, a week or a year later."
Bob's training and advice gave me the self-assurance I needed to survive my adolescent years. Ironically, because of that confidence, the education I received was never needed in an actual situation.
Today, when I hear the politically correct tell victims of bullying that they should tell someone in authority to solve individual relationship problems, I question that policy. Perhaps my eighth-grade friend was right when he said we all need to learn to fight our own battles. (Incidentally, he must have prospered from that philosophy, because later in life he earned the admiration of his fellow workers by becoming a union boss.)
As this experience taught me, I just don't believe that hiding behind mama, the teacher's skirts, or crying to the ACLU does anything for one's self-respect or gains the positive acceptance of one's peers.
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.