If you watched any news this past week, “punchable face,” “smirk,” and “kid” will all be familiar terms. But in case you’ve been busy with other things like, say, making a living, here’s a crude recap:
1. Covington (Kentucky) Catholic High School kids were excoriated in the press for (a) wearing MAGA (Make America Great Again) hats and for supposedly (b) harassing a “frail Native American elder and Vietnam veteran” with nasty “smirks.” One boy in particular was singled out for his “arrogant” expression.
2. Said press later had to eat its words as it turned out the high schoolers were the ones being harassed, first by a militant black group who called the kids all sorts of vile names and then by Native American Nathan Phillips–who had approached the students, not the other way around, and loudly chanted/sung in the boy’s face (and told him to go back to Europe, among other things) while beating on his drum, hoping to provoke the youngster into doing something stupid.
3. The boy in question (Google “Covington kids” to find numerous articles and Google Images) was later interviewed in depth by a rather hostile journalist. He (the student) answered every question thoughtfully, not being aggressive but standing his ground as he’d stood his ground in front of the drum-banger. He (student) had made the conscious decision to keep his cool during the confrontation and had simply stood there, smiling, as the least offensive response he could come up with short of backing away in cowardice. But he’d been scared, knowing himself to be a seventeen year old confronted by a group of adults. At the time, he simply did not know what might happen next.
4. Thanks to the early rush to judgment by so many in the media and our present day speed-of-light Internet, the high school kids have received thousands of threatening messages, including death threats. One TV celebrity described the smiling boy in the confrontation photo this way: “Isn’t that the most punchable face you’ve ever seen?” The high school administration even decided to close the school for a while. An experienced lawyer is representing the kids now, intending to file lawsuits against the most egregious of those who defamed his clients. Whether or not his suits will succeed, only time will tell.
That’s the background, which any ten minutes on the Net can tell you, but why did I decide to write about it, one quiet voice among ten thousand screamers?
Well, it’s this way…odd as it may seem, I was seventeen once. And I got my punchable face punched in circumstances that, to me at least, seem uncannily parallel to those of the Covington, Kentucky boy. It happened like this….
Early January, 1961, Philipsburg, Montana Busted down from A team to B team on our Drummond, Montana, high school basketball squad, I was a tad irritated at having been left behind when the traveling squad headed to the Bitterroot Valley for a game against dreaded Corvallis. But it was Friday night and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste. My parents were hardly surprised when I shaved the few wispy whiskers from my baby face, slicked my pre-baldness blond hair into girl-catching form, fired up my 1952 Chevy, and headed for the ‘Burg. The county seat was bigger than Drummond, nearly a thousand people comprising what to me was a city. Most importantly, the girls there didn’t all know me and my chances were way better than in my home town.
Philipsburg was our #1 rival, so naturally, being the genius that I am, I made sure to wear my Drummond letterman’s sweater. That alone made me punchable on sight, but hey. Live dangerously.
It was early when I reached town, but I found a local friend, Darrell, and he found us a six-pack of beer. No, wait. He said he could find us a six-pack, but an hour later the dance was starting and he hadn’t found a buyer yet. That was the gig in those days: If you were underage and wanted to drink, you found a willing older guy who could buy the stuff for you. Most of the time, the buyer didn’t even charge a commission.
Thus it was that we went to the school dance sober, a revolting situation which was about to escalate exponentially.
My letterman’s sweater was to Philpsburg youth as MAGA hats (Make America Great Again) are to progressive Democrat activists, yet oddly enough, it was the smile that got me into trouble. I did not yet know that Darrell was rather disliked by a whole bunch of folks, but I was about to find out. We were standing there, doing nothing much, minding our own business, when a burly dude walked over and got into Darrell’s face. This guy was older, not Nathan Phillips older, but obviously well out of high school. Around five-eight or five-nine, an estimated 180 lbs. of solid muscle and bad attitude. Darrell and I both stood around five-ten at that time but neither of us weighed more than 130. We were built long and fence-rail thin. New Guy–Leo, as it turned out–was chewing Darrell a new one and Darrell, having far more common sense than I did, was taking it quietly.
Me? I smirked. Not intentionally. Had I thought what I was doing could have been taken as a smirk, I would have been horrified. But I did have a small smile on my face. Leo finally noticed that smile. It did not set well with him. Did not offer up the cowed, submissive, “Yes, my lord!” he expected from skinny young wimps like us.
So naturally he called me out. I obviously had the more punchable face and Leo obviously felt the need to punch a face. Anybody’s face would do. I had won the face-punchee lottery.
So outside we went, me knowing full well I was about to get the short end of a very large stick, but what can you do? I’d just the past year conquered my overwhelming terror of fistfights (back then we did use mostly fists) and couldn’t in any way afford to let my reputation slide back toward Cowardice rating. I shucked my cool blue sweater, handed it to Darrell, and squared off with Leo for all the good it would do me.
Providence intervened then in the form of Jerry, another Philipsburg guy but one more to my taste. Jerry had been wanting a piece of me for at least six months. I had no idea why; he’d just set his heart on pounding my punchable face and that was that. Or maybe I’d danced with a girl he fancied. Who knew? The point was, he jumped in, begged Leo to let him pound me to mush, and wonder of wonders, Leo acquiesced. In retrospect, it made sense; a fighter like Leo could gain nothing from dropping me. He was twenty-three, had grown up fighting with a bunch of brothers, and (get this) was a former Marine to boot.
Jerry, I believe only fifteen at the time, stood maybe five-six, weighed around 125, and was pretty cotton-picking quick. When I tried boxing with him, he landed one punch that produced a faint mark on one cheek. But I’m not a complete idiot (though reading this, some might argue that point). When I realized finesse wasn’t working, I simply dropped my hands and went to slugging. Dropped him.
He was on hands and knees, shaking his head, when Leo stepped back in. But at least I’d had a warm-up, right?
Yeah, right. Leo planted a hook squarely in my gut. I let out a yell like I’d been killed and went down, hurting a little but faking it all the way. When I hit the grass, I stayed there…but there was a problem. Fighters who’ve really been around know when you’re playing possum. Leo knew full well what I was doing, I knew he knew, and he knew I knew he knew. Or something like that.
Fortunately, nobody else was so discerning.
Leo kicked me in the ribs a couple of times. Not hard, not trying to break bones–which he could have easily done if he’d felt he was in a real fight–but just trying to inspire me to get back to my feet so he could knock me down again. He nearly succeeded. I was seriously contemplating my options. The only thing that saved me from going for it was the line of bigger, meaner looking kids begging Leo to back off and let them take over because after all, Leo was an adult and I was underage.
So I stayed down another few seconds until Leo backed off, told me to get up and get out of town. I got up and got out, wondering sourly if I was going to have to do this all over again. Because no way was I going to let things slide if Philipsburg started talking about me lacking courage. I’d been through enough of that; never again.
The following weekend, back to the ‘Burg I went, my only concession to reason being the jacket I wore. The Drummond sweater stayed home. When I got to town, I looked up kids I was more or less friends with, including Darrell. To my astonishment (and relief), I was informed that in Philipsburg, the consensus was that I had “…more guts than common sense.”
I could live with that.
The story wasn’t quite done, though. One month later, a deputy sheriff stopped me in Drummond. My folder of girls’ pictures (a lot of us owned those back in the day) had been found under a truck where somebody had been stealing gas. The lawman really thought he had me on that one. You can tell. But I fired right back, informing him that the little wallet thingie had fallen out of my shirt pocket during the fight and had obviously been planted. Fortunately, there’d been a dance at the Drummond school the night after the Philipsburg scuffle and I’d told several of my classmates about losing the pictures. Defeated and clearly disappointed–lawmen seem to pout a lot when they think they have a bust and it gets away–he gave me back my pictures and that was that.
But the lesson remained: If you stand your ground and smile at somebody who’s spoiling for a fight, that somebody is going to react. If you look like you might be potentially lethal, the aggressor may think twice, wondering what he’s getting himself into. But if you’re a slender seventeen year old kid with a baby face and a natural look of innocence who simply can’t think of a better stance to take, you’re likely to be attacked as supposedly helpless prey.
Whether you’re wearing a blue letterman’s sweater from a rival town in 1961 or a MAGA hat from the President of the United States in 2019.