We had a target range in the basement of our Chevy Chase home for BB rifles and pistols Dad bought Chip and me. Dad marked off the distance where we should stand and gave us a safety lesson that included never pointing a loaded gun at anything living.
Chip and I spent many hours shooting at thick paper targets with a bull’s eye marked on it with ever widening circles to the end of the target. One day Chip teased me so hard about not being as good a shot as he, “Stop teasing or I’ll quit,” I said.
“You’re a sissy, can’t beat me, and want to leave like a baby.”
“I’m not a sissy. Don’t call me that.”
“You’re a sissy. What are you going to do about it?”
“Don’t ever call me a sissy again.”
“You’re a sissy. Danny is a sissy. What are you going to do about it?”
“Maybe I’ll shoot you if you keep it up.”
“You better not or Dad will take your pistol away, sissy.” Chip grabbed my BB pistol from my hand but I had too good a grip for him to take it.
“Get your hands off my pistol or I'll shoot.”
“You wouldn’t. You're chicken.”
“Get your hands off I said.”
“Sissy Chicken. Sissy Chicken.”
His unbelieving eyes and shocked expression met mine and I ran upstairs to escape retaliation. A small BB lodged in Chip’s hand. Silently, he came upstairs, tended his wound with iodine, and put a Band-Aid on the surface scratch that had made its point. He realized he went over the line with me. I was taught not point the gun at any person and was embarrassed by my loss of control. For the first time I had asserted myself against Chip when he acted like a bully. That opportunity never occurred before nor did I ever have in my power such an opportunity. Scary what a gun in a boy’s hands can do. Dad removed the BB guns to penalize us.
Our cousins Lew, Phil and Nance Groebe, visited us the next week during summer when their parents drove them from Chicago. Dad rented a large cabin in a private community called Scientist’s Cliffs on Chesapeake Bay an hour and a half away.
A community house, swimming pool, tennis courts, fishing, athletic fields, parkland, and community gardens were there for us to enjoy. Scientists' Cliffs comprise 276 acres of the Calvert Cliffs, which rim 25 miles of the Chesapeake Bay's western shore. Towering up to 130 feet above water level, the Cliffs contained exposed marine fossil deposits from the Miocene period, when the area and much of Maryland was covered by a shallow sea. We swam, fished, found prehistoric shark's teeth, and played with other vacationers as well as the locals. I brought my baseball glove, bat, a football, and a few balls to play catch.
While on a short hike exploring I noticed older kids playing a softball game. After awhile I asked a boy close to my age, “Do you need any good players?”
“Sure. My name is Tommy. What position do you play?”
“Any position you need.”
My new friend introduced me to his teammates saying, “This guy Danny can play softball good.”
The captain looked at me with my bat and glove. “Danny, play left field. You bat fifth up after Tommy.” When the other team took the field, their pitcher whipped fast underhand pitches warming up trying to intimidate us as the sunshine glinted off the fresh cut grass at noon with its fresh smell. They wore orange, black, and yellow Baltimore Oriole hats and were in the fifth grade—I was in fourth and wore a pin-striped Washington Senator’s cap with a large "W" on the front. As I came up with two outs and two on base, their huge first baseman with pot-belly teased, “The Senators suck.” I hid my enmity, but was distracted.
“Ball one,” said the ump as the ball whizzed by me high.
Remembering Sam Mele’s coaching, “Always be ready for the first good pitch,” my eyes glued on the next one that came down the middle. SMACK! My line-drive went over the shortstop’s head in the gap between the outfielders driving in two runs and I slid smiling into second in a cloud of dust with a double.
After an hour the game ended. Contributing to his team’s victory with a few hits and running catches of hard hit fly balls that could have been home runs, I was glad they thanked me for joining them. Although the Orioles were a minor league team, it made no sense to rag kids who looked up to them.
“Do you know how to box?” Tommy said after the game.
“Sure, my Dad taught me to box my older brother.”
“Boxing is my favorite sport. Come over to my house and box a round. I have the gloves for both of us.”
Looking at him again a little worried he might knock me out, “I really haven’t boxed for years.”
“I’ll show you how to box for fun.”
He was a good athlete, a little bigger, older, and stronger, but I thought maybe it would be fun. “OK show me.”
“I’ve taught lots of kids to box because my Dad taught me how to defend myself. I box in competitions.”
These words frightened me even more. Not wanting him to think I was a chicken, I could not back down. We walked to his house where he took me to his room. “Head gear will protect you and the gloves are soft,” he said handing them to me.
“Yeah, they are soft.”
“Put on your head gear and follow me to a ring my Dad fixed in the back yard.” My heart pounded as he was a serious trained boxer about to pound me.
“OK Danny, stand there in that corner and I'll start here in my corner. When I ring the bell we have three minutes to box and then the bell will ring stopping the round. Return to your corner when you hear the bell.”
“Aren’t you going to teach me to box first?”
“Come on Danny. The best way to see what you need is to watch you box. After that I’ll teach you how to improve.” DONG rang the starting bell and out he charged at me eyes bulging with confidence like a bull-dog to a poodle. Holding my boxing gloves up in a defensive stance, I was determined to give him a good fight. He jabbed me twice with his left hand that I warded off. I threw a hard punch at him that he ducked and swung a mighty upper cut that caught my chin sending sweat and saliva in the air. CRACK…. Stars burst in my head and my body crumpled to the ground—head throbbing and mind spinning. No one had ever hit me so hard in the face. The gloves seemed to have added power to the blow, but at least there was no trace of blood, just hurt, watching from below.
“I can’t box you. I haven’t learned to defend myself.”
“Don’t give up. You need to protect your chin and face from any punch wherever it comes from. Get up.”
“Don’t punch me again like that. You knocked me out.”
“I always knock out anyone who fights me. Then I teach them to box. Don’t you want to learn?”
“Yeah,” came out my sore mouth. BLAM and down my body fell from a punch that landed on the right side of my face from a “hay-maker.” As I got up he attacked tenaciously with his left fist against my left cheek smashing it against my nose. My head was reeling. Dizzy and sweating, blood dripped from my nose into my mouth. I struggled to rise and charged him like a football player would before tackling someone. He dodged and hit me on the side of my head with another brutal punch, but the head gear cushioned the blow and then the bell rang. We sat in opposite corners. Heavy breathing and sweating revealed I was a fish out of water.
After a minute the bell started the next round. Staggering, I came at him again jabbing with my left. He blocked each whack and pummeled me with two heavy blows to the forehead. Back-peddling, I led with a hard right when he approached. He backed off long enough for me lunge and I socked him hard on the side of his face, SMACK...that made him smile. He enjoyed pain! The bell finally rang. Feeling hurt in many places, sweating profusely, and red-faced, I was unsteady and bewildered. It seemed like we had been fighting for fifteen minutes, not six. “You’re the best boxer I ever met. I need to rest.”
“Get some water and in a minute we’ll go another round.”
The battle taught me to have a healthy respect for boxing, but I was so over-matched it would have been foolish to let him pummel me anymore. “My Dad allowed me two hours to play softball and I've been gone three. Thanks for showing me how to box. Can you ever hit hard!”
“OK, but you should practice and learn to defend yourself.”
Glad to have survived a boxing test as a 10 year old subjected to teasing, but not clouts to the face that brought blood, I was left with a splitting headache. Tommy used my face as a target pulverizing me relentlessly. Was life punishing me for shooting Chip with a BB pistol? Does Karma balance the cruelty in the world? Tommy was a brute I had no intention of emulating. His depraved smirk when my right fist connected with his face revealed the savage inside one could feed or reject for a compassionate life Grandma Ruthie taught. "One reaps what they sow," she often said.
When I returned to our rental, Lew and Phil were taunting Chip about his interest in a girl they called, “Red Mouth,” causing him to blush and feel victimized.
“Chip, I'm sorry I shot you with a BB,” I said with a smile.
“Let's play catch,” he said, grabbing a football grinning.
Lew and Phil joined as we threw friendly spirals to each other. “Sammy Baugh throws another Redskin's TD,”I said when Chip caught my pass. He spun around and fired one to Lew.
Snagging the pigskin, he turned and connected with Duke, “Johnny Lujack hits Ed Sprinkle and the Bears win the game,” he said as Phil sped under it. Camaraderie between cousins replaced petty tension when deflected.
“Come and get it,” said Dad ten minutes later. He and Uncle Lewis had prepared a BBQ and planned an evening of magic tricks and card games. We joined them, Val, and cousin Nance as they served ribs, steaks, corn-on-the-cob from the grill, and a salad. It was good to return to civilization.