One day in my junior year of high school, I discovered that my stomach muscles were unusually strong. Here’s how I found this out:
Jamie, whose locker was a couple down from mine, came into the locker room, grabbed me by the shirt, slammed me up against my locker, and punched me in the stomach.
I don’t think Jamie was angry at me when he did that, at least not especially so. He just felt like punching somebody, and there I was.
I had been punched in the gut once or twice before, and a couple other times had been hit there accidentally. The effect was always the same: it doubled me over in agony, unable to breathe for a moment or two. We called it, “having the wind knocked out of you.”
It was very scary the first time, until I realized I wasn’t going to suffocate, and every time it was painful.
But what happened that day was completely new, and it wasn’t clear who was more shocked by it, Jamie or me.
Somehow I knew what was coming when he grabbed me, and in the split second as he was shoving me against the locker door, managed to tense up my stomach muscles. When the punch came, his big fist bounced off my hardened belly.
“Jesus Christ,” Jamie said. “What’s this?” He frowned thoughtfully behind his thick glasses, and then, deciding to take a scientific, experimental tack, calmly punched me a second time, harder.
My head and back thumped against the steel door, but his fist again bounced off my belly. My stomach hurt, of course, but I could still breathe, and stand. Jamie had not knocked the wind out of me. He shrugged and turned away. I had, in a limited but important sense, defeated him, at least for the moment.
Who knows how my stomach muscles got so hard? I wasn’t athletic, and had done no sit-ups or other special exercises. But I realized at once that if it could get that hard again, my sore belly could be an important survival tool.
Jamie and I were cadets at St. Joseph’s, a Catholic military boarding school in western Kansas. It was 1959. At St. Joseph’s we went to church three times on Sunday, and twice every other day. We wore ROTC uniforms and marched wherever we went outside the building. Despite all this, I liked it there. Why I liked it is a long story, having mainly to do with being from a large Catholic, military family and wanting to get away from home. St. Joseph’s was also Catholic and military; but it was far away from home, and that was enough for me.
Here I am in my SJMA uniform, 1958 in Hays, Kansas, a beardless youth.
Or at least, it would have been if I could figure out how to keep away from Jamie. He was no taller than me, but weighed about twice as much, most of which was muscle. Rough-looking, with pimples and thick glasses, he was well-muscled, and he swaggered. He claimed to be a black belt in karate, and to have been in all kinds of rumbles and fights back home. I could believe this, although I also knew he bragged a lot.
But what really surprised me was that he also insisted he was an Eagle Scout. Maybe he was just bragging about that too; but I didn’t doubt it then. I just puzzled over how he had fooled the scout leaders. How did he get them to see him as a person of upright character and all the other nice guy stuff that supposedly goes into achieving that highest scouting rank?
Anyway, Eagle Scout or no, Jamie was a bully. More than a bully, really. That year I had begun reading some psychology books, and soon decided he was more like a psychopath, or maybe a sociopath, the kind of person who would kill somebody and never give it a second thought. He talked that way, and treated me and others that way too.
Actually, I didn’t think he might kill me, because he didn’t take me seriously enough. The gut punches were, for him, just fooling around. Even so, except for when I had to be at my locker, I gave him a wide berth, and he mostly ignored me.
My buddy Leroy was a different matter. Leroy’s locker was a couple down from mine, farther away from Jamie’s. He and I were buddies for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones was that we were among the few non-Catholic cadets at St. Joseph’s. This was no big deal for Leroy–he had been raised Protestant and never gave it much thought. But it was a big deal for me, especially because it was very new: my family was Catholic, and one reason I had been sent to St. Joseph’s was because there was no Catholic school near where my family lived.
But that year, besides reading psychology, I had also been plowing through some philosophy books, and soon realized I didn’t believe all this Catholic stuff they had taught me since before I started school. I decided I was probably an atheist, or at the least an agnostic.
I wasn’t ashamed of my new lack of faith; in fact, I often debated with other students about God, Jesus, miracles, hell, all that stuff. The arguments were fun, but at the same time, this was very much a minority outlook at St. Joseph’s. So I was anxious to find some comrades, somebody, anybody I could speak plainly with, and Leroy was one of the main ones.
Leroy was tall, with a handsome face and dark hair which he frequently slicked back with a pocket comb, which was a cool thing to do in those days. And like Jamie, he bragged a lot. He bragged about what a Romeo he was. He bragged about being a musician. And he also bragged about being tough, a fighter.
Maybe he was a Romeo; you could never be sure about that at our isolated all-boy’s school; and he was something of a musician, playing the saxophone quite seriously. But as far as being a fighter–well, that was mostly in his head. The fact was that Leroy was rail thin, and when he took off his shirt, there were huge patches of scar tissue all over his skinny chest. He had been severely burned as a child, and skin had been taken for grafts on his face and neck. I think the aftermath of those burns had also kept him physically weak.
Just the same, Leroy talked as if he was a veteran of all sorts of physical combat, in which he had kicked butt left and right. And he often swore he’d beat up anybody who tried to mess with him right here at St. Joseph’s. But the truth was that if it came to a fight, I could probably have beaten him myself, and I was no fighter.
None of this bothered me, because we were buddies; and it didn’t seem to bother most other cadets either, because it was easy to see that Leroy lacked the equipment to back up his bluster.
But everything about Leroy seemed to irritate Jamie. I often thought about this. Was it Leroy’s smooth-skinned good looks, at least above his shoulders, that made Jamie jealous? Or maybe his bragging just brought out Jamie’s meanest streak.
Whatever it was – I only know what I saw: The more Leroy talked, the more ticked off Jamie got. And it didn’t take long to figure out that this meant trouble.
But Jamie and his big fists were not all I thought about then. As the year at St. Joseph’s unfolded, I learned many things, and had my share of fun. Much of this was shared with Leroy, because our outsider status increasingly threw us together.
For one thing, while girls were mostly distant figures, they weren’t completely out of reach. In town there was a Girls Catholic High School, where the students all wore identical billowing blue dresses, and as time passed we each developed crushes on one or another of them. I admired a girl named Sue Ellen, mostly from afar.
Leroy did better. Because St. Joseph’s didn’t have a band, he was allowed to go into town regularly to play in the local high school band. There he found a girl named Joann, and actually managed to have a few dates with her. He swore they also did some serious making out – but I wasn’t so sure about that.
Then there was music. For Christmas my parents sent me a small portable record player, and I managed to get a single earphone connected to it. On it I played some big classical LP records I bought at a local supermarket for ninety-nine cents. The earphone was tiny, and clipped over one ear. The sound was very tinny. But to me, tinny Mozart in one ear, was better than no Mozart at all. (I would stand by that view today.)
Leroy put up with my Mozart and Beethoven, but never quit trying to convince me that modern jazz, especially the music of Stan Kenton, was the greatest stuff ever written. I heard him out, but stuck stubbornly to my classical convictions.
By the time the snow melted and the leaves were returning, Leroy and I often took long walks in our limited free time, across the dark plowed fields next to the school grounds to the wooded creek beyond it, talking as always about all sorts of things. We chattered and argued about music, girls, and even religion, because I kept reading new books that raised new problems with various beliefs I had earlier taken for granted.
Before long we also talked about how all this reading was getting me in trouble with the priests who ran the school. They could put up with a few quiet Protestants around, but somebody like me, who had loudly abandoned their Catholic faith, was a real problem. In fact, we soon heard out that one of the cadets I had argued with had reported me to Father Thomas More, the Director of Student Life. I think my unbelieving notions scared him, as if they were a kind of virus and might be catching. And maybe he was right. In any case, the goal of St. Joseph’s was to turn out good Catholics, not good atheists, and that’s what I thought I was becoming. So one of these days, I announced, the priests would be coming after me.
Leroy said he’d stand with me when they did, and he was as good as his word. One Friday afternoon we had to see Father Thomas More to get permission to go into town after class. Fr. T-More (as we called him), turned us down flat. Leroy’s grades, he said, were not good enough.
We knew there was more to it; for one thing, my grades were excellent It was Leroy who lit the fuse: “Was there anything else, Father?” he asked.
“Yes!” Father T-More almost shouted. He turned to face me, eyes blazing, and said they were disgusted by my disloyal debates with other cadets.
“It takes more humility than that to get into heaven, Fager,” he cried, and then preached at me for what felt like an hour.
I stood still, staring back at him the whole time, saying nothing, denying nothing. This was an important moment in my life: confronting the Church which had raised me, and declaring my independence of it, even if only by my silence. And Leroy stood there beside me, echoing my quiet defiance the whole time. It’s not a small thing to stand with a friend who’s being told he’s going to hell, and I was grateful for that.
But what would happen next, I wanted to know. Soon a rumor circulated that they were planning to expel me from the school. Would they really do that? I still wanted to come back the next year and graduate from St. Joseph’s; I had more independence there than at home, and didn’t want to give that up. I had even ordered a school ring, gold with a red garnet stone. Would the priests send me packing, and tell my parents their son was a vocal atheist? What would my mother, who was very religious, do to me if they did?
Leroy and I talked about this a lot on our walks. And he had an idea: “Don’t be a chicken about it,” he challenged. “Walk right in there and ask them. You’re not afraid of the priests, are you?”
Well in a way, yes; but in another way, no. So one afternoon I took his advice and went into the office of Father Augustus, the school’s President, and put it to him straight.
Father Augustus smiled kindly at me. “Oh no,” he said reassuringly, “nothing like that has been proposed. We haven’t even talked about such things.”
The main building at St. Joseph’s, circa 1959. It wasn’t quite this grey, but it’s an old picture. The president’s office was just to the left of the main door in the center.
That made me feel better, and I was happy to go back to my tinny Mozart, and friendly arguments with Leroy about jazz versus classical, if God existed or not, and whether he really did make out with his girlfriend in town. We talked, and walked.
As the weeks went on, we also talked a lot about Jamie. The current of antagonism between him and Leroy was rising, as surely as the creek after the spring rains. The tension level when they were both in the locker room was palpable. What were we going to do about that? What could we do? What could I do?
Jamie had tried his belly-busting punches on me a couple more times, probably just to see what would happen. Once he even called over a couple other big guys from a few locker rows away, to take their turns at this abdominal novelty. All the punches hurt, but none of them could knock the wind out of me; I still can’t imagine why. But I had had enough. After that, the next time Jamie grabbed me, I mustered all my courage and pushed him away.
“Stop it!” I shouted. “If you’re gonna beat me up, then go ahead and do it. You know I couldn’t stop you. But otherwise, leave me alone!”
To my surprise, after that he did. At least somewhat. He still threatened me, and bragged about all his fighting, but he mostly kept his hands off. After all, like I said, I wasn’t important enough to beat up seriously.
I wish the same could have been said of Leroy. But it couldn’t. This was as much Leroy’s doing as anyone’s, though. He taunted Jamie from his locker, called him ugly and stupid, and said he wasn’t afraid, he’d take Jamie on anytime.
Leroy made the mistake of baiting him one afternoon as I was coming in, and Jamie went for him. They only scuffled for a few seconds, thank god, before some other guys pulled them apart and I pushed Jamie back. He could have tossed me aside, but there were others crowding around.
Behind me, Leroy was shouting and cursing: “Put me down, damn it! I’ll clobber him! I’ll kill him! Put me down!” I turned and saw that one of the basketball players had grabbed Leroy and was holding him about six inches off the floor, his fists and feet flailing the air like angry matchsticks. He was that lightweight. If it had been any other time, I would have burst out laughing, he looked so ridiculous.
But Jamie shoved past me, and pointed a thick finger between the shoulders of the other guys between him and Leroy. “I’ll tell you who’ll kill who, you punk” he bellowed. Then he pulled his hand back, made a fist, and smashed it loudly into a locker door, shaking the whole row and leaving a dent in the metal. “Like that.” He backed away and stalked out of the locker room.
The basketball player let Leroy down, and the other guys wandered off.
I was shaking. “Leroy,” I whispered, “let’s get out of here.”
We headed down the hall and out the door, going as far as we were allowed, to the plowed field, toward the creek. As we walked, a couple of things became clear to me: one was that Jamie wasn’t kidding. He would want his revenge on Leroy, and it would be a bloody one. Another was that when the time came, I had to stand with him, just as he had stood with me in my face-off with Father T-More.
But how could I do that so it made a difference? Jamie could flatten Leroy with one fist and me with the other; and where would that leave either of us?
Still feeling shaky, I spotted something in the grass by the creek. It was a length of two by four lumber, about two and a half feet long. It was damp from laying out there in the dew and rain, and that made it heavy. A notch had been cut out of one end, giving my hand a good grip on it, and it swung with a real heft to it.
I whacked it against a tree a few times. The blows were solid, tearing big gashes in the tree’s bark, and making my palm and fingers hurt. But I didn’t drop it. In fact, with each blow I felt stronger and swung harder, and harder at the tree.
And then, like an electric shock, an idea came to me.
This two by four was not just a piece of wood. It was an equalizer. Looking down at it, I stopped shaking. It could solve our problem with Jamie: In my mind’s eye I could see how it would go down, as clearly as if it was actually happening:
I would walk into the locker room, and find Jamie attacking Leroy. Really beating him up, smashing that smooth face he hated so much, or maybe choking him. Leroy would be gasping and bleeding, maybe flailing around, maybe unconscious.
As usual, Jamie would hardly notice me, walking over to open my locker as if I was utterly oblivious to what was going on a few feet away.
But then I’d turn around, step quietly behind Jamie and raise the two by four high over my head–maybe holding it with both hands.
There would be only one chance, I figured. One blow. One heavy stroke across the back of Jamie’s skull, swinging with all the concentrated force of a year’s accumulated rage. I could almost feel the bone give way under the board, the way the tree bark had split and flown off in sappy chunks.
I turned from this vision to Leroy, there by the creek, and told him very calmly what I planned to do. He believed me too, even though he still thought he could take care of himself.
With that settled, all we had to do was smuggle this weapon into the building. He went ahead of me, to signal from the hall doorway when the coast was clear.
The two by four was too long to fit under my shirt, but its weathered color was close to the khaki of my uniform, so I just walked quickly down the mostly deserted hall, swinging it in time with my right leg. In a couple of long moments, it was in my locker, hidden by an old uniform shirt.
After that it was only a matter of waiting and watching. Each time I came into the locker room and saw Jamie, the palms of my hands began to tingle, as if they were ready to close around the hidden lumber. But I felt calm about it, and kept up my usual careful deference toward him, and I don’t think he ever suspected a thing.
At this point, it would be satisfying to say things worked out as I expected, that my knotty pine equalizer made the difference, saved the day in a final, maybe fatal confrontation. And there were days when I felt that moment was coming close.
But it never happened. The year ended in anticlimax: Jamie’s folks came and got him a day or two early, or Leroy’s parents came to get him; I don’t remember which anymore. Either way, that ultimate, climactic showdown was headed off more or less accidentally, by disinterested forces beyond our control. Or maybe it was the grace of that God I didn’t believe in.
Anyway, a few weeks later, back with my family, my mother called me to the kitchen table, where she put an envelope in front of me.
I opened it. It was a letter, from Father Augustus. It said that because of my vocal unbelief, I would not be allowed to return to St. Joseph’s the next year. Having me around was too hazardous to the other cadets’ spiritual welfare.
“Well?” Mother asked grimly. “What about this?”
I looked at the letter again, then at her, and took a deep breath. Finally I said, “It’s true.”
She didn’t give up, of course. But that battle was lost; I was done with the Catholic church.
A few weeks later, a small package came in the mail. In it was my St. Joseph’s school ring.
At first I thought I should send it back. But looking at the red and gold, I began to wonder about many things connected with the year at St. Joseph’s, things I still wonder about:
What ever happened to Leroy, or Jamie, neither of whom I ever saw again? Would my belly muscles still stand up to one of his punches; it’s been a long time. Did the priests go through our lockers that summer and find my two by four? If so, what did they make of it?
I also wonder, if that final crisis had come, what would have happened after I swung that two by four? Or, more recently, what if the weapon hidden in my locker hadn’t been a two by four, but a forty four, a gun? Would this story be written from a prison cell? Would it be written at all?
These are questions to which there can be no answers. But there are three things I do know.
The first is that I meant what I said to Leroy about what I would do with that piece of wood. I can still see myself swinging it in the locker room, almost as if it really happened.
The second thing is that as I looked at the red and gold band and wondered all this, the ring took on an entirely different, and much more important set of meanings than it had had when I ordered it. I put it on, and have been wearing it ever since.
The third thing–but this came later–is that I’m not an atheist anymore.
My St. Joseph’s ring, in April 2013. It’s stayed on my finger for 54 years, and counting.
Copyright © by Chuck Fager — All rights reserved.