Darby Gilman, George Elmore and I were best friends in grammar school, back in the 1960s. George was a budding scientist who spent most of his time experimenting with his chemistry set and taking care of his fish and turtles in his basement. Darby was a good-looking kid who had moved to our little suburban town from California. He was already enjoying success with the girls, even as the rest of us were trying to figure out what to do with these tall, skinny creatures who were beginning to hold some mysterious appeal -- and who now wanted to dance with us.
But this story isn't about love. It's about a fight.
And if George was the scholar in our crowd, and Darby the lover, then I was the fighter -- no testament to how tough I was, but more an indication of how scrawny my friends were.
The three of us used to meet up in George Elmore's yard, sometimes with George's little brother and some other friends. We would play stickball and dodgeball in his driveway. We'd sit on his swings and talk about our families and our teachers. We'd lay on the grass and discuss Monopoly strategies or debate various theories about how women had babies.
George's yard was bordered by an old-fashioned chain-link fence. Besides being centrally located, the yard gave us a secure place to gather, our own sanctuary that nobody outside the immediate neighborhood cared about or even knew about.
When we got old enough for junior high school, we were thrown together with kids from other sections of town. Most of them were friendly, but one group of guys from across U. S. Route 1 was more interested in making an impression than making friends. In other words, these kids were looking for a fight.
The crowd consisted of five or six fairly hefty guys, led by Eddie Lynch, the biggest kid of all. Eddie was an inch or two taller than me, with muscles that stretched his t-shirt across his chest and shoulders. He was later to become star of the high-school football team, and go on to play in college.
Starting in September, Eddie and his friends came around to our street, probably three or four times. First they tested us, then they taunted us and began to intimidate us. Once when we saw them coming, we were reduced to hiding out in the Elmore's garage.
Then, one sunny Saturday in late September, we were sitting on George's swings, discussing what strategy we needed to use against these guys. We didn't come up with much more than a resolution to not let them push us around. Darby, my friend from California, was especially vocal about protecting our own turf. "I'll get my older sister's friends," he vowed. "And we'll tear them apart."
I didn't put much stake in Darby's plan. We soon got tired of our own bluster and moved to the driveway where we began a game of stickball. The driveway served as an infield; the garage door supplied a backstop behind home plate; the lawn was our outfield.
If one of us hit the tennis ball over the chain-link fence into the street it was a home run. Home runs were rare, but someone occasionally grounded a ball up the middle and out the driveway. It was George Elmore who had made just such a hit and was rounding the bases. Darby was playing outfield and turned to run along the fence and then out to the street after the ball.
Suddenly, Eddie Lynch was standing on the sidewalk, with three or four of his friends looming behind him. Eddie had picked up our tennis ball and was waving it at us.
Then he began tossing the ball up and down with one hand. "Come and take it from me, Darbs," Eddie challenged, his mouth cracking into a grin. He started to laugh, and when he laughed little bubbles of spit formed at the corners of his mouth.
Darby walked up to face him. Eddie extended his arm toward Darby and held out the ball. When Darby reached for it, Eddie flipped it to one of his friends.
I walked out to the driveway entrance, along with George and his little brother. "Don't be stupid," Darby warned the red-headed, freckled kid who now had the ball. "You don't want to get into a fight over this."
The red-headed kid didn't say anything, he just lobbed the ball over Darby's head to another boy in Eddie's crowd, a tall lanky blond fellow. They were all laughing and snickering.
"Hey, come on," I called. "Just give us the ball. We don't want any trouble."
Eddie stared at me. Then he scrunched up his face and squeaked, "Give us the baa-aall. We don't want any troo-uuble."
Eddie turned to his friend. "Throw the ball," he ordered. And the kid tossed the tennis ball not to me or Darby, but to Eddie. Then Eddie Lynch reared back and hurled the ball over the fence, across the corner of George's yard and down the street.
I turned and watched the ball fly. It gave a big bounce on the sidewalk then disappeared, dribbling down the road.
"Okay, you proved your point," said Darby as George's little brother started to trail down the street after the ball. "Now why don't you and your goons get lost."
"Yeah," I chimed in, "Get outta here."
"Who's gonna make me," Eddie challenged. He looked at Darby. My handsome friend from California stood there frozen, saying nothing. Then his gaze slowly turned to me . . .
-- Tune in next time for the rest of the story --