A Letter Too Late
It never made sense. He was bigger than any of us, and just as strong, but we picked on him mercilessly. Even now, examining it in retrospect, I can’t understand it. Of course teenagers have that organic angst over being in the nether regions of existence without any knowledge of who the hell they are or any idea of a destiny. But why choose a Pete Wall as the victim?
I am relating these incidents in hopes of discovering some logic, a rationale for picking on and victimizing Pete, but suspect that I will only expose the neurotic roots of the perps. There will be no particular order, chronologically or logically, to the following events; but that is not to deny a subconscious choice.
I lived in a quaint little house on Haygood Ave., a one block street, with houses only on one side. On the other side of the street, facing my house, was about 100ft of field that ended in a slight ravine the bottom of which began a marsh that extended at least a mile all the way to the Ashley River. The pungent odor of the swamp was an integral part of my environment, and many years later when others arrive in the low country for the first time and ask, “What is that smell?” I feel only fondness. At the North end of the block there was a more developed field with trees and tall grass that was part of the property of the Citadel, then known as the Military College of the South.
It was in this field that the teenagers would gather after dark, especially when no one had access to cars; although in South Carolina you were able to obtain a driver’s license at age 14, but most of us in our crowd were only 13. And one night when a several of us were over in the field with not much to do, we decided to take off Pete’s pants, and exciting fun idea. He tried to run, but we caught him. Now the interesting thing is that Pete had exceptionally long legs and was faster than any of us, but he didn’t know that, so we caught him. Now Pete was also larger than any one in the group and could probably have gotten away, but there were 5 or 6 of us, and although he struggled a bit, he was predisposed to losing and we accomplished the deed.
He stood up in his drawers, and I can’t remember whether there were actual tears but there was a pitiful weepy kind of pout on his face. He just stood there as we all laughed. What could be funnier? Pete Wall, standing there depantsed, was the apex of pleasure for us. Then, without any decision obvious to us, his tormentors, he turned and started walking toward my house across the street.. We laughed even more because we knew he was bluffing and would not really go up to my house in his drawers.
We were wrong. He not only went to the house but went up on the porch and while we stood gaping in stunned silence, he used the brass door knocker that was abrasively loud. When my mother answered the door, you could see several people behind her in the living room, and I was reminded that she was having a party, and of course as soon as she opened the door, she and the people inside peered in stunned silence at Pete standing at the front door in his jockey underwear.
My mother, always the advocate and friend of anyone who was not an adult, responded to depantsed Pete, who at this point was in apparent distress, “Why, Pete, Honey, what’s wrong? Where are your pants?” Pete, with now a few tears showing replied, “Billy and those boys took my pants off, Mrs. Burn.” My mother with the audience of her friends at her back, said, “Oh, Pete, that’s terrible. Where are your pants now?” Her sympathy was feeding Pete’s emotion, and he was undeniably crying as he declared, “They got them over there; Billy and the rest of them boys, they got em across the street.” And before she could reply, “Yes mam. They took um off, and they’re over there, my pants.”
My mother then stepped out on the porch with Pete and yelled across the street, “Billy, now I want you and those boys to give Pete his pants back.” Then after glancing at Pete, she said, “And it’s not funny.” Of course, by this time we were all running, but could still hear her, and I knew that when she said it was not funny that it been hard for her not to smile.
By this time the whole party had come out on the porch, and my stepfather was walking across the street with Pete, “Come on, Pete. We’ll go find those pants.”. 1/2 way across the street my stepfather’s flashlight picked up the pants that had been tossed and were now lying ignominiously in the field. My stepfather stopped, “There they are.” as Pete followed the beam to his pants. He picked them up, and in the spot of the flashlight with all the people of the party watching in an eerie silence of exchanged looks, he put them on. While still in the light, he looked toward my mother on the porch and said, “Thank you, Mrs. Burn.” , and started walking away. My stepfather followed him with the light for about a dozen steps and then turned it off as Pete walked on off into the dark.
It baffles me. You couldn’t be with Pete without the perverted need to torture asserting itself., no matter how innocuous the circumstances. A couple of years after the pants episode we double dated. Pete’s mother was an indulgent widow, which meant that he could always had use of their car. I wasn’t particular grateful to him, presupposing that it made him happy to be double dating with me, especially since I had lined up the dates. They were two sisters. He was with the older one, Faye, and I with the younger one, Barbara.
We went through the ritual of getting sandwiches and fries at the fork drive in at the foot of the Ashley River Bridge, and then headed immediately to the battery, the accepted and safe location where high school and college couples went to park and make out. Barbara and I were in the back seat, and we immediately got to the prelims. In front, his date, Faye, began to talk. And as Barbara began to utter pleasurable sounds it became obvious that sister Faye was intent on sustaining a conversation. As Barbara and I progressed up the natural inclines of amorous pursuit, her feelings became more audible, and as they did, it seemed that Faye was somehow relating to what we were doing because the frantic quality of her prattle was intensifying in a way that correlated to Barbara’s exclamations of pleasure.
At some point her verbal content changed to protests and declarations of refusal, but again seemed to be on a parallel course of intensity with the sounds in the back seat. The emotional level of her protestations seemed indicative of a proximity to the mountain peak of delight to which the two in the back seat were headed. “No Pete, I don’t want you to do that.” Come on, Pete, can’t we just kiss. No, Pete, don’t. I mean it. You can kiss me, but cut that out. Stop it. Stop!” These declarations were interspersed and overlapped with the oh’s and ah’s of passion in the back seat to form what seemed like an uncanny counterpoint.
After the date Pete said to me, “Man, you really had her going.” I didn’t answer him. Does this qualify as torture? I don’t know, but to me, well, poor Pete.
Sometimes you could say that he brought it on himself. There was this one time when someone brought to school several little booklets with graphic pornography in them, pictures of regular sex acts with exaggerated genetalia. They were like extended comic strips. We, the usual crowd of boys, were in an empty class room at lunch, and we were passing them around and reading them, laughing and joking, and the levity was a little too forced due to our effort to prevent a visual betrayal of our excitement.
Someone asked for a particular sexy one, and everybody became silent as we discovered that both the booklet and Pete were missing. Little discussion was necessary to devise a plan, which was immediately implemented. We went as a group to the boys restroom, and silently opening the door silently, all five of us entered with great stealth, and crept slowly over to the stall, three of us peeking under while the other two peeked over. For maybe ten seconds the five of us had a joint peek in a classic silence at Pete who, deeply engrossed in the porno graphics, was whacking the sweet jesus out of his wanger.
But then, as if on cue, there was a spontaneous pandemonium as we all howled with joyous laughter at Pete’s mortification, and the laughter only increased as Pete attempted to stuff his erection into his pants in a futile effort to pretend it didn’t happen. And even that was not the end, because compounding his in flagrante exposure, the episode earned him a nickname that would remind him and keep alive the memory of Pete’s performance; it became a common occurrence, whenever Pete approached, to hear, “Oh, here comes ‘five finger Wall.’
In some weird way it seems as though nature itself had joined the conspiracy to keep Pete in a state of torment. On the way home from school we would walk through Hampton Park, and our route would take us through the zoo. It was a pretty shoddy zoo. The most interesting animal was an old sad black bear that usually just laid there and scratched himself while ignoring his watchers, getting up only to get his food at feeding time. There was an atrium that had numerous birds including herons and flamingoes, and they were fun to look at, but there was also something sad about them being in a cage with what seemed to be an accumulation of years of bird shit. You got the feeling that their caretakers didn’t really care, and their only real responsibility was to make sure the fowls stayed caged.
On the other hand the monkey cage was fascinating, primarily because of Pete. It was a large cage with a variety of monkeys, and there were numerous objects and apparatuses for them to climb or swing on. And no one spent more time at that cage than Pete Wall did, but his was not a healthy fascination. He liked to tease them. He would shake the cage, and they would begin chattering in a kind of primal fear of an approaching predator. And them he would take a stick and beat on the cage. The monkeys would become more frenetic, swinging back and forth from perch to perch, screaming and screeching what could only be monkey obscenities, until Pete would escalate his animosity to where he would start trying to throw rocks through the cage, a few of which would actually get through the cage, and sometimes, though rarely, would hit a monkey.
I suppose one could make the psychological connection between the victimized Pete wanting to escape what appeared to be his designated role of tormentee and for a little while be the tormentor. But it was not to be. There was one monkey, a rhesus monkey. And his chattering seemed almost the sounds of defiance rather than fear. He would defy Pete’s shaking the cage and shriek at him, and with an impressive agility always manage to escape by leaping away just a fraction of a second before Pete could hit the cage with his stick. To see the dynamics you would swear the monkey was teasing Pete instead of the other way around. And the bouts of monkey torment always ended the same. Just as the battle was reaching an obvious peak, that Rhesus monkey would swing down to the wire, and almost faster than the eye could follow, with no more than two almost imperceptible strokes, cause himself to ejaculate with uncanny accuracy right on Pete. Whereupon Pete would scream, “Goddamn, you bastard.” And head home to wash and change his clothes.
But by the time of our senior year in high school Pete had distinguished himself as a football player and fortunately somehow had outgrown the bullying. I feel that my experience as Pete’s team mate is related in some way to those years of bullying, but am unable to articulate the connection. I was the smallest player on the team, and played tight end, and Pete played wide receiver. There was a triple reverse play where I would end up with the ball, with Pete having run down field. I was supposed to throw it to him, but I could never see him with the bigger players charging me. So I would just stop and throw it as hard as I could, and, miraculously, he would get it: that’s right, catch the damn ball every time I threw it (usually at least twice a game -it was like our secret weapon). Not once did I ever see him when I threw that ball, but he never missed it, not once. And while I got some credit for being a good passer, which was a total joke, Pete deservedly made little all American.
After high school I never saw Pete again. He was ROTC in college, and became a commander of a naval vessel. After being wounded in the Korean Conflict, he died before he was 35. I wish I had gotten the chance to tell him that he didn’t deserve what we had done to him, that I was sorry, and be forgiven. But perhaps this letter too late will motivate me to get some others written while there is still time.