“You’re gonna die,” my brother said with grim satisfaction. I looked at the horrible purple bruises up and down his arms.
“Freshie pokes,” he said with a smile. “Every time an upperclassman sees you the first week of class you get a freshie poke. Feels like this.” He hauled off and socked my arm as hard as he could. He clinically studied the tears that began welling up in my eyes to make sure he’d hit me hard enough and I wasn’t faking it. “Only about a thousand times worse. And it goes on all week.”
“All week?” I mumbled, lip trembling.
“Yeah, unless they peg you as dork meat. Then it goes on all year.”
The next year, 1976, it was my turn to start at Jane Long Junior High School. That entire summer I had dreaded the first week of school. “Ready for your freshie pokes?” my brother would say just before pounding my arm a few times.
The first day of school came and I went to the bus stop with my brother. He had long hair and was a tough guy. There were a few guys on the bus who looked even tougher, but no one gave me a freshie poke. I wondered if I would cry. “Probably,” I figured, looking at the size of the guys on the bus.
I stayed as close to my brother as I could until the bell rang. “See ya, dork,” he said. There were several big hairy guys dishing out freshie pokes in the hallways, but somehow they missed me as I scurried, terrified, from class to class.
After school I went into dad’s study. “I want to ride my bike to school,” I said.
“Okay.” He hardly looked up from his typewriter, a huge desktop Remington with no letters on the keys.
“I need a backpack.”
He looked up. “A what?”
“A backpack. I can’t carry my books to school on my bike without a backpack.”
In 1976, no one used a backpack for books. Instead, kids used these things called hands. And for a guy there was only one proper way to carry your books and binders, and it was under your arm, with one hand. Girls could use two hands and hold them out front. If you were a guy and you tried to hold your books out in front with two hands, even if you had a hundred of them, you would have been instantly beaten to death.
There was only one place you could get a backpack, and that was at a camping store. And backpacks weren’t for kids to take to school, they were for backpacking. I knew I was going to look stupid and would probably get punched up one side and down the other, but it seemed safer to go by bike, where I could time my arrivals and departures, than to have to run the bus’s freshie poke gauntlet.
Dad drove me down to a camping store by the Galleria. It was very unusual for my parents to buy me something unless it was Christmas or my birthday which, economically for them, fell on the same day. We picked out a little brownish-orange knapsack made by a company called Wilderness Experience. It was waterproof and had a little buckle thingy that you could strap around your waist to keep it from sloshing from one side to the other. The whole contraption screamed “Bash my face in.”
The next morning I aired up the tires on my Murray 10-speed, rolled up my pant leg, slung on my backpack, and cinched the “Punch Me” belt. It felt beautiful, riding my bike on my second day of school. No hanging around the bus stop, no bus gauntlet to deal with, only cars honking and trying to kill me, which wasn’t nearly as bad as a freshie poke. My commute went from an hour to twenty minutes.
I locked up my bike, unhooked the Punch Me cinch, and tried to jauntily sling the backpack over one shoulder, as if that would somehow deflect from the fact that I was going to be the only kid in a thousand with an orange dorkpack. As I walked through the giant blue gates, gates that were barred and looked like a prison entry, kids noticed, in the way they always do. No one has sharper eyes than a kid.
I stood at the main doors, praying for the bell to ring. My heart was pounding. About that time the buses began discharging kids, and an extremely mean looking, blonde redneck began striding towards me, grinning as he balled his fist. He had freckles and a chipped front tooth. “Freshie poke!” he said as his pals watched, laughing.
The redneck let loose with a punch. The last thing I saw was his fist and its giant knuckles, speeding towards my tender, bony arm. “Just don’t cry, dork,” I told myself. I flinched and twisted to the side, causing my backpack to shift around my shoulder. At the moment of impact his ham-sized hand slammed into the edge of my backpack and the sharp plastic edge of the oversized binder that I’d crammed in on top.
The force of the blow twisted me around and almost knocked me down, but it didn’t hurt and no one noticed. Redneck was holding his hand, limp, first cursing, then crying, then moaning in piteous agony. He’d broken two fingers.
The bell rang and I scurried indoors. I’m pretty sure I’m the only freshman in the Jane Long Junior High School Bicentennial Entering Class of ’76 who never got a freshie poke.
For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog, which is kind of a bargain. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!