In the sixth grade I was the Tin Man; envision a small boy encased in a cardboard tube wrapped in aluminum foil and sealed with duct tape. The accompanying plastic axe, inverted funnel, watering pot painted a dull metallic silver to match.
A year later, I was a mid-century console television with a Zenith Space Command remote. Another cardboard box, this time painted a faux mahogany with a center cutout showcasing my Mork & Mindy t-shirt, detailed knobs, and clothes hangers as the antenna.
In successive years the bullying at school ballooned. The Tin Man was dismantled by third period, and the TV—antenna torn loose, box crushed—was tossed into the dumpster behind the school in its entirety. Me included.
* * *
I never forgave my father the engineer—with four kids, a double-digit interest mortgage and a laggard 1970s economy—for embracing Halloween: sketching, crafting and assembling for weeks prior. And maybe it was just that, a design task in which he lacked understanding of the implications of sending an undersized thirteen-year-old to school in an ingenious, but over-engineered costume.
In the eighth grade, when opinions were persuasive social currency, my father sent me to school dressed as the Patriot: brown knickers, white tights, a blousy shirt covered with a blue jacket, vest, gold buttons, epaulets and a red sash, adorned with a Colonial Tricorn and his wooden .22 repeater, which resembled a ceremonial gun, as a rifle.
I was an awkward kid. Short and thin, patchy dry skin, gap between my front teeth. Under the radar most days. Except on Halloween.
That year my mother ushered me onto the bus in full colonial regalia where I sat alone, face pressed against the window, rifle obscured by my jacket and watched her apologetic smile blur under the rumbling exhaust as she wrangled my three younger siblings.
* * *
“Look at his tights. He’s dressed like a girl.”
“Is he wearing knickers? And a girl’s shirt?”
The onslaught came from the rich kids wearing store bought costumes: the crew from Ghostbusters or Marty McFly from Back to the Future.
The bus ride was traumatic.
But the school day was worse. The ridicule intensified as I scampered between classes dressed as the Patriot, with my brown paper-covered books—one with Inglish misspelled on the cover—and rifle in hand.
By third period my internal strife had manifested into a head to toe rash and the science teacher, Mr. Rogers, denied my third bathroom pass; the earlier two I’d used to hide in the stall.
Instead, I sat and stared at the analog GE clock that skipped backwards when the power blipped, until the remaining twenty minutes ticked by and the lunch bell rang under a cloud of chalk.
* * *
The larger-than-average boys had little worry on the playground. And the jocks had their own swagger—running wild and exerting their dominance. A handful of sullen eighth graders stood on the outskirts of school property in a defiant pack, smoking.
On the edge of the grass, far away from raucous roar of freedom, I waited on a small dirt patch, laying my rifle in my lap, as I sat crisscross to hide my stockings.
Kids whizzed by, breathless, off to the monkey bars, or swings, or the wide expanse of green space where their legs churned, arms flailed, and smiles beamed. The Mary-goes-down (aka merry-go-round) spun the prissy girls and the third-degree-burner (aka metal slide), had a line of screamers tumbling over each other at the bottom. Chalk draw-ers and the hopscotch kids bumped against the foursquare players.
I wasn’t long before I heard the primal call to action, “Smear the Queer,” and a ball rolled inches from my feet. I should have run as hard as I could, until I was smothered or I hurled the ball to another sucker and the mob of bullies caught and swallowed them. But I knew this wasn’t the game, and that I’d caught the eye of the crew gathered near the twisted slide. Ronald Bulleri was standing in front with a sizable smirk on his face.
I’d seen other victims of “Smear the Queer,” the game masking the truer goal, the perverse torture of a helpless kid. It happened to the new kid with squishy eyes—looked like his body held too much water. Last year they caught him just before he reached the door. It was his second day. Ronald whipped him around and raised him on his toes by his underwear. Then he dropped the saggy-eyed newcomer to the ground, a strawberry burst of skin ripping from his cheek. The kid got to his knees and started crawling for his spilled pencils. They kicked the box out of reach. Did it three or four times, the youngster crawling and crawling, never saying a word. Then Ronald kicked him in the ass. The kid sprawled out, smacked his face on the asphalt. As he pushed himself up, Billie Willis kicked out his arm, and the kid smacked his face on the ground again. His squishy eyes leaking tears. Blood spurting from his nose.
* * *
As I raised my father’s .22, I saw confusion, not fear.
The first shot dropped Billie flat as a pancake. Second struck a freckled boy in the leg. The third made a bssh -t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t–chk chk as it went through Ronald’s arm—his cries swallowed by the clamor of the schoolkids whose blistering hands worked the monkey bars, and the smack of the tetherball that whooshed in a wide arc, and the loud recess bell that rang to signal the end.
Before I left that morning I asked my father: why a Patriot? He said because they supported a cause, freedom — and that afternoon on the playground, I wanted nothing more than to be free.
R.E. Hengsterman is an award-winning writer and photographer. He lives in North Carolina with “the family” and sometimes wears pants. His work can be found at www. rehengsterman.com and the occasional tweet @robhengsterman