Ronnie Smith had polio when he was a kid. He wore those clunky Forrest Gump braces on each leg and used crutches to get around Trenton Elementary School back in southwestern Kentucky near the middle of the previous century. He was three or four years older than me, in my brother’s grade at school. Normally, he wouldn’t be playing with a third-grader but that day, he was happy to play kickball, even if it meant doing it with some little tow-headed runt.
Our game was the picture of simplicity: I’d roll the ball toward Ronnie, he’d tilt his crutches way forward and time his motion so that his legs swung forward and he’d kick the ball. Then, I’d run and get the ball and bring it back and roll it again. It was like he was throwing a stick and I was the happy little Lab bringing it back.
We’d been playing for a while during the morning recess when he really got into one. The ball soared over my head clear out to the basketball goal set up on two old creosoted posts. As I turned to run for retrieval, I saw one of my classmates running toward the ball. He got there just before I did and grabbed the ball and clenched it to his chest.
“Give me the ball, Lewis.”
“Give me the ball, Lewis!”
Again, he refused and tightened his grip when I reached for it.
Lewis was at least as strong as me and ten pounds heavier. I briefly considered wrestling with him and then decided on a quicker option. Without another word, I punched him right in the nose.
His nose seemed to explode. Blood gushed out both nostrils. He shrieked in pain and grabbed his face with both hands. The ball dropped to the ground and Lewis took off toward the playground supervisor, blood dripping through his fingers. I picked up the ball, looked over toward Ronnie and figured life as I knew it had just ended. But, I thought, “It was worth it. What kind of a dirty rotten little bully steals the ball when someone is playing kickball with a crippled guy?! If you won’t stand up for a kid with polio, then what good are you?!”
Mrs. Dickinson was standing about a hundred feet away. As Lewis approached her, I figured I might as well head on over and wait for the sheriff to come arrest me. Lewis got to the teacher and gurgled out, “Harold hit me in the nose.” She looked down at him and then looked at me. “Go on in and get yourself cleaned up,” she said to Lewis.
As he trudged off, still bleeding profusely from the nose, she looked at me.
“I was playing kickball with Ronnie,” I pleaded, daring a quick look up at her, “Lewis stole the ball.”
I knew it was a pretty shallow defense. I’d seen older kids get in fights, more wrestling matches, really. Paul and Patsy had both gone to Trenton. In all those long years, I’d never heard of anyone hurting somebody else, much less giving someone a bloody nose.
My shoulders drooped and I waited for the executioner’s sentence.
“I saw the whole thing,” she said quietly, then laid a hand on my shoulder. “You go on back and play ball with Ronnie.”
Sometimes, teachers are just plain amazing, aren’t they?
Now, I don’t extol vigilantism and this sort of playground justice was part of another place, another time and a distant era often misremembered without the cold fears of nuclear war and invasion. But I will admit, if pressed on the point, Lewis Peterson never again interfered in any way when Ronnie Smith and I were playing kickball.
By the time recess was over, his nose had stopped bleeding. By the next week, we were friends again.