Oakwood Elementary may not have been the toughest grade school in Illinois, but it still had its fair share of bullies. At the time, I was in the second grade, my sister Tracy was in the third, and Eric, my brainchild brother was in the fifth. Yet we all shared the same archenemies, the Jacksons. They were a family of four mean brothers, ranging in age from six to thirteen. All of Jacksons had skinny bodies and ratty hair; they weren’t too bright, in fact, they all were just plain mean and ugly. They all attended Oakwood, but other than Phil (a fourth grader and the toughest of the boys who had his recess during the same period as me), they had little interaction with my family. As you can imagine, my sense of humor started at a young age–an attribute Phil never fully appreciated. He hated me from the start, never holding back a late hit during an after-school football game.
Monkey-bar wars were extremely popular during this time in the school year. I was feeling good with my fifth win in a row; so during one of those fleeting moments of glory, I agreed to go against Phil. My strategy was simple, swing my legs fast, clinch Phil, then let go of the bar, and lose with a little dignity. So much for the plan, I had swung my legs so fast and furiously that I accidentally hit Phil’s nose with my foot. I remember seeing the blood trickling out of his nostril before everything went black. Art Bell, my best friend, helped me back to the classroom at the whistle. As we were walking through the halls, Art asked me what I planned to do. He, of course, was referring to the fact that Phil knocking me out at recess was only a preview to the beating I would get when we fought after school.
Word spread through the school like wildfire. I was also worried about what Tracy would do to me, for she had warned me time and time again to stay out of Phil Jackson’s way. She was the most feared girl in school and pretty much the only one the Jacksons left alone. I wondered if I would survive. When the final bell rang, I literally ran to my sister’s classroom. She was laughing when she saw me and told me to keep running. So run I did, all the way home.
Because both our parents worked, no one was home. It didn’t matter, I had made it home safely. I felt safe for all of about ten minutes, ’til I looked out the window and saw 40 kids standing in a circle in our front yard. My brother came into the house, told me Tracy was going to take care of it, and that I’d better get out there. I pushed through three rows of kids to get to the center of the ring. There in the middle stood my sister, wearing brown Toughskins and a white long-sleeve long-underwear shirt covered in blood, towering above Tim Jackson. She had already beat up Phil and Todd Jackson and was calling for Matt the oldest and biggest. She was making short work of Matt when our stepfather’s Toronado pulled up in the driveway.
He had a client with him and they’d both had a few cocktails. After an initial assessment, our stepfather immediately grabbed Eric and yelled, “Why did you make your sister fight alone?”
Eric simply replied, “She didn’t want it or need it.” Eric repeated this to the horror of our mother as we recanted the fight several times at dinner.
The Jackson fight was the first specific time I remember my sister becoming one of my heroes. She went on to capture my admiration by becoming the one of the most feared left-wingers in the Irish Youth Hockey League, beating up John Vavul in defense of Gus Swanda, dominating in Clay JBA baseball, lettering in softball, winning the 200-meter butterfly in the state swimming championships, graduating from college, and raising me.