The Rock Fight
by Mike Sharlow
Our world was unknown to our parents. It existed as if it were in a parallel dimension. It buzzed on a frequency our parents couldn’t see, but our world reacted to the actions, the consequences, and vibrations of their world. All the conflict and violence of their world also played out in ours. They viewed our world through a prism that distorted their perception of who we were, what we did, and why we did it.
It was a hot July day and, instead of playing baseball at the field, fishing down by the river, swimming at the pool, or any of the multiple ways we filled or summer days, we found ourselves embroiled in a conflict with the kids from the adjacent neighborhood.
We knew everything important about our own neighborhood. We knew all the shortcuts from one yard to another. We knew all the hiding places. We knew the best gardens to raid and apple trees to pick. Almost everything significant to us happened in our neighborhood. We caught our first football, hit our first baseball, shot our first basketball, and learned to ride our first bike. This was our neighborhood, the size of our world, and we were compelled to protect it.
We had gathered in the cinder alley by our house. Most of us from the neighborhood were here: Eric, his brother Todd, John, Larry, Joey, Paul, my brother Matt, my brother Tim, and me. This was our gang, our army. I was unsure who declared war first: us or them, but we were in our territory, and they were presently a block and a half away walking towards us. So, they were the invaders.
The tension had been simmering for months, since late last winter when Matt, John, Eric, Todd, and Tim ventured close to their neighborhood — but still in our neighborhood we believed — down by the river at the Shad Hole. We called it the Shad Hole because schools of this fish were attracted to a huge area of open water next to the shore of the frozen Mississippi River.
The open water was created by a constant gush of warm water from a corrugated metal pipe that jutted out about ten feet at the shoreline of the steep riverbank. Most of the pipe was buried underground and followed the incline of the riverbank until it reached the street. The pipe was about four feet in diameter, big enough for us to walk up, and we did on occasion.
The Shad Hole was a frenzy of splashing fish flopping around on top of each other. With every cast you could snag one. We piled the worthless fish on the shore to rot or be eaten by bugs or whatever found them appetizing.
On this day, my brothers and the others encountered two of the Mitchell boys, Tommy and Bobby and Jerry Morrison. I was told that the Mitchells and Morrison were throwing large rocks into the school of fish, thus disrupting the fishing. My brother Tim called them “Stupid idiots!” and Tommy pushed him down. My bother Matt knocked Tommy down and chased the rest of them away.
Later in the winter, at the ice rink at Trane Park, which was in both of our neighborhoods, Eric and John crossed paths with Jim Mitchell and a couple of his brothers. The Mitchells chased them around the rink. It was a big rink, almost the size of a city block, and John and Eric were good skaters, hockey players, so they were able to escape.
Now, about an hour ago, Paul, Joey, I were riding our bikes, no particular destination, just racing around. The sugar from the candy we’d bought fifteen minutes ago from Rich’s Grocery Store rushed through us like speed. We laughed as we weaved down the street.
Paul had a black Schwinn Coaster. It was built like a tank and, once it got going, it could really fly, especially downhill. I followed Paul on my orange Sting-Ray with the banana seat with a tiger pattern. Joey lagged behind on a yellow girl’s Sting-Ray, a hand-me-down from one of his older sisters. The bike was called the “Fair Lady.” He took a lot of crap for it, but he came from a big family where hand-me-downs of everything were common.
Paul was the strongest of the three of us. His dad looked like Mr. Clean, a big man with a bald head and fit body. Paul was a smaller version, round head with a buzz-cut. Joey was skinny, and I was wiry. The difference between skinny and wiry is: skinny is weak, and wiry is fast and quick.
When the three of us wrestled, Joey always ended up on the bottom, overwhelmed by Paul or me. I usually ended up on Paul’s back, riding him until he could no longer carry me, and he would fall face first into the soft green grass, as we laughed uncontrollably until our stomachs ached.
The shortcut home was through the Mitchell, Morrison, and Marley neighborhood. We passed by the Mitchell house, and Tommy Mitchell was hanging outside with Jerry Morrison and Steve Marley. Tommy Mitchell was our age. Jerry Morrison and Steve Marley were a year older. They yelled at us to stop as we rode past.
We heard the shouts, and we instantly stood up on our bikes to gain speed. I felt a surge of fear and adrenalin at the same time. I looked back and saw Mitchell, Morrison, and Marley racing out into the street after us. I was ahead of Joey, so I felt a bit less threatened. It was every man for himself. We were like three mice being chased by three feral cats. There was no strength in numbers for us.
Tommy Mitchell was fast. His whole family was athletic. As I looked back, I saw his dark brown Beatle hair flying back. He took an angle towards Joey and gained ground on him. “Leave me alone!” Joey cried, knowing there was no escape.
Tommy grabbed the back of Joey’s seat and skidded the bike to a gradual stop. Then Tommy pivoted himself around the front of the bike, straddled the front tire, and held Joey back. Steve Marley and Jerry Morrison were quickly at Tommy’s side and surrounded Joey.
“Let me go!” Joey cried.
Paul and I had stopped a safe distance away. Far enough away that if we had to bolt, we could escape. “Leave him alone!” Paul yelled.
Marley and Morrison charged towards us, so Paul and I raced away out of range until they stopped. “Chickenshits! Chickenshits!” They yelled, hooted, and laughed.
Tommy pushed Joey over on his bike, and more out of fear than pain, Joey let out a guttural breath-taking cry.
“Leave him alone!” I yelled and rode towards them. I raced towards Morrison and Marley, aiming my bike at them like a kamikaze. They jumped out of the way. Tommy took his attention from Joey and charged at me. I could hear his heavy breathing and his tennie shoes popping against the street, and I knew I was within arm’s length.
I never looked back, but just pedaled as fast as I could and, in a moment, I had escaped. I spun around at the end of the block and saw that Joey had also escaped. I hadn’t intended to create a diversion. I had let my anger fuel my action and, at the last second, I had come to my senses and fled. I took the long way home and met Paul and Joey back in the neighborhood.
Joey told Paul and me, after he caught his breath, that Tommy Mitchell had given him a message to deliver. “Tommy said his brother, Jim, wants to fight your brother.” Joey looked at me. “He said he’s comin’ to get him.”
I felt a buzz of fear that made me feel weak and shaky, and so upset my eyes watered. Jim Mitchell had a mythical status. His toughness was legendary. No one knew of any fights he had been in, but he presented himself fearlessly every time we encountered him. He acted like it would be “no contest” to challenge him, and I’m sure he was right.
My brother Matt was the toughest in our gang. At twelve years old, he was also the oldest, the same age and size as Jim Mitchell, but not as athletic. At some point or other, Matt had beaten down every one of us. I didn’t know whether he did it to maintain his leadership or just because he could get away with it. Matt was a bully, but he was also charismatic, and he could be kind and generous. He didn’t always win and get his way. He knew no one would play with him if he did. I relished being on the opposite team and beating him.
In our gang, we could be violent, and sometimes brutal to each other when we played. It was combined with the complicated expression of love and affection that we brought from our homes, our families, to the streets and yards of our neighborhood. We cared about each other, but we hated the Mitchells, Morrisons, and Marleys; our aggression had no safety net for them.
Now we waited, with cinder rocks in hand, as Jim Mitchell slowly led his gang towards us. The parameters of this battle had not been negotiated. They didn’t know we planned to throw rocks, but it was the Mitchells, Morrisons, and Marleys. They were the toughest kids we knew.
Still, we were not like them. Our neighborhood was enough for us. We didn’t feel the need to push out or threaten their neighborhood. The most we wanted to do was pass through theirs on our way to and from Rich’s Grocery Store.
We knew Jim Mitchell wanted to beat up my brother Matt, but as they marched towards us, three Mitchells, three Morrisons, and two Marleys, all of them wearing nothing but cut-off shorts and tennie shoes, their tan, muscular bodies making them look like warriors. All of us felt nervous and afraid, but not scared enough to run. There wasn’t anywhere to go, or hide, except into our homes, and we would use them only as a last resort.
When the Mitchell gang was about a block away, Matt got ready to throw the first rock. I stared at my brother. He had the same look on his face that Dad always got before he lashed out at us. Matt gave one heavy deep breath and puffed his bangs off his eyebrows. Dirty sweat ran down his tan arm and disappeared into the palm of the hand clutching the rock.
I noticed his dirty fingernails, then I looked at mine, which weren’t any better. Except my nails were much shorter from my gnawing on them. He dug his feet into the cinders that had turned to powder from being run over hundreds of times. Matt’s low top K-mart tennies were in better shape than mine. His were still intact. Mine were torn along the sides, rubber separating from fabric. Dirt and small rocks would constantly get in, and I would be shaking it out all day long. By the end of the day when I took my shoes off, my feet would be black, and my mom wondered why. My dad wouldn’t buy us new tennies, until the old ones were falling off our feet. It couldn’t have been about money. We weren’t poor. It just seemed mean.
Matt suddenly threw his rock. It fell way short and busted into pieces when it hit the asphalt street. The thing about cinders: they weren’t heavy, so they didn’t go as far as regular rocks, but they couldn’t be thrown back, either.
The Mitchell Gang stopped in their tracks. They yelled, but the cacophony of their protest was mostly indiscernible, except we did hear, “Women! Fems! Homos!” It took me many years before I understood why this language caused such an angry visceral response from my mother. She never explained why, but to her they were as bad as any curse words. “Just don’t say it!” she yelled and often it was followed by a Crack! or two from the wooden spoon.
Tim was standing next to me with a rock in his hand. His white blond bangs hung his in eyes. His undersized, dirty, white t-shirt was stained purple from jelly and gray from dirt. There was no way my seven-year-old brother was going to get a throw even close to the Mitchell Gang, but he let the rock fly anyway. It veered off like a bad golf slice and landed in Mrs. Johnson’s yard. Tim was known as “crooked arm.” We usually mocked and ridiculed him when he threw a ball or anything, but not this time. This was not play, and no one felt like laughing.
Given the distance of the Mitchell Gang, I knew I couldn’t throw that far, but John and Eric could. John was only a year older than I was, a year younger than Matt, but the best overall athlete among us. He was tall and thin but strong like Lincoln. John gritted, showing the front chipped tooth he got this summer by diving into the concrete wading pool at Trane Park, and launched a rock a little smaller than a golf ball.
Eric was only a few months older than me, but he was a little taller and more muscular. He had a really strong arm, and one day he would pitch high school baseball. I admired his tennies. He always got good brands like the clean white Keds he was wearing right now.
I looked at his feet, and he did a graceful hop-skip before firing. The rock whistled as it left his hand. Both John’s and Eric’s throws blasted at the feet of the Mitchell Gang, whom then scattered to the side of the street and disappeared into an alley. “They’re throwin’ rocks! They’re throwin’ rocks!” was the choir from the Mitchell Gang, as they retreated.
At first, we thought we were rid of them, and everyone, except Matt, jumped up and down in celebration. Thirty seconds later they came charging out of the alley and launched a salvo of rocks. Most of them fell short, but three exploded around us. “Those sonsofbitches!” Everyone swore, screamed, or yelled.
We all gathered rocks, but not before the Mitchell Gang retreated back to their alley to reload. Matt slowly led us forward into the street. John and Eric were right beside him. I followed John, Tim stayed on Matt’s heels, and everyone else straggled more cautiously with Larry the farthest back. He was slow and a big target.
The Mitchell Gang stormed from their alley again. Our gang was slow to react, and instead of firing back, we scattered, dodged, and retreated. No one was hit except for Todd, Eric’s little brother. It wasn’t a direct hit; a rock ricocheted off the street and hit him in the shin. “Ouch!” Todd hopped away. His wound bled a bit, but it was no more serious than any other scrape or wound obtained during play.
Instead of immediately retreating back to the alley, The Mitchell Gang looked at us for a moment to see what damage they had done. It gave us enough time to gather ourselves. In sync, we ran forward and fired. The Mitchell Gang turned to run out of range, but they reacted too slowly, and most of our rocks, except for Tim’s, rained down on them. One hit a Morrison in the back, and he threw his arms out and fell into the street as if he’d been hit with a gun. Another hit Bobby Mitchell in the arm.
Jim Mitchell walked backwards towards the alley and stared at us, almost daring someone to hit him. He stopped for a second and extended his arms like a target. Rocks fell short or flew by him. As he turned around to jog back to the alley where the rest of his guys were waiting, Eric, having the only arm strong enough, wound up, took a big hop, and fired.
The velocity and trajectory came together like a solved math equation, and the rock hit Jim Mitchell on the top of the head. Jim Mitchell covered up and doubled over. It looked like he fought the impulse to go to his hands and knees. This shot would have leveled most of us, but Jim Mitchell showed his grit, toughness, and fight.
There was an explosion of exaltation when Eric’s rock hit its target, but there was also astonishment and fear that immediately silenced us. We were glad the battle was over, but there was a limit to the damage we wanted to do, even though we didn’t know what that limit was until right now. We mulled around quietly and watched a limping Jim Mitchell lead his gang back to their neighborhood.
“They deserved it,” Matt said, and our tense guilty silence dissipated immediately. Everyone began to chatter about the victory, and the role they played.
In the end there was no less fear of the Mitchell Gang. We stayed out of their neighborhood, and they stayed out of ours. We were hostile before, but now we were at war.
Copyright © 2019 by Mike Sharlow