First punch

Posted on June 21, 2010


I wonder if Vince had group therapy in prison.

Writing about getting slapped while filming a documentary on group therapy (My Starring Role on the CBC) brought to mind the first time I was punched  — just as it did back at the time. My first punch was an experience so oddly bizarre and unexplainable that it could well have served as a rehearsal for the CBC incident.

It happened when I was in grade nine, but that’s not to say that the years before had been free of violence. I always got along with most of the kids at school, but there were often one or two whose desire to injure me couldn’t be suppressed through argument or comedy. This reached a peak during my early grade-school years in Windsor, when a group of three boys waylaid me on my way home, and rubbed my face in the snow until I was bleeding. The incident was sudden, frightening, and not only did it hurt far more than I would have expected, but at one point I felt like I was going to suffocate. Despite this, when I saw blood appearing in the snow I couldn’t help wondering how snow could make my face bleed.

At least it wasn't yellow snow.

As for why my face was being rubbed in the snow — well, kids (and people in general) were always doing some senseless thing or another, and the more senseless it seemed, the more likely it was to involve violence. I had absolutely no idea why three kids, perfect strangers at that, had attacked me.

I was just relieved they didn’t damage my violin.

In another incident (grade seven, out in the country), a school bully I had seen only in passing, and two of his friends, backed me against a tree on the playground. This time, however, things ended far more satisfactorily. I talked to him until the bell rang, whereupon he slapped me on the shoulder saying, “You’re all right. I’m going to remember you in my will.”

I was pretty pleased about the outcome, but I can also remember a profound, and uncomfortable feeling of disgust towards him: partly for being such a jerk, but also for being so easily manipulated. Whatever it was I’d said to him hadn’t included anything but my third-rate material.

It wasn’t until my first year in high school (still in the country — a truly peaceful place) that I ran across the most serious threat to my physical safety.

My friend, Henk, and I were walking along during lunch hour, deep in discourse on some important subject or other — quite possibly the most recent episode of The Monkees (really — don’t judge). I was looking down at the ground ahead of me and saw a pair of feet suddenly appear. I stepped to one side. So did they.

I looked up, and there was this big kid (probably grade ten) grinning at me. I looked to my right, but instead of Henk, I saw another kid facing me with a threatening demeanor. Turning further, I could see Henk almost behind me. He looked really worried, and, when I realised I was surrounded by upwards of seven or eight kids, I thought I could understand the reason.

It certainly worried me.

I turned back to the smiling kid who said something. I said something in return, then he said something, and so on. I don’t remember any of it.

Then he asked, “What would you do if I hit you?”

I really didn’t want him to hit me. I don’t like pain at the best of times (whatever that phrase might mean under the circumstances), and I was pretty sure that if he started to pound on me, the rest of the circle would join in, multiplying the pain significantly.

In short, I was scared shitless.

On the other hand, having never been punched in such a straightforward fashion, I realised that I didn’t actually know what would happen if he hit me.

“Well,” I said, “If you hit me in the stomach I’d probably bend double…”

And just like that — *snap* — I saw Henk’s face.

It was only a flash, but clear as a photograph. It was so clear that it stunned me into silence. Carefully I turned my head far to the right where I could see Henk looking pretty much the way he had in my visual snapshot only seconds earlier.

Although it felt like a hallucination, I ruled it out as too unlikely. Which meant that, for a moment, I had physically turned my head. But this didn’t make sense because — well, because I hadn’t turned my head! I remember briefly wondering if the fear had induced some kind of seizure.

I don’t know how long I stood there trying to work things out, but it was at least 20 seconds or more — long enough that the smiling kid was losing his smile (an ominous sign, I thought — not that it had been that reassuring to begin with,) and the guys around me were beginning to fidget. By then, however, a possible explanation was starting to suggest itself. If I’d been hit on the left side of my face, I reasoned, then my head would have snapped to the right and back again, thereby allowing me the glimpse of Henk. It accounted for everything.

Except — if I’d been hit in the face, shouldn’t I have felt it?

Still, it seemed the only conclusion possible, and had the advantage of being easy to confirm or deny.

“Did you just hit me?” I asked the now-not-so smiling kid.

I really don’t know exactly what happened next. I do know that he never answered me, but everyone ended up going away and, most importantly, there was no fight. I finished off the lunch hour with Henk, trying to get a handle on why this strange kid had decided to hit me.

At least I didn’t get any blood on my burgundy outfit.