The rattling, banging, rumbling noise of the yellow school bus traveling down the busy street in front of the motel where we were having our breakfast caused me to look up, hesitate with fork in hand, and fix my attention on it. Distracted from my meal, I watched as it rumbled past, stopping occasionally to allow students waiting at bus stops to board and find their seats, before continuing its journey. At each stop, the flashing red lights would toss pulsating beams forward and back to approaching motorists alerting them to the extended stop arm and their obligation to stop. It was an act occurring in many places across the state and country this fine October morning and the sight flooded my mind with vivid memories.
Most of those school memories overloading my circuits were quite pleasant, while others, especially those from my eighth grade junior high year and the first couple of months of my freshman year in high school were not. I often wonder why we, as humans, tend to focus on those memories of shame or hurt as we grow older rather than the much more frequent memories of good times life brought us. I’ve been diligent in trying to forget those distasteful experiences, supplanting them with pleasant thoughts, but watching the bus, caused my diligence to fail momentarily.
Our school district was a consolidated district, bringing a diverse group of students into one location from many others. Students from a couple of small towns, the rural areas, and those of us in the city were all tossed together, attending junior and senior high school in two large buildings. The elementary schools, for the city children, were scattered throughout the city, while the children in the small towns and rural areas attended elementary attendance centers of their own, closer to their homes. I lived at the north end of town, not far from the river and the railroad tracks that ran alongside of it, meandering, winding its way through town like two snake-like ribbons of steel until it crossed the river and, since the city provided transportation for students living more than three miles away from any of the buildings, I rode the bus.
Our house wasn’t in one of the better neighborhoods and once in awhile, the neighborhood would flood when the river rose in the spring, fed by the melting snow up north, covering our end of town with a muddy, flotsam filled, and watery mess. We were fortunate our house had been built just high enough that water didn’t penetrate or flood the premises. Water would be all around us, but not in the house. When it flooded, I’d have to row a small flat boat we owned a couple of blocks so I could catch the school bus, if we had school. Sometimes, if the flooding was too great, school was canceled, but that was very rare.
Dad worked where and when he could and Mom waited tables in a small café not far from home making money in short supply at our house. Neither Mom nor Dad finished high school so employment opportunities were very limited for them. It didn’t help we were experiencing hard economic times in the area, so there weren’t many jobs to begin with. I always figured they didn’t finish high school because of me – I was about four months premature, so they said. I never heard them complain about it though. I was the only child they had and in many ways, it was good since our little house wouldn’t have held any more. The folks had their own bedroom and mine was a remodeled closet Dad made into a bedroom for me, off of the living room. The room was big enough for a single bed and a small dresser. He put a window in the room so I could get some breeze in the summer. Heat for our house was supplied by an oil burner in the living room, so I had to leave the bedroom door open or it would get really cold in there in the winter!
Life wasn’t all that bad, really, as I fended my way through elementary school and the first year of junior high school. My grades were good and I really enjoyed going to school. I was quite shy so I didn’t make many friends or go out for school activities since I didn’t think I’d be able to compete with the other kids. Besides, athletic equipment cost money that we didn’t have.
During the summer, before I started my eighth grade year, a little independent school district north of the city closed and the students who attended there had no place to go except our district. I don’t think everybody was very happy about that, especially some of the kids, at least one I knew of.
The bus I rode to school on extended its route and started picking up most of those students from the closed school district. They were on the bus before I got on in the morning. There was one boy on the bus who was a big bully and it didn’t take him long to zero in on me as someone he could torment, and torment me he did.
I wasn’t a very big guy, even for my age, in fact, I’d guess you’d say I was sort of skinny or scrawny, certainly not well developed and sort of nerdy besides. I was a good student and always received good grades – but I worked hard for them. My teachers were nice and I enjoyed all of my classes, but I especially liked the school lunches. I was on free lunch, although the other kids weren’t supposed to know that, and lunch was sometimes the only hot meal I’d have that day, especially if Mom had to work an evening shift at the café.
The first day on the bus of that school year, I made the mistake of sitting in front of the bully bastard and all he did was pester, pester, and make remarks about how puny I was and how my clothes looked like they came from the Salvation Army. My clothes did, but they were the best I had, there were no others and we just couldn’t afford new. At school, it seemed as if he was in all of my classes, although he wasn’t as good a student as I, in fact he wasn’t very good at all, barely passing most classes. He just couldn’t seem to leave me alone, no matter how hard I tried to avoid him. I hoped when I went to high school he’d be easier to avoid and his meanness toward me would stop since there were over fifteen hundred other students there for him to torment.
My high hopes for a better high school experience were shattered the first day on the bus and every day thereafter in school and on the bus. It was the same old bullshit I’d experienced from him in eighth grade, only it got much worse. The name calling increased; the pushing, shoving, and the pokes in the gut intensified. That’s how I ended up on the Railroad Bridge over the river after the October Homecoming football game. I was at the end of my rope and I figured if he wouldn’t leave me alone, then I’d just leave! All it would take was for me to do a “Peter Pan” off of the bridge into the river and he wouldn’t bother me anymore. I was really afraid of dying, but the thought of facing another day with that bully pestering me was more than I could take. I knew I’d really miss Mom and Dad and I knew they’d miss me, so I guess that’s why I began crying, a sob of anguish, of dissolution, and despair. I looked down at the river and started to take another step nearer the edge of the bridge when I remembered I had my billfold in my rear pocket. There wasn’t any money in it, but for some reason I didn’t want to get it wet. I pulled it out and laid it on the catwalk attached to the bridge.
“I’d leave that in your pocket, if I were you, so they can identify the body,” a voice softly said behind me.
I damn near jumped in the river right then and there, from fright. I hadn’t seen anyone when I walked out on the bridge, I wasn’t very far out on it either, so someone could’ve come up behind me and, as loud as I was crying, I wouldn’t have heard anyone anyway. I started to turn around to see who was speaking to me, when the mystery voice spoke again.
“Take off your tennis shoes; they’re too nice to ruin in the river. Some other kid may as well use them when you’re gone.”
That did it! Who the hell did he think he was, ordering me around when I just wanted to go peacefully? I spun around and spotted him sitting on the riverbank next to the bridge. Curious, I picked up my billfold and walked back on the catwalk off of the bridge to within a few feet of this shadowy, mysterious male. As I neared him, I could see he was a student from high school; in fact, he was a senior and one of the star athletes. I’d just watched him throw the winning pass in the Homecoming football game. For the life of me, I couldn’t see any reason for him being here, interrupting my plans.
“What’cha up to kid?” he queried. “Thinking of taking a swim? The river is damned cold this time of year and you don’t really look like a swimmer to me.”
“I really can’t swim well at all,” was my response. “I just saw it as an easy way to get done what I wanted to do.”
“If that’s what you want to do,” he explained, “there are easier ways to do it. Sometimes it takes a while before a person drowns, but they will eventually. ‘Course, if they can’t find you right away, the turtles and fish nibble all of your pieces parts off and the undertaker has a hell of a job making you presentable for the funeral. A quicker way, but messier, is to lay on the tracks and let a train run over you. The undertaker won’t have much to do then; just scoop you up and put you in a bag of stinky formaldehyde. If you had a gun, you could swallow a bullet and still be presentable. It’d be quick and effective. Now what would your choice be?”
By the time he finished, I was really upset and started to cry again. Why did he have to say such terrible and mean things? I put my head down and sobbed, “You don’t know what I’m going through or you’d want to end it all too.”
Quietly, softly, but with concern in his voice, he said, “Come here, Kid and sit down before you fall down.”
I walked over to him and, when he spread his legs and motioned me to sit down between them, I did and he pulled me back so I was leaning against his tee-shirt covered chest. He slowly opened his heavy, leather letter jack, covered me with it, and wrapped his strong arms around me. He made me feel so safe, so protected, and he smelled so damned good; a mixture of soap, deodorant, cologne, and very male. His strong arms embraced me and I couldn’t have gotten away from him if I tried or wanted to.
“Now that you’re comfortable and warm, why don’t you tell me about it?” he crooned gently.
I breathed in deeply, luxuriating in his pleasantness and, feeling warm and safe, began telling him about my problems with the bully in junior high and how I hoped it would solve itself when I got to high school, but it only continued.
“In high school, his locker is just down the hall from mine so he isn’t that close,” I explained. “He isn’t in any of my classes except physical education. I didn’t grow much over the summer, so, if you looked closely, you’d see I’m pretty puny. According to him, I’m as worthless as tits on a boar pig. When he sees me in the hallways, he knocks my books out of my hands or elbows me or shoves me into the lockers. In physical education, if the teacher isn’t looking, he sucker punches me. In the locker room, if he can get to it first, he throws my towel in the toilet before I can shower. The other kids just let him do it and then laugh.”
“During lunch time, if I don’t hurry up and eat, he comes over, takes stuff off of my tray, and either eats it himself or throws it away. God, sometimes it’d be all I’d have to eat since there wouldn’t be much at home towards the end of the month. We get commodities and food assistance from the county, but they don’t always last until we can pick up more. Mom eats at the café where she works and if Dad is working, he just takes a cheese sandwich. If he doesn’t work, then he fishes and we have fresh fish to eat. They never complain so I guess that’s why I never said anything to anybody, until now.”
“This whole week, he just pestered the hell out of me. This is Homecoming Week and it’s supposed to be fun – for me, it was just pure hell! In physical education class today, as I was coming out of the shower, he grabbed me, held me tight while he shouted, “Come look at the fag boy, the little queer, but watch your asses guys,” then opened the locker room door and shoved me out in the hall. He held the door shut so I couldn’t get back in. Kids walked by in the hall and snickered at me, standing there naked. Nobody, nobody even tried to help! When I finally got back in, the rest of the kids just laughed at me, like they always do.”
“Why did he call you a queer?” my protector asked.
I stifled a sob, choking out, “Because I popped a boner in the shower room. I try not to look at the other guys, but I did and I got stiff. I can’t help it, usually I hurry up and don’t have to worry, but today, it just happened.”
The tears started again, not only in the telling, the remembering, but fear of what my new friend would think of me, knowing I liked boys and not girls.
Instead, he leaned forward, pulling me even closer to his chest, and said softly in my right ear, “All those cocks and balls flopping around in a locker room full of naked boys is pretty tempting, isn’t it? Kind of hard to keep the old wanger in check, right?”
I nodded, answering his question, realizing he wasn’t going to criticize or reject me, and continued, “Today, after school, I went home on the bus and, thank God, he wasn’t on it. I made myself a peanut butter sandwich and decided to go back to school for the game and maybe the dance. Mom has to work the really late shift at the café to help with the baking for tomorrow, so she won’t be home until morning and Dad said he was going catfish fishing all night. I still left Mom and Dad a note telling them where I was going and I might be home late.”
“I didn’t have enough money for a city bus ticket, so I put on my jacket and baseball cap and walked to school. I got there just after the game started. It’s about four miles so it takes a while for me to hike there. I showed my pass to the gate guy and went in. It was really a good game and we won, thanks to you! I was so happy I thought I’d wander over to the dance and see who was there, you know, just kind of hang out. I can’t dance and besides, who would I ask?
When I walked in the door, someone grabbed me from behind and growled, “So, faggy boy, physical education class didn’t teach you to stay away, did it?”
“Spinning me around, I came face to face with the ugly bastard. No wonder he wasn’t on the bus, he stayed in town. When I tried to get away, he sucker punched me and threw me on the ground. Trying to get up, he grabbed my jacket, tore it, and punched me in the face. Mom is just going to have a fit- it’s my only jacket and now it’s ripped and bloody! He gave me a kick, laughed, and walked away. There were other kids standing around watching, but nobody came to help me. What am I supposed to do, Jeff?” risking using his first name. After all, I was just a freshman and he was a senior; a star athlete.
I started crying again, out of frustration and confusion. I turned my head up and looked at him, pleading with him, begging him, to help me. Jeff leaned forward, put his head against mine, hugged me tighter, saying softly, “Well, what do you think you should do? I don’t think what you had in mind would solve the problem, he’ll just find someone else to pick on.”
“I just want him to stop, just leave me alone, but he’s bigger than me and I’m so afraid.”
Jeff was very quiet for a moment, as if pondering my dilemma, then spoke to me, to himself, and the night, “I think we’re all afraid of something, but are we more afraid of it, or of ourselves? I’ve been sitting here for a while and I’m starting to think we’re afraid of ourselves and what other people think more than what’s right for us. Maybe if you went out for some sport or something, you could get a little stronger and fill out more. Do you think that’d help?”
He sat quietly for a few minutes, gently rocking me back and forth in his arms, soothing my anxiety. I wasn’t certain if he was searching for an answer from me or just ignoring my problem.
“I can’t afford to buy the stuff I need to go out for football or track or baseball or anything. There just isn’t enough money at home for that.”
“How about swimming? All you have to do is buy a Speedo swimsuit and I can loan you the money for that. You seemed awfully anxious to take a swim a little while ago. Why don’t you think on that? Besides, you might look pretty sexy in one of those skimpy suits.”
Then, leaning forward once again, he whispered softly in my ear, “In U.S. History, I learned General U.S. Grant, during the Civil War, found out he became a better soldier when he realized the fellow he was fighting was just as afraid of him as he was of the other fellow. Maybe that’s the problem! You need to make the bully bastard either respect you or fear you. Perhaps he’s really afraid of you or something and picking on you is a way of covering it up. I found, in football, the harder I hit, the more reluctant the other guys are to come after me.”
I looked at him and said, “If you’d thump him real good and tell him to stay away from me, I bet he would.”
“Nah - he’d just find a time when I wasn’t around and pick on you some more, only worse. Besides, I graduate this year and will be going off to college, then what would you do? I think this is one fight you’ll have to take on all by yourself. There are times we have to face our own fears and use our strengths to our advantage and stop letting other people push us into doing things we don’t like or want to do. I’ll support you, but I won’t fight. I’ve had enough of fighting and being hurt.”
He was right and I knew it! I just didn’t know how I’d ever be able to stand up to the bully and stop him.
Jeff reached over, across me, and unpinned one of his athletic medals and gave it to me.
“Take this,” he instructed, “and carry it with you and know when you do, I’ll be there with you in spirit. O.K.? Use it to help you find your strengths and use them to your advantage and not someone else’s.”
I nodded and slipped the medal into my pocket. I settled back into his arms, letting his strength and warmth comfort me. I fell asleep like that.
I heard him whisper softly in my ear, “Kid, you’d better wake up and let me take you home. Your folks will be worried about you.”
As I struggled to open my eyes, I could see just a faint glow on the eastern horizon across the river. I’d slept in his arms most of the night! He dropped me off at my house, getting me home before Mom or Dad arrived. When Mom did get home, she asked about my jacket and I told her the whole story about the bully, including what happened in the locker room. She didn’t get upset with me, just kissed me on the forehead like my jock friend, Jeff, did earlier when he dropped me off. Hers, like his, was not a sexual kiss, just loving, understanding, and acceptance of me.
The rest of the weekend I tried to think what my strengths were. I asked Mom and then, Dad, when he got home. They both thought that even though I might be a bit small, I was smart and quick. They were right, so I’d have to use those strengths, but I wasn’t certain how, yet.
Monday morning I boarded the school bus and deliberately sat in the seat in front of the bullyboy. I thought I might as well get this over with. Once the bus started, he leaned forward and hissed, “I see your mommy fixed your clothes for you. Wasn’t that sweet? I’ll just have to work on some others so she has something else to take care of for you. Let’s see if she can wash out the skid marks from your underwear.”
He leaned farther forward and thrust his right hand down the back of my jeans, grabbed the waistband of my boxer shorts, and started to pull up. When he did, I threw myself back into the seat, pinning his arm and hand between the seat and my back. It must have hurt his fingers something terrible, because he howled like a banshee as he pulled his hand free. When he did, I stood up, grabbed my U.S. History book and smashed his face with it, bloodying his nose, and smearing goo all over his ugly puss.
“There,” I said smugly, “take a lesson from U.S. Grant.”
Although the high school principal was very understanding and even sympathetic, he still gave me a three-day suspension from school. It didn’t upset me as much as I thought it might. The nice part about it was, the damned bully stayed away from me from then on.
Heeding Jeff’s advice, I tried out for the school play. I had a minor part, but I was in it. When I looked out in the audience during one of the performances, I saw Jeff and some of his friends. I went out for swimming and didn’t have to borrow money from him for a suit. The coach had some samples from the company and he gave me one – small of course. I couldn’t swim very well to start, but a patient coach and some great teammates helped me learn. I knew I’d never be a star athlete, but I was in enough meets during high school to letter. Most times, when I swam in a meet, I could look up in the bleachers and see Jeff and some of his friends cheering me on.
When he graduated from high school that spring, I attended graduation. I was really proud of him and proud to have him for a friend. I met him after the ceremony and gave him a card. It was all I could afford, but he acted as if it were the most precious gift he’d received all day and gave me a big hug. He really knew how to make me feel special!
Jeff went off to college and I missed him terribly, but the friends I made on the swim team, drama club, and National Honor Society really helped. I think he knew that would happen. At Christmas and every time my name showed up in the paper, he’d send me a card. One Christmas, during my junior year of high school, he and a friend of his came to town and took me out to dinner. We had a great time, telling stories, and just enjoying each other’s company. They were a great couple to know and made me feel very comfortable about myself.
As time went on, I went to college, graduated, and began life with my roommate and partner. Jeff and I kept in contact, usually just a note now and then, and once in a while he and Gary (his life partner) would stop in for a visit. I guess distance and time took its toll and I heard from him less and less. One day, disgusted with myself for not doing so sooner, I informed Jacob, my partner and lover since we roomed together at the university, I was going to contact Jeff and Gary and see what was going on in their lives. I was shocked when my plans were thwarted by the announcement of his death!
My reverie was interrupted when Jacob reached over the café table, touched my arm, and said, “We’re going to have to be leaving soon, the funeral is in an hour and we still have to check out of the motel.”
After we’d paid our bill, loaded up the car, and started toward the funeral chapel, he asked, “Tell me again, why he wanted you to deliver his eulogy.”
“When his nephew called, he said his Uncle Jeff wanted me to deliver his eulogy because I saved his life when he was a senior in high school. I corrected him, informing him it was just the other way around. His response was, ‘Uncle Jeff said you’d say that, but you never knew why he was near the Railroad Bridge that October night, did you? After he took you home, he went back to his own house, removed the pistol from his pocket, and replaced it in his Dad’s dresser drawer. Uncle Jeff said he just couldn’t do it. If you could put up with everything you’d been going through, then he should be able to stand up proud, no matter what the other kids and the community said and thought about his lifestyle.’ I hadn’t realized that he’d been there for the same purpose that I was.”
When we arrived at the funeral chapel and went inside, one of the funeral directors escorted us to the front and seated us with Jeff’s nephew and family. They appeared to be the only family members there. There were a few other people there, not many, but I assumed to be friends of Jeff’s or Gary’s. When I asked where Gary was, Jeff’s nephew sadly informed me he’d passed away about a year and half before from cancer. It was a long battle and really took its toll on Jeff, leaving him very lonely and heartbroken without his long time mate and partner.
Soon, it was my turn to speak. A pastor from some church offered prayers and words of comfort, but really didn’t do justice to my friend. When I walked forward to the lectern, I stopped at the casket, placed my hand on it in a loving gesture, and suppressed a sob. I turned to speak and when I did, I placed my hand in my pocket to touch the ever-present athletic medal Jeff gave me so many years before. Tears swelled in my eyes, as I said,
“Many years ago, on a cold October night, I leaned back into the arms of a wonderful human being. When his arms enfolded me and his warmth enveloped me, I drew strength from his courageous heart and comfort from his gentle voice. Little did I know we were drawing strength, comfort, and stout resolution from each other. That courageous heart and gentle voice has been stilled, but his courage and comfort surround us this day. He was my friend and I miss him so! I know when my days come to an end and I stand on the banks of the Eternal River, I will hear a voice from the darkness call out to me saying, ‘Come here, Kid, and sit down before you fall down.’ I’ll sit down and lean back into those comforting arms once again and stay there until he says, ‘Let’s take a lesson from U.S. History and do as Confederate General Stonewall Jackson said as he neared the end of his days. ‘Come, let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.’”
Thank you for reading Railroad Bridges. Perhaps it is not what you expected or desired, but I hope the message either calls you to action or gives you strength. I cannot abide a bully – I have not and never will. We all must step up, speak out, and stamp this pestilence into the ground before it contaminates and destroys our young. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered young people are victims of that bullying and way too many of them don’t step back from the Railroad Bridge. We need to be there for them, support them, love them, and give them our strength.
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