THE CORNERSTONE OF MY THINKING ON POLITICS

How old would you be if you’d only kissed one girl one
time and got up every morning at 6:30 to pedal around
the neighborhood on your bicycle tossing newspapers in
the direction of your subscribers’ front doors with
considerable accuracy? That’s how old I was when I got
my first lesson in politics.  At that awkward age, I was as
thin as a rail and trembled like a leaf whenever the
thought of a girl crossed my mind, and, so then, quite
naturally I guess, I was continually a-tremble. I thought I
had some friends though; kids I played baseball with in
the summer and football with in the winter and just
generally knew and liked, neighborhood kids. I wasn’t the
most popular kid in the neighborhood, but if you asked
me who was, I couldn’t name the kid. There was no
leader, we were all pretty equal, we all had our flaws,
whatever that amounts to. I was the embarrassingly
skinny, painfully shy one.

So, I was surprised to be invited over to JoAnn Rink’s
garage for a party after school one day.

I was even more surprised when I got there and it was
only me and three girls. I seem to recall saying, “Where is
everybody?” and the girls all giggled as if they might know
something. I was hoping they did, because I sure didn’t.
Then they produced a bottle and, gathering around, they
sat on the garage floor. “Won’t you join us,” Renee
Perkins said seductively. Since this was something I’d had
experience with, I sat down. I was delighted to have
another chance to play this game.
It’d been a few years, I’d given it some thought in the
meanwhile, and I was ready.

At that point JoAnn went outside, and when she came
back in Billy Kilmer was with her. He announced excitedly,
“Quick, let’s go across the street to Tex’s house, there’s
going to be a fight!”

Naturally, since fightin’ was, if not better than kissin’, at
least a lot less stressful, we all grabbed the opportunity to
get up and run out of there. On our way I shouted at Billy,
“Who’s gonna fight?” and he replied over his shoulder,
“George Engel.”

I stopped in midstride.

I was stunned. It was impossible for me to imagine George
Engel fighting anybody—he was a large, slightly goofy-
looking Jewish kid of the quietest, calmest and most
peaceful disposition imaginable. If I’d had to pick a phrase
to describe George Engel it would have to be good-
natured. Kind-hearted would also have described him.
“Who’s he gonna fight?” I shouted.
“You’ll see. Hurry up.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. If George was a
genius, I’d never witnessed the fact, but he was no idiot
either, and surely he knew that he wasn’t a fighter. I was
pretty sure any one of us could take him because he was
just so gentle. But, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would
want to pick a fight with George Engel… because he
was… you know, just so gentle.

When we arrived at Tex Wooster’s house there was no
sign of George Engel anywhere.

I’ll tell you who was there. There was Billy Kilmer, who I
didn’t think would fight George Engel, because he was
too small for the task, and, though a pretty good liar,
basically a chicken; there was Larry Lurie, who I didn’t
think would fight George Engel, because he was a skinny
arrogant pseudo-intellectual of some self-imagined sort,
and his viciousness was strictly verbal or underhanded.
(He was a bigger chicken than Kilmer). There was Tex
Wooster, who I didn’t think would fight George Engel
because they were too much alike. Tex was just a big, aw-
shucks, Texas hillbilly and more puppy-dog than kid;
there was Kenny Leake, who I thought would fight
anybody he was certain wasn’t big enough or strong
enough to beat him (and George Engel just might have
been both.) And, there was me, who never had any
intentions of fighting anyone ever (I don’t know if I was
chicken or not, I guess I was.) And then there were the
girls of course. I was sure none of them was going to fight
George Engel. So, was it some kid we didn’t even know?
Where was this kid who was going to fight George Engel?
And, where was George Engel?

After we got there, everybody gathered in a big circle next
to Tex Wooster’s garage—with the girls hanging around
outside, kinda on the edge of things. I was wondering,
‘What the heck is going on…?’ when someone said very
loudly, “Boy, that George Engel sure is a moron!”
Someone else said, “And his breath stinks! Goddamn,
have you ever smelled his breath?”
And someone else said, “What do you think, Edward?”
I said, “I think George is a nice kid. He’s just quiet. You
know. I never smelled his breath.”
Then someone said, “Man, it’s not just his breath, George
Engel stinks from head to toe. What do you think,
Edward?”
And I said, “I never noticed, really.”
Then someone said, “He’s so gutless. George Engel is
the biggest chicken in the neighborhood.”
And someone else said, “He’s scared of his own shadow. I
think one of these girls could take him. What do you think,
Edward?”
I said, “You know, I think you’ve got him wrong. He’s kinda
religious. I think his religion makes him walk away from
arguments and things. I don’t think it’s because he’s
afraid to fight.”
“But you agree, he’s a big dork, don’t you?” someone
said.
“He is a big dork, isn’t he, Edward?” someone else
chimed in.
“You think he’s just a big stupid dork, don’t you, Edward?”
said one of the girls.
“Well…” I said. “He IS kind of dorky…I have to ad…”
And before that sentence was fully out of my mouth
George Engel rose up from behind the bushes and he
charged me and he wrapped his big arms around me and
he drove me to the ground and he started pummeling me.

The kids all closed in and started shouting.
“Kill ‘im, George!”
“You heard him. He called you a dork!”
“Teach him a lesson, George!”
“Dismember the bastard!”
Meanwhile, all the girls were screamin’ “Get him, George.
Get him, Georgie. Get him.”

Through this event I learned something about friendship
and, obliquely, subsurface, I began to establish a
foundation upon which I would later construct my thoughts
concerning politics.

These were kids I knew. Until that day, if anyone had
asked, ‘Can you name a few of your friends?’ without any
thought, or any hesitancy, their names would have fallen
from my lips like litany.


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