On the night before I entered 7th grade, my across-the-street, 9th grade neighbor Joe, while we were enjoying spareribs at our family’s annual Labor Day picnic, gave me this advice:
“Be careful tomorrow. You never know who’s carrying a switchblade.”
I grew up in the switchblade era. I’d hear talk at home about beer brawls in the rougher sections of town where combatants would pull switch-blade knives on each other and fight it out, often to the death. In fact, Joe’s family’s handy-man–Elijah who had conked red hair and carried his own ladder—was murdered in a switchblade fight. I knew Elijah. He was friendly enough, but my senses—or was it my grandmother’s voice—warned me to not hang around him too long, as I did with the various other maids and yard men of our circle of friends. I was only ten when reports of the incident made their way through our neighborhood hotlines, the usual afternoon phone sessions where my mother and grandmother and all their friends might tie up the lines for literally hours.
“What does a switchblade look like,” I asked Joe. At that moment, I felt as threatened by a switchblade as I was by the cottonmouths that my parents told me slithered in and near the creek down the street from my house.
“Never mind what they look like,” Joe cautioned. “Just keep close to the lockers and never get in the way of a ninth-grader, or anyone else for that matter. You never know who’s been left-behind.”
I couldn’t enjoy the rest of my supper that night and refused the homemade vanilla ice cream altogether.
“It’s OK” my Daddy said later. “Joe’s Mom forgot to put sugar in it again.”
So there I stood: My first day at Bessemer Jr. High in these switchblade times. The front entrance doors opened garage-door wide and I thronged in with my new classmates. The main office lurked just to the right of this entrance, which didn’t really assure me that any “hood” wouldn’t try to sneak in a dangerous weapon. Because, I noticed in my first breathtaking moment of junior high, the office had no windows, on the door or elsewhere. And neither on this day or any other in my experience there did the principal–Mr. Camp, whose larynx had been crushed, reportedly, in some foreign war—nor the assistant principal—Mr. Davidson, a red-haired and, I’d been warned, hot-headed man—ever stand in the front doorway to frisk the entrants. Joe told me that if you ever got caught with a switchblade, you were automatically expelled. I wondered how, if they weren’t checking at the door, our school guardians could ever catch anyone with that venomous weapon. I considered my chances of surviving that year fifty-fifty at best.
I hadn’t been in school for a week when I saw my first fight, the first in what seemed an every-other-day occurrence. Once, Russell Aldrich tore a hunk of Don Griffis’s hair out of the side of his head. Having a bald spot in seventh grade is maybe a badge of honor. It certainly didn’t hurt Don’s success with the girls. And then, a giant of a ninth grader, Biff Wyatt, allowed himself to be pummeled into submission by a wiry kid named Bobby Ray Ledbetter. I saw Biff on the ground, struggling to cast off Bobby Ray’s “bulk,” his face a red ribbon of strain and shame. Most of these fights were set up during school hours and then enacted just after the 3:00 bell, behind the school and just beneath the gymnasium window. On any given week there might be a feature event three or four days straight; never was there a week with fewer than two.
Maybe the strangest and scariest of these for me occurred on a cold, cloudy afternoon in early December when, as I was walking up the hill to my Mom’s car, I saw Bruce Duncan, the first Black kid who’d ever spoken to me in elementary school, walking among a crowd of white boys. When I reached our car, they passed me, heading across the street and under the railroad viaduct. A few minutes later, our car passed, and in a vacant lot I saw Bruce, entangled on the ground with one of the boys. The others were gathered in a semi-circle watching, cheering, or so it seemed to me since our windows were rolled up as we passed. We turned the next corner, out of sight, but I kept thinking of that scene and how as they passed me on their way to the battle, they seemed like they were going over to someone’s house for a game of football in the front yard.
I didn’t see anyone with a switchblade during that grappling moment. Nor did I see one over the next few months of school, though like those snakes that I never saw either, I just knew that someone’s switchblade was out there, somewhere, waiting for me.
Education is a funny experience. Not everything you see will educate you in the way that your guiding elders intend, and just when you’re distracted enough from real or unreal fears, someone arises to impart a valuable lesson. Such was the case with my educational experience in the face of Pat Boone’s immortal art film, The Cross and the Switchblade.
In my 7th grade year, I came home straight from school every day, and after a light snack, immediately tackled my homework. I was allowed to pause for a game of football with friends in my own front yard, but I could not watch TV until every last bit of my geometry, composition, or science homework lay exhausted in my notebooks. In my leisure time I read biographies of famous Americans; Ray Bradbury stories; Batman comics; and the Sports Page of The Birmingham News, our afternoon paper. While I didn’t always eat my vegetables at dinner (steamed cauliflower smells exactly like sewage), I generally obeyed my parents’ every command: I always asked permission to go to a friend’s house; took out the garbage after supper; raked every leaf I could see in early fall. I was no cause for worry or alarm.
And I didn’t need help from a born-again Christian crooner-turned-auteur.
Yet, as part of a Methodist Youth Fellowship experience, one winter Friday night, my church friends and I packed into Birmingham’s Empire Theater to take in Pat Boone’s personal epic. Munching my highly-salted popcorn, over the next ninety-five minutes I watched Pat take on and convert a switchblade-wielding gang. For all of those minutes, as I observed his white bucks, his plastic bromides, and his strangely combed hair, I just knew that he would be sliced to ribbons, packaged up, and delivered to the nearest 4-H clubhouse by my junior high peers: Hollis Todd who wore no underpants (I know, because he made no secret of it when he stood at the urinal next to me); Phillip Barnes, who was rivaled in uncouthness only by Hollis’ sister Judy (who reportedly staged many fights herself with girls and guys); and Wayne Whitlock, a six foot one, eighth-grader, who could scale the ten-foot wall on the obstacle course using only one arm.
I remember riding home that night with my best friend Jimbo in the back seat of his Mother’s station wagon. WSGN-AM, “The Big 610,” was following up “Crimson and Clover” with “Honky Tonk Women.”
“What did ya’ll think of the movie?” Jimbo’s Mom cheerfully and optimistically asked.
“Oh, it was OK,” we responded in unison which, if you understand teenage lingo, translated into: “It was beyond stupid, and thanks a lot for ruining another weekend night on this crap when we could have been at a party, attempting to kiss a girl or something.”
“I thought it was really inspirational,” she replied, hopefully. “You can take a lot of comfort and learn a lot of lessons from these movies!”
Sigh. No one but an adult would believe that Pat Boone could turn the hearts and minds of my hoodish peers who wouldn’t even need the switchblades that I was sure they owned, but never saw in those early months of school.
However, I did see the Reid brothers, Saul and Paul, who were as distinct as fraternal twins can be.
Saul was sixteen when he re-entered the seventh grade. He had tattoos on both arms—faded-green 1969-era tattoos that I thought only cab drivers and filling station attendants dared. And Saul’s muscles, so clearly defined that in semi-flex they rippled to such an extent that even class princess Rennie Robinson expressed wonder at them. These muscles seemed to discount Saul’s needing a switchblade to keep us puny junior high pawns in our places. So full of swagger, with greased hair flipping up both in front and back, Saul held us all in contempt, and we held him in abject fear, complete and stupefying terror, but also with a strange and mesmerizing respect. For Saul, among other feats of scholastic daring, told everyone that Fridays were his day off, and after a few weeks, most teachers just skipped his name during Friday roll call. On the other days, instead of answering “Here,” or “Present,” Saul had his own cultural signifier: “Accounted for.” And in some way that I didn’t yet understand, he certainly was.
Truthfully, if you were smart, you did want Saul accounted for. During the first week of school, after having been exposed to Saul for maybe three days, I was sitting on the bleachers during gym class with my good friend Randy Manzella. Waiting for Coach Brewer to appear and so inform us of the remarkable feats of athletic prowess that we would be attempting this school year, Randy and I didn’t account for Saul, who had slowly and imperceptibly crept closer to our row. Randy was no doubt filling my ears with yet another horror story he had heard about gym class–about boys popping your exposed rear with wet towels, or stealing your clothes as you showered. We vowed right then and there never to shower in gym class, and I suppose our false bravado set us up for Saul.
So sitting there, believing that our greatest problem concerned not appearing naked in the showers, we allowed Saul—that undulating cottonmouth—to strike. Except that Randy, God Bless him, wore thick glasses with wide black frames, and even Saul had a code. So it was I and I alone who qualified as Saul’s prey. Up until this very moment, Saul and I had never spoken or even exchanged looks, or at least he had never caught me looking at him. Of course, everyone looked at Saul, just like everyone stares hypnotically at the reptile pit in the zoo, wondering just what prey continues to wriggle in that particular viper’s throat.
So consider me the hamster.
His voice conveyed no trace of anger, vitriol, or, class-envy. His tone sounded the same pitch and inflection as all those “Accounted for’s” we heard that year. Yet, the words themselves clearly communicated his menace.
“That’s my spot, and if you don’t get up by the time I count to ten, you’re gonna get it.”
And Saul showed me his flexed arm, which had extended from it at its the very end, not the switch-blade that had recently haunted my days and nights, but a massive, scarred fist. Displaying this prize, he began counting.
Each of us has a particular experience that gives special, personal meaning to the phrase “Words failed me.” This, of course, was mine.
By this point–“three, four…” Randy and the entire Manzella family had set sail for their native Sicily. Actually, since he was the smartest kid in our class, Randy, with the encouraging words, “You better move,” slid off his seat and found another, maybe five rows below us. Yet, hypnotized by Saul’s viperous arm, I couldn’t.
And so I wondered: Would a cross, at this late moment, make any difference at all? Would I stand a chance against the demon of my adolescence had I Pat Boone’s smooth, silver-tongued delivery or his plasticine comb-over instead of my own frozen larynx and Beatle-bangs?
Good old Pat!
Would he ever be able to account for a viewer like me, the product of a mixed Protestant-Jewish family–a family who definitely did not own a cross?
I had seen crosses and actually touched a few in my time. My Dad worked in a jewelry store, and I had my first summer job there, just before this school year started. The store, Standard Jewelry Company, was in my Dad’s family, so we were Jewish jewelers though no family name adorned any store signpost. And not only did we sell crosses, but crucifixes, and other jeweled Christian icons too. I knew that ordinary crosses were off-limits to me, but once I did ask Dad to get me a surfer’s cross. My favorite male TV stars wore them, and so I assumed that girls would think they were cool. That these cool talismans also looked like the German Iron Cross escaped me then. Nevertheless, Dad got me the cross, which I then promptly gave to the girl-of-my-dreams, Joe’s sister Mary Jane, who just as promptly handed it off to her little sister. Did this mean that I was going steady with a nine-year old named Margaret Lou?
But even if I hadn’t given it away, Saul wouldn’t have been impressed by it. Maybe I could have told him about the legend of the surfer’s cross and the story of my unrequited love for the beautiful blonde-haired girl whom I watched in secret every day from my living room window. Maybe he was a closeted Jan and Dean surf-rock fan, for wasn’t my story the stuff of every 60’s teenage pop song? Maybe hearing my tragic lament, he would take pity on me or be so bored that he’d forget he was counting my fate.
These thoughts, though seemingly endless, had gotten us to the count of seven. My arm, Saul’s intended target, was already beginning to ache.
But that’s when the Pat Boone miracle happened.
Saul had just counted “eight,” when the gym office door opened. Out from this inner sanctum strolled not a man in white bucks, but one in black cleats: Coach Billy “Bomber” Brewer, who was also an itinerant Baptist preacher. As the year went on, many guys in gym class would come to accuse “Bomber” of cheating, as he would call invisible fouls or interference whenever he had, or lost, the ball during the innumerable football and basketball games that composed most of our gym periods that year. On this day, however, the gym grew quiet, not so much because he was standing there, but because of what he had in his hand: A three-foot long, solid wood board, which, supposedly, he had named “The Little Bomber,” after himself.
To this day I’ve never figured out how he knew what was transpiring ninety feet from his office without being able to see through those plaster walls. I suppose he knew that he had to account for Saul eventually and not let more than a couple of minutes go by without checking off his presence.
Whatever the case, Coach Brewer walked straight to us, never wavering, never looking elsewhere.
“Saul, get down here right now and grab those ankles!”
Saul, fist still poised above my already-wincing arm, had no excuse, no recourse.
So he complied. He descended the bleachers, walked right up to Coach, and bent over, grabbing those ankles in front of the entire gym class, God, and Pat Boone. Then “The Little Bomber” went to work. Three loud whacks that echoed like Bible thumps throughout the gym. To his credit, Saul held firm, and when Coach said “Get up, and go back to your seat,” Saul did. But first, he extended his hand to “Bomber” and said, “Hey! They were good ‘uns.”
Saul left me alone after that. Oh, he might occasionally speak in my direction:
“You’re fat, you know that?”
Of course, I did.
The only other encounter we had occurred during our class spelling bee trials. Since I was one of the champion class spellers, our teacher often allowed me to call out the words in practice sessions. On one particular afternoon, as I was anticipating which words those standing in line were bound to get, I saw Saul waiting his turn. My eyes skipped down the page to see the word he would be forced to spell.
When his turn came, I looked him in the eye and called it out:
“Conversion.” He looked puzzled for a moment. Our eyes met again, and then he started:
I waited, wondering. And hoping.
“That’s right,” I confirmed.
Saul neither smiled nor nodded. He merely took his place in the back of the line, waiting for his next word, or for the bell, or for something else that I would never understand. I wondered whether he was proud of himself, and if that pride might translate into something greater if he could just spell the next word correctly. I tried glancing down the list as my classmates struggled through “conversant” and “convoluted.” But I didn’t have a chance to see what would happen, for the bell for last period rang then, and we were off to the greater glories of Reading Lab or Machine Shop which is where I lost Saul each day. On this day, and this day only, I was actually a bit sad.
He never converted, by the way. Maybe in part because his brother Paul had reconstituted himself by Saul’s standards into a “normal” student—meaning one who wanted to stick it out at least until high school.
And yes, before school officially released us for the summer, I saw Saul’s switchblade. It was during science class. He had waited and waited, and finally, to impress Rennie Robinson, he brought it out, switched it open, and then, after maybe ten seconds, carefully closed it and returned it to his front left pocket. It was all rather anti-climatic, for by that point in the year, I had already experienced too much. I had even given a girl a box of candy for Valentine’s Day: Debbie Patterson who was rail-skinny and had the longest, waviest blond hair I had ever seen, and who claimed to be part Cherokee.
“See how crooked my nose is? Just like an Indian!”
Two days after I gave her the candy she broke up with me because “I never called her.”
It really didn’t matter so much to me because at least I had one girlfriend in seventh grade.
Besides, when Saul showed me that menacing switchblade, he also did something else that he had never done before.
He called me by my name.
“That’s how you open it, Terry.”
Saul didn’t make it to the end of that school year. He turned seventeen in April and so, as he pledged he would, he left us behind, journeying out into the Damascus of his life: A crossroads of glittering switchblade fame, a perpetual small-town rebellion.
It might make a nice, Hollywood ending if I said I never heard from or saw him again. That way I could leave him painted as defiant, plagued, and maybe even repentant, in an adult and rehabilitated life.
But I did see him again. It was three or four years later, my high school years. Shopping for Christmas at our local mall with my mother and brother, I looked up and coming out of WT Grant’s, I saw a man and a woman pushing a baby stroller. The woman was a bleached blonde, a little heavy, but that could have been the after-effects of her pregnancy. I had never seen her before. But something looked familiar about the guy. He looked… would “beleaguered” be the right word? “Haunted?” I watched them for a minute as they strolled closer. And then I knew it was Saul. He had gained some weight. He had “settled,” so to speak.
I imagined this little family taking their purchase from Grant’s or Super-X Drugs home, and gathering that night in front of their Motorola watching “The Movie of the Week.” Maybe they’re eating burgers or Dinty Moore Stew. Maybe they have a beer or two and remember to give the baby his bottle. And maybe they keep the knives they cut their burgers with safely out of the baby’s reach. I’d like to think so anyway.
I saw another movie unfold in those few moments, but I didn’t stare too long. For I had seen crosses and switchblades in my small Alabama town. And I had survived them all.
Terry Barr lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his wife and two daughters. A native of Bessemer, Alabama, he graduated from the University of Montevallo in 1979 and went on to earn a Ph.D in English at The University of Tennessee in 1986.
He is currently Professor of English at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, where he teaches courses in Modern Novel, Film Studies, and Creative Writing. He has had scholarly essays published in Southern Jewish History, The Quiet Voices: Rabbis in the Black Civil Rights Era, Studies in Popular Culture, and has creative essays published in The American Literary Review, The Battered Suitcase, and moonShine review. He is working on a collection of essays about growing up in Alabama and his journey from being Christian to Jewish and to marrying an Iranian émigré.