Most of you may think I was into just about everything when I was 5 years old. Maybe I was, but I didn’t think at the time that what I was doing was bad or mean-natured. I was just a child who had a lot of time on my hands, and I did get into some things that I should not have.
The time period that comes to mind would be that of early fall 1959. I was about to enter the first grade. Back during that time period in the rural South, there was no kindergarten . I cannot say that kindergarten didn’t exist in the Southern cities, but it was not to be found in Obion County, Tennessee.
As with most of my memories, they are associated with beautiful sunny days with cloudless, bright blue skies. This day was to be for me a most remarkable day, not just because of the sky, but also the fact that I was going to school.
Prior to that day about a week before, I was taken to Union City to get school clothes. It was such a special day, since in the past, I had never gone to town. I had never seen anything like a city, even as small as this one was. There were so many people and so many stores. I was taken into a department store and could not believe my eyes. There was so much to look at, it was almost like a dream for this small child.
My mother bought me two pairs of blue jeans and two shirts. My pride peaked with the high top-black gym shoes.
The shoes were the first that I can remember that were actually bought just for me and were not hand-me-downs from family members or friends of the family. I was so proud of that $2 pair of shoes. I was not allowed to put them on, for they were school shoes, as my mother had told me, but I did hold them all the way home back to our valley.
Just like any other child, I was waiting and thinking about their first day of school. I was a bundle of nerves, not even knowing what nerves were at that time. I guess I should have said that I was excited, but there again, at 5 years old I did not even know what excited meant. No sleep was to be had — or it was fitful sleep at best.
Morning did come, and I was ready for my first real adventure, or at least I thought I was. It all began with the shoes. Oh, my God, I was on top of the world; they were now on my feet. That feeling of your first pair of store-bought shoes for a poor child, is one I cannot explain to you. But I know that there are those of you who will read my words and you also will remember that feeling.
Now, when I look back on that time in my life, I look at a much better time than what we live in now.Life was simple — we were all poor, but we didn’t know it, and it did not matter as we were at a happy point in our lives. We were naïve to life and what it would bring us later.
I will be accused of rambling on and on, and so be it; this is my story. With the shoes on my feet, I ran and ran and ran. I was as fast as the wind, I could not stop. I was so happy. Now it was off to the bus stop, and the first lesson of waiting — the life lesson of hurry up and wait.
I had never been on a bus, all we had was an old pickup truck. But, here it came, a big yellow tank of a vehicle that roared to a stop. I was greeted by the bus driver and told to get on and find a seat. I was so excited to be with all the other kids, some I knew, others I did not.
This would be the first time I would have the experience of being bullied, but not the last.
I found a seat, and everything was fine for the moment. As I sat there looking out the window, an older boy turned around. He was on his knees and looking at me. He asked me my name and I did reply with Robert Lee. His response was, “I don’t know you.”
He then said to me, “That’s a nice shirt.” I replied with a big smile and told him my mother bought it for me . I told him that it was a school shirt. At this point, I though that I had a new friend, but I would find out in the next moments that he was a friend from Hell.
He looked at the top button and said, “Do you want that button?” I replied with yes. At that point, he tore the button off and gave it to me. I was heartbroken. He went to the next button and asked, “Do you want that button?” Again I said yes. He promptly tore it off and gave it to me.
I was in shock over what was happening to me and my new shirt. Then the question came again: “Do you want that button?”
By this time, I had wised up — or so I thought. My response was no, and the button was torn off and thrown out the bus window. I was sickened as I did not know what to do because there were still more buttons. By the time we got to school, I had four buttons in my little hand, and there were four buttons on the side of the road somewhere, never to be found again.
As age goes, I was still a baby at 5 years old. This baby was in tears for the loss of his shirt, but not tears of fear. They were tears of rage. The only people in my life who have ever made me cry because of fear were my mom and dad, and they gave me good reason for the tears.
When the bus stopped, the bully told me that if I did not bring him a candy bar the next day, he would rip the buttons off again. I only had one more shirt. At this time, I did all that I could do. I shoved my right thumb into his left eye and busted his nose with my left fist. With his nose swollen up like a water balloon, his eyes filled with tears also, but not for the same reason as mine.
First day at school, first day in the principal’s office, first day I got five licks with a leather strap.
Now there were tears of fear — not for any man, but for that leather strap.
I had to shake hands with the bully and make up. That’s what he thought.
You see, I was raised in the South by a Southern mother as many of you were. I was raised to have a strong backbone. I was also told that if I did not fight back, it was going to be a bad day for me, and you all understand what that means.
I am not saying that moms in the north did not teach their kids the same thing, but we were truly taught to be strong and not back down. Many of you know this.
Now for that bully, I did bring him a candy bar the next day. The only chocolate that was in the house. I took it out of the paper wrap that it was in and put it in tinfoil to protect it.
That chocolate was named Ex-Lax, I think that’s how you spell it. He ate the whole bar right in front of me and did not want to share it.
Funny thing, a bit later on in the day, he had to go home. He did not even come to school the next day.
It all had something to do with his stomach. You see, even at 5 years old, I don’t think that I was your average 5-year-old. Then and now, I don’t mess with nobody, so I don’t want anybody messing with me.
Leave me alone and I will do the same for you. By the way, I have some chocolate bars if you want to come by and get one. Happy days to all.
Robert Lee is a concerned citizen and former U.S. Marine who owns and operates Rockingham Guns and Ammo.