Gentlemen, choose your weapons

Bob McKee

The very first pair of authentic brass knuckles I ever saw made their presence known by being waved in my face shortly after starting my seventh-grade year at Pipkin Junior High School in Springfield, Mo.

They were not being extended to me as a gift. 

Another new seventh-grader had them firmly attached to, not in, his right hand on the first day we were turned loose to work on our own on projects in a huge woodworking shop. Sometime later, the same kid showed me a switchblade knife, a real one, not the cheap “toys” I had seen — and even owned (for the novelty of it, not for use) — along with every other 12-year-old boy in the neighborhood.

I had heard of brass knuckles, of course, and had heard thought-provoking stories about switchblade knives with six-inch stiletto blades designed for serious work. But I had not seen either until that intense and educational day at Pipkin. Back then, Pipkin was sort of a melting pot where kids from Springfield’s diverse neighborhoods came together for three years (seventh, eighth and ninth grades) before moving on to the even bigger melting pot that was Central High School, Springfield’s only public high school at the time. 

So Pipkin brought together — for the first time in most cases — “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver” type kids from central and west Springfield to interact with “Blackboard Jungle” kids from the somewhat seamy east side of town. 

Not that the east side was entirely bad, or that it automatically spawned seventh-grade psychopaths. One of my best friends in junior high school was from the east side and my maternal grandparents lived on the east side, in one of the better east side neighborhoods, of course.

But my nemesis in woodworking shop, Jack, was not from one of those good east side neighborhoods. Not at all. Jack lived in a two-room shack about two feet from a slaughterhouse. Maybe living close to all that death warped his sense of values when it came to fitting in with the rest of junior high school society. I’m not divulging Jack’s last name, not because he still intimidates me, but because he may be an investment banker now, or a circuit judge somewhere.

I learned later that the brass knuckles and switchblade knife and, after Jack matured for three or four days longer, a sawed-off .22 rifle were gifts from his father, an ex-convict, world class drunk, wife and child beater.

Jack had a buddy, David, who was about three-foot-nothing with a six-foot mouth. The problem was that David could back up his mouth even when Jack wasn’t around to intimidate whomever David was bracing at the time. I’m not using David’s last name either. I heard he had a growth spurt in high school after his family moved to southeast Arkansas and then played eight seasons as a middle linebacker for the Detroit Lions.

What brought on the woodworking shop confrontation was a casual remark to Jack and David from one of my “friends” that I was the toughest kid in the neighborhood. I wasn’t, of course, but this so-called friend had a penchant for stirring the pot, so to speak. Our woodworking projects were to turn three-foot pieces of wood into a beautiful lamp by working it on a lathe. I had the raw piece of wood in my hand, but forgot all about it in my fascination with the brass knuckles.  

I thought (briefly) that my ready-to-fight stance and steely 12-year-old eyes made Jack and David hesitate. 

What I didn’t know was that three of my friends, including the one who sparked the confrontation with his pot-stirring remark, were standing behind me, all holding similar three-foot lengths of potentially beautiful hardwood lamps. 

Still that wasn’t the real reason Jack and David thought it wise to back off. Mr. Crabtree, the shop teacher, was standing silently behind my three friends waiting for the dance to begin. When I turned and saw his face, I wondered why his glare hadn’t melted the brass knuckles on Jack’s right hand.

Mr. Crabtree was really old, probably 30-35, but as solid as the chunks of raw wood he taught us to turn into works of art in his shop class. Jack and David never bothered any of us west side kids in shop after that. Our weapon of choice, Mr. Crabtree, saw to that.

Of course there were a couple of run-ins with Jack and David out of Mr. Crabtree’s rules-of-engagement territory, but I always seemed to be in the company of guys looking for that perfect piece of oak or hickory to turn into a lamp.