Kid Gloves

Growing up in Wichita Falls, I was a skinny kid with buckteeth and an inconveniently feminine first name. So I did what I could to work out the anger and fear in my head: I learned how to box. But not very well.
PUT 'EM UP: The author, age 11, spars with coveralls behind his house.

THE COURAGE OF A BOY CHILD in Texas is equated with his balls. It’s a crude metaphor, but it declines to go away. Male Texans are supposed to be rough, tough, and ready for whatever comes down the pike. In the 1830’s the makers of this myth gave up the relative safety of life in the United States and, allied with a few independent-minded Mexican settlers, risked all they had on reports of well-watered timberlands and prairies that billowed in the wind like ocean waves. When the Mexican claimants to that wilderness turned out to be bullies and despots, why, Texans licked their army and kicked them out without help from anybody. And then we beat back the ferocious Indians who had denied the Spaniards and Mexicans real settlement of their Texas province for 150 years. At all costs we stood our ground. It’s a rousing story, though in the mythological version significant details get left out. As a birthright, it’s dangerous, and as a code to live by, it’s horseshit. But who would we be without our myths?

I WAS BORN IN THE ABILENE hospital the evening of March 18, 1945. Daddy put a fair-sized crimp in my boyhood while I still looked scalded. At least Mother claimed the name was mostly his idea. There are fads in naming babies like fads in choosing breeds of dogs. Just after the war, great numbers of American couples named their babies Jan. It was my bad luck that about 99 percent of them were daughters. Many people have since assumed my parents were sophisticates who gave me the European name, pronounced “Yahn.” It’s common throughout Scandinavia and Central Europe—there are Czech national heroes named Jan out the kazoo. But nope, Daddy didn’t know beans about Europe. He just thought it was a handsome name. I never really blamed him. It’s not like all those parents of the baby boomers got together and had a mass consultation. Still, I would be a grown man before I could shrug off some lout sneering, “ ‘Jan!’ That’s a girl’s name!”

My memories of my earliest years are indistinct and few. The images took on sharpness and sequence when Daddy hitched a trailer to his new black Chevrolet and we made the move to Wichita Falls. It was 1949. We first lived in an apartment house downtown. The units opened onto a central hall at the end of which was a single bathroom that all the tenants shared. Mother and Daddy hated that. Daddy was consumed with building us a home. He bought a lot on a new street called Keeler that was just four blocks from his dad’s broad-porched house on Collins.

Though he always voted with labor and the Democrats, my dad was a conservative man. He wanted my sister and me to grow up exactly the way he had. He planned for us to go to grade school at Alamo—built with a brick facade that resembled the iconic Texas fortress—just like he had. Our friends would come from families similar to ours. But Daddy miscalculated: By three blocks, he learned after buying the lot, Keeler was in the district of Ben Franklin, a new school built near the mansions of the Country Club area. I started school with kids whose dads were oil millionaires.

My name wasn’t the only problem. I was skinny and had buckteeth. Other kids at school mumbled through a mouthful of braces; I looked in the mirror and saw Bugs Bunny. I was unsteady of emotion and thought I was ugly. We were blue-collar middle class, but I thought we were poor. Once I was proud of my dad’s ‘48 Chevy; now it embarrassed me. Every morning in front of the school there was a line of Cadillacs. I was uneasy when my mother took a job in a laundry. Why was our own wash hung out on clotheslines in the back yard? Why didn’t we have a washer and dryer like everybody else? At the refinery Daddy wore thick one-piece cotton garments called coveralls. Drying on the lines, they hung in beheaded mannish forms, twisting their arms in the constant breeze. At night I would square off with the coveralls and pound them with my fists. My mother and sister thought it was funny, and they took snapshots of me doing it. I wasn’t pretending to get back at Daddy for some wrong. I think it was more like my first boxing gym. I was trying to work out the anger and fear in my head and turn them into bravery and skill. For sure as sundown, I was going to have to fight.

The fights took place after school in vacant lots and were great fun unless you were one of the fighters. For me they fell into a pattern. I would back up while my opponent walked forward with his fists raised and his friends jeered me. Finally I’d run forward spewing shrill jabber and throwing windmill punches. I lost more fights than I won, but a couple of times my outbursts were so furious that bullies decided to leave me alone. I got in trouble, I eventually noticed, when I started the fights. One foe, Danny Mulligan, was a dark-haired pretty boy who must have been born with a smirk, and he ran with the real toughs. I could be pushed around by that bunch, but I was not afraid of Danny. His scorn of me pissed me off, and I called him out one day right beside the Ben Franklin flagpole. We fought until I staggered around blindly, feeling the blows whang off my head but just not believing the outcome. Finally Danny dropped his hands and said, “Boy, do you want me to make soup out of you?”

IN A TOWN WHERE ATHLETICS WAS everything I was a nobody. I came into my teens when Wichita Falls was enjoying its run as the state’s kingpin of high school football. Our Coyotes reached the state finals four years

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