When I was in junior high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, in the early 1960s, I was one of a number of students bused into town from a nearby Air Force base. The usual "townie" versus "base" relationships I'd experienced in previous postings in other parts of the country played out much as expected. The base kids were generally accepted -- the girls more than the boys -- and the town kids were tolerant, if just a bit standoffish. Friendships did form, but as the military kids knew, such friendships were always compressed -- starting quickly and ending quickly -- simply due to the transient nature of our fathers' assignments. Additionally, the intra-military-kid relationships were often just as fleeting; when you attend 12 schools in 12 years as I did, it's hard to form lasting attachments even among your peer group. The bottom line is, as a military brat attending a school in a town you don't know well, with other military kids who really don't know you well, you frequently fend for yourself in some social situations.
In 1962, I found myself in just such a situation. I was a scrawny 13-year-old, in no way wise to, or prepared for, the world of a band of street-smart town kids whose leader, a swaggering 14-year-old boy, singled me out as an object to be bullied. The group of toughs would wait for me to come down the front steps of the school at the end of the day, on my way to the air base bus that shuttled the military kids back home. The band's leader would grab me and pull me to the side of the steps, hit me once or twice and demand whatever money I had left from my lunch allowance. Of course, I gave it to him. My bus-waiting base companions stood by, possibly sympathetic, but certainly not sympathetic enough to step in on my behalf. Sometimes, the bully would just hit me because he could. Surrounded by his circle of thugs, I rarely made a move to fight back -- I simply didn't know how, and I doubted anyone would help me even if I tried.
After a few weeks of being a punching bag for a school-yard criminal, I began to show some bruising that long-sleeved shirts or pajamas couldn't hide. A swollen and purplish mark on my face finally caught my father's attention, and after a few minutes of beating around the bush, I came clean and confessed my weakness. My father did something I had not expected. He did not call the school; he did not try to find out who the bully was. He taught me to fight back.
In a few short lessons, he showed me the simplest, most effective way to deliver a punch to the face, and he reinforced the lesson with one mantra: "Hit first, hit fast, hit hard." He said he'd learned the same thing while a cadet at West Point, and because he didn't like boxing, he'd figured out how to end a match quickly so that he wouldn't have to pound or be pounded for any unnecessary rounds. He also told me that I shouldn't expect any of my friends to come to my aid -- not because they didn't like me, but because they were too afraid, at that age, to do anything. I would be on my own.
A few days later, as I left the school to catch the bus, I saw the mean gang waiting for me at the bottom of the steps. I was still their scrawny target, and my base pals began to distance themselves from me. The bully stepped forward, putting himself between me and the bus stop. I cannot remember a single thought that prefaced my action, but I suppose weeks of being terrorized came to a boil. In one flashing moment I punched cleanly into the bully's face and he went down like a 100-pound bag of sand.
Nothing more was done or said. I got on the bus. None of my base friends commented or displayed any kind of support or relief. My dad took it as fact and I went on with being a 13-year-old. The bully never approached me again.
When a kid, or a nation, or a community of nations, is terrorized by a bully who acts with unconcealed confidence that no one will challenge him or intervene on behalf of his victims, it is up to each kid, each nation, each community of nations, to stop being afraid and act quickly, powerfully, and decisively. Two hundred and ninety eight victims of a bully's unrestrained terrorism by proxy need not just a voice -- that time is past -- but a united action to bring an end to the bully's brutal reign. It can be done. It must be done.