By Ed Davis
The fight was between a seventh and eighth grader in the alley behind the drugstore we crammed into at lunch for a grilled cheese and a Coke. It was the usual scenario with a crowd of boys hollering the usual taunts, the release from junior high school boredom even more intoxicating than stolen beer.
I wouldn’t have been there, but, during art class, my friend Gary told me that he couldn’t let Tony Marcum’s harassing of his little brother pass. Even his father had said so. I’d been amazed by Gary’s calm in the face of violence. I’d never been in a fight myself. The year before, I’d witnessed one between high school boys. There was no pushing, shoving or wrestling. Instead, they smashed bare knuckles into each other’s faces. This would be different. Gary was a really good guy; no way the bully would win.
I’d had a run-in with Tony myself a year earlier, when I’d been walking past the junior high on Straley Avenue headed to my grandparents’ house. I saw Tony and a buddy sitting on the high wall outside the school too late or I’d’ve crossed the street or cut down an alley, since, by this time, I was an expert at avoiding bullies. I was almost past when Tony hollered, “Eat me!” They busted a gut laughing. I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but I knew from their glee I’d been dealt a humiliating blow—a cost to my developing ego, yes, but a small price to pay, since Tony could’ve easily beaten the shit out of me.
As he did Gary.
In about ninety seconds my friend lay on the pavement, face bloodied, Tony exulting above him like a boxer who’d won the world championship. I slunk away, holding back tears. I hated fighting, hated Tony Marcum, a whole year older than Gary. A hood, a loser, a bully.
Two years later, when I let my circulation manager know I was quitting my paper route, the boy he found to take over was Tony Marcum. Of course, I remembered him as an enemy and a bully, but he didn’t remember the random kid he’d insulted in front of the junior high, showing off for his pal. And I’m sure he’d long forgotten his fight with Gary, having doubtless gone on to greater glory. What I recall is how polite Tony was to my mom when he showed up at my apartment to find me, eager and grateful to be taking over my route. I could’ve almost believed he was a nice guy until I remembered my friend’s bloody face. I kept my mouth shut and nursed my grudge.
In ninth grade, I had the good luck to be asked by three high school guys to play bass guitar in the band they were forming. The King’s English became a pretty damn good little (mostly) Rolling Stones cover group till, after about fifteen months, the band died in a heap of bad feelings. Wounded and wondering what to do next, I was approached one day by the leader of another band to attend a practice and check them out. Playing music was not only my passion but a real supplement to my income. I needed the gig.
The drummer was Tony Marcum.
Princeton, West Virginia in the mid to late 1960s teemed with great musicians, including a few fantastic drummers. Barely adequate, Tony was not one of them. In fact, The Visions would never replace, at least to my mind, the energy of my first band, though I would earn good money playing with them. And make some good friends.
Including Tony Marcum.
The more I got to know my old enemy, the more I liked him. He turned out to be a good-hearted guy, always ready to laugh, spot me a cigarette, buy me a soda. More important, I knew he’d have my back if there was trouble at any of the rough bars we played. By the time I was sixteen, I’d accepted that I’d inherited a violent world. I’d been around enough drunks, including my father, whom I’d witnessed, while I was in second grade, fighting in the street and later slapping my mother around. Maybe that’s why I never became a fighter. Eventually Tony Marcum took me even deeper into the heart of violence. Before that, though, he was just a helluva lot of fun.
Like the time we were hanging around outside Hamden’s Snack Bar, the musicians’ hangout during high school, one Friday afternoon, when he had a brainstorm. We’d been staring boredly across the street at Kroger’s, when he abruptly turned to me and said, “You wanna steal a watermelon?”
Well, I didn’t, at least not at first. My shoplifting period had ended a few years earlier when I’d almost gotten caught. And while I smoked like a fiend, I didn’t drink or sniff glue and hardly ever skipped school. I was a good student who hadn’t totally given up the idea of going to college. Before I could protest, Tony was crossing the street.
“Let’s do it!” he said.
It was raining now, which Tony must’ve figured provided a shield or at least a distraction. While I trailed behind, he sauntered right up to the pile of green fruit, stuck a big one under his arm and hauled ass around the corner and up the street. Looking over my shoulder, expecting to hear sirens, I ran to catch up.
In the parking lot of First Baptist Church, Tony hurled the big melon to the pavement, busting it open. We stuck our hands into its red heart, grabbed a huge crunchy handful and lifted it heavenward. “The best melon’s a stolen melon!” Tony hollered and we crammed the sweet stuff into our mouths, letting the juice run with rainwater down our faces. His words were a profane prayer like many I’d hear and say myself during the next few years as I lost my faith along with my innocence. It felt good, damn good. We were screaming “Eat me!” to the Baptist Church elders with their five thousand commandments, formal dress code and threats of hell-fire and damnation. We were alive right now, taking shit from nobody. We were wild and free. Outlaws. Punks. Honorable thieves. We ate that melon down to its yellow rind.
Oh, if we just hadn’t drunk beer, too. Beer and melon don’t mix, at least not in the quantities we imbibed. Puking. Regret. Remorse. “No pain, no gain” was a phrase that wouldn’t be heard for a couple of decades yet, but we’d’ve used it if we’d known it.
That was a good day, a day of spontaneous good ol’ man-boy evil. Given all that’s gone down in the forty-some years since, I might even say it was a great day. There was a ton of bad shit going on in the country then, though for a while we escaped the worst of it, playing live music in the West Virginia coalfields for drunken miners, VFWers and Moose Clubbers, occasionally even our peers at the Memorial Building or Bluefield Auditorium. There was a war on, but for a while we didn’t know much about it. We for damn sure didn’t know anybody who’d fought in it.
Then, in 1969, the draft lottery began. By that time, the music had mostly died, at least for me. On the basis of my grades and financial hardship, I got lots of financial aid to attend college and managed to get in while they were still giving military deferments; otherwise, with my low number (nineteen), I would’ve surely been conscripted and probably died or been disabled in the jungle as so many did. I lost touch with my rock and roll family, while the future came on as fast and hard as thrown punches in a dark alley.
Tony Marcum went to Vietnam, I heard later. He came back much affected, they said—not wounded but damaged. That’s all I heard for a long time.
By 1973, I was a college junior, married and selling shoes part-time at a women’s boutique downtown. Strolling down a back street, I wasn’t headed to my grandparents’ house but just out walking, probably fretting about what awaited me in the “real world” after graduation. Looking up, I saw him approaching. But seeing and recognizing are not the same thing. Tony stared at me, but I don’t believe he knew me. The look on his face was dark. Incredibly, we didn’t speak. I walked my way, he walked his.
In the wake of the disturbing encounter, I told no one what I’d seen. My band world and married life did not intermix. Besides, who could’ve explained two former friends’ silent refusal to know each other? It’d be decades before I heard the term PTSD, but that day I’d known at a glance that my old friend was lost to me, lost to others, lost to himself. I know now what I didn’t then, that the violence we’d all been raised to expect, to admire, to sometimes use on each other, had been delivered with such overwhelming force that it had killed the boy, leaving the man’s body intact.
But hardly alive.
The soul behind Tony’s eyes was dead. What I’d seen that day in the alley ten years earlier, the day he’d kicked the shit out of Gary, had been anathema to me, but it had been legacy to him. And the world of boys and men goes on, as heartbreakingly violent as it is sometimes mercifully tender. We turn our faces away and do not want to know about the horror hidden in plain sight, a fact of life seldom transcended, one that is endured but never overcome.∎