A yellow No. 2 pencil was like a stake for a vampire’s heart

A yellow No. 2 pencil was like a stake for a vampire’s heart
                        

Can Paul Simon really be 77 years old?

It’s a good thing, really, though it does make one pause and take note of the passage of time.

As if we can do anything about that.

I happened upon an online performance of his the other night, recorded during Stephen Colbert’s show, and it made me smile.

Paul sang “Rene and Georgette Magritte and Their Dog After the War,” a hidden gem from his “Hearts and Bones” album, and though his voice was kind of frail, he hit every note true.

One of the first — and finest — concerts I saw at Notre Dame took place on Nov. 3, 1973.

It was a Saturday evening.

My ticket cost $3.

By that time Paul Simon had already established himself as a successful solo artist, having jettisoned Art Garfunkel in the wake of their “Bridge Over Troubled Water” masterpiece.

When I was growing up in the Golden Age of AM radio, Simon and Garfunkel provided the building blocks of my growing consciousness, having captivated me with essential songs like “The Sounds of Silence,” “I Am a Rock,” “Homeward Bound” and “Mrs. Robinson.”

Those lyric-driven odes to isolation and loneliness, with their catchy hooks and compressed wisdom, brought me comfort.

And then I heard “The Boxer.”

This would have been around spring 1969 when, as a 14-year-old kid, I was getting ready to leave the familiar confines of my little town’s only Catholic elementary school and join the jostling confusion and overwhelming newness of the public education system.

All of a sudden, that fall, instead of daily Mass and mandatory uniforms — all that conformity and lockstep obedience — I found myself in a place where individual expression was not only tolerated but encouraged.

This took some getting used to.

I remember being confused by, of all things, the stairways, some of which were marked “Up” and others designated “Down.”

At a time when girls were wearing makeup and miniskirts and the boys were trying to grow sideburns to accent their over-the-collar hair, this struck me as funny.

Why, I wondered, in this atmosphere of freedom, would anyone in authority care which side of the stairs kids used to get from class to class? I soon learned — and isn’t this a life lesson for us all? — that if obeying that simple little rule meant everything else was up for grabs, why not fake it for a while?

Go along to get along.

One thing hadn’t changed, though, and that was playing games at recess, though I don’t recall that the public junior high used that word. Might have been something like “between-periods social interaction” or “a chance to digest lunch” or “smoke break.”

My favorite part of that outdoor interlude was getting the chance to play basketball on an asphalt court, shooting at a hoop with no net.

It was classic boy warfare, a kind of “Lord of the Flies” but without the actual horror and death and all that fictional folderol.

Everyone could play — blacks and whites, jocks and hoods, smart kids and guys who’d flunked a grade or two — but you had to be chosen to actually get onto a team and into a game.

This took time, but finally, probably because I’d played some Little League baseball and might have made an impression, a captain pointed his finger at me and said, “We’ll take the skinny kid in the shiny penny loafers.”

I don’t remember scoring a whole lot, but I did bank in a shot or two, and it was fun, what with the teachers watching from the steps and the girls sneaking a peek or two.

What stays with me — literally — is the way I rebounded. I was a beast on the boards, boxing out guys taller and heavier, kicking the ball out to start a new possession.

Four years later I’d see a sign posted in the Rockne Center, where I once played in a pickup game against — wait for it — Joe Montana, who said to me, “Nice shot,” after I’d hit a turnaround jumper.

It read: “You Can Shoot Too Much and Dribble Too Much and Pass Too Much … But You Can Never Rebound Too Much.”

That’s because it’s hard work, grunt work, not very glorious and unlikely to make headlines, but if you’re willing to crash your body into someone else’s, you can make yourself useful.

But there are inherent risks.

Which takes us back to that junior high school playground on a fall afternoon in 1969 and, at long last, to “The Boxer.”

I remember seeing the ball carom off the rim to my side of the basket. I remember jumping and grabbing it over an oversized opponent in front of me. I remembering thinking, “Quick step inside, drive to the hoop and lay it in. I can do this. I’m better.”

But what I’ll never forget is the searing pain in my left thigh and how it dropped me to my knees.

No one knew what had happened. How could they? It had probably never occurred before … or since.

Reconstructing it — as I have many times over the ensuing 50 years, kind of like examining the Zapruder film — I can see myself going up and coming down, but in between there’s a moment when I come into contact with the big guy in front of me.

And there, sticking out of his back pocket, like a stake meant for a vampire’s heart, is a yellow No. 2 pencil, its tip sharpened, waiting.

My thigh hits it, and in a second the point pierces my pants and plants itself into my flesh, a trickle of blood marking the wound.

It’s been there ever since.

Paul Simon understood.

“In the clearing stands a boxer,” he wrote, “and he carries the reminder of every glove that cut him.”

Sometimes I study that pencil point. I’ll stare at it and think, “Could it still kill me?” I mean what if it gets into my bloodstream and works it way to my heart? Would that be lights out for me?

Not likely, I know, but it wouldn’t surprise me, being a lapsed Catholic and all, paying the ultimate price for the sin of pride.


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