BULLIES usually liked me. But I had my share of them wanting to test with fists my blue boyish eyes of wonder. But mostly I liked big boys; they were interesting and hung out in exclusive gangs that I envied for their toughness. But somehow I did think they gave me an extra share of pestering. Perhaps it was because I had been to school in England, had sheepish locks of hair, and still said things like ``baa-sket'' and ``caa-stle'' after I returned to America. But it wasn't just my speech in America; I got bullied once in England, too. I guess there are bullies in every country hiding behind mailboxes trying to scare kids.
I never liked to fight just for the fun of it, though I practiced pounding my pillow and charging in on it with my head, in case I were ever called on to come to absolute final terms with one of these monsters that plagued my youth from time to time.
I wasn't a sissy. I joined the Sea Scouts, wore a wool jumper that itched, could row a boat in rough water (the wash of a motorboat in the Thames), and could hold my own without snitching on my big brother in a wrestling match that usually brought mother and father running upstairs.
But I also liked things boys learned at English school, even singing, weaving, catching specimens of grasshoppers, and I followed our gardener around for her beautiful flowers.
I first learned to solve the problem of bullies in a horseback riding class, when we had to cross a field full of cows and a bull. The bull terrified me and I checked my clothes realizing I was wearing red. I ripped off my bandana, fearing the bull had seen it and would charge. Even the girls in the riding class didn't seem to notice him. But I thought of jumping from my pony and running to the nearest fence. But it was too far away. I checked the sky for helicopters to see if one might swoop down and s ave me. But it was a blue sky without even the distant drone of an aircraft.
Then I remembered the poem my grandpa used to recite, ``I never saw a purple cow, I never hope to see one. But I can tell you anyhow - I'd rather see, than be one!'' It was funny. Suddenly the bull didn't look so fierce, and I even made him a face as I rode by. You old big cow!
I began to realize that poetry could help me. I remember one group of bullies in England waited for me every day in a tree on my walk home from school. I used to do imaginary things like thinking I was being an electric tram and trail a stick behind me for ``electricity'' on the sidewalk. The big boys jumped down, surrounded me, and pulled out a matchbox with a stag beetle in it, that large black pincer insect, and threatened to put it on my face. I quickly imagined myself as a great stag and put my fin gers up to my head for horns and charged them. They left, laughing.
As I got older, I realized I was not alone in my fears of either monsters or bullies. I had to interview for a boy's job in a bicycle shop, and I was terrified of the big, burly man I always saw in the window alongside spanking new racers. My older brother, who read books, told me that an American president's father told him, ``Just imagine your interviewer in his shorts. Then you'll realize he's just like you or me.'' I was too nervous to imagine that, but perhaps just that little story helped me. I go t the job. The man turned out to be just as calm as the bull.
THERE are occasions when I don't have time for a quick trip to my imagination, or to find a poem or story to bolster my courage, like the time a friend and I were walking home on the El Camino Real in California. We saw a low-slung customized Chevy. My friend said, ``Oh, cool!'' and waved his hand to point. The car skidded to a stop and four guys came for us. ``We'll teach you to give us the wise-sign,'' one said. There, I gave my poetry legs: We ran. We jumped hedges, rolled across lawns, into back all eys. Late for supper that night, I explained the incident to my family, embellishing where I could, but I knew I was lacking something to show for it, a black eye, for instance, or a bloody nose - all I had was scratches on my runaway knees. It was then that I took up punching pillows. I was old enough to want to stand and fight - if I had to.
Then singer Paul Simon wrote his song, ``I got my poetry to protect me....'' and like all poets, he confirmed what I had been feeling all along. I could fight if called for; but also I could make the monsters in my life somehow funny, even feel sorry for them, like the dragon in children's books, who's kind of ``stuck'' being a nasty guy and wouldn't be if he could help it.
It helped to know that other people, wiser than me, got scared too. I had at boarding school a math teacher, celebrated for writing the first texts of the ``new math,'' who terrorized us in the dorms. He made midnight raids on us when we were reading under the covers. We called him ``Snortin' Norton.'' He was really a shy guy. He spoke with a well-mimicked lisp: ``Thomholt,'' he said to me, ``you don't even have a pathing acquaintance with the truth...!''
Later, he wrote a eulogy to an old assistant headmaster, who lived in Georgian splendor by the lake, a scholar and aristocrat. Snortin' Norton told the truth about himself, ``I was always, as a young teacher, scared to my boots of George's presence. I got around it by imagining him in his bubble bath, reading Greek texts.''
Bullies or ``fie, fo, fi, fum'' bone-grinders don't need to understand the power of a little poetry; if they aren't at first intimidated by your courage, then they may even think you like them.
My first drill sergeant at boot camp was the meanest. It didn't take but the flutter of an eyelid standing at attention to have him say, ``Drop. Knock out 50.'' Then you did the push-ups with his foot on your back. I tried to imagine him as Yogi Bear, with his big, soft, lightweight cartoon foot on my back. It never worked, it still hurt. But I got up smiling.