Music-based memoir:

It’s after-lunch recess, 1972, fourth grade, the year we all got yoyos. You could bring your yoyo to school but not take out during class, and even at recess you could only use it on a designated section of the playground, a rough yellow square some teacher has chalked onto the blacktop to keep yoyo-fixated children from bashing their heads on tetherballs or swings. This is also the year we all got transistor radios, brightly-colored plastic ones that toggle from AM to FM and suck AAA batteries dry in a single afternoon.

On this particular day, Bruce Craven has propped his transistor up against his lunchbox while he and I and our classmates Tom and Heidi yoyo within the safety of the yellow chalk square. The Archies are singing“Sugar, Sugar” while I walk-the-dog and sleeper the clunky off-brand yoyo my dad got free with a fill-up at Arco. Bruce and Tom and Heidi all have Duncans, the expensive kind. This will become a theme throughout my childhood – I have shitty offbrand versions of the nicer things my classmates have – but that’s not what this story is about, so let’s not go there.

Bruce and Tom are both lanky and athletic, or at least they will be. As fourth graders they are just learning to use their bodies to compete with other boys. Before yoyos were a thing, Bruce and Tom played basketball at recess, as they will do again when yoyos and even recess are no longer things. And while Heidi and I are also athletic and even competitive in our own way, I am noticing that boys compete differently than girls do. Today, I notice that although Heidi and Tom and Bruce are all far better yoyo-ers than I am, Bruce is the best of the three, and while Heidi and I are trying to get better by copying what Bruce is doing, Tom’s eyes narrow and darken when Bruce executes a hard move well.

To our left, at a safe distance from the yoyo square, a gang of sixth-grade boys is playing kickball, or whatever you call it when the point is to kick the ball as far as you can and make your friends run to get it. It’s a game that seems to be fun if you’re the kicker but loses appeal quickly if you’re not. So when the song on Bruce’s radio changes, the non-kicking boys are quick to invent a new game to fit the song.

The new song is about being dizzy: “I’m so dizzy, my head is spinning/Like a whirlpool it never ends/And it’s you, girl, making me spin/I’m so dizzy …” One of the sixth-grade boys, a kid with freckles and jug ears, dances to the tinny music while spinning around in circles to make himself dizzy. The game begins when another boy suddenly grabs the spinning freckled boy around the middle, Heimlich-style, knocking the wind out of him. The other boys all laugh and cheer as the freckled boy crumples, panting, to his knees. Suddenly all the sixth-grade boys are spinning and shouting about whose turn it is to be Heimlich-ed next.

The sixth-grade boys are loud and their new game looks fun, so Bruce and Tom and Heidi and I pocket our yoyos and leave the yellow-chalked yoyo area to give this new spinning game a try.

Heidi and I spin slowly, to see how it feels. But as the dizzy songs speeds up, Bruce shoots Tom a watch this look and begins to spin hard and fast.. Tom stands still, watching, his arms folded, his eyes very narrow and very dark. Bruce’s head is titled up and he’s laughing as he spins. His Chuck Taylors slap the ground as he turns, and he looks like a whirling Dervish, or would if I’d known in the fourth grade what a whirling Dervish was.
When Bruce starts to tire and begins to slow, Tom suddenly charges him, locks both arms around his stomach, and pulls in hard. Unlike the freckled sixth-grade boy, though, Bruce doesn’t crumple hilariously to his knees, but instead topples straight forward, slamming face-first into the pavement like a downed tree. Once down, he doesn’t get up, doesn’t move or make a sound. Blood oozes out into a pool around his planted face.

Tom and Heidi and the sixth-grade boys freeze. Nobody knows what to do.

Somehow, I do not freeze, and I do know what to do. I race to the office to get the school nurse, Mrs. Weinman, whose youngest son Carl is in our class and plays basketball with Bruce and Tom. I’m sure that Mrs. Weinman, who has four older sons, knows about the things boys do when their eyes get narrow and dark.

I tell her we were playing Dizzy, Tom hurt Bruce, and Bruce fell.

Mrs. Weinman grabs her first-aid kit and runs faster than I can back to where Bruce lies. Kneeling, she turns him over gently and cradles his head in her lap. Bruce’s nose is caved in and bleeding and there are pieces of his teeth stuck in the blacktop, but he’s breathing. He moans softly as Mrs. Weinman presses gauze pads to his broken lip and nose.

Mrs. Weinman looks Tom in the eye and says, firmly, “Never again.”

Forty years later, Bruce is fine, a handsome man with no visible scars. He and Tom remain friends; if there was an again, I was not privy to it.

But I am scarred, musically speaking. I can’t hear either “Sugar, Sugar” or “Dizzy” without flashing back to a bloody playground and the acrid stench of testosterone.

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