The Saving Grace of Rocky
Detroit, MI 1975
I was born in Motown when Diana Ross and The Supremes ruled the city of Detroit. Growing up, we lived each day for the school year to end. Summers meant baseball, and we played religiously in the shadows of the Catholic Church that stood ominously at the end of our street.
At night I secretly listened to the Tiger games under my covers with the lights out, praying my parents wouldn’t walk into my room. I lived under the mantle of Irish Catholic discipline. Even an innocent sin of passion had a substantial emotional and physical price tag. My penance usually ended with my mother glossing over the bogus penalty by bullying me into giving up my pain for the poor souls in purgatory. Those spiritual slackers will hear an earful when I find them cowering in the back alleys of heaven.
I was the skinny neighborhood kid with the rocket for a throwing arm and a flowing fountain of never-ending comedic sarcasm. Life was good, but good never lasts forever. Consequently, I was thrown an unhittable pitch during the first week of my summer vacation between seventh and eighth grade. One minute I’m standing in the University of Michigan’s end zone dreaming of scoring the winning touchdown, and a few hours later, I’m crumbled and broken at the bottom of a 50-foot deep sewer.
Of course, my parents told me not to play down at the construction site. Or so they said to me in the hospital. Days floated by in morphine-induced dreams and cold hospital wards. Returning to eighth grade, I was the wounded warrior, emotionally surviving on handouts of fraudulent pity and penny candy. The concern and warmth lasted about three weeks, which made for a brutally long school year.
That summer, my father received a company promotion, and we moved within a couple of weeks before my first year in high school to Grand Rapids, Michigan: the land of empty fields, blond hair, and dumbasses. On the first day of school, my mom dropped me off in front of a crowd of incredible-looking people that I would never get to know.
Branded the new out-of-town disabled kid, I kept my head low, shuffling down the crowded hallways. The reality of high school is harsh for anyone. Even my golden mouth didn’t bring the guaranteed laughs like the old home crowd. It cost me humiliating taunts, public beatings, and hours in the nurse’s office.
Every day my neighbor Matt took it upon himself to make sure I didn’t arrive home from school without a public humiliation or a new contusion. Typically the beating came right in front of my house. The doors opened, and the kids ran from the bus. Looks of pity and “better you than me” were all I ever got as I tried to limp to safety. There was no escape. I wouldn’t fight back; I was too scared. I have always hated myself for not standing up for myself. My only solace was that I could take an ass kicking like a champ and make it till my mom would run out of the house and rescue me again. She was there for me, at least at some of the most devastating moments still found in legend and yore of West Michigan.
In 1976, the year of running from bloody noses, a little-known movie called ROCKY was eating up the box office, changing attitudes and transforming lives. The day after it won the Oscar for Best Picture, my mother rescued me again and took me to see the film in the afternoon of a school day. The peace of mind from being safe during school hours was a vacation. The movie touched me where it counts.
On the way home from the theater, I used “Yo” in every sentence until my mom told me to knock it off before my lips would freeze like that forever. As soon as I got home, I cut my fingers off my gloves. The booming soundtrack in my head told me to get up and go for a run.
Seconds later, I was out the door in street shoes and running with a spastic gait, but I didn’t care. The theme pounded in my head, giving the classic fight songs a 3-D stereo effect decades before surround sound became vogue. I wanted to kick Matt’s ass for how he made me feel.
The film’s vibe moved me to push myself, to endure the fire burning in my lungs, screaming: “Gonna’ fly now”! I am the heavyweight champ of the world. I round the block in a feeble, sweat-drenched gallop.
Shit! I stop in my tracks. The school bus takes off down the road; kids run for safety. Matt and his surly group stand there with toothpicks precariously dangling from their open mouths. I look around. There isn’t any other social outcast insight to take the daily beating. I know I am the sacrifice of the day.
I hear the order, and I walk to the position. No urge to fight; not even the mental still frame of “Yo Adrian” could move me to do it. I have failed Sylvester Stallone.
His crew grins at the easy workout their fists would get on my face. They circled, and I tensed my stomach.
“Why did you cut your gloves like that,” Matt asked. My answer fell to the ground, “I don’t know?” I look down. It hurts less that way.
Then I noticed all their gloves were cut like the main character from the film.
“You see that movie, Rocky?” Matt asked me point blank, barely three inches from my forehead.
“Yea,” I mumbled.
“You like it?” Matt asked.
“Yeah,” I answered.
“Cool,” Matt mutters. He then motions for his thugs to join him as he walks off down the windy street.