Thirty years ago this fall (1987), I was a freshman at Franklin County High School in Carnesville, GA. I had gone to school with the kids from my town since 2nd grade (1981), but kids from the three different towns in our county funneled to the same junior high and high school. So 7th grade was almost like a new school, and 9th grade was even worse - because you didn’t know 2/3 of the 11th and 12th graders, and they were BIG!
I was a little kid my whole childhood, but by 9th grade, I was particularly little: about 5’3” and 110 lbs. I was 14 but I looked 12, and I stayed that way for two more years. I learned to keep my mouth shut, but as a quiet kid, that was easy. I knew to avoid confrontations and to be friendly. That was good enough 99% of the time. But there WAS this one time it wasn’t good enough, in the fall of my freshman year.
Our school had about 1,300 students and two lunch shifts, so the lunch room was big and you can imagine the crowd from the numbers I just gave. The room was a rectangle, and most of the time, the tables were lined up end to end running length-wise across the lunch room, so there were LONG rows of tables.
I ate lunch with the same friends every day, but the only two I can remember are Jeff Wood and Robby Peterson. After we ate, we went to the library for the rest of the lunch period to read Sports Illustrated, discuss college football or basketball, etc.
One fall day at lunch, clearly too early in the school year for some people to figure out who I was, we were sitting at lunch in these long rows of tables by some 10th grade boys. I didn’t know them but I remembered them from when I was in 7th grade and they were in 8th. But they were bigger now. And I was not. I remember the boy’s name sitting to my left, but I won’t tell it. As we were eating and talking, he suddenly grabbed my jacket collar and pulled my head right up next to his. He threatened me and told me all the things he would do to me - and for what I still don’t know. I imagine he was just showing off by picking on the smallest kid around. When he let go, I leaned back and looked down the long row of tables to my right. I was looking for my big brother.
Keith was sitting in the same row as me, about 75 feet down, but at the table behind me. I had seen him sit down earlier but I wanted to see if he was still there. He was.
I got up and my friends followed me. I stopped at Keith’s chair and told him what just happened. He saw the fear, and probably tears, in my eyes, and he got that enraged look in HIS eyes that I was familiar with. He said just one word: “WHO???” My finger, hand, and arm shook as I pointed out the guy and his friends. They were easy to spot because they were still laughing.
Keith bolted out of his chair and I was scared he was about to get in trouble because of me. I watched as he charged through that skinny row of chairs and backpacks. He squatted down behind the guy and tightly put one arm around his neck and one arm around the neck of the guy sitting beside him, both of which had stopped laughing at this point. He jerked them close, just like the guy had done to me. I couldn’t hear a word of what he said, but I watched for a few seconds before heading to the library, and none of them made any kind of move. I have a good idea of what Keith said to them and it wasn’t PG. His language had always bothered me, but in that moment, I didn’t care what he said to them.
A few minutes later, Keith came and found me in the library. He said I wouldn’t have any more trouble out of them. He just said, “I took care of it.” And he did. For the rest of that school year, that boy wouldn’t even look at me. Any time I passed him in the halls, he looked away. It was like I was the one who had threatened HIM, and in effect, I HAD. He couldn’t mess with me unless he was willing to mess with my big brother, and he wasn’t willing to do that.
Keith was an 18-year old senior, born in November, one of the older kids in the school. He had no problem with confrontation. After high school, he joined the Army. He told me he was a “Tabbed out (Ranger) Airborne Infantryman.” He participated in the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War during his four years, and later rejoined the Army and participated in the second Gulf War. And he was my big brother during my freshman year of high school.
Ninth grade was the “good ‘ole days” for me. Not only was Keith not around for me in 10th grade, but my family moved to Portsmouth, VA: another new school, about the same size, and no security blanket. I was all alone. And to make matters worse, I was the new kid, the new, little kid with a very Southern accent. As always, I kept my mouth shut, but when I was occasionally picked on, I had to deal with it on my own. It made me miss and appreciate my big brother every time.
My family moved again before that year was over, and I found myself in yet another new school, of similar size. During 10th grade, I realized there was something physically wrong with me. I still hadn’t grown a millimeter.
I started seeing doctors in the spring of 1989, and on September 27, just after I started 11th grade, I was put on a testosterone regimen, which continues to this day. I was sized for my class ring on September 18, 1989. When we got the rings on January 24, 1990, just four months later, mine didn’t fit. My finger had grown from size 8.5 to size 10. And it wasn’t just my finger: I had grown 4-5 inches taller and about 45-50 pounds heavier. It happened so quickly that, aside from needing bigger clothes, I didn’t think about it. But as I looked back on those four months, I realized that I was no longer getting picked on. Keith was no longer needed. But he was still missed.
I have 3 brothers, but our ages are spread out so that I was only in high school with any of them for a total of two years. Keith is 4 years older than me, but I have an August birthday so I was the youngest kid in my class. I’m just two years older than my next brother, Ken, but he has a September birthday, so he was an extra year behind me (and always the oldest kid in his class). So he was a freshman when I was a senior. And he was already bigger than me, so he didn’t need me as a security blanket. By that time, we were both at least 5’10” and 170 pounds. People left him alone. But he missed out on something else: the comfort of knowing that your big brother is just a few chairs down the row.