Wendell was in his glory because his last minute sac cemented the victory. Coach Stephens, the easy on the eyes head of the JV guys, was so impressed by Wendell he called Coach Matthias and the two agreed, Wendell was worthy of a promotion to varsity punt return. This was the cherry on top of a great week where Wendell, who had been training his body for two years now, broke a squat record in the weight room, one held by powerhouse junior Vince Davis.
Then the doorbell rang. Skipper and I, the only ones even remotely awake, jumped up to get it. Standing at our front door, good looking with the inflated sense of self to match was Mac Buzzinski otherwise known as Buzz. At the beginning of the season, Buzz, like Wendell, had been on JV. When a senior starter broke his leg during practice, Buzz, who was next in line for the wide receiver spot, took his place by default. While he was talented, Buzz’s ego was already bigger than the state of Texas.
What made this visit even more bizarre was Wendell and Buzz hated each other’s guts. Aside from the fact Buzz was a chronic jagoff, about a month ago at a Booster Club Meeting my dad the treasurer, and Buzz’s dad the secretary, got into a shouting match over the budget that would have escalated into a fist fight had their rather embarrassed wives not pulled them apart. Memorable insults include Mr. Buzzinski calling my dad, “An out of touch shit head in a suit,” and then my dad responding by saying, “Oh yeah, well you’re a Goddamn cement head yum yum asshole,” in reference to Buzz Senior’s work as a contractor. Little Cement Head, my dad’s nickname for Buzz, tried to even the score by jumping Wendell in the locker room. Wendell, who wasn’t as fast as Buzz but was much stronger, gave him a bloody nose and knocked him down. While Buzz was the clear cut loser, Coach Matthias acknowledged it was a punk move on Buzz’s part and made both parties run after practice.
Looking out into the driveway I saw Buzz’s car was running, Biggie blasting from the stereo. Knocking on the window like a prisoner was his younger brother, Jeremy, who was autistic and barely verbal. Their parents, after IEPS, court dates and other actions, were victorious in getting Jeremy mainstreamed into public school, and were especially successful in advocating for him to get speech therapy. While the success of the speech therapy for Jeremy was limited, Mrs. Buzzinski, who was a salt of the Earth woman and had gotten to know the system all too well, wanted to help families like theirs. Attending law school part time and graduating last year, she recently opened a legal practice where she advocated for the rights of disabled children. How she lived with Big Cement Head and Little Cement Head was a mystery.
Coach Matthias, despite his gruff nature, taught adaptive gym and was actually good at it. Seeing Jeremy’s hyper focus and attention to detail-side effects of being on the spectrum-as assets, he promoted the young man to equipment manager. Loud noises and too bright lights sometimes made Jeremy meltdown on the side of the field, but the pads and cones had never been so organized. Coach Matthias rewarded him with a Jersey that said Baby Buzz that Jeremy wore with pride. For all his faults, Buzz took Jeremy just about everywhere he went, going out of his way to make him one of the guys.
I opened the door. Buzz said, “Wassup?! Wendell in da crib?”
Skipper and I exchanged a glance as we both visibly tried to translate. Buzz lived on the other side of town, and usually the varsity starters watched game tapes on Saturdays at the high school which we lived three blocks away from. That would explain why he was in the area, but Saturday practice would have wrapped hours ago. Skipper pointed to his rolled up pant leg, “You run the risk of hypothermia.”
Ten years old, Skipper had recently tested as gifted and with good reason. I not only noticed that but the pink bandana which was beyond explanation just like everything else. Buzz said, “Lil Shawty, it’s for my dead homies.”
I said, “No man rocking a pink babushka should use homies in a sentence, ever.”
Buzz said, “Strawberry Lane Crew in da house! Did I stutter?! I ain’t playin yo. Get Wendell.”
I could tell Skipper was as dizzy as I was from this brief encounter with Buzz. We called for Wendell, who was at the door within seconds. Skipper said, “I know you punched him but he is clearly still experiencing head trauma.”
Wendell said, “No, that’s the way he always talks.”
Skipper and I ran back to the TV room, but my mom, now awake, ran upstairs to investigate. Within a minute, Wendell yelled, “Stay away from my house and my sisters you fucking idiot!” Then he slammed the door.
Walking down the stairs, my mom, who was barely five feet tall, said to Wendell, “You stay away from him. He’s a bad kid. It took me nine months to form you. Then twenty four hours of labor. The fetus was in distress so it was an emergency C-section with two weeks recovery. It has taken me nearly 16 years to get you to this point. I will not let a moron with too much leisure time screw up your life in 16 seconds!”
My dad, now completely awake and pissed off said, “What the hell was that?”’
Wendell said, “Nothing, can we just watch the movie?”
My mom said, “Tell him, or I will.”
Wendell said, “Buzz got into it at Eat ‘n’ Park with some of the players from Joyce Kilmer last night after the game. They challenged him to a rumble and he wants me to act as an enforcer because he’s impressed with my strength. And he’s calling his gang The Strawberry Lane Crew because that’s where he lives. They couldn’t even throw down with the Sesame Street Gang.”
I said, “They wear pink bandanas.”
My dad said, “ No doubt Little Cement Head’s mouth got him into this.” Kilmer, one town over, was poorer and more rural than we were and their kids were always getting into fights.
My mom said, “I don’t like him. If he comes here again, I am calling the police.”
My dad said, “His mother’s gonna put a stop to all of this, you just watch.” Then he turned up the volume just in time for the Kum Met Te.
The following Friday, Skipper and I were selected to give the team food after the game, a plumb gig for younger siblings. That night was especially sweet because The Whiskey Rebellion Blackhawks had defeated Clairsville, our most bitter rival in an away game, for the first time in over a decade. Wendell had also made his varsity debut on punt return and impressed Coach Matthias.
Vince Davis, the team’s only black player, a bigger quiet kid, approached. Just as he was getting his food we heard, “YO! YO! Wassup my brotha!”
Vince groaned, “Buzz, you are worse than a concussion and I am not your brother.”
Buzz said, “I am just speaking the language of your people, Homie.”
Vince shook his head, “That is really racist and ignorant, even for you.”
Buzz said, “Hear me out. The Strawberry Lane Crew could use your services as an enforcer and I could act as an agent for your talents. You see, we thought of Wendell Brucker for the role but as we know he is a WWIIIIIMMMPP!!! You are much stronger than he is.”
Vince said, “He broke one of my records and I still have three. What’s your point? Besides, I was there. Your big mouth got you into this, and now you are gonna have to dig yourself out.”
Buzz looked like he had been hit in the head with a hard object, “Man, don’t be a fool. Unlike Brucker you can roll legit my brotha!” Vince laughed, “Your dumb ass pink do rag wearing crew is about as legit as MC Hammer after bankruptcy. Ken Doll, I hear Barbie wants to throw down. Oh, and Brucker’s sisters are here. Keep talking…”
Vince took his food and made his exit. Buzz turned to Skipper and I, “Shawties, I was just playin….just so you know.” My dad, who coordinated the food distribution, gave Buzz a look of death which made him run to the bus. So much for being a real OG.
Buzz was determined though. The following week, he recruited three other players for the Strawberry Lane Crew. They were Franco Diamond, a third string lineman who dreamed of being a cage fighter; Jim Hanks, a big lug who often was a bench warmer due to academic ineligibility; and Al Pender, a JV wide receiver known for his profanity ridden outbursts usually cost the team yards. Buzz’s recruits, meeting in his parents garage, received initiation, aka being punched in the face by Jeremy who was surprisingly strong. Buzz assured, “Yo, the speech therapy failed so he won’t talk about official gang bizzznizzzz.”
The Strawberry Lane Crew dawned their pink bandanas, causing anyone who saw them to roll their eyes. My mother and Skipper were horrified at
Jeremy’s role, but my father, Wendell and I found a strange comfort that Buzz was including his learning disabled brother in his illegal aspirations making him an equal opportunity employer. However, laughter ceased when a date was set for the rumble, Friday night after both Whiskey Rebellion and Joyce Kilmer had their perspective games. Al Pender, the most unbalanced of the group, blabbed that he had access to guns and was bringing a few to the fight. My mom, now extremely distressed told Wendell he was to stay away from Buzz, and if The Strawberry Lane Crew tried to approach him in any way to let her know so she could call the police.
The Friday of the rumble steadily approached. Wednesday morning, two days before the main event, I found myself running late to third period as my social studies homework had fallen to the bottom of my book bag. Sprinting to the door, I saw Coach Douglass, Matthias’s second in command and my reading teacher poking his head out of his classroom door, “Brucker, you got a minute?”
The bell rang, “Coach Douglass, I am already late. Can I talk to you before lunch? It’s in three periods.” Mr. Regent, my social studies teacher, was a stickler and hated tardiness. A lecture would be coming if I didn’t step it up.
Coach Douglass said, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to Old Regent and I’ll write you a hall pass.”
Entering Coach Douglass’s class, I wondered what was wrong? Was my Charlie Skadaddle diorama not up to snuff? That had been last weekend’s project and Coach was very particular when it came to our dioramas. I said, “Coach, I tried my best. I write, I don’t draw.”
A mountain of a man, Coach Douglass said, “Brucker, your diorama was fine. Did Mac Buzzinski visit your brother two weeks ago and ask him to be in his street gang? I need you to be honest.”
My heart began to pound. I didn’t want to answer because I feared any answer might get poor Wendell, who was working hard, in trouble. Coach Douglass said, “Mrs. Davis came in here this morning pitching a fit because she heard Al Pender running his mouth and asked Vince who told her everything, including the fact that Wendell had been approached, too.” Mrs. Davis was the middle school nurse. A no bullshit woman, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that one.
I said, “Yeah, it was last Saturday after the JV won against Jumonville where Wendell had the sac. Wendell told Buzz to buzz off and that he didn’t want to be involved. Is Wendell in trouble?”
Despite the fact Wendell had told Buzz no, I didn’t know what version of events Coach Douglass got, “To answer your question, no. Wendell is in no trouble at all. Look, I don’t know all of the details, but Jeremy went with the guys to Eat ‘n’ Park after the game and something triggered a meltdown. Apparently Buzz had words the week before this went down with the kids from Kilmer and they said something about Jeremy that night. That’s how this all started. You know how Buzz is when it comes to Jeremy.”
Buzz was unlikeable most of the time, but the fact he was willing to become a gangster to preserve his brother’s honor said a lot. So I had to give credit where credit was due, “Well they should have left his brother alone. That wasn’t right, Coach.”
Coach Douglass said, “I agree, but a street fight isnt the answer. Now I appreciate you being honest. Here’s your hall pass. Not a word about this to anyone, okay RL Stine.” RL Stine was Coach Douglass’s nickname for me because I was always writing something. I took my hall pass and off I went.
That night, my dad had a function for a Democratic candidate he was endorsing at Sal’s Café, the upscale Italian eatery in town. We were meeting Wendell after practice, who would be showered and dressed, and then planned on heading over and meeting my dad there.
Pulling up in the mini van in front of the high school, we waited for Wendell. On the practice field across from us was Buzz running along with Al Pender, Franco Diamond and Jim Hanks. Coach Matthias supervised from the hill while Coach Douglass assisted down below on the green. My mom rolled the window down so we could listen. Coach Matthias yelled in this thick West Virginia accent, “Well if it isnt the Pink Ladies of Whiskey Rebellion High!”
Franco Diamond threw up. Jim Hanks screamed, “Coach, let him stop! He’s sick and stressed!”
Coach Matthias said, “Not as sick and stressed as he’s gonna be in prison when Big Bubba is coming for him!”
Al Pender screamed, “Fuck you! Fucking Buzzcock! You said your retarded brother coudnt talk!”
Buzz went to punch Pender. Coach Douglass pulled them apart. Coach Matthias said, “Y’all better believe he talked well enough to tell me about your stupid street gang! Pender, that is thirty more laps for you for speaking disrespectfully about a member of my staff who contributes more than any of you maggots! And Buzz, thirty more for exploiting your brother!”
The now defunct Strawberry Lane carried out there sentence when suddenly, Mrs. Buzzinski materialized. Dressed in the power suit and heals that had lawyer written all over it, Mrs. Buzzinski said, “Malcolm Alexander Buzzinski, you and I are going to have a little talk.”
In the truest OG move over, Mrs. Buzzinski marched on the field, grabbed her son by the ear, and he let out a high pitched scream that broke the barrier of sound. She said, “I had a very important deposition today, and I was interrupted when Mrs. Davis paid me a very angry phone call.”
Buzz pleaded, “Coach, I have thirty more laps, right?”
Coach Matthias let out an evil laugh, “Boy, there are some things worse than prison or hell. That is why I am releasing you to the custody of your mama!” Sadly, the show was interrupted when Wendell emerged from the locker room in his suit ready for dinner.
On our way to Sal’s, Wendell said that Coach Matthias noticed bruises on Jeremy’s hands during gym class. Concerned, Coach asked what happened. Apparently the speech therapy worked better than anyone thought, because Jeremy revealed the existence of the Strawberry Lane Crew, the date and time of the rumble, Al Pender’s plan to bring a gun and how he was afraid his big brother would get hurt.
Coach Matthias, incredulous, called his colleague at Joyce Kilmer who was not only outraged about the planned gang fight after his game, but that his starters had bullied a learning disabled student. They too were being punished in kind at that moment. Needless to say the rumble was cancelled. Of course my dad loved the fact that he had called it all along.
Aside from living with the fact his mother busted up his street gang, Mrs. Buzziski said no more gangsters paradise and decided mama would knock him out. In an effort to put her son back on track, she signed him up for a Scared Straight Program and Campus Crusade for Christ. Inspired by the minister he worked with and the inmates he encountered, Buzz went on to become a football star at a Division II school and then entered the seminary. Getting a dual degree in social work, he ministers to at risk youth and he is assisted by none other than his brother, Jeremy. The good news is, Buzz got out of the life. The great news is, he gave me an epic story.
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