A West Side Story

As yesterday’s horribly depressing post will attest, I’m a lover not a fighter. Perhaps it’s because I was the baby of the family, and I was always coddled, but throughout my life I have always shied away from conflict. I can count on one hand the number of fights I got into as a little kid. And even though I lived for playing football, and other contact sports, there was a clear line in my mind between tackling a quarterback, and getting into a shoving match with someone. Oddly enough, these two worlds would collide one night in the fall of 1982.

As I have mentioned before, growing up I wanted nothing more out of life than to play football for Notre Dame High School. Every fall weekend from 2nd grade until 8th grade was spent playing Pop Warner football in the outfield at Dwyer stadium, followed by a trip to see Notre Dame play another Catholic School from the Dioceses of Buffalo, or some heathen hill-jacks from the surrounding farm towns of Genesee County. So by the fall of my freshmen year at ND I found myself actually playing JV football for the blue and gold of Our Lady, and life felt pretty good. Sure, high school was an adjustment, and I was still in survival mode, but on weekend evenings I got to play out my dream on the football field.

Well, perhaps I should clarify. For the first four games of the year I was not actually suiting up to play in the varsity football games. No, I was playing on Thursday afternoons for our JV team that hadn’t won a game in over 2 years. When Saturday came, I was standing on the sidelines working the “chain gang” on the opposing team’s side of the field as our varsity got slaughtered.

As homecoming approached, I looked forward to the first real high school social activity that I would ever attend, the traditional Friday night bonfire at our practice field across from school, and the Homecoming dance after Saturday night’s football game.

One thing I should point out about Batavia, is that even though we have both a Parochial High School and a Public High School, and we shared the same city stadium across the street from Notre Dame, our two schools never played each other in football. The heathens at the Public High School liked to point out that it was because we were afraid of them, although throughout the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and today, the ND team won more games, and league championships than they ever did. I’m pretty confident that we would have handed them their ass if we’d have ever been given the chance.  No, the real reason we didn’t (and don’t) play each other is that it would most likely turn into an all out war between the Catholics and the Protestants, and Batavia would quickly resemble the streets of Belfast in the 70’s.

Keeping us greasy immigrants in our place was always at the front of the minds of our ruling elites.

As Friday approached, the wood for the bonfire was delivered and piled up by the long jump pit at our practice field. When practice ended on Friday afternoon, we cleaned up in the showers, and ran home for a quick dinner before the bonfire. It was late October, and the sun was setting around 7 pm. It was a cool, but not a cold evening, and as we gathered in the pitch darkness of Notre Dame field, it felt good to stand close to the fire. The cheerleaders were there, doing their cheering thing, and I think there was some sort of speech, or introduction of the football team. Mostly though, it was just a bunch of teenagers milling about, trying to muster up the courage to talk to the opposite sex.

As I was hanging around with all my freshmen friends, doing our best to look cool, a rumor went through the crowd that one of the varsity football players had gotten into a fight over a girl with a kid from the public high school earlier that night. The rumor quickly spread, that there was a “gang” of kids from the public high school looking to beat him up.

Now in my 14 year old mind this was pretty exciting stuff. Fights, and girls, and gangs were the kind of things that happened in all the high school movies I had ever seen. But in the back of my mind I was pretty sure it was just a bunch of wild rumors designed to scare the underclassmen.  We continued to hang out around the fire and go about our business trying to look cool.

Imagine my shock and surprise when out of the darkness around the bonfire emerged a horde of toughs, yelling and shoving. There was over 40 of them, and we had to be outnumbered 2-1. All hell broke loose, kids were running in all directions, there were punches being thrown, and bodies rolling on the ground. I would like to be able to say that I was standing there like Brando in the Wild Ones cracking heads, but in all honesty I was running for my life. As I ran down Union Street, I can remember seeing Pat Clark standing on the hood of a car, kicking at a group of guys trying to grab him. I spent the next hour hiding in the Messina’s kitchen as we looked out the window and waited for the streets to clear.

Our homecoming game was the next night to be followed with a dance in the school gym. Of course, the talk at the game was all focused on the events of the bonfire. Already the stories were beginning to take on mythical overtones, of how our Christian knights had repelled the Mongol hoards. I had been shanghaied into working the chain crew for the game and got to spend the bulk of my evening moving up and down the sidelines holding onto an orange pole as our varsity got dismembered by St. Vincent De Sales from Lockport. Little did I know that my duties would cause me to miss the most decisive battle of the crusades.

As the game ended our football team began jogging off of the field and through the stadium gates to go back to our High School, which was where our locker rooms were. On the way out of the stadium, as they passed through the parking lot, a group of heathen toughs from BHS tried to jump them.

I have always been convinced that we got a better education at ND than the public High School kids, and these miscreants pretty much confirmed that. To attack a football team dressed in helmets and full pads, had apparently never occurred to them as being a bad idea. It was carnage. Even the football players from St. Vincent De Sales came off of their bus and helped in the pummeling of the heathen punks. At least one of the BHS kids spent the night in the ER, and left behind some teeth as a reminder of what happens when you f@ck with Damer’s.

Damn straight. Those Nuns taught us how to absorb, and give out a good beating.

By the time I had put the field markers away in the equipment shed, and made it out to the parking lot the battle was over. That night at the dance the flashing lights of police cars illuminated the windows of the gym, as we peeked outside to see the Batavia Police standing guard around our school to deter any further trouble. But the beat down had been so severe, and so decisive, that the punks from BHS never returned. And so our Catholic Knights defeated the Mongol hoards, and Pax Notre Dame reigned over Union Street for the rest of the school year.


18 thoughts on “A West Side Story

  1. I still maintain that there is no one on earth better equipped to take and dish out a beating like a Catholic School kid.
    Having taken so many to the side of the head from classroom tools brandished as weaponry ( rulers, pointers, thrown erasers as missles) I feel my defensive skills are razor sharp and my spider nun sense is without equal.
    Still, I like this Jets and Sharks thing you guys had going on the streets. You should have given them the lecture about how tainted their souls had become from this unprovoked attack and offered to take them to confession!

    • I think we just took the opportunity to remind them that our attending Catholic school was proof that our parents loved us more, than theirs loved them. At least that’s what the Nun’s assured us.

      Catholic school is like Ninja training in a lot of ways. I can remember one priest we had in high school, if he caught you talking he made you wear a football helmet in class. If he caught you doing it a second time, he threw an actual bowling pin at you. I was always nervous when the kid in front of me had to put on the helmet, Fr.’s eyesight wasn’t the best.

      Gotta go now. My Spidey-Nun-Sense is tingling. Either that or Sr. Mary Hellish is using her superpowers again.

  2. Basil Hayden please. You get me hooked on the stuff, then you lock it up???!!! But you offer it to the newcomers, not cool man, not cool!!!

    Also, Catholics and Protestants at war…….hhmmmm, this sounds vaguely familiar, let me just find a history book……. 😉

    Your teen years were a roller coaster. I love reading about them.

  3. High school – yet another place I felt like an interloper, until I started hanging out with the partiers. But before that, I just learned to run really fast.

    And @elly lou stole my comment again. Ok, not really, her’s was better than mine.

  4. Tommy! I just returned from mass at Notre Dame. Right in the gymnasium like the old days. They had a mass of Thanksgiving honoring Fr. Dave (he was our parish priest in East Pembroke til he passed away).

    Anyways, reading your blog about that fateful homecoming weekend and then being there tonight – its nostalgia overload. I might have to start my own blog to capture all of these feelings pouring our from places I didn’t know existed.

    By the way, I roughed up two BHS hooligans outside of Pontillos after dinner just for kicks. The Greasers and Socs had nothing on ND / BHS!

    Have a Happy Thanksgiving. Thanks for your work here – its my favorite place on the web.

    • Hey Jimmy,

      Glad to hear it. Wish I could have been there to pay my respects anf thanks to Father Dave. It really is hard for me to imagine ND without him.

      Hope you, Tracy and the kids have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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