The Marlene Wars
There were always reasons for the boys at Alameda Elementary School to pick sides. Of course the bullies were not that selective. Anybody weaker or smaller was fair game. But other than them, if it wasn’t an ethnic division, it was something like the smart ones against those of us who were dumb. Back in the World War II years, we could be called dumb since no one really cared about what was politically correct. We had more important things to worry about. Let’s just say, I was among the intellectually deprived.
We could also be divided by something as simple as where we lived, but then, not many rich kids attended Alameda, and there wasn’t much of a middle class, so that didn’t usually happen. There were probably other typical divisions, but us boys at Alameda discovered our own unique reason to end up on different sides. That reason was Marlene Bergman.
I still remember the way she looked in her skirt and the blouse that was always crisp and clean. Since it was 1943, girls seldom wore jeans, or, as we called them, Levis, especially not to school. She was the kind of girl you could pick out at a distance, pretty enough for me to know she was out of my league. She had long, flowing, blond hair—probably much prettier in my memories than in real life. But she acted like she was pretty and that was more than enough for us guys to be convinced.
The problem with Marlene was that all of us wanted to be her boyfriend, even those of us who knew it would never happen. But she did seem determined to add as many as she could to her list of ex-boyfriends. I realize now that the only ones on that list were the ones who were better looking. It seemed like one day she would be seen with one boy and then with someone else the following day. Sometimes it would be one boy in the morning and another one by the afternoon. Because of all this, it didn’t take long before the boys in the 5th and 6th grades were almost split down the middle—those who had been Marlene’s boyfriends and the rest of us who were still hoping.
My best friend, Bruce was on the A list which he wore like a badge until she dumped him, and when one of the other dumpees suggested that all the boys should agree not to pay any attention to Marlene, Bruce joined that effort. But there was a problem with that plan.
The rest of us were not ready to be taken out of the line-up before we had a chance to get up to bat. After all, I figured, because of this boycott, I might stand a better chance. I tried hard not to remember that she had never even said, “Hi” to me.
When Marlene found out what was going on, she made an all out effort to turn on the charm. It was powerful and I, for one, was not only convinced I would be next, but also that I would be the one to eliminate any need for a future line-up. I even remember feeling a little sorry for the others who were equally convinced. After all, the day after she found out about the boycott, she spoke to me. With a sweet smile, she said, “Hi, Johnny.” The only thing that kept it from being a momentous occasion was the fact that my name was Ronny. Oh well, I thought, she was looking at me when she said it.
So each one of us on the wanna-be list became Marlene’s army of protectors, which evolved into a confrontation between us and the wounded veterans. I’m not sure who came up with the idea of a contest, but it was developed after two fights broke out between the boys from both sides. I found out about the plan from Bruce.
“Are you going to fight?” he asked.
Someone has said that you are either a fighter or a lover. I’m not sure what they would call the third category that I was in. I took in an extra breath when I said, “Fight? Fight who?”
“You don’t know about the battle?’
I breathed a little easier and was intrigued. I certainly didn’t want to fight, at least not fight-FIGHT. However, since this was during the World War II era, we played a lot of war games, so I assumed he was talking about one of those. But this wasn’t the kind of battle Bruce was talking about. It was more like a contest with the A-list boys against the rest of us. Each of us were assigned a specific opponent and we were supposed to fight—actually to wrestle, until somebody was declared a winner when the loser said, “I give.” If the boys on the pro boycott team ended up with more winners than we did, then we had to agree to ignore Marlene. If we had more winners, then the boycott would be over. I have no idea who was in on the negotiations.
I never did like to wrestle because of the claustrophobic feeling it gave me when someone pinned me or held me down with their arm around my neck. However, I felt this was a matter of honor, and I was hoping Marlene would see that I was fighting for her, giving me a better chance to be her next boyfriend. The interesting thing is that I have no idea if Marlene even knew I was fighting, let alone that she actually saw me doing it. My opponent turned out to be my best friend, Bruce. We were friends, but we were supposed to do our duty. Since the teachers would have interfered, the battle took place after school, on somebody’s front lawn, two blocks from the school building.
As we squared off, facing each other, smiling just a little, I had already begun to lose heart for the whole idea. Deep inside, my honest self was telling me Marlene would never pick me no matter what I did—not even if blood was involved. So, when Bruce pinned me down, with his arm around my neck, it didn’t take long for me to come up with a way out. Laying there with my face pressed against the grass, trying to breath, I said, “I gotta’ go. If I come home late from school my mom will get mad.”
“Do you give up?” Bruce said.
“No, but I have to go home.” I tried to make it sound as logical as possible.
I don’t quite remember how I finally talked him into letting me go. But he agreed that we could finish our part of the battle the next day. But it never happened. In fact, neither army claimed victory. We all kind of lost interest in the whole idea, and eventually most of the boys went on with their lives, some of us waiting patiently to be chosen by Marlene. But you know what? I don’t even know whatever happened to Marlene Bergman. When I went on to junior high school she wasn’t there.
I wonder if she remembers the boycott.