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“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” – George S. Patton
When I was 17, I was in a fight for my life. If I had lost I could well have died.
The fight took place in the spring of my senior year of high school, in 1973. Sometime earlier I wrote about its aftermath here on Ricochet and promised to tell the rest of the story later. Like now.
It took place at lunch hour, in the lunchroom of my school’s cafeteria. It was in my home town of Ann Arbor, MI, an upscale (and even then very liberal) college town.
I was going into the cafeteria line when I jostled another student. Or maybe he jostled me. It does not really matter. What did matter was that he immediately confronted me, demanding I apologize for bumping him.
So I did. I apologized. After all, maybe I did jostle him. “Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to.” Really it was not a big deal. If I had jostled him, I owed him an apology. If I had not? Even back then I figured life’s too short to worry about small stuff.
That should have ended it. Except it didn’t. He grabbed my arm, and said, “I told you to apologize.”
At this point, I am more than a little puzzled. He was half my size and a good five inches shorter than me. (I was always chubby, but I wasn’t soft.) He had a couple of girls with him. Maybe he was trying to impress them. Regardless, I did not want to get in a fight with someone that much smaller than me. And it wasn’t worth fighting over anyway. So, I apologized again, and told him it was inadvertent.
He again insisted I apologize, more vehemently than before. A friend who was with me later said the look I gave the other student reminded him of a Great Dane trying to figure out why a particularly annoying Chihuahua was barking at it.
I looked at the other student and said, slowly and clearly, “I said I was sorry. I have told you that twice. If a man does something wrong, he owns up to it and apologizes. I did not mean to bump you. I said I was sorry. I mean it. And a man recognizes when he has been apologized to, and accept it.”
Then one of the girls with him started laughing. He purpled. And he shoved me. Hard.
I didn’t go anywhere. He kind of recoiled back a bit, looking even more foolish. So he took a swing at me.
I blocked it. I caught his arm with my forearm and knocked it to the side. He took another swing at me with his other arm, and I blocked that, too.
Yes, I was not trying to fight him. I did not need to get into a fistfight in the school cafeteria at lunch hour. This was before the age of zero-tolerance. Defending yourself did not automatically get you kicked out of school, but I did not need the grief getting into a fight entailed. I figured as mad as he was he would keep swinging ineffectually at me until one of the teachers on lunch duty came up and broke it up. And a teacher was bound to come along soon because by then there was a ring of students around us looking for the entertainment provided by a fight. All I had to do was spin it out for 30 seconds until that happened.
Except maybe he realized that too. He wasn’t looking for an apology. He had wanted me to attack him, and I had refused to play that game. He stepped back, held up a fist in front of him with his left arm, and reached to his back pocket with his right hand. “I gonna get you,” he hissed.
In a moment of terrible clarity, I realized he had a knife in his back pocket, that he planned to use it, and he planned to use it on me. I knew I had to stall for time waiting for that teacher to come up and break things up. “Leave that shiv, in your pocket,” told him, and we can have a fair fight.” Anything to make him think, to take up time.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the teachers coming up, a male teacher. I saw him assess the situation, and thought, I’m saved. Then he turned around and went the other direction, leaving the cafeteria. I was on my own.
Then the knife came out and he swung at me, overhand. I blocked the first blow. The second nicked my forearm. A third swing managed to slice my shirtsleeve without cutting me. The next one caught me in the chest, sinking all the way in. Fortunately, It glanced off my ribs and caused no serious damage.
(Pro tip: Never wield a knife overhand. The body is armored against that. I knew that at 17 because I had found my dad’s personal combat manual from his days in ROTC and was up on knife-fighting tactics. Not that I felt like critiquing my opponent’s style – but I thought it even as the fight was going on.)
At that point, I realized if I wanted to walk away from this I had to end it. No one else was going to. I closed and grappled him. It allowed him one more blow. It landed between my collarbone and sunk up to the hilt. Breathing became harder.
It did not matter. I had him. I picked him up, and with berserker strength threw him against the doors to the cafeteria some eight feet away. He was still going up when he hit them. Then I jumped on him as he lay flat and winded on the cafeteria floor.
I knew I was badly injured. I had taken first aid when I was in Civil Air Patrol, and they went through all the gory accidents that happen in an airplane crash. I realized only one lung was working. That final blow must have punctured it, I thought.
I knew something else too. The vein, artery, and nerve that go to the arm run under the collarbone. The knife had to have gone past them to puncture a lung. Since I still had control of my arm, the knife missed the nerve. That meant it must have caught either the vein or the artery, and I would pass out from blood loss within 90 seconds.
The last thing I wanted was him mobile after I passed out. I decided I had to kill him before that happened. I had one knee on his right arm (the knife arm) to immobilize it, the other knee on his chest, and both hands around his neck. I squeezed for all I was worth. For good measure, I repeatedly slammed the back of his head against the cafeteria’s concrete floor.
It seemed I had been doing this for an hour (time does strange things in moments of great stress) when the fight ended. After fifteen seconds or so, four other students pulled me off him. They thought my actions excessive, and wanted to break things up before I killed him.
Their reaction was reasonable. Everyone thought it was just a fistfight. The whole thing took place in a span of 30 seconds, and no one (but me) saw the knife. No one expected one, so no one was looking for one, All my wounds were on might front, so no one realized I had been stabbed until I stood up. The front of my shirt was soaked in blood. There was a shocked silence as the students watching the fight saw me.
Then a male teacher (not the one who rabbited off – a different one) came up behind me, presumably to berate me for fighting. He was saying something like what did I think I was doing beating up another student. I turned around to face him and said, “I didn’t have a choice, He had a knife.”
He was black. I have heard of people going pale before, but he literally turned white when he saw the blood. I’d never seen that before, and found it fascinating. But he stood there gibbering, while I was bleeding. Exasperated, I said, “I need to see the school nurse. I need first aid.”
At which point he started babbling, “The nurse, we need to get you to, the nurse,” grabbed me by the injured shoulder and starts dragging me to the nurse’s office. It is the direction I want to go, so I go with him. They soon have me on a bed, and the nurse (considerably calmer and more competent than the teacher who had got me there) has stopped the bleeding, and is calling for an ambulance.
While this is going on, the school cop, whose office was next to the nurse’s office, hears the commotion, and comes over. “What’s happening,” he asks.
“Student got stabbed,” said the nurse, while continuing to treat me.
“Where’s the perp?” the officer says.
By now there are half a dozen principals, vice-principals, and faculty in the office with the nurse and me.
“The perp,” someone says.
“[Non-CoC compliant],” says the school cop. “Might as well photograph the scene,” he says as he goes to his office to get a camera.
I am in an ambulance and on my way to the hospital before the rest of the story takes place. The school cop goes to the cafeteria and finds my assailant in a pool of my blood on the cafeteria floor. He is trying to sit up, but goes crashing back down when he gets up. It seems the portion of the brain that runs motor control is located at the back of the skull, roughly where it would make contact if someone is slamming a skull against a concrete floor, I had apparently choked him into unconsciousness, and he was just beginning to come to when the cop arrived. I had immobilized him by scrambling his brain, and he could not leave the scene. The cop got some good pictures of my assailant covered with my blood.
At the hospital, I went through emergency thoracic surgery to patch my punctured lung. It also turned out I had been a lot luckier than I had realized. Somehow the knife blade – which was razor-sharp – missed the nerve, vein, and artery.
I was also extremely lucky in that I was left-handed. I instinctively tried to block the blow that hit my chest with my left arm, which rotated me to the left. If I had blocked it with the right arm I would have rotated right and the knife would have gone into the cartilage around the sternum and opened my heart or aorta. That happened to another student in another high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan a week after my fight. (Yes, I know you are supposed to use your non-preferred hand to block so as to have your preferred – and stronger – arm available for a counterstrike. That might work if you are a trained boxer, but if you are a scared 17-year-old, who is not used to fighting, you block with your preferred hand.)
I also discovered long after the fight, that my assailant would have knifed me regardless. He was, as I realized during the fight, trying to get me to attack him, so he could stab me and claim self-defense. It seems he was doing a buddy a favor.
His friend had attacked my younger brother a month earlier at another Ann Arbor school (again with a knife). While he cut my brother (not seriously) my brother (who was into martial arts) had flattened the kid. So he came back two weeks later with a half-dozen friends and attempted to beat up my brother with a mob. And my brother put paid to all of them, forcing them to flee the scene. So my brother’s attacker decided to get revenge by having a buddy stab my younger brother’s overweight and bookish older brother. That had to be easier.
Of course, I spoiled that game by refusing to fight the battle they chose. As the saying goes, the enemy (in this case me) gets a vote. By refusing to be provoked, I force him to be the aggressor. What I had done was clearly self-defense, with multiple witnesses to testify I had apologized, I was not seeking a fight, and he was picking one.
The cherry on top was that he had survived. If he had died, I would have likely had to defend myself on a manslaughter charge. I might have gotten off on self-defense, but it would have cost a fortune. As it was, he went on trial for assault with a deadly weapon, and ended up sentenced to two-and-a-half to 10 years. (He served three. The cops let me know when he got paroled just in case, but he left me alone.)
As for why he thought he could attack someone at lunch hour in a crowded cafeteria? It was because he thought he could get away with it. He always had before.
He had an identical twin brother. For four years the two of them had been conducting a crime spree in Ann Arbor. One of them would knock over a gas station, convenience store, fast-food place, or liquor store while the other one would be at a party or someplace with a lot of witnesses.
Even if they were identified by one of the victims, there was always reasonable doubt. Each twin would insist the other was the bad twin, who had been conducting the robbery while they were innocent of any crime. No doubt my assailant assumed that would happen this time. He hadn’t expected the violent counterattack I had launched. Or its consequences.
Could I have done a better job? Sure. With a week or two to plan and prepare. But Patton was right. My plan, improvised on the spot was as good as I could come up with, and executed with enough violence to win the fight.
I honestly did not think I would win that fight. At the same time, I realized I was the only one that was going to end the fight. No one was going to intervene to save me. I was not going to go down without a fight. If I was going to die, I decided – even at 17 – to die on my feet, giving it everything I had.
The best fight is the fight you avoid. But once committed, give it everything you have.Published in