My father gave me a lifetime's worth of great advice. He set fine examples for me in both words and actions, but he failed miserably when it came to bullies and how to deal with them when I was in elementary school in the 1960s.
My father wanted me to take matters into my own hands, which sounded only slightly less terrifying than my mother's advice, which was to bring my tormenters a plate of cookies as a "friendship offering."
My father's suggestion was a common one of the era. My mother was simply way ahead of her time. My father the solider, however, was more persuasive.
The point is they responded when they learned I was going through a living hell at school. And because they were involved, and did not see this as an issue only school officials could or should handle, I made it out of third grade fairly sound.
My father's advice was to meet force with force, instruction that today would undoubtedly be met with wholesale condemnation. Stand up to them, he said. They're more afraid of you than you are of them.
No, Dad. They're not. They are five inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than I am. That's why they pick on me.
The bigger they are the harder they fall, he said.
No, Dad. The smaller they are the farther they fly. Trust me on this.
Only cowards run.
I had no comeback but to stare back at him, wide-eyed and silent. Cowardly is not the word I wanted people to think of when they thought of me. It was time to face my fears.
Roberto and Umberto Ortiz were twins. They were the terror of Pasodale Elementary School in the Lower Valley of El Paso, Texas, feared by students and faculty alike.
All anyone had to say was "the twins" and my insides turned into pudding. My heart skipped, my stomach flipped and cold sweat dripped down from my armpits, giving me goose bumps the size of gumdrops.
The first time the twins got me was near the end of first grade, on the basketball court. Unfortunately for me, the P.E. coach saw what happened and the twins were disciplined.
From that day forward, I was a marked boy.
They punched me around in the restroom. They kicked me on the playground and they ambushed me from the bar ditch next to the cotton fields we walked by every day to and from school.
On days they didn't get me, it wasn't for lack of trying. It was because I ran. Like the wind.
When my father told me I could no longer run from fights, I did the next best thing. I asked my big brother to take care of my problem like only big brothers can.
He was four years older and in junior high, so he wasn't going to do my dirty work, but he did promise to stand by when the Big Fight took place, and he promised to make sure I would battle the twins one at a time.
That gave me little hope. I was certain one of them could beat me up as easily as two, but I was committed. The specter of being labeled a coward became a far greater fear than anything else in my young life.
The fight was awesome if your name was Roberto. It probably lasted about 30 seconds, but half a minute can seem like a lifetime when you're getting the snot knocked out of you.
The twins had an older brother who dragged Roberto away, saving me from certain ignoble death. My brother grabbed me - as if I was actually going to continue fighting - and we walked home.
That night, Mr. and Mrs. Ortiz and their youngest sons, the twins, stopped by unannounced. They had a bottle of red wine for my folks and their sons had an apology for me.
Dad invited them inside and Mom set out a plate of cookies.
I never again had a problem with the twins, and neither did anyone else.
They, like my siblings and I, had good parents.