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Bob Sunseri was Billy The Kid. The only difference was, he didn’t use a six-shooter; he used his fists. Like Billy, Bob was a legend during his own time. I first met him in 1957. I was in the 8th grade — Hughes Junior High School. Even at that tender age, Bob had already come to be the possessor of a rep as a “serious bad—.”
Like William Bonny, a.k.a. Billy, Bob was short — maybe 5’5” and 130 lbs (back then). Nor was he particularly muscular. What Bob had going for him were three things. Speed, strength, and the fact that he was crazy.
Many years after junior high faded into memories, a story circulated; I have no idea whether or not it was true. Bob was being chased by an Asian gang — maybe 10 or 15 of them. Finally, they cornered him in his garage. As the leader came forward on the attack, Bob picked up and axe and buried it in the guy’s chest. The other gang members turned and ran in terror. Purportedly, Bob got off on self-defense, but, like I say, I’ve got no idea whether the story is true or not. That’s what legends are all about — at some point, truth and reality become indistinguishable.
I actually only saw Bob fight a couple of times. The first really wasn’t much of a fight, as it ended with one punch. We were at a party, and Bob was “having words” with some guy. All of a sudden, Bob hit this guy in the face. He hit him so hard that he literally knocked the guy out of his shoes.
The second fight lasted a bit longer, but only because Bob wanted it to last longer, his intend being to punish his opponent. This time the adversary was a man — I’d say the guy was about 25 — and he was no pushover. A biker of some sort. When the two started trading blows, I remember Bob’s hands were so fast they were a blur. At the end of the fight, the other guy was on the ground, rolled up into a ball. His face was covered in blood and he was crying. Whether it was from the actual beating, or from the fact he’d just had the crap beat out of him by a “kid,” I’ve no way of knowing, but the scene remains — horribly clear — in my mind.
Bob and I weren’t best friends or anything even close to that, but he always liked me, and I made sure things stayed that way. They pretty much did — except for one time. I remember that someone told me that Bob was ticked at me and was “out to get” me.
I was so terrified that I hid in the bathroom at school until the 3:00 p.m. bell rang.
That was the thing about Bob. You never knew when he was going to turn on you. A lot of it had to do with the alcohol I think (Bob loved beer). But there was something else — some foreign part in Bob’s brain that I hadn’t the slightest inkling about, which would simply “go off.”
The reason I’m writing this column is that an old friend recently sent me a photo of Bob. It was taken, the photographer told me, a couple of years ago, at a PSSA surf club reunion.
Under a baseball cap, a huge all-white brush moustache, and a sea of wrinkles, the man in the photo bore almost no resemblance to the Bob Sunseri of my teen-age days. Additionally, whereas Bob was built sort of like a young Joe Frazier — this guy looked unendurably thin and frail.
The longer I looked at the photo the sadder I became. I wasn’t sure why I was sad. Some of us age better than others — that’s just the way it is. I guess I figured Bob would’ve been dead, and seeing him alive in this shape was a shock. Then a darker thought entered my mind; I couldn’t stand the fact that one of my heroes had been turned into a frail old man.
I did a bit more research. What I learned was that Bob had gotten involved in some crime during his 20s, but that during his 30s, he’d turned to Christianity, gotten married, had a family and never looked back.
“He’s the sweetest guy in the world,” my friend Jerry (who stills sees Bob at PSSA reunions) told me. “He’d go out of his way to help anybody.”
I found this hard to believe. Could it be true? Did God really enter into Bob Sunseri’s life and turn a guy who was clearly headed for a life of crime into “the sweetest guy in the world”? Was my friend’s estimation the result of an external life Bob had managed to create, putting the old Bob Sunseri — the Billy the Kid of my boyhood — into a darkened room, never to let him out?
Of course I knew these questions would never be answered. But — much as I hated to admit it — I knew that in my mind, anyhow, the old Bob Sunseri still lived; that even though he was now housed in the aging body of a 56-year-old man, that if the deal went down, Bob would be back — lightning fists ablaze.
I took the picture out and stared at it some more. Then I saw it — it was very tiny — a little glint in the eye. A gleam. I stared harder, Yep sure enough. There it was. Just a hint, however miniscule, of the old Bob that I remembered.
I breathed a sigh of relief.
That night, in my dreams, I traveled back to my old neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. I saw all of us — the living and the dead — strutting the streets in our rolled up jeans, Sir Guy shirts, and spit shined shoes, hair greased back to the max. A Gene Vincent song (“Be Bop A Lula”) provided the background music.
Then I fell into a peaceful reverie — the first one in many moons — confident that no matter what else happened, I could come back to that Dream Place anytime I wanted to.