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Whidbey Island, Washington — On a warm late-summer afternoon, Pete Dexter trudges across the living room of his home perched high above Puget Sound on Whidbey Island, Diet Coke in hand, and steels himself to tell the story of how he was once beaten half to death by a pack of drunken thugs in South Philadelphia.
It is an anguished saga that the legendary columnist—and author of Deadwood, acclaimed Hollywood screenwriter, and now part of an anthology celebrating some of the nation's greatest newspaper wordsmiths—has shared before. Even 30 years later, recounting the fight never gets easier for Dexter.
"I'm sick and tired of the story," says Dexter, though he knows it is a signature moment of his trajectory from newsman to writing some of the most original and important novels in American literature, including the National Book Award–winning Paris Trout (1988), a riveting tale of an unrepentant racist who brutally murders a 14-year-old black girl in a small Georgia town in the late 1940s.
Settling deep into a dark-green leather chair near a patio window that offers a commanding view of ferries chugging across the cold blue waters, Dexter begins: "It was not a good column. I was trying to write something I didn't feel."
Dexter is referring to the column that almost got him killed. Published on December 9, 1981, in the Philadelphia Daily News and running under the headline "In Tasker, It's About to Stop," Dexter's intent was to applaud community efforts to stop the spread of drug dealing in Grays Ferry, a blue-collar, Irish Catholic neighborhood rife with racial clashes, a lot of dope, and a lot of hate.
"A couple of weeks ago, a kid named Buddy Lego was found dead in Cobbs Creek," wrote Dexter. "It was a Sunday afternoon. He was from the neighborhood, a good athlete, a nice kid. Stoned all the time. The kind of kid you think you could have saved."
The kid's mother, nearly hysterical, called Dexter. How, she cried, could he write that her dead son was a drug user? Lego's brother, Tommy, the night bartender at Dougherty's, was also on the phone, screaming at the then-38-year-old columnist and demanding a retraction.
"So I tell him I'll come down to the bar," Dexter recalls. "We can talk about it, but no, I say, I'm not doing a retraction. My source was good. So I go into the bar a few days later, thinking I'd calm things down. It's about 8 at night. I say, 'Get me a beer, and we'll talk.' Then somebody hits me from the right side, sheared off a bunch of teeth. Then I get hit again. So I get out of there."
Dexter went straight to the home of his buddy, famous fighter Randall "Tex" Cobb, who was hosting a party. (Less than a year later, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Cobb, known for having one of the greatest chins of all time, fought 15 rounds at the Houston Astrodome and lost the heavyweight championship to Larry Holmes.)
"So I tell him what happened, and I'm kind of fuzzy on this, but I think Randall says, 'Well, let's go straighten this out,'" Dexter recalls. "So he and a few others come back with me. We get there, and the same three or four guys are there at the bar. I say to them, 'There will be no sucker punches now.'
"Randall says, 'What do you want to do now?' And I didn't know. If only I'd given it a little thought. It was a moment of complete futility. No one was listening. It was as if I'd killed the guy's brother. So this little fat guy gets up, goes outside for something, and the next thing I know the room is filled up—maybe 30 guys. They got bats and tire irons, and this is where Randall supposedly said, 'I hope this is the local softball team.'"
A haunted look clouds Dexter's face as the story aches forward.
"We started heading out the door," he goes on. "Randall and I were the last ones out. It's freezing—rain and sleet on the streets. Randall got hit with a crowbar. I ran toward the guy who did it. I wanted to bite that fat fucker's face. And then the lights went out. Randall said I was on the ground getting hit with a bat and pool stick. I don't know why I didn't end up dead that night."
Barely conscious, it was Cobb (who, in his boxing career, was only knocked out once, by Dee Collier in 1985) who, likely saving his life, fended off the attackers and got Dexter to the hospital.
At the hospital, things grew dire. "They were late getting the tube down my throat, and I didn't get the anesthesia," Dexter says. "I couldn't breathe. I woke up, and they were screwing screws into my legs while I was still awake, but I couldn't talk. It was like an electric shock going through me."
Dexter suffered a broken pelvis, a cracked femur, nerve damage to his hands, a concussion, bleeding on the brain, and a spine fractured in two places. His scalp required 90 stitches.