Friday, October 11, 2013

Preteen Pugilist

I don't remember his name, though I'm sure it was of the Billy, Bobby, Johnny variety as those were the names of the fifties. But I do remember he was the neighborhood bully and had already developed a reputation by age six; at least among his peers, and particularly their fathers who all secretly wanted it to be their own sons who put this miniature monster in his rightful place.

I also don't remember why he picked a fight with me, not that it matters. With a bully it never does matter, it could have been the way I combed my hair or that I'd passed in front of him, slowing his journey to the swingset. Whatever it was I was the chosen of the day and as was the custom, a death match was scheduled for later that day; a boxing/karate/wrestling/biting/kicking scratchfest within the split rail fence of his family's back yard.

I was terrified and immediately informed my father. I'd assumed I'd be comforted perhaps, drawn into his arms and hugged until the pounding in my chest subsided; or maybe wisked away to Queen Anne Kiddieland where I'd ride the Tilt-A-Whirls and Mad Hatter Teacups until I puked and
had at least postponed my untimely death.

It was foolish of me to look to daddy for answers but I was still young and as yet unjaded. The whole of manhood had still not settled onto my shoulders, the weight of the world in its burlap sack that men carry around like their own personal albatross. I was a kid, I was new to this hunter/gatherer thing and so my dad tried his best to teach me in short order.

"Kick his ass", he said. "Just get in there and swing, you're bound to connect with some punches. Just knock him down and get on top of him and wail away."

So much for comfort. All I could envision was Timmy or Larry or whatever his name was getting really pissed if I was to connect, and then using that extra incentive to beat me until I was a quivering lump of bloody flesh, ending whatever chance I might have had to be either attractive or popular.

The bout was set for two o'clock and at about 1:40 I stepped out our kitchen door and sort of crawled on my belly like a reptile around the dusty corner of the house in order to get a secretive first look at the playing field, two houses away. I'd have just walked into our back yard, but it occurred to me that if I'd been seen, the contest might have simply started early as the gathering throng would have rushed me to drag me off to the ring, kicking and screaming in protest. To avoid the humiliation I instead crawled as I said, and then peeked around the corner as I'd seen soldiers do in WW2 movies.

My fears were not exaggerated, the neighborhood had been notified and at least a dozen children and parents alike were now straddling or leaning on Freddy or Tommy or whatever his name was's fence, waiting for the combatants to put on the fifties-preadolescent version of "SmackDown".

That pretty much sealed my fate. My fright was a coal train on its way down a mountain, it only built steam every second the clock unmercifully ticked off. I visualized what my face might look like after surgery, how much pain I could stand before passing out, what the price was for abject failure...If I didn't win this thing I would never live it down; I'd be the laughing stock of Washburn Avenue at least, and likely Olsen Elementary as well.

My parents bedroom closet seemed inviting, filled with its soft, fragrant leisure clothing dutifully washed, ironed and hung by my dutiful fifties mom. Like a dog who puts his head behind a couch when he's afraid, assuming that if he can't see you, you can't see him, I walked into that closet and stood at its back, my face covered in polyester and chiffon, invisible at last but for my knocking knees and grasshopper shoes.

It wasn't until my father had clomped through the entire house before he thought to look into his own room; I could hear him coming all the way, his vulgar epitaphs preceding his footsteps by seconds if not what seemed like days.

"C'mere you sissy! he shouted as he reached into the closet and dragged me into the cold, harsh light of reality. "Everyone's waiting, so get out there and FIGHT"

Pleading while tears are running down your face while quite dramatic, is pointless in most cases, and this was one of those cases. I begged to stay home, I swore I'd be good as if I hadn't always been, I did the "please please please" thing through chattering teeth, my body shaking in total terror of the unknown.

I can't say why I reacted as I did, maybe it was just as simple as the fear of pain. It doesn't have to be any more complex than that I suppose, but it likely is as I've been quite a complex creature from the start. I'd love to say it was the beginnings of a life of pacifism or some other idealistic imperative, but I was six, so it's unlikely.

My guess is it wasn't the fight at all; not the pugilism, not the pain, not the blood, not the learning about life's hard knocks or anything about the actual fisticuffs in the slightest. My guess is, it was the threat of failure, the leap of faith necessary to believe that I had even a remote possibility of winning this event, and what failure would bring were I not successful in the end.

Even at six I understood humiliation, even at six I'd been taunted as most six year olds are but had reacted unlike most; with the pain of rejection, making as serious as a hand grenade what was only offered in childish jest.

And my guess is the reason that I finally wrenched myself from my father's grasp and ran out the door and through the corn fields a neighborhood away until I was alone and safe and could cry my guts out with no one the wiser, was because I would rather suffer my own family's disappointments than advertise my failures before a booing crowd of local malcontents; a crowd that included every friend I had on the planet who at that moment were cheering for the probable victor, switching allegiance as if they were changing socks and giving me my first taste of the penalties of friendship.

I didn't do the fight, and my father made me the butt of his own inadequacies for months thereafter, his anger stocked by daily reminders of his son's cowardice by neighborhood yokels who just couldn't get enough of the sound of their own judgmental voices.

School was impossible, the taunting and tittering drove me into early reclusivity; I was a target for every punk within earshot and was shoved into lockers so often that I began to throw myself into them as people passed if only to save them the trouble.

But I survived, at least to become my twisted self, building on those memories with thousands of others of the same magnitude that have created the monster I choose to call me. I can say with authority that had it not been for events like this, I'd not have been forced to find solo outlets for my angst, and so I'd likely never have written this tale. Whether that's a good thing or open to debate.

1 comment:

  1. I imagine the derision was worse than the physical pain. Kids are such little shits to each other.