Sunday, October 20, 2013

Tales from my Boxing Career

Betcha didn’t know I was a pugilist, huh?  Well, not professionally;  “a lover, not a fighter”, as the saying goes, and as many a Mädchen can attest.  Only twice in my life  have I actually been involved in fisticuffs.

(1) The first occurred when I was about seven or eight, back when Eisenhower was in flower.  It happened at the dead end of Mulberry Place.   What occasioned the fight, I have not the slightest idea -- some stupid kid thing.  But the key point here is that I had squared off with someone both taller and older than I was.  It was in a yard beside this same cul-de-sac that we all played a hyperdemocratic game of pickup baseball, with rules tailored to the age and size and talents of each individual player (unlimited strikes allowed to the peewees) [French has a term for this:  it's called playing "pour du beurre"]: and this leveling sentiment applied now.  For, though I was a fairly dim figure on the periphery of the Mulberry Place gang, I was pleased and startled to hear the crowd (apparently) cheering me as my opponent and I circled each other, neither having yet landed a blow.   Playing no personal favorites, but in accord with the neighborhood children’s proto-Maoist bias towards the underdog, in unison they chanted:

Fight -- Fight -- N*gger and White!
Come on, Justice -- Beat that White!

(All the children in the neighborhood were white;  the chant had a certain impish novelty.)
The match soon petered out without issue.  Who my opponent had been, again I have no idea -- not someone I knew well.   All I recall is the warm glow of having been (seemingly) backed by vox populi.  Yet since then, a couple of nuancing considerations have occurred to me:

(a)  In the context of the racial assumptions of the time (ca. 1957), the chant could easily be interpreted as ironic  -- a “left-handed compliment”, as the saying goes.  I was only seven, and had not yet been exposed to such attitudes by my liberal-Unitarian parents, so I didn’t get that at all.
(b)  That much is obvious to any contemporary adult.  But -- a subtler, linguistic point.  Namely:  We children had only a very limited repertoire of stereotyped chants.  So the production of this one (which I have never heard before or since) doesn’t necessarily exactly mean anything, neither in denigration nor support of the lad nominally addressed.  It was just something to say at the time.

Doctor J, in his younger days

 (2)  The Stamm family was really nice to me.  Their son Bob and I were best friends.  They sometimes took me on family jaunts to Bear Mountain, places like that.  We had lots of fun.
            But one time -- I must have been about ten or eleven -- on one such rural retreat,  despite the mild sunny weather that should have proved soothing, somehow Bob and I got into a scuffle -- again, for a reason utterly forgotten, but undoubtedly trivial and stupid. 
            His parents and little sister were standing right there, as we shoved and wrestled (but did not punch) there on the sylvan greensward -- a venue in which the penning of pastoral poetry might more profitably have occupied our time.  Soon the father intervened -- as any adult would -- saying “Break it up, boys.”  We did.
            But then (essaying a loftier level of guidance) he added:  “Shake and make up.”
            Warily, we each extended our right hand.  And clasped.  -- At which point, Bob let loose with his left, and clipped me on the ear.

            Uproar.  His father of course was mortified, to a degree I intuited to some extent even then, though could fully appreciate only much later, when fatherhood fell in turn to my lot.   Naturally, at the time, I felt a certain smugness at this unexpected turn of events.

            Yet again, with the passage of years, a deeper level of understanding  rises to the level of consciousness.  For, though Bob was of course wrong to throw a sucker-punch, his father had been overambitious in prescribing a formal reconciliation  so soon.  Emotions have their meaning, and their own inertia, and need to subside of their own accord:  to attempt thus externally to command them, is like Canute commanding the waves.   Bob understandably was not yet ready to “shake and make up”.    Such is not an unusual state of affairs after bloody broils.  Woodrow Wilson attempted a similarly irenic gesture (the “Fourteen Points”) at the close of the Great War, to as little effect.

[Footnote:  Though Bob was the only one to actually land a punch in this contest, and thus would formally have won on points, I still believe I could have taken him in a fair fight. --  Ha!]
[Philological footnote:  A Scarboro warning is a traditional English catch-phrase for "the blow before the word".]

(3)  Right, I said “twice”, so what’s this third bullet-point doing here?  Well, it concerns the one time I almost got into a fistfight, but ultimately didn’t.

This happened much much later;  I was twenty-two or so.   And living an exceedingly impecunious bohemian life in Berkeley, with no job, and having dropped out of the graduate program in mathematics owing to inability to pay the out-of-state tuition they were charging .   In short, not much of a marital prospect.  And yet, young S. (who was, incidentally, and still is, the most beautiful girl in the world, though this detail is not strictly germane to our story) had for some reason taken a fancy to me, and set her cap for (as it proved) matrimony;  as a result of which we were (to use the expressions of a more decorous era) “seeing a lot of each other”, or “keeping company", or even (as you might say) “courting”.
All very well:  But her former/current/not-yet-repudiated boyfriend, whom she had been dating since high school, thought otherwise.  -- Understandably so:  When I think back to that tiny roominghouse-room in which I then dwelled, unable to afford so much as a telephone, usually clad in a chemical-blasted labcoat from freshman year, and finding any further apparel, either at St. Vincent De Paul, or in the garbage-can in the alley adjoining, it is difficult to fault him in his doubting my sincerity, or my suitability as a “catch”.
Anyhow, he came up to my dwelling in a white heat, demanding that I renounce all interest in the maiden, upon pain of something painful.  At which point I deployed, not my golden gloves, but my silver tongue.  Which soon succeeded in soothing him, and convincing him of my bona fides.  (And lest you think this scoundrelly, I actually did marry her  shortly thereafter;  and we are still together, till death us depart.) 
Ruefully, he admitted the legitimacy of my position, and her own right to choose her beau;  adding, as he departed,

I’d come up with the intention of thrashing you.”

Well, fine;  I let this pass;  but again, the male, red of blood and sinew, the blood of Beowulf flowing in his veins, does not lightly sit down for such a thing.   Just as with the epic (not)  Justice-Stamm bout, I silently coolly assessed that, given his age and build (about the same as mine), but in view of my own unsuspected reserves of ferocity (which later would manifest themselves with a vengeance, in the other S., my  iron-fisted son), -- had the matter come to that,  -- -- I coulda took ‘im.

[Update 21 August 2014]  Today my bride and I are celebrating our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary;  thanks be to God.   And our son has outgrown the fists-up stage, and is now industriously pursuing mathematics.
For a glimpse of all three of us, click here:

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