Fists of fury

“I’m a runner, not a fighter” is my standard line when the subject of fighting comes up.

I am not prone to aggression, but twice in my life I found myself involved in the kinds of fisticuffs that boys have been getting into since the beginning of time.

vintage sketch of two men with mustaches boxing
My fighting form resembled the gentlemanly and antiquated form best described as “old timey.”

The first of these bouts occurred when I was about 10 or 11. We were living in Bedford, Texas, and a new kid my age named Brad moved in across the street with his mom and teenage brother. My friend Jason had lived in that house, and we had always played well together. It was only natural that Brad and I would become friends purely on the basis of age and proximity.

We played together outdoors mostly, riding bikes, pretending to be soldiers or re-enacting our favorite “Star Wars” scenes. Because his single mom worked, Brad and I were typically under the supervision of Brad’s brother when we played in and around his house. Brad’s brother, whose name I have stricken from my memory, often abused his authority, arbitrarily ending our playtime or mocking our play. He couldn’t have been older than 13, but he exuded an air of superiority to distance himself from us “little kids.”

Martial arts fascinated Brad’s brother. Like a lot of kids at that time, he had discovered Bruce Lee movies and he made a set of nunchucks from wood and rope. He practiced with his nunchucks in the garage while Brad and I pretended to have lightsaber duels in the driveway. It was during one such session that Brad’s brother inserted himself into our play. Without warning, he started calling us names and used words I was forbidden from ever using.

When Brad protested, his brother forced him to go inside and closed the manual garage door in my face. Angry at the injustice and Brad’s brother’s general air of superiority, I began to hit the garage door with my “lightsaber,” a cut off wooden broom handle about two-and-a-half feet long. After just a few swings, Brad’s brother raised the garage door and confronted me with more yelling and cursing. In a rage, I began hitting him with the broom handle. Several blows landed on his legs and hips.

Any unbiased observer could see I was clearly the aggressor, and for a brief moment I had the upper hand. But this was not a duel of equals. Taller and stronger, Brad’s brother picked up one of the wooden handles he was using to make another set of nunchucks. He dodged my swing and flashed the nunchuck skills he had been practicing, hitting me square in the temple. The blow ended the combat immediately. Blinded by pain and seeing stars, I dropped my own weapon and ran home, crying. I knew enough not to involve parents, and I also knew I had started it.

Brad and I remained friends, but after that incident, we stayed in my yard. I avoided his brother and never had any more problems. We moved to Florida a year or two later.

That first fight taught me not to start something with someone bigger than me, and if you have to fight, aim for the head.

Not long after we moved to Lake Wales, I had the second and final fight of my life. Predictably, it came during an unsupervised moment in P.E. class in the spring of seventh grade. I attended Lake Wales Christian School, a kindergarten through 12th grade institution operated by the church my dad had been called to pastor the year before, and all of the boys from 7th to 12th grades had physical education together. One sunny day as we made our way down the hill from the locker room in the gym to the backstop for a game of softball, my seventh grade classmate David Griner overtook me from behind, playfully slapping the top of my head with his baseball glove.

It wasn’t a malicious attack, but I didn’t take it well. For reasons still unclear to me, I didn’t appreciate and didn’t see his swat on the head as innocent. Adrenaline flowing, I immediately turned to square off against my adversary. David’s mocking smile invited a punch, and I obliged. I was so caught up in the moment that I didn’t realize I was wearing my baseball glove. Though I am right handed, I inexplicably swung at him with my left hand. The leather Rawlings made contact with David’s lip, which immediately split spilling blood.

When he wiped his hand across his lip and saw blood, his playfulness evaporated. We squared off with the boys encircling us and began to wrestle, pulling at each other’s shirts and falling to the ground grappling in the Florida sand. In just a few seconds, several of the seniors stepped in and broke it up. David and I were wary of each other the rest of the day and probably for the rest of the week, but by the end of the school year, we were laughing about it with no lingering ill will.

It would be presumptuous to declare myself the winner of my fight with David, but I was the clear loser of my fight with Brad’s brother. My record in such contests wasn’t great, and as I matured, I learned to control my temper and found other ways to settle disputes.

The fights aren’t significant, and I’m not proud of them. They were stupid and childish, but they did teach me important life lessons. I do not advocate resorting to violence to sort out your differences, but getting walloped in the head and drawing blood in hand-to-hand combat gave me enough of a taste of fighting to know that calmer heads could arrive at better solutions.

Boys will be boys, but there are better ways to settle your differences.