One of my favorite websites, Art of Manliness (www.artofmanliness.com), occasionally runs a post called a “manvotional.” To understand that you must first understand what the site is all about, and that is manliness. No, not the hairy-chested, beer-drinking, car-racing manliness that is so often lampooned in today’s popular culture (not that there’s anything wrong, per se, with hairy chests, drinking beer or racing cars). The site is all about helping modern men of all ages understand manliness and come to grips with their own sense of what it means to be a man. And trust me, that is not an easy thing to grasp these days.
The manvotional is a short post that typically is a quotation from a famous piece of literature, frequently pre-World War II, sometimes even from the time before Christ. What caught my eye is the title: Fighting.
The post has an excerpt from an 1857 novel, Tom Brown’s School Days, by the English author Thomas Hughes. The story follows 11-year-old Tom Brown as he adjusts to the often-harsh life at a boarding school. The excerpt is the lead-in to a scene in which young Tom has to fight a schoolyard bully in defense of another student who had been placed in Tom’s charge by the headmaster. The excerpt does not go on to describe the fight; we’ll have to read the book to find out how Tom does, although I suspect he acquits himself well. But the authors of the manvotional post, AoM’s Brett and Kate McKay, highlight two passages from the excerpt:
From the cradle to the grave, fighting, rightly understood, is the business, the real, highest, honestest business of every son of man.
I’m as sorry as any man to see folk fighting the wrong people and the wrong things, but I’d a deal sooner see them doing that, than that they should have no fight in them.
When I read the manvotional, I immediately thought back to a time when I was the victim of bullies, and I was only a little younger than young Tom Brown of the story. That was 49 years ago this month, and it was a close call, so close that, well, I came close to not being here to write this all these years later.
Life in Wisconsin’s Mayberry.
It was March of 1966. I was in third grade in Cambridge, a small town about 20 miles from Wisconsin’s capital city. The cultural distance was much greater, though. Huge, left-leaning Madison, home to the University of Wisconsin, came to be known as “The Island Surrounded by Reality” by residents of the smaller towns and rural areas of the state, which meant the great majority of Wisconsinites. The near-constant political turmoil and racial conflict of the state’s big cities, Madison and even-larger Milwaukee, seemed to be completely absent from the smaller cities and towns. In places like Cambridge you could find much of what makes a small town so special, then and now: friendly neighbors, a sense of community, a Mayberry-esque feeling of being in your own placid little bubble while the ugliness of the wider world passes you by, touching you only in a newspaper headline or on the TV news.
Once in awhile, though, the ugliness pierces the bubble, and has to be dealt with.
My father was the principal of the high school, and even though my elementary school had a different principal, she wasn’t nearly as visible as my dad was. He was an active, dynamic administrator, solving problems and moving the school forward, and as usual some people had to be dragged kicking and screaming along the way. He was a tall, athletic guy who was well-educated, with a bachelor’s degree from UW-Platteville and a master’s from UW-Stout, and he was not someone to mess with, as some CHS students found out, to their chagrin. That chagrin found an outlet, and a target, with the principal’s oldest son. That would be me.
Some of my classmates, many of whom had older brothers and sisters who probably ran afoul of my dad, took it upon themselves to keep me in my place, as it were. It didn’t help matters that I was tall, skinny, wore glasses and got good grades. The teachers liked me, which only made these kids dislike me more. And to be fair, I got along well with the majority of my classmates. It was only a few who were on the other side of the fence, but as always they were the ones causing the most trouble.
This was a time when formal martial arts training was unheard of in small towns and rare even in the bigger cities. The only training a kid might get would be from his father, who might get the lad a pair of boxing gloves and show him how to throw a punch. Very few dads had any training, for that matter, even though most fathers in the mid-sixties had served a hitch in the military. Basic training in those days placed little emphasis on hand-to-hand combatives, certainly nothing like today’s training does. So unless your dad actually had boxing experience, or perhaps wrestling, what your father might be able to teach you was, in a practical sense, of little or no use. Street fighting in those days was truly on-the-job training. And it was training, I quickly found out, that was very hard and not very much fun.
We lived just outside of town near Lake Ripley, in a house my parents rented. I rode the bus to school every day, and there were kids of all ages taking the bus, from first-graders up to high school-age students, who no doubt were already angry that they couldn’t drive to school and had to ride the bus with all these twerps. When some of these high school kids found out who I was, the bus rides became a gauntlet of insults, taunting and threats. Certainly not every day, but enough to make it a real chore. It was something no kid should ever have to go through, especially a nine-year-old.
On the lakefront, a spring day turns ugly.
I got in a few scrapes on the playground during my two years in Cambridge, probably fewer than I think happened, and for the most part the older kids limited their bullying to verbal abuse. There was one day, though, in March of ’66, when they crossed the line. It must have been a Saturday because I remember being down at the lakefront, probably a quarter-mile or so from our house, throwing some sticks in the water, the general messing around that kids do. Suddenly I was surrounded by half a dozen kids. One of them was a classmate of mine in third grade, and one of the older kids was his high-school age brother. I tried to get away on my bicycle but they cornered me. To make what seemed like a very long story short, they found a rowboat and some oars and forced me to go out onto the lake and retrieve the several sticks I’d thrown in. When I brought the last one in, they took the oars and pushed the boat back out. I had one long stick left and used it to pole my way back to shore, only to be pushed back out by the laughing teenagers. I distinctly remember there was open water on the lake but only for about twenty yards or so offshore, where the remaining ice awaited. It was afternoon and sunset would be coming in another couple hours.
Today I can only shudder at the seriousness of this. What if the stick I was using as a pole had broken? What if I’d drifted out toward the ice, unable to get back, and had tried to swim for it? Needless to say I had no life jacket. The possibility of drowning, or at the very least being stranded out there as night came on, was very real. Would any of those kids have decided to come get me if I’d fallen in, or kept going to the ice? I doubt it. More likely they would’ve panicked and run away. Most of the houses on the lakefront were summer homes whose owners were months away from returning. It was entirely possible nobody else would’ve seen me or heard any cries for help.
Finally, though, they let me come ashore and walked away, laughing and boasting of how they had stuck it to the principal’s kid. I went home. I had not been physically harmed, had not even gotten wet. Somehow, though, I thought it was all my fault. If I hadn’t been down at the lakefront tossing in those sticks, they would’ve left me alone. Probably. But what they did was not at all justified by what I did. It was weeks, perhaps months, before I mustered up enough courage to tell my father. He was upset, as I feared, but not at me. He demanded that I tell him the names of the boys involved. I never did hear what happened, but those boys never bothered me again, and as I recall, my fourth-grade year was easier than my third. The word, undoubtedly, had gotten around. I can only imagine what happened when he called those high school guys onto his carpet. My dad was a good man, but he had a temper, and I for one would not have wanted to be on that carpet, facing an accusation of putting his son in mortal danger.
What if I had fought back?
More than a quarter-century later, my wife and I put our own son, then seven years of age, in taekwondo training. Jim took to the training immediately and became a junior black belt at 12, a first-degree black belt at 15, and second-degree at 17. During his senior year of high school he also trained in South Korea. One of the main reasons we started him so young was due to my own experience with bullying at that age. I had often wondered what might’ve happened that day in ’66 if I’d known how to handle myself, if I’d had a couple years of taekwondo training under my belt, as Jim had by the time he was nine. Some might say it might’ve made things worse; the older kids would’ve reacted violently and being outnumbered by bigger, stronger opponents, I might’ve been seriously injured in the fight. But I don’t think so. In fact, I think it would’ve been more likely that the lakefront confrontation would never have happened. One of the first things we teach kids in martial arts is not to project as a potential victim. Bullies, after all, are never interested in taking on someone who might fight back, especially if that target is known to be dangerous. The last thing a bully wants is to get his own butt kicked. I would still have been challenged on the playground that year, yes, but if I had shown right away that, while I was not looking for a fight, I would not back down from one and would make you pay a high price for forcing the issue, all it would’ve taken was one, maybe two incidents before word would’ve gotten around about the principal’s kid: don’t mess with him.
Is it, then, okay to fight? While most of us would immediately say “No!”, at the same time we lionize people who fight for our entertainment. We send boxers into a ring and MMA fighters into a cage and the more violent and intense the combat, the better. We shower the most successful fighters with fame and fortune. Even football, the most popular and richest sport in America, is a form of organized, violent combat, eleven-on-eleven instead of one-on-one. Nobody pays to watch two people sit around a table, discussing their grievances over tea.
But that is different, you will say, from violent fights on the street or in the schoolyard. In those places there are no rules, no referees, no padding or helmets or gloves. There is no doctor at ringside ready to give immediate attention to even a slight injury. And you will be right to say that. The only possible justification for fighting, many if not most people say, is in self-defense, or in defense of someone else. In fact, many pacifists who profess to be Christians, along with many atheists who like to cherry-pick Scripture to challenge Christians, will point to the verses in the Gospel of Matthew about “turning the other cheek” and say that violence is never justified under any circumstances.
As a Christian who is also a martial artist, I believe that Jesus never preached total pacifism, and that defense of self or other innocents is justified. For an excellent discussion of this, I will refer to you this article on usadojo.com: Christianity and Martial Arts.
It sometimes surprises people who have no exposure to real martial arts to learn that martial artists train to fight only as a last resort. We who are black belts all agree with the great Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, who said, “To subdue an enemy without fighting is the greatest of skills.” The martial artist and author, Dr. Bohdi Sanders, wrote this in his book Warrior Wisdom:
The hard part of pacifying the enemy, for the warrior, is swallowing some of your pride. It takes a lot of discipline and confidence to swallow your pride in order to pacify some rude, aggressive guy who you would rather lay out on the floor. But, as a warrior, it is one of those things which you have to discipline yourself to do. Nobody said that living the warrior lifestyle is easy.
Are we hard-wired to be fighters?
The discussion comments on the Art of Manliness posts are often just as entertaining and interesting as the posts themselves. The comments on the manvotional mentioned above were wide-ranging and often passionate. Many of the commentators had been through bullying experiences as kids or even adults. One fellow named Nat, who advocated allowing boys to fight if nothing else worked, began his comment with this intriguing statement:
The male human is the scariest animal on the face of the planet. It has almost no weaknesses because it does not specialize. It does everything rather well. It is big. It is strong. It is fast. It is durable. It runs and climbs and jumps and swims. It throws over-arm, very hard and very accurately. It hunts in coordinated packs. It uses force-multiplying tools. Long before the rise of technology, it defeated every other animal on Earth using little more than sticks and stones. This animal is the ultimate fighting machine.
We have, of course, evolved from the days when men held sway over the earth by force of arms alone…haven’t we? It was only seven decades ago that the bloodiest war in human history was brought to a violent end by the use of nuclear weapons. But the introduction of those terrible weapons did not end war, oh no. While it is true that we have not yet had World War III, that has been small consolation to the civilians and military personnel who have died in all the “little” wars since 1945. The United States has suffered over 102,000 combat and related military deaths since then, about 25% of our WWII total. Hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of civilians have died since then due to armed conflict. Some would say we are engaged in World War III right now, but perhaps that is a subject for another post. What is clear is that fighting between those scariest animals on the planet that Nat mentioned might’ve slowed down from the brutal intensity of WWII, but it certainly hasn’t stopped.
As a Christian, I know that Jesus’ most profound command was to love our neighbors as we would ourselves. This is, unfortunately, easier said than done. I tend to believe that “peace through strength,” on the personal and international levels, is the way to go. This has been the policy of our nation since we brought WWII to a close by forcing the unconditional surrender of our enemies. And since then we have not used that strength indiscriminately. We didn’t respond to the 9/11 attacks by turning Afghanistan or Iran into parking lots, for example, although we could have accomplished that in a couple hours’ time with virtually no loss of American lives. While it is true that many people in other countries do not like us for various reasons, we have not subscribed to the ancient Roman dictum Oderint dum metuant, which means, “Let them hate, so long as they fear.”
Is peace–between school kids, or nations–possible without strength?
Ultimately, differences between people, whether they are kids on the playground or entire nations, have to be solved peacefully, or fighting almost inevitably results. Perhaps not right away, but certainly down the road. The way to achieve that peace has always been, and continues to be, in dispute. What is not in dispute is that bullies, be they kids terrorizing a schoolyard or dictators threatening their neighbors, understand what strength means, especially when it is deployed against them. Back in 1983, President Ronald Reagan had this to say about the notion of “peace through strength”:
We know that peace is the condition under which mankind was meant to flourish. Yet peace does not exist of its own will. It depends on us, on our courage to build it and guard it and pass it on to future generations. George Washington’s words may seem hard and cold today, but history has proven him right again and again. “To be prepared for war,” he said, “is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” Well, to those who think strength provokes conflict, Will Rogers had his own answer. He said of the world heavyweight champion of his day: “I’ve never seen anyone insult Jack Dempsey.”
Two years after the incident on the Lake Ripley shoreline, we were living in Cudahy, a suburb of Milwaukee. I was in fifth grade and had another bullying problem, although this time my father had nothing to do with it; that year he was an administrator at a downtown Milwaukee vocational school. Now it was another problem on a bus, with a sixth-grade kid insulting and taunting me, for no reason at all. We would get off at the same stop and he would challenge me, then laugh as I walked away, often sniffling in fear. I had no doubt that eventually, if he wasn’t stopped, he would throw a punch. So I summoned up my courage and asked to talk to Dad about it. He heard me out and then asked, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I want him to stop!”
My dad then said, “Okay, the next time it happens, you get off the bus and hand your glasses to a friend of yours, and you say to this kid, ‘That’s it, we’re going to settle this right here, right now.'”
“You want me to fight him?” I asked, amazed.
“No, I don’t want you to fight him, but I want you to put an end to this problem. You have to show him that he can’t be pushing you around anymore.”
“What if he decides to fight me?”
“Then you deck him,” Dad said, “and you walk away.”
Well, it wasn’t more than a few days later that the bully was after me again. I got off the bus, handed my glasses to a friend, and assumed what was probably the worst fighting stance ever, but when I said to the bully, “Okay, we’re gonna settle this right now,” he looked surprised, then said, “You want to fight me?”
“Let’s go,” I said. I was terrified, but I didn’t want to let him see that.
He laughed, said, “Ah, I don’t want to fight you,” and walked away. I never had another problem with him.
Postscript — April
A month or so after writing the above post, I had a chance to visit Cambridge again. I’d spent a couple days in Milwaukee, attending a union meeting and visiting with my son Jim. On the way home, I decided to take a little extra time and swing down through Palmyra, my mother’s hometown, to visit the graves of my grandparents. Cambridge is not that far away and in the general direction I had to go anyway, so I decided to see what was still there.
This was my first visit in many years. Our old house was still standing. The dock where we kept our boat was now private property, so I couldn’t actually go down to the shore. Then I faced a choice: should I look for the spot where the 1966 lakefront showdown had occurred?
Of course I had to, and within a few minutes I found it. The entire neighborhood seemed a lot smaller than it was when I was nine years old. The patch of shoreline was much narrower than I remembered; perhaps an additional building or two had gone up since then. But I definitely recognized it. While standing there, gazing out over the lake, an elderly couple drove past on their way to their nearby house and stopped. I introduced myself and it turns out they had been residents there for just about fifty years, having moved into their cabin permanently in the 1980s after retiring.
They did not remember me, of course, and didn’t remember my father, either, since they’d not had kids in the Cambridge schools back then. But when I described, in general terms, the reason I was at that particular spot, they remembered that the classmate who had been part of the gang that day had lived in the house just up the road. His older brother, they said, was still around. He lived on the other side of the lake.
I thanked them and walked back up the hill to my waiting car. I now had a decision to make. With the names of two of my childhood tormentors, I knew that I could easily find them, probably within the hour. Us authors are pretty good at doing research and asking the right questions. A simple search of the local phone book would probably lead me right to the older guy, the ringleader of the gang, especially since the couple had told me his profession.
But then what? Even if it was really him–and nearly half a century later, I couldn’t be absolutely sure–what would I do? Honestly, I had thought of this opportunity more than once during all the years since the incident. Suppose I confronted him, and he denied any knowledge of it? Even if he admitted it, what was I going to do about it? There was certainly no way I was going to punch out a guy who was probably in his late sixties by now.
I did the only thing that I really could do. I got back in my car and headed for home.
A few days later I called my father, and during the course of the conversation I asked him about that incident back in Cambridge. After I told him about it, I asked, what did he do? Did he take any action?
Yes. He called the older boys and their parents to his office, one family at a time. He did not say that the boys faced any punishment, at least from him, but he did say their parents had not been pleased, not at all. And since the time was the mid-60s, one can imagine that when those families got home, the conversations that ensued were almost certainly very one-sided. Parents did not really care that much about their kids’ feelings back then, especially when the kids were in trouble. They cared about making sure their kids did the right thing, and when they didn’t, punishment quickly followed.
So, maybe, had I looked up that older guy that day in Cambridge, he might’ve said something like, “Yeah, your dad gave us a talking-to, and my old man let me have it when we got home. I never forgot it.”