Toughest


The big fight showed us what it really meant to be the … [toughest]

When l was a youngster, my parents moved our family into a tough city-edge neighborhood. It was during the dark days of World War II, and with little housing available, we took what we could get near my father’s defense effort job. We had lived in the country among friendly folks, and now among strangers, I didn’t know what to expect on my first day at school.

My worst fears were realized. Many of the students and teachers were strangers in the transient conditions of the war. Not only did disagreement abound, but physical fighting broke out among my 12-year-old peers. There seemed to be no particular issues involved, just an effort by everyone to determine who was the “toughest.”

Later that year, in an effort to curb this unwanted practice in which so many young people were getting hurt, several faculty members managed to gain some control over it by putting boxing gloves on the combatants. Tournaments were held during lunch hour, and the nice thing was that a person could choose to compete or watch, as he preferred. I wanted no particular part in it. I already felt sufficiently challenged physically by the time school began just in walking three miles one way to class. Much energy was spent in work at home and getting up early to run through orchards and leap canals just to reach school.

However, there were obviously many students with pent-up energies who participated in these noon-hour boxing matches. Besides, I was content to believe that some of these kids who claimed to be “fourth toughest” or “second toughest,” or whatever, really were what they bragged to be. I was also a little dismayed, however, that they put so much ego—at times a little oppressive and unbearable for the others—into being physically tough. And if no one challenged them, under the arrangement, they could continue to claim whatever title they wished without even tying on the boxing gloves.

I was therefore somewhat pleased, but mostly aghast one day when a newfound friend of mine, a slightly built young man by the name of Terrance, told me he was going to challenge Phillip. Phillip had declared himself “Number Four.”

“Don’t do it!” I tried to persuade him. “Phillip will kill you!”

“We’ll see about that,” Terrance answered gamely. “How do we know unless I meet him in the ring?” Then, quietly, Terrance continued: “I think Phillip is talking too much about it. Frankly, I think he’s bluffing.”

I watched the first round with my hands over my eyes. But the round was no sooner over than Phillip stated he did not want to continue. That made Terrance Number Four. Suddenly, it was like in the cowboy movies. When they saw how easily he had wrested the title from Phillip, everyone wanted to challenge Terrance. And if Terrance didn’t want to “lose face” he had to participate.

As we were walking the three miles up the long a hill toward our homes in the government housings project, past monotonous rows of look-alike houses, Terrance confided something to me. “I know that fighting doesn’t really resolve anything. And personally, I never did like to fight. Where did it get either Phillip or me? I just wanted to humble him, but now I wonder if he’s better off than me. I don’t know. Maybe I can defeat Number One, but I know that wouldn’t prove anything, would it? I just wish there were some way out of this.”

Yet, Terrance acknowledged that he probably had already gone too far and there was no way out, except to finish what he had started. He trudged into his house, recognizable by the number over the door, and parted with: “Well, no use beating around the bush. Tomorrow, I’ll skip Number Two and Three and go right to Tracy, Number One.”

The next day word got around quickly that freckle-faced little Terrance was going to do battle with the much larger and stone-faced Tracy. Everyone ate lunch quickly and settled down to watch the proceedings. The boxing ring was in the basement of the school next to the boiler room. It was fine for a few dozen spectators, but on that particular day hundreds of kids packed into the concrete window abutments and stood on chairs to peer over heating pipes. I got there early and had a pretty good seat next to the custodian’s closet.

The two sparred for several rounds without either gaining much advantage. In the fifth round, several of the crowd said they thought that it should be over fairly soon, that Tracy was “just beginning to warm up.” However, as I looked at both of their faces, they appeared equally tired. When the round was over, Tracy walked over to Terrance. I could barely hear what Tracy was saying: “Why don’t we just declare it a truce and call ourselves co-champions? I’m not sure going on any further would prove either one of us better than the other.”

Terrance agreed. They put their arms around each other and the crowd cheered both as winners.

That by no means ended the daily boxing tournaments. But somehow, they were never the same after that. Deciding who was toughest just didn’t matter as much anymore. The two toughest kids in school had decided it wasn’t important.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Roger Motzkus