This last week I watched the movie, “The Fighter,” with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. The movie is brash, crude (like fighters should be), and in the end, redemptive. When I began watching the movie (which I rated five stars on Netflix), I could not envision how it would end well. But, the magic of storytelling allows yarners of all stripes the opportunity to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, as the old maxim goes.
I believe one of the reasons the movie moved me so was because it reminded me of my youth, among other things. I grew up in a yellow house on a dirt street in a dusty southern Arizona town. We had concrete floors and if you wanted to take a bath, you stuck a galvanized tub beneath the shower head and filled the tub. We fought a lot on that street. Every kid had his domain, usually in front of his house, or out in the alley behind his back yard. To progress from one part of the neighborhood to another usually cost you something. Since none of us in that part of town—south of the tracks—ever had anything, we usually either retreated, found a way to sneak around the obstacle or proceeded to attack. That’s what I normally did. Attack. I fought Dismukes and Chet Gray, Greg and Richard Madewell, a number of the Armenta-Dominguez clan and a bunch of other kids whose names I don’t remember. I crowned a red-headed bully whose name I don’t recall with a piston out of a ’49 Plymouth. He was never right in the head after that, and even though he may have always been that way, for years I felt pangs of guilt that his shortcomings were the result of me laying his head open.
Hell, I even fought my older sister.
When we moved to a better neighborhood north of the tracks, things did not change much except the names: Bennett, Robinette, Sisson, Parris, Yancy, Echeverria, Hooper, Crouch, Riley, Keeling, Lowe, Yee, Lohr, and Reitzl, to name a few.
My father was a fighter who walked around like Humphrey Bogart (his friends called him Humph, and Booger) with a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth and his fists clenched. Before he gave up hooch, he got in bar brawls that caused my mother to sull up like an old cow and threaten to load us kids in the car and head back to her family. My father’s brothers, all six of them, brawled too and they were famous in their town for beating up anyone who challenged them for supremacy of the Chandler, Arizona streets. They fought for money; bare knucks or gloves, made no difference. They fought for pride. The fought for the hell of it.
When I was in the fifth grade I pelted a guy with ethnic insults and he smacked me in the face and blacked my eye. I went home and complained to my father who promptly busted my butt and told me to keep my mouth shut. As he worked at his job delivering gasoline the next day, he must have come to the conclusion that I would never keep my mouth shut because he came home with a box of brand new boxing gloves. He pulled them out of the box and shoved them in my face and said, “Learn to defend yourself.”
I was never much of a boxer but I did learn to defend myself so well I was soon climbing the ladder of tough guys in my age group. I whupped up on big guys and small guys and in-between guys. Earlier in this stage of my life I generally tended to fight when provoked, but as I improved my fighting skills, I began to provoke others. You might say I became a bully. It’s funny how bullying works. I have been bullied plenty, especially when younger, but oftentimes the bullied becomes the bully and soon I found myself shoving a new kid around, smiling at all the little chickies with their new-found lipstick and training bras. One Friday the new kid and I leapt across the open-mouthed canal chock full of muddy water and led a throng of bloodthirsty children in their early teens into a grove of salt cedars out behind Bob Palmer’s house and began to spar. I was winning, and in my magnanimity refused to hit the new kid when he was down, pull his hair, or kick him in the gonads. He wasn’t so guarded about his behavior and before my bullying was done he’d given me a lesson in street combat; but more humiliating, a lesson in eating crow. This bully got his butt whipped.
A year later I was the recipient, again, of the bullying, this time by a kid a year older and twice my size. He was always going to pants me and throw me in the canal that ran between the main campus and the gymnasium, but I was quick and always escaped and yes, I let my big mouth harangue him about not being able to catch me as I danced around in my white Levis and white Keds and made faces that had me imagining I was the mime, Marcel Marceau.
And then he trapped me and we went at it. Me so scared my ticker pranced around inside my chest like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I had no escape. I bit, pulled hair, pinched, stuck my index fingers in his eyes, pummeled, elbowed, kneed and slugged until finally he quit and let me go home. As I left the school grounds everybody was congratulating me, “You won, you won.”
In the bathroom at the house, my eyes were swollen and I could not see my face in the mirror. I ran my tongue around the inside of my mouth which was like fresh ground-round and I traced the lumps and cuts on my chin, my lips, my nose, my cheeks. If this is winning, I thought, I ain’t interested.
Even though I later joined the Marine Corps, I haven’t fought like that again, brawling. Oh, I split a fellow Marine’s head open and smacked another one on the head with a shovel, but that was more about survival, and I threw Mark Echeverria through the back door of Quick Draw’s Saloon, but that was liquor talking.
Bullying is, in my opinion, one of those emotional states akin to greed, desire, jealousy, and covetousness and even after all this time, I haven’t completely quit it. I’ve been bullied some in return. And I still have to curb my desire to choke someone who surprises me at the wrong moment, or who refuses to behave the way I think he/she should….even when I know I shouldn’t, I still do and as I enter that blind and red-faced world of rage, I fairly pine for the sweet moment when I can take my past, my future and all my frustration out on femurs and voice boxes. But I don’t. It’s there, the violence, crouching just inside the skin on my chest. Right between my heart and the snaps on my cowboy shirt. I know better but I don’t know better. Violence solves nothing. But still, sometimes….
As I watched Christian Bale and Mark Walhberg beat the hell out of people in “The Fighter” (metaphorically speaking, since so often film is metaphor for reality), inside my head was singing a high-pitched tune and my ticker danced around inside my chest like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And I thought, I’m sixty-four years old and maybe I should grow up, and then I realized age has nothing to do with it, nor rationality.