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The parking lot was deserted by this time of night. Most of the street lights had been knocked out ages ago, leaving only a small halo of illuminated black pavement adorning the side of the tired shops which had long outlived their purpose. That private corner was far enough away from prying eyes that anyone who happened to be driving by would keep going – not that anyone ever went out after ten p.m. in our sleepy suburban town anyway. The smell of far-off fires and screeching rubber tires filled the air. It was dark, quiet, and hidden. The perfect place for trouble. To test our teenage machismo. For a fight.
Out of a caravan of expensive cars – Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes all fully decked out – emerged our group of would be apostles. We were star football players with thousand dollar smiles paid out of trust funds, skaters with expensive baggy clothes designed to look cheap, and everyone in between. Our world collided with a single message. It may have been the only purpose we could all agree on. Our goal?
We instinctively circled around the asphalt altar, a gathering of nameless disciples eager to share in the sacrifice while at the same time not wanting to know our fellow flagellants or them to know us. The one boy I knew, a friend for years and my ride tonight, pulled me aside seeking encouragement and rousing with our fists. I braced for a punch in the arm. He took one to the chest. Another, and another, with enough power to hurt but enough restraint to avoid harm. Then as he turned back towards the ring, I reached out for one last blow. My right fist struck his scapula. Pain raged through my fist. My hand swelled, and the knuckle on the pinky finger was gone. It’s missing to this day. The hand was broken – my doctor called it a boxers’ fracture. I never got my turn.
We were taught that violence was loathsome. Fighting was a measure of last resort, a sign of a weaker intellect that couldn’t find a better way. Evil loved violence – it was a tool of The Joker, Tyler Durden, and “Mad Dog” Tannen – but heroes never descended into it. No wonder as teenagers we were attracted to the dark nature of violence. We savored the shadows. But we didn’t understand it.
Yet I wondered: if violence is abhorrent, why were our best thinkers often warriors? Seneca served in the Army. Plato was a wrestler. The Bhagavad Ghita tells the story of Arjuna, a prince and warrior. Miyamoto Musashi, who wrote The Book of the Five Rings, was a philosopher, strategist, and swordsman. The list of famous authors who came out of the military is even longer, and includes the likes of Hemingway, Tolkein, Vonnegut, Dahl, and Whitman. Jesus fought the devil for 40 days in the desert.
If these men were intimate with violence and better for it, what were we missing?
That question haunted me for years until the Naval Academy indoctrinated me in the art of violence. In between calculus, physics, and leadership, we learned combat arts. Boxing class was my first introduction. Standing outside the blue and gold roped ring, our class of barely men and women looked around in awe. The smell of generations of shed blood wafted from the arena. The humidity and the heat baked the top floor ring. Our white shirts and blue shorts were already translucent from sweat, and class hadn’t even started.
Suddenly the coach’s voice thundered through the hall. “Get a headset and gloves on. Today, you’re going to get hit.” Clearly he enjoyed what was about to happen.
The fifteen of us shuffled to the wall of headsets and gloves, trying to avoid getting yelled at as we delayed the inevitable. My boyish head squeezed into the fatigued headset. My hands slid into the still damp gloves. My partner smiled at me, his chubby face stuffed into the padded strips of his helmet and his hands weighed down by the gloves that were at least a size too large and threatened to fall off his hands if he swung too hard. “Should we get this over with?” he asked me as we stepped into the ring.
Our match started out as a 90-second dance. His left jab delicately tapped my right glove, bouncing off just as quickly without any real malice. As my right cross responded in kind, he easily parried. We performed more than we fought for the first 30 seconds, keenly aware that neither of us had ever been in a real fight.
“Fucking hit somebody” rang out.
The coach’s commandment interrupted our choreography and my partner’s fear of getting yelled at outweighed our noble agreement to avoid pain. It also triggered his right arm, which connected squarely with my eyebrow. He stared at me with a look of shock and fear. At least that’s what I think he looked like underneath the red blanket which had covered my vision, drowning out the blue and gold ropes, cream colored floor, blond hair, and blue eyes in front of me. My pride had been hurt, and I would not let it go.
My arms started swinging without waiting for my brain’s input. Our gentlemanly tango, once proper and respectful, gave way to an ecstatic dance of violence. I was in flow. My left jab bounced off his head. My right hook pummeled his ribs. Left hook to the other ribs. Right cross to the face. Another and another. With every punch my arms reveled in the blaze of honest work. What I lacked in discipline, I made up for with ferocity. I pummeled him into the corner, heard his prayer that the match end, and celebrated the pride coursing through my veins.
Boxing was my introduction, but my baptism would continue.
Wrestling class paired with philosophy taught me to understand that our bodies are integral to real knowledge. Boxing taught the difference between pain and suffering. We stared into the darkness and suffered from fear that the light would never come, but after that first hit everything was illuminated. Martial arts pulled me from the holy water and threw me into the flame. And in the embers, battling armed enemies with nothing but my spirit, I understood how the warrior is more important than the weapon. When I was armed myself, I understood how it could become an extension of my being, and how the experience of that munition was as much my opponent’s as my own. At that moment, how could I believe in a dualistic world?
As a society, we recoil from violence. We push our urges to the fringes, refusing even to acknowledge them. In a failed effort to eliminate violence, we debase our fighters, and in their place come false prophets who create stories of violent acts for their own sake. They are senseless, designed to shock us but without the elegance of honorable combat. Many deny that honor exists anymore.
“I don’t advocate senseless violence of any human being. I’m the one who’s been beat down. But I will not be a victim again.”
— Tupac Shakur
Instead of finding pride in self-discipline, confidence in perspective, and the joy of being needed, young boys are ashamed of the impulses within themselves. They should be learning perspective, what’s worth fighting for, and how to harden themselves as an instrument for a worthy cause. But those teachings are taboo. I needed the military to learn to fight for my soul. I’m one of the lucky ones; most people are never reborn.
My son has been learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for almost a year now. As I wait for class to finish, I see him trying a double-leg takedown on a boy nearly twice his weight and three years older. His opponent steps away and brings C down. However, he’s not beaten yet. He manages to put the child in his mount and positions himself for an arm bar. His seven year old body’s controlled aggression surprises even him. When he said he wanted to do martial arts, I insisted he learn how to defend himself in a real fight. The first time he put me in a choke, I questioned that decision. But I’m proud of him.
As the kids finish up, one of the other parents, a man about my age, comes over to say hi. He’s dressed in his gi waiting for the adult class to start.
“So when are you going to start coming to class?”
“I’m good. I don’t think I need it anymore.”
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