The year I peaked as a manly man

His name was Richard. I don’t remember him being around during Kindergarten, and I know he was gone by junior high. I don’t know where he came from or where he went. He rode my bus in third grade and we threw down every morning.

I recall as little about why we fought as I do about why he came and went so quickly. He showed up out of nowhere and wanted to fight, like those guys wearing suits and sunglasses in The Matrix. In third grade, I was not one to back down from a fight. That’s funny to me now, but it’s true.

matrix agent

Time has treated you well, Richard. You haven’t lost a step. (Warner Bros.)

By third grade, every inch of my body had been kicked many times over by dairy cows and I’d been cuffed plenty by older siblings. Taking on humans of my own size and weight was almost a vacation.

I was a scrapper, and so was Richard. Maybe I called him Dick; more likely we just didn’t like the cut of each other’s jib. Whatever the reason, we got to the back of the bus and went at it. It was mostly wrestling; third grade is early for fist fights. We’d tussle for a while, then the bus would pull up at school and it would be over. I went into school as if the fight had been a part of my morning routine no more noteworthy than brushing my teeth.

Next day, we’d be right back at it.

old bus

Of course, those were the days before cameras in the back of the bus. You could settle your differences without going viral.

One morning Richard banged my head against the metal wall of the bus. Richard and I had pushed each other’s skulls into this metal many times, but this time my scalp caught a protruding rivet. Blood trickled down my face.

I was taken to the school nurse and there was talk of stitches. I was reconciled to being kicked by cows and having my head banged into the wall during a fight, but I truly feared doctors. I had tried to fight doctors once when they wanted to draw blood. It was no use fighting a doctor; they’d just call in more and more of their friends to hold you down until they could stick you with a needle.

he'll cure you if it kills you

This is still what it looks like when I go for a physical examination.

I didn’t get stitches, but the damage was done. I lost interest in my daily bouts with Richard. It wasn’t worth facing a needle.

Gradually, I lost interest in fighting altogether. I lost daily contact with cows. I grew soft, to the point where I can no longer imagine what I would do in a fight. Besides run away, that is. Probably I would cycle my fists in the air and puff out my chest, hoping to bluff my way through, a la Fred Sanford. Let’s hope it never comes to that.

Now I have three boys. I want them to be tough, but I don’t need them to be scrappers. I want them to be mentally tough – able to stand up to adversity and handle disappointment.

They should walk away from their Richards. The world has tilted away from scrappers now that differences between children are resolved administratively.

The world has become much more enlightened since my boyhood – everybody except the dairy cows.