“But you ought to thank me, before I die, for the gravel in your guts and the spit in your eye. . .” ~Shel Silverstein~
The blood was everywhere. It was streaming down my face and spilling off my chin to splatter across my tee-shirt. My eyes hurt. My heart was pounding. I had my head tilted back as I ran across backyards to home.
A hand was clutched around my nose in a vain attempt to stop or slow the bleeding. My fingers were trying to squeeze the nostrils shut, but the nose was a rubbery mess that kept moving from side to side. A foul tip had been the culprit. The baseball came off the bat of a friend, skipped over the top of my glove as I squatted behind the plate, and smashed me squarely between the eyes. The nostrils had immediately spurted blood. The moment I got to our yard, my father burst out of the back door. He was a big, strong man, full of a toughness that could stir fear or admiration in others, depending on which side of the fence one was on. He hollered for my mother to get a towel and ice as I came to a stop in front of him.
Dad knelt down, removed my hand to examine my nose, then made a noise that sounded like a chuckle that got snuffed out deep in his throat. Through teary eyes, I saw a small smile glimmer on his face.
“This is going to hurt,” he said softly. He put his thumbs up against my nose. There was pressure and a quick jerk that shot pain all the way through to the back of my head. I blacked out, swimming down into darkness. When I came to, I was lying on the couch in our living room. My bloody tee-shirt had been removed. An ache throbbed in the center of my face, radiating out into a hum that filled my ears and seemed to echo repeatedly.
My nostrils were packed with cotton and a facecloth filled with ice was being held over the bridge of my nose by my mother. I kept my eyes closed—actually they were swollen shut. I heard my parents talking, and even though they were right there with me, they sounded muffled and far away.
“Are you sure he’s going to be okay?” my mother asked, worry in her voice.
“It’s just a broken nose, Barb,” my father replied tersely.
“Shouldn’t he see a doctor?”
“What on earth for?” Dad wondered. “I set the nose in place, and we got the bleeding stopped. What’s a doctor going to do? Tell us what we already know?”
“A broken nose,” Mom said sadly. I tried to squeeze my eyes open to look at her, but everything was blurry.
“Don’t make a federal case out of it, Barbara. He’ll be fine.”
“But a broken nose!” Mom protested sharply. “He’s just a little boy.”
“It’ll give him character,” Dad remarked, with more than a hint of pride evident in his tone.
I was eight years old. I was sore and had a headache for a few days, but recovered without any complications. For a week or so I was kind of a celebrity with family and friends, wearing the black eyes and over-sized schnoz as badges of honor.
Before adolescence, there’d be an encounter with a high stick during a hockey game that’d break the nose a second time. That one was repaired in the same fashion as the first fracture. A not so close examination of my nose nowadays reveals that it’s as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. It’s bent in two distinct places. Character, indeed.
A couple years after the baseball incident, my friend Jimmy and I were scuffling around in our front yard. What’d started the altercation is long forgotten, but we were going at it with gusto.
Fists were flying wildly and mostly missing their targets as we rolled around on the ground. He’d have the advantage for a moment, then with a swift heave-ho I’d be on top. Back and forth we tumbled with threats and spittle filling the air.
A loud belly-laugh stopped us cold. It was my father’s booming voice. “You guys call that fighting? You’re acting like a couple girls. Come here,” he said, and it wasn’t a request. He was standing with his hands on his hips near the front of the garage. We moved slowly. Still mad at each other, but now our red faces were more about getting caught, plus a dose of embarrassment for being compared to girls.
“What do you call what you were doing?” Dad asked, glowering at us.
“Fighting,” I offered with a shrug.
“Fighting? It looked like you were getting ready to give each other a kiss,” Dad said, grabbing hold of us in his big hands. He half dragged us into the garage.
“I got to go home,” Jimmy squeaked, looking scared.
“Just stay put,” my father told him, letting go of us. “You want to fight so I’m going to teach you how to do it right.” He opened a cupboard door, rummaged around a bit and pulled out two pairs of boxing gloves. “Put these on.”
The gloves were large and had been well used, smelling of sweat and leather. They were way too big, but that didn’t seem to matter. I had mine on quickly. Dad laced them up tight and helped Jimmy get his tied.
We went outside and my father proceeded to give us lessons about keeping our guard up. Boxing was all about protecting yourself while all the time looking for an opening in your opponent’s defenses.
He showed us how to make a fist, and dared us to punch him. We both took turns trying to hit him on the chin. He thrust it forward, with his hands relaxed at his side, but we never came close to laying a glove on him. He’d slap our punch away like he was swatting a bothersome fly, then tousle our hair or tweak our chin. Time and time again our attempts received the same derisive treatment.
All the while he kept up a steady chatter of instructions, sometimes demonstrating what he was saying. Never hit below the belt. Keep circling, keep your hands up. Lean away and be prepared to backpedal. Throw a punch with your body, rolling your shoulders and turning your hips into it.
Strike hard, strike like a flash—in and out, and be quick to cover up. If you get knocked down get up fast—every time. Only quitters and losers stay down.
Then Jimmy and I went a couple rounds. There was no anger involved, but instead a curiosity being satisfied and a learning happening as my father talked us through the steps. Nothing too dramatic or significant happened. There were no blows of consequence landed by either of us, but it was fun.
When it neared suppertime, Dad called the match a draw, and after that Jimmy headed home. Dad and I went into the garage to put the gloves away. He pulled out a slim book with a purple cover. It was an instruction manual on the science of boxing.
“I want you to read this,” he said, handing it to me. “It’ll teach you everything you’ll need to know to take care of yourself. The next time we strap the gloves on I’ll expect to see an improvement in your form.”
“Sit down, son.” He settled on a stool. I gave a pile of sawdust a kick, turned a pail over and hunkered down on it. “What you need to learn here has a purpose. I’m teaching you how to handle your fists so you’ll never have to fight.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I didn’t think so,” Dad said, smiling. “You don’t ever start a fight. Ever.” He shook a finger at me for emphasis.
I nodded to let him know I got the point.
“But you don’t ever walk away from one either,” he continued, tapping his forehead. “You use your wits and your head, and do everything you can to avoid it, but in this world there are those who ain’t going to be happy without a fight.”
“You mean like bullies?” I asked hesitantly.
“Exactly like bullies,” he answered. “When push comes to shove, you get a bully’s attention by knocking him on his ass.” He paused, letting his words sink in as he studied my reaction. His eyes drilled into me. “When someone knows how to handle his dukes he carries himself with confidence. Sometimes that’s all that’s needed. I hope you never have to fight for real, but if you do, you better be damned good at it.”
“Like you were?”
“That was different,” my father replied, instantly dismissing his boxing career with a wave. “Listen. There’s a bigger truth here that you have to grasp, Kenny.” He took a deep breath and gave me a queer kind of smile that made his face look crooked.
I was squirming inside, listening close and trying to figure the meaning of this heart to heart talk—what my father would refer to as getting a matter set straight.
“Listen up,” Dad demanded, eyes still penetrating me. “Life is going to knock you on your ass, son. It won’t be pretty and it’ll happen more than once. Every time life knocks you on your ass, you get up fast. Every time! You understand? Remember what I told you out there on the lawn—only quitters and losers stay down. You got that? Only quitters and losers stay down.”
Fire & Grit
Only quitters and losers stay down.
Those words have stuck with me my whole life. A short several years after learning them, my father was killed in an industrial accident. He was only forty-two. There’d be no more Father’s Day celebrations for him. I only knew him for fifteen years. Every recollection is cherished and cared for in a gallery of memories. He impacted my perspective and expectations more than he could’ve possibly known.
A broken nose developed character and taught me how to play through pain. Those boxing lessons about life ingrained in me timeless insights regarding the nature of bullies and the harsh realities of the real world. My father gave away hard-boiled wisdom forged inside his experience. It served to shape me—I wouldn’t still be standing if that education hadn’t taken root.
Unfortunately, before he died I never got to thank him for the truths he told me. He put the gravel in my guts and the spit in my eye—he instilled the fire in my belly and the determined grit in my backbone. For all of which, I am extremely grateful.