I've been driving past a boxing and mixed martial arts gym in my neighborhood since it opened six years ago, and rubbernecking at the guys sparring in the ring. I could do that, I tell myself. There's no reason, in a controlled environment, that I couldn't exchange blows with another dude, and not worry about going to the hospital or bringing shame to my family.
I must have been musing about my fighting fantasy aloud, because for Christmas, my wife bought me a membership to the boxing gym. I'm excited about this for a number of reasons (fitness, fun, etc.). But mainly I want to see if I have some hidden genetic aptitude for hand-to-hand combat that has simply been civilized out of me.
My grandpa on my father's side, dead for some 20 years now, is still a legendary tough guy among the old-timers in the once booming railroad town of Havre, Montana. He cowboyed his way from Arkansas up to the Canadian border, settling every dispute he encountered with his fists, and bare-knuckle boxing anybody who challenged his status as toughest man in whatever town or camp he wound up in.
My dad, although tough enough for Jump School, Ranger School, and two tours in Vietnam, has not generated the same kind of duke-it-out mythology that Grandpa did. In fact, the most notable achievements of my dad's distinguished career in the Army and the Defense Department are in his capacity as a diplomat and an arms-reduction treaty negotiator.
But really, if there's anybody to blame for my inability to fight, it's my mom.
I'm guessing that a lot of parents tell their kids this: "There's always a way to work out a problem without resorting to violence." But my mom didn't just spout truisms. If they were worth repeating, she would hash them out. She argued her (our) values forcibly and with unassailable logic. Along with a few other lessons she imparted to me, the one about violence really stuck. So when other boys were beating the snot out of one another, I was perfecting the art of weasling out of conflicts without losing face, saying "Uncle," or just covering my head and waiting for the beatings to stop. It didn't help my street cred that I grew up with two older sisters upon whom I was never to lay hands, under threat of the most dire of punishments, no matter how legitimate my wrath toward them. Later on in life, when throwing a punch seemed like a reasonable response, I lacked both the instinct and the muscle memory.
Nonetheless, there are a few reasons to believe that I could have been, if not a contender, then at least not a palooka, or a chickenshit.
I'm not weak. I've been doing various amounts of strength training, and lots of manual labor, ever since I was a teenager. For 20 years, I was always one of the stronger guys on the construction site. I could sink a 16-penny nail with two swings of my framing hammer, carry a sheet of three-quarter-inch plywood up an extension ladder with one hand, and was more willing than most of my colleagues to work long hours in extreme conditions.