When I was nine,
my father began
telling me how to hurt
other boys. He said to
squeeze their upper lips
until their eyes watered
or twist their ears and
hold them low so you can
walk them like a dog.
And if you need to make
a point, punch them
straight in the nose
so their eyes stream
tears and their noses
stream blood. He said
that he used to do this
if boys acted tough to him.
So I listened and watched.
What I didn’t know
was that he had heard
the stories of how I’d
been beaten up at school
and had never thought
to hit back. Why
would I want to hurt someone?
I had only cried and waited
for it to stop. But it
did not stop. Not until I
checked out books on jujitsu
from the library and studied
the step-by-step schematics.
Not until I began practicing
with my friends: awkward,
fumbling throws, pretend
punches to the throat, pretend
fingers to the eye, evening
after rainy evening, until
one day, age
eleven, I threw the red-faced
boy to the gym floor, sat
on him, and punched his chest
because I didn’t have the heart
to hit his face and make him
bleed. I got in trouble, even
though I was defending myself,
and my father was proud.
Over the next decade I grew, got
stronger, took classes in karate
and tae kwon do, learned to punch
so hard my blows echoed in the gym
and men stopped to watch me.
I could kick people off their feet.
I accidentally knocked men out
while training. I fought in tournaments
and took home golden trophies.
My father was proud. This
was how he’d survived around
young men with switchblades
and rolls of dimes in their fists,
young men who would beat him down
and take what was in his pockets
if he didn’t stand up.
He’d fought Golden Gloves, become
a Marine. But I abhorred it all,
never wanted to use it outside
the training rooms. I’d never
been in a war, as he had at age
eighteen, never sat in the dark
in a frozen forest in Korea
listening for the noises of men
coming to kill me.
I’ve never fired a rifle at dusk
at enemy muzzle flashes in the trees
and had a branch explode near
my head. He’s been dead six
years now, and I’m a father.
How could I not have seen
that he didn’t want violence
either? Not after he returned
from the war; not when he refused
to talk about it for thirty years.
He never struck another man
after he became a father,
but I did see him use the threat
convincingly. As have I.
I’ve been around men who’ve
threatened me and my friends.
I’ve stood in their faces, eye
to eye, with that same menacing
confidence my father maintained.
And they’ve all backed down.
Each time, I consider myself lucky
that it worked yet again.
Because it must stop. We all
know it must.
I look at my son, age eight,
and know I must teach him.
Do not fight, my son, and yet
you will. You must. And you must
not. As did my father. As did I.