The Babe


The Babe was a fighter. He saw himself as such, trained himself to be such, and expected to be one. He had no qualms about physical combat but regarded it as a necessary element of existence among animals and humans, both on the personal and national levels so far as humans were concerned. "The law of the jungle," "the rule of tooth and claw," "the struggle for survival," and all other prestigious barbarisms of darwinism in the biological sphere and of Spencer in the human sphere of competition were absorbed into his mentality. The movies, the comics, the novels, and the history books aggrandized the vision of epidemic aggression and fighting, all justified in a good cause. Since he was quick to rationalize a cause, he was never without a casus belli when he wanted one, before and after the fact.

His brother willy-nilly helped him develop his physical prowess and fighting spirit, as well as his justifications. As soon as he was on his legs, the Babe discovered that any human encounter could be transformed into a physical conflict. In a typical case, Bro Bus is at the sink, washing his face before going outdoors. The Babe wished to do likewise. He says to his brother, "Hurry up!" No response (Bro Bus is being provocative.) "Hurry up, you're finished!" Again no response, the older boy continuing to rub his neck vigorously. Now several events occur rapidly in succession or together:

Bro Bus splashes as if by accident the Babe and/or the Babe pushes up against Bro Bus from behind, causing him to bump his head against the brass tap. Bro Bus lifts a foot without turning and shoves the Babe backwards and/or the Babe moves in vigorously sidewise and seizes the soap as if to begin to wash. Bro Bus grabs his head in his arm; the Babe jabs him in the ribs. They grapple. "Stop it!" exclaims the Mom, hearing the scuffle from the other room. "Stop it right now!" she says, entering.

As they continue, she seizes her broom and cracks them smartly on the head, knees, elbows, and ankles, whatever is jutting out. They separate, rubbing their sore parts, and object to her brutality. "He started it!" both say; "He wouldn't let me wash." And they argue with her and each other. Predictably, she says, "Never mind! It takes two to make a fight; go on, now. Go to your room," she says to Bro Bus, "You're finished with washing."

The Babe, while he always maintained the hope of besting his brother in physical combat, had no real chance of victory. His brother was taller, broader, heavier, older, well-exercised, and stubborn. The most that the Babe could realize was a parental intervention or an unexpected occurrence like the ring of the doorbell, coming just after he had scored a painful punch or kick or had momentarily wrestled himself on top of his brother. Then he might crow a bit afterwards. On occasion, therefore, he would begin a fight when he knew that he could call for rescue, get in a few punches and wrestling twists; then help would arrive before the Bus could overpower him. At times, too, he might dart away successfully after a swift attack, and stay away until the intent to avenge dissipated in the Buster.

Three unspoken rules were followed in combat. Neither might injure the other, whether by a foul blow to the genitals or bowels, or by a blow that would leave a mark. Neither was allowed to strike full strength. No weapons might be employed, except pillows, books, or occasionally a dull stick used as a prod. Moreover, they almost never fought in the presence of third parties or at the homes of others. In the Dad's catechism, fights among brothers were damnable, and they, too, felt them to be indecorous and shameful. They couldn't help themselves. Also, since both believed in fighting for the fun of it as well as in anger, about a third of the battles were sham. Withal the Babe acquired an unusual agility and wiry strength.

What he missed acquiring was the destructive and hostile attitude essential to decisive victory. For he was never fully at the mercy of Bro Bus, nor had he the need to exact surrender from him. Nor did the system of punishment in the family indoctrinate him with this attitude. The Mom would immediately desist if she thought she was hurting them and sought only to inflict upon them what she called "sharp reminders." Came the broom-handle: "This will remind you how to behave!" Crack!

The Dad, more dreaded in the scheme of punition, maintained order by his very presence. When he was told of the need to punish them (and this could only be the Mom's doing because they rarely aroused the just wrath of a neighbor to the extent of one's speaking to their father), he would glower at them and, rarely, seize them by the neck and bump their heads together, or tweak their ears, whereupon they would cry and leave the room. When one of them was slow to follow a command, or spilled liquid by a reckless or sullen action, or broke a useful object in foolish play, he would kick them irritably and casually in the behind or shake them by the arm or scuff of the neck, and that was the end of it. Sometimes he would threaten to whip them with his razor strop or belt, but never did more than undo his belt buckle. They could then apologize, weep piteously, or leap to the job. Afterwards they might hear, "I hope you learned your lesson." "That'll teach you," being said by the judge, bailiff or plaintiff.

Displays of anger were tolerated up to the flash point. The Mom even would say at times (never about them!) in the rather admiring tone of someone watching Donald Duck, "He was fit to be tied!"

The Mom, for all that she dwelled upon the blessings of a young girl's having the toughest fighter in town as a brother, was unsympathetic to bellicose boys. "You have to learn to stay away from those bad boys," she advised, nor was she impressed by the usual pretexts for fighting. She would sing out, one more boring time, "Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me," and urge them to recite the same in a crisis situation, a prospect so shameful once the Babe reached the age of six that he was embarrassed to hear the words. She herself would not deny that "You have to stand up for your rights."

Such fighting and punishment as occurred in the family was not disposed to produce the champion of the schoolyard and streets. Nor did the Dad wish them ever to fight except in the clearest cases of self-defense, when attacked. Himself he was never known to engage in fisticuffs; he had a fine sense, uncluttered by the media incitements to violence, of who fights and who does not; self- respecting gentlemen do not. The padrone has those who do his fighting, and if not them, the police, even the Chicago police, even if they have to be paid extra to do their duty of enforcing law and order.

The Babe and Bro Bus were bullied by hulking Buddy MacRae, the milkman's son from the house behind theirs. One day he was chasing them and they ran to hide. They determined to resist. The Babe armed himself with a junked bed-iron from the alley, and when Buddy passed by searching, he let it drop on his head. The Babe feared that he had put a hole in his head because Buddy screamed and staggered to his home. Awesome bloodspots trailed from the scene. However, he reappeared on a day following, sober, distant, and harmless.

Whatever the parents believed and the novels of schoolboys touted, you cannot fight well even in self-defense unless you have an aggressive will to punish others. This the Babe, try as he might, could not cultivate in his soul. If he had been beaten severely, unjustly and often in his family, he would have incubated the animus of a street- fighter. He would know also how to suffer intense pain with a composed mind, as we read in the autobiography of Maxim Gorky, where the orphan is frequently and savagely beaten by his grand- father to begin with, then by others, and becomes a hardened, aggressive and tricky little scrapper, with small fear of consequences to himself once the battle is joined. He needed no great boxer to tell him, as Uncle Charley told the Babe, "You have to take it in order to give it."

The Babe valued the advice, but could not embrace it. He had too many things going for him; to suffer bodily harm in order to triumph on the streets was not mandatory. And then there was that infernal youngness. Practically everybody he considered to be a worthy opponent was larger and more experienced, until the time when it was too late for him to go around looking for a fight.

A new boy, Rosario Broccato, entered Franklin Junior High; he came from Italy. He probably therefore was new to fighting, calculated the Babe. Moreover, he was not much larger. Now, thought the Babe, I'll put him in his place, so he provoked a quarrel and challenged him to a fight. Rosario accepted. They found an empty corner after school and squared away. The Babe looked for a way out of the farce. A man passed by and stopped: "What are you doing?" "We're fighting," he said. "Well, go ahead, watcha waiting for?" said the man. The Babe began to weep; his heart had gone out of the scene. "My Father will punish me if he knows that I was fighting," he explained feebly. Surprisingly both the man and Rosario were sympathetic; they agreed that there was no point to the fight. For years afterwards, the memory of his cowardice rose up to embarrass the Babe. It refused to be repressed, forgotten.

He was not physically, intellectually or socially to the point of engaging in serious aggression. He never seized a stick, placed it on his shoulder, and said to an opponent, "I dare you to knock this chip from my shoulder." Twice or thrice others did this to him and, as often happens, third parties knocked it off and shoved the antagonists back into the ball-game. The idea of joining with others in an attack upon someone was abhorrent; here, it must be granted, his many novels full of battle were supportive; men might combine to bring down a Giant but no more than that: no lynch law and strictly limited vigilantism. So they were not all bad, those books.

Also to reduce the scope of his aggression there was his intense sympathy for the defenseless, the down-trodden, and the invidiously discriminated. He at worst was a mild bully, nor would he hurt anyone he recognized as hurt to begin with. Nor could he get himself to "pick on someone smaller than me." Unfortunately, this same ready pity could be vented upon himself. Soon after he had entered Waller High School, he had gone with Joe Farina to a crowded sandwich bar, where, without provocation, he was assaulted by a strange, pimply-faced youth with thin sneering lips. He withdrew in dismay. "Why don't you fight him," said Joe, but this only agitated him the more, since Joe could easily have intervened to stop the attack.

So the Babe left in tears and for long afterwards was miserable whenever he recalled the incident. He felt that he had behaved like a coward; but I am not a coward, he stoutly affirmed. He realized his weakness and sought to extirpate self-pity; but it was a wily snake and crawled from one to another recess of his mind while he whacked at the bushes where it might be hiding.

The year before, at Franklin, he had made friends with two brothers, Alcide and Alphonse de Mary, light-colored blacks from Louisiana, of his size and not much older. They came to Hill Street to play with him and there, without rancor and deliberately, the Babe feigned anger over some trivium and after some tough talk put up his fists to Alcide. Alcide took up his stance. They circled, they shot out their fists. The Babe connected to the jaw. Nothing happened to Alcide. He went right on. The Babe, disgusted with himself, dropped his fists and called off the fight. Alcide agreed, and they went back to their game of bouncing a ball.

Normally, the Babe was cheerful, congenial and constructive. He ordinarily had better things to do in cooperation or competition with others that "to go around looking for a fight." When he moved up North to Southport Avenue, there was that candy shop a few paces from home that doubled as a horse-race betting parlor run by jovial John Meighan, who enjoyed the youths who hung around his joint. After a time, the Babe inveigled a couple of them into sparring with him. He brought out his boxing gloves and they would hammer at each other in the gangway below the porches in the rear of his building. He was good at it and his reputation spread.

Hank Mueller, a much taller boy, took the brunt of his blows and let it be known about the neighborhood that the Babe was quite a boxer. One day the Babe snatched in jest a pack of candy from Chuck Eberhardt, a modest, likeable, handsome and robust youth. Chuck said, "I know that you can beat me, Al, but if you don't give it back I'm going to fight you." The Babe, surprised and flattered, handed it back. Yet his other voice nagged him for not fighting.

When all was taken into account over the years of greening, never was the Babe actually attacked seriously nor was he ever forced to fight by an aggressor. Nor ever provocatively challenged, except by the aggressor at Waller High. It appears, then, that the reputation for disorderly brawling and assault of his environment was undeserved. In most cases, he could harken to the words of the Mom, "You brought it on yourself." Still, I have not finished my narrative.

The only injury that he suffered was in a fight that he did not bring upon himself. It happened the day after he was transferred unceremoniously from the top floor Fresh Air Division downstairs to the normal Elementary School Sixth Grade. Quite unexpectedly he was confronted by several tough-looking boys in the hallway during his first morning recess. Their leader said, "You're new here, do you want to fight?" "Why?" said the Babe, "who wants to fight?" He looked at the square-jawed, square-bodied, tufted-haired boy in surprise, who then said, "You do, you have to fight."

"Who, you?"

They laughed derisively.

"Not me, I'm too good for you, you have to fight him." Indicating a large boy who was smirking uncomfortably at the back of the group; it was obviously not his idea.

"Why should I fight him?"

"What's the matter, you scared?"

There wasn't much said. It was put to him as the appropriate and customary way of entering the class; it was de rigueur. "Go ahead," said Tony Nuccio, who was this top-seeded fighter of the class, taking it all for granted now and leading him down the hall, "there's nothing to worry about; you can handle that Jew." The Babe, having escaped Bible lessons, hardly recognized the word, much less the person of a Jew; here all he saw was a burly older boy who, if he couldn't beat Tony and whoever else occupied the upper rungs of the ladder, might nevertheless give him mighty pain and trouble.

He had little time to think it over. The bell rang for lunchtime and a cortege of boys surrounded him and conducted him, along with his antagonist now known by the name of George Levitan, who apparently knew the area, across the playground to Schiller Street, across Schiller Street and down a ways to a large old brick factory, depression-struck and idle, of forbidding aspect, whose wall proclaimed "Scholl's Footpads" and carried the giant picture of a shoe. They entered, through a passageway, a concrete interior courtyard for deliveries and shipments. It was ghostly, gloomy and grey; a grey cold sky, too, stretched over the tall silent walls. The fighters were ushered to the center of the court. They removed their sweaters. The crowd withdrew into a circle around them and urged them now into battle with encouraging and impartial shouts.

The Babe was more tense than scared. The crowd bothered him. It had no form, was neither friendly nor hostile, yet was totally strange. He knew none of them, had no true supporters, was puzzled as to what they wanted, how they related, if not to him, then to his opponent George. However, as was his habit in everything else, he attacked and there was a flurry of glancing blows. The fighters separated, not even giving Tony Nuccio, now turned referee, the occasion to pull them apart. Around and around on the concrete they circled, rather dispassionately, rather grim and determined, until the Babe, losing patience, attacked again.

This time he cracked his right fist hard against George's head. A sharp pain shot through his hand. It wouldn't ease. It was worse than a belly-ache, worse than falling and hitting his head, because it got worse. No one noticed it, except that the slugging that seemed assured now subsided and he withdrew, merely holding up his fists; nor did his opponent press the fight. The pain continued. He dared not use the hand. He lost hope. He quit. He just stood still and said hopelessly, "I can't keep on, my hand hurts."

There were hoots of disbelief. "Come on, fight, you lose if you quit," they said. George stood, unbelieving, watching hopefully. "I quit," said the Babe. The fight was over. It wasn't a poor fight, but it had promised better. The kids straggled back to the classroom. Lunchtime was about over. Classes resumed. He took his seat near the front and the teacher began to speak.

His hand was swelling and painful. He could not tell what was happening to it. He decided that he had better go home, raised his hand and asked for permission to leave because he had hurt his hand. There was a stir of interest in the class: those who did not know were curious; those who knew couldn't wait to tell. He showed the teacher the swelling. She excused him. He walked home where he sat glumly for hours, soaking his sprained thumb in a pan of ice- water.

He should have been thinking, when my hand is cured and at the first opportunity, I'll challenge George Levitan again and win. Instead he acquiesced in the verdict that he had lost the fight and considered that he held a lower place in the new hierarchy of fisticuffs than he had in his previous class, where he had been, in his own mind at least, the champ.

He was let alone; no one picked a fight with him. He did himself provoke James Restis to a fight during a class of wood-shop when the boys were scattered about the large room hammering and sawing. James fought back courageously, the Babe was discouraged, and when he saw Mr. Hildebrand's calm dark eyes watching them from a distance, dropped his fists and walked over to the teacher, his eyes misting, muttering excuses. Mr. Hildebrand was sympathetic, but gave him the grade of E (for Excellent), not the usual S (for Superior) of his elementary scholastic career; yet this was probably more for being an awkward carpenter than for creating a disturbance.

The fighting continued among the boys of the younger junior- weight class and among the heavyweights. A peaceful cheerful red- headed boy from Ireland called Regis Thornton entered the class and was promptly challenged by Tony Franco. Regis, too, was perplexed by the formalities of fighting at Franklin School and awed by the School Factory arena. Tony did not whirl and jab with his hands, like the other Tony. He hardly used his left hand, so that the Babe wondered how he had gained his reputation. Then Tony unleashed a roundhouse right-hand swing that caught Regis squarely on the jaw and sent him staggering. A few moments later the same blow landed and Regis gave up.

The third and final occasion on which the Babe entered the forbidding precincts of the same factory was a heavyweight fight between two pleasant scholastically backward boys of sixteen, that is, several years older than the Babe, the one being Salvatore Nuccio, brother of Tony, the other Booker T. Lee, one of several large black youths who had been transferred into Franklin from a neighborhood school to the South, where the black population was rapidly growing. This fight was all that its promoters could ask for: bare-fisted smacks that resounded off the walls, with both fighters flailing away until finally Booker was deemed by consensus to have conceded. There was no cheering, boasting, or objection; the fight just ended and once more the little crowd shuffled out of the gangway and along the streets to their schoolrooms.

The Babe then began to pursue, as was his way, a managerial role, but did not get far before his small world of the Junior High School dissolved into graduation. He thought that he had discovered a new champion in his large older friend Derwin Elliott, whose interest in the arts and in scholarship, mentioned earlier, coincided with the Babe's, and who was also well-set-up physically. The Babe's idea of a perfect match was Derwin against Chris James, the least amicably disposed of the big black guys. Derwin, too, was a transfer student. So one day while walking with Derwin on Goethe Street at a quiet entrance to the big fat red brick school building and passing James, Booker, and Ernest Harvey, a mighty-looking ensemble, he managed to engaged Chris in an exchange of invidious remarks -- like "You're not so tough," and "You better get along, boy!" -- and suggested that Derwin might take him on at any time and dispose of him.

The idea did not at all appeal to Derwin, who was both sane and prudent; quickening his step, he pulled away, the Babe falling behind and growling at Chris who was saying, "You better get going before you get hurt," the Babe calling back, "You're not the one who's gonna hurt me," and assuring Derwin, who was too concerned to be flattered, that he could whip the other guy.

This did not end his efforts at fight promotion nor his own fight training. His old problem persisted: either they were too big and old and could clobber him, or else he didn't feel inclined to box with them. It was easy to dominate younger ones, but with the bigger boys he had to borrow and apply the assistance of others, or charm them into submission, or overwhelm them with words. I mean that he was prone to swearing.

He was well-dressed, neat, and nice, but sometimes when provoked he would open up a fardel of foul oaths. This could not be blamed upon his western novels, for here, while "foul oaths" were a stock in trade of the "bad guys," the censors of library and press forbade going into detail; nothing else he read brought out more than a "blankety-blank" in the American stories, a "sacrebleu" in the Frenchmen of Dumas, and a "caramba" from characters out of Mexico. The Mom never let a swearword escape her lips (but maybe a "My God!" when someone well-known died unexpectedly).

People who are abstract and categorical swear more; the Dad set a bad example, cursing small frustrations first, calling people "stupid," "boob," "caffone" (hick), and "jackass," then proceeding to the second level with labels alleging questionable descent and evoking the Holy Family. The practice of swearing emanated from him.

The Babe however, went on to attain the third level, treating of physical deformities, and the fourth level of sexual malpractices. Neither on one nor on all levels could he manage to tie together epithets in strings of more than three; he did not practice faithfully nor did he believe that his unlettered comrades would appreciate the unending chain of expletives that various stalwart American pioneers and cowpokes of his literary acquaintance were reputed to release (but that never arrived upon the printed page).

Yet he did not retreat into the quaint words that often were ascribed, unhistorically he felt, to these worthies, such as "horse- thieving, cattle-rustling, bow-legged snake in the grass." Nor did he take advantage of the God-fearing "gosh-darn" and "hell's bells" variety, except that "holy mackerel" was useful in dignified company.

Nor did the media help him locate the explicit language of Presidents George Washington and Andrew Jackson, whose fame in this realm, censored from the school books, nevertheless had reached his ears. The media then was less outspoken, too, by comparison with fifty years later when President Nixon's habitual comparatively mild and uninspired profanity came to light among his sequestered tape recordings.

The trash in the Babe's readings gave him two types of "good guys": those who cursed and swore and those who were better because they did not. It was like the "good girls" and the "bad good girls": he liked both types but was forced to concede a preference for the "goody-good." So he was unceasingly on the trail of not losing his temper, which caused him to swear, and which he knew was a fault anyway, and had been often told was a fault.

Even while he was proud to muster a vocabulary as vile as the worst-behaved boys, he did not view them as fluent according to the high literary standards that he imposed; furthermore they were constrained by an ethic that proscribed swearing in the presence of the opposite sex, whereas he, less constrained by sexism, didn't give a damn when aroused. He did, however, feel embarrassed if, after using what his authors called "colorful language," he did not have the physical strength or will for the combat that was next on the agenda of escalation.

One time during a recess at the schoolyard of Franklin Junior High, for reasons yet obscure, Louis Raia, a much larger boy, pushed him harshly and unduly so that he lost his temper and screamed obscenities at Louis and then burst incompatibly into tears. Then Lorraine Anderson appeared out of the schoolyard crowd like an avenging angel and shoved Louis back until he desisted, and the Babe walked away, still cursing terribly though no longer crying.

The humiliation was not easy to endure and he set to work calculatedly to rouse his brother to share the antagonism against Louis and to fight him. This he did by conveying to Bro Bus that part of Louis' aggressiveness was due to a hatred of him, Buster, making the Babe a surrogate victim, and, on the other side, by continuing his verbal assaults against Louis, who was becoming too wary to attack him, considering the imposing character of his allies.

At the critical moment Bro Bus decided that he was indeed implicated and therefore acceded to the Babe's plea. Whereupon the Babe accosted Louis to advise him that he had gone far enough and now must fight the Bus. Louis, like the man of honor one must be to prosper in the culture of the streets, declared himself ready to fight anytime.

With this piece of good news, the Babe hastened to bring the two together, which was done upon the close of school, when a group consisting of the combatants, the Babe, and two witnesses walked to a quiet nook of black dirt beneath the elevated train tracks near Division Street. There the fighters squared off, and after several minutes of circling and casting punches, punctuated by the noisy passage of a train overhead, Bro Bus began to land harsh blows that convinced Louis the game was up. He conceded.

The Babe was satisfied, was quiet, did not jeer, let only a mild look of gloating across his face, and walked contentedly home with his brother. Hostile exchanges ceased between the boys. They were neither friendly nor unfriendly afterwards: peaceful coexistence it might be called.

The Babe managed his brother once more, this time, however, in an engagement that the Bus took on more conventionally, when he and Joe Cipolla argued vociferously over a play in a scrub ballgame. The Babe dutifully pointed out that they were on the verge of exchanging blows, informed them of their rights to a fair fight, and enticed the group of boys over to an appropriate corner of the Jenner Schoolyard, where, in short order, Bro Bus bloodied Joe's nose and the Babe convinced Joe, who was intent upon continuing the match, that he was in poor shape and would soon be in worse. So the match ended and Joe was not an enemy but always looked with a baffled suspicion upon the Babe, who had played the incongruous roles of a passionate second and a dispassionate referee.

Few scholarly writers who deal with the lives of the young give attention to their prolonged concern with fighting. The Lynds, for example, did not treat of fighting or violence in their Middletown studies, whether of adults or children. Scores of autobiographers have passed over any experiencing of childhood fighting. The media are loaded with violence and aggression, but where is the documentation of real squabbling children? The media give to physical conflict an unrealistic, heroic, dramatic, romantic cast that it actually lacks, but does not present children fighting, even though they fight much more than do adults. Practically all of their fights were exactly like the brief, snarly, push-pull struggles of the mammals pictured in many a nature-documentary film nowadays. At least in those times. Then there were the bloody fights that, as boys grew into men, moved over to the corners of the underworld, the demi-monde, the union-scab struggles, the army, fringe occupations like lumbering, and, of course, a couple of hundred boxing clubs.

James Joyce in his autobiographical novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, has his hero, Stephen Dedalus, moving in and out of trouble with his feelings of intellectual dominance and physical inferiority, associating with, yet resentful of, athletes and low-brow bullies. Perhaps autobiographies are not written by people who fought as children, with a rare exception like Maxim Gorki.

The Babe expected and even welcomed fighting as a child. Yet his wide reading was of little use when it came to handling physical confrontations, as little use as it afforded of sexual education, although so much of it did deal with fighting. The teachers laid a blanket veto upon sex and combat, although much of both was going on around them. What could they do? I think that the schools are simply not empowered to go against the forces embedded in the mass media; so perhaps there was nothing to be done but to let the lifted fists and lifted skirts pass by them as extra-curricular.

In any event, the Babe ended up without having fulfilled the prototypical fantasy that he had gleaned from popular American literature and the movies: of being provoked publicly into a fight by a larger opponent who was personally obnoxious, and of knocking him flat with well-placed punches -- a straight left jab to the nose, another quickly to the pit of the stomach, then, as he lowered his guard, a heavy right cross to the jaw, and down he goes!