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  Don't Like Tonya? Tough. (Real Tough.)

By Hank Burchard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 1994; Page F1

 Back from Norway, Tonya Harding speaks her mind on a radio show in Portland, Ore. (File Photo)
Well, they finally nailed Tonya Harding, my favorite tough little broad, and I'm sorry. I was kinda hoping she'd get away with it, since the victim escaped permanent injury and is making a zillion bucks out of it.

Harding is the girl of my dreams, the coolest and most daring and determined of a dozen TLBs I've known personally or admired from afar. They've taught me some of the most useful stuff I know.

I guess it's necessary here to apologize for loving this perky criminal, and for using the evil words "little" and "broad." I'm sorry, I can't control my fascination with TLBs, and the phrase is one I learned from a self-described tough little broad of my teenage days. She used it in the context of a warning about what was going to become of my private parts if I didn't stop messing with hers.

A TLB is a female who usually but not necessarily is born poor and/or is of the wrong race or religion or whatever. She grows up the hard way, and not very far. Her short stature is the key to her character; if you think richism, racism and sexism are pervasive, ask somebody who topped out around five feet how the world treats short people. A TLB who survives to womanhood has beaten the odds and the bullies, and she is some piece of work.

The work may be waiting tables, whipping fetishists or commanding corporations. What differentiates TLBs from many other women, short or tall, educated or ignorant, ugly or beautiful, married or single, rich or poor, is that their lives are not man-centered. They can take us or leave us, and often do. Their power is in their apartness, their force is in their directness, and their saving graces are warmth and wit.

The spit and image of the type is Carla, the character Rhea Perlman played on television's "Cheers." What draws us to TLBs is that they are good-hearted, often funny people who are nice to be around — unless you try to push them around. To survive, TLBs learn very early what makes people do what they do, and they learn to live with it. They know themselves, they know men, and they know there's no point in bitching about it.

The shadow that sometimes shows in Harding's eyes may be just the strain of dealing with us mad-dog journalists, but I choose to believe it reflects her painful realization that somewhere along the way she lost control of the soul that drove her body so close to the summit of skating.

And she must have known her dream of reaching the top honestly was impossible, because Harding just doesn't have the equipment. She has a face that falls short of beauty because of overly regular features, and wonderful eyes that she spoils with makeup. Her body is chunky, giving the appearance of heaviness even though she weighs hardly a hundred pounds half-naked. Harding's arms and legs are too stubby to fully express the considerable grace of her movements and her stride is so short that she seems to be wearing galoshes as she works up speed for turns and jumps. She was born to be bested by willowy women.

But why should I feel sorry for trailer-tramp Tonya? She's a criminal, and anyway, she's probably going to make almost as much money as Kerrigan out of this sleazy affair. I shouldn't give a rat's patootie about what becomes of her, but I can't not care about Harding because of the way I was raised, which was mainly by TLBs, starting with my mother and her mother.

My grandmother was a Great Smoky Mountains hillbilly who was no bigger than a minute, as springy and grainy as a windward oak and bright as new money. Married at 17, she worked her husband's way through college while bearing six children and raising five to maturity and success, including two doctors.

I spent a lot of time in her care because one of the doctors was my mother, who practiced medicine six days and five nights a week, plus night calls. She worked for seven years after college to save the money for her medical education while helping support the family, and graduated second in the Class of 1929 at George Washington University Medical School (the other woman in the class was valedictorian). What my mother went through is suggested by the only GWU experience she ever told me about: One night, after pulling an 18-hour shift at the hospital, she went to the cafeteria with several classmates. When she bit into her hot dog, she discovered that one of her fellow students had inserted the penis of a cadaver into the roll. Sometimes I get tired of hearing how hard it is to be a woman these days.

Other TLBs stand as mileposts by which I made my way into the wider world. I spent my pivotal summer of puberty on a remote mountaintop in New Hampshire, in the custody of a tiny, energetic octogenarian who'd just worn out and buried her second husband. I was supposed to be looking after her; in fact I spent most of the summer trying to keep up with her. She was earthy bordering on bawdy, and she delivered me into the callused, knowing hands of a hard-muscled, small and smelly Vermont farm girl who first beat me up in the barnyard and then laid me down in the hayloft.

Another memorable TLB was Claudia, a sixth-grade classmate who first exposed the shallowness behind my big vocabulary and then, when I followed her home and tackled her, threw me around her side yard like a rag doll. She's a judge now, and even though her feet don't reach the floor, the thought that I might conceivably come before her for sentencing has kept me largely law-abiding.

Other pivotal TLBs have included teachers, an Army sergeant, a cop and no end of aunts, actual or honorary (the genius of the men in my family has always been to marry formidable women of handy size). But the ones who hold my heart are the TLBs like the girl in my high school who lived in a shack in a highway median strip and who taught me the expression "tough little broad."

Her place was so ramshackle that the pipes froze in winter and she had to wash out her undies in the restroom of the gas station across the street. I couldn't understand how such an underprivileged creature could fail to fall for an upper-middle-classy kid like me; one night when I parked and persisted in pawing her, she told me things about myself so true and painful and valuable that they are engraved on my conscience. We parted friends, I think. I love her still.

So I'll mourn Tonya, whose nervy reach became a vicious grasp. She's too one-dimensional to be tragic, too calculating to be pitied. But damn, she sure is one tough little broad.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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