THE MOMENT REMAINS frozen in my mind. The high school cafeteria. Lunch time. Rows and rows of speckled formica tables, me walking between the rows, a small container of milk in my rows of speckled formica tables, me walking behand. My friend is walking towards me; he, too, has a container of milk in his hand. It's a mock duel. Someone whistles the tune from High Noon. The eyes of the school are on us. I lunge. The milk spurts out into the air. I see it coming down as if in slow motion. It is coming down way off target - on the Toughest Kid In The School. In a horrible split second. I know I am going to have to fight him. Those are the rules.
The milk is still in the air, I can run. No I can't. Out of the question. The milk hits the Toughest Kid In The School right in the lap. He looks down in disbelief. He is a dark-haired man - a real man, very muscular with small, mean eyes. I start to say I'm sorry but some girl yells "Hit 'em, Ray" and Ray stands and hits me.
The blow lands on the top of my head which surprises me and then the next one catches me along the temple and then they start coming real fast and with tremendous force - whack, whack. I go down.Ray readies a kick. A teacher comes along. Mr. Arneson. World Geography. We are led away, me and Ray. I am confused, shook, but I remember that people are slapping me on the back. I have lost, but I did not run. That is something. That is everything.
I thought of that incident because I have been thinking of fighting or, more precisely, when you fight and when you don't. Now, of course, the answer is clear. You never fight. At least you almost never fight. Maybe you fight in self-defense or when hit first, but sometime you don't do it even then. You never know anymore. All those guns. All those knives. Save your macho. It can cost you your life.
But the question remains and it is raised from time to time by my son. He goes out into the world and sometimes the world is rough on him. Sometimes the world taunts and sometimes it teases and sometimes it takes his toys and sometimes, of course, it hits. So he comes home and he has these questions and the questions come from a face sometimes streaked with tears. The questions comes down to something like this: Daddy, when can you hit?
There was a time when I would have said never. You never hit. You most certainly never hit just because you're teased or taunted and maybe you don't even hit if you're hit first. There was a time when I thought that and much of that had to do with the assassinations and the Vietnam War and how it was so easy to make that leap from individual violence to institutional violence to national violence. We believed that one, believed, for instance, that we were a violent nation, more violent than most. There were the assassinations and of course the war and of course football and hunting and . . . Just think of what we did to the Indians!
And so you said you were nonviolent, at least you want to call it was more than just wrong, it was also false and macho and outdated in a Hemingway sort of way - as outdated as running before the bulls do prove your courage. All this I brought and all this I subcribed to and I believed that the women's movement had something when it demeaned what Norman Mailer called "the male search for bravery."
Anyway, now I am looking down at my son and he is looking up at me and I start to say that you never hit. Not under any cicumstance. But then the words freeze in my throat and I wonder if I have the right to turn him into some sort of social experiment - the Gandhi of the neighborhood, the kid who never hits back, who always turns the other cheek, and I realize there is a conflict between what I believe intellectually and the way I have been raised, the way most of us have been raised. I know the consequence of one and while I no longer think they necessarily lead to the bombing of Asian cities. I do believe there is something wrong with it - that it has done us a lot of harm. But what I do not know is the consequences of the others.
He is waiting and so I say you do not hit unless you are hit first. I leave it at that, hoping he will not come back and ask, in essence, what you do when the pain of teasing is worse than, say, the pain of getting a shot in the nose. He goes off looking a bit confused, sensing maybe that I, too, am confused, wondering really if a boy doesn't become a man by, among other things, taking the measure of his own courage. I don't know and when I don't know I revert to what has worked in the past - the notion that at times you have to stand and fight.
Those used to be the rules.