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The day I quit boxing

Dad said that the Boy’s Club would be a good place to toughen up because it was full of all kinds of kids from different neighborhoods. He was right. I was scared and tried not to be noticed. But one day as I passed a group of kids they started whispering to each other, and someone spat out, “Jap!” I could feel blood rushing to my head. My muscles tightened and I braced for danger. Someone else taunted in a sing-song voice, “Ching, Chong, Chinaman!” I didn’t know what to do. I pretended to not hear anything and kept moving. I didn't turn around and no one approached me. As I rounded the corner I couldn’t help but see their laughing faces out of the corner of my eye.

I walked home with the strangest feeling. My head felt hot and my body numb. My heart beat wildly and I could hear every sound around me. What had just happened? Who were those kids? Why did they hate me? Why would they call me a Jap? Was I a Jap? (I knew I wasn’t a Chinaman). Was it a bad thing? Was I a coward? Should I have fought those kids? What would my dad think if he knew I walked away?

Somehow my dad figured out what was going on and decided it was time to prepare to fight. When we lived in Japan after the war, Japanese kids called him “Popeye”, as he was a tough little Irishman (was Popeye Irish?) with a lantern jaw and arms like tree trunks.

Dad turned the kitchen into a boxing ring. He would hold out his huge hands and tell me to punch them. We’d move around the kitchen and I would jab, jab, jab with the left, dad yelling, “sharper”, and I’d punch his hand harder. Then he’d say, “now throw a right” and when it was time to put the guy away he’d shout for the left hook and I would explode with all my might. My dad would smile, tussle my hair, and tell me, "Harry (he always called me Harry, I don't know why), you're all right!"

The rule was to fight only if I had no other choice. I should never start a fight, but I had to be ready to fight at any time, even if I didn’t want to. I had to show the bullies that I was not afraid and would stand up to them. I was to warn them, “Maybe you’ll beat me, but I’m gonna hurt you too.” He claimed that if they knew that they weren’t going to get away easily, and would be hurt, then most kids would just walk away rather than fight.

Dad tried to give me courage by telling me stories of my Japanese ancestors – fierce warriors who faced their enemies without fear. My mom’s samurai grandfather was a direct retainer of the Tokugawa Shogun. I thought that was cool, but I couldn't figure out how to not be afraid, when a gang of tough kids were trying to kill me. Maybe dad was right. Those kids didn’t want to get hurt. But I was still scared that the whole gang would overwhelm me and beat me. I was terrified of the hatred in their faces and words.

Dad got tired of waiting for a street fight and decided that I needed some experience so he signed me up for a boxing tournament. In my debut I was nervous as I stood in my corner of the boxing ring. Then I heard it, “Jap!” And giggling. Then “Ching chong Chinaman!” And more laughing. I felt a rage come over me. When the bell rang I charged across the ring and starting throwing my left jab into the kid’s face just like I did with my father’s hand, one, two, three, four, five times. I could feel my fist smashing into his face. His head jerked back violently each time I hit it. I slammed my right hand into the side of his head and threw a vicious left hook into his ribs. But the kid fought back and stung me with a blow to the head that felt like a hammer. I had never been hit so hard before and a feeling of sheer terror came over me. Was I going to die right there in the boxing ring, at eight years old? I panicked and forgetting everything my father had taught me, started swinging wildly, pummeling the kid’s face with roundhouse punches with both hands. I was in a frenzy; I couldn't stop hitting him.

I don't know how long that went on, the two of us smashing each other. It was as if I was suspended in time and space, fighting for my life. Suddenly I felt the referee pulling me away. Bright red drops of blood were splashed on the kid's white t-shirt. He reached up and touched his boxing glove to his face and when he saw blood on the glove he started to bawl and ran out of the ring screaming "Mommy!" I could hear kids laughing. The referee raised my hand. “The winner!” I didn't feel like a winner; I felt sick to my stomach. But as I left the ring and passed through the crowd I thought I noticed a new respect from the kids and no one bothered me much after that.

As we walked home dad was all excited talking about the fight. He told me I had started out well but had done too much brawling, not enough boxing like he had taught me. "It's all in the left jab," he repeated for the hundredth time. He was already anticipating the next fight. But I had been terrified by the violence. Suddenly I stopped and looked up at him and said, "Dad, I don't think I want to box any more."

I was afraid he might think I was a sissy, I mean what kind of boy doesn't like boxing? I didn't want to disappoint him; he was enjoying my victory so much. He gazed down at me first with a puzzled look but it quickly softened into the kindest, gentlest eyes I had ever seen. He smiled, reached down and brushed my hair with his big hand, and said, "That's okay Harry, that's okay, you don't have to box any more if you don't want to." And he took my hand and we walked home together.

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