Originally published November 26, 2020
When I was nine years old, my stepfather picked me up from school one day and took me to a junkyard somewhere between downtown Fort Worth, Texas, and the middle-class suburb where we lived. We went into a squat cinderblock building with a couple of slat windows and scant ventilation, a place where men worked and sweated, and even today, forty-one years later, I can remember the air that hung heavy with that aroma of ancient perspiration.
There, we met a man named Gary Barcroft, the head honcho of Little John’s Wrecking Yard Boxing Team. He was a man of hard angles, with a placid face and a harsh voice, and my stepfather handed me over and gave Gary permission to make a fighter of me. Actually, now that I reflect on it, that ambition was probably too lofty for the likes of the kid I was. What my stepfather hoped, I think, is that I might become unafraid of being punched, because that pervasive fear was coloring my interactions with other kids I knew, who could smell the fear on me and wanted to have a go.
I think my stepfather’s aims that day were entirely pragmatic. A kid who can fight = a kid who doesn’t get bullied. I doubt he had his eyes on any notions that were larger than the moment demanded.
And yet …
I mentioned in a previous post that one of my best friends and I have bonded, in part, over the fact that we’re both big guys who look like bruisers but who don’t have any desire to rumble with anybody. This isn’t just a function of our current ages; believe me, we’re both well aware of how pathetic it would for a fifty-something and a sixty-something to go around tossing knuckles. Even as a younger man, with less of a handle on my rage and, perhaps, more of an excuse to give it an outlet, I wasn’t that guy. And yet, on occasion, trouble came sniffing around me. When you’re a big guy, you’re every bit the target that a little guy is—perhaps not to someone who doesn’t want a hassle and can find easier marks, but certainly to the alpha who seeks dominion or to the guy who thinks he can get his by taking yours.
An example: Thirty years ago, I was playing pickup basketball at the Y in downtown Fort Worth, back when I had endless wind and knees that didn’t groan under my weight. The publisher of the newspaper I worked for at the time was on the court, too, and the first time we divvied up teams, he and I ended up on opposite sides, and he slapped my chest and said “I’ve got the big man.” I knew what that was, even at twenty years old. He didn’t know me—I was just a low-level correspondent in one of his far-flung suburban bureaus—but he knew what I was. I was his trophy that day.
Events unfolded predictably. He pestered me. Jabbed me. Stretched the thin line between aggressiveness and assholery till it snapped. Taunted me. Tried to get a reaction from me. I wasn’t giving that up. I’m not claiming here that I was in possession of endless patience. It’s just that I knew where an escalation led. There’s a violent turn that such encounters can take, and once that happens, everybody involved becomes known to each other. No way would the outcome of such an encounter favor me. I wanted to keep writing newspaper stories and cashing checks without this guy being aware of my existence.
At one point, late in a game, I got him on my back, jutted my ass end to keep him there, called for the ball with an upraised right hand. Once I had it on my palm, I dropped my left elbow dead center into his chest, heard the breath go out of him, a most satisfying deflation, and spun to the hoop and scored. When the game ended, I gathered up my stuff and went home, no words spoken, no outward satisfaction at my rejoinder.
Me 1, Provocateurs 0.
Gary Barcroft is the guy third from the right in the old picture above. It was taken in 1963, sixteen years before he met me. In 1979, the man was as good as his word. He put me on a heavy bag. Taught me how to beat out a rhythm on a speed bag. Instructed me in the ways of skipping rope. Sent me out on long runs with other fighters, from pipsqueaks like me on up to some of the up-and-coming pros in Fort Worth. Got me in the ring, moved me around, turned sparring partners loose on me. He taught me. I learned to throw the basic suite of punches—not especially well, as there was little that could be done about my substandard athleticism or my lack of foot and hand speed, but well enough to say, OK, the kid is ready for a real fight.
I got one in Waco, ninety-some miles south. My parents and little brother and sister went down to see it. Gary was the referee, and one of his assistants was my cornerman. The bell rang, I lumbered out, threw a punch, left it dangling out there, and the other kid hit me directly in the nose. I dropped my arms, started bawling, and Gary ended matters. Abject humiliation, the worst I’ve ever felt, poured over me. The memory, even now as I type this, is sticky with failure and shame.
I suppose my folks would have been fine with a lost night and a long drive home and no more boxing for me, but I went back to the gym the following Monday. I fought again the next Saturday and went the full three rounds. It was another loss, in that the other kid’s arm was raised by the referee, but it was also the biggest win ever.
That season of boxing ended with my holding a 1-8 record and emerging into the rest of my life with a surety that I could handle myself in a physical confrontation. Funny how one never really showed up after that. Oh, I had a few boyhood rows with neighborhood kids, and I’d lose some and win some, but the gift of boxing is that it just wasn’t worth the time of anyone who knew me to throw fists. I might lose, but I wouldn’t make the winning easy for the other guy. Confidence and security come with that.
For some time that season and beyond, I harbored fanciful dreams of fighting professionally, but both my record and my latent suburban softness exposed the incongruity of my capabilities and my fleeting aspirations. I had a trainer that year who wanted to see if I had some pent-up rage and whether he could coax it out of me. Well, I didn’t, at least not in any quantity that was useful to him--I was freaking nine—and his methods stood at odds with the limits of my comprehension. He would tell me about the great Roberto Duran and how he would convince himself before a fight that the man across the ring had done horrible, unspeakable things to someone Duran loved, to the point that his mind accepted the premise and his hands would chop down the opponent who’d been reduced to a mere proxy. It was jarring to hear that talk when I was a fourth-grader, and it remains jarring to consider at age fifty. I couldn’t access that kind of raw anger, not then and certainly not now. I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.
When it came to boxing, I fell in love with artistry, not power. I adored a boxing champion from my hometown, Donald Curry, who in my youth had more of my attention than Wayne Gretzky or Michael Jordan or Bo Jackson. Years later, I wrote a novel about a boxer, a man who also lacked rage but had world-class talent. The Hugo Hunter of my imagination was a winner but couldn’t scale the biggest heights. Like the very real Donald Curry, the fictional Hugo closed the book on his fighting life by leaving unrealized potential on the table. I find the stories of striving that comes up short so much more compelling than triumphant narratives, whether in real life or between the pages. If we haven’t approached the fullness of what we can be, and we still have time to work at it, that’s a reason to keep punching, right?
“What I had was not a lack of passion. I had an abundance of human frailty. You want to tag me with that, go right ahead. Guilty. But don’t say I didn’t have heart.”—The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter
With more yesterdays behind me than tomorrows ahead, I think sometimes about what it felt like to be young and afraid and how transformative it was to be given something that took the fear away. Nostalgia is nice and all, but I hope I’m not someday prompted to rely on that muscle memory and square off. I can’t be sure the fight is still within me, and in any case, I’m old enough to be someone’s grandpa and should be done with such foolishness. Leave me alone and stay the hell off my lawn.
On the other hand, as long as I’m on this side of the dirt, I’d like to have some vitality, because the air I breathe doesn’t taste as good without it. I don’t have to take the guy who lives across the street up to Knuckle Ridge and see who can hurt the other. That would be stupid and pointless, and I try to stay out of those areas as much as possible, unsuccessful though I sometimes am.
I’m thinking here of lifelong learning, of having some kind of ongoing or shifting challenge, of keeping an eye on some beacon beyond myself that offers a reason for getting up each day beyond obligation and the allure of breakfast.
Gary Barcroft taught me to throw a jab and a right cross and a left hook and an uppercut. They were good lessons for the time, for the kid I was, and for the man I was yet to become. Forty-plus years on, I feel most alive when I have something new to learn. Maybe that’s progress. Maybe that’s how I move from middle age into dotage with a modicum of grace and a manageable amount of frustration.
I can see examples on both ends of the spectrum in the men I call father. My dad was born on the cusp of summer in 1939 and is sliding through the remainder of his days bewildered by what he sees from a world that has left him behind. A more accurate assessment would be that he left himself on the side of the road with a set of skills and interests that stopped expanding sometime around 1985. He’s stubbornly not online, except to the extent that I serve as a proxy. Computers confuse him. Phone trees enrage him. Betrayed by his failing eyes, he can no longer dabble in fixing things, in jury-rigging solutions, or in driving his truck (he no longer has a truck, nor a license) to a fishing hole. He sits and he waits for his next doctor’s appointment or our next backgammon game, and he’s astonished that he somehow made it this far and, distressingly, that he seems to keep going. He’s 81, and he comes across as so much older.
My stepfather, a January 1942 baby, runs and reads. He builds websites and chases his grandchildren around the yard. His interests are wide. He’s always been that way, for as long as I’ve known him (going on 48 years now). At 78, almost 79, he seems two decades younger than my dad does. The difference isn’t rooted fully, or even mostly, in the physical condition. It’s in his willingness to engage mentally and emotionally with the world he occupies.
Put more simply: One man has yielded to his fear, and the other keeps finding some fight.
The lessons from both of them are mine to take.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.