On Fighting

by F.

As I child I loved to fight. Like most boys, I wrestled with my dad; I would fight with my friends one-on-one; and we would play games that were little more than organized group violence. But all this fighting was, believe it or not, good natured. It was fun. None of us took it seriously. There’s fighting for fun and there’s fighting for dominance. I’ve never enjoyed the latter much, thought it is part of the human experience.

Probably the most fun I had in grade school was playing a game we called Smear the Queer. While this sounds like a slur on gays and lesbians, it wasn’t intended that way by us—a bunch of eight year olds who probably had very little idea what homosexuality was. Today we would probably rename it something more benign, though, because having that association between “queer” and “bad” wired into the brain can’t be a good thing. “Smear the Queer” was about fun, not intolerance.

The game was simple—a variant of tag. Wikipedia has a good description of the game:

Smear the queer is often played with an object such as a ball which is held by the “queer”. Once the “queer” is tagged or tackled, he throws the object into the air. The other players then try to grab the object, thus becoming the new “queer”. Unlike other forms of tag, those who stay “it” the longest are considered the best players.

In the US, smear the queer is most often played using an American football. Children sometimes choose to play smear the queer after attempts to organize an informal game of tackle football fail (due to lacking enough players or simply as a fun alternative). Except in alternative versions, there is no way to win Smear the Queer. The game smear the queer is thought to have been around at least as long as children have played informal games of American football.

We played this whenever we could. After a while, we forgot about using a ball and just ran around tackling each other, which was good fun. I remember much laughing and no one ever getting hurt. There was no “winner;” we all won if we had fun.

When you get older, there are fewer and fewer fun ways to engage in this kind of rough play or fighting. You can do martial arts, which I have done. But there are a couple of problems. First, it attracts weirdos. Big time. Second, it is too rule-bound to be fun. The practices are generally too structured or systematized—as if there was some burning need to be able to, say, wrestle with someone and apply an arm-bar. After all, most of use don’t need to be able to fight in our daily lives—unless we are cops or bodyguards or in the military. Most of us aren’t. Most of us don’t go around committing felonious battery, either.

Alternatively, there are more organized—and symbolized—ways to fight, such as playing football or rugby. But, again, these activities are too rule bound. I suppose this is a good thing, because the body of an eight year old heals quickly; the body of a 40 year old doesn’t. How many times have you seen someone come into work with a splint on their knee? “What happened?” “Tore my ACL playing basketball”

More importantly, as you grow up into the adult world, it’s more about dominance than fun. And that makes the fighting different. Under those circumstances, the only fights I want to engage in are ones I can win decisively. I got a lesson in this from my dad.

A World War II veteran, he was posted to India and China, and I asked him once—I was maybe six or eight—whether he’d ever gotten into many fights during the War. I expected some Romantic answer. It didn’t come. He said he’d gotten into one fight. It was over cigarettes. He told me how he apologized to the guy but, as the other guy was walking away, down some stairs, jumped on his back and rode him into the ground, beating him into submission. Since men tend to lie about their battles, it’s hard to say what actually happened, but given that my dad was fairly short, I wouldn’t doubt that’s the way it went.

But whether it did or not, I always remembered that. That is true fighting: fighting to win, no matter what. A fair fight? No one really wants one of those. You want to win. Unless you are playing Smear the Queer on the playground. Which is why sometimes I miss those games: it was just for fun.