Ed Colby: Life lessons from schoolyard fight
June 18, 2002
I didn’t see Jimmy or even hear a rumor of him for 42 years.
In the sixth grade, he and I traded blows outside Rio de Janeiro’s American school. When he wrote to me this winter, he wanted to talk about it.
That little fistfight was the watershed of my two childhood years in Rio. Had it never occurred, Jimmy and I might never have become friends, and I – a newcomer and a nobody – would almost certainly never have gotten elected class president.
Everybody knew Jimmy. Teachers adored him. He charmed everyone, almost. He wore white bucks and skinny silver plastic belts, just like the teenagers on “American Bandstand.” He had his own chauffeur. There was nothing money would buy that Jimmy couldn’t have.
He could also be a bad guy. He wrote, “We sort of had a mini-gang thing going. We smoked. We hung cigarettes out of the corner of our mouths. We combed our hair ‘down.’ We talked trash. We gave mean looks to kids we thought weren’t cool.”
Jimmy apparently didn’t think I was very cool.
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Outside the schoolhouse, on a muggy tropical afternoon 44 years ago, I remember screaming children lusting for blood. Jimmy and I did not disappoint.
He recalled a few details: “You were wearing a white short-sleeve pullover shirt with red and blue stripes, blue jeans and white tennis shoes.”
He also remembered the mob. “The crowd was now screaming, ‘Come on, come on, come on. Fight … fight … fight.'”
Jimmy continued: “So I hit you again. And again in the shoulder. You backed off. You put your books down. By a tree.”
As in a dream, I remember the tree.
Jimmy wrote, “I started in at you. I raised my fists. So did you. But like a boxer.”
My father taught me to “jab with your left and cross over with your right,” but it was no use. Jimmy and I swung wildly and blindly until Mr. Becht broke it up.
When I wrote back, I said: “This scrap kind of put me on the map, socially. If anyone didn’t know who I was before, they for sure knew after. Would this have been in the sixth grade? We would have both probably been 11. I’m pretty sure I was elected seventh-grade class president. I’m not sure that would have happened if I hadn’t been in that high-profile fight with the great Jimmy Jaffre.”
He replied that he had been my presidential campaign manager. Campaign? What campaign? I strained to remember, but it was gone. I warned Jimmy not to make stuff up.
He wrote back: “It wasn’t really a campaign. Just some mild arm-twisting and wet ear whisperings with offerings of sticks of Juicy Fruit gum, Baby Ruth candy bars, or packs of Parliament cigarettes in return for a ‘vote for Eddie.’ Like all good candidates, you were not interested in the ‘details’ of vote getting.”
So in a strange way Jimmy repaid a karmic debt, but I missed the point. I thought it was just a fight. I didn’t realize that for Jimmy it was a catharsis and revelation. He went into it cocksure and defiant, but emerged bloodied, humiliated and ultimately reborn.
The fight was the old Jimmy’s Waterloo, and it was from this point that he shed old friends and found new, better ones. I find it poignant that he credits me for this. “You taught me a lesson that I have privately cherished and will always be grateful for,” he wrote.
I always knew I knocked Jimmy off his high horse, but I never realized I saved his soul.
I’m sure all this really happened. I have Jimmy’s letter to prove it. I meant it when I wrote: “Rest easy, old friend. You didn’t dream it. I really did raise my fists ‘like a boxer.'”
Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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