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Coming of Age
By Ted Kluck
I told myself, friends and other well-meaning middle classers, that I had come here for a story. That I was doing research. That I wasn’t just another mid-20's, rudderless underachiever on a search for some masochistic sense of self - looking for salvation in a well-placed cut or a black eye. I didn’t know what to expect from the South Side Boxing Club.
When I first opened the door of the gym I was instantly 9 again. It was the first day of school. It was the first day of organized sports. It was the first day of anything that makes one a nervous wreck. I had to pee. The gym was in a neighborhood slightly more run-down than my own; a neighborhood with just a few more rusted out cars on blocks and a few more chipping paint jobs. There were more people walking around, and more people sitting on porches. More sets of eyes watching the pasty white boy walk in for his daily workout.
I began taking instruction from a coach. Within minutes I was a 25 year old college-educated man being told when to jump rope, how many pushups to do, and how many lung searing “squat thrusts” I would perform - hurling myself from a prone position on the mat to an extended, standing up position all in one explosive movement. Not twenty minutes earlier I was sitting in a pair of khakis and a golf shirt staring dumbly at a computer screen - a dead man walking. I began to feel myself getting acquainted with my own body, and I liked it.
There were a couple of kids there as well. They looked like puppy dogs, and as nervous as I felt I remember being glad I wasn’t them. Their father had a perpetual dour look and sat, generally quietly, on a stool outside the makeshift ring. A decent enough guy he appeared - the kind of guy who worked at GM for 20 years and was rewarded with a pat on the ass and a gold watch for two decades spent standing in front of a machine, drinking at Art’s Bar, and hunting during designated months - maybe saving up for a boat and a couple of divorces along the way. He was the kind of guy that began every sentence with “when I was fighting golden gloves...”
The kids, about 14 and 11 respectively, were decent and usually went through their routines with a quiet, workmanlike sense of duty. Named, John and Jeff, the kids. Good, solid American names I remember thinking. While pounding the heavybag, I speculated that their father probably tried to instill in them some good, solid, old-fashioned values, as well. Values like toughness and perseverance. Today he simply yelled. He was left with the task of putting his charges (myself included) through calisthenics for the day - a simply battery of pushups, jumping jacks, and arm rotations designed to warm the body for combat.
“Cmon Jeff, dammit, do it right,” he screamed. “You better suck it up or I’m gonna kick your ass!”
And so it went, exercise after exercise, I watched two young men deflate before my eyes. I watched them lose the right to dream and I watched them lose their enthusiasm for an already difficult sport. I saw them jumping at the first opportunity to go with a group of kids behind the school building and smoke a bag of weed - anything but going to the gym with dad. I watched abuse.
And I watched a father slowly lose his grip on his own dreams for his children. His dreams of creating a couple of tough, hard-assed, lantern-jawed youth was dwindling in between four lengths of rope wrapped in duct tape. Instead, he created what he feared most, which was apathy for the sport he loved.
“It’s gonna be over soon guys,” I wanted to tell them. But it wouldn’t, and I knew it. I knew that after the workout they would go home to some poorly lit house on some poorly lit street and be told that whatever they were doing wasn’t good enough. And then they would go to bed, rinse, and repeat.
The father roared on, screaming at his now exhausted sons - the children he undoubtedly sat in a hospital waiting room for, and the same faces he smeared with chocolate cake at their first birthday party. He screamed at them like dogs while they lay exhausted in the ring.
And so went their dreams, execution style. All I could do was grab a jump rope and walk outside. I began to skip. Boxing has taught me that monotonous activity - rope skipping, thumping the bag for 3 minute intervals - somehow opens a pathway to decent thoughts. Not earth shattering, revolutionary thoughts, mind you, but decent ones. Thwick, thwick, thwick...I skipped and thought...a yellow Chevy Caprice moving up and down on the horizon...
“What are you doing out here,” my coach asked.
“I couldn’t stand that guy screaming at his kids - I had to get away for a minute.” I would later go back inside and put in a couple of lackluster rounds on the mitts and the bag, respectively. John and Jeff would heroically drag themselves off the ring floor and salvage a workout. The kids, and their strong American names would be back tomorrow, and the day after that. One day they won’t be.
And later, I would go home and call my dad, feeling as though it was the right thing to do.
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