|Jean Carrière nous offre cette «fiction», qui évoquera peut-être des souvenirs.||Jean Carrière sends us this "fiction", which may evoke some memories.|
By: Jean E. Carrière
Reveille echoes through the cadet dormitories; the call of the bugle tears at the veil of sleep, a summons we've come to loathe during these last three months. Any thought of ignoring the call is quickly dispelled when Staff Sergeant Farnham barks "Wakey –wakey – rise and shine – gentlemen," and the drumbeat of his swagger stick on the stairs precede the last notes of the bugle as they fade into the morning mist.
One Hundred and Twenty groaning and grunting officer cadets rise as one. One Hundred and Twenty officer cadets prepare for morning drill. The more alert scramble to be the first to claim the bathroom while others shamble about still trapped in the cobwebs of sleep. And I, Brian Skinner, officer cadet number 3778, begin this day with a feeling of foreboding.
I'm a plebe, a first year cadet at Collège Militaire Royal de St-Jean (CMR). I've taken the chicken-shit discipline. I've marched, I've drilled, and since recruits are not allowed to walk, I've run. Each day is like the next, each hour accounted for, and time flows like the waters of the Richelieu River. I've become attuned to the tempo and the sameness of each day and I would have faced this one with equanimity except that today, this tenth of December 1952, is my turn to be put to the test.
"Sport is essential to your training," Bellows Staff Sergeant Farnham as he struts back and forth before us, striking the air on each syllable with his swagger stick as if he were leading a band, "Sport develops athletic skills and will make men of you." I'm freezing. We've been standing at attention dressed in our white cotton shorts and T-shirts in the drafty drill hall for the last twenty minutes. "All first year cadets will practice all the sports on the list." Farnham swivels on his heels and points his swagger stick at a boxing ring, "And that includes boxing."
That was two months ago. Since then, I've practiced many sports that were new to me -- like fencing for instance. Of all the martial arts, fencing was my favorite and I was good at it. I hate boxing. I wasn't the only one to hate boxing. Someone had complained. There were a few Generals' sons among us; maybe one of them had felt like me.
"Gentlemen, it seems that some of you fail to understand the purpose of our sports curriculum.", said Colonel Lebon, our camp commandant, after the morning inspection, "I refer specifically to the sport of boxing." The Colonel's frowning glare ran over the rows of cadets assembled before him. I couldn't be sure, but I had the impression that he had paused in my direction. "The Armed Forces require men of courage, officers who will lead the way into battle and – " I'm sure he was looking at me, "And boxing, gentlemen, fosters courage."
And that was that. One minute we're gentlemen cadets (That's what they called us.) the next we're expected to bash each other's brains out like cauliflower-eared pugs to show that we have courage. Never mind that these same brains were necessary for other purposes -- like our studies maybe? No! It was more important that we show courage. Chicken-shit!
Don't get me wrong. I can endure physical pain like the next guy; I just don't go out of my way to seek it out. I'd rather run from a fight if I can -- but I can't run away from this one. Chicken-shit!
What about the physical damage? I'm not handsome or anything like that but I sort of like my nose where it is – you know, in the middle of my face and reasonably straight – not some squashed appendage flattened to the side or spread above my lips like a limp mushroom. I like my front teeth the way they are, wide, flat and capped.
And what about psychological damage? I'm the kind of guy who wants to be liked – I'll go out of my way to be pleasant. I avoid confrontation. Take this guy I'm expected to fight; I don't even know his name and I'm expected to hit him, hurt him – beat him up for three rounds. I must hate him enough to want to maim. Call me the nine-minute psychopath. Chicken-shit!
Like I said, tonight's my turn to enter the arena. If I make it through, even though intellectually, physically and psychologically damaged for life, people will say I had courage. Chicken-shit!
I'd been relieved when they had presented us with twenty-four ounce gloves. It was like wearing two pillows the size of the Teddy Bears that my younger brother and I had used as missiles in our bedroom wars. I'd thought of applying the same strategies and hide behind a barrier of leather by holding the gloves before my face. Unfortunately, the plan had a major defect; the barrier also prevented me from seeing my opponent. I also found that dancing around with one and a half pounds of weights in my hands was tiring. A measly twenty hours of flailing at a punching bag (that didn't hit back), a few friendly exchanges with Lance Warbucks who towered over me by twelve inches and had mastered a wicked top-of-the-head punch and we were judged ready to enter the ring. The only effective move I'd learned was a counter-punch, a defensive maneuver that consisted in releasing a left jab while blocking a punch with the right glove. I learned to keep the blocking glove farther away from my nose after a few nosebleeds.
At one hundred and twenty-four pounds I'm consigned to the featherweight division, the lightest of five categories that include lightweight, light middleweight, middleweight and heavyweight. The matches consist of three, three-minute rounds with one-minute rests between them. All matches are sudden death (I shudder to use the expression).
The matches had begun six days ago and were scheduled to run for six more. The finalists in each division would meet on a father and son night in two weeks. We were all required to attend the matches. I wish I hadn't. The reality of what was occurring in the ring was much worse than the scenario I had imagined. Of the sixty contenders who had fought to date, twenty had broken their thumbs and an equal number had had their noses broken or their eyes gouged by the offending digits. One contender's jaw had snapped like a dried twig, a cracking sound that had sent shivers throughout the auditorium.
In all this mayhem there were some humorous moments like when Claude Leduc, a solid middleweight, had stood passively in the middle of the ring, slowly turning to face a nervous opponent who fluttered around him like a frightened butterfly. Every two turns, Claude would release a quick left jab or a right cross, sending his opponent circling in the opposite direction. The reversing carousel-like dance ended after two rounds when Claude ended the poor fellow's orbiting flight with a stiff right uppercut. At the time I had joined in the jeering and laughter -- forgetting for a moment that soon it would be my turn in the ring.
The moment has arrived. I am given a pair of purple boxing-shorts two sizes too large for me. The hem hangs two inches below my knees and the waistband has to be taken in with a large diaper pin. The last time I felt this insecure was when Mom made me wear my older brother's hand-me-downs. The thought of losing my shorts in front of One Hundred and Nineteen jeering cadets momentarily dispels my fear.
The auditorium is in turmoil. The place resonates with waves of mocking laughter and whistling. The rabble is screaming for blood. Another gladiator has fallen and is shown no mercy. I'm next, a sheep being led to slaughter. I make my way to the ring and pass the sorry procession of two attendants carting off the last victim on a stretcher. I stop spellbound at the sight of the defeated pugilist, his arms dangle and sway from each side of the stretcher. This slack-jawed, flattened-nose pug, bears no resemblance to the once proud officer cadet of the erect bearing and superior mien. And fear returns. I'm about to bolt for the locker room when an amplified voice calls out, "The next bout, featherweight division, three rounds. The contenders BRIAN SKINNER and RUFUS HUNTER."
I don't remember climbing the stairs to the ring or sitting on a stool. I'm totally focused on the muscular, square-jawed, killer with a brush-cut who is glaring at me from the opposite corner while his attendants help him don his boxing gloves. All sound is muted as my fear-gripped mind tries to grapple with the strange environment of the boxing ring. I hear distant murmurs as the gloves are slipped on my bandaged hands. Someone is giving me instructions; I perceive the words in muffled fragments, "Chin in – elbows – hands up."
The bell clangs. Hands beneath my elbows force me to rise from my stool and I walk with rubbery legs towards the center of the ring. The killer's eyes are slate-gray beneath bushy white-blond eyebrows. He scowls at me all the while the referee gives instructions about fighting clean and putting on a good show. I want to scream, "GOOD SHOW! MY ASS! HEY! THIS GUY IS OUT FOR BLOOD! LOOK AT HIM!" Gagged by my mouthpiece, I only manage a faint mumble and return to my corner.
The bell clangs. Rufus quickly shuffles to the center of the ring, bobbing and weaving; he seems to be in hurry to finish me off. Diffidently, I advance to touch gloves and… leap back three feet as if stung by a Cobra. Rufus comes at me, shuffling, weaving and bobbing. He throws a left jab. I spring back and one foot up in the air putting into practice the only move I've learned… the counter-punch. Rufus presses on, left jab. Left hook, left jab, shuffle shuffle, bob weave bob, relentless, a machine intent on my destruction. Rufus feints, I spring back and up like a crazed Jackrabbit. For several minutes I manage to avoid serious damage when – the lights go out.
Where am I? What am I doing on the floor? I jerk away from the acrid smell of ammonia that hits my nose and makes my eyes water. The referee's face is still slightly blurred, "What's your name?" He asks. Silly question, he knows my name. "What's your name?" I want to yell, "BRIAN SKINNER ASS-HOLE!"
"Brian Skinner – sir." I grunt and painfully rise to my feet. The referee pulls up my eyelids and looks intently into my eyes. He wipes my gloves on his shirt and steps back, "OK! Keep fighting." Rufus comes charging out of his corner prepared to finish me when the bell clangs.
I stagger to my corner and sit with my arms draped around the cables. I bring my glove to my jaw and move it around. I'm still woozy. "You're doing all right – the Son-of- a-bitch Hunter just got a warning for rabbit-punching you." Someone whispers as I spit out my mouthpiece into his hand, "Just stay away from his right hook." Rabbit punch, right hook, what's the difference, just get me outta here. My mind slowly clears and it suddenly dawns on me that I could have ended the fight right then and there. If only I hadn't remembered my name. Next time. Amnesia.
The bell clangs calling round two. The mouthpiece is jammed into my mouth. I stand and take two steps into the ring when Rufus comes charging at me like an enraged bull. I hop out of the way and carelessly wave a flabby right cross to his head as he passes by me and… connect. Before I can congratulate myself on having scored my first point of the match, Rufus has stopped his headlong dash and faces me once more. I can tell that he has hardly felt the blow, all I've done is make him angry. Our dance begins once more. Shuffle shuffle, bob weave bob, jab jab, hook, leap back, spring back, leap, counter- punch, leap again. The gloves weigh a ton. I'm carrying barbells at the end of my arms. My guard is dropping and Rufus's hooks are connecting, stiff pile-driver-like blows. I slip and hit the floor. I scramble quickly back to my feet. The referee runs up and holds onto my gloves, "You OK?"
"Yeah! Yes sir! Just slipped." I'm more embarrassed than hurt. My shorts have slipped below my waist and I try to pull them up, but I can't seize the waistband. I succeed in sliding them up part way by pressing my wrists to the waistband.
The referee wipes my gloves on his shirtfront, "Go to your corner, " He says. He turns and walks over to Rufus's corner and begins to shout and to wave a finger at Rufus. I'm too preoccupied with pulling up my shorts to pay attention.
The referee steps back to the center of the ring and extends his arms, "Continue fighting." He shouts and Rufus rushes towards me. He's brought up short when the bell clangs to end the second round.
"Hey! Not bad." Says the voice as I spit out my mouthpiece.
"What do you mean not bad? The guy is killing me." Somehow the fear has gone. I'm ashamed of my ineptness but I no longer sense the adrenaline rush of fear.
"We didn't want to tell you before."
"What didn't you want to tell me?"
"You're fighting the Golden Gloves champion of Ontario… he should have put you away in the first."
"Oh great! Now I know he's going to kill me." my stomach muscles tighten; my heart skips a beat. The fear has returned.
"Look. Don't panic. Just keep doing what you're doing. The guy has two warnings, one more and he's out and – we win."
I want to yell, "WHAT'S WITH THIS "WE" BUSINESS, I'M THE ONE GETTING CLOBBERED OUT THERE", when the mouthpiece is once more slapped into my mouth.
And the bell clangs calling the third round. For some reason, Rufus doesn't rush out of his corner like before. He just stands there with a quizzical expression on his face; his arms hang by his side. This is a different Rufus, a calculating Rufus, a Rufus intent on total annihilation. Every muscle in my body is quivering with tension, preparing to catapult me out of harms way at the first sign of an attack.
Rufus begins to shuffle towards me like a locomotive picking up steam and I slowly back away, ready to bound at the first flicker of those deadly hands. Rufus makes no attempt to throw a punch. Patiently, he tracks after me and I back-peddle. What is he doing? Too late -- I feel the corner post against my back; the ropes limit my escape on each side. I've cornered myself. Rufus moves in for the kill. Anticipating head-shots, I hide my face behind my gloves but I fail to keep my elbows in. Rufus goes to work on my stomach. His blows are hitting the wide waistband of my shorts and I can feel them slipping down. My guard begins to drop and Rufus uses my head for an anvil with right and left crosses. My brain seems to rattle around my cranium like a loose stone in a bucket and – the lights go out.
I'm outside in a freezing downpour with no clothes on. Mom scolded me the last time she caught me running out of the house without my clothes.
"Brian! Brian! You OK?" A distant voice calls out.
"I'm freezing Mom. I promise I won't do it…" I'm sitting on a cold tiled floor, my back is against an icy wall. I'm outside in the freezing rain.
The fog lifts; I'm surrounded by a navy-blue trousers and shiny army boots.
"He's coming out of it guys." A voice says.
"Who dat man wit de baseball bat?" I mutter. Laughter resonates off the shower room wall; hands grab me beneath the armpits and raise me to a standing position, "Easy! Easy!" The room is swimming and I'm half carried towards the lockers.
Relief. It's over. No more boxing – ever. Every muscle hurts; someone has taken a four-by-four to my neck, but it's over. I look up at the grinning faces surrounding me,
"What're you guys so happy bout?"
"You won." They chorus.
"Impossible… he beat me to a pulp. He knocked my flippin lights out. "
"He was disqualified." The chorus laughs.
"Three warnings. He rabbit punched you. He's disqualified."
"I don't remember that." I grunt and rub my aching neck. "If I won that means -- "
The familiar strains of fear return.
"You move on to the next round." My faithful attendants whoop.