The brawl didn’t last any more than 20 seconds. That’s all it took for the handsome young athlete, Matt, to succumb to the hard-driving fists, elbows and knees of the brawny street punk, Steve-O, who lived in the city’s seedy south end.
When it was over, Steve-O helped Matt to his feet and the two shook hands. Matt was bleeding from the nose and his right eye was already starting to swell, but he cleaned himself up in the Dream Machine bathroom and was shaking his groove thing at the high school dance an hour later.
As fistfights go, this one was fair and honorable, but of course we were just kids and that’s not how we told the story later.
“That Steve-O dude was huge,” we’d relate to those who had missed the scrap. “Had to be close to 7 feet tall and 300 pounds. Had brass knuckles on his fists, he did, and a motorcycle chain hanging from his back pocket. Hit Matt so hard, it knocked one of his eyeballs clear out of his head. Could have been worse, though. They say Steve-O killed three kids in reform school back in the day.”
Fights were regular occurrences back then, but they were mostly all the same. Two guys trading punches and rolling around on the ground for a while until one of them was bleeding into the dirt and admitting defeat through swollen lips. The main drama came much later, as we got to recounting the clash over our school lunch tables.
“Roundhouse Judo kick,” we’d say with completely manufactured awe. “That’s what did him in. Now the poor schmuck has a steel plate in his head and he can’t remember the alphabet.”
Our tales grew taller than the trees back then, but what was almost always clear were the reasons our classmates got to fighting in the first place.
Steve-O and Matt squared off because the latter had insulted the former in gym class.
Bruce and Chad duked it out in the concourse parking lot because they both liked the same cheerleader — who didn’t like either of them back, incidentally, but that’s beside the point.
Shelly and Yvonne pulled hair and clawed eyes behind the school because the former had spotted the latter riding on the back of her boyfriend’s Kawasaki.
“Gouged the ear right off Yvonne’s head,” our stories went later. “They say Shelly kept the ear and now she’s wearing it around her neck as a trophy.”
I dated Yvonne for a while. You could hardly tell that ear was fake.
None of our schoolyard fights were ever recorded live in high definition at 60 frames per second. There was no video to submit to the police, to send to the news stations or to go viral across the world. When a throwdown was over it was over, except for the black eyes, the fat lips and the incredible fictions we would invent about it.
I honestly don’t recall a single fight back then that required police intervention and I don’t recall anyone ever clamoring for such a thing. Things were rough, no doubt about it, but somehow they never ventured into the realm of nasty.
These days? I don’t think an afternoon passes without another fight video posted on Facebook like chum for the political sharks. It’s never simple. It’s never just two guys throwing hands over a gym class insult or a pair of girls scrapping over a boy on a motorcycle. What we have today are throngs of raging kids clashing like S.E. Hinton characters in the street. Unruly swarms ganging up on drunks in the park. Unholy beat-downs with bats and rocks and sticks and knives.
There is no honor in these things, only rampaging tribes going at it for reasons that never seem clear.
Is this a racial thing? Is it the Haves versus the Have Nots? Is it something politically pertinent or just a stupid thing, like ol’ One-Ear Yvonne riding on the back of that Kawasaki when she shouldn’t oughta?
Back in my day, scraps were so predictable and ordinary that we had to exaggerate the details to make them more compelling. Now you have a guy beaten to death at the edge of a park … you have people talking sincerely about race riots … and you have a never-ending roll of viral videos without context to keep those angry fires burning bright.
It’s all so sordid, it makes me nostalgic for the days of no-nonsense brawls in well-lit parking lots that were followed by handshakes and reckless hyperbole. Even in the worst of those, you never feared that someone might die or that political unrest would follow.
Fights are never good, but they were a lot easier to take before everyone started carrying cameras and before honor went the way of poor Yvonne’s right ear.
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. You won’t find video of him smacking down that editor in the parking lot. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.