Punch Line

                                                            By Paul Briggs

 

The first thing I should tell you is, you're not going to like how this story ends. Fair warning. And there's a lot I didn't know at the time that you'll have to understand if any of this is going to make sense.

Mostly, you have to understand about Terry Rollins. He was the oldest of four children, but when he was ten, his baby sister wandered off and drowned in the neighbors' swimming pool. He never went so far as to say he blamed himself, but he was always a good swimmer and I guess he couldn't help thinking it would've been different if he'd been there.

Then, when he was thirteen, his father died of lung cancer. Suddenly, he was the man of the house. He decided it was his duty to protect his two younger brothers, Ted and Todd, for as long as he was around — and afterwards, if he could manage it.

One day he graduated from high school and joined the army, and the rest of the family moved to Rieseland. Ted and Todd made friends with a local boy named Jared Barkley… and this is where I came in.

*          *          *

I was eleven going on twelve. After years of trying to avoid Jared and his gang of bullies, I had finally had it out with them. It was short, and… honestly, not too satisfying. Jared ran for the hills as soon as he realized my safety was off, Ted and Todd Rollins both went down with one punch each, and that only left Joey Goltz. Hitting him would have been like James Bond shooting the arch-villain's cat — and besides, my little sister was watching, and I couldn't do anything too cruel in front of her. I just picked him up and shook him a little, then let him go.

The problem was the Rollins brothers. Ted had taken one to the solar plexus, which put him out of action but didn't do him any serious damage. Todd had caught a right hook with his face, lost seven teeth and had to have his jaw wired shut. The police didn't press charges, but they did insist that while I was in the hospital (I'd sprung a knuckle breaking Todd's jaw) I have a look at my handiwork.

Of course, Mrs. Rollins was there. I'd never met her before, but as soon as I saw her I knew who she was. My first thought was Oh God, she's going to rip me a new one

But she didn't say anything. She just charged and attacked me as soon as I was through the doorway. She punched, she kicked… and I hardly felt anything. It was like being attacked by a toddler having a tantrum. One of the doctors said she looked like she was trying to beat up the big old oak tree in the park. Two orderlies or whatever they were stopped and laughed when they saw this.

Personally, I didn't think it was funny. Being attacked by somebody with such fury and not getting hurt at all… in a weird way, it was kind of lonely. It was like being the only one in the room who doesn't get the joke.

Finally she burst into tears and said, "You just wait till Terry gets home! He's a Marine! He'll settle your hash!" Which was a phrase I'd never heard before, but I could guess what it meant.

I didn't take this too seriously until I got a phone call a few days later from Ted (which was probably how long it had taken him to work up the nerve to call me). He said Terry was his older brother and he was a Green Beret and he was coming to beat me up just as soon as his tour of duty ended.

And then, that Saturday, I got a call from Terry himself. He called me all the way from Germany, where he was stationed with the Support Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry.

Before we start, I think I should tell you that Terry didn't know a whole lot about me. Specifically, nobody had ever told him exactly how old I was. They had told him how big I was, but they hadn't sent any photos, so he hadn't really believed them. The point is that his mental picture of me was of a girl of about seventeen or eighteen, six feet tall or maybe a little more, who'd landed a few lucky punches but didn't really know how to fight.

"Are you Irene Harris?"

"Yes. May I ask who's calling?"

"This is Private Terry Rollins. Are you the one who beat up my kid brothers?"

One of the things people expect of giants is that we not show fear, ever, under any circumstances. "Um… that would be me, yes. You want to know why?"

"No, I want to kick your ass."

(What I didn't know was that he had this call on speakerphone. This was the part where I was supposed to freak out and his buddies were supposed to laugh.)

"Mr. Rollins… first of all, are you a Marine, or a Green Beret? Because they keep trying to tell me you're both and I happen to know those are two totally different things."

"Uh… I'm a Green Beret." (He wasn't. His job was driving trucks, not punches. But I didn't know that either.)

"Okay… have you ever been to Chippewa Athletic Center? Because it's got a boxing ring. If you want to fight, we could do it there."

Silence on the other end.

"I could arrange it for you. Mr. Shaw — the manager — he's a friend of my dad's."

More silence. He hadn't been expecting me to do this. What was he supposed to say now? "Just kidding, I don't really want to fight?" "Actually, I'd rather jump you from ambush some day when you're not expecting it?" Not only were his buddies listening, but he'd promised his mother and his brothers he'd fight me.

To be honest, I hadn't been expecting me to do this, either. I'm not sure why I did. Maybe it was more of that "show no fear" thing. Or maybe, having disposed of the Barkley Boys with a few punches, I wanted to fight an equal, a real enemy — somebody who could actually hurt me. Not having anybody like that around is another thing that's surprisingly lonely.

Anyway, we made a date. The first Saturday in June, at 1 p.m. I called Mr. Shaw, and he said that wouldn't be a problem. (I have to admit I wasn't totally honest with Mr. Shaw.  I made it sound like this was going to be a friendly, competitive little bout. I didn't mention that this was a grudge match against the older brother of the boys I'd just clobbered.)

So that was taken care of. Now I had five weeks to figure out how to hold my own against a Green Beret.

*          *          *

Five weeks went by. I had to work boxing practice in with schoolwork, piano lessons and everything else. (If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, here's a little advice — make sure you play the piano before practicing your boxing. You do not want to be doing Schubert with sore knuckles.)

On top of this, I jogged forwards and backwards, for maneuverability (try jogging backwards some time — you'll be amazed how much your legs can hurt, and how fast) and lifted weights. For the first time, I managed to squat 250, which very few women on Earth can do (and not a lot of men, either).

If you're wondering what my parents thought of all this, I kept it secret from them for as long as I could. Dad heard about it from Mr. Shaw about a week before the big event. Naturally, he came to me and said, "Who is this guy, and how do you know him?"

So I had to tell him. It was kind of a relief. He was very surprised that any grownup would be willing to fight a child even under these circumstances, but he didn't suggest calling it off. He seemed to think I had a better than even chance of winning.

"It was pretty smart of you to suggest doing this in a boxing ring," said Dad. "Ninety percent of what he learned in the army about hand-to-hand combat is going to be useless in there." I hadn't thought beyond the fact that it was one of the few places where two people could do their level best to clobber each other without the police stepping in. We didn't tell Mom at all, of course — she'd have had the Freakout of the Apocalypse.

Then came the night before the fight. It had been a while since I prayed. Most of my prayers, up until now, had been along the lines of Okay, God, I think I'm tall enough now, I don't need to grow any more… please stop, this isn't funny… At this point, I was not much of a believer in the power of prayer, but I did it anyway. Couldn't hurt.

The day of the fight, I got to the gym about fifteen minutes early. I practiced a little bit. The gym didn't have a dynamometer, but according to Mr. Shaw, I might have gotten up to 800 psi. And then, finally, it was 1:00.

And then it was 1:05. And then it was 1:15. And just as I was starting to think Mr. Rollins had chickened out, the door opened and in he came. I knew it was him because his mom and little brothers were right behind him, along with another man who I was guessing was a buddy from the Army.

So now I could see what he looked like. I'd spent the last five weeks building him up in my mind into this gigantic steroidy Hulk monster covered in scars and tattoos, probably sporting an eyepatch and chomping on a cigar as big as a prize-winning zucchini. He was fit, but not too fierce-looking. He had that poised, clean-cut look you see on military guys who haven't quite lost the fear that the drill sergeant is watching. The top of his head was about level with my lower lip.

As for his reaction to seeing me for the first time… like most people, he just stared at me for a while. Then he said, "How old are you?"

"I'm almost twelve," I said.

"What?"

His buddy said, "You didn't say you was supposed to fight a little kid." Then he looked at me again and said, "Well, not little…"

It took Terry a moment to get his bearings. The shock of seeing me had made him forget for a moment that he was supposed to be mad at me. His mother had to remind him why he was there. (The wires still hadn't been taken off Todd's jaw.)

Then I tried telling my side of the story. "Stop acting like this is all my fault!" I said. "I tried telling them to leave me alone and they wouldn't and Mom and Dad said it was my fault because I should have ignored them! Then I tried ignoring them and they still wouldn't leave me alone and Mom and Dad said it was my fault for not having ignored them hard enough the first time, so finally I beat them all up and they said that was my fault too!"

"Well, you know what they say about a stopped clock," said Terry.

"Um… no I don't, actually."

"It's right twice a day," Terry and Mr. Shaw said at about the same time.

In spite of everything, I laughed. This was the first time I'd ever heard that.

"Look," he said. "You're probably right — this isn't your fault. But the thing is, I don't care. I can't care. I can't let people go beating up my little brothers and not get involved. I just… I can't. That's all there is to it."

Then he looked around the gym. For some reason, the expression on his face reminded me of one of my friends at school when he hadn't done his homework. I couldn't help but wonder how much sparring practice he'd gotten in since we'd talked. (None. He hadn't dared set foot in a gym. If his friends had caught him actually practicing for a fight with a civilian girl, he never would've heard the end of it.)

"I can't believe you're gonna fight a twelve-year-old," said his buddy, whose name I never learned.

"It's not like I want to," said Terry.

And finally, there we were both in the ring. I was thinking, Keep your chin down so he can't land an uppercut. No roundhouse swings — they leave your body exposed, and he'll aim for the kidneys. Most of all, take the offensive and keep it. Strike out from the shoulder, again and again — make a drum roll out of it. Don't stop hitting him until he goes down. Don't let up, not even for a second. Don't give him a chance to recover. You've got mass, reach and speed on your side — make the most of them and you might come out of this in one piece. Oh, and don't let anybody see how scared you are.

(What he was thinking was, Which would make me look worse? Beating up a giant little girl? Getting beaten up by a giant little girl? Backing out at the last minute? Is there any honorable way to deal with this at all?)

And then Mr. Shaw stepped in. First, he asked us how much we weighed. Without getting into too much detail, it turned out I was 57 pounds heavier than Private Rollins.

Then… he called off the match.

Really. Just like that. His exact words were, "I can do this. I run this gym. More importantly, I am the referee, and in this ring my word is law. I say there will be a fair fight or no fight at all, and you can't have a fair fight with that kind of weight discrepancy. So, it's over."

And that was that. I warned you the ending would suck.

Of course, Mr. Shaw was right. The laws of physics are very clear about what happens when two people get into a boxing ring and one of them outweighs the other by fifty pounds or more. No matter who's throwing the punches, the lighter one gets propelled backward. This is why the expression "fighting out of your weight" means what it does.

It turned out for the best. Terry was now angrier at Mr. Shaw than he was at me, and we both got to walk away saying "I could have kicked his/her ass."

*          *          *

The next time I met Terry was years later, in L.A. I was in college, and he was married, had a daughter and worked as a driver for FedEx. He was at a bar, the T.V. happened to be on women's basketball, and even in that crowd of six-foot girls I was a little hard to miss. So, he got in touch with me, and we met. That was when he told me his side of the story.

Then we went out to a movie. To help you place this in time, the movie was A Few Good Men. I especially liked Col. Jessup's big speech — "We use words like 'Honor'! 'Code'! 'Loyalty'! We use then as the backbone of a life trying to defend something. You use them as a punch line!"

Well, Colonel, sometimes there's a reason for that.

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