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A Yankee Notebook

November 11, 2013


MONTPELIER – Egil Skallagrimsson, more than 1000 years after his death, is still probably the most popular saga character in peaceful Iceland. A homicidal maniac (when the occasion served), a brilliant poet in the intricate skaldic form, and an adventurer whose chutzpah (not an Icelandic word) sometimes verged on the berserk, he’s remembered as either a bully or a hero. Insulted at the age of seven by an older boy in a rough-and-tumble game of Viking football, he went home, got an axe, and returned to the field, where he split the skull of the offender.

The Icelandic onlookers’ reaction to the homicide was roughly, “Oh, what a Viking he’s going to be!” – the equivalent of our “Good boy!” And it’s just what I first thought of when I read about the can of worms opened in the National Football League by the Richie Incognito - Jonathan Martin affair. Is it the epitome of bullying, the behavior we’ve been taught to despise, or just a typical feature of the rough-edged, but jovial professional athlete’s life?

I first came across bullying as a smartypants second-grader. Aaron Papademas, a third-grader, waited for me most afternoons at the corner of Chestnut and Swan, a necessary part of my route home from School # 2. As long as I walked in an arc around him – much the same, I’ve since noticed in trips to the Arctic, as a caribou avoiding a predator – he never got hold of me. My enthusiasm for running began that year. Likewise, Harry Roach and his band of boyos used to stalk me in the park. They had me cornered one day, so I took a desperate swing at Harry. My fist must have been ill-formed, because Harry suffered three parallel scratches across his ruddy Irish face. He grabbed his cheek, came away with blood, fled the park in tears, and never bothered me again. But I wisely failed to develop, after this scuffle, any enthusiasm for the pugilistic arts.

Years later came a stint in ROTC at Syracuse. The courses in military science and history were taught very well by West Point graduates; but the weekly drill sessions were conducted pretty much by student officers, some of whom took their new authority far too seriously. One in particular – called the “cadre,” I think – seemed to delight in using his swagger stick to flip my khaki-colored tie out of my jacket and step on my freshly shined shoes with the threat that, if I didn’t straighten up and fly right, he’d give the whole platoon a demerit. It was a bogus threat – I’d been to prep school, and knew pretty well how to tie a tie and shine my shoes – but it gave me a contempt for petty, unmerited authority that’s endured for well over half a century. Quite simply, it was bullying. But why did he bother, if it was bootless and there was nothing to be gained by it?

A year or so later, pledging a fraternity, the pledge class more or less cheerfully endured seven days of tribulation called Hell Week. I divined early on that there were two kinds of tests: of resourcefulness and of fortitude. Failure in either resulted in various penalties, ranging from pushups to icy showers. My pledge partner and I were sent on a dark night to count the fence posts around the half-mile track at the county fairgrounds (Resourcefulness). Suspecting we might have been shadowed by some brothers, I made a show of placing a stone on a fence post to mark our starting point, and then another, surreptitiously, ten posts farther on. Sure enough, when we returned, the first had been moved. We came back with the correct count, which seemed to make the brothers unhappy. We tried not to show our delight.

Then there were various mortifying physical contests, conducted mostly in the nude (Fortitude), followed on a climactic night by a third-degree session conducted with photographic floodlights that hid the assembled brotherhood behind them. It brought out the worst in some of those Presbyterian brothers. The questions were mostly sexual, which was all right – naughty, but harmless – but gradually it became obvious to me that one of the brothers (I’ll call him Adonis; he later became a male model) had taken a prurient interest in my steady girlfriend. I waited for the pledge master (a very decent guy whom I still see now and then) or some other brothers to cool him off and shut him up, but no one did. So I stood up and said, “I”m going back to my dorm.”

“You can’t, Scum! You don’t have any clothes!” But I could, and did. A bit later two brothers brought me my duds. They made promises (which they kept), and I pledged.

We’re all familiar with the images of drill sergeants shouting into the faces of thoroughly cowed recruits, and the response, “Sir! Yes, sir!” The United States is – always has been – a warrior culture, so we accept that indoctrination. In the words of one drill sergeant I talked to, “it’s to keep them safe under fire when they have to follow orders without question.” But the collateral damage is that when a man or woman has been traumatized by real battle conditions, he or she feels certain that to express the strain is to betray weakness, and tries to hide it. There’s a vignette in the film Gettysburg: General Armistead, in the middle of Pickett’s ill-conceived, suicidal charge, bends down to speak to a weeping private huddled beside a fence. “Get up, son!” he says. “Think how you’ll feel tomorrow.” I don’t know; seems to me it wouldn’t feel too bad to be alive.

So what do we make of the locker room atmosphere that applauds berserks like Richie Incognito and turns its back on 330-pound “softies” like Jonathan Martin? In one breath a player claims he and his colleagues are different from ordinary people, and repeats the old saw about boys being boys. In the next he says “We’re grown men; we’re supposed to handle it ourselves.” I think –remembering another film, A Few Good Men – we might ask hard questions of the coaching staff, and ask ourselves what the gladiatorial culture we celebrate by the hundreds of thousands each weekend is doing to the behavior of “grown men” when they’re not in front of the cameras.

Photo by Willem lange