I came to reading and writing more or less naturally. As, for example, you might come to swimming early and easily. Which, matter of fact, I did; learning to swim at about the same time I learned to walk. I can very well remember the name of the man (he was the swimming coach at Rollins College near Orlando, where I grew up during the Depression years) who took me as a toddler and threw me off the end of a dock into a deep lake where I had the existential choice of sinking or swimming. And chose to swim, thank you very much. His name was, I swear, Fleetwood Peoples. Could I forget a name like that? More to the point, could I invent that name? For reading we had all the riches of my father’s one great extravagance—an overflowing library of some thousands of books. Books of all kinds in bookcases and piles and on tables everywhere in the house. Everybody read and read. And so did I. I remember reading Kipling and Stevenson and Dickens and Scott sooner than I was able to. And you could earn a quarter anytime for reading any one of any number of hard books that my father thought anybody and everybody ought to read.
A few words here about my father. For there were many things, more than the love of reading and writing and the gift of the ways and means to enjoy both, which he taught me by example and which at least precluded the possibility that most teachers could ever be as influential as he was. But athletic teaching was the one great thing that he could not do for me, and this, now that I am forced to think of it, must have led me to seek out coaches as teachers. He had been an athlete and, I am told on good authority, a very good one, playing ice hockey and rowing in school and college. And he had led, for a time, a rugged physical life, dropping out of M.I.T. to work in Utah as a copper miner. He wanted to be a mining engineer some day, but midway his money ran out; so he went to work in the mines out West; and he hoped to save enough to go back to school. He had a slightly mangled left hand, missing two full fingers, and bulked, powerful shoulder muscles and a sinewy 18-inch collar size to show for his hard years as a miner. He had his charter membership in the United Mine Workers framed and on the wall; and in the attic there was a dusty old metal suitcase full of one kind and another of ore samples he had dug out himself. But he was crippled, which was what he called it, not being ever an advocate of euphemisms. Lame was more like it, though; for he had a bad left leg and a limp left arm. Neither of which greatly impeded his apparent vigor and energy and, indeed, were scarcely noticeable unless he tried to hurry, to run, or to leap out of a chair. His lameness came in part from a injury and in part from a severe case of polio which had almost killed him. Now he could still swim—an awkward, but powerful sidestroke; and he learned to play a pretty good game of tennis, hobbling it is true, but overpowering many good players with a hard backhand and a truly devastating and deadly forehand. He also had a quality possessed by one of his tennis heroes, Bitsy Grant. Somehow or other, in spite of all awkwardness and all disability, he would manage to return almost anything hit at him. He was hard to ace and you couldn’t often get by him. When I was a boy, he was a ranked player, fairly high on the ladder of the local tennis club.
By the time I was born, he was a prominent, controversial, daring, and, in fact, feared lawyer, Fearless himself. Together with his partner, he ran the Ku Klux Klan, then a real political power, completely out of Kissimmee, Florida. And lived to enjoy the victory. Took on the big railroads—the Atlantic Coast Line, the Florida East Coast, the Seaboard and the Southern—and beat them again and again. Tried not one, but a number of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet, at the same time and always, gave hours and hours of time, without stint, to those who were once called downtrodden. Especially to Negroes who were more downtrodden than most anyone else. When black people came to see him at home, they came in by the front door and sat in the living room like anybody else. And nobody said a word about that or any of his other social eccentricities. Because most of them, white and black, respected him and depended on him. Those who did not respect him were afraid of him. With good reason. Once in my presence (for, by his practice, all the family were included in anything that happened at our house) a deputation of lawyers from the various railroads offered him a retainer, much more money than he earned, in effect not to try any more cases against them. He didn’t wait or consider his reply, though he surprised all of us by being polite. He thanked them for their flattering interest. He allowed as how it was a generous and tempting proposition.
“I would be almost a rich man,” he said. “But what would I do for fun?”
And, laughing, he more shooed them than showed them out the door.
Naturally the thing I thought I needed and wanted most of all was someone who could teach me hopping and skipping and jumping. Someone who could teach me how to run and how to throw a ball without the least hint of awkwardness. That was, I suppose, my kind of rebellion.
Besides all that, there were writers, real ones, on both sides of our family. On my mother’s side was my grandfather’s cousin. Harry Stillwell Edwards. Whom I never met or even saw, but about whom I heard all kinds of family stories. One that stuck like a stickaburr, and I liked a lot, was how Edwards, who was then Postmaster of Macon, Georgia, won a $10,000 Chicago Tribune prize for his novel Sons and Fathers. Now that was a plenty of money, big money, even then when I heard about it. Child or not, I knew that much. But it was, as I would later learn, a huge sum, in the last years of the 19th century, to fall into the hands of a Southerner of most modest means. One who my grandfather always claimed owed him some modest sum of money. Didn’t choose to repay it. Chose instead to rent a whole Pullman Car, fill it with family and friends, and to take them all to New York City. Where the money was all spent in a week or ten days. Then back to Macon and life at the P.O.
Nobody ever had to teach me anything about the potential joys and pleasures of the writer’s life.
On the other side was an aunt, Helen Garrett, who wrote some truly wonderful children’s books and even won some national prizes for them, too. But she always wanted to be a novelist for adults, also; and somehow she never managed that.
Then there was Oliver H. P. Garrett, my father’s surviving younger brother. (Another brother had been a mountain climber and a professional guide who vanished in a blizzard.) Oliver Garrett was a much decorated soldier from the Great War; newspaper reporter for the old New York Sun, who had interviewed Al Capone and, yes, Adolph Hitler, too, twice. First time on the occasion of the 1923 Putsch, from which Oliver Garrett predicted Hitler would recover and most likely come to some kind of dangerous power and influence. Finally in the early 1930’s, with the advent of sound movies, Oliver went out, at the same time as a number of other good newspaper reporters, to Hollywood to be a screenwriter. And was, I learned much later, a very good one. Wrote dozens of good and bad and indifferent films. I have in front of me a copy of Time for Aug. 4, 1930 which has a review of his movie For the Defense and a picture of him (p. 25) and describes him as “said to be Manhattan’s best-informed reporter on police and criminal matters.” Adding this little personal touch: “When Paramount began its policy of trying out newspapermen as scenario writers, he was one of the first reporters to become definitely successful in Hollywood. He is fond of driving a car fast, takes tennis lessons without noticeable improvement to his game, lives simply in a Beverly Hills bungalow with his son Peter, his wife Louise. Recently finding that he was going bald, he had all his hair cut off.” He was one of the uncles, and a godfather, who sent extravagant and memorable presents at birthdays and Christmas; and once in a great while he would, suddenly and without any warning, appear for a visit. I recall a large man with a beret (first beret I had ever seen) and a long, yellow, open car, with shiny spoked wheels and chrome superchargers. And colorful, short-sleeved shirts. And, usually, a beautiful wife or companion—there were several, of course. I remember that he could sing and play the guitar by a campfire on the beach. And most of what I know about World War I, I learned from him, from his stories of it.
Well, then. No lack of “role models” in those days. And early on, after I had announced that I intended to grow up and be a writer, I even managed to win a crucial approval. My grandfather on my mother’s side, Col. William Morrison Toomer, thoughtfully allowed that it would probably be all right for me to be a writer because: “It is as good a way to be poor as any other.” He added that I should not expect him to lend me any money, not after what cousin Harry did with all that prize money without bothering to pay Papa (as we called him) back whatever he owed him. Anyway, what could he say to me with sincerity and conviction when one of his own five sons, my uncles, was a professional golfer and another was a dancer? He was a little worried about what I would find to write about, concerned about my sheltered life and lack of experience. I must have been at most 12 years old when we talked. Well, when the captain and only other person on board was knocked cold and unconscious by the boom, my grandfather, at six years of age, had managed to sail a large schooner with a full load of cut timber successfully into Charleston harbor. What he didn’t stop to consider was that I already planned to use him and a lot of his experience, whenever possible, to make up for the absence of my own.
In school there were teachers, some very good ones as I remember, who were kind and were interested and who, I’m sure, tried to help me along at one time and another. But I was always what was politely known then as an “indifferent student,” all the way through kindergarten, grammar school, junior high, and through most of my high school years. Those high school years were spent at the Sewanee Military Academy in Sewanee, Tennessee, that lonesome, isolated, beautiful, and changeless mountain village. The Academy, or S.M.A. as it was known then, is no longer with us. In those days it was part of the complex that formed the University of the South. Within the context of the South, military schools have always been considered more conventional than elsewhere and therefore they have not been wholly designed for and dominated by juvenile delinquents. True, we had our share of them, brutes sent off to be as far away from home as possible, to be, if possible, tamed and reformed without the stigma of reform school. And, as if to give these predators some function and sense of purpose, there was also a modest number of others, sissies in the persistent American term (remember Harry Truman calling Adlai Stevenson a “sissy”?); these latter sent off to be toughened, turned into “men.” There were some of both types at Sewanee, but the majority were made of more ordinary stuff; though normalcy was tested to the quick by a schedule which began promptly, rain or shine, at 5:00 a.m. and ended with the bugling of Taps, and lights out at Quintard Barracks, at 10:00 p.m., and all the time between (it seemed) spent in the daze of a dead run, running, marching, gulping meals—formations, classes, inspections, military science and tactics, all of it controlled by constant bugle calls. At one point, really until recently, I knew, by heart and by hard knocks, every single American military bugle call—from First Call to Taps and including such things as Tattoo, Call to Quarters, Guard Mount, Mail Call, Church Call—the whole Battalion of Cadets marched, armed, flags flying and the band playing “Onward Christian Soldiers” to the chapel of the University of the South every Sunday morning regardless of creed or country of national origin. (There were no black students in white schools in the South in those days.) The handful of Catholics, Jews, and, in British terminology, Other Denominations, were officially Episcopalians for the duration of their time at S.M.A.A rigorous schedule, then. And rigorous regulations, too. Only seniors, and then only as a special earned privilege, were allowed to possess radios, one per room. No point in it, anyway. There were about 30 minutes a day when the radio could be legally turned on. Everything you owned, folded in a precise manner and to the precise measured inch, had to fit neatly in a tin wall locker. No pennants, pictures, or decorations of any kind whatsoever. I remember that each cadet was allowed to possess one snapshot. Which was to be taped in its specific place and displayed on the wall locker. Some cadets put up a photo of a parent or parents. Some put up a (fully and decently clad; no bathing suits allowed) picture of a girlfriend. There was quite a flap one year, as I recall, when a cadet, who grew up and lived on a large Central Florida cattle ranch, taped up a picture of his favorite cow. This caused a great deal of controversy until it was finally decided, in favor of the cadet and the cow, by the superintendent who was a brigadier general of the United States Army, in fact on active duty at the time. As were a fairly large percentage of the faculty. For these were the years at the beginning of World War II. Military training was very serious in any event and especially at a few places in the country like Sewanee which still, in those days, could confer a direct commission on their outstanding graduates. Others went to West Point, V.M.I., the Citadel and, I swear to you, reported back that they found these places relaxed and pleasant and easygoing in comparison with S.M.A.
So there we were in the cool, fog-haunted, heavily timbered mountains of East Tennessee. We were lean and if not thriving, then enduring on skimpy institutional food, for which we had to furnish our ration cards and tickets like everybody else. There were moments in those days when most of us would have cheerfully fought to the death, or mighty close to it, for the sake of a hamburger or a piece of beefsteak. Still, the University had a first-class dairy herd (as did so many Southern schools and colleges in the Depression and wartime); and, in the absence of any other students except ourselves, a small V-12 Navy detachment, and a few 4F’s and discharged casualties, we had all the milk and butter and cheese we could manage. Treats—a Coca Cola, an icecream cone—were available at the University Store, the “Soupy Store,” about half a mile or so from our barracks and which we were allowed to visit, providing you were not restricted to barracks for demerits or any other disciplinary or academic reason, on Sunday afternoons, following noon dinner and prior to Parade formation, roughly from 1:30—3:30 p.m. Most of that time would be spent in line at the counter, listening to Jo Stafford records (over and over again, “Long Ago and Far Away,” tunes like that on the handsome and primitive Seberg machine, or was it an early Wurlitzer?), hoping against hope to get served in time to drink or eat whatever it was that was available and which you could afford before the sound of the bugle blowing First Call for Parade sent everyone at a frantic, stomach-sloshing, breathless run back to barracks, to grab our rifles, our beautiful 1903—A3 Springfield rifles and fall in for Parade. . . .
Girls? Odd you should ask. There were a few on the Mountain, as I recall, altogether untouchable and, of course, utterably desirable. Otherwise there were formal dances once or twice a year. Some nice girls from some nice schools in Chattanooga and Nashville might be brought in by bus. Spic and span, barbered, scrubbed and brushed, shined and polished, we timidly met them at the Gym and tried to fill out our dance cards (yes!) before the music began to play. I remember half-lights and the scattered reflections of a rotating ceiling globe. How the whole gym seemed to seethe with the exotic odors of powder and perfumes. I think the little band must have played “Body and Soul” over and over again. I remember a lot of standing and watching from the sidelines. There were some wise cadets, old timers, who, given the choice, chose not to attend the dance. Went to the library instead. Or enjoyed the odd peace and quiet or an almost empty barracks. Without temptation and maybe without regret.
Athletics were everything. A way to escape the drudgery (and sometimes, for new cadets and younger ones, the danger) of the afternoons in the barracks or study hall. To be on a team meant an excused absence from some mundane and onerous chores. Best of all, it allowed for occasional forays off the Mountain. A trip to play another school. Where there might be a chance to get a candy bar and a Coke, a Grapette and a Moonpie, at a bus stop or country store. A chance to see girls, maybe even, with luck, to speak to one. A chance in the “contact” sports to move beyond simple competition and to heap some measure of fury and frustration upon some stranger who was, most likely, seeking to do exactly the same thing to you.
Whom did we play against? It was, of course, the same set of schools and places in all sports. But when I try to summon it up, I think of team sports. Of football most of all. It seems to me we played all the time, almost as much as we practiced, I suspect now that some of the games didn’t really count. Were merely game scrimmages. Who knows? I do know that it was a long season, beginning in late summer and ending in boredom and bone weariness sometime after Thanksgiving. We sometimes played a couple of games in the same week. On the one hand we played against East Tennessee high schools—Tullahoma, Murfreesboro, Lynchberg, etc., together with tiny country schools whose names I’ve long since forgotten. On the other we played against the other military schools: Baylor and McCallie in Chattanooga, both of which were bigger and generally better than we were, but for whom we had sneering contempt because their military lifestyle was casual (in our view), easygoing; Columbia Military Academy which was, we believed, all athletics with no academics worth mentioning to interfere with sports, and where the players were bigger and more numerous than anywhere else; Tennessee Military Institute, which appeared to be really a reform school of some kind, wire fence around it, catwalks and search lights and shabby khaki uniforms. And always our Episcopal neighbor, St. Andrews, with its monks and its poor boys who grew their own food. When we played them, we had to play barefooted because they had no football shoes. They had a considerable advantage, tougher feet from playing barefoot all the time.
If this was Real Life, if this was all the world that mattered and we were in it, then coaches were urgently important to us all. Trouble was that most of them didn’t teach anything. They exhorted and denounced, praised and blamed, honored and ridiculed, but they seldom had any practical advice or real instruction for us. Those who (somehow) already knew what to do were all right. And there were always a few athletes with great natural ability at this or that who figured out what to do by trial and error, intuition and inspiration. The rest of us ran about in shrill gangs, packs, and herds, desperately trying to make the elaborate diagrams of the coaches in our playbooks come to represent something real on the ground. The chaos of circles and X’s on paper bore very little resemblance to anything happening in fact and particular. Nobody on either team ever seemed to be where he was supposed to be. But only the most cynical and worldly-wise among us concluded that the fault wasn’t ours. There was a great deal of dust and confusion on the playing field. Missed assignments, on both sides, were almost the rule rather than exception. Luck, pure dumb luck, became a much more crucial factor in every game. So did tricks and trickery. Fake substitution plays were common. Fake punts and field goals were frequent. The old Statue of Liberty Play was always worth a try. I seem to recall rehearsing an elaborate fake fumble play. All this only added to the general confusion and to the unpredictability of the games. Upsets were so commonplace they could hardly be called upsets. With so many variable and changing factors, even a state-of-the-art computer would be hard pressed to come up with any good clear patterns of probability.
. . . Well, now, you are surely thinking. All of that must have been wonderful training for a life in the American literary world: hard knocks, massive confusion, fake punts, fake passes and fake field goals, ceaseless trickery and treachery; and all of it depending on luck, on pure dumb luck. . . .
And, once in a while, on coaching.
The coach who first reached me, taught me anything above and beyond the most basic fundamentals of the game, was Lieutenant Towles. I think. That is the name I remember. And the nickname, used by everyone except in front of himself—”Lou-Two.” Let us call him that since that is what he was called.
Lou-Two was young and tall and lean, a splendid physical specimen. Except that he had somewhere lost an eye. Had one glass eye. And it was that which kept him out of the War. I picture him now not in uniform, but in a neat sweat-suit, long-legged and moving about the playing field in a sort of a lope, which was either imitated from or maybe borrowed by his two loping Boxers who always seemed to be at his heels. He was quick and just a little bit awkward, this latter I think because of being one-eyed. Some of the guys thought he was funny.
It was from Lou-Two that I began to learn some of the things which made a big difference in my life. I do not know if it was his intention to teach the things I learned. We sometimes learn what we want to quite beyond the intentions of pedagogy. (As Theodore Roethke put it—we learn by going where we have to go.) His concern and interest at that time was teaching athletic skill. And that coincided with my interests. I had not the faintest notion that I might be learning things which would be transferable and could later be transformed into something altogether different—the art of writing. Athletic skill would grow, then fade later on with injuries, age, and change of interests. But attitudes and habits, together with something deeper than either, rituals really, would become so ingrained as to be part of my being.
At any rate I followed him into whatever sports he coached, season by season. He was one of several football coaches, an assistant; but he was head coach of boxing in winter and track in springtime. I had no particular natural ability at either of these sports. Swimming, which came easily, was my best sport. But I gave it up. To be coached by Lou-Two. I suppose I followed him because he had taken an interest in me and had encouraged me at a time when I was very eager but very easily discouraged.
His interest in and encouragement of myself and others, Scrubs in life as well as athletics, now astonishes me more than it did then. By and large coaches have their hands full just teaching and encouraging the few pupils who are already demonstrably talented and essential to the success of any given team. Which is why the great art or craft of contemporary coaching is more a matter of careful and clever recruiting than anything else. They assemble teams of the gifted and experienced, and they teach refinements only. Of course, this is one reason why, when you watch many college football games today, you will see that the main and often crucial mistakes are made in matters of fundamentals—missed blocks and tackles, dropped passes and fumbles.
But in a little school like S. M. A. , where teams were so often overmatched, it was probably good sense to try to make something out of the Scrubs. They could, after all, make a difference as, inevitably, the basic team and its best backup players were worn down by attrition during the long season.
I am still speaking of football. Which was my chief goal. Like every other red-blooded Southern boy. It never occurred to me, then, to doubt that playing football was the most important thing a young man could ever do with himself. Except, maybe, to get laid or to go to the War. From track I learned to run and then to run faster and faster. From boxing’s hard school I learned to cultivate a certain kind of aggressiveness, out of self-defense if nothing else. And I experienced a sharper, keener sense of contact. It soon dawned on me that for the most part and most of the time football was neither as tiring or as dangerous as boxing. From boxing I began to learn to take punishment better; to know that it was coming; to bear it. But at the same time I was learning, with the pleasure of instant and palpable results, to dish out punishment. Learned by doing, by giving and taking, that other, even better athletes, did not enjoy receiving punishment any more than I did. I learned then that there was at least this much equality and that if I went after my opponents, quickly, there were times when I could take command.
Shall I, may I, say a word or two about pride and skill? Please understand that I am now, for better or worse, possessed by precious few illusions. I had even fewer at the age of 15 or 16. I was never a very good athlete. But, on the other hand, I have been there and I have known the ups and downs, the feel of it all from head to toe. Which is (I do believe) mostly much the same for all who have been there— regardless of their share of good luck or their degree of skill. I have won and lost races on hot cinder tracks and in cool swimming pools. In the ring I have won and lost decisions, knocked out other young men and, myself, have been beaten to the dazed, vague, bloody, and bruised edges of consciousness. Never knocked out (yet) I’m here to tell you, though. I have known those times when my mouth and jaws were too swollen to open up for a teaspoon and when my bruised hands and sprained thumbs failed me at the simple chores of buttons and shoelaces. In football, in high school and college, I have experienced a few moments I can honorably remember. I have run the ball and passed the ball. I have caught passes and punts. Once upon a time, and once only, I ran back a kickoff for a grand total of 12 yards. And one wonderful afternoon I managed somehow to block and generally manhandle an Ail-American tackle. Who must have been just as astonished as I was when he kept on finding himself sitting firmly on his altogether ample ass. Oh sure, there are booboos and stupidities which will still wake me up in the middle of the night wincing with shame.
But I guess now I am grateful for all of it, if only because it taught me early and forever that most literary accounts of athletic events and adventures, from Hemingway to Mailer and through McGuane, are bullshit.
But from Lou-Two I was also learning other things which would prove useful. From him, first of all, I learned conditioning. Conditioning, then as now, only more so then, was more a mystery, more a matter of craft and secrets, than any kind of science. Faith and hope, I venture, had as much to do with being in shape as anything else. The same thing was true of the repair and healing of injuries in those days before there was anything called “Sports Medicine.” Except for broken bones, the care of injuries was in the hands of trainers. Ours was the celebrated trainer of the University of the South who, for the duration, had no teams to care for. He was an ancient black man named Willie Six. It, too, was a mostly nonverbal experience. You went to his den at the University gym. He did things with heat and cold, with strong-scented and mysterious ointments and salves of his own making and with deft massage. It, too, was a vaguely religious experience. Sometimes, made whole as much by faith as treatment, I imagine, those who had hobbled in left cured and ready to play again.
Conditioning was mysterious like that. What you learned was that if you did certain things (and did without certain things) and performed certain rituals, your body would answer you by tiring more slowly and by recovering much more quickly from weariness, wear and tear. You learned to know and to listen to your body. Since all this was aimed toward the performance of a particular sport, its focus was less narcissistic than conditioning for its own sake or to improve appearance or health. The practical results of being in good shape showed up in performance. That, in itself, was a lesson which would carry over—that you could establish a relationship with the self of the body and could train it and teach it to work for you. And that you need not, indeed should not be crazy or tyrannical in this matter. If you overtrained or mistreated your body, you lost ground.
What was happening, even during this period of concentration upon the body, was a kind of self-transcendence. In which, gradually and inexorably, the body, one’s own, became in part something separate and distinct, an apparatus, a sensory instrument designed to do things and to feel things and to accomplish certain chores. It need not be a thing of beauty. It need only be able to perform, to the extent of its own learned limits, specific tasks. Inevitably one was, ideally, observing the body-self in action from a different angle and vantage point. An early lesson in point of view.
The larger value of this learning experience, however, was more complex. It was a matter of learning one kind of concentration, of a kind which would be very useful to an artist. Concentrating on preparation, one could not afford to waste either time or energy worrying about anything beyond that. You were too busy preparing to worry about the game (or match or meet) until its moment arrived. And when that happened, it was pointless to worry about anything else, past or future, except the present experience. You learned to concentrate wholly on the moment at hand and to abandon yourself completely to it.
And that made some sense out of all the chaos and confusion. Wholly given over to the present, you likewise limited focus to your own small space. To what you had to do. You became, for yourself, a single lamp burning in a dark house. You learned to live in that light and space with only the most minimal regard for or awareness of all the rest of it, going on all around you. You learned to play your part, early or late the same, and without regard for the score. Winning or losing didn’t matter much.
The athletic advantages of this knowledge and concentration, particularly for an athlete who was making up for the absence of great natural skill, were considerable. Concentration gave you an edge and advantage over many of your opponents, even your betters, who could not isolate themselves to that degree. For example, in football if they were ahead (or behind) by several touchdowns, if the game itself seemed to have been settled, they tended to slack off, to ease off a little, certainly to relax their own concentration. It was then that your own unwavering concentration and your own indifference to the larger point of view paid off. At the very least you could deal out surprise and discomfort to your opponents.
But it was more than that. Do you see? The ritual of physical concentration, of acute engagement in a small space while disregarding all the clamor and demands of the larger world, was the best possible lesson in precisely the kind of selfish intensity needed to create and to finish a poem, a story, or a novel. This alone mattered while all the world going on, with and without you, did not.
I was learning first in muscle, blood, and bone, not from literature and not from teachers of literature or the arts or the natural sciences, but from coaches, in particular this one coach who paid me enough attention to influence me to teach some things to myself. I was learning about art and life through the abstraction of athletics in much the same way that a soldier is, to an extent, prepared for war by endless parade ground drill. His body must learn to be a soldier before heart, mind, and spirit can.
Lou-Two, perhaps without realizing or intending it, initiated me. But it would be another man, a better athlete and a better coach, who would teach me most and point me towards the art and craft I have given my grown-up life to. I could not have gained or learned anything from the second man, the next coach and teacher, if I had not just come under the benign, if shadowy influence of the first man.
A final track season, graduation; and I went my way, having so much by then absorbed what he had to teach that I took it all for granted without any special gratitude towards Lieutenant Towles or any special memory of him until now. I remember the two Boxer dogs first. I fill in the man loping between them.
The next man had a certain fame. He was Joseph Brown at Princeton University.
With Joe Brown I now encountered an artist, a sculptor, and a coach who had once been a great athlete. Never defeated as a professional fighter. And just missed being a world champion. Missed because he lost an eye in an accident while training for a championship fight. As a coach, he had much to teach me. Or, better, there was so much to learn from him. For one thing, he was able to show me that there were things, particularly habits derived not from poor coaching but from experience, which it was already too late to unlearn. Things I would have to live with. There were things, beginning with my basic stance as a fighter, which were “wrong” and less than wholly efficient and effective. I fought out of a kind of sideways stance which allowed for a good sharp left jab and even a left hook and was an effective defensive stance, but limited the use of my right hand except in very close. He taught me how to analyze that stance (and my other habits) and how, rather than discarding it and disregarding all the experience which had gone into forming it, to modify it slightly so as to take best advantage of its strengths and at the same time to compensate for its more obvious weaknesses. Compensation, that’s what he showed me first. How to compensate for inherent physical defect or bad habits.
What was happening, then, was the introduction of mind, of thinking, into a process which had been, until then, all intuition and inspiration, all ritual and mystery. He did not seek to eliminate these things, but he added another dimension to them.
From Joe Brown, both by teaching and example (he was still, close up, the best fighter I had ever seen), I began to learn the habits of professionalism, the kind of professionalism which would be demanded of me as an artist. Never mind “good” artist or “bad” artist. I even learned, through the habits of this kind of professionalism and the experience of trying and testing myself and my habits against others who also knew what they were doing, that nobody else, except maybe a critic-coach like Joe Brown who knew what was happening at all levels of his being, could honestly judge and evaluate your performance. I learned to recognize that the audience, even the more or less knowledgeable audience, never really knew what was going on. Nor should they be expected to.
I learned that in the end you alone can know and judge your own performance, that finally even the one wonderful coach-critic is expendable. He can solve a practical problem for you, problems of craft; but he cannot and should not meddle with the mystery of it.
I learned something, then, about brotherhood, the brotherhood of fighters. People went into this brutal and often self-destructive activity for a rich variety of motivation, most of them bitterly antisocial and some verging on the psychotic. Most of the fighters I knew of were wounded people who felt a deep, powerful urge to wound others at real risk to themselves. In the beginning . . . . What happened was that in almost every case, there was so much self-discipline required and craft involved, so much else besides one’s original motivations to concentrate on, that these motivations became at least cloudy and vague and were often finally forgotten. Many good and experienced fighters become gentle and kind people. Maybe not “good” people. But they do have the habit of leaving all their fight in the ring. And even there, in the ring, it is dangerous to invoke too much anger. It can be a stimulant but is very expensive of energy. It is impractical to get mad most of the time.
In a sense this was not good training for the literary world. For the good camaraderie of good athletes is not an adequate preparation for the small-minded, mean-spirited, selfish and ruthless competitiveness of most of the writers and literary types (not all, thank God) I have encountered. They do things which any self-respecting jock would be ashamed of. They treat each other as no fighter would ever dare to.
And all the time they talk about . . . Art. With a capital A. With a kind of public and mindless piety and genuflection.
Ever since my youth, since the days of first the shadowy Lt. Towles and then the unforgettable Joe Brown, I have been deeply suspicious of pious amateurs.
From Joe Brown I also learned something of the permissible vanity of the professional. Joe had long since outgrown any of the false and foolish pride of the athlete. But he knew himself well enough to know that some pride was earned and all right. Once in a great while he would go to the fights in New York at Madison Square Garden or St. Nick’s. If he went, he would be recognized, starting in the lobby with the old guys walking on their heels who sold programs. And the ushers. Before the main fight he would be introduced from the ring. He liked that moment even when it embarrassed him. It was a homecoming. He wrote a fine short story about it called “And You Hear Your Name.”
Joe Brown was an artist, and he was as articulate about his art as he was about his sport. He could talk about it, though always simply and plainly. For those who were tuned in to his kind of talk it was valuable. R.P. Blackmur, for example, used to discuss literary matters and matters of aesthetics with Joe. It was from Joe, Blackmur said, that he got one of his best known titles—Language As Gesture. Which was a reversal of something I, myself, had heard Joe say: in sculpture gesture was his language. Many of his athletes also went, one night a week, to his sculpture class. It was, in those days before co-education came to Princeton, the only place you could be sure to see a naked woman on the campus. A powerful inducement. We managed to learn a little about modeling clay and about the craft of hand and eye. For most of us what we learned was that we could never-ever be sculptors even if we wanted to. But, hand and eye, we learned some things that would carry over, despite a lack of natural talent.
Some of the intellectual lessons Joe Brown taught were brutally simple. In boxing, for example, he was fond of reminding his guys that to win in boxing you had to hit the other guy. To hit the other guy you had to move in close enough for him to hit you. No other way. One of the immutable lessons of boxing was that there was no free lunch. To succeed you had to be at risk. You had to choose to be at risk. That choice was the chief act of will and courage. After that you might win or lose, on the basis of luck or skill, but the choice itself was all that mattered.
Or a matter of sculpture. Teaching something of the same sort of lesson. At one stage Joe was making a lot of interesting pieces for children’s playgrounds. This in response to some Swedish things which were being put up in New Jersey and which, in Joe’s view, while aesthetically interesting, had nothing special to do with play. He said a piece for a playground should be something you could play on and with. One of his pieces, I remember, was a kind of an abstract whale shape. High “tail” in the air and a slide from the “tail,” through the inside of the “body” and out of the “mouth.” It was tricky to get to the top of the “tail.” There was no one and easy way to climb there. Many different ways as possibilities. Some of them a little bit risky. You could fall down. So?You can fall out of a tree, too, or off a fence. Once at the top of the “tail” there was the wonderful, steep S-shaped slide waiting. Only right in the middle it leveled off. The experience of the slide was briefly interrupted.
“I want these kids to learn the truth,” he said. “You can have a great slide, a great experience. But to do it all the way you’ve got to get up off your ass and contribute at least one or two steps of your own.”
My first lesson in . . . meaning in Art.
As I am thinking about these things so much has changed. My father has been dead for many years. Lt. Towles has disappeared from my life. I have no idea where he may be, even if he is alive or dead. And as I write this, I have news that Joe Brown died recently in Princeton. Thirty-five years and more have passed since he was my coach and teacher. And likewise the half-child, myself, who came to him to try to learn and to improve his boxing skills, is long gone also, even though, by being alive, I can still carry the memory of him and thus, also, of Joe Brown. I can summon up the sweat and stink of that gym. Pure joy of it when things went well. Pain when they did not.
Ironically, I tend to dismiss most comparisons of athletics to art and to “the creative process.” But only because, I think, so much that is claimed for both is untrue. But I have come to believe—indeed I have to believe it insofar I believe in the validity and efficacy of art—that what comes to us first and foremost through the body, as a sensuous affective experience, is taken and transformed by mind and self into a thing of the spirit. Which is only to say that what the body learns and is taught is of enormous significance—at least until the last light of the body fails.