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Violence - as American as cherry pie

So far in 2018, we’ve seen and heard a lot of references to history-making incidents of 1968, a year filled with assassinations, war, demonstrations and other assorted violence – a rough year for American culture. It’s easy to be against violence. I don’t know anyone who is in favor of it. Still, it dominates our daily news.

But it could be – and has been – worse.

Mark Twain in “Roughing It” writes that in 1868, when he was a reporter for the Virginia City, Nevada, “Enterprise,” violence had become so common on the streets of the town that it was no longer news. Rather the newspaper had a daily column entitled, “Cuttings and Shootings,” where it listed incidents much in the same way as we list the changing price of soy beans.

When I was growing up in Bucktown, a working-class neighborhood of Connersville, violence was common, though not deadly. Spousal quarrels often turned physical, and we kids thought married life was full of the kinds of fights we laughed at in “Jiggs and Maggie” on the comic page of the newspaper. We expected to be physically punished in much the same way as Hans and Fritz, the “Katzenjammer Kids” were in another popular strip.

Being “tough” was the reputation most of the Bucktown boys aspired to. In that time and place, the toughest one of us was Donald Ellison. Donald wasn’t big or muscular, nor did he win every fistfight, but he was tenacious, and his opponent never emerged unscathed and never wanted a rematch.

Another tough kid, Carter Baker, apparently had on his list of regular chores an item saying “beat up Charles Avery.” Maybe I deserved it. Anyway, it was a routine occurrence – that is, until I complained to my step-father about it. “Well, Chiz,” (he always called me ‘Chiz’) he said, “Since you can’t whip him, why don’t you pick up a club and even the odds.” So, the next time Carter came at me, I picked up a big stick lying nearby and hit him across the ribs with it. He yelped and retreated, swearing to get me later.

That plan worked so well that the next time my older brother, Don, threatened to “whoop my butt,” I picked up a big stick and said “C’mon.” He stopped for a couple of seconds to assess the situation. Then he looked around, picked up a bigger stick and proceeded to whoop my butt with it. I immediately reevaluated the efficacy of what is known as “arms escalation.”

My familiarity with violence subsided until I entered the Army, where recruits were both physically and mentally prepared for it. At the end of my basic training, a fight broke out between the men of “A” barracks (mine) and “B” barracks. It was vicious and brutal. Several combatants were taken away in ambulances. I never knew what started it, but my drill sergeant said it was not an uncommon occurrence among young soldiers.

One of the toughest guys I knew in my later years was Butch Fairchild, a former Mr. America and a Viet Nam veteran. Butch owned the gym where I worked out. One day I was quizzing him about some of his combat experiences. He said that reproductions of combat in books, movies or television always fall short. “They can’t capture the combination of the noise, the smell, the confusion and chaos.” When I asked if he ever wanted to revisit Southeast Asia, he said, “No. I didn’t lose anything over there except my self-respect.”

Just over a half century ago, H. Rap Brown, leader of the Black Panthers, declared, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.”

It must be. It leads the news every night.

Chuck Avery grew up in the Bucktown neighborhood of Connersville. He’s a retired high school teacher and a dramatist and playwright.