Battles from Issue 93
One night, during my junior year in college, Mike Rogers told me I needed to learn the self-defense of boxing. “With a smart-mouth like yours, somebody’s always going to want to kick your ass,” he said, and I had to agree.
For sure, I was a trash-talker in basketball, yammering condescending insults at other players. And with a few beers in me, I lapsed into the same sort of snotty talk with strangers who struck me as pretentious or stupid. In short, I was in love with the use of what I believed were clever, aggressive phrases, and yet Mike Rogers sensed that I was, in fact, a closet pussy.
We were alone in the recreation room of our fraternity house. He handed me a set of padded gloves. I was taller than Rogers by three inches, but he outweighed me by twenty-five pounds. With those gloves loosely tied on my hands, my arms and shoulders felt as skinny as a twelve year-olds.
He showed me jabs and hooks, weight-shift and how to bob and weave and keep my arms in and hands high. “Go ahead,” he said, “try to hit me. I’ll give you a little while before I fight back.”
It seemed like an easy lesson, my friend just backing off a step or moving from side to side, gloves up and absorbing all of my half-hearted punches, all of them right-handed. “You have a left hand,” he said, pointing out the obvious. I threw another right, discouraged, beginning to prepare a short speech full of promises to practice keeping my mouth shut.
He deflected that punch and said, “You ready to block now?” I nodded, trying to mimic what I’d just seen him do. I didn’t even see the first hook. I hadn’t thought about anybody using his left hand for anything but jabs and defense.
Rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat. The rhythm of his punches against my head came with the sound comic book bubbles used for World War II machine guns. I was suddenly afraid he wouldn’t stop until I went down, and then, holding my breath, I covered my face with my forearms and sacrificed every other part of my body.
I was pounded. I was slammed. I was hammered. There was a dog whistle trilling in my head. I took two steps back, thrilled when he didn’t follow so I could work the gloves loose and let them drop to the floor. “You can’t close your eyes like that,” he said. “You can’t hold your hands like that and expect to live.”
I wanted to say something interesting and settled for “Fuck this.” The headache he gave me lasted two full days.
Three and a half years later, a Master’s Degree in hand, I landed a job at a two-year branch campus of Penn State University near the Ohio border. In one of my Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday composition classes, I had a student who was a Vietnam veteran. He wrote a stunning essay about being ambushed and surviving while dozens of his comrades were killed. It was September, 1969. I was using my new job to avoid the draft as well as use its fringe-benefit package to begin a Ph.D. program at Kent State University, a seventy-mile commute I was happy to make twice a week. I didn’t say a word to him about my self-serving anti-war attitude about Vietnam.
I was only a few months older than he was and looked younger. I imagined him sneering at me, someone who could have sat in a class room with him or played in the same lineup of the basketball team but had managed to avoid serving my country. A coward maybe.
The essay read like fiction, like he was testing me, how naïve or credulous I could be because all I knew about the war was on the six o’clock news. I pointed out a few editing hints and gave him an A, but I didn’t write any comments about authenticity, risking nothing but his secret contempt.
Even during the spring term, my students in Composition 1 still split their seating according to which high school they’d attended the year before. One of the nearby schools like Monaca, Rochester, Beaver Falls, New Brighton, Freedom, and Ambridge. The exceptions were a scattering of thirty and forty year-old men who were trying to move from a blue-collar to a white-collar job by acquiring an associate degree.
One group of four girls smoked cigarettes together before and after class. They wore their hair long and straight and parted in the middle. Found ways to use words like vagina and penis when they answered questions, locking the faces of the older men into expressions of embarrassment and shame.
“Mr. Fincke, were you there when it happened?” one of those private parts girls asked as soon as class began the day after the Kent State shooting. Neither she nor the other thin girls seated near her were wearing bras, and I looked above her head as I said, “Yes and no,” noticing the boys in the back rows from Beaver Falls and New Brighton with smirks that said Of course this antiwar fag would be there but way far away from any danger.
As if I’d answered differently, the girl asked, “What was it like to almost be killed? What happened?”
“I was on my way to class like a thousand other students. The building was close by the Guard, but I was inside before the shots were fired.”
It felt like an evasion, and disappointment registered on the girl’s face. A Beaver Falls boy called out, “All those freaks finally learned a lesson” and stared my way as if he wanted me to know he had guns of his own to defend Beaver Falls from anybody with hair as long as mine.
“There were a lot of students just watching,” I started again. “People on their way to classes and things like that. There was never a reason to shoot.”
“Is Penn State closing?” one of the older men asked. “I can’t afford to lose my credits because a bunch of kids go on strike.”
“It should,” I said, and an undertone that suggested disagreement rumbled up from the back of the room. I stopped editorializing and tried to bring the class back to argument and persuasion, one of the seven types of essays that had to be written in every composition class on every campus of Penn State at exactly the same point in the term.
I dismissed the class twenty minutes early. The long-haired girls had their cigarettes in hand as they left the room. Nobody followed me as I walked toward my office in an adjacent building.
The academic coordinator, Anthony Miceli, stood outside of his office as if he’d been expecting me to pass by. “So,” he said, “it finally happened.”
Though there was no question what Miceli meant, I said, “What’s that?”
“The protestors. Some of them got what was coming to them.”
I fingered the keys in my pocket like a blind man choosing the one that would make the best weapon. “They were murdered,” I said.
“Really?” he said. “What about the shots that were fired at the National Guard?”
“That didn’t happen.”
“But you’d have to admit there’s another side of this story, wouldn’t you?
I’m sure you’d agree there are a great many contradictions?”
“The killers are lying.”
He turned away. He paused and looked back as if he’d forgotten something. The campus didn’t close. My students struggled with argument and persuasion. Not one of them in the three sections I taught wrote about the Kent State shootings.
A week later Miceli walked into my office to say, “Those pictures of the dead students they had in Life this week are from high school. Everybody knows they didn’t look like that when the Guard fired.”
In June, Kent State reopened for summer classes. One afternoon while we ate lunch, my old roommate from college, like me a graduate student at Kent State, told me about the Nazi on the phone, how I could call a number and listen to somebody tell me the revolution was here, and it was time for people who qualified for the Aryan Nation to kick some tainted ass. “Listen to this,” Jack said, after he dragged me to the pay phone outside of Arby’s.
“America is weakened by the genetically inferior. The colored must be kept from the white. America is poisoned by the morally inferior. The heathen must be kept from the Christian.” I knew what would follow: “Black, brown, yellow, red must leave or perish. Jew, Muslim, non-believer must leave or perish.” The roll call of unacceptables went on until the tape suddenly ran out as if the message being cut off was supposed to be a cliffhanger, an inducement to call next week for a fresh loop.
“Well?” Jack said. Suddenly, I could taste the salt and grease and horseradish sauce from the two roast beefs I’d just stuffed down. “These guys are real. They broadcast from a place in Akron. There’s a street number and everything. We should go take a look, you in?”
When I’d read the Justice Department’s memo after it was released by the Akron Beacon Journal, I’d been anxious with flashbacks. “I shot two teenagers,” a guardsman had been quoted, and the urge for frontier justice had flared up again for a few days. But listening to Jack’s certainties, all of them built on rumor and phone messages, I understood I’d be useless to him.
“The house number has to be bogus,” I said. “Nobody gives up a number like that.”
I went to class, but I didn’t take even one line of notes on a lecture about the psychological states of Wordsworth and Coleridge at the moments they wrote their poems. The professor referred to three books that lay open on his podium. “The research indicates,” he said a dozen times.
A few weeks later, Mike Rogers rounded up a half dozen fraternity brothers for a night of drinking beer in the house he’d just moved into after getting married. One of them, Rich Cook, had lived next door to Rogers, who had lived across the hall from me and Jack. Cook had given me rides in his damaged car where we breathed the stink left behind by a creek that had flash-flooded hood high. A telephone had hung on the wall between his door and Rogers’. Three times during those two years Cook had torn loose the black receiver and carried it into our room after two a.m., each time silhouetted against the hall light, spitting, “It’s for you.”
But that summer Cook was a soldier in the Pennsylvania Guard, and I was reading the Victorians and Faulkner at Kent State. Since finishing my third beer, I’d been posturing as a near-miss survivor, assuming Cook, who was avoiding the draft by being in the Guard, was an ally, but now Cook was drunk and angry and ready, he said, to shoot me if history repeated itself. He had a pistol in that long-ago flooded Ford I could see through the screen door where white moths were frantic to enter, and he wondered out loud if I’d piss myself if he decided to show-and-tell me just how cowardly I could be up close with him and Rogers and Bob Bowers, who was just back from two tours with a pair of Purple Hearts, somebody who’d survived Hamburger Hill and nameless night patrols.
Cook asked if I was a Communist now or just some big-mouth asshole drinking free beer with someone like Bowers who had proved he was worth a shit. Rogers looked like he remembered every taunt I’d ever uttered. Bowers was so tight-lipped I was ready to renounce my years of second-hand graduate essays, all of those sweet-sounding platitudes seeming as simple as pre-meal prayers while I was composing apologies and expecting him to lay a combat-tested beating upon me.
I could say the overhead kitchen light beamed a Saint Paul moment of self-knowledge and conversion, but what it did was flicker once when the refrigerator hummed into life just before Bowers said “Fuck the Guard” so matter-of-factly I heard the period drop into place, ambushing one argument, at least, in Youngstown, where June was fishtailing into July.
In early August, Jack and I hiked about fifteen blocks, crossing and recrossing South Arlington Street because once we had reached Akron and parked on Market, Jack had admitted he only knew the Nazis were “on Arlington between the expressways.” Six weeks he’d hounded me to go, and we had to hunt and peck in a neighborhood you save a down payment to move away from. Planes skimmed overhead as they approached, I hoped, at the right altitude for the runways a half mile away. And though I knew better, I blamed the air quality from the Firestone and Goodyear plants for making me feel queasy.
We covered about a mile and a half, closing in on Rt. 224, before Jack said “There.” He pointed to a door that advertised So. Arlington Services. Whatever Jack suspected, that door wasn’t providing any additional clues.
Inside, a tiny foyer and a flight of stairs that led to Christ knew what. The walls were black with a few white graffiti etchings somebody had probably carved after pissing in the stairwell. I searched for Hitler lives! or even Kill Kent State Students, but there was only stuff like I give good head/555-3472 and, underneath it, Fags eat shit.
The stairs we faced looked exactly like the ones I had to climb by myself during high school to reach our family’s dentist on Pittsburgh’s North Side The door across the hall from the dentists’ office had said Allegheny Talent Associates. Who went in there? I had wondered for years. Now I was thinking Allegheny Talent Associates might not have been auditioning tap dancers, ventriloquists, and accordion players while I was accumulating fillings.
“Here we go,” Jack said. “Let’s go see Hitler’s finest,” keeping his voice as soft and level as a librarian’s, but what I was counting on was nothing at all was upstairs but abandoned offices.
We nearly tiptoed upstairs. Reached a dead-end landing that offered the three doors of a thousand fables. All of them had smoked-glass windows. One said Rubber City Enterprises; one said Akron Planning Systems; one, improbably, claimed it opened to an M.D.
“Let’s try Dr. Siejka,” I said. “Maybe it’s Rumanian for mass murderer.”
“That’s a funny one, Fincke,” Jack answered, revealing my name to any eavesdropper who might have wanted to track me down. He turned the knob on Rubber City Enterprises before I could tell him I’d changed my mind about this trip.
It was locked. Suddenly confident, I twisted Siejka’s doorknob to make sure he was out for the day as well, and then there was only one more chance we’d get slaughtered by idiots who promoted racial, religious, and ethnic cleansing. To my joy, the door to Akron Planning Systems made it three for three.
Outside again, I listened to each building we passed and heard nothing but the white noise of traffic. I stayed shut up whenever we reached Jack’s car, and I stayed shut up as he pulled onto Eastland Avenue for the drive through Tallmadge, out Route 261 into Kent. I decided the Nazis had as much chance at success as a couple of hundred protesting students. For all I knew, the Akron Nazis had four members, as far on the fringe as some loonies making bombs in a basement to free white rats and hamsters from a laboratory.
“You’re thinking all of this is stupid, right?” Jack said at last.
I didn’t answer, although I agreed with him there was something wrong with somebody like me who couldn’t wade in and do something.
And as soon as I thought it, I didn’t believe it was a terrible thing at all.
When school began, the Penn State Beaver Campus faculty fielded a team in the intramural seven-on-seven touch football league. One of my teammates had played major college football at West Virginia; the rest of us boasted some high school memories, good enough, it turned out, to go 5-1, tied for first and paired against a team of guys who all wore the same high school varsity jacket to our late October playoff game. Five of them were enrolled in one of my sections of introductory composition, two of them carrying a D-, but it wasn’t their grade that made them see me as the enemy, it was my status as the Kent State radical from speaking at a campus rally and submitting an opinion piece to the campus newspaper.
Three of them had told me they had older brothers who were in Vietnam. They parked their cars together in the commuter lot, and every one of them sported bumper stickers that read America—Love It or Leave It. As if there were a dress code, all of them wore their hair short, and none of them had sideburns like I did.
I wasn’t thinking about any of that until I went out for a pass, the WVU alum tossing a perfect spiral my way. Just as I extended for the ball, the world suddenly spun out of control. I lay on my back for a few seconds to get reoriented. “What happened?” I asked when I got back to the huddle.
“You were clotheslined,” the old Division I player said, laughing as if he’d enjoyed the incompletion.
Clotheslining in touch football seemed like an obvious penalty, but the student referee standing nearby was expressionless, his whistle quiet. I didn’t even know which of the players on the other team had thrown his forearm under my chin and spun me head over heels.
A few plays later, my legs back under me, I caught a short, sideline pass and turned up field, taking one step before I took a shoulder and forearm in the chest. I fumbled, but the ball slipped out of bounds. I sank to one knee and tried to get my breath, waiting for the penalty to be assessed. “Good hit,” somebody said, but nothing was called.
I understood I was getting my teacher evaluation. Those students thought they knew me for a coward.
The war didn’t end, but a few years later, while I was writing my dissertation on post-World War I disillusionment for the PhD from Kent State, I became old enough to store my draft card in a drawer as a souvenir. I was still teaching at Penn State Beaver, still manning three sections of introductory composition, each of them filled the 35-student limit. One morning, the local newspaper carried a story about a son killing his father in self-defense. The father ran a karate school in Monaca near the campus. He was a certified and much-decorated expert, and he had seen to it that his son was an expert as well. When their argument went out of control, they’d fought, using all of their karate skills, and the son, the student who’d written that extraordinary war experience essay during my first term, had finally strangled his father with nunchucks because, he explained, “My father would have done the same to me.”
I reread the story as if I could discover something I’d missed about what sort of disagreement would lead to a father and son fighting hand-to-hand to the death. According to the story, they’d battled for nearly an hour because their mastery of self-defense was so evenly matched.
By then I had a wife, an infant son, and a small house that was surrounded by nothing more than rhododendron bushes. For a moment I sat in the safety and quiet of a newspaper and a cup of coffee, and then, whether it was with selfishness or gratitude, I walked to where the two of them were sleeping and listened to all of us breathing.
The Director from Issue 89
At campus gatherings, The Director always drank white wine
while he shook each instructor’s hand.
Except for three of us, we were all instructors, promotion
to assistant professor a rare reward.
At the school Christmas party, The Director said he was pleased
that his college gave work to those who
Wouldn’t be hired elsewhere. No offense, The Director said
and helped himself to a glass of chardonnay.
True that, as my students say, because this is a memoir
about my first years of college teaching.
The Director constantly smiled. He showed his perfect teeth.
Mine are crooked. I drank beer for nerves.
The Director had flown in the private plane of the school’s
biggest donor. He had photographs taken
Outside and inside the plane, wearing a hat sporting the donor’s
company logo when he sat in the cockpit.
I knew that because there were enlargements of five photos
in the campus library. Under glass.
Surrounding a portrait of the donor in a tuxedo and a list
of his accomplishments in calligraphy.
The Director told the athletic director, “There is only one
Director on this campus.” Yes, really.
When the intramural brochure was reprinted, there was
an athletic coordinator. Five hundred copies
Were burned. By then, our campus had coordinators of
facilities, faculty, and residence life.
Athletics had been overlooked like some third-world country.
Like North Vietnam, which had just won a war.
During my second year, at the Founder’s Day party,
The Director asked each instructor,
“Are you happy here?” When he got to me, his glass
of white wine was nearly empty.
He finished it while he waited for my answer. Seriously,
his eyes never left my face as he swallowed.
I said, “Most of the time.” I gripped my bottle of local beer.
“Interesting answer,” he said. “Very.”
The Director’s gym locker was close to mine and my office mate’s,
clear enough because there was a nameplate
With his monogram embossed. “The Coordinator,” we laughed,
instead of printing it on his locker.
The Director had the locks cut and our gym clothes removed
from our lockers because he needed room
For the school’s biggest donor in our row. For a semester,
every locker in that row stood vacant.
The athletic coordinator gave me and my office mate new locks
and lockers. The school’s biggest donor
Used the gym only very early on Sunday mornings. Or so
we were told, having never seen him.
The Director declared to me that red ink could only be used
by The Director. He referenced himself
In the third person. Yes, he did. The Director’s editing
needed to be unmistakable, he said.
The Director was funny. When he addressed us at meetings,
he always opened with a joke to laughter.
The Director was fond of the phrase, “The sound made by
the opening and closing of distant doors.”
He used it in three speeches spaced six months apart
so maybe no one noticed but me
and my office mate. We kept promising each other to do
the research to see who’d said it first.
The Director said, “Someday, if things go well, you might
get to fly in that private plane.” Really,
He said that. He’d called me over to the library display
and said, “You must read this list.”
“Yes,” I said, coughing it up like phlegm, but he was
already waving my office mate over.
“You must read this list,” I heard him say before
I stepped behind a shelf of books.
The Director had the campus magazine reprinted because
his name was misspelled. “The error is
On page one,” he told the student editor. In red, he circled it
on fifty copies to ensure reprinting.
“This is unacceptable,” she quoted him, crying in my office.
“Every name,” she said, “was correct but his.”
I walked her outside before I answered. My office mate and I
no longer talked about The Director.
At least not in our office. Not in the locker room. When anyone said
“surveillance,” we held our expressions like spies.
At my fourth Christmas party, The Director said, “You’ve changed
since you came on board.” His skinny glass
Was empty, and he was looking for the woman who
carried a tray of what he called flutes
That were filled with sparkling wine. “I hope so,” I said.
“Something to ponder,” he said, smiling.
The Director wanted to be a President. His secretary leaked
his application to a dozen colleges.
She handled all of his mailings, and she liked to tell stories.
“Pretty soon we won’t have any Directors here”
Was the joke I shared with the athletic coordinator.
When we were off campus. When we
Couldn’t stop talking about The Director, especially
after he wasn’t hired anywhere.
The truth is The Director sent me a letter that declared
my employment would be terminated
After one more year of service. Remember, this is
a memoir, so that is exactly what it said.
That plus “Since you are not tenured, you can be terminated
without cause.” The following September
The Director said, “That extra year is a gift,” as he passed me
in the hall, smiling, showing his teeth.
When the school’s biggest donor visited, The Director welcomed him
with a speech that included “The opening and
Closing of distant doors.” The donor looked twenty years older than
his library photo. He looked like his father, maybe.
After my grace year ended, I began to receive checks from
the government. All I had to do for a year
Of them was admit I hadn’t quit my job. That and cash
each one like I’d earned it.
Late summer, a school hired me. For a week I wanted to tell
The Director face-to-face. I was worried
He’d never know, that his story about my failure was safe.
“Stop it,” my wife said, and I did,
Telling nobody at all, keeping secret I was going to direct
a department and get a large raise.
When the contract letter arrived, it said “Department Coordinator.”
“Hilarious,” I said, like a perjurer.