I won my first – and in many ways biggest – victory when I was six. My opponent was only five, which may subtract some from the glory, but he was a remarkably bad five-year-old. Jan was the younger son of a father who used to beat both his boys. The mother never spoke a word, but looked pale, boney and almost weightless. In Hilltop, the bungalow colony of my childhood summers, they were the Jewish hillbillies. The older boy was as bad as Jan, only bigger. The family lived at the far end of a long rise, away from the other cottages, at the edge of the woods.
Jan did things like drop pebbles in people’s ears.
“Jan, stop that!”
the other kids and the grownups would yell, but that never stopped him.
One time, a bunch of us kids, big and little, were sitting on the wide wooden steps that descended from one the bungalows. As the group sat talking, Jan was going methodically from one pair of sandaled feet to the next, smashing down on the toes with his small hammer. As usual, the older kids would stop chatting long enough to say,
“Stop it, Jan!”
and then go back to whatever they’d been saying. I waited till he got to my feet. When he smashed the hammer down, I stood up.
“This time, Jan, you’ve gone too far.”
At which point I recognized, quite to my surprise, that I was being propelled down the steps to ground level by a band of eager supporters. Next thing I knew, Jan and I were in a fight. I knew that because my backers were yelling,
“Go on Abbie! Don’t run away!”
I saw why they were saying that. Fighting hurt! But, being so surrounded, I flailed away, till Jan got tired of being flailed at and ran off crying. At that point, the whole band bore me along on a victory sprint across the lawns till we reached my parents’ bungalow, where they shouted up,
“Abigail beat up Jan!”
Although never in my grownup life would I again see cheering supporters run across the green to shout the news, sometimes – even now — I win a few.
For instance: there was my seven-year job fight; there was the fight to save the curriculum at Brooklyn College; there was my contribution (not decisive certainly, but helpful) to saving the job of a highly meritorious young colleague who was being fired, I believe, on account of his merits. Not like beating up Jan, but I don’t lose ‘em all. That said, the grownup victories never have an air of permanence about them. One knows that the rockslide can start again.
I don’t have a military mind. If the aim of war is to break the enemy’s will to win, I don’t have warlike aims. Nor do I have a strategy. What I do is ask advice from every quarter. I know enough to sift the counsels I get, pick the ones most feasible and suited to me, act on them today – not tomorrow – and persist unless and until I know with no uncertainty that the fight is lost. Otherwise, persist.
It’s not what I prefer. I like to stay out of trouble, to get my work done, to live harmoniously.
But if a fight appears to have my name on it, I will step up.