Champion John and the Manly Art of Egg-Fighting

ROGER TATARIAN

March 30, 1991|By ROGER TATARIAN

FRESNO, CALIFORNIA. — In the long-ago period between the two world wars, one of the big treats of the Easter Season in Fresno's Armenian colony was to watch Champion John in action.

Champion John -- I never did know his full name -- did his stuff in front of the Holy Trinity Armenian Church. The church was the focal point for many activities in the newly forming Armenian community. Easter was particularly important for a people who pride themselves as the first to adopt Christianity as a state religion.

Easter, like Christmas, has come to be surrounded over the years by activities that can hardly be called religious, as witness fancy-dress parades on Fifth Avenue or bacchanalian Mardi Gras festivals.

Among early Armenian settlers in California's San Joaquin Valley, a big event on Easter Sunday for menfolk was the fighting of Easter eggs outside the church once services were over. To be honest, the battles outside the church began long before the reverend father and his acolytes inside were even close to ending the solemn and (to a youngster) interminable Easter rite of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In Easter-egg fighting, your opponent raps the tip of your hard-boiled egg with the tip of his. The one whose eggshell cracks has to surrender his egg to the winner.

Champion John was a whiz at it, and the amount of cholesterol he took home over the years must have been prodigious. There were dark suspicions that the eggs he used had been tampered with to make their shells almost uncrackable.

Before fighting Champion John, smart challengers would demand to inspect the egg he proposed to use. The Champ would never hand it over, but would rotate it himself so that suspicious challengers could look for cracks or holes through which -- according to the darkest rumors -- he reputedly drained the contents of his winners and refilled them with wax. I never met anyone who claimed actually to have seen such evidence.

For serious egg fighters, the search for the perfect weapon began days before Easter Sunday. Some experts favored the eggs of bantam hens, known as ''bandy eggs,'' over the regular grocery store variety. People who understood such things claimed it was easy to spot a winner: You tapped the fighting end of your egg gently against your front teeth, and the sound would render the verdict: the higher the sound, the better the prospects.

Real pros like Champion John didn't bother much with commercial egg dyes to color their Easter eggs. They were interested in strength, not beauty. Their eggs were usually a dark brown color produced by a home-made dye made with boiled onions.

John was a tall, handsome man. He stood out like a tower in the throng of egg-fighters and non-combatant spectators who filled the sidewalk in front of the church and sometimes spilled over to the other side of Ventura. The Champ's waist was usually encircled by a wide cummerbund in which he stored his arsenal. Every time he reached in, people wondered what new marvel he was about to unleash against the latest challenger.

There was always a great debate to decide whose egg was to be hit and whose was to do the hitting. Once that was pTC negotiated, they had to agree on the manner in which the target egg was to be held. The accepted grip was to cup the egg in both hands, with the top thumb and forefinger forming a tiny circular opening through which the attacker would have to strike.

Invariably, the attacker would pronounce the opening too small to permit fair contact. The standard reply was that a larger opening would make the egg more vulnerable to a foul blow to one side, where the shell was believed to be weaker.

The spectators often acted as spotters of talent. If they saw someone win two, three or four eggs in a row, they would urge him over in Champion John's direction. Then the word would spread that a serious new contender was about make his move against the Great One.

Once in a great while, a challenger gained fleeting fame by cracking one of his eggs, but far more often they left the field of battle vowing to make it different next year. The Champ would just smile knowingly.

Champion John and his generation are long dead now, and the tradition of fighting eggs on Easter Sunday died with them. He apparently remained the Babe Ruth of the egg circuit until the very end, and his trade secrets, if any, must have died with him. He belongs in some kind of Hall of Fame.

Roger Tatarian is professor emeritus of journalism at California State University, Fresno.

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