The Fighting Game Footnotes to the Good War

June 08, 1995|By GWINN OWENS

During World War II a pair of my shipmates get into a fist fight simply because one accidentally stepped on the other's toe. The trod-upon sailor said ''Look where you're going you dumb bastard,'' to which the other replied ''Don't call me a dumb bastard you [something worse],'' and the rest was predictable.

A simple ''excuse me'' at the start would have ended the incident, but masculine pride required that they choose to fight. The result was a court-martial for both and terms in the brig that adversely changed the course of their remaining days in the Navy.

This need of the male of the species to defend his ''honor,'' no matter what catastrophic consequences ensue, is the source of most of the miseries of the human race. This is universal: The Asians refer to ''saving face,'' the French call it ''amour-propre,'' the Greeks have a word for it, ''filotimo.'' As Shakespeare's Falstaff so rightly put it: ''What is that word honor? Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday.''

Now drift back to 1944 and a crowded troop ship anchored in the vast Seeadler Harbor of the Admiralty Islands:

I don't even know how I have offended Robbie McGriff's honor, but he grabs me and challenges me to ''fight it out.'' Robbie is not an ordinary Joe, like most of our shipmates. He seems to have come from a privileged upbringing, a sort of spoiled prep-school kid, but he is pathologically unhappy, seething with resentment, a bomb waiting to go off. So I, protecting my spotless Navy record -- but also fearful of getting pummeled by a big strong guy -- walk away, telling him I have no intention of fighting, a response that draws some jeers from his cohorts.

One of them offers a suggestion. ''Make it fair and square. You guys fight in the ring -- with a referee.''

Even at this I balk, but realize I am trapped. There is already a boxing ring set up on the ship, and some boxing gloves, for the amusement of the sailors. ''The Bluejacket's Manual,'' the bureaucratic book of Navy regulations issued to all recruits, states that ''fighting is a court-martial offense,'' but presumably the Navy would sanction an organized grudge match.

I weigh the situation and decide -- or hope -- the referee would stop the fight before I am brain-damaged. I garner a bit of perceived honor by accepting the challenge. ''You got guts, Owens, fighting Robbie.''

They are wrong; I think the whole thing is absurd and will settle nothing; I just can't get out of if. The time is set for the next day, and I wonder at the bizarre turn of events that turns me into a Max Schmeling to Robbie's Joe Louis. (Louis floored Schmeling in slightly over a minute, as I recall.)

That afternoon one of the challenger's pals warns me. ''Robbie is down in the ring, sparring, getting in shape. He's mad; he's gonna kill you.''

That prediction, as things turn out, will one day be fraught with irony. Meanwhile, I wait helplessly for my presumed quietus.

Then comes an incredible development.

The fight is off. Robbie has sprained his wrist. It happened while he was sparring. I have, in effect, been granted a stay of execution. The ship is too small for our paths not to cross, but when I see Robbie he is silent about the embarrassing cancellation of the bout, clearly an agonizing frustration for an angry man seeking revenge.

Shortly after this I am overjoyed to learn that Robbie has been transferred to a shore-based outfit in the Admiralties. He can defend his honor somewhere else.

Some weeks later comes the shocking news. Robbie has gotten into a fight with one of his new shipmates -- and killed him.

F: Gwinn Owens is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

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