In the beginning, according to legend, a Supreme Being plunked Man and Woman on the Good Earth. The First Couple, so the story goes, made a big mistake. But a bigger mistake they made had nothing to do with forbidden fruit, they had sons. Please note I said sons in the plural. One boy is fine. Two inevitably means trouble. Just look at what happened with the first pair of male kin.
Since that unfortunate incident of fraternal rivalry, there has been something about brotherhood that brings out the worst and the best in boys. Brother has been cursed to look upon brother with this conflicting thought: I want to pummel him because he is my brother; I would take a bullet for him because he is my brother.
It is high noon on a sweltering September day and two young men stand in a dusty gravel lot behind a dilapidated country store. They face one another with their fists raised, their heads bobbing and their feet shuffling. They are just outside of arm’s reach of one another. But they are prepared for the inevitable battle to follow.
They are of equal size and build. They stare each other down, without a hint of trepidation in either’s eyes.
A throng of teenagers surrounds the boys, cheering and jeering. The favorite in this pending scuffle is a high school senior named Randy. He has straight, fly-away hair and bangs, persistently, in his eyes. He is the captain and star of the basketball team and one of the most popular kids in school.
Randy is up against a new kid in school that year. The new kid, also a senior, is the Underdog in this competition.
Boys in the crowd stand rigid, their fists unwittingly clenched as they live the moment vicariously. A few of the girls dutifully cover their mouths with their hands, feigning fear, in hopes that a potential knight in the crowd might console them with an arm around the shoulder. The distressed damsels are prepared to produce a tear or two if necessary.
While most of the crowd focus on the combatants, a few serve the greater good by providing civic and commercial services. One boy is the self-appointed lookout for any teacher or school official. Two other boys run a betting pool, using cigarettes as the currency. The smart tobacco is on Randy.
The crowd is getting impatient. The tension is building. A screen door slams, jolting everyone’s attention, but it is just the country-store owner, still in his greasy cook’s apron, discarding soda bottles. He goes about his business without bothering to even glance toward the crowd, as though this fight of the century were some prosaic, insignificant occurrence.
Neither Randy nor the Underdog say a word. Neither displays anger. But both are stoically determined to see this through.
Oh, and the Underdog has never been in a bona fide fistfight.
When I was 10 or 11, my younger brother Dan and I were engaged in a physical altercation on our front lawn. A neighbor walked by and, seeing Dan taking a beating, yelled out, “Hey, leave him alone!”
I looked at the man and said, “But he’s my brother.”
Surely this concise statement needed no elaboration or qualification. It was not only my right but my duty to teach young Dan a lesson.
The truth is that fighting was, for us, a form of bonding. Cain just went a little too far with Abel. The Paolini Boys (five in all) had rules, never until now written down, but well understood. Here is the first documentation of the Paolini Code of Conduct:
- № 1: Never, ever hit a girl, even if she is your sister and she hit you first.
- № 2: No kicking. No scratching. No slapping.
- № 3: No punching in the face.
- № 4: Never, ever, hit in the stomach without providing ample warning, because we had learned very early on from Dad that this was the way Houdini died and he was the greatest magician of all time, not to mention Italian.
- № 5: Acceptable actions include: punches in the arm, shoulder, and back of the head; all wrestling holds, including full and half nelsons and scissors; noogies, headlocks to be used at one’s discretion.
A recently uncovered 8mm movie, now decades old, confirms that we were born to scrapple with one another. There is Dan, at the age of 3, and I, just a year older, taking swipes at Tom, twice our age and size. Tom obligingly shows us who is boss. We look like a trio of lion cubs batting with each other.
That instinct was further honed by Dad, who taught us how to stand like Rocky Marciano, the greatest boxer of all time, who just happened to be Italian. He showed us how to keep our left arm and fist raised for protection and how to lead with the right. We knew about haymakers, upper cuts and jabs.
Dad had his own rules,
- Never start a fight.
- Don’t back down from a fight.
What he undoubtedly did not anticipate, in grooming his sons for defense against the world, was that we would practice by sparring with one another.
When Tom and I fought, we were ordered to go to our room. This was confusing and amusing, since we shared the same bedroom. This usually led to laughter and since we were sharing a laugh together, why not be friends?
We did not always fight. There had to be some time for eating. When we had a full stomach, were tired of fighting, and perhaps a bit bored we amused ourselves by performing stupid stunts.
It took a lot of cooperation and teamwork to accomplish our antics. As the eldest, Tom took his role as our leader seriously. He was also a good problem solver. After fearlessly leading us through some wild, physics-defying activity, he had to find a way to get out us out of the jam we were in, which usually included repairing something we had damaged.
But, if we did not get killed, we could claim success. There were bike races down steep hills, cliffs to jump, trees to climb, vines on which to swing like Tarzan, and sledding down icy hills with a barbed-wire fence for the finish line.
Our Aunt Lena had a saying: “Be careful.” Whenever we got hurt, Tom had a saying, too. “Don’t tell Dad.”
Of course there were times when it was required that we tell our beleaguered parent, since there were certain injuries for which he was our ambulance service and occasional mobile unit surgeon.
All for one, one for all
All this bonding over fighting, food, and stupid stunts brought us closer together. No matter how much we antagonized one another at home, we were united the moment we stepped outside into the Big Bad World.
Pick on one Paolini, and you picked on a bunch.
And so, when we moved from the suburbs of Connecticut to a remote region of Maine during our high school years, our loyalty toward each other paid off, especially for me.
It was during the first week of school that I, a pipsqueak sophomore, managed to alienate the star basketball player, Randy. Apparently, I had spoken with his girlfriend and made her laugh. I did not know she was his girlfriend at the time, but as I was learning in the civics class I was taking, ignorance of the law is no excuse.
And so Randy decided to challenge me to a duel, or in this case, an execution.
A few thoughts coursed through my brain.
- How did I get here?
- How do I get out of here?
- How exactly did David use that sling so effectively to slay that giant?
The match (or slaughter) was apparently to take place at noon. During my study hall period before the lunch break, I knew but one thing: I needed a miracle. When the bell rang, my prayer was answered.
It was then that I learned that there would indeed be a fight between Randy and a Paolini, only the Paolini in this case would not be me. Tom, who had learned of my predicament, had intervened on my behalf.
As far as I remember I was the only one in the parking lot that sweltering September day cheering for Tom, the Underdog.
The two young gladiators did engage in fisticuffs, and each took and delivered several punches. The whole thing ended abruptly when the Lookout Kid claimed he saw the principal approaching. It was good enough reason to call the fight at Round 2.
The crowd disbursed. It was time to go back to classes anyway. Both young men were still standing. But only one had a bloody lip and a black eye. It was not the Underdog.
As we trudged up the hill, a group of boys followed Randy. But a group of equal size now surrounded Tom. “Hey, way to go,” they said, as a group of giggling young ladies did their best to flutter their eyelashes at Tom as he passed by. All these kids were his friends all along, of course. The Underdog was now the Alpha Dog.
From that point on at our new school, the Paolinis were not to be trifled with. In fact, we were pretty much OK. But Tom said nothing. He did not gloat or brag, and he never once implied, in the following days and weeks, that I owed him for saving the day (and my hide).
For the Paolini boys, Tom, our role model, paved the path once again.
Tom Paolini retired from the ring with an undefeated record (1–0). He is now a successful salesman and devoted father. He volunteers as a deacon in his church.
George Paolini is a musician, high techology consultant, and father. He has pretty much managed to stay out of trouble since being saved by his big brother.
—Photo Credit: Flickr/Aislinn Ritchie