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The Matter—Reese Bout or The Great Herbert Hoover Battle for Souls

 

Dennis Myers

And the two, being equal and different, shall fight out their days

This was in the age when the elders decided to create the sexes. Not sex or sexuality, no no no, but the sexes, boy and girl, and with the creation of the sexes as came the great division of the world. Prior to this illumination, we, boy and girl, romped in a collective innocence, and, although girls had cooties, we could all co-exist as friends. And, as friends, we could promote our own articulation of what our own elders struggled with in a greater context, wired topics such as the women’s liberation movement. As far back in fourth grade, Beth Masters attacked the pedagogical foundation of second status by re-structuring its ontological formation: she asked that girls not be lumped under the seeming generic term of “guys.” It was Beth and the other liberated thinkers of our class who forced the elders to change the dress code, allowing everyone to wear pants equally.

By 1973, the elders battled sexes in the legal court and the tennis court. The Billy Jean King – Bobby Riggs Battle of the Sexes was mostly show and held none of vigor and joy of the later bouts when Inter-Gender World Champion Wrestler Andy Kaufman took the ring against any female challenger. (Was it all real, Andy?) In the days when we were kings, a newly minted Ali would take on (it was real) all heavyweight challenges. Back then, you could see a fight on free TV and know the champ of the world if you stayed awake long enough. On the next morning of the Ali – Frazier fight, I remember playing out the description of the fight, blow-by-blow in the tan bark-circle playground in Hoover’s backyard.

Sure, there were real battles, but preceding these all in time and temper was the great Matter-Reese (or Reese-Matter) Bout that took place in sixth grade. Herbert Hoover Elementary School—a reborn educational institution in our second grade--still bore the rough hewn scars of its construction four years later. The building’s slick early-sixties industrial educational façade had thrown off, but still not hidden, the terror of its birth. Concrete slabs, shrubs, tree stumps and other debris lay along a row of trees that divided the softball fields from the upper grades’ playground. In the recess and after school wars of turf here, the battles and command structure was completely integrated across boys and girls. In fact, for the longest time, Judy McBride was the strong leader of a fortress complex lined with limbs of trees.

Underneath Hoover’s raw hew lay an even more wild wilderness, the subterranean waters that ran dark, seemingly for miles, and emptied themselves into the western expanse of Unga Bunga. That invisible river—the buried discharge of Willow Run—ran from up past Jackie Miller’s house of rolling floors and opened to a scrap of unusable industrial zoning. For me, it was a psychological salvation, an escape from any perceived torment from the elders, riverrun deep and dark, if confined in cement pre-fab. Follow me. Like many of my colleagues, I had been ripped from the friendly confines of Lincoln Elementary, a place whose quaintness reflected my sense of the community at large, to the industrial-sized bulk of Hoover, with its double classes at each grade and its oversized windows that mixed both the joys of educational distraction and the fears of impalement. “Quick class, under your desk. Face away from the windows. Flying glass! Remember!” Hoover’s windows provoked both awe and fear. High enough to capture the clouds from the viewpoint of our tiny desks, long enough to run along a whole row of young scholars, these single sheets of glass rattled with every sonic boom.

Was this modernized elementary school just some government laboratory, filled with naïve guinea pigs? There is evidence of experiments. Oh, how the elders played with our eggshell psyches in these great Hoover experiments. One rainy afternoon in the auditorium they reduced me to a shower of tears by showing the Disney film The Three Lives of Thomasina, the happy tale of the death of a runaway cat. An elder wrapped arms around me, assured me “it was only a movie.” Yeah, of course it was (only) a movie, but did that mean that that the emotions weren’t real? They toyed with our perceptions. How else to explain that strange Paleolithic drawing painted on the towering wall near the back entrance? The true meaning of those swirl of curves and circles proved elusive until long after the elders’ creation of the sexes four years later. I believe my suspicions about the NSA’s long secret psychological laboratory located on the confines of the Hoover campus are confirmed by how long it took to remove that illustration.

The Matter-Reese Bout, however, was no game, no experiment. No authority had a hand its creation. Perhaps the event resulted from all this direct and indirect manipulation of young minds, but the big fight was uniquely our own class’ response to all the current culture’s maelstrom of the sexes. The struggle was all promotion and propaganda; no real riff existed between the unlikely combatants of Craig and Kim. The fight promoters simply choose the two from some flimsy excuse, choose the date, and published the posters in the sacred halls of Hoover. (In truth, a core challenge to Craig’s machismo may have pre-selected him as the male representative, but Kim was Kim, French-horn playing like the sorrowful triumph of the overture to Tommy.)

Wednesday. Six o’clock. Hours after school, nothing the authorities could do about it. Back of the school, back by the forts. Sheri McLaughlin volunteered to ref the action. Three rounds, like in Olympic style boxing. Without the distraction of preliminaries, the crowded milled about, gossiping, chanting, anticipating. But, although he lived only about a block away, Craig was a no-show. He was chicken, was he? Nether participant lacked the courage to participate in something that nether of them had created. Kim wasn’t born to fight, but she had the courage to sing in the MusicMan. But Craig? There’s the apocryphal story of Craig in late years playing pick-up football with Steve Urban and crew over at Good Shepard. Allegedly, some drugged-out woman leapt topless from a car stopped on the Carlisle Pike at the light. She was looking for love, running amok amongst that crowd of athletic early teens, looking for somebody to love. Craig had the courage to give her a friendly hug. So strangely, back at this first sixth grade bout, Craig was a no-show. Perhaps he forgot. Victory was defaulted to Kim.

Not to be pushed from a great idea, the fight promoters published a rematch, more poster’s on Hoover’s green tile walls. Now, with his reputation clearly at stake, Craig had to appear as advertised. This time, the combatants showed on time, a circle of youthful chants opening them to the center. The grass was slick and the light held a slight twinkling of grey. Sheri quickly went over the rules which we all knew, memorized by movies. We all could have been contenders. But when we got down to it, the fight itself amounted to little more than pushing and shoveling, followed by a couple of shoulder shrugs and a reluctant handshake. Our own battle of the sexes complete, we all headed home, each boy and each girl, friends and equals, home to dinner.

Were it a disappointment? No, we had pulled off something that was entirely our own. Conceived (ah, there’s the rub, perhaps) and delivered entirely by sixth graders, the Matter-Reese bouts (or Reese-Matter bouts?) perhaps provoked the response that would drive apart the sexes forever, never again to play (or fight) as equals. Miss McHale, the heart and soul of the Hoover experiment (but never in a white smock), lead the young girls off to some brainwashing tank while the boys flocked innocently in the gym. Whatever education (or debriefing) the female of the species received separately, it was that separation, that sex education that would split us into the sexes and forever cast us from Hoover’s Eden of equality and onto high school.

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