From the Diary of James Thresher
We were to be divided up into groups by dormitory, given sticks, and pitted against each other. The dormitory that won would become the guards of the leader, and thus, the last group to enter battle. There were forty dormitories of twenty-five men each. Arranged in a single-elimination tournament format, we would have to fight and win five times to receive those honors. However, winning even one fight guaranteed better placing than winning none.
There were four dormitories composed of only veterans, and everyone expected one of them to win the honors. When the lots were cast, the first fight was to be dormitory Number 11 versus the Grandparents, one of the veteran dorms. The whole barracks gathered around to watch the fight. It was brutal, and short. The veterans picked apart Number 11 within minutes. Many of their number had bones broken, and one man even died. He was replaced the next day.
After the fight, all of the recruit dorms dreaded fighting a veteran group. The next morning, when I went to start the workout, Jeremiah did not join us. I asked him why.
“You saw what the veterans did to the recruits yesterday. How can we hope to defeat them?” he lamented. “It would be better for us to lose our first fight and save further beatings.”
“Surely, you have not given up already Jeremiah?” I asked as the rest of the dormitory—those who normally scoffed at our workouts—began to listen to our conversation.
“He’s right,” added George, a large, older member of our workout group. “We cannot hope to win.”
“So, you would rather give up now, put all of our work to waste, and be sent into battle on the front lines where we all will surely die?” I retorted.
“We are all meant to die anyhow. What’s the point of taking a further beating on top of it?” George replied.
“The point is this. We are not fighting a veteran group for our first fight. If we come out victors, at least we will be not on the front line, but the second line. I speak only of survival. Although the difference between first and second line is small, I’ll take any advantage I can.” I answered.
Jeremiah finally spoke up. “Perhaps James is right. He may be young and silly, but I too love my life, and will do what I can to protect it.”
The rest of the group mumbled amongst themselves, but I could tell that they agreed with me on the whole. I turned to begin the workout anew, and found that our group now contained the whole of the dormitory. Perhaps they disrespected and disliked me, but at least they were not so proud that they would die over it.
The next three days passed in a haze of nervousness. Everyone was anxious about the upcoming fight. It did not help that the running odds were against us. After the first fight, people had immediately begun betting on the fights and we were apparently not the favorite against Number 14. By the time the day of the fight rolled around, everyone in our dorm was so tired of being nervous that we were almost looking forward to the fight.
When the sun came up, we were roused from our bunks by the veterans, and moved out to the sparring field. We were each given a thick half staff, and told to wait for our opponents. The crowd was yelling amongst themselves and arguing over odds and bets. Jeremiah leaned over to me and said, “I wonder how many people are fool enough to lay a wager on us.”
“There are always a few crazy men willing to bet on the long shot.” I responded through nervous lips.
“Right you are. I was one of those crazy men.”
“What? You bet on us? What possessed you?”
“I figured that if I lose the fight, I’ll be in too much pain to care about money, and if I win, then I won’t need to steal anything for a while.”
I was about to respond when the opposing dormitory came out onto the field. Our two groups eyed each other, and stayed at opposite sides of the makeshift arena. The crowd began to grown quiet, waiting for the signal to begin the fight. After what seemed like an eternity, it finally came.
“BEGIIIN!!” roared the veteran leader from the sidelines.
Our twin mobs rushed each other. I suddenly realized that I was on the frontline of our group. How had this happened? I glanced from side to side, looking for Jeremiah, but I noticed that he was no longer at my side. Typical.
The field was small. At a run, it would take a handful of seconds to cross it. Those seconds did not last nearly long enough, and despite my fear, I was strangely fearless. The combination of my fear and my anticipation and my rushing blood and my physical exertion thrilled me in a way I had never before experienced. Just before our lines met, something changed. It was as if everyone was moving at a snail’s pace, and although I was also confined to moving slowly like them, I could see and think as normal.
I looked at the man in front of me. He had his head tucked low and his shoulder thrust out to knock me from the ground. I found it strange that I was only noticing this now; moments before the impact. However, now that I was in this almost magical state, I easily sidestepped his turtle’s pace tackle, and brought down my own stick on the back of his head. I looked to the man behind him. He had a plainly wrought expression of fear on his face, and I almost stayed my hand, but then I remembered what I was here for, and I jabbed him in the stomach hard and sent him to the ground.
After punching my way through their entire mob in a similar fashion, and leaving a trail of six or seven men on the ground, I turned to attack again, and suddenly, everything was back to normal speed. The man I had been about to attack noticed me and spun to meet me. He swung his stick at me, and I only barely managed to overcome my shock and hop backwards to doge the blow. He roared and jumped at me, succeeding in bringing me to the ground. Here, finally, I was on familiar territory. My brothers and I had wrestled non-stop since birth, and I had learnt a trick or two. I managed to escape his hold, jump to my feet, and kick away his stick before he pulled me back down. We rolled on the ground, vying for position, until I was finally able to bring my own stick into contact with the top of his head. Despite the awkward angle, this stunned him for long enough for me to escape a second time. This time, I did not bother getting to my feet before attacking him again with my stick. I hit him over and over until he stopped moving. Only then did I stand and look around me.
There were about thirty men lying on the ground, mostly evenly from both sides. The main fight was about ten yards to my front. Men were falling randomly, and from both sides, I glanced around for Jeremiah. He was skulking off to my left.
“Jeremiah! Follow me!” I yelled.
“You’re a bad influence,” he replied as he started running with me to join the fight.
We struck the mob from the back, and managed to lay low two men of Number 14. This momentary distraction caused more of them to turn, and be caught by others of our group. Within seconds it was over, with only eight of our men still standing, and none of theirs. Apparently, we had won.
Back in the dormitory, we licked our wounds. Many men had been injured, but luckily no one had died. Despite our victory, no one was celebrating. I made the mistake of trying to cheer them up.
“We may have won,” George snapped at me, “but we will surely be defeated in the next round, so our suffering will have been for naught. And, of course you, who was not injured, are ready to celebrate, but as for the rest of us, we are more realistic.”
Another man joined in with, “Yes, and how was it that you managed to cut through their group so easily? I saw you, and it was difficult to follow you, you moved so fast. If you know how to fight that well, why did you not let on until now? We all could have learned more than useless exercises from you.”
I had been hoping no one had noticed. In truth, I had no idea how I had done what I did, but for some reason I doubted that they would accept that answer. I began to panic because I had no idea how to respond, when Jeremiah stepped in.
“He did not let on to you idiots that he could fight so well, because I told him not to,” he said. “I placed a bet on us to win that fight, and I wanted the odds to be better, which they would surely not have been had others known of the warrior in our midst.”
“Peh. He looks more like a boy than a warrior to me…” the same man grumbled.
“But did you see him fight? Did you see him move? Boy or not, he is a fighter.”
“Well, then fighter, teach us to fight,” George jumped in.
The men all turned to face me. How could I teach them to fight, if I did not know how in the first place? I looked to Jeremiah, but he did not have any helpful lies this time. I had to tell them something, so I started inventing rules of fighting.
“The first and most important thing to remember when fighting in a group is to stay together. You are unprotected and an easy target if you are by yourself. I saw the fight today, and when our two groups met, many men split off to either save themselves or try to circle around. Don’t. It is safer and easier to fight as a group.”
And so for the next week, until our second fight, which was against Number 23, I proceeded to make the men march around in a block in the hope that I was right about how to fight.