January 28, 2023

For Whom the Bell Rings

Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know, for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.- John Donne

The title of Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” came from John Donne’s poem. Hemingway’s characters hated the thought of dying but weren’t afraid of it. They despised bad endings that came from being responsible for other men. Life was a hawk soaring in the sky, a field of grain blowing in the wind.  They hated the modern weapons that deprived the real warrior of honor. The savagery of the Spanish Civil War foretold of what was to come in World War Two.

The modern war that’s fought with drones and other high tech weapons was rudely interrupted when an army sergeant described by all his high school buddies as a normal guy blew away sixteen Afghan civilians, mostly women and children.

A Vietnam vet who had served two tours after most others were already moving to the exits talked about the madness of war. What it does to the mind, including the soldiers in Afghanistan. He told us as we were sitting around last month, shooting the breeze, about the military trying to get a handle on it in Afghanistan. He has family serving in the military and saw it coming.

Atrocities on the road to Paris

World War One and the Spanish Civil War were Hemingway’s canvas. Vietnam was Tim O’Brien’s.  Doc Peret, one of the wisest characters in a novel on any war, says this in O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato”: “The point is that war is war no matter how it’s perceived. War has its own reality. War kills and maims and rips up the land and makes orphans and widows. These are the thing of war. Any war.”

The Vietnam vet used almost the same words in explaining Afghanistan wasn’t real, no matter how hard the home team spun it. It was a war, and wars aren’t real compared to daily life in suburban America. The other night I saw a usual sight on the road. The black flag for prisoners of war was bobbing up and down at nightfall and the man carrying it jogged at a steady pace. I hurried to catch him and asked how far he ran with the flag. I had watched him run with it for the longest time and finally curiosity made me chase him down to ask. He said he usually runs ten miles a night with the prisoner of war flag on his shoulder.

He was running after his own Cacciato.

Heroes first.

“‘What the fuck happened out there, man’? I asked him.

‘He took my heart away from me, Ray,’ he said. ‘He took my heart.’

‘Even if it’s true, Derrick, you don’t ever fuckin’ tell somebody that,’ I said.”

-Sugar Ray Leonard, from his autobiography “The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring.”

This warrior’s weapons were his fists. Leonard’s injured hands caused him immense pain during his fights but he fought through the pain because the pain inside him was greater than the injured fists. The boxing ring was Leonard’s escape from crime and violence in the hood, drug and alcohol addiction, sexual molestation, racism, adultery, poverty. He wasn’t a victim in the boxing ring. He inhaled the power of conquest inside the ring. “A fighter can never possess too much heart,” Leonard writes on the importance of never giving up no matter how much it hurts. Even when it feels like you’re on the verge of death.

The warriors in the boxing ring paid a terrible price for their bravery.

“We reached a room that was almost dark, the lone inhabitant sitting in a rocking chair, his face and stomach bloated, his eyes staring blankly into space.

‘Wilfred,’ his mother said, ‘do you know who this is?’

‘No,’ he said examining me from head to toe, ‘but I know he beat me.'”

Ray Leonard visited Wilfred Benitez about ten years ago. Leonard had beaten Benitez in a hard fight to win his first title, the WBC welterweight championship. Now Benitez, in his early forties, was in a convalescence home, suffering brain damage from his boxing career.

The great Panamanian fighter Roberto Duran did a Cacciato in the classic bout with Leonard. He said no more of this shit and split, taking a walk out of the ring and the arena. One of the most feared fighters of all time rang the bell.

Leonard went looking for Holmes, Sweet Holmes. His boxing buddy Derrick Holmes from the hood who rang the bell after admitting the opponent beat him hard enough to take everything, worst of all his heart. Prison got him with help from the drugs and an attempted murder charge against a Christmas tree salesman. Leonard rang his own bell outside the ring with addictions. His greatest fight was against Tommy Hearns who rang the bell with bankruptcy. Be nice to the bell ringers from the Salvation Army. They might toll for thee.

Researchers have known that bringing in people from different backgrounds helps with innovation and creativity. Leonard observed that his European opponents in amateur bouts always fought with the same back and forth style, never learning to move laterally. The rigidness of their culture made them easy meat to the more fluid, faster fighters like Leonard who first learn to box on the streets of Washington D.C.

The sweet science, like the military, has a history full of heroics and bad endings. The longer a boxer stays in the ring, the worse the odds. The body is made to take only so much punishment. The brain is more vulnerable, to the stress of combat on the battlefield, and concussions in the ring.  In “Going After Cacciato,” church bells ring three times a day, six on Sundays. Being responsible for other men keeps the bell ringers busy.


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