Note from the Editor: The Blue Paper is honored to share with you the next essay in a series of excerpts from the autobiographical works of Key West’s first Poet Laureate, Kirby Congdon…
On Pyrrhic Victories
by Kirby Congdon…….
The population growth has put many people close together, diluting their need to find themselves beyond the need to get along. This has encouraged similarity, the need to be on a team, or even with a gang, to adhere to standards and squelch individual differences.
Being brought up in what was still a rural atmosphere, I had never thrown a ball or caught one. Where could one buy a ball in the first place if it was a rare extravagance with no sports store within miles in the middle of the Depression? But skill in handling one was a competitive requirement. In high school I remember my first participation in a supervised game of baseball. I swung the bat at this missle coming deliberately at me like an accusation. Missing it, my bat went flying out of my hands from the force I swung it with. The gym instructor suggested to me that I should drop a bat at my feet and avoid injuring someone. In my embarassment I retorted, “I didn’t want to play anyway!” and started walking back, alone, to the class rooms. He persuaded me to calm down and stay with everyone until the gym class was over. I did, but I was anxious to get home, back to my chickens and my piano where I have been ever since. But of course I didn’t tell anyone that. I would avoid games, athletics and other people for decades to come.
When I was in the Army, a friend threw a fast ball at me outside the barracks. I casually pretended to catch it and, reaching out, I did indeed catch it with my left hand. I had to almost argue with the thrower of the ball that I was not, in some way, an experienced baseball player. I found out what a “pyrrhic victory” was. But I knew that was not going to take me anywhere I wanted to go. You will recall that king’s remark in 279 A.D. after a difficult battle, “one more such victory and I am lost,” but I was, among my peers, already lost!
Because I liked to read while I waited in the chow line, brought my own sterling silver to eat Thanksgiving Dinner with at the mess hall, and took piano lessons, a draftee asked me if I “sat down to piss?” He quit his harassments when deliberate injuries in the back from friendly fire came up in the news as we neared our time to go overseas. I won a sharp-shooter’s medal in a competition that our Company held because I was indifferent to the whole process of hitting any bull’s eyes. The medal came with a three-day pass. I used the time to practice my piano for an upcoming amateurs’ concert in town. My piano teacher’s response to my award was, “Well anyway, you are very musical,” and I let it go at that. But, she wondered, why didn’t I show more expression on my face when my fingers were doing it all! I took it as a compliment that I needed as my brain was not, in real life, an innately musical one.
I had taught myself to type on an old Underwood at home so my fingers were flexible enough for me to be transferred to Headquarters Company for the rest of the War as a typist. I compose music now, as a new ambition, not having had much preoccupation with guns, bullies, or war as having any kind of personal interest or hobby for me.
While I had no inclination to build my body up and exercise to be more one of the gang, especially since body-building was soon to become an exclusive industry in itself for those already much more impressively put together than I ever was, even so one of my most unified collections of poetry is entitled, “Athletes.” I read a poem, “The Discus Thrower,” as the featured poet at a poetry bash in the summer of 2012. J.D. McClatchy, the editor of the Yale Review announced just before he was about to read his own work, “I hated athletics!” My impulse was to call back at him, “I did too!” But I didn’t think quickly enough. I was probably seen as trying to be a gung-ho body-builder type. Being ninety already, I let my clothes hide whatever male pulchritude I had already lost decades earlier if there was any pulchritude there in the first place!