A few weeks ago I met a guy who had been a Navy SEAL. Attaining that status is pretty much the ultimate in machismo, but this guy presented himself like a librarian. An appealing combination. This post is not about him, but he did get me to thinking about toughness in general, though, and I was reminded of a series of essays I had written about people I've known with extreme personality traits and which I never got around to trying to publish elsewhere. Anyway, this is one of them.
I know a guy named Dave who is a stockbroker in San Francisco. He lives with his wife and four children in Mill Valley, and commutes daily to his office downtown. But his life wasn't always so tame.
He grew up in South Dakota, one of ten siblings, the son of a nurse and a semi-employed truck driver. He and five brothers shared a bedroom, which had a cement floor and was lit by a single, naked light bulb. For many of his early years, he had only one pair of pants to wear during the entire year, and by the end of the year, it would be in tatters. When he was in kindergarten he and his identical twin brother got into a fight which lasted for three hours. it started right after their school session let out at noon, and was still going when the afternoon session ended at three.
By the time they were twelve, Dave and his twin spent their summers hoisting bales of hay onto their father's truck. Often for breakfast all they got was a candy bar. At one point at age thirteen he left home for three weeks, sleeping down by a river and living off handouts from friends' families and whatever else he could scrounge.
At age fourteen Dave took up bull riding, and competed in local rodeos. he had a friend whose face was torn off by an angry bull, but he himself managed to escape that fate. He also competed in wrestling; he and his brother developed their skills by constantly wrestling each other. Their matches would occasionally spin out of control; Dave still has the scars from bite marks on his chest from one particularly vicious fight when they were in college.
When Dave was fifteen and sixteen, he would go to bars with his buddies. (This being South Dakota in the late Seventies, IDs were not checked too rigorously.) They didn't exactly go looking for fights, but fights happened. When they did, Dave usually found himself the designated fighter/protector of his group. He weighed a hundred and fifty pounds at the time, and sometimes had to fight men who were ten or fifteen years older, and outweighed him by fifty pounds or more, but he always won.
Such backgrounds are not necessarily fertile backgrounds for productive lives (another brother is currently in prison for murder). But Dave and his brother both won wrestling scholarships to the University of Nebraska. At age 24, Dave won the world freestyle championship at 198 pounds, beating all the Russians, Iranians, Bulgarians, Turks, and Germans who came his way. Three years later, despite having a walking around weight of only 205, he tried out for the 1988 Olympic team at 220 pounds, so that his brother would have a chance to make the team at 198. Both made the team. Dave was favored to win the gold, but made an early tactical mistake in the semifinals that cost him, and he ended up with the bronze.
I once asked Dave how he would do against Mike Tyson (then still at the peak of his powers) in a street fight; Dave, in his soft-spoken way, said that unless Tyson immediately knocked him out, he would take him. (This was the answer I expected -- and agreed with.) On another occasion I asked him about the dirty tactics the Iranians and the Bulgars were known to use. He just shrugged and said that if someone blinded him during a bout, he would just continue to wrestle, since he could tell just from feel what move his opponent was planning next.
After the Ultimate Fighting Championships started to get some publicity in the early Nineties, Dave, several years into his Wall Street career, was bitten by the bug again. He decided to learn striking, with an eye towards possibly competing in the UFC. A year into his tae kwon do lessons, he went to Las Vegas with his buddies one weekend to watch the rodeo championships. While there, he noticed some ads for a full contact tae kwon do tournament, so he signed up to compete in the next day's matches. But that night, instead of making sure he got a good night's sleep, he went out carousing with his friends. The next day, he went to the arena where the tournament was being held. Despite the prospect of imminent punishment in a sport in which he was a relative novice, he was so relaxed that he just fell asleep near the mat, after asking someone to wake him up when it was his turn to fight. He was duly woken up, and fought his match with the full contact champion. When I asked how he did, he shrugged, "I held my own."
Dave is the second toughest guy I've ever met.
But what is toughness, exactly?
Some define toughness as the ability to be tough on others. But this isn't really toughness: it's just being a bully, or even a sociopath. This is the self-serving definition of "toughness" for the boastful "I'm a take no prisoners kind of guy" who, himself, would not do well if taken prisoner. Real toughness is about the ability to withstand hardship.
Is toughness simply the ability to withstand pain? Women often say that the most physically painful experience in life is giving birth; no man is in a position to dispute this. But that pain is in a sense involuntary (and, with modern medicine, less painful than it used to be). Perhaps toughness is more about what we voluntarily endure.
Haile Gebrselassie, the great Ethiopian distance runner, was extremely tough. He won Olympic gold medals in both 1996 and 2000 at 10,000 meters. Even more impressively, he placed fifth in the same event in 2004 despite not having trained for the previous three weeks due to a serious Achilles tendon injury, and despite barely warming up before the race due to the same injury. Abebe Bikila won the first of his two Olympic marathons in 1960 running barefoot through the streets of Rome. Grete Waitz won the New York Marathon nine separate times. During one of those races, she was suffering from diarrhea; but had she used one of the Port-O-Sans along the way, she would have lost valuable time. So, she simply continued to run, the excrement dribbling down her leg. That one race alone put her in the Toughness Hall of Fame.
Any boxer willing to endure punishment for the sake of his sport must be very tough. No one took more blows from more heavy punchers than Muhammad Ali, who in his time faced Sonny Liston, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Shavers, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, and Larry Holmes, the best heavyweights of three decades. When Ali was in his twenties he was fast enough to dance away from their punches; later, in his thirties, he just absorbed them. Ali was the epitome of toughness in this regard (and paid the price later on); few would deny the heroic aspect to his life.
Anyone who makes it through Navy Seal Hell Week certainly qualifies as extremely tough. Among the tests the sleep-deprived Seals must pass is to spend an entire night sitting chest deep in the San Diego surf, wearing nothing more than a pair of pants and a T-shirt. They must also parachute from such high altitude that oxygen masks are required, in the middle of the night, into the ocean. They endure all this in order to get the opportunity to risk their lives in battle.
Does being tough mean having no fear? Some people just don't seem to have any of the phobias that bedevil most of us: public speaking, heights, snakes, spiders, the ocean, the dark, and so on. Or does fearlessness simply bespeak a certain emotional numbness? A better definition of toughness might be the willingness to confront one's fears. And the more debilitating they are, the more courage it takes.
Or is toughness simply stick-to-it-iveness? Is it the ability to keep after a goal year after year in the face of endless disappointments? To persevere in the face of contrary advice and even ridicule? Vincent Van Gogh kept painting even though he never sold a single painting during his lifetime; this seems the definition of will power. Of course, he also cut off his own ear; maybe some element of craziness is inherent in this kind of character.
One definition of grit is the single mother who works two or even three jobs in order to support her children. She does this not for glory, or even gratitude; merely for love. This is an unsung form of toughness, but it takes just as much steadfastness and endurance as Van Gogh showed.
Christy Brown, the subject of the movie "My Left Foot," was wracked with cerebral palsy. Despite this handicap, he taught himself to type with his left foot, the one part of his body he could control, and completed an entire book. This demonstrated a degree of will power most of us couldn't imagine.
One aspect of toughness is the willingness to go without creature comforts. Very few of us are willing to lead the life of a Spartan. How well would be put up without toilet paper, or hot running water, or a comfortable bed, or central heating?
Another element of toughness is simply the lack of self-indulgence. Norman Mailer once famously said that tough guys don't dance. Neither do they indulge in "comfort foods." they don't do leisure shopping and justify it with an "I deserve this" mentality. And "I need a drink" is not the clarion call of the tough guy.
Is toughness the ability to endure humiliations that would cause most of us to crawl back into our shells? By this definition, anybody who's ever had a career as a stand up comedian is tough. When the phrase "tough guy" is mentioned, Billy Crystal and Martin Short aren't the first two names that come to mind, but in their own way, they are tougher than most of us.
If toughness is measured by sticking to one's principles no matter the price, then Nelson Mandela is the ultimate in tenacity. All he had to do to be released from his South African jail was to renounce the African National Congress, but he wouldn't do so, and thus remained in jail for five more years.
Or is toughness a matter of unshakable confidence? Christopher Columbus not only ignored the conventional wisdom regarding the shape of the earth, he bet his life on it. To be sane when the rest of the world is crazy takes backbone. Far too many of us are swayed by popular opinion. Numerous psychological studies have documented that test subjects will change their opinion to suit what everyone else in the room is saying, even if they have to ignore the evidence right in front of them to do so. It takes a certain resolution to stick to one's guns; of course, when one is wrong, it's merely willful obtuseness.
Similarly, it takes a certain amount of toughness to stay calm when hysteria reigns.
The guy I know who comes closest to embodying all these traits is Tom Campbell.
Tom stands only five foot four, but is built very solidly, with powerful forearms and a barrel chest tapering down to a thin waist, and sturdy legs. He has a boyish but weathered face; he looks like a jockey on steroids. At times he evokes Popeye, at others Jimmy Cagney.
Tom spent his boyhood in Alaska, the stepson of an abusive Army colonel. (His father would, among other things, strike any child who dared speak during dinner.)
Although Tom didn't grow tall, he grew strong. He was a state high school champion at cross-country skiing, which he describes as no big deal because of the relatively small population of the state. But he was also the Alaska Golden Gloves champion at 135 pounds, a bigger deal because he had to beat every lightweight from the huge Army and Air Force bases up there. He also set his high school record for pull-ups with thirty-three.
Even more impressive for an abused kid from an Army base in Alaska were his SATs: 730 Verbal and 760 Math.
Upon graduating from high school in 1968, Tom enlisted in the Army. I once asked why. He replied, "I was young. I was foolish. I wanted some action." He volunteered to go through Ranger training, became an Airborne Ranger, then volunteered to go to Viet Nam.
The most dangerous job in Viet Nam was not, as is commonly believed, either Marine Reconnaissance or helicopter gunship pilot. It was tunnel rat. Tom Mangold and John Penycate, two reporters for the BBC, wrote a book, "The Tunnels of Cu Chi," which was published in 1985. In it they describe the labyrinthine network of tunnels where the Viet Cong hid, emerging only at night. The American soldiers, who lived in air conditioned barracks, were initially mystified by the disappearance of the Viet Cong during the day. Eventually they discovered the existence of the tunnels.
The tunnels were pitch black, dank, small corridors about four feet high and three feet wide which led into the bowels of the earth. The VC had booby-trapped these tunnels to make them even more forbidding to any intruder. They had rigged false bottoms in places, so that anyone who entered would fall into a pit and be impaled by sharpened bamboo stakes. Certain parts of the tunnels (sealed off by water barriers) would be filled with poison gas. There were secret vantage points from which the VC would lie in wait, ready to spear an intruder through the neck.
One trap the VC devised involved mounting a box of scorpions on the ceiling of a tunnel. If an intruder brushed the wall with his shoulder at the wrong time, he would release a catch-string which would open the bottom of the box, causing scorpions to rain down on his head. A similar trap was constructed by inserting a viper into a hollow bamboo pole so that only its head emerged. If a soldier brushed the wall of the tunnel the wrong way, the pole would swing down so that the viper's head would swing into the soldier's face. These were referred to as either one-step, two-step, or three-step vipers, depending on how many steps a soldier could take before he died. The VC also placed hornets' nests and bees' nests down there. Apart from the man-made traps, there were poisonous snakes, centipedes, spiders, and bats which simply lived down there.
Obviously, the Army couldn't simply order a soldier to go down into a tunnel; most would have refused. They had to ask for volunteers. The volunteers had to be small, so as to fit into tunnels built for the VC. They would also have to be fearless, or at least be able to control their fear. And they would have to be very alert, with sharp senses of smell and hearing, as well as good night vision. Mangold and Penycate described those who did volunteer as genuine American heroes, uncommonly willing to put their lives on the line. Within the ranks they were universally admired for their courage.
Tom volunteered. He went on numerous missions, crawling on his hands and knees and carrying nothing but a revolver in one hand, a flashlight in the other, and a knife in his teeth. He registered seventeen enemy kills. And he was one of the roughly fifty percent who survived that hazardous duty. Tom was awarded a Bronze Star for his bravery.
One of the first things you notice about Tom is that he's always aware of his surroundings, like an animal in the wild. His big, neonate eyes take in everything around him. And you can almost see his ears perk up at a new sound. Perhaps these instincts were developed as a tunnel rat; perhaps he had them to begin with. Either way, he was uniquely well suited for that dangerous occupation.
Tom grew to despise the ARVN, the South Vietnamese soldiers the Americans were supporting, for their cowardice and corruption. At the same time, he developed a grudging admiration for the tenacity of the VC. But the group he admired most were the Korean Special Forces soldiers who fought alongside the Americans. They were tough in a way he had simply never encountered before; even the VC were scared of them. If the Americans went down into the tunnels, it was usually kill or be killed. When the Koreans went down, the VC would often simply surrender. On several occasions Tom witnessed a Korean soldier come up out of a tunnel with a number of VC behind him, hands on their heads.
During a two week R&R (rest and recreation) break in Australia, Tom and a group of tunnel rat buddies went to a bar where they ran into a group of Australian soldiers. In Tom's words, "Well, we thought we were pretty tough, and they thought they were pretty tough, and what ended up happening was that I got in a fight with their leader. He was a lot bigger than me, but I knew how to box. Anyway, I wasn't that proficient at martial arts at the time, and the fight pretty much ended in a draw. Afterward, he put his arm around me and bought me a beer, and we were all making friends, when all of a sudden the bar door opened and some ROK [Republic of Korea] Special Forces guys walked in. I knew who they were because of the red triangle they wore on their shoulders. The second I saw them I was filled with fear. I knew exactly what was going to happen, because the Aussies were really racist."
Sure enough, the Aussie leader turned around, saw them, and said, "We don't want any of you slanty-eyed bastards in here. The Korean squad leader walked up to him and said, "What? You talk to me?" The Aussie leader, who didn't know any better, said, "That's right, I'm talking to you, gook." The Korean did a reverse spinning back kick and knocked the Aussie off his bar stool; the Aussie did not get up. Within thirty seconds, there wasn't a single Australian left standing up. And there wasn't a single Korean with so much as a bloody nose or split lip.
When Tom's tour of duty in Viet Nam was over, he decided to go to Korea with the Army Counterintelligence Corps to, among other reasons, learn tae kwon do. Tom dedicated himself to the art, practicing up to six hours a day.
In American, martial arts studios exist for the same reason every other business exists, to make money. At the average tae kwon do or karate studio, students are promoted through all through all the various belt colors (enough to make a medium-sized box of Crayolas proud) until they eventually become black belts. (Without all that positive reinforcement they might not continue to come to class and pay their fees.) To get their black belts, they must do katas (essentially elaborate dances) with good form. Almost everybody who attends class long enough, no matter how unathletic, is eventually rewarded with a black belt.
In Korea, tae kwon do is the national sport, and they take it very seriously. First, there is no rainbow of belt colors (an American invention) to be promoted through. You start out as a white belt, then, when you're ready, you get a brown belt, then a black belt. Koreans practice "hard" tae kwon do, which means they punch and kick two by fours wrapped in straw until the various striking surfaces of their hands and feet become tough and callused. The way a student becomes a black belt is to fight two black belts (in real, full contact fights, not the non-contact variety favored here). If he acquits himself well, he passes. If not, he fails. Unlike American teachers, Koreans feel no qualms about failing their students.
Tom stayed in Korea for two years, eventually earning his fourth degree black belt in tae kwon do. After he left Korea, for the next twenty years, Tom never stopped practicing and studying the martial arts. He studied Thai kickboxing, kali escrima (the art of turning a one foot bamboo stick into a weapon), hand trapping, and jeet kune do (Bruce Lee's martial art).
Once, in 1989, Tom offered to teach me some "real" fighting techniques. So I brought him to my gym. He suggested I use the eye gouge; to demonstrate, he had me put on a pair of Plexiglas welder's glasses, and told me to try to stay away from him. He would stiffen his fingers and strike the glass, never missing once, no matter how I tried to evade him. (He never hit me on the bridge of the nose, or the eyebrow, or the cheekbone, but always right on the eye.) He is one of the few people I've ever met who can successfully make a knife out of his hand and hurt you by pressing his fingers straight into your stomach. If most of us try this, we merely hurt our fingers, as when catching a football the wrong way.
Tom also showed me how to kick effectively. He said, "In the movies, they always show guys doing high kicks, but if you do those against a good fighter, they leave you vulnerable. I prefer to go for the kneecaps." He then demonstrated this by showing how he was able, no matter what position he was standing in, within about two tenths of a second, to have the outside edge of his foot resting lightly on top of my kneecap. He added, "All you really have to do is kick a guy lightly in the shins; that hurts like hell. Then, once he's bent over, you can just grab his head and knee him in the face." He seemed to let his lower body just flow into the gym wall, lightly kicking it at shin level; some of the hard plaster fell out. I tried kicking the wall, and nothing happened. In the ensuing months, I tried kicking that same wall many times as hard as I could, and was never able to dislodge any plaster.
There is gym strength, and there is usable strength. Gym strength is acquired by working on the bench press, the abdominal machine, and so on. Gym muscles look good, and these days they often look even better because they are shaved and artificially pumped up with steroids (witness the number of actors who've gone on steroids). But gym muscles don't necessarily allow their users to do anything with them, other than bench press, the ab machine, etc.
Usable strength is something else entirely. In virtually every sport, power is generated from the torso and hips. Whether you're hitting a golf ball, throwing a punch, or pitching a baseball, the power comes from the torque of the trunk, not the biceps or triceps. Dave, the wrestler referred to at the beginning of his article, is a perfect example of this. He acquired his strength from wrestling bales of hay onto his father's truck beginning at age twelve, then from wrestling his twin brother, both of which utilized his entire body -- and not from endless curls in front of a mirror. So his strength is much more effective.
Tom also had a lifetime of exercise that never included weights. He, like Dave, has forearms like an old-fashioned blacksmith. His hands are knotted, ridged, veiny affairs with gristly tendons that stand out in clear relilef when used. He can hurt you just br grabbing your arm and squeezing. (If you want to know which guys to avoid in fights, look at the forearms, not the pecs.) With Tom, it was as if all the power of a much larger man had been compressed into his smaller body, and then somehow the compression itself had then resulted in an even more strength. There was something almost inhuman about it, as if he had gorilla tendons rather than human ones (a 350 pound gorilla is as strong as eight full grown men).
After returning from Korea, Tom spent a year working on an Alskan commercial fishing boat. The job paid well by the standards of unskilled labor, for good reason: it has been rated the most dangerous job in the country. Relatively small boats go out to sea for weeks, not coming back till they are laden with fish, all the while subject to the many freak storms which bedevil the Aleutians year round. But Tom survived, again.
Tom also applied to college that year, and in the fall of 1974 entered Antioch on the GI Bill. Antioch had a reputation as a very left wing school; it was inevitable that there be some adjustment problems.
On one occasion during his freshman year, Tom inadvertently sat at the table where the black students normally sat (there was no one sitting there at the time) with a white friend. Two young black men walked up and told them they couldn't sit there. Tom's friend got up and left immediately. Tom told them that he didn't want to cause trouble, he just wanted to eat his lunch. In Tom's words, "I was twenty-five, I had been to Viet Nam, I didn't want to get pushed around by a couple of eighteen year old punks. The problem was, one of them had already told me to leave, and he couldn't then back down in front of his friend." To Tom's surprise, the fellow who told him to leave suddenly punched him in the mouth; the other one laughed. When Tom put his hand to his mouth, he both literally and figuratively saw red. He sprang up and immediately floored both of them (with kicks and punches, nothing lethal). By this point, eight other blacks had gathered around, but Tom was on fire. He yelled, "Come on, I'll take you all on!" Tom weighed all of 137 pounds, but none of them budged. They had seen how quickly and easily he had taken out their friends; they would no more have taken him on than they would have willingly wrestled a wolverine.
Like many short people, Tom is very sensitive about his height. But unlike most he is almost touchingly open about it: "I hate being short. It's like an open, festering sore....And I really hate it when people call me short." People have done this, some to their regret. During one summer in college, Tom worked for Northwest Airlines as a baggage handler. On his first day of work, his supervisor, a lanky white guy who stood around six-four, pointed at Tom and said, "I want to see some work out of you this summer, little man." As Tom later recounted, "Why did he have to humiliate me like that, in front of all those people?"
I asked Tom how he responded, and he shrugged, "I walked up to him, kicked him in the balls, then once I had him on the ground, I beat him to a bloody pulp." I said, you must have lost your job. Tom replied, "No, because he wasn't the guy who hired me. He didn't talk to me the rest of the summer, though."
Tom's failing is not that he acts like a bully, or picks on the weak; I've never seen him do either. His failing is that if someone pushes him, he can't just walk away. He always pushes back (a little harder), and mutual escalation leads to only one outcome. It's never a fair fight, at least in the sense that the combatants are well-matched. But at least the loser's beating is never entirely undeserved. (To those of us who've been pushed around by bullies -- and who've just taken it -- it's gratifying to hear of someone who doesn't.)
During school breaks, Tom sometimes returned to Alaska. While there, he would often go on backpacking trips by himself. Most of us are familiar with the basic safety rules: never travel alone, always tell someone where you are going, and give dangerous animals the right of way. Tom would just set off on his own for a two week trip to the far reaches of the Brooks Range, never seeing another human being the entire time. I once asked, "What if you had broken your leg? Or just sprained an ankle? You were a one week hike from the nearest road, and no one knew where you were. You would have been dead." He shrugged, "I guess."
Tom carried nothing more than a rifle, a fishing rod, and a sleeping bag. He ate wild berries and salmon virtually every day. Whenever he ran across a black bear, he would merely hold his rifle above his head with two hands and yell at it; this would invariably scare them off. he gave a wider berth to grizzlies, though. He never had to shoot a bear, though, to his relief, since he admires them.
After graduating from college, Tom went to medical school at Rutgers. While there he took up running, and at the age of 32, ran a marathon in two hours and thirty-eight minutes. After this he gave up marathons, preferring instead ot run through woods whenever he could, scrambling up hills and through bushes.
Although he graduated from medical school with honors, Tom never worked as a doctor. Instead he did research for various health organizations and worked as an inspector for the FDA.
Tom moved to New York City in 1988, at age forty. He had lost none of his feistiness at this point. During this period, Tom dated a lot of black women, and would often walk with them through their neighborhoods. Occasionally a certain type of black man, the type who traded on whites' fear of blacks, would loudly question why a black woman would want to date a white man. This usually proved a bad mistake. Within the first six months of moving to the city, Tom got into six street fights.
I told Tom that sooner or later he would run into someone with a gun, and then it would be his turn to be sorry. He replied, "Oh no, I'm very careful. I always make sure that I'm within six feet of a guy if I confront him. You think he could pull his gun out, aim it, and shoot me before I took his eyes out?"
On one occasion five teenagers were shooting their BB guns inside a subway car Tom happened to be in. An older lady asked them to stop, telling them that they could hit somebody in the eye. They ignored her. Tom, unarmed except for a foot long bamboo stick, walked up to their leader, pulled it out, and growled, "If you don't stop right now I'm going to take this stick and shove it up your ass." They stopped.
On another occasion he witnessed a woman being harassed by a man in the subway. He told the man to back off. The man attacked Tom. Tom hit him once, hard enough to make him fall, then held him down on the floor till the next stop, where the police came to take the man off. Tom ended up dating the woman briefly.
I once asked Tom what he thought of Roberto Duran, the Panamanian lightweight boxing champion who was an icon of ferocity. (I thought if there was one person he'd be a fan of, it would be Duran.) Tom replied, "I met Duran once. In the early Eighties, whenever I was in New York, i used to work out at Gleason's Gym, and once Duran was there, training for a fight." I asked what he had said to Duran, thinking that perhaps he had expressed admiration for the legendary fighter. Tom replied, "I told him, 'Roberto, you're fat! Look at you! You need to get in shape'!" I asked what Duran had said in reply. Tom said, "Nothing much. He just looked at me."
As part of his sojourn working for the FDA, Tom had to go through a training course required of all field operatives. The course was given at FBI headquarters in Quantico. He placed first in his class in marksmanship. He also, at age forty-two, placed first in all of the physical fitness tests, beating out all his twenty-something classmates.
In 1990, Tom decided to have an operation to repair the cartilage in his nose, which had been broken a few times. To do this the surgeons had to take some of the cartilage from behind his ear. Normally an operation would require a general anesthetic to put the patient under for the duration. Tom opted to go without even a local painkiller so that he could talk to the doctors about what they were doing while they performed the surgery.
Tom is not without fear. He is afraid of heights. This was a phobia he had to face many times as an Army Airborne Ranger. "No matter how many parachute jumps I took, I never got over my fear. I was always scared." But he did them nonetheless.
Recently he has been taken with the new research which has indicated that reduced caloric intake can result in a longer life. To this end, he eats only one meal every two days.
If you look at the evolution of civilization, from the time of the hunter gatherers on up through the development of agriculture, through the industrial revolution, through the technological revolution, through all the advances in medicine, up to the internet age, each development has been geared towards making life easier. With each invention, our need for toughness diminishes. A primitive hunter gatherer, if he met a farmer, would probably be surprised at his danger-free lifestyle. A farmer leading a hardscrabble existence would be amazed at the relative ease of life in the city. A rider for the Pony Express would be astonished at the ease of automobile travel on paved roads. Each of these people would probably also scoff at the softness of his descendants.
These days if we're thirsty, we simply turn on the tap; if we're hungry, we go to the refrigerator; if we're cold, we turn up the thermostat; and if we ache, we take a painkiller. It's not our fault that we're soft; we simply don't have any reason to be any other way.
All of us adapt to our environments by becoming whoever we need to be. Tom became what, in his mind, he needed to be in order to survive and thrive. Tom was regularly abused by his stepfather, and he only grew to five feet four inches, which would have exacerbated his general feeling of physical helplessness had he not compensated by turning himself into a walking weapon. Someone with a different physical constitution, and perhaps, fewer male hormones, might have reacted differently to the same set of circumstances. Tom's hormonal makeup predisposed him towards aggression and violence.
Tom, like the few other exceptionally tough people I've known, does not set great store by toughness as a character trait. (People who aspire to toughness almost always do so because they really aren't.) Tom sees himself as simply having a very no nonsense attitude about protecting what's his, and he's found that being confrontational often suits those purposes. He's not proud of being tough; he simply doesn't understand people who aren't. In particular, he doesn't understand guys who start fights but don't know how to fight.
What Tom does set great store by is intellectual accomplishment. He loves the idea of intelligence, cultural refinement, and even academic degrees with a passion that could only come from one who was never exposed to those things as a child. In fact, Tom's intellectual airs, if exhibited by someone without his tough guy credentials, could only be called effetely pretentious. He never uses a small word where a big one will do. He will allude to his various degrees (which now include one in clinical investigation from Harvard Medical School) or to his arcane scientific knowledge a little too readily. And he'll go on about wines long enough to cure an alcoholic.
Yet he never boasts about what makes him truly unique, his toughness. The academic degrees are a patina which are polished and shown off whenever possible. The toughness is such a basic part of him that it would never occur to him to boast about it, no more than most of us would boast about our breathing. Those of us who don't have it can only marvel.