Putting childhood fights into global context


President Clinton has revealed why he could be so surprisingly tough in the way he confronted Saddam Hussein of Iraq and disposed of the military thugs of Haiti.

It all goes back to his childhood in Arkansas.

When he was just a lad in school, Clinton told Time magazine, a bully wanted to pick a fight with him.

"There was a guy who was a year older than me but not as big as me.

"He started picking on me at school one day when I was in the 8th grade.

"I felt sort of sorry for him because I knew he had a difficult life and he was always in kind of a sour mood.

". . . I was walking home from school. I bet that fellow followed me for 30 minutes trying to hit me on the shoulder. And finally I turned around and decked him, and he ran off.

"I was really afraid I'd hurt him. But finally I told him not to do it, and he didn't believe me.

"And the people who are dealing with me in the U.S. will find that out. I realize . . . that's something that I have to be very clear and explicit about.

"I think it is clear and explicit now in a way that it may not have been six months ago.

"And I would hope that what happened in Haiti and Iraq would make it clear for all other countries in the future for as long as I'm sitting here."

It is a revealing story in many ways. For one thing, it shows that President Clinton has always been a compassionate person, since he felt sorry for the bully, even while being taunted.

And it shows that he has remarkable restraint and patience, since he waited 30 minutes before he decided to settle the matter.

But finally he confronted the problem and dealt with it firmly and decisively, putting a quick end to it.

Most important, though, is that he recognizes the significance of that incident. Think about that. We all had unpleasant childhood tussles. But we lack the vision to put them into a global context.

By coincidence, I had an experience that was eerily similar to that of Clinton. His story brought my own back to me in vivid detail and with greater understanding of what it meant in my development.

There was this obnoxious kid in my 8th-grade class who was always swinging cats by their tails, pulling the wings off butterflies and pigeons, and shouting fire in crowded movie theaters. I felt sorry for him because he always seemed glum.

He disliked me because I was the only person in the school who understood Einstein's theory of relativity, and I refused to explain it to him because I knew he would put the knowledge to an evil use.

One day he followed me for 10 hours, dropping spiders down my shirt, shaking his soda bottle and squirting me in the eye, eating Twinkies without offering me dibs, and swinging a three-foot machete within an inch of my Adam's apple.

Finally, I decided to resolve the conflict. I threw my best punch.

Unfortunately, it missed, so he dealt me a vicious karate kick to the brow, sending me spinning into the street, where I was grazed by a big black car belonging to an alderman.

I was not injured, but in exchange for a signed release from liability, the alderman gave me two cigars and $5, a large sum in those days.

This sudden wealth gave me the means to rid myself of the bully.

I went to the next neighborhood and looked up the notorious Belch brothers, Bruno and Bronco, and used the cigars and $5 to hire them.

They then sought out the bully, chasing him into a vacant lot, where they beat him with sticks, jumped on his chest, twisted his ears, gave his scalp noogie-rubs, tickled his bare feet, and pantsed him, thus revealing the humiliating fact that he did not wear clean underwear.

From that day on, the bully knew that he could not mess with me. And he also learned to wear clean underwear in case he got into an accident and didn't want the nurses laughing at him.

In truth, I did not see a significance in that incident until I read of President Clinton's experience. Then I was able to put it into a global context and recognize how it had shaped my development.

And what knowledge did I gain from that experience? I guess it must mean that I am a Saudi prince.

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