Friday, February 03, 2006

Pencil Fights: Warriors of Wood and Lead

(Timeline: 1980-82) Despite the action, camaraderie, and thrill of many of the schoolyard games of the '80s… kickball, dodgeball and handball–none of them matched the subtle strategy and pre-pubescent intensity of one particular game, which had garnered quite a following amongst the 4th- thru 6th-graders of my time:

Pencil Fights.

Now don't get me wrong—this game wasn't about sharpening pencils and attempting to stab each other in the abdomen while others watched in excitement/horror. No, it was more about one's strength and the keen ability to split another one's pencil with his own.

As shown at left, two players would participate at a time: One to hold his pencil and the other to attack. The attack was executed by a particular flicking motion which involved flexing the pencil back (often nearly to the point of breakage), then releasing it forth, smashing it down upon the opponent's—much like a black belt in Karate would chop at a stack of wood.

The object was simple…defeat your opponent by splitting his pencil in half. In most fights, this wouldn't happen immediately, and players would dent each other's sticks until an inevitable breakage. But on rare occasions, a victorious, resounding wood- and heart-splitting "CRACK!"—the result of a seemingly delicate balance of strength, angle of attack, and the type of pencil one was using…spelled a deadly bisection on first strike, to the amazement of all.

Pencil fights were our own innocent delinquent distraction…a way to pass time before school, after school, even during boring class lessons and schoolwork. That was one of the best things about this game…its simplicity and portability. As long as you had a pencil, you were ready to fight. Perhaps, subliminally, the appeal to us boys laid in the duel itself; as in swordfights, it was the gallant test of boyhood strength and skill, to the "death."

For most of us, the satisfaction lay in that victory. There was nothing better than splintering your opponent's pencil in half as your peers looked on, shards of milled wood and lead bits falling to your Vans™-clad feet. It was a destructive, dime-store dominance that had the victor's friends reveling in mocking yet playful laughter. Breaking pencils was a simple childish defiance of the system, but also an establishment of the wrecking order.

Yet, for one particular student, Pencil Fights became much more than just a game. He would stop at nothing to sharpen his skills and become the ultimate warrior of wood and lead.

His name was Jeffrey.

There wasn't any real reason why he became so deeply involved. He just was. He was absolutely dedicated to finding the super-secret formula that would make him champion. This included investigating different flick techniques, angles of attack, and, most importantly, the type of pencil used. And he loved to declare his latest discoveries and findings to the rest of us at his table…especially to me, since I was the only one who really paid attention to his progress.

"Check this out, Greg," he said one day, fetching something from his backpack.

"Whatcha got?"

Jeffrey pulled out a bright and shiny yellow pencil, newly sharpened and beaming in the fluorescent light. "Ti-con-de-ro-ga." He pronounced each syllable slowly and lovingly as he turned the pencil in his hand. I looked over, and Ticonderoga was stamped into the barrel. "These suckers are strong."

"Really? How do you know?"

"Just watch."

Not long after, a challenge would ensue, and the tell-tale "Snap!" of defeat rang down the hallway. Jeffrey had, sure enough, beat someone with the Ticonderoga. He was quick to share the results with me.

"What'd I tell you? Told you I'd win." He smiled a metal, brace-faced grin and leaned back into his chair, content. It was hard not to share his victory, as his smile was that of a genuine winner whose dedication indeed paid off.

Jeffrey was just that type of kid, who found something he liked and dedicated himself to it. Unfortunately, his dedication would usually be towards anything but classwork, so often times he'd get a scolding from the teacher. He was, basically, the class clown, but Pencil Fights was something he took really seriously.

After awhile, being his only star witness had me caught up in the world of wood. I'd basically memorized his weapons of choice because he'd talked about them so much.

There was the Dixon Ticonderoga, of course. This was the all-time classic for him. Something about their construction made them more resistant to breakage than other pencils. These apparently weren't so easy to come by, so he held onto each one like a knight to his sword.

Then there was the Flex, so named for its flexing quality. These were extremely rare, and almost always stirred controversy for their nearly unfair advantage. They withstood strikes like you wouldn't believe…but their flexibility was also a disadvantage, as the rubbery wood was too soft to generate any snapping power and impact on the offensive. Still, Jeffrey used to love to flex these things with his thumbs, seeing how far he could bend them until they snapped. I can still see his braces reflecting the fluorescent 4th-grade lights as he delighted in their unusual qualities.

Then there were the Venus Naturals, which were a startling new design innovation for us kids (look ma, no yellow paint!). Jeffrey was quick to get a handful of these, and he was impressed by their initial performance. For some time, he swore on these and didn't use anything else (yes, not even Ticonderogas). Then, out of nowhere, he experienced a huge losing streak, and proclaimed them absolutely useless. By this time, he'd considered pencils nothing more than weapons, so his discards became my surplus. Needless to say, I didn't have to ask my mom for pencils for quite some time.

The ultimate, but ultimately disqualifying pencils were these huge navy blue ones that only 2nd and 3rd–graders used. The stamped white words on the barrel said it all: "Big Blue." These things were nearly twice the diameter of any ordinary pencil, since they were meant for small, learning hands. They were beginners' pencils, but lethal weapons in the hands of an expert. But, these were so big and impervious to damage that they actually took away from the challenge of the game. Their strength, ironically, became their greatest weakness. Not only that, but they were extremely hard to come by, unless we snuck into the 2nd or 3rd grade classrooms and routed through desks, which we weren't that desperate to do.

Eventually though, Jeffrey had grown bored with his arsenal and seemingly lost his strategic inspiration…until one day, as I worked in focused silence on our daily vocabulary lesson. I heard a gnawing, chewing noise from next to me. I looked over, and there was Jason, chewing on the metal encased eraser end of a pencil. At first I thought it was simply a nervous or unconscious habit, but as the chewing continued, I noticed a certain look of determination in his eyes. He spit out small, wet , orange eraser crumbles and beamed that distinctive smile of achievement.

"Check it out, Greg." He held up his pencil, eraser (what was left of it) end up. "The Axe."

I looked, and sure enough, he'd transformed the metal casing into a battle axe shape from all the chewing and sculpting with his molars. The eraser nub had been completely obliterated, what little remains scattered like pebbles on the carpeted floor. The newly-forged axe glistened with 15 minutes worth of pre-teen saliva and smelled of school lunch with white milk. It was disgusting, but I couldn't take my eyes off it. It was so outlandish, morbid, and, most of all, dangerous. I couldn't wait to see it in action. He wiped the spit off of it and saved it for recess.

Yet that day, recess came and went without a single fight. Why? Despite its glorious, medieval appeal, The Axe proved to be too intimidating for other kids. We had to face it - this was only a game, a silly sport– but Jason, in all his obsessive nature, had added a new level of excitement to the melee that some kids simply weren't prepared for. Just the mere sight of it had some kids backing away and making excuses to play kickball or use the bathroom, and often Jeffrey found himself with no contenders.

Eventually though, some braver kids stepped forward to take on The Axe…and they quickly realized that, despite its intimidating, razor sharp edge, The Axe was really more bark than bite. As the word spread, The Axe soon became a folly, and kids eventually mocked this extravagant but impractical contraption. But Jeffrey was convinced that this was his one and only Excalibur, bestowed upon him by the gods, and he fought with it gallantly…until its bitter, broken end. Jason had reached the end of his reign.

The invention of The Axe inevitably spelled doom for both Jason and, soon after, Pencil Fights themselves. Our teacher, upon hearing all the hub-bub over Jason's Axe, reprimanded him and banned Pencil Fights from the schoolyard. So it was a rare thing, afterwards, to hear that distinctive snap of pencil on pencil reverberating down the corridor. But it really didn't matter. We were growing up swiftly, and by the time we'd reached the 6th grade, girls had become a growing interest. But that, my friends, is another story.


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