Once upon a time, I witnessed a single game of Ranger rugby. The intensity of play and the injuries that resulted left quite an impression.
Let me back up: I'm the daughter of a U.S. soldier, and, growing up, I moved around every two to three years. My father was an Infantry guy, which means he's a fight-in-the-front sort of guy (though, luckily for me and frustratingly for him, he never had to fight in the front). Infantrymen are physically capable--they need to be. These are the guys who kick in doors and rush in the room to overcome the enemy. And mentally, they are just as tough. They often train all night because war sure doesn't stop at bedtime. On top of that, Infantrymen usually have a pretty good sense of humor. These are men who like to play hard. They have fun, seriously.
After third grade, my family taped up our belongings in boxes and moved from West Point, New York, to Savannah, Georgia. My dad took over a Ranger Battalion at Hunter Army Airfield. Just like that, he switched gears from being a college professor to leading and training elite troops, troops that needed to be capable of carrying out anything that was asked of them. This was 1988, when our country was taking a break between big Cold War power moves and small peace keeping missions. The Army was transitioning while still staying mentally and physically fit, just in case.
The U.S. Army is very family-oriented, and the Rangers recognize that they need their family's support; they know that to minimize bumps in their home life, their wives and children need to understand who they are, and what they do. Do these wives and children "get it" completely? It's doubtful. But, to improve that understanding and friendships between families, the Rangers held Family Days. On those days, the Rangers invited their families to come watch them in a training exercise, and they let wives and kids participate on a lower level version of that training.
Enter Ranger rugby. When I first asked Dad what that was like, he laughed. "You'll have to see it!" He was, as usual, right.
The field was about half the size of a football field. The two teams wore white t-shirts that pulled at their chests and government-issued physical training shorts, which did not account for the size of some of their thighs. To this day, I'm not clear on the rules. Was it football? Was it rugby? I think it was a combination of what would happen if a bunch of beefy men played some version of both of those sports without rules about contact. Because there was a whole lot of contact.
A pair of ambulances stood on the sidelines; the medics watched, shaking their heads and laughing at the stupidity of the game. Every ten or fifteen minutes, a Ranger trotted over to the medics, get stitched up or bandaged up, then go back to the game to do some more damage to themselves.
I sat on the sidelines, my eyes opened wide, as grown men tackled each other, grabbed each others' clothes in order to drag him to the ground. Men launched themselves onto men already running, just hoping to be a human bowling ball of sorts. I'm pretty sure there were some punches thrown underneath the frequent pile ups. Just a few minutes in, and many of the white shirts were bloodied or ripped or torn off altogether. I witnessed Olympian intensity for a single game played with their buddies where there was no prize, only pride. Nobody stopped for a minor injury. This was what they signed up for. No man wasted time complaining. Was it fighting, or were they playing? Such a blurry line sometimes.
As I sat on the grass beside this game and observed with curious eyes over the next two years, I let the images in front of me start to form my own definition of what a man is. Now, 30 years later, I'm still sorting all that out.