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An Old Boxer

"An Old Boxer" is one of the stories that I wrote for my eighth grade students. It tells the story of a high school senior who reflects on the life of his grandfather whose boxing career followed him to his grave. "An Old Boxer"

When you're as old as I am, a high school senior, some times, you start asking yourself some strange questions, like, "Dude, what's it all about?" You start thinking about what it is that makes you a man. My dad tells me, "A big part of what you are is your past, your history." 'Course, he's a history teacher. What else would he say? Still, there's some truth to that. What did we read in Lit. One? "You have to pay for the sins of your fathers." But, still, I wonder every now and then what is it that makes you a man? What is it that defines a life? Are we just a product of history or is there more to a man than that?

I remember my dad's father telling him, "That was the best part of my whole life, the fight game. When I was training for a fight, I was in tiptop condition. I wasn't afraid of any man alive. I had my whole life in front of me, and I knew I could do anything.… I thought it would never end. I thought it would never end.…" I was only four or five years old at the time, but what he said always stuck with me.

My grandfather was an old boxer. He told me that once. I remember he talked real loud. He wore a hearing aid, but it never worked right, always made this buzzing sound. He went into his fighting stance and a big grin came over his stubbled face. He told me, "I'm just an old boxer, Jackie.… You know, what the fellow says, 'Old boxers never die, we jus' fade away.'"

My dad told me he didn't want me to remember grandpa the way he was now, a sick old man. He had stayed in shape right up until the accident. He said, "You wouldn't believe how fast his hands were." This was back in 1985 right after I started kindergarten. He had come to live with us.

I use to look at his boxing photo even before he came. When I was real little I use to think it was my dad. But, I learned that my dad is right handed. The guy in the picture is a leftie. He's in a boxing stance with his right arm thrust forward and his left cocked. He's wearing these black leather shoes with long laces, and white sox rolled down to the top of his shoe. His feet are wide apart and he's up on his left toe with his right foot planted. He's got on these tan shorts, kind of baggy, and his gloves are real thin, the ones you work the bag with. His hair is slicked back close to his head and you can see his ears. As I got older, I tried to stand like a leftie. But, it's hard. It doesn't feel right. It made me feel proud to have a professional boxer in the family even when I was a little tike.

My grandfather's story, like so many that shared with him the American Dream, began on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. His parents migrated from the coalfields of Lithuania, to a coal-mining town in Scotland, where he was born, and then after they scrimped and saved for several years, crossed over the Atlantic and settled in the coal region of Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania.

My great grandfather worked in the mines and quickly saved up enough to open a small taproom where he earned a good living. Then, the First World War broke out. My great grandpa went to Philadelphia with a buddy of his to work in the shipyards. In a couple of years he saved up enough to open up his own lumber company. He moved the whole family to the city for two or three years.

Then, they returned to Mt. Carmel where he opened up a saloon and restaurant. This was a real moneymaker. But, I remember Aunt Marian saying my great grandfather started drinking. He always did like a good time. He had an eye for the women, too. He began spending more and more of his earnings on wine, woman, and song. My great grandma, stayed at home with her seven children, and put up with more and more of his abuse.

By this time, my granddad was twelve years old and in sixth grade. Time to drop out of school and go to work in the mines, as most boys his age did back in Mt. Carmel in the early 1900's. But, Grandpa was determined not to give his soul up to the mining company. "When you go down to the mines in the morning, you never know whether you'll come out again or not," he told my dad.

He returned to Philadelphia and got a job as Western Union boy, drove a bike to deliver messages. Cars were just coming out around this time. Most city dwellers still drove horse and carriage.

Once while making deliveries, he was hit by a car. The police had to jack up the car to get him out from under it. His father settled out of court for two hundred and fifty dollars. "He never even replaced the bike. Drank it all up. I never drank myself. Not even one beer," my grandfather told my dad.

Great Grandma got tired of taking the abuse and neglect from her husband. She moved out with the whole family to Yonkers, New York. Grandpa started mailing her the best part of his earnings. He moved to New York City, and got a job as a baker with Horn and Hardart's. I remember my dad telling me that Grandpa use to take him to the Horn and Hardart's in Philadelphia. "It was a big treat. They had these little slots that you put coins in. Then you opened this little door and took out a sandwich, or a piece of cake, or slice of pie. You could see the workers behind the little doors filling up the empties. It was a big job to be a baker back then," my dad told me.

Grandpa became totally captured by the American dream; work hard, save every penny, get your body in shape, don't drink, smoke, or gamble. Though I'm certain he never even heard of Horatio Alger, much less read his novels, he lived his life as part of that myth. He worked full time as a baker on the night shift, and spent his mornings working out at the local Y.M.C.A. Soon, a guy from a small boxing club recruited him. This was the time of the prizefighter. There was no amateur boxing. You fought four and five round matches. The winner would get a gold watch. "You could hock the watch for five bucks. The loser got nothing, but a good lesson from the guy who beat him," my grandpa said.

He explained that he was what you call a slow learner. He lost his first four fights. The fifth was a split decision. "You can't believe what a feeling it is winning. The announcer reads off the scorecard. The crowd comes to their feet. Hundreds of people cheer you when you win. And, if you lose, they boo you. I fought mostly out’a Atlantic City. I was what they called a crowd pleaser. I never backed off no matter how much punishment I took. Never knocked out. They called me the boxing baker. That was back in 1924," he said. I sat on the living floor pretending to play with my cars and trucks, but listening to every word.

"After a couple dozen fights, we started booking some semi wind ups out a the coal region. There was this one fellow who lived in the next town from Mt. Carmel, Tommy Maher, a real good boxer. He had a good left jab, but I could always beat him to the punch. The first time we fought in my old hometown. You wouldn't believe it. There was standing room only. They were cheering every punch I landed and even the ones he blocked. I got a unanimous decision. The crowd went crazy.

We were a real good draw so they booked us two weeks later in Shamokin. My manager tells me I have to lay off a little let him take the fight in his hometown. We'll get another rematch. We fought each other five times. He got two split decisions in Shamokin. The fifth time we fought in Mt. Carmel. I gave him a real boxing lesson. I'll never forget the way they treated me. I was the town hero.… After that, we started getting semi wind ups in Atlantic City and Philadelphia. I even fought a semi wind up in Madison Square Garden.…

"That was the biggest fight of my life. Johnny Jadic later became featherweight champion of the world. I fought three world champions, Johnny Jadic, Toni Calingeero, and Benny Bass. I beat the three of them. But I was never a contender myself. If you don't have the right manager.… He doesn't book the good fights. Everyone takes advantage of you when you're not educated. That was the biggest mistake in my life. I never got no education. I had to quit school in sixth grade. Over two hundred fights. Never knocked out. I broke my left hand fighting Jadic. I didn't even know the hand was broken. I got a unanimous decision. I felt like I owned the world.…

"We had a fight already booked two weeks later in Mt. Carmel. I didn't wanna back out because of my hand. They would'a said I was chicken to fight Galante. I already beat him once. We figured the hand was healed. Wrapped it extra tight. I broke it again in the first round. I had to fight a defensive fight, back away, and clinch. That wasn't my style.… I moved a lot, but I was always punching. Punching and counter punching. It hurt something terrible. My corner wanted to throw in the towel. The last round, I'm just holding on. I couldn't believe it when they booed me. My own hometown, and they 're up on their feet booing. 'Course they didn't know the hand was broke. That very same night I went down to the club and put my other fist through the wall. I said I'd never fight again," my grandpa said.

Later, I heard the story differently. When I was in junior high, my great aunt, Aunt Marian, came out to visit. I asked her about grandpa putting his fist through the wall, and did he fight after that. She told us the story she heard back then in 1926. He had just won his biggest purse ever fighting a main event in their little coal region town. Twenty four hundred dollars. "That was a lot of money back, then, at least a year's salary. He lost it all at a poker game down at the fight club where they all hung out. He lost every penny of it. Put his hand through the wall, and said he'd never fight again. That's where he learned to play cards. He never gambled at all until he started hanging out at the club.

"It was around that time he moved back to Philadelphia. That's where he met your grandmother. They soon got married. She was a beautiful woman, Jackie, but she drank. It's a sad story. Your grandfather couldn't stand to see her drinking, so he'd go down to the club to play cards. He gambled because she drank, and she drank because he gambled. He'd lose his whole paycheck every week. It's really a shame. He was always such a hard worker. He was a member of the Veteran Boxer's Association. All those years in Philadelphia he stayed with the club."

After Aunt Marian's visit, I asked my dad why he never took up boxing. He explained that he might have if his mom and dad had not broken up. His dad had taught him a lot, even bought gloves for him and Uncle Joey "He use to work with us out in the front yard. He called it the manly art of self-defense. I remember it was the old one two. Jab with your left and then follow with the right. They had boxing clubs for young kids all over Philadelphia. A lot of them were police athletic leagues. If we hadn't left the city, I'm sure I would have signed up."

My dad explained that he moved out to the country to live on a farm with foster parents. When his dad came out to visit, they always talked about boxing. Dad listened to the fights on the radio. He followed Joe Louis and later Rocky Marchiano. Then, the Saturday night fights were on T.V. Grandpa really liked Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali.

“Ali was a heavy weight who moved with the speed of a light weight,” Grandpa told my dad. Dad got the boxing photograph when he lived with his foster parents. Grandpa told dad's foster mother not to be frightened by the picture. "I was a boxer, but I was always a perfect gentleman. I never used my fists outside the ring," he told her.

"When I was in boot camp with the National Guard, I almost got in a boxing match," my dad explained when I asked him if he ever used his boxing skills. "There was this real big guy from Vermont. Kind of a bully. He was pushing this little guy around. I said, 'Pick on someone your own size.' He told me to mind my own business. And, then the other guy turned away and ignored us. It was his fight not mine. But, now, the guy was taking out his frustration on me. He challenged me to put on the gloves with him down at the gym. He would have killed me. He was twice my size. His best buddy, our squad leader, told him he'd never talk to him again if he went through with it. But, he couldn't back down either.

"It must’ a been the last couple weeks of camp, 'cause they let us have an hour or so free time after chow. If you got caught fighting, you got a dishonorable discharge right on the spot. But, you could go down to the gym. In fact, one of the guys got beat up pretty bad. He told off one of the T. I.'s. Challenged him to a fight. The T. I. bloodied him up pretty good before they stopped it. I figured the same thing would happen to me. Man, I was never so happy in my life when we got there and found the gym locked up for the night. Later, the big guy's friend and I did some open hand boxing. He said I was pretty good.

"I came close to doing some real boxing when I worked at the airport. This guy that worked with the maintenance crew managed a few fighters. They went up to this little town in the Catskills where they had a small gym. He told me I could earn fifty bucks for a three rounder win or lose. Said he'd supply the equipment, and give me a few pointers. I was all set to go. Then, one of the guys at work asked me if I ever had my nose broke. He told me
that's the first thing they'd go for. 'A cherry like you? Man, they'll go right for the nose, first thing.…' I figured it wasn't worth fifty bucks to get my nose broke so I backed out."

I'd never be a boxer myself. Though, I do shadow box sometimes, and I got pretty fast hands. I'm like my dad, though, I don't want to get my nose broke, or break somebody else's nose either. But, it is something how boxing was my granddad's whole life. That short period of time stayed with him forever. I remember just a week or two before he died I was riding in the back seat. We were doing our weekly trip to the doctor. Grandpa was all huddled up in his black sweater. He told my dad," I never thought I'd get old like dis.… When I was in the gym, training for a fight.… I thought it would last forever.… It seems like only yesterday.…" When he died, my dad put on his tombstone, "An Old Boxer." And, he told me, "I'll bet his soul went straight back to Philadelphia."

But what is it that makes a soul? Is our soul created by our history? Or is there something in a man that goes deeper than that? Some times you wonder, you wonder what’s it all about.
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Upload Date: 31/12/1969

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