“Yeah, of course I remember those days,” he said. “I was young and full of piss and vinegar. I thought I could conquer the world, and almost did.” He said that last statement with hammer like conviction, but his smile belied something less than his rough exterior hardened by old age.
“I’ll bet you could come close, anyway,” I said, sliding my chair just a bit closer to him. I have talked with Paul for a few months now as I visit the Sole Vida retirement community and everytime I see him, I make it a point to sit with him and listen to his stories. Being relegated to a wheelchair has not diminished his spirit or lust for life, just slowed him down a bit. We were talking about the Depression and some of the great boxers that he was able to see at the Chicago Stadium in those days. I am fascinated by the sport, its history and how much a part of America it was during the depression. Some of the greatest fighters in history lived during that period. What else could a man do if he could not find a job? He fought. He fought for money, pride, his family, and a host of other things that defined men and women of that period. Most of all, they were simply fighters, and I had an audience with one of the men of that day every time I came to visit Sola Vida.
Assisted living. What that means is some of the residents are too old to physically care for themselves. They do not walk all that well as time has ravaged their bones and muscles. Some, like Paul, are in wheelchairs, having had to yield to the only persistent opponent that cannot be defeated. More often they are people that are left there by their kids who do not want the burden of caring for them any longer. The operative word is burden. For me, they are anything but. I am regaled by their stories, enchanted by their love of life, and amazed by their strength of character and will. Some call it old school but I call it tough. A toughness that saved a world from oppression, an appalling oppression that almost extinguished an entire group of people, members of the Greatest Generation.
Paul was laughing at his statement of conquering the world.
“Well, I thought I did anyway. Those were hard days, but looking back on ‘em, sometimes I wish I was back there. It was simple then. You got up, tried to find a job, maybe worked as a day laborer, went home and did it again the next day. You know the funny thing? I think that it actually brought the family closer together than you kids are now. Struggle tends to do that, and man, we struggled.” He looked down for a moment, then back at me, looking directly into my eyes as though he wanted to get the message across loud and clear. “I’d do it all again if I could though, really.” I believed him wholeheartedly. He then smiled and said, “I did get to see some great fighters though.”
I said, “Did you get to see the Conn-Louis fight?”
“Nah. That was in New York. They still think they’re the boxing capital of the world, but we know better.” The disdain in his voice was obvious. There was no love lost between the Big Apple and the Second City, and Paul made sure I knew it. “We had Robinson-Basilio, Robinson-LaMotta. Hell, we even had The Rock against Walcott! Those guys in New York really frost my ass!”
I got a chuckle out of that last statement. He really took this fight stuff seriously and I was caught up in it too. Screw those New York guys! We’re Chicago, dammit, and we don’t take a backseat to anyone. The sitting room we were in was right off of the main hallway, just down a bit from the carpeted and well lit cafeteria, which did not look like a cafeteria at all but a decorated room, with white and tan floral design wall paper, chandeliers, and round tables for five covered in white tablecloths. The small sitting room was comfortably lit with tan walls and plush, chairs decorated with paisley designs and high backs, like chairs one might find in the 1920’s. Some of the ladies still sit in them with their backs not touching the chair, a reminder of a past era.
“Which one did you see?” I asked.
“Most of ‘em. Tickets were cheap, but even if we couldn’t afford it, we found a way in. Usually had one of our buddies working an entrance as an Andy Frain . He’d let us in when no one was looking, and sometimes even if they were. It was the cops we had to worry about, although we knew most of those guys anyway. They were from the neighborhood, so they knew us. It was different in those days.”
“How so,” I asked.
“Well, cops walked a beat and you got to know them, ya know? If you were a good guy, they usually let you slide if they saw you doing something stupid, kid like. Sneaking in to see a fight at the Stadium was small potatoes, so they didn’t bother you. They knew how much it meant to us. Besides, we couldn’t afford it anyway most of the time and they knew that too. They were part of the neighborhood.” Paul coughed, his aged hand covering his mouth.
“It’s not like that anymore,” I said. “The only time we see them is when they drive by in their car.”
“Yeah, well, like I said, times were different. We actually knew our local cops name, became friends with ‘em. I got to see Louis knock out Braddock though.” Paul looked up clearly replaying what he remembered in his mind. “It was at Comiskey. I wound up sitting near the left field foul pole. At Comiskey, the poles were the worst. You’d sit there and have to find a way to look around the pole just to see the game, or the fight. We all thought Braddock could win, ‘cause he was crafty and survived the depression, but Louis! Now, that guy was special. Oh man, could he hit.”
I wanted Paul to keep talking so I asked, “He was one of the greats, right?”
“Son,” he said. “You’ve not seen boxing until you’ve seen the Brown Bomber or Sugar Ray. Marciano was a slugger, and entertaining in his own right, but for boxing? Louis or the Sugar Man, end of story.” The conviction in which Paul said those words convinced me that there was no one else to see. Paul was almost wistful as he spoke of those men, a reverence reserved for the likes of Ruth and Mantle, gentlemen sportsmen of a more refined game, yet bestowed on fighters. At that moment, I pictured the scene in my mind’s eye complete with black and white coloring.
Smoke from unfiltered cigarettes filling the rays of the klieg lights as they lit up the ring, casting a bluish haze over the entire event. Men, dressed in their finest suits regardless of their station in life. Fedoras donning their heads as far as the eye could see and the strong odor of cigars wafting about the place. The Outfit guys always had the best seats and the best looking women with them, most not their wives. The women…oh man, the women! Dressed to the nines with high heels, knee skirts and fancy hats. They were all Joan Bennett, Josephine Baker and Betty Grable pin ups. The scraggly press corps were sitting ringside with their tilted hats, typewriters and that little piece of paper jammed into their hats that said PRESS. There was a continuous murmur as small talk dominated the crowd as they waited for the fighters to enter. The big question was always if there would be a knockout, unless Willie Pep was fighting Sandy Sadler, in which case the wonder was if anyone would even be hit as those two defensive geniuses chess gamed their way to victory.
The anticipation was palpable as with each passing minute the intensity grew knowing the fighters would enter the stadium at any second. Finally, the handlers of one of the fighters made their way through the tunnel, and the crowd all craned their necks to see which fighter was making their way into the ring. It was always the challenger first. The crowed roared, if for nothing else, than the knowledge that the fight was about to start. The challenger exited the tunnel and walked the long walk through the crowd, suffering some cheers and jeers along the way. Occasionally, an overzealous fan reached out to touch him only to be rebuffed by his handlers. He entered the ring with his simple robe on, maybe sporting a sponsor’s logo on the back, but usually just his last name in capital letters in those days. He danced about the ring trying to make sure that his confidence was not misplaced, ginning the crowd up to support him. Maybe he even threw a few air punch combinations to get his own juices flowing.
Next, the Champion. Walking toward the ring with a confidence and swagger that reminded everyone in attendance why he was the champion in the first place. It was a walk like a male lion with the most glorious mane on the Serengeti Plain. Patient, deliberate, focused on his adversary. He was the king of beasts, and everyone knew it. To challenge him would be to challenge his very existence, and to do that would be to invite a wrath heretofore unknown. How dare you. His handlers made sure that no one got too close. Even they kept a respectful distance of a couple of feet, dare they touch the modern day emperor as he was to engage in battle. As he made his way into the ring, the crowd roared even louder than before because they knew. The champion had that magic aura that he acquires as soon as he becomes champion. He was about to defend his crown, as the lion of the plain would defend his territory against any interloper. He would fight to the death, if need be. The crowd understood that both men could suffer the same fate, and sometimes they did, to keep or take the crown at stake. It was bloodsport, and all involved knew the risks and gladly accepted them. Electricity filled the air and the bodies of everyone in attendance. Eventually, Don Dunphy would grab the microphone hanging down in the center of the ring and introduce the fighters.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’d like to introduce you now to….”
You had to be there. Paul was, I was not, but would have given anything to have seen the spectacle just once.
“Sugar Ray would dance around the ring like one of the Nicholas brothers and then pepper you with everything you could imagine. We would stand there and just watch, and yell. You always knew Sugar would win. When Louis beat Schmeling though in’38…” His voice trailed off as though he went there briefly. “Ah…it doesn’t matter anymore,” he muttered under his breath.
I looked at Paul and for the first time I saw a sort of melancholy about him. He looked at his hands, then, looked about the room, almost oblivious to the fact that I was sitting right in front of him. It was the first time I had detected any sort of vulnerability about him and it concerned me.
“Paul? Are you ok bud?” I said.
Paul looked directly at me and said, “Ya know? I see myself in the mirror, all wrinkled and beat up. I look at my hands and they look like skeleton fingers. I’m in this damn chair all damn day, and I eat the same food at the same time every day and I wonder why I’m still here.”
Laughing, I said, “So that I can visit you, that’s why.”
Paul did not laugh. “The funny thing is that I still feel young” tapping his head with his forefinger “in here. I still feel like that kid that snuck into the Stadium to see those fights, running with my friends through the alley, all of that stuff. I keep asking myself why God allows this to happen to us.”
“What,” I said, “get old?”
“No…why does he allow us to watch ourselves get old. It seems like it’s some sort of a punishment or something. Stuck in this life, this decaying shell, knowing it’s going to end, but feeling young in the mind and having the memories that we have to taunt us as we are stuck with less and less of ourselves.” Paul paused, almost disgusted with himself. “Listen to me. Making an ass out of myself. Some of these people are in the memory area and can’t tie their own shoes. At least I have my wits, and my balls.” Paul grabbed his crotch, looked at me and smiled. I could not help but laugh. We both did.
“It’s part of life, Paul. We all get old, ya know? Even me. I’ll get there someday too,” I said.
“Listen, getting old is not for the weak. Your health goes, your joints go, your friends die, you slow down, get sick, and all the time you watch it, are part of it…it’s not for the weak.” Paul was looking at me now, trying to explain, trying to make a point. “To see yourself break down, brick by brick is hard to take. You have to be strong.” He paused. “Kids. It’s why, I think, you have kids. They help you make it, if you’ve raised them right, teach them respect. They are the light in the distance, the part of you that goes on. You learn to live with that, and if you’ve raised them right, I think you can die in peace, ya know?”
“Did you ever have kids?” I asked.
“Yes. She died as an infant though. I guess we never got over it so we didn’t try again. My wife, she had a hard time coping…we both did.” His voice trailed off and he looked away, a boney finger rubbed his eye.
I laughed a little, a nervous laugh. “Hey, Paul, I thought we were talking about boxing”
“We were, this was just a little detour. Old people are allowed to take detours in a conversation. You call it senility, we call it an excuse to pontificate.” He smiled at me, knowing that I understood. We both got a chuckle out of it.
“Thanks for coming to see me, Ray. I always enjoy your visits, they mean a lot to me.”
“Hey,” I said, “who else am I gonna talk boxing with, huh? See you tomorrow?”
“I’ll be here,” he said.
It would be the last time I saw Paul. I went to see him a couple of days later as I was called away on business, but the concierge who came to know me told me he passed. She said he was reading a book and simply slipped away, book on his chest. My stomach dropped and the blood rushed to my face. I looked around the foyer, thinking that it was some sort of prank. After regaining my composure, I asked her if I could see his room. She told me that it was irregular and that only family was allowed in, but since Paul had no immediate family, Sola Vista would pack up his things for him. Then she reached behind the counter.
“This book had a sticky with your name on it. He must have wanted you to have it.”
She handed me the book. It was an old hardcover book. I looked at the title and smiled. I opened the book carefully and on the inside cover was the signature of Gene Tunney, heavyweight champion of the world. He defeated Jack Dempsey in the famous Long Count fight that took place in 1927 at Soldier Field in Chicago. The title of the book was A Man Must Fight. This was the only book that Gene Tunney ever wrote. A first edition! As I paged through the book, in the middle was another note, folded and tucked between the old pages. I unfolded the note and splayed it between the two pages in which it was tucked. It read:
“I will never forget you as you never forgot me. Thank you – Paul”
I’ve thought a lot about Paul since his passing. The time we shared talking boxing wasn’t really about boxing at all, but more about the passage of time. Two different generations with one common thread, that of boxing. The sport was the connector, the way that we reached each other through the chasm of life experience the separated us. I’ve come to realize that maybe the most precious thing that we are granted is time, with each of us a different allotted amount. To waste it is the greatest crime of all. Time cannot be replaced, it can only flow as a river, and the time that I spent with Paul is time that I’ll cherish forever. I’ll bet he’s talking with Joe Louis right now….