June 9, 2016



The Night Cassius Clay Sent Me to Bed


The Old Man was working 12:00 to 8:00 at United Engineering & Foundry. It was a school night. We were living on Glenhaven upstairs in a duplex. My father and I were going to listen to the championship fight on the radio in the kitchen before he got picked up. Fighting was one of the my father’s ways of holding on to the world, like showing up for work for fifteen years without missing a day. His was a creed of a body alone at war with the world. Absorb your beating and take your turn, your brief, brutal chance at being even. We try to teach our children the lessons that cost us the most pain to learn. Slip the jab and throw a short right hook to the body. In the Old Man’s bargain, five or six jabs for a liver shot, or breaking a couple knuckles on a heart punch was a fair deal.

Under a bare bulb in the basement is where the Old Man demonstrated the trigonometry of boxing, the family physics of self-defense. On my better days I was a remedial student. We both recognized when the fight came, I was inevitably going to take a beating, the only question was how bad. In its way he thought of a beating as a representative good…being taught a lesson. Bruises build character. His knuckles were misshapen from fitting steel and his nose was broken. I was a cream puff who talked too much, wandered around the public library, and didn’t understand what work was. The first time I tried to pull my head back to avoid a punch he looked at me as if I had deliberately broken a window. It was not going to be like bestowing a Biblical blessing.

Sonny Liston wasn’t liked, but he was understood. He taped and gloved heavy hands with pure violence. He possessed a prisoner’s patience and moved with the bored gait of a mob enforcer. He was inevitable. Dependable as silence.

Cassius Clay disturbed the simplicity of the boxing dialectic. Punching was the tool and taking a punch was the test. Avoiding a punch was weakness. Cowards were revealed in the ring. He believed in “you can run, but you can’t hide.” I don’t think my father ever actually used the word cowardice, but boasting, slipping punches and winning on points he considered legal cheating. Cassius Clay was merely a constantly annoying jab. He was the loudmouth at the end of the bar you wanted to shut up. He was the company man in a short sleeved white shirt who looked through you and laughed as he did time/motion card studies on your job. He was the three card monte guy.

When you feel the punches start to slide off…  (He demonstrated the difference between hammering and peening on my shoulder.)  …then you set your feet. This was his illustration of recognizing your moment of opportunity. It seemed easy at eleven to dismiss this terrible wisdom as real.

When we turned it on, the radio broadcast could have been prattling about Liston’s two one round KOs of Floyd Patterson, or a commercial.  We both stood in the kitchen listening. No beer, no potato chips. The bell rang, the crowd screamed over the exaggerated tone of Les Keiter. He called Clay’s eyes “big as door knobs”. He criticized him for pulling his head straight back. At the end of the first round the Old Man nodded, vindicated. The rounds proceeded, on the radio it was less clear what was happening, except Liston hadn’t killed Clay. I was giddy. By the sixth round Liston was plodding, lunging, and bleeding; Clay was still circling and jabbing, delivering sharper combinations, and taunting the ringside press. His moment of opportunity had arrived.

Sonny Liston lost the heavyweight championship sitting on a stool; my father sat down in his usual chair in the corner of the kitchen. I wanted to hear more about the fight. Cassius Clay, wild with relief, proclaimed himself “King of the World” over and over, screamed “Greatest” as Howard Cosell asked chuckling questions. I wanted the beautiful chaos to continue, it felt like being allowed into an amusement park. Cassius Clay had jabbed and danced the inevitable world into surrender. Maybe I wouldn’t need to take the beating after all.

“Turn off the radio.”

My father said it as if I had done something wrong, as if I had something to do with the outcome of the fight. He was a good parent and I was a difficult child. He never hit me in anger, or complained about my continual problems at school, or made fun of my eccentricity. He took me places; we did things together. I thought of our six rounds as fun in the kitchen listening to a boxing match; we didn’t know we had been fighting. Father and son we listened to a bout of heavyweight boxing and left as mysteriously injured as Sonny Liston’s shoulder.

In my room I turned on the transistor radio I got for Christmas and listened to it under my pillow. It was jabber. Dad left for work.