What I learned from boxing lessons did not include, by ANY stretch of the imagination, how to box.
The Old Man was a boxing fan. We watched “Friday Night Fights” almost every, wel-l-l-l… Friday night. Rocky Marciano, Carmen Brasilio, Sugar Ray Robinson (the FIRST Sugar Ray), all these were as familiar in our home as my mother’s sisters (and a heckuva lot more fun).
As a teen and young adult, the Old Man had spent time in a boxing gym in New Jersey, and claimed to have sparred with name fighters (whose names I did not recognize, and have since forgotten), “Golden Gloves” fighters (did they even have “Golden Gloves” in the ‘20s and ‘30s?), and locals he called the “Jersey Punks.” The worst of the Jersey Punks was a kid named Frankie… a skinny little jerk, according to the Old Man, with an extra-long reach, a half-dozen over-sized buddies always hanging around and threatening to ‘pound’ anybody who hurt Frankie, and a wanna-be mobster attitude.
In the ring, Frankie was a “head-hunter…,” a fighter who always punched for his opponent’s face, laughing at every hit, and pounding away at any cut that appeared. More than one teen fighter went home and never returned after a round with Frankie. But the one unbreakable rule in fighting Frankie was, “Don’t touch his face!” Frankie was a pretty-boy singer in local clubs. Hitting him in the face earned you a “conversation” with a couple (or more) of his large friends.
Frankie’s favorite targets were kids who weren’t very good, or who had physical limitations. That group included the Old Man’s Uncle Hugh. Hugh was only a few years older than the Old Man, and had been more of a big brother than an uncle while the Old Man was growing up. And it was he who first introduced the Old Man to boxing and the New Jersey gym. But Hugh had a problem… he was blind in his left eye. Everyone in the gym knew, and a match with Hugh was a no-hook fight. Straight rights only, to the head. Punches coming from wide left were invisible to him, and, since he couldn’t see them… he couldn’t guard or duck. They wore no head-gear, so a bad punch to the temple could kill him.
One stuffy, hot, New Jersey, summer night, Frankie goaded Hugh into a match, promising to abide by the no-hook rule. But a few minutes into the fight, Frankie made a mistake, and walked squarely into a flicking left intended to miss his face by inches. Frankie was hit solidly in the nose with a straight left. There was a trickle of blood, quickly staunched by the gym trainer. Frankie’s friends ducked into the ring. But Frankie waved them back.
Hugh apologized, and offered to forfeit, but Frankie was having none of it. Three rounds was the fight limit, and three rounds it would be; so Hugh agreed to continue. Thirty seconds later, Hugh was bleeding steadily from a cut over his left eye, and Frankie was sending looping rights to widen it every chance he got. The gym boss came over to stop the fight, but the young singer’s friends held him away. Finally, a left to the gut (Frankie was a head-hunter by choice… he knew what a good gut-punch could do), followed by a long, looping right, put Hugh down for good. Frankie stood over Hugh, saying over and over, “Not in the face! I TOLD you… NOT in the face!” Finally he left, and the Old Man and his friends got Hugh cleaned up and took him home. They never went back to that gym. The Old Man gave up boxing, but not fighting, as his missing left nipple attested.
Ever after, when Frankie came on TV, or one of his movies was shown, the Old Man would mutter, "Jersey Punk!" and do everything BUT watch Frankie do ANYTHING. It took me YEARS to get the reason why out of him. I think he was afraid word would get back to "Frankie's" friends. He was convinced Frank Sinatra was Mafia, through and through.
But the Old Man never lost his love for boxing, and when I was twelve or thirteen, my little brother Giles and I got a joint Christmas present… a full-size, gym-quality boxing set. There was a speed bag with a mounting ring, just like in the movies, two pairs of ‘speed gloves’ (black leather gloves with padding at the knuckles), and two pairs of real boxing gloves. The Old Man took us out to the barn Christmas afternoon, and hung the speed bag. The good news was that I was short for my age. Giles, my ‘little’ brother, was less than two years younger than I, but already taller, and MUCH skinner, advantages he retains to this day. In any case, the same bag height worked for both of us.
We were each expected to work for 30 minutes daily on the speed bag. The Old Man showed us how, timing the swing, punching forehand and backhand, left and right, using both hands, singly by turns and then alternating, and turning the swinging bag into a rattling blur. Then it was our turn. He kept us at it, taking five-minute turns for some time, and then he called a halt. We were both out of breath and sweating on a cold Christmas Day in northeast Ohio, but it was FUN.
For weeks thereafter, we would get off the school bus, race through our chores, do our homework and head for the barn. The old man had added a gunny-sack heavy bag, two burlap sacks layered and filled with left-over chicken feed, which he suspended from the beams next to the speed bag. We took turns on the speed bag and the heavy bag, swapping from speed gloves to boxing gloves at ten-minute intervals, every night for an hour. For the first time in my life, I began to develop some muscle tone.
Spring arrived, followed far too slowly by summer, and one sunny Saturday, the Old Man called us outside, where he handed us our boxing gloves. “Time you guys learned to box,” he said. He showed us how to stand, how to jab and how to move. Then he placed us facing each other, carefully positioned our gloves and feet, stepped back and said, “Fight.”
I lashed out with a left jab of blinding speed (assuming one was sight-impaired, and had the reaction time of a drunken turtle), and my ever-quick, fast-as-lightning, always ready to hit me and run little brother… STEPPED FORWARD, RIGHT INTO IT! His right arm drawing back, and his face twisted with determination, Giles forgot everything the Old Man had said about sparring. He saw only the opportunity to punch me squarely in the face, with the Old Man watching, and get away with it. If he had paid attention, he would have seen instantly what I didn’t learn for years… I was WAY too slow to be a boxer. Instead…
…he saw the punch coming at the last instant and TURNED AROUND (I SAID I was slow)! I hit him squarely behind the right ear. The shock travelled up my arm and jammed my shoulder into my neck. Giles dropped like a stone, unconscious. I was terrified, the Old Man was exasperated, and my mother was furious. “Get up,” the Old Man said, “and face your brother. The next time… DON’T TURN AWAY!” Giles remained silent and unmoving, but I saw an eye open part way and quickly close.
“Dick, what DO you think you’re doing?!?” Hattie Larlham was furious. Coming through the kitchen door like a light cruiser in full battle mode, she yelled, “Get away from him!” She pushed the Old Man aside, and knelt by the inert form of her youngest son. He moaned, to all appearances waking up. A few minutes of recovery, and he began to get up. She helped him to his feet and said, “No more boxing! These boys do NOT need concussions; they’re rattle-brained enough!” She turned and stormed back into the kitchen.
And that was the end of my career as a canvas-back boxer. I threw one punch, my opponent was knocked out, and the fight was called on account of mother-knows-best.
The bags remained in the barn, but slowly we quit using them. The gloves were left on the hay, and eventually grew a fine patina of mold, and we returned to the days of my little brother hitting me, and then running until I was too exhausted to chase him any farther.
I didn’t learn to box, and I didn’t learn to take a punch, but I did learn to throw one and to stand up to things I was afraid of (and I was TERRIFIED of my “little” brother, an emotion shared by many boys and men through the years – Giles, it turned out, was DANGEROUS). And I learned that the toughest guy I knew would quail in the face of an angry mother… especially if he was married to her.
© 2009 - All Rights Reserved R C Larlham