by admin | June 14, 2012 9:43 pm
In December 1940, boxer Jack Dempsey — then one of the most famous athletes in America — came to Casper, Wyoming to referee a wrestling match. It was a fundraiser for a local veterans group called the Forty and Eight. The Manassa Mauler (named after his Colorado hometown, no doubt by some ink-stained sportswriter) had retired earlier that year at age 45 with a record of 60-7-8. Fifty of those wins were by knockout.
Some argue that Dempsey was the greatest boxer of all time. Those of us who saw Muhammad Ali at his peak fantasize about a match between these boxers of different generations. My dad maintained Dempsey would have knocked Ali on his keister. I argued Ali would have rope-a-doped Dempsey into exhaustion and won on a decision. Maybe the two will settle the argument in heaven, if God allows boxing.
My dad would have turned 80 next month. He’s been gone from us for three years. Several years ago, while culling through their possessions to prepare to move my parents into assisted living, I came across faded newspaper clippings and other memorabilia. In the batch were yellowed stories and photos: Dempsey Due Late Friday. ‘Live Clean and Work Hard is Dempsey Code.” Included was a photo of a much younger Manassa Mauler in classic boxing pose, autographed by Dempsey. I think it is actually a reproduction and not a genuine autograph.
But there was also this gem. On a faded sheet of blue-lined notepaper that my father no doubt brought to the wrestling match is written: “To Brad. Good Luck Pal. Jack Dempsey, 1940.” That is the genuine item, penned by the Manassa Mauler.
My dad also owned and for years showed us boys a pair of boxing gloves that Dempsey autographed. I don’t know where they are. Perhaps the gloves are in one of the several dozen boxes of photos and memorabilia that my brothers and I still haven’t gotten up the gumption to delve into and divide. Maybe they got lost or simply disintegrated after years in my parents’ attic. I just don’t know.
I spent nearly $100 years ago having the clippings mounted on archival mat board and framed. The collection hangs in my office, reminding me of my father. I like to imagine my dad as an 8-year-old boy, hearing the exciting news that Jack Dempsey was coming to Casper, talking his dad into taking him to see the famed boxer, standing in line with other little boys to get Dempsey’s autograph on a sheet of paper ripped out of his third-grade notebook.
I wish my dad were still around so I could ask him once more about meeting Jack Dempsey. I wish he could reply with clear mind encased in a strong body. Of course, there are many more reasons I wish he were still here. I know many of you wish the same of your departed. That sadness goes with living long enough.
Boxing and I parted ways a couple decades ago. I was turned off by the violence, corruption and venal promoters, the fact folks like Ali are now brain damaged, that men die in this sport whose purpose is to do violence to another man in the ring. Plus it’s tainted with crookedness. I doubt the sport was any cleaner in my dad’s day. It was just easier to get away with being a crook.
I became a father nearly 34 years ago, at the same age my dad was when I became his first-born son. My dad, until he was about the age I am now, was wiry and strong, still able to help his boys move or build a storage building. I am nearly the same age now that my dad was when a botched medical procedure effectively ended his working career and inexorably turned him into an invalid. It was a condition he endured for nearly two decades with grace and equanimity — and the considerable help of my mother, now also gone. She was fittingly named Grace, though most folks called her Mickey. I miss her as well.
Several members of my wife’s family and mine will gather this weekend to celebrate our youngest daughter’s ascent into high school in the fall. There will be four generations represented, from my still-tough father-in-law at 80, down to our 7-year-old nephew. We will celebrate this rite of passage, Abbie’s move into high school. No doubt we fathers present will also be feted.
That will be nice, of course. Who doesn’t like to have a bit of extra attention showered upon him, at least on special occasions? But mainly I will be thinking about my dad, the hours he spent with us boys — playing catch, teaching me to drive, helping me move as a young adult, again and again.
My dad left too soon. A husk of him remained for too long. I have to work past that sometime, those last two decades of him being someone different — cheerful but querulous, dependent on us, slowly failing far too young — not the quiet, strong man who raised us — the kind of person who would stand in line for hours in 1940 and get Jack Dempsey’s autograph.
That is the dad I remember, when this day comes around, the kind of guy who would say, “Good luck, pal.” And mean it.
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