Write Your Story ….Sonny Boy

eiffel_tower_black_and_whiteJoin our senior library member Bruce Haase and write your memoir. Bruce is a life long reader, he now writes memoire-based, creative non-fiction. These are informal meetings to support each other and organize your thoughts for writing. Sharing is optional.

  Meetings take place  March 4 & 18

1 — 3 p.m. Please bring your pen & paper.

For more information contact : Bruce Haase                                       Email:ohnjca@comcast.net

The following  text has been submitted by Michael O’Quin.

SONNY BOY

by Michael O’Quin

I never cared too much for Scouting, that anointed movement begun in England by the distinguished officer, later Baron, Robert Baden-Powell. He honestly believed in the benefits of woodcraft and such for boys, and hoped it would turn them into better soldiers. Probably did, but woodcraft’s pretty much a no-no in today’s forests, and to the military I have no connection. Yet even in the technological warfare of today, a little self-reliance could not hurt, and that’s what Scouting purports to teach. I wouldn’t know. At an early age I was enrolled, over my dead body, so to speak, into my little town’s newly-formed Scout troop. We met in a dreary, galvanized steel shed near the railroad—the latter being my playground. I never knew on whose property it was situated, or if it had any other function during those growing-up years. Some of the Boy Scouts were my classmates, but most I didn’t know. The Scoutmaster, as if recognizing future literary aspirations, appointed me Scribe, whose sole duty, it appeared, was to take roll. To save time, I guess, he didn’t want a roll call; instead, I was supposed to mark those present on the basis of facial recognition. And here is a lesson Scouting taught me: that I was quite unable to do this, and with my shyness, I took the easy way out, guessing at names and faces, a social technique I still fall back on today, with roughly the same generous margin of error.

The Wednesday evenings I spent in that bare shed were resented, as taking time from my largely solitary, and quite useless, pastimes. I did get through a couple of camping trips with the Troop, without being unduly noticed, but as for learning self-reliance, that would be minimal. Once I was obliged to prepare my supper over a campfire, and hadn’t even known it was possible to be guilty of cruelty to a dollop of ground beef. But I still had to eat the stuff. Merit badges? Eagle Scout? Are you speaking to me!? I was, and remain, a Tenderfoot. I’m not clear on the hierarchy of the day, but I’m pretty sure one was expected to progress through Second Class to First Class Scout, and then beyond toward that scarce-dreamed of Aerie of the Eagle. It IS possible, though, that before my inevitable fall from society—dropping out—I may have achieved the title of Second Class Scout. And that would be only just, for I’ve felt comfortable in that niche for a lifetime: as Second Class Nurse (Vocational) for a time, then retiring as a Second Class Pharmacy Technician (licensed only for Walgreens), and for forty years, I well imagine, a Second Class Husband. But I still claim, and cling to, that unique Scouting appellation: Tenderfoot.

I gather Scouting has adapted to the times. One may earn merit badges for Composite Materials, Entrepreneurship, and Disabilities Awareness (Can you picture me trying to master Composite Materials at age eleven? Success in life evidently has not gotten any easier.), as well as the more traditional Fly-fishing and Indian Lore. And I must credit the organization for their recent knotty decision to admit boys of gay persuasion. It’s a relief to know these ten-year old supplicants will no longer be pressed to reveal their secret-of-secrets, or be redirected to some Lavender Battalion, or perhaps asked to forward their resumes to Huey, Louie and Dewey’s Junior Woodchucks, of fond memory.

I don’t care, either, for the manly art of fisticuffs, two grown men beating the bejesus out of each other, especially when presented as spectacle, for sport or money, even when carried out under the gentlemanly aegis of that other noteworthy Brit, the Marquess of Queensberry. There is animated debate over which is the most dangerous sport. On this question American football has its adherents, but while said players may occasionally attempt to injure an opponent, without announcing it to the world, boxers go at it from the bell—or, perhaps in Ring circles, being knocked loony, bleeding from facial lacerations, flat on one’s back, and KO’d, is not considered an injury. How many deaths occur as a result of prize fights is unclear. One estimate is at least 750, in America, since the bare knuckle era. A German study came up with an average of ten deaths per year in professional boxing. The big research now is on the long-term effect of repeated blows to the head. The claim is made that other styles of fighting popular today—forms of kickboxing, ‘Mixed Martial Arts’—are safer than boxing because the force of blows is not so concentrated on the head.

Then, deep in my childhood, on the evening of December 20, 1950—it was a Wednes- day—these two avocations, boxing and Scouting, conjoined: I came home from school the next day a different boy….

The airwaves of radio, and soon-to-be, television, were saturated with boxing. The big show that year, and for many more, was Gillette Cavalcade of Sports, on Friday nights, originating from Madison Square Garden. A Wednesday evening series, on radio, ema-nated from another hallowed Manhattan venue: St. Nicholas Arena, at W. 66th and Columbus; the site now occupied by the Lincoln Center headquarters of ABC Television. This old arena had seen a lot of action. Opening in 1896 as an ice rink, it soon hosted the inaugural hockey game between Harvard and Yale. Later it morphed into a boxing venue, seating four thousand. Estimates range anywhere from ten to thirty THOUSAND fights held there, including just one minor World Championship. But one could see big names like Rocky Graziano and Floyd Patterson strutting their stuff, and in 1962, one Cassius Clay (soon to be Muhammad Ali) TKO’d Billy Daniels, nine days before the arena closed its doors for the last time. Five boxing deaths are associated with St. Nick’s, including the former Lightweight Champion of the World, Benny Leonard, who collapsed with a heart attack between bouts, while refereeing.

I listened regularly to boxing on radio, but Wednesday was Boy Scout night, and tramping down to the tracks I would go. No one knows the process by which memories are formed and selected for keeping, but certainly those impressions associated with some sort of shock are more likely to last. I just remember mumbling to myself, “I’ll always have one foot mired in this Scouting”, demonstrating not only my atrocious attitude, but an extremely short-sighted view of “always”.

He was a Baltimore kid, said to have been born in nearby Washington. You can check the list of notable athletes from these cities, but you won’t find Alfred West…, Al West…, “Sonny Boy”.

Short of stature, at five feet six, he fought as a lightweight, about 135 pounds. From those days, few boxers except Heavyweight Champions of the World are generally remembered. Today, a few recent Lightweight Champions may be known through the evening news: Oscar De La Hoya, Hector Camacho, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. At the time, though, boxing was much more in the public mind, and I was a regular listener to the weekly broadcasts of the leading bouts. A black man, I find no information about Al’s young life on the streets of Baltimore, but certainly success in the ring was one socially-acceptable way out of them. The business was not squeaky-clean. It is assumed that some referees, judges, and fighters could be bought. Jake LaMotta, a really big name in the sport, admitted throwing a match. Mafia influence hung in the air along with the stale cigar smoke. Sonny Boy’s opponent in that Wednesday night’s fight was Philadelphian Percy Bassett, also black, who retired later with a detached retina, carrying a record of sixty-four wins, as against twelve losses. He never got a title fight, it is said, because he lacked connections to the Mafia. Could it have been that difficult to get them, I wonder?

It has been oft noted, that although boxing holds but a minor place in the panorama of American sport, there is a certain appeal which has drawn to it a surprising variety of writers. To begin with, the sport has its fateful quality. There is the inevitability of blood, and ever the possibility of death. Consider Hemmingway’s take on bullfighting. This most ‘macho’ author got into the ring, a well as having written about it. Then, too, boxing is one-on-one. Among team sports, baseball presents the eternal face-off between pitcher and batter, but they can’t play the game by themselves.

But, let us say, you and I were to stand there, facing each other, in the ring…. There is no wizard at shortstop, or speedster in center field, to erase our mistakes. It is naked, mano-a-mano, painful, and very, very difficult. “Boxing’s a pure clean thing up there in the ring. It’s about will and respect.” That is Jerry Boyd writing, alias F. X. Toole. More than one internet reviewer repeated the hoary advice, “Write what you know”, adding the claim that no writer EVER knew more about his subject than this ring manager, a white man who didn’t start writing till he was about seventy, hit the jackpot, and then passed away. He is best known for Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning “Million Dollar Baby”. Read the book. It is through Boyd that I learn the boxing world is known as ‘The Fancy’. ‘Fancy!’ Also, ‘The Sweet Science’. From Boyd we learn that, in those days, and over- looking the nickname “Sonny Boy”, Caucasian fighters were ‘white boys’, black fighters were never called ‘Boy’, although one might hear a remark that the judges were unfair to so-and-so ‘because of his paint job’. As to ‘will and respect’, we’ve all seen clips of fighters ‘dissing’ one another, bad-mouthing, as an expected part of the pre-fight weigh-in ceremony. But those who watch the match could easily fail to notice the corres- ponding bit of etiquette at the conclusion: the loser, if able, is expected to approach the opposite corner and congratulate the winner: flowery rhetoric being out of place here, ‘Good fight’ suffices. The winner does not gloat. ‘Will and respect’.

Another in the genre is Fat City, by Stockton’s own Leonard Gardner. As reviewed by writer Markus Zusak, we can see in a sentence that Gardner has nailed both his sport and his city: “This book is acknowledged by many as one of the great books about boxing, desolation, and just getting by in the disaster areas sitting just left and right of the American Dream.” Fat City was turned into another Oscar-winner by the peerless director John Huston, and too little known. See the movie, filmed in the same gritty city.

Romantic poets dallied with the sport: John Keats attended boxing, bear-baiting, and such, and Lord Byron’s overstuffed boxing gloves were recently displayed on Antiques Road Show. Sherlock Holmes clambered into his fictional ring. Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, Ring Lardner, A.J. Liebling, and Norman Mailer are a few who wrote well-known works on ‘the Fancy’: all pretty tough guys. A writer on the sport who isn’t: Joyce Carol Oates.

Wednesday evening, December 20, 1950. Winter was holding off—no excuse to be found there. I turned on the radio to hear at least the build-up to the main event. Two up-and-comers were matched tonight, at St. Nick’s Arena. It sounded good. Reluctantly, I turned it off and trudged, feeling sorry for my sorry self, to the Scout meeting.

While there, and begrudging the time spent, at the Arena, time was running out for Sonny Boy West. According to boxrec.com, “West complained of double vision between the 6th and 7th rounds. After he was hurt to the body by Bassett, he was floored by a right hand. As he fell, he landed hard on his head. West died of injuries suffered in this bout on December 21st. The official cause of death was given as an “inter-cerebral hemorrhage resulting from a cerebral concussion.’”

Thursday afternoon, December 21. Mr. West had been 21, having reached the age of manhood, as defined in that era. I was 11, and had a LONG way to go. When I got home from school I turned on the radio and heard the news about Sonny Boy. I had not yet become hardened to these unfortunate occurrences.

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