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The Tainted Road to a Title

Somehow the author's grand scheme to win a boxing championship without really trying worked—or did it?

The biggest sporting event at the high school I attended did not occur on the gridiron or the diamond or the court or the cinder track but, rather, in the ring. It was the Annual All-School Boxing Show, and it was the school superintendent's pet project. As an unsophisticated teen-ager, I believed that the superintendent had conceived this yearly spectacle in order to fill a dull void in late March after the basketball season had ended but while it was yet too cold to begin baseball and track. However, in later years I looked back and realized that the boxing tournament had been instituted primarily as a sure-fire method for enriching the school's athletic department.

Financially, the fistic show couldn't have failed. Our town abounded with boxing enthusiasts. Even so, the superintendent left nothing to chance. Each student was instructed to buy a 35¢ junior ticket for himself and was expected to hustle at least a pair of 75¢ adult tickets among his parents, relatives and adult acquaintances.

One thing about the superintendent, he insisted upon giving the ticket buyers their money's worth. The boxing tournament ran for a week. Consequently, it required a starting field of nearly 130 combatants. A complicating factor was the fact that there were in the school perhaps only 20 boys who really knew what to do after lacing on a pair of boxing gloves. They were a lethal array. Some were Golden Glovers, and several of them actually fought at clubs in nearby Minneapolis for what was euphemistically referred to as expenses.

Naturally, the rest of us dreaded the prospect of climbing into the ring with any one of them. We rightly considered that Custer's troops had enjoyed a fairer shake against the Indians. As a result, boxing-show recruitment posed a major challenge. The superintendent surmounted it easily by appointing the football, basketball, track and baseball coaches as the boxing-show co-promoters and talent scouts.

So along about St. Patrick's Day each aspirant for athletic glory could count on being summoned to the appropriate coach's office. Red Sjolberg, the football coach, favored the direct approach. "MacKay," he'd purr at me, "practice a lotta passin' this summer and keep your legs in shape, 'cause I plan to play you a lot next fall." Then he'd add, "Unless, of course, you do something to change my mind. Here. Sign this."

"This" always turned out to be an Annual All-School Boxing Show entry blank. One does not tell the man who holds sole power over one's athletic future to go stuff his boxing-show entry blank in the wastebasket. I signed. Everybody signed.

Not that we low-rated the boxing tourney. The winner of each division was awarded a handsome purple felt boxing glove with CHAMPION emblazoned in gold across it. The emblem was as prized as a major-sport monogram. It carried with it a dividend, because the mere sight of one on a letter sweater usually inhibited belligerent types from nearby towns at Saturday night dances.

However, we nonboxers were realists. Even if we lucked out a couple of wins in the early bouts, we knew that sooner or later we would meet a genuine boxer who would gleefully practice his two-, three-and four-punch combinations on the lower parts of our faces. Prudence dictated that one must lose his opening bout without seeming to take an out-and-out dive. If one's opponent was also inept the trick was to let him outpoint you. Those of us who unfortunately drew a bona fide fighter would make a craven deal, extracting his oath to pull his punches in return for our sincere pledge "not to try no funny stuff." If that failed, the only stratagem remaining was to catch his opening punch on the gloves and then sink to the canvas as if mortally wounded.

However, in my junior year overweening ambition got the best of me. Looking over the field in my 134-to-145-pound bracket, I failed to find listed the name of anyone who might remotely be considered a pugilist. I resolved to win the title, and I enlisted the aid of my best buddy, Bert Kloster. "Start a rumor," I instructed him. "Say that I have been taking secret boxing lessons and that I am a natural southpaw with a dynamite left."

Bert reminded me, "You can't fight for the championship on Friday night. Friday's federal inspection."

Bert and I and four other fellows were rear-rank privates in the local National Guard company. In those days, merely by falsifying his age, one could enlist in the Guard. It paid a dollar a week for an hour's drill, and we considered it akin to stealing money. Federal inspection was the night when Regular Army authorities looked us over. Because it had something to do with the allotment of government funds, the penalty for absence was regarded as so dire that even the first sergeant, a calloused man who seemingly knew no fear, could only bring himself to hint at it.

"I got that taken care of," I said blithely. "I'll talk my mom into phoning Captain Flakner that I've got yellow jaundice or something."

Bert's rumor campaign harvested immediate results. The second-string left end approached me before our bout. "Don't hurt me, and I won't try no funny stuff," he pleaded. My second decision was over a boy who suffered from a split personality caused by his mother, who dearly desired him to become a concert pianist, and his father, a former all-state fullback, who repeatedly screamed the same instruction at his son from the fourth row, "Get in there and knock his block off!" Fortunately for me, the pianist half of my opponent's personality prevailed. My third adversary, an aspiring basketball guard, waged a glorious defensive battle and pawed at me weakly only twice during our bout. My Thursday victim dropped to the canvas and feigned disability after I had lightly tapped him on the cheekbone.

Following that match, as Bert and I walked downstairs to the locker room, I said, "Guess who I'm fighting for the championship tomorrow night? Harlow Jessup."

Bert clutched the handrail in a fit of laughter. "Oh, hot dog!" he roared. "A grudge battle."

There were in the school perhaps seven boys whom I could have honestly defeated in a fair fight, and Harlow Jessup, a scrawny kid who lived on a farm several miles west of town, was easily the sorriest of the lot. During the previous year's Annual All-School Boxing Show, while temporarily deranged by blood-lust, I had belted poor Harlow unmercifully. Later I apologized, but his antipathy simmered. That summer, at the crest of Marian Loretto's lawn party, he called me an undignified name. He committed a grave tactical error, because not only was he wearing a brand-new sports coat but he was perched on the rim of the lily pond. I gave him a healthy push on the chest, and in he went.

It was safe to say that Harlow disliked me intensely. Somehow it never occurred to me to wonder how he had won his way into the championship final.

Bert and I arrived at the locker room only to find it overrun with pugilists. Red Sjolberg recommended that we try the showers in the old school gym through the tunnel. As we neared the end of the tunnel, we heard someone in the old school gym chanting, "O.K., now. Left! Left! Jab! Jab! Jab!"

We paused to watch a skinny kid in a beat-up boxing headgear who was punishing his sparring partner something awful. The referee was a small man with a face that resembled a discarded truck tire. It was he who provided the commentary. "Left, baby, left! Snap! Snap! Snap!"

"Snap" meant that the lean kid would flick his left hand, I swear, no more than three inches. It looked as if he were casually tapping a tack, yet it caused his opponent's head to whip back as if struck with an iron club. When the skinny kid tired of that he'd drive his right into the other guy's midsection, making the other guy go "oof!"

"O.K.," said the little man, "knock it off. Save some of it for tomorrow night, Harlow."

We showered together, and Harlow Jessup seemed pleased by the opportunity to tell me that he'd been taking boxing lessons from the small man, a former professional fighter, in the IOOF Hall twice a week for the past seven months. "Take it easy on me tomorrow night, will ya?" Harlow said, and laughed without humor. I considered making a deal with him, but something about the way he looked at me told me to forget it.

I spent a considerable portion of that night sweating on my pillow, while vividly creating horror pictures of my immediate future. There was the hospital room scene: the frightened stares of my schoolmates gathered silently about my bed as they regarded the shapeless, discolored pulp that once had been my face. They wondered aloud that I refused to converse with them, not knowing that my fractured jaw was wired tightly shut. After a time, they stole out of the room, leaving behind bags and boxes of assorted goodies that I would be unable to eat for weeks.

Following my slow recovery, came the discharged-from-the-National-Guard scene. I knew from movies I had seen exactly how it was done: the slow and ominous roll of the drums, the horror-struck faces of my fellow soldiers, the commanding officer contemptuously ripping the brass buttons from my uniform. After which two burly MPs roughly hustled me off to Leavenworth prison.

It turned out that my fight was late Friday evening, so I had time to make the National Guard meeting. The Regular Army captain praised my shoeshine, and after federal inspection ended I rushed over to the school to take my lumps from Harlow Jessup.

Instead I learned that there is some truth to the old saying, "If you aren't good, the next best thing is to be lucky." Several hours earlier, as Jessup hurried through his chores on the farm—no doubt wearing a sadistic smile as he anticipated the carnage he would wreak on my person—he reached down to tinker with an erratic milking machine, and a short circuit knocked him galley-west for the evening. I became an All-School champion by default and received my championship emblem at the awards ceremony.

For years after that my mother used to don my cardigan sweater with the boxing emblem sewed on it whenever she hung laundry outside on chilly days. That was all right with me, because somehow I never had the courage to wear the sweater in public.