"Are you related to the Chanslor fighting in the toughman contest?" my history of journalism teacher asked.
I had hoped someone at college would hear about my father.
"Yeah, he's my dad," I answered, beaming with pride.
After I explained my father's exploits to the uninformed members of the class, the teacher posed another question.
"Do you and he ever get into it at home?"
"I don't mess with him," I said.
Billy Don Chanslor began boxing in 1948 at the age of 15 in Ponca City, Okla. A year later, representing the Moose Lodge Boxing Club, he won the state bantamweight championship.
It was on to California after high school for Billy, where, among other things, he won four fights in as many outings in an arena near Long Beach, for which he was paid $16 per bout. That money, coupled with the wages he earned being a dishwasher at the local five-and-dime, was enough .to get Billy home to Oklahoma just in time to leave again, this time as a member of the U.S. Air Force.
Billy was stationed at Truax Field in Madison, Wis., where, together with a second lieutenant, he started a base boxing team. In his first year Billy made it to the All-Air Force tournament. He got to the All-District tourney in his sophomore campaign, losing to the Far East welterweight champion. Billy "retired" in 1956 and while he has no official tally, he figures his record was in the neighborhood of 65-5 with around 20 knockouts.
My father decided to unretire in the winter of 1982. At the time, I passed off his as a second-childhood stunt. His playground was the Muskogee Civic Center in Muskogee, Okla., and his game was the local toughman contest.
A toughman contest is a two-day single-elimination tournament in which local fighters duke it out in three-round, 4½ minute bouts, trying to win $250 or $1000. Participants come from all walks of life, so a man who knows how to put on boxing gloves and a protective cup would seem to be way ahead of the game. And if he happens to have a sterling amateur record to boot, as my father did, he could be considered a bona fide favorite.
Until 1982 there was only one division of toughman—heavyweight. At 5'9" and 160 pounds, my father was clearly overmatched, but when a 175-pound-and-under class was formed, he grabbed his chance. While some (my mother probably included) might question his intelligence to take such a step at 48, I had long since learned that you never wanted to get between him and something he wanted.
He was in excellent health for a middle-aged man, falling somewhere between the "lean and mean" and "skinny and fast" categories. But he had smoked a tobacco plantation worth of cigarettes, and the legs weren't what they used to be. Obviously, a training regimen was in order. My father tends toward total concentration on any project he begins, which has resulted in a 10-foot addition to his garage, a wooden deck on the back of the house and a "storage shed" big enough to double as a hangar for small aircraft. He approached his new challenge with the usual vigor.
For two months prior to the contest, Ralph, a colleague at the telephone company, would give my father a ride to work in the morning. At the end of the day, Dad would hop on a 10-speed bicycle and pedal the 11 miles home in an effort to tone his legs and reintroduce his lungs to the wonderful world of oxygen.
Actual boxing training was more difficult. Sparring partners were scarce. I never volunteered since I'm opposed to violence, especially if I'm on the receiving end. Future opponents took the form of a heavy canvas bag, which Dad hung in the garage.
My mother, who suffered in silence throughout the whole ordeal, wasn't overly impressed with Dad's progress.
"The more he trains, the more I worry," she said.
But Dad wasn't worried as fight night approached. If anything, he was confident, a major accomplishment for a reserved man who is a part-time pessimist.
"I'm excited," he said. "I think I can go in the ring with anyone in the tournament and have a chance."
I'm sure the promoter was excited, too. He could certainly benefit from the appearance of a 48-year-old toughman. He nicknamed all the participants, and he quickly dubbed my father Kid Geritol.
The big night finally arrived, and a crowd of around 2,000 streamed into the Muskogee Civic Center. No boxing match would be complete without fanfare, and to open the proceedings all the contestants trotted into the arena and paraded inside the ring to the strains of the theme from Rocky. Then they took their seats in bleachers at one end of the arena while the lights dimmed on a crowd ranging in occupation from lawyer to farmer and in age from child to great-grandparent.
The exact pairings were kept a secret from the fighters until seconds before their bouts, adding tension to the affair. Not until he heard his name and another one announced over the loudspeaker did a contestant know if he was fighting the fat slob who looked like he had OD'd on Twinkies, or the one resembling Charles Bronson.
The contests usually took one of two forms. In the first, at least one of the fighters could box a little, so the crowd was treated to some leather popping on skin, always a pleaser. In the second, neither knew what he was doing, and the punches were sometimes replaced by slaps.
The bouts continued without serious incident, or serious excitement, either. I was enjoying the show like everyone else but had a knot in my stomach that grew bigger with the announcement of every fight. Finally, midway through the program, it happened.
"Will Bill (Kid Geritol) Chanslor and Jerry (the Worm) Yandell report to the ring."
It was the Friday night fights all over again when Dad climbed between the ropes. His wrists were taped under the gloves, and he wore black trunks trimmed in white with EVERLAST across the waistband. But the shoes were originals, high-top black leather jobs, circa 1955.
Immediately upon entering the ring, Dad went to a corner and, grasping the top rope on either side of the turnbuckle, planted his feet and began pumping himself up and down like a piston. Hell, I thought, the old man looks like he knows what he's doing. In the next five minutes he would show his son and everyone else that he knew exactly what he was doing.
Dad had gotten a decent draw in Jerry, a young man I had gone to school with. He was about 6 feet tall and outweighed Dad by 10 pounds.
The left jab had been Dad's prime weapon in the '50s, and he thought it would carry him. But early on in the fight he revealed a secret punch I'm not sure he even knew he had.
At the opening bell, as Dad stepped out on his left foot, the movement of his body brought the right arm looping high over his head and sent his right hand straight into Jerry's face like a magnet onto metal.
Dad would have been the first to admit Sugar Ray Leonard could have slipped the punch, but Jerry, perhaps mesmerized by my father's impromptu gyrations, didn't see it coming. The outcome was almost decided by that first mighty blow.
It had taken Dad all of a round—90 seconds—to establish himself as the aggressor. When he went to the corner for the break, the cornermen, who were no doubt surprised by their buzz saw, informed Dad he had a chance to win the fight.
Ever since Dad decided to fight again, I had tried to remain calm and pass it off as no big deal. But with that first round, I abandoned cool, throwing punches at an imaginary opponent and whooping it up as Dad stalked the Worm.
The second round went much as the first, with Dad consistently scoring with the right and Jerry trying to figure out what was happening. About the only trouble Dad was having was caused by his old shoes, which kept slipping. Still, he won the round, and his corner people informed him that the fight was his.
Dad kept the pressure on in the final round. Jerry landed some punches but never had Kid Geritol in any serious trouble. As he had throughout the fight, Dad hit Jerry repeatedly, but by his own admission he didn't have enough strength to put Jerry away, and finally the bout was over.
Anticipation in the arena mounted as the decision was being reached. Not only had a 48-year-old man fought—he had won! Everyone knew it, including the judges. When the official announcement came, the crowd gave Billy (Kid Geritol) Chanslor a rousing and well-deserved standing ovation.
Only when I got to Dad 10 minutes later did I realize what a price he had paid for his moment of glory. His forehead was dotted with red splotches—the marks of punches. He was still trying to catch his breath, something he wouldn't really do for two days. Dad had left everything he had in the ring.
There is a postbout scene etched in my memory. As Dad leaned on a rail, an older gentleman came over to shake his hand. It was a simple gesture, but I like to think of it as a symbolic gesture on behalf of the older members of the audience.
As a winner, Dad was scheduled to fight again the next night, but he had no intention of doing so. He had proved his point. Mom and I encouraged this decision, but the promoter didn't relish the thought of losing his main draw and played upon my father's sense of responsibility to continue. Unfortunately, Dad agreed.
Dad's opponent the second night was much stronger than the Worm. Dad simply did not have anything left, and after he had been thrown around for 1½ rounds, the referee, who was keeping a much appreciated eye on my father, stopped the bout. It was the first fight Bill Chanslor ever failed to finish.
"I just wanted to fight one last time," he said. "It was important. It was serious. I was never afraid to try anything. You only come through here once."
Dad's high jinks continued later that year when he took up sky diving. My mother gained a few blood pressure points, and Dad got a sore ankle from a none-too-gentle landing before he decided to calm down.
Dad has changed somewhat in the last several years, apparently content to pursue safer ways of amusing himself. But one thing remains the same: I still don't mess with him.
Mike Chanslor lives and works, as an assistant golf pro, in Bartlesville, Okla.