My brother John was afraid to enter the boxing tournament. He wasn't afraid of being hurt; God knows he'd lived with pain such as few have experienced and laughed it off. John was afraid he might hit someone too hard—hard enough to cause permanent injury.
He'd hit Dutch Hunzberger, a kid who lived in our neighborhood in Franklin, Pa., too hard three years before, a glancing blow to the jaw that landed with full force on the collarbone. It broke Dutch's jaw, cheekbone and collarbone—in two places—and it dislocated his shoulder. Dutch was a bully who particularly enjoyed picking on cripples. My brother John was a cripple.
John was a victim, at age 8, of the infantile paralysis—polio—epidemic that occurred about the same time as the great post-World War I influenza epidemic. The early symptoms of polio are flulike, so the parents of a sick child often went through agony while awaiting a diagnosis. In John's case the virus afflicted his left leg, leaving it weak and shriveled. Our parents spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on specialists, on operations to stretch muscles and revive nerves, on treatments designed to strengthen the leg. Nothing worked.
Except John. During the months his leg was in a cast and he was on crutches, John did his exercises relentlessly. After the cast was removed he worked twice as hard, twice as long. He developed his right leg and upper body until they were enormously muscular. Although he was only 5'9" and 135 pounds when he was 19, John had the hand, arm and shoulder strength of Max Baer, and his right leg had the power and grace of Bronco Nagurski.
October 24, 1982
In addition to his physical strength, John had strength of character in full measure. Never once, in the months and years of operations and painful treatment did anyone hear him whimper. He was happy and cheerful, certain that this new operation or that regimen would revitalize his leg. When yet another failure became obvious, he would just work harder on the rest of his body, never letting his disappointment show.
In 1926, our family moved to Windsor, Conn., partly to be near The Loomis Institute, now The Loomis Chaffee School, where we subsequently attended classes. The doctors continued to work on John's leg, and he continued to work on building up his body.
Shortly after my father's death in 1929, John called a halt to further medical experimentation. It was useless, he told our mother, our older brother, Chas, and me, the youngest, in a family conference. To go on meant more futile pain and wasted money and time. "I'm so far behind in school I can't ever catch up," I recall him saying. "I'll get a job, and we'll see what happens."
Getting a job was no problem for John. He had an instinctive understanding of all sorts of machinery. Garage mechanics often called him in—without pay—when they were baffled. When he was just a teen-ager, he could have set up shop as a consulting mechanic, with a regular fee schedule, and made a fortune.
But he hadn't done that. He had gotten a job as a machinist in a factory in Hartford, which is why Chas and I were able to talk him into entering the 1932 Connecticut State Amateur Boxing Championship Tournament with me. At least it was billed as that, although I never read anything about it in Boxing magazine or The Ring magazine. But that's beside the point. The point is that John needed some extra money to buy parts for an airplane he was building in our attic. The airplane was of his own design as well as of his own making. It was an airplane that would fly. An airplane that did fly. An airplane put together piece by piece with love and care over a period of almost five years. I have long forgotten what John needed for his plane, but I remember that it would cost about $40, which in those days was a helluva chunk of cash, considering that the used 1917 Model T Ford John drove to work in every morning had cost him only $5 and another couple of dollars for parts. Gasoline then was 20¢ a gallon, except during local price wars when it dropped to half that. Forty dollars was a fortune.
The promoters of the boxing tournament had a good gimmick going. Each division winner in the elimination tournament would receive a watch valued at $35, and each runner-up a watch worth $15. Few of the fighters even bothered to open the boxes; the watches were exchanged for cash before the fighters left their corners. The same two boxes were probably used all the time; they may not have contained watches at all. But no one cared. The bow toward amateurism had been made.
The thought of a possible $70—should we both win—toward airplane parts was what persuaded John to enter the tournament, because he knew that if I won he would be welcome to my purse, too.
Three of us signed up together: our friend Gig Flynn in the bantamweight class, John as a lightweight and I as a paperweight. I don't recall what names we used, but I'm sure they weren't our own. The tournament was held in a scruffy hall in East Hartford, then a semi-slum bedroom community for Hartford. The hall was of the sort usually associated with roller skating or dance marathons, and it stank of stale humanity, tobacco and urine. In the alleged dressing rooms, a nose-burning disinfectant added to the stench.
The "attending physician" had a stethoscope around his neck but he never used it. He had us take our shirts off and asked a few questions: "Had any headaches lately? You see O.K.? Got any heart trouble, hernia or other disease? O.K., have a good fight."
I figured to win my division without any problem. I was as tall then as I am now, 5'9", and weighed in at 103 pounds. I had been a boxing fan since age six and had taught myself to box by reading books and magazines. While John had done his exercises, I had done mine—shadowboxing and bag-punching, all the while concentrating on short, straight punches and hitting through, not at, the target. Hundreds and thousands of times I'd imagined an opponent's roundhouse swing and stepped inside it to deliver the straight left and the right cross. Time and again I'd ducked under a right and delivered Bob Fitzsimmons' pivot punch.
Those times when John was on his feet we sparred together. He never hit me, but just concentrated on picking off my punches with his gloves. In school I slaughtered all opponents, up to and including welterweights.
A goodly collection of our friends made the safari to East Hartford for the show. Some of them acted as seconds. I think Stan Klein seconded Gig, but if so, he wasn't very effective. Gig got KO'd in the first round.
My turn came next. I towered over my opponent, a dark-haired, husky little fellow, and kept my left in his face the full three rounds. His wild punches were always six to eight inches short of the mark. I didn't hurt him. I didn't throw a right the entire fight. Just kept rat-a-tat-tatting my left onto his nose, mouth and eyes. I won easily.
Then came John's bout. All our friends were accustomed to his bad leg and accepted it, but the moment John walked into the ring there was an audible indrawing of breath, followed by murmuring and more than a few boos. The ring announcer went into a huddle with the referee, and the two bent down to talk with the ringside judges and a few others. After they agreed to let the fight go on, the referee brought the fighters to the center of the ring for the instructions. The ref told John, "I'm against this fight, and I'm telling you, I'm going to stop it first excuse anyone gives me. We don't want no crips fighting here."
John said, "Don't worry about me, sir. I can defend myself, and I'll try not to hurt him too bad."
John's opponent was a well-made, sandy-haired chap with no front teeth and a misshapen nose. From the cheers he drew it was obvious he was the local favorite.
The whistle blew. I pulled off John's bathrobe, handed it to Stan, and as John stood up I removed the stool from the ring. Half-naked as he was now, the fans could see his magnificent upper body, the triangle of 40-inch shoulders and tiny waist, and there were some whistles and applause.
At the bell John hobbled to mid-ring and planted himself there, left leg and shoulder slightly advanced, left arm partly extended, both hands chest high. His opponent circled him, faking with left jabs. John kept his semi-useless left leg planted, moving only with his strong right leg.
The sandy-haired fighter grew bolder and moved a little closer, now aiming his jabs at John's face and head. None of them landed. John's gloves were always there to block the punches, and his strength was too great for his hands to be knocked aside. For the full three minutes of the first round, John stayed on the defensive. He threw not one punch, but neither did one get through to him. The crowd was unhappy and began to boo both fighters.
The referee came over to our corner between rounds and warned us that he would disqualify John for not fighting unless he began to throw leather.
"Where would be the best place to hit him?" John asked. "I don't want to hurt him too bad."
The referee at first looked as though he were about to explode, and then he took another look at my brother's shoulders and arms.
"He means it, sir," I said. "He isn't being fresh."
"I don't care where you hit him or whether you hit him or not," the referee said, "as long as you try, and don't hit low."
"Hit him in the belly, Jack," someone in our corner said. I think it was Stan, but he doesn't remember saying it. The second round began where the first had ended, but John's opponent, deciding he'd better score some points or have the fight called "no contest," tried to move in on John. Swinging with both hands, leaving his body unprotected, he hurled himself forward. That was all John needed. His right knee bent slightly and then straightened. His back muscles rippled for an instant, and his neck and shoulder muscles bunched, then smoothed as his right fist exploded forward. The punch caught John's opponent squarely on the navel. The guy's feet came up, his head came down, and he flew backward through the air at least five feet before landing on the canvas, still doubled over.
As soon as the referee finished the formality of counting, John was down beside the fallen boxer, giving him artificial respiration. The kiss-of-life technique had not yet been invented, but the old-fashioned, prone-pressure method was good enough, and within a minute John had his man breathing. The guy had to be carried out of the ring.
A deputation of officials was waiting for us when we came out of the dressing room. There was no way, they said, that they could allow a damn freak, a damn cripple to continue to box in the tournament. Somebody had made a stupid mistake in letting John enter. They couldn't risk his getting hurt, or hurting somebody else, like a real fighter. So how about withdrawing while everybody's good friends?
John refused. "I entered to win that $35," he said. "If you try to disqualify me, I'll go see Bill Lee about it." Lee was a sportswriter for The Hartford Courant and influential in the boxing world.
The officials put their heads together and came up with an acceptable solution. They would pay John $35—no, $50!—to withdraw. I would have taken the $50 without hesitation, but all John would take was the $35. Typical, too honest for his own good.
It still haunts me that the fight, the $35 and a large part of the $35 I subsequently earned by winning my division may have contributed to my brother's death. The money allowed him to finish the airplane in the attic. Finish it, lower it to the ground, truck it to an airfield hangar, put it together and fly it. It flew so well that he sold it for enough money to buy a larger, commercially made plane.
Hobbled on the ground, a cripple and always conscious of it, John felt at home in the air. Before turning to motorized aircraft he had made gliders, and together we had flown from hilltops.
He could never have been a commercial pilot. Bureaucrats rarely can see beyond the obvious, and John had a gimpy leg. Definitely against the rules. But the air was his medium, a medium that demands perfection. Something went wrong with John's commercially built airplane on May 30, 1934. The plane crashed and John, age 21, was killed. No one ever found out the how or the why of it, and no one who ever knew him has ceased to mourn him.