In that rich fantasyland where every sports fan is a champion, my Uncle Harry is the world's greatest boxer in every amateur division from featherweight to light heavyweight. His self-portrait in boxing gear hangs from my living room wall. He drew it in 1957 at the height of his prowess. He hadn't really fought since 1931, but '57 was when he reached the pinnacle of his imaginary boxing career.
Uncle Harry found everyday life a little too colorless. He began to invent his own universe. His letters are reports of explorations of his own creativity. I read them with interest.
Uncle Harry pictured himself as a kind of featherweight Egyptian prince in the ring, with his left arm jabbing and his right cocked. Using crayons from an eight-pack Crayola box, he gave himself white trunks, pink skin and plum-colored gloves. He proclaimed himself "World's undefeated and retired Y and AAU Boxing Champion, 1930 & 1931 and earlier."
Uncle Harry was the middle child in a family of five athletic brothers. My father, the youngest, was the fastest rope climber in boot camp. Uncles Danny and Leo outran the Irish kids laying for them at the end of the block. Uncle Arthur was once bopped on the head with a Louisville Slugger, Johnny Mize Model H117. (It was a tough neighborhood.) I have the bat. But Uncle Harry was the only titleholder. He never actually fought for the title; in fact, he never actually fought for anything after he was knocked out in the first minute of the first round of his first Golden Gloves bout. But, nevertheless, from that time on, Uncle Harry thought of himself as a champion.
He writes about his best fights in a cramped hand that tends to droop toward the right side of the page. Uncle Harry's prose often reads like the notes of an eccentric stockbroker: "Page a, Series 1976...I am sending a photo to you. One of me in colors...This is History!...Inform me via correspondence when you receive it...also condition of item you verify." He seals his letters inside well-taped double envelopes on which he scrawls explicit instructions for the postman on what to do if it proves undeliverable in 11, 14 or 17 days, and where, amid the semi-indecipherable scribbling, the stamp is hidden. And he always sticks on a return-address label that reads:
President of Athletics
Uncle Harry became President of Athletics the same way he became amateur champion in nine weight classes—by a supreme act of imagination.
He wasn't a bad fighter around Washington Heights, a section of upper Manhattan. He wrote me that he fought Jim and Otto Otto, a couple of middle-weights, and beat them both. "On March 28, 1932 I was challenged by Thratcher Muggs Charlemaine Fitzsimmons, alias Gene Tauber, alias Apocalypse Death. I stopped him in the second round with three solid rights. The ref made me watch the numbers." Uncle Harry might have meant the count. His syntax and word usage were like a Roto-Rooter—in constant circular motion, and always out of sight.
"Why did he stop the fight?" I Wrote back.
One of Uncle Harry's double-sealed envelopes with his presidential return labels appeared almost instantly marked Special Delivery: "I broke his head."
In between fantasy boxing matches, Uncle Harry wrote me about his Ping-Pong title: "I won the title in the annex of Gimbels department store. I beat Shorty Wolf, alias King Willie of Germany, in straight sets." (Harry's opponents always had strange nicknames, but their real names were often stranger.)
Sometimes his letters are too cryptic to decipher. One entire letter said: "Cancan dancers are always hungry." Another one: "Happy Pal's Day." A third: "Happy Arabian New Year." Uncle Harry never sent me a card for my birthday, though he invariably lets me know when his is coming up. But we often exchange gifts. He likes to trade "evens evens." I mailed him a can of his favorite pipe tobacco about the time I got out of college, and he sent me an all-day sucker and a pack of Parliaments. I wrote back, on a note of whimsy, "The lollipop was great, but the thin white sticks tasted sort of bitter." Uncle Harry sensed an emergency. A certified letter arrived three days later: "You eat the candy or suck it. However, the Parliament cigarettes you smoke in at your mouth between your lips by puffing long breaths, first in...then out!"
He has always been a mysterious, reclusive figure to me. I know him largely by the blurry photos he sends every once in a while. With his gray tweeds, black and white bow tie, and a meerschaum jammed in the corner of his mouth, he looks more like a retired fiddler than a retired undefeated boxer. He retired undefeated, of course, in 1932 after he won his last championship. "There was nobody left to fight me," he explained.
Though Uncle Harry prefers his fantasy life as a boxer, he might have been a bit of a hero in real life. He volunteered for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. He was a courier with the Loyalist forces around Valencia and Badajoz, where he became famous for his ability to sneak in and out of the trenches while under fire. They called him La Cucaracha. It occurs to me that the reason he likes to be known as a retired undefeated boxer is that you can hardly write to your nephew that you became famous as a cockroach.