It was his morning ritual, the apple. Had been ever since he was a young man, preparing to do the things that young men do. After shaking the night from his head he would take his knife and his apple and have a look out the window. Try to picture what life was gonna throw at him that day. Preparing his defenses. It was his way of looking forward, but today his heart was in the past.
What he did, when he was a young man, was box. Pretty damned good at it too. He surprised his folks when he took it up as a teenager. He never won any titles, none that had the word “world” in ‘em, anyway. But he had what some would call a journeyman’s career, and that’s a lot more than some of the guys who he came up with had.
He was around twelve when he first laced up his gloves at the neighborhood Y. He and his buddy, Tawny, had gone into the gym looking for work. Maybe sweep up the place or run errands or whatever. He didn’t really care. Told Tawny that it was all about the cash, but in his heart he wanted to be in that ring.
His uncle had been an amateur boxer with the Navy during the war, and he had heard all the stories about the night he took on the Army champ and fought him to a standstill even though the GI had forty pounds on him. He said he lost by a close decision, but he always talked about that day with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Said it meant more to him that he took everything the bigger man had than whether or not he actually won the fight. Almost seemed like he believed it too.
His folks hadn’t been too happy with him the first time he came home with a swollen jaw and a broken nose. He was fourteen and they weren’t nearly as thrilled with his uncle’s “war stories” as he was. So the rest of his training was done on the sly, and he made sure not to get hit in the head quite so much. Well, he tried at least.
After finishing school he joined the Navy just like his uncle had to fight for his country during a war. But Korea was a lot different than the Pacific campaign had been during WWII. He had been a part of the USS Toledo’s third combat tour in late ’52 and early ’53. The Toledo was a heavy Cruiser that spent a lot of time supporting the carriers out of Task Force 77 and occasionally engaging in some shore bombardment during that time. It never seemed particularly dangerous to him, but some would disagree.
When the Korean conflict ended in the summer of 1953, he was transferred to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard where he worked on the re-conditioning of the carrier USS Shangri-La. He also worked on his jab and his upper cut. He found that the 15-20 pounds of muscle that he had put on since joining the Navy combined with his natural quickness made him one tough sonuvabitch in the boxing ring. And he won a whole lot more than he lost against mostly bigger fighters.
He went to Philadelphia after his release from the Navy when one of his buddies mentioned he knew a trainer that could help him turn pro. It took him a few years of hard work, but he turned pro early in 1959 with eight straight wins. He was on his way up on the junior circuit and he had a few eyes on him from the big promoters on both coasts.
In fact, he came this close to having a fight against Floyd Patterson set up in late ’60 or early ’61. He was young and on the rise and Patterson had just lost the heavyweight belt to Ingemar Johansson at Yankee Stadium the year before. A rematch was set for June 1960 at the old Polo Grounds and a lot of folks expected Patterson to lose again. The big Swede had put him down seven times in the third round of their first fight, after all. So this one promoter had the idea to pit him against Patterson after he lost to Johansson again. A fight to get the ex-champ back toward his winning ways, maybe.
But Patterson wound up beating Johansson in that second bout. Beat him again in the rubber match in ’61. And while Patterson’s career was back on the upswing, his own had taken a dramatic turn toward obscurity late in 1960. He had what he thought was gonna be a tune-up fight against Sammy Koch, an old pug who spent more time in Providence gin mills than at the gym. Sammy had a mean streak and was known to throw an elbow in the clinch when he was down. And he was mostly down. Poor conditioning and a glass jaw will do that to a fighter.
Every once in a while, however, even a bad fighter got lucky. Koch had opened up a gash over his right eye in the very first round with a carefully placed head butt or elbow, and he spent the next three rounds jabbing his left fist directly into that wound. He never even saw the left hook that ended his winning streak and the fight in the fifth round.
It took him a long while to get up off the mat.
For the next five years he took whatever fights he could get. He was determined to get back on the national scene, but it was an uphill struggle for a guy who had lost so badly to a bum. He never did get a shot at any title, and he never was up for a big purse. But he kept fighting and he kept winning, mostly.
Now that he looks back he realizes that those five years did more to shape the man he would become than any other time in his life. He took everything that was thrown at him and he kept going. He kept coming back for more. That’s what life was about outside of the ring.
In 1966 he was on the wrong side of thirty and it was all he could do to get a Friday night club fight that would pay him a couple of hundred dollars if he was lucky. He knew he still had the talent and the drive to fight at Madison Square Garden, but no one was giving him a chance to really show what he could do. So he did what most fighters couldn’t bear to think of at that point in their careers. He hung ‘em up.
An old friend from the Navy had approached him about joining his construction company in upstate New York. He was always good with his hands and he was tired of fighting for the rent. Not that construction was any easier, at first. He had to learn from the ground up from a bunch of kids who had cared more their draft number than their craft. So he had to work extra hard to keep up for a while. He lost a few bouts and he got knocked down a few times, but he took everything that was thrown at him and he kept going.
Marie was the main reason he kept going in those days. She was an Italian girl from the Bronx who had gone to university outside of Albany before getting a job as a bookkeeper at his buddy’s construction company. They were married by 1969 and they had a son the very next year. The apple of his eye, he thought as he looked down at his morning ritual.
Dominic was everything that he never was. A good student and an even better man. He loved that kid like nothing he had ever loved in his life before. Life wasn’t easy, but he did everything he could to provide for that kid and his mother. When the construction company closed its doors in 1979 he took on three jobs just to bring home half of what he had been in the years before. He didn’t mind. He just took everything that was thrown at him and he kept going.
Dom joined the Navy just like his old man after school, even though his folks had wanted him to go to college. That was one fight he never had a chance of winning. But Dom was real smart and he was gonna be a Naval pilot. His boy, flying planes. He was so proud. It took everything he had left inside of him to keep going when Marie got the call from his commanding officer about the training accident that ended his boy’s life.
It took him a long while to get up off the mat.
Those were the worst times. He had his morning apple and left for work each day leaving behind a heartbroken woman and the thoughts of what could have been. It wasn’t much of a life, but it was what he was used to. He had spent his entire life taking what was thrown at him and he didn’t know anything else to do but to keep going. Even when Marie got sick of the cancer that eventually took her life last year. He just kept on going. What else was there to do? Not because it would have been what she wanted or because maybe his son would have wanted it. He did it because it was what he had always done.
He wiped a single tear from his eye with his shirt sleeve, and he looked down at the apple in his hand.
All that was left was the core.
Note: Remember to play the Bug-Eyed Trivia Challenge every day. I've been watching a lot of boxing documentaries lately...can ya tell?