Friday, February 18, 2011
at the When-I-Was-A-Young-Man Corral
symbolic scenes unfold
the future foretold
It’s one of those off-kilter days when your best friend’s off on his own, and sure enough, ain’t it the kind of day that gives birth to a legend or two. Word on the phone is that Bobby Ethridge and Jerry Judge are going to finish with fists what got started this morning with words, mean and braggadocios, in the alley behind the drugstore, where the add-on-garage of Martin’s Pharmacy blocks view of the alley from the street. Every neighborhood has a special place like this, just off and beyond the rut of public view, the secret place, the haunt of kids smoking, maybe drinking, where privacy is afforded by the happenstance arrangements of alleys and garages. That’s where the fight will be and where it is I’m heading as soon as I get off the phone with Joey Jensen who has called to inform me.
I can’t believe my best friend Bobby Ethridge is about to fight and I know nothing of the particulars. I’m surprised Bobby has not sought my council and my commiseration, that he has not let me know, for the nature of our friendship is such, that we’ve been sharing everything we know about the world, ever since I can remember, literally, sibling, twin-like friends, if the measure of fraternity is shared experience, next door neighbors since infancy.
As I exit my house and run excitedly down the block, I realize my exuberance and agitation might prick the curiosity of any one of a number of mothers, including my own, hanging out on the row home porches of soloist America, this clean green May afternoon, so I cool it and turn in the opposite direction, doing the Druid spiral to camouflage my intentions, and slow to a jog, imaging myself to be a heavyweight boxer in training, out for a run, behind an imaginary convertible in which sits my trainer barking instructions, “to the body, to the body, . . . jab, jab, jab . . . to the body, to the body,” and because I’ve jogged a few times myself with my sister Carol’s boyfriend and fiance, Dominic Scudurlo, a former pro welterweight, such fantasy is easy what with a fourteen year old mind like mine. Shadowboxing, I top the hill on Edmund Street, passing by the spot where my eldest sister Constance is rumored to have found the skeleton master key that Willie Sutton fashioned to escape from Holmesburg Prison which lies less than a mile up river. This particular spot has always exercised some peculiar influence on me. The view of the river is less obstructed from here, and in the first great dream I ever had, one I don’t think I ever will forget, I encounter an alien at the top of the utility pole that sits off the roadway in the neglected right-of-way this side of the lumber yard. Here, today, I encounter Billy French, catching a smoke out of sight of his grandmother who would, if she could, shadow every moment of his life. When I tell Frenchie what’s up with Bobby Ethridge and Jerry Judge, he says he’ll join me, and by the time we get to the Torresdale Avenue end of Shelmire Street, we are a half dozen young teenage males, wolf-packing our way among the now treeless urban streets of Edwin Forrest’s Hills, on a mission to witness a fair-one, between the two most bad-assed boys I know, Bobby Ethridge and Jerry Judge, both of whom are friends, and teammates, and who will, as time shall prove, spend much of their young manhood looking to articulate their superior, indeed, championship toughness, one in the ring, and the other in both the jungle rivers of Viet Nam.
And now there’s a baker’s half-dozen of us, not including Bobby, all awaiting the arrival of Jerry Judge. Bobby’s not saying much, and I don’t ask any questions. It is like this when we play football. He is quarterback and I am captain. He leads the offense and I lead the D. Bobby is very focused, looking beyond the wall of boys, who, along with friends of Jerry’s should they show, will form the circle, the ring for the fair-one. All senses are high on anticipation and alert, ours as well as Bobby’s. The charge of electricity in the air is almost visible, green, like before a tornado, if you know what I mean, when Jerry Judge appears, all alone, in the tee of the Torresdale and Shelmire alley. He’s wearing his Holmesburg Boys Club, black and orange football jersey, number fourteen, and he looks as tough and mean as any kid who ever excelled at tight end. His height matches that of Bobby’s, and neither have an ounce of fat upon their six foot-plus frames. Frenchie, myself and the others - Joey and Mike Jensen, Joey McGuckin, Joey Affet, Bobby’s brother, Paul, and Bobby Leonard - fan out into a circle, expecting the fight will go down within the constraints of our formality.
In an instant Bobby brushes by and past me out of the ring in the direction of Jerry’s approach, and ten feet later the two of them collide with a hailstorm of fists. Is that knuckles and jawbones breaking that I hear? After a minute of furious pounding, the street fight settles into a boxing match of sorts, meaning they both now know the strength of the other, and being for the most part equal - that is, equally tough and equally hurt - it will take some art and craft to win, some feint and countermeasure, some unexpected whirlwind roundhouse. And sure enough, it happens: Jerry sidesteps Bobby’s left jab with a dance movement to his right and launches a furious roundhouse that takes out two of Bobby’s upper molars, yet deters neither Bobby’s will nor his passion to win. My best friend, Bobby Ethridge, spits his broken teeth and spurting blood at Jerry as he advances. In his new offense, Bobby looks much bigger and taller now than Jerry, and he wades through Jerry’s return fury with a fisherman’s determination to net a hooked trout, despite footfalls, bugs and branches, Jerry’s blows no burden to Bobby, which he blocks with shoulder defenses.
No one on the circumference of the makeshift shifting circle speaks, all of us vicariously suffering the pain of lost teeth and of what is about to happen to Jerry, as the outcome in my head, like the eventual outcome, is a foregone conclusion: namely, Bobby will win, which he does, when he backs Jerry up against the brick wall of the alley and lands a continuing onslaught of solid shots to Jerry’s mid-section - “To the body, to the body, to the body”- leaving Jerry, lying on the ground, gasping for breath, unable to stand, like a fish out of water, like I think, a lucky loser. Whereas, for a few moments, Jerry loses his breath, Bobby, in securing the reputation as the toughest kid in Northeast Philly, he loses two permanent teeth!
to be gypped, your shot at stardom stolen
yet able still to realize oneself as human
to demonstrate the truth
contrary to the ruling
just one of six billion.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Spring, ensconced in the front seat of my six month old
1974 Datsun B210, I am driving west across the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge towards “The Great Northeast” in Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania student radio, WXPN, coincidentally enough, is airing a bootleg excerpt from something that will become Pink Floyd’s avant garde the wall, and the wide expanse of the Delaware River below rollicks seaward singing its water song of massive movement, when the sudden rhuuummm of Goodyear rubber over the roadbed grating of the draw bridge spooks us, the other half of us being my new girlfriend, M, who, given the growing momentum of her emotional agitation, is about to seize the moment and convert crisis to catharsis by bringing up the problem between us, the problem with our love, again, maybe for the tenth time in our month long affair.
“Telling my mother about you isn’t going to be easy. She’ll never accept you, just because, because you’re not Jewish. O God, my mother thinks I’m still seeing Mark. When you and I go to Boston next week for the dedication of my father’s memorial plaque at our old synagogue, Mother is expecting that I will be with Mark, a very successful lawyer and a practicing Jew, not you, a yet-to-be-divorced Irish Catholic high school teacher, . . . who, admittedly, as you are wont to say, has charmed my heart with penis, poetry, politics and pot.”
“What your mother thinks doesn’t matter. I only care about what you think. Besides, I can’t understand how, in this day and age, with people like Bob Dylan and Mohammed Ali shaping our culture, an educated sentient human being like your mother could allow some theoretical condition - like being black or white, Jewish or Confucian, Irish or Haitian, a Capulet or Montague, - the power and authority to put the nix on love. I mean, what’s ethnicity, what’s religion got to do with physical and emotional attraction? I mean I was brought up Catholic, but I’m not going to let the Pope tell me who to date. The Bible, The Koran and The Torah are all simply literature, the product of gifted writers. They are man’s work, not God’s. Know this: I am happy, not because ‘I obey God’s laws,’ but rather because the sun is up. That its light bounces off the surface of the Delaware River below, because we’re on our way to Philly to maybe meet up with some of my old friends. Besides, No man I know live by any rules but his own. That you’re neither Catholic nor Irish, that you are Jewish, means nothing to me, for these conditions have no reference in the world of love and passion. Believe me, Honey, it’s you, your flesh, intelligence and wit, your face, the figure of your body pleasured, it’s you, your scents intoxicate me, not your genealogy and the unpracticed religion of your mother’s ancestors.”
“I think,” she whispers, “that this love or lust, this poetry of ours, shall prove to be very complicated.”
Twenty minutes later I am about to introduce M to the symbols and remains of my childhood as she has expressed a Columbia University-trained, anthropological interest in my ethnicity and wants to see, first-hand, from whence I sprang, from what inner city, fist-fighting, racist blight escaped I. M grew up in a very homogeneous and affluent, indeed, gated suburb of Boston, and my coming of age stories, the descriptions of where I grew up, the neighborhood’s customs, rituals, and rites of passage, these things intrigue her. In many ways, to M, I am like a South Sea Islander to Margaret Meade.
I’ve promised a tour of some of my old haunts, the corner where I hung, including a drive by of the Mayfair Bowling Alley, and that stone and concrete retaining wall - hence the moniker we gave ourselves, The Wall. The Wall, that gaggle of teenage boys and girls who came together those last few summers before Viet Nam rang its gong and America, its bell - ending with a drink at John’s Sheffield House, a corner bar in my old neighborhood. Ah, John’s Sheffield House, where there are sure to be old friends. Although I haven’t been back much since my mother died, many are the boyhood pals who have not and, most likely, never will leave Holmesburg.
Now when I open the front door of the bar I expect to see a familiar face or two, but I am absolutely overwhelmed at the number of old friends, all here early on a Saturday, so early in the afternoon. Many I haven’t seen in years, some since high school. Most of the guys are Viet Nam veterans and they could certainly be drinking much more cheaply at the Legion Post, their usual haunt. In fact, almost the entire Holmesburg Boys Club 1963 football team that I captained is here.
Soon I learn the reason for this impromptu reunion: Jerry Judge, former tight end of the Holmesburg Boys Club Football team, this very afternoon, is fighting the Heavy Weight Champion of the World, George Foreman, on ABC’s Saturday Afternoon Wide World of Sports. Foreman has consented to fight five exhibition matches, five opponents, three rounds each. Howard Cosell is working the fight as ring-side commentator along with, as color commentator, no one other than, Mohammed Ali, himself.
I introduce my new girlfriend to all of my old friends, including Bobby Ethridge - the man that I saw beat the man that’s about to fight the Heavy Weight Champion of the World. We settle in at the bar with rows of empty shot glasses before us, each upturned empty glass representing a drink already paid for by an old friend, a tradition rock solid in the taprooms of Northeast Philly. Now my aristocratic girlfriend, I mean M’s mother was this fabulously wealthy, landowning aristocrat and personal childhood friend of Fidel Castro, whose regime, nonetheless, kicked her ass out of Cuba, my aristocratic girlfriend is about to get a televised dose of what it’s like growing up a male, in Northeast Philadelphia.
The first boxer to face George Foreman doesn’t make it through Round One. After a few moments of ineffectual boxing on his part, he is saved by the ref after Foreman rings his chimes with a solid combination. He doesn’t fall down, but he’s obviously lost his place in time and space, and since this is exhibition, the professional that George Foreman is doesn’t go in for the knock down, the kill, allowing the ref to declare George Foreman the winner by TKO. Howard and Mohammed Ali say little by way of commentary, as the apparent mis-match of talent and skill is obvious to the fight fans everywhere, including those of us in John’s Sheffield House.
During the commercial break, before the entrance of Jerry Judge, the air in the Sheffield House is smoky with anticipation and loud with speculation. “Jerry’s gonna get his ass kicked” and “Jerry’s gonna kick some ass” are the contrary toasts and boasts that accompany the heavy drinking going on. Friendly, and not so friendly, expensive wagers are made.
And now it’s my old friend Jerry Judge being introduced to millions of people world-wide. Mohammed Ali speaks favorably of Jerry, knowing something of Jerry’s reputation, given the proximity of Mohammed Ali’s Cherry Hills New jersey hideaway to the boxing circles of Philadelphia, where to many in the know, Jerry Judge is “The Great White Hope” and it’s no fluke that he’s about to fight the Heavy Weight Champion of the World. Jerry seems impatient as the referee goes over the rules of the exhibition match. He rocks his head from side to side as Foreman stares him down.
Here in the bar all of us are well aware what this fight means in the world of men, in the world of friends, in the world of race, in the world of post Viet Nam America, and we are all chauvinistically and vicariously proud, of Jerry and our birthplace, and a lot of eyes turn to the best man at my first wedding, Bobby Ethridge, for everybody knows the story Bobby’s teeth and Jerry’s roundhouse, and of Bobby’s decisive victory over Jerry. I tell Bobby who is sitting next to me, “If Jerry Judge beats George Foreman, I figure that makes you the Heavy Weight Shadow Champion of the World.” He tells me he’s always known his shadow was tougher than most men, and then he openly flirts with my girlfriend, something we used to do as teens to mess with everybody’s heads.
Now I don’t actually catch M’s response to Bobby’s come-on, though, because Round One has begun, and Jerry Judge is pounding a somewhat surprised George Foreman with hard, steely body shots. Mohammed Ali is having a good old time with a candid rhyme, “Who is this boy, he ain’t no toy. Who is this boy, he ain’t no toy?” and Howard Cosell is talking up the underdog, all in the name of entertainment and sport. In fact after a furious three minute exchange of combinations and counter-punches, the bell rings and both Howard Cosell and Mohammed Ali score Round One for Jerry Judge.
The Sheffield House goes wild. Everyone is jumping up and down and pounding each other on the back like bikers at a Harley-Davidson reunion. Even the women, my girlfriend included, are caught up in the hope that Jerry Judge might just defeat the Heavy Weight Champion of the World and it is their frenzied cat calls, “Come on J..e..r..r..y!” that herald the beginning of Round Two.
Right off the bell, Jerry’s on the attack and he lands a half dozen decent blows to Foreman’s mid-section. Foreman begins backing up for the first time in the fight, and Jerry’s after him with an intensity ratchet-ed up by the prospect of victory, given the hint of fear indicated by Foreman’s back-pedaling. Here in the bar, we, too, vicariously, are on the emotional verge of being world champions, ourselves, lending our combined strengths to every blow that Jerry throws. Some of us are practically levitating, we are so high with adrenalin and enthusiasm. I truly am higher than I’ve ever been in my life, high on Jerry and high on the community from which I sprang, proud I shared the offensive huddle with Jerry for six years. I am as happy in a male way as I have ever been. Nirvana’s bliss ain’t got nothing on this happiness, I tell myself, when suddenly, Jerry’s world and the world of John’s Sheffield House, are turned upside down.
Jerry throws his famous roundhouse _ the same punch that took out Bobby’s teeth _ at the Champion who is retreating from Jerry’s offense, and he, Jerry, accidentally trips himself up, falling momentarily to the canvas., even though he’s not been hit with any substantial punches; nonetheless, when Jerry Judge returns to his feet to press his attack, the referee forces him into a corner, holds Jerry’s gloves together to examine him for injury, and then while looking Jerry right in the eyes, declares Jerry unfit to continue, ruling George Foreman, once again, the winner by TKO.
The electricity in the air of the bar goes off. The electricity in the air in the arena in Toronto goes off. The electricity in the air of living rooms worldwide, where men are watching this fight, the electricity goes off, the errant, bogus judgment of the referee having blown the fuse. No one can believe this unfair call. We all moan our disbelief and frustration. Jerry has been robbed and we all know it. Both Ali and Cosell are silent, for they, too, know the deal. Jerry was only supposed to get a shot - he’s not supposed to win - a decision made long before Jerry ever stepped into the ring.
But Jerry Judge grew up where I grew up, where rules are rules, yet, as such, they are not sacrosanct; thus, with utter disregard for what the official has ruled, Jerry goes after the Champion again, just as Foreman’s arm is being raised in victory. Away from the Champ he pushes the ref, looks him in the eye, and then knocks the official off his feet with a sucker punch before going hard after Foreman. It’s a street fight now, for sure, and Jerry is throwing everything he can at Foreman who retreats towards his corner. A half dozen policemen and corner attendants jump in the ring. Jerry’s still punching his gloves together and threatening the Champ, when he is swarmed by Toronto’s finest, night-sticks raised and ready. Before the menace of Jerry Judge is strong-armed and subdued, ABC switches to a commercial for a clean shave.
But we, here, in the bar, we have been redeemed, our redemption, in Jerry’s actions, in his disrespect for the rules, by his refusal to abide by the decision of the fix, and we are consoled, somewhat, by the stars in eyes that Jerry gave the referee for his betrayal, for protecting the Heavyweight Champion of the World from the former tight-end of the Holmesburg Boys Club Football team.
Later, back to at our apartment in New Jersey, M says she feels sorry for Jerry and sorry for me and my friends. That Jerry was cheated out of his chance to beat the World Champ.
“Oh, no,” I tell her, “he had his chance. Twelve years ago in the alley behind the drugstore.”
But that would not be so much the story of Jerry Judge, as was this, but rather the story of Bobby Ethridge. But Bobby’s story is a little too dark to be telling in times like these. I’ll save his for a time that doesn’t rhyme.
APOLOGIA: I originally wrote this story in 1998 some twenty-four years after the Foreman Judge exhibition match based on memories created while intoxicated. During the fight I was as interested in the goings-on in the tavern - old friends (especially my former best friend Bobby) reuniting over alcohol and my relationship with the beautiful M - as I was in the fight, which ended abruptly with the TKO. This story is about the people in the bar. Not the Foreman Judge bout. Ten years after writing Jerry Judge, I obtained a DVD of the fight and the actual end of the fight is different than what my mind told me happened when I wrote this monologue. My apologies to George, Mohammed and Howard. As the printed version of this story says: this is creative non fiction, meant to pay homage to a neighborhood and a way of life.