When I was Young No. 30 – Shadow Boxer

Shadow Boxer

A group of men started a youth boxing club to keep boys in Van Hook busy during the cold winter evenings and weekends. They assembled pre-teen boys over six at the fire station on Saturday mornings and sometimes on Wednesdays[1] after school for training in the manly art of self-defense.

My brother Lowell and I walked the half mile from our house unless there was a blizzard. Regular snow was not a problem – we just followed the light from pole to pole. Even if my widowed mother wanted to drive her 1939 Mercury on winter days, it probably would have taken as long to warm it up as it did for us to walk to or from the fire station.

The two oil heaters kept the station hot so even stripped to our shorts we seldom had goose bumps on our pasty skin. I did not have trunks of my own so I usually chose a pair from those that hung on the lower row of hooks along the wall where the volunteer fireman’s gear was stowed. There were no shorts small enough for me so I had to cinch them up with a string or tuck them into the wasteland of my Jockeys.

Even if it was cold inside, a shirt of any kind was not a part of the boxing uniform. The fire station, like most places, didn’t have inside toilets so we stripped to our underwear and put on our boxing shorts in public. That was not a real problem for even for the most modest of us. Women or girls were never there.

Some dads and a few other men were involved as trainers. One of the men talked about seeing my older cousin Arne Laird fight in Golden Gloves matches and told about an unusual punch he used. It was an overhead sweep ending with the glove sliding down the opponent’s nose. Cousin Arne seemed to be some kind of a hero because he also boxed welterweight in the Army.

Some man came to our house after supper on Friday or Saturday evenings (sometimes both) and took Lowell and me along with a carload of other boys to matches at the station. One time I was included in a trip to Parshall, ten miles away, to fight the kids there.

Volunteer firemen moved the fire trucks and trailers outside on competition nights. They set up a ring surrounded by folding chairs in the middle of the concrete floor. Matches were just like practices in one respect – there were never girls or women there.

We were paired by weight. I was short but weighed about the same as boys much taller. Everyone there was thin. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing a kid who wasn’t skinny in Van Hook. I cannot imagine and certainly don’t remember how they found anyone as small as Lowell for his match. I’m not sure he even had a fight.

We usually fought three rounds. I remember the gloves being so big that even in practice on the big bag my pencil thin arms got tired almost immediately. My taking a full swing was almost impossible after the second round. I did try to use my cousin’s punch, but was ineffective. When and if I could get the glove moving the wind past the face of an opponent only served to cool his perspiring body.

I did not score enough points on an opponent to even rate a draw during my first few matches. In fact I don’t remember if I hit any one of the long armed taller boys with whom I was matched by weight. Their best defense was to hold one glove on my head so I could only swing under their arm or try to knock their arm to the side and try to move in. Then there was always their other long arm being used for hitting me. I don’t think I took any real hard hits either. The gloves were probably just as heavy on long arms – maybe heavier.

One Saturday evening I was matched with a shirttail relative of mine and immediately into the first round he was beating the tar out of me. Donald Ranum (or maybe it was his brother Keith) as I remember was the best in my weight class and I had not been up against him before. He not only held me off with his long arms, but was able to haymaker me several times. None of the hits was more than my hard head and stubborn disposition could take, but they did get my attention. It was occurring to me that perhaps boxing was something for which I was not even remotely well suited.

During the second or maybe the third round as his hammering on me continued, I realized that participating in that fine art of self-defense may not have been for the benefit of us boys at all. The Ranums and Michael Fitzpatrick seemed to really enjoy themselves. They, of course, had not lost a match or had a draw except when they fought each other.

One of the men laughed loudly when Ranum laid a haymaker on the side of my head spinning me to the ropes. During the mandatory eight-count by the referee, it also hit me that the men were cheering, smoking, and drinking tavern smelling coffee from thermoses. They were having a good time and the boxing boys in the ring were there for their enjoyment.

Participating in the keep-the-boys-busy program was even more frustrating after realizing the purpose of our being involved. I wanted to quit but it would have been far better to have my nose broken than being called a quitter.

Sometimes we boys listened to the fights on the radio at the fire station with the men. The men talked about the boxing future of some of the boys in the club. My name never came up as having any potential. I still remember one saying something like, “Benson could only score if he was boxing his own shadow and maybe not even then.”

These events, I guess, were man – boy bonding events. My mother must have thought that since we had little adult male influence, the boxing club would be a good thing for us. However, I always thought of the activities as “Morris takes another pounding” events.

[1] In the 1940s and even the 1950s students in fourth grade and above were released from school an hour early on Wednesdays to attend catechism classes. Those who did not attend a church just went home.