Sunday, October 24, 2010

The O-Word

It was only a chance encounter on a Metro-North train, but it finally happened to me.  A complete stranger just called me old.

I was taking the train from New Haven into New York City to sign copies of my new Berger-Mitry mystery, The Shimmering Blond Sister, at some bookstores.  I had a pretty full day so I caught an early morning train.  Since we are now in the baseball post-season, I had stayed up much, much later than usual the night before to watch the Giants stomp the Phillies and I wasn't very wide awake.

Neither was the friendly young conductor who punched my ticket: "Heading all of the way to New Haven this morning?" he asked me politely.

"We're in New Haven," I said, blinking at him.

"Oh, right," he said sheepishly.  "Sorry, I've been on since five o'clock.  Got, like, three hours of sleep last night."

I nodded.  "These play-off games go on forever, don't they? I swear they add an extra three minutes of commercials between every half-inning."

"At least," he agreed.  "But I had to stay up and watch it.  And I don't even like baseball.  What I really like is boxing."

"I used to love boxing," I said.  "But I haven't watched a fight in twenty years."

To which he said, "Yeah, I hear that a lot from older guys such as yourself.  No offense intended."

"None taken," I assured him as he headed on down the aisle, leaving me there alone in my aging, fiftysomething decrepitude.

I'm a bona fide baby boomer.  I really, truly never thought I'd get old.  I always believed that when I got tired of being my middle-aged self I'd simply buy myself a ticket for a ride at Disneyland and come out the other end seven years old again, giddy with delight.   Old? Me? No way.

As I sat there on the train, gnashing my teeth, it dawned on me that I'd misled my young conductor friend on two fronts.  It hadn't been twenty years since I'd watched a fight.  It had been thirty.  And it wasn't boxing that I'd loved.  I loved Ali.

Long before there was The King and His Airness there was The Greatest.  Muhammad Ali was, and still is, the most transcendent star of his era.  He wasn't just a sports star who filled arenas and sold sugar water and sneakers.  His career ignited and transformed our nation's dialogue on race, on religion and on the Vietnam War that was tearing America apart.

I was twelve years old in 1964 when the brash, audacious 22-year-old Cassius Clay, whose nickname in those days was The Louisville Lip, slayed a surly goliath named Sonny Liston in Miami to become heavyweight champ.  I loved him.  Every kid loved him.  He was young, smart, funny and gifted.  He loved being Cassius Clay.  He loved being alive.

And he was growing up before our eyes.  After he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali he refused to enter the draft in 1967 to fight in Vietnam.  His stand against the war cost him his title and led to him being suspended from boxing for over three years at the very height of his career.  It cost him millions of dollars.  Half of the country demonized him.  The other half -- the anti-war half that I belonged to -- thought  he was one of the great, principled heroes of his time.

He didn't seem like the same fighter when he came back.  He no longer floated like butterfly and stung like a bee. His punches were slower.  His legs seemed heavier.  That was why absolutely no one gave the 32-year-old Ali a chance on October 30, 1974 against the reigning heavyweight champ, a young goliath named George Foreman.  Their bout in Zaire was called the Rumble in the Jungle.   I was going to journalism school in New York City then.  I went to see the closed circuit telecast of the fight with some friends at a packed movie theater on upper Broadway.  After Ali knocked Foreman out in the eighth round grown men -- black, white and brown -- stood outside of the theater hugging each other with tears streaming down their faces.  No one wanted to leave.  We stood out there for hours.

Ali fought on for several more years.  He shouldn't have, as we now know.  When he came out of retirement in 1980 to take on heavyweight champ Larry Holmes he looked like a listless shadow of his former self.  Some medical experts now believe he was already displaying early symptoms of Parkinson's Disease.  It was sad to watch Holmes beat him.  I didn't even watch Trevor Berbick beat him in 1981.  By then I'd stopped watching boxing because I'd stopped watching Ali. It was too painful.  

For me there will never be another boxing moment like that night 36 years ago when Ali decked Foreman and won back his crown.  But my young conductor friend can't possibly know what that was like, I realized.  How could he?  He hadn't even been born yet.

Wow, he's right. I am old.


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