Boxer Rebellion

I can only remember having two “boxing matches” in my life, both of which I lost. The first happened in my back yard under circumstances that are, not surprisingly, a bit fuzzy. One of my best friends, Rob Winski, was there along with two or three other guys who I don’t think I ever saw again. What they were doing in my back yard is unclear to me. Maybe they were visiting a friend or relative in the neighborhood, or maybe they were just out exploring and had ventured many blocks from their homes. I can’t even be certain I “never saw them again” because maybe I did, years later when we were older; but I wouldn’t have associated it with the earlier fight. I guess my age would have been about 10, which would make Rob 11.

The fight may have started over “territorial rights,” with me protesting that they were trespassing on my property. Whatever happened, one of the other kids challenged me to a fight. It was supposed to be a “fair fight” with the other guys watching without interfering. I said sure, and got into my fighting stance, which was pretty much my regular stance, but with arms up. As we were sizing each other up, my “buddy” Rob thought of something he needed to tell me; probably some vital information about a weakness he had picked up in the other kids style. As I turned to face Rob, the other kid seized the opportunity to sucker punch me in the right ear. I was done. It hurt bad, and I fought to hold back the tears. Just then, my grandmother (Dad’s mom, Frances) who was visiting us at the time, stepped out the back door and started berating the other kids for fighting and hitting me in my “bad ear” for which I had been hospitalized when I was a baby. She knew about fights, having put up with a lot of those “shenanigans” from her own boys, and I was happy she was there. I might have thought differently had I been winning, but as the clear loser, I welcomed her support in shaming my opponent for his decidedly unsportsmanlike conduct as well as her unsolicited testimonial to the inherent “weakness” of my ear. As Rob comforted me (“You coulda beat him if you hadn’t lost so quickly”) the alien boys slunk away, afraid to confront my grandmother. As Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris knows, anybody can lose a fight.

My second fight was scheduled a few years later, when I was about 13. Again, I can’t pinpoint the time, but I think I was in the eighth grade. Actually, maybe I had just turned 14, because it all started when one of my friends (I think it was Norbert Jeske) announced that he had gotten boxing gloves for Christmas and did anyone want to use them. My friend Dick Rutkowski immediately responded, “I’ll fight anybody.” Dick was at that time the biggest kid in the class, but I still thought I was the toughest. I added somewhat halfheartedly, “I’ll fight anyone too.” With that, the match was set up for noon recess the following day.

I didn’t mention the impending contest to my father. Had I done so, he might have advised me against it, or he might have given me some sage advice. Two and a half decades earlier he had experienced a somewhat similar event, albeit more of his own making. As you know, he grew up in Northern Wisconsin, in the resort town of Minaqua. At the time, it was a more rural, “rough and tumble” area than the suburb where we then lived. Still, there were similarities. Our little development was on the outskirts of Milwaukee, with farm country a mile or so down the road. I went to school with farm boys, like Dike Rutkowski, whose sinewy muscles were a natural result of the strenuous chores they performed at home.

In his younger days, my dad, along with his younger brother, Jim, had a well-deserved reputation for being a tough guy. Like the male of any species, he needed to periodically defend it. One year, a new kid named Clifford Attaberry came to school. He was pretty big, but clearly a rube from some nearby farm. Dad took almost immediate action. He wrote a note to Cliff introducing himself as the toughest kid in the class, and offered to prove it by meeting him out back after school that day. He waited until Clifford was out of the room, and then placed the note in his desk.

After school that day, the kids all congregated at the designated site to watch what promised to be a great fight and victory for the home-town boy, Pat Madden. Based on dad’s telling of the story (I’d love to have heard Attaberry’s) he tried valiantly, but took a humiliating beating. Cliff knew his stuff, not only protecting himself effectively against dad’s punches, but also delivering punishing blows of his own. Dad wasn’t hurt badly, but soon realized, as he repeatedly picked himself up off the turf, that this fight was a losing cause. The lesson? Don’t be so sure you’re better than the other guy. Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched (and have a few cockfights under their belts?). Don’t exalt yourself or you will be humbled. Insert your own moral here:__________________.

So if I had told dad I was in a boxing match the next day, he would probably have told me to keep my guard up, feel the other guy out, jab with the left until I saw my opening and then hit him with a right cross. Or something like that.

What actually happened was nothing of the sort. For one thing, it was mid-winter and the surface upon which we were fighting was packed snow and ice. We were wearing winter coats and hats, galoshes on our feet, and big, clumsy toy gloves on our hands. There was no ring, of course, only some semblance of an enclosure formed by the kids who surrounded us to watch.

There’s an old boxing adage that every fighter has a plan until he gets hit. In my case, I didn’t even have a plan. I thought that because we were friends, the match would be “friendly.” Did someone have a bell to signal the start of round 1? I don’t remember. I came out of my corner slowly, my hands about chest level, thinking I’d try a couple soft jabs to get the feel of things. Dick had other ideas. Maybe he’d been coached. Maybe his dad was a former welter-weight champion of Oak Creek. He slammed me squarely in the face with his first punch, and then proceeded to pummel me four ways: left, right, hard, and repeatedly. I was stunned and backed up into a snow drift, which caused me to fall over backwards with him on top of me. They called that round one.

As I came out for round two, I no longer had any illusions about what to do. I was to batter the living shit out of my former buddy. I was still a little dazed, but he was a little tired from all the punches he’d thrown. I hit him with a couple shots, and began to feel like I was back in it. As I remember it (it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it) I hit him with a couple jabs and saw an opening for an upper cut. I wound up and let go with a mighty punch that landed solidly, but a bit prematurely, in the gut of the fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Whatshername. I know, the fact that I don’t remember her name (and if pressed I might have to admit that I’m not exactly sure what grade she taught) doesn’t lend credence to my story. Nonetheless, it is true. The fight was stopped just as I was about to gain the upper hand.

I don’t recall being punished in any official way for that fight. That afternoon, however, the nun (again, I don’t remember her name, but she was wearing a black habit with a white bib) teaching our class had me go to the front of the class and read a selection from our literature book. By then, my nose, large by anyone’s standard even before the fight, had swollen to the point where it accounted for about half my facial area, it’s color approximating that of a rotten peach. I should have been thinking “That’ll teach me” but in fact I was thinking, “Darn (I didn’t say damn in those days), why’d she have to pick me today. Doesn’t she realize I’m embarrassed by my grapefruit-sized nose?”

No, I didn’t learn my lesson that day. I was, and probably still am, a classic case of “smart but dumb.” I mean, I did kind of relearn the old “keep your guard up” thing, but I’ve forgotten it and remembered it countless times since then. Fortunately, that was the last fistfight I ever had. Years later, I saw Dick at parish picnic and noticed that he was still the same size as he was in eighth grade. By then, I had grown 3-4 inches and put on about 70 pounds. I said, “Still ready to fight anyone, Dick?” (No, not really, but I did think it.)

So that’s my boxing career. I thought briefly about joining the Bengal bouts at Notre Dame when my freshman-year roommate, Jude Lenahan, almost won his division. Then I though better of it and joined the glee club instead. Why push my luck? It had taken all four years of high school for the swelling to go down from my last fight.

DadMemories03/06/05 2 comments


David • 03/10/05 11:05 PM:

Excellent story Pops. I’m sure you would’ve won had Whatsherface not gotten in the way. Nevertheless, I’ve told many kids that you could beat up their dads. At least beat them in a car push, right?!

My last “fight” was when that idiot sucker-punched me in the face after playing hoops at Black Brook. To this day I wish it hadn’t been broken up. I was only able to throw one punch, while being torn away from the kid by another guy. That one glancing blow still did some damage. At the same time, had it not been broken up I would have destroyed that kid. Literally. It still makes me mad to think about it.

The fight before that was in 4th grade at St. Thomas More. It was versus Shane Something. He thought he was the guy and had to defend his turf from the new kid in town (me). It was a good fight for me. I remember it well. We took a break from playing Ragball (football with a ragball). Everybody gathered round. Shane stepped in, took a big ‘ol swing at my head, I ducked (much like Bruce Lee), and as I came back up I drove my fist into his face. Blasted the kid. That was it. He fell down, and the kids lifted me up and draped a USA flag around me. Oh wait, that was Rocky. The teachers - Mrs. Hill or Mrs. Henning (I remember their names, but I don’t remember which one) came in to break it all up. I don’t remember getting in trouble, although I must’ve.

Shane and I later became friends. Moral: isn’t childhood a neat time?

Patrick • 06/28/05 10:24 AM:

I just read this entry today. Shame on me. I like it. Me, I’ve never once been in a fight except with Dave, and right now my memory’s hazy about those, except that I think I pretty well beat him every time (the door to his bedroom will attest). In public, I was never riled enough to fight anyone, and, I think, they were mostly wise enough not to provoke me, me being bigger than them and all. I used to have bad dreams about getting in a fight and almost not being able to move my arms. It was like they were asleep and surrounded by molasses. But, again, no real fights. I like to think I’d have been pretty good, just based on my size and strength, but then I remember that in junior high, my wrestling partner was usually John Levis, who was a good 20-30 pounds less than me (I don’t know why Mr. Hawkins always put us together), and who always beat me because he was quicker, a lot quicker. And he wasn’t really an “athlete” (he did play hockey, I guess), though that may have been his choice, not his genetics. And we never became “friends,” though we got along ok because we both liked Rush. At the 1999 class reunion, which I did not attend, Sona and Vin sat at a table with a guy neither of them recognized. With some questioning, they finally figured out that this was John Levis, who no longer looked anything like his high-school stoner self.

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