Monthly Archives: January 2015

Boxing Day

In the 1950s, professional boxing was one of Americans’ favorite televised sports. Gillette sponsored Friday Night Fights, especially popular among hardworking men and women after putting in a five-day week. In the coal mining community of Midway, West Virginia, my father allowed his three sons to join the fun. My mother and two sisters generally avoided the entertainment.

So, I guess that explains the events of one Appalachian summer Saturday morning. My father usually worked overtime at the Slab Fork coal mines on Saturdays, but either there was too little work that Saturday or he just decided to take a well-deserved holiday.

I grew up in a modest four-room home, but the house had porches on the front and rear. The front porch stretched the width of the white clapboard house and afforded a wonderful spot for catching the mountain breezes.

Light heavyweight boxing champion, Archie Moore (Source:ProBoxingFan.com

Light heavyweight boxing champion, Archie Moore (Source:ProBoxingFan.com

This particular Saturday morning, my father’s cousin, Page, visited us. My father and Page had been good friends since their teenage years.

My father and Page sat on the porch, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and talking about God only knows what. Ralph, six years old, and I, older by 17 months, were at the other end of the porch minding our own business.

Page and Dad started talking about the prior night’s prize fight, when Page raised his voice excitedly and said, “Hey, John, let’s watch the boys box.”

“No, Page,” my father said. “They’re too young for that.”

“They’ve gotta start sometime,” Page retorted. “Besides, I’ve got some boxing gloves in my car. They can’t hurt each other too bad.”

Child-size boxing gloves. You’ve got to be kidding. He must have been planning this for months. It wasn’t enough entertainment to watch two adult men standing toe-to-toe, beating each other’s brains out. Let’s have some real fun and watch two young boys have at it.

Ingemar Johansson lies on the canvas after challenger Floyd Patterson flattened him in the fifth round at the Polo Grounds in New York on June 20, 1960. With the knockout, Patterson regained the heavyweight championship. (Source: Boxnews.com) Copyright: Associated Press

Ingemar Johansson lies on the canvas after challenger Floyd Patterson flattened him in the fifth round at the Polo Grounds in New York on June 20, 1960. With the knockout, Patterson regained the heavyweight championship. (Source: Boxnews.com) Copyright: Associated Press

I was game. After all, I had watched the professionals box. I could certainly bob and weave as well as any of those old men. Besides, I had spent much of my youth making life miserable for Ralph. When he was an infant, my mother put me in charge of swinging him in the baby swing in the backyard while she did housework. I swung him all right — I swung him harder and harder until the swing fell over. Reasoning (Do toddlers reason?) that I could no longer swing him since both the baby and the swing now lay on the ground, I ran off to play with my friends. I got a switching for that, but the punishment didn’t take. Heck, during a snowstorm just last winter, I had put Ralph in a metal tub on the sidewalk and filled the tub with water. Yes, I got a switching for that, too.

And now, at his cousin’s provocation, my father laced up my boxing gloves while Page did the same for my brother Ralph. After all the terrible things I had done to my brother, my father now gave me permission to beat the stuffing out of Ralph.

I stood there in my best Floyd Patterson or Archie Moore pose, ready to inflict one more injury on my brother, this time with the assurance that no switching would follow.

It was not to be.

I remember what happened next like it was yesterday. Just like Ralphie in the Christmas movie, my brother had had enough. I could pose like a boxer, but, unlike his older brother, Ralph could throw a punch. And I couldn’t do anything to defend myself. He backed me into the porch railing and threw punch after punch until my father pulled him off me.

That’s the day I learned to respect my younger brother. We got into other fights over the years, when we resolved any dispute with a wrestling match. He won some. I won some. But I never challenged him to a fistfight. Once was enough.

I never forgot Boxing Day.

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Grant’s Final Battle

Ulysses S. Grant (WhiteHouse.gov)

Ulysses S. Grant (WhiteHouse.gov)

We all hope to show courage in some form during our lifetimes. We are seldom required to do so in dramatic fashion. For most of us, it’s limited to the courage required to put bread on the table or to put our children through school.

Ulysses S. Grant had shown great courage on the battlefield in the Mexican War. Afterward he struggled with near-poverty, dressing shabbily and working long days at Hardscrabble – 60 acres of Missouri farm land his father-in-law gave to Grant’s wife, Julia. Just before the Civil War, Grant had been reduced to going hat in hand to his father, accepting employment as his father’s store clerk in a last-ditch effort to keep his family above water.

Then came Fort Sumter. The rest, as they say, is history. Grant, of course, went on to rise to the rank of commanding general over all the Union armies and in 1868 was elected as the country’s 18th President.

Between his times of military service and occupation of the White House, Grant had struggled to achieve some form of financial security. In early 1884, he smiled at the thought that he had finally gotten the knack of finances or, at the very least, had met someone who had the knack. On paper, Grant was almost a millionaire.

In the early 1880’s, Ulysses, Jr. (“Buck”) partnered with a young wizard of Wall Street, Ferdinand Ward, to form the investment house of Grant & Ward. Ward had the charm and apparent investing talent that drew many wealthy clients. Adding the Grant name to his business did not hurt. All of the Grants bought in. The former general and President saw double-digit returns between 1881 and 1884.

But just like many victims before and since, the Grant family ultimately realized they had bought into a pyramid scheme. The jig was up in May of 1884. Ward could no longer cover his loans and his clients were left with nothing.

Grant, who previously had resisted writing articles for the magazine Century about some of the great battles of the Civil War, no longer had any choice. He wrote articles about Shiloh and Vicksburg for $500 each. The Century’s subscriptions and advertising business increased dramatically.

Century Magazine (Source: Wikipedia)

Century Magazine (Source: Wikipedia)

Grant was prepared to write his memoirs for a 10% royalty when his friend Samuel (“Mark Twain”) Clemens learned about the arrangement. Clemens was aghast when he heard about the small fee Grant had received for his articles and persuaded Grant to negotiate better terms before signing a contract for his memoirs. Grant ultimately reached an agreement to allow Clemens’ publishing company to publish the memoirs, and went to work.

In October, 1884, a physician gave hints that Grant’s horribly sore throat probably was due to cancer. Grant did not falter. He had to provide something for his widow. At the invitation of industrialist Joseph Drexel, Grant spent the spring of 1885 at Drexel’s rambling cottage in the Adirondacks. On July 22, he completed his over 200,000-word memoirs. He died the following morning.

He had done what he must to provide for his widow. In the fall of 1886, Clemens presented Julia Grant with a royalty check of $200,000 (equivalent to between five and six million dollars in 2014 currency). Another $250,000 in royalties would follow. Between Grant’s perseverance and Clemens’ good timing, Julia Grant could spend her remaining years in comfort.

Grant’s military talents are beyond dispute. His Presidency – perhaps not. But as a man in the really hard times, when events did not turn his way, he soldiered on, doing the best he could for his family. In the end, his perseverance and, finally, one turn of good luck in the form of Mark Twain, won out. He provided for the woman he loved his entire adult life. This is the Grant I admire the most.

SOURCES:

Brands, H.W. The Man Who Saved the Union. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2012.

Mark Twain Project. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Smith, Jean Edward. Grant. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

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See also The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (reprinted by Konecky & Konecky, Old Saybrook, Connecticut).

 

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Filed under American history, Civil War