Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dad's Last Fist Fight

This year I am the age my Dad was when he fought and won his last fist fight.  And on Friday of this week, my adopted son Jacari will follow in Dad's very large footsteps taking his first boxing lesson at Nye's Gym in Lancaster.

George Gussman was 62 years old on the summer day of his last fight.  He was a working foreman at the grocery warehouse for the Purity Supreme supermarket chain.  They had dozens of stores in New England in the 60s and 70s.  I am sure they have been bought and sold many times since.

On that day, I was also working in the warehouse.  I was 15 years old and had been working summers and Saturdays since I was 12, sweeping floors and cleaning garbage out from the truck and train loading docks.

On that afternoon I was on the west end of the warehouse cleaning out the area where the freight cars unloaded.  On the opposite end of the three-acre building in Charlestown, Massachusetts, near Sullivan Square, was the truck loading dock.  I had not cleaned the garbage there yet.  School just got out for summer, and cleaning dozens of truck and train docks of months of dropped groceries and produce was a job of many weeks--job security.

So I was a quarter mile away under a freight car when a 30-year-old driver from Texas walked up to the Receiver and said he had waited long enough and he was unloading next.  The big Texan, complete with a white cowboy hat shoved the Receiver.  One of the two hundred-plus warehouse workers ran and got my Dad.  The janitor I worked for could sense trouble and ran to get me.

Dad was a middleweight boxer when he was in his 20s and pitched for the Reading Phillies.  He was one of the toughest guys among those two hundred Teamsters.  I saw none of what happened next, but heard roughly similar accounts from at least a dozen guys.

Dad walked up to the angry Texan and said, "What's the problem here?" The Receiver was my Dad's age and had a heart condition.  At that time, a heart condition meant staying calm, or you die.

The Texan looked at my Dad and said, "What is this, a retirement home?  Look you old bastard, I'm unloading next or I'll kick both your asses."

Dad stepped closer.  The Texan took a swing.  He missed.  Dad hit him somewhere between five and 100 times (I think ten was the most agreed upon number) and knocked him flat on the loading platform.  The platforms were hinged and tilted down.  By all accounts Dad shoved the Texan with his foot and rolled him off the platform into the garbage I had not cleaned yet.

Dad stood over him, threw his hat down and said, "You'll wait your fucking turn.  Get back in line."  Then Dad turned and walked away.  I saw him walk back to work.  When he was out of sight, a dozen guys came up to me and said, "Did you see that?  Your Dad kicked his ass."

Now that I am the age my Dad was for his last fight, I remember how much I wanted to be as tough as him all the time I was growing up.  I wanted to be a soldier because Dad was a soldier.

Dad was tough to the end.  Three years later at 65 he started his last and longest fight.  Dad had brain tumor, probably from multiple concussions.  He had had his nose broken four times.  The operation that followed nearly killed him, but he recovered and lived another twelve years.

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