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43
Issue 43, October-December 2013
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
The Boxer's Story
by Lisa Lynne Lewis
Followed by Q&A


It was late afternoon, the temporary oasis of quiet time between the end of homework and dinnertime. My home office was temporarily unoccupied. My husband, Josh, was not yet home from work, and Joey and Charlotte had settled on the family room couch to watch Pokémon. I closed the door between the family room and my home office to muffle the sounds of the show’s opening theme. 

In our new house, I’d done my best to re-create the space that had once been the hub for my writing. Now, though, it had increasingly become home to more kid-related objects: stray colored pencils and crayons, along with the errant My Little Pony plastic toy or Pokémon card left behind after online games.

I missed my old life, everything from the cosmopolitan culture to the close friendships I’d built up over the years to even my local gym, now more than 400 miles away. After relocating to Southern California for my husband’s new job, my immediate focus had been getting our family settled in and helping seven-year-old Joey and four-year-old Charlotte adjust. In what would later become known as the Great Recession, Josh’s job prospects had suddenly, and quite dramatically, decreased: the once high-flying high-tech sector, where he’d spent two decades, had slowed to a limp. Even though we’d lived near Silicon Valley, he’d started applying to jobs in other parts of the country as well. We felt lucky when he finally landed his new job, even though it had forced us to uproot.

We’d tried hard to maintain our old family routines, including the family dinners and various small rituals that graced our daily lives: back rubs for the kids right before bed, family movie nights together on the couch. But the strain was still showing. Charlotte had clung fiercely to her pacifier, derailing our initial plans to wean her down to nights only and gradually phase it out entirely, while Joey had become more brooding and argumentative. 

I could relate. Every afternoon, when I went to Joey’s classroom to pick him up from school, I tried to tamp down my own unhappiness and focus on my new role as our family’s social ambassador. Joining the other moms, who were usually already chatting with each other, felt a bit like walking alone into a cocktail party, but one where a hoodie and jeans was the preferred attire. At least at a cocktail party there was usually a bar, a place to hang out temporarily and order a cocktail to ease the way. But here, of course, everyone was sober, the conversation likely to be about the kids’ weekly homework packet or the fall fundraiser. 

I usually sat at the picnic table outside the classroom, trying to gauge the appropriate distance so that I’d be close enough that I didn’t seem like a loner but not so close that I was butting in. I knew how it was to slip into familiar patterns and I had to remind myself that their ease with one another wasn’t a conscious effort to exclude me. Every so often, I’d see another mom standing off to the side and go over and try to engage her. “Which child is yours?” was my usual icebreaker. Then I’d introduce myself as Joey’s mom and quickly rattle off our just-moved-here status. But there were days when this felt like too much work: the knowledge that if I didn’t initiate the conversation, it probably wouldn’t take place.
Even in mid-September, the daytime temperatures rarely dipped below the mid-90s. To fill the long, hot hours between the end of the school day and dinnertime, I tried to distract the kids with the novelty of our new pool. “Watch, Mom!” Joey shouted one afternoon as he alternated between cannonballs and pencil dives. It was only 3:30, and I was already worn out from hearing them bicker on the way home. The heat was making us all cranky, but I’d convinced them to leave the air-conditioned house to go for a swim.

Charlotte, still wearing inflatable water wings, paddled her way from one end of the shallow end to the other: “Look—I’m swimming! Mom, you’re not watching—I’m swimming!” 

“I am watching. I saw you,” I finally retorted, in a more irritated tone than I’d meant to use. “You don’t need me to watch every single move you make.”

But actually they did. Until they felt comfortable, they needed my extra reassurance, whether or not I had the reserves to give it. 

I was still all too aware of what I’d left behind. For the first time as an adult I wasn’t working: I’d ended my previous freelance writing projects and taken on the strange role of trailing spouse. 

For a while, I was able to immerse myself in the immediate tasks of our move: the unpacking, the sorting and folding, the decisions about where each item in our myriad boxes should go. I spent time thinking about the best homes for our various belongings, such as where to store the kitchen utensils I knew I relied on most often. 

But others, such as the folders of notes about my grandfather, were simply transferred, unexamined, to a file drawer in my home office. When we’d moved here, I’d boxed up all of my research materials about him rather than cull through them. Now, though, I was starting to think about his story again. 

***

I had first tried to write about Lenny a few years after his death. In the fall of 2000, I’d started an MFA writing program, where I’d immersed myself in the colorfully tangled narratives of other people’s lives. Up until that point I’d given little thought to my own family stories or to tracking down more details about his life. 

I knew that he’d been featured in a front-page Los Angeles Times article in 1976, on the 35th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was the biggest media coverage he’d received, but I was eight years old when it came out and hadn’t thought to save it. 

Earlier in 2000, though, my last surviving grandparent had died, bringing to a close an entire generation. My children were not yet born, and in this pause in the flow of the generations, before each level advanced into the roles the previous generations had held, I felt compelled to try to grasp after what was already lost.

Perhaps this is how I found myself in the basement of the university library searching for a copy of the Times article. The campus was quiet that Saturday afternoon, suspended in the rich gold of the Bay Area’s Indian summer, the leaves just beginning to deepen to burnt orange.
Downstairs in the windowless basement, I loaded a reel into the microfiche reader and watched black-and-white articles, photographs and ads whiz by. I kept hitting the forward button, then the pause button, trying to see if I’d gotten to the December 7 edition yet. Each time the text slowed, another image from the past would crystallize on the screen: Billy Carter visiting with President Carter, the Chowchilla kidnappings, ads for electric sideburn trimmers. Then finally I saw it, an article called, “Pearl Harbor – Memories Still Vivid After 35 Years.” There was a large picture at the top of the USS Arizona enveloped in fire and black smoke, listing at a 45-degree angle as it sank after being bombed. And there, in the middle of the page, was my grandfather’s face, my own personal link to these anonymous rolls of microfiche stored in metal file drawers. 

“Every December 7 the first thing I do before I get out of bed is thank God I came through and say a prayer for the guys who didn’t,” Lenny told the reporter. He’d been on liberty, he explained, and had watched from the shore that fateful morning as his ship, the USS Arizona, was engulfed in fire. The photo that ran with the piece showed him glancing back over his right shoulder as if looking into the past. 

Lenny had been a model survivor, immediately recognizable in his Pearl Harbor Survivors baseball cap decorated with commemorative pins. He favored brightly colored Hawaiian shirts, stretched taut over his round belly so that the buttons strained. His recollections were dramatic and richly detailed; in one radio interview, he described both his role as a gunner on the ship and his breakfast at Sneeky Pete’s on the Sunday the USS Arizona went down. His story had grown brighter over the years as he nurtured it. 

There was just one flawed detail, obscured at first by the filaments of fact my grandfather had woven around it: he hadn’t been at Pearl Harbor. The identity he’d built for himself was false, a final attempt to cast himself as a hero. I stared at the backlit photo on the screen as if it might help me divine what had led to his alternate version of history.

***

I’d seen other, older photos of Lenny, but it was hard to reconcile them with the genial, rotund grandfather he’d morphed into in middle age. That was the Lenny I remembered most distinctly, the one who waxed the ends of his moustache into upturned points and who carefully tended to and displayed his Pearl Harbor persona like an expensive watch. It was impossible to meet him and somehow miss the Pearl Harbor connection: the physical evidence, like the bumper stickers on his large silver sedan or the commemorative pins on his cap, unmistakable markers of how he presented himself to the world.

But he’d had an earlier identity. A photo that hung on the wall in my childhood home showed him in a boxer’s crouch, fists up and ready to strike. In the photo, he’d been young and lithe, his dark hair parted and slicked back. He stared straight at the camera as if it were an opponent. Back then, as a teenager on the South Side of Chicago, he’d been a bantam-weight boxer with promise. Scrappy, determined and quick on his feet, he’d won two YMCA championships by 1937 and boxed in the Golden Gloves. 

It was this Lenny who interested me more, the one whose accomplishments were rooted in fact. I’d seen other keepsakes from his boxing days, including his blue satin boxing shorts and one of his YMCA medals. I wanted to know more about this younger Lenny, the one who’d once dreamed of making it as a professional boxer. 

Nat, a friend who’d grown up with him in Chicago and had seen him box in his teens, told me Lenny had “the killer instinct.” They’d both boxed in the mid-1930s at the 105th Armory near Comiskey Park, earning $2 a fight. Lenny had moved West with his parents to Los Angeles in 1938; Nat had gone on to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 as a navigator before eventually settling in Los Angeles himself. Eventually, they’d reconnected at a meeting of the Jewish War Veterans.

Boxing had been Lenny’s enduring identity. Following his family’s move to Los Angeles, his parents had opened Dorf’s Ringside Café, near the Hollywood Legion Stadium. Outside, the sign advertised “None better – Chili and Beans 10 cents.” I knew Lenny had kept boxing in amateur bouts in Los Angeles but with diminished success: by 1940, he was working on the railroad to help make ends meet. Later, in 1945, he’d enlisted in the U.S. Marines and been a boxing instructor at the Recruiting Depot in San Diego, training thousands of young men how to box before they shipped out. After the war ended he returned to L.A., participating in staged burlesque boxing bouts that were more comedy routine than sport. He eventually become a barber and opened the Ringside Barber Shop, decorating it with boxing memorabilia and old copies of Ring magazine. 

This was a simple chronology of events, mere outline rather than explanation. I wondered what it must have been like to downgrade his dreams when professional boxing hadn’t panned out. And I wanted to learn more about boxing, to understand the sport that had driven him for so long.

As I continued to delve into his history, accumulating more newspaper clips and more information, I realized I’d need to do more than just read about boxing. I needed to see it first-hand. 

***

King’s Boxing Gym was located on a dead-end Oakland street near the freeway; overhead, the BART trains rumbled past. I was there as an observer, dressed in street clothes and carrying my notepad. I knew nothing about boxing except that I felt terribly out of place.

The floor was bare concrete; the ceiling bisected by long horizontal metal piping that anchored black heavy bags hanging from thick metal chains. Nearly every inch of available wall space was covered with boxing memorabilia, from a vintage poster promoting a Joe Louis—Max Schmeling matchup at Yankee Stadium to a more current publicity photo of champion boxer Gina “Boom Boom” Guidi, a curly haired blonde who trained at King’s. But the centerpiece was the raised boxing ring, an expanse of royal blue vinyl encircled by red, white and blue ropes where two young men were sparring. 

The two fighters circled each other, their gloves raised protectively, moving in to jab at each other and then bobbing away. “That’s it—keep it coming!” a trainer yelled from the corner. “Now get in there!” 

“Are they training for a fight?” I asked another trainer, an older man with a graying beard who was standing nearby. I raised my voice to be heard above the staccato of punches.

They are,” he said, pointing at the ring. “But a lot of folks just want a good workout.” I followed his gaze to the heavy bags, where several other men, and a few women, were whacking the bags repeatedly. “You should come try it sometime.”

“Do they get in the ring too?” I asked, pointing to the women.

“Sometimes,” he said, shrugging. “Depends on whether they’re ready.”

I turned back to watch the woman closest to me, who was now slamming her fist into the bag with a series of resounding thwacks. She looked like she could easily pound me into the ground. I politely declined.

There was definitely something primal about it, I thought as I drove home. From the looks of it, boxing probably hadn’t changed much from my grandfather’s time. Even if I wasn’t ready to re-live his boxing days, I was intrigued. 

How many afternoons had he spent in the gym, honing his punches on the heavy bag or in the ring? I tried to picture the Lenny from his boxing promotional photos, a young man who’d worked his way up from the neighborhood bouts in Chicago’s Humboldt Park to the city’s annual Golden Gloves tournament, fighting in front of a crowd of more than 20,000 spectators. He’d been 19 and 135 pounds, a young fighter with promise in the city that had been the birthplace of the Golden Gloves. If he’d racked up another win, he might have gone on to a long boxing career like local hero Barney Ross nearly a decade earlier. 

As I continued to work on my thesis that spring, I immersed myself further into his world. Sitting in the audience at the Golden Gloves tournament at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, I tried to imagine him in the ring. Would he have been quick and unrelenting, overwhelming the other fighter with a flurry of punches? Perhaps he would have bided his time, stalking his opponent before moving in to strike. I marveled at the taut fluidity of the young fighters, watching them lock onto one another as they circled each other in the ring, waiting for an opening. I waited too, transfixed, for the moment when the first punch connected with the other boxer’s body with a solid thwack, the fight suddenly unfolding with its inevitable power, and felt a vicarious rush. 

By now, I’d picked up enough boxing terminology to try to re-create scenes of my grandfather’s boxing days. By inhabiting his world, I hoped I’d eventually be able to understand what had driven his later choices. 

But there were too many details I didn’t--and couldn’t--know. Despite all of my research, I was still just as hazy on what had led him to reconstruct his past, placing himself at a seminal moment in history. Of the 80 or so pages I wrote to fulfill my MFA thesis requirements, only the boxing scenes felt real.

***

Occasionally, friends from my MFA days still asked what became of “the Lenny story.” I’d come up with a pat explanation of how I’d finally put it aside, leaving out the sense of failure I felt. For more than a decade, I’d sat in a gray cubicle, surrounded by other people sitting in gray cubicles, and written news releases and employee newsletters for a living. When I’d finally tried to break out of that rut by enrolling in the MFA program, I’d gone only part-way, ultimately abandoning Lenny’s story and focusing on freelance writing projects that at least partially made up for my loss of salary. 

With our move, even that had finally ground to a halt. At the edges of the new routines we’d settled into, the two new schools and the extracurricular activities I’d tracked down for the kids and the myriad household tasks, my own unhappiness was seeping out. 

 “Let’s get Mommy mad,” Charlotte whispered to Joey one evening at dinner, grinning slyly. Their bowls of spaghetti sat ignored, still barely touched, while the kids bonded temporarily over their plans. Behind them, the silhouettes of the orange trees in our yard blended into the darkening sky. The windows in the breakfast nook where we ate all of our meals together now reflected back the image of our family. I gazed past Joey and Charlotte, focusing on their mirror images, and knew I needed an outlet.

***

I can’t really say how I finally got up the nerve to try kickboxing; perhaps it was a general discontent with the gyms I’d found so far, coupled with a need to release my pent-up frustration. Somehow, I finally got up in the nerve in early February to visit D.K.’s kickboxing studio.

My first impression wasn’t promising. Framed quotes about Jesus hung on the walls – not unexpected in my new hometown, perhaps, but certainly not a sign that I, a lapsed Jew, belonged there. Thankfully, though, Jesus didn’t come up once during my initial one-hour session with DK. 

The rest of the décor was much the same as I’d seen several years earlier at the boxing gym in Oakland: utilitarian rows of immense black heavy bags hanging from metal chains and a full boxing ring. DK was dressed in a loose-fitting grey tank with an exaggerated scoop in the back, showing off his broad shoulders. He was also fairly taciturn, although I couldn’t tell if it was because of dislike for newbies like me or because he wasn’t entirely comfortable speaking in English. He spoke in clipped sentences, with a strong Korean accent.

The first thing I learned was how to wrap my hands. Taking the loop of one of the long red hand-wraps, he hooked it over my right thumb so the fabric hung across the back of my hand, then swiftly wound it around my wrist, around my knuckles and through the dips between each of my fingers, finishing with several extra layers around my wrist. I attempted to do the same with the wrap for my left hand, trying to remember the sequence.

“We’ll start you off slow,” he said, giving me a combination of punches to try on the heavy bag. 

“No no – let me show you,” he interrupted as I landed a right hook on the bag. “Turn your hand out like this,” he said, twisting my glove so that the back of my hand faced out rather than up. “Now try it.”

I punched again, self-consciously.

“That’s right,” he said, then showed me a brief combination of punches for me to follow. “Ten sets,” he ordered.

For the rest of the hour, I followed his lead, trying to remember the combinations and the form he’d shown me. The sounds of a religious music station played softly in the background, reinforcing the awkwardness I felt. But as I concentrated on executing the series of moves, trying to remember the proper stances and positioning and sequence, I didn’t really have time to think about it. I needed to focus on counting, on form, and on not losing my balance. Afterwards, following an hour of sustained exertion and concentration, I realized that I feel clearer, calmer. 

Soon I was showing up a few times a week. “Keep your hands up!” DK admonished if I started to lag. It took sustained concentration to keep my place in the series of moves, remembering to follow a kick with a set of alternating hooks followed by jabs. I learned how to place one foot back and to the side, facing out, before whipping my other leg around in a roundhouse kick, and how to follow it with a squat to duck out of the way of an imagined opponent. Slowly, the combinations started to feel more familiar. For the first time in my life, I even had the strength to do a set of pushups balanced on my toes rather than on my knees. With the basics of form now less shaky, I could concentrate on being quicker and hitting with more power.

I wondered if my grandfather had found a similar form of release in his long hours in the gym and in the ring. Even with my own limited experience of boxing, I had a much better sense of the intensity that had once driven him. Had it been an outlet for him as well? What had driven him to maintain his identity as a boxer, long after his prospects had faded? 

It seemed curious, too, that he’d enlisted in the Marines in 1945, leaving behind his wife and toddler. Perhaps he’d seen the war as another chance to prove himself; in letters home to my grandmother, he’d written with a mixture of trepidation and excitement how he expected to ship out to Japan. 

But I knew the war had ended before he’d gotten his chance to prove himself. The Marines he’d trained as a boxing instructor had gone on to see combat overseas while he’d remained stateside. Afterwards he’d returned to Los Angeles, to a marriage that was troubled and eventually ended in divorce. I knew too that he’d been ineffectual as a father: when my mother was growing up, he hadn’t been there as her protector. 

As a parent now myself, I wondered what it must have been like for him to look back on his life and acknowledge this failure. Perhaps, I thought, at some point the heavy bag he’d used to hone his punches had instead become a target for his frustration and disappointment.

With his post-war burlesque boxing and then his Ringside Barber Shop, boxing had become an identity he’d clung to long after its actual promise was gone. And somehow, in coming to terms with this, he’d re-invented his own past. 

I would never know his specific reasons. But now, more than a decade after I’d first attempted to understand his story, I could see the parallels. Here I was, at the mid-point of my own life, having neglected, in any real way, to achieve the career as a writer I’d once envisioned.

***

Glancing at the clock at the bottom of my computer screen, I listened for the strains of the Pokémon theme music that would signal the end of the kids’ TV episode. I still had at least 10 minutes left, I figured. 

I pulled Lenny’s photo out from my files and studied his picture for the first time in several years. Even though the photo was just a head-and-shoulders shot, I could see the pattern of his Hawaiian shirt. His hair had already gone gray but his moustache was trim and dark. 

At the time of the Los Angeles Times coverage, I realized, doing the math, Lenny had been nearly 60 years old, his active duty and his boxing days both long behind him. From what I’d gleaned, it was at some point during the previous decade that he’d re-created himself as a Pearl Harbor survivor.

Had Lenny faced his own moment of self-assessment? At the time the news photo was taken, he’d already looked back on his life and found it lacking. I wondered what he saw as he glanced over his shoulder, knowing that his tale was hollow at its core. 

I closed the file and returned his photo to the drawer. I thought about the various Pearl-Harbor-related mementoes I’d inherited from Lenny: the dinner-plate-sized flask of Jim Beam decorated with a large metallic gold eagle clutching a bomb in its talons, the 1976 35th-anniversary commemorative medallion. The whiskey now sat on a shelf in the dining room next to some vases. I hadn’t seen the medallion in some time; I wondered where it had ended up after our move. Perhaps Joey, who’d recently started collecting foreign coins, might want it.

It was too soon, I knew, to foretell how our lives here would play out. In time, I hoped the kids would find new friends and activities, that we’d settle into a rhythm as a family. I might even find a way back to my own earlier goals. I was surrounded by the evidence of my efforts but unclear on whether I’d actually ever achieve them.

I pictured Joey and Charlotte sprawled out on the sofa in the family room. If I ever found the collectible medallion to give to Joey, I decided, I’d focus on the actual facts of Pearl Harbor and omit the part about his great-grandfather, about the difficulty of relinquishing an earlier vision of how you wanted your life to be and of the choice, ultimately, of how to live with that. At some point, Lenny had found it easier to adopt a new identity rather than accept how his life had turned out. 

Sitting here in my office, surrounded by all of the reminders of my own earlier goals, I realized the Pearl Harbor memorabilia I’d inherited was a symbol not of Lenny’s heroism but of his longing, of the inevitable recalibration of ambition that came with middle age. I understood this in a way I hadn’t when I’d first tackled his story: in turning once again to his story and his own search for a lasting identity, I was addressing not just the narrative of his life but of my own.





Lisa Lynne Lewis currently writes for Literary Mama, and has also been featured on Modern Love Rejects. Lewis spent many years doing corporate communications; along the way, she also freelanced for magazines including Better Homes and Gardens and Redbook. She has an MFA from Mills College and an undergraduate degree from U.C. Berkeley. She lives with her family in Southern California. 


Q&A

Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece? 
A: This essay is a stand-alone excerpt from a larger work that I started more than a decade ago about my grandfather. In this piece, I’ve tried to convey the evolution of my writing process: how I finally found a way into the story once I was able to connect my experience to his.

Q:What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I recently had the opportunity to talk with Katrina Kenison, who’s written several memoirs about motherhood. During our conversation, she described the importance of deciding on the end-point for the story you’re writing, even if the events you’re writing about are continuing to change and evolve. You have to be able to view what you’re writing about as an entity that’s separate and distinct from the ongoing events of life. I’ve tried to keep this in mind as I contemplate the larger piece I’d originally embarked on!

Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: In terms of creative nonfiction, I’d say Katrina Kenison (mentioned above). I also recently talked with Natalie Serber about her first short-story collection—it was inspiring to hear how she’d fit in time for writing while raising her children, and to be reminded that writing (and eventually, publication) takes time! I also love Anne Lamott’s advice from Bird by Bird about shitty first drafts: as she says, you need to start somewhere, knowing it certainly won’t be perfect but that once you have something on paper, you can start to shape and refine it.