The Gentle Man
don’t pay a lot of attention to obituaries, except when I get word of someone I know personally or someone notable who has died. At those times I find comfort, or perhaps a better word would be peace, in taking a quiet moment to reflect on that man or woman’s individual life. I am reassured that living each moment fully is of the greatest importance, that each day has value, contributes to one’s life as a whole, and that anger and hatred and vengeance are wasteful and rather useless. I must admit to being a bit more attracted to obituaries as I get older. Age alters our perception of life, its finite span and the reality of our own mortality gains increased clarity. The impermanence of this mortal coil does indeed give us all pause.
I have always been attracted to the sum, the completeness of the circle we call life. This column has always served as a place to celebrate the lives of the individual, to tell their story, and in doing so to give due weight and honor to their existence. May 11 of this year I was searching for information on a man who had died and discovered several additional individuals of note who had ventured to the other side.
There was Louis Rukeyser, a columnist, author and television host whose specialty was business and economic news. He was 73. Harvard economist and behind-the-scenes political adviser to Democratic presidents, John Kenneth Galbraith was another. He was 97.
Lillian Gertrud Asplund died on May 6, she lived 99 years. During the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, Lillian Asplund, five years old at the time, became a survivor. She survived the sinking of the Titanic. Although there are two other survivors living, they were both infants and have no memory of that night. Asplund was the last living soul to witness that horrific event.
Lillian Asplund lived a rather quiet life working for an insurance company in Massachusetts. I can’t help finding a bit of irony in that fact. She was never married and never learned to drive an automobile. She refused to be interviewed, refused even those who offered to pay for her story, saying simply it was not good to discuss the catastrophe. “Why do I want money from the Titanic? Look what I lost, a father and three brothers.” Privately she confided to a friend the images that remained of that night, of the confusion, of the little ones cuddling close to one another trying to keep from under the feet of horrified and panicked adults, recollections of getting into the lifeboat, of seeing the tall white icebergs and being very cold. She also remembered seeing her father standing on the deck waving as the ship slid into the dark water.
William Durkin was another who journeyed to the other side in May. Born in Oil City along the Allegany River in western Pennsylvania, he headed west and joined the Marines. One day he was on his way to meet his girlfriend; it was July 7, 1946. As he walked along a street in Los Angeles he spied an unfamiliar looking airplane flying low, too low. The experimental XF-11 reconnaissance aircraft was in trouble, serious trouble and as it dipped lower it sliced off the tops of palms and the roof of a nearby home before its trajectory and velocity allowed it to skid onto and along the street and finally to a stop. Marine William Durkin ran to the burning fuselage and pulled the pilot to safety before the plane exploded. The pilot was Howard Hughes.
For decades William Durkin lived with the fact that people thought Hughes had given him a bundle of cash for saving his life and made him a rich man. William Durkin refused to succumb to the caterwauling reporters and their questions. Following his death, his daughter said the financial stories were pure assumption. Oh, Hughes offered, but her father refused to take a nickel from the man; instead he remained a good friend of Howard Hughes throughout his life. Privately Durkin told his daughter, “You shouldn't be paid off for doing what was right.” William Durkin was one week shy of his 90th birthday when he left us.
There was another man we lost in May, the man about whom I was searching. Floyd Patterson died on May 11, 2006. I always liked Floyd Patterson, liked the man I saw in his eyes, he was one hell of a fighter, but in contrast he was soft spoken, shy and humble; he was a gentleman.
Born in Waco, North Carolina and raised in Brooklyn, Patterson won the Olympic gold medal for middleweight boxing in 1952. Following the Olympics he turned pro and became a heavyweight. On November 30, 1956 at Chicago Stadium Patterson, with his signature peek-a-boo style of boxing, knocked out Archie Moore and became the youngest fighter to ever become the heavyweight champion of the world, he was 21. It would remain so until 1986 when Mike Tyson would become champ at 20. Coincidentally, both fighters were trained by the same man, Cus D’Amato. Patterson once said, "The fighter loses more than his pride in the fight; he loses part of his future. He's a step closer to the slum he came from."
Growing up in the fifties I wasn’t really what you’d call a fight fan. The Wednesday Night Fights were broadcast on television and I’d sometimes watch, but I wasn’t a regular. Having participated in athletics, I have always prized the ability of a great athlete and Patterson was a great athlete.
Patterson successfully defended his title on four occasions then on June 26, 1959 at Yankee Stadium, Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson knocked Patterson down seven times in the third round. Patterson’s wife pleaded with the referee and the fight was stopped. John Wayne was seated in the front-row that night, Patterson and the Duke made eye contact at the moment Johansson’s hand was raised in victory. Patterson later recalled, “This famous American hero had come to watch me fight, and I was losing the title to another country, it was the most embarrassing moment of my life."
I didn’t listen to the fight that night on the radio, but I remember my uncles, Jim and John, talking about it the next day. They were shocked that some guy from Sweden could have beaten ‘their’ Floyd Patterson. “There’ll be a rematch and Patterson will take him then. You wait and see,” Jim said. John agreed.
The rematch came on June 20, 1960 at the Polo Grounds. I remember sitting with Jim and John that night at my Grandmother’s kitchen table, all of us leaning forward, moths drawn to the table-model Philco; the old radio’s illuminated dial and golden tube glow painting our attentive faces, the table and the wall. The details of the fight have not remained, but the emotion that filled the room, the passion, the hope, the belief in this man named Floyd Patterson has never left me. Three white guys rooting for this black man from Brooklyn to wail the tar out of this European white guy, it was our Louis and Schmeling, it was the early days of the civil rights movement and these flat land mid-westerners adored Patterson, not because of the color of his skin, that didn’t matter one bit, but for his enormous athletic talent, his character and for the man he was.
If the fight night one year earlier was Johansson’s, this night belonged to Patterson. In the fifth round Johansson went down hard and Floyd Patterson became the first heavyweight champion ever to regain his title. The crowd went wild, the kitchen of my grandmother’s house went wild. Then something happened that made it clear to us just why we respected this man so. With his hand raised in victory, Patterson looked around the ring. He saw his opponent was still unconscious on the canvas, his left leg twitching in spasms. Patterson put down his hand and went to Johansson’s side, he knelt on the canvas and cradled Ingemar Johansson’s head in his arms until doctors could make their way through the screaming crowd.
The two men met once again, Patterson winning in the sixth. But these two gladiators remained good friends through the years, even ran together in the New York City Marathon in the 1980’s.
One day in the early 90’s I was walking down Eight Avenue in the forties. You get a pace, a rhythm when you walk in the city, effortlessly moving around those walking slower. Sometimes you will find someone else who is moving at the same pace as you and you’ll often walk that way for several blocks without acknowledgement as if linked by some unseen force. This particular day on Eight Avenue that linkage happened.
I became aware of an African-American man about thirty yards ahead of me. He was a little to my right, closer to the buildings and I realized we’d been synchronized within the same pace for ten or twelve blocks. He was a big man, six-two or three, weighed in at around three hundred pounds. He wasn’t fat, he was bulky and very muscular; no one you’d want to tangle with.
Just after crossing Forty-Sixth Street my gaze wandered, and ahead to my left, near the curb coming toward me was a man I recognized. I slowed my pace. He was five-eleven, his shoulders slightly hunched forward. He wore a salmon colored sport coat and dark gray slacks. It was Floyd Patterson. My heart instantly quickened.
Now, in New York City you see famous people all the time, just going about their business like all the other nine million people. The thing I love about the city is that people seldom bother famous people; instead they give them their space. If you make eye contact, a smile and a nod is usually greeted with the same and you both continue on your way. It is a small and rather special connection, a respectful acknowledgement. I did that often, but seeing Floyd Patterson coming toward was something different. I just had to stop and shake his hand, say thanks for being the fine man he was.
At precisely the moment I made that decision, the man if front of me slowed, he too had spied Patterson. I watched as his powerful walk became a stumbling lumber. He moved to his left crossed the sidewalk and held out his hand. I moved close to the buildings as I came parallel with the two men. I stopped, lingered in a doorway and watched. The large man physically towered over Patterson, but you never would have noticed, he was suddenly an eight year old boy. Pure joy washed over his face, he was beaming, babbling, “My God, Floyd Patterson, don’t believe it, Floyd Patterson.” As Patterson took his hand, tears flooded the man’s face. Patterson’s easy smile spread wide. His eyes spoke volumes from my vantage point. Patterson was moved that someone remembered, pleased to know he had so deeply touched another soul.
I wanted so to approach, to hold out my hand, but I found it impossible to disturb the beauty of this pure moment between a man and his hero. It was his moment, not mine. I remained an unseen observer, a blessed witness.
Floyd Patterson was a good man. He proved to me that you could be kind, honest, respectful, you could be humble, speak softly and still succeed. He taught me a lesson as a boy that I never fully understood until I became a man; that vulnerability is the greatest strength. "You can hit me and I won't think much of it," he once said, "but you can say something and hurt me very much."
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