EPILOGUE: THE WINDING ROAD
I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate…
~ Othello (V.ii.340-342)
It’s still dark when I do my roadwork on these blue-cold January mornings. I stretch under a street light and try to breathe deeply without yawning. Three times a week I do this and three times a week I dread it until about a mile in. Then the steady drumbeat of a good stride clears my lungs and frees my mind. Life feels fine for a while.
There’s a dull hum in the small hours. I don’t know if it’s produced by distant traffic or high voltage transformers but it can be hypnotic. It’s good for fighters, even better for writers. Thoughts and fears and hopes and hates rush into this one’s head with chilled breath …with deep gasps.
I usually get a second wind at the two mile mark, at the Texaco station. This morning I glanced over the stone wall of a churchyard across the street and saw a broken headstone. The image of Bert Lytell, a man I never met but whose company I kept for months, rushed into my head. He died on January 26th 1990 during these small hours. He died in a hospital bed —forty-one years, nine months and four days after Jackie Darthard died in a hospital bed.
I saw him sitting on a chair in a Milwaukee hospital with his face buried in those big hands. The image threatened to scatter when an old pick-up truck screeched out of a garage. But I didn’t see a truck. I saw a cot. Its metal wheels were screeching as the shape of a dying fighter rolled toward an operating room. I saw Bert lift his head and then stand up out of his chair as the cot passed. He didn’t know what to do, so he stood up. His suit was rumpled.
Only weeks before that tragic morning, Sammy Aaronson was raving about him to an eager press. “The guy just isn’t human,” he said, “You can’t hurt him.”
It was true. Carmen Basilio recalled old-timers at Stillman’s Gym telling him about “this guy who could climb outta the gutter, put on gloves, and beat anybody.” Bert had 104 professional bouts, was routinely outweighed by as much as 15½ pounds, faced a gallery of monstrous punchers, and never heard the count of ten. Those closest to him said he never developed a symptom of dementia pugilistica.
But then, it wasn’t true. The man born Calvin Coolidge Lytle was every bit human and he could be hurt. Kelvin Lytle told me that his uncle used to walk “slouched over” as if he carried something; as if he carried someone, or wished he had. There was pain besides the Darthard tragedy at both book-ends of his life. He was an orphan, a high school drop-out, a ward of the state, a dishonored veteran. Cruel men banished him from the only thing he was good at and shoved him onto a road leading to substance abuse and crime. I found a photograph in the Kansas City Times of a five-year-old boy running into his arms. It was his son, Maurice, though the marriage that produced him ended and evidently so didn’t the bond between father and son. He was an old man living in his car shortly before the death of his last girlfriend devastated him again.
It got me thinking. What is boxing but a theatre of pain? What is a theatre but a place where pathos is merely portrayed on a stage? To Bert Lytell, the physical hardships of the prize ring must have only reminded him of “real” pain. Life is where real pain lives. That might explain his astonishing ability to absorb punches that would level damn-near anyone else. After all, life hit a lot harder than Archie Moore; it hit him hard enough to break his heart.
But it didn’t break his spirit. Nothing could.
The sky begins to brighten at 6:25 on these blue-cold January mornings. Street lights click off, kitchen lights click on, and I sprint by trying to finish strong. Sometimes I’ll hear an alarm clock split the hush inside someone’s apartment, scattering dreams. It announces the beginning of a new day —a new round.
It’s a good sound.
The Beast of Stillman’s Gym is dedicated to Ms. Ellen V. Choyce, the eldest niece of Bert Lytell and the angel in his corner.
The photograph opening this essay was taken in January 2012. Carmen Basilio’s statement was made sometime in the 1990s as recalled by boxing historian Ed Cahill. Many thanks to Kelvin Lytle for his willingness to share memories of his uncle and for vouching for me to his family. This series would have been poorer but for the patience of Editor Michael Woods.