My brother John was afraid to enter the boxing tournament. He wasn't afraid of being hurt; God knows he'd lived with pain such as few have experienced and laughed it off. John was afraid he might hit someone too hard—hard enough to cause permanent injury.
He'd hit Dutch Hunzberger, a kid who lived in our neighborhood in Franklin, Pa., too hard three years before, a glancing blow to the jaw that landed with full force on the collarbone. It broke Dutch's jaw, cheekbone and collarbone—in two places—and it dislocated his shoulder. Dutch was a bully who particularly enjoyed picking on cripples. My brother John was a cripple.
John was a victim, at age 8, of the infantile paralysis—polio—epidemic that occurred about the same time as the great post-World War I influenza epidemic. The early symptoms of polio are flulike, so the parents of a sick child often went through agony while awaiting a diagnosis. In John's case the virus afflicted his left leg, leaving it weak and shriveled. Our parents spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on specialists, on operations to stretch muscles and revive nerves, on treatments designed to strengthen the leg. Nothing worked.
Except John. During the months his leg was in a cast and he was on crutches, John did his exercises relentlessly. After the cast was removed he worked twice as hard, twice as long. He developed his right leg and upper body until they were enormously muscular. Although he was only 5'9" and 135 pounds when he was 19, John had the hand, arm and shoulder strength of Max Baer, and his right leg had the power and grace of Bronco Nagurski.
In addition to his physical strength, John had strength of character in full measure. Never once, in the months and years of operations and painful treatment did anyone hear him whimper. He was happy and cheerful, certain that this new operation or that regimen would revitalize his leg. When yet another failure became obvious, he would just work harder on the rest of his body, never letting his disappointment show.
In 1926, our family moved to Windsor, Conn., partly to be near The Loomis Institute, now The Loomis Chaffee School, where we subsequently attended classes. The doctors continued to work on John's leg, and he continued to work on building up his body.
Shortly after my father's death in 1929, John called a halt to further medical experimentation. It was useless, he told our mother, our older brother, Chas, and me, the youngest, in a family conference. To go on meant more futile pain and wasted money and time. "I'm so far behind in school I can't ever catch up," I recall him saying. "I'll get a job, and we'll see what happens."
Getting a job was no problem for John. He had an instinctive understanding of all sorts of machinery. Garage mechanics often called him in—without pay—when they were baffled. When he was just a teen-ager, he could have set up shop as a consulting mechanic, with a regular fee schedule, and made a fortune.
But he hadn't done that. He had gotten a job as a machinist in a factory in Hartford, which is why Chas and I were able to talk him into entering the 1932 Connecticut State Amateur Boxing Championship Tournament with me. At least it was billed as that, although I never read anything about it in Boxing magazine or The Ring magazine. But that's beside the point. The point is that John needed some extra money to buy parts for an airplane he was building in our attic. The airplane was of his own design as well as of his own making. It was an airplane that would fly. An airplane that did fly. An airplane put together piece by piece with love and care over a period of almost five years. I have long forgotten what John needed for his plane, but I remember that it would cost about $40, which in those days was a helluva chunk of cash, considering that the used 1917 Model T Ford John drove to work in every morning had cost him only $5 and another couple of dollars for parts. Gasoline then was 20¢ a gallon, except during local price wars when it dropped to half that. Forty dollars was a fortune.
The promoters of the boxing tournament had a good gimmick going. Each division winner in the elimination tournament would receive a watch valued at $35, and each runner-up a watch worth $15. Few of the fighters even bothered to open the boxes; the watches were exchanged for cash before the fighters left their corners. The same two boxes were probably used all the time; they may not have contained watches at all. But no one cared. The bow toward amateurism had been made.