Teaching the Bear to Read

June 6th, 2016 6 Comments

Wallace called and asked me to go duck hunting with him at the legendary Pintail Slough Club. You know Wallace; at least you know his work. He specializes in classic waterfowling scenes: meticulously detailed oils of mallards dropping into mist-shrouded sloughs; panoramas of pintails and widgeon whistling over choppy waters on a stormy northwest wind; portraits of speckle-bellies surveying flooded rice paddies; the sort of oils that sell for five-figures, and whose prints have five-figure runs. I have one of his prints above my desk, complete with a remarque he did of my old black Lab.

Pintail Slough is one of those fat-cat hunting clubs bazillionaires join so they can network with other bazillionaires, the kind of place with original art on the walls and framed photographs of celebrity guests, crystal decanters and glasses filled with the member’s drink of choice and engraved with the member’s name, where men shoot Benellis and Perazzis and occasionally custom-made Purdeys with thirty-inch barrels and talk about deals and tax shelters. Not the kind of place I like, not the kind of people I like, so I told him I couldn’t go.

Wallace shares my resentment of the fat-cats, but he regards them with humorous detachment; after all, they’re his bread and butter, even if half of them can’t tell a Baldpate from a gadwall. “Come on,” he said. “What else are you going to do this weekend?”

“Finish that article for American Hunter.”

“You’ll get it done. Besides, Joe Link is going to be there.”

Remember Joe Link? Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle way back in the sixties, known as Breaker Link because he broke up—take your pick—so many player’s bones or so many plays, depending on who’s talking. The only one who doesn’t talk about it is Joe. He’s a great storyteller, but he’s a fat-cat himself now, with a real estate investment company and holdings all over California and Nevada, and he’d rather talk development than football. He was smart enough to buy up a lot of land in the Palmdale area outside Los Angeles long before the city had forced working stiffs out of the San Fernando Valley and into an hour commute, and he’s in a higher tax bracket than God. But unlike most of the fat-cats, Joe knows what to do with a shotgun, and he knows his birds in the air, not just on the ground. I had met him a couple of times, running my Shorthair for him at the San Andreas Ale and Quail Club, and he’s an okay guy, so I let myself get talked into it. I drove up Friday night and got there before Wallace.

It’s an interesting thing to watch fat-cats in action, like one of those 18th century dances with hierarchical rules and movements. There’s always a herd bull, the richest guy in the club. At Pintail Slough it’s—let’s call him Mr. Motel. He owns a chain of motels that all bear his name and he’s probably the only true multi-billionaire there. There’s Mr. Shanty-Slapper, a real estate developer from the Bay area, who’s second in line. Mr. Asphalt owns the largest private highway construction company in the state, and he’s also in billionaire category. Mr. Dotcom is the youngest by about twenty years; he invented an app that was bought by Google or Samsung or somebody. After him they slide down into tacky, run-of-the-mill multi-millionaires: Mr. Caddy (five Cadillac dealerships in three cities); Mr. Lingerie (a chain of department stores that bear his father’s name); Mr. Wall Street owns a West coast investment firm. There are a few others, some of whom I’ve met over the years—if you write about hunting and run dogs for a living, you get invited to a lot of places—but none of the rest of them were there that weekend.

Mr. Shanty-Slapper and Mr. Wall Street were talking business, and Mr. Dotcom was talking on a cellphone the size of a credit card. Mr. Motel, Mr. Caddy, and Mr. Lingerie were playing poker by a flat screen TV the size of a garage door. They had it tuned to a porno channel, two girls and a very hairy guy doing extremely athletic things on a circular bed, but they didn’t seem to pay it any attention. Mr. Motel asked if I wanted to join the game, but having only recently finished paying off my mortgage I didn’t feel like losing my house. I’m such a lousy poker player I really don’t enjoy the game in any case. The only other person who spoke to me was Mr. Shanty-Slapper who asked me my name and then said, “Oh, yeah. You’re with Wallace.”

After that I nursed my drink and watched.

 

The hierarchy of the dance changed, as I knew it would, when Joe Link walked in. There’s something about professional athletes, especially football players, that commands the attention of even the richest men in America. The poker game broke up. Mr. Dotcom slipped his phone into his shirt pocket. Mr. Shanty-Slapper and Mr. Wall Street both stood up, and everybody shook hands with Joe. Somebody even turned the damn television off. Joe made a point of shaking hands with me, and pretended he remembered me. And as soon as I mentioned my Shorthair, Gretel, he really did remember me, and I found that kind of endearing. She’s a great dog.

Joe is pushing eighty now, and his back is stiff, so that he’s always canted slightly forward, but he’s fit and still has a handshake you can feel in damp weather for weeks after, and he has a quick, alert quality to him. When he’s hunting, when I ran Gretel for him, he doesn’t talk much, but now he chatted politely with everyone. When Wallace finally got there we all went into the dining room and everybody started pumping Joe about football, the inside stories about the toughest guys in a tough sport from the long-ago days. Dick Butkus. Jim Otto. Jack Youngblood. Larry Csonka. Jack Lambert. Mean Joe Greene. Lawrence Taylor. All the legendary names, the guys who made you want to watch the game. And somehow, in the middle of all this, Joe told us about Sonny Liston.

 

It was the summer of sixty-one, late summer (Joe said) a miserable damn summer even by Philadelphia standards, start sweating as soon as you get out of the shower. I was living in the same building as Sonny. He and Geraldine lived one floor down. I’d see him every now and then, nod to him, congratulated him after he knocked out Howard King, that sort of thing, but I didn’t really know him or anything.

Then one day I was walking home and came around the corner of my street from the north. The apartment building was down much closer to the southeast corner, and Sonny came around that corner at just the same time. What I saw was a little boy, maybe five, six years old, playing on our stoop, and as I watched, he took a header, ass over teakettle, right down those concrete steps. Sonny and I both began to run, but he was a whole bunch closer and got there first.

This was back when Sonny was the meanest, baddest, most hated man in America, the man vilified in the press as a “jungle beast,” “a gorilla,” “strong as a yoke of oxen and just as dumb,” “the personification of evil.” They actually wrote all that stuff back then. So when I got there, what I saw was the most dangerous and despised man in America, kneeling by a little white boy, wiping the blood off his knees, brushing the tears away with a hand…

That man had the largest hands of any person I’ve ever seen. It was a hand that looked like it could have crushed that boy’s skull, but he was being as tender as a mother, and after the boy stopped crying, Sonny gave him a dollar.

Well, after that I sort of looked at him a little differently, spoke to him a little more when I saw him. Not much. I was in training, and he was training for the Westphal fight, so it wasn’t like we hung out or anything, but we’d say a few words on the steps, that sort of thing.

The Westphal fight was that winter, right there in Philly, at the old Convention Hall, one round, first time Westphal was ever even knocked down, never mind out, and the next morning, not even light yet, there was a knock on my door. It was Sonny.

“I need some help.”

“Sure Sonny, what do you need? Congratulations, by the way.”

He ignored the congratulations and jerked his head toward the staircase. “I need you to help me count my money.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but I said, “Okay, let me get my clothes on.”

“No. I’m in a hurry. Right now.”

The baddest, meanest man in America, the man they called the Big Bear, actually wasn’t very big at all. I was about five inches taller and fifty pounds heavier, but, well, he was Sonny Liston. So I went with him in my pajamas.

We walked down to his floor and went in his apartment. There was no sign of Geraldine, but there were two brown paper grocery bags on the floor filled with cash, mostly hundred dollar bills and fifties, some twenties and tens, both bags stuffed with bills.

Sonny didn’t say anything about it, but I found out many years later from some of the sports reporters what had happened. Sonny was run by the mob. Everybody knew that. Hell, he had started as a goon, breaking up strikes and striker’s heads for them. And Sonny was illiterate. Everybody knew that too. I don’t mean he had trouble reading and writing or counting. I mean he couldn’t. But there’s a difference between illiterate and stupid, and the mob had made the mistake of thinking Sonny was stupid. He had figured out he was being shorted, so after he knocked out Westphal, I mean that same night, right after the fight, he went over to the mob’s money man with two brown paper bags and told him he wanted his money, right then, right there.

The accountant’s some skinny little middle-aged guy, and he says, “Sonny, you know I can’t do that.” Sonny says he wants his money. The accountant says he can’t let him have it. They go through that routine three times and then Sonny picks up the accountant and turns him upside down and tells him he’s going to bounce him up and down on his head until he gets his money. He got it, and he’d spent most of that night trying to count it.

So. I sat down on a sofa and started arranging the bills by denomination, Sonny sitting right next to me, watching. I got one bag done and I started counting out the bills, starting with the hundreds. All of a sudden, a finger as big and round and hard as a dried pepperoni sausage comes down on a bill, just below Ben Franklin’s picture.

“What’s that say?”

I knew he was illiterate, but it caught me off-guard, and I didn’t want to make him feel bad, so I made out I couldn’t see what he was pointing at.

“What? Which word?”

“That one.”

I’d gotten my wits together and I played it very matter of fact, no big deal. “Oh. That’s Franklin’s name. See that first letter? That’s F. A, B, C, D, E, F. And that’s pretty much how you say it. Ef. And that next letter, that’s an R.” I worked my way through the alphabet to R. “Are. And when you got an R right after an F like that, it sounds like Fur. Fur-anklin. That next letter, that’s an A…” And that’s how we did it. I sat there in my pajamas on Sonny Liston’s sofa teaching him to read the words off bills, Grant, Jackson, Hamilton, letter by letter. The only word he knew on any of them without me telling him was “America.” He pointed at it and said it, and I said, “Yeah, that’s right!” Just like I’d say it to a kid, and just like a kid, he smiled. And then he heard something out on the street and walked over to the window.

“Uh-oh. Trouble.”

I went over to the window and looked out. It was that dreary early morning grey you get back East. There was a limo and guys were getting out. Guys. Big guys. Guys bigger than me.

Sonny started throwing all the money back in the bags. “You got to get out of here. Take this with you.”

“Sonny, if there’s going to be trouble, I’ll stay here and help you.”

That stopped him. He looked up at me. He was only about six feet, maybe a little more, but small to me, and there was something in his eyes… I can’t tell you what it was exactly—he had the most impassive face I’ve ever seen on anyone—but there was something there at that moment I couldn’t put my finger on. Then he said, “You get out. I can handle this, but if Blinky sees you, you’re a dead man.”

By now we could hear footsteps in the stairwell and Sonny led me into a bathroom. There was a little window that went out onto a ledge.

“Go out there,” he said.

“Sonny, I weigh two-hundred and sixty pounds. I can’t get out that little window.”

“You got to.”

And the way he said it, I didn’t argue. I got my head and one shoulder out, and then I got stuck. He picked up my legs and put his shoulder against my ass and shoved so hard I went through the window and damn near right off the ledge. Then he handed the two brown bags out to me and slammed the window.

Everybody’s got something they’re afraid of. With me, it’s heights. But to be honest, I was even more afraid of what was coming in that apartment behind me. So I got up. It was about twenty degrees out and I’d lost one slipper, so I walked along that ledge, three stories up in my pajamas, with one bare foot and two paper bags of the mob’s money until I got to the fire escape and climbed up to my apartment.

I was dating one of the prettiest brunettes you’ve ever seen, and by the grace of God she was awake and heard me tapping on the window. If she hadn’t heard me, I might have frozen to death out there. There was no way in the world I could even begin to explain what the hell was going on, but she was smart enough not to push it too far and we went back to bed.

I put Sonny’s money in my dad’s old green Army duffle bag and took it with me everywhere I went. I didn’t see him or hear from him or hear anything about him for almost a week.

We were out in Hershey, training, getting ready for the last game with Detroit. It had warmed up a lot and we were all in shorts and jerseys, when all of a sudden, here comes Sonny, walking right out onto the field. One of the assistant coaches ran up to him to stop him, saw who it was and stopped in his tracks like he’d run right into a wall. Again, it was an interesting thing to see. He was one of the smallest men on that field, but everyone stepped back, away from him, as he passed. He walked up to me.

“I need my money.”

“Sure, Sonny, but we’re right in the middle of training here. Can you – ”

“No. I need it right now.”

Well, we weren’t getting any training done anyway with him there, so I yelled at the coach that I’d be right back, and we went into the locker room, me slipping and sliding on my cleats. I had the duffle bag in my locker. I spun the combination dial, pulled the bag out and opened it up.

“There you go, Sonny. It’s all there.”

He reached in and grabbed a hundred dollar bill. “One…hundred…dollars,” he said, pointing at the words. He pointed below Ben’s picture. “Franklin.” His finger moved up. “America.”

For a moment we looked at each other. “Yeah,” I said, “that’s right.”

Then he slung the bag over his shoulder and was gone.

I only saw him once after that. He was coming down the steps of our building as I was going up. Geraldine was with him and he was dressed up in a suit and tie with a fedora on his head. He was carrying a little girl. I don’t know if she was his and Geraldine’s or hers from a former marriage or somebody else’s child, but he was brushing her hair back with one hand, one monstrous hand, and he was smiling and talking to the girl. When he saw me he gave me a little nod, one of those upward thrusts of the chin, but kept right on talking to her, something about they were going on an airplane, wasn’t that exciting, just as any father might talk to any daughter. The meanest man in the world.

Well, we beat Detroit, but we lost to them later in the Playoff Bowl, and that September Sonny knocked out Floyd Patterson in one round, the first time in the history in the heavyweight division that a reigning champion lost by first round knockout, and very suddenly, as suddenly as he did everything, Sonny moved to Denver, saying, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Denver than the Mayor of Philadelphia.” I heard later from one of the sportswriters what had happened.

He was the caveman everyone hated. The press wrote about him in ways that would get them run out of business today. They said he was an inferior negro at a time when all negroes were considered inferior. He was less than human. He was the hated ex-con who ought to be locked up again. When his picture appeared in a magazine wearing a Santa Claus hat he was described as the last man America would want to see coming down the chimney. Even the NAACP hated him. But Sonny thought everything was going to change after he won the championship. It was probably the only thing he ever did that really was stupid, believing a championship would change anything. He had a speech all prepared for his triumphant return to Philly the day after the fight. That’s how I know all this, because he asked that same sportswriter to help him with it, give him the right words, polish it up. It’s true. He spent the whole flight home working on the speech he was going to give to the crowds waiting to greet him at the airport in his adopted hometown, telling them how he was going to do things to help his people, how he wanted to build a home for orphan kids, black and white, all kids, how he wanted to make sure every little kid got an education. Sonny Liston.

But when he got off the plane there were no crowds. There were only one or two local sports reporters. That sportswriter, the one who told me all this so many years later, said he’d never seen anything like it and would never forget it, how Sonny, who had been so full of dreams and generosity and goodwill, laughing on the plane, how his face just closed up again like a fist, and he wasn’t Sonny Liston, World Champion heavyweight anymore. He was the Big Bear again, glowering in his corner, waiting to fight the world that hated him.

Everybody knows what happened after that. No one believed Ali had a chance. Sonny sure as hell didn’t believe it. A lot of people claimed he was actually hung-over when he climbed into that ring down in Miami. Sonny always had a drinking problem. Hell, it was the booze that killed him, not heroin. He was making his living the only way he knew how out of the ring, working for the mob, and he started moving drugs for them. But he knew too much, and he was of no use to the mob anymore, so they got him so drunk he passed out. Then they took him home and stuck a needle in his arm and made it look like Sonny was a user who just got a hot needle. That’s why that footstool was broken in the bedroom. They dropped him as they were carrying him in.

Even in death the press got it all wrong about him. They claimed he was thirty-eight. Hell, he was older than that back when he fought Ali. They claimed he was a junkie. They still wrote of him as a “hoodlum,” “a bad negro,” “the last man America wanted to see coming down the chimney.” Think of that.

The only one who got it right was Geraldine. She talked about how he loved kids. She called him a gentle man.

 

Wallace and I went out together the next morning. We called in two drake mallards and a hen. Not we. Wallace. He is to a duck call what Yo Yo Ma is to a cello. Both drakes came in on my side and I took them with the kind of shooting you wish had an audience for, but the only other person there to witness it was one of the club dogs, a yellow Lab named Cindy. She did a great job of retrieving them.

Joe had already left by the time we got back from the blind. It was a shame. I wanted to show off my two mallards. I may buy my calls at Walmart and I shoot an 870, but at least I know what to do with them. The others were all playing poker and ignoring the porno channel. I told Mr. Motel what a great job Cindy had done. I told him how much I liked her and I joked that I’d be happy to take her off his hands for him. He told me to make an offer and I walked out without bothering to say goodbye to any of them.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Weren’t you rich at one point? You must of have had a lot of money when you were in Simon and Simon.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great story. Great read.

    Thank you.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I love your style of writing. Thank you for this story.

    Carla In California

  4. Anonymous says:

    Hello JP,

    before this Sonny Liston was nothing but a name. What a tragic story. And embedded in an, let’s say, interesting frame.
    Who would have thought you wouldn’t fit in there 😉

    Best wishes

    NW

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