‘Stand sideways,” my father says. “Like this.” He plants his feet, left in front of right, pointing toward me, and I imitate his stance. “That makes you a narrow target, harder to hit.”
My father is teaching me to box. I’m 10 years old and he figures it must be time. We’re in our kitchen in suburban New Jersey. My father, then 35 or so, is wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, his chest thick, his arms muscular, his belly flat. I’m a stringbean, maybe all of 80 pounds.
“Now bend your knees,” my father says. “Like this.” He demonstrates, and once again I ape his movements. “Crouch down. Stay on your toes. Keep your hands up, in front of your face.”
He once boxed, he tells me. Golden Gloves, out of Newark, N.J., where he grew up Jewish in the then heavily Jewish Weequahic section. Tells me this matter-of-factly, same as he does everything else, with no hint of pride, much less bravado.
He shows me how to throw different punches — the jab, the cross, the one-two combination. He gives me tips on how to keep my punches short and compact, with leverage from my legs for extra power. All along, he never even pretends to direct a punch at me.
I’m thrilled. My dad the ex-boxer from gritty Newark is educating me to fend for myself with my fists.
Then one day my boxing lessons stop. No explanation is offered, and I have no idea why.
As it happens, my father never wanted to spank me. My mother occasionally assigned him this job to catch a breather from doing it herself. The first time he tried, he laid me over his lap and smoothed the spot where he planned to strike. But he swatted me only once and none too hard. He never tried again.
I took up shadowboxing as a young man. Around our apartment, sweating and grunting, I copied the maneuvers of my favorite fighters and always put into practice the few basics my father taught me.
My father died in 1997, at age 70. But some 10 years after his death, I clicked onto Google to literally search for him. I’d never known him, at least not as well as I’d wanted. I knew him mostly by his silences and disappearances and absences. He left early in the morning for work, before anyone else in the house awoke, and came back late at night, after we all went to sleep.
I missed him anyway. I also felt a sudden urge to find out something about him. Anything.
Right away the Internet yielded a surprise. A friend of his, the editor of a newspaper, had written a posthumous tribute to my father. The editor recalled interviewing him for a profile just a few months before he died. The piece was all about how my father, almost completely deaf from infancy, had established a communications network, via teletypes, among the deaf community nationwide.
But now the editor shared a story behind the story. He had asked my father about his boxing career, only for him to go mum. Pressed for some history, though, my father reluctantly opened up. In the year he competed in the New York/New Jersey Golden Gloves, 1948, he had beaten every opponent and reached the semi-finals. If he won one more fight, he would make the finals in Madison Square Garden.
My father dominated the match, and the referee stopped the bout, declaring a technical knockout. But whatever satisfaction my father might have felt was short-lived. His opponent collapsed in the ring and had to be taken out on a stretcher to the hospital. There he stayed overnight, his status touch and go. By morning he had recovered.
My father went on to compete for the championship in the Garden, he told the editor. But he was unable to focus on the match, his mind trained on the fighter he had sent to the hospital, almost killing him. He no longer had his heart in hitting anyone and he lost. He had put on boxing gloves for the last time.
It’s weird to discover your father’s secret through the Internet. But now I understand my father a little better. I can see why he abruptly stopped my boxing training, and why he kept his secret from me. I can also see why he never wanted to spank me. He simply preferred to pull his punches. And in doing so, he set an example that spoke volumes. He’d witnessed the result of violence and saw no point in committing any more.
As for me, I’m still swinging. I still shadowbox, standing sideways, knees bent, hands up. I’ve remembered my lessons well. And nobody ever gets hurt.
Bob Brody, an executive and essayist, lives in Forest Hills, Queens, and blogs at letterstomykids.org. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, among other publications.