There are nights that stay with you forever. There are nights that come to you all uncontrolled and wild, bearing images that stamp themselves upon your consciousness, unrelenting and immune to the fading of years. You re-enter those nights like stepping into known rooms, the country of their being a territory, a landscape your skin remembers.
February 25th, 1964. It was deep winter in northern Ontario and the nights descended like judgments, all dark and deliberate, final almost. I shared a room with my foster brother, Bill Tacknyk, and my bed was the lower of the two bunks. When bedtime came I always fell asleep to the sound of his radio playing softly in the darkness.
That night he was listening to a boxing match. Cassius Clay was fighting Sonny Liston in a place called Miami. You could hear the crowd behind the announcer’s voice. It was like a sea, roaring then murmuring then crashing into silence. The announcer was excited and his words came out of the darkness like the jabs and combinations of the fight itself.
Clay was lightning quick and he pounded the lumbering Liston. He opened a cut over his eye and there was blood everywhere. The crowd noise was enormous and it filled the corners of that dark room and when Bill’s legs draped over the edge of the bunk, I sat up too. We were galvanized by the details of that fight.
I swear I could smell the sweat of it. As the fight progressed I could feel the thud of blows landing and in my mind’s eye I could see the younger, faster Clay wheeling around the ring taunting Liston, hitting him at will. I began to cheer for him. He was blinded by something for awhile and Liston began to win.
But he recovered and as I huddled in my bunk, arms clenched around my knees rocking, I clenched my fists and willed him on. In the end when a battered Liston refused to come out and fight again the crowd cheered and booed and raged and Bill and I celebrated the new heavyweight champion of the world. My foster mother had to come in and tell us to get to sleep.
Well, Clay changed his name about the same time I did and in my new home I got to see some of his fights on television. He was beautiful. He was outrageous. He was a warrior poet and when he crashed over refusal to fight in Viet Nam I hurt for him. In my mind he was a giant and the idea of Muhammad Ali never changed.
But my life changed. My adopted home was a fiasco from day one. No one told my new family about the history of abuse I came from. No one told them about the terror I’d faced as a kid and the horrific physical abuse I’d suffered. No one knew then that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn’t just a soldier’s pain – that it could happen to a kid too.
When I was strapped and beaten it only exacerbated the trauma in me. When I was banished to my room it only embedded the isolation I felt. When I reacted out of all that fear and trauma and found it difficult to fit it and become the kid they wanted me to be there were always clashes. Physical punishment was the rule in that home and because of where I came from it was the last thing I needed.
But they never knew that. My life there was a constant bombardment of old pain, unrecognized, untreated and unhealed. I ran away a few times and when I was fifteen I emptied my bank account of paper route money and found my way to Miami Beach. It was February and I wanted to be somewhere warm. More than anything I just wanted to be away.
I lived with a pair of old hippies and got a job at a cafeteria as a bus boy. We smoked weed and hung out on the beach hitting up tourists and swiping drinks from tables. But when I couldn’t produce a social security number the cafeteria let me go and I wandered Miami Beach all lost and hurt and hopeless.
One day I found myself at a lunch counter on Fifth Street and Washington Avenue. I was lonely and I wanted to cry. But they served lemon meringue pie at that lunch counter and I ordered a piece in hopes that a childhood favorite might make me feel better. It was marvelous. A man came and sat beside me and I bent my head out of shyness.
Well, he ordered apiece of pie like mine and the waitress asked him if he was allowed to have it. He laughed and said he could eat whatever he wanted. He was the Champ, after all. I looked up and saw Muhammad Ali beside me. His training gym was right above that lunch counter and he came in often.
He bought me a piece of pie when he ordered another and a chocolate shake. We ate together and he smiled at me and rubbed my head like a brother. When he was leaving I asked him for an autograph and he signed my napkin. Muhammad Ali. A giant. A warrior poet. I felt honored. Watching him walk away I felt healed, like I could bear up and when the police found me eventually and shipped me back to my adopted home I held onto the sight of him.
I was gone for good a short time later and my life became a road. These days, thirty six years later, I still remember the feel of his big hand on my head and the taste of that lemon pie. Finding Ali saved me, allowed me the strength to carry on and I guess that’s what heroes do – imbue us with the gold dust of their courage.
Ali made me a fighter and I’ve come out for every round since then. Battered, bruised some, nearly beat, I’ve always stood up – it’s the meringue on the pie of my life.