Grandpa and the Boxer

by Mike Peters

At a distance, the picture on the dust jacket looked a little like my grandfather. The hair was combed straight back and was really short on the side, the way he wore it.

There were high cheek bones like my grandfather had. Grandpa's facial structure was handed down from a great grandmother or great grandfather, depending on which story you believe, who was a Cherokee Indian. His grandpa, Elijah Coleman, was often referred to as a half breed and, as a youth, was moved around from family to family.

The author was one I knew. I had read Roger Kahn's "Boys of Summer" and was impressed with his writing about the Brooklyn Dodgers. The title of this new book was "A Flame of Pure Fire." It was about heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and the "Roaring 20s."  That made my mind up.  I needed to read this book.  Jack Dempsey was my grandfather's idol.  Maybe reading about the boxer would help me better understand the grandfather, help me understand the era in which they both flourished.

We were deep in the throngs of another holiday season.  So, I laid the book down and went to the front of the store, stood in a long line and purchased two portable CD players for my daughters.  The book would be there after the holidays and I would buy it then.  My shopping companion saw me put the book down.  She purchased the book that I unwrapped on Christmas Day 2001.

At the beginning of Chapter 4, I read the following:  
"Late one night during the 1960s, Jack Dempsey stepped out of a taxicab in front of his apartment on East Fifty-third Street, after a long evening of presiding at his Broadway restaurant.  He had passed his seventieth birthday.  His deep black hair had gone gray.

"Two muggers, seeing an elderly party who looked well dressed and well walleted, sprang out of the darkness.  Dempsey spun and flattened both.  He stood over them and waited while the taxi driver called police.  Having felt Dempsey's fists, the assailants refused to get up until the police arrived to protect them."
I smiled at the justice handed down by Dempsey's fists and then remembered an incident involving my maternal grandparents in the early 1930s.

Grandma and Grandpa courted on horseback.  On this date, their destination was a one-room church located over on Allens Fork or Trace Fork in Kanawha County.  Don't remember the exact location.  When they arrived, Grandma slid off the horse from her side saddle perch and Grandpa's light bear hug.  Two drunks started heckling the couple.  My grandfather tied up "Black Diamond" and said, "Boys, can you leave us alone?  We're not bothering you." The young men kept it up.  There was strength in numbers. There was a "what are you gonna do about it" tone in their voices. "Could you please go off and just leave us alone?" my grandfather continued.  But the drunks were relentless.  One of their barbs was a disparaging remark aimed at my grandmother. They should have quit while they were ahead.

My grandfather took off his jacket, folded it and handed it to my  grandmother. "Obe, don't!" "It'll be all right," was his reply. "The boys just want to talk to me."  He pulled the snub nosed .38 from his belt, grabbed the barrel and handed that to my grandmother.  "Obe, let's go inside," she begged."  He then pulled a flask of shine from his rear pocket, handed that also to grandma and called her by the nickname he would use throughout their almost 50 years of marriage.  "Pea, you go in and get us some seats. I'll be there in a minute.  Everything will be OK, " he reassured her.

My grandfather told me never to start a fight.  He would tan my hide.  Fighting should only be used as a last resort.  But if you had to fight remember two things, never telegraph your punches and make your first one count.  If not, your opponent(s) might just get up and kick the crap out of you.

My grandmother turned just short of the door to witness my grandfather, a little man of not more than 5' 9" and less than 150, pummel the two gentlemen.  His assessment was that he had been backed into a corner.  He was also fighting for Grandma's honor.  I'm told that his feet left the ground with his first couple of punches and that all his weight was behind each swing.  He was quickly on top of them and pounding without mercy.  The men managed to escape and ran home toward tomorrow's hangover and to nurse their cuts and scrapes.

Grandpa straightened his tie and combed his hair.  He returned the revolver and flask to their usual places of rest, put on his jacket and went inside to worship.

I knew Obert Coleman as a quiet man, a peaceful man, a non-drinker and a Christian. He only wore a tie once that I recall. There is a picture of him standing by the front gate in sport coat and tie, on the day in 1961 when my Aunt Delores Coleman Casto graduated Jackson County's Ripley High School.  I never saw him fire a handgun either.  I only remember an old 410 single barrel shotgun he used for hunting rabbits and squirrels and he fired that infrequently.

But there was a time, back when he was courting and into the early years of his marriage, that he was wild and untamed.  He drank shine from a flask or from a jug on the floor beside his bed.  He went to church, but not as a Christian.  It was a place where you dressed up and took your date.  He also carried a pistol.

That gun is one of my prize possessions.  It doesn't shoot any more and hasn't for some 60 years.  It probably wouldn't bring much at auction. But when I hold it in my hand, I see Grandpa in a different light.  I see a man so full of life, a man who has not yet been knocked down by emphysema.  I see a young man who carried a pistol and a flask into God's House.  It's something that the older man would never have considered.

Thanks for listening and as my grandmother Coleman, the witness to the fight, used to say, "Ya'll Come!"


Mike Peters

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