THIS WAS THE SUMMER of 1948 and out at the beach where we had gone, a man was building a television set. It was the first one I had seen, a small, hand-made job with no cabinet and its wires spilling out the back. The kids gathered around it, wondering if this thing could bring them the event everyone was talking about. This was the summer Louis fought Walcott.
For days the man displayed the set and people came by, looking at the thing with awe. There were few sets around, none at the beach, and it was simply amazing that a man could build one. He worked out in the open and he was getting it ready for the big fight. Joe Louis was going to fight Jersey Joe Walcott and we would see it on television.
There was nothing else to talk about but this fight. The man worked on his television set and the people who had fled the heat of the city, entire families in little furnished bungalows, talked of nothing else. Would the television set work? Could he get it to pick up the fight and what would it be like?
It is maybe for this reason that I thought the television news would lead off with Joe Louis Sunday night. Instead, it was the space shuttle. I thought the first item would be that Joe Louis was dead, that they would say something about the great man he was, how he was champion -- "champeen of the world," they used to call it. He was unlettered and unschooled and the words came into his mouth and then came out gnarled and stubby, be he never disgraced himself. He was always a champion.
Some people wanted him to be more than he could be. They wanted him to be a civil rights leader and take positions on great and weighty issues, but he could not do this. He was a man of a different era and instead of ducking the army, as did Muhammed Ali, he went in, went into the segregated United States Army, and played booster. He fought exhibition matches. He wore the flag comfortably, as he had done years earlier when he fought Schmeling, the German and the darling of Hitler.
All this made it possible to see Joe Louis and America as one. We were the champs of the world and he was the heavyweight champ all men could root for -- the champ of the champs. He was maybe the last of them, an unparalleled great at a time when there really were greats in sports and they did not yet smoke dope or trade wives or wear mink coats. Joe Louis did not boast and he did not hate. He had his faults, but a kid could believe in him. At least I did.
Years later, I saw a picture of Louis. It hangs in a barbeque place and it shows him well-dressed and wearing an overcoat and a hat, real natty, and walking with a pretty woman down a street in a black neighborhood. He is looking down, frowning, looking like a man who knows that the world is watching because he is a famous and rich back man -- a freak in the 1930s and 1940s.
In the days before the Louis-Walcott fight, the man with the television set worked with it, testing it, and word of it spread along the bungalows. More and more people wanted to come and so the day before the fight, the men announced that there would be no room for women and children. They were banned. That day I brooded and that night my father and my uncle and what seemed like a hundred men gathered in the courtyard. I went up to my room, which was right above them on the second floor.
They brought out the television and set it up on a box. From my window I could see the glow of the small screen and the movements of very small men. I could not tell one fighter from another, and I could not see any of the punches land. The men roared when someone scored a blow but up high I could not tell who had hit whom. It was all very confusing, little men furtively moving around a little screen, me trying to figure out who was who and using the screen, really, just as a place to focus my imagination. To me, Louis was dazzling.
Joe Louis fought for years more. He got mauled by Ezzard Charles and mugged by Rocky Marciano, and he ended his days in the ring as a wrestler -- a freak act. He is dead now and the end of his life was sad, but in all those years he was always the champ, somehow letting you know that he could be rented, but never bought that he was just passing through. I know that the night he fought Walcott, he got decked, but I see him always as I did on a television set that was more imagination than picture tube.
No one ever laid a glove on him.