My grandfather Joshua was a generous, God-fearing reactionary.

Like many a struggling farmer in Selbyville who endured the Depression, Johsua held fact to two heroes who never let him down: Abraham Lincoln and Joe Louis.

Joshua spoke of both -- the rail-splitter and the son of a sharecropper as though they were old friends who had helped him out ditch banks and slaughter the hogs.

To him, Lincoln meant wisdom, and Louis courage. To a man like Joshua, with little schooling and 14 hours of work to face each day, those words had a meaning.

Joshua's wife Sadie, who had two years of college, was ashamed of her husband's friendships with members of the Klu Klux Klan.

"Your father thinks it's a social club like the Elks and Kiwanis," Sadie told her daughter Elizabeth.

In other times, despite that disclaimer, the children of Joshua and Sadie might have thought of their father as a man whose views were narrow and who tolerated the Klan.

Instead, they remenbered him as a man who loved Joe Louis.

That is one way history changes, not only with wars and presidents, but in the stories each generation passes on about what it loves and hates.

Louis's fights were a family occasion in Joshua's home. Everyone gathered around the cloth-covered Philco and listened to the crackling, romantic account of the distant battle.

Joshua was nervous before the fights. As a young man he had run a grocery store, which fared poorly.

Whenever a young man of the town would challenge him to a wrestling match, he would shut the store for the afternoon, take off his bow tie, and they would grapple in the dirt of Main Street.

Joshua was a good wrestler, a poor businessman.

That night in 1938 when "Joe Louie," as Joshua always called him, fought Max Schmeling, the tension was almost too much to bear.

The world listened to Louis and Schmeling that night, but none listened closer than Joshua with his ear just inches from the Philco, his fists moving in pantomime to transfer his farmer's strength to Louis.

When Louis' work of revenge was done, and done quickly in 2:52 of the first round, Joshua had to leave the living room quickly. When he came back he was blowing his nose in a huge red denim handkerchief.

"That was the closest I ever came to seeing my father cry," said Joshua's daughter, "that is, until the day my brother died."

A quarter century later, Joshua still told the story of that fight to his grandson. Joshua and the boy walked down a long dusty road to the farm. "The night Joe Lou-ie knocked out the Nazi," Joshua said, "that was a great day for all of us."

When I met Joe Louis last year before the first round of the now notorious U.S. Boxing Championship on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Florida, his hand was enormous and strong, his handshake sott with the certainty of strength.

"You were my grandfather's hero," I said, for the record. "He listened to all your fithts and threw every punch with you."

"Yeah, that's good" said Louis, vacant-eyed, not seeming to hear. "Nice to meet you." And he shook the next hand in line.

"I had been prepared to meet the wreck of Joe Louis. Many a fighter had said to me, "I just hope I don't end up like poor old Joe Louis, broke and standing in a Las Vegas casino shaking hands as a greeter."

Louis'bad end has become part of the lore of a bitter sport. Like the myth of his career, the legend of Louis' degradation has become a Bunyanesque tale.

His $1.25 million income tax debt was just the beginning of the Louis decline and fall. By 1960 the Treasury wolf pack gave up trying to collect and closed the Louis case.

But the Brown Bomber had become boxing's wooden Indian, wheeled out (for a few bucks) for every title fight to predict an upset. Whenever Muhammad Ali took a radical position, the press flocked to Louis for a counter-quote from the good Negro.

When Louis had a mental breakdown in 1971, his five-month institutinalization became grist for two biograhies which painted him as a pathetic paranoid who saw gangland hit men blowing poison gas at his bald head from every ceiling ventilator.

Yet, just as 1930s radio broadcasts encouraged Americans to imagine Herculean championship fights, the spotty press reports of the '70s of Louis in old age have encouraged the imagination to create a nightmare of pathos.

The Louis that I have met and talked with three times in the last 10 months would have gotten along fine with Joshua.

Neither cared a whit for ideology or abstract ideas. Some are insulted that Louis barters his reputation for money. Louis isn't one of them. "There's a buck in it," he explained. "That's the same reason I gave for becoming a fighter 40 years ago. What's so hard to understand?

Louis is only comfortable, certain of acceptance, in the midst of a fight crowd. So he migrates with them whenever possible, not out of some aging despair, but because he is a simple, innocent man who has mastered just one craft.

Joshua would never leave Selbyville for the comforts of the city, not in the face of his last sickness or the loss of old friends. The farm was his sustenance, and he died within sight of the Eastern Shore soil. No one asked why.

Louis, 64, who had major heart surgery in November and was released from a Houston hospital last month, is sure to stay close to boxing until the last possible day, even if young folks shake their heads and say, "Look at the poor old factotum."

One memory of Louis will stay with me -- not a glorious film clip from his 12 years as world champ, but a breakfast in Pensacola, Fla., in 1977 when Louis was supposed to be but a shell of himself.

Louis and four young heavyweights had breakfast together, destroying platter after platter of flapjacks. The patriach of punches listened to their jokes and laughed quietly to himself in the right places. When he told a story, there was silence. When his punchline came, the heavyweight laughs were genuine.

A black derby hat was passed around the table, the property of flashy young contender Jody Ballard. The derby came to rest jauntily of Louis' balding head for the duration of the two-hour meal. It looked at home there.

Joe Louis was in his natural element, and no one at the table could have worn it better.