Flint, Michigan 1941
We lived in a hooverville when I was a kid … but maybe I should qualify that.
If by hooverville you’re thinking of a shantytown made up of tin and cardboard or tree branches and loose sticks, no, it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t a hobo jungle along the railroad tracks full of homeless derelicts. I’m not talking about mud hovels or piano boxes or Paiute wikiups.
It was a neighborhood of small tar-papered wooden houses. most of them without plumbing, that had built up on the outskirts of the city. They lined the sides of unpaved dirt roads that criss-crossed what was partly farmland and a denuded hardwood forest. The people who lived there were mostly Southern migrants or foreign immigrants. In those days of de facto racial segregation it was an all-White area and we were called hillbillies by the city people whether we were from Tennessee or Hungary.
Such neighborhoods came to be called hoovervilles during the Great Depression, despite their not being temporary encampments, because most of the families who lived there were thrown out of work when the local auto factories cut production, and they tended to blame the hard times on President Herbert Hoover and his Republican party. Ironically, the K-12 school we walked to, weather permitting, had been named for him when it was built a decade earlier during better economic times.
Regardless of when it was built, Hoover school was still an ugly two-story cement box sitting on an otherwise barren field. There was a recess play area with swings and teeter-totters, and a hastily sketched-out baseball diamond and overlapping football field for the older students. There was no cafeteria, so most kids brought their lunch in paper sacks or lunch pails. Some of them didn’t eat lunch at all. During my five years there, from K to 5, it was often referred to as Hooverville School. It was not a happy place. It was an ugly school in a ramshackle neighborhood full of tough kids.
When I was ten years old the toughest kid I knew at Hooverville school was a 16-year old boy with a harelip, as cleft palates were called in those days. His name was either Jock Leslie or Leslie Jock, but nobody seemed to know for sure, not even his teachers. They called him ”Jock,” although a girl claiming to be his cousin called him ”Les.” Whatever the order of his names, everyone knew who he was because he always seemed to be fighting. He was the most pugnacious kid I ever saw. The guys he fought were always bigger than he was. Considering his size, they almost had to be.
Jock couldn’t have weighed much over a hundred pounds. But god almighty could he fight! He was absolutely fearless and would wade into guys regardless of their size. A couple of much bigger boys, football players, managed to restrain him, wrapping him up before his fists could do much damage, but most of his opponents ended up with bloody noses or black eyes. To find smaller opponents he would have to fight kids a lot younger than he was, and that wasn’t going to happen—he was no bully—and no kid his size or smaller was fool enough to tease Jock Leslie about his harelip. Because that’s what all the fights were about.
The ignorant cruelty of grouped children is well known and I’m not going to discuss it—it just is, that’s all. Whether such teasing is intended to hurt or not is beside the point for this account; the point is that Jock wouldn’t put up with it. One can reasonably assume his pugnaciousness began early and for good reason. By the time he was sixteen and legally allowed to quit school, he was an accomplished if hot-headed scrapper. So it was perhaps inevitable that Jock Leslie, a poor tough kid from a poor tough neighborhood, would become a professional prizefighter.
Flint, Michigan 1947
My best friend Connie Arnold and I have found a weakness in the security of Flint’s Atwood Stadium and we plan to scale the south wall tomorrow night and sneak in for the evening’s main event. It is billed as a 15-round bout for the world’s featherweight boxing championship, featuring current title holder Willie Pep and no.3 ranked contender Jock Leslie. It is the first world championship fight ever held in Flint. For local sports fans and city boosters it is a very big deal and the excitement is running high.
Our plan is simple. A guy I apprentice with at United Sign Co., Ed Hardy, will drive the company truck, a converted milk delivery van, alongside the low south wall and park briefly while Connie and I climb on its roof and scramble over the adjacent wall into the bleacher seats while the crowd and the guards are distracted by the preliminary bout. Or so we hope.
I say to Hardy, ”We’ll give you three bucks.”
”It will take us less than a minute,” Connie says. ”Zip—and we’ll be up and over.”
He squints at us. He is a young Army veteran who claims to have scaled the gun emplacement cliffs south of Normandy beach on D-Day, although I don’t believe him. He seems more cut out to have been a clerk or something like that.
“Just like you guys did at Normandy.” I say. “Up and over.”
“There will be cops back there,” he says.
“No there won’t,” I say. ”That’s the river road. No gate or parking spots. No cops either, A lot easier than Normandy.”
”That’s all we’ve got,” I say. ”Tickets are five bucks apiece.”
”Let’s rehearse it,” Hardy says. So we do. And we’re out of the van and crouched on top of it in fewer than ten seconds. We do it twice. And then we do it again.
“Just get us next to that brick wall,” I say, ”We’ll just scramble over, and then you just drive off.”
”I wish I could see the fight myself,” he says. “But five bucks … and with the wife and baby, I dunno….”
And that’s how it went the next night: out, up, over, and in. No one noticed but a couple of old bleacher bums who just grinned at us. They had probably snuck in some other way.
I wish I could say it was a good fight, but with the exception of one overhand right in the third round, Willie Pep had Jock Leslie outclassed. The champ was all he was reputed to be, a will-o-the wisp fighter who completely stymied his challenger and effectively put an end to his career. Pep knocked him out in the 12th round but it looked more like Jock collapsed from exhaustion. The referee could have counted to a hundred.
Santa Monica, California, circa 1972
The small bar across from Palisades Park was new to me. It was late, almost closing time, and I couldn’t sleep. My wife and I were staying overnight in a motel a block away. We were on our way to San Francisco from Michigan via the southern route and decided to stop in one of my favorite cities, where I once lived. As often happens in the middle of a long trip, I couldn’t sleep more than a few hours at each intervening stop. So I was up at midnight and walking a Santa Monica street.
Except for a murmuring couple seated in a leather-cushioned booth, the bartender, a young cocky-looking guy, was the only other person in the place. The waitress had left soon after I arrived. I punched a couple of songs on the jukebox and settled at the bar to listen to Sinatra and nurse a whiskey and soda. A few minutes later when the bartender announced last call, the couple got up and left. As I gestured for a re-fill, he said “Last one’s on the house,” and poured a stiff one before starting to clear the cash register for the night.
Just then the front door opened and a small stout man walked in. He was wearing a navy watch cap and carrying a bucket containing bottles of cleaning fluids and a large sponge. The bartender said, ”Good morning, Champ,” and the older man said something in return that I couldn’t hear.
What I did hear, however, sounded like the voice of a man with a cleft palate. And when he walked to the rear of the room I recognized the balanced, almost delicate shuffle of an experienced boxer.
He was soon rummaging in the back room, and I heard a water faucet and the rattle of buckets. The man was obviously preparing for the the bar’s nightly clean-up.
“You called him ‘Champ,”’ I said to the young bartender. “What’s his real name?”
“Jack,” he said. “He works for our janitorial service.”
“Could it be “Jock”?
“Hey, Champ!” he yelled. “What’s your name?”
The reply could have been either “Jack” or “Jock,” but it was definitely the voice of a man with a cleft palate.
“I think it’s Jock Leslie,”I said. “I think that’s his name.”
”He says he’s an ex-fighter—he sure looks it—says he fought some big time fights.”
“He did. I saw him fight Willie Pep for the world featherweight title.”
“No shit? You saw him?”
“Hey, Champ—Jock—this guy says he saw you fight!”
The tap water turned off, the noises stopped. And Jock Leslie came out of the back room and peered at me.
“Where?” he asked.
“Jock, I saw you fight Willie Pep.”
He looked at me suspiciously. ”In Flint?”
“Atwood Stadium,” I said. ”It’s my hometown.”
He grinned and walked up to me. “Mine too, but you’re the only guy I’ve met out here who saw that fight.”
“Wow, so you really fought for a worldchampionship,” the bartender said.
“Wadn’t much of a fight,” Jock said, looking away.
“You had Pep in trouble in the third,” I said. “With that overhand right.”
He brightened. “Hey,” he said. “You did see that fight!”
“Yeah, my buddy and I snuck in.”
“Over the wall.”
He considered this for a moment. Then he smiled. ”You owe me a dollar,” Jock Leslie said.
I didn’t tell him I saw him fight a couple times when he was a kid at Hooverville school. It didn’t seem like the sort of memories he’d want stirred. I didn’t even like to think about those times myself—about that school, that neighborhood—and I didn’t have to fight like he did to get out of there.
When I got back to the motel my wife woke up. We had a bottle in the room and some ice left, so I fixed myself a drink, opened the curtains and sat looking out at the lights in the harbor and on the bay.
”Where have you been?” she asked.
“The 1940s,” I said.