A First-Class Fighting Man
By George Sterling
Sag Harbor, my place of birth, was and is a town of less than five thousand inhabitants, and lies on Shelter Island Sound, a hundred miles east of Brooklyn. The Sound is a bay of turquoise-blue water, shallow, and growing yearly more shallow as the gouging ice-flows of severe Winters spread on its floor the sands of its one islet and of the capes at its northern entrance. In Summer this pan of water, roughly four miles by five, warms rapidly in the rays of the torrid sun, and affords delightful swimming. On all the other sides of the town stretch woods of pine or oak, reaching to the Hamptons, and several ponds permit skating in Winter and are dotted with pond-lilies in Summer. It was, and still potentially is, a boy's paradise, and it was in such favorable surroundings that I passed all my years, as far as the twentieth, aside from a few Winters spent at school in Maryland.
Sag Harbor is an old, old town. Originally the port of shipment for Sagg, four miles inland, whence the farmers would send livestock and vegetables to New York, it became a century later the second whaling-port of America, surpassed in importance only by the common harbor of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, and with a greater tonnage than New York, which ranked only third. It was from Sag Harbor that my mother's father, Wickham Havens, sailed so many times as whaler in the twenties, thirties and forties, first as seaman and soon as captain. He was of a sporting disposition, and would never allow his mates to kill a whale unless there were several in sight. Moreover, he could cast the harpoon farther than anyone in the combined whaling-fleets. As boyhood memory recalls him, he was built on the lines of an upright-grand piano.
Sag Harbor grew rich on its whaling, till the raiding Shenandoah and the growing use of kerosene put an end to its prosperity. I still remember the ribs of one of the old ships, imbedded in the sands where we did much of our swimming; on very low tides it was our custom to hammer and wrench, with much labor, the copper nails protruding from the ancient timbers. The junk-man Collins paid as much as twelve cents a pound for such metal, and our toil between tides often netted us no less than six cents. True, huckleberry picking was more profitable, but was not possible in Spring, Autumn and Winter.
Sag Harbor's whale-money was not spent recklessly, but remained in the town. Hence we had many families of wealth, and of the high respectability concomitant. It was, like all Eastern communities, eminently a church town. The steeple of its Presbyterian church, to which my grandfather's family gave tepid allegiance, and on top of which my chum and I once wired a huge pirate-flag, was the highest one on Long Island, outside of Brooklyn. And it was to this town, when I was at the tender age of eighteen, that Pete M'Coy, in his time the undefeated welter-weight of America, came to pass his remaining days, like an old warship stranded on the shore of a quiet harbor.
Nor that Pete was old in years, he was aged in fighting-endurance only, lacking that tenure on pugilistic capacity that was the gift of the almost fabulous Fitzsimmons. No—I doubt if he was much more than thirty-five years of age, though even that, naturally, seemed almost venerable to boys still in their 'teens.
We—my playmates and I—were well prepared to welcome and idolize the retiring gladiator. The news of his arrival spread on boyhood's radio through the town, and within an hour there was a group of young adorers standing opposite his brother-in-law's house, where he had taken up his abode.
Pete showed little taste for such homage, however flattered internally he may have been, and it was only by persistent attendance on his wayfarings that we—my chum Roosevelt Johnson and I—were able to gain favor in his sight. This involved the gift of cigars, many glasses of beer, and sundry flasks of bourbon filched from my father's sideboard. It was but human that he should melt at last, and, for all our youth, admit us to comradeship; and when he did confer that accolade, he did so unstintedly, and became in his heart, I thought, as one of us.
Our methods of pleasing were by no means entirely alcoholic. We had a small sailboat, and it was not over-long before he took pleasure in accompanying us on our trips around the bay, whether to swim at distant and assumably more desirable beaches, or to fish, dig clams, or go crabbing. Pete was strong for clam-bakes, the more so because portions of the bake consisted of corn-ears stolen from neighboring fields and sweet potatoes pilfered from our own cellars, the whole washed down with cold beer. This latter I would procure in my father's name from various saloon-keepers, to all of whom he rendered medical service, and who never sent in accounts.
So behold us, scions of the town's best families, of old Huguenot and Puritan Mood, following this retired veteran on his comings and goings, like two faithful young whippets attending a battle-scarred bull terrier. We were the envied of all the other youths of the town, especially when we announced the news that Pete was to give us boxing lessons, and indeed he did open such a class. I, he averred, would make a good prize-fighter, what with my reach of arm—"though you'll have to say goodbye to that beak," he concluded, referring to my slender proboscis. And at an expression of distaste on my part, he exclaimed: "Well,I did. Look at mine."
My parents, however, put an abrupt end to Pete's plan of making a pugilist of me. My father doubted my capacity for the profession, and my mother was naturally horrified. So I was not even permitted to take boxing-lessons. Pete, however, seemed to think no less of me for that handicap, though he spoke his mind freely on the subject of folk who would allow their offspring to grow up at the mercy of those that had attained proficiency in the manly art. Nancies, he called them.
As I have said, I sometimes procured for him a modicum of bourbon, but beer was his favorite tipple, and, though no bar-fly, he could consume large amounts of it. My friend Roosevelt Johnson tells a story in that relation. "You know," he writes me, "I was probably about sixteen years old at the time, and thought it my duty to attend to his welfare. One day we were each sitting on an empty keg, and he was busily opening and devouring little round clams, and as industriously washing them down with long draughts of beer. After he had drunk about four glasses—to my youthful horror—I said: 'Pete, you'd better not drink any more. You know that your wife is home.' At which he ate several more clams, drank another glass of beer and retorted: 'Young man, if you'll attend to your business, I'll attend to my wife.' "
Johnson also relates: "Once, when he went swimming with me, he asked me if I could lie on the bottom. 'Of course,' I replied, and went down, only to float at once to the surface of the water again. He then turned his back to me, took, apparently, a long breath, went to the bottom and lay there like a water-logged spar. Later he caught me the trick, which consisted of expelling instead of inhaling the breath, and I afterwards fooled many other boys with it."
I well recall his first swim with us. We had taken him, early in our acquaintanceship, for a sail to a beach across the bay, called Mashomack Point. With us were a number of quarts of beer and a generous luncheon put up by our mothers. We looked with the greatest curiosity at him when he had stripped for the swim, imagining, what of his prowess, that he would be muscled like a gladiator. No special signs appeared, however, of the formidable power concealed in his medium-sized frame. He had a moderate amount of fat over the thews of back and arms, while his breast was as hairless as a girl's, and his legs less well developed than our own.
For a while we had to take his prowess on faith and rumor. Then the time arrived when the town was to behold a real (as we imagined) prize-fight, though it was but a boxing-match with six-ounce gloves. The services of one Jimmy Nelson, heralded as the heavy-weight champion of Connecticut—whatever prestige that may be conceived to confer—were obtained, and the match was held in the hall of the local athletic club, whose membership was almost entirely German and Irish.
My father, to our own awful delight and our mother's customary horror, allowed me and my two brothers, both younger than I, to accompany him, and we were honored with ringside seats. We had seen the warrior from Connecticut on the street, and his size had filled us with dismay and doubt as to the safety of our friend. Indeed, as the great hairy brute sprang in through the ropes, took his seat and glared viciously over at Pete, my younger brother Jimmy burst incontinently into tears of apprehension. As for Pete, he turned his head to my father and said, with a mildly malicious leer: "Watch me smother th' big bum!"
We boys did not catch his meaning, but it was immediately made plain to us. Then, for the first time, I was made aware of that leopardlike agility of the especially gifted pugilist that I was afterwards to see in Corbett. Pete seemed to glide, to float, across the ring, rather than to make the distance with pacing feet. Apparently without effort, and in a flash of time, he was in the heavy-weight's corner as that black-browed one rose in menace from his stool. Pete was almost a blond, with steady, small blue eyes, and it was to us even as the conflict of angel and devil. A smash of gloves, as he warded off effortlessly the lunge of his opponent's left and right arms, and we saw what he had meant by smothering. For his gloves seemed always in the other man's face, the blows, not very heavy ones, following one another with a swiftness that the eye could hardly follow, till from a feeling of sharp anxiety for Pete's very life, we passed to a sense of pity for his huge but well nigh defenseless antagonist. It was like a bull-terrier worrying a great, helpless Newfoundland. Nor did the contest, as I recall it, go to the length advertised: I have a memory of the big, dark man holding out his hands to be freed of the gloves and crying bitterly: "What do you fellers think you're runnin' me up against" Evidently he had been told that Pete was all in. Our friend, however, was not even breathing rapidly, as he turned to my father and said: "I had a good mind to land on him, but I promised the boys I wouldn't."
Later, however, he did give us a notion of the great driving-force hidden within that almost seal-smooth form, when he knocked our stable-man, a huge Negro afflicted with pugilistic ambitions, through the ropes of the same ring and over three rows of seats. "Just to show you boys how," he explained smilingly. Pete would be rated today as a welter-weight, but as a matter of fact, that division had not at the time (the late eighties) been introduced into the rules of the ring. But it was as a welter-weigh: that he fought the then invincible Nonpareil Dempsey, the only man to beat him. I do not recall distinctly what date and place the dope-book gives for that fight, but it was near Philadelphia and in the eighties, not many years, no doubt, before he came to Sag Harbor to live. The combat listed ten fierce rounds, which may give some idea of the eminence of Pete as a fighter. Any man who could stand that long before the pitiless onslaught of the ex-cooper, himself to be conquered only by Fitzsimmons, had to be a formidable ringster.
Pete's victories were many indeed, for it is a truism that in those days the pugilist fought often and for little money and for blood, not, as in these softer days of once-a-year fights, for fortunes, in which even the loser leaves the ring on his legs. But those victories are recorded in no book of fistic data that I have ever been able to discover, though I have made search. Probably no such records have gone between to covers, and yet I could wish that so great and gallant a warrior might have more to make his name recalled than these transient lines and the memories of his fast vanishing acquaintances and followers. He was neither eager nor unwilling to relate those many triumphs, many of them over men superior to him in weight, and younger than himself. Of such he would speak, tersely and not immodestly, when questioned; but for the most part he was content to let the tongues of others chant his praises.
And so, for several months, he walked the streets of our elm-embowered town, our one distinguished citizen, the mark of all eyes, the object of all boyish, and most masculine, adoration. Such was and is the normal attitude of youth toward what it regards as true greatness. Is not that estimate, involving as it does the worship of all champions of sport, indicative of the real immaturity of the average man, of the race itself? What to us were all the lords of thought? Here was a lord of the arena, red, it least in our youthful imagination, with the blood of his challengers. No need for an Achilles, a Coeur de Lion, a General Grant: here was a hero in the flesh; here was one who had stood a hundred times triumphant.
What Pete's philosophy of life was I never learned. At that age I was unaware of the existence of such trifles, and so am ignorant whether or no he had formulated for himself such a regimen of fortitude as might carry him uncomplaining to his last bout, even that with Death himself. But it may he that the manner of that ending, as I shall soon relate, may shed some light on the nature of the man, revealing the fierce warrior's pride concealed in that taciturn breast.
Whatever the truth, there can be but little doubt that his last months in our community were pleasant, if not happy, ones. I think he took his greatest pleasure in swimming, a sport at which he had early become proficient on the wharves of New York. But when the swim became an adjunct of a clam-bake, with beer ad lib., his joy was at its highest. He liked crabbing as well, and when once he plunged headlong into the water in his effort to get one of the crustaceans, and then claimed that if was a premeditated act, he trusting his hand-grasp rather than the crab-net he was using, he won our hearts entirely. He was not without his compliments to us, as when we showed him the huge fish-hawks' nests we were wont to rob in the early Springtime, and, being no climber himself, he wondered at our courage—he who had stood up against the unsparing piston-strokes of Dempsey! Also he had heard, of course, of our pirate-flag escapade, and would gaze up at the steeple's two-hundred foot pinnacle and actually groan, as he contemplated our midnight ascent. Our assurances that it was no worse than climbing a high tree left him quite unconvinced. "You little devils!" was more than once his comment.
Yes—aside from his last hours, he found, I am certain, many pleasant ones on our yellow shores and turquoise waters, basking on the clean sands or in the shadow of the listless sail, his round, bronzed face giving no indication of such memories, glad or sad, as might then haunt it. Enough that the bay was still warm enough for swimming, and his henchmen eager to ply him with the cool benediction of beer. Also a quite harmless shark used to visit us from southern waters, each Summer, and its sharp dorsal fin could often be seen when the surface of the bay became, in the frequent calms, of the color and seeming texture of blue silk. Pete wore undying vengeance against the sluggish creature, who, he was wont to assert, had been responsible for the disappearance of more than one bather, and would scan intently the waveless water, a big army-revolver clasped in his round right fist. "Let me have just one shot," he would pray. The shot was never heard. The bay began to chill in late September, the shark went back again to the tepid reaches of the Gulf, as I to my school in Maryland, nor was it till my return, the following June, that I learned the tragedy of Pete's end.
He had been alert, naturally, to pick up such small purses as were offered for bouts with aspiring young pugilists, for whom he had proved till then a trial horse with all too deadly a kick. Some such bout was staged in, I think, a Rhode Island town, and Pete crossed Long Island Sound in the little Manhanset, the steamer that made daily trips to New London, except when frozen bays prohibited. The fight, he had been assured, was to be with four-ounce gloves, which would give him an opportunity to knock out his opponent before the length of the battle should overtax his endurance, never great in a man of his years, who, in addition, had gone through no process of training whatever.
But when he entered the ring, amid the smoke and uproar of a brutish gathering, he found that only eight-ounce gloves had been provided - this, of course, with malice pretense. He protested, saying that he might as well fight with pillows on his hands, and even tried to induce his opponent's seconds to let the fight proceed with bare knuckles. They very naturally refused: as well match their man against a tiger. The time lengthened, the crowd roared, as of old, its more than disapproval, taunts began to load the air, till at last Pete gave in, though with all the unwillingness of dire misgiving.
Sure enough—he smothered his youthful antagonist, as was his wont, for round after round, the strong young man having as little chance against him, for the time being, as a puppy with a mature terrier. But youth would be served, and every dog have its day: Pete's strength finally failed him, and the unbruised youngster slowly wore the veteran to his knees.
Pete accepted the result in grim silence. It had been, he doubtless thought, his own fault, for fighting with so preposterous an a maiment as eight-ounce gloves. He left, perhaps unaccompanied, for the train to New London and the steamer for home. But on the boat at last, some pall of dark depression and hopelessness, or storm of outraged pride, must have fallen on his humbled head. He was seen to board the steamer: when it reached Sag Harbor, no other port intervening, he was not on it. Somewhere in the blue expanse of the larger Sound, or of Gardiner's Bay, he had thrown himself, unseen, over the boat's rail, to what protracted death-struggle—he a good swimmer—who shall say? And who may tell what other source of despair and bitterness gave rise to such action? He who had faced his hundreds of opponents in bloody and protracted fights, year after year, when pugilism was a sterner matter than now, went down before the onset of this last adversary. We were to sec Pete no more, nor ever again to sit thrilled by his pantherish skill: his body was never found, the flesh going to the fishes, the bones mossed with the small weed of the tidal waters, these thirty-six years.