In my mid-teens, I trained as a boxer with a view toward competing on the Golden Gloves circuit. Then, at age 16, I got a summer job as the third cook on a Norwegian coal freighter bound for Europe.  There was no way for me to anticipate how my boxing skills would make me, an American boy, a hero among adult Scandinavian merchant seamen.  In retrospect, my boxing skills were hereditary, or so I learned well before I started training to fight.

One hot summer day on a drive toward Virginia Beach, I was with my dad when we stopped for a cold drink at an auto repair garage and its accompanying junkyard.  A very large, powerful fat man in dirty coveralls emerged from one of the repair bays to greet my father with a laughing face and a firm black grease-stained handshake.  Dad looked at the transfer of grease to his own hand and laughed.

“This is Tiny,” he said to me.  “You don’t want to shake his hand just yet.”

“This your boy?” Tiny acknowledged.  “How come he is so much better looking than you?”

“Real good looking momma, I guess.”

“Boy, I been knowing your daddy long before he ever thought about your momma.  I think you favor him more than her.  Come on inside and let me treat you all to a cold drink.”

It turned out that Tiny was another Norfolk, Virginia Fairmount Park boy who had gone to school with Dad and then followed him into a machinist apprenticeship at Whaley Engineering at the edge of the old neighborhood.  As other acquaintances arrived at the garage, and the adult camaraderie and joke telling separated me from Dad, Tiny took me aside to tell a few stories of his own.

“You see this big flabby arm?  Your daddy ever tell you about the only time I ever would play knocks with him?" Tiny began.  "I didn’t think so.  We were apprentice boys at Whaley, maybe eighteen years old.  At lunchtime, we’d go out into the steelyard to eat lunch and fool around.  Sometimes we would play knocks.  I hit you on your upper arm, and then you hit me.  We see who quits first.  Well, your daddy didn’t want to play.  Said he might hurt somebody.  Well, that just egged us on.  I was especially after him to hit me first so that I could lay him low with one of my haymakers.  Naw, he said, if you got to play, you can hit me first.  So I wound up this big ham of mine like a baseball pitcher and hit him as hard as I ever hit anybody, and it rocked him off his feet, and I know it left a purple bruise the size of a dessert plate on his left arm.

"So now it’s his turn.  He says that he's going to hit me with a six-inch punch.  Well, the boys laughed at him and made him measure his fist the six inches.  Well, I’m thinking this is a gimme.  Your dad will never go a second round after what I done to him.  So he gets up on his toes, and I brace myself with all the boys standing around, and he hit me right here on the flesh of my arm with a six-inch punch. The punch rocked me.  It stung me.  Then I looked down at my arm.  There, as plain as a dye punch, was the imprint of your daddy’s fist in my flesh, and in the three spaces between the fingers there was lines and drops of blood pinched out.  Nobody could believe what they saw.  I wanted no more knocks with your daddy, and neither did anybody else.  He had the most powerful punch in the world.  We were downright afraid of him.  He ever tell you that story?”

“No sir.”

“I guess he never told you about knocking out the middleweight champion of the world, did he?”

“No sir.”

“Damn, a man’s son ought to know such things.  If your old man is too modest to tell you, I guess it's up to his buddies to do it.  Hell, you probably wouldn’t believe such tales if he told ‘em himself.  Like the knocks story I just told you.  If you wasn’t me or a witness to it, you just couldn’t believe it.

“Your daddy was already over at Norfolk Ship so it was wartime, probably 1942.  He wasn’t even 25 at the time.  Well, Norfolk was a big fight town in those days.  There were fight cards at the Norfolk Arena every weekend and fights over in Portsmouth and in Hampton every week, too.  We knew about five or six gyms where the fighters worked out.  Our guys from the old neighborhood followed the fights.”

“My dad still does,” I said.  “I heard the Ezzard Charles-Jersey Joe Walcott fight on the car radio with him.”

“You ever heard of Tony Zale?”

“No sir.”

“Well, Tony Zale held the middleweight crown for at least six or seven years from the early forties.  He came before Sugar Ray Robinson.  You know about Sugar Ray?  OK.  Tony Zale was a great fighter, World War or no war.  So Tony Zale is coming to town.  This is before television so the world champions made tours so that fight fans could see them in the ring.  Well, we got up some guys to take off a Saturday to go see Tony Zale.  He was going to appear in a couple of gyms around town, and for two bucks you could see him mix it up with some local fighter.

“So we’re at this gym waiting for Tony to arrive, and no middleweight is anxious to get in the ring with the champ.  The champ never wants to look bad against a local boy who's trying for an instant reputation so he don’t mess around.  These are usually two or three-round exhibitions, but the local guys generally get knocked on their ass.  So the owner of the gym gets excited and starts begging for a middleweight.  Of course, we push your daddy forward.  The guy finally gets your dad into borrowed trunks and shoes for a twenty-dollar guarantee, one or two rounds, however long he can last.

“Hey, your dad looked good.  He was cut like a fighter, no stomach, big biceps and forearms, good legs.  The owner of the gym would have shit a brick if he had known how hard your daddy could hit.

“So in comes the champ with his people, in his silk robe, wearing the championship belt, ready to fight for a few minutes after signing autographs.  We’re with your daddy, maybe a little afraid of what we have pushed him into.  Then, finally, they get in the ring with a real referee, and the champ gets a laugh by saying to your daddy, ‘Take it easy on me, kid.’

“Right from the bell, it’s clear that Tony is not fooling around.  He is hitting hard, but your daddy is catching everything on his gloves and arms.  He is moving real good on his feet.  Like a pro.  But he's not throwing any punches.  All defensive.  God!  He survived the round without taking any punishment.  We cheered our asses off.  Tony’s corner was not too happy about it.

“So Tony says at the beginning of the second round to get a laugh, ‘Try to hit me, kid.’

“Tony hits your daddy with a left-right combination punch that rocked him for the first time.  I guess the champ thought he had hurt him and could finish him off with a good right hand.  That was a big mistake because your daddy was a hell of a counter puncher.  He caught Tony’s right hand lead with his left and stepped across it with that six-incher real tight.  The champ went down like somebody opened up a trap door underneath his feet.  The gasp from the crowd must’ve cleared the room of flies.  I swear.  Your dad backed up from the body like he had done murder.  The champ’s corner people jumped into the ring and went to reviving him.  He was out cold when they first got to him.

“Then there was cussing and screaming that the gym had slipped in a ringer on the champ.  Set him up.  That’s what his people claimed.  They got Tony to his feet, but he was still on queer street.  His eyes just wouldn’t focus.  He had to be helped through the ropes, never saying a word.  Then on with the robe and out quick to their cars.  The gym owner was so damn mad that he refused to pay your daddy the twenty dollars and locked himself in his office until we left.  I told your daddy that he should keep the trunks and jock, the ring shoes, and the mouthpiece since the man refused to pay him, but your daddy wouldn’t do it.

“We looked in the newspaper the next day, but there was no mention of the fight.  Tony Zale got out of Norfolk and probably never wanted to come back.  Maybe a hundred people saw what happened that day, but who would believe them if they told the story?  Who’s this guy who knocked out Tony Zale?   A shipyard machinist?  Go on.  That could never happen.”

My dad taught me the basic skills of boxing, but the real fight training was given to me by our neighbor Dick Sherbondy, whose garage rear window faced our backyard fence.  Mr. Sherbondy, my father told me, had been the U.S. Army middleweight champion during the World War II years, a time when there were millions of warriors in the Army.  The garage had been fitted out with a hanging heavy bag and a speed bag mounted to one wall.  Once invited, I became a regular bag-pounder and a speed demon with a jump rope.

Mr. Sherbondy then began to coach me on my footwork and a style of boxing that emphasized counter punching.  From this training, I began to enter amateur boxing events where I was never knocked down and lost only one fight.

I was such a tough 16-year-old that my father and a Scandinavian friend chided me for being jobless that summer.  Scandinavian boys as young as fifteen worked on merchant ships, I was told.  In response, I obtained a passport and approached a family friend who was the Swedish-Norwegian Consulate for a job on a merchant ship.  My parents thought my initiatives were senseless until I was offered a job as a third cook on the M.S. Vinni, a Norwegian coal freighter.  Within eight hours, I had my fit-for-duty physical, my seaman's papers, and I was onboard the Vinni as its only native English-speaking crewmember.

The Vinni followed the northern route to Europe that took it out of Hampton Roads in Virginia along the East Coast of the United States, past New York and Boston within range of American rock and roll radio stations.  The course then veered away from Nova Scotia and the island of Newfoundland in a great arc across the North Atlantic, with the tip of Greenland a distance to port, and the passage between Iceland and Scotland to negotiate before entering the North Sea nearly equidistant between the coast of Norway and Aberdeen on the Scottish side.  Across the North Sea lay the German ports and their industrial hunger for coal.  As the Vinni crossed the mid-ocean canyon, she entered an area mined with icebergs.  The summer heat in the northern latitudes had caused ancient glaciers to calf mountains of blue ice into the sea.  The color was an indication of the great pressure that had compressed the ice to such an extreme density that even months at sea would not melt it.  This was the very sea that had claimed the invincible Titanic.  Captains and navigators marked it well.

Unfortunately, the ocean off Greenland was also a famous fog bank as the result of the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream colliding with the Arctic flows from the north.  After August, the Vinni would choose a more southerly route out of respect for the North Atlantic.

Before the cooler climes and fog enveloped the ship, the crew was taking advantage of excellent weather and smooth sailing.  On the roof of the after-deck house where ropes, canvas, and winch equipment were stored, a boxing ring had been erected, and the second officer was giving instructions to about ten off-duty crewmembers.  By the time I completed my afternoon work and discovered the activity, two men were already sparring to the enthusiastic encouragement of the bystanders.  I climbed the ladder and joined the recreation without thinking about putting on the gloves.

Since I had learned to box, I had watched the fights on television and had witnessed ringside—at the Norfolk Boys Club or at competitions— hundreds of professionals and amateurs practicing their sport. Watching the Europeans put on the gloves and spar with each other was one of the most ridiculous exhibitions of boxing ineptness that I had ever seen.  If the officer had ever been in the ring for a real refereed fight, I would have been surprised at the fact by the way he coached his fighters.  All of them that I saw perform telegraphed their punches, dropped their guards on body feints, and displayed no footwork balance to put power behind any of their punches.

Suddenly it seemed the officer was gesturing for me to put on the gloves.  A taller, heavier German kid was waiting to spar with me.  Mickey Mouse, the muscle-bound deckhand, and some others were egging him on.  The American vs. the German.  It had appeal to the Scandinavians who had an old grudge against the invading Germans, and a new one against the exploitive Americans who smacked most Europeans across the face with their almighty dollars.  Let them hit each other hard.  What’s a little blood among enemies?  That seemed to be the attitude of the crowd, and the German boy—a twenty-year-old from the engine room—seemed willing to be tested.

The officer reminded us that we were just sparring, just practicing, but no one seemed to believe the caveat.  If the officer had not been present, wages on who would quit first would have been made in a heartbeat of expectations.  The smart money would probably have gone down on the German just on consideration of his advantage in size.  The fact that I had pushed away the gloves when they were first offered only confirmed the favorite.

When the round began, I was casual enough in my defense to encourage the German to hit me but caught all my adversary’s punches on my gloves.  It was quickly apparent to me, to borrow Dick Sherbondy’s favorite phrase, that the German could not have hit me with a handful of corn.  He just did not have the skills or power to defeat my trained defenses.  That I had yet to throw any punches further encouraged the German to go after me, but he lashed out in vain.

I decided to teach the larger man a boxing lesson so when the German overstepped and missed with a right hand, I moved in close and caught the boy with a left hook that dropped him to his knees.  Few of the onlookers had even seen the punch.  Some thought the German had slipped on the canvas-draped deck.  But the German knew that he had been hit hard, and he didn’t like it.  He didn’t like it one damn bit.  He decided to overwhelm me with a rush of determination and a flurry of punches.  I withstood the charge with instinctive footwork and saw the anger in the German boy’s flushed face. He looked to the officer to stop the fight; but the officer, pleased with the action and the excitement of the crew, waved his arms together for us to continue.  I didn't want to hurt my opponent, and I was in no condition or frame of mind to continue the athletic farce much longer.  So when the German gave me the next opening, I rocked him with a hard right-hand counter punch that spun the German around and caused him to fall to the canvas on his side.  Bewildered, he looked up from the canvas, wondering who or what had hit him.  I wanted to take off my gloves, but the German got up behind me and wanted revenge.  The officer asked if he was okay, and then, without consulting me, he signaled the fight to resume.

“What happened to the bell?” I asked in frustration.  No one seemed to understand.

Now the German was really mad.  He did not want to box so much as he wanted to charge me and punish me by rough wrestling with his elbows and knees.  At the first opportunity, I set him up for a combination punch.  The left-hand lead stunned the German.  The right hand that followed by a fraction of a second knocked him unconscious.

The knockout shocked the noisy crowd into concerned silence and scared the hell out of the second officer.  He had made no provision in his game of boxing for an injury.  The officer knelt at the German’s side, tapping his face, praying to his God that the boy was alive.  Within a few seconds the boy—sprawled awkwardly on the deck—blinked his eyes, and opened his mouth to test his jaw.  With help, he sat up.  Mine was one of the sober faces that came into focus in the circle above him.  I had already thrown down my boxing gloves.  When the German finally was helped to his feet, he pushed off his gloves with a kind of disgust.  He did not look at me.  He allowed two crewmembers from the engine room to support him down the ladder, and he went off with the second officer to the sickbay room where he would be ordered to lie down and be checked every hour by a flashlight in his eyes for signs of a concussion.

I walked away alone from the after-deck house.  The men who had witnessed the fight had either gone with the officer and the German to sickbay or were too stunned by the events to approach me. Back in my cabin, I resolved not to tell anyone on the ship about my boxing history.  I was no gunfighter who desired to be tested by other gunfighters who might pick a fight.  Swen and Rolf, my Scandinavian sponsors, had advised me to keep a low profile onboard ship.  Well, knocking a fellow crewmember unconscious was not exactly taking the low road.  Olav, my cabin mate, had not seen the fight, but Mickey Mouse would surely tell him.  I guessed that the steward, my boss, would hear about it, too.

I was not really worried about the German.  I had knocked boys unconscious before in the ring, and in a few neighborhood fights, and they had all recovered.  The padded gloves had prevented me from breaking the German’s jaw.

“Gee,” I thought, “I only hit him four times.”

If the boxing exhibition had been the single factor in establishing my name aboard ship, I might have slipped back into the obscurity of the scullery.  As it happened, however, my image on the Vinni took a quantum leap the following night by virtue of a Hollywood film shown for the crew in their dayroom. The movie was more than ten years old.  It was making the rounds among merchant ships that traded their canister entertainments tit for tat.  That the 1947 film Killer McCoy—starring Mickey Rooney, Brian Donlevy and Ann Blyth—flickered noisily in the Vinni dayroom within 29 hours of my fight was a star-crossed coincidence.  The word-of-mouth on the event itself had just had time to reach every ear on the ship before the film was run.

Killer McCoy is a fight film.  Mickey Rooney as McCoy is a diminutive boxer with a devastating right hand.  Usually his ring opponents are much larger and less wholesome than the hero.  In the plot, McCoy, by extortion, is forced to take cruel and unusual punishment until the round picked by some wicked gamblers.  Then he is expected to knock out his opponent on cue. In some fight scenes, McCoy is beaten half to death before the round with the bets arrives.  Miraculously, McCoy delivers to the cheers of the movie audience.

The connection between the film characters and the fight on their own ship seemed immediately obvious to the crewmembers in the darkened dayroom.  I, the American, was Killer McCoy.  For as long as I remained on the ship, I was referred to as Killer.  I was now known, recognized, and celebrated by every crewmember, with perhaps the exception of the engine room German.  In ways I could not have anticipated, I was a shipboard celebrity.

Monty Joynes had a career as the editor and publisher of magazines and books before turning to the authorship of novels and non-fiction books.  His fiction reputation was established with the four novels in The Booker Series.  His non-fiction publications include two making-of-the-movie books and a two-subject biography.  He also has written and produced screenplays and a classical music oratorio libretto.  Two of his military short stories were published in anthologies, one in October and another in November (2012).  The second included his Pushcart Prize nominated story "First Day at An Khe" as well as a poem.