When Henry Hemmings needed a transistor radio in March 1971, I insisted that he take mine. We were at the long sink in the bathroom during the break between evening study halls. Henry was trimming his goatee with a safety razor and I was applying a marginally effective acne medication to the left side of my face. Henry was sixteen and I was fourteen. We were both in fourth form at the Nathan School, but Henry was already a starter on the football and basketball teams, which made him the coolest guy in our class. I was the only Asian student in the school, which made me more of an oddity than any kind of cool.
“Ali’s going to be the champ again,” I said.
“He’s never stopped being champ,” Henry said as he checked his profile in the mirror. “But now no one’s going to be able to deny it.” Henry patted his hair with his free hand. His afro looked like a black dandelion.
“No one’s quicker than Ali,” I said. It was a line that I remembered from Sports Illustrated. Nothing more. Henry responded by doing the Ali shuffle and jabbing his razor hand at his reflection. I found myself waiting for him to say ‘I am the greatest’ as he danced around the bathroom, but he never did.
“And Ali’s too smart for Frazier,” Henry said.
I nodded. I’d never actually seen Ali or Frazier fight. I wasn’t sure that Henry had either even though he had a big poster of Ali on the wall of his study. It hung between Angela Davis and Malcolm X. No one seriously thought that Henry was militant. There weren’t many posters of black women back then and the Autobiography of Malcolm X had been one of the selections in third form D English, where Nathan stashed its share of the “talented tenth” sent by A Better Chance. ABC was a program that identified promising students from Harlem, Roxbury, West Chicago, Watts, East Oakland, and Bedford Stuyvesant for elite private schools.
“Did you really ask Corcoran if you could go to Lowell to watch the fight on closed circuit?” I said as I emptied my red plastic water basin into the black trough sink.
“Yeah, but he said, not on a school night.”
There was no way the Cork would have said “yes.” I knew that Henry knew that too. I admired him for asking anyway.
“I told him that this is Ali. This is history. But he said it’s just a boxing match. It’s not Andre Watts or Gordon Parks.”
Gordon Parks had visited the school a year ago and spent two days with Nathan’s twelve black students talking about photography and his book The Learning Tree. Otherwise, I’m not sure that our headmaster would have known the name. I wouldn’t have either.
Henry lightly tapped the razor against the sink. “You know, it would almost be worth it to go to Lowell anyway.”
“How would you get there?”
No one was really going to pick up a black teenager outside the gates of the Nathan School after dark. The closest black families lived in Fitchburg and the town folk knew better than to mess with the school by helping students slip away. It also struck me that Henry Hemmings probably wouldn’t get in much trouble for trying it. No prep school was going to kick out its best athlete, especially if he happened to be an African American scholarship student on the honor roll. The publicity would hurt fundraising.
“How would you get back?”
“Maybe I wouldn’t come back.”
I stared at Henry waiting for him to smile, but he didn’t. I put my wash basin back on its hook above the sink where it hung in a row with the twenty-five other basins for the boys in our dorm.
I hated being at the school, but I wouldn’t have hated the school if I were as popular as Henry. It had never occurred to me that he’d even consider going home to Baltimore. In two years, he was virtually guaranteed a full scholarship to Harvard or Yale. After that, who knew? This was the whole idea behind A Better Chance.
“You know the fight’s probably on the radio,” I said. “It’s not as good as closed circuit, but it’s also not thirty dollars.”
Henry put down his razor.
“I have a transistor radio… In case you don’t get a ride to the movie theater in Lowell.”
“Don’t you want to listen to the fight yourself?”
“I have two, it’s no big deal.”
This was only partly true. I had two transistor radios, one that worked and one that didn’t. The bell rang and signaled the fact that we had three minutes to return to our studies. But the fight was all any of us talked about for days on end. One of the sixth formers had set up a betting line with Frazier, the mild favorite. Even some of the masters were talking about it, though most insisted that they’d never bet on a prize fight.
It split the school. It seemed that everyone I wanted to like was rooting for Ali. If some boy were for Ali, I liked him better. Henry Hemmings was Ali’s biggest fan at Nathan and everyone knew it. It surprised me that more of our classmates weren’t following the lead of the most popular kid in the form. Instead, most of the white kids were lining up for Frazier. For the two weeks before the fight, Brad Bronson would start talking loudly at breakfast about Frazier’s power and the fact that Ali had never been much of a puncher. Somehow, the chatter always got punctuated with “Frazier’s going to put Ali in his place.” I stared at the freckles that dotted Brad’s face and shook my head. All I knew was that I rooted for Ali because he said “No.”
When Henry knocked on my study door just before the end of second study hall, I was pleasantly surprised.
“Lucky, do you have that transistor radio?”
I pulled my working radio from my desk drawer, checked to make sure the battery hadn’t died, and offered him the single white earphone that went with it. Henry looked at me.
“What do I need this for?”
“You don’t want to get caught.”
One of the oddities of Nathan School was that we didn’t sleep in rooms. During the evening we had studies, usually shared with another boy, but at night we slept in a long hall that was a cross between a barracks and a horse stall. A thin wooden wall that reached half way to the twelve foot ceiling divided each bed. The front of each “cubicle” was marked by a turquoise curtain on a wooden dowel. When he founded the school in 1881, Josiah Saltonstall had determined that a community based on trust could not have anything resembling physical privacy. The school had no locked doors, no bathroom stall fronts, or shower curtains. The result was a cross between a modern version of Sparta or some gay boarding school fantasy.
Henry looked at the earphone suspiciously then handed it back to me. “I’ll just hold it next to the pillow.”
Three minutes later, there was a second knock at my door. Garrison Cottrell was from a small town in North Carolina and he was the least popular kid in the class. He had the broad chest and muscular arms of an adult male, the product of summers lifting and carrying things with grown men, but Cottrell was too clumsy to be an athlete. Cottrell had been inspired by a teacher to study the dictionary and read the encyclopedia and that had brought him to the attention of Nathan.
“Lucky, this may not be expeditious, but I was contemplating whether I might be able to promissory a transistor radio from your person.”
“Why are you asking me, Cottrell?”
“Henry Hemmings communicated to me that he got one from you. It’s exigent that I be able to sequester one this evening, Lucky Tang. Besides, you’re of oriental extraction and that is the locality from which these electronic devices originate.”
“But Henry has my transistor radio.”
“He elocuted to me that you have a brace of these auditory transducers.”
“But I might want to listen to the fight too.”
“You lent one to Hemmings. This isn’t equitable. Is it because I’m a Negro?”
It was no mystery why Cottrell wasn’t liked. In a year and a half at Nathan, he’d never shown a sign of being able to take hints. Two weeks into third form year he acquired the secret nickname Matrell. The MA was for “malaprop,” but Cottrell persisted even after finding out. In the dining hall at breakfast, he often wound up sitting alone. Even the other black students, who had their own table in the back corner, tired of him. They said he was ‘too obviously country.’ Cottrell hadn’t known when to shower, change underwear, or when not to stare at the younger faculty wives. But his popularity may have improved slightly in the last two weeks before the fight as a result of the impressions he started doing of Joe Frazier. As far as I was concerned, Cottrell was in the wrong camp.
“You’re rooting for Frazier, Cottrell. I’m not going to help you do that.”
Cottrell’s build resembled Frazier’s and he could do the face. He’d even found a hat like the one Frazier wore from time to time, and guys would say “Hey, Smokin’ Joe you gonna beat Ali?” and Cottrell would smile. But now he shook his head at me as if I’d betrayed him.
My own strategy at Nathan’s hadn’t been much different from Cottrell’s. I spent my first three months at Nathan pretending to read really fast and playing chess blindfolded. The latter was something I could do. It was just that I couldn’t play all that well with or without looking at the board. I just tended to be too careless. Neither of us had a way to fit in at Nathan, but I’d at least figured out how to get by.
“Sorry, Cottrell. I’m sure someone else will have a radio you can borrow.” He looked defeated.
On the big day, Cottrell was at the end of the corridor in blue boxer shorts pretending that his cubicle curtain was Ali. He had his Smokin’ Joe hat on, and was jabbing at the turquoise cloth on the wooden dowel. We tried to ignore him because we were on a mission. A few of us took a shot at getting our dorm master Mr. Hall to let us stay up to listen to the fight. I was sandwiched in between Bradley and my study mate, Tom Perkins. Henry was nearby. We knew that Mr. Hall wasn’t going to allow it, but we had to try. “Guys, I don’t want to get in trouble myself. I’d love to hear it too.”
“But we want to know who you’re rooting for,” Brad said.
Mr. Hall was also the hockey coach, so we knew he had a certain respect for fights, though in the private school league it was more like throwing your gloves to the ice followed by a push or two.
Our dorm master shrugged. “I think what Ali did was braver than anything anyone could do in the ring.”
Brad looked at him with a blank expression. “You’re rooting for Ali?”
“I didn’t say that, Bradley. I said that I admired what he did.”
“Mr. Hall, what do you think about Frazier calling Ali, Clay?” Perkins said. “Don’t you think that Ali is making too big a deal about it?”
Perkins had come from one of those Manhattan private schools that seemed to be Nathan School South. The dozen or so boys in the form from those places were all familiar with Nathan’s various written and unwritten rules. They understood that getting in a little bit of trouble was actually a good thing because it showed “spirit,” and they demonstrated “poise” by knowing just when to be honest about how hard they’d tried or wanted something. Midway through the year, I was sorry to have asked Perkins to share a study with me because it was increasingly clear that our association was Perkins’s attempt to prove that he wasn’t just another member of the Buckley, Dalton, and St. Bernard’s tribe. They had once owned Nathan School and all that came after it, but now had to give the appearance of sharing.
Mr. Hall shrugged. “Guys, I don’t hate Joe Frazier. They’re both great fighters. It’s just a boxing match, even if they are calling it the fight of the century.”
Henry stepped in closer. “It’s more than a boxing match, Mr. Hall. Ali is the greatest. We’re not going to see anything like this again.”
“I’m sorry, Henry. I’d really like to let you guys hang out and listen, but you know it’s going to get too rowdy and then Mr. Corcoran will be down here. Look, I know some of you have transistor radios. After lights out, I’m not going to be checking beds.”
The actual fight started at 10:15, ten minutes after lights. Muhammad Ali had fought just twice after a two year absence from the ring. In his absence, Joe Frazier had not just beaten every other boxer in the world; he had knocked all but three of them out. The only consolation for Ali fans was that the former champ had an easier time beating Oscar Bonavena a few months ago than Frazier had. I lay on my bed trying to picture Madison Square Garden. I saw it in black and white and full of cigar smoke because that’s the way it looked on TV.
“Frazier takes round one,” someone from a few cubicles up announced. “They’re saying that Ali looks rusty.”
My stomach tightened. Brad began to chant, “Frazier, Frazier.” I started to feel sick.
Cottrell joined in and then there were about half a dozen other voices chanting Frazier’s name until one of the prefects jumped into the mix.
“Are you guys idiots? he said. The sixth formers, as the oldest boys in the school, were dispersed across the lower form dorms to serve as steadying influences. “I don’t care if you listen, but don’t be stupid.”
“Frazier just knocked down Ali.”
Ali was two years older than Frazier. He had also spent two years idle. My heart dropped into my stomach and a gasp ran across the cubicles.
“Suckers!” It was my study mate, Perkins.
“You asshole, Perkins.” Someone shouted what I’d wanted to say for some time.
Then I heard Henry’s voice. When Henry spoke, the other boys didn’t interrupt, even in the dark. “Guys, Ali took the first three rounds. They said Frazier’s head snapped back twice. Please, shut up so we can hear the fight.” But Bradley broke the silence a few minutes later. “They’re saying that Ali’s trying to outslug Frazier. He’s not dancing and Ali’s looking tired.”
For the past three weeks, Joe Louis had been saying that world class fighters had to fight to stay in condition. He was like a broken record and fans rooting for Frazier fell in step. Henry dismissed them all one day. On the way from morning chapel service, he broke it down. “Joe Louis is colored. Joe Frazier is a Negro. Ali is black. Given the choice, I’m rooting for black.”
“Frazier’s got him in the corner,” Bradley announced.
A chant of “Frazier, Frazier” started again. “Put Ali in his place,” someone yelled.
“I’m trying to listen to the fight,” Henry said. “I don’t want the prefects to come back and take away our radios.” Henry was calm, but firm.
“You mean put Clay in his place.”
It was Perkins. Because it was Perkins, it might have stopped, but Bradley and Cottrell began chanting it in rhythm.
I sat up on the side of my bed shaking. I was confounded by their chants. Most of my classmates were wealthy white kids. What did they care about Joe Frazier? Was it really about Frazier-Ali at all? Most of them didn’t even follow boxing.
For several rounds, nothing exciting happened except when Perkins and Bradley tried more “fake” updates by announcing first that Ali had been knocked down, and then that he’d run out of the ring. Around what should have been the 9th or 10th round, I noticed that no one was bothering to correct them. I pretended to go to the bathroom. I figured that I could head there, check to see if anyone was in the hall, and then slip into my study to listen to the fight there on my clock radio. My aunt had given it to me a year ago as a “going away” gift. She didn’t know that our cubicles didn’t have electrical outlets and that a very loud bell rang every morning at 6:45.
As I slipped into the hallway that connected the cubicles, I noticed that the curtain fronting Cottrell’s cubicle was fluttering and making a “Whuffing” noise. Cottrell was punching the inside making like Joe Frazier. The boys next to Cottrell’s cubicle were urging him on, Faster Joe, faster, hit him harder.
The light in the bathroom was already on. I took a few steps in and found Henry sitting on the toilet with my transistor radio pressed against his Afro.
“Too crazy in there,” I whispered.
“What’s been happening in the fight?”
Henry shook his head and looked down at the white tile floor.
“Ali’s wearing down. Frazier keeps getting him in the corner and hitting him in the body. They’re fighting Frazier’s fight.”
“And that’s not good.”
“Frazier’s smarter than I thought. He took the punishment early knowing that Ali might wear himself out trying for the KO.”
I nodded back, but Henry cocked his head and stared at me.
“Where’s your second radio?”
“I was just going to listen on the clock radio in my study.”
“But you haven’t been listening have you? When Bradley and Perkins were lying about the first rounds, you would have been the first one to correct them. You didn’t.”
My stomach churned at having been caught in a lie. I didn’t really care as much about Ali and the fight. I had just wanted to be Henry’s friend.
“I thought if you could listen on the radio, you might not hitch to Lowell and maybe get in trouble.”
Henry made a black power fist with his free hand. “I wasn’t really going to go, but now I sort of wish I had.”
“They’re idiots. Bradley, Perkins, all of them.”
“And Cottrell. He doesn’t even know that they’re laughing at him.”
I’d been afraid to add Cottrell’s name to the list in Henry’s presence.
“So, Lucky Tang, you lent me your only radio.”
Henry held it in his palm and studied it. I shrugged. He turned the volume dial with his thumb and motioned for me to take a seat on the toilet next to him as we listened to the Fight of the Century dwindle away with Ali getting knocked down, but not out, in the 15th round.
We didn’t wait for the judges’ decision and Henry insisted that I go back to the dorm first. Before I did, he offered his hand for a soul handshake. Then he handed me back my radio.
“Don’t you want to hear the decision?”
Henry shook his head, “I’d rather not.”
I slipped back into my cubicle and heard Henry follow a couple of minutes later. I slipped in my white earphone and was the one to announce, “Unanimous decision for Frazier.”
A muffled cheer went up. Actually, Ali had accomplished a rather amazing thing. He’d spent two years away from fighting and almost beat a younger man in prime shape who had knocked out almost all of his opponents. I just wasn’t old enough to understand the notion of valor in defeat.
Everyone was still talking about the fight the next morning. In Mr. Woolery’s Latin class, the name Cassius Marcellus came up in Cicero and the class roared with laughter when Perkins was called to recite and slipped in “qui Frazier occidere.”
It wasn’t quite correct, but the meaning was clear enough, Cassius who was knocked down and killed by Frazier. Even Mr. Woolery, perhaps the sternest of the classics teachers, smiled and let the class indulge in chants of “Frazier Cassius occidet.”
Mr. Woolery may have been trying to make up for September of third form when he had inadvertently exposed Cottrell four days into his Nathan career. Woolery had asked the class when Caesar had been assassinated and, after a couple boys missed, Cottrell had raised a hand to guess “1600, Sir.”
“1600, Mr. Cottrell?” It was Woolery’s way of hinting that he wanted you to change your answer quickly.
“Yes sir, 1600 A.D.?”
Woolery’s eyes widened, he slapped the side of his face, and exclaimed, “Why the man’s crazy!”
For three days, that story was stirred up with reports about Cottrell’s poor hygiene. And eighteen months later, Cottrell was chanting “Frazier Cassius occident” along with the other boys.
By lunch the phrase was all across the fourth form. Cottrell and several of the Manhattan tribe sat at a table chanting it every few minutes. Henry was at the black students table in the corner. They all pretended not to notice the chanting.
I didn’t talk to Henry for most of the day. We didn’t have any classes together even though the fourth form had just 44 boys. I could sit at the black table from time to time, but understood that it wasn’t a regular thing. When the custom started the school had been horrified, but the black students had insisted. They wanted time to be black. Mr. Corcoran had tried to compromise by moving them to a middle table, but the black students insisted on one in the far corner where they sat in their coats and ties, laughing and grooming their Afros with metal picks.
I noticed that most students, including Bradley, were coming up to Henry individually to tell him that they were sorry that Ali lost. Henry would shrug. “He’s still the champ,” he said, but he said it softly.
I assumed that the “Fight of the Century” would slip into Nathan history, but it didn’t. Cottrell wouldn’t allow it. One day he stood in the middle of the mat after varsity basketball practice, making like Joe Frazier. He was wearing a pair of fat boxing gloves and a leather headset. I was putting the balls and the first aid kit away in the storage closet of the weight room. Apparently, Mr. Wicks, the school’s 68 year old PE teacher, had let him try them on under the guise of teaching Cottrell some boxing basics. He was showing Cottrell how to take the loop out of his jab to make his left fist snap instead of slap. Mr. Wicks had fought Golden Gloves as a boy growing up on the Southside of Boston. He was the only Nathan faculty member without an Ivy League degree, and the only one whose accent matched the kitchen staff’s.
I stopped to listen to Mr. Wicks tell Cottrell about the “real fight of the century,” between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries. Wicks told Cottrell that he once met Jim Jeffries. “A hero in Southie after the war. But he wasn’t a nice man, Cottrell. I’m glad Johnson won. Before there was Joe Louis, there was Jack Johnson and Johnson was special.”
Masters and students at the school were nice to Cottrell most of the time, or they were at least polite, until they discovered that they could no longer deal with Cottrell’s inability to understand prep school manners, like the fact that there were dozens of ways to say “no” without actually saying “no,” or that “let’s get together” was a way to end a conversation and not a serious invitation unless there was an actual time and place attached to it. This was one of the few times I’d seen someone actually be kind to Cottrell.
“Did you ever meet Jack Johnson, Mr. Wicks?”
“I would have liked to.”
“You must have been a very good boxer when you were young.”
“I held my own Cottrell. But you’re a very strong young man and a tough one. You could hold your own too.”
Cottrell’s eyes widened and he nodded his head.
“I need to go home to have dinner with Mrs. Wicks; can you put the gloves away in my office when you’re done?”
“Thanks, Mr. Wicks.”
Cottrell snapped off a series of jabs towards the mirror as I pretended to stay busy in the storage closet. Bradley and Perkins were fresh from playing squash and they cheered him on.
“Hey, it’s Joe Frazier, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.”
Cottrell showed off his hook followed by a series of textbook jabs. He actually appeared to have a knack for boxing.
“Where’d you get the gloves, Cottrell?”
“They’re Mr. Wicks.’”
“Does he know you have them?”
“Yes, of course. He was showing me how to box.”
“I asked him to show me and he told me he didn’t do that anymore,” Perkins said.
“Are you saying that I’m a prevaricator?”
There was a shift in Cottrell’s voice as it went from slow and vaguely southern to his more usual way of talking.
“No, of course not.”
Perkins began to dance on the wrestling mat. He was tall and skinny, and wore his hair in a long brown pony tail.. He held his fists up with the thumb tucked under his fingers.
“So, show me what you’ve learned Joe Frazier!”
“Come on, Perkins, cut it out,” Bradley said.
We didn’t hear Henry come in. He stood at the edge of the wrestling mat. “Guys, what’s going on here?” he said.
Perkins danced around mugging with his face. “Cottrell was going to show me how to fight,” he said. Then he started singing, “Float like a butterfly sting like a bumble bee.”
I was on the edge of the wrestling mat. A crowd of boys began to gather round.
“Don’t do this Cottrell!” Henry said softly.
Cottrell was standing with his gloves in defensive position.
“Henry, you be Ali. You can do Ali better than Perkins,” someone shouted.
Henry shook his head and held his hand out to signify that he wanted nothing to do with it.
“Henry, Henry, put Frazier in his place.”
Henry turned his back to the wrestling mat. Perkins kept dancing around Cottrell, tapping at his boxing gloves and slapping him playfully on his headgear.
“Come on Cottrell. Show us Smokin’ Joe!”
Cottrell was trembling, but his eyes were intense and clear. He put the full force of his body behind his right hand and hit Perkins straight on the nose. Perkins went down immediately, screaming.
“What the fuck? We were just playing. I was kidding around. Don’t you get anything?”
But something had let loose in Cottrell. He dove to the floor and continued hitting Perkins. Perkins started to squeal, “Get him off of me!”
As his study mate, I probably should have been the one who walked Perkins and his broken nose back to the infirmary, but I didn’t.
It took a few days to sort out and I had to meet with Mr. Corcoran three times to explain what I saw. It was decided that Mr. Wicks would retire at the end of the spring, and Perkins was sent back to East 70th and Park Avenue for two days for starting the fight. Three days later Mr. Corcoran called our form into his parlor after dinner. We knew it was about Garrison Cottrell, the only boy from Rocky Mount, North Carolina to ever go to the Nathan School.
We sat in a circle as we waited for Mr. Corcoran, a kindly man who wore big horned-rimmed glasses that made his large eyes look even wider. When he wasn’t called the “Cork,” we called him the “Bull Frog.” He started slowly.
“I’m very sorry to tell you that Garrison has gone home to North Carolina and he won’t be returning to Nathan. I want to make it clear that we’ve mutually decided that it isn’t in his best interests to return to the school.”
Perkins sat on the other side of the parlor from me; he nodded solemnly at the news from behind a clear plastic mask that suited him in some weird way. There was a rumor that Perkins’ father, a New York attorney, had threatened to go to the Boston Globe, something that Manhattan attorneys did instead of threatening to sue.
“Garrison tried very hard to make it work at Nathan. I’ve spoken to the masters and we are confident that the school tried its best to help Garrison adjust, but it has become clear that this would be more difficult than any of us anticipated. We have also spoken with the scholarship group A Better Chance, and they have agreed as well that this is best for Garrison…”
Corcoran turned towards Henry. “I’ve met with the other Negro students at the school and they have agreed that it would be difficult for Garrison to succeed at Nathan at this point. We have told Garrison’s grandmother that the school will do whatever it can to help Garrison in the future, and that includes helping him to find a college. I’d now like to give you some time for questions.”
Henry looked away.
After an awkward moment, hands shot up.
“Mr. Corcoran, was Garrison expelled?”
“It was a mutual agreement.”
“If he hadn’t agreed, would he have been expelled?”
“I can’t answer that Bradley. If he had only hit Tom the one time, he would have only been suspended. We were very concerned that he aggravated the fight. Tom had to spend two days in the hospital.”
I raised my hand.
“But Mr. Corcoran, Cottrell didn’t start it.”
“Lucky, we’re well aware of that, but it’s also clear that Tom was only joking. The rector built the school around trust. Garrison’s actions violated that trust.”
I looked away from Perkins. There were dozens of questions after that about Cottrell, Mr. Wicks, and some need to supervise boys in boxing gloves. Then there was the last question of the evening.
“Is there some way we can write to Cottrell?”
“Yes, that would be nice. You can give me the letter if you like. I’m going down there personally to visit, or Mrs. Gage can provide you with his address tomorrow morning.”
None of us ever took the time to write to Garrison.
A week later, I moved into Cottrell’s single study, claiming that I wanted the privacy to study more. Bradley moved in with Perkins. From that point on, I stayed apart in my way from their tribe.
It was a quiet spring after that. The only excitement was when one of the crew team’s fours actually won interschools and got a chance to race at Henley on Thames in the summer. The boys in our class continued to laugh at Henry’s jokes and they sat near him in the dining hall on those occasions when he didn’t sit at the black table. Just before prize day in June, a rumor circulated that Cottrell had walked into a girl’s house, stripped off his clothes at her front door, and asked her to marry him. The phrase “electro-shock” turned up in some versions of the story.
Some members of the class found the story funny, but I noticed that Henry refused to talk about the rumor. When I saw him in the library a few days later, I tried to tell him the news of Ali’s next fight. Then somehow I found myself talking about Cottrell.
“I could have been Cottrell,” I said, “just without the naked thing.”
Henry shrugged, “If I didn’t play football, I might have been too.”
“You, no way,” I said.
“It doesn’t feel right. The bigger idiot stays and Cottrell gets sent home. Who knows what that’s like?”
Henry shrugged. “Told Corcoran that I didn’t think Cottrell could make it here after the fight, but I never said that it was right for him not to keep trying. No one asked us that.”
At prize day, Henry Hemmings was honored as the most outstanding fourth former and the most athletic boy in the “middle forms.” The entire form applauded the announcements.
When Henry didn’t return in the fall, I was one of the few who wasn’t shocked. According to another black scholarship student from Baltimore, Henry was saying that he missed his girlfriend too much. ‘He was really homesick, he just never let on.’
Even for sixteen year olds, it was hard to understand why someone would choose a girlfriend over a full scholarship to Harvard. Others said that Henry had broken his wrist over the summer and wasn’t going to get to play football or basketball during our 5th form year. Henry got calls and letters from us begging him to come back. He never wrote. The school lobbied hard as well. Mr. Corcoran apparently visited twice over the summer and even brought Bobby Watkins, a recent Nathan graduate who was playing football at Penn to coax Henry back. There was even a story that Henry’s girlfriend was offered a scholarship at Concord Academy, a nearby girl’s school that had recently gone coed. It didn’t seem to matter that Henry’s girlfriend wasn’t much of a student.
I never wrote or phoned Henry. I did sign a card from the entire form inviting him to our graduation. I understood that he was done with Nathan. We had long since stopped talking about the Fight of the Century, especially now that Frazier had been knocked down six times in two rounds by George Foreman. When Ali beat Frazier in the second fight, I was tempted to send a postcard to Henry Hemmings, but was afraid that he wouldn’t care to hear from me.
When it came time to choose a college, another black student from Baltimore reported that he’d heard through the ABC grapevine that Henry was going to the Hampton Institute, an all black school in Virginia. He sighed, “He could have gone anywhere even after going back to Baltimore, and he could have still gone to Harvard.”
I failed to get into Harvard or Yale. My parents never said it, but they acted disappointed and embarrassed about my going to Duke which in most normal places would have been an opportunity to brag about. Nathan’s college advisor told my parents, “Lucky just never seemed to take to this environment the way he might have. He does what he’s supposed to do, but he’s never blossomed.” I graduated, but refused to fit in after both Cottrell and Henry left and I took Cottrell’s old study.
Perkins went to Yale and Bradley to Columbia. No one ever found Garrison Cottrell again. Years later, I was driving though his town and was shocked to find that everyone in the town was black and the only two businesses were a gas station and a grocery store. There were no Cottrells in the phone book.
When Ali won the title from George Foreman by stealing Frazier’s strategy from the fight of the century, I tried to imagine Henry Hemmings jabbing and dancing with his razor blade in hand.
Thirty five years later, I was shocked to hear from him on Facebook. He was a doctor in North Carolina. I had returned to California and married a woman who had attended only public schools and never known that anything else was possible. We never talked about my high school experience in New England.
I was at home surfing the net when I got a chat request from Henry Hemmings.
“I remember, you had books of baseball statistics and played chess with yourself. I was totally blown away by that.”
I typed back, “It’s so embarrassing, I was such a nerd.”
“No, you were just gifted. And I remember that you lent me your only radio.”
I started to cry.
“What’s the matter?” my wife asked.
“I’m just chatting with an old friend from high school.”
My wife blinked. “I thought you didn’t have any friends from Nathan.”
“But there was Henry Hemmings,” I said. “He was the smartest guy in the entire school. And he’s doing just fine.”
I wrote the first draft of “Fight of the Century” when Ronald Reagan was in his first term. For a variety of reasons, I was never satisfied with the story and put it away for more than twenty-five years. Looking back, I knew what I thought about the race, class, and other issues in the story, it's just that I now realize that I didn't know how I felt.
Three events led to my going back to the story which I'd never completely abandoned. After many years of silence as a fiction writer, I started writing again. Second, the election of President Obama reminded me of the story. He’s younger than the characters in “Fight of the Century” and Punahou is quite different from New England prep schools, but he’s the product of the same mix of optimism and naivete about the power of educational opportunity and the possibility of a country that might see beyond race someday. The third event was that I really did hear from a classmate via Facebook after thirty years.
I dedicate this story to Greg Pleasants, Fred Wooten, and the thousands of people who were touched by A Better Chance (ABC) and the extraordinarily optimistic spirit behind it. It’s my hope that we never lose it.