He sat with his head in his hand, slumped over against the hard wooden arm of the pew-like waiting bench in the deserted train depot. He looked like a lump of coal with a broken heart. Right off, I knew it was Joe Louis. I don’t know how I knew, but I did.
We were the only two people in the depot waiting room. He looked me over through squinted eyes, but not cautiously, not like he was worried or anything. It was more like curiosity, the kind that comes from being nowhere, and waiting for the train to come and take you on down the line to somewhere else named nowhere.
It was around 11:30 at night, and I was already past my deadline by 30 minutes when I walked into the marble-floored depot at the bottom of Main Street in my little nowhere-hometown of McCook, NE. I was 13 or 14 then, which made it around 1949 or 1950 — almost a half century ago as I write this.
I was instantly drawn to the man, and the fact that I was going to catch hell when I got home faded in the presence a world champion. If Joe Louis could take a beating, so could I.
“You’re Joe Louis,” I said, moving so I stood directly in front of him. It was a statement as well as a question.
“Tha’s right,” he said, looking up at me with eyes that reminded me of a cocker spaniel I knew once.
“Can I shake your hand?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, pulling his hand from beneath his chin. It seemed to take great effort to hold his head up without his hand, which, to me, was huge and round and warm. His fingers seemed to be all the same length, and they were all about the diameter of a garden hose. As his hand closed on mine, I sensed for an instant how an animal must feel when caught in a snare. He didn’t shake my hand. He just closed his hand on mine and squeezed. It was warm. It was cordial. It was genuine. But, with a grip like that, I knew that if this man ever decided not to let go, you’d have to follow him wherever he went.
He yawned and went through some motions that said he was sitting up, that he was straightening up, making room for me to sit in the seat beside him. But when he finished squirming and moving, he was in the same position as when he started. He stretched, and then turned those penetrating brown eyes on me.
“Kinda late for you to be out . . . ” he offered. I couldn’t tell whether it was a question or a comment.
“Yeah. I’ll catch it when I get home,” I said.
He grinned a small grin that said he was going back a few years in his memory banks.
“Can I ask you something?” I said softly.
“Sure,” he replied. His voice was soft like the inside of his hand.
“What are you doing way out here . . . in the middle of nowhere?”
He looked away. Not quickly. He just turned his head slowly, and looked out the window at the summer sky.
“If this place is nowhere, then I been to a place further than nowhere,” he said, still looking out the window.
I wanted to respond, but I didn’t know what to say. For one thing, I couldn’t think of anyplace more nowhere than McCook, NE.
His head was big and blocky — massive, I thought — and he swiveled it on his shoulders like a gun turret until it pointed straight at me, his two brown eyes smoking like gun barrels. “Ever here of a place called Trenton, Nebraska?” he asked.
I nodded yes. It was a small town about 30 miles west of McCook.
“They got a thing there called a pow wow . . . somethin’ like that. Ever hear of it?”
I nodded again, and explained briefly that it was an annual thing. About a century ago, one band of Indians massacred another in their camp along a small creek near what is now Trenton, NE. A running battle of several days duration ensued between two tribes. It was bloody and merciless. Women, children and braves were slaughtered where they stood. Eventually, they engineered a pow wow near the site of the original massacre and made peace. In the old days, the annual event included Indian descendants of the two tribes. But eventually, it became The Trenton Pow Wow, a giant carnival with rides, cotton candy, and a couple of imported Indians who danced a few numbers in front of the grandstand.
“You right about that,” Joe said. “Ain’t nothing but a lot o’ scam goin’ on there.”
I think it was the difference in our ages . . . the difference in our worlds that stopped me from commenting. There was something in the way he said it. Without his saying so, I knew this black lump of a man had seen some real scams in his time. There was nothing I could say just then that wouldn’t sound empty. So, I sat there, my home-at-eleven deadline slipping farther and farther into history, watching a champion stare out at the stars and beyond. It was quiet for a long time. Just me and Joe sitting there, listening to the sounds of the low thunder of empty freight cars moving slowly in the dark, the distant whooosh as steam escaped from a steam engine, the voices of faceless men calling to each other in the emptiness, the jarring bang as coupling box cars slammed to a stop. Then, silence and stars and, finally, infinity sliced neatly by a distant train whistle.
At last, Joe turned directly to me and answered the question on my mind. “I was up there doin’ an exhibition bout,” he said. As soon as he said it, he turned away from me and looked out the window and the night washed over us again.
I sat there trying to think of something to say, and wondering why it was suddenly so difficult to speak. Little by little, it sank in. Here, beside me, was the man who not too many years earlier, with just a couple of punches, brought to a dead stop the collective heart of the strongest military country in the world. I like to fantasize that the night Joe Louis dropped Max Schmelling like a sack of cement, Adolph Hitler fell to the floor and repeated his famous carpet chewing trick so wonderfully reported in William Shirer’s book, The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich.
It was plain that Joe wasn’t happy about slugging it out with an unknown at a dusty carnival in a nowhere place like Trenton, Nebraska, just a few short years after being crowned the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Somehow, I didn’t like it either. But there was nothing I could say. I wished there was, and I think Joe saw it on my face.
“Better git on home,” he said, smiling for the first time.
I stood and put out my hand again, but Joe ignored it. Out of the darkness came a straight right hand. It stopped a fraction of an inch from my face, and then, like space ships docking, his knuckles just kissed my chin. He was still smiling and his big cocker eyes fairly sparkled.
“Bye, Joe,” I said, and I turned and left.
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that meeting. Years ago, when I’d hear his name on the news, I’d perk up and listen. It was like it was happening to me, too. I remember before that, at the movies watching MovieTone News and Time Marches On, seeing Joe move around the ring in total control, snapping punch after punch, until out of nowhere he’d fire a straight right, hard to the chin.
From that time to this, I’ve remembered Joe’s right to my chin, and sometimes, when things get really tough in my life, I remember a black heap of a man, a champion, who found himself 30 miles west of nowhere, and made the best of it.