My last practice was like most others. I showed up early to warm-up with a jump rope, shoot the shit with Coach and his boy. The kid was excited for the smoker in Hamilton that weekend. He'd be fighting up a weight, having grown and noticably filled out over the summer. The other two boys showed up a little late as usual. The 8-year-old's mom dropped them off in her beat-up Taurus. He looked just like her, dark-haired, sallow. But he always smiled like there was good news around the corner. He and the other 8-year-old would be fighting in their first smoker in Hamilton and they were a blur of anticipation and little-boy bravado that day. It was a Thursday, my favorite day. I was probably looking forward to getting drunk and Moose's that night, then driving down to watch the kids fight on Saturday.
The smoker, it was well worth the three-hour drive, too. The Eagles club in Hamilton hosted, and the place was packed with parents and old men with memories. The regulation ring took up the majority of the meeting hall, and metal folding chairs were packed in all around it. When I got there most of the chairs were already rearranged into haphazard bunches and circles. I found my coach and the kids' right away - the coach's kid had bright orange hair and it was easy to spot him bouncing around while the coach tried to wrap his hands. All the boys were bouncing, actually. Maybe fifty of them. In head gear, in sweats, huddling with their coaches, getting last minute instructions from their dads. The tension was palpable through the stale smoke and fake buttered popcorn stench.
I don't remember the details of the fights - I wasn't sure I wanted to watch in the first place. As much as I'd come to like those boys and respect our coach, I was not especially hopeful for their chances in their bouts. The littlest 8-year-old didn't like to jab, going for the knock-out uppercut even with the heavy bag. He was so small, but so sure he was going to slay giants. The coach's kid just didn't like getting fatigued. He was the one that taught the others to dangle their skinny arms when the coach wasn't looking. The other kid, he's hard to remember. The three of them together just seemed like any posse you'd see punching buttons at your local arcade.
But damn it, if all three boys didn't kick some fucking ass that day. Technique, finesse, to hell with it. Those kids fought like it was born to them. At the end of the first round of each of their fights, all three of their opponents looked scared, and that, as we all know, is the thing. The final two rounds for all three boys were just formalities, but they all continued to bring it and bring it and bring it. The coach was quiet during their matches, encouraging them and massaging their bony shoulders while giving instructions. Each boy looked him in the eye and nodded at his words, aware how important it is to have someone in your corner. At the end of the little 8-year-old's first match I had to walk outside for air because I felt tears coming. I cried because I was so overwhelmingly proud and amazed at these kids and my coach. They surprised me that day more than anyone ever has.
After winning their first bouts, each kid advanced to the next round, but I had to leave early, to get back up to Kalispell that night. A big thunderstorm was advancing up the Bitterroot Valley, and I didn't want to get caught driving in it. So I told each kid how impressed I was. I slapped high fives and socked them in their stringy little arms, and they were each gracious and thanked me for coming. Then I stepped out of the Eagles Club and got into my truck for the long haul back home. And that was the last I time I ever saw any of them. The storm that threatened the Bitterroot did in fact come to be. It traveled all the way up north to the Flathead Valley and dumped an uprecedented quantity of rain on the hard-baked summer ground. It rained for three straight days, and by the time Tuesday rolled around for practice, the Whitefish River was still swollen and muddy. The lowlands around our boxing shack had been evacuated and nobody could get in.
It wasn't until the following Tuesday that the muck and debris had been cleared away from the little dirt road that ran along the Whitefish, and when I drove in at practice time, there was nothing. It was as if someone had pinched it up in their giant fingers and plucked it from the earth. In fact, there wasn't even a foundation. I searched through my truck for the paperwork I had filled out on my first day, looking for my coach's phone number, and when I found it I called him from the pay phone at the closest 7-11. Disconnected. Everything was gone. I didn't know the other kids' last names so I couldn't call their parents, I couldn't find a number for Jesse, the Golden Gloves champ, and the friend of a friend that had directed me to the club in the first place had moved to Phoenix. That was the end. I couldn't believe it. I kept calling the coach's number, for so long, in fact, that eventually it was given to someone else.
real, right? I have to ask myself this, but then sometimes when I'm searching for a boot deep in our shoebox I'll find one of my old hand wraps and my hands will remember the abrasions. Or Jim's brother will bring up the name they used to call me - Minnie-Bang-Bang, and I'll think about the boys and our playful camaraderie. Or during my workout I'll go at the heavy bag for a couple minutes, and my shoulders will remember those old satisfying pains. But mostly I think about how so many notions I had at the age of 23 about people and life and hard work were shattered. Broken down, punch by punch. I think about how people rarely surprise me any more, and this makes me sad, but only because I know what it feels like to be truly surprised by the greatness of a kid. It happens like that sometimes, you know. You start doing something simple, like taking the bus on occasion or reading a different newspaper and you realize, maybe not for a long long time, that you took a fork in the road. Boxing in the floodplains was a fork in my road.