The oddest adult in my Wayne childhood was a retired prizefighter, a man blinded in the ring, but someone who had had a serious career and earned a fortune, so that he lived with his sister and his German wolfhounds in a forty- or fifty-room mansion that we, my friends and I and other schoolchildren, passed each day walking to and from school.
For me, the walk home each afternoon was one mile, the length of Midland Avenue from Louella, past the single-floor “modern” house with picture windows on the right, past the Catholic school where tough kids hung out, past Bob Teal’s house on the left (his father, Mr. Teal, was the high school music teacher and band leader, and Bob’s two older sisters were cheerleaders), then the long uphill block to St. Davids Avenue. Mostly I walked with Dale Wilson, who lived in the new apartments on the corner of St. Davids Avenue and Lancaster Pike; we walked, careful not to step on sidewalk cracks, and talked about how babies arrived. Dale had the idea that it had something to do with “f---ing,” but I disagreed, horrified at the idea, and said what my mother had said, which was that when a man and woman loved each other and were together for a while, then a baby happened. We were ten. 1952. TV was still a luxury. At school we practiced air raid drills in basement hallways lined with civil defense boxes and canisters. At home, one of my favorite toys was a model of a B-52 bomber that released an atomic bomb when I pushed a button on top.
There were kids, other ages, who walked the same street, and the legend had spread that halfway up the long uphill block was the house where this retired fighter lived, who loved kids. That any afternoon if you braved the white gate between the solid bank of hedges and pine trees that sheltered the view of his home from the street; if you ventured up his strange front walk to the wooden porch; if you braved the first floor windows flanking the front door; if you rang the button bell and had the nerve to wait, as if for trick or treat--first, there would be the dogs barking, throaty woofs muffled by the house, then, perhaps, a woman’s voice:
“Quiet! Quiet! Just a minute, I’m coming.”
And the sounds of her presence, a blurred face peering, the unlocking and opening of the oak front door into a paneled vestibule.
Dale had done it twice before he told me. Other kids had taken him. As we came up the hill, he urged me to try; did I want a candy bar or not? For that was the prize.
The lady who answered would be gray-haired, tall, formally dressed. She would materialize before you, questioning, as if she had no idea: “Yes?”
And you would say that you had heard that the man here liked to meet children.
And she would answer: “Yes, yes, just a minute.”
Perhaps from the strange depths of the inner hall and the house’s reaches and darkness, a deeper, gravelly man’s voice would be calling: “Sonja. Sonja? Who is it? Who’s there?”
“It’s some children!” she would call. And then to you: “Just a minute. He’ll want to meet you.”
There would be a shuffling behind her and this man, casually dressed, a handsome man larger than any father, broad shouldered, broad faced, wearing slacks and an ascot and with neatly combed white hair, would emerge, and she would make way. You would be scared but at the same time fascinated to look: the face, the eyes, the blank, cloudy, unseeing eyes. The face handsome otherwise, like Wallace Beery’s, the actor’s, or like Ralph Bellamy’s; an educated and distinguished face. And he would be tapping with his cane and groping forward.
“Hello,” he’d say. “Are these the children?” And then to you, “Hello,” he’d say to space, the space where you, the unknown, waited. “What’s your name? How many, two? What are your names?”
And you might find the nerve to answer, or your friend might; for no kid would ever try this alone, except for maybe Shaner, the older kid who had first brought Dale here, and from whom, perhaps, the man’s rumored history had begun. Whatever first had led Shaner here, a meeting on the street, some door-to-door solicitation, Shaner had had the nerve to ask: How did you get blinded? In the ring, the man answered. Perhaps Shaner had been inside. Were there trophies inside? Pictures on the walls? Clippings in a scrapbook? How did we know the lady to be the man’s sister?
“Have you been here before?” the man would ask.
“No, never. Just some kids told us we should stop and ring the bell.”
“That’s right,” the man says. And then: “And you? What’s your name?”
“Dee,” I say uncertainly, for I am there; but at the same time I relax, because so far this all seems rehearsed, a customary thing, and going just the way Dale has said.
“Tell me some things you like to do,” the man says. “Do you like sports?”
“Hmmm,” he says. “You an Eagles fan?”
“Sure am,” I lie.
“What are your favorite subjects in school?”
I say art. Dale says math.
“Hmmm. Here’s a riddle for you. Let’s see: What goes up the chimney down, but can’t go down the chimney up?” He turns his face expectantly from one of us to the other.
I have heard the riddle before, but never really understood the answer.
“C’mon, guess. You’ve heard this one.”
“Santa? I don’t know.”
He chuckled. “An umbrella.”
Dale and I look at each other.
He smiles broadly. “You’re good children. I can tell,” he congratulates us. “Can I feel your faces?”
I stand confused, for Dale has never mentioned this, but I can’t refuse, or probably the man won’t give us the candy. So I let him touch, his coarse fighter’s fingers drifting delicately over my features.
A lifetime later, that blind man’s gentle, rapid touch, searching my features, haunts my imagination. Dismissing any suggestion of perversion (as our parents must have dismissed it then), I have come to think that for him the touch was redemptive.
Perhaps sixty at the time, he must have fought as a young man some thirty years before, in the era if not that of Gentleman Jim Corbett, then that of Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, and the Frenchman Georges Carpentier, and those very hands, as fists, had beaten men senseless, scores of men, men who had been intent, too, on battering him unconscious, all for the diversion of thousands of fans in echoing, smoky arenas, on from the 1920s into the Depression years.
I try to imagine such a man’s life. Whether his wealth was partly inherited and he had come from a privileged background (and if so, what had driven him to fight, what buried rage, or what further need to prove his superiority against those who challenged it in physical, rather than in social terms). Whether he had gone to a private men’s academy, like my older brothers, and started boxing in school; then had gone on to college at some place like Yale, Cornell, or Princeton, and boxed there. Had moved from school to amateur bouts, had turned professional and worked his way through ranks of street pugs and men from backgrounds that offered no means for livelihood or gain but this, men fighting for survival and advancement.
Or whether he himself had been poor. Had never been to college. Had labored and battled and suffered like the prizefighters in Hollywood films. Had from teens through his twenties battled not only opponents’ fists, but also the greed of gamblers, molls, and promoters. Had had the sense to save and invest his winnings. And then what fight had ended his career? Perhaps he hadn’t been blinded in the ring at all. Perhaps some gangsters had blinded him.
Somehow, I imagine, his money had cost not only his eyes but also his dignity; that he had felt some shame for his past. Perhaps in years of bitterness he had come to reflect on the squalor of violence. On the savageness of man.
He was a man without a wife and children. The house and grounds, in our town, must have been worth $60 or $70 thousand at the time -- hardly an estate, but evidence of respectable fortune. He and his sister lived reclusively so far as we could tell. Why had they moved here, and when? Where was romance in his life? Had he lost a woman? What was his sister’s story?
Perhaps they traveled regularly to Europe. He must have books in Braille, but otherwise little business in his day, little to amuse him. There he sits, listening to the radio, or to the phonograph. Perhaps he listens to recorded plays. Perhaps his sister reads to him.
For myself, I am troubled by the ugliness. Not the ugliness of his sightless gaze or searching touch; not the violence he had caused and suffered; not his adult pathos and mystery, all of which he exposed to us in his need. But by my own ugliness of submitting there to the oddness so that I could get my candy bar and escape.
“You are good children,” he repeats. “Here is a candy bar for each of you.” He gropes back into the hall. The sister has vanished. There is some sort of basket, and he offers me my choice. A Hershey’s? Or a Clark Bar? Or a Mounds? I ask for the Clark. Dale takes a Hershey’s. “Wait,” he says, “you’re such good kids. I can tell. Let me give you each two.”
He does, both Hershey’s this time.
“Now you come again. Come back again!” he says, shaking our hands. Patting our shoulders. Then releasing us with a wave and smile into nothingness.
We never do, or at least I don’t, though I do tell some other kids. And later, other times, when my mother drives me on this street from school, or on our way to or from errands and shopping, I would see him sometimes from the car. He’d be out walking, with his cane, and wearing his dark glasses, his arm in his sister’s, and the two wolfhounds straining on leashes. He would be dressed dapperly, scarf, cap, overcoat.