It did not take too many years into my teens to realize that while dad was my hero, he wasn’t exactly perfect.
Dad came home from work at 5:15 every day and one day, while the news was showing a large, athletic man being led into a courtroom, dad proclaimed him, “just another militant bum who won’t give back to a country which provided him so many opportunities.”
The man being led into the courtroom was Muhammad Ali – the boxing hero of most 8th graders like myself. The man who invented trash talk – and backed it up.
“Dad, he’s the greatest! How can they tell him he can’t fight? How can they tell him he has to go fight Viet Cong when everyone knows that’s a lost cause? How can they?”
Right then and there. That moment. The generational chasm was split between me and dad.
To his credit, dad did not attempt to overwhelm me with simply the fact that he was ‘The Dad.’ He rarely told me “This is the way it is cause I said so.”
Dad’s style was an attempt to make me see the other side of the coin.
“What, are you nuts?” He would first exclaim. “Where did we adopt you?”
After a few laughs, dad would simply contrast Ali with other great athletes.
“Willie Mays didn’t go around saying he was the best center fielder of all time,” dad said, “he showed it each and every game. Jim Brown didn’t have to brag that he was the gest running back in football – he just played that way every game. Ali just has a big mouth.
“Besides, it’s not like he would have been on the front lines, he just needed to serve his country like – oh, I don’t know – Ted Williams and dozens of other great athletes.”
“Well, first of all, I told dad – Ted Williams was a fighter pilot who put his butt on the line in two wars, and secondly, you can’t compare World War II and this Vietnam thing.”
“You’re right about Ted Williams,” dad said, letting me make his point for him.
It became an on-going war of words between dad and I – Ali was always our line in the sand between two generations. Dad was right – Ali should have served when called. But dad was also wrong – the Vietnam war was a great big, hot mess and it took people like Ali and Walter Cronkite to tell America the truth when their government would not.
I would remind dad that Ali won an Olympic gold medal and return home a boxing hero, only to re-discover that he would not be served in many restaurants in his own home town, Louisville, Kentucky. Dad would remind me that 40 years earlier, Ali would not have been accepted onto the Olympic team due to his skin color — and that progress ia a slow and on-going process.
We only ever found one thing we could agree on about Ali. He had a great sense of humor.
One Saturday afternoon dad walked in on me watching Ali and Howard Cosell verbally jousting on Wide World of Sports.
“Why are you wasting time watching those two bums?” Dad asked, “go do something better with your time.”
“Yeah, but dad – listen to them….Ali might just punch Cosell in the face!”
The idea of Howard Cosell getting his lights punched out by Muhammad Ali made my dad pause. He sat. He laughed. A World War II vet, he never changed his mind about Ali.
But as I grew older and a bit wiser I realized that our debates over Ali, the Vietnam war and the changing times of the 60s and early 70s were really valuable lessons. In those discussions/arguments, I watched my father listen to me and never dismiss what I had to say as “stupid” or “juvenile.” He would call me “naive” – but only after I told him he was living in the past. There is no doubt that I learned much from and about my father during our discussions about Ali – which brought about discussions about the war, government, politicians, my need for a haircut and a host of other things.
Ali’s provocative personality made people think – and react. It was his gift.
Muhammad Ali was a great sportsman and a man who transcended sport. He was the single most-recognized athlete in the world and he used his fame to spread the message of justice, peace and equality for all.
There are few things I can say about Ali that he didn’t already say about himself.
“I’m so fast, I can play ping-pong by myself,” Ali would say of his speed in the ring. While my dad thought Rocky Marciano would have knocked him out, I thought he was the greatest.
He also said things that spoke to people around the world: “People look for miracles.
People look for surprises of all kinds. Yet the greatest miracle, the greatest wonder, the greatest surprise is to be found in one’s heart.” Muhammed Ali 1942-2016
by Bruce Wallace