Thunder Butte

June 15, 2006

Two Fisted Expediency (Part Three)

John Portney, as you may recall, was my opponent in the last fight at the fairgrounds in Faith, South Dakota. Many years later I ran across him in Willets, California, where John owned the local Jeep auto agency. John invited Mary Ellen, my wife, and I out to his ranch at the edge of town. He had a nice home on a couple hundred acres with trails all over the place for nature walks. John took us with his kids over one of his favored trails. At special points in the trail, he would stop and relate bible stories to his children. Now, this sounds incredible, but one of the stories John always told his group, was of the avenging angel, in the form of a Chow dog [a Chinese breed], that came to the rescue of John Crowley, who was being attacked one night by a ruffian. The story was true to John’s knowledge, but I guess he didn’t realize that it was mutual combat between me and a fellow by the name of Fields, in Lemmon.

The story went something like this—I was on my way home one night when I ran on to Fields, who had been drinking. He started to push me around with comments like, “Come on pretty boy, show me what you're made of!!!" or similar challenging language. We started to fight and I was getting beaten badly, when a roaring animal charged out of the darkness and lunged at Field’s throat. He was about two inches short of Field’s jugular vein, catching a tusk (canine tooth) in the skin of his throat and ripping Field open all the way to his navel. Shortly, others had gathered on the scene, and I quieted the dog. Several of us took Field to the local drug store, where the pharmacist got out rolls of sterile gauze and disinfectant, and patched up my adversary. Of course, word soon got out around town about the attacking dog and the sheriff was going to have him euthanized. The entire student body at the high school put up such a clamor, threatening to strike against the community, that authorities decided to leave the dog alone and he continued to come to the back of door of Gordon’s Cafe for his daily plate of goodies, which I had been feeding him for at least a year before the incident with Fields.

John Portney underwent a similar incident several years later, in San Francisco, where he worked as an automobile salesman. One day while working the lot, he was approached by three thugs who enquired about buying a car. John realized they were not prospects and tried to dismiss them. But, one of them attempted to get his master keys, while the others tried to hold him. Afterward, all three were taken to the hospital by ambulance, and subsequently to jail. They just did not understand what a South Dakota farm boy was made of.

After my boxing match with John Portney in Faith, I hitch-hiked around the country for several months. I tried to ride a Brahma bull at a celebration in Watertown, South Dakota. They would have paid $25 to anyone who could stay on him the required eight seconds. All I got out of that deal was dirty. At another carnival in Sisseton, South Dakota, I picked up $10 for staying with a carnival fighter for three rounds. Then, it was off to school for me to Mitchell, South Dakota, for one year at Notre Dame Junior college.

Before the college year was well under way, Monsignor James Brady, head of the church and school, made me the House Boy at the rectory. It was my job to do the shopping for the housekeeper, who was also Monsignor’s sister. This job was going along all right, running errands and miscellaneous tasks, when the Monsignor approached me one day and asked me if I knew anything about boxing. I sheepishly admitted to having heard of the sport whereupon he invited me down to the basement and we put on boxing gloves. I kept complaining, "I am not going to hit a Priest!" The old priest who was about 65 years old, and half my size, kept tapping me with a left and a right until I finally took a half hearted swing at him. A second later I was picking myself out of the wall on the other side of the room, where he had knocked me. I came off that wall with eyes blazing. Priest or not, he was going down. With that, Monsignor held out his hand, slipped off the gloves and said, "You will do.” The following Monday, I started my new job as Boxing Instructor at Notre Dame Junior College. Of course, most of my students were from the Notre Dame High School and the job only paid $8.00 per month. That was what I paid in rent for my room.

There wasn’t a lot of boxing for me after that. Soon after completing my year at Notre Dame, I enlisted in the Navy as World War II was then underway. When I enlisted in the Navy, I was sent to boot camp in San Diego, where I was assigned to the Hospital Corps. From San Diego, I was transferred to Mare Island Naval Hospital, where I was assigned to the Violent Ward of the Psychiatric Wards. This was pretty much a custodial job. I was locked into a room of 30 to 50 violent patients. By “violent,” I mean to say that they were extreme mental cases who had violent episodes. My main job was to prevent them from hurting themselves or other people. An older corpsman, who had worked in State Mental Hospital for several years, adopted me as his partner and the two of us were called on for any violent disturbance in the mental wards. He was a very small and short man. The way we would handle most cases of violence was I would corner the patient holding a small, cot-sized mattress in front of me. While I was holding the mattress and pushing the guy into a corner, my partner would go under the mattress and pull the patient’s legs out from under him. In this way we never had to hurt anyone and they didn’t hurt us. Sometimes things got a little hairy, like when the patient had pieces of bed railing or similar weapons, and they would beat that mattress to pieces before we got him under control. From there, I was sent to Napa State Hospital, where the Navy had two wards. I worked under the head of the hospital who was a doctor named Rappaport. He later became Chief of Psychiatry for the State of California.

From Napa, I was transferred to the Fleet, South Pacific. On the Troop transport, somewhere about the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Marine Corps organized a boxing tournament. A Navy Lieutenant had been bugging me, as he was constantly beating on a punching bag above us, in officers’ country on the ship. I went to the Marine’s office and leveled a challenge at this officer to fight me in the tournament. For some weird reason, he accepted the challenge. Shortly before the fight, this officer sent for me, bought me a beer, and told me all about his activities as captain of the boxing team at Yale University. In other words, he was giving me the world’s greatest brainwashing. He was trying to convince me that he was great and I was a loser. The “psych” job might have worked if it had not been for an old Chief Petty Officer who had heard about the coming fight. He took me aside and asked me if I had ever fought aboard ship. He then proceeded to explain how to do it. Basically it amounted to:

1—Always keep the sun at your back. Out in the tropics, the sun is blistering hot and fiery bright. Having the sun at your back means your opponent will always have the sun in his eyes.

2—The ship is always lurching and moving from front to back and from side to side. His advice was to always stay on the upper side. If you keep moving with the position of the ship, you are always on the upper side, and your opponent will have to reach upward to hit you and this gives you a tremendous advantage.

The day of the fight, 5,800 men exchanged bets, cheering for a winner. It was quite exciting. I did exactly as the old Chief had advised me. That Lieutenant didn’t have a ghost of a chance. I just hit him at will. The Marine Officer in charge grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks when the fight was ended, and I got an easy decision. A week later while on duty at Mobile Hospital Number Five, near Noumea, New Caledonia, a contingent of marines marched in formation onto the hospital grounds, found me, and presented me with three cases of beer, compliments of the Marine Officer who had put on that boxing tournament. And I never even knew his name. I did see the Lieutenant, my opponent, later on the ship. I have never seen two more beautiful black eyes on a human being. There was no question as to who won that fight. That was a long way from Thunder Butte, but I will always think that growing up around the Butte makes you tough.

--John Crowley

John Crowley’s Note: The reader has probably concluded by this time that I am doing a lot of bragging. To a certain extent, I suppose that is true. I remember several years of representing wholesalers and manufacturers, as a sales representative and bragging was common. Some of us salesmen would meet for coffee at a central location over coffee, and to an onlooker we must have sounded like the champion salesmen of all time. We told each other such impossible lies, dreamed up at the moment, that we actually invented all sorts of useful selling tools. We could hardly wait to rush out and try them on the next unfortunate customer. My point here is that while I am trying to make these episodes realistic and true, at the same time, like in the middle of a fight, I may get slightly carried away by the action of the moment.
Mike Crowley Thursday, June 15, 2006 | (0) comments |