Saturday, January 31, 2009

Black and White: The Fight at the Top of the World

Recently, I had the chance to see, for the second time, the June 20, 1960 return match fight between Floyd Patterson and Ingmar Johansson on television, and it brought back some interesting memories.
In the summer of 1960, I was stationed on an obscure radar site (for which this website was named) on a lonely mountaintop in Newfoundland. This was one of the many Air Force outposts that formed the Northern Defense Screen against a possible Soviet attack. If my memory serves me, there were about 180 men stationed on this remote site. Of the 180 men, approximately 35 or 40 were black. During that whole previous year we all got along together, without any particular thoughts about our racial differences. We all sat together in the mess hall and spent our spare time together. Considering our widely differing backgrounds and our present uncomfortable living conditions, we all got along pretty well, I'd say. However, all this was about to change.

One of the most anticipated fights of the decade was coming up that summer, the long-awaited rematch between the former heavyweight champ, Floyd Patterson and the big colorful Swede, Ingmar Johansson. The previous year, on June 26, 1959, Johansson, a 5-1 underdog, who didn't seem to train particularly hard, and was often seen at night spots with his attractive "secretary", took the heavyweight crown from Patterson in a stunning upset that turned the boxing world upside down. Overnight Ingmar Johansson had become a Swedish folk hero and one of the most popular celebrities in the world. A short time after the fight the two agreed to a rematch, scheduled for June 20, 1960.

As the weeks passed by, and the night of the big fight got closer, there was a subtle but noticeable growth of tension in the air. Without anyone having actually verbalized it, Ingmar Johansson had become a symbol, the 'Great White Hope', and inexorably this great contest for the heavyweight crown of the world was becoming something else, something bigger and less appealing.

Finally, on the night of the fight, everyone that could get off duty crowded into the tv room and, for the first time that I could remember, all the black airmen sat off by themselves.

Patterson knocked Johansson out in the fifth round with a leaping left hook to become the first man to recover the world's undisputed heavyweight title. The punch caught Johansson's chin and he hit the canvas with a thud, out cold before he landed flat on his back. With blood trickling from his mouth, his glazed eyes staring up at the ring lights, and his left foot twitching the Swede was counted out.

During the fight there was all kinds of cheering and yelling. But when Johansson finally lost, the black guys laughed loudly and cheered triumphantly; while all the white guys just went quiet and left the room, one by one, dejectedly. The next day, and for a number of days thereafter, the black guys all ate at their own tables and the white guys ate at their tables.

Something had happened that night. Something of value had been lost. Something that some of us would probably never get back again. That unthinking easy camaraderie had gone. Now, under those great bulky gray parkas, we were either black or we were white. Very black and very white. We had been separated.

Eventually of course things got back to normal, or something like normal. Soon we were back sitting at each other's tables again, sharing our meals and our jokes and our loneliness. After all, we were just a bunch of guys, weren't we? All mixed up together, on a freezing cold mountaintop out in the middle of nowhere, looking out for the Russkies.

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