I remember the third time I got drunk. 1973, age 16, a junior in high school. A guy in our class named Punchin’ Bob Miller — Punchin’ Bob was his nickname because he was well known for his boxing prowess — was going to be fighting in the first round of the Golden Gloves boxing tournament. So my pal Johnny Walker Red suggested that we show our support for our fellow Northern Highlands Regional High School classmate by going to the fight and cheering him on. Chuck and I agreed that this was an excellent idea.
There had been a whole bunch of articles and features about Punchin’ Bob in the local newspapers and local TV stations. Young Kid From the Suburbs Competing in the Legendary Golden Gloves Tournament! So it was a big deal. Personally, I always found Punchin’ Bob to be a little on the smug and arrogant side. But then, he was young and good looking and strong as a bull and from a rich family. So I guess it would have been hard for him to NOT be a little full of himself. And he never once punched me, so what the heck.
The Golden Glove tournament took place in the fabulous Felt Forum, which was an annex of the legendary Madison Square Garden in New York City. So this was the big time. The Big Apple. If you could make it there you could make it anywhere. Or so I’m told.
It was about a 45 minute bus ride from the suburbs of New Jersey to New York City and when we hit Manhatten, Red had yet another great idea. There was a chain of restaurants in New York called Burger and Brew, and the deal was, if you bought the hamburger and french fries dinner you could get all the beer you could drink. Me, Chuck and Red were determined to get our money’s worth. I’m amazed that they served us considering that the drinking age was 18 and we were only 16. And we looked it. Hell, Red with his skinny little body and face full of freckles looked like an innocent 13 year-old boy. That is until you took a closer look at the hard glint of mischief in his eyes. But I guess things were looser back then. So we sat there in our cozy little booth polishing off brew after brew. There was a warm, electric glow to the lighting in the restaurant. You know? That kind of lighting where you can’t see anybody’s zits and everybody looks better than they are. Most of the people in the restaurant were corporate businessmen and secretaries having a couple pops before they took the train home. So we felt very worldly and adult sitting there amongst them, slowly getting schnockered. Pretty soon I began experiencing that feeling for the first time that I would come to covet in my long and varied career as a consumer of alcohol . . . that feeling where you look across the table at the guys you’re drinking with and say stuff like: “Ya knowww . . . You guys REALLY are the GREATEST!!”
Suddenly we remembered the fight was about to start, so we quickly guzzled down the rest of our beers, paid our bill and went romping down the wide sidewalks of downtown Manhatten. When we got to our seats the fight was just about ready to start. And there was Punchin’ Bob way down there standing in the middle of the lighted stage of the ring, like he was standing at the center of the universe. “Its Punchin’ Bob!” we all shouted. It was a surreal feeling to see somebody we actually knew standing there on center stage. Punchin’ Bob was throwing warm-up sparring punches in the air and looking incredible tough and rugged in his big, balloon-like boxer shorts. After reading all the glowing reviews about Punchin’ Bob in the local papers we were convinced that he was destined to win the tournament and bring glory to the name of Northern Highlands Regional High School.
When the bell rang and the fight started we were cheering wildly. But pretty soon we got quieter and quieter. Punchin’ Bob was fighting this black guy, and the black guy was way too quick for Punchin’ Bob. For three rounds he beat the living crap out of Punchin’ Bob. He basically used Punchin’ Bob as a punching bag. Even from up in the nose-bleed seats we could see how red Punchin’ Bob’s face was from all the punches he had taken. By the end of the fight Punchin’ Bob wasn’t even trying to land any blows anymore, he was mostly just trying to cover up his head, wearily, and avoid further beatings.
When the bell sounded and the fight ended we were all a little stunned. “Poor Punchin’ Bob,” we said.
“Yeah, but he showed he’s got guts and courage by the way he hung in there until the end,” declared Red. And we all agreed that Punchin’ Bob had indeed brought pride and glory to the mighty Northern Highlands Regional High School.
The referee stood in the middle of the ring with the two fighters by his side as we awaited the announcer to announce the winner. The black fighter was dancing around in anticipation of victory. Punchin’ Bob was standing there with his head slumped down like he could barely stay on his feet.
“And the winner is . . . Punchin’ Bob Miller from Upper Saddle River, New Jersey,” announced the announcer. When the referee raised Punchin’ Bob’s arm in the air, Punchin’ Bob looked like he could barely hold his arm up. At first everybody in the arena was stunned. And then there were some scattered boos and curses from the crowd. It wasn’t like a cacophony of booing or anything. But you could definitely tell the crowd was angry and disgusted and felt like it had been jobbed.
This old guy who was sitting next to me smoking a cigar (those were the days when you could smoke inside and men were men) and who was obviously a boxing afficionado, turned to me and said: “They want to keep that kid in the tournament because he’s generating a lot of publicity and selling a lot of tickets.” It was the first time it occurred to me that race sometimes played a factor in these things. And that life was not necessarily fair.
The other thing I remember was the bus ride home. I looked over at Red and his face was changing colors and he was contorted in pain. “Hey Red, are you all right?” I said.
“Holy shit, I’ve got to piss like an Irish racehorse,” said Red. “I’m afraid I’m gonna piss my pants.” Red sat there fidgeting and groaning for the next 15 minutes until we finally got to our stop. And Red raced out of that bus like a bat out of hell and pissed for what seemed like at least 10 minutes straight. That Johnny Walker Red, he was a character. I wonder what ever happened to him. I haven’t seen him in 40 years. I hope the years are treating him well.