Saturday, October 11, 2008

Newsman Helps Get Clemency For Illegally Imprisoned Man

Indianapolis Star Illustration

Inmate Wins Hearing After 37-Year Effort

By Rick Johnson—Indianapolis Star, August 27, 1972

For 37 years, Thomas A. Bratton, an Indiana State Prison inmate, has been convinced that Lady Justice is blind, deaf, and perverse.

He has filed writs in his murder conviction all the way to the United States Supreme Court. He has been denied clemency 10 times.

Indianapolis Star

After learning last week of the many legal snarls involved in the case, the Indiana Parole Board agreed to hold a special clemency hearing for Bratton on September 27. The State Public Defender’s Office has also revived interest in Bratton’s plight.

Bratton, now 59, was convicted by a jury in February 1935, in Criminal Court, Division 1, of first-degree murder in the slaying of roustabout tap dancer Andrew Gaddie.

Bratton denied the shooting when arrested, at his trial, and today. He says poor judgment on his part led to his conviction.

Research reveals that Bratton’s request for a new trial, filed March 28, 1935, never has been ruled upon.

That failure alone provides the basis for winning him his freedom…through a post-conviction relief remedy, or through a motion for a new trial…according to Harriette Bailey Conn, the state’s chief public defender.

Further research reveals that no court reporter’s notes, or transcript of Bratton’s trial exists. No copies of the indictment can be located, and it cannot be established who testified during the trial.

When interviewed at the prison about the gap in Division 1 records between 1935 and 1953, Bratton said:

“Getting out is all I’ve ever thought about. I didn’t kill that man. I’ve never killed anyone. I can’t understand what happened to all those papers I sent to the court. I know they left the prison, and I didn’t know until you told me that my request for a new trial had never been ruled on. You just can’t find out a lot of things when you’re in a place like this.”

As a result of the scarcity of records, a new trial will be tantamount to a release for Bratton since it virtually would be impossible for the prosecutor’s office to prepare another case against him.

The judge pro tempore in the case, Clyde C. Karrer, is dead. So is the prosecutor, Herbert Wilson. Only one of the four policemen who investigated the slaying is alive, and he has no memory of the facts, he says.

Bratton maintains that, from the time he was sentenced, he tried to get a transcript of his trial so that he could appeal, but he was never able to do so.

Prison correspondence records from 1935 to 1948 could not be found, but since 1948, his correspondence with various courts has been voluminous.

The Indiana Law Encyclopedia, Chapter 2, Section 84, states: “A court speaks only by its record, which is its order book, and the records of the court import absolute verity, which cannot be contradicted by parole testimony.”

The only existing records in Bratton’s case are the order book entries in Criminal Court, Division 1. And they are spotty, and in some cases, at variance with records in the public defender’s office. (The latter was not formed until the mid-1940s, so its records are of no help prior to that time.)

Records since reveal that Bratton has been vigorous in his attempts to gain freedom. His latest maneuver was filed with the Indiana Supreme Court on July 14, 1971. It seeks permission to file a belated appeal. That motion is still pending.

Among the many interesting letters and notations in the public defender’s office was one (unsupported by an order book entry) showing that on August 14, 1958, William J. Mahan, the court reporter who took notes at Bratton’s trial, testified that he disposed of those notes 10 years after the trial.

Examination of existing copies of Bratton’s various pleadings and writs reveals extensive repetition. In nearly all, he cites denial of an attorney at the preliminary hearing, denial of constitutional rights, incompetence of counsel, lack of record or transcript, and systematic exclusion of Negroes from the grand and petit juries.

Bratton said that D.C. Stephenson, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, who was convicted of the murder of Madge Oberholtzer of Indianapolis, frequently assisted him in preparing his writs and pleadings. Stepehenson received a life sentence November 21, 1925, and was paroled December 21, 1956.

Public defender’s files show that on December 21, 1953, it was established that no trial notes or transcript were available, but in a ruling by the Indiana Supreme Court on May 18, 1956, Bratton was denied a petition for review.

In an opinion written by Justice Harold Achor, the denial said, “Petitioner failed to provide a bill of exception and a transcript as required, or avail himself of a public defender.”

Only a fragmentary report on Bratton’s case exists in the Indianapolis Police Department archives.

The police report is dated August 17, 1934. It states that on July 30, the police were called to City Hospital, where they spoke to Andrew Gaddie, 25, 933 North Traub Avenue. Gaddie, who had been shot, told them that he and some friends had gone to a roadhouse, known alternately as The Cabin In The Pines or Kentuck’s Place, about one and a half miles west of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on West 16th Street. Gaddie said, while they were dancing, he was shot once in the chest, and once in the right side.

The report does not state, at this point, that Gaddie ever mentioned Bratton’s name.

Police next visited Edward Rutland, owner and operator of Kentuck’s Place, and his son, Herschel. Both were arrested after Herschel admitted grabbing his father’s gun and firing two or three shots at the man who shot Gaddie. Bratton's name is not mentioned even at this point. Neither is the type of gun Rutland admitted firing, nor is there an indication that the police confiscated the gun, or that any other evidence was seized.

The report states police next spoke with Gaddie’s father, Andrew Gaddie Sr., who told them he learned it was Tom Bratton who shot his son. He added that Bratton had been arrested at Greensburg.

The police report says that on July 30, they contacted the Greensburg police and learned no Negroes were in jail there.

On August 1, the report says, police learned that a man using the name Edward Griffin had been arrested in Greencastle on July 30 (charge not specified in police report) and he was later identified as Thomas Bratton, 1729 South Keystone Avenue.

He was carrying an empty .38 caliber revolver, and Greencastle authorities freed him on July 31, 1934. The sheriff turned the confiscated pistol over to the Indianapolis police (date not given).

The report then says that the pistol and a slug picked up from the floor of Kentuck’s Place (it is not noted when the slug was recovered) were turned in to the record clerk (date not given).

The report states (on a date not given) police spoke with Moses Richardson and his wife, Audra. Mrs. Richardson allegedly was dancing with Gaddie when Bratton opened fire. Both of the Richardsons claimed they saw Bratton shoot Gaddie.

On August 11, the report says, Andrew Gaddie died in City Hospital at 6:34 a.m. The report adds that on August 13, evidence in the case was presented to the grand jury, and Bratton was indicted.

But when was Bratton indicted? On August 13, 1934, as the police report states, or on August 27, 1934, when the court order book shows the indictment was returned to open court by the grand jury?

Of the four policemen who investigated the case, only Lawrence L. McCarty survives. Now 75 and retired since 1941 from the force, McCarty said he has no independent recollection of the case or the trial because he always depended heavily upon his notes to refresh his memory.

McCarty expressed amazement that Bratton was still in prison.

“I know there are a lot of worse ones who have been paroled,” he said. “Undoubtedly, he’s paid his debt to society. Unless there is some good reason for keeping him there, I wouldn’t mind helping him get out.”

All coroner’s office records of the case have been destroyed.

The sheriff’s office confirms Bratton’s arrest date and that of Herschel Rutland on July 30, 1934, on a charge of vagrancy.

It shows that Herschel Rutland was released by order of the clerk on July 31, 1934. No entry could be found for Edward Rutland, although the report states he was charged also.

Indianapolis police have no records for either of the Rutlands. No Municipal Court records were available. All those prior to 1944 have been destroyed.

The parole board granted the clemency hearing after considering that Bratton has been unable to appeal his conviction because he can’t obtain a transcript of the trial; that he will have a job, if realeased; and that he plans to marry a childhood sweetheart.

None of the members promised Bratton that he would be released, or even that they would recommend clemency, but they did promise a thorough review of the case, and suggested that he might be eligible for the work-release program, where he could be closely supervised to see how he adjusts to society.

Board member Milo C. Murray, an attorney, expressed amazement when informed that court records show Bratton’s request for a new trial in 1935 never has been rules upon, and that a transcript is unavailable.

“It is indeed a travesty,” Murray said. “And it is a great burden upon the state of Indiana. There should be legislation passed to provide that records pertaining to any convicted felon may never be destroyed.”

“I should think the State Bar Association would want to take an active part in this case.”

Board members agreed that Bratton’s psychiatric problems probably were the basis for previous board’s turning him down in his 10 appeals for clemency since 1950.

But Mrs. Conn observed, “Being in prison so long gave him his physical and mental problems, and they’ve made him suffer for it.”

(Bratton has undergone surgery for stomach ulcers.)

Board members refuse to be specific about Bratton’s psychological problems, but said he was confined to Norman W. Beatty Hospital at Westville between May 1961, and June 1962.

Bratton’s conduct record at the prison is not clean, but it is not indicative of a wildly uncontrollable person either.

In 1936, he was caught planning an escape. In 1937, he was insolent when caught gaming. In 1964, he wrote a letter to the wife of a prison farm supervisor, and gave her a purse. In 1969, he got in trouble again over illicit correspondence, when he wrote a letter to a woman mail carrier.

He was caught drinking applejack in January 1971, and the next month was caught with contraband…$2.60, a kitchen knife, surgical scissors, and a watch…and was charged with hiding contraband for other prisoners.

Prior to the murder arrest, the only previous arrest was for petit larceny in 1931 in Greencastle, for which he served a 15-day sentence at the State penal Farm.

It was evident board member Donald E. Cope previously was influenced in denying Bratton clemency, by some of the inaccurate entries in the Parole Board’s file.

“The file states he pleaded guilty to this murder,” Cope said.

But court records show that Bratton, when arraigned on January 19, 1935, entered a plea of not guilty, and the case was tried before a grand jury beginning February 21, 1935. (A guilty plea would not have required a jury trial.)

Alfred P. Tutsie, board chairman, ordered another psychiatric examination for Bratton. The board members said their decision would be influenced heavily by the findings.

In an interview at the prison, Bratton insisted he was guilty only of poor judgment.

Born at Big Rock, Tennessee, and orphaned when he was very young, he moved to Indianapolis to live with relatives. He quit school in the third grade, and took menial jobs. In 1934, he was working as a laborer at Fairmont Glass Works, earning $15 a week, and he had married.

“I still remember the night my uncle (Tom Brodey) and I went out to Kentuck’s Place,” Bratton said. “I knew Gaddie…not real well…but I knew him, and I liked to see him dance.”

“I bought Gaddie a pint of moonshine, and he put on a tap dance for the people. My uncle Tom and I were talking inside the place, and I heard shots fired. My uncle and I headed for the door. I saw Gaddie laying on the floor. And then, I didn’t know if he’d been shot, or was just ducking.”

“As we headed for my uncle’s car, my uncle said he saw someone throw something into the car, and he pointed to a man who was running away. I didn’t recognize him, and neither did my uncle.”

“My uncle reached inside the car and picked up a gun, and he threw it in the weeds. I went over and picked the thing up and stuck it in my belt. My uncle argued with me about picking it up, and I asked him if I kept it, could I ride in the car? He said I could ride, but he didn’t like the idea of me keeping the gun.”

“When we got to my aunt’s house, she said the police had already been there, and we looking for me. I got scared, and I took off. I hopped a freight train, and headed to Terre Haute, where I had some kin living.”

“I jumped off the train at Greencastle…right in front of the sheriff…and he saw the gun still sticking in my belt. I was still scared, and I gave them the name of Edward Griffin. They checked me out though, and found out my other name, and they released me. I left, and went to Big Rock.”

“All the time I was running, I kept knowing that they’d really find out who shot Gaddie, and I finally made up my mind to come back to Indianapolis.”

“I hadn’t been in town long until the police picked me up in a tavern on South Keystone. I didn’t give them a statement…I hardly talked to them. I asked for an attorney, but they wouldn’t give me one, and I was just too scared to talk.”

Bratton said, while he was in the Marion County jail, that the late attorney T. Ernest Maholm solicited him.

“He said, ‘I know you don’t have much money, boy. What can your family raise?’ I told him I didn’t know how much they had, but to go see them. To this day, I don’t know what they paid him,” Bratton said.

Bratton said further that two women knew he didn’t fire the shots, but were “too scared” to testify (they are now being sought), and that a doctor and nurse testified at the trial that Gaddie told them that he (Bratton) did not shoot him. He also recollected that the slug found was from a .45-caliber, and that he was carrying a .38-caliber when arrested at Greencastle.

“From the time I went away, I kept trying to get a transcript,” he said. “I knew if I could appeal, I’d be freed. I know the letters and things left this prison, but I guess they just never got there.”

“It all seems so hopeless!”

“I know I was a fool for picking up that gun, for running, for using another name,” he said.

Bratton believes he was framed because some people thought he knew who shot Gaddie, and “told their story first while I was running.”

At prison, Bratton has learned a variety of trades. In his spare time, he learned to play the guitar, and repair radios and record players.

“I know I’ll probably never be able to clear myself,” he said. “I accept that. All I want to do now is get out and work for a living and stick by Mattie. She’s really stuck by me.”

Mattie is Mattie Tudor DeWalt. She and Bratton were childhood sweethearts. They dated before Bratton married another girl. She married James DeWalt, and raised a daughter. Over the years, she received periodic letters from Bratton. After her husband died in 1969, she corresponded frequently and visited Bratton. (Bratton’s wife divorced him in 1945.)

“I’ve never believed he killed anyone,” Mrs. DeWalt said. “He was always a good man, and kind to me and my mother.”

Mrs. Bratton said she sought help for Bratton “everywhere,” but without success. She finally decided to visit the Indianapolis Star to see if anyone could help her.

She also contacted Daniel Dozier of the voluntary community organization, Concerned People for Action Through Corrective Teamwork (C-PACT), and got him interested in the case.


Board Hears Bratton

Backers Ask Clemency

By Rick Johnson—Indianapolis Star, September 28, 1972

The state public defender yesterday urged the Indiana Parole Board to grant clemency to Thomas E. Bratton, who has been an inmate of the Indiana State Prison 37 years, and has been thwarted at every attempt to win legal release.

Harriette Bailey Conn, the public defender, with Mattie DeWalt, a sweetheart from Bratton’s earlier days, and several friends and relatives were present at a special clemency hearing granted by the board.

Bratton, now 59, was convicted by a jury in 1935, in Criminal Court, Division 1, of first-degree murder in the slaying of tap dancer Andrew Gaddie.

Research disclosed that Bratton’s request for a new trial, filed March 28, 1935, never has been ruled upon, a single fact, Mrs. Conn claimed, which should be sufficient to win his freedom in the courts, either through a post-conviction relief remedy, or through a belated motion for a new trial.

Although none of the board members announced how he intends to vote, Milo C. Murray, the only attorney on the board, said yesterday, “What has happened to Mr. Bratton should forever be a thorn in the side of the legal profession of this state. It is indeed a travesty.”

No court reporter’s notes or transcripts of Bratton’s trial exist. No copies of the indictment can be located, and it cannot be established who gave testimony during the trial.

The absence of a transcript and other documents put Bratton in a legal never-never land because he could not appeal his conviction without a transcript, and his various attorneys failed to press the issue.

“The mills of the gods grind slowly, but exceedingly fine,” Mrs. Conn told the board, “and I say that in Thomas Bratton’s case, there has been a lot of slow grinding.”

“If you decide not to grant clemency, I’ll take action through the courts, but I urge you to grant clemency, because it would be the speediest form of relief for this man.”

“I’m not here as a lawyer today. I’m here as an individual speaking for a man who is well deserving of being out. I doubt his guilt, and the records are certainly a shambles in this case.”

Daniel Dozier, of a voluntary community organization, Concerned People for Action Through Corrective Teamwork (C-PACT), told the board that if Bratton is granted clemency, he has been promised a job. Mrs. DeWalt confirmed that if Bratton is released, they plan to be married.

Attorney John Preston Ward has been hired by C-PACT to represent Bratton in processing various legal motions if he is denied clemency, or if the board recommends clemency, but Governor Edgar D. Whitcomb denies Bratton’s release.

It will be a minimum of eight weeks before the board’s recommendation will be sent to the Governor for his action.

Bratton was not present at yesterdays hearing.

Members of the board sitting as the clemency commission yesterday included: Chairman Albert P. Tutsie, John J. Barton, Glenn E. Douthitt, Milo C. Murray, and Donald E. Cope.


Bratton Wins Clemency In Lengthy Battle

By Rick Johnson—Indianapolis Star, October 17, 1972

The legal treadmill, which Thomas E. Bratton has been propelling 37 years, came to a halt yesterday when Governor Edgar D. Whitcomb granted the State Prison inmate clemency on his first-degree murder conviction.

Bratton, now 59, was convicted by a jury in 1935, in Criminal Court, Division 1, of first-degree murder in the slaying of tap dancer Andrew Gaddie, and sentenced to a life prison term.

Whitcomb approved clemency for Bratton upon recommendation of the Clemency Commission, which held a public hearing on Bratton’s case last September 27, and then voted immediately to recommend clemency.

During that hearing, members of the Indiana Parole Board sat as the Clemency Commission, and heard from the state’s chief public defender, Mrs. Harriette Bailey Conn, from Mrs. Mattie DeWalt, a sweetheart from Bratton’s earlier days, and from several friends and relatives.

Mrs. DeWalt brought Bratton’s plight to the attention of the Indianapolis Star in July. Facts disclosed after an investigation by the Star, and later confirmed by Mrs. Conn and her aides, that Bratton’s request for a new trial, filed March 28, 1935, never has been ruled upon. Mrs. Conn claimed this fact alone was sufficient to win his freedom.

Investigation further revealed that no court reporter’s notes or transcript of Bratton’s trial exist, no copies of the indictment can be located, and it cannot be established who gave testimony during the trial.

Absence of a transcript and other documents put Bratton in a legal never-never land because he could not appeal his conviction without a transcript, and his various attorneys failed to press the issue.

Mrs. Conn told the Clemency Commission, and won the support of Milo C. Murray, that if Bratton did not receive clemency, she would take Bratton’s case to the courts to win his release.

Murray, an attorney and member of the Parole Board and Clemency Commission, said yesterday that he would attempt to place Bratton’s case on the calendar of the next regular parole session at the prison at Michigan City, November 1.

If he cannot be worked into that calendar, Murray said, Bratton’s name would be placed on the parole board schedule for the first week in December.

Unless there are new developments in Bratton’s case, the parole hearing will be just routine. His release will be authorized after a parole officer has investigated and confirmed he has a place to live and a job to go to if he is released.

Mrs. DeWalt said she and Bratton would be married as soon as possible after his release. She said she is pleased and thankful that public officials finally recognized Bratton’s plight.

It was learned that the Clemency Commission’s decision to grant clemency was based on the facts that Bratton served 37 years in prison, and it was his only conviction, that many interested people had offered Bratton help and a job, and Mrs. DeWalt said she and Bratton would be married when he is released.

A psychiatric evaluation of Bratton stated he would be a good clemency risk, and that as much rehabilitation as was possible had been accomplished. The doctor’s report recommended close supervision with periodic psychiatric assistance.

Bratton, when questioned at the prison yesterday, said, “This means everything to me. You just can’t know,” he said as he choked with emotion.

The prisoner has always denied that he was Gaddie’s slayer, and Mrs. Conn told the Clemncy Commission that she doubted Bratton’s guilt.

Bratton claimed that from the time he was sentenced, he made one attempt after another to win his release through hearings and various appeals. But from the day he was sentenced, it was more than 13 years before any record of legal proceedings could be located in the Criminal Court, Division 1, order book.

Bratton said he also made unceasing efforts to win freedom in the Federal Courts with equal lack of success. Police records in Bratton’s case were also scanty, and brought up many questions which cannot be answered. No prosecutor’s office records exist. No coroner’s records exist, and the sheriff’s office confirms only Bratton’s arrest date.

Yesterday, after learning of the Governor’s decision, Murray said, “As an attorney, what happened to Bratton deeply concerns me, and it should concern every member of the legal profession.”


Indianapolis Star Photo

Tom’s Thanks Will Be Fervent

Free First Time In 38 Years

By Rick Johnson—Indianapolis Star, November 23, 1972

Michigan City, Indiana—Today, for the first Thanksgiving in more than 38 years, Thomas E. Bratton will return thanks with his family and friends instead of with the 1,800 inmates and guards of the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City.

Bratton, now 59, with tears glistening down his cheeks, walked out of prison yesterday after receiving a handshake and a good luck wish from Warden Russell E. Lash.

Light snow, propelled by a chilly wind from Lake Michigan, was whipping around, but Bratton, long the victim of an unyielding legal knot, didn’t seem to notice.

Taken to his first breakfast outside prison, Bratton for a long time studies the menu.

“My, my,” he said, “Do we have enough money to pay for this?”

He was assured there was enough money.

Later he confided, “The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is kick off these shoes. Boy…they hurt!”

“Then, I just might play Mattie (Mrs. Mattie DeWalt) a little song I wrote for her.”

Bratton taught himself to play the guitar while an inmate. He composes his own tunes, which he terms “the lonesome blues, because I only play by myself.”

A jury convicted Bratton in 1935, in Criminal Court, Division 1, of first-degree murder in the slaying of tap dancer Andrew Gaddie.

Governor Edgar D. Whitcomb granted Bratton clemency last October 16 after an investigation by The Indianapolis Star disclosed Bratton’s case was in a legal never-never land.

He had been thwarted consistently in attempts to win release, via either an appeal or a new trial.

Bratton’s sweetheart from earlier days, Mrs. DeWalt, 2035 North New Jersey Street, and Daniel Dozier of C-PACT (Concerned People for Action Through Corrective Teamwork), who also worked to gain Bratton’s release, met him yesterday when he walked out of prison.

Mrs. DeWalt’s granddaughter, Mrs. Sherron Daniel, 3852 Broadway, also was there to help her mother and Dozier transport Bratton’s belongings back to Indianapolis.

“You’ll never believe how I’ve longed for this day,” Bratton said as he walked through the front door of the prison a free man.

After shaking hands with Warden Lash, Bratton gave Mattie a big hug and a kiss. He then assisted in loading his guitar and amplifiers into the trunk of Mattie’s car.

After numerous inmates bade him goodbye, Bratton and his friends drove out of the prison grounds and headed for Portage, where he ate his first meal as a free man.

Thousands of things have changed since Bratton went to prison. Prejudice towards Negroes has softened, but the atmosphere was tense at the truck stop, and Bratton, Mrs. DeWalt, her granddaughter, and Dozier drew a gush of mutters when they entered.

However, they were served, where 35 years ago, they might not have been, had they dared enter.

Bratton sensed the tension, and he broke it up.

“You can’t imagine how this feels to be free…eat what you want…imagine…and order from a menu,” he said in disbelief. “No one telling you it’s time to eat…time to go to bed.”

Mattie and he discussed plans for today. A big dinner will be held at her granddaughter’s home for all of Mattie’s family and for Bratton’s sister, Mrs. Pauline Pierce, 2514 Paris Avenue, with whom Bratton will live.

Mrs. DeWalt said she and Bratton plan to regularly attend St. John’s Catholic Church, 126 West Georgia Street.

Bratton will soon begin work at Hill’s Auto Parts, 909 North Capital Avenue, but not before he rests a few days and attempts to adjust to his freedom.

He said he intends to work with youngsters in his spare time at St. Rita’s Catholic Church, teaching them how to box. Bratton was quite a boxer at the prison.

“I’m going to teach them a lot of other things too,” he said. “Like…don’t go around with a chip on your shoulder, because it only brings trouble.”

“All through the years, in spite of all I’ve been through in just about all the courts, I didn’t get bitter, or carry that chip. It will ruin a man.”

Mattie and Bratton had planned to be married as soon as he won freedom, but those plans have been postponed until he has time to accustom himself to life outside the prison walls.

“I’ve got all I’ve ever wanted now…freedom, Mattie, a job, and my music,” Bratton said. “No man should want any more.”

Without further evaluation, Bratton likely could teach many of us how to return thanks today.

Indianapolis Star


Illegally Imprisoned 38 Years Because State Lost Records

Newsman Helps Him to Finally Get Parole

By Paul Reining—excerpt from The National Tattler, February 4, 1973

After 38 long years of incredible illegal imprisonment, Thomas E. Bratton finally won his freedom from prison.

Bratton claims he never committed the murder that put him in Indiana State prison in the first place, but every legal effort he made was thwarted because the State of Indiana lost almost all records of his case.

And now that the judge and most of the lawmen involved with the case are dead, nobody can prove that he did anything to deserve his life sentence.

Bratton’s luck began to change when he sent Mrs. Mattie DeWalt, an old friend and childhood sweetheart, to the Indianapolis Star. She told her friend’s painful story to Rick Johnson, a veteran crime reporter.

“Of course, I made a preliminary check on what she told me. Then, for more than a month, I tried to reconstruct the record,” Johnson said.

“I was shocked at the lack of records in the case, so I went to see Bratton up at Michigan City, and then I wrote the account.”

“There was a possibility the man had been railroaded, and I realized he would have been freed if he’d had a lawyer to follow through for him,” Johnson said.


Rick Johnson Recipient Of CASPER Award

Indianapolis Star—May 4, 1973

Rick Johnson, reporter for the Indianapolis Star, was named a winner yesterday of a CASPER (Community Appreciation for Service in Public Enlightenment and Relations) Award for articles which resulted in the granting of clemency to an Indianapolis man after 37 years of imprisonment.

Johnson’s articles were about Thomas E. Bratton, who spent 37 years in the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City before the investigation revealed he had been denied a new trial improperly.

As a result of the articles, Bratton was granted clemency by former Governor Edgar D. Whitcomb.

Rick Johnson


Bloggers note:

Judging from Mattie's 2004 obit, she and Thomas Bratton never married. I'm not sure what happened to Bratton, but he has passed away by now probably. I asked my mother about him, and she says things did not turn out as swimmingly for Bratton as all had hoped. But, at least he was free to choose his own path...

Not only did Dad receive the CASPER award for his efforts in these articles, he was also nominated for, but did not win, a Pulitzer Prize for this work in getting justice and clemency for Thomas E. Bratton.

Nice job, Pops. I'm very proud of you.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

GOTCHA! The Last Jabberoo

The following is another short piece of unpublished fiction by the old man. As with much of Dad's fiction, it is, most likely, based upon factual events.

One does not have to be familiar with Indianapolis' near west side in the late 60s or early 70s, or with the political machinery of the era, to have an appreciation for this piece, but it would probably be helpful!

As blog material, some may think it's too long. I disagree. It is worthwhile reading, and should be savored like a fine bourbon.



GOTCHA! The Last Jabberoo

by Rick Johnson

Shorty and Sluggo were the closest and best pals any person in Benton City had known.

Their friendship began in grade school and continued through high school, where both were standout athletes. Their camaraderie grew through the chaos and danger they survived in Vietnam as Army infantrymen.

When that lamentable paragraph of their lives ended, they came home to face what, to them, was a tougher struggle than Nam. Serving there had left them with deep, invisible scars.

People were happy to see them again, greeted them warmly, and treated them well. But few people talked about Vietnam with any knowledge, and most acted like Nam wasn't happening. There were no parades, no sort of official recognition. They had been gone. Now they were back.

Shorty and Sluggo went to the American Legion, with their proud fathers, only a few days after their return. They left, after a couple of beers, when the old vets began telling them what it was like to serve in a real war. As if that wasn't enough to rankle them, several legion members went out of their way to tell them what a shame it was the Legion could not welcome them as members because congress never declared war.

They left angry and bitter, and each vowed never to return. Each was sure they had seen enough and done enough in Nam, and had enough knowledge of history to know they served in one of the worst wars this nation has fought.

Shorty returned to his job in the lumberyard, and Sluggo ended up with a good job as a heavy equipment mechanic. It took them more than two years to shelve most of the bad memories of Vietnam and to deal with the indifference of the public to the war. The pair did a lot of beer drinking and cavorting, seemingly without ever having or considering a serious thought.

Eventually, Sluggo got serious…real serious, about what he called his little piece of velvet…Sadie. Sluggo was the first to get married. Shorty was the best man at his wedding. Observers predicted Sluggo's marriage to Sadie would quickly break up the old friendship.

Not so. After only a few weeks of closely observing Sluggo and Sadie and their evident happiness, Shorty decided he'd get married too. The young woman he'd been dating nearly as long as he'd known Sluggo, almost fainted when Shorty proposed, but she hurriedly said yes.

Sluggo was Shorty's best man, and within a few weeks, Shorty and his bride Sally, and Sluggo and Sadie were sharing a double. It appeared their friendship would be eternal.

The wives had never been as close as Shorty and Sluggo, though they had known each other all their lives. Sadie and Sally got along with each other extremely well, and with each other’s husband. They picnicked together, swam together, went sailing and shopping as a quartet, and their laughter was infectious and enjoyable to all the people who happened to be around them.

One aspect of their relationship was the merciless kidding in which Shorty and Sluggo engaged. They razzed each other regularly with harsh sarcasm and jagged comments, in an effort to see how much abuse the other could take before losing control.

The wives did not relish much of the repartee between their husbands. Neither did they understand how two people could speak so roughly to each other and remain friends.

Sadie and Sally decided it was some sort of mechanism, likely brought about as a result of their service in Vietnam. They believed the caustic comments their husbands showered upon each other was a guise they used to shield their true feelings for each other. They also wondered if their husbands were punishing each other for the guilt they had for having survived Vietnam, when so many of their buddies had not. The two women could only guess though, because Shorty and Sluggo refused to talk about Vietnam in front of them.

Sadie and Sally endured the verbal jousting, because Shorty and Sluggo never spoke to any other people with such scurrilous language.

During one exchange Sluggo said to Shorty, "Hey…ain't it time for yer mom's birthday?"

"I fergit."

"Think it is. You got wheels for her pushcart last year. Don't you think you oughta get her a coat this year?"

"Naw...She'll pick one up. Think I'll get her a new shoe for her wooden leg. She drags that one so much.”

The next day, Sluggo mailed a terribly smelly and worn shoe to Shorty's mother. The note said, "Shorty said you needed a new shoe for your wooden leg. I was afraid he'd forget your birthday. You know how he is. Love Sluggo.”

“P.S. If you need a good coat…call me. I know how cheap Shorty is.”

Close acquaintances were positive the longstanding friendship was over when, on the occasion of Sluggo's first wedding anniversary, Shorty hired a squad of people to act like cops and had Sluggo dragged out of his home on the trumped up charge that he had failed to pay several dozen parking tickets. Sadie cried, shouted, and pouted, trying to keep the police from hauling Sluggo to jail. She wrote a check, offered the intruders cash, and they refused both. The uncooperative, uncommunicative, interlopers marched Sluggo out of the house in handcuffs to a dark colored station wagon and drove away, despite her sobbing pleas.

Sluggo was taken by the bogus police to a neighborhood tavern. When Sluggo arrived, Shorty was gloating over his ingenious prank. Once the handcuffs were removed, they began punching and hugging each other. They drank beer until the tavern closed. Then they fell asleep in a booth.

Sluggo wasn't mad about the gag, but the shared mood of Sadie and Sally was another matter. They believed Sluggo had been arrested. Sadie, whose anniversary plans were shattered, went with Sally to the county jail. They took turns inquiring of the sour-faced jailer, asking if anyone by the name of Sluggo Sego, alias Malcom Edward Sego, had been booked for failing to pay parking tickets. Until the shift changed,Sally and Sadie kept getting the same answer…"NO"…in increasingly angrier tones.

Sadie and Sally, worried, puzzled, and scared, decided to go home and wait, after extracting a promise from the jailer that he would call them if a prisoner named Sego was delivered to him. Sally was worried about Shorty. She'd called home but there was no answer. Where could he be, she wondered.

Not long after Sadie and Sally got home, neighbors on both sides of the double heard windows-rattling screams from the house. The distraught, weary wives had discovered their errant husbands home in their own beds. Furious, they routed the beer-laden pair from their beds and began chasing them. Sadie was armed with a broom, and Sally wielded a rolled up magazine. They were swinging them like baseball bats at their husbands. So furious was their attack, Shorty and Sluggo ran outside to escape. Their wives continued to chase and swat at their husbands outside.

Neighbors soon called the police.

When the real police arrived, they found Shorty and Sluggo in their under shorts, pummeling each other in the front yard, convulsed with laughter.

"Slug, I thought you called them."

"Hell, I thought you did. I didn't have any change, remember? Boy are they pissed at us. Wonder what it's gonna take to make it up to them?”

They guffawed and rolled on the ground. Their wives and the two policemen who were watching gave no expression of humor.
"And this is our wedding anniversary," Sadie told one cop.

With a grimace the cop said, "How many years?"

"Our first," she said softly.

Tugging his cap as he left, the cop shook his head and said, "Oh my."

The furor of that escapade had cooled only slightly when Sluggo triggered another incident in observance of Shorty and Sally's first wedding anniversary.

Only a few minutes before Shorty came home from work at the lumberyard, a large moving van pulled up at the double. A crew of men emerged from the truck and went to Shorty's side of the house. Sally answered the door, and a gorilla-like, gruff-speaking man pressed a legal looking paper into her hand saying, "I got orders to pick up yer furniture'n household goods. That's a replevin paper from the court."

Sally spluttered, blustered, and babbled, but could not think of or manage to speak a coherent sentence. She started yelling, "What??? What??? What???", and walking around in short, erratic arcs. The men shoved her gently aside and rapidly removed every object in their view from the small apartment and placed it in the truck.

In about thirty minutes, the men had the truck loaded and locked. They were driving off, when Shorty pulled into the driveway. Sluggo drove up a moment later and parked his car in front of the house.

Smiling, Shorty approached his wife, who had run out to meet him. "What's for supper, sweet cheeks?" he said cheerily as he grabbed for Sally to give her a hug and kiss.

Sally dodged his arms and yelled, "Supper? What's for supper? Hell, we don't even have a table or chairs, no refrigerator. Those men," she said pointing frantically at the truck moving up the street, "took everything. They even took the silverware my mother gave us."

Tears were running down Sally's cheeks, but she was not sobbing. She was butt-chewing, head-whopping mad, and Shorty knew it.

Shorty's expression of cheerfulness quickly changed to one of puzzlement.

"They? Who the hell is they? What did they take, and why?" he demanded.

Sally handed Shorty the paper one of the men had put in her hand. "They said they had orders from the court and gave me this. That's all they told me. They took everything we had, put it in that big truck, and drove off."

Sally began a gyrating trek around her husband. Hopping first on one leg, and then the other, she waved her arms excitedly and yelled over and over, "What the hell…and I mean what the hell," she bellowed through sobs, "have you done?"

Shorty turned a tight circle and tried to keep up with her hops and dips and looked at her face. He'd never seen her so upset. He tried to talk softly and console her. He reached for her several times, but she kept avoiding his arms.

Shorty looked at the paper she had given him. It looked like some sort of legal document…Olde English headings, his typewritten name, and some unreadable signature on the front. Then he opened the paper.

"Happy Anniversary You Chump"
I owed you one
Guess you'll sleep on the floor tonight
Or did the boys take that too?
Love and Happy Returns
Sluggo and Sadie

Shorty felt a surge of anger. He turned around and saw Sluggo standing nearby wearing a leer, which stretched from sideburn to sideburn. It was the first time Shorty could remember definitely wanting to murder his best friend.

Choking with laughter, Sluggo started walking toward Shorty and said, "Hey, let's have a beer. Got any?"

Shorty knew he had it coming. Even so, he was mad to the marrow of his bones. But he didn't want to display too much evidence of it…at least not right away.

"Hmmph. A beer? Hell I got no beer. Got no refrigerator. No nothin. This paper here says you got it. So…," Shorty said expelling his breath, "if we have beer, we gotta have it at your house."

"That's good enough. Let's get a brew."

Sluggo had come close enough for Shorty to measure him for a punch, and he threw a haymaker right hand, which Sluggo ducked.

The two men grappled, and began rolling around on the ground and laughing.

"You bastard," Shorty said, "you really nailed me. Really got to me...But, boy, I don think Sally thinks this is a damned bit funny. She looks like she's gonna vapor-lock."

Ignoring Shorty's observation, Sluggo said, "I wish I had a picture of your puss when Sally gave you that paper and did that little war dance around you. She looked like a mad stork. It was funnier than hell," he choked through his giggles.

Sadie had come outside after hearing the commotion. She saw Sally crying, and the two Dobermans, as she called them, rolling around in the front yard again…cursing and punching each other and laughing.

"I hope they kill each other," Sally said through the sobs.

"Sometimes I don't think that would be a bad idea, but what have they done now?"

Sally dabbed at her eyes and began explaining that Sluggo had played a practical joke on them. While she spoke, the moving van, which had taken her belongings away, returned to the house.

"Sadie, oh Sadie, run inside and lock your house. Don't let them in. They might be after your stuff now."

Sluggo spotted the van during one of the tumbles he and Shorty were taking on the lawn, and he jumped to his feet.

"Hey Roscoe. Glad yer back," he yelled to the leader of the group. "Get that stuff back in the house before Shorty and his wife kill me."

Sadie punched Sluggo in the back with her tiny fist, and in a half-snarl, half-shout said, "Don't forget me, Buster. I could kill you too."

It took a few hours for their relationships to once more approach normal. Sadie and Sluggo had planned to host Shorty and Sally's anniversary dinner. The excellent meal did a great deal to salve any remaining anger. Shorty and Sluggo, much aware of how their actions and pranks upset their wives, made promises at the table that, henceforth, they would keep their hard kidding to themselves, and would not pull practical jokes upon the other which could upset their wives. It made their wives happy to see them shake hands and make, what they believed, was a long overdue agreement.

They drank several bottles of wine, and feasted on lasagna and a huge spinach salad.

Shorty and Sluggo helped clear the table and then went to the living room, while Sadie and Sally prepared to do the dishes.

"Hey Slug…are we going to the West Side Outing and Marching Society bash next month? If we are, we better get our names on the list quick, or we won't get in."

"We've never missed that. Sure we're going."

"Well, we've never taken our wives before. Think it will be OK?"

"Sure. Lots of guys take their wives. It's a nice deal. No trouble. We know just about everyone. No reason not to go. Let's plan on it."

Sally entered the room drying a dish. She was smiling again. "Shorty…I forgot to tell you your dad called today,” she said sweetly.

Before Sally could say more, Sluggo broke in cheerfully and said, "Hey that's great. Did you get his name? That's something Shorty's always wanted to know."

Sally reddened, whirled, and left the room in a series of stiff legged stomps that shook the house. Shorty and Sluggo heard her explaining to Sadie what had happened in shrill, angry tones.

Shorty dropped his head, "You just had to do it, didn't you?”

“Got to taper off. Damn…can't quit something like the old jabberooo in one night. Might get the bends or diarrhea."

They laughed and started talking. All the while, Shorty swigged his beer and icily waited to execute a retaliatory verbal thrust. He wanted Sluggo to roast on a white-hot skewer of sarcasm peppered with galling invective…all provided by him.

Nothing Sluggo said that evening presented Shorty with the opportunity he wanted. Only a scorched-earth linguistic blow would satisfy him as a reprisal. Sluggo always seemed to be able to do that to him…deal him a lethal jab. Of course, he did get in a few himself. Great ones, in fact, but it seemed he always thought his best ones hours or days later…long after he could use them for maximum effect.

“Damn it…wish I was quicker,” Shorty thought.

“Must be slipping,” he muttered to himself.

As he and Sally went to their home, he hoped to conclude their anniversary celebration. In that, at least, neither he nor Sally was disappointed. They really did love each other…most of the time.

The Club, as it was known throughout Benton City, was solidly non-political. So much so, that many of the political meetings of both parties…public and private…were held there. One veteran political writer observed in his column that more deals had been cut in The Club than in all the joints in Las Vegas. No one disputed the statement.

The Club's ambiance was close to being like an old fashioned speakeasy. While many of its members wouldn't want their membership in the club listed in their obituary, all relished going there, and were privately pleased they were members. They enjoyed the tingling excitement of either being a witness to, or participating in, the assorted illegal acts, and seeing, in person, some of the big shots they read about in the newspapers and saw on television.

Proprietors of this unique hostelry were Lefty Fon, PeeWee Olofson, and Red Keers. With Fon, an ex-policeman, and Olofson, a professional poker player and bookie, and Keers, a former city councilman and real estate broker, there was enough horsepower and connections to get almost anything done at any time, no matter which political party held city hall.

The three entrepreneurs liked to help their fellowman, and did so, usually for a price. But the price was never too much, and the favors, PeeWee, Lefty, and Red told folks, were strictly limited to the club membership. But the three men had passed out so many membership cards, that if any one held a true roll call of its members, it would have been the largest club in Benton City.

It was a good place to take a date and dance, have a good meal, bet a horse, play a parlay card, pick up pool and lottery tickets, get a traffic ticket fixed, or see if a street could be repaved or new sidewalks could be installed.

The Club was also the spot to start for a policeman or fireman who wanted a promotion or another job assignment. Through their interlocking connections, one of the big three at the club could seemingly always deliver.

Aside from the politicians of both parties who frequented the club, it was also a watering hole for a couple of priests. One, Father Duffy, drank straight, generous shots of Old Fitzgerald. He drank enough of that 100 proof, carmel colored fluid to earn the whispered nick name of "Father Fitz."

Upon entering the club, he took off his collar, jammed it in his pocket, and put a $5 bill on the bar. None of the three owners ever touched that five spot, and neither did the head bartender, Boom-Boom Haithcock.

On the few occasions an efficient newcomer behind the bar served Father Fitz a drink and made change from the priest's $5 bill, Father Duffy would snap on his collar and inquire if PeeWee, Lefty, or Red were around. The sacred 5 bucks was always returned to the bar under the glass of water.

Some observers claimed that same $5 bill made 100 or more trips in and out of the club in the safety of Father Duffy's pocket.

Occasionally, a sinner, in his cups and worried about the destination of his soul, would spot the good priest and slide into a seat next to him at the bar. Then, after a few generous shots of Old Fitz, Father Fitz would listen to a mumbled confession and give a muttered absolution. This was a very private matter. No one attempted to eavesdrop or talk about it. It was, as Father Duffy said, a matter of taking the church to the people. It didn't matter to Father Duffy that the sinners seeking forgiveness were Baptists or Presbyterians.

One of Father Duffy's tasks each fall was to give the benediction and pray for fair weather for the most important gathering of the year for the club owners and the club members.

Annually, the club hosted a free bash. Although none of the newspapers, radio or television stations recognized it as a social event, by the number of people who attended, it was the event of the year on the city's fly-specked social calendar. Huge tents were put up in the parking lot. Large kettles of Hunkystew were cooked over wood fires. Other large pots were used for boiling fresh roasting ears and for distilling a lethally torrid concoction called green chili. One bowl of that green lava would melt the engine block of a Cadillac.

Cooks prepared fresh Polish sausage and hickory-smoked hams. Fresh, deep-fried catfish and pounds of cole slaw, baked beans, and potato salad were popular menu items. Hundreds of loaves of hard-crusted bread and fresh rolls were kept under large plastic covers.

And, of course, there was booze. Red, Lefty, and PeeWee had enough beer to float the city-county building, and hard liquor in quantity sufficient to insure a hangover for each of the city's populace.

On the day of the bacchanal, the three owners were always too busy mingling and politicking to bother with the details of running the actual party. They left that task to their trusted employee Harold "Boom-Boom" Haithcock.

Boom-Boom was more than six feet in height and weighed 250 fat-free pounds. He was as sturdy and strong as an oak physically…with about the same IQ.

Many people were certain Boom-Boom could play football without a helmet or any other protection.

He earned his nickname and his reputation as very young man. They said of him, "Boom, he hits you! Boom, you hit the ground!"

The legend carried over from the cloakroom and playgrounds, to the streets and the barrooms. He was honest, loyal, and trained to do his job exactly the way the three owners required, despite his shoe size IQ.

Boom-Boom's topics of conversation were limited to beer and women, and he did not fare well either in indulging or conversing about either.

While on duty at the club, he watched and listened to everything and everyone. He became a master of observing aggressive body language, and listening for raised voices that alerted him to brewing trouble. On those occasions, Boom-Boom suddenly and quietly appeared at the side of the potential offenders, offering quietly, "Why don't I give you guys one more little drink before you leave…real friendly like." It was an offer only a few fools refused.

Trouble was a commodity Lefty, PeeWee, and Red could ill afford, especially if police were to become officially involved. Police of every rank frequented their place. They winked, blinked, and nodded, and generally turned their backs on the poker games, the pin ball machines, the horse players, and other illegal shenanigans, while they were being plied with free meals and drinks.

The owners never wanted to embarrass a policeman, and did not flout illegal activities when police were present. They didn't make payoffs to winners on the pinball, slot, and poker machines while police were on the premises. The racing forms and other horse racing materials were kept well out of sight in the bookie's room, and no bets were ever taken over the bar. But they knew the police were not fools.

At best, their attempts to cover up were a fragile, easily-pierced veil, and the owners knew it. They also knew that any little incident within the club confines could force police to do their jobs, and such action would compel their many political acquaintances, judges, attorneys, and bureaucrats to turn their backs on them.

"You gotta remember," Lefty told his partners, "We're venerable here. Shit runs down hill, and we're the bottom a the hill."

Father Duffy stood in his robes early that Saturday morning, sprinkled the three owners, Boom-Boom, and all the cooks and bartenders with Holy Water, and said in his softest whiskey bass, "May this blessed dampness from the sky be all we feel today. May the sun and good fortune shine upon all of us for this day. Amen"

Lefty pressed a $100 bill into the priest's hand and said, "Thanks for the good incantation."

Lefty escorted Father Duffy to a table, where he poured him a drink of Old Fitz and left the bottle beside the glass.

"I know it's a bit early, but I don't know how long you can stay, so I want you to feel homely here"

Father Duffy smiled at Lefty's malapropism. He was accustomed to making understandable English from Lefty's snatch-and-grab vocabulary.

"Kind in the extreme you are. A special blessing to you," the priest said as he slipped off his robes, undipped his collar, and took a probing sip of Old Fitz.

"Ah...It will be a glorious day. Will Father Graber be here today?" Father Duffy said with a smack of his lips.

"He's been invited. He said he might be here. Want I should call him?"

"I might do that later. We were discussing a horse named Pious One yesterday. It's off today, and we might want to place a wager."

"Oh, great," Lefty said with a weak smile. "I've got to do a few things. Make yourself accommodated."

Lefty walked away scowling and muttering. “Damn, give him a C note and he and Father Graber are going to beat me on the head with it. I better see how good that horse is. With The Man on their side, they might embroil me.”

Lefty broke into another weak smile when he checked the racing form and saw Pious One was an 80-to-l shot in a seven-horse field. In eight starts, he's always run last. Could he be due to win? “Please, Lord, make him run last just one more time,” Lefty beseeched The Almighty with a rapid glance skyward.

He hurried to find his partners, and told them to dodge Father Duffy and Father Graber the rest of the day, and why. They looked at the table where Father Duffy was seated, smiling, sipping his drink and studying the racing form.

"Look who's here,” Red said with a gesture toward the front of the tent.

All three men frowned. It was Father Graber, and he was walking toward Father Duffy like a man on a mission.

"I got a despaired feelin’," Lefty groaned. Red shook his head and departed to do his chores. PeeWee chomped the stub of his cigar and said, "Won't be the first time we been beat with our own money. Won't be the last. Don't worry about it."

Lefty ducked into the restroom. He'd just zipped his trousers when he heard the sound of a voice he now dreaded.

He began to wash his hands slowly.

Father Duffy said, "Oh, Lefty, Father Graber and I want to play Pious One with you…a hundred dollars on the nose to win. Knowing your generosity, we're sure you'll give us track odds, should God's good fortune shine on us. If we win, we are going to split the money between our parishes and put it in our poor relief funds in your name."

Father Duffy stood beaming as he put the $100 bill into Lefty's palm. Lefty managed a stunned, sick smile.

"You...a...a...You want track odds? Well...a...well.... a… we don't normally pay track odds."

"Oh, we know that. But this is a special thing, and for such a good cause. If we win, you'll be many times blessed. And if we lose, thanks to your generosity, we've really lost nothing," Father Duffy said as he lightly gripped Lefty's shoulder and leveled a wilting smile upon Lefty.

Lefty's resistance vaporized. Fatalistically, he jammed the $100 bill into his pocket, and then shook the priest's hand.

"A C-note to win on Pious One. Track odds. You got it, Father."

Lefty went to the bookie's room and placed the bet.

"When we gonna know about this nag? It's a California track."

"Not till tomorrow morning's paper comes out, unless you want me to give my pal in L.A. a call," the bookmaker said.

"Spare me the expense. I'll wait till Sunday morning."

Lefty exited, wondering if there was someone somewhere who'd listen to a prayer of misfortune for a couple of priests. “Better not do that. Why…that'd be like playing Russian rolaids. I could get expatriated for that,” he reasoned to himself.

Lefty dutifully warned his partners that the bet was down. All three shook it off and joined the conviviality of the burgeoning crowd.

A polka band blared its tuba-punctuated rhythms. Saxaphones, snare and bass drums, guitars, tubas, clarinets, trombones, trumpets, accordions, and other musical instruments, played with varying degrees of skill and enthusiasm, lent their sounds to a stew of music from the tents.

Shorty, Sally, Sluggo, and Sadie settled into the tent where the Michigan Street Sweat Shirt Band was performing. To all but the younger people, the band sounded like the collision of two semis, one loaded with empty tin cans and cymbals, the other filled with glass bottles and explosives.

The quartet sampled all the food, with dancing and drinking between courses. Shorty was still seeking adequate retribution for Sluggo's keenly delivered verbal uppercut on the eve of their anniversary. He manufactured one opening as they sat sipping their beer.

"Hey Slug…Boom-Boom asked me the other day why you take Sadie with you everywhere you go."

"Yeah? Well…what did you tell him?" Slug said, playing along.

"I told him she's so ugly you hate to kiss her good bye."

Shorty beamed for an instant in the glory of his remark.

"Boo, Boo, Boo," came the assessment from the trio.

"You behave yourself tonight," Sally warned Shorty. "That wasn't even funny."

"That's the best you can do? Better give it up, pal," Sluggo smirked.

Sadie glared at Sluggo and said, "You two better not start blazing at each other tonight. Any more of that, and Sally and I are going home."

Shorty took a drink of beer to hide his chagrin. “Boy did I fart and fall. Seem to be doing that a lot. What were those goodies I had ready to fire? Boy, boy, can't think of a damned one,” Shorty thought.

He drained his cup and reached for the pitcher.

"Hey, drink up. I'll go get another pitcher," Shorty said as he refilled everyone's cup. Still chastising himself, he jumped up and headed for the bar.

As the bartender topped off the pitcher, Shorty decided to behave himself. He only hoped Sluggo would do likewise. He grabbed four fresh cups and the pitcher, and headed back to the table.

As he weaved his way through the crowd he saw John "Digger" McCorkle talking to Sally. McCorkle was a tall, handsome man…the son of a very successful mortician. Digger always had a pocketful of money he casually flashed around. Not that he spent much though…

It was common knowledge that Digger handled his quarters as though they were manhole covers. When it came to reaching for money to spend, Digger acted as though his pockets were full of razor blades or hot coals. Digger was free with only one thing…that which Shorty called Bad Mouth.

Digger sober was insufferable. When drinking or drunk, Digger could not long be endured by man or beast.

Shorty didn't like Digger. To Shorty, it seemed, Digger had honed arrogance and his tongue into much too fine a cutting edge, and was far too free with his caustic remarks.

Shorty continued through the crowd, juggling the cups and the pitcher until he reached their table. He put the beer and cups down and sat beside Sally.

"Digger here asked Sally to dance," Sluggo said.

Shorty glanced up at the tanned, manicured, perfumed, and sartorially resplendent man of Scottish ancestry. He's about half drunk, Shorty had noted, when he's at his disgusting best.

“I'd really like to feed him five,” Shorty thought, but instantly reconsidered, remembering his promise to himself.

"Well, Digger…if the lady wants to dance, that's up to her,” he said softly with a smile.

"What say, sweety? Wanna dance with the Digger?"

"My feet hurt right now," Sally demurred. "Perhaps later."

Digger smiled, making the cleft in his chin and his dimples appear much deeper than they really were.

"Certainly ma’am. I know how it is after attending welding class all day and then having an oaf such as this tread all over you. Did you wear your safety shoes?" Digger said, making a slight bow.

Shorty started to leap to his feet, but Sally's elbow caught him in the ribs. Sluggo was going to jump up too, but Sadie caught him by a trouser pocket and yanked him into his seat.

"Better leave Digger, or your old man's gonna be wiping your ass in the morning," Sluggo spat from clenched teeth.

Digger, ignoring the threat, bobbed and weaved a tipsy path to the bar.

"I'd like....I want....I...I…I," Shorty blabbered.

"I... I... I...Yippee-Ki-Yay! You sound like a cowboy song," Sluggo growled and reached for the pitcher of beer.

While Sluggo poured, Shorty finally gained control of his tongue. "That jerk. How's he lived so long?"

"Dunno. He's had his share of whacks. Never seems to learn, though. Gets about half blasted and lets his mouth run off. He sure can get a guy hot in a hurry," Sluggo observed.

"Yes, and you two were ready to do something right here," Sadie blurted.

"I hate to think what would have happened if we hadn't been here to keep you in your chairs," Sally said.

The two women nodded emphatically, then shook their heads in disgust.

"Well I know. I'd a grabbed a leg. Shorty'd a grabbed the other, and we'd a made a wish with Old Digger,” Sluggo said.

"You gals think yer married to a couple a wimps? You want some clown like that coming up and walking all over you?"

"We know we're not married to wimps," Sally said. “We know that no one' s going to walk over us."

"Hey Sally," Sluggo said with a dead pan expression, "you really take welding lessons? Has Shorty been steppin’ all over you? You got your safety shoes on?"

All four of them burst out laughing, and then got up and headed for the dance floor. No sooner had they arrived than the Sweat Shirt Band went on break. As a substitute, they switched on the jukebox. The first tune was a moldy-oldie Glenn Miller piece.

"Wanna go sit down or do a little slow dancing? This piece was my mom's favorite," Shorty said.

"Let's dance it out, man," Sluggo said. The wives nodded agreement.
The two couples began dancing, and they were amazed at the chemistry which began to flower as they held each other closely and glided around the dance floor. Shorty felt the vibrations his Sally was giving him as she pressed close and he stroked her back gently. God, he did love her, and was so thankful he had her. He turned to observe Sluggo and Sadie, when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned, and there was Digger. The mellow mood vanished.

"Mind if I cut in."

Shorty did his best to remain calm, cool, semi-collected, and a gentleman.

"That's up to the lady," he managed.

Sally looked up at him," It'll be all right. I'll finish this dance and come back to the table."

Shorty walked back to the table and drank a beer. “Boy what a moment that was…then the Digger spoiled it. Hey, I got to get some of those old records out. They're great mood setters,” he mused.

Soon, the number finished, and Sluggo and Sadie returned.

"Where's Sally?"

"I saw her heading for the lady's room," Sadie said.

In a short time, Sally returned. She plopped into her chair. She opened her purse and got a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.

"Hey babe, what's wrong?" Shorty said.

"Yeah. What's the score? Digger do something…say something?"

Sally didn't answer. She shook her head and continued to wipe her eyes. Sadie reached across the table and patted Sally's hand.

"Want to leave. Sally?"

Sally nodded affirmatively.

"Well, I want to tell the three of you this. I'm not leaving here till I know what happened to Sally. And by God, I mean we'll stay here till the beer goes flat, if it takes that long," Shorty spat.

"Might as well tell him Sally. He can handle it. We can handle it," Sluggo said.

"Well he said, ‘that's an unusual perfume you're wearing.’ Before I could thank him he said, ‘when did they start putting lavender in flea soap?’”

"I just laughed at him. Then he said, ‘it must be nice for you girls to get out without having to wear your flea collars.’ I gave the jerk a punch and laughed at him again.”

"I told him he was such a smooth talker," Sally's voice trailed off.

"Then what?" Shorty insisted.

"He started groping me. I told him to quit and started to leave, but he grabbed me up close...well you know. He said none of the other girls he danced with minded. They expected it, in fact. He made me feel so cheap."

Shorty was on his feet in an instant…glancing around the room like an angry eagle looking for Digger to pounce upon. Sally once more pulled him into his seat.

"Come on now...It's over. Let's forget it. I feel better now," Sally said forcing a grin.

Sluggo watched Sally's little smile and felt positively homicidal. How he'd like to rearrange Digger's all too handsome face… Where is that jerk?

Sluggo was seated facing Shorty and Sally. He looked up and grinned. There, emerging from the crowd, was Digger. The enemy had been delivered to him. Sluggo leaped to his feet, before any one at their table knew what was happening, and blocked Digger's path.

"You prick. You come by to see if you can grope my wife too?"

Shorty started to get up, but Sally grabbed his leg and pinched him until he sat down.

"Damn it baby, quit that. I'm feeling like a yo-yo. I wanna talk to that guy."

Shorty could have brushed her aside, but in this crowd, he did not want to hurt her or someone else if he slipped making a quick move. He decided to see how Sluggo fared before he jumped into the fray against his wife's wishes. He glanced at Sadie. She was aghast.

"Big shot," Sluggo growled. "I asked you a question? I want an answer. You wanna call our wives dogs while I'm standing here? Or do you just get tough with the gals?"

Sluggo was taking little half steps from side to side. Digger, by now totally blasted, was having trouble focusing his eyes, but his tongue was still in lashing order.

"Get out of my path," he demanded haughtily.

"Why don't you and your rough-neck pal take your broads to the manure spreader you drove here and leave."

The face-to-face confrontation had not escaped Boom-Boom. Like a great hawk, he had glided noiselessly up to the chest-to-chest meeting.

Digger stood motionless, except for his eyelids blinking drunkenly, like a well-dressed lizard.

Sluggo's left hand grabbed Digger's shirt and tie. Shorty could see Sluggo's weight begin to shift to his right leg. Sluggo's right hand was drawing back at the same time. Just before that balled fist reached its apogee, Boom-Boom grabbed it and gave it a slight tug. The laws of physics then asserted themselves.

Boom-Boom's tug caused Sluggo's grip to slip from Digger's shirt and tie, to the tie alone. The tie, which was a clip on, came off in Sluggo's fist. Sluggo began a pitching, stumbling, tumbling fall backward.

Sluggo bounced and slid across two tables. His arms flailed and bashed men and women alike. He tipped over pitchers of beer, mixed drinks, and plates of food, and slid through the contents, before he landed on the floor in a dazed heap. He heard screams and shrieks and the voices of Boom-Boom, Lefty, and Red as they tried to restore order.

He got to his knees, then to his feet. He looked at himself. He was a smelly, gooey, beer-soaked, food-spattered mess. He looked at the people whose table he'd just slid across. He saw one man holding some icecubes to a lady's face. Another man was hopping around…dabbing at his crotch with a napkin.

"I'm sure sorry, folks….really sorry. If you send the bills to the club for what I've done, I'll pay."

Sluggo's comments were ignored. Brushing baked beans and potato salad from his shirt, he made his way back to the table. He was feeling stupid, mortified, and mad as hell. He kept looking for Digger. He saw Shorty talking to Lefty. Sluggo had never felt dumber in his life. He looked at his left hand, which still clutched Digger's tie, and quickly threw it to the floor in disgust. Lefty turned to him.

"Shorty tells me Digger was shootin’ from the lip again...that's what started this...I'll take care of the Digger.”

"You don't act drunk…neither does your pal, so you can stay. The mayor's wife's been slugged in the chops, and a bowl a chili got tipped in the deputy chief of police's lap. He's claiming he's got scalded balls. ‘Scuse me ladies.”

"I think I can handle it, but no more trouble…OK? Things like this give the club a bad eye," Lefty said somberly.

Sluggo nodded OK, and sat down next to Sadie. He looked at Sadie, but Sadie would not look at him. She was staring at Sally. Sally stared at her. Shorty was staring at him. Sluggo was boiling inside. He smelledt errible. He was damned mad. He'd made a spectacle of himself. He had a punch cocked and ready to throw. Now, he had no target. He felt thwarted, frustrated, humiliated.

Shorty started to smile. Then the smile broke into a wise-ass smirk that escalated Sluggo's rage.

"What the hell you smiling about? Where'd that damned Digger go?" he snarled.

"Hey, he left. Blew right out of here. He had nothin’ left to prove," Shorty said, as he set the stage for his coup.

Sluggo's kettle of rage instantly went past boil. He knew he'd had just enough beer to be a little out of control, but he'd taken enough. He wasn't going to take any more…especially from his best friend.

"Nothin left to prove? What the hell do you mean by that?" Sluggo snapped.

"It's obvious he's too much for you…too fast for ya. Don't know if he hit you three or four times…he's so fast. But he sure put your ass across two tables."

Shorty knew he had scored, and scored big. It was the one he'd been waiting for all these weeks. This could be his finest hour. He could see the muscles in Sluggo's neck tense, and a murderous expression spread over his face.

Shorty gloated with the pride he felt in delivering his blow.

"Why you must be some kind of a jerk, blind, or both. He never touched me," Sluggo screamed. Not in his entire life had he felt such an anger build within him. He sure as hell wasn't going to endure another insult this evening…especially not one from that smirking jerk across the table that was supposed to be his buddy.

Shorty was almost ready to scream “I GOTCHA” and burst into laughter, when he saw Sluggo coiling to spring.

He had no time to talk…too late for that. Sluggo and Shorty lunged simultaneously, and they collided at mid-table like a pair of wrestlers at center-ring. They began punching each other, not with good humor or laughter, but with snarls, growls, and curses.

Sadie and Sally ducked when their husbands launched their across-the-table assault. Then, they began screaming and pulling and punching as they triedt o separate them. Nothing worked. Sluggo and Shorty were landing heavy blows upon each other. A few of their errant punches struck people nearby, and other fights erupted.

As the number of fights increased, politicians, dignitaries, bureaucrats, attorneys, judges, off-duty police, and just plain folks, began a stampede for the exits. The stampede turned into a mob, and more fighting broke out.

Neither Boom-Boom, Lefty, Red, nor PeeWee, could restore order. Soon the shrill of sirens was heard, and minutes later, about a dozen cars of the Benton City Police Department arrived to restore peace and quiet.

Nearly two-dozen people, including Shorty and Sluggo, were arrested on disorderly conduct charges. Newspaper and television people who'd never bothered to show up during previous years, arrived en masse. Among the pictures they got was one of the mayor's wife having a black eye treated while sitting in front of an electronic poker machine. The photographers also took pictures of electronic slot machines, pinball, and other gaming paraphernalia within the club confines, noting as they did so, how many politicians, police, and bureaucrats were cleaning up after the fights.

The pictures triggered a lot of high-level questions, and a certain amount of indignancy, that this club could operate illegally, with seeming immunity.

From no publicity, the club went to page one in the newspapers and prime-time evening news.

Shorty and Sluggo got into another fight in the paddy wagon, which resulted in a couple of additional charges being filed against them. Then they quit speaking to each other. Sadie and Sally refused to bail them out.

Lefty, Red, and PeeWee showed up at the lockup with an attorney and a bail bondsman to get everyone out of jail. It cost them $3,500 for the bonding fees and the attorney.

As a result of the publicity and pictures, the expenses for Lefty, Red, and PeeWee, were just beginning. The following Monday, the vice-squad raided the club and seized the pinball machines, poker machines, and electronic slots. They locked up the bookie and confiscated his records. Lefty was charged with being a professional gambler. Later, Red and PeeWee were also charged.

When they tried to reopen the club, the state's liquor regulation board revoked their private club charter, and with it, their liquor license, for serving non-members. All of those persons, once so secretly proud they were members, publicly denied being members, and the club, with no official list of members, could not refute the charge they had served non-members.

Once the chief of police learned how many off-duty police had been members of the throng, he got their names and suspended every one of them for a day, on charges of conduct unbecoming an officer. The suspensions included the chili-scalded deputy chief.

Everywhere Lefty, Red, or PeeWee went for help, they met turned backs or blank stares. They had gone from respected hostlers, claimed as friends by many, to conniving hustlers, to be shunned by all, within the space of a few days

Then the lawsuits began. The deputy chief of police filed the first one, alleging he developed a serious groin infection from the green chili which toppled into his lap when Sluggo slid across the table. He sought medical expenses and punitive damages. His wife filed another suit for loss of consortium. Lefty blew his top when he read the wife's law suit.

"Consortium? Consortium? What the hell's her damned green house got to do with him having his balls scalded?"

After having one hell of a laugh, Lefty's lawyer defined the word for him. Lefty didn't see any humor in his remark or in the dozen civil suits that were later filed against the club and the club owners.

For days after the brawl, Shorty and Sluggo did not speak. Shorty knocked on Sluggo's door one evening and told Sluggo he and Sally were moving. Sluggo said to hell with that, they would be the ones to move. Another fight broke out. Sadie and Sally let their spouses flail upon each other until they became arm-weary and quit. Then, both couples moved and they never saw each other again.

Sadie and Sally still spoke and periodically tried to get their husbands together again. But the gulf between the men became as permanent as they believed their friendship had been.

There were times Shorty considered the price paid for delivering that GOTCHA, only Sluggo really never knew that's all it was. Shorty thought about going to see Sluggo and trying to straighten it all out many times, but he never did.

Sluggo smarted everytime he thought about Shorty. He was convinced Shorty had delivered a low blow, fouled him, with intent to publicly humiliate him. He thought of the old friendship many times, and wished that night had not happened. What he really hated was the fact that Shorty, whom he'd generally bested, had lanced him with the last jabberoo. He knew if they ever did get back together, all he'd want to do would be to humble Shorty the way he'd been mortified. It wouldn't be worth it, he reasoned.

Digger awoke late the Sunday after the party at the club. As he drank some tomato juice and gulped aspirin for his headache, he read the account of the brawl and arrests made.

He recalled nothing but having a few drinks…a few too many, the way his head felt. He had no bumps or bruises. He hadn't been arrested. That was obvious. He was thankful he'd left before trouble broke out.

"Probably some rough necks. They've got too broad a membership there. Too many blue collars to mix with the refined," he said aloud as he turned to the classified obituary section to see how hard he would have to work that evening.

With the club padlocked, Lefty saw none of the old gang. Then, one day he answered the phone at his home. He instantly recognized the voice of Father Duffy.

"Lefty my boy…very sorry about your trouble. Glad I left with Father Graber when I did. The archbishop would have had my collar if I'd been caught."

Lefty had a tacky, clammy feeling. He chillingly remembered the priest's $100 bet. He'd forgotten all about it after the brawl, the arrests, and the lawsuits. He did not know if Pious One was a winner or a loser.

"Glad you got out too. We've been having a lot of trouble. Don't know if we'll get to reopen or not. People 'er treatin’ us like we got pyorrhea," Lefty said glumly.

Father Duffy choked slightly, stifling a chuckle at Lefty's comment, then said, "Well…it's all a shame. I'll hope and pray for the best for you and the boys. I waited to call you till things cooled a bit."

"Thanks father. We need help…all we can get."

A long pause ensued. Lefty hoped the priest had gotten so plastered he'd forgotten making the bet. Or, even better, considering all that had happened to the club and its owners, would forgive the bet.

Lefty was going to let the priest talk first.

Father Duffy decided Lefty should have the next word.

A long soundless wait groped at time.

Finally Father Duffy could wait no longer, "I called to see when I could pick up the winnings on Pious One. Remember I told you Father Graber and I were going to share the winnings for our poor relief?"

Lefty wanted to cuss. As if he hadn't been buried under an avalanche of troubles, he now faced another whacking. He wasn't sure he could handle it. He wanted to blowup and tell the priest to go to hell. But he let his insides churn and said nothing.

"Lefty, are you still there?"

"Oh, a...a..yeah, still here. Just thinking father. You know they nailed our bookie and got all his records."

"Oh sure, I know that. But this was more than just a casual bet. It was between us…man to man. Much more than just a bet…and for such a worthy cause," Father Duffy said unctuously.

An even longer pause ensued. “Boy he can make a guy crawl with guilt,” Lefty thought, “but then, that's his job.”

"Lefty, is something wrong?" the aggressive priest said, breaking the silence a second time.

"I'm just figurin’ where I can come up with the money. I checked the form that day, an’ your horse was 80-to-l. I don't know what he finally went off at."

"He went off at 85-to-l. He won by six lengths," Father Duffy informed him in a precise, helpful tone.

"That's $8,500 I owe you. Right?"

"Right you are, son. When can we get the money?"

"Come to PeeWee's house in about an hour. I'll have it for you. See you then," Lefty said as he hung up the telephone.

"I'm takin’ a $8500 thumpin’. I feel like cryin’…feel like gettin good 'n’ boiled," Lefty said aloud as he poured a shot of whiskey and gulped it.

Lefty put on his coat and headed for PeeWee's house.

Lefty really needed something or someone to slug…to smash as hard as he could. Events of that Saturday night raced through his mind, and rapidly focused up on one individual…Digger. It was a perfect target. During the drive to PeeWee's, he mentally inflicted every sort of punishment imaginable upon Digger. He wished the club was open, just so he could bar the bum from ever coming there again.

As he drove, he knew he would not do anything to Digger…at least not in person. But Boom-Boom was looking for work, and this was the type of work old Boom did well. He made up his mind to see Boom-Boom as soon as he paid Father Duffy. He felt a lot better. He would feel better still when he knew Digger had been deeply bruised.

At PeeWee's, Lefty handed PeeWee the title to his Cadillac. “I need $8500 real quick."

"No problem Lefty," PeeWee said. "Wait a minute…I'll get the dough."

Lefty stood fidgeting in PeeWee's living room. PeeWee soon returned with a stack of bills. "Here's the 85...," he said with a chomp on his cigar.

"Why you in such a rush?"

"Remember Father Duffy's bet?"

"Yeah. Hoped he'd forget it. I didn't. I checked the paper the next morning. I knew it hit. That's all we needed. I just didn't bring it up. You ain't gonna swallow the whole 85 yerself. There's three of us in this. Share ‘n’ share alike," he said returning the car title.

Lefty nodded, and smiled, "I'd welch if it was anyone but a priest. He's coming over here to get his money."

PeeWee looked slightly surprised, "Why here? Why don't you take it to him?"

"Not me. I been oblivioned. No luck at all. Let him come get it. I take it to him, I probably get robbed.”

"The guy's a priest, an he's got no contrition fer us. He oughta be regressing cars fer some loan company or somethin’.”

"It's irrigating as hell," Lefty groaned. “The only guys that ain't turned their backs on us is two priests, an’ they both got their hands out."

PeeWee's cigar made a trip from one side of his mouth to the other. His brow furrowed and he looked bewildered for a second. Then he smiled. He was almost certain he understood what Lefty said.

He certainly knew how he felt.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Marvin Johnson: Indianapolis Boxer

Photo Courtesy

Marvin Johnson

By Rick Johnson

Blinding lights and a television camera focused on Marvin Johnson, recording the sound and the fury of his workout on the heavy bag. While Marvin snapped punch after punch into the bulky canvas bag, members of the TV crew hustled around trying to cut down some of the background noise in the Police Athletic League (PAL) gym at 1431 East Washington Street.

Hopeful boxers were working out on the speed bags. Others skipped rope, and the buzz and slap of the rope hissing through the air and hitting the floor was nearly synchronized with Marvin’s punches.

A pair of youngsters flailed away in the ring, while their coaches shouted instructions…first to one, then the other.

Away from the glare of the lights, but close enough to watch every one of Marvin’s moves, stood a pair of black men. Though they were in their mid-50s, they stood erect and proud…as old warriors should stand. No noise or event could distract them. Smiles of great pride crept across their faces as they watched Marvin furiously assault the heavy bag with left-right combinations, hooking rights and lefts, straight rights, left crosses, right crosses. A bob, a weave, then a step in toward the swaying bag, and another barrage of punches.

When the workout was over, Marvin calmly and distinctly began answering questions while the camera continued to grind.

The two men in the background listened, obviously as pleased with the way Marvin handled himself during an interview as they were with his punching. Marvin made no boasts. He issued no challenges, no threats…just honest, straight talk.

The two men, R.L. Johnson and Colin Chaney, looked at each other and nodded, grinning broadly. To each of them, Marvin is a fulfillment of every hope and dream they ever had and were not to be when they were young warriors nearly four decades ago.

Marvin has always been close to his father, and his respect for his dad is a pleasure to witness. His respect for Chaney, an Indianapolis policeman who spotted Marvin’s talent and determination to be a winner and coached him toward that goal, is nearly equal to that Marvin holds for his father.

But there is no rivalry or jealousy among these warriors as they discuss training procedures, workouts, interviews, or fight strategy. Their goal…work, work, work, and more work. All of them know it takes more hard work and determination to stay on top than it takes to get there, and all three are willing to make the required sacrifices.

At 56, R.L. Johnson is still ramrod straight and strong. His smile is spangled with a row of gold teeth. But he doesn’t flash that smile just to show his gold teeth. He’s a warm, friendly man who loves his family, and never passes an opportunity to talk about his nine boys and girls.

R.L., who says the initials are his first and middle names, was born in Hernando, Miss. When he was eight years old, he was put to work in the cotton fields, and was expected to chop 50 pounds of cotton a day.

“I was a fighter…just an amateur though. I loved it,” R.L. said. “But there was no way black men could be fighters in those days. None of us were ever given a right to expect any more than a plow, a mule, and a cotton field. Sure…Joe Louis came along, but there weren’t many others in his time.”

The written words seem harsh, cruel, and bitter, but R.L. did not deliver them that way. He spoke them with a satisfaction that era of which he spoke has passed.

While still a young man, R.L. married Ruth Massey, and they moved to Indianapolis and started their family. Henry L., Ernestine, Ruth Ann, Marvin, Ernest A., Fenton, Johnnie, Mae, and Dexter were all born at General, now Wishard Hospital, and the family lived at 409 West 13th Street. The Johnson home site at 13th and Missouri Streets has been covered by the I-65 inner belt.

From that location, the Johnson family moved to 1606 North New Jersey.

To support his family, R.L. has had many jobs…all of them physically demanding labor. His first job in Indianapolis was with the Indianapolis Union Railway.

“At first, they had me unloading and loading crossties. Then the boss told me I was too good a man to do that work, and for the next year I hammered iron (drove spikes) for the railroad.”

R.L. then went to work for the old Malleable Foundry in Haughville, and he spent nine years there at a variety of jobs.

He then went to work as a hod carrier for the Hunt Construction Company, and he has worked there nearly 10 years.

Being a hod carrier is seasonal work, and frequently he has been forced to do a lot of traveling to find work and keep his family fed.

No matter how hard he worked, he had troubles keeping his family fed. R.L. has never made more than $13,000 a year, but he managed, and he refused to let Ruth work.

“No baby sitter was going to raise my children. Ruth agreed her spot was to take care of our children, see that they were raised right, with my help in disciplining them, setting a good example, and providing all I could,” R.L. said with a vigorous nod of his head.

When R.L. and Ruth moved to Indianapolis, he sold his boxing gloves and vowed to never put them on again. But when Henry was born, he cozied up to Ruth, and after some cooing, got her to agree to the purchase of some gloves so he could work out with Henry.

“Thought that boy ought to have a chance if he had some ability,” R.L. said with a smile. He found some gloves at a Goodwill store.

Henry had some boxing ability. He became a national AAU champ, and has a Golden Glove title as well. Henry has been in the Army some time, and is a member of the Army boxing team.

Marvin, fifth oldest of the Johnson family, has three sisters between him and Henry. From the time Marvin was a toddler, he watched as his father and Henry sparred. Then when he got older, Henry would lace on the gloves with him, get down on his knees, and spar with Marvin.

Although Ernest, Fenton, and Dexter are proud of Marvin and the determination he has shown to become a champion boxer, as yet, none of them have chosen to walk that same rigorous path…although Dexter is beginning to show some signs, R.L. said.

Aside from Marvin’s punching power and his stamina, the next most impressive thing about him is his conduct. R.L. was asked to comment on that.

Photo Courtesy

“…his upbringing…pure and simple. He was taught to be a gentleman. He was taught to use his head. I told him he was taking a good brain and good upbringing into the ring every time he fought, and when he came out of the ring, he’d better show it. And he does.”

R.L. is convinced that Chaney had a great influence on Marvin. “Champ” insists that his fighters behave like gentlemen in and out of the ring, and he sets an example for them.

In the PAL Club dressing room, one of Chaney’s signs states, “Be Nice Before and After the Fight…Not During.” And the boxers say Champ’s word is law.

R.L. rolled back on his heels a moment and said, “You know…after Marvin started having some success, and it looked like he was going to be a winner, a lot of people began trying to crowd Champ out. They’d tell us Champ was doing this and that wrong…even if it was working. Marvin and I talked it over several times. Champ even offered to step aside if it looked like him sticking around would keep Marvin from getting the shots we all knew he deserved. Well…Champ is with us, and as long as Marvin laces on the gloves, he’s going to stay around, and he’s going to get a piece of the action,” R. L. said proudly.

A lot of people were critical of R.L. for allowing Marvin to spend so much time with Chaney and the other PAL Club boxers.

“Champ Chaney is a fine man. He’s able to give a lot of boys guidance they don’t get at home. He gets ‘em straightened out, and he keeps them that way. As far as Marvin is concerned, he got all the discipline and upbringing at home. He needed Champ to show him how to fight, and Champ sure did that, didn’t he?” R.L. said with a flash of gold teeth.

Chaney, now 56 years old, has the physique of a man 25 years younger. He runs six miles a day, and does boxing workouts regularly with Marvin. He can not only tell young boxers how to fight, he can show them, and his hammer-blow punches have lost none of their wallop even though his reflexes are not quite as keen.

Chaney’s memory, though, is razor-sharp. He recalls his past, not so much with bitterness, but with hurt. Chaney, and many other boxing buffs in the area, knows he could have been World Heavyweight Champion after Joe Louis vacated the crown in the late 1940s.

Chaney, born in Commerce, Ga., was one of 18 children. He wanted to be a fighter, and his idol was Joe Louis. Farm Life held no interest for him. He loved basketball and other athletics, and he had an extraordinary physique. He worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps for a time, and tried desperately to become a boxer. But in the Deep South, there were as many gymnasium doors barred for blacks as there were restaurants.

“I had an uncle in Indianapolis, Ed Chaney, and he operated a restaurant at 21st Street and Martindale,” Champ said. “My dad let me come to Indianapolis in 1942, and I went to work for my uncle.”

“One of the first places I went was Leeper’s Gym. I told them I wanted to be a champion, not just a fighter, and they looked me over.”

A few weeks later, Chaney, who never had an amateur fight and almost no ring training, fought his first fight and his first pro fight at Columbus, Ind., and got a draw in six rounds. In his next fight in Evansville, he got a win. He next fought in Indianapolis in the old outdoor arena, and knocked out his opponent in the first round.

Chaney says he was, at that time, a raw talent, and usually mishandled, mismanaged, or over matched in his early fights. But he continued to survive and strive toward his goal. In 1944, he fought Lou Nova and lost a TKO in five rounds. Nova was a top-ranked heavyweight who had just fought Joe Louis. In 1945, Chaney lost a five-round TKO to the ring veteran Archie Moore.

Chaney was fighting a lot and getting experience, but he still had to work. He went to work for the Omar Baking Company as a janitor,, and the baking company bought him a robe and boxing togs.

By 1948, Chaney was the third-ranked heavyweight contender, and he was certain to get a shot at the title.

Then, prior to a fight with Lee Olmo at Milwaukee, Chaney answered a knock at his hotel room door. A pair of men walked into his room. One of them wasted no time, glaring menacingly at Chaney he said, “You know what you’re supposed to do, don’t you? Go down in the sixth. There’ll be $750 for you.”

With no further conversation, the two men left Chaney’s room.

Chaney wasted no time reporting the incident to the boxing commission, and the FBI also made an investigation. Chaney won the fight, but the way things worked out, the incident would make him a big loser.

“I was completely cleared, and neither Olmo nor his manager were involved in the fix attempt.

“But after that,” Chaney said, giving a sad nod of his head, “I couldn’t get fights with the people I had to fight to get to the title. They just froze me out. By 1951, I lost my third-place ranking.”

Chaney, with his goal in sight, was prevented from attaining it. Reduced to a club fighter, he had to have a better job. In 1951, he joined the Indianapolis Police Department, and a short time later, was assigned to the PAL Club to help build a boxing program.

“Marvin was about 15 when he came to the old St Rita’s PAL Club. He was quick, but not very accurate…a little clumsy, in fact. He said he wanted to be a boxer, and he asked an awful lot of questions. I answered them the best I could. He told me he wanted to be a boxer, and would do whatever it took to be one.”

“Talk doesn’t impress me much,” Chaney said. “I told him what he would have to do, and he’d have to do it when I told him to, and as often as I told him to, and there would be a lot of sacrifice involved. He still said he was willing, and I gave him a program to follow and said…show me.”

Marvin’s determination soon impressed Chaney, and he began to spend more time with the persevering youngster.

“He came a long way that first year. I almost took him to the Golden Gloves, but thought he was just a little too young. Our boy, who was in Marvin’s weight class, lost his fight. I knew if Marvin had been there, we would have won that spot. I told the other coach that I had a boy back home who could take his boy the next year.”

“I couldn’t wait to get back there with Marvin,” Chaney said as he pounded his fist into his palm. “And sure enough…Marvin won.”

“Marvin came over to me after the fight and said, ‘Thanks, Champ.’ I think both of us cried a little.”

In analyzing Marvin’s success, Chaney said, “I’ve had a lot of youngsters who have had ability…as much as Marvin, in fact. But they won’t be punctual and regular in their training. They ease off, start fooling around, and they’re done.”

“Right now,” Chaney said, “if I’d go out there and say, ‘Marvin…I think you should go chop wood for a few days,’ Marvin wouldn’t hesitate. He’d go chop wood. If I say run eight miles a day for a while, Marvin will run eight miles. No matter what I tell him, he does it, and he does it now,” Chaney said with an emphatic snap of his fingers.

“Some of the boys who have been here grumble. They say I’ve been showing Marvin things I don’t show them. Not true. I show them and tell them all the same. The difference is, Marvin listens and does it.”

“Marvin’s a respectable boy. He’s a great example…dependable and reliable. He makes me feel good. In fact, you can say Marvin has made my life,” Chaney offered.

As is has been for so many black men, living in the ghetto was a major reason for Marvin Johnson to turn to boxing for an escape route.

“From as early as I can remember, Mom always had us say our prayers before bed time. She gave us the words to say when we were young. We gave thanks to God for all that we had. As I got a little older and looked around at what we had, I wondered why we should thank God. We were poor…awful poor. We lived in a house that should have been condemned. We had enough to eat, but that was about the only luxury.”

“I talked to Mom about it. I asked why we should thank God. She told me we should thank Him for our good health and our strength, and even for the roof over our heads…though it wasn’t fancy, it was much, much better than no roof.”

“Mom was right, of course,” Marvin said.

“I sent up a lot of prayers after that. I knew that to get my family out of the ghetto, I had to be good at something…not necessarily boxing, but something, to make a lot of money and leave. I dreamed my dreams. I prayed my prayers. I like to make it known that I believe in God, and that prayers are answered.”

“My brother Henry boxed with me…so did my dad. It seemed the way to go. There was always some big story on television or in the newspapers about how much a champion boxer made.”

“So, I went to see Champ Chaney. I had a lot of talks with him. I asked him about his record as a fighter. He told me how many fights he had. I asked him if he ever lost. He told me yes. He never tried to make himself better or bigger than he really was. He told me the truth.”

“I believed he was a man I could trust, and he had the experience to teach me all I needed to know. He also had the ability to demonstrate his points, rather than just talk about them.”

“He could teach you to slip or roll with a punch, show you why and how you got hit as you moved in or out on your opponent, and the thing I liked best…he didn’t try to change any boxer’s natural style. I’m an aggressive fighter, and he didn’t change that or attempt to. He took what I had, and worked with it.”

“People talk about my determination. I believe I was born with that, and that I got it from my father. Dad’s a very determined man. His determination is one of the reasons I respect him so much. Many men in the ghetto wouldn’t stay with their families. They left them because it was just too much. My father didn’t leave. He stayed and fought it out. There were a lot of times when the utilities came due, other bills were overdue, and money was short, but Dad fed us first and took care of us the best he could. He didn’t run out.”

“We had a lot of boiled potatoes, biscuits and jelly for breakfast, but we loved it, and we stayed together. We stayed healthy. I can’t recall a single time when any of us had to go to the hospital,” Marvin said quietly, “but I was determined to do better.”

Step by step, Marvin continued to do better…Golden Gloves, AAU, then to the Olympics, where he won a bronze medal.

“When I came back from the Olympics, I set my sights on a world championship. It was my goal to become a champion, and use my first big payday to buy my mother and father a new house, and get them as many of the things they deserve as possible.”

“God helped me to be a man, and He helped me to get where I am. We are all members of the Church of Christ, we attend regularly, and we live the Word.”

Marvin said he is aware there are many needy youngsters who worship him. He buys a few of them coats and shoes.

“I really don’t have to be concerned about my conduct when I’m around little kids. I don’t curse. I’ve never had a drink or smoked. I just don’t have to worry about making a mistake in front of them and setting a bad example. I’m just myself in front of little kids or anyone else. That’s the only way I can be. What you see is what you get.”

Marvin graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in 1971. He said he had about a C average, and was interested in playing football. However, although his dad refused to tell him not to play, he discouraged it as a high-risk game because of injuries…the sort of injuries that could end his boxing career.

“I finally gave up on the idea of playing football when I had a talk with the coach, and he told me he’d like to have me, but didn’t think I ought to do it. So, I concentrated on boxing full time while I was in high school.”

While an Attucks pupil, Marvin took an interest in his present wife, Delores.

“I always liked her because she was a lot like me…kind of quiet…and she was awful pretty. But it was later, after we got out of school, that we began dating. She wanted to get more involved with my career, and she decided to make all my trunks and my robes. She really does a great job. And I have to thank her for her understanding and patience. She knows that it took a lot of hard work to get to the top, and it’s going to take as much or more work to stay there.”

The Johnson home at 1606 North New Jersey Street is a two-story dwelling with red brick shingle siding. The house, which stood on the northwest corner, has been torn down. The liquor store on the northeast corner has been robbed more times than anyone in the Johnson house can recall. Directly down the street is a service station that holdup men knock over with surprising regularity. All around the Johnson home are boarded up houses.

Six stray dogs were curled up sleeping on the porch of the vacant house directly east of the Johnson home. But to a visitor, the Johnson home is only 1606 North New Jersey on the outside.

Inside, Ruth Johnson is always busy cooking a meal and cleaning her home. The home is comfortable, clean, functionally furnished, and the atmosphere is friendly. In one corner of the living room, boxing trophies, won by Marvin and Henry, take up considerable space. There are several pictures of the Johnson children, and of Marvin and Henry in their boxing gear.

Although all of the Johnson children were raised in the ghetto, and saw many friends and acquaintances get into trouble with the law, none of the Johnson youngsters are so blemished.

Why and how is this so?

Primarily, the reason is fear, but it goes deeper.

Marvin grinned and shook his head when asked about family discipline, and looked at his mother.

“She always kept some real skinny switches around the house, and she’d braid them together. And, boy oh boy…if you did wrong, you got a switching. But when the switching was over, she’d explain just why she had to do it, and she’d always tell us that it was hurting her to do it much more than it was us. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to understand that.”

“You know the Bible says ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’ Well…Mom and Dad never spoiled the child.”

“As we got older, we understood what things were about, and the older ones began taking charge of keeping the younger ones in line. Pretty soon, we were policing ourselves. We just didn’t get into trouble away from home because we knew if we did what would happen when we got home.”

Marvin praised his mother’s cooking.

“Got to be pretty careful here…just newly married, you know…but Mom is absolutely the best cook in the world. It took me a long time to get used to eating away from home. My wife is learning, though. She’s gotten so she can cook some things real well already. And she’s trying to learn Mom’s coconut cake recipe.”

“Mom always wanted us to eat at home so she could be sure we had a good diet. We had a lot of steak, chicken, roasts, fish, eggs, grits, rice, greens and beans…all of it good food…but I still don’t think there’s a better breakfast than fresh biscuits, jelly, and boiled potatoes.”

With Marvin’s success and the related publicity, a person could rightfully wonder if any resentment had been stirred within the family.

“No,” Mrs. Johnson said. “We are all proud of Marvin for what he is. We all love him, and we love each other. He has an ability God gave him. God helped him and gave him the strength, and chose Marvin to pull us out of the ghetto,” Mrs. Johnson said.

Without sounding conceited or cocky, Marvin bowed his head slightly, as though returning a private thanks, and said, “Yes. I don’t think there’s much doubt that I am the chosen one. And just as soon as I can, we’ll be leaving here. I want to give my folks all the things they’ve had to do without. You only get one mother and father, and when they’re gone, nothing will replace them. I want to be able to give them things they will enjoy, and be able to enjoy watching them.”

When asked what he intends to do when he concludes his boxing career, Marvin said, “Well, I hope I can make enough money and take care of it so I don’t have to work an 8 to 4 job again.”

“If I’ve got the money to do it, I’d like to help some of the hungry people in this world. There are people in this world who are born hungry and die hungry. I’d like to help some of the sick and afflicted people.”

“But you know,” Marvin said after a pause, “I don’t know if I could be another Champ Chaney. Champ was so patient and so kind with me. He’s been that way with a lot of others too. If I could be another Champ, God would have put it there. I don’t think it’s there now.”

Marvin’s self-doubts brought to mind a scene at the PAL Club gym only a few nights before.

While Marvin laced his shoes prior to a workout, Champ stood as he talked to a reporter. A youngster, about nine years old, dressed in tennis shoes, a sweatshirt, and a light coat, came into the gym office. The youngster was carrying a soft drink.

“Hey,” the youngster announced, “I brought my four dollars. I want to be a fighter. Where do I sign up?”

Chaney said, “Who told you you had to have four dollars? All you need are some tennis shoes and some trunks. Got that?”

The youngster nodded yes.

“We’re gonna have to have a few talks if you want to be a boxer. The first thing is…we don’t drink pop. The next thing…we knock on a door before we enter, and we learn how to be gentlemen,” Chaney said.

Marvin Johnson glanced at the youngster, while he laced his shoes and smiled. He knew exactly what Champ Chaney was going to tell the youngster next. He’d heard it all in 1969, but Marvin remembered all of it, and he had done exactly as Champ said.

So you see Marvin…God might tell you to be like Champ someday, but if Champ tells you to do it first, you will. But don’t count on finding another youngster like yourself.

Marvin Johnson is one of a kind.


Blogger's note:

In September of 2008, Marvin Johnson was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame.