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Nov/Dec 1999 Salon

Mystic Chords of Memory

by Stanley Jenkins


"Sing Muhammed, Muhammed Ali
He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee
Muhammed, the Black Superman
Who calls to the other guy:
'I'm A-A-A-li,
Catch me if you can.'"
Black Superman-'Muhammed Ali'
Johnny Wakelin and the Kinshasha Band
45 r.p.m., Pye Records 1974

My father ran once with Cassius Clay, or maybe it was Muhammed Ali. The chronology gets messed up in the telling. After all these years. Anyway it was during that time when THE GREATEST was in exile. That part's clear. The time after he'd refused the draft. "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong." When they took away his title and buttoned his lip. The time before the first Frazier fight. The time before George Foreman in the jungle. The time before he came back like Elvis from the army and was king again.

Well, I myself wasn't any more than seven or eight at the time, and I don't remember the telling. I bet my mother heard about it at the time though. And the guys at the office. I do, however, remember the re-telling. The re-telling that came many years later. And I think maybe the first time I heard the re-telling was when my Dad and I were huddled around the TV and we watched that gap-toothed bum Leon Spinks K.O. THE GREATEST and Howard Cosell was reciting the lyrics to Bob Dylan's "Forever Young". And Ali wasn't looking so good and this was after Watergate. And I cried. Or at least would have cried. If I had not been nearly full grown, sitting with my father in a darkened room, watching two grown men try to beat the shit out of each other.

Anyway my Dad was taking a late flight from Iowa City, IA to Chicago. And it was one of those small commuter planes. And who do you think boarded in Dubuque without any entourage and sat right in front of my father? Well it was Cassius Clay--or maybe Muhammed Ali--because though my Dad remembers him as still being Cassius, by then in the history books, Clay had become Ali, and so that meant Muslims and the memory of Malcolm and all that stuff that made white America squirm in terror and secret delight and to top it off we were living in Chicago at the time and Mayor Daly was calling the shots during the Democratic Convention and so if Cassius was Muhammed it must have registered at the time because...well, it was the time, but my Dad doesn't remember it that way, he remembers Cassius Clay--and so that's who got on in Dubuque and sat in front of my Dad.

It's all a little scattered--but connected somehow in some strange and mumbled suggestion of meaning. And just like the very first time. Me and Madonna and the mystery of memory. Anyway, I can remember him telling me the re-telling the first time. I can imagine us huddled around that TV--just me and him--although I'm not exactly sure it truly happened exactly that way, with just us watching the first Leon Spinks fight, because maybe it was the second Spinks fight when THE GREATEST took back his title for the unprecedented third time and I did not cry or almost cry--but whooped and jumped and for a startling but fleeting instant, before I could stop myself, met my father's eyes with incredulous and unapologetic joy and we were glad to be together feeling flushed and alive and were chatty just like after coming home--a couple of goofs--from cross-country skiing in the crisping woods--I remember it but I can't swear to you it's true. I couldn't even swear to you that those fights were on broadcast TV. I remember it though. And my Dad and me.

So the story goes that this little commuter plane bearing Cassius Ali and my Dad landed at something like two in the morning at O'Hare and they didn't have a gate ready and so they just sat out there on the tarmac. And pretty soon they let them out of the plane so they could stretch their legs and wait for a bus or something to take them to the terminal. And there weren't very many people on the flight and everybody was staring at THE GREATEST and were shy like you are when you see a celebrity and want so bad to touch them but your breeding gets the best of you just like how you make yourself stop staring at a cripple. And so they're standing there and who should strike up a conversation with my Dad--my Dad!--but You Know Who--Mr. Clay, the Prettiest, the Funniest--THE GREATEST?

He's chuckling now. My Dad in the re-telling. His eyes wide with amazement and shaking his head. And my eyes are wide too and I'm thinking "Wow!" but not saying it because we are two men now, or at least he's a man and I'm still floundering a bit not knowing how to be a man or whether undisguised enthusiasm or naked admiration of my father would make me a pussy, because after all it's still a fight we're watching, so I'm just silent and watching and thinking about how of all those people Muhammed Ali picked my Dad to talk to--or rather at--because you don't talk with Cassius Clay, you listen. And Lord, could that man talk.

"May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift"

Like that. But not exactly like that because that's Bob Dylan or, in this particular re-telling which remembers the very first re-telling, Howard Cosell, who was no slouch in the talk department himself, and who recited those lyrics at either the first or second Spinks fight when either THE GREATEST went down to a bum or took his title back from the bum even though he was old and slow and punch-drunk-Parkinsondiseased--and it was sad.

Strange. It was sad. Even though we bonded, my Dad and me--over that victory--the victory over that bum Spinks that second fight--like it was a vindication of something--something we shared but couldn't say because it was all so confused and confusing to love this man who was not so pretty anymore and who did not float like a butterfly anymore, but just hung in and hung in and took the punches and took the punches, a perfect rope-a-dope, blessed martyr who did not love our white Jesus or thank us for forgetting that he was black. Strange as it seems this vindication seemed sad--like there was a price paid for it--the price of forgetting.

And that puts me in mind of another night that must have happened about five years or so after my father ran with Cassius Clay, and this somehow seems connected too, another night when we were watching TV--just me and my Dad--though I know my sister and mom were there--but in my memory it was just me and my Dad huddled in front of the TV--and it was August in 1974 and he had called me in special from playing in the backyard after dinner, called me in to see, to watch, to witness, the President of the United States of America apologize and flee humiliated to a waiting helicopter which took him away in kingly disgrace--like Napoleon leaving for that last island where he gave orders to imaginary troops and got depressed in bathtubs until he just died--and I remember how that helicopter took the President away after he flashed the "V" is for Victory sign which is also the peace sign--and who the hell could ever figure out what that meant?

Yeah, I remember that night in front of the TV too--and how if my Dad had always been a part of that silent majority, he was no less silent that night too. He just watched. Didn't say a word. I remember how my Dad called me in to watch his hero fall (he voted for him three times)--and didn't say a word--and I've always respected him for that--because he knew something about moments--moments in that bigger picture--the picture we will call History--moments in which even the little story--the story of our own private little lives--will be altered forever, shifted--not fractured but recalibrated to more precisely reflect the Truth, the tragedy, the triumph, of finitude ("so high can't get over it/so low can't get under it....").

And that moment always stuck with me. And on that night in '74 when Nixon resigned I didn't watch history in the making so much as watch my father get a little older. Where he came from, Presidents of the United States of America did not lie or be revealed as grotesque, power-hungry, hideous dopplegangers of American Know How and Elbow Grease. I saw America get strange and lonely in my father's eyes.

But in the re-telling of how Cassius Clay struck up a conversation with my Dad, his eyes seem to see only the coming of the glory of the Lord--and everything is good. He doesn't seem to recall those spoiled college kids marching with their placards and Daddy's money while good, honest Americans were in harm's way in Viet Nam--or even those students gunned down at Kent State--or the bombs of the Weather Underground--or Patty Hearst--or Malcolm and Martin and Bobby bleeding in the dust like decent people--although its true they're liberals--who you may not always agree with but surely they didn't deserve a bullet like Jesse James shot in the back because this is America and dagnabit she may not be perfect but she's the best this world has seen and if things like this can happen, well the whole damn country's going to hell in a handbasket and it just don't make sense to me no more and that's all I'm going to say about it because I'm just a small town kid from Idaho and haven't I done well for myself and my family? And I know what's what. And I know a good thing when I see it.

Yeah. And so we are sharing a moment in the re-telling--and memory filters out the stuff we can't use--and we are again clean and undiminished. History makes you dirty. And my Dad ran with Cassius Clay--who did not confuse the issue by being Muhammed Ali.

Which is to say, they're waiting and waiting and Cassius is talking and talking and no bus is coming. So Cassius says to my Dad, "You up for a run?" and my Dad says, "Sure." So the two of them pick up their carry-on and they run. Just the two of them. They run and run all the way to Luggage. And my Dad kept up with Cassius Clay. My Dad! And you know he was talking the whole time. THE GREATEST. Never shut up. Lord, that man could talk.

"Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Just like that. But not exactly like that because that was Abraham Lincoln and not Muhammed Ali or Cassius Clay. But anyway, he sure could talk. And he never shut up when my Dad ran with THE GREATEST.

But that was all a long time ago. And a whole lot of things have changed. I have a stepson of my own now and I'm ambivalent about memory and myth. Nervous that he might get hurt, disillusioned. Nervous he might forget and be wholly unprepared for the price of dreams. Still, I love it when my Dad tells that story.

Yeah. When my Dad tells that story we are in America again, my father's America, the America I'm always immigrating to, the amber-waving-grains America of mystic memory, the America that isn't just another country, the America that makes us know that we could be heroes--just like Cassius who never shut up when he ran with my Dad and wasn't winded at all and did not fade but went out swinging and hollering--even though time takes it's toll and Ali will always stiffen and straighten and lose to time and our lesser angels always seem to win out and even Michael Jordan gets old. Yeah, even so. We could be heroes--because in memory is desire--and in desire is greatness, the greatness of the unashamed, the greatness of the innocent--the greatness of the unrequited and the hungry.

Yeah. Always expecting to find the kingdom around the corner. And Beulah land in my dresser.

And I miss my Dad.

 

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