A Tribute to John Gay Bascom Sr.
The Fight of the Century
John G. Bascom Jr.
from the collection of short fiction
...I had gone on to establish a career in Detroit. My parents eventually retired to San Diego County where I saw them perhaps once a year. My relationship with my father continued as cordial, but lacking the edge of disappointment and resentment I felt as a child. Pain fades under the great anesthetic of time. When his time finally came in 1986 at age seventy-six with a diagnosis of metastasized bowel cancer, I went to see him a few weeks before the end. We always greeted or said goodbye to one another with a shake of hands. But as I was leaving to return to my wife and family in Detroit, he hugged me for the first time in memory and said, “I love you.” I said the same.
Shortly after that I sat down to write him, knowing it would be the last letter he would receive from me. I pondered his life and mine. By all conventional measures his was unremarkable. A private in the army, a salesman rising eventually only to middle management. He never assumed a leadership role in any group, was never singled out for any recognition to my knowledge. But what I remembered then was a man who overcame a Depression-era absence of an opportunity for an education—he had never completed high school, going to work instead as others were forced to do—to build the middle-class life of the American dream for his family. A father earning a modest income who still made sure his children had well beyond a basic public education. A man who, when he lost a job, was steadfast and confident, never spreading the fear and assault on his self-confidence to his family, calmly going about finding another while keeping the home ship on a steady course. I knew he had been an infantryman, only a buck-private manning a light BAR machine gun, fighting the Nazis in Italy during World War II. Of course he never spoke to me about it. But my mother had confided, out of his earshot, he had been wounded twice and returned to his unit both times, had been shelled mercilessly and watched his best friend randomly blown to pieces in the foxhole next to him, had been in a close man-to-man firefight in the very final days of the war, machine gunning to death a charging young German at point-blank range. My father, lacking rank or recognition, simply doing what he needed to do without question. Soldiering on, as always.
And even with death he was strong. “I'm not afraid to die,” my mother told me he said after receiving his diagnosis. “Everyone has to some time. I've gone through life knowing I'll spend eternity with God in heaven. I believe it still and am ready for that.”
In my letter I said to him true things I never had the strength to say in person. “Your courage and resolve have always been an inspiration to me…I've spent a lifetime trying to equal them but have never been able to achieve that, yet every day I try again…your example and what you've meant to me will always be a part of me, will never die so long as I'm alive…” I never saw my father cry, but my mother told me tears ran along his cheeks as he read it sitting on the living room couch. He was dead a few weeks later.
I think in a strange way my ability to finally say to my father those things I had felt and believed for so many years began that Saturday night in May in Webster Groves. When, with the crowd buzzing at the unlikely turn of expectations that had just unfolded in the ring, I saw my father's euphoria, his pride and exuberance with the accomplishment of his oldest son, burst uncontained in that spontaneous, heartfelt grin. That sweltering night when I walked head high back to the locker room, past my beaming, proud father, striding victoriously in front of vanquished Bob Winfrey, his eyes downcast and expression beaten, the boy I liked and felt so terribly sorry for. That Saturday night in late May at the Catholic Youth Center with Father Kaletta as the referee. The night of the epic, the undisputed Fight of the Century.
This story is dedicated to my youngest daughter, Molly, who asked that I write a personal childhood memoir of a sort so that she might become familiar with relatives she never had a chance to know well or at all. Here you go, Beans…
…and finally and most important, to the memory of my late father, John Gay Bascom Sr. (1910-1986) whom I love dearly and painfully miss, and to whom I owe so much. RIP. Thanks, Dad.