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Return Engagements (Book One) PART 27… in which a world ends

Picking up from Part 26, in which I met my young self.

The boy never noticed me, thank God. I don’t know how it would have affected me if he had. I sat there for several more minutes, alternately letting myself cry and seeing how well I could suppress it.

The truth is that my life had a lot of good things in it too, it was not overwhelmingly bad, especially compared to what others have suffered through. I was lucky in many ways.

But that didn’t change the fact that this was a well-meaning boy with oceans of potential, and that he was heading, inevitably, toward repetitive and painful sufferings… sufferings he very much did not deserve.

* * * * *

After the children had passed, I pulled myself up from the steps and walked away. I headed away from the places where these kids would be going to play, making my way over the landfill that was being turned into a park, and distracted myself by taking a good look at it with adult eyes. Parts of it I remembered and parts I didn’t.

The stream of tears down my face started slowing, and being quite alone as I trudged over a sloppy terrain, I let them flow. It got me to the end of the process somewhat faster.

Soon enough I arrived at the turnaround just off Kedzie Avenue and waited for the next bus. By the time it arrived my face was dry, and though I’m sure I looked troubled, the driver said nothing. I paid my fare and sat toward the back.

I must have stayed at the water fountain at the train station, drinking, for a full two minutes. Then I went back downtown, changed my outfit in Marshall Field’s basement, and went back home as Gabriel Ruis.

About halfway through that night I woke up crying, again seeing the boy’s face… my face… and feeling him being hurt again.

* * * * *

I was able to see nearly all my family members during my year as Gabriel Ruis. Seeing my mom made my cry too, though not as badly. I was only about half certain as to what she was feeling.

The third time I saw her, at a grocery store, I felt well enough to have a small and pleasant conversation with her over the peaches and plums. It was odd to be much older than her (I addressed her as “young lady”), but again I found that I respected my mother, and that’s a very healthful thing.

As it happened, my childhood impressions of my family members turned out to be almost entirely correct. The people I remembered as nice, were in fact nice; those I had reservations about, I still had reservations about. What was interesting was to see more depth in them, as I did in the case of both of my grandfathers.

And so I spent 1965, mainly as Gabriel Ruis, and one or two days per week as myself, making the acquaintance of people who had been important to me in one way or another.

The one exception to this came when I drove with two friends from Ryerson to the Ali-Liston rematch in Maine. At lunch one day, I found several of them talking about the fight – there had been a lot of drama over it, which is why it ended up in such an out-of-the-way place – and I convinced them that it was the only chance ordinary working guys like us would have to see a heavyweight championship fight. And so we took a few days off, drove to Maine, and bought tickets.

When the Ali-Liston fight finally began (it was the last fight of the night), I wandered toward ringside with a Coke in my hand, as if I were returning to my seat. I was in a great position to see the “phantom punch” that ended the fight. And my verdict upon it was clear: It was a legitimate knock-down; a sharp long-range hook, from outside the off-balance Liston’s field of view. (Seeing it coming makes a big difference when getting hit. So does being off balance.)

But the punch was certainly not enough to keep Liston on the canvas for 10 seconds. Being there in person, it was screamingly obvious that he stayed down on purpose. Why he took the dive is an open question, but Liston took a dive.

* * * * *

On New Year’s Eve 1965, I had dinner with a family on the first floor of my apartment building. I brought three different desserts and we had a very nice evening, with the kids going to bed (though mostly not asleep) and the adults talking till well after midnight. It was one of the more pleasant evenings of the adventure, though I’m sure part of that was simply the knowledge that I’d be home soon.

Another interesting experience came a couple of days later as I took one of my usual buses back to work at Ryerson.

Just a few days left, I thought, looking out the window.

And then I remembered an old story about an evangelist, Dwight Moody, I think. He was old, retired and planting trees in his garden.

A reporter found him and asked, “Reverend Moody, if you knew Jesus was coming back in an hour, what would you do?”

“If he comes back in an hour, he’ll find me planting my trees,” he replied.

And that’s really how I felt. At any given moment on any given day, this world I was living in would vanish from existence. And the truth is that there was nothing better I could be doing than my seemingly mundane work.

* * * * *

Being that I knew it was close, I began keeping track of the days. And that world – that galaxy – ended on the afternoon of January 19, 1966.

It was one of my days off, and I was sitting in a small Mexican restaurant on 26th Street, enjoying a late lunch and reading The Source, by James Michener. I was underlining a passage that I found interesting and then found myself in bed. I blinked my eyes a few times and was surprised to find myself tired… exactly as if I had been awakened at 2 AM from a deep sleep.

Within a minute or so my body caught up with me and I was wide awake. I rolled over, hugged my wife, and then got up. She was surprised I was getting up, asked if I was okay, then rolled over and went back to sleep.

I walked to my office and started making notes about the past two and a half years.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

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