By Professor Laurence F. McNamee
Students of aesthetics are continually amazed how great events in history seem to run in parallel. Two great events in disparate fields can take place on the same day and eventually converge and intertwine.
Take May 20, 1927. Boxing historians, like Burt Sugar, will tell you that this was the day when two Bostonians, Jack Sharkey and Jim Maloney, both heavyweight contenders, met at Madison Sq. Garden to fight for the right to challenge either Jack Dempsey or Gene Tunney. And students of aeronautics will inform you that this was also the day when Charles Lindbergh took off for his historic flight to Paris. And the twain would meet.
In the third round, the promoter, Tex Rickard, alarmed that contact with Lindy had been lost “somewhere close to Ireland,” stopped the bout and asked both participants and spectators to pray for the survival of “Lucky Lindy.” My father, a friend of Jack Sharkey, was present for the occasion.
Eighteen years later, almost to the day, I mentioned this incident to Colonel Lindbergh in the Kurhaus Osterbichl in Oberammergau, Germany, and he was deeply moved almost to the point of shock of recognition.
“Well, somebody must have been praying for me around that time. At one point near Ireland, everything began to ice up and, losing so much altitude, I was getting ready to bail out, when the ice began to thaw. I thought it was maybe the Gulf Stream, or maybe it was those prayers from Jack Sharkey and those proper Bostonians.’
If the digression will be pardoned, I had met Lindbergh while working as a translator for the Office of Strategic Service. Germany had just surrendered, and, since German scientists had been making sensational progress in developing operational jet planes, American and British engineers (who had yet to get one operational) were in Bavaria to pick the brains of these successful scientists.
Some of the Americans were connected with General Electric, others with Bell Aircraft. I’m not sure who Lindbergh was connected with. My job was to translate for him as the Messerschmitt scientists would brief him on their progress with the plane, aka the ME 262.
Two things I remember most about him re his charisma and affability. Also his insistence that I thank Sharkey the next time I see him. “Maybe I owe him my life. That’s why they call me Lucky Lindy.”
This was in May of ’45. Fast forward to January of ’80, when I was fortunate enough to spend a week with Jack Sharkey at his enter home in Epping, N.H., just outside of Boston. Jack Dempsey had just written an article in which he said that Jack Sharkey was the best man he ever faced; several organizations were lobbying that Jack Sharkey be inducted into the Boxing Hall ‘Fame; so Ring Magazine , assigned me to do an in-depth story on the Boston Gob. (It appeared in their July issue.)
When I mentioned Lindbergh’s gratitude to Jack for his thoughtfulness (I had since learned that promoter Tex Rickard had made the announcement upon Jack’s request), Jack showed little reaction. “I have always believed in prayer. Used to say a prayer before each bout, never for victory, just to beg that no permanent injury would take place. Let me show you here in my memoirs,” he aid reaching into a cardboard box of handwritten scrawlings,” where I had prayed before the Joe Louis bout and also before both Carnera encounters. You’ve been talking off and on about Shakespeare; but Shakespeare really believed in prayer. I forget the Name of the play, but in the last sentence Shakespeare ever wrote one talks about prayer. It’s in my book toward the middle.”
Somewhere I began to get the notion that he’d be glad if I could come back and help him with the punctuation and spelling of his manuscript. Although every time the subject came up he’d emphasize “this is MY book; there will be no ghost writer; this is MY book; Sharkey doesn’t want any conflict.”
Actually there was one conspicuous conflict, a conflict between Sharkey and Shakespeare. I had three Shakespeare classes to, teach in the coming spring semester, and during the summer I was to direct a, tour of prisons, in Texas, where my troupe would be doing Shakespeare. Yes, there was a conflict, and much as I wanted to help him with his book, it was several years before I got back to Boston, to forget about Shakespeare and concentrate on Sharkey.
The meeting was anticlimactic. He was now confined to a wheel chair in a penal institute called a rest home and he wasn’t happy. Here was a guy who had swelled to the roar of the crowd at Yankee Stadium and Madison Square now desperately lonely and over medicated. But he was lucid enough to recognize me and also to remember the lines on prayer that Shakespeare wrote for his protagonist in The Tempest, the last lines he’d ever write.
Here was Shakespeare, now an old man, writing lines for Prospero, another old man, who was about to retire; and now I was listening to a very old man recite them, a man who would die in a few days.
“AND MY ENDING IS DESPAIR UNLESS IT IS RELIEVED BY PRAYER. Though desperately lonely, Sharkey had found a transcendence that comes through the catharsis of prayer. And I felt lucky that I had known him not just because he was a champion but also he was a man of prayer.
As for Lindbergh, he too would feel lucky.
(Professor McNamee is a Sunday columnist for the Dallas Morning News, a retired Professor of Shakespeare, who frequently contributes to boxing journals.)