Nothing Scares the Fighter (Except Fred’s Mom)
The Story of Tony
Written by Monty Wheeler
The man came out of the thick darkness, brandishing a shiny blade. “I need money,” he said in a voice that rumbled like rolling thunder. “And it won’t bother me to kill you rich kids.”
Fred and I wore blue collars, but even that could look rich to some, I guessed. I turned to face him, and years of informal training in martial arts kicked in. My hand shot up quick as a snake’s strike and caught the knife wielder’s wrist. I twisted. He screamed. Music to my ears.
The downtown area of Flint, Michigan, had not been a safe place at night for as long as I could remember. But Fred and I loved to hang out with our 10-gallon keg of beer under the bridge on Saginaw Street that spanned the dirty waters of the Flint River. A simple handrail along a concrete pathway kept people from falling 15 feet into the black water.
I could have disarmed him, sent his knife clattering to the concrete walk and sent him packing. Instead, with my temper fueled by just enough beer to burn hot, I pulled his arm hard toward me, twisting the knife away from my torso. His momentum carried him past me and into the waist-high railing. He tipped, then toppled. I let him go, and he disappeared
headfirst into the abyss.
“One thousand one,” I counted slowly to myself, “one thou —”
He splashed into the brackish water where the river ran imprisoned in its concrete banks. No way a man could climb the concrete wall and escape from the river. Two miles downstream, the river opened to natural banks. If he swam, he’d survive. If not, well …
“You threw him into the river,” Fred whispered as if someone who cared might hear what I’d done.
I know, right?
I shrugged and never missed a step.
“He best swim like a fish,” I said. “Come on, I’m thirsty.”
“He took my car!” I yelled at my kindergarten teacher. I didn’t want to cry because Daddy told me that big boys don’t cry, but that kid was making me so mad.
“It’s okay, Tony,” she said. “It’s just a plastic toy car. Play with something el —”
“I don’t want something else. I want my —”
“That’s about enough of that, Tony! In my class, we all will play nice.”
I looked at the other kid. He held my car tight and looked at me.
Teacher walked back to her desk. I walked over to the kid who took my toy. “Give it back!”
“Tony!” Teacher yelled. “Don’t you —”
Before Teacher got to us, I hit him right in the nose. He dropped my toy and grabbed his face. I picked my car up and looked at the teacher. She grabbed my arm, snatched my car, threw it on the floor and then pushed me to her desk.
“He gets so angry,” Teacher told Daddy when he got to school.
Daddy looked really mad.
“He’s got a temper. You can’t just beat it out of him,” Daddy said.
“I don’t know how you’re going to handle it, but I just needed you to know that I will not stand for this sort of behavior in my class.”
“I understand, and I’ll take care of it.”
Two days after I took my car from that kid, Daddy brought a friend home. “He thinks that he can help you, Tony,” Daddy told me.
“He’s going to teach you to fight …”
“… but not just fight. He’s going to teach you discipline to control that temper.”
I didn’t know what a temper or discipline was, but my older brothers and all my cousins loved to get in my uncle’s boxing ring and duke it out with those big glove things on. I could do it, too.
“Who do I get to fight?” I asked the man when he started teaching me.
He laughed and pointed to a big bag swinging like a giant monkey from the ceiling. I walked over to it and beat it up good with my fists.
“Are you done?” he asked when I stopped to catch my breath. “I’m going to show you how to make each move count.”
He stood with his feet funny, then moved one of his feet closer to the big bag. His fist went so fast, I could barely see it go. That bag moved when he hit it. Then he moved his foot back, swung it through the air and kicked the bag. The bag moved a lot that time.
“Wow! Can you show me how to do that?”
He stood me in front of the bag, had me put my feet like he did his, showed me which foot to move and held my elbow so my arm went straight out.
“Twist your wrist just before you hit. It puts more power in your fist when you hit.”
I tried it.
I learned fast.
“Hey, I got vodka!” I said it pride. “I stole Daddy’s fullest one.”
“Your old man have a lot of booze?” one of the guys asked.
We’d just gotten to the ladder going up to our treehouse, what we called our fort. I grinned. “He had lots more than just this bottle, yeah.”
“Come on, you guys,” one of our friends hollered down. “Get up here. Let’s see what you got.”
Five of us, all 12-year-olds, hunkered down in the middle of the fort. I pulled the fifth of vodka out of my shirt. One had a gin bottle, and a bottle of Black Velvet sat next to six cans of beer.
“Where’s Bernice?” one of the others asked me. “She’s supposed to bring some pop.”
My older sister had orders to babysit a friend and me. And she had promised to bring pop and cups to the party.
She hollered at us from the ground. We helped her up with the pop and cups.
I tried it all.
Two of us started toward home with our arms over each other’s shoulders and singing “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain” at the tops of our voices.
We switched to “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees” and, our legs tangled in the Monkee walk, stumbled into the path of a cement truck.
Bernice, who’d been walking behind us, shouted and grabbed my arm. She pulled us back to the side of the road just as the honking cement truck rolled past.
“I knew better,” Bernice kept saying as she pushed us toward a fence and watering trough on its far side. “You’re not going home drunk.”
“Ow!” I shouted as she heaved me over a charged electric fence and into the full trough. I hit the wire again on the way back over the fence, but with wet clothes on. That charged fence on wet clothes rang my bells and made me sing, but no “hey, hey, we’re the Monkees” came out of my mouth.
Once home, Bernice had me by my shirt collar and tossed me into the shower, where she turned the cold water on full blast.
“Stay in there till you sober up,” she shouted.
I laughed. The cold water got my attention but not my good sense back.
I’d do it again tomorrow.
My uncle had an old boxing ring that he had put up in his backyard. My two older brothers and I, plus many of my cousins, spent Saturdays beating each other up with the huge gloves on our hands.
Even at 13, I beat or held my own with all of them except Paul, one of my older brothers. He boxed my ears every time.
He stood taller than any of us, and boxing seemed all fun and games to him, unless somebody hit his glasses. He’d knock out all who stepped into his path if somebody dared hit his glasses.
After beating each other up all day on Saturdays, we circled around Dad, who would build a huge bonfire in our backyard. My family and friends of my two older brothers hung out around the fire. Those who left car keys in a basket until the next morning could drink around the fire. Who noticed if I had a beer or even two?
By the time I turned 18, I had two wonderful things: a best friend in Fred, who could match me drink for drink, and a way to buy our booze. When Fred joined my circle of drinking buddies, he showed us all that he could keep up with us. Fred and I became best friends almost at once.
I borrowed Paul’s birth certificate, Social Security card and pay stub. I handed everything to the lady behind the counter and told a lie. “I’ve lost my driver’s license and need to replace it.”
It worked. I had a picture ID and a way to buy booze. It lasted till Paul renewed his driver’s license.
Fred and I loved to hang out in Flint’s inner city and drink under the bridge on Saginaw Street, but there’d be weekend nights that we would pile, three to six of us, all underage, into my car and drink while riding the back roads. I also loved sneaking into bars with my older brothers.
Not long after I’d turned an honest legal age to drink, I stood with friends outside one of my favorite bars and watched a wrecker pull a drunk lady’s car from the lake.
“That was smart,” I said, and everybody laughed. “She should have given my dad her car keys.”
“Hey, you!” came from behind me.
A man swung a wrench and hit the side of my face. He swung again before I could turn around. No pain. Only numbness where he’d struck. I glared at him. As I wiped the blood from my face, my temper began to burn.
He must have seen something in my stare because he turned, ran and dove headfirst into the back seat of an idling car that promptly sped away.
“Does anybody know what that was all about?” I asked my friends as I headed back inside to first clean my face and then have a drink.
One surmised, “I watched the bouncers toss him out a while ago. Guess he thought you were the one who tossed him out on his ear.”
I nursed a Jim Beam and Coke.
Let’s just pour some more gas on the fire.
For six months, I remembered his face. One night, Paul and I drank in one of his favorite dance clubs. Even in the packed crowd, I saw his face. My temper flared like fire roars up when a bellows expels air.
“That’s him, Paul,” I said.
“The one who blindsided me with the wrench.”
“What’re you going to —”
I’d already turned and headed in the man’s direction, toppling chairs and kicking tables out of my way.
Someone screamed. A huge bouncer caught my arm. I took him down with a leg sweep. I took out two more bouncers, one with a straight right hand and the other with a smooth hip toss. He landed flat on his back and out of breath. I turned to see another bouncer blocking Paul’s path to me. My oak tree of a brother might have gently urged the smaller man out of his way, but the man swung and caught Paul in his eyeglasses.
Bad move, bouncer.
The gentle giant chopped down bouncers like Paul Bunyan chopped down trees. Fourteen in all fell in the fray, and the club’s manager lay knocked out on the floor from one of my well-placed punches. The fear in the man’s face when I locked my hand around his bicep and he locked eyes with me only fueled my rage.
He knew who I was this time. No question about it. He’d blindsided me and fled. He’d run again if he could.
I broke his nose, jaw, both arms and both legs before someone caught my arm in midswing. I turned in pure attack mode and saw the shine of a badge.
The cop — my next-door neighbor, as it turned out — handcuffed us and escorted Paul and me past bleeding bouncers and a nightclub in shambles.
I’d told my friend and neighbor, the policeman, all about the guy with the wrench after it happened. I tried to explain, “Hey, that was the guy —”
“Just shut up and walk. It’s too late now to do anything about it.”
He put us into the back seat of his patrol car and rode us all the way around the block, stopping next to our parked car.
“Get out of here,” he said as he opened the rear door from the outside. “Best you go on home tonight. And do yourself a favor. Don’t ever come back to this nightclub again.”
I didn’t go back for three months, but go back I did.
“Are you here for trouble?” the manager asked me. He’d slipped up behind me when I’d stopped just inside the doorway.
I might have said, You look different standing up. I didn’t.
“No, sir. Not looking for trouble.”
He handed me a business card. “Give this to the bartender or your waitress when you find a table.”
As I walked to the bar, I read the card. “Free drinks all night.”
I’d settled at the bar with my first free drink when the manager walked over to stand next to me. “I want to offer you and your brother jobs,” he said.
I looked at him. “Why?”
“Why not? If I can hire two guys to do the job of 14, it’s good business, and you two took out 14 good bouncers.”
“Paul wouldn’t be interested. But I wouldn’t mind bouncing.”
He grinned and offered his hand. We shook, and I returned to the first of my night’s free drinks.
I’d just turned 22 years old when I met Eve through my circle of drinking friends. It seemed like a great idea, at least when drunk, so we married.
Five years later, she cleaned out our bank accounts and took our son, Nicholas, away from me.
I first noticed Helen as she waited in line to get into the busy nightclub.
I’d moved up to the head bouncer’s position, so I watched the front door making sure none violated the state’s building occupancy codes. If one person left, one could go in. If five people walked out, we allowed five more in. The waiting line stretched far down the street every night.
Eve and I were in the middle of our divorce proceedings. When I locked eyes with Helen the first time, I smiled at her and waved her right on into the club. As head bouncer, I could do that. With Eve gone and divorce in the process, I knew I wanted to date Helen. She never waited in the line for admittance because I waved her in with a smile on my face.
Helen had three children. Her ex-husband denied her visitation with them. Helen pointed him out to me in a bar during one of our date nights of drinking. I turned on some charm.
“You don’t know me from Adam,” I said after walking right up to him. “I’m dating your ex-wife. I just want to hear your side of the story of why she can’t see her kids.”
Is that pity in his eyes?
“She can’t pick them up or bring them home on time. Sometimes, she doesn’t show up at all. I’m sorry, but I do not have time for her nonsense.”
No fault of Helen’s. She’d had transportation issues.
“If I promise you that we’ll pick the kids up at 6 on Friday and have them home at 6 on Sunday night, would you let her see them?”
He looked at me for a long time, as if trying to analyze my integrity before he answered, “When do you want to start?”
“We’ll pick them up this coming Friday night.”
I shook his hand and thought to myself, What a nice guy you are, Tony.
When my stepsons, Brett and Brad, hit their upper teens, their drinking seemed to go beyond their earlier sneaking a beer now and again. I kept to family tradition. The family bonfires rose to the weekend night skies in my own backyard.
I made the same pact with them that my dad had made with all my brothers. Drink at home and leave your keys put away till morning. Period. No exceptions. They joined my group of friends around the summer night fires.
Though Helen drank, she didn’t drink like me or think like me. She’d nurse one or two drinks all night long while I guzzled enough for both of us.
When the boys turned 18, I planned a party around Saturday night’s bonfire. Both boys had lived with Helen and me off and on. Brett had been living with his real dad until just days before their party, when he came to stay with us. He’d hooked up with a Christian girl and started attending church. He’d given up booze but came outside to hang out around the fire.
Brad drank enough for both boys. He passed out on the cold ground. I’d almost roused myself from the folding chair to carry him into the house when Brett got on his knees next to his brother. He lifted his brother’s head, rested it in his lap and laid a hand on Brad’s forehead.
As I got closer, I heard Brett’s mumbling prayer.
Brad roused himself early on Sunday morning and headed for the front door dressed in decent clothes.
“Where are you off to?” I asked.
“Church with Brett.”
I said nothing. I had nothing to say.
After 20 years of marriage to Helen, my stepdaughter, Jenny, asked if I would roast the pig for her wedding feast. The day of the wedding, I kept the pig basted and kept myself wasted.
The first tab popped on a Budweiser can at 7 a.m. I sat through the heat of the summer day and in the heat of the roaster. Jenny’s husband-to-be had spent weeks infusing pineapple slices with vodka by soaking the slices in the fine brine. I sucked them like a contented baby sucks his newly filled bottle.
Around 4 p.m., I yelled, “Pig’s done!” and fell back into my folding camp-style chair. Jenny and her husband, anxious to be on their honeymoon, had left before the party reached its full swing.
So sorry you could not be here for your celebration, but the party must go on.
“I’m glad my sister made the drive up here for the wedding,” Helen said.
I stared at her through drunken eyes. “Why should you care if that porcupine’s here or not?”
Her sister had stolen Helen away from me once and had taken her to Georgia. Then months later, she had called me screaming, “Come down here, and get your wife! She’s crazy.”
“I know, right? You took her. You deal with her.”
Helen did have some medical issues that when left unattended made her a bit on the unpredictable side, but she lived far from “crazy.”
I had packed up and moved to Georgia, where Helen and I had mended fences, and after a couple of years, we had returned to Michigan.
“Why did you call my sister a porcupine?” Helen asked me.
I answered her in colorful — mostly four-letter — words, telling her what the reference to that animal meant, thus telling her what I thought of her sister in no uncertain terms. She stomped back into the house.
The vodka and beer had been gasoline on my fire.
I called Helen’s ex-husband. I’d heard that he’d been shooting off his mouth about doing everything for their three kids. He needed a good straightening out about who did what.
He’d kicked Brett out of his house two weeks before the kid was to leave for a good Christian college. Why? The kid turned 18, and Helen’s ex figured he’d fulfilled his fatherly duties. Brett stayed with us until he left for college.
I’d cooked the pig, and he didn’t even come to the wedding party. I fully intended to give him a good piece of my drunken mind.
“Do something with him!” Helen shouted at Fred.
My best friend since grade school came running out of the house. He wrestled my cellphone away and tossed it onto a folding chair.
“Come on,” he said. “You’re going to cool off.”
As we walked, I settled down.
“I’m sorry,” I told Helen the next day. “I ruined the party.”
“You didn’t ruin it. But I really don’t like you when you’re drinking anymore.”
It had not been the first time she’d told me that over the years. We’d even limited my drinking to weekends at home or hanging out with friends instead of bars and clubs. I’d broken a man’s arm at the elbow once because I thought that he had tried to touch Helen inappropriately behind my back.
“Your temper. You can’t control it when you’re drinking.”
“What do you want of me?”
“I really wish that you’d quit drinking.”
“I’ll give up the hard stuff,” I offered out of guilt and with hopes of appeasing her. “I’ll stick to beer from now on.”
It seemed to work.
Over the next couple of years, I managed to keep my promise and drink mainly on weekends. Though Helen didn’t say much about my weekend binges, both of the boys brought Jesus into our house almost every time they came.
Why don’t you go to church with us? became one of the first and most common questions.
Mainly because I don’t want to.
I’d gone to church as a teenager because I wanted to hang around Fred, and Fred had to go to church on Sundays. Fred’s mom had blamed me for every bad thing that we got into.
During one weekend visit, Brett changed tactics.
“If you died today, where would you go?”
I’d traded bouncing in nightclubs for truck driving jobs years earlier, but due to a work-related injury, I faced neck and back surgery.
My right hand seemed dead to any sensation or gauge of how hard I squeezed. I would crush a Styrofoam coffee cup or drop a glass pop bottle. My brain had no way of telling my hand how hard to squeeze or when not to squeeze.
I tried to laugh it off and make light of Brett’s question with a joke. “I’m going to hell, and I’m likely driving the bus.”
As surgery neared, both boys talked more about Jesus and the what-if of any worst-case scenarios.
“We’ll go find us a church,” Helen said. She looked hard at me. “Won’t we?”
I knew that look. Best to give up, give in and go find me a beer. “We’ll go find a church of our own. I’m cool with that.”
I will not go anywhere and pretend to be something I’m not. I won’t go in professing to be some Christian with Jesus in my heart. I’m not.
As we searched for a church to call our own, I skated around the First Baptist Church where I’d hung out with Fred. I assumed many of those same people still attended services there, like Fred’s mom, who’d labeled me the teenage antichrist. Facing off in a fight with five of the biggest men in a bar never fazed me. Going back to the First Baptist Church to face Fred’s mom terrified me.
After a year of different churches, I bit the proverbial bullet, and we tried First Baptist. Fred’s mom, who’d blamed me for everything wrong in the world, had moved away, but those who remembered me welcomed us.
Yet, I wanted a great big church.
Easier to hide in the crowd in a bigger church where no one knows me.
We tried other churches, yet none felt right. If you’re only buying shoes because someone else thinks you need them, none seem to fit “just right,” but I had a wife who would not let me rest on Sundays.
“Let’s go back to First Baptist,” I finally told her.
A man I didn’t know introduced himself as Pastor Adam, the new preacher. I shook his hand with a So what? in my head.
Sermons had never grabbed me. I tapped my foot, drummed fingers on the seats and watched my watch to pass Sunday morning sermons. They sang songs, and the children filed out to go to children’s church, as it had always been. But when Pastor Adam opened his Bible and read a verse about the wind and man not knowing where it comes from or where it goes but knowing when it blows, something got a hold on me.
“Jesus works like the wind,” he said. “And when he starts to work on you, you’ll not understand it, but you’ll feel him touching you.”
He kept talking, but I felt like that wind he spoke of carried me off and away, backward in time to revisit every terrible thing I’d done. By the time I’d gotten back to the bridge over Flint River, I had an unbearable guilt weighing me down.
Lord, I’ll never know what happened to that man under the bridge, but you know.
I felt sick to my stomach. Tears welled up in my eyes.
“Is there anybody,” Pastor Adam preached, “here this morning who has never given their life and heart to Jesus? Not one soul needs to leave here this morning with the weight of all their past sins still on their shoulders. Jesus died and rose from the grave to take your sins away, if you’d but let him. Is there one?”
Don’t you raise your hand.
My hand crept upward to point my fingers at the sky.
Don’t you dare cry. Daddy told you that real men don’t cry.
Big, fat tears washed down my face.
The man called Pastor Adam looked right at me.
“Come up to the front if you want, or pray right there at your seat. Jesus doesn’t care from where you pray, and he’s here right now, in this room, waiting on all to invite him into their hearts and lives.”
Don’t you do it. Not in public.
I got on my knees and turned so my elbows rested where I’d sat.
“Jesus,” I mumbled, just hoping nobody would listen. “You saved Brett and Brad, and I thank you that they don’t have to go through all I’ve had to. If I’m not too far gone, please change me and save me, too. I know what I am and know what I’ve done, but I’ve seen you work in other lives. Dear Jesus, I believe. Please save me, too.”
I might have been the last to sit upright. I might have been the only one to answer that call to hearts. It didn’t matter. I dried my eyes with my shirt sleeves and stood.
Pastor Adam caught me and shook my hand after the closing prayer. “Do you have time to come to my office? We need to talk.”
Once we sat facing each other across his desk, he asked, “What was that?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll tell you what it was. You felt Jesus like the wind blowing.”
“Why would he want me? I’m nothing he could use for anything.”
“You’d be surprised. Jesus uses you just like you are to help spread the good news that he died to pay for our forgiveness. God made you, and Jesus will use you just like you are, big and strong or not so much. Good at one thing and maybe not another. God gave you talents when he made you. He’ll use you, my friend.”
I shook my head. The boys constantly blabbered about Jesus changing a person.
“I’ve always heard about how Jesus changes.”
“Jesus changes you inside. He softens your heart, cleans your mind and washes your soul.”
I understood, but I didn’t. The weatherman could explain the wind, and I’d understand it, but I wouldn’t.
Pastor Adam must have read my mind.
“You don’t have to understand it all. Just believe, accept and receive what Jesus offers.”
I’d watched months earlier when Helen went to one of the church’s altars. She’d walked back to where I sat as a different woman. The harshness that she sometimes had about her disappeared. She reacted to others with more patience. If I spoke to her at an inconvenient time, she no longer lashed out at me. Jesus had softened her heart.
I left the church believing that Jesus had softened my heart.
Not long after that, Helen and I joined the church of my childhood.
Months later, I woke up with dread oozing from every pore. “I don’t want to go to church today,” I told Helen.
“Why? You don’t miss going to Sunday’s church. What’s wrong?”
“Fred’s mom will be there today. She’s visiting with Fred’s kid sister.” His sister, four years younger than Fred and me, had been the perfect kid who never seemed to do anything wrong.
“She blamed me for everything that Fred got into. She called me the antichrist.”
“This woman barged into my bedroom at 4 in the morning to drag Fred out by the hair of his head because he wasn’t where he told her he’d be, not just once but many times. And she blamed me. If I’d not pretended to sleep, I still believe she would have boxed my ears, too.”
“That’s in the past. Get over yourself.”
“You don’t know this woman! The church will fall down around us.”
Helen laughed. “You’re serious?”
“Or I’ll spontaneously combust when she looks at me.”
“We’re going to church, so put on your big-boy pants, and let’s go.” Helen walked out the door still laughing.
When Fred’s little sister saw me, she literally ran down the aisle and caught me in a bear hug.
Then I locked eyes with her.
Fred’s mom, whom I could have sworn would torch me like some fire-breathing dragon, smiled a big, wide, warm smile. A genuine smile. She came to me and hugged me.
“Now,” she whispered, “we just need to work on Fred.”
The best years of my life followed Helen’s insistence that we find a church. I uncovered our Harley for the day’s ride.
I’d ridden motorcycles since the age of 10 for the same rush I got from a perfect kick to a heavy bag. I’d always kept my big racing motorcycle wound up tight. The night that Mom called and told me that she’d put Dad in an ambulance, I cut a four-hour ride to two hours. I’d passed a cop doing somewhere around 180 miles per hour. He’d flicked his lights on, then off, giving up the pursuit before he’d even started it. Dad recovered.
Harleys weren’t for that kind of riding, but Harleys carried wives in comfort.
“Are we ready?” Helen asked. “What’s wrong?”
She’d caught me staring off into the distance at nothing.
I shook off the plaguing darkness. “I can’t help but wish Nicholas were riding with us.”
Even after his mom had taken him from me, I’d developed a relationship with him. We shared a love for riding motorcycles and had ridden bikes and four-wheelers together over the years. I’d visited him for high school graduation. He lived a life far from Jesus.
“Just keep praying that he finds Jesus before a bullet in the street finds him.”
She was right.
“Yeah. I’m ready,” I said and cranked the Harley.
“Did you lock the house?” I shouted over the rumbling engine noise as she settled into the touring Harley’s big seat behind me.
“Yes!” blared right in my ear.
“Is that jacket enough, or do you want your leathers?”
“We’re good. Rock and roll.”
Fifty miles out, Helen spotted a roadside diner. She pointed, and we turned in for coffee. We had no rush, no set schedule or deadlines to meet. Before Jesus, we would have gotten 20 miles from home, and I’d have stopped at the first bar we came to and would not have passed up many bars along the way without stopping.
We rolled on to spend the day with Brett and his family. The day passed as we gathered eggs and rode trails around the farm with the grandkids, a far cry from the bonfires and booze of other years.
“If we’re stopping at that cafe you love for your mocha coffee,” I told Helen, “we’d best be on the road.”
“I’ll break out the leathers after the coffee. Sun’ll be going down by then.”
Brett, his wife and their three all stood at the side of the road and waved as we rolled out.
As we putted down the highway, I marveled at how Jesus had changed my life.