Sunday, November 10, 2013

Joe William’s Early Years

Joe William was born in January, 1944, the 13th of 14 children of a black sharecropper living in Buford County, South Carolina.  At the time, Buford County had the highest infant mortality rate of any county in the United States.  Life was tough.  Joe’s younger sister died of rheumatic fever as an infant.  Joe’s family simply didn't have any money to pay a doctor.  The family “farm” was 40 acres of what was called “white dirt” – good only for raising cotton and watermelons.  Just when you think a family couldn't have it any tougher, when Joe was a very small child, his father objected to another man making a pass at his wife, Joe’s mother.  The other man got a shotgun and blew off Joe’s father’s left arm below the elbow.  So when Joe was still very young, he had to help his father plow their land.  The family did manage to keep one large bore hog in a pen near their house and Joe one day just had to tease that hog.  By a bad stroke of luck, somebody had left the pen unlocked, the hog got loose, and mauled Joe badly enough to break his left arm.  Again, Joe’s family was so poor they couldn't afford a doctor, so Joe’s left arm healed on its own.  

Before Joe was even in his teens, his family had to hire him out to other farmers in the area.  Many years later, Joe said he had a great many conversations with a plantation owner that usually went like this:

Joe: “Mornin’ boss”Boss: “Morning Joe, at noon.”Joe: “It’s noon, boss.”Boss: “In an hour, Joe.”And much later in the day Joe would say: “It’s dark, boss.”Boss: “In the morning, Joe”

When Joe was sixteen, he witnessed something he’d never forget.  A younger black kid made a mistake that damaged a white man’s tractor, and that white man took off his belt and gave the young boy a terrible whipping.  Joe commented then, and later in the day, that that was a horrible way to treat another human being.  The next day that white man confronted Joe and demanded to know where the hell he got off using that kind of language, even made a gesture that seemed to indicate he was about to take his belt off. Joe was only sixteen years old and, even as a grown man, he didn't quite reach 6’ tall. However, even at that young age he had a reputation of being someone you did *not* mess with. He stood his ground, looked his overseer in the eye and quietly said, “You best keep your belt on.”  That night when Joe’s mother heard about what had happened, she broke down and cried and then tearfully told Joe, “You’re going to have get on the Dog.” (That was the local term for riding a Greyhound bus to the north).  Joe got on the Dog up to Philadelphia where he managed to get a job in a slaughter house.  Shortly thereafter, he had a pregnant girlfriend who he married (how old fashioned!).  He also found he definitely needed to lose some weight.  If Joe had signed up for aerobics classes, American history would be quite different.  Instead, he went to Yancey Durham’s gym and started working out on punching bags and eventually did some sparring. He was short and chubby and one more experienced fighter enjoyed making Joe look foolish for a few minutes until Joe hit him flush with a left hook.  The apocryphal story is, that guy regained consciousness the same time the paramedics arrived at the gym.  (The apocryphal story relates that when Joe’s first tormentor regained consciousness, he was not getting in the ring with Joe ever again under any circumstances.  The paramedics replied, “We can go now.  This guy’s making sense.”)  Yancey Durham took Joe under his wing and told him he might have a real future as a boxer. Durham told Joe that when he put together a combination of punches, he was smokin’. With apologies to Paul Harvey, the world was going to hear from Joe William … Frazier.

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