My Grandma often told us about an adventure that she and Grandpa had in Winnipeg soon after my dad was born.
In her story, it was late fall and my Dad was a baby. Grandma and Grandpa had bakery business to attend to in Winnipeg and had taken the opportunity to arrange a rare shopping trip to the Hudson’s Bay store and Eaton’s department store. Grandma’s sister was looking after the rest of the children back in Hartplatz, while my Dad was bundled along. Grandma fed him and left him with another sister in Winnipeg while her and Grandpa bussed down Henderson Highway and then down Portage Avenue to the big stores.
They finished their shopping at Eaton’s and were going to Crown Zellerbach to see about bread bags, wax paper rolls, pastry paper and cup cake liners and the many other paper goods they used at the bakery. Cutting through a back alley with Grandma in the lead, her sensible shoes clacking on the cobbled bricks, they searched for the yellow Crown Zellerbach sign above the dingy doorways lining the masonry facade that fronted the alleyway.
Grandma strode forcefully for six or seven steps and then paused to look down at the address written in her neat hand. It was written on a scrap of cardboard cut from an old hatbox into serviceable index cards. Her beige Melton overcoat flapped open as she marched ahead then fell back in place as she slowed to look for the correct entrance. The alleyway, deep in the shade of the six and eight story buildings, was dim as evening turned to night.
Grandpa brought up the rear, his reading glasses pushed up high on his pronounced, deeply creased forehead as he squinted at the doorways. He ploughed along, lugging two large paper bags grasped by the twill braided-cord handles, the sacks overflowing with an assortment of practical supplies for home and business. His prognathic face showed weariness and his faint limp foreshadowed the cane he would later employ, betrayed by a bad knee.
Grandpa stopped, set down the heavy bags, produced a white linen hanky from his inside breast pocket and wiped his forehead. In so doing, he brushed his glasses off and they clattered as they fell onto the cobblestoned alleyway. Grandma, hearing the noise, looked back and began laughing as she saw him bent double reaching for the glasses with one hand while steadying the large bags with the other.
Just as he retrieved his glasses, and began to straighten, a boy of perhaps nineteen ran by, pausing to snatch one of the shopping bags, his thin, dark hand snaking into the loops of the handles and jerking the bag away from Grandpa’s side.
“Hey!” Grandpa shouted, surprised, as he scrambled to grab his glasses.
At almost the same time, another boy of perhaps the same age but thick and burly with pale, freckled skin overtook Grandpa. Trotting flat-footed, he reached down in stride for the other bag and then put his shoulder solidly into Grandpa’s back, knocking him back down. The pale bottoms of Grandpa’s leather shoe soles flashed briefly and his breath came out violently when he hit, “Uffffff!”
The first boy, running awkwardly, now carrying with both hands the heavy bag stuffed with bakery supplies, turned down an adjoining alley that was only as wide as a horse cart. His footfalls slapped hollowly as he went down the narrow trail, his confederate following. The second shopping bag was slung over the heavier thief’s shoulder and thumped against his back as he ran.
Grandma quickly pocketed the cardboard slip and ran to Grandpa. Instead of helping him up, she dropped her large black purse in his lap and shouted, “I’ll follow them, come quick!” and she ran with surprising speed in pursuit.
She rounded the corner to see a jumbled mess of packing crates, garbage cans, empty welding cylinders, loose trash and other random clutter. The two thieves were trying, with no success, to scale a tall wire-link fence at the end of the alley.
As Grandma slowed her run to a walk, she saw the husky boy try to fling one of the heavy bags over the fence. The bag flew up, quickly lost velocity and began a slow-motion cartwheel that emptied the contents in a flying array that dropped at the would-be thief’s feet. The empty bag snagged and hung on the fence.
Hapless, the bandit looked down in dismay at the assorted baking goods, heavy cotton aprons, dough knives, cake pans and foil-wrapped bricks of Fleischman’s Fancy Yeast – several now squashed, corners beveled off and white innards spilling out. He glanced at Grandma and said, “Screw it.” The thin crook looked at the loot and grinned at his accomplice. Then he peeked into the remaining bag; dropped it and kicked it like a rugby ball as it landed.
He hitched his pants up and wheeled to face Grandma who had now come up to them, and stood with her hands on her hips, her breath laboured.
“What?” the skinny one said as he strode brazenly by her.
She watched him warily as he swaggered past, looking back and grinning at his partner.
Just then, Grandpa came around the corner holding Grandma’s purse, which he quickly dropped next to the wall beside him. His body was crouched athletically and his eyes were wide in anticipation of what he would find in the alley. He took in the scene – Grandma standing amid their scattered bakery purchases, the heavy thief, walking by her to leave the alley and the skinny one a stride in front of Grandpa, his head cranked around.
As the thin boy’s scrawny face came around, it was met, squarely and with considerable force, by Grandpa’s fist. The birdlike nose was laid flat and two streams of dark blood and snot shot out onto his chin, dirty khaki work shirt and denim jacket. Grandpa hit him a second time as he fell, the outside edge of his right fist finding the right eye socket with a sickly, muffled cracking noise. The back of Grandpa’s hand described a flat plane through his wrist and back through his forearm – all of the power of the punch was channeled smoothly into the target and the sorry robber was unconscious before he landed on the wet pavement.
The burly robber stopped short in disbelief when Grandpa struck. He stood in shock for a beat, then growled, “Sonofabitch,” and skipped back a half-step as he prepared to lunge ahead towards Grandpa.
Like a high jumper starting his run at the bar, the thug’s foot came back and just as he pushed forward, Grandma kicked at his ankle – a soccer-style sweep that caught his lower shin in the curve of her instep. He fell forward heavily, skinning his palms on the stone street, his chin striking and splitting.
Before he could get up, Grandpa was atop him, pulling one arm up behind him, a foot planted firmly on his shoulder. Grandpa grabbed his sleeve with both hands and pulled up until something tore and the prone man screamed. His arm, when released, dropped heavily and lay on the thief’s back as if detached. The man lay sobbing, a fury of oaths and spit and blood from his chin spewing out of him.
Grandma ran back to retrieve her purse. Leaving the thief, Grandpa stooped to gather their goods. As Grandma joined him, picking the bag from its snag on the fence, a Chinese man came out of one of the buildings abutting the alleyway. He held a large round cooking pan in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other. The man began scraping oily scraps and sludge out of the pan into a gutter near the curb. He noticed the broken-arm thief getting up, still cursing softly, his face a gory collage of dirt and blood. The cook stopped and looked puzzled, seeing in the same frame the skinny thief, his head laid back like a slaughtered hog and Grandma and Grandpa industriously picking clean white aprons and tins of baking powder from the alley floor.
Confused, he struck the pan with the spoon a last time. The steel pan rang like the bell at ringside as he backed into the doorway behind him, bewildered.
Grandpa heard the clanging followed by the sound of the door slamming shut and the thick click of a deadbolt behind that. He glanced up at the noise, then at Grandma. “Spode!” (hurry) he said to her quietly.
They left a minute later, one thief stretched out in a daze, propped on one elbow and the other holding his arm and trudging down the now dark alley from where he had first sprang. The couple carried the soiled bags out with them towards Portage Avenue in the cold fall night, a streetlight showing the way. Neither said a word until they reached the safety of the wide street, trolley cars pulling by and street and shop lights brightening the evening.
“I didn’t know you could fight so,” Grandma began, “I thought Mennonites were more peaceful. Turn the other cheek,” she said, pausing as she stared at him as if she had never seen him before, but Grandpa cut her off.
“I had to. Why did you go after them?”
“I knew they would throw the bags away once they saw what was in there. They just want to sell what they steal and aprons don’t give nuscht,” she answered.
They were quiet as Grandma studied the trolley schedule on the sign in the shelter.
“Number five,” she said.
“We used to fight in the barn in Stuartburn, all us brothers,” Grandpa said, continuing the thought from earlier as they took their seats. “A man came to town and put up a boxing ring in the fairgrounds. He was an Englander. He put up the ring, and it had a bell and ropes around the sides.”
“It wasn’t a ring at all – it was a square – but the Englander called it a ring. The floor was padded so when you fell it didn’t hurt. The padding was covered with yellow canvas. The ropes around the floor were wrapped in cloth tape. He rang the bell and counted three minutes on a stopwatch. The fighters punched each other until the bell rang again.”
“This was in your barn?” Grandma asked.
“Nay, nay – fusting (fisticuffs) in the barn – that came later. The Englander brought the ring to the fairgrounds before fair day. He took us guys and taught us how to fight. He showed how to punch so it wouldn’t break your hands and so it cut the other guy. He taught how to take a punch so it wouldn’t hurt you or knock you down. He showed how to set your feet and how to make the other guy miss you and lots of other things. Some dirty stuff too.”
Grandpa paused, looking up at the lights in the tall buildings across Portage Avenue, his breath showing as the clear night chilled.
“Us guys, we were the Stuartburn Boxing Club. He gave us boxing gloves – like laedah fusthaunch (leather mitts)- and we met there and had practice fights called ‘sparring’ a couple of nights a week.”
“What did Vater think of that?” Grandma asked.
“He never knew. We snuck.” Grandpa admitted with a wry smile.
“When fair day came, the Englander had us doing fights with soft helmets on our heads and really big gloves. We fought like mad, but no one got bad hurt. Then, at night, he had a real big guy there who was supposed to be a champion fighter from England, only he was too old to be champ any more. He would fight any man and if you made it for three minutes, you got from the Englander ten dollars. If you knocked him down, you got twenty and if you could knock him out, fifty bucks! But it cost a whole buck to try,” he explained, his eyebrows raised.
Grandma stared at him, thinking how he might have looked then, so long before they met in their May-September courtship.
“How old were you then?” she said as they settled into their bench on the trolley, their backs against the shiny wood slats.
“Fifteen,” Grandpa said, then continued. “To fight the big champ, you didn’t get no helmet and his gloves were small. I asked the Englander about that and he said it don’t matter ‘cause the gloves were more to protect your hands anyway. The guy who fought before me hit him a couple of good ones – that was Big Abe, remember him?” he looked at Grandma, rubbing at his swollen ring finger knuckle.
“Yeah, that grote heltabless,” (big blockhead) she replied, nodding.
“Abe hit him in the head and the Englander bounced around and backed off. Then, when Abe came forward to hit him again, the Englander hit him in the guts, low down,” Grandpa nodded, looking stern and looking down to make the message clear, “and then he stepped on Abe’s foot and hit him hard in the stomach and then hit him with an uppercut, like this,” Grandpa stood suddenly in the trolley, braced his right foot back and struck, his knobby fist coming up fast, like he was lifting an empty pail he thought was full.
He sat back beside her, looking straight ahead as the trolley rocked them gently. The muffled “ding” of the trolley call bell made him grin, and he turned to Grandma, “Round Two!”
She smiled back. “Today, I’m glad you could fight.”
“Me too. It was good you tripped that fat guy – he was too strong for me.”
“Mmmmmm.” She murmured, thinking back to how good it felt to topple the fearful man.
Seriously, then: “That was dirty, what I did to that guy’s arm,” Grandpa said.
“He asked for it. But, should we call the police or a doctor or what?”
“Nay! They found their way there, they can find their way out. Just, Rosie, next time we go to the stadt, let’s not go by that alley no more. We can go in by the front, jo?”
She looked ahead as they turned north up Main Street and leaned into his arm as the car tracked through the turn. Glancing back at him, she took a tissue from her jacket sleeve and wiped a smudge from his eyebrow, dirt from the skirmish. He smiled, winked and said, ‘sonofabeach!’ making Grandma guffaw and bump him with her shoulder, hugging tighter on his arm.
“Oh bah nay, Schusta! Schtell!” (Oh but no, shoemaker! Quiet!)
They rode quietly for a few blocks smiling, and then she shifted in her place to look at him, “Nah jo, Roy, what happened when it was your turn to fight the big champ at the fair?”
He looked ahead, then glanced at her and raised his eyebrows up and down quickly. “You know that old sewing machine in Vater’s shoe shop in Stuartburn?”
“Well, it cost fifty bucks.”
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