The Eyes Have It
“Hang on a second, Dan,” I told my sparring partner as I backed away while holding out my hand in a traffic cop’s ‘stop’ gesture. I trotted over to the corner where my manager was waiting for me. As I leaned forward and widened my eyes for him to peer into the shadows created by the eye and cheekbone padding of my headgear, I was aware that I was now looking at two distinct worlds. One lifted and tilted slightly through my left eye, while through my right all remained as it had before.
Larry didn’t have much luck searching out the offending speck of whatever had obviously landed on my eyeball. The odds of success in this search are roughly the same as guessing the right answer to a question that your wife asks you when her hands are firmly planted on her hips.
“I don’t see a thing,” Larry grinned. “Not even recognition.”
Tradition mandated that I return fire. “We’ve been together all this time and it’s just like I don’t even know you anymore.”
I guess that attitude was indicative of the concern we both felt at that particular juncture. Larry and I had been through many of these moments over the past twelve years or so. His concern for me was always genuine, even paternalistic, but I was a stubborn guy in a profession that valued toughness. I would walk it off or rub some dirt in it, or whatever macho cliché you wish to apply. I always had.
In addition to a blissful state of invincibility through denial, I was convinced that the blurry interior of the gym would be returned to full high definition beauty as soon as I could wash the offending speck out of my eyes in the lavatory.
But that didn’t work.
I tried blinking many times to see if things improved. “Uh-oh.” This isn’t helping. Just as I felt a cold finger of fear press against my heart, the door opened a foot or so and Dan Bourcier, my sparring partner of the evening, stuck his big head inside.
“You all right?” he asked. I had to grin because he looked like Mr. Ed sticking his head through the barn’s half-door and asking Wilbur if everything was still kosher. “You sure?” he pressed after I gave him all of the proper assurances that all was well. “We cracked heads pretty hard right before you stepped back and said something was in your eye.”
Just like that, I knew. I didn’t even remember the accidental clash of heads and the realization really shook me. Rather than panic in third grade fashion, as I truly wanted to do at that exact moment, I reassured Dan that I was fine, that I could make it home just dandy and to quit fussing. I turned to pull the door shut, switching out the lights as I did so, and I wondered to myself if the door was also closing on my boxing career.
Climbing behind the wheel of the vehicle that was currently hemorrhaging $250 per month from my checking account, I considered my next dilemma. It was far from a secret to the locals that I am enough of a menace on the roads with singular vision, much less adding a false and tilted version to the visual fun. I closed my left eye to see if things would be more manageable. One-eyed driving might not be completely safe but the alternative promised either killing myself or some innocent grandmother who was just out walking her poodle. I made a motion to drive with one eye shut … seconded. Carry the motion.
After I got home in one piece, that childlike faith that things are really okay got a second wind. I asked the woman that I was married to at that particular moment in time to take a look and see if she could spot anything in my eye. I knew she had 20/20 vision in her eyes, and seeing the look in them after she failed to find anything at all told me all I really wanted to know. We probably weren’t walking it off this time.
As a side note, it should be understood that I have never been receptive to the idea of visiting a doctor of any kind. Asking for their help for much of anything short of spurting blood or resetting broken bones is against my religion. This time, indicative of how worried I was, I made no objection when an appointment was made to see Dr. James Glucken, a respected surgeon and physician of the eye for folks who experienced such problems in sunny Elkhart, Indiana. As soon as he would see me, I would go in. If memory serves he wanted me in his office the next day.
Now, I’m sure that somewhere along the line, being one of his patients, Dr. Glucken had quite possibly informed me that being struck in the cranium by another man’s trained and flying fist might not be the best thing for my eyes. But true to form and to his credit, he didn’t gloat. He simply said, “I am here to help you.”
Tests were ordered. Lights blinked in dark rooms, numbers and letters on walls, eye drops, more lights, more tests, and at the end of it all, he made his way into the room where I sat waiting in the tilt-a-whirl chair. He put his hands on his thighs, sighed, and sat down heavily on the black vinyl stool before me. And he looked me in the eye. You have to respect him for that.
“This is permanent. An operation would be so risky and the possible benefits so minimal that the problems that could be created outweigh any gains that might be made. I can fit you with prisms on your lenses. These will bring your vision back to single when you wear them, but I strongly recommend that you end your boxing career immediately and not allow any more damage to take place to your eyes … I’m sorry.”
And there it was. I assured him that I would be fine, that I would appreciate the coke bottle glasses. The headaches were monumental from walking around with double vision all the time. It was like being on a carnival ride from hell and I was ready to get off. I assured him that I would be fine, that I had taken my shots and that I could live with this.
For all of my brave assurances to Dr. Glucken, the proverbial mouse in the trunk was making a lot of racket on the way home. I mean, think about it. All you’ve ever wanted to be, all you’ve ever been, all you’ve ever seen yourself as being—as of this moment, you no longer are ….
I’m 50 years old now. I was 30 that day. I look outside this morning, through my Coke bottle glasses, and I can see that fall is here and the golden maple leaves are spinning their way to the ground. The change of seasons always reminds us mere mortals of the passage of time. So many things in time that my eyes have seen. Clear as can be, I can close my eyes and see the Olympic Auditorium and spotlights showing fight fans the way. I can see my name on the marquee next to Julio Cesar Chavez. “Tonight, December 19 …”
I can see the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center standing guard over lower Manhattan and remember how I marveled at them as I prepared for the Danny Ferris bout. I can see the friends that boxing brought me, the opponents too, and the opponents who became friends that boxing brought me. Just as clearly and just as surely, the memory of turning out those lights and watching that door close is indelible in my memory. Your life can change in a moment, for good or for bad. Usually though, it turns out to be a little of both.
On the down side, the adjustments to my life that have been required from having double vision have been made relatively easy thanks to Dr. Glucken’s Coke bottle glasses. Occasionally, the world will shift and I will be back on the carnival ride from hell (when I’m tired it doesn’t matter whether I have the glasses on or not, we are along for the ride). Sometimes I might actually embarrass myself and walk into something on my left simply because I have long ago learned to ignore that eye. It can’t be trusted. Usually people will have the good graces to laugh when I say, “Scuse the blind guy.”
Also, the marriage began to decline. I can mark that point as the beginning of the end. I was no longer coming home with a couple hundred or even a few grand from my “night job.” I tried to apply the same workaholic principles that made my career as a boxer a relative success to my everyday life. I loved having more time to dote on my children, watch them roller blade outside or ride bicycles. We lived on a much tighter budget on my wages as a table saw operator in the modular home construction industry. My understanding is that I became boring during this period of time. But most of us know that being exciting takes a lot more money than being boring.
When we left Dr. Glucken’s office in the fading sunlight that afternoon as a couple, he told us to “take care of each other.” I hope if it’s one thing you can say for me after I’m gone, it’s that I was fiercely faithful and devoted to loved ones and friends. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the woman to whom I was then married.
On the other hand, coworkers to this day will see me approach and drop into something resembling a boxing stance and shadow a few punches in my direction. Occasionally I will hear a new hire being informed, “He fought Chavez!” and I can almost count down the seconds until I hear the incredulous reply, “Him?” Hispanic folks are always greatly impressed with this news. Of course then I have new audiences who will listen to my stories. It’s pretty cool being me. Just took me a few years to get there.
Once in a while someone will ask me why I quit, to which the shortest answer always involves letting them look through my Coke bottle glasses. They always nod their head knowingly, saying, “Oh … wow … yeah … I understand now.”
When I’m in a reflective mood, I usually end up wondering, “Do you really?” Because if you do understand how an innocuous moment of your life, something that you’ve done thousands of times, alters your life in a way that can never be returned to what it once was … by all means please enlighten me. It seems like there should be some forms to fill out. Maybe an orientation session to sit through. There is for everything else it seems.
Today is a Saturday. I think I’ll put this down and go run a few miles. I’m sure the locals get a chuckle out of the old boxer. Some might even wonder if I still think I’m in training for some imaginary fight, that I’ve lost track of how many times those golden leaves have begun drifting to the ground since my boxing days. I would have to laugh and tell them that no, it’s not dementia’s ugly grip that drives me. I know all too well that I turned out the lights and closed the door on my career many years ago. But I like to stay in shape, stay ready for life’s next opportunity, or its next adventure, to present itself. Like I said, it’s pretty cool being me—even if I am looking at life through Coke bottle glasses.
Jeff Bumpus is a writer and retired professional boxer from Elkhart, Indiana. He currently lives and works in Union, Michigan. In addition to previous issues of Canopic Jar, his writing has appeared in online Boxing magazines and journals. His first book, Becoming Taz: Writings from the Southpaw Stance, is due to be published by Canopic in 2014.