Sunday, June 16, 2013
Once upon a time in a saloon
This painting, completed in the 1790s by English artist C.R. Ripley, illustrates boxers Daniel Mendoza and Richard Humphreys fully prepared to engage in fisticuffs. The two fighters were prominent men-among-men in their day, which was a bit more than a century before an informal brawl took place between two small-town protagonists in a Minnesota saloon. While the names of these small-town fighters are all but forgotten today, perhaps their battle was no less relevant than any engaged in by Mendoza and Humphreys -- at least in terms of family lore -- and the painting serves as a fitting illustration for the story being told here. And, as for the music accompanying this post, it is here because I can never get enough of Victor's guitar and Valery's voice, and hard rock does seem to go hand-in-fist with hard fights.
Epic struggles are where you find them
[Editor's Note: I had the occasion this week to visit with a few relatives I have not seen for a few decades. It brought family history into my mind. History begets history, so the next day I opened a few local history books and re-read portions of them. I became interested in one article written about fifty years ago by an old-timer who was recalling an event he had witnessed about fifty years before that. It is fascinating to me because one of the central characters in this "epic struggle" is linked to my ancestry. In fact, I even have a shotgun he owned. So then, just for fun, here is the article for you, with only a few minor changes, written in a rather genteel style of description which seems appropriate to the era it portrays:]
It was an extremely hot Saturday afternoon in (our town). The year was 1908. Bill Davis was a local saloonkeeper, tall, dark and handsome, quick and lithe as a ballet dancer. He was an only son, trained by his boxing-instructor father since childhood in the manly art of self-defense. As an enterprising youth, he had gone to Wyoming, rounded up wild horses and brought them home to sell to area farmers. With the profits from this venture, he had purchased the Southside Bar.
Stor-Alex (Big/Large/Great Alex), a young immigrant from Norway, was the very essence of his Viking ancestors. Of fear, there was none in his makeup. Well over six feet in height, barrel-chested and immensely powerful, to the amazement of onlookers. His prowess in battle and his numerous feats of strength were renowned and fabulous. And yet, because of his mild disposition and gentle good nature, he was often teased and taunted in hopes of seeing him provoked to anger, and consequent deeds of classical violence.
On this particular afternoon, Stor-Alex had come to town with horse and wagon for supplies. Having loaded his wagon, he apparently decided that a cold beer would be in order, so he crossed the street and entered Bill Davis' saloon.
As a ten-year-old boy that afternoon, I had just finished my Saturday chores. Noon-day lunch was long since past, and a dip in the lake seemed a fine idea. Hurrying uptown in hopes of finding other kids to go along, there was a sudden burst of shouting along the street, and a loud cry of, "Slaw homeeyel!" (Kill him!)
People were running from their shops down the street to the saloon, where a crowd was already congregated. I immediately ran down there also, but being unable to see the action, crawled on hands and knees between the legs of on-lookers until I was flat on my stomach right inside those swinging doors.
No one seemed to know what had started the fight, but a good guess would be that Stor-Alex had again been teased by Bill Davis or one of his customers, and it was just the kind of day to make his usual good nature turn hot as the weather.
First, he showed his displeasure by picking up the end of the long and heavy bar and shaking it vigorously. As if an earthquake had hit the place, glasses and bottles came tumbling and crashing and rolling over the floor. In a flash, Bill Davis leaped over the bar and landed a terrific right to Stor-Alex's jaw, drawing a gush of blood.
As I watched from my vantage point, with eyes and mouth wide open, Stor-Alex grabbed and clutched at Bill Davis, tearing his shirt to ribbons, leaving only the collar and starting trickles of blood on his neck and chest. With the instinct of a trained boxer, Bill Davis danced aside, weaving and coming in with lightning jabs which closed one of his opponent's eyes and caused profuse bleeding.
Stor-Alex had knocked Bill Davis off his feet a couple times, and I vividly remember looking in fascinated horror at the pools of blood on the floor. Quick as a cat, Bill Davis was on his feet again, trying desperately to get in a knockout punch, but Stor-Alex was too tough, and not to be downed.
At one point, Bill Davis managed to land a blow which backed Stor-Alex into a pool table, knocking it and its contents to the floor with a rumbling crash. With a lunge, Stor-Alex then caught Bill Davis by the throat in his powerful grip, and that was all for Bill Davis.
It had been a classic struggle, but now a tragedy could easily have besmirched the fair name of (our town). For it required the combined and frantic efforts of six or seven bystanders to save the life of William Davis.
It was then that a ten-year-old kid decided it was time to get going. At a safe distance across the street, I saw Stor-Alex come out with a group of men who saw him to his wagon and helped him get started back to the farm.
The melee became the talk of the countryside, and even the most peaceable and abstemious of Stor-Alex's fellow-Scandinavians took more-or-less secret pride in his herculean performances.
To the credit of the participants in this brawl, however, it must be said that neither carried a grudge. Such it was in those days. Occasionally afterwards, I saw the two in friendly conversation in front of the saloon, but I never heard whether any of the drinks that followed were on the house.