Manny joined the Veteran Boxers’ Association a couple of years later, and that was another memorable experience. The president of their chapter was Paul Berlenbach, who has his place in history as one of the only athletes to hold amateur titles in both boxing and wrestling. He was the sports idol of one of the heirs to the Ruppert brewing company fortune, which set him up with a trust fund for his lifetime. He even named his toy bulldog Ruppert! Paul was kind of punchy by that time, but was a kind man who treated us like gold and loved Manny. The VBA also held annual dances, which were like stepping into a time capsule back to the early 20th century. Everyone dressed formal and they played ballroom dance music all night. There were also unlimited supplies of beer kegs, which I greatly enjoyed. Manny was their emcee as well, and people lined up to compliment him after he delivered his speeches.
Every now and again they sponsored amateur fights, and the rookies marveled at being able to hobnob with the legends of yesteryear. They would ask Manny to referee a fight now and again, and he enjoyed it as much as we did. He also refereed a few of our matches with the Butler Street Wrestling Club, and the guys loved having Manny doing the honors.
The other organization was the 40/8 (their symbol being forty horses and eight wagons, reminiscent of the mode of transportation afforded American troops in WWI France). It was an elitist group within the Legion that was not officially recognized because of their by-law prohibiting non-whites from joining. The commanders of their posts were called the Chef de Gare, and Manny was elected to that position in his second year. Shortly afterward, they had their national convention which Manny and I attended. Back in the day, a Spaniard would have had a chance of a snowball in hell of earning the Chef spot. After a few drinks, Manny made the rounds at the four-star hotel we were at, making one and all of the conventioneers well aware of the fact!
Manny and I bonded during that time, and though we did not see eye-to-eye quite often over the decades, in his golden years he finally realized how much I truly cherished him. I made him feel like it was Christmas every time I visited NYC, and I only wished one of my ships would have come in time to have given him so much more.
Back in grade school, we weren’t quite that close because we were always trying to understand each other. He saw all my faults as the result of being spoiled by Mom. Conversely, I thought his problem was having been bullied by his Dad throughout his childhood. I figured he just didn’t know how to relate to kids. Having a hard ass as a father wasn’t the worst thing, I figured. He was still the toughest guy on the block, and that was something I was forever proud of. I was determined to live up to that legacy (not to mention Mom being the toughest woman in the ‘hood). Only I had a lot of toughening up to do, but I was looking forward to that as long as the ends justified the means.
As you can see, major changes were taking shape in my life as I prepared myself for teenhood and my high school years. I would have no idea how drastic they would be, and I could never have dreamed that it would all become the prelude to the beginning of my lifelong journey as a rock and wrestling cult legend.
(To be continued...)