One Morning at Deer Lake
By ice rivers
I read his auto-biography, The Greatest.
Towards the ending of his book, Ali invited anyone who had read the book that far to come and visit him at his training camp where they would be welcome. He even gave simple directions. Go to Deer Lake. Go to the gas station in the middle of town. Turn left at the gas station. Come up the mountain road. Watch for the boulders along the side of the road. The boulders have names of past champions painted on them. If you see them. you're in the right place. Drive to the top of the road. Park your car.
I had a few days off with no particular place to go. I had a truck. I had a wife and a three year old son. We got in the truck. We trucked to Pennsylvania. We drove to Deer Lake. We found the gas station.
(Oh my God there's the gas station)
We turned left on the mountain road.
Oh My God, there's the boulders.
We were unmistakably on the turf of Muhammad Ali.. We kept going. We parked the truck.
I couldn't believe how simple it was. Exactly how Ali described it in his book. We were on the property of perhaps the most famous man on earth. No one had stopped us. Searching for parallels. I tried to picture mysxelf pulling into Ronald Reagan's ranch. I imagined security guards with sunglasses and rifles. I imagined a few years in federal prison.
Here there was no security, only a collection of cabins and 7 A.M. Pennsylvania morning silence and fog. I was happy just to be there enjoying the electrified serenity. I didn't darte wish for anything more. For all I knew, I was breaking a law. What was I going to tell the cop? "I read the book. I turned at the gas station. I thought I was welcome etc." I didn't think that sounded too good.
My son climbed out of the truck and headed over to a boulder. We looked at a few of the boulders. I gave a little story about each of the names on the boulders.
Then I heard my wife say, "Ice"!
I walked back to the car, just a few steps away.
"Does Muhammad Ali have a moustache", she asked.
"Not that I know of. Why do you ask"
"Because some guy with a moustache just walked into one of those cabins"
Almost immediately, I saw a back emerging from that cabin. Only one person on earth had a back like that.
"It's him", I whispered in frightened awe.
In fright, the usual choice of fight or flight arrived.
Fight? Well this was the heavyweight champion of the world I was looking at and I was an interloper on his property. Fight wasn't going to work for damn sure.
Flight? I could back up, grab my son and take off, if not like a robber in the night certainly like a nut in the morning.
By this time, Ali was a few feet from my truck.
I stepped out of the truck and walked towards him.
"Good morning Champ" felt about right so I dropped it on him.
He looked at me, through me and somehow spotted my son.
"Be careful your boy over there on the rock"
I glanced over and there was my boy precariously perched on the Jake LaMotta boulder.
When I came back to the truck, Ali was waiting for me.
"Ya wannna see a magic show" said the Greatest to my boy and me.
I said "Sure"
I said "I'll get my wife"
He nodded. He waited.
A few moments later, my wife, my son and I were following Muhammad Ali into his empty mountain gymnasium.
He opend the door, we four went inside.
Ali locked in on me. He asked me what I did.
I told him I was a teacher.
He replied in a voice so soft barely audible, the whisper of an old man.
"You so smart? What did Lincoln say when he woke up with a hangover?"
"I don't know Champ" I responded.
"I freed the who?", Ali answered.
And there it was, one of the most heavily identified and analyzed racial figures of all time was making my acquaintance with a complex little ethnic joke.
I didn't know what the hell to do.
We all did.
It was the right thing. I was still the most important man on earth in the eyes of the most famous man on earth.
For the next half hour he made scarves come out of my ears and made cards disappear all the while making the three of us, feel as if we were the absolute center of the universe. A couple of times I almost felt sorry for him, he was trying so hard to please. Then I would remind myself where I was and whom I was attempting to feel sorry for.
Somewhere during the half hour, other people began to show up.
Soon the number was up to fifty and Ali was still locked on us.
He had other people to lock on. Another day was beginning as our time together was ending. Ali knew hows to close.
His last few words to me were these
"You a teacher...be good to those kids. Tell 'em this story"
Then he feinted that left jab at me.
That was goodbye.
We would meet again.
I got blizzarded and sold out of the first Ali-Frazier fight.
Yes, a March 8 blizzard made driving nearly impossible and I lived a long way from the Auditorium. The Auditorium was the theater that screened the HBO production of Ali-Frazier. Back in those days, a pay per view event did not appear on teevee. We had travel if we expected to participate. By the time I glascaded to the Auditorium, the unthinkable had happened. The venue was completely sold out and occupied. Absolutely zero tickets were available.
I cross-countried home and listened to a heavily edited version of the fight in my living room along with brother Deke and our best friend Johnny Crown. I'll tell the story of that evening some other time, for now it's merely prologue. Let's just say we lit our victory cigars too early and with fake confidence.
I vowed I would NOT miss the rematch.
As usual, I overcompensated.
When the inevitable rematch was scheduled for Madison Square Garden, I contacted my buddy in New York city and asked him to pick me up two ringside seats for the fight; one for me and one for Deke.
The ringside tickets cost an unheard of 100 bucks apiece.
The day of the fight arrived. We put on our rented tuxedos and flew to New York. All of our buddies were going to watch the fight on closed circuit again at the Auditorium. This time everybody bought their tickets in advance. My pals gave us a big send off at the airport as part of their pre-fight celebration.
We arrived in The Apple and made our way over to Crazy Joe's apartment. We had a few beers at Joe's and headed to the Garden. The gigantic poster in Times Square at the time was of Al Pacino as Sepico.
We made our way to the Garden.
We paused outside for gyros and souvlavki.
We went inside.
Our "ringside" seats proved to be pretty far from ringside because even though we wore tuxedos our name wasn't Sinatra or anything close to that although the actor who played the Son from Sanford and Son had the seat next to mine.
Big time, baby.
I had a nice new 35 millimeter Canon DSL. I was proud of that camera and thought I was Ice Sports Illustrated Photographer Pacino.
This was the first time that I was ever in the same room as Ali and Frazier. It would not be the last