We grow up and we find heroes, and in their lives we look for motivation, for meaning.
Archie was the son of our next-door neighbors in Los Angeles. The Gutierrez family. Archie was funny, one of those guys that kids instinctively liked. He seemed like one of us, only huge. He was the best part of neighborhood birthday parties 'cause he really got into the spirit of things. Like whacking the piñata. Man, dude could split that sucker open like Willie Davis smacking one into the outfield at Chavez Ravine. All the candy spilling to the ground after a good hit and Archie was always right there, laughing at the bounty.
Then he was gone for a while.
When Archie came back from Vietnam his father let the back part of their back yard grow tall. Some days Archie would go out there wearing his jungle trousers and M1 helmet, a scabbard in one hand, a bottle in the other. On those days my father, a veteran of the conflict in Korea, would tell us to leave Archie alone. One drizzly afternoon I saw Archie's dad — Big Ed — walk into the tall grass and stand next to his son without saying a word. The radio in our kitchen was on KHJ and “Bus Stop” by The Hollies was playing. To this day I cannot hear that song without thinking of father and son, and the agonies that lingered long after Archie came home.
Ali was the boxer who did not go to Vietnam because he thought the war was wrong. In exchange for his principled stand, the government convicted Ali of dodging the draft. The business of boxing stripped him of his heavyweight title and refused to let him compete. They were also angry because Ali had converted to Islam and changed his name. No, really.
For almost four years, Muhammad Ali was not allowed to do his job. He was 25 when he was stripped of his title and his passport. He was almost 29 when he was finally able to climb back into a ring. Prime time for a Young Turk, wasted.
But he came back. He became a champion again. And he never backed down from speaking out against the wrongs of the world. Even after he lost his ability to talk his eyes still had the gleam of the righteous.
It made sense to a lot of people in the '60s to banish and condemn Ali. My father was no fan. To him Muhammad Ali would always be Cassius Clay, the loud-mouthed draft dodger who should have gone to prison. The whole Islam thing made him uneasy, too.
(It got even tougher for him when the UCLA basketball player Lew Alcindor publicly announced his conversion to Islam and became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The only thing that could have made it worse for my dad, the L.A. sports fan, would have been if USC great O.J. Simpson had joined the Nation of Islam. Instead he became a murderer.)
To my father it was simple: Ali was a coward and Archie was a hero. Never mind that Dad thought Vietnam was a mess, a no-win hellhole like Korea had been for him. He thought Ali should have gone ahead with the draft; to his way of thinking The Champ would have landed some cushy stateside post and that would have been fine. Everyone would be appeased. Be a good soldier. Go along, get along. Just keep your mouth shut.
But Archie had been the good soldier — a hero — and now he stood silent in the tall grass. Ali had been taken down in his own way, but he would not stay down. He would not go quietly. He was a hero, too.
They became the story of Vietnam in my childish mind, and as is the case in many childhood stories, this one marked me for life. The soldier. The contrarian. The defeated. The defiant. In Archie I saw how the good can be brought low, for nonsensical reasons. In Ali I saw the essential need to speak truth to power, to stop such nonsense from ever becoming reasonable.