Ferreting punches

I am not a pugilist, although I can’t say I’m a pacifist either. I fought bullies in my youth to the dying whispers of girls on my reddened ears. My opponents boxed me. It was all good clean fun back then, most of the time. Like when prizefighters pretend they are mortal enemies to go the distance — fifteen rounds — like the heavyweights. I got pointers from Ali-Frazier fights with their cadenced names like the thriller in Manila.

My dad and I never missed an Ali fight. Ali was full of himself, he had a big mouth, but what came out of it was so well timed it was hard to hold it against him. The way he tired his opponents was cocky, but smart and fun to watch, like a matador who does not kill the bull. There was one opponent of his with whom I had a personal connection.

A Pocket Full of Mumbles

I spent many summers of my youth SCUBA diving in the open-pit iron mines on the Cuyuna Range in Crow Wing County. Crosby Minnesota was anytown USA. American flags were always waving somewhere from awnings on Mainstreet and the town’s Serpent hid menacing in the shadows of a park near a lake of the same name. We’d pass under the high Ironton water tower on our way home from those dives. I can still hear the screen door slam on the shop “Soup to Nuts” where we’d often have ice cream after a dive as we filled in our log books. In 1981 Scott LeDoux dove with me and autographed my log book. He’d offered a dive with himself for PBS to auction in one of their yearly drives. My dad bid on it and won. In the early 70’s I’d been fascinated by the charismatic ranting and boxing prowess of Muhammad Ali and then in 1974 a soft-spoken 25-year-old native of Crosby-Ironton entered the ring. He called himself “The FightingFrenchman.” He was a heavyweight contender who fought with an orthodox style. A real-life Rocky began a nine year career with a knockout victory over Arthur Pullens. Through his career his opponents were; Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Gerrie Coetzee, Leon Spinks, Greg Page, George Foreman, Mike Weaver and Larry Holmes. To his credit, LeDoux earned a “draw” against Spinks only months before Spinks defeated Ali. On December 2, 1977 LeDoux went 5 rounds with Ali in an exhibition match. Also to his credit he set a Minnesota attendance record on April 22, 1976 when he fought another Minnesota native, Duane Bobick, in front of 13,789 spectators. In 1983, 2 years after our dive, LeDoux lost by a technical knockout to Frank Bruno. The Fighting Frenchman retired with a record of 33–13–4 (22 knockouts).

His mumbles were audible; satisfactorily heard with an ineffaceable whisper that conveyed his thoughts plainly. The sound was raspy and soft like he was finding a fondness his career had forgotten. His hands moved quickly as they gestured with complacency as we ate sandwiches in the glow of the mine. The sun-kissed water was smooth as glass and reflected us as we sat on a cliff. LeDoux pointed to a road that led to the mine that was high above us and now grown over with foliage. “There used to be a bridge there with a railing and I’d stand there and wave to my daddy.” We sat and listened to his recollections of the mine. In the first 35 minute dive we reached 90 feet in Portsmouth mine that day, although the depths of the mine were never known to me. We made two dives that day between which LeDoux told of his childhood in Crosby-Ironton. His nose showed the punches it had taken and his eyes had a gentle puff that I followed as he told us of how he’d watched his daddy emerge from the mine every day. “Yes, I’d stand there for hours sometimes until he waved back.”
Mining on the Cuyuna Range was at its end in the 1950’s. The mine, often referred to as Portsmouth pit, is the deepest lake that is completely within Minnesota. According to DNR statistics, it has a depth of over 450 feet (130m). There are ridges — strata marking the depths one could go. Along the way one might see abandoned cars or parts of them. We’d see brook and rainbow trout swimming around trees preserved as they waved in the cold, pristine waters. We once salvaged an old row boat from the mine and the hull of a speedboat. The mining Communities on the Cuyuna Range began in 1910 and included the towns of Ironton, Crosby, Deerwood, Cuyuna and Trommald. The peak of the mining industry on the range was in 1920. In its five decades the total production of iron ore from the Cuyuna Range was 100,000,000 tons.

In August of 2008 Scott LeDoux was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and I thought a lot about that dive. I’d hear that raspy voice of a humble heavyweight contender graciously thanking me for being his fan. His huge, calloused hands shook mine that September day in 1983. Then, on the news one day, I saw that curly haired Frenchman fighting again, but from a wheelchair. The huge hands, that had once nimbly grabbed my SCUBA tank and placed it gently on my back, now fumbled to button a shirt. On August 11, 2011 Alan Scott LeDoux lost his final fight. My memories of diving in those mines is enhanced by the image of him, shaking my hand once more after scrawling his signature in my log book and disappearing from the mine as unassumingly as he’d arrived into the shaded streets of Crosby, MN.

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