By C. Paul Bergeron
Part 12: The Boxing Experience
My achievements in the boxing ring are definitely not worth mentioning or even being thought about and certainly not worth being written about, but that part of my life is intertwined with a great privilege that I experienced and truly treasure—a relationship with three American heroes.
My first taste of the sport was at my Uncle Wiley's race track when the older guys got the younger kids to entertain them with some many times very uneven matches. It seemed to me that from all the stars I saw most of my matches were very uneven, and each time I'd swear to myself that I'd never do it again, but I'd always allow myself to be conned into trying it "one more time."
When I got to Abbeville High School I discovered a status symbol on campus that attracted my attention, as it seemed to attract large numbers of the most attractive girls—an athletic jacket with a large letter "A" and either a football or a boxing glove or a basketball emblazoned on the front. I was much too small for football and much too short for basketball, so my only hope for such a jacket was boxing. So I signed up for boxing and immediately became a sparring partner for the boxers on the team that were close to my weight. During those first few days I really learned the meaning of being overmatched. Those kids hit me at will and made me miss when I tried to hit back. There was one in particular that was really good. He was known as "Cooking Oil." His name was Raymond Hebert, but he was called by his nickname by everyone except his teachers. He and I became friends and I know that he took it easy with me when I was in the ring with him. But I learned some things from him that served me well, especially self confidence.
"Cooking Oil" Hebert
Raymond won most of his fights. At the district tournament at SLI he was second in his weight as a freshman and was champion as a sophomore, junior and senior. In his senior year he also won the state championship in his weight at the tournament held at LSU. For this he got a four year scholarship to LSU.
I never made the boxing team, so after two years of being a punching bag, I gave up the notion of wearing an athletic jacket and concentrated on other goals. However, when I was a junior the boxing coach put on an intramural boxing tournament as a fund raiser to purchase boxing equipment.
I got conned into being the 118 pound representative for our class. Cooking Oil would be in my corner and that was very comforting, as when we pulled names out of a hat my first opponent was the senior class representative and he was two years older than I and had been on the boxing team a couple of years but had dropped out.
With Cooking Oil coaching me, I not only won the decision but managed to knock the guy down on his seat with my very first punch. My second fight was with the sophomore class representative, who had beaten the freshman. This guy was a little pudgy around the waist. Cooking Oil told me to forget about hitting him on the face but to concentrate on the body, which I did. The other guy must have gotten different instructions because he concentrated on my face pretty good, mashing my nose and cutting my lip, but just before the second round ended I buried a punch in his solar plexus (pit of the stomach) and he doubled over. The bell rang and he went to his corner but either couldn't or wouldn't come out for round three.
My award was a plaque which showed my name as the 118 pound champion of the intramural boxing tournament. The plaque still adorns the wall in my shop. Some years ago I threw away over 25 trophies that I had won in golf tournaments at area courses. They no longer meant anything to me.
But this plaque I'll treasure to the end.
After graduation from high school Cooking Oil went to LSU for a semester or two. He left school and enlisted in the US Army Airforce. After training he was assigned to service in the Philippine Islands, and this is where he was when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. A short time later the Japanese invaded the Philippines and after the American forces surrendered, Cooking Oil's family heard nothing from or about him until the end of World War II. Finally a survivor who knew what had happened to Cooking Oil came by and informed the family that Cooking Oil had evaded capture and had joined a Filipino guerilla group and had continued to fight the Japanese until he was killed in combat.
|Father Verbis LaFleur||Peter Russo|
My other two heroes were Father Verbis LaFleur and Peter Russo. Peter I had known since the first grade at the Old School. He had developed into a super athlete at Abbeville High School. He was a very good football player but he really hit his stride as a boxer on the high school team. As I remember in his senior year he knocked out his opponents in all but maybe one or two of his fights.
Father LaFleur was a newly ordained Catholic priest whose first assignment was in Abbeville. He had a strong interest in the teenagers of the church parish and started organizations for both boys and girls. He held joint meetings so that the kids could enjoy social interaction. He also obtained bus transportation to take the young people to the St. Martinville park for a picnic. Very few of us had ever done this, nor had we many opportunities to interact with the opposite sex in a social environment. Father LaFleur must have done some boxing in his early years, as one of the first things he did was to hold boxing matches between boys in the two Boy Scout troops that were sponsored by the church parish and Mt. Carmel School.
One night at one of our joint meetings Father LaFleur said that he had thought of an idea that could help us raise some money for our club activities. His proposal was to form two boxing teams and let them fight each other at an Evangeline League baseball game at the local baseball park, if the owner of the Abbeville team agreed to give us some money from the gate receipts. He said that the event would be well publicized and would be well attended. The main boxing event would be between Peter and Paul and he felt a lot of people from the churches would be attracted by such a match. I broke out in a cold sweat and was nearly paralyzed from shock, but I managed to stammer out a question: "Who will play the parts of Peter and Paul?"
"Why, Peter Russo, of course, and you, Paul Bergeron" came back the answer. "Peter Russo is going to kill me!" I shouted. "No he won't" replied Father. "I hear that you're a pretty good boxer, and besides, we'll have a doctor there and a nurse if the bleeding gets out of hand." Father LaFleur was also pretty good at giving someone the needle. At this point everybody at the meeting was laughing and adding bits of humor of their own to add to my discomfiture.
My guardian angel came through for me again. This time it was in the form of the owner of the baseball team. He apparently was not convinced that it was such a good idea. He did not approve so the idea was abandoned.
Soon after, Father LaFleur joined the US Army as a Catholic Chaplain. He was assigned to the Philippines and was taken prisoner by the Japanese at the same time as Cooking Oil was able to evade capture. Father LaFleur went to a POW camp and it is known from survivors that he helped his fellow prisoners in many ways. Some time during World War II he was put on board a Japanese ship to be transported to Japan. The ship was torpedoed and he was killed. There is evidence from survivors that he was a hero, helping others leave the sinking ship rather than saving himself. There is a move under way at this time to have him declared a saint according to the custom of the Catholic Church.
A few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Peter Russo hitched hiked to New Orleans to enlist in the Marine Corps. After training he was sent to the Pacific theater of operations. When the Island of Guam was retaken by the Marines in 1944, he volunteered to man a forward observation post feeding target information to a Marine artillery battery that was shelling Japanese positions. He was killed during the battle.
How blessed I am to have been friends with those three wonderful people—all great American Heroes. What a great memory!
Next: Part 13: Friends I
A Cajun Boyhood, by
C. Paul Bergeron
© 2007 by C. Paul Bergeron