Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Goodbye, Joe

I was reading an article in today’s New York Times about a 104-year-old strong man who died Monday after being hit by a minivan as he crossed Bay Parkway.

This is terrible, I thought, as I read about Joe Rollino, who once billed himself as the "Strongest Man in the World." He was so powerful and had lived for so long only to die like this. It's just not fair.

It just seemed like yet another tragic story in a city--and a world--that has far too many of them. But as I continued to read the story something started to nag at me.

The article said Joe had been a boxer who had fought under the name Kid Dundee and there was a photo of Joe at his 103rd birthday party, his fists raised in a fighter's stance.

And then I realized that I knew Joe Rollino.

It was three years ago, just a few months after my father’s death. I was shopping at a store on Fifth Avenue in the old Thriftee store. The owner pointed to Joe and told me that he was going to turn 102 the following week.

Like most people when they first meet Joe, I couldn’t believe my eyes. How could this vibrant, powerfully built man possibly be that old?

I was suffering from a sinus infection at the time and upset at the prospect of turning 50 in a few months and here was man who was more than twice my age shadow boxing in front of me like a Golden Glover.

I was so impressed by Joe that I wrote about our encounter in a post called "Man of the Century." I only met him that one time, but I never forget him.

“Sometimes people have a way of coming into your life just when you need them the most,” I wrote back in March 2007 and I meant it. The man was a walking treasure.

The Times article said Joe once reportedly lifted 475 pounds with his teeth, hefted 635 pounds with one finger, moved 3,200 pounds with his back, and bit down on quarters to bend them with his thumb.

An Associated Press story said that Joe hobnobbed with Harry Houdini, watched Jack Dempsey knock out Jess Willard, was friendly with Mario Lanza, and even had a bit part in "On the Waterfront."

Joe told me that he had been a gunnery sergeant in the Marines during World War II and had fought in Guadalcanal. He had gotten his start as a strongman in the 1920s during the high point of the Coney Island carnival, according to AP.

He also made a living as a traveling boxer, fighting in armories in cities around the country where boxing was forbidden.

“I fought all over the country,” Joe told me. “I fought all the great fighters.”

He said he had stopped boxing after he lost some of the vision in his left eye and was unable to see his opponents' jabs.

Joe didn’t smoke, drink, or eat meat and walked five miles every day, rain or shine. The papers said that he was crossing Bay Ridge Parkway at 13th Avenue when he was struck by a minivan. He was taken to Lutheran Medical Center where he died.

I thought about writing an article about Joe, but, like a lot of other projects, I never got around to it.

“I'm kicking myself for not getting some contact information,” I wrote in my original post, “but I'm praying I'll run into him again.”

That didn’t happen and now I'm kicking myself even harder. Just think of the stories this man could have told me. I once heard a saying that went "one of these days is none of these days." I see now just how true that is.

Joe shook my hand that day, told me to take care of myself, and that was the last time I ever saw him. And now he’s gone.

I went to a boxing class at my health club this afternoon. I was pretty tired and I was seriously thinking about skipping today it, but I'm glad I went. Whenever I started to slow down, I'd rear up and hit the bag as hard as I could.

"This one's for Joe," I said to myself. And I kept on punching.

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