Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008 | Like others still driven by youthful aspirations, I have assured myself that four bound volumes of diaries that I penned from grade school through college in North Carolina — and through the agonies of adolescence and of peace and war — may some day serve some frantic historian seeking a vision of the Southern past.
That hope is rekindled by the Old Globe Theatre as the Cassius Carter Stage becomes a nighttime boxing ring for the world premiere of Steven Drukman’s play, “In This Corner.”
Based on the fabled 1930s bouts between the American champion Joe Louis and the German Max Schmeling, the play led me to search out a smooth black diary with the word RECORD imprinted in gold leaf, a wistful souvenir of Depression-era hopes.
As a boy, I must have felt obliged to provide coming generations my views of those frightening years. (One result is my lifelong respect for a nickel.) The diary entries, which I recognize now as amiable but less than notable, are scrawled in blue ink with my first fountain pen, a mottled red Schaeffer.
It was a Christmas gift from my father, a scholarly minister who kept diaries for a record-breaking 70 years, and it carried his suggestion that it was time I begin preparing myself for adulthood.
In a Chicago ring in 1937, the champion Joe Louis, about to become known as the Brown Bomber, had knocked out James Braddock to become world heavyweight champion, which he remained until he retired as champion in 1949. That fight went eight rounds, according to my rather breathless diary entry and other news sources. (Braddock looked remarkably like the film actor Russell Crowe, who played the role of “Cinderella Man.”)
The intriguing Old Globe play focuses on the 1938 bout between Louis and the German boxer Max Schmeling. With Hitler on the march, the ethnics of the match between the American black and the German drew world attention.
In victory, Louis was no longer a black prizefighter but an American idol. Babies were being named Joe Louis, or even Josephine.
Coming as Americans struggled to recover from a long and frightening Depression, that night’s fight became a lasting totem for its generation. My father, a peace-loving man who frowned on prizefighting, followed the match raptly that evening as we sat beside our family’s first radio, an Atwater Kent tabletop.
Snoozing at our feet was the fearless stray Beagle that had been sniffing around our house; he became my first dog. We honored him with the name of Joe Louis, and he lived and moved with us for 11 years, gleefully guarding whatever parsonage the family was then occupying.
“In This Corner” plays until Feb. 10. Neil Morgan is a member of the board of directors of voiceofsandiego.org.