‘Huff’ Huffnagle

huffnagle

‘Huff’ Huffnagle

Huff was an old man when I met him in the early ’60’s. It is possible that he doesn’t belong in a group of Artists, Poets and Philosophers, but he represents a life that hardly a soul today knows or comments on. When I met him he was peddling real estate in Kingston and doing moderately well. His background was that of a professional fighter during the depression. There was a small troupe of fighters traveling from town to town, fighting the local toughs in crudely roped rings for prize money. Huff pursued the bare-knuckle fight scam with a vengeance for several years. I recall his speaking of pulling into Coulee – the ramshackle temporary town on the banks of the Columbia River. Several thousand workers were employed by the WPA and Corp of Engineers to build Coulee Dam. The Depression was destroying the country, there were millions unemployed and unlike today, the government under Roosevelt put men back to work at huge infrastructure projects.

In his prime, Huff was perhaps 6’4” and 275 pounds. There was an old photo, creased and stained, in a frame on the mantle in his house. It showed him in baggy tights (long johns perhaps), a big leather belt, and his arms cocked and ready parallel in front with the hands wrapped in strips of bandages. They didn’t fight in gloves (pillows as he called them).

There were a couple of sharp dressed smooth talkers that were the advance men – they would go ahead of the troupe and arrange the fights, a week or so in advance. The goal was to have a fight every weekend, weather permitting. I gather there was some bribery of local officials occasionally, and small posters in bars, taverns, telephone poles etc to stir up interest and gather a crowd. The advance men also took in the gambling money during the week proceeding the event. The rope and posts for the ring, stools, buckets, and other  accoutrements would arrive on a truck early on the day of the fight and set up, often in a local baseball diamond or park, occasionally indoors. The fighters would be camped outside of town in tents or empty barns.

Huff and the other fighters preferred to show up about noon on fight day, get a meal, and stalk around town. The half dozen fighters were somewhat divided in weight/size classes. The dam workers could thus size them up and appraise their opponent. In a town of several thousand there would always be tough guys that had reputations as fierce bar fighters and ferocious temperaments. The general population would most frequently bet on their local specialists in abuse.

Huff said the trick was to size the opposition quickly and then to knock them down cold fast, because the more people you cold-cocked the more money there was to be made. Why wear yourself out in a long boxing match? Just slug the son-of-a-bitch. The simple laborers may have been in multiple bar fights but they were no match for s man that had seen a thousand real fights and who was thus cool, calm, collected, and forthright. There was rarely any anger, it was a business. Get in the ring with the opponent, dance around for 20 seconds, take a hit or two, and then simply knock him out. Unpredictably here and there would be some damned fool that wouldn’t easily be felled, and they were a nuisance.

Huff had a face that had been hit, eyebrows were gnarly, ears cauliflowered, knuckles that were huge and scarred, and he walked stiffly, his ankles, knees, and hips aching. I was walking down to his house one day, he was at my side, and he dropped a pen on the ground and he said “What kind of a merciful God is there, that would put the damned ground that far away. That damned pen flee there because it belongs there, damned if I’m going to pick it up.” I picked it up for him.

In the house his wife,”Toots”, would serve coffee and Huff would remind her that despite the early hour, he could sure use some medicine. He had convinced her that the doctor had prescribed schnapps to ease his aches and pains. If the schnapps was gone he would settle for whiskey. We would sit and talk real estate at 10 am sipping MJB coffee and downing shots of schnapps, a shot per cup was the proper dose.

His real estate dealings were low key genial swindles. It was his job as a realtor to fleece the Pilgrims. He primarily showed property to be developed and the principle was to not take Pilgrims for more than they could afford to lose. He was generally reluctant to sell houses, his feeling was that anyone that wanted a house was a sheep awaiting shearing, and he sometimes had pang of guilt.

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