Codger’s column: A mere 50 years later

Time slows down on Shelter Island, claims Codger, especially if you’re not raising kids or working a job or two, but during this past COVID year time has been softening, warping, melting like Salvador Dali’s clocks.

Codger often asks Crone what day it is. She often knows.

That’s why Codger was astounded to learn that this week was the 50th anniversary of one of the seminal nights of his professional life, the first boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.

How did that one slip past him? He had his shots. What else was there to distract him? The Comprehensive Plan? Reinventing the police department? Why Albert Dickson, whom he really liked, was not running again for Town Board?

The 50-year heads-up came from his friend Betty Medsger, whom he met several years ago at the annual library lunch, at the Pridwin. Betty was speaking about her book, “The Burglary,” a riveting account of a radical citizens’ raid on a regional FBI office that unearthed information on the illegal surveillance of Americans.

The burglars had picked March 8, 1971, because they thought that most people, including FBI agents, would be engrossed in the so-called Fight of the Century.

Codger certainly was. A sports columnist for The New York Times, Codger was at ringside in Madison Square Garden that night, phone-casting a play-by-play back to the desk in Times Square.

Ali had been his main story for seven years, since he won the title from Sonny Liston. This fight was Ali’s big test following a three-year exile from the ring after he refused to be drafted. It would turn out to be a big test for Codger, too.

In a mere fifty years, Codger would metamorphose from a 30-something careerist with two small kids into an elderly senior ancient living in a bubble within a bubble, only seeing those kids and their kids on his computer while worrying about armed militias taking over the government and maskless boneheads breathing virus.

Back then Richard Nixon was president. What could get worse?

Codger has found the passage of time imperceptible until it suddenly becomes shocking, usually because something monstrous looms up. He had been skeptical about the mantle of “America’s Governor” placed on Andrew Cuomo’s bully shoulders because it reminded him of “America’s Mayor,” Rudy Giuliani, whose inspiring 9/11 performance spiraled into the grotesque.

Recent events, including official lies about COVID deaths and alleged inappropriate sexual behavior, have so diminished Cuomo’s stature that a gubernatorial challenge from Codger’s congressional representative, the Trump lackey Lee Zeldin, actually seems possible.

Of course, it was failure by the likes of Trump and Zeldin to govern responsibly that made Shelter Island’s finest hour possible. Filling the gap in vaccine distribution, Supervisor Gerry Siller’s administration created and oversaw a one-day event that inoculated more than 500 Islanders.

The resulting feelgood effect will probably benefit other worthy projects including the ambitious effort to construct and implement a new comprehensive plan. Codger has been reading the plan’s 2020 island profile on the town website. It’s a fascinating document. One nugget among many:  Waterfront property is predominantly owned by off-Islanders.

Other troubling caste factors appeared in a recent Zoom town “listening session” about the state-mandated Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative. In response to a resident’s question, Chief James Read maintained that civil service rules have made it too hard for him to hire women or native Spanish speakers for his ten-man force.

Fifty years ago, Codger, at ringside, was not aware that his play-by-play was becoming more and more biased toward Ali. As the rounds ground on, he began describing Ali’s punches as more damaging than those by Frazier, who would go on to win the fight by a unanimous decision. People who heard Codger’s account thought Ali should have won. When Codger watched a film of the fight soon afterward, he realized he had gotten too close to a subject, emotionally involved to the point where his judgment was clouded.

That was a factor in Codger deciding to leave the paper a few months later. It was time to move on. Fifty years later, his 1971 resignation seems self-righteously self-important, but it was a good move, expanding his career into books and TV. (He returned to the paper twenty years later.)

Also, with his new free time in the early 1970’s, he accepted an invitation from a Times colleague, Hy Maidenberg, to bring his family all the way out to a faraway place, Hy’s house on Cartwright Road. Much of that weekend was spent on Wades Beach.

Much of last weekend, a half century later, was spent on Codger’s hometown Wades Beach, throwing a ball for Cur II to chase, trying to stay strong for the times to come.