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Codger’s Column: Memory bank

The Beatles, Cassius Clay and Young Codger all met for the first time on Feb. 18, 1964, and, according to Old Codger, the era known as the Sixties formally began.

The American president had recently been assassinated and the Cold War was heating up. The civil rights and anti-war movements were gaining momentum. The Beatles were making their first visit to America, and Cassius was in Miami Beach to challenge Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. Codger was there to write about it. Everybody was 20-something.

Whatever happened to those cute guys?

More and more often these days, Codger stops dead in his tracks and exclaims, “Holy Rock!” at the passage of time. Everything was only yesterday. Well, no. Everything seems like 60 years ago. And it was better, right? Or a dream.

Young Codger was mostly pulling night re-write in The New York Times sports department then. Sometimes he was “the noon goon,” pulling day re-write.

He scrounged for feature stories, for bylines on sidebars. He offered himself up for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo and was patted on his head and rejected. He didn’t even bother volunteering for the Clay-Liston fight because heavyweight title bouts were premier assignments in those days.

But the Times’ eminent boxing writer didn’t want to go all the way to Florida for a fight that would probably last less than a round. Cassius had no chance against the ogre Liston. The eminent boxing writer looked around the office until his eye fell on the noon goon. “Send the kid,” he said to the sports editor. “He doesn’t look busy.”

The kid’s instructions included driving his rental car between the fight arena and the nearest hospital so he would waste no deadline time following Cassius to intensive care. He actually did that on the day he arrived in Miami, then drove to the seedy old Fifth Street gym (in what is now trendy South Beach) to meet Cassius and watch him train.

Cassius hadn’t yet arrived, but there were four noisy little guys in white terry-cloth cabana jackets, who had come for a photo op with Cassius. Now they were trying to escape, furious at having been stood up. Security guards shoved them into an empty dressing room and Codger tagged along. They were locked in. For 15 minutes, Codger was the fifth Beatle.

The other Beatles cursed and kicked the walls. Codger, in jacket and tie, introduced himself and asked for their fight predictions. John introduced himself as Ringo, and said that Liston would destroy the silly little wanker. He started banging on the door.

Suddenly, the dressing room door burst open and all the Beatles gasped. The most beautiful creature they had ever seen filled the doorway, laughing. “Hello there, Beatles,” Cassius roared. “We oughta do some road shows together, we’ll get rich.”

Cassius waved his arm and the Beatles followed him out to the boxing ring like kindergarten kids. If Codger hadn’t known better, he would have thought they’d met before and choreographed their capering.

They bounced into the ring, dropped down to pray Clay would stop hitting them, formed a pyramid to flail at his jaw. Then they lined up so Clay could knock them all out with one punch. They fell like dominoes. That photo op is on You Tube.

After the Beatles left, Clay worked out as his trainer Bundini hollered, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Afterward, stretched out on a dressing-room table for his rubdown, Cassius beckoned to Codger. He put his lips to Codger’s ear and whispered, “Who were those little sissies?”

Codger never met up with a Beatle again, although he spent a goodly portion of the next half-century writing about Cassius Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali. His death, at 74 in 2016, was shocking to Codger, who thought the beautiful creature would live forever, changing in the public mind from clown to controversial champion to secular saint as the public mind changed. As Codger changed.

Sometimes Codger thinks it was all a dream. So much of life that seems vivid and significant also seems more and more dreamlike. Some are bad dreams: It’s been 40 years since Codger first met Donald Trump and started watching him change from clown to controversial president to a looming threat.

Some are wonderful: It’s been 30 years since Codger staked out a piece of Shelter Island and started watching it change from his rural respite, to a place to live, to his home.

If only we could review the tapes to pick and choose what really happened and what merely reflects our fears and hopes, thinks Codger. Shelter Island is clearly a fantasy. Donald Trump is beyond imagination.

At least the silly little wanker won.