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A Biography by Suzy Pepper


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Chapter 1: Field of Daydreams

By Suzy Pepper
'Termite' – The youth baseball field throbbed with activity. Pickups parked right on the grass with their front bumpers nudged against the chain-link fence that stretched from home plate to left field. Every foul ball brought a moment of excitement as fans rose from their lawn chairs to see which car hood might get dinged by the ball. “That was a close one, folks,” the announcer, situated on a wooden scaffolding behind home plate, would always say. Barefooted children raced over gravel and shards of coke-bottle glass to chase down the foul ball and receive a free snow cone as their reward. Little League mothers did their turn working in the stifling concession stand, frying corn dogs, pouring oil into the popcorn machine, and fishing dill pickles out of the huge glass jar.

Families lined up in webbed lawn chairs spraying OFF! on the legs and arms of their children. The merciless combination of heat and heavy rains made Houston a haven for the miserable pests, but everyone remarked that this year, 1966, was the worst year ever. Of course, 1965 was also called the worst year and 1967 would get the same status. All the children were dotted with bite marks, but they still played at the baseball field every night of the season. Wiry boys climbed like monkeys on the backstop fence, trying to race to the top before the umpire would swing around and growl at them to get down. Then, as soon as the umpire turned back toward the outfield, the scampering resumed at the same quick pace.

The field was in a huge square block in the shadows of the Houston Ship Channel that contained Cimarron Elementary School, practice fields, and basketball courts. Like a town square, it was the heart beat of a huge section of baby boom tract homes that were practically identical. Perpendicular streets of neatly stacked small frame (and a few brick) homes each comprised of a single car garage, 3 bedrooms and one bath provided a comforting monotony. Hard-working neighbors arrived home from the paper mill or oil refinery to sit in front yards with ice chests loaded with Pabst Blue Ribbon. For at least eight blocks, the announcer’s voice resonated. If a player struck out or missed a fly ball, the entire community knew about it.

The cadence of this area known as North Shore, although there was no shore for miles, had the regularity of tides. Waves of cars flowed out of the neighborhood and back in with the changing shifts of the local plants. Aluminum foil adorned the bedroom windows of some men working the graveyard shift. A certain respect was given these men; neighborhood kids knew to keep quiet when cutting through those yards. Hard-working men who spent most holidays working overtime expected the same level of effort from their sons.

“Termite!” a yell from the Texan dugout rang out. “Son, wake up out there!” Bill Watkins, coach and sponsor of the Texans was at the end of his patience. He’d sponsored the team, coached the team, and would probably have chalked the lines too just to see his son Termite field one good ball. Most of the coaches’ sons were on the all-star team. His son had been moved from every infield position to the outfield until he was practically in the parking lot. “Every time I see you looking anywhere except at the batter is five laps around the field!” he chastised. His father’s warning stung for a second but it was quickly pushed out of his brain by the excitement of the amazing firefly population that had taken over left field. Two pitches later, a routine grounder skidded past him. Pounding the chain link dugout fence with his fist, Bill’s face became a series of pulsating veins stretching from his neck to his forehead. “Termite, for God’s sake son, pay attention!” Bill shrieked.

Batting brought a short period of reprieve for the kid. At about half the size of the other players, the tiny strike zone posed a challenge to ten-year-old pitchers. The beer-gutted umpire struggled to get low enough to make the call. Fireflies and frogs settled in the far recess of his mind as fastballs flew at his head. Occasionally the ball managed to hit the bat, which made the game tolerable. More often, he got walked.

Bill Watkins watched his son run endless laps around the field at the next day’s practice. As owner of Champion Exterminating, whose company name was sprawled across the team’s shirts, it wasn’t easy watching his son twirl around the outfield with no apparent talent for this sport whatsoever. As he watched Termite slug his way through his laps from his poor performance in the game, a worn out pickup pulled into the field with three boys hanging over the tailgate, two of which were twins. Sandy-haired and scrawny, Termite dressed, like all of the other boys, in jeans to avoid skinning knees in sliding practice.

As Termite wandered back to his permanent home in the outfield, Joe Dove emerged from his truck and tossed his beer can into the steel barrel trash bin buzzing with bees from leftover snow cone juice. Joe, just off his shift from Armco Steel, flipped down his dark sunglass lens over his safety glasses, and both men watched as Termite re-entered his own left-field world of blowing dandelion fuzz into the wind.

“Bill, have you ever thought about letting Termite give boxing a try?” Joe Dove asked. “My boy Randy and the Carr twins like it, and it wears ‘em out good so they don’t have any energy left for getting into trouble.”

“Trouble,” Bill thought. That’s what he thought baseball would do – keep Termite out of trouble by giving him some direction in life. But, at the ripe age of ten, his son had already been caught smoking, drinking, and running a petty theft ring. Where would he be at twelve – doing hard time at Huntsville State Prison? Even on Sundays, Termite and the pastor’s son at Woodforest Baptist Church were busy rolling tiny pieces of bubble gum and tossing them into the church women’s sticky bouffant hairdos. Women would go home to their Sunday pot roasts unaware that Bazooka was in their beehives until their husbands made note of it,or until their weekly wash and set.

Street fighting was Termite’s biggest vice. He hated being called names; in fact, it was as if a switch clicked on his head when another kid called him “Stupid” or “Jerk,” and if that name was a cuss word, the switch snapped right to rage. Termite had one strategy for kids who picked on him – fight them. Termite would then proceed to that child’s door, ring the bell, and say, “Ma’am, your son just got his tail whipped because he called me a name, and if he says it again tomorrow, I’m going to whip him again.” It was much like a thirty second public service announcement for the neighbors, except there was scant appreciation from the neighbors, who were left waiting for their bloodied-nosed son to arrive for dinner. Some of these fights took place right in the classroom, with teachers scampering to intervene. One minute, students were working quietly in their Big Chief notebooks, the next minute; a teacher would be pulling Termite out in the hall for a paddling. Termite fought his way to school, through school, and walking home from school; there was little doubt that this boy was heading for serious trouble.

Termite’s problematic behavior was no secret. Bill frequented C & L Shoe Shine on Lockwood Drive in downtown Houston. The “C” in C & L was Clarence, Bill’s childhood friend and Termite’s godfather. The assets of the company consisted of thirty shoe-shine chairs in the absolute worst part of town, yet men of all rungs of the corporate and social ladder entered all day and exited looking down at shoes that reflected their images. It was a place where men talked. Joe Brown, former lightweight world champion, was a regular customer and heard the fringes of several conversations over the past months with the central theme being Termite’s behavior problems. “Get the kid into boxing,” Joe advised months ago, “And turn that street fighting into something positive.”

The truth was, Termite modeled his father’s behavior. The Watkins’ children - Billy, Termite, and Carla had daily lessons in how not to behave. Alcohol mixed with a violent temper plagued the home. Anyone who even faintly crossed Bill Watkins at the filling station or the grocery check-out ran the very real risk of getting beaten. In fact, Termite, from the window of his dad’s truck, had seen his dad almost beat a man to death for a comment that others would have ignored. Bill Watkins’ thin-skinned nature brought fiery tirades which were whispered about in surrounding homes, but the children in the house on Joliet Street lived with the constant worry of when the next explosion might occur. Termite looked at his father’s refusal to take any guff off of anyone, and applied that knowledge to every classroom, playground, and street. He learned only one way to deal with conflict - hurt people.

The family’s home life revolved around Bill’s deep vacillation between Christ and scotch. Sobriety lasted for long periods of time, even more than a year, and brought positive changes in the family. When the church doors opened, all five Watkins were there. Bible meetings in the home, pot-luck suppers, father-led prayers around the kitchen table – they were the model of a Christian family. At times it was a bit intense, such as when Bill removed the television from the home for an extended period, calling it the “Devil’s work.” Overall, however, it was great, because Bill without the effects of alcohol was a wonderful dad and husband. The family rhythm was relaxed; no one had to worry about an impending violent tirade.

On a day like any other, that rhythm was shattered, without any foreshadowing of its coming. Bill’s drinking engulfed him suddenly and completely – a bottle of Scotch a day mixed with milk accompanied with a steady stream of beer. Bible studies were cancelled and church stopped completely. As Wanda reflected, “Bill took his eye off God and turned it to man.” The house on Joliet Street took on a dark hue.

The sound of his truck in the driveway no longer meant “Dad’s home,” it meant “Watch out!” The slightest irritation brought an unbuckling of his belt and lashings on the nearest son or daughter’s legs. Liquor made him mean. His children paid for any comment made by a customer or employee hours earlier at work.

The family rode the binge out, but the costs were high. Welts on Termite’s legs made him even more eager to fight every kid at school. When the drinking stopped and the church going began anew, it brought confusion in Termite’s mind. Church was a place to go, to see friends, to play pranks on old ladies. Christ was in Bill’s heart again, but there was no room for him in his son’s.

Bill, seemingly unable to change his own destructive path, was determined that Termite would not follow in his footsteps. Finding a sport that Termite could excel in was his solitary solution to keeping him out of trouble, and now two men had advised that boxing might be it. Termite ran in from the field and, though he sure didn’t know much about boxing, figured it had to be more fun than baseball. After all, the only time he came alive in baseball was when a fight broke out and the dugout emptied.

After practice, Joe Dove and the three boys met Bill and Termite two streets over at the Watkins’ garage. Bill’s garage was unique to the neighborhood. Needing space to store exterminating equipment, he had transformed it into a three- car garage that had more square footage than the family’s small frame house. Termite’s uncertainty about what exactly was going to transpire showed in his darting blue eyes – eyes that traveled from Bill, to Joe, to the boys, to an equipment bag.

Pulling the gloves out of the bag, Randy and the twins smelled blood. Termite pushed his small hands into the huge 16-ounce gloves, called pillows for their size, and shuffled his feet into the center of the make shift ring. “Time!” was called. Ronald, one of the twins, tapped his gloves together and moved in. Swinging his fists like a windmill, Termite was wide open. A brick slammed against Termite’s right cheek. Stunned by the pain, Termite swung furiously to ward off the attacks. More and more punches landed on Termite’s belly and face. Desperately, he tried to save himself and actually felt his glove hitting flesh on a couple of occasions, but Ronald just kept punching him. Exhaustion set in after thirty seconds, and a panicked voice in his head asked how he was going to get himself out of this situation alive.

In the background, he heard Mr. Dove and his dad yelling instructions at him. “Get your hands up!” “Keep fighting!” The muscles in his small arms were so tired he could barely lift the gloves. Finally, “Time!” was called and the relentless barrage of punches ceased. Termite bit back the tears. He had too much pride to embarrass his father. His face pounded, but it was over.

Termite slumped against the garage wall trying to catch his breath, thankful that the ordeal was over. Lifting his head, he saw Ronald taking off the gloves and handing them quite deliberately to his twin who had a certain look of “Now it’s my turn to kill him” on his face. Both twins outweighed Termite by twenty pounds and had ample boxing experience, but Rodney was the superior boxer of the two. Stunned by the fact that he had to endure this again, “Time!” was again called and sixty seconds dragged into an eternity as he tried to defend himself.

An onslaught of rhythmic punches hit their target – his face - he was sure that he was being beaten to death. He tried to recall moves that his older brother Billy had used on him, but the window in his brain slammed shut. Even the sounds of Mr. Dove and his dad were barely audible at this point. The only sound he wanted to hear was “Time!” His young body was aching and exhausted, and he made less and less contact with his opponent; his punches had no effect at all on Rodney. His opponent simply brushed them away like gnats buzzing near his face. The end of this sixty-second round left Termite disoriented and numb, and his brain did not want to face the reality of the pattern in place. There was still one more boxer to fight.

Time is a tricky thing; sixty seconds of resting seemed like a heartbeat. Sixty seconds of having the dog beat out of you was seemingly without end. Mr. Dove’s son, Randy, had a reputation in the neighborhood as a tough guy and an excellent boxer, and was over a head taller than Termite. Pain was replaced by fear as Termite saw Randy waiting for him in the center of the garage. Randy was a “head-buster”, a term Termite would hear later in the boxing world. His cheeks, his nose, the sides of his head took blow after blow. Regardless of the beating, no matter what injuries he had to sustain, Termite refused to go down to the garage floor. He covered his face the best he could and took the butt whipping from Randy. When “Time!” finally rang out, Termite, at least relieved that Mr. Dove didn’t have more boys in his truck, rested against the wall. After a few moments of silence, Mr. Dove proudly proclaimed “Bill, I think he will make it!” Termite wasn’t sure what exactly he would make besides a punching bag, but his dad nodded in agreement.

Termite was unsure of his prospects at this sport. Baseball, for all the boredom it had for him, at least didn’t get him killed. But the decision was made. He climbed into his dad’s truck and they followed Mr. Dove on a fifteen minute drive to one of the toughest areas in downtown Houston. His face, chest, and arms throbbed as they drove in silence to a boxing facility called Red Shield gym.

Winos leaned against the outside walls of the Red Shield gym, where Termite was to be weighed in for a tournament the very next night. Billowing clouds of cigarette smoke poured out into the street when they opened the door; it was soon replaced by the smell of stale sweat a few steps later.

Termite took his place at the back of the long weigh-in line. Most of the other boys stripped some articles of clothing to lessen their weight; Termite kept his on to add whatever ounces he could. He could hear numbers being called out: one hundred ten pounds, one hundred forty-two pounds, one hundred sixty pounds. The Red Shield gym was primarily for underprivileged downtown kids to have a place to box, so it was mostly populated with teenage boys. But they were big teenage boys, and Termite’s stomach churned as the line moved closer to the scales and he spotted the bloodstains on the canvas of the ring. “Name?” he was asked. “Termite Watkins,” the voice cracked out. He held his breath hoping that he would not be asked the question he was always asked about the origin of his name. Red Shield gym was not the place to disclose that an exterminator who worked with his dad, when seeing the new baby at the hospital, remarked, “He looks like a little Termite.” “Sixty-five pounds” was broadcast loudly as he stepped off of the scale. In reality, boxers just kept boxing. In his mind; however, it was the weight heard ‘round the world. At least Termite was tougher-sounding than his given name – Maurice.

The next day, Termite played sandlot football all day long, but the thought of having a fight after the tail whipping he’d received in the garage was always present. After dinner, Termite and his dad headed for the gym for his first fight. There would be three rounds of sixty seconds apiece. Termite had the fresh knowledge of just how long three minutes of getting beaten was.

Arriving at Red Shield, Termite’s stomach had settled to the point that he could look around the gym. There was one ring on the floor, metal chairs scattered about, speed bags, heavy bags, and kids jumping rope. Termite was handed gloves and a mouthpiece and told to go into the ring with his opponent, a Latino fighter. With no training to rely upon, he fought like he had on the playground at school, with wild, angry, windmill swings. Fortunately, his opponent had somewhat the same style, but still won the bout. After an unexpected win against the next kid who obviously hadn’t had as much playground training, Termite faced the same Latino opponent who soundly beat him again.

Riding home from the third fight, Termite’s head pulsated. Frustration welling in him, he looked across at his dad in the cab of the truck and said, “Dad, the only whipping I’ve ever gotten worse than that was from you. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to have someone show me what to do so that I don’t get beat anymore.” Bill nodded in agreement. Termite did not lose again for the next sixty-five fights.

Excerpted from Termite by Suzy Pepper, Copyright © 2005, self-published. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.


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