There is something about boxing that captures the essence of being human. Boxing is both brutal and graceful, painful and magificent, terrible and triumphant. The same can be said about a life in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside. Sitting on a cold bench in Pigeon Park, Ron Wilson knows he is in the most beautiful city in the world. He knows what it’s like to live the high life, experience glory and feel the sun against his face. He also knows what it’s like to get knocked out, hit rock bottom, and sleep on a cold park bench in sub zero weather. And yet, despite the punches life has thrown him, Ron Wilson is my kind of champion.
You see, Ron Wilson, is the first professional athlete my two young boys have met face to face. Today, they got to shake Ron’s hand, learn how to box, watch youtube clips of archived boxing fights and hear the stories from a legend. My boys have a new friend, and are beaming ear to ear, because today, they decided to join me in our first journey as a family, going Beyond HELLO.
As we drove downtown, the boys asked me repeatedly “Mom – how will we pick the homeless person to take to lunch?” I answered them just as I have answered adults who have asked the same. I told them that I do not pick people to join us, I let them find us. As my husband and I walked towards Pigeon Park with our two sons, I wondered if the right person would appear. Seconds later, a man ran up to me and told me he wanted me to have his backpack. He was insistent that I take it. As soon as I obliged, he left immediately, leaving me close to Pigeon Park and now equipped with an empty but nice backpack. It turned out to be the right tool for conversation. As I approached a man on one bench, I asked if he could use a new backpack. His eyes lit up and he assured me he could. I offered our lunch invitation but he declined. As I turned away, my nine year old son Jaden had spotted a man one bench over who he knew was the one. He asked me to step closer and say hello. I did, and to our delight, Ron said he was hungry and eagerly accepted our invitation to lunch.
As we walked towards Save on Meats we all introduced ourselves, and Ron commented on the cold, and what it was like to sleep outside last night. Cole, my youngest son (age 7) quickly tried to relate and told Ron that sometimes he likes to camp in the backyard. Ron smiled and together we suggested that would be better in warmer weather. My husband Shawn asked Ron where he was from and almost immediately, Ron began to share his life story: he was born in Vancouver, but left to live in California for 30 years, before returning to his home city.
As we entered Save on Meats, the boys excitedly picked out a table with stools. Shawn, Cole and Jaden sat on one side of pub style table and Ron and I sat on the other. Together we ordered burgers, fries, onion rings and milkshakes as we slowly defrosted from the outside temperatures.
As we waited for lunch, Ron continually thanked us for taking him out. His voice was humble, soft spoken and rich. His eyes twinkled in the warm air, and you could see that weight was lifted as he engaged in youthful conversation with my boys. Ron agreed with Jaden that he should avoid my request for a much needed haircut, and he shrugged his shoulders and tilted his head in a smile when we talked about how much the boys hate vegetables.
As we ate our lunch, Ron spoke of his life story. He grew up in Burnaby, attending McPherson Junior High and Burnaby South Secondary. We quickly realized he was at Burnaby South at the same time as my mom, Shawn’s dad and their families. Shortly after high school, Ron became a professional boxer. He began his career in 1967 with the South Burnaby Boxing Club. After competing in the BC Golden Gloves tournament, he headed south to California. He competed as a professional boxer, earning up to $5000 per fight. He got to see the world, competing in auditoriums throughout the USA and Australia. Together with his wife, he had two children, a boy and girl. He was living American Dream as a pro-athlete and he was having success. He fought in over 500 rounds, winning 0ver 70 % of his fights. In this 1972 video clip, he loses to
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lEGfnzxOZ9M Chris Finnegan – though 42 years later, Ron suggests it was a controversial ruling – he still believes he won the fight. Ron took a moment to watch the fight via YouTube on my phone – but passed the phone back after a minute. Perhaps because he had the visual already – perhaps because it was a painful memory.
Unlike most conversations of Beyond HELLO, I decided not to go deeper. I did not need to ask questions to understand that life had knocked Ron down a couple times for him to find his way to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I asked if he had contact with his children. He said his son would be 44 now and his daughter 39, but explained they don’t want to hear from him. I told him I am 39 as well. He paused for a second, smiled, and said “then you can be my daughter.” I smiled back and said “well that’s perfect because I don’t know my dad – so you can be my dad.” He liked that.
As we finished our lunch, the boys asked if they could take a picture with their new friend. Ron’s eyes lit up again, and he quickly put his hands in position, ready for his boxer’s photograph. The boys giggled and learned how to put their fists up too. As I took a couple of snapshots, the three of them had a great time.
When it was time to go, Ron thanked us again and shook all of our hands. He looked me in the eye and said “you are a blessing.” Then as he slipped out the restuarant doors, the boys turned to the glass window and tapped the glass, wanting to have one final look at their celebrity. Ron playfully tapped back and walked away with a youthful bounce in his step. Today, Ron was once again, a professional boxer.
A few moments later, after paying the bill, we walked as a family heading back to our car. Ron was with some friends, back on his bench in Pigeon Park. Although it had only been minutes, Ron laughed and said “hey – great to see you guys!” He introduced us to friends, thanked us one more time and this time stood up to give me a hug. As we agreed to meet again, he said three words: “I love you.” Maybe it was for his 39 year old daughter. Maybe it was for me. Either way, in that moment, it was right. As we stood in Pigeon Park, we felt the light in Vancouver’s darkest neighbourhood. Together, Shawn, Jaden, Cole, Ron and I had gone Beyond HELLO.
Driving home, we reflected as a family. Shawn loved the experience, making note that he loved it a hundred times more than he had expected. Never had he entertained the thought of meeting a pro-athlete on Hastings Street. Jaden loved how friendly Ron was, and how much he could tell that Ron had liked Cole and him. “Mom, it’s nice to know that it’s not always the way it seems.” Cole added “Mom – I want to see him again – because I can tell he has a heart and we get to hear interesting stories.”
We drove home, knowing that each of us is better for the experience, and knowing that Ron will turn 65 in two weeks time. I have a sneaking suspicion our family will be driving back to that park bench to meet our favourite boxer, and wish our new friend and champion a very happy birthday.