I think I was 13 at the time. Sure, I can do a bit of research and find out exactly how old I was, but I’ll go with 13. Washington was filled with peanut souvenirs and some memories of the Bicentennial celebrations were to be seen. We were exploring the Smithsonian and having a great time. It was magical. My brother and I helped some Soviet citizens (diplomats?) with a kiosk demonstrating that wild device of the future that would some day be called an “ATM”.
People started whispering and then yelling. “He’s here, he’s here!” “What is he doing here?!” “I can’t believe he is here!” Who? Several years before my sister saw Robert Redford from a distance while visiting DC. He was filming a movie called “All of the President’s Men”. Could it be someone as famous?
Everyone was making a mad rush for the steps, but my brother and I saw an elevator. I jumped on it and pushed the lower level. Now here my memory gets foggy. Part of me wants to believe that the door opened and then immediately shut, giving us a quick view of the celebrity. However, there is another part of me that thinks that when we hit the bottom floor the elevator went straight back up without opening. Memory is such a funny thing, isn’t it?
Either way, we ended up downstairs at the back of a surging crowd. In the front, head and shoulders above the crowd and standing against the elevator we had ridden was The Greatest. My memory so much wants to have seen him from 5 feet away, but I know for sure I did get a good look at him towering above the crowds. Yes, he was Mohamed Ali and he floated like a butterfly but stung like a bee. This was at the very height of his fame.
The mid 1970s were the most optimistic times of my life. The 1990s were great, sure. And some would argue the 1980s, though that was mostly a hyper-patriotic feeling while the optimism was reserved mostly for the upper classes. Pictures of the ’80s are of Yuppies. Pictures of the’70s are of common folk. We had been to the Moon and were building space stations. Everyone knew we’d be on Mars by the end of the 1980s and have a permanent space station on the Moon by the end of the century. For the first time normal people owned computers. Racism seemed to be melting away as kids like me watched Soul Train and cheered African American sports stars. The Female Revolution was happening and everyone was sure an Equal Rights amendment was around the corner. Later in the 1970s stagflation happened, dampening most of the dreams, destroying that earlier optimism. Then the success of the 1980s as we added jobs and ended stagflation was at the cost of all of the social gains of the ’60s and ’70s. I don’t mean to get political, but I do want to emphasis that as far as I can see, no other time in my life was even half as optimistic as the mid 1970s.
Mohamed Ali was the face of that optimism. He was the face of the mid 1970s. That was our future. Yes, a lot of his swagger played into the idea of the “ME Generation”, and yet he was generous, as the ’70s was far more compassionate than the selfish ’80s that followed. He showed you could dream big and fight your fight, trash talking your opponents, while still holding out a hand to help others less fortunate, a lesson that was lost in later decades.
Of course the loss of some of my rock star heroes that have occurred this year has made a much bigger dent in my psyche than this sports/pop culture hero, but it is a big loss. Some of our big dreams died with him. We are farther away from Mars today than we were then. Racism is more apparent, more entrenched in the system, than it was then. Yes, those dreams have peeked out, but have they been made as visible as they were with this man who stood head and shoulders above everyone around him?
So here is a rare tribute by me to a sports’ star. May his memory live forever.