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Woody’s Epitaph


Harry Buschman

Chapter from "Westlake Village"

"Dutch" Onderdonk was the champion head butter of Frog Hollow from 1937 to 1941. He was six feet two inches tall in his stocking feet and weighed two hundred and seventeen pounds. His five year reign as head butting champion of North Hempstead was cut short by World War Two. Had the war not intervened, Woody Morgan sincerely believes "Dutch" would still wear the crown.

In those days Westlake Village was known as "Frog Hollow" -- a far more appropriate name in my book than Westlake Village -- (there are no lakes to be west of). With very few exceptions, most of the folks who live here are ignorant of our roots, and only Woody Morgan has any recollection of "Dutch" Onderdonk and the head butting tournaments that thrived in the thirties.

"Butting" contests were a prominent part of our Independence Day celebrations in those innocent years before the war -- before the computer, before television, before almost anything we take for granted today. We were an Irish community then, rich in the children of immigrants from the famine, and given an ale or two, almost any Irishman would bare his head and butt his neighbor -- just for the hell of it.

We are more genteel today. Today we play badminton and croquet if we play anything at all. The agony and ecstasy of physical contact is enjoyed vicariously by overweight men eating cheese doodles from deep within the cushioned recesses of their sofas while they watch armored gladiators play football on television. Head butting, like bare knuckle boxing, is taboo.

The rules were relatively simple. They had to be. The men who competed were simple folk and they grew simpler the longer they played the game. Two men stood in a ten foot circle with his hands on his hips and butted his opponent into insensibility. The sickening crack of skull against skull was similar to the sound of a well stroked masse shot at the billiard table. I am told that "Dutch" was master of the side thrust and the full frontal smash which often turned his opponent's face to jelly.

Woody Morgan remembers him well, "Him and me," he said, "we tended all the coal furnaces along Westwood Avenue. Nobody had oil or gas in them days. You stoked a furnace 'twenny-for ars' a day."

I hunted Woody down at the Veteran's Memorial Hospital on the East End. He is the only living soul who knew Dutch in the days before the war. Woody is completely bald, and he explains it by saying that all stokers went bald at an early age. "It's the heat from the open fire doors," he says, "kills the folly cules. It done "Dutch" mighty good though, hair don't do a butter no good -- what a butter needs is a head like a polished stone."

Before going out to see Woody, I checked on the few newspaper photographs in the library, and "Dutch," indeed, had a head like a polished stone. He had a luxurious mustache too, and a peculiar asymmetry to his eyes (one seemed higher than the other). The photos of the Independence Day match of 1939 show "Dutch," naked from the waist up, standing over the prostrate body of a "Turk" Nagurski. "Dutch" appeared to have a freely flowing wound to the side of his head, but I wouldn't have bet a dime on the future of "Turk" Nagurski. Woody, a much smaller man, was standing to the right of Dutch with a pitcher of beer in his left hand.

Woody sat quietly in his wheelchair staring at the dusty patch of light on the wardroom wall. "It ain't the same no more." He was talking to himself as much as talking to me. "It ain't man-to-man like it was back then. Only one man walked away from a fight. The loser laid there. The winner got the free beers and the crowd to walk home with. Mebbe somebody came by later to see if the loser was still there -- but maybe not. Mighta laid there 'til he woke up, or mebbe never woke up at all."

"You getting tired, Woody," I asked him.

"A little," he mumbled. Then he quickly added, "I don't get many people comin' out to see me here. I just ain't used to people comin' t'call, I guess. Don't go yet -- it's nice thinkin' about Dutch again." He looked back at the wall. "Y'know he's gone dont'cha?"

"Yes, I know, Woody. In the war, at the bridge to Remagen."

"Was that where it was? I forgot I guess. I was in the Pacific -- from Guadalcanal to Subic Bay. Never saw Dutch in the war .... was you in the war?"

The question all veterans ask all men in one way or another. "Was you in the war?" If you were, you were a part of the fraternity -- allowed to sit at the table and live it all over again. You might forget the names of your children, but you would never forget the names of the towns you fought for, or the names of the men you fought with. You didn't go back to see the towns again, but the dead often came back to you and haunted your sleep, or when your mind wandered and left the door to the war partly open.

Woody sighed deeply, and the sound brought me back from wherever my thoughts had taken me. Both of us had wandered back to a page in our past that, from time to time, seems more substantial than the present.

"I come back here after Subic Bay," he continued. "I left my kneecap there. That's when I heard about Dutch -- never thought a land mine could stop a man like Dutch. There was fourteen of us from our town who didn't make it back home. 'Cept for their families, nobody give a hoot about them, but their name's on the plaque on the Legion Hall wall. There was none of 'em could hold a candle to old Dutch, lemme tell you."

"That's why I'm here, Woody. I'm writing an article for the 'Guardian,' see. Frog Hollow will be two hundred years old next year. A lot of people, big people -- like Dutch, did time there. I'd like to get them into the article somehow, you know?"

"Two hunnert years, y'say?" His eyes brightened a bit. "Geez I seen eighty of them -- that ain't so far from bein' half, is it? What can I do for'ya buddy?"

"Well, Woody, I've got a good line on all the old families from Frog Hollow, The Wicks, the potato farms, the old Hollow Leg Saloon with the fancy house upstairs, and the Grogans who ran the town from the Post Office. But Dutch's name pops up from time to time, and you're the only man alive who still remembers him. That makes you special, Woody."

For the next two hours, Woody told me all he remembered of Dutch. It was a marvelously detailed description of life in a small town that lost fourteen men in a cause none of them quite understood. They came from fourteen families who had no idea where Remagen bridge, or Subic Bay, or Guadalcanal were. From time to time they would open the door and look in at the emptiness of the room in which their son had slept and wondered if the restless surf of the Pacific or the numberless white crossed cemeteries of France would be a proper home for them.

Woody had forgotten nothing. He chronicled twenty seven of the butting contests Dutch had won during the four years of his reign. He could remember each devastating lunge and parry until every bloody conflict was ended. They all ended the same, there were no draws, no decisions -- only one man walked away.

"He was losin' somethin' towards the end," Woody recalled. "Mebbe it told on him. I'm older now, y'know .... and when I look back, I think I know why." He looked at me sharply. "A man's head ain't made for buttin', I mean he wasn't thinkin' too clear towards the end."

"The army accepted him, Woody. He must have been okay."

"What time is it?" He asked me. "They come around with juice at four thirty."

"It's almost four thirty, Woody. I'll be going soon."

"I'm glad y'came. Broke up my day, y'know? What was that about the army takin' him?"

"Oh -- I meant he must have been, er .... all right upstairs I mean, for the army to accept him."

"Yeah? Army ain't all that partial -- I look at it another way. War's a way of weedin' out." He tilted his head sideways and considered the light on the wardroom wall. "It did him a favor I think, the war I mean. Took him at his best -- he'd a been a waste if he come back. I don't know about them other thirteen names on the Legion wall -- they was good fellas I guess. But, like I said, war's a way of weedin' out, and it takes the good with the bad -- and leaves the rest behind"

It was a parting shot and it resonated deep inside me, and even though it was something I told myself so many times, it was not what I wanted to hear from Woody. I hoped to leave the hospital on an upbeat note I could use for the article. Instead, Woody had shown me the pock-marked face of war in all its ugly ramifications. My simple schoolboy romanticism was suddenly shattered -- just as shattered as the skulls of Dutch's twenty seven opponents.

I stopped by the nurse's ward station to hand them my pass and thank them for letting me in to see Woody. "He's losing it," the attendant tapped the side of his head. "Not much left, y'know -- days go by and he doesn't make any sense at all."

Out in the enormous parking lot, a cold biting wind blustered in from the northeast. Sand and grit, paper and plastic containers blew up in troubled gusts. I had great difficulty finding the old Chevy. When I did, I sat inside like a fetus in its third trimester. I asked myself if I wanted to venture into this new century. Would it be a newer and more efficient model of the old one -- or the one before that? "War's a way of weedin' out."

I had lived through wars without end. Born into my father's war -- fought in my own war, and stood as a curious bystander in countless other wars that meant nothing to me. A century of war! Millions of men, denied the chance of fulfilling themselves. "War's a way of weedin' out."

I had searched in the past for Dutch Onderdonk. In doing so I found a man who wrote the epitaph for the twentieth century.

©Harry Buschman 1999

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