By SCOTT GRABER
It is Saturday morning and it’s early — 5 a.m. — and I’m drinking my first cup of coffee. It is my intent to spend part of the day in the yard with Joe Morrall, and I know that if we are to get any mowing, mulching or leaf blowing accomplished it’s got to get done before 10. It’s got to get done by then because we have descended into our season of heat and despair. We’ve descended into Purgatory.
But this morning I’ve got the Wall Street Journal, which features a book review of a forthcoming title called “Smokin’ Joe,” which is about Joe Frazier — Beaufort’s native son.
Right after I moved to town I went to work for a law firm called Dowling, Dowling, Sanders and Dukes — then the second-largest law firm in South Carolina. While I was there Joe Frazier decided he was going to buy his mother a plantation in Beaufort County.
I had grown up watching the Friday Night Fights on television — Archie Moore, Jersey Joe Walcott, Floyd Patterson and Sugar Ray Robinson as presented by Gillette Blue Blades. And I made certain that when Smokin’ Joe was in the office, for whatever reason, I was also in the house.
But it would be an exaggeration to say that we were friends. I think I might have helped with the documents, maybe not, but in the end I did get a signed photograph, which I have to this day.
My friend Bernie Schein had a closer, better relationship with Joe Frazier.
It’s hard to imagine the corner grocery stores that once inhabited almost every block in downtown Beaufort. Yes, Beaufort had it’s A&P, and a Piggly Wiggly for its gentry, but corner groceries often owned by recently arrived Jewish people, served a commercial and social function. Bernie’s father, Morris Schein, owned Schein’s Grocery on Bladen Street.
By the time Bernie was 5 years old he was working behind the counter. And at noon, when his father was eating his “dinner” at their nearby home, Bernie was alone in the store. One day Joe Frazier, then 5, came into the grocery and bought a Milky Way candy bar. Bernie smiled, and was courteous, because his father, Morris, had taught him to treat their customers, black or white, with courtesy. But, wait, I’ll let Bernie tell his own story.
“In fact, it was in this neighborhood, as I so frequently boasted to Pat (Conroy) and anyone else who would listen, that I whipped Joe Frazier’s ass. Yep, Joe Frazier, the late great nemesis of Muhammed Ali. Joe and I were both about 5 then, two skinny little kids. He lived just down the street from daddy’s store and he would come in Saturday morning for a Coke and a Milky Way. We were playing outside behind the store, and we got into a little tussle over one of those Milky Ways. I was trying to get him to ‘half’ it with me, after which, defeated and humiliated, he stood up, looked directly in my eyes — I’lll never forget it — pointed his finger at me, and said ‘You better watch out, Bernie Schein, because one of these days I’m going to be the heavyweight champion of the world.’ ”
We will never really know what actually happened that day in 1948. There was nothing reportable or remarkable about this post-WWII scrap between two “skinny little kids,” but my friend Bernie tells this and other stories in his soon-to-be-published book, “Pat Conroy—Our Lifelong Friendship.”
Bernie Schein and Pat Conroy were friends. Lifelong friends. And Bernie tells the story of that uneven, up-and-down friendship with candor. He tells about the Beaufort years culminating in the Daufuskie trial and Pat’s departure; the Atlanta years when Pat ascended into celebrity; and the events that led to their years-long estrangement. And some will wonder why Bernie is parsing out this relationship for the world to see.
Writing down the details of a friendship helps one understand the elements of that friendship. Remembering the meals, road trips and the late-night conversations is hard. But in the end we all want to isolate the underlying facts for the important, essential relationships in our lives. Why did I love this guy? Was my affection returned? How did he shape my life? Did I shape his?
“Pat Conroy—Our Lifelong Friendship” will be available on Sept. 3, and you’ll be able to read the story and decide for yourself whether you believe Bernie Schein whipped Smokin’ Joe.