When must we admit we’re getting old? That’s a quandary I’ve faced too many times, a dilemma that has always baffled me.
I remember when I could proudly look back 20 years and recall the details of sports events. I called it experience. Soon it became easy to reminisce about things that occurred 30 years earlier. More experience, I said. Then it was 40 years. Soon it was 50 years. Nowadays – holy cow – I find myself remembering details from 60 years ago.
I think the 60-year mark, a pretty big one, became the new benchmark when our high school graduation class of 1956 began making plans for our reunion this summer.
Just days after that get-together, the 2016 Summer Olympics opened in Rio. That had me focusing again on the big 60 because this year’s world athletic showcase signifies that six decades have passed since a Pictou Country boxer competed at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia. I can remember his appearance. Still just experience?
The fighter made local headlines even before stepping into the ring because he was the county’s first Olympian in 44 years. The first since a guy competed in the hop, step and jump in 1912.
The boxer was from Stellarton, and he never thought about being an Olympian while growing up and participating in just about any sport around.
He was Les (Babe) Mason.
Les was not unlike all kids around the coal mining town. He played outdoor hockey with his younger brother Gun and neighbourhood youngsters who wanted to join in.
They got to experience the sport in a real arena when Stellarton Memorial Rink opened. He was into baseball because two uncles, Harry and Lonnie Reekie, played the game well, Harry well enough to be a Stellarton Albion in the Halifax and District Baseball League.
But an Olympian boxer? Babe never envisioned it.
In his early teens, though, Babe began going to the gym with fighters like Westville’s Jackie Hayden. He got interested enough to do some training. But fellows his age didn’t get opportunities to fight.
At 16, he joined the Canadian Army and left for Camp Borden.
There he began working out in the gym, but had no plans to fight. One night he was in bed resting when a coach came in and asked if he’d like a real fight. Babe said yes and was told to get his gear.
Babe fought that night and won.
Things happened quickly. He began appearing in different competitions, and he began winning fights. Before he knew it, he was heading for the Olympic trials in Montreal.
Only six fighters would represent Canada in Melbourne. Babe was the first one to qualify.
Prior to that, Mason had only one brush with the Olympics. In 1948, figure skater Barbara Ann Scott won the Olympic gold medal and, during a tour, came to Stellarton with an ice show.
Babe got to see her.
“Here was me, as a kid, going and sneaking into the rink and watching her. She was just like a god or something.”
Eight years later, he was an Olympian.
“I’m in the Olympics myself. It was just hard to believe you could go that far that fast. You never ever dreamed you would have the opportunity.”
“It was just unreal,” he told me many years afterwards. “You just can’t describe it, really. It was such a tremendous feeling.”
He went to Australia truly believing he could win a medal. He was in top shape and he was confident. Among his fights, he had beaten the gold medal winner at the British Empire Games and he had beaten the Canadian fighter who competed in the Olympics four years earlier. There was only one loss on his record.
His first Olympic fight was against a fighter he described as “a tall, skinny South African who had only one punch.”
He knew he had support from Stellarton, receiving a telegram that hundreds of Pictonians signed for 25 cents apiece. It was wonderful. Everything was wonderful.
But his dream was shattered when the skinny opponent beat him.
“The biggest thing that you can’t understand is the disappointment when I lost. I wasn’t used to losing. At that moment, it was the most disappointing thing I had ever done in my life.”
More than 40 years later, he and I were in a local coffee shop and he was giving a different summation.
“I didn’t know enough then. I really didn’t know how to box. I could fight, but I couldn’t box.”
By then, Mason’s Olympic experience was well back in the rear view mirror.
“There was no television. You can imagine everybody being around the radio, listening to the fight, the only guy from Pictou County. And sports was big around here then, the ball and the hockey and things like that. But being at the Olympics, that was something people from Ontario or British Columbia or the States did, not people from Stellarton or Nova Scotia.”
But it was something Les (Babe) Mason did.
There was something else he could claim from it. He was the first person from this province to represent Canada at the Olympics in boxing. The very first.
Though his boxing career didn’t last long after Melbourne, he spent something like 20 years as an official, coach and referee.
Babe loved being active.
He won national badminton championships, he participated in volleyball championships, he was a breaststroke champion in swimming, he won cross county titles, he played basketball, he was a track and field official at a Pan-American Games, he was in charge of the boxing training facilities at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
But he couldn’t drop the label that he was an Olympian.
I remember his fight. I listened to it on the radio – because we didn’t have that modern invention called television.
So yes, I guess I’m getting old.