Leavitt: Remembering a great American in a season of drought

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Irv Leavitt

My friend Jimmy Warner was less than five feet tall, had only one eye, scant education and no money in the bank. But he was a great American.

Jimmy served in the World War II Navy, but he did all of his fighting in a boxing ring. That shouldn’t be discounted, however, because many of the guys he fought were a head taller.

He was a successful Navy boxer, but he wasn’t good enough to compete after the war, he told me. He wound up driving a cab most of his life.

Every cab he drove had to have a right-side mirror, years before they were standard equipment. One of his eyes had been ruined in a fight, so the second mirror was a condition of his driver’s license.

Despite his glass eye, Jimmy was a good-looking man who always kept his snow-white hair short and neat. He weighed about 110 pounds, soaking wet.

He usually dressed in polo shirts tucked into jeans with a hand-ironed crease. When it was cold, he wore a plain blue waist-length jacket like the ones sold in uniform stores. My teenage daughter has it now, but she’s grown out of it. I won’t let her throw it away.

Jimmy was one of the more-polite men I’ve ever known, often shy of expressing his opinions, for fear of offense. It must sometimes have been hard for him to be polite, because he lived the tavern life. But he would let a loudmouth speak his piece, and then even let him throw a punch.

“I never started a fight in my life,” he used to say. “But I’ve finished a lot of them.”

This is the way Americans used to act in the movies, if nowhere else. It’s also the vision I used to have of America: We don’t start the trouble. We clean it up.

When Jimmy was about 70, and coming home late one night to the rabbit-warren apartment building where he lived, he saw what seemed to be a guy from the neighborhood sexually assaulting a woman on the darkened stairs.

Jimmy squinted with his one good eye to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing.

“Get on your feet,” he told the much younger man.

Even rapists deserve a fair fight, he told me later. “I don’t change the way I do things on account of how other people do things,” he said.

And yes, this is that kind of story: the guy stood up, towering over Jimmy, and then was put down.

Jimmy had a good sucker punch.

It takes real courage to live a life like Jimmy’s. When I think of him — and I think of him often — my thoughts stray to other people I’ve heard of who had that kind of intestinal fortitude.

I sometimes picture Nathan Hale, caught by the British as an American spy in 1776, saying on the way to the hangman, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Did he really say that? No one alive can be sure. But I have confidence in this much: Witnesses said he walked to his execution under his own power. He didn’t have to be dragged, and he didn’t wobble. Only 21 years old, and he knew that if his short life was to have meaning for his young country, he had to have a good death.

Generations were inspired by his example of how an American should behave in times of stress, and tried to live up to it.

Not so much anymore.

“Right now, Republican leaders, both the Senate and the House, are holding back because they’re terrified about what happens if they speak out,” Colin Powell said recently. “What, will they lose a primary?”

Standing up for the truth and then losing a primary — which means losing a job — isn’t as easy as the former secretary of state lets on. Powell himself misinformed the United Nations on the way to war in 2003, and to this day blames it all on bad intelligence, and not his own failure to separate fact from fiction.

When Jimmy Warner was in his 70s, he had a few accidents, and his cab’s owner told him he was through. He said he didn’t think it was fair, and maybe he was right. But the next day, instead of looking for another cab to drive, he said the most responsible thing he could do was retire. He spent the rest of his life eking out a living on Social Security.

If Jimmy had ever wanted to run for office, I would have been the first to sign his petition. I know that if he had felt compelled by conscience to risk his position, he would have done so without hesitation.

His jacket is still hanging in the hall closet. It’ll stay there until we find someone big enough to wear it.