The Sporting Life
“What do you mean? I love it.”
Obviously a trick question.
I know. The East West Game airs weeks before football’s de facto national holiday and involves college all stars playing for charity; whereas the Super Bowl throws big bucks at pros who are presented as if contestants for American Idol. Lots and lots of money is at thrown and not just at the players. I’ve wondered if some goes to the refs to miscall a crucial play, the outcome of which might help gambling interests.
Sorry, I take that back. People in professional athletics do not take bribes. They do not gamble. They are not addicted to drugs. They are not rapists. They do not commit murder or adultery or bear false witness.
Still, the Super Bowl could use a little ribbing for the teen keen MTV graphics, the gaudy Vegas half time show, and all the pre-, post- and in-between hyperactive announcers, including at least one woman to prove how the network isn’t all butch.
Forty years ago when the hype was a lot more primitive, there were two independent football leagues, the National and the American, and their top teams first played against each other on January 15, 1967, in what was billed as the AFL-NFL World Championship of Football. Three years later Broadway Joe Namath added some glitz by predicting a win for his New York Jets over the more seasoned Baltimore Colts quarterbacked by Johnny Unitas. In 1970 the NFL swallowed the AFL in a merger, after which some P.R. flack christened the new NFL’s championship game Super Bowl I. That was about the time Barbara Streisand was dubbed a superstar.
But there was a time before, when the likes of John Wayne and Gary Cooper were just plain stars, and football was more about playing on spotty grass than having the Rockettes high kicking on Astro Turf. Most sports, even professional, were about the game. Now it’s about the watching, which strikes me as being comparable to the difference between sex and pornography. Participating is a lot more fun, and that is true even for the fumbling amateur, a fact to which my sporting life will most assuredly attest.
From 1961 to 1964, when the
sycamore leaves turned yellow and the Salinas
Valley wind blew them in crinkling swirls across
the grass, I could hardly sit still in a high
school class. I kept looking at the clock, wishing
for the 3:30 bell. At long last it would ring the
end of hell. Then the real day would start with the
sound of brass-tipped cleats on the cement floor of
the locker room.
I loved all of football, from blocking drills to playing, from long bus rides to other farming towns to finally getting a dollar to eat at some greasy spoon on the way home.
I played center for the King City High School Mustangs. A teammate gave me the nicknamed Shifty because the huddle forms around the center, and I was always moving around in state of vague confusion. Concussion would be the more technical term.
I was a so-so player, but my class didn’t have any great standouts on the varsity. The first game of our final season was against the worst school in the league. The surrounding town was a village compared to our metropolis of 3,000 people at the southern end of Monterey County.
We lost thirty-one, zip.
That’s when we started listening to Coach in earnest. By the second week we were still starless, but we were now a team very much aware of who was in charge—the last man in America to field a single wing offense.
We didn’t have a quarterback. A blocking back called the count. Five yards behind the center crouched a spinning back, and next to him was a running back. Usually, the ball was hiked to the spinning back. I say usually because, until I was switched to the defensive line, all I could see in the dim light were three blurry guys who were upside down. I knew that as soon as I snapped the ball there would be two defensive guards all over me, and if the opposing team had done any scouting at all, a linebacker would be attending the party.
If the spinning back got the ball, he faked to the running back or handed off. If the running back got the snap, he looked very surprised. Whoever ultimately had possession then ran behind a wall of bodies—a pulling guard, sometimes two, the blocking back, the wing back and the strong side end—as they cleared whatever territory they could at the line of scrimmage.
“Three or four yards,” Coach would tell the offense. “That’s all I ever want you to think about. Three or four yards on every play.”
In Pop Warner’s day the single wing was the cat’s meow for fancy reverses and the option of putting five receivers downfield for passes. In the late 'Forties and early 'Fifties, it experienced something of a comeback, at least among colleges, but even then variations of the T formation made it passé. In the ’Nineties some prep schools reached into the past to dust off the single wing one more time. The main reason was expressed by Vince Lombardi when asked by a wise guy: How would Packers react if Green Bay had to face a single wing? “Terrified,” pointed to the obvious. If you are used to playing only against teams whose quarterbacks stand directly over their centers, and the line of scrimmage is steps away from any handoff, the single wing would look as strange as something from the Jurassic Period, “terrifying” in the sense that you had not prepared for a Brontosaurus to come lumbering onto the field.
But in the time period in which I played, every high school in the central coastal region of California, had about ten years’ worth of preparation, making the Mustang offense something like a pre-Cambrian infestation of blue-green algae.
Oddly, Coach didn’t like reverses. He distrusted anyone throwing the ball and was downright pessimistic about anyone catching it. One joker put it, “He hates passing so much, he won’t let his wife say, ‘Pass the salt.’” Hence he sent in a new back on every play, and when the sub finally found the huddle, he would bark Coach’s instructions. They boiled down to either power left or power right.
To the defense he would say, “Gang tackling! I never want to see a single man being watched by everyone else. I want to see gang tackling!”
Added was the line coach’s Philosophy of the Helmet. “It is an aid to driving the head into a man’s guts. The head then has to slip to one side or the other of the man’s torso. Therefore the helmet keeps the ears from bleeding, or if you were any good, from being ripped from your skull. So, bull the neck, aim for the belt or lower, and remember! If my grandma would wear a helmet, she could pound any of you into the ground!”
Although we suffered a humiliating defeat in the first game, we beat the best and richest school in the league by the single touchdown scored. That would have been Carmel High. The Padres couldn’t get over how they lost 6-2 because they scored a safety in the first quarter, and while we scored the touchdown in the fourth, they blocked the conversion. What they couldn’t do was sustain momentum against a bunch of gang-tackling crazies who were worried that Granny might show up in the showers and shame us all.
We won every other game in a similar squeaker and ended up the season as co-champions with Carmel. We achieved beyond all expectations because we did what our bettors told us, contrary to what would become the motto of my generation and beyond: “Don’t trust anyone in authority.” Whenever these days I see a Volvo with an anti-authority bumper sticker, I know there are bound to be more stickers, so I look for the one that gives voting advice. That way I know who and what not to vote for, and when I go into an election both, it is with warm and fuzzy thoughts for my high school coaches.
My teammates and I each received a small, gold-plated football to commemorate our championship season. The football was suitable for pinning to a letterman’s sweater or, in my case, giving to my steady girl. After a couple of months that was the last I saw of either of them. For years afterwards I toyed with casually asking the girl’s parents if they would please beg their daughter....
I shudder now with embarrassment. My first assumption was that the girl would keep the football as some kind of precious memento. First love, second love, 50th Wedding Anniversary, what is treasure to a man is junk that needs throwing away to a woman. Then there was the assumption that, if I got the football back, I would remember wherever I stashed it for safekeeping. If that were true, I see pathetic images of myself taking it out from time to time, polishing away the tarnish and reliving what? Past glory? Youth? By their natures they are as lasting as cut flowers. When the ancient Greeks bestowed laurel crowns on their athletes, the leaves were meant to wither along with hubris.
I suppose it’s OK to retain a few things from the past, but you should stick them in same shoebox in the attic where you’re pretty sure your Boy Scout knife is too. It is definitely good to keep in mind that black widows don’t give two cents for what was important to you.
What was important to me at the end of he ’64 season was knowing that I wasn’t good enough to play college ball, and that I didn’t have he charisma to cajole twenty-two guys to come over to the back yard someday to thump around. Love had walked out of my life, and there was nothing I could do to bring her back.
Until I a sweetie in short pants crossed by path.
At the start of 1965 I was selected as an American Field Service exchange student to South Africa. For the next year I attended Michaelhuse, an Anglican boarding school high in the midlands of Natal Province. Among the many sports played at Michaelhouse, rugby caught my eye. I quickly moved from the 6thXV to the 2nd. I would never be 1stXV material, nor would I understand all the rules, but from the get-go this was loud and clear:
THE EQUIVALENT OF A LINEMAN CAN CARRY THE BALL. HE CAN EVEN SCORE WITH IT!
Tears came to my father’s eyes. He had been an amateur boxer and had a pair of 16-ounce gloves signed by Max Baer. But those gloves were nothing compared to a son who was supposedly a back.
I felt like the swill of creation. That night as I lay staring at the darkened ceiling of my bedroom and listed to the damned leaves blowing into the yard I would have to rake, I vowed that someday somehow I would intercept the pass from center and run the ball for a tie-breaking TD. And I knew that fantasy was as likely to happen as Leslie Caron, Bridget Bardot and Susannah York all wanting their way with me.
But rugby at least offered, “OK, let’s drink a keg of beer and see what happens.”
In my first game for Michaelhouse I carried the ball six times in a row, and six time was called offside, all in about a minute. I never understood why, but on the seventh attempt I dragged four opponents across the goal line to score a three-point tri. I’m sure the ref didn’t blow his whistle this time because he thought, “What’s the use with this bloody fool?”
Hey. I didn’t say any of those four guys was Babe The Blue Ox; I just said there were four of them. Come to think of it, there were five. But if you think small is to be laughed at, just remember the Lilliputians tying down Gulliver and cackling about killing him.
Rugby allowed me to attempt drop kicking the ball on the run for another three points, just like Burt Lancaster in Jim Thorpe – All American. I managed the attempt; it was just the points that eluded me.
Against a few opportunities for stardom tolerated by rugby, there was reality to consider. A team’s fifteen players are divided between forwards and backs. Backs. What else do you need to know? I was a lock forward, which made me just another piece of meat whose job was to get the ball to the backs.
One way, due to the fact that blocking another player is illegal, is to offer yourself up for being tackled as a replacement for a back’s having to dirty himself. You do have to be in possession of the ball for a short time before the fall, but usually a back is coming up fast to grab the glory.
Another way is when play action stalls and the forwards engage in a melee called a ruck. If you happen to be tackled while in possession of the ball and it doesn’t “knock on,” i.e, squirt forward, curling over the ball with your body will allow an impromptu ruck to form. In this way the other forwards from both sides can kick you at will, ostensively to get the ball to the backs.
For a moment or two the scrum looks like a huge mutant spider that doesn’t know which way to go. In the front rank of each side are two simian-like props supporting a smaller but brutish Neanderthal called a hooker. The front row looks at the ball tumbling on the ground in front of them as something that needs to be eaten or otherwise hurt. If their side of the scrum is overwhelming the other (and they are clawing and biting mightily to make sure their version of Planet of the Apes never lets Chuck Heston off the space ship), then the hooker can more easily heel or hook the ball to the back forwards.
Back forwards, such as a side’s two locks, more closely resemble Cro-Magnon Man. Whether a lock is gaining forward momentum or being screw backwards into the ground like a human tent peg, his head is meant to be firmly wedged between the pelvic girdles of one prop and the hooker, lads who won’t be taking showers until after an hour of nearly non-stop running. Stomping the ball and twisting ankles finally gets the ball to the rear of the scrum where is emerges like impacted feces. At that point the backs deem to pick it up and prance about with it.
Jock straps are the only protective gear in rugby although some forwards would sport linen headbands to keep their ears from cauliflowering with scar tissue, which is bound to happen if your head rubs against enough moving butts and hairy thighs. Without a proper helmet, I realized that leading with the head to tackle a man is not very smart.
Throwing the ball forward is illegal in rugby, so there are a lot of laterals, the backs swaying in fluid lines from one sideline to the other, a lovely sight to behold when done well. Unfortunately, the goals are at the ends of the field.
Americans would easily recognize the kickoffs to open a game, start the second half and follow goals. But this Yank had trouble comprehending the lineout. I think the ball had to go out of bounds, and a player from the team not responsible got to throw it back in bounds. Very high. Way above the heads of the forwards who were lined up facing each other, muttering about mothers and girlfriends. With shoulders and elbows some forwards would bruise and boost a teammate higher than anyone could jump on his own. At 4,000 feet above sea level other forwards played smart, took the time to catch their wind, think about past mistakes and ways to improve, and waited for the ball to come down on its own.
Coming back to earth gave me I hard time after my year in South Africa. I went to Hartnell Junior College in Salinas for a semester and let a friend talk me into playing basketball for the King City town team. The oldest members of the town team were in their mid-thirties, and every player but one had been a basketball star in high school.
I never made the cut from junior varsity to varsity, but I did set a school record for the Mustangs by fouling out in one minute and thirty seconds. This took place during the two minutes before the half when I was sent in as a sub. Within the same period I was fouled twice myself and got a chance at two free throws, both of which I missed, making for some very bad play within a very short period of time. Spectacular, really, it’s own way.
Of course, I didn’t have much court time representing the City of King, but I would suit up, do the warm up drills and watch the stands for two fifteen-year-olds to show. I was nineteen; my pal, twenty or twenty-one. Nothing like statutory rape occurred, but plying the girls with Olympia put us in the ballpark of contributing to the delinquency of minors. Fortunately in those days basketball was short winter filler between football season and track & field. No telling if we could have controlled dangerous hormones if we had a longer season in which to take weekly trips to park on the beet dump overlooking the Southern Pacific tracks.
I am now heartily ashamed of my actions, but an athlete does have his fans, and he does have his weaknesses, and it took me a number of years to develop a taste for better beer.
When the fall of 1966 broke out, I entered Stanford University as a freshman in the Class of 1970. I had been turned down for admission the year earlier. Somehow this time the record of my going to Hartnell and the resulting transcript with “D”s in Trig and Chemistry never found their way to the Stanford Admissions Office. In Stanford’s math placement test I scored second lowest of the 1,200-plus students in my class, so I had re-learn everything I took in high school, going to bonehead math five afternoons a week for no credit. I didn’t stop there but piled on Chem again and other premed subjects.
To make sure I was completely over-taxed, I took any job advertised, the first of which was hauling study carrousels into the newly constructed Undergraduate Library. After books were added, I didn’t darken the doors, but if someone in my dorm had a stack of books for a Western Civ paper, I’d borrow a few to come up with my own topic. I had a friend who did a paper titled “At Home with Homer.” I can’t remember whose books I used for my paper, either the friend’s or someone else’s in the dorm, maybe both, but while they went on about the Ancient Mastodons losing their prettiest woman to Odysseus or somebody who wouldn't use any protection, I culled the same material to get a better grade with “The History of Torture.”
From practicing to racing lasted the whole academic year, starting with learning how to row on a barge in the afternoons and moving on to dawn jaunts in an eight-man shell to the San Mateo Bridge and back. To keep in shape, we ran the seats of the football stadium, up and down, half way around; excuse me while I vomit. During rainy weather we just loped around campus several times; excuse me while I duck under a colonnade for a smoke.
Coach did not like me.
We weren’t very long in shells when he would putt-putt by in his motorboat, using a megaphone to give instruction or encouragement to every oarsman. Except one. I got the silent treatment. It lasted for several months, but after the competitive part of the season ended, he took me aside.
“Y’know,” he said, “I wanted you off the team.”
“But you showed grit. I’d be proud to have you back next year.”
“Thank you, Coach, but I quit.”
Another freshman oarsman was elected head yell leader for the upcoming football season. He asked me to join his squad, “Because you’re the only guy I know who’s funny at five o’clock in the morning.” True or not, that required energy, and sometimes I had to replenished my strength by taking an 8 o’clock nap on the lab bench of Organic Chemistry.
In other words, I went into my sophomore year with a plummeting GPA and as a rah-rah boy just when radicalism carpet-bombed campuses across the land, throwing out pot, free love, LSD and anti-war sentiment as shrapnel, and hitting traditional values everywhere.
Rather than dwell on being born at the wrong time, I took over the microphone. I used it to tell old jokes to the dwindling crowds at games. One Saturday afternoon a stocky kid with thighs as big as my waist jumped out of the stands, grabbed me by the arm and said with eyes wet with hatred, “Until I got injured, I was on the team! The game matters! You can’t make fun of football!”
I don’t know where it came from...I mean, besides out of my mouth...but what came was grace under pressure. He was about to throw a few punches, but I sounded like a nasally, really bad imitation of a haughty, upper class Englishman. “Unhand me,” I said.
He was stunned. I was stunned. If I had added, “you blackguard,” we couldn’t have been more stunned. He backed away in utter disbelief.
“So,” I continued to the crowd, “you know why Jesus wasn’t born in Berkley, don’t you? Couldn’t find three wise men and virgin anywhere.”
Rim shot. Not form the Stanford band but for my fraternity’s intramural basketball team. Lots of rim shots, very few baskets. I kept telling our captain that I was the best man he had on the court. He was the head hasher where I worked, and I kept telling him I was the best man waiting tables, as well. Best Man became an ironic nickname.
Best Man played on the fraternity’s intramural touch football team. Best Man put his whole body into a block against a red shirted Stanford player of real football. He was called Rhino, no irony intended, and he was just standing there for another fraternity. Standing three or four inches taller than Best Man’s 6’1” and at least hundred pounds heavier than Best Man’s 220. Rhino’s massive body did not move a scintilla, but as he stood where Best Man had left him, he looked down with a mixture of bewilderment and pity to where Best Man had bounced off.
I thought I had played hurt in high school with some broken fingers and a few bruises. This was a whole new level of hurt. To this day where my collarbone broke twinges now and again remind me that much of life is playing hurt. But sports hurt is nothing compare to life hurt. My arm came out of sling within a couple of weeks, a laugh riot compared to, say, heart surgery or being fired so that the project executive can hire her boyfriend or having a few martinis for lunch and arriving back at the office only to discover a presentation has to be on the five o’clock flight to New York. Now that’s playing hurt.
When I was called to the pay phone of the frat house, my dad gave me an inkling of what life hurt was going to be about. Stanford at that time regarded parents with a degree of deference. Today the university throws males and females together in the same rest room facilities, and tells parents to buzz off if they want a looksee at their precious one’s grade transcripts or any STD lab results from the Student Health Center. But parents of my generation were recognized for paying most of a student’s tuition. My dad, for example, coughed up two-thirds of mine, so the university sent him my transcripts each quarter, and he was the first to receive....
If you ever saw Casablanca, you’ve heard of “the letter of transit.” That’s what every European refugee in North Africa wanted. For Lazlo and Ingrid Bergman it permitted freedom from pursuing Nazis, which made Rick very sad because he couldn’t go with his true love on the plane ride to Portugal. But he did end up friends with Ronald Coleman. A letter of transit, then, is a bitter-sweet, life-changing thing.
Bearing resemblance is the Notice of Academic Probation, the main difference being that no one is going to pull a gun or sell the family jewels to get the notice. My dad shouted a thousand words about ingratitude and stupidity because the university promised to transit me off the campus if I didn’t show improvement in grades in the following quarter. My dad wanted me to promise to quit all extra-curricular activities.
Because I had just discovered club rugby and, like déjà vu to Michaelhouse, was playing for the Indians’ 2ndXV, I’m pretty sure I didn’t promise to quit everything. I may have implied the possibility, but anyone with a middling vocabulary understands that a possibility can be far from a probability.
In the realm of probability is that a human being can devolve and become a throwback spiritually and physically. I lied to my father, and I was moved to prop.
The 2ndXV played against other Pacific Eight colleges, but more fun was being mismatched against rugby unions around San Francisco Bay, clubs like the Olympic and the Ramblers and the Didn’t Make Junior Partners. A lot of balding, former Cal athletes played for them, with teammates including forty-year-olds working on heart attacks.
I took a girl to one of the club games. She was trying to help me get through Calculus, a class I was taking on for a third round. Because we arrived at the playing fields early, I was pressed into flag man duties for a prior match. A flag man polices one sideline and occasionally holds up a large flag where the ball goes out of bounds. I didn’t have to move very fast, and the girl, bless her, stuck to my side the whole time. Then an old, red-faced player staggered out of bounds, dropped to his knees as if in supplication, and offered breakfast and lunch on our shoes. She didn’t flinch or get upset.
I was dangerously close to falling in love. In fact, on a hayride some weeks later I said I loved her. She gave me this look that saw right through me and silently said I was a blackguard. That look made her the only former girlfriend I pray for on a regular basis, wishing her a long and fruitful life with an honest man.
There were two requirements for playing rugby for the Indians. One was a five-dollar social fee for kegs of beer after games, around which opposing teams would gather and sing bawdy songs. This is a ritual the world over. The other was passing a cursory physical. Mine briefly noted that I had “occult bleeding” and “borderline high blood pressure.”
When my student deferment from the Vietnam War ran out, I volunteered for a National Guard unit, the warrant officer of which said I would have to shave my beard. He promised, though, that the only action we might ever see was shooting students stateside. OK by me. The one condition was that I pass the Army’s induction physical. The daylong affair was more detailed than coughing with a finger pressed into your scrotum. I was classified 4F, subsequently saving American taxpayers lots of money in veterans’ hospitalization benefits. That’s when I realized there is a huge difference between being physical fit for sport and medically unfit for getting shot at, a topic I’ll cover in a future essay, God willing I should live so long.
But now we are talking about rugby. High blood pressure, it seemed to me, was caused by life pressure. Except for switching to filtered cigarettes, I didn’t know what to do about the real pressures of my life.
Then one day I encountered Guru Blaine Nye. He won’t remember me, but I intuitively recognized him as a huge holy man lazing about between college football and starting guard for the Dallas Cowboys. The day he changed my life, he was on the 1stXV scrimmaging against the 2nd, and we were facing each other as opposing forwards in a lineout. Being close to sea level, I made an attempt to jump for the ball. The guru countered by doubling a fist and bringing the flat of it to the top of my head. It was a mere warning gesture, like a polar bear’s cuffing an Eskimo out of the way of her cubs. My knees buckled; I went down like a load of rotten lettuce; and when I arose, I started seeing certain things very clearly.
I was out my league. Not just in rugby but in everything. I wasn’t proving anything but stubbornness by bringing an “F” in Chemistry up to “D” and a “D” in Physics up to an earth shattering “C-.“ To avoid failing Calculus, a reasonable assumption after flagging the midterm, I dropped the class for yet another Incomplete. There was only one other thing to do. I voted with the majority of my teammates not to finish the season at the Monterey Rugby Tournament.
Instead I used spring break to get away and think, taking a road trip with two fraternity brothers for Acapulco, Mexico. We stopped for a nap in San Luis Potosí, took lunch in Mexico City and had only one flat on the dirt highway to the coast. We also made record time by driving in shifts and taking Benzedrine. By the time we got home, I was strung out but knew I would never be a scientist, medical or otherwise.
Sadly for the world, I cannot validate my theory that the Stanford Linear Accelerator has nothing to do with subatomic particles but is really a giant pinball machine set up to hustle extraterrestrials in games of chance they can’t possibly win, what with their Venusian crab claws and all. They called Galileo crazy too, but I was taking a hike one day and saw on one of the hills behind the accelerator a radio telescope. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that is no coincidence. It’s a lure.
Liberal Arts required almost no thinking like that. Offered were one Mickey Mouse course after another, from Introductory Linguistics to 20thCentury Diplomacy. I declared English as a major and began getting “A”s as easily as I could fall asleep listening to the dry monotone of a guest Professor of History, one Arnold Toynbee. God may have known, but in Drama Departments from Palo Alto to London, no one else knew what Harold Pinter was going on about, so any interpretation would do. The question is, Why did I take so long to wake up to throw in my two cents?
My grandfather and his twin brother were both physicians, as was my dad, and my dad’s brother was a pharmacist. My two brothers and first cousin would become doctors, and my young sister would grow up to be a nurse practitioner.
My grandfather was also a great athlete who played basketball for Brigham Young University and was voted outstanding player of the 1917 National Tournament in Chicago. Bringing a suitcase full of beer back to Provo got him a letter of transit to Utah State where he starred in football and set two Aggie records in track & field. I saw him in his last fight when he was 70-plus years old and had to let go of his cane to bloody the nose of 60-year-old whippersnapper who had said something disparaging about one of his sons.
Speaking of whom, I might have suffered from some Pavlovian conditioning due to the face that my dad the doctor and my uncle the pharmacist were very good athletes. My uncle, for example, was a jackpot roper well into middle age, and his two sons excelled in sports. Ditto for my two brothers, especially in basketball.
Add that my brothers are taller than I, and oh the humiliation! But catch this. The cousin who is now a sawbones is shorter. Nonetheless, he was a high school freshman playing varsity basketball when I was first in South Africa. A girl I had dated from Carmel wrote to me at Michaelhouse to congratulate me for scoring so many baskets against her school two weeks earlier. I guess in the dark on the beet dump a Jeff could look like a Kirk or any other Tom, Dick or Harry. She did get my last name right, but I don’t think I made much of an impression.
Our family had another great basketball player by marriage, Bill Getris. Uncle Bill was driving screws into pinball machines in a factory in Chicago when a scout for St. Mary’s College in California offered him a full scholarship to shoot hoops for the Gaels against the likes San Francisco State’s Bill Russell. Uncle Bill ended up as a coach for Salinas High and after retirement assisted one of his daughters in coaching girls’ volleyball. He along with my grandfather were the only ones in my family who made the trek to Palo Alto to watch me row and play rugby.
Whoa! I didn’t expect that last sentence to come out. But there it is: I was always trying to prove myself to a father who just wasn’t buying the ticket.
By my junior year at Stanford, I knew as much as I would ever learn about irony. Thanks to a friend who tutored me for free every single day until the final (we took only Friday afternoons off for bar hopping), I squeaked out of my fifth try at Calculus was a “C-.” By the next day I awoke from a celebratory hangover, my mind completely wiped clean of any knowledge of the subject, which makes me more sure that some ticked off alien was trying to get back at humanity for being suckered at the so-called “Linear Accelerator." What I knew for a certainty was that from Second Grade on I had no intention of becoming a doctor, a fact I just wasn’t used to broadcasting too loudly around my family.
My dad kept saying, “You can do anything you want once you get your MD,” thus underscoring his fear that going straight into the arts would turn me into a homosexual or a drunkard. Only my grandfather was unconditionally supportive because, like me, he had no idea what becoming a professional writer would entail. “You brutalized your youth,” is how my mother describes my forays out of college into screenwriting.
But we are talking about 1968 P.B. (Preparing for Brutalization) when I was but a bright-eyed college junior who knew that my volunteering to live in Stanford’s first coed dorm was a really bad idea. It was especially bad for feminists because guys like me always knew we were never the equal of women, and to insist that we were did not make us better men. We cottoned quickly to how reading with a modicum of sincerity from the syrupy poetry of Rod McKuen could make the most radical Poly Sci major suddenly go glassy eyed.
Until then I believed Teen Angel grew up to be a woman who controlled the universe. Irony was fast becoming cynicism. I knew instinctively that my only chance of ever becoming civilized was to get married.
I met her toward the end of 1965 on a sugar plantation in Zululand. It was a balmy night, and the veranda overlooked the Indian Ocean. Within five minutes of her laughing at my jokes, I heard an audible voice say, “This is the girl you are going to marry.”
It wasn’t her voice. It wasn’t mine. I was an atheist who didn’t have sense enough to turn like Moses to the burning bush, and say, “Is that you, God?” Besides, I wasn’t thinking about getting married at all. I was thinking about whether one of the blokes from school had managed to get a quart of vodka into the party punch. After some cupfuls of that and a slow dance, I was open to he possibility that I was stepping on the feet of Miss Right.
When the party was over, we saw each other a few times for a grand total of maybe twelve hours. I left for the States. We wrote letters for four years. There were things about my life that I left out of my letters. I undoubtedly exaggerated other things or slanted them one way or another. Even the bald truth might have sounded as if it had a full head of hair.
When I pitched up midway through my junior year as a transfer student to the University of Natal, Durban, Gwynne and I thought we were each madly in love with the perfect mate. I could tell, though, that my beloved thought I was still going to become a doctor, following the path of her maternal grandfather and three of her uncles.
Sheesh, half way around the world, and the docs were still thick as barnyard flies!
I held off explaining that no medical school in the world would accept me. Finally I got around to admitting that I had been kind of setting my heart toward maybe making in living writing novels. “You know, in the combined styles of Mark Twain and Raymond Chandler with touches of Henry James to appeal to high falutin’ critics.”
The news depressed her to no end. I wasn’t exactly thrilled when for a while she kept calling the wedding off and on, off and on. It was like the electricity in Zambia. The possibility of public embarrassment ended her indecision when the bans were published at her church, which would make calling the wedding off seem very, very fickle. They bans read something like, “Gwynneth Mackay, a Spinster of this Parish, Will Be Bound in Holy Matrimony to Jeff The Blackguard on 28th of June in the Year of our Lord 1969.”
Very old fashioned church. 1928 Prayer Book. She had to promise to obey me. The downside was that I would have to promise a whole bunch of stuff pertaining to God.
The Anglican priest in charge of the parish was half-way down a pre-marriage counseling questionnaire before it sunk in that I had said no to his first inquisition, “Have you been baptized?” Apparently this was a requirement before he performed the sacrament of matrimony. Because I wasn’t a baby who gets sprinkled no matter what, I was forced to show up at adult baptism classes, toward the end of which the priest said, “Since you are making a rational decision as an adult, why don’t you continue with the Rite of Confirmation at the same time?”
“Father,” I said, “I’m getting baptized only to get married. I’ve been trying to believe the stuff you have been teaching, but I just can’t. I figure, if there is no God, it doesn’t make any difference what I believe. But if there is God, I don’t think I should compound the insult with confirmation.”
He nodded thoughtfully then said, “Someday you’ll believe.”
Ten years later he turned out to be prophetic. Because I was dying, I took to Christianity like a junkie in a Chinese whorehouse. Karl Marx got it right: religion is the opiate of the masses. The thing is, most of the masses want something to alleviate their being physically crippled and in emotional pain, real medicine in bottles and in bibles, not the placebo of dialectical materialism.
Until the need for something more became apparent to me, I stuck to my old ways of acting as if I were not about to grow up any time soon.
I tried out for the university basketball team. It was composed mostly of Portuguese refugees from Mozambique. They sometimes forgot that you don’t hit the ball with your head to make a basket or that kicking the ball down court is not the same as dribbling. To be on such a team my prospects were summed up by Marlon Brando’s character in On The Waterfront. “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.”
The captain cited me for Laurels, the equivalent of a letter, the only athletic award I achieved in intercollegiate sport. Maybe achieved is too strong a word. I think everyone on the team got Laurels. What I know is that the college paper referred to me in the only sports clipping I have had since high school: “A Californian has proved to be no strength on the bench.”
That should have ended my sporting life, but televised games animated me in the manner of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. I used to watch avidly, especially football, but gradually over about a dozen years, I realized there was something false going on. There were no bench splinters in my butt, no smell of canned Heat in my nostrils, no black and blue marks, no practice uniform that could stand stiffly on its own, reeking of ammonia and grass clippings, because it had never been washed except in sweat. Maybe I was so selfish, I could think only in terms of me. Regardless, I stopped watching and stopped caring.
The friend who invited me to lunch had it almost right about my attitude toward football. With one caveat. My daughter married a son-in-law who was captain of the UC Davis tennis team and who is mad keen on all sports. I enjoy watching games with him. He is very patient in explaining that Y.A. Tittle no longer quarterbacks the Giants and that the Stanford Indians are now the Cardinal (the color not the bird) and that the mascot is a foam rubber tree. I nap between explanations, smiling at his silence when I ask, “So whatever happened to Frankie Albert?”
I had an Orange Country friend who seemed to know everybody everywhere, and would introduce himself and engage in conversation if he wasn’t sure. That's right, Sherlock: he was a salesman. We attended the same church, and he kept inviting me to attend an Angels’ game with him. He could get us seats behind home plate. He was on a first name basis with the entire roster, met owner Gene Autry and looked at Jimmy Reese, a.k.a. James Hymie Solomon, as a surrogate father.
He introduced me to Reese in a restaurant near Angel Stadium. Reese had been Babe Ruth’s Yankees roommate in 1931 B.S. (Before Steroids). Reese was traded to St. Louis before being demoted to the minor leagues where he played and coached and scouted for seven clubs until the Angels picked him up. In Anaheim Reese blossomed again, conducting fungo practice into his eighties. I thought he was a grand old man with a delightful twinkle in his eye, but a brief chitchat was all I wanted to do with the game to which Mr. Solomon had devoted his long life.
Then my friend told me a story of a disadvantaged youth, a.k.a. ex-con, whom he took to the ballpark. When the Angels trotted out for the introduction of the lineup, the kid was so excited and grateful, he cupped his hands to his moth and shouted at Reggie Jackson, “Hey, Reggie! I know who stole your Porsche!”
That was the story that suckered me into going. I hoped to find something similar. What I got was my friend’s hardly warming his seat before he was out of it and talking to every fan around, then down to the backstop for a chat with the ump and opposing catcher, some encouraging words to the batter, then off down the sidelines for "Hello"s and "How-are-you?" to the coaches, players and runners. As we were walking out of the stadium, he asked whether I enjoyed the game.
I started hearing awe inspiring stories about Mr. Autry not too long before the game because the Writers Guild of America was on strike, and I was a picket captain for part of the line milling around CBS. All the protestors assigned to me were aged retirees from Orange County. They would motivate my moving to Los Angeles because I realized where I was living had bad juju as the Elephant Burial Ground of Writers. Nevertheless, I loved the old boys going on about working at Republic Pictures and how the top brass didn’t want Gene to kill himself, so they assigned their contract star a chauffer who was as sober as Carrie Nation. Within a week of being in the cowboy's vicinity, the chauffer was running red lights, scattering pedestrians and weaving into opposing traffic lanes. He was the first of many.
I did see Autry’s newest limo, and I would like to tell you...No, I would love to tell you...that my friend and I had to jump aside as it screeched out of its reserved parking space and careened toward the exit. But if Paul Harvey told a tall one like that, you wouldn’t stick around for the rest story. This part of it just ends with tinted windows rolled up, no one around, quiet as a tomb.
Page two. The real story is about my hating baseball. Most likely the attitude was formed when I was seven years old and the eye doctor said, “Ha! You’ll never fly TWA Constellations. And I bet you already know, you’re not going to grow up to be Ted Williams.” My older brother inadvertently nourished negativity by always threatening other boys on the sandlot, “Pitch it slow to Jeff.” But Dan couldn't stop me from batting with head and shoulders.
If the object of scoring is smaller than an inflated pig bladder, I literally don’t see how anyone can bother. That admission embraces both the truly slimy, bottom feeding low of my sporting life and the most soaring height I have ever ascended.
My younger brother went through
elementary school gaga for Willie Mays, the San
Francisco Giants’ great outfielder and batter, the
“Say hey Kid,” or just another black guy in my
worldview. That is why one Christmas I felt no
compunction about buying a baseball and signing it,
“Say hey, Jon. Your fan, Willie.”
Jon’s eyes lit up like the blue neon “Born to Die” sign decorating the front window of my Eighth Grade homeroom teacher down the street. A Southern Baptist, he was, so my little brother’s eyes shone with a happier light, but both lights were very, very noticeable. I basked in the glow of my brother’s until he was eighteen or so.
There’s no way I can tell that without thinking back and shaking my head about how incredibly naïve he was. But he had gotten taller, so it was time to kill Santa, know what I mean?
Oh yeah. And I was no good. But I’ve already said that and implied it in a hundred different ways, so I’d like to move on to the soaring height.
My son was about the same age I was when the TWA Constellation of my dreams went down in flames, the same age as my younger brother’s “Say hey” moment. An impressionable age, and Daddy had just become a volunteer fireman in his hometown. My wife and I had decided we shouldn’t raise our kids anywhere close to Show Biz Land, and joining the department was merely a matter of getting another finger shoved into my crotch while I turned my head to the side and coughed.
None of the other volunteers had played Little League with me and thereby missed my pitching debut of walking fourteen straight batters in a row. A few had been on our high school’s championship football team, which made them forget the basketball record a year earlier. To the rest I was a blank slate. Those were the firemen who gathered in the city park for one of the department’s musters, along with wives, children and girlfriends, not to mention taxpayers whom we hoped to impress with the equipment they had paid for.
A barbecue and a softball game were among the highlights of the day. I was chosen for a side. There was nothing I could say that wouldn’t come across as showing the white feather, which would be triple super ultra not cool for any who expected me to be with them in the smoke and heat of a fully involved structure.
So there I was, third time up after a walk and a strike out, runner on second, our side down by one. The pitch came in as big as the moon, and I followed habit, closed my eyes and swung.
Nice sound from the bat, my head was still on, nothing hurt.
When I blinked the field back into focus, the center fielder was turning his back and running like mad for the street. Time for me to beat cheeks. I was rounding second when I saw the left fielder positioning to take the throw. Wherever the center fielder was, I figured he must be too far for a toss to second, so I was already making up my mind to round third and go all the way home. When I crossed the plate as the winning run, I heard a boy’s small voice shout from the crowd.
“That’s my dad! He’s a fireman! And a baseball player!”
To this day, a quarter of century later, I still hear that voice as plain as it was then. I hear it from even farther back in time, from when I was a boy and everything seemed possible. A four-engine Connie could turn into an American La France pumper. Intercepting the pass from center could become a magical turn at bat. A memory coud be like solid gold, never get lost, never get old.