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From Ali to Xena, Part One: The Wander Years
Posted By Alex Belth On December 28, 2011 @ 7:18 pm In 1: Featured,From Ali to Xena,John Schulian,Sportswriting,Writers | Comments Disabled
John Schulian is one of our most gifted storytellers and a wordsmith who has been compared to Red Smith and A.J. Liebling. He came of age as a newspaper reporter and sports columnist in the 1970s, part of a generation of young turks that featured the likes of David Israel, Leigh Montville, Mike Lupica, Jane Leavy, Tony Kornheiser and Tom Boswell. Then he left sports behind and went to Hollywood where he wrote for “L.A. Law,” “Miami Vice,” “Wiseguy,” “JAG,” and numerous other series–including “Slap Maxwell,” the short-lived Dabney Coleman show about a sportswriting hack. He was also the co-creator of “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Before, during and after his foray into show business, Schulian wrote long-form articles for Sports Illustrated and GQ. His work has been collected in “Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists,”  “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,”  and the forthcoming “Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand.” Schulian has been featured in “The Best American Sports Writing,” and, on ten occasions, the old “Best Sports Stories” series. He also edited “The John Lardner Reader” and co-edited (with George Kimball) “At the Fights: American Writers of Boxing.” 
Last fall I sat down with John to talk about his career and what came out was more than just an interview but an oral history of the newspaper business, of the sporting scene and of Hollywood. So I am proud to present John’s story, in his own words, “From Ali to Xena,” which will be posted in column-like segments twice a week.
You are in for a treat.
From Ali to Xena
By John Schulian
Good things have happened to me all my life, whether I deserved them or not, and “At The Fights”is the latest of them. When George Kimball and I started working together, we had nothing more in mind than a modest book of stories by writers who had won awards from the Boxing Writers Association of America. The way we looked at it, no sport has inspired more wonderful prose than the Sweet Science. But for every great piece we found, there was another one that even a generous critic would have had a difficult time calling mediocre. I won’t say we were ready to give up, but the bloom definitely was off the rose.
Then, out of nowhere, George’s literary agent, Farley Chase, called and said the Library of America was interested in having us edit an anthology of great boxing writing. “The same Library of America that does Twain and Poe and Raymond Chandler?” we said. “That’s the one,” Farley said. So we wrote a proposal and talked to LOA’s big cheeses and lobbied like a couple of Tammany Hall politicians. And we got the gig.
It turned out to be an incredible amount of work that was definitely pleasurable. You don’t have to ask me twice to read Heywood Broun, W.C. Heinz, and Carlo Rotella, and I know George feels the same. But there was also more than a little pain in the process because we didn’t have room to include all the pieces we love and all the writers we admire. The book we wound up with, though, is one we believe in wholeheartedly. “At the Fights” reflects both our personal tastes and the importance of boxing in American nonfiction. Just think of the big names whose work we’ve showcased: Mailer, London, Baldwin, Schulberg, Plimpton. Maybe George expected to be to sit in judgment of them at some point in his career, but it’s a complete surprise to me.
Honestly, I never expected any of what has happened to me over the last four decades. Not the big-city sports column or the magazine work or the books, not Hollywood and the modest success I had in TV, not the fascinating projects that still fall in my lap as I enter my golden years. Sure, I dreamed about it when I was a kid, but dreaming is far different than expecting. There were guys I met on newspapers who fairly radiated their expectation of success and became wet-behind-the-ears sensations. I, on the other hand, moved at a far slower pace, forever unsure of what lay in store for me.
I don’t mean to be disingenuous. That’s just a natural fact. I knew I wanted to be a newspaper reporter and columnist, but I thought I might just as easily wind up as a copy editor. (I can hear the copy editors I worked with saying, “You never could have cut it.”) If I saw myself doing anything, it was bouncing around to a lot of different newspapers — but not papers in glamorous cities and not papers with glowing national reputations. I was thinking more along the lines of Toledo for a couple of years, then maybe see what was available in Portland or Albuquerque. The only thing I was sure of was that I had a shot at an interesting life.
Chapter 1: The Wander Years
Moving was a tradition in my family. We were never afraid to pull up stakes, we just did it, because my dad was either helping out a friend or he’d found a new job. If he hadn’t been so footloose, he might never have come to America. He was born in Copenhagen and worked his way here by way of, if I remember correctly, Paris and Montreal. He worked in hotels and restaurants, where there always seemed to be jobs for him and the Frenchmen who were his best friends. The trunk he brought to this country in 1926 sits next to the desk where I’m writing this. His first stop in the U.S. was New York, and then he worked in Miami and Chicago. He was drafted when he was 37, soon after World War II erupted, but was injured in basic training and returned to civilian life as a milkman in Los Angeles. Don’t ask me how he landed there. It’s just one more gap in my parents’ story that they never filled in for me.
What I do know is that in the late Thirties my dad had a brief marriage in Chicago that ended in divorce. When he got to L.A. he put what was essentially an ad for a wife in a Danish language newspaper. That’s where the woman who became my mother entered the picture. She was a farm girl from Minnesota who had never seen any brighter lights than the ones in the Twin Cities, where she cleaned houses for $4 a week during the Depression. She read my dad’s ad, and the next thing her brothers and sisters knew, she told them she was going to Los Angeles. I seriously doubt she told them why.
She certainly didn’t tell me. “We don’t talk about that,” she said. So I didn’t hear the story until she had followed my father to the grave and I asked my right-wing uncle Art if he knew how my parents met.
They were married Feb. 1, 1944 and I was born Jan. 31, 1945, and that was it for them when it came to baby-making.
Maybe they were just too busy moving. We moved from one house to another in L.A. Then, after I finished kindergarten, we moved to Chicago, where my dad worked for a year with one of his French buddies and I repeated kindergarten because the local school district thought I was too young to be in first grade.
We returned to an L.A. suburb called Inglewood, which was then renowned as the home of Hollywood Park Race Track, the Chicago Cubs’ Hank Sauer, and such Pacific Coast League favorites as Gene Mauch and George (Catfish) Metkovich. I went to a Lutheran elementary school that was run by a stern German minister who seemed to regard laughter as a sin. I’m not sure where the other kids lived, but I don’t recall ever walking home with any of them or playing with any of them after school.
When I was in the middle of the fifth grade, I transferred to a public elementary school three blocks from home. Daniel Freeman Elementary, to be exact. (Years later, Reggie Theus, the Chicago Bulls’ gunner, told me he went there, too, long after I’d moved on.) I’m not clear on why I left the Lutheran school, but it may have been because the tuition was too steep for my parents. My dad was going through a tough stretch then, running his own little restaurant and working for Helms Baking Company. What was tough for him, however, was a godsend for me. Daniel Freeman had an after-school sports program, and there were kids to play with, and I could even walk home for lunch and watch a couple innings of one of those Yankee-Dodger World Series games while I ate.
Anyway, I was at Daniel Freeman for part of fifth grade and all of sixth. Then I went to Monroe Junior High School for seventh grade. Then my dad got a job in Salt Lake City as the catering manager of the Newhouse Hotel; a husband-and-wife team from San Francisco had bought it, and they liked his Old World charm and polish. But that meant another junior high, Irving, in the eighth grade. When my parents bought a home after eight or nine months of renting, I moved to yet another junior high, Roosevelt, for ninth grade. And then it was on to East High School.
Six schools in six years. I know that Army brats have it a lot tougher, but that was all I could handle. I was toast. Though I was a reasonably bright kid, I barely got on the academic scoreboard in the tenth grade. I had friends because I started playing baseball as soon as I got to town, but they were all guys. Figuring out girls, which would have been a chore for me under the best of circumstances, was out of the question. I was almost pathologically shy around them. Bad complexion, couldn’t dance, tongue-tied -– I had all the tools. It’s a good thing the University of Utah had cool basketball teams and Salt Lake City had funky old pool rooms where I could soak up the atmosphere. Otherwise, I might have turned into the world’s youngest hermit.
Chapter 2: One Isn’t the Loneliest Number
Somehow I survived the constant moves and my social backwardness. When I went back to East as a junior and senior, I found a comfort level that I’d never had before. I played baseball and football, got good enough grades, wrote for the school newspaper, emceed the farewell assembly my senior year, and had friends, the best of whom I’m still in touch with all these years later. By some wonderful twist of fate, I’d landed in a public high school that had all the qualities prep schools charge $20,000 and $30,000 a year for today. Great teachers cared about you and pushed you. I had a U.S. history teacher who actually got me to spend one Christmas vacation working on a paper for her class. I got an A on it, too. I’ll bet 90 or 95 percent of the class of 1963 went on to college of some kind. The best and brightest went to schools like Yale and Columbia and Berkeley. I, like most everybody else, just moved down the street to the Univesity of Utah.
Looking back, I’m amazed at what an innocent time it was. Maybe it was the last innocent time. A couple of years later, it seemed like half the kids who’d been underclassmen when I was at East were drinking and screwing and raising all kinds of hell. (No drugs yet, however. You have to remember this is Salt Lake I’m talking about.) My class, on the other hand, was tame in the extreme. There was a small group that boogied until they puked, but the vast majority seemed to get their high from sugar and make-out sessions. Me, I went to Utah basketball games and hung out in poolrooms with some buddies who were as inspired by “The Hustler” as I was. Never had a date, I’m embarrassed to say. I came close with a long-haired girl who reminded me of Audrey Hepburn–I even walked her home a couple of times–but I was still too damn shy. Graduation night, a friend from the football team and I–he was the good fullback, I was the other fullback–went to a Coast League baseball game instead of the dance. But a terrific girl (not Audrey Hepburn) came up and kissed me as I was on my way out the door. She may not remember it, but I do. It was a lovely moment.
The biggest thing about bouncing around the way I did as a kid was that I learned to never be afraid of solitude. I was pretty self-sufficient emotionally before I was self-sufficient in the sense of being able to actually take care of myself. If there was a high-school dance, I’d hang around the house until 8:30 or 9, then walk over to the neighborhood variety store and look through the magazines and paperbacks. (I had a driver’s license but no car; the car wouldn’t come until I was a sophomore in college.) That’s how I discovered “Rabbit Run” by John Updike. I read the first page and thought it was about basketball. Let’s just say I had a rude awakening when I bought it and read the second page, and the third, and so on. I made it all the way through, eventually. But it wasn’t until years later that I read “Rabbit Run” again and finally realized what it was about.
Maybe the ability to entertain yourself comes with being an only child. It just seemed natural to me. Lots of days there wasn’t anybody around to play with me, so I’d dream up something on my own. Or I’d turn on my little table radio and listen to Mutual’s Game of the Day or, when I was living in L.A., the Hollywood Stars’ baseball game. I listened to a lot of music on the radio, too. Not just Elvis, either, though he was the coolest thing going. I found myself, at the age of 10 or 11, attracted to black music. There were two disc jockeys in L.A.–Hunter Hancock on KPOP and Johnny Otis on KFOX–who played nothing but black music, and there I was, this blond, blue-eyed kid utterly mesmerized by Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and a guy named Sonny Knight, who had a hit with a song called “Confidential.” It was as though I considered this black music an antidote to the Pat Boone 45 my mother gave me as a birthday present. (Pat Boone singing Little Richard? For the love of God, Mom!) There was that incredible mix of Saturday night and Sunday morning in the music-–saxophones straight out of whorehouses and voices right from the choir. I can tell you for sure that I was the only kid in my neighborhood who made Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” the first 45 he bought. Only later did I hear the influence of country music on the song, so in addition to being proof that I loved my rhythm and blues as a child, I was harboring the inner hillbilly who would emerge later.
Chapter 3: The Game That Defined Me
I loved playing baseball beyond reason and certainly beyond my talent level. I was never a natural athlete and I was never the best player on any team I was on, but I was a dogged son of a bitch. I got my teeth on that bone and I wouldn’t let go until I was able to do it on my terms. To be honest, if we had stayed in L.A., I’m not sure I would have been able to play as long as I did. Most likely I would have been bowled over by the competition and either been a benchwarmer or just some dreamer sitting in the stands. But Salt Lake was a different story. There were some wonderful ballplayers there, guys who played pro ball and even one from my era-–the Mets’ George Theodore -–who played in the majors, but there weren’t so many of them that I couldn’t compete.
The question was finding a position to play. All through Little League and Cops League, I’d been a third baseman and an outfielder and, just once, a shortstop who almost killed his amigo the second baseman when we were turning a double play in infield practice. (Did I tell you I had a hell of a throwing arm? If you don’t believe me, ask my amigo about the time I almost threw a ball through him.) When it was time to try out for Babe Ruth League, however, there were lots of third basemen and outfielders who were just as good as I was. Our coach was the first truly hard man I ever met, an ex-minor league catcher who could be irascible, profane, quick to throw a punch even if it cost him a job. But when he sensed how desperately I needed baseball and the identity it gavee me, his better self emerged. He asked if I wanted to try my hand at catching. I said yes, and he proceeded to give me the kind of education at the position that kids today take for granted and kids of my generation almost never got. He taught me how to shift behind the plate, how to block low pitches, how to throw properly, how to flash signs to the pitcher without having them stolen, how to catch pop-ups-–and it was a rare kid catcher in those days who could catch one. He spun me round in circles as he hit me pop-ups that first day and I dropped a bunch of the. After that, I never dropped another.
The coach’s name was Pete Radulovich. He was the first of many people who would give me a break that somehow changed my life for the better. I put him right there with Pat Ryan, who gave me my first assignment at Sports Illustrated, and Steven Bochco, who gave me a shot at Hollywood even though I’d never written a script. Pete’s eldest son, Steve, was the second baseman I almost decapitated in Cops League. We played ball together from the time we were 14 until we were 22, and we still stay in touch. I had dinner with him in Las Vegas, where he lives, a year or so ago, and he said that when his dad was in his final years and they were talking about baseball, his dad said that one of the things that made him proudest was that I’d become such a good catcher. I’ve lived a long time and I’ve had a decent share of success, but that really made me proud. Pete didn’t throw around a lot of compliments.
I did better than all right in high school and American Legion ball and got a baseball scholarship to the University of Utah. The biggest thrill I had was in the state Legion tournament in 1962. We were the Cinderella team and we were playing the juggernaut that had won the high school championship. It was a bad night to run out of pitching, but we did, and we got clobbered. But I had a couple of hits, threw out a couple of runners, and picked another off second base. Afterwards, this guy with a big cigar comes out of the stands and says, “I’m John McGurk of the Boston Red Sox. You caught a big league game tonight. I’m going to keep my eye on you.” Swear to god, this really happened. I didn’t need a ride home after that. I could have floated.
Chapter 4: This Train Only Goes So Far
I wouldn’t cross paths with McGurk again until I was out of grad school and holding an Army draft notice. By then, his promise to keep an eye on me didn’t matter. I was fully aware of the fact that I wasn’t good enough for pro ball. But that doesn’t mean I stopped loving the game. Of I hadn’t love it anymore, it wouldn’t have hurt so much to make the first truly difficult decision of my life. I was a sophomore at Utah and we were working out in the fieldhouse, an old barn with worse lighting than an abandoned coalmine. It seemed like every day I’d wind up catching this left-handed maniac who eventually signed with the Giants. He had a great fastball, a wicked curve, and absolutely no control. While his pitches bounced off my chest and shins, I started looking at my future in a different light.
In the fall quarter, for the first time in my life, I’d done really well in school. Something like three A’s and a B. And it felt good. Better still, I was starting to think I might want to be a newspaper reporter. But if I played baseball, I was going to miss classes and not have as much time to concentrate on my writing as I needed, and, really, for what? For the chance to sit in the bullpen when the wind was turning Laramie, Wyoming to ice? For the chance to do that for one season and maybe two before I got a decent shot at starting? Baseball wasn’t my future anymore. My brain was, for better or worse. Whatever the future held for me, I knew I wasn’t going to stay in Salt Lake. I needed to get the best grades I could so I could use them as my ticket to ride. So I walked away from my baseball scholarship. Nothing dramatic. No pleas for me to stay. The team would get along fine without me. I cried a lot of tears that nobody ever saw, but I knew I’d done the right thing. And I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, which is something I’ve never made a lot of noise about, mainly because I’ve never fit my idea of what a Phi Beta Kappa should be. A Phi Beta Kappa should be legitimately smart, a true intellectual. I’m just the guy Pete Radulovich turned into a catcher.
I thought that was the end of me and baseball. But come summer Utah Power & Light’s amateur team called and offered me a chance to play. I promptly went out and had the worst year of my life. I’m not sure I hit .250. But they asked me back the next year, when the team added two terrific players from BYU, one of whom happened to be a catcher. I wasn’t sure why UP&L needed me, but I hung around, doing a little catching and wondering if I was wasting time. And then one night I whacked a pinch-hit double over the left fielder’s head, and everything changed. They made a place for me in the lineup, sometimes catching, sometimes at third, but mostly in the outfield because our other catcher’s idea of playing there was to wait until he saw where a fly ball landed before he went after it. I led the team in hitting and he was right behind me.
The next year was even better. I caught full-time and my friend Steve Radulovich, Pete’s son, who’d been drafted by the Yankees and Cincinnati but never signed, played first base. We had a lot of good college players and a couple of former minor leaguers on the team, plus a curve-baller from Utah who went 8-0. We won our league and the state amateur championship, and I hit .397, best year I ever had, even if Radulovich out-hit me by 70 points. (It’s almost embarrassing to remember this stuff, but I do.) One of the guys I played with—we called him Starchy—still says I was the craziest SOB he ever saw, and he’s probably right. After doing nothing but study in school, I had a lot of steam to let off. I hardnosed our pitchers, bitched incessantly at umpires, challenged a lot of opponents who could have kicked my ass, and swore like a stevedore if I hit a weak ground ball. I’ve still got the trophy they gave me as the team’s most valuable player. But the story I want to leave you with has nothing to do with that.
We had a pitcher, one of those kids who’d been a monster all the way through high school and then hurt his arm. I could have caught his best fastball barehanded. But one night he’s throwing a beautiful game — it might even have been three innings of no-hit ball–and he calls me to the mound. Our manager, a big guy with the face of a baby bird, trots out immediately.
“What’s the problem?” our manager says.
“I’m tired,” the pitcher says.
Our manager looks at him for a beat, then slaps him on the back and says, “John will tell you when you’re tired.”
Chapter 5: A World Of My Own Design
My parents were devoted newspaper readers. They subscribed to two newspapers everywhere we went. In L.A., it was the Times in the morning and Hearst’s Herald Express in the afternoon. When I was 11, I started delivering the Herald: 77 copies Monday through Saturday from, if I recall correctly, 75th Street and Florence Avenue, between Crenshaw Boulevard and 8th Avenue, in Inglewood. I can’t tell how many stories about pachuco gang fights in East L.A. I hurled onto lawns with my trusty right arm. It was the same stuff I read about when I was home. I was a monkey-see, monkey-do kid, so, following my parents’ lead in my own particular way, I’d spread the paper on the living room floor and scan everything that was in it, right down to Sam Balter’s sports column and the ads for a downtown burlesque house that booked big-time strippers like Lili St. Cyr. I was aware of the bald-headed row long before I knew about “Macbeth.”
Although I mentioned Sam Balter, I’m not sure any of the L.A. sportswriters really registered on me when I was a kid. I remember Balter mainly because he was an ex-USC basketball player who played in the Hitler Olympics and broadcast the Trojans’ games. He certainly wasn’t a great prose stylist. In the Fifties, the brightest lights in L.A. sportswriting were Maxwell Stiles at the liberal Mirror and Morton Moss at the Examiner, Hearst’s morning paper. When I’ve had reason to go back and look at the Times from that era, it had a truly dreadful sports section. Jim Murray didn’t start writing for it until after we moved to Salt Lake. Bad timing on our part, because he took the sportswriting world by storm.
There were books in our house, too, of course, even though neither of my parents had made it past the eighth grade. They were from families where work came before education, and yet they made it perfectly clear that I was going to get the kind of education they never had a chance for. I have a hazy memory of my mother reading me “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe” and “Swiss Family Robinson,” and then handing me the books to see how well I could read from them. That’s probably why all these years later, I never go anywhere without a book. It probably helped, too, that I walked past a small public library to and from my way to Lutheran school. When I started going nuts about baseball, I would check out player biographies and histories of the game. One day I marched up to the checkout desk with “The Hank Sauer Story”–he presumably merited hard-cover immortalization because he was the National League’s 1952 MVP–and the librarian gave me the thrill of my young life. She said Hank lived on the same block she did. How great was that? But I never asked if she would introduce me or get me an autograph. I never hopped on my bike and tried to track old Hank down. I was going to get the kind of education that had eluded them.
It becomes more and more clear to me how much I lived in a world of my own design when I was a kid. The one year I was in junior high in L.A., I read 100 books in addition to whatever I had to read for class. Lots of Hardy Boys mysteries, lots of John R. Tunis, which was predictable for that time, but also lots of Duane Decker, who wrote about a fictional team called the Blue Sox, with Marty (Beef Trust) Blake at first base and the octopus-armed Patsy Bates (a guy, definitely a guy) at shortstop. I’m sure I read a pile of sports bios, too, you know, so I’d know the right thing to say when I was a big-league star who had his own biographer. I did a lot of dreaming like that, particularly when I was out on my paper route, riding my bike up and down those streets.
The first serious author I read-–Updike doesn’t count because “Rabbit, Run” was so far over my head-–was J.D. Salinger. No surprise there unless you consider the fact that I fancied myself more jock than anything else when I discovered him in my junior year of high school. Some seniors on the football team turned me on to “Catcher in the Rye” and I became a fan for life. The guys who told me I should read Salinger were an interesting group: one was the son of one of my future professors at Utah, another was the son of a sports columnist at the afternoon paper in Salt Lake, and I’ll be damned if I can tell you what the third kid’s father did, although he may have been an academic, too. What these guys were telling me and another friend who fell under their spell was that it was okay to nurture an intellectual streak and play sports, too. It was certainly a message no high school coach I played for was ever going to deliver.
As far as finding newspaper writers in Salt Lake who inspired me, fat chance. There were two editors from the Salt Lake Tribune who moved on to have splendid careers, Bob Ottum as a very stylish writer of skiing and auto racing at Sports Illustrated and Hays Gorey as a Washington correspondent for Time. (I went to high school with Gorey’s son, who always seemed incredibly grounded and preternaturally mature.) But I don’t think I ever saw their bylines in the Trib. And the sportswriters at the Trib and the Mormon Church-owned Deseret News were primarily living, breathing examples of how not to practice your craft. Once in a while, the Trib ran a Jim Murray column, but more often it relied on Arthur Daley, the New York Times snoremonger, for an out-of-town voice. That should tell you all you need to know about local tastes.
When I was in college, I interviewed with the editor of the Tribune, a sallow, pinch-faced gentleman who looked like a good laugh might kill him. He asked me what I wanted to do in the business and I told him I wanted to be a syndicated sports columnist. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, I knew that I was a dead man in his eyes. In Salt Lake’s newspapers, you dreamed of life beyond the city limits at your own peril.
Chapter 6: Under the Spell of the Big Screen
We didn’t have a TV in our house until 1954, when I was nine. Maybe it was for economic reasons, maybe my parents just didn’t think it was important. They seemed perfectly content with listening to the radio, my mother in particular. I listened along with her. The first thing I remember hearing was the news that Babe Ruth had died. Honest. I was three years old and I had not the slightest idea who the Babe was, but there was something about the way the man on the radio talked about him that made it possible for even a child like me to grasp the importance of his death. Just remembering that moment makes me feel older than dirt. It’s the same when I remember listening to Tom Mix’s radio show-–his doctor was my mother’s doctor, by the way-–and Fibber McGee and Molly, Lum and Abner, Arthur Godfrey, and Art Likletter’s House Party. Linkletter’s band leader had one of the great names ever: Muzzy Marcellino. Muzzy, for crying out loud.
Something else we listened to was Lux Radio Theater, where Hollywood stars of a certain wattage acted in half-hour recreations of movies that were then in the theaters. In my house, we ate up movies, all three of us in the beginning, then just my father and me as time went on. There wasn’t any reason for this movie love. My parents weren’t star-struck, nor were they given to long, thoughtful discussions of performances, directing choices, or cinematography, good or bad. It was just something that was in the air in L.A. along with the aroma of the orange groves and the stench of the burning tires that warmed them on winter nights. If you listened to the radio, you could even hear broadcasts of the premieres of big movies and breathless interviews with stars like Cary Grant and Lana Turner.
The movie house we went to most often was the Academy, an art deco palace near the intersection of Manchester and Crenshaw boulevards. (It’s now a church.) If I went to see Burt Lancaster in “The Crimson Pirate” with my parents on Saturday night, I’d be back at 1 p.m. Wednesday for the kiddie matinee, two movies for a quarter. Might be two Abbott and Costello comedies, or two war movies (“Halls of Montezuma” with Richard Widmark and “Operation Pacific” with John Wayne), or an Audie Murphy Western paired with one starring Jeff Chandler, or-–hang onto your hat–”King Kong” and “Mighty Joe Young.”
Come summer we’d head for the Centinela Drive-In, where we saw “Shane,” “Strategic Air Command” and the truly awful circus movie “The Greatest Show on Earth.” (There’s a scene in “Heat” that was shot at an abandoned drive-in. I’d swear it was the Centinela, which sits in what is now regarded as hard-core gang territory.)
When 3-D movies were all the rage-–”Hondo,” “Charge at Feather River,” “House of Wax”–we went to see them at the big movie houses on Hollywood Boulevard, which was still glamorous and exciting then. (The first movie I remember seeing was “Pinocchio,” at the Pantages.) Afterward, we’d eat at Café de Paris, a little French restaurant around the corner from Charlie Chaplin’s studio. My father’s French buddies hung out there. My parents ate escargot and I drank Shirley Temples.
And then it was just my father and me going to the movies. It had to be by design. My parents were ancient by the standards of the day: when they married, my father was 41 and my mother 39. My guess is she was going through menopause and desperately needed some time away from her rambunctious son.
It was a blessing in disguise for my father and me. We didn’t get to spend much time together, mainly because he worked such long hours and spent a lot of time sleeping in his easy chair when he was home. I don’t want you to think he was distant or cold, though. He was, rather, the nicest man I have ever known. He was charming and funny and gracious, and he had a Danish accent that gave him, I don’t know, a continental air, I guess you’d call it. No wonder he oversaw all the big weddings in Salt Lake when he became catering manager of the Hotel Utah, the No. 1 hotel in the city. He took care of not just Mormons but Greeks and Jews and Italians and anybody else who wanted to be treated right. He loved them all, but he loved the good tippers best. To me, however, he was the dad who took me to see the Hollywood Stars in the old Coast League. And who played catch with me in the backyard, and, when we lived in Inglewood, took me to sprawling Centinela Park to pitch me batting practice and hit me fly balls. And remember, he’d never played an inning of baseball. He was a Danish immigrant who didn’t see a game until he worked in Chicago at a hotel where the big league teams stayed. He told me about players who took out their tobacco chaws only to eat, and of how forlorn the Pirates-–well, I think it was the Pirates–were when the Cubs’ Gabby Hartnett beat them with his Homer in the Gloamin’.
Truth be told, though, he was probably more comfortable going to the movies with me. His choice of theaters was an odd one, not any of the first-run houses, the Academy or the 5th Avenue or the United Artists, but a second-run house called the Inglewood Theater. And it was there that my education in movies, such as it is, began. We saw the John Ford-John Wayne cavalry trilogy, and “The Big Sleep” and Red Skelton comedies and Robert Mitchum in “Blood on the Moon.” Sometimes the old movies bored me witless-–”Saratoga Trunk” with Gary Cooper, in particular-–but more often they fed my imagination and my dreams.
The fact is, I loved movies before I loved baseball. For all I know, I read the movie ads in the newspaper before anything else. And I read Louella Parsons’ column, too, checking it for movie-star names in boldface. Then I would cut out the movie ads and paste them in a scrapbook, which wasn’t as pointless an exercise as it might seem, because I would then use the title of a movie that had captured my imagination and create my version of it. The movie I remember was “Kansas Pacific,” a Republic Pictures Western starring Sterling Hayden that I didn’t get around to watching until a couple of years ago. It was dreadful.) I drew the story in cartoon blocks on pieces of paper about the size of a postcard and I taped or glued the pieces together. Then I took a piece of cardboard, drew a screen with curtains around it, and cut slits on both sides of the screen. Then I would pull the strip of paper on which my movie was laid out through the slits while I provided the dialogue and narration. nd my parents would watch. But only after they had paid a nickel or a dime for the privilege. Even then, at the age of 9 or 10, I realized that movies were for making money.
There was something at work besides the profit motive, though. It was the ability to imagine, to let a couple of words in a newspaper inspire me to create the most primitive kind of art. I suppose the same forces were at work when I listened to the Mutual Game of the Day on the radio and envisioned what the Green Monster in Fenway Park looked like and how the ivy on the walls at Wrigley Field was coming in. I could even read about a minor league slugger in the back pages of the Sporting News-–Frosty Kennedy or John Moskus or Chuck Weatherspoon-–and spend my paper route imagining how they looked as they smacked another home run. It was as though I imagined life with a score by Dimitri Tiomkin or Max Steiner and a big, booming orchestra to back them up. If I listen closely, I can still hear the music.
Chapter 7: You Can Run…
I went to graduate school in journalism at Northwestern, and the best thing about it was that it kept me out of the Army’s clutches for one more year. Other than that, I didn’t care much for the experience. I’d spent the summer before I went there playing ball and blacktopping roads, so I had a pretty good tan. No sooner had I started hunting for an apartment than some guy asked where I’d “summered.” “On the end of an idiot stick,” I told him. When the guy didn’t realize I was talking about a shovel, I knew I was in the wrong place. Nothing against Northwestern–it’s a great school and having a master’s from there definitely helped me get a job in Baltimore when I finished my two-year hitch in the Army. But Northwestern is also a haven for children of privilege, and I’m allergic to them. Always have been, always will be.
It was like I was watching a movie as one big car after another delivered a succession of beautiful coeds to campus, mothers and fathers bidding adieu to their little darlings. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had nothing in common with about 90 percent of my fellow grad students. Some were horse’s asses like a guy from Brown who wore a suit but no socks with his penny loafers. Some were budding drones who knew lots about government but couldn’t write a letter home. Some were lost causes like the guy who decided he’d rather join the Air Force. And then there was the professor who yelled at me for showing up early for a meeting. He was the biggest horse’s ass of all. But if he or anyone else on the faculty had taught anything I was interested in, I would have made myself pay attention. Unfortunately, the faculty in 1967-68 was fixated on covering courts and government and water and sewers, and I wanted to write about flesh-and-blood people, the more colorful the better. I got my best lesson in that when Jimmy Breslin blew into town to cover a Mafia trial for the Sun-Times. He wrote a piece about getting a tip on a racehorse from one of the defendants, Paul (The Waiter) Ricca, and the judge declared a mistrial. Now that was what I had in mind when I went to Northwestern.
Ultimately, I wound up spending almost all of spring quarter in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. I think it’s safe to say I had the best tan in grad school. I got my master’s, too. And 30 days after I returned home, the draft board reclassified me 1A. And 30 days after that, I reported to the Army induction center. My heart may have been God’s, but for the next two years, my ass belonged to Uncle Sam.
Hell, yes, I was afraid of going overseas, because overseas in those days usually meant Vietnam, and even though the women and the country were beautiful, it was no vacation for American troops. Most of them were REMFs (Rear Echelon Motherfuckers), but there were enough bombs going off in Saigon to kill you just as dead as you could get killed humping through the jungle.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s go back to the beginning of this particular chapter of my life. I wasn’t the least bit political when I was an undergrad from 1963 to 1967. Nor do I remember seeing that many kids at Utah sporting peace signs or even long hair. I know I didn’t have long hair; I leaned toward the short look favored by Peter Gunn, the TV detective. What can I tell you, I was just a kid in Bass Weejuns, khakis or Levi’s, and a button-down collar shirt. If there had been an anti-war rally to go to in Salt Lake, I would have looked completely out of place. Not that I had my head in the sand about Vietnam. I read Jonathan Schell’s “The Village of Ben Suc,”  which gave me a good idea of how screwed up things were in Vietnam. But the Salt Lake papers were running wire service stories from the war, and they leaned on body counts and bombing runs, not trenchant analysis. Time magazine, which I read regularly, was foursquare behind the war, to the point that its New York editors were replacing the truth its correspondents found in Vietnam with lies and propaganda. David Halberstam of the New York Times was one of the few brave reporters on the scene who refused to buy the military’s bullshit, but I didn’t read the Times then. And the news about anti-war demonstrations elsewhere in the country seemed so far away. Sometimes everything seems far away when you’re in Utah.
I don’t know many guys from Salt Lake who wound up serving in Vietnam. One who did was a wonderfully funny guy I played football with; his reserve company got called to active duty, and the next thing he knew, he was building an airstrip and praying that a sniper didn’t draw a bead on him. He made it back in one piece, by the way. There was another kid-–he was two years behind me in high school-–who I heard got shot up pretty badly over there. Among guys my age, there was a stampede to get in the reserves -–Army, Marines, anything to avoid the draft. They were even going up to Idaho if they heard of openings there. If I’d stayed in Salt Lake, I probably would have joined them. But I was off at Northwestern and didn’t really start thinking about what I was going to do until winter quarter. I remember exploring officers candidate school in the Navy, but when they told me I’d have to sign up for four or five years, I said forget about it. I’d take my chances with the draft.
Chapter 8: . . . But You Can’t Hide
I worked as a copy editor at the Salt Lake Tribune while I waited for Uncle Sam to come calling. I think I was the only guy on the desk who wasn’t in AA. That was a great crew. Lots of laughs even if one of them kept trying to talk me into joining the Marines. (Like hell. I’d seen “The Sand of Iwo Jima.” Even John Wayne couldn’t survive in the Marines.) My last night at the paper, these old drunks took me out for a farewell toot-–steak and lobster and booze at one of Salt Lake’s bottle clubs where we found ourselves with a lovely red-haired waitress we promptly named Peaches. Ah, yes, Peaches.
I went into the Army in August 1968, with a master’s degree in journalism in hand and the news of the Tet Offensive echoing in my ears. My dad dropped me off at the Salt Lake induction center on his way to work. I don’t recall what we said to each other-–it certainly wasn’t much-–but he told me years later it was the worst day of his life. I thought about him and my mother a lot in my first days in the Army, and how if I got killed in what I was now certain was an utterly useless war, it might kill them, too.
The funny thing is, I never thought about running to Canada or hunting up a doctor who could concoct an excuse that would keep me out of the Army’s clutches. Hell, I have one friend who told me he got out of the draft when a doctor wrote that my friend’s mother would have a nervous breakdown if anything happened to him. That still bothers me. What made him and his mother so special? My mother would have had a nervous breakdown too. A lot of other mothers did have nervous breakdowns because their sons came home in a box. My two years in the Army were a waste of my time and the taxpayers’ money, but at least I didn’t hide behind mommy to avoid them. I just took my chances and lived to tell the story.
Basic training was at Ford Ord, California, up by Carmel and Monterrey, beautiful country. My company was a curious mixture of returned Mormon missionaries from Utah and surfers and street kids from L.A. Our senior drill instructor had one basic message: “You’re all going to Vietnam and you’re all going to die–unless you listen up!” In the middle of the night, he’d come back to the barracks drunk and wake us up to tell us about his two tours as a door gunner in Vietnam. That was creepy enough by itself. But other nights I could hear advanced infantry training units coming back from maneuvers. These were the guys whose next stop really was Vietnam. They’d be marching through the fog, singing “Wide river, river of Saigon” or–to the tune of the Coasters’ “Charlie Brown”–“In the night time when you’re sleeping, Charlie Cong comes a-creeping, all around-round-round-round.”
Lots of nutty things happened in basic: Guys at the beachfront rifle range deciding they’d rather shoot at luxury boats than Army-approved targets. A drill instructor listening to a drooling loony from airborne and then telling us, “Boys, there’s only two things that come out of the sky and that’s bird shit and fools.” The guy I was supposed to partner with on bivouac trying to kill himself when he learned that his next stop was advanced infantry training, which was likely his ticket to Vietnam. The long faces when we figured out that of our 165 men, 105 received orders that involved what was called “combat arms.” They knew where they were going.
The nuttiest thing of all, though, was that the Army, in its infinite wisdom, decided that I should be a computer programmer. “Get the fuck out of my sight,” my senior DI said when he handed me my orders. He only wanted men who were going to kill Commies for Christ.
My next stop was also my last stop: Fort Sheridan, Illinois. It was Fifth Army headquarters and had a huge data processing center, hence the need for computer programmers. It was also, as fate would have it, on the North Shore of Chicago, between Highland Park and Lake Forest, two very pricey suburbs, not far from Northwestern and, better yet, Wrigley Field. The guys I ran into at Fort Sheridan were mostly smart and funny and a hell of a lot better company than anybody I’d met in grad school. They’d been plucked from jobs at places like IBM, Texas Instruments and NASA, and they really knew what they were doing when it came to computers. I, on the other hand, had never even seen a computer.
Amazingly, nobody made a big deal over it. I ran errands for my civilian boss, an older guy named John Munn–everyone who worked for him was called a Munnster-–and I tried to read every book I hadn’t been able to in college. Six months later, just as I was about to lose my mind, I learned that the post newspaper was looking for an enlisted man to help its civilian editor run it. The editor was Joe Neptune. I’m telling you, that fort was loaded with great names. Joe Neptune, AKA the King of the Sea, signed me up immediately. A couple of other really talented enlisted men showed up not long afterward, and just like that, I was home free. The toughest thing I had to do for the rest of my tour of duty was put the paper to bed by 11 a.m. Thursday so I could jump on a commuter train and then the L and make it to Wrigley Field’s bleachers by the bottom of the first inning. War is hell.
It’s easy to joke about it now, but there was no joking when you saw the guys coming back from the ’Nam. I remember senior NCOs screwing over a black guy with a purple heart and a bad limp. It wasn’t enough that they’d gotten their pound of flesh from the poor bastard; they had to bust him back to private, too. I played basketball with a returnee who won a Silver Star in Vietnam–he’d crawled out in the middle of a firefight to rescue a couple wounded buddies. The one I remember best, though, was a solider who had been badly wounded in combat and whose hair was completely gray at the age of 22. When we were on KP, he fell asleep between breakfast and lunch and a cook tried to be funny by dropping a stack of trays on the table where he had laid his head. It must have taken us 10 minutes to pry his hands off the cook’s throat. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the violence. The potential for it was always there. I knew that for a fact when there was a shakedown inspection in the barracks next to mine and they found .45 automatics and machetes right next to the drugs and hypodermic needles.
I still thank God I never saw combat. Who knows if I would have lived, or if I had, what kind of a mess I would have come back as. On one of my last days in the Army, I was having an obligatory out-processing chat with my company commander, who was looking at my background for the first time. “Why, you have a master’s degree,” he said. “You could have been an officer.” I didn’t bother telling him what the life expectancy of a second lieutenant was in combat. I just said I’d rather be a civilian. Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, I was free at last.
I left the Army as quietly as I had gone into it. I didn’t get drunk or get laid. I’m not sure anybody even shook my hand. I just caught a plane to Salt Lake for a brief visit before I started a job as a reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun. In my bedroom, among the letters I’d written home, I found an obituary that my mother had clipped from the Tribune. It was of a guy I’d been in basic training with, a returned Mormon missionary who’d been killed in combat in Vietnam. He was a year younger than me, but we had the same birthday: January 31.
(To be continued…)
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URL to article: http://www.bronxbanterblog.com/2011/12/28/from-ali-to-xena-part-one-the-wander-years/
URLs in this post:
 “Writers’ Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists,”: http://www.amazon.com/Writers-Fighters-Other-Sweet-Scientists/dp/0836267036/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_5
 “Twilight of the Long-ball Gods,”: http://www.amazon.com/Twilight-Long-ball-Gods-Dispatches-Disappearing/dp/0803293275/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_6
 “The John Lardner Reader” : http://www.amazon.com/John-Lardner-Reader-Legends-Sportswriting/dp/0803230478/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_4
 “At the Fights: American Writers of Boxing.”: http://www.amazon.com/At-Fights-American-Writers-Boxing/dp/1598530925
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 the Mets’ George Theodore: http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/t/theodge01.shtml
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 Jonathan Schell’s “The Village of Ben Suc,”: http://www.amazon.com/Village-Ben-Suc-Jonathan-Schell/dp/0394451074
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