The whole world is running off to Miami for the Christmas holidays. Look around and you will have cause to wonder why all of these cities and towns even bothered to string colored lights above their streets and put lighted trees in their parks, because when Christmas Day comes there is not going to be anybody here to enjoy them. Everybody is going to be in Miami. Last week it was Willie Cue, of Baltimore, who stopped off on his way down long enough to have his Christmas savings lifted by another, more clever pool shark. And this week it was Mister Ham, General Delivery, United States.
They say a lot of these traveling men are nothing but bums, but that is one thing they will never say about Mister Ham, because Mister Ham wears a dark-blue suit and a bow tie and gold cuff links and also has a pencil-thin gray mustache. And if that is not enough class for you, Mister Ham also wears a speckled overcoat that has the inscription FRANKLIN SIMON, FIFTH AVENUE, NEW YORK on the label inside, a reminder of the good years. That is, Mister Ham had his Franklin Simon overcoat as late as three o’clock Wednesday afternoon.
During the week, when he would be on the road somewhere, the days at home began with the muffled slapping of screen doors and the dull starting of cars and I could look through the living-room window and see the same thing happening up and down the block: the other men, wearing drab blue factory uniforms or plain gray suits, carrying lunch pails or briefcases, going off to shuffle somebody’s papers or stand in somebody’s production line, a stolid army of beaten men moving out under the orders of fate to absorb whatever the world had to dump on them today. And when I saw them return in the late afternoon, their lunch pails empty and their chalky faces more pinched than ever now, my throat would_tighten and I would think, in the manner of a 12-year- old boy: My old man is better. Because I could not imagine then, nor can I imagine now, how a kid could get excited about a father like one of those; a father who wasn’t visible, a father who merely functioned. And because I knew that during the same day, in that nine hours between the going out and the coming back of the other men of the neighborhood, my old man had been Out There—Ohio, Kansas, California? Outwitting the Interstate Commerce Commission? Saving a life on the highway? Overtaking a Greyhound?—a mechanized Don Quixote challenging the world, spitting into its face the juice of a Dutch Masters Belvedere cigar, giving it a choice of weapons and then beating it at its own game. And, too, because I was faintly aware that a snarling four-ton Dodge pulling a sleek aluminum trailer was, unlike the portfolio of the insurance agent or the samples of the salesman, something a kid could sink his teeth into.
Then, on a Friday afternoon, my mother would be standing at the kitchen sink and suddenly say, with a slight inward smile I did not yet know, “Your daddy ought to be home soon.” And I would go out into the front yard, and shortly a mud-spattered red behemoth would top the long hill above the house, a clattering silver warehouse dragging behind, air brakes sneezing and air horns blasting at the wide-eyed kids gamboling on the sidewalks and the stunned old ladies swinging on their porches, the excitement swelling in my bony young chest until finally there was one final burp on the horns—for me—before the belching engine gasped and the whole rig shuddered to rest at the curb beside the house. “How-dee, I’m just so proud to be hyar,” he would yelp, Minnie Pearl at the Opry, swinging down from the cab like a Tom Mix dismounting—sunburned face, grimy hands, squinty piercing pale blue eyes, greasy overalls and pirate boots, a half-chewed cigar jammed in the corner of the mouth—the leathery adventurer, King of the Road, home from the wars. Neighborhood kids crowding around, daring to touch the simmering tires, while my old man digs through dirty socks and Cleveland newspapers and kitchen matches to produce a novelty-shop key to the City of Akron for me. A kiss for Mama and a hug for Sis, cowering, at the age of eight, in his presence. An hour in the vacant lot across the street, hitting mile-high pop flies until dusk over complaints from his wife (“Thirty-seven years old, acting like a boy”). Over supper, the stories of bad wrecks and truck stops and icy roads and outrunning the law and pulling the Appalachians at night, a born liar refining his art: “That fog was so bad I had to get out and feel that sign,” and “They got watermelons in Texas grow so fast the bottoms wear off before they can pick ’em,” and “She had a face so ugly it wore out two bodies.” And afterward, a session at the old black upright piano in the living room, a self-taught Hoagy Carmichael: “I’d o’ learned to play with the left hand, too, but before they could mail me my second lesson the Injuns shot the Pony Express.” And finally to bed. Five days on the road, Birmingham to Akron and back, and he had made it home again tonight. He was my first hero and, the way things have been going lately, quite possibly the last.
So why, I am asking myself now, of all the good times we had together, why should I remember a bad one? The details are fuzzy. I must have been 18 or so. He came in off the road, but something was wrong. There was shouting. He talked about taking off again right after supper. My mother found a pint of booze in his overnight bag and, with hell-fire finality, flushed the contents down the toilet. He left. She and my sister were hysterical. It’s the son’s place to go find him and talk to him. Bewildered, I got into the car and raced into town, to the lot cluttered with tires and rusty engines and oil pans. I could see him sitting all alone in a dark corner of the cab, swigging from a pint, and when I pulled up and parked in the gravel beside the truck we tried not to look at each other. Blue lights laid a scary blanket over the lot. There was the desperate choking putt-putt-putt of a refrigerated trailer somewhere, broken by the occasional wail of a far-off train whistle, and after an interminable pause I heard myself say, “They’re crying.”
A gurgle, a cough. “Thought I’d get started early.”
“How come you did it?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Made ’em cry.”
“What’d you come down here for?”
“Mama said. I don’t know.”
“She shouldn’t o’ done that.”
“Well, she told me.”
He tilted back his head and began draining the bottle, his Adam’s apple quivering and some of the whiskey dribbling off to the side of his face, and his eyes looked like deep swollen ponds. I looked down and toed the gravel with my shoe while he finished. He sniffed and cleared his throat and then spoke in a frightened, vulnerable voice, a voice I had never heard come out of hun before. I’m not running anywhere, son. There’s a lot a boy don’t know. I don’t mean to make your mother cry, but sometimes a man’s, a man’s—” His voice had broken and when I dared look up at his face, bleached white by the pale lights on the lot, I saw that my old man, too, was crying.
Growing up is, of course, in line with the prevailing notion, a terrifying experience. But contrary to that notion, it is not accomplished in one giant symbolic leap, to the accompaniment of a dozen violins turning up full volume and the sudden brilliant dawning of a new and better day. Boys are not miraculously transformed into men through the first brutal sweaty defloration of a writhing rose in the back seat of a car, nor through the quaffing of eight beers without throwing up, nor by the stunning conquest of the neighborhood bully in defense of thy mother’s good name—although all of those events play a part in the transformation, however exaggerated their importance later becomes. No, growing up isn’t that simple. It may begin with a single pivotal moment, yes, but that moment is more likely to be one of defeat than of victory. In short, we must first discover that we do not know a goddamned thing and then take it from there. This has been known to take years.
Philosophically, theoretically, there is no good reason why it should take so long. Maybe one day we will become so sophisticated that we will modernize the whole system of maturing, organize it into an orderly program whereby young boys are weaned away from their childhood fantasies and patiently taught the mechanics of coping and therefore gently delivered into manhood as the grooming of young baseball players for the major leagues is done these days; you know, daily classes on Growing Up, regular weekly seminars with the old man where he speaks with candor about the times he screwed up and how it could have been avoided, and, finally, that ceremonial day of graduation into manhood just like the African tribes in television documentaries.
Maybe there are some fathers already doing that, but I doubt it. Because it is the nature of fathers to protect the old image, to set themselves up as infallible, and the nature of sons to swallow every bit of it. So growing up must begin with the shattering discovery that one’s father is not perfect, a knowledge not easily extracted or believed; and then you have to learn why he is not perfect; and, finally, you are getting somewhere when you determine how he has managed to compensate for this pitiable shortcoming.
That night in the lot haunted me for a long time. It isn’t easy to look on and see your father brought to his knees by mysterious devils. There was, indeed, “a lot a boy don’t know.” To this day—since it was a moment that embarrassed us both, we have never discussed it—I don’t know who the devils were. That would have been around 1954, when he was 43: about the time the Teamsters were beginning to make it difficult for independent, free-wheeling “lease operators” of his breed to make it; about the time more money was needed for us than ever before, my having attained college age; about the time a woman’s natural instincts for “respectability” were causing my mother to hack away at such issues as church and example-setting and a nicer house in a subdivision and a more secure job like driving a bus.
But the larger point is that I had seen him running scared, and it brought me to the first vague stirrings that life was not going to be easy or even fun; that life could be a bitch not above kicking you in the groin if you so much as winked at her; that there would be some terrible scars before it was done; that one day there would be a young boy looking up at me, wanting answers, and about all I might be able to give him in the way of solid advice would be to suggest he go into a clinch when they started working on the head. Here we had been working on the theory that he was unbeaten and untied, the last of the indomitable heroes, and now I knew differently and he knew I knew differently. From there, we began.
He has always seemed to treat everything that happened before he went into trucking as a prologue, which could explain why I have never been able to get much more than fragments about his growing up. I do know that he was born in 1911 at a tiny community in upper East Tennessee called Robbins, a then-prosperous but isolated mining and lumbering town that sat on a branch of the Southern Railroad between the birthplace of Sgt. Alvin York and the inaugural dam on the Tennessee Valley Authority system. Left fatherless at the age of eight, he got on a tram seven years later with his ailing mother and a sister and they went to live with relatives in Birmingham, never to return to the hills. He lacked a semester of English to graduate from high school, but instead of returning to finish—he has said he was a good student and could have gene to college if the money had been there, borne out every time I see him arrogantly complete the Sunday crossword of The New York Times with a ballpoint pen—he cut out for the Midwest to work at hard labor on the Rock Island Line. After a year or two he went back to Birmingham and married Velma Nelson, one of a husky coal miner’s six children, whom he had met one night while hanging around the steps of a Baptist church.
The Depression had hit rock bottom by then, and it was a scramble to stay alive. For a while he and a Greek named Mike Manos set up a news-butch operation on the daily excursion train running between Birmingham and Chattanooga—splitting $50 a week from the proceeds of newspapers, soft drinks and snacks at a time when most men felt lucky to earn $15—and later on he established a back-breaking one-man coal-mining business. I have heard some of the stories: how he and my mother won a drawing that gave them a free wedding on the stage of the Ritz Theater and a night in the honeymoon suite of the Thomas Jefferson Hotel, how she would get up well before dawn to make sandwiches to be sold on the train, how he painted the doctor’s house to pay for my birthing in 1936. I am sure that much of what he is today was shaped by those times, which is true with the great bulk of Americans who went through the Depression, but he is served well by a faulty memory of the whole thing.
Then, on a March morning in 1941, I awoke to the sounds of fierce sawing and hammering in the backyard. He was building wooden sideboards for a borrowed trailer and converting his dump truck to pull it, and with a war coming on he was announcing plans to go into trucking. “There’s gonna be a lot of stuff needs haulin’,” he said, “and I’m gonna help ’em.”
It was the beginning, in a true sense, of his real life. He was born to drive a truck on the open road—a hard worker, a gambler, a fast talker, an adventurer with the eagle eyes and razor instincts and idiotic courage of a moonshine runner—and over the next 20 years he was to become something of a legend in that grim outback underworld of truck stops and loading docks and ICC checkpoints and cut-rate gas stations. Having a mountaineer’s inbred distrust of big companies and organized labor, preferring to make or break on his own merits, he set himself up as a “lease operator.” This meant he was a hired gun, a freelance trucker not on salary but on commission. The company, thus free of responsibility, couldn’t care less if he was overloaded or otherwise illegal in the eyes of the ICC; if he got caught, that was his problem. Just deliver the stuff by Tuesday morning.
You can see, then, how quickly my old man learned the location of every weight station on the continent, not to mention the sleeping habits and personal financial conditions of the men who ran them. He would stand there at the dock and tell them to fill ‘er up until she was bulging—with steel, tires, explosives, helmets, uniforms, whatever—and take off in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, like a bootlegger off on another run, twice as heavy as some states allowed but also twice as hungry. He knew every road in America by heart, and where to find the good coffee and the cheap gas, and how to make a gentleman’s arrangement at a truck stop in regard to somewhat clandestine cargo; and it seemed to be about all a man had to know. By the time the war had blown over, he had paid cash for a three-bedroom house and a ’46 Dodge automobile (“The 78th Dodge bought in Birmingham after the war”), started taking us on summer vacations to Florida and hired a driver to run a second rig. Those were the days of unblinking idolatry: that glorious time of puberty when I tried to wear my cap like his, and affected his hillbilly twang, and wondered what it took to be able to smoke and chew a cigar at the same time, and marveled at his ability to back a heaving trailer into the tightest hole. On summer evenings, at dusk, there was the great excitement of stuffing fresh socks and underwear into a bag and waiting impatiently for him to announce it was time to be going. “Now, Paul, I don’t want him growing up to be a truck driver,” my mother would say. “It’s good enough for me,” he would snap, “and I notice you ain’t starving.”
And a large part of growing up would begin to take place as we hit the open road, father and son, discovering the world and discovering each other together. Sleeping all day in the simmering Southern heat and riding all night to the songs of the whistling tires and the all-night country radio stations (“Ol’ Ernest Tubb sings like a bulldog, don’t he?”). Seeing the big tankers parked at the Mobile docks, the traffic in Atlanta, the tarpaper shacks in Mississippi, the cattle in Texas and the mist along the Blue Ridge. The truck stops at 3 o’clock in the morning, with bug-eyed truckers so high on bennies they couldn’t feed the pinball machines fast enough. “Your boy there looks just like you, Paul,” and, in response, “Well, the kid can’t help it.” Donora, Pennsylvania, where Stan Musial was raised. Nashville, where the Opry was. Pittsburgh, where the Pirates played. Blowing past a Greyhound on a straightaway, walking around a curve to see if the scales were open, standing on the running board to relieve ourselves while crawling up the Smokies, the jouncing of the cab and the pinup overhead bringing a curious new sensation to the groin. The mysterious hand signals exchanged with passing truckers, the wrecks and near-wrecks, the Cardinals game from St. Louis broadcast by Harry Caray, the black laborers begging to help unload at the docks at New Orleans. “Naw, ain’t got but a partial load o’ tires on,” to the ICC inspector and, a quarter-mile down the road, grabbing another gear, “Them boys just don’t take their work serious enough.” We had that to hold us together, and baseball—more than once we stood through Sunday doubleheaders to watch the Birmingham Barons play, then rushed home to work on my fielding until dark—and it seemed like a dream that would never end.
The breaking away began, of course, with that confusing night when I found him with his defenses down. W e didn’thave the trips together or the baseball any more—l had been jolted awake to the fact that I would never make it to the major leagues when I lasted only five days m spring training with a pathetic Class D club—and now I was cutting the umbilical, going off to college. In the college atmosphere, lost in a crowd of people whose fathers were doctors and architects and owners of legitimate businesses, I began to develop the notion that my old man was somebody to be ashamed of. It struck me for the first time that there had never been a book around our house, that my old man’s English was atrocious and that his business associates tended to be unlettered itinerants spending their dim lives driving other people’s trucks from one warehouse to another. I painfully learned that he, being a man of instinct rather than intellect, had been incapable of instructing me in any of the social graces now facing me, including sex. It occurred to me that while my friends were being staked to automobiles and off-campus apartments and fraternity initiation fees, I was having to serve up chow in a series of dining halls and work at summer jobs simply to stay in school. This was, remember, the 1950s, when we of the Silent Generation were in college for girls, football, parties and secure positions with big companies. Now my old man was no longer a character or a folk hero or even a champion to me; he was, as we say, tacky.
Which is not to say I had not been reminded of this before. He had always been the maverick in that great sprawling body on my mother’s side referred to as The Family. One uncle sold insurance. Another was a career man with Internal Revenue. Another was a mechanic. The other uncle was, the best I could determine, a freelance inventor; but then, his wife hadn’t let him out in years. It was a huge family, one that had in the early years knelt at the feet of my maternal grandfather—an imposing white-haired patriarch who reminded me of John L. Lewis and was respectfully called “Daddy Nelson”—and my old man had set the ground rules very soon after his marriage into The Family by refusing to cater to “the old man,” as he doggedly called him. His irreverence on that score, and on dozens of others, had made him an outcast, a role he seemed to relish. He drank. He didn’t believe in church. He talked loud and told blue jokes. He stated that the inventor had more brains than anybody in the bunch, he implied that being a deacon in the church was as good a way as any to sell insurance policies, and he was unable to fulfill his duties as a pallbearer at one relative’s funeral when he warmed up to the task with a few snorts of bourbon on an empty stomach. He worked with his hands, often outside the law, and to a group bent on attaining respectability—garden clubs, Sunday school, college, newer cars and bigger houses—he was, more often than not, a pain in the ass.
Meantime, I had finished school, gotten married, begun to write sports and to understand that I hadn’t seen much of the world at all. I had hitchhiked around a lot in pursuit of baseball clubs needing second basemen and I had covered a lot of miles in a truck with my old man, but it had been like running in place. After spending a year in France with an Air National Guard unit during John Kennedy’s “Berlin Crisis,” a year of enforced leisure in which I introduced myself to literature and found that a lot had happened in the world in 1946 besides the Cardinals’ winning of the World Series, I returned knowing that I had to do two things: quit writing about games, and get the hell out of Birmingham. By 1965 I found myself a daily columnist on The Atlanta Journal, featured prominently on the second page and free to write about anything—politics, Vietnam, sports, strippers—a sort of Jimmy Breslin, Dixie branch. But the real issue then was, of course, civil rights, and I found I was poorly equipped to handle it. I didn’t have the education or experience or, most important of all, the personal association with black people.
I had been raised by a Negro maid named Louvenia, never thinking to ask why she took her lunch on the back porch, and had grown up throwing rocks and jeering at a lanky fellow known as Nigger Charles as he ran from school to the shantytown that sat on a pile of scarred red dirt beyond our shaded neighborhood in Birmingham. My old man had always said they were shiftless and smelled bad and were not to be associated with, but the only opportunity I had to investigate that was when I played semipro baseball in Kansas with a dusky little local outfielder named Hank Scott; he turned out to be energetic, bright, deodorized and, to my astonishment, more of a soul brother to me than some of the white teammates from places like Chicago and St. Louis.
No, Louvenia and Nigger Charles and Hank Scott represented the only connections I had in what they were beginning to call the black community, unless you want to throw in the swarthy laborers who had always met my old man at the docks to help unload, and I had some homework to do. Not that I was alone in the South. Maybe the kids who grew up on a farm where there was nobody else to play ball with except the sharecroppers sons had prior relationships with the Negro, but most of my friends had never faced anything like that. We had blindly accepted the proposition that Negroes were inferior and should therefore be kept in their place—the back of the bus, the balcony of the theater, the “nigger bleachers” at the ballpark, and in their own churches and schools and restaurants—and now we had to make a decision: fight desegregation or work for it.
I must say that my old man made it easy for me. During the time I was living under his roof he had seldom felt it necessary to comment on the balance of the races, but the sight of those uppity folks actually demanding service in white Southern restaurants during the early 1960s drove him into a frenzy. This wasn’t my old man. It was somebody else. An autographed 8 x 10 of George Wallace showed up on the family piano. He quit hiring blacks to help him unload—at his age rolling into his trailer tires that sometimes weighed 500 pounds. He applauded the Birmingham Barons’ decision to drop out of the Southern Association rather than play integrated baseball. He talked about reactivating his father’s old squirrel rifle, which hadn’t been fired in at least 40 years. He discussed moving out of the old neighborhood. Once, on a visit with me when I was temporarily separated from my wife, he raved on and on about Communists and niggers and Catholics and Jews without addressing himself to my anguish. A trip to visit the folks in Birmingham invariably developed into an incredible one-way conversation: “This old boy out in Texas was telling me all about Jackie and those Secret Service agents . . . That’s all right, I know old Rastus McGill won’t let y’all say anything when you get out of Atlanta, but everybody knows he’s getting paid by Moscow . . . You talkin’ ’bout Martin Luther Coon? . . . Now that Strom Thurmond, that’s a man for you . . .” Ralph McGill paid from Moscow? Jackie Kennedy pleasuring the Secret Service? I mean, there are times when it doesn’t take an expert to sort out the truth. I became a liberal, through the back door.
During the last of the 1960s, then, our relationship, what there was left of it, caved in from what should have been peripheral pressures. He became just as convinced I was a freaky Communist as I was certain he was the last of the great racists, and one thing I did that I regret was to say it in my column. Not because I consider it an especially cheap shot to talk about your father like that in print or because it might have disturbed him, but because it made him polarize even further. Funny things were happening in The Family. After being bombarded by Freedom Riders and Martin Luther King and church bombers and police dogs, it seemed as though everybody in Birmingham was preparing to give the world 24 hours to get out of town. There had been a time when my old man’s audacious verbosity made him tacky, but now The Family was rallying around him as though he were some kind of proletarian prophet. “Well, now, Paul was telling me he heard over in Louisiana the other day how the nigras are being paid, yes paid, to, ah, go looking for young white girls and, ah . . . ,” said with some authority because my old man was, after all, as everybody knew, the one in The Family who traveled a lot and talked to different people.
Birmingham became a nice place for me to stay away from, what with one cousin being promoted to an executive position with the John Birch Society and my sister’s husband building a house on an elevated cul-de-sac and actually saying, if I remember correctly, that he would be.better able to “get a bead on ’em when they start coming. Jesus. How the hell do you talk with them, reason with them,when their nostrils are flaring and their mouths are clucking while we all sit around the color television watching Daley’s cops riot in Chicago at the convention?Communists, everyone of ’em. Enraged: Hell, they’re just kids. Calmly, smugly: Prove they ain’t Communists, then maybe I’ll believe it. Somebody, help.
“. . . never even a book in our house when I was growing up, and Auburn was better known then for its football players .and engineers than for its writers and thinkers. So I feel, in a sense, the Nieman program was made for somebody like me. I feel I can come to a better understanding of the South and people like my father by spending a year away from it all, in the academic atmosphere of Harvard . . .”
Each year a dozen newspapermen from all over the country are selected as Nieman Fellows, to spend a school year doing whatever they want to do at Harvard: reading, attending lectures, sleeping, drinking. The year is intended to put a spit-shine on promising young journalists, and it can be a good year if you handle it right. I mean, you don’t have to lift a finger for a whole year. At the suggestion of Dan Wakefield, the writer, who had been a Nieman once, I started filling out applications in the spring of 1968. I had the vague notion that maybe a year away from the South and The Family would help me put some things into perspective—”Give ’em some of that poor-Southern-boy stuff and you’re in,” I was advised—but mainly I was running from the writing of six 1,000-word columns a week. I mentioned the possibility of a year at Harvard to my old man once, and all I got was a knowing smile. Then a wire came, saying I had been one of those picked, and I called Birmingham with the great news. “Mama, I won that fellowship,” I yelled over the phone. ‘What school did you say that was?” she replied. “Harvard, Mama.” In the background I could hear my old man’s response, and it didn’t take much imagination to guess what he might be saying. Went ahead and joined the damned Party, didn’t he? As far as he knew, the Nieman Fellows was an organization of Communist fags.
The joke was, as it turned out, on both of us. The atmosphere at Harvard was so academic it was overwhelming, eventually sending me into a shell I was unable to come out of. Among my fellow Niemans were two Moscow correspondents, a former Pulitzer reporter and a fellow who had once run errands for Scotty Reston at The New York Times. While many of the others had been fighting in the trenches of the civil rights push five years earlier, I had been picking up ten bucks a game as official scorer for the Augusta Yankees of the Class AA Sally League. Talk about your cultural shock. I was pretty good at drinking beer at Cronin’s, but when they broke out the sherry at the Faculty Club and Galbraith started in on the industrial state I began getting a headache.
But there was more. It dawned on me, after too many boring cocktail parties with too many terribly proper New Englanders, that what I was really missing at Harvard was the sweaty passion for life I had always taken for granted while growing up in the South. There was a superficiality, a sterility, in Cambridge—even among most of the Southern kids I met, who were, after all, from a different South than I—which was neatly packaged for me by a lady at one of those parties who told me, straining to be sympathetic, that she had been to the South and found it to be not nearly as bad as everybody thought: she and her husband had spent the night in Atlanta on the way to Miami Beach, and found the South to be altogether delightful. So I was able to develop a handy catch-all theory about life: that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who live life and those who ponder it. And I learned that a good way to break the routine at the parties was to get off in a corner and regale them with highly embellished stories about my old man and Junior Johnson and Roy Acuff—How quaint. Tell us about Johnny Cash’s years in prison—and the time to go back home didn’t come soon enough. The year at Harvard was the most profitable year I ever spent, for the wrong reasons.
Going back, then, I had a new frame of reference within which to view my old man. I had taken some 15 years to finally accept him for what he was—to discover why he wasn’t perfect and then to determine how he made up for not being perfect. I knew, now, that I had to overlook his racial hangups—we would just have to ride that one out, It being too late for him to be changed—and search for the larger truths he had left me: an involvement with and a passion for life, a willingness to take on the world If necessary, the courage to endure. That’s the word—endure—a word not so fashionable as it once was. Instead of bending or running when the blows came pouring down on his head—his wife harping on security and respectability, his children acting ashamed of him, the unions killing his way of life—he stood and fought and, if forced to retreat, was still standing there, bloody, throwing rocks and cussing, when they found him. About all a man should be asked to do, when it comes to raising sons, is somehow to see that there is a slight improvement in the species. It’s a hell of a burden.
He is 62 now, and those riotous days and nights of scrambling on the open road are faint memories. In the mid-1950s he chose to make it on his own rather than join a union or go with a big company, and by 1961 the unions were so strong that it was all over for the independent. Today he does some driving and bidding and odd jobs—”nigger work,” he calls it—for a Syrian in Birmingham who owns a surplus tire company, lives in an $80,000 house and can’t begin to understand what makes my old man tick. He and, my mother live serenely in a comfortable brick house where there is an expensive organ for him to play, as well as a piano; they have plenty of friends their age, and they go to Florida several times a year to inspect the converted swampland they plan to retire to in two or three years. Not everything is right with him—his job is dull, and his wife makes more money working at the Social Security office than he ever made trucking—but he manages to keep up a facade.
Two weeks before the 30th anniversary of his entry into trucking, we took a trip together. A fellow in Louisville was selling out his tire business and my old man was going up to take the rest of the tires off his hands. On a Saturday afternoon we left in a pitiful faded red truck—no fuel gauge, leaky heater, bad brakes, no radio, dusty lopsided trailer behind—and for a while, chugging up the trough into Middle Tennessee, both of us were trying to pretend it was the same. “Call that Jew Overdrive,” he cracked, cutting the engine to coast down a hill. We stopped off to watch the Opry from backstage—”Sure wish that pretty Jean Shepard [‘A Dear John Letter’] was here”—before plugging on toward Louisville. From eight in the morning until two. Sunday afternoon he loaded huge surplus aircraft tires into the trailer, in the rain, with the help of a couple of white boys and an aging Negro named Clem Miller (“Yessuh, yo’ Daddy can go almost as hard as I can”), and after some sleep at a cheap motel across the river in Indiana we got up around two o’clock in the morning and headed back.
It wasn’t really the same anymore. All I had to do was look at the truck he was driving, to observe the meaningless work he was doing, to see that. I noticed, when we stopped for breakfast at an obscure roadside diner, that he had trouble reading the menu. But we tried, passing a bottle of Scotch back and forth, laughing at the stories, creaking through Nashville as the streets jammed with Monday morning traffic: “Yeah, that time there was this fellow just handed me $150 cash up in Delaware and told me where to deliver these aircraft parts in Atlanta. Saved him some money, made me some . . . At least two and a half million miles without an accident chargeable to me . . . Hell, if you’re driving a Greyhound they can fire you just because some little old lady didn’t like your looks . . . I was representing all 82 of the drivers at Alabama Highway, see, and when I told this union organizer we didn’t want to join up, he just looked at me real cold and said, ‘Well, we can’t be responsible,’ and I said, ‘For what?’ and he said, ‘If you get a brick through your windshield somewhere.'” And about the time the ICC almost nailed him in California, where he had some unpaid fines hanging: “Didn’t want ’em to know my name, so I told ’em I didn’t even have a license, was just helping out my buddy there who had passed out in the truck after drinking all night. ‘Yeah, I’m from Tennessee, just came along to see California, can’t get back home fast enough,’ I told ’em. Never bothered to look in the truck. Think he just got tired of hearin’ me talk.” And disgust for the new breed of trucker: “Some of ’em been to college. Got credit cards now, company rigs, and if they break down they just call collect and have ’em send somebody out to fix it.”
We got back into Birmingham in the afternoon, dropped off the load of old tires and went by the house. While we waited for my mother to come home from work, we sat alone in the cool, darkened living room that I have never known and he sipped a beer and entertained me at the organ. Mama’s taking lessons,” he said, “and I just watch and do what she does. Teacher says he’s gonna start chargin’ double. Then I said something about how it sure wasn’t like it used to be, his work and his life, not knowing how he would take it, and he quit playing and slowly turned around on the bench . . . “If something was to happen to your mother, I’d be back out on the road in a minute,” he said. “There’s days I’ll be sitting on the yard downtown, nothing to do but drink bourbon and chase it with a six-pack, and out on the expressway I’ll hear some old boy in a rig whistle and get another gear, and it gets to me. Hell, yes, I miss it. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. Tell your boy, David, he better hurry if he wants to ride with me.”
The late Paul Hemphill was often called the Jimmy Breslin of the South but that doesn’t do him justice. He wasn’t just a brilliant columnist. His first book, “The Nashville Sound” remains one of the great books ever written about country music. And his baseball novel, “Long Gone,”later made into a fun and now over-looked movie (it was shown on HBO the year before “Bull Durham” came out), is a treat. Do yourself a favor and read Hemphill’s classic piece,“Quitting the Paper,” and then pick up one of his collections. This story comes from “The Good Old Boys” and is reprinted here with permission from Hemphill’s wife, Susan Percy.
Here’s an Opening Day treat from the late, great, Paul Hemphill. This story was first published in Sport magazine as “The Yankees Fish for a Pennant.” It is featured in the wonderful collection, Too Old to Cry and appears here with permission from Hemphill’s wife, Susan Percy.
“Fi$hing for Catfi$h”
By Paul Hemphill
Ahoskie, North Carolina
There is something in the old baseball scout reminding us of grandfatherly chats, squeaky slippers, soft wine, and a knowledge gained only through experience. They have been there in rickety, skeletal bleachers in small Iowa towns and on grassy knolls at downtown St. Louis playgrounds, witnessing it all—wild-swinging young brutes who would discover the curveball in Class D the year after signing, burly Okies who would turn out to be afraid to pitch in front of crowds; crew-cut shortstops who would invest their eight-thousand-dollar bonus in beer and pool and frowsy blondes in McAlester, Oklahoma—and now the men who discovered stars and signed them up to play professional baseball turn up, graying and sixtyish, wiser than the rest of us. After the frantic years of squinting out into hard-baked, skinned infields, abruptly having to adjust their eyes from deepest center field to the stopwatch in their wrinkled hands, they come down to wearing loose alpaca sweaters and lazily lipping slender cigars and treading gentlemanly in broken-in Hush Puppies and speaking warmly to the parents of the top prospect in town.
Such is George Pratt. It is turning dark on the day after Christmas. Pratt, who got as high as Class AAA as a player and has recently been put out to pasture as a “bird dog” scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates due to heart trouble, is sitting in the lobby of the Tomahawk Motel in Ahoskie, mumbling soft exchanges with a stumpy, aggressive fellow named Dutch Overton, the assistant principal at Ahoskie High, in the barren, swampy stretches of far northeastern North Carolina. They are idly waiting for the Pirates’ hierarchy to fly in the next morning and try to sign the best pitcher ever to have come out of this part of the country: Jim “Catfish” Hunter, a former high school phenomenon who went on to establish himself as genuine Hall of Fame material with the Oakland A’s. These days, after a petulant violation of his contract by A’s owner Charles O. Finley, Hunter trucks into his Ahoskie lawyers’ offices each morning in a gray, mud-spattered Ford pickup with a dog pen in the back. Then Hunter spits tobacco juice into a Styrofoam coffee cup while major league owners and their accountants sit at the other end of a long walnut conference table in a back room, wearing elegant dark suits and rummaging through stacks of tax tables and such, earnestly competing to make him the highest-paid player in the history of baseball. This has been going on for about ten days now and should end in about a week, when all of the clubs not faint of heart have their cards on the table. It is not unlike the auctioning of a prize bull.
“Time flies, all right,” Dutch Overton is saying. “It wasn’t ten, maybe twelve years ago I was assistant baseball coach over at Hertford where Jim was playing. Most times I’d wind up umpiring our games behind the plate. They’d always say, ‘No wonder Jimmy wins. He brings his own personal umpire.'”
“Competitive spirit played a part, too,” says Pratt.
“Say y’all talk with ’em in the morning?”
“Us in the morning. Cincinnati in the afternoon.”
“Jim’s out hunting if I know him.”
“I would imagine that’s the case, Dutch.”
Pratt is showing off his 1971 World Series ring to a motel guest when Overton asks who he thinks will eventually sign Hunter. “The Yankees,” he says flatly. “Clyde Kluttz is their top scout, and he and Jim go hunting together all the time. Jim could make an awful lot of extra money in New York, too, and don’t overlook that. And the Yankees can start winning pennants again if they get him. If I had to bet on it, I’d say the Yankees.”
When it was announced at a frantic press conference on New Year’s Eve of 1974 in New York that the Yankees had persuaded Jim Hunter to sign what was easily the most awesome contract in the history of major-league baseball—the five-year package came to an estimated $3.75 million, including salary and insurance and deferred bonuses—the whole story read like a novel. It involved a Southern country boy suddenly inspired to give it his best shot in the Big Apple, a club owner forced by the commissioner of baseball to stay out of the negotiations, a general manager putting the finishing touches on what could become another Yankee dynasty, a kindly veteran scout who got the job done through the back door with old-fashioned friendship and trust, a sleepy little tobacco and farming town abruptly basking in national prominence, a mercurial sports entrepreneur finally letting his arrogance and stubbornness get the best of him, a generous portion of vindictiveness from several sides, and, less pronounced, a general restlessness over the traditional notion that a player is a slave until proved otherwise. The cast:
• James Augustus “Catfish” Hunter. Born and reared on a farm near Hertford, some fifty miles from Ahoskie on Albemarle Sound, signed with the then-Kansas City Athletics for a $75,000 bonus in 1964 and is now, at twenty-eight, the premier pitcher in baseball. Because fishing is a passion, he was nicknamed “Catfish” by Finley as a gimmick. Has won 88 games and lost only 35 over the past four seasons, with a career earned-run average of 3.12 (and in 37 World Series innings is 4-0 and 2.19). A country-cool good old boy, devoted to his childhood sweetheart and two children, stays close to home. Salary with the A’s in ’74 was $100,000.
• Charles O. Finley. Controversial owner of the Oakland A’s who is always in the spotlight: for proposing orange baseballs; for designing garish, multicolored uniforms; for firing a second baseman who botched a couple of plays in a Series game; for trying to make pitcher Vida Blue change his first name to “True”; for cutting corners on accommodations and salaries in spite of three straight World Series clubs. When he delayed paying Hunter the remaining $50,000 on his ’74 contract, Hunter was declared a free agent by an arbitration panel. After the Yankees signed Hunter, Finley paid the $50,000 and said he would take the matter to the Supreme Court.
• The Yankees. Having traded Bobby Murcer even-up to San Francisco for Bobby Bonds in a case of grand larceny at the trading block, the Yankees became a gathering storm in the American League, thanks in large part to the canny purchases and trades of president and general manager Gabe Paul. In the Hunter pursuit the Yankees were driven by revenge as well: toward Finley, for not releasing Dick Williams from a contract with the A’s so he could manage the Yankees; toward commissioner Bowie Kuhn, for not helping them in the Williams tussle and for slapping a two-year suspension on club general partner George Steinbrenner for being indicted on charges of illegal political campaign contributions.
• Clyde Kluttz. Originally from the Ahoskie-Hertford area, Kluttz is the scout who first signed Hunter for the Athletics, a decade ago, and is now, at fifty-seven, the Yankees’ superscout. A mediocre catcher for nine seasons with five big league clubs, Kluttz’s top yearly salary was $10,000 (“I deserved every penny of it”). Hunter says, “Clyde never lied to me. He’s my friend. That’s why I signed with the A’s and that’s why I signed with the Yankees.”
• The Bit Players. There was pitcher Gaylord Perry, who came from nearby Williamston, trying to talk his old buddy into going with his Cleveland Indians. And the dean of major league managers, saintly Walter Alston, of the Dodgers, who wanted Hunter badly enough to fly coast to coast for a chat. And Gene Autry, the old cowboy movie star and singer who now owns the California Angels, who stood on the streets of Ahoskie handing out autographed Christmas albums he had recorded. And A’s manager AI Dark, who showed up with his wife one night at the Hunter spread, claiming he “just happened to be in the area” for some appearances. And Dick Williams, Hunter’s friend and former A’s manager, now managing the Angels, in Ahoskie also to do some ear-bending. And even attorney Dick Moss, of the Major League Baseball Players Association, instrumental in breaking Finley’s hold on Hunter and, as a result—time will tell—possibly tearing a chink in the historical “reserve clause” binding a player to one club for life unless traded or sold.
Much of the story’s charm lay, of course, in its setting. Hunter lives an hour away, on a 113-acre farm, but when it was determined that he was free to sign with any major league club, Ahoskie was selected as the bargaining table, since that is where Hunter’s lawyers work, out of a quaint, old two-story brick building on Main Street. The second largest town in sparsely populated northeastern North Carolina, Ahoskie (pop. 5500) is a farmer’s delight, with ten churches, a handful of family style restaurants, an ample supply of feed-and-seed stores and tobacco warehouses, and a textile mill that employs nearly four hundred workers. Only twice in memory has the town attracted any sort of national attention: when Lady Bird Johnson made a train stop to promote her national beautification project (the train doesn’t stop there anymore) and when the funeral was held for a native son killed while performing with the Air Force’s acrobatic Blue Angels. It is baseball country, though. From the area over the years have come such major league players as Torn Umphlett, Enos “Country” Slaughter, Stuart Martin, Jim and Gaylord Perry, and now Catfish Hunter.
It was in Hertford (pop. 2023), some fifty miles south of Norfolk, that Jim Hunter was born—the last of four sons—to a tenant farmer and two-dollar-a-day logger named Abbott Hunter. Life wasn’t easy, but when the chores were done Jim found himself competing with his bigger brothers at whatever sport came to mind. He was growing up tough and big and strong—as a freshman at Perquimans High School in Hertford he stood six feet tall and weighed nearly 175 pounds—making him a prep star in football and baseball during his four years. (“He was just a big old country boy who liked it rough,” recalls Bobby Carter, who coached Hunter at Perquimans High and now coaches at Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.) Hunter was a linebacker and offensive end (“He could’ve probably been a pretty good football player at one of the smaller colleges”). But it was in baseball that he began to attract attention. Playing shortstop and batting cleanup when he wasn’t pitching, Hunter would eventually pitch five no-hitters during his high school career—one of them a perfect game, on the day following Easter Sunday of 1963—and bring the major-league scouts flocking to the porch of his father’s farmhouse. This was in 1964, the last year of open bidding for young talent before the free-agent-draft era began, and one night in the living room of the Hunter house young Jim Hunter signed his bonus contract with the Kansas City Athletics and Clyde Kluttz.
Those were the days when bonus babies had to remain with the major league club, rather than being farmed out for nursing in the minors, so Hunter spent the summer of his eighteenth year pitching batting practice and occasionally posing for gimmicky publicity pictures, sitting on the lap of fifty-nine-year-old pitcher Satchel Paige (another Finley stunt and possibly the beginning of Hunter’s long dislike of Finley). During the 1965 and ’66 seasons Hunter won only 17 games and lost 19. But he came forward as a genuine star in 1967, the A’s last year in Kansas City before Finley moved the franchise to Oakland, when his earned run average abruptly dipped to 2.80. In 1968 he became the first American Leaguer to pitch a regular season perfect game in 46 years, and in 1971 he began a string of 20-game seasons that now stood at four straight. Last year, when he finished 25-12 with a 2.49 ERA, he won the Cy Young Award.
But there was bad blood brewing between Hunter and Finley. Who can figure Finley? He gave Hunter $75,000 to sign, $5,000 for pitching his perfect game, another big bonus for winning 21 games in 1971, an investment in 1972 that netted Hunter $15,000 after taxes, and once lent him $150,000 to buy nearly 500 acres adjoining his own 100 in Hertford. That loan from Finley came in 1970, and it was agreed orally that Hunter would pay back at least $20,000 at the end of each season, plus 6-percent interest, until it was all paid off.
“We never had anything down on paper,” Hunter was saying one day at Ahoskie during a lull in negotiations with the various clubs. “I appreciated the loan. I really wanted that land next to my place. I knew I could pay back the money every year, with the kind of money I was making with the A’s. But we got into the season, down into August, and Finley started hounding me about the money. I said, ‘But I’m supposed to pay you when the season’s over,’ and he said, ‘I know, but I’m buying a hockey team and a basketball team and I need the money.’ Well, the worst part was it seemed like he never called me about it except on days when I was going to pitch. I started eight games that August and didn’t have a single win the whole month. I was worried. One time I asked him why he never called except when I was pitching, and he said he didn’t know who was going to pitch then. That’s bull. Charley Finley knows more about that ball club than the manager—whoever the manager might be in a given year.”
That was the beginning of the end of their relationship. Hunter sold off most of the 500-odd acres he had bought with the loan, so he could pay back Finley at the end of the year. From that moment on he simply lay low and tried to forget about everything except getting batters out, which he was now doing masterfully. His tactic worked until he let Finley charm him into a two-year contract calling for $100,000 a year beginning with the 1974 season (“It was the fastest contract I ever signed; I don’t know what got into me”), only to see lesser players take their dealings with Finley to arbitration and, in some cases, win more pay. When Finley piddled around about paying half of last year’s salary to Hunter’s agent in deferred payments, Hunter immediately pounced. This time he contacted Dick Moss, of the Players Association, got the matter before an arbitration board, and became an ex-Oakland A. “I felt like I’d just gotten out of prison,” says Hunter, “even if I did regret how the other players might feel about my leaving the club.” So A’s slugger Reggie Jackson: “With Catfish we were world champions. Without him we have to struggle to win the division.” With Finley pleading that he had never fully understood his obligations in the contract, and vowing there would be hell to pay for anyone who dared sign Hunter, the battle was engaged.
At eight thirty in the morning, three days after Christmas, J. Carlton Cherry—a bulky, balding native who is senior partner of Cherry, Cherry and Flythe, Attorneys—was already in his office, cleaning out wastebaskets from the night before. Cherry and Jim Hunter have been associated since Hunter signed his first contract and “discovered a baseball player needs help on some things.” For better than a week Cherry and his partners and a harried coterie of secretaries had presided over a small mob scene that took place each day, all day. Another delegation of major-league executives would arrive and, for an hour or more, retire to a small conference room with Cherry and Hunter to make its proposition.
Carlton Cherry is no small town hayseed lawyer working from a squeaky swivel chair in front of great granddaddy’s roll top desk. Although this was easily the biggest project he had ever handled, he had methodically gone about his business—making discreet calls to baseball and sports agentry people to get the feel of the new opportunities open to athletes and sitting down with Hunter to put down precisely what was most important to him and his family and, finally, declaring that the store was open for business—and he stood to make enough off the month’s work he was putting in to allow two more generations of Cherrys the best North Carolina can offer. The Tigers, the Orioles, and the Cardinals never entered the bidding for Hunter, for lack of that kind of money and for fear of wrecking “team morale,” but the twenty-one other clubs had been busily exerting every imaginable pressure. Some clubs sent in personal friends of Hunter’s, as the Brewers did in dispatching Mike Hegan, an ex-A’s teammate, to Ahoskie. Other clubs would undermine the Yankees and Mets by using Hunter’s devotion to family (“God, Jim, your wife wouldn’t even dare go to the grocery store in that jungle up there”). “We’re looking for the overall picture,” said Cherry. “The living conditions, whether the club is a contender; the ball park, whether it is a ‘pitcher’s park’; the money, of course, and the security. The total package. We’ve told every club it has an equal opportunity, even Oakland, and that we’ll do no horse trading and make no special deals with any club.”
The Yankees were going after Catfish Hunter with the doggedness that Hunter himself shows when stalking a deer along a somber inlet on Albemarle Sound, and they intended to get him. Their nearness to a string of pennants was a driving force and a bargaining point. The magic of the Yankee name—the Yankees almost never lost when Jim Hunter was growing up—was another asset. And they knew that when it came down to the crunch, they had in their corner a fellow named Clyde Kluttz.
Clyde Franklin Kluttz was reared in the same part of America as Jim Hunter, knew the same baying of dogs and lapping of water and the loose feeling of hanging around the steps of a country store telling lies and enjoying the company of men in no hurry to do anything more than savor life. Ten years ago, scouring the Southeast for prospects in behalf of the Kansas City Athletics, he spent countless afternoons keeping watch over young Jimmy Hunter of Perquimans High, in Hertford, North Carolina, and countless evenings having supper with the possibility of his signing Hunter to an Athletics contract. He, like George Pratt, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was that grandfatherly sort a farm family and a wide-eyed young prospect from the Southern outback could trust, and when Hunter’s free agency was declared Kluttz knew what to do. He flew to Norfolk, rented a car, drove to Hertford, and checked in for an indefinite stay at a motel twelve miles from Hunter’s home.
While the executives and scouts from the other clubs made their appointments through Carlton Cherry and flashed in on Lear jets for their stiff presentations to Cherry and Hunter, Kluttz sat in his motel room and read papers and watched daytime television. When the day began to close down he got into his car and drove over for a family visit with Hunter. What about living around New York City? Hunter would ask. Look, Kluttz would say, I hated it, too, at first, but people are people. You’ve got good ones and you’ve got bad ones no matter whether it’s Hertford or New York. Hunter would say, But San Diego says they’ll pay me anything I want, and Kluttz would ask how many players from provincial cities like San Diego ever made the Hall of Fame. It was a steady, logical, neighborly, sensible bombardment that Jim Hunter could not resist. When you are talking about three million-plus, what’s a few thousand?
The Yankees had the cash. The Yankees, with him as their ace pitcher, would be in the World Series. There would be all of the endorsements and other side money in New York, money generally unavailable if you play in San Diego or Kansas City or Texas. If eight million people could manage to survive in New York then why couldn’t Jim Hunter and his family? Having the matter boiled down like that, tossing and turning over it in the shank of the night with his childhood girl friend at his side, Jim Hunter could make but one decision: the Yankees, the Big Apple.
There would be the logistics of finalizing the deal. The Yankees could save considerable money on taxes if the contract were signed during 1974. A press conference was called for New Year’s Eve, at the Yankee offices in Flushing. An attorney for the Yankees named Ed Greenwald scribbled out the terms of the contract on ten pages of a yellow legal pad as he flew by private jet to North Carolina. Cherry and Hunter met the jet at a country airport, and the jet then flew on to New York with all three aboard. Limousines were waiting. The group went to the Yankees’ offices, and then there was much merriment, with the press corps furiously recording the occasion. A fishing pole, bought in haste for $13.21 at a sporting goods store that evening, was presented Hunter by an aide to Mayor Abe Beame. Clyde Kluttz was introduced and began to cry. Gabe Paul passed out a statement saying that George Steinbrenner had not been allowed to work actively in the negotiations but had told Paul, “Anytime you have an opportunity to buy the contract of a player for cash, I want you to go ahead whenever, in your judgment, it should be advantageous to the Yankees.” At a bar along Third Avenue, celebrating New Year’s Eve when he heard the news, a fellow said to a Daily News reporter, “What does this mean for the price of hotdogs, peanuts, and beer at the park?”
Yes. Precisely. And along that line, during the weeks following the signing of Catfish Hunter for more than $3 million to pitch baseballs, there were those columnists and commentators who would speak with outrage at the very notion that such amounts of money could fall into the hands of the few—be it Hunter, the president of General Motors, or Nelson Rockefeller—at a time in American history when unemployment and inflation were coupling to make it difficult for millions of Americans to put bread on the table or gas in the car. “How can a nation be in dire financial straits and yet treat its linebackers and pitchers as if they were a great natural, irreplaceable resource like gold or oil?” wrote Jean Shepard in the The New York Times. In spite of the excitement the Hunter contract generated nationally, this aspect of the story was not entirely lost on the citizens of Ahoskie, North Carolina.
Joe Andrusia is not as articulate as, say, Jean Shepard. But during the two weeks of visitations by major league executives and lawyers the imbalance of it all had been gnawing at him. Andrusia, fifty-nine, runs the barber shop in Ahoskie, directly across Main Street from the Cherry law offices, and had himself a ringside seat for the whole affair. Late one morning he sat in one of his barber chairs, wearing his white shirt and Hush Puppies, reading in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot about the death of Jack Benny, listening to gospel music on the radio. It was nearly noon, and there had been only one customer so far. “Kids don’t even get haircuts anymore,” he said, “and the working folks have taken to letting the wife do the job with a pair of scissors to save money.”
“Been quite a show around here,” he was told.
“Lots of famous people dropping in, all right.”
“You gotten any autographs?”
“Ah,” Joe Andrusia said. “I wouldn’t walk across the street to see Gene Autry. Him or any of the rest. All of those people wanting to give one man that kind of money. It’s crazy. Crazy.” Andrusia was bored. He folded the newspaper and walked to the plate glass window and idly slapped his leg with the paper. “Why should I be so excited when this doesn’t put money in my pocket? Hunter’s not from here. All he spends around here is dimes for parking so he can get rich and spend the big money in New York.” There was a swirl around the entrance to the building across the street as reporters and network television crews pounced and bounded after the big league executives as they walked briskly to their limousines. Andrusia shrugged and mounted the barber chair again. “Jack Benny,” he said. “He had a test for cancer just a month ago, and they said it was all gone. He kept complaining, but the doctors said to quit worrying. Then, all of a sudden, he dies from cancer. You’ve got that kind of stuff going on, and people out of work and families starving and that Watergate mess, and now they’re over there across the street trying to give some country boy four million dollars to throw baseballs. Crazy. Something’s wrong somewhere.”
On the Kansas City Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and will help him if he gets out of it in time.
Late one night in the fall of 1969, with the rain splattering against the front window and the gray light of a television set dancing across the bar, I sat in a booth at Emile’s French Café in downtown Atlanta with a feisty young newspaper reporter named Morris Shelton and methodically proceeded to get paralyzed on Beefeater martinis. By now this had become a daily ritual. I was thirty-three years old. I was the featured columnist for the Atlanta Journal, the largest daily newspaper between Miami and Washington. I had been one of a dozen journalists around the country to be selected to study at Harvard under a Nieman Fellowship the previous year. I fancied myself a sort of Jimmy Breslin of the South, cranking out daily one-thousand-word human dramas on everything from flophouse drunks to Lester Maddox, sufficiently loved and hated by enough people to have that sense of pop celebrity with which most newspapermen delude themselves. I had the most envied newspaper job in Atlanta, if not in the South, and now and then I would see a younger writer in a town like Greensboro or Savannah or Montgomery imitating my style just as I had once stolen from Hemingway and Breslin and too many others to talk about. I had been sloppy and inaccurate, from time to time, but I had also written some good stuff. I had hung around all-night eateries and gone to Vietnam, and hitchhiked and lain around with hookers and shot pool with Minnesota Fats and sat in cool suburban dens with frustrated housewives.
And yet, with the next column due by dawn, I had run out of gas. I don’t know why men make dramatic decisions at the age of thirty-three—change jobs, leave families, kill themselves—but they often do. “You have to remember,” I recalled a friend’s saying as he dumped a secure advertising job and ran off to Hollywood to write scripts, “we are no longer promising young men.” I figured I had written a total of two and a half million words for five newspapers in the previous ten years, at a time when you had to move to another paper and another town for a ten-dollar-a-week raise, and about all I could show for it was bad credit and a drinking problem. Working for the mill, as it were, I was earning from Atlanta Newspapers Inc. a net of $157.03 a week; I was drinking too much, staying out all night, fighting with my wife, and choking on the notion that perhaps it was as a “well-read local columnist” that I had reached my artistic peak.
“No ideas for tomorrow?” Morris Shelton said, once we had run out of fanciful ways to cuss the paper. Morris was about ten years younger than I, an aggressive young Texan who hadn’t yet chased enough ambulances and beat enough deadlines to be weary of it. He was one of the younger ones on the paper who defended me when the old-timers there called me a prima donna and, once I bailed out, much more vigorous stuff.
“Just a title,” I said.
“You always start with the title?”
“This time I do.”
“Something like ‘Quitting the Paper.’ ”
“‘Quitting’? You quitting?”
“You’re my star witness, Morris.”
And so we darted through the rain, up to the fourth floor of the old Atlanta Newspapers building, and while he dabbled around the newsroom I called my wife of the time to tell her the apocalypse had arrived (“Come on home and I’ll have a whole bottle ready”). I turned to my typewriter and rattled a stark memo—“Dear Mac … I’m quitting newspapers because I am sick”—and then we went off to get supremely drunk at Manuel’s Tavern. Manuel Maloof, counselor and padrone to scores of journalists over the years, was at first astounded and then fatherly. “You got a half-million people out there gonna be disappointed,” he said. I said, “Let ’em all chip in a penny a week.” When Shelton allowed as how maybe he ought to quit, too, I told him it wasn’t his turn yet.
Freelancing isn’t recommended for everybody, especially those with mortgages and kids and an attraction for whiskey.
The next morning broke cold and bleak but, somehow, refreshing. There was the feeling that an exorcism had taken place; that I had successfully negotiated the move from one plateau of my life to another; that after ten years of writing magazine pieces and dabbling in nonfiction books, I would then move on to something else, like writing films or novels or both. I heard from Jack Tarver, of Atlanta Newspapers Inc., around ten o’clock, “astonished,” wanting to know if there had been a personality clash—if so, he said, he could switch me over to the Constitution—but I told him the problem was bigger than that, and we quit as friends. By noon I had an agent in New York, by two o’clock I had a bank loan of $2,500, by five o’clock I had a modest office above a tire-recapping place, and by bedtime I had enough insurance—disability, hospitalization, life—to take care of a Marine platoon in combat. At some point during the day I drifted back to the paper to clean out my desk, while the old-timers glared tight-lipped at one with the audacity to quit (“Well,” one was later quoted as saying, “it takes a certain breed of man to be a newspaperman”), and one of the young ones blurted that it “takes a lot of guts to quit like that.” I said, “Christ, it takes a lot of guts to stay. I can steal the kind money they’re paying me.” I thought, filled with myself, it was a Line to Remember Hemphill By.
Freelancing isn’t recommended for everybody, especially those with mortgages and kids and an attraction for whiskey (“Make your wife lock up the liquor cabinet and take the key to work with her,” was the only advice I had for a friend who recently made the move). All of a sudden there is no Big Daddy to make you write, give you a paid vacation, pay your phone bill for business calls, make sure your typewriter is clean and working, let you take the day off, refund your business expenses, give you a Christmas bonus, deduct your taxes, cover your hospital bills, pay your postage, clean the office, or pay you every Friday at noon. You are out there, alone, you against the editors and publishers in New York, and newspapers and advertising agencies all over the country are stocked with people who had once hankered for the day they could “get away and write.” Making it as a free-lance writer requires many things—talent, energy, a financial cushion—but from my experience the most important quality is the motivation to go to the mines and write every day. It’s a pisser. “I can’t say I enjoy writing,” somebody once said. “I much prefer having written.” Your deadlines aren’t at the copy desk anymore. They are at the bank.
Upon making the plunge, I was in better shape than some. My first book was making the rounds in New York, beginning to show promise—meaning they knew me up there and I could wheedle more advance money from my publisher. During the first week my agent got me a snap assignment for a sports piece, which quickly led to an association with Sport magazine. One piece led to another, and in spite of the shrinking magazine market I found I always had a half-dozen pieces to work on. My book got rave reviews, mostly, and it led to other books and other connections. I wrote for Life and Cosmopolitan and Pageant and TV Guide (I once considered printing up calling cards saying I would do “Anything legal or halfway moral”), and the business, as we say, expanded. There are the hairy moments when the checks are slow, and I have been locked in combat with my old nemeses Johnnie Walker, and the old debts from those years of wandering and grubbing along on newspaper pay make it necessary for me to produce better than two thousand dollars a month to stay out of jail. But it occurred to me when I was offered a fat chance to go back to newspaper columnizing, in a big Eastern city, that I am doing precisely what I want to do: writing what I want to write, when and where I want to write it, which ought to be about all a serious writer should expect out of his life. Now and then you have to write a little tripe to pay the insurance premiums (one more piece about country music or one more about minor-league baseball and they will have to come and get me), but it is the price you pay for relative freedom. Marshall Frady, an Atlanta writer who really does talk as expansively as he writes, said it one time in Harper’s: “I think maybe writers ought to be scattered out over the land … [people who] just have this secret eccentricity to write … And all the time, covertly, you’re actually a kind of undercover agent stranded out in the cold, sending dispatches from the dark, brawling outback of life to Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dickens, all the others, letting them know what’s going on now.”
I am convinced that the newspaper is the writer’s boot camp. You learn how to use the language. You learn how to interview people. You learn how to work under pressure.
The temptation is to take out after the Journal and Constitution for their dedication to mediocrity over the years. God knows I’ve got a lot of good stories to tell. Atlanta and the South and the nation are teeming with talented ex-Atlanta newspapermen such as Jack Nelson, one of the country’s most respected investigative reporters (now, alas, with the Los Angeles Times), who would have stayed on with the Constitution in 1964 if he had only been shown a single sign of love. Earning ten thousand a year at the time, Nelson told Tarver he would turn down the Times for something like twenty dollars a week and was accused of using the job offer as a “wedge to get more money.” The paper made famous by Ralph McGill and his early-on pleas for racial moderation suddenly got a craw full of civil-rights coverage (i.e., “nigger news”) and was one of the few of any size in America not to staff the Selma-to-Montgomery march. A star editorial-page columnist there was a retired Marine officer, John Crown, who addressed the Vietnam War with all the compassion and neutrality of a Holmes Alexander. The paper’s best-loved columnist was old Hugh Park, waiting out retirement, who got a lot of laughs out of caricaturing the drunks and niggers and wife-beaters parading before Municipal Court every Monday morning. One of the most lyrical and sensitive writers they ever had was Harold Martin, but he was reduced to writing about squirrels and grandchildren before he quit in a huff when ANI wouldn’t increase his pay from the twenty-five dollars per column he was getting twenty-five years ago. (“Consequently,” he said, “I began writing columns worth twenty-five dollars.”) And there was the night my first wife and I had to break away early from a Christmas bash at the home of my managing editor Bill Fields, because I had to go and take phone calls until three a.m. on high-school football games so we could have some Christmas money. “Why, that’s terrible,” said the wife of the man who had made it all possible. “What a waste of talent.” Yes’m, that’s what me and the little woman was thinking. Bunch of dumb-asses. No wonder the newspaper business is in such a mess. They can’t make up their minds whether they want unionized robots or writers. There have been a lot of good people with the Atlanta newspapers—McGill, Martin, Nelson, Eugene Patterson—and there are good ones now. But seldom have the good ones worked in management. There were too many times, in my day there, when the motto should have been (rather than “Covers Dixie Like the Dew”) something like “No News Is Good News.” If it cost money, or might cause legal trouble, it was likely not to be covered.
But all of that is another story, and from what I hear from others who learned to write on other newspapers, the Atlanta Journal isn’t much different from the rest. A newspaper is (or was, before automation set in) a great place for a Linotype operator but a lousy place for a self-respecting writer to work. It is the first line of news gathering before the glamour boys move in for their glossy “in-depth” pieces and Dan Rather comes along flashing his teeth, and I have the greatest respect and gratitude for the grit and tenacity and dampered fury with which a great one like Jack Nelson firebombs the “public servants” hunkered down behind their stacks of press releases on Capitol Hill. But there aren’t many Jack Nelsons. Most of us are inviting suicide or alcoholism or early senility if we continue to labor for too long at a newspaper, thinking we are going to uncover corruption and change the system, because most newspapers themselves are tidy, model plantations. “Boys,” this beautiful old fellow on the Constitution copy desk would tell us summer interns as we waited for the last edition at one a.m., his voice broken from whiskey and his gnarled fingers yellow from cigarettes, “the newspaper is a monster. You fall in love with it, it’s so big and strong, and you promise you’re gonna feed it every day. But what you feed it is you. Every day you come in and feed it a little more, and then one day you’re out of food. There’s nothing left to feed the monster.” I don’t know whether he did it for emphasis, but he always then broke into a terrible coughing spell that was enough to scare the living hell out of a twenty-year-old journalism major.
What you do, then, is use the paper before it uses you—take what it has to offer about the craft of writing, which is almost everything—and then, as Hemingway learned, “get out in time.” I am convinced that the newspaper is the writer’s boot camp. You learn how to use the language. You learn how to interview people. You learn how to work under pressure. You refine what Hemingway once called a writer’s “built-in shit-detector.” You see things few others see, every day, for as long as you work at it. Unlike magazine writing, with its long time lag, you get an instant reaction to everything you write. But all of these are the fundamentals of good writing, and sooner or later many of us become restless with the discovery that there are the facts and then there is the truth. There isn’t time or space or enough perspective to rush the truth into a newspaper. And so you either stay with the paper and go crazy with that knowledge or you simply thank the paper for its help and move on to places where there is more time to do the job properly. It seems to be an altogether natural progression.
The first full-time boss I had in the newspaper business was Benny Marshall. Benny had grown up in the country outside of Birmingham in Alabama. He attended little Howard College and, during the 1950s, became sports editor and sports columnist for the Birmingham News. A witty gnome who could cry at the sight of a wino passed out in an alley, and then make you cry when he wrote about it, Benny was a one-man show when I joined him as a writer of high-school sports in 1958: absolutely committed to reading, writing, editing, and planning the sports section. He would be in the office making up the paper at six o’clock in the morning, up in the composing room to oversee the makeup, back down to remake the home edition, out to Alabama football practice seventy miles away in Tuscaloosa, and back at his typewriter turning out his daily column as the sun went down. He was like father to me. He boosted my ego and covered up my mistakes and gently showed me the way.
Benny was too good for the Birmingham News or any other newspaper. He was built more along the lines of a novelist, or at least a shimmering magazine writer; instead it was his lot to write two-column forty-two-point Bodoni Bold headlines and interview football players and fight cold wars with fat-bellied compositors. He never said it to me, but I suspect that a sense of dread began to fall over him around the early 1960s, when he turned forty and I left the News to wander. A terrible gambler, drinker, and womanizer—as prolific at each as he was at writing beautiful prose—he was strapped with debts and family obligations and a deteriorating body at a time when, perhaps, if he had gone on to the books and other things, he might have been doing great work. This was not the only cause of Benny Marshall’s demise, but it certainly contributed.
One day in the fall of 1969, just before I was to quit the Atlanta Journal, I went through Birmingham on a column-writing expedition through the South. I hadn’t seen Benny in some time, although I had heard from him now and then (“Fan letter,” he scribbled on the envelope of a note to me in Vietnam, and “To One Who Passed This Way But Wouldn’t Stop” on the flyleaf of a paperback collection of his columns), and I was irked when they said he was in New York accepting some kind of an award. I was sitting at his typewriter, rushing to finish a column on Birmingham before Western Union closed and I would have to drive on down the road to Montgomery, when someone answered a phone and turned to me. “You may have a chance to help out an friend,” I was told. Benny was at the airport, drunk, insisting on coming to the office. Maybe I could take him out for coffee in order to get him out of there. Thirty minutes later the elevator doors opened, and there he was, reeling drunk, waving a cup of coffee at me. “Hemp,” he said, and we embraced.
Suddenly the executive editor of the News, Vincent Townsend, glowered from across the newsroom. Townsend was very good at glowering. He also had a son who floundered through more than one college, flunked the Birmingham News aptitude test, stumbled as a reporter, and finally, as part of his education before ascending to upper management, was put in charge of the paper’s weekly pick-the-winner football contest. (Of course, Vincent Townsend intended to see that the football contest succeeded.)
“Mister Marshall,” Townsend boomed.
Benny weaved and spread his hands. “Chief,” he said.
“Have you ever been to Siluria, Mr. Marshall?”
“Shiluria. Sure I been to Shiluria.”
“How would you like to go back to Siluria?”
“Well, sir, I don’t like Shiluria very much.”
A fellow who ran a service station down the road in Siluria had won the week’s football contest, and Townsend wanted Benny and a photographer to drive down that afternoon for a picture and a story. One of the others talked Townsend out of it, saying Benny was tired from his trip and that he would do it instead, and tried to straighten Benny up before driving him home. “You want to go in and watch a real ass-chewing?” Benny said to him. He stumbled out of the car, negotiated the walk to his front door, went straight to the bathroom, shut the door, put a .38 to his head, and pulled the trigger. The News, under Vincent Townsend’s orders, said fine things about Benny in a front-page editorial the next day. I quit newspapering five weeks later.
This story originally appeared in Southern Voices Magazine. You can also find it in the collection, Too Old to Cry.
It is reprinted here with permission from Hemphill’s estate. His wife, Susan Percy, watched the election last night at Manuel’s Tavern, Paul’s favorite hangout even after he quit drinking. “It’s about the only classic old neighborhood bar around,” said Percy. “It’s a great place to watch the election returns, surrounded by writers, lawyers, journalists, cops, city workers, political junkies and other disreputables. They even let the occasional Republican in.”
It must have been the fall of 1962 when I first met Joe Williams. Most newspapermen, at one point or another, succumb to the illusion of public relations — thinking it is the rainbow leading to money and class and peace of mind — and I had just quit writing sports to become the sports publicist at Florida State University. It was football season all of a sudden and I was buried in brochures and 8-by-10 glossies and travel arrangements when Bud Kennedy, the FSU basketball coach, walked in one day and introduced Joe Williams as the new freshman basketball coach. Even then Williams was not the kind to make dazzling impressions. He was quiet and pleasant, tall and hunched over, a man in his late twenties, who grinned out of the side of his mouth and looked up at you, in spite of being 6-foot-4, through bushy black eyebrows. He was, it seems, sort of a part-time coach while doing graduate study or something.7 Florida State was just beginning to flex its muscles in football then, and so Bud Kennedy (who died recently) and assistant coach Hugh Durham (now the head basketball coach at FSU) and, by all means, Joe Williams sort of hovered about like extra men at a picnic softball game.
Joe did have a beautiful young bride named Dale, whom he had met while he was coaching high-school basketball in Jacksonville.8 But she was the only outwardly outstanding thing about Joe Williams, and they lived in what sounded like a fishing-camp cabin in the swamps outside Tallahassee, and I suppose I had his picture taken for the basketball brochure and I suppose the freshman team played out its season. I just don’t know. I went back to newspapering very shortly, and Joe took an assistant coaching job at Furman University, both of us roughly the same age, both of us just looking for a home, and we went separate ways without looking back.9
Jacksonville’s basketball program was, in those days during the early sixties, almost nonexistent. I had seen them play, against teams like Tampa and Valdosta State and Mercer, and it was a twilight zone of dark and airy gyms, small crowds, travel-by-car and intramural offenses. There was a line in the papers about Joe Williams leaving Furman in 1964 to become head basketball coach at Jacksonville University,10 not the most exciting announcement but at least news about an acquaintance. Jacksonville, you could find out if you bought a Jacksonville paper, got progressively worse — from 15-11 to 8-17 in Joe’s first three seasons — and people like me who had known him however vaguely were wondering whatever in the world possessed him to take a job like that.
I was instantly happy at the Daily News. It was frayed around the cuffs and just about everywhere else, but that was a relief after all the power and glamour at the Washington Post. Just the same, the DailyNews had a distinguished history of its own -– Carl Sandburg strumming his guitar in the city room, a distinguished cadre of foreign correspondents, Pulitzer prizes galore, and, of course, Mike Royko. But for the two decades before I got there, it had been searching for an identity. The one thing about it that couldn’t be changed was that it was an afternoon paper, and afternoon papers were the dinosaurs of the newspaper business. Readers were turning to TV instead, and besides, there was never any guarantee that our delivery trucks were going to make their way through the increasingly gnarly traffic. Add it all up and you had Chicago’s version of the Alamo.
I was at the Daily News for the last 13 months of its existence, and it was probably the most exhilarating time of my career. The paper’s old hands did great work, and most of the newcomers fell right in step with them. When the paper was re-designed, it looked great, too. (The guy who re-designed it had also given the New York Herald Tribune a new look right before it went under, so maybe he was the kiss of death.) I remember Royko saying the paper was the best it had been in all the years he’d been there, and Mike didn’t throw compliments around lightly. He couldn’t have cared less about peoples’ feelings. But he was truly proud of the Daily News as it battled extinction.
Being on the same paper with Royko was a privilege. Actually, I was on two papers with him: the Daily News and the Sun-Times. The man was a genius as a columnist. It’s not like great cityside columnists fall off trees, either. But Mike worked in an era that had a bumper crop: Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill and Pete Dexter. There was Murray Kempton, too -– God, what a beautiful writer — and the marvelously off-the-wall George Frazier in Boston. They called Paul Hemphilll “the Breslin of the South” when he wrote a column in Atlanta, and Emmett Watson was the soul of Seattle. When I look around the country now, the pickings are pretty slim. I consider myself lucky to read Steve Lopez in the L.A. Times — he really works to make sense (and fun) of an unbelievably complicated city. I can’t help thinking that he learned, at least in part, by studying the masters.
It’s a tough call–maybe an impossible call- to say who was the best of those giants from 20 and 30 years ago. They all had days when they stood atop the world. Royko and Breslin defined the cities they worked in for the rest of the country. Hamill wrote with the eye of the novelist and memoirist he became. Dexter was the most unique; he went way beyond the Philadelphia city limits to the borders of his imagination. Of course he didn’t do it anywhere as near as long as the others. Hamill kept taking side trips, too–to screenwriting, novels, editing–but I never lost the sense of him as a committed newspaperman. Still, it was Royko and Breslin who seemed to capture the most imaginations. For pure writing I’d give the nod to Breslin. But for knowing how to work a column, whether he was raising hell with the first Mayor Daley or making you laugh with his alter ego, Slats Grobnik, or breaking your heart, Royko couldn’t be beat.
And he did it five days a week. Tell that to these limp-dick editors who think a columnist should only write twice a week. Royko didn’t have the privacy of an office at the Daily News, either. He just moved filing cabinets around until they formed a wall around his corner desk. And he’d be at that desk from morning until late at night.
When he’d send a copy boy to fetch him a cheeseburger from Billy Goat’s Tavern, his instructions were to the point: “Tell the Goat to hold the hair.”
He’d answer his own phone and tell callers he wasn’t Royko and didn’t understand why anybody wanted to talk to the son of a bitch. Then he’d go off on some wild tangent about Royko’s lack of hygiene until he hung up cackling like a madman.
The time I spent yakking with Royko was always at work. He liked to drink -– man, did he like to drink -– but I stayed away from him then. He was a binge drinker, dry for weeks or months and then he’d go on a toot and turn ugly and abusive. When he was drunk, he was forever getting in a scrap or pouring ketchup on a woman who’d rejected his advances. Legend has it that he once fell out of his car while he was driving and broke his leg. There was a group of ass-kissers who tagged along after him like puppies, encouraging him to be more and more outrageous and saying yes to every nonsensical thing that came out of his mouth. As far as I could tell, the only good man in the bunch was Big Shack, who worked in the Sun-Times’ backshop. He looked out for Mike, and he wasn’t afraid to tell him when enough was enough.
Royko with Studs Terkel
Ultimately, Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times and Mike moved to the Tribune, a paper he had always hated. I like to think he still hated it when he worked there, except, of course, when it gave him a chance to call Murdoch “The Alien” in print.
Call me self-deluded, but my shortcomings as a writer didn’t stop me from campaigning to become the Evening Sun’s city columnist, the Breslin of Baltimore, if you will. The strategy I concocted was simple: in addition to writing the best feature stories I could, I would write about rock and roll. There were always great acts coming through town or playing in D.C. or out at Meriwether Post Pavilion in Columbia, the planned city. But the Evening Sun acted as if rock and roll didn’t exist, even with Rolling Stone getting bigger and bigger in the cultural zeitgeist. So I asked the city editor if I could write about a Grateful Dead concert, and he said sure, why not. And then I wrote about Alice Cooper, who borrowed my pen and used it to stir his drink. I wrote about Muddy Waters, too, even though he was too drunk to talk before his show and I spent most of my time hanging out with his piano player, Pinetop Perkins, who was a hell of a nice guy.
Anyway, one thing led to another, and before I knew it I had a once-a-week pop music column. I spent a lot of weeknights and weekends going to shows and interviewing musicians in hotels and motels and bars. I still had to take my regular turn on re-write and do my features and anything else that came my way, but it was all worth it. The music was great even if Sly Stone never showed up and Al Green’s girl friend looked like she wanted to dump hot grits in my lap. I wrote about great, great talents like Bruce Springsteen (just before he hit it big), Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Wonder, Emmylou Harris, Sonny Stitt, Steve Goodman, Ernest Tubb, Bo Diddley, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup, the bluesman who wrote “That’s All Right, Mama,” which became one of Elvis Presley’s early hits. I wrote about Kinky Friedman, too. Twice, in fact, because he was so funny, Groucho Marx in a cowboy hat. He played the old Cellar Door in Georgetown and dedicated a song to my future ex-wife. Thank you for being an American, Kinky.
Wonder of wonders, when I said I’d like to go to Nashville to write a week’s worth of stories about country music, the Evening Sun sent me. Yeah, that’s right, the paper that threw nickels around like manhole covers. Nobody ever told me why and I never asked. I just went. And I had the absolute best experience of the nearly 16 years I spent in newspapers.
In a week of reporting, I played pinballs with Waylon Jennings, whose greasy mixture of country and rock stirred my soul; had an audience with Dolly Parton-–a genius songwriter, in case you didn’t know-–and she was as smart as she was funny and self-effacing; sat with Chet Atkins, the king of Nashville in those days, while he puffed on a cigar in his darkened office and mused about the shadow that Hank Williams still cast over the country music business 20 years after his death at the ripe old age of 29; had a beer and a bowl of chili at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where all the great songwriters–Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Kris Kristofferson–had taken refuge when they hit town; spent an afternoon with Tom T. Hall, a wonderful songwriter, while he laid down a demo of a song called “You Love Everybody But You”; and got on stage at the Grand Ole Opry when its home was still the Ryman Auditorium and it was strictly a radio show.
For the sake of perspective, I wanted to do a piece on Nashville as a whole–its aristocracy was locked in a culture war with the folks on Music Row–so a friend from the Army told me to call a guy he served with in Vietnam. A reporter from the Nashville Tennessean named Al Gore. He picked me up at my hotel and drove me all over town, giving me the rundown on its politics, social structure, race relations, and everything else I wanted to know about. Gore couldn’t have been smarter or more accommodating or nicer. Years later, when I saw his presidential campaign, he seemed like a completely different person, and not one I’d want to show me around Nashville. More like one whose brain waves had been intercepted by Martians.
And then there was Paul Hemphill, who was as open as Gore became sealed off. Along with Johnny Cash’s “Live at Folsom Prison,” which I listened to almost every day that I was in the Army, Hemphill’s book “The Nashville Sound” opened my mind to country music. There’s certainly never been a better piece of work on the subject. I’d read Hemphill in Life and Sport, and one of the guys at the Evening Sun had worked with him at an Atlanta paper and carried his favorite Hemphill column in his walle. He said Hemphill was good people, so I got his home address and wrote him about the trip I planned to take to Nashville. He wrote back right away with the names of people I should look up. From that moment forward, we were friends until he died last year. Mostly we stayed in touch by phone and letters and, later, e-mail. I was stunned by how candid he was about his life, especially his drinking and his frustrations as a writer, but that was Hemp, honest in the way every truth-seeker should be.
We only met once, in ’97 or ’98, when I was in Atlanta working on a story for Sports Illustrated. He took me to a bar called Manuel’s, which was a favorite haunt for politicians, cops, and newspaper reporters He loved the place-–he’d written about it a lot-–and you could tell the people there loved him. He was one of the great writers of his generation and one of those true Southern liberals who overcome the ignorance and bigotry they’re born into. I wish more people knew about him, just like I wish I’d been able to make more trips to Manuel’s with him.
I ended up at the Atlanta Constitution writing sports. A colleague told me about a former pitcher for the town baseball team in LaGrange. He had made Ripley’s Believe Or Not by pitching both games of a doubleheader — tossing a no-hitter in one game and a one-hitter in the other.
By the time I visited him in the old mill village in LaGrange, Scoopie Chappell’s baseball exploits were relegated to aging scrapbooks and stories he told at the beer joint down the hill. I wrote a feature story about him for the Sunday Journal-Constitution.
The article got me a phone call from Paul Hemphill. He wanted Scoopie’s phone number and directions to his house. Hemphill was researching a book about minor league baseball and he figured Scoopie was someone he wanted to visit.
The non-fiction book never materialized but Long Gone did. To me it is the quintessential baseball novel and equally good as an HBO film. It came out in 1987 and you’ll find Bull Durham — as good as it is — is a ripoff of Hemphill’s book.
Scoopie morphed into Stud Cantrell, played on the screen by CSI’s William Petersen. The character of Stud is as good as you’ll find in any work of fiction. In the movie, there’s even a speaking role for Teller — the small mute half of Penn & Teller.
If you haven’t read the book, do. If you haven’t seen the movie, find it.
Amen. William Petersen’s Stud Cantrell is closer to Paul Newman in “Slap Shot” than it is to Costner in “Bull Durham.” The ending of the movie is corny but the rest of it sings. And Hemphill’s novel is a beaut.