Friday, March 27, 2015
1961, THE SUMMER OF MY DISCONTENT
Episode II: Dial “M” for Murder
What to do? More to the point: what to think? We had driven over 2000 miles from New York, and I had hitched some 200 miles from Clovis to Abilene, only to be told by Denis that there was no job waiting for us. The coach had left on an overseas tour with a US track team, and the college dormitory was closed for the summer. We had sacrificed a quarter of the summer competing for the college at the Nationals, and we had both performed creditably and trained hard through the entire track season, and were counting on that job. What’s more, if we hadn’t been assured of work back in Abilene, we would have stayed in the northeast and looked, at least initially, for work in the ‘Big Apple.’
We felt bitter, resentful, and totally forgotten and unappreciated. Should we get Dick Sorkin to write another article? But, no, that hadn’t worked too well the year before. Besides, we weren’t exactly down to ‘a banana and a dime.’ We had a couple of hundred dollars ─ largely from cashing in our airline tickets. Still, our emotions were running haywire, and our first reaction was to investigate a transfer to another college or university and ‘red shirt’ for a year. We called Al Lawrence at the University of Houston to see if Johnny Morris, their coach, would consider that. Highly unlikely, we were told. Four more Australians were joining the team the next autumn, and Johnny didn’t need two more mouths to feed, especially since we would not be able to compete for twelve months. We considered several other options, but quickly discarded them all. Having been suspended during the previous school year wasn’t going to look too good on our application form. Anyway, I wasn’t all that interested in transferring. I now had other interests besides running.
But all was not lost. Although the school and the coach had failed to find us much-needed work for the summer, the ‘note-taker extraordinaire’ was busy at Hugh Bowie Jewellers canvassing the customers who came into the store, asking whether they knew of any summer jobs. I’m supposing that a disgruntled boyfriend with little or no money wasn’t the most exciting prospect for the coming school year, even if he did have an NCAA medal and a Penn Relays watch.
“Bingo!” Charlotte hit the jackpot and added another credit to her ever-increasing allure. The customer in question was a Mexican fellow (That’s what we said in those days) in his early twenties. I think his name was Martinez, but am not absolutely certain. He was making regular payments on an engagement ring (one good recommendation), and he came dressed in labourer’s gear (another hopeful sign). It turned out that he was the foreman of a clean-up crew working night shift on a construction site. There was, he said, immediate work available in his crew for two males who were (as she affirmed) strong, willing, and able. Charlotte didn’t bother finding out any detailed information about the job except that it paid a $1 per hour; nor did we, when we called him later that day and said we were ready to start that night. Our problem was solved!
Or so we thought. Actually, we weren’t all that “strong,” if the truth be told. A favourite track team tale was that once when Denis attempted a bench press in the weight room under the track stadium, he had to lie immobilized for some time, unable to lift the bar from his chest until he got some help from his mates. I had no problems working out with the bar myself…provided it didn’t have any weights on the ends. And I guess we weren’t particularly “able.” True, we did last a week as labourers at one stage, when Topp Lambert, a local builder, gave a few of us on the track team a week’s work during our first Christmas break helping to build the control tower at the Abilene Airport. Denis and I had trouble moving the scaffolding, let alone bricks or anything else heavy, much to the amusement of our fellow team mates. But we were certainly “willing,” and as this summer job was paying only $1 per hour, we considered one out of three ain’t all that bad. Besides, the work, as best we knew, was only clean-up duties on a construction site.
The job was some twenty miles east of Abilene, and as we had no transport, Martinez agreed to pick us up in his car each night and get us back to Abilene. I guess we should have suspected something when we were hired sight unseen and given limo services to and from work.
The construction site was a circular hole in the ground, sixty feet in diameter and 200 feet deep. It was referred to as the ‘underground silo.’ The floor at the bottom of the shaft was covered with heavy mechanical and electrical equipment, and a square steel frame of seven inch girders, horizontal, vertical, and diagonal, stretched from the top to the bottom, surrounded by a walkway about a yard wide. We were working on a launching site for an intercontinental missile. Once our clean-up was complete, this huge deadly weapon would be lowered into the silo and attached to the steel girders. Atop the silo were two five foot thick concrete doors, hinged at the side, which, when closed, were flush with the ground. Here is a diagram of the kind of site we worked on.
There were a number of these rocket-launching sites under construction on the outskirts of Abilene. Dyess Air Force Base was located in Abilene, and it was thought that the missiles were to protect the base. But the silos were huge; too big, I thought, to house weapons to be used for intercepting incoming missiles or for attacking aircraft. My best guess was that these little babies were pointed at Cuba and addressed to Fidel Castro. In those Cold War days Fidel was enjoying his sabre rattling and bad-mouthing America, and his Russian friends were only too happy to back him up. The Cuban missile crisis, remember, happened the following year, in October 1962.
Of course, our speculation as to what might be the target was of no concern to Strategic Air Command. The job of our team of eight was to crawl along the steel girders, chipping and wire brushing rust flakes and concrete in preparation for a final coat of rust-resistant paint.
The shifts were ten hours, with a thirty minute break in the middle. Cleaning the horizontal and vertical girders paid $1 an hour. But cleaning the diagonals, we discovered, paid $1.50 an hour. The extra fifty cents was offered because work on the diagonals was without the benefit of a safety belt. Why this discrepancy existed was a puzzle. The crew of eight was issued with only four safety belts. So if you arrived at work after four of your colleagues got there, you had ten hours of work on seven inch beams without a safety belt. Why? The answer was simple. This was Texas. Not many unions in the Lone Star state in those days.
By good fortune, Martinez, a very amiable person, liked to arrive early, so Denis and I were always belted up by the time the rest of the crew came on site. The composition of the crew of eight deserves serious scrutiny, the need for which will be revealed as the tale unfolds. As well as one Mexican and two Australians, there were two black workers and a Dutchman. I have no recollection of the remaining two. I think the Dutchman was working his way around the world and could speak very little English. Of the two blacks (and I use this word as it was the polite way to refer to African Americans in the 60’s), Joe was the more swarthy of the two and a fun guy to be around. He was always laughing and joking, in his mid-thirties, married, and had ten kids. His soul mate was a paler version and lacked the charm of Joe. He spoke to no one except to Joe, and then only occasionally. It quickly became pretty clear to us that he was not an adherent to Dale Carnegie’s theories about how to win friends and influence people. And I doubt he’d read the book. He was surly and menacing. Never did know his name, but I referred to him (very quietly) as “Surly Face.”
What was particularly interesting is the international representation on this crew. I would have thought these bases were top secret. Well, maybe not “top,” but why would you allow a bunch of foreigners to wander around (or more aptly, crawl around) a missile site? There were no security checks anywhere. How did they know we weren’t snooping around the equipment at the bottom of the shaft or marking the location of the site on a map?
To say that the job was unsafe would be an outrageous understatement. Four safety belts for eight workers who, once they stepped off the walkway, were expected to work five straight hours on seven-inch girders, before and after the half hour break ─ all over a drop of up to 200 feet ─ does not exactly represent the epitome of safe work practices. We learned sometime later that five members of a similar clean-up crew were killed when one of the concrete doors became unhinged and fell into the silo, collecting the five workers along the way. There was also a report that two crew members fell to their deaths at another site. Not surprising. In the last few hours of a ten hour shift you are tired, and a tired worker is more likely to be careless. Those of us who had safety belts had to attach them to the girder and drag them along as we crawled. There were times when we became too weary to endure the constant drag of the belt, so we uncoupled ourselves for awhile and walked along the narrow girder. I find it difficult to believe, looking back at that time, that I would choose to do such a thing, with certain death below my feet, not once a night, but several times in a shift.
On the fifth or sixth night of work, Surly Face, our sole volunteer to clean the diagonals in order to pocket the extra fifty cents per hour,
arrived for work as usual. That night, while on a diagonal girder, he lost his balance and fell, but he managed somehow to twist his body and propel himself across the corner, latching onto the adjoining beam. He said nothing, but he was visibly shaken by the experience.
The following night he arrived for work as drunk as a skunk. The diagonals, remember, had to be cleaned without a safety harness. Normally, no one would dare to challenge him for this privilege ─ least of all me. But it was obvious to all of us that it was certain death for him to attempt the diagonals in his condition. As usual, I had taken possession of one of the four belts. So, in my one and only conversation with Surly Face (a strictly one-way conversation), I gave him my belt and said I would do the diagonals for one night. I still don’t know exactly why I did it. I didn’t like him one bit. I suspect that if we had been in a war zone and he’d been injured, I may have put my head down and kept running. Maybe it’s that I’ve always had an aversion to blood, anyone’s blood, not just my own. I’m a fainter, and it was plain to me that I was going to see him smashed to pieces on the equipment far below us if I didn’t intervene.
So I did the diagonals and survived, without the additional fifty cents per hour, I might add. Surly Face lay most of the night on a horizontal girder securely strapped with my safety harness. We parted that night at the end of the shift without a word being spoken by Surly Face to anyone about what had happened.
But the next night as we arrived for work, he came up to me and said, “Hey you.” (I guess that was his best attempt at a polite greeting.) “If ever you want someone killed, call me.” I wasn’t tempted to think he was joking. Surly Face never joked. This was a serious offer, a genuine “dial ‘M’ for murder” offer. At the break Joe came up to me with his usual good-natured smile and said, “He means it. He’s killed two people that I know of.”
For a fleeting second there, I did think of Bobby Mack, who beat me at Penn, and the coach, for not getting us a job, and the guys on the track team who strung a dead snake in the crotch of my track suit pants in the locker room. And much later, in the sordid world of commerce, I did sometimes wonder if his business card was somewhere among my US memorabilia. Never did know what happened to Surly Face. Suspect he wasn’t around long enough to make good on his promise. Joe, on the other hand, I know about. Before Denis and I finished our career as missile silo cleaners, Joe had left town in a big hurry, as Martinez told the story, to avoid a very angry husband. I guess Joe’s affable nature was enjoyed by others besides his work mates. I’ll say no more.
As the facts of the job Charlotte procured for us began to emerge, her joy rapidly diminished. For a start, we worked in opposite time zones. Charlotte spent her days at Hugh Bowie Jewellers while I was snoozing, and I was doing my circus act on the girders all night. Not exactly a perfect schedule for a budding romance. Still, it was money in the pocket, a mammoth $10 a night! Imagine that. Difficult, tiring, and dangerous, and the gross earning before tax was $10 per night. Herod’s slaves were probably on a better pay package when they were building the Temple in Jerusalem. He, at least, had to feed his workers. Denis and I always took our midnight snack as well as our own coffee. Never was a strong supporter of the union movement, but once you experience their complete absence, you’ve got to see that they are necessary.
It was all about to come to a startling finish. On the tenth night (No weekend off for good behaviour, by the way; this was a seven-night per week job.) the foreman Martinez and I were to perform the final pre-paint cleansing of a horizontal beam very near the top of the silo. To this point we had been wire brushing and chipping the rust and concrete off the girder, but the final application was steam cleaning with a high- pressure hose with the attached nozzle held two inches above the surface and aimed three inches ahead of your front foot. The nozzle was made of a heavy metal, probably brass, and was about one foot in length. It had to be heavy for the operator to effectively direct the strong jet of steam onto the girder. As the operation proceeded across the girder, the hose was carried across the shoulders of both the nozzle operator and the second member of the crew, two yards behind him. Both men were uncoupled. There was no safety harness, as both operators had to walk the beam unhindered. I don’t remember whether we drew lots for this assignment or if I was simply told what had to be done. I’m fairly certain I would not have volunteered. I was the nozzle man.
I started to edge my way across the twenty-yard expanse with the nozzle in my hands, looking a little like a novice tight rope walker. Martinez followed close behind, carefully supporting the hose on his shoulders so that its weight wouldn’t unbalance me. All went well until we reached the end of the beam, which butted into a vertical girder, forming a right angle at the joint. As I said earlier, “able” was one of the requirements for the job, but “able” I was not. Common sense should have been enough to make me realise that a high powered pressure hose expelling a jet of steam is going to give one heck of a kickback when pointed 2” from a 90 degree connection of two steel girders.
And kick it did!
At this point in my life I had already had two near-death experiences, both occasioned by jumping on and off moving trams. The first time, I was twelve and in the company of two future rugby league legends, Reg Gasnier and Peter Diamond.
In the days when trams were the major form of transport in Sydney, one of the truly great joys of our youth was hopping on and off them as they were coming to a halt or heading out of the tram stop. The tram tracks ran mostly down the centre of a major thoroughfare with cars passing on either side in opposite directions. The trams of the 1950’s vintage had two important components for tram jumping: first, a running board of some nine inches in width, along the entire length of the tram, and second, vertical hand rails on both sides near each door, as I remember, about eight per side. The technique of tram jumping was to run alongside, parallel with the track, until your speed matched that of the tram, then you grabbed your chosen handrail and launched yourself onto the running board.
Why tram jumping was never an Olympic sport baffles me. It required skill, agility, and daring to execute. And the greater the speed, the more demanding and rewarding it was. If you had asked me in those days, I would have said it’s sad that kids today do not have the benefits of jumping on and off trams as we did in the days of my youth. As a grandfather, I’m not so sure. The picture below gives a graphic example of our obsessive target.
I believe that, for my age group, I was an exceptional tram-jumper. But as with all physical endeavours, there was an element of risk attached.
The year was 1951, and the state schoolboy football team of which I was a member had just finished a training session, so we were heading home. At the major intersection of Oxford Street and Flinders Street, just opposite the Darlinghurst Courthouse, the trams slowed to make a right hand turn into Flinders Street. We loved to grab them at that point, just as they began to accelerate. I should explain that the selection of your handrail is all important when jumping a tram, so you have to be looking backwards as you run alongside. I was leading a ‘mass boarding’ of the teammates going my way and was approaching the ‘launch stage.’ What I failed to notice was a shallow hole dug by a maintenance crew, and I went down hard. A pile of excavated soil heaped beside the rails kept me from rolling under the wheels. But it was perilously close.
Undeterred, I remained an active participant in tramming. And at the age of fifteen or sixteen, I tested my skills alighting from a tram on Anzac Parade, Kensington, early one evening. Jumping off trams was less demanding than boarding. You only had to hold your balance when your feet hit the ground running ─ no handrail to grab or running board to aim for. To make it more challenging, you could jump from the tram while facing the rear of the tram, opposite to the direction it was headed. It wasn’t easy, and it couldn’t be performed at speed… not a feat for the fainthearted.
I executed the backwards dismount perfectly and held my balance as I ran backwards for a couple of yards. The only flaw was that I had jumped off the wrong side of the tram into oncoming traffic. I was whacked on the left arm by a car and spun around, crashing onto the road beside the car. I wasn’t seriously hurt, but the driver was badly shaken. I assured him that I was okay, and, not wishing to have to explain my action, I took off at a gallop and ran 200 yards up the hill toward home. At the top of the hill, in front of our apartment building, I passed out. Shock, I guess. (In view of this confession, it’s hard to believe, I know, that several years later, I won the Dean’s Award when graduating at ACC, a kind of celebration of maturity and intelligently applied common sense. Just as well Dean Beauchamp wasn’t there in Kensington that afternoon.)
I never did tell my parents. I didn’t think they would want to know that their one and only son had executed a perfect backwards tram dismount from the wrong side and was hit by a car. The one legacy I have from this adventure is a small lump on my left arm where the car struck me that day (as shown in the picture below).
Only recently my doctor put that nearly sixty year old lump under close scrutiny. He decided it was nothing to worry about but offered to remove it for aesthetic reasons. “Nah,” I said. “Helps me to remember not to jump on and off moving trams.” He couldn’t see the logic of my response, as trams had not been operating in Sydney for the last 50 years and are unlikely to be reintroduced during my life time. But I digress.
When the high pressure steam hit the joint, the kickback was a shocker! The nozzle flew up past my face with me still holding onto it as my body bent backward and my knees buckled. What followed was rapid, but to me it was like a slow-motion sequence in “The Six Million Dollar Man.” I released the nozzle, now above my head, as my feet left the girder. In a frozen frame I would have been parallel to the beam, facing upwards, with my head now pointed towards Martinez. I began my attempt to execute a 180° backward twist in midair. In all modesty, the routine could only be described as a “perfect 10” for artistry and degree of difficulty. I performed the twist and hit the girder square on. Somehow, I managed to get one leg and one arm on either side of the beam and entwined it in a loving embrace. I clung to that girder like a limpet mine, quivering like a jellyfish.
But the drama was not over. Martinez was in trouble. When I let go of the nozzle, it passed over my head and dropped into the pit, pulling the hose down with it. Martinez, with the hose still over his shoulder, was jerked forward, straight onto the girder, the only thing between us and the bottom of the pit. His was a well executed belly flop but lacked the artistry and difficulty of my performance. And there we were, both super-glued to the girder, with our noses almost touching.
It took us awhile to collect our thoughts and to figure out the best way to get back to the walkway. I’m sure Martinez was making a private vow about ever hiring any more Australian Gringos. He didn’t have to dwell on that for too long though. Once we had managed to scoot back to relative safety, I informed him that my promising career as a missile silo cleaner had come to an end and resigned. Denis did likewise.
So, let’s see… ten nights of dangerous work netted us ─ actually, grossed us $100 dollars each ─ plus a contract to execute anyone of my choice.
Back in Abilene our employment agent at Hugh Bowie Jewellers was too distraught to continue her job-seeking endeavours. I suppose a poor male companion is preferable to a dead one. The lack of work was further complicated by the fact that our free accommodation was about to end. Bill Woodhouse had kindly provided us beds (note the plural form please) in his rented apartment, but he was leaving Abilene, so our abode went with him. Denis decided that he would use his well earned wages to pay for a bus ticket to California. He was a fully accredited member of Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters Union, which controlled employment in the fruit canneries, so he was reasonably certain of several weeks’ work. I had no such certification, and I couldn’t risk my small bankroll on a trip to the other side of the country without it. Of course, had I been a person of devious disposition, I could have tried my luck back at Hubbard Paints and told them that I had been dishonourably discharged from the Marines. But, no. Wouldn’t do. Instead, I fell back on my old Aussie mates in Houston. They assured me that by various non-specified means, they could feed and bed me for the rest of the summer break.
I suppose I could have stayed in Abilene, proposed marriage to Charlotte, and lived off her generous summer salary of 75c an hour at Hugh Bowie’s, but I doubted that an unemployed, car-less, soon-to-be-declared bankrupt NCAA champion with a shiny medal was all that enticing. So, we parted on the very best of terms. Within two weeks of my arrival in Abilene, I was again on the highway, my thumb pointing this time in the direction of Houston.
Next: University of Houston’s ‘most wanted’ (and a disallowed world record).
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
|While going through the attic of my computer, I found the first trace of what has now become a world wide read blog about track and field. In 2009, I was doing another blog called Sooner Tracks about my Oklahoma Sooners of the 1950's and 1960's. My friend Roy Mason on a lark sent me the piece below which I put onto that Sooner Tracks. It had a number of favorable comments from those Okie readers and thus the Once Upon a Time in the Vest was born. I had no idea how to set up a blog. My cousin living in Hawaii had been putting together Sooner Tracks for me, but I didn't want to get her bogged down with a second blog. So I looked up on the Google site how to set up a blog using their format. |
You can see this entry and the old Sooner tracks on this URL:
The Birth of Once Upon a Time in the Vest
In this series of short articles, a friend Roy Mason from Ukiah CA has summarized gleanings from Track and Field News from about 1952 to 1970. Roy is an astute observer of our sport, has attended many national championships, and has an encyclopedic memory and eye for detail in the world of track and field and some other fields which I will not detail. He found a stack of old Track and Field News issues when cleaning out a store room and has immersed himself in the past and sends on these commentaries.
Gaston Reiff sets a WR 8:40.4 in the 2M
Strandi of Norway becomes the first 200’ hammer thrower with 200-11
Emil Zatopek breaks the 30K record by 3 ½ minutes with 1:35.23.8. (Had he been able to continue at that pace for another 12,195 meters he would have run a 2:14:11 marathon.) He also has the fastest 5 and 10K times, 14:06.4 and 29:17.0
The triple jump is the hop, step and jump
The recently departed Ollie Matson has the seventh fastest 400, 46.6n
Track guys were “thinclads”
The top 1500 time was 3:43.0 by Werner Lueg of Germany. Using the conversion of 17 seconds to make a mile, maybe he could have been the first four minute miler. He probably never ran one.
Only six jumpers in the world bettered 6’8”
The 16th best shot put on the world list was…….52-10.
Lengthy features on Harrison Dillard (Baldwin-Wallace gym so small that he could only practice out of the blocks over one hurdle) and Josy Barthel of Luxembourg (won 26 of 27 races between 800 and 2000 – what middle distance runner races 27 times now? – and “lost 22 lbs during the season”).
Three world records: Fortune Gordien, the holder of 16 of the longest 18 discus throws in history nails 194-6, breaking his month old 190-7½. This is described as “history’s greatest track and field achievement” based on the IAAF tables which had it superior to a 3:55.9 mile, 27 foot broad jump and a seven foot high jump. All this at an all comers meet in Pasadena….
Yuriy Litytev of the USSR takes down Glenn Hardin’s WR of 50.6 set in 1934 with a 50.4 in a dual meet with Hungary….
Andun Boysen runs 1000 meters in 2:20.4 beating Mal Whitfield’s 2:20.8 set earlier in the summer. Had he been able to continue at that pace for another 500 meters, he would have run a 3:30.6 1500. But then that’s just crazy talk.
The top milers are some guys named Bannister, Santee and Landy with marks of 4:02.0, 4:02.4 and 4:02.8
Walter Davis, the Olympic champion and world record holder at 6-11 5/8, a height 1¾” better than anyone else this year, retires from the sport by signing a professional basketball contract with the Philadelphia Warriors.
As this particular issue has the autograph of Paul David Kamanski in the upper right hand corner, I’ll take a moment to explain his significance, both to the sport and to the state of Ohio. Dave was the coach at Bellflower High 15 years before I was. It was he who told me where the old copies of T&FNews were stored in an attic storeroom above the coaches’ office. He coached my lifelong friend, Buddy Cox. When I coached at Bellflower, Dave was just down the road at Cerritos College where he coached track and XC. Dave was a personable guy, a man’s man, a guy who always had time to talk. When Cerritos was installing a new all weather track, Dave asked if he could bring is new transfer sprinter over to work out on our track. It was Houston McTear who had burned a few bridges behind him. The guy didn’t last long at Cerritos which I think was his last stop. Something about attending classes.
Not that class attendance was a major obstacle for Dave. Eric and I once had a kid who had super potential on the track, but not in the classroom. He had run 52.0 without training, but dropped out to take a $3/hr. janitorial job his senior year. Dave got him enrolled at Cerritos and assured me grades would not be a problem, “He’ll be taking 10 credits of Kamanski” – volleyball, wrestling, handball, principles of officiating. The kid enrolled each spring and ran 51+ for the intermediates and 47.0 on a relay leg.
Here is the Ohio connection. Dave was best known for being one of the top referees in D-1 football. It was common to see him doing PAC-10 games most weekends. He was also the referee for four Rose Bowl games. (One of our rituals was asking him what time it was. “Well, let me check.” Elaborate extension of his arm. “I see by MY ROSE BOWL WATCH that it is 4:25.”)
Dave was the referee for the 1980 Rose Bowl in which Charles White leaped into the end zone to score the winning touchdown on fourth down with less than a minute to play, giving SC a 17-16 win over the Buckeyes and plunging the state of Ohio into mourning. Unfortunately the cover of the following week’s SI showed White crossing the goal line without the ball. Oops! When asked about this, Dave had a stock answer, “The camera lied”.
Saturday, March 21, 2015
1961, THE SUMMER OF MY DISCONTENT
Episode I: Have Cab, Will Travel
Somewhere, I cannot recall exactly where, Shakespeare wrote about his (or someone’s) ‘winter of discontent.’ Well, the summer of 1961 was my summer of discontent (at least with regard to summertime work, the essential ingredient for restoring our finances.) As with the commencement of the previous summer, our combined finances ─ Denis’s and mine ─ were again running low.
The period leading up to the 1961 summer break was anything but one of discontent. In fact, it was a fabulous time for me. A nice little friendship with Charlotte was progressing, and the second half of the track season proved to be the pinnacle of my athletic career. In the last ten weeks of the track season I anchored ACC”s distance medley for a win at the Texas Relays, set a new mile record for a Texan collegiate athlete, broke the Penn Relays steeplechase record, won the National Collegiate Amateur Athletics (NCAA) Steeplechase championship, and was elected to the 1961 All-American National Collegiate Track Team. In the final race of the year, held in New York, I finished 4th in the National AAU steeplechase championship. I’m still not sure how I ever made the “all American” team when I was a true-blue Aussie, but then again, my Aussie friend Pat Clohessy was also selected. If I turn my head now, I can see the framed certificate on the wall of the study. It’s still an honour that I cherish, and, under the circumstances, I’m proud to be labelled an “American”.
But it was the one race that I failed to successfully contest in those last ten weeks that had the most significant influence on my future life. In a way, you might compare it to my being caught drinking beer at Lowake’s, featured in the previous episode.
The race in question was the distance medley at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. The Penn Relays were ─ and still are ─ big time athletics for college athletes. When ACC won the distance medley relay at the Texas Relays, the time recorded was the second fastest in the nation for that year and gained us an invitation to compete in the Penn Relays. For the untutored reader, the distance medley relay is comprised of four runners, each running a different distance. The order of the runners is generally half mile, quarter mile, three-quarter mile, and finally, one mile.
There was another very strong team invited to the Penn Relays distance medley event that year: the Yale University distance medley team. Although their time was not as good as ACC’s winning time at the Texas Relays, they had beaten the best on offer in the northeast and had two middle-distance runners of exceptional ability: Jim Stack, their half-miler and Tom Carroll, their three-quarter miler. Both were generally favoured over ACC’s James Blackwood for the half mile and Elvis Istre for the three quarter. ACC had the better quarter-miler in Pat McKinnon, among the fastest in the nation. Yale’s perceived weakness was in the mile. Bobby Mack, my opponent, was essentially a 2 miler, and his best time was four or five seconds slower than mine over the mile. In essence, if the lead by Yale at the end of the three-quarter mile leg was no more than 25 yards, the expectations were that I would catch him.
The distance medley was billed as the highlight event of the Penn Relays, with ACC, the southwest champions pitted against Yale, the champion team in the northeast.
On the day, the race did not begin as expected for the Yale team. Stack’s lead at the end of the half mile was less than ten yards, as Blackwood ran the race of his life, and by the end of the quarter-mile leg, ACC unexpectedly had a ten-yard lead over Yale. All that was required was a reasonable performance from Elvis Istre and a reasonable one from me, and ACC would be assured of a win. But although things had not gone well for Yale in the first half of the relay, in the second half the situation started to reverse. Elvis wilted badly against Carroll, surrendering the ten-yard lead and losing a further twenty by the time the baton was exchanged. It was a substantial, but not insurmountable lead. If I could run five seconds faster than Mack, I should be able to catch him before the end of the race.
Catch him I did, but in a major tactical blunder, I made up the difference in the first of the four laps. Maybe it was the excitement of running in front of a crowd of 30,000 (most of whom were cheering for Yale) that compelled me to run 57 seconds for the first lap ─ way too fast on a chopped up cinder track. Bobby Mack ran a conservative 62 or 63 second lap and was cruising in overdrive. Having caught him, my tactic was to stay behind him and wait for the final fifty yards of the race. All year I had been beaten only once in the final sprint, and that was against a specialist 880 runner, so I felt I was well positioned to outsprint a specialist two-miler.
Bobby Mack had a different perspective. As we passed the winning post for the third time, with one lap remaining, he glanced over at me. His look said it all: “You are tired, aren’t you, and pretty well burnt out.” And with that, he steadily increased his pace down the back straight, around the turn, and into the final straight. With fifty yards to go, I did manage to pull alongside, as planned, but nothing happened when I stepped on the gas for the final surge. Well, it did, but it happened for him: the gap between us increased steadily as he moved ahead to win by five of six yards, as seen in the photo that appeared in the New York Times the following day.
Why is it that I only get my picture in the newspaper when I’m getting beaten or falling into a water hole?
Two weeks after losing the encounter with Yale, five of the ACC team were back at Soldiers Field in Philadelphia for the NCAA championship. Bobby Mack and I were contesting the steeplechase event. I guess he was an even worse hurdler than I, as he fell going over the water jump, and I went on to win the race.1961 (Philadelphia, June 17) (23 started and 19 finished)
1. John Lawler' (Abilene Christian) So ......9:01.1 (MR)
2. Pat Traynor (Villanova)...... So ......9:01.6 (also under old MR)
3. Dave Martin (Michigan) .... Sr .......9:07.5
4. Steve Moorhead (Penn State) .. Jr.........9:12.0
5. Don Tretheway’(Western Washington) ..Sr ......9:17.9
6. Ron Davis (San José State).. So .......9:17.9
7. Bob Mack (Yale).. So .......9:24.5
8. Bill Peck (Oxy).... Sr .......9:24.7
(defending champ Clark 2nd in 3 mile
What is crucial to my story is that the following week the five members of our team were to compete in the AAU Championships in New York, so, rather than fly back to Texas after the NCAA and then have to fly back to New York, our coach, Oliver Jackson, managed to arrange with the Yale coach, Bob Giegengack, for our small team of runners to join him and his team of runners at Yale’s summer camp in the Catskills in upstate New York. As the photo reveals, it wasn’t exactly a “boot camp” for rigorous training. It was, in fact, a very relaxing five days. Bob Mack, Denis, and I had a few runs together. We also canoed and swam and had an occasional beer… all essential preparation for the last race of the year.
During our time at the camp I got quite well acquainted with Bob Giegengack. He was particularly interested in our training methods, since a number of Australian athletes attending US colleges were performing quite well. Two years later I applied to Yale’s Graduate School of Industrial Administration, a two year MBA type program. I’m fairly sure that Giegengack’s endorsement wouldn’t have hurt my chances of being admitted to the program. And I’ve often wondered if that endorsement would have materialised if I had beaten Bob Mack at the Penn Relays.
The annual enrolment into this particular graduate program at Yale was only fifteen students, one third of whom came from overseas universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. As only ten places remained for US students, the competition for those places was intense. Oh, and I should perhaps mention here that there was one other vitally important bit of assistance I received when I applied for admission. It concerned my application letter, the author and typist of which was Charlotte Ann Droll. When the acceptance letter arrived from Yale March 1963 offering me a full scholarship, what else could I do but change her name from Droll to Lawler and tell Denis that our training days and bed-sharing times were about to end?
The AAU Championships in New York weren’t all that bad for me. For a change, my water jumping went okay as seen in to photos taken during the race. I must have tutored Bobby Mack while we were at the Yale camp on how not to hurdle the water jump as he again took the plunge later in the race.
With 300 yards to run I had managed to clear all but the remaining two hurdles and the final water jump and was running about a yard behind the two leaders when disaster struck. Approaching the second last hurdle, I was clipped on the heel by the fourth place runner, stumbled, lost my balance, and slid under the hurdle. Those are the hazards of steeplechasing. It happens. Some supportive observers thought I could have won the race had I stayed on my feet, but the truth is that more often than not, you stumble or lose your balance when exhaustion is taking control. And besides, there was still one more water jump to negotiate. I managed to crawl back the way I came, jump over the hurdle, sail over the water jump and finish fourth. All in all, it wasn’t a bad way to finish the season.
These are the only results we could find for this race. Schul isn't seen in this photo. The Houston runner may be Pat Clohessy. ed.
These are the only results we could find for this race. Schul isn't seen in this photo. The Houston runner may be Pat Clohessy. ed.
|F: 3,000 meters; D: 25 JUN|
|4||John Lawler (AUS)||9:12.6|
In conversation with Bob Schul about this race last October, Bob recalled that he may have tangled with Lawler in this race. But he wasn't sure if the collision was with John or someone else. He did remember that he got knocked off stride, and it may have cost him a place. However the results here indicate that they were probably close together when John went down, so it seems highly likely it was the two of them. When I brought this to John's attention he was not aware that it was Schul. One of those little incidents in a long ago past. I could not find reference to this race in Bob's autobiography, "In the Long Run" ed.
While in New York, Denis and I met Dick Sorkin, the Newsday journalist who wrote the “Banana and a Dime” article. The picture of Dick and me was taken by Denis when Dick took us for a drive on Long Island. “Sorry, Dick,” we said, “No quotable quotes from us this time. The coach has summer work for us this year back in Abilene.”
Sorkin would go on to have a somewhat checkered career as a sports agent. You can google his name and find out for yourself. ed.
One of the problems when competing at the national track championships in those days was that these events took place in the first four weeks of the summer break. All the easily procurable jobs had long since disappeared by the time the championships finished. Once again, we were on the bread line. With the permission of the coach, Denis and I cashed in our return airline tickets to Abilene (worth about $180 in those days) because we had discovered a much cheaper way to transport ourselves. It is best described as “Have cab, will travel.” Those of you who watched television in the 1950’s will remember the TV series with a similar name: “Have Gun, Will Travel,” starring Richard Boone. In much the same way as his gun travelled around the Wild West, this particular New York Yellow Cab took us through the not-so-wild west in 1961.
New York Yellow Cabs in the 60’s were big and robust. They had to be running 24 hours a day on those New York roads. But even they had their limits. Their operating life in the ‘Big Apple’ was one year, after which they were sold to cab companies in country towns or smaller cities where the requirements were less arduous. The problem was not finding them a new home; it was finding drivers to get them there.
Ollan Cassell, my old bed mate of the previous summer, was competing at the AAU championships for Houston University. He had discovered an agency that recruited these needed drivers. He and one other member of the track team had signed on to take a cab to Houston. The arrangement was that you were not paid for your service, but the cab gave you a means of free travel if you were prepared to pay for the gas and then be reimbursed when the cab was safely delivered. Sounded like a pretty good deal to Denis and me. We had each pocketed $180 dollars from our airline tickets, and the Greyhound bus tickets, our other alternative to Abilene would have cost us about $50.
We presented ourselves at the agent’s office, which was located in a dingy, rundown neighbourhood, with the vital piece of documentation needed to qualify as a prospective driver: my Californian driver’s license. The agent was an elderly Catholic lady, and the one-room office was adorned with religious icons and pictures. Unfortunately for us, not one taxicab company within 300 miles of Abilene was in the market for a yellow cab, and the best available drive was for a buyer in Clovis, New Mexico, some 325 miles west of Abilene. Still, this was better than paying for two bus tickets, so we, or more accurately, I signed up. Denis was still an unlicensed and untutored driver.
The lady agent obviously had her qualms about us. One driver, recently licensed in California, who was a foreigner, to boot, did not add up to the best possible credentials. But the pool of drivers willing to drive a cab 2500 miles to Clovis consisted of one. Me. She was obviously desperate. As she handed over the keys, she said to us that she would go to the local Catholic Church tomorrow when we started our journey and burn a candle for our safety and the successful completion of the contract. Well, it was nice of her to do that. Ollan, who is a Catholic, obviously did not have a candle burned for him. He and his driving companion failed to complete their journey when their cab broke down on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, just south of New York.
The route we chose was down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and finally, New Mexico. That way, we could use the extensive turnpike and freeway systems for the first half of the journey. I reasoned that it would also make the driving easier for Denis when I needed relief. Our travel plan was to keep driving, stopping only for gas and food. Oh how we missed Don Boshart!
The trip began well. We covered about 400 miles before I relinquished the wheel. I wasn’t feeling all that bad, but it was late; there were freeways for the next 300 miles, and there wasn’t much traffic. I gave Denis a last minute lesson in braking. It only remained for him to get the car into gear and we’d be on our way to Clovis! The dilemma for Denis was that the cab had a column gear shift that was a little bit difficult to engage. It tended to slip out of first gear if you failed to exert just the right amount of pressure on the accelerator when starting. Mistake: I had parked the car some thirty yards in front of the gas pump on a slight uphill slope. Every time Denis attempted to start the car, it would stall and roll back a few feet. By the final attempt, the rear bumper of the cab was only a couple of feet from the pump, and the expression on the gas attendant’s face made it clear that a change of drivers was required.
Why we didn’t try again on a flat piece of ground or on a slope going the right way, I don’t remember. But without a wink of sleep, I drove that taxi for something like twenty hours. Not very smart ─ in fact, it was a reckless and dangerous act. I truly believe that the prayer and candle burning by our agent must have been a factor that night. Somewhere outside of St. Louis, Missouri, I could go no further. Denis was equally exhausted as he had remained awake to make sure I didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. So I just pulled the car over to the side of the road, and we both slept for several hours. Unlike the VW, New York taxis are spacious and not at all uncomfortable for a few hours of napping.
From St. Louis we (I) drove nonstop through Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Fatigue was well advanced when we crossed the border into north Texas, but relief was near at hand in the form of a double bed as I steered the cab onto Fuzzy Lunsford’s mosaic car park and came to a complete stop.
It says a lot for a relationship when you can drive a New York Yellow Cab onto someone’s property unannounced and unexpected and be welcomed like long lost prodigal sons. Well, I suppose that is how Dema and Richard thought of Denis and me. No, they didn’t kill the fatted calf or put a dinner jacket on us, but they fed us real food and made up our double bed before we collapsed into it. Dema and Richard are in a special category all their own, but I have to say that the generosity of the Texas people is real. In our four years’ stay as pseudo-Texans, Denis and I were mentored and assisted many times by many different families, something that made those four years among the best of our lives. They were for me, anyway.
After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, the “have cab, will travel” team was on its way again. This time, we opted for a short drive of two hours to Abilene. There was no point in Denis driving the final 300 miles to Clovis. Much better that he contact the coach, we figured, and get us geared up for the summer job waiting for us. I dropped Denis at the college, and, as it was a working day, headed for Hugh Bowie Jewellers.
Nothing impresses a girl more than to be picked up unexpectedly at work by a semi-delirious driver with an NCAA medal dangling around his neck, and driving a New York Yellow Cab. Charlotte’s boss, Hugh Bowie, gave her an ‘early mark’ for my sake. As Charlotte will attest, a mid-summer storm was raging when she hopped into the front seat. Before we could get reacquainted, though, a bedraggled pedestrian jumped into the back seat, commented on how remarkable it was to find a New York Yellow Cab in Abilene during a thunderstorm, and gave us his address.
What the heck. I was feeling too good to say no, and, anyway, I had other things on my mind, so we drove him to the other side of town and didn’t charge him a cent. Maybe I should have. On the way back to town the taxi stalled on a flooded street. Now I was hoping for an hour or two of parking time, but hadn’t planned that it would be in the middle of an intersection. We just sat there till the flood subsided.
The final chapter of “have cab, will travel” was the drive to New Mexico the following day. It was only three hundred and a bit miles, mostly flat and straight across the West Texas desert, and there were good highways all the way to Clovis. Trouble started with less than 100 miles to go. The gear stick that had given Denis trouble got stuck in high, which meant that I couldn’t use first and second gear. I could manage on the highway, but it was going to be a problem with stop lights when driving through towns. The car was too heavy to restart in top gear…and hills would be a further problem.
I had just enough gas to complete the trip, and the road ahead looked flat enough. But I did have to pass through a couple of towns. I hit two red lights, but, wonder of wonders, both allowed a right hand turn on red, so I slowed down and kangaroo hopped (my specialty) around the corner and then around the block until I got a green light. Must have been a special treat for those west Texas people to watch a New York taxi doing kangaroo hops around the block a few times before it disappeared into the sunset.
By this time it was late afternoon. The last of the towns were behind me, and I was going well until, somewhere near the Texas/New Mexico border, a huge hill came into view on the horizon. It wasn’t so much the height as the extent of the climb that worried me. Only one thing to do: I wound up the cab as fast as it would go on the flat stretch ahead and hoped the candle our agent lit for us still had a flicker in it. The needle on the speedometer tickled 90 miles per hour as the ‘yellow streak’ reached the base of the hill. I don’t imagine it had ever approached that speed in its taxi days on New York City roads. We flew up the hill! Going straight up at 90 mph in a New York Yellow Cab with my head thrust back by the “G” force and the car rattling and shaking uncontrollably made me feel a little like an Aussie astronaut, at least until the deceleration set in about halfway up. Like the engine in the nursery rhyme I started muttering, “I think I can! I think I can!” in a prayer-like chant as the crest came into sight and the speedo headed to its lower limits. The candle must have been burning bright in New York as the greatest cab, yellow, black, blue or white, that ever traversed half the US reached the top of the hill and made a graceful descent into the town of Clovis.
I clearly remember angle parking the taxi nose first into the curb outside the city cab company. The buyer wasn’t too put out that the gears were shot (By this time reverse was gone too.). He paid me for the gas, and I headed for the highway to thumb my way back to Abilene. Hitch hiking in the 1960’s wasn’t a problem. A lot of car-less students travelled around the country by thumb, and it wasn’t the first or even the last time I hitched a ride.
Back in Abilene I was ready to start work. I would have preferred a few days to recover, as I was feeling a mite tired ─ more like exhausted. But no need to worry on that score. The coach, it transpired, had left town to take a team of runners on an overseas tour. And there was no job.
I guess the candle had finally sputtered out.
Next: Working with a two-time murderer and the world’s fastest (wind assisted) 100 yards.
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