Saturday, March 21, 2015

v 5 n. 23 Part 6 John Lawler Chronicles

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.

F: 3,000 meters; D: 25 JUN
1Deacon Jones8:48.0MRm
2George Young8:50.8
3Bob Schul8:53.6
4John Lawler (AUS)9:12.6
5Dave Martin9:17.8
6Hal Higdon9:21.8

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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