Sunday, March 8, 2015

v5 n 17 Part 3 John Lawler saga


After Bakersfield, Boshart, Denis, and I travelled on to the venue for the US Olympic Trials, Palo Alto, which is just south of San Francisco. We parted company with Don Boshart and the VW when he deposited Denis and me at the front door of an attractive home in the nearby suburb of Mountain View.

Our first act when we arrived was to examine the state of our finances, as the fruit picking season, our primary hope of employment, had not yet commenced. Three and a half weeks had passed since the end of school, at which time our joint account was already thin. Since then we had been on a strict austerity program as our income over the period had been less than minimal ─ nil, to be exact. We emptied our pockets onto the kitchen table of our summer home. Our assets, all that remained to us in total, were a banana and a dime. Yes, one banana and one dime. As I think about that, I wonder what was considered below the official poverty line in the US during the summer of 1960.

At about the time we were calculating our net worth, a young journalist from New York was circulating in the Palo Alto area making contact with the cream of the US track athletes as they gathered for the forthcoming trials. His name was Dick Sorkin, and he was a sports writer for Newsday, Long Island’s local newspaper. Its circulation, I believe, was about two million copies, mostly limited to Long Island. As well as covering the Olympic Trials for his paper, Dick wanted to do a piece about foreign athletes who had university scholarships. In particular, he wanted to delve into what they did, how they managed, during the summer months when universities were not in session. He already knew that in those days very few flew home for the vacation period. I suspect that through his connection with the sporting journal Track and Field News, which was based in Palo Alto, he had come across either Barrie Almond or Pat Clohessy, Aussies who had some part-time work there. Whatever the source, he had heard that Denis and I were in residence and were a prime source for his article.

We were introduced to Dick, who suggested that we jot down some of our experiences, expectations, hopes, and disappointments. As we did not as yet have work, we were happy to oblige, with the help of our housemate
Al Lawrence, who had some journalistic ambitions and was a deft hand with the pen. We put together a treatise about our experience of the summer months to that point (which was later augmented by the tale of our fruit picking, covered later in my next saga). Dick massaged our efforts into an article that was later published with the same title I’ve used for this episode, “A Banana and a Dime.”

We didn’t think much about what we had written. We were enjoying the attempt at composing a newspaper article. The circulation of Newsday, as we’ve said, was in Long Island, New York, a fair distance from our Alma Mater in Abilene, Texas. The impression we left in what we wrote was that the college we attended was largely responsible for our sorry state of affairs. No harm, we thought, and it made a good story. Besides, Newsday was hardly read south of the Hudson River, let alone the Mason Dickson Line -- or so we thought. Of course, we had always known that we had to fend for ourselves when summer arrived, and when the coach left to take part in the Olympic Trials, Denis and I were already securely ensconced in the Bible selling training program with work assured.

What we hadn’t counted on was that Dick’s article was so well received that it was sold to the wire service and syndicated to sixty papers across the country ─ some of them in Texas. You might say that we were not exactly ‘top of the pops’ when we returned to ACC in the fall. And it was some time before our names appeared in any publicity released for the track team. Can’t blame them, I guess. We were way off base saying what we did. Have to say though, after this experience, the phrase ‘power of the press’ took on a very personal meaning for Denis and me, a good lesson to learn early. With time and a few good wins, harmony was gradually restored between us and the administration. By the time I graduated, all was forgiven…including a later brief suspension. But that is another story.

As a final comment to the banana and dime saga, four years after the article was written, Charlotte and I, then married and living in Connecticut, attended Dick and Barbara Sorkin’s splendiferous wedding on Long Island. He and his wife, Barbara, visited us later at our home in Woodmont.

Friendships are a vital component of survival, especially if the family is not around to assist when times get hard. Both my family and Denis’s were working class. The phrase means little now, but then it meant that what little financial assistance they could give went on our fares to the United States. The provision of a ship berth to Hawaii and then a flight to Abilene were not only generous; they were all the help our families could manage. We both steadfastly resisted calling upon them for more. In this light you’ll understand that the three Australian runners from Houston we met at Bakersfield were not just casual running mates we skylarked with when we went to the party there. I mentioned in the previous episode that Barrie Almond, Pat Clohessy, and Al Lawrence were club mates of Denis’s at Botany Harriers in Sydney. Although I ran in a separate club, both Denis and I were trained by Al Lawrence. As well, I trained most evenings after work with the Botany runners. Then on Saturday I’d compete against them. For years we trained, competed, and socialized. When all five of us ended up in the United States on college scholarships, the bonds were drawn even closer. In many ways we were family.

And that family-style friendship was just what we needed, and got, when Boshart deposited us in Mountain View. By good fortune, Pat Clohessy knew the owners of the house I’ve mentioned. I’m guessing they were track fans. And as they were going on summer vacation, they offered the house to him, Barrie Almond, and Al Lawrence to occupy and care for ─ a decision they may regret even today. Somehow, Ollan Cassell also appeared on the scene in need of accommodation, and of course, they couldn’t turn away Denis and me when we appeared on their doorstep like two orphaned children minus their cribs and clutching their banana and their dime.

Accommodation for three was now stretched to cope with six. There were three bedrooms with four single beds and a double. Yes, the dreaded double bed again. I suspect this was the reason Boshart declined the invitation to stay a night or two. As usual, we drew lots for the beds. The two short straws were bedfellows for the summer. This time Ollan and I were the ‘short strawers’. That night, our first night of twenty-eight, Ollan politely inquired whether I wore pyjamas. It was a real comfort to hear Ollan ask that question. I didn’t know him that well. Yet.

Now a bit about our summer companions: Al was the elder statesman. He had already been selected to run for Australia at the Rome Olympics in the 5000 meters and the 10,000 meters. At the previous Olympics in 1956 he had collected a bronze medal when he finished third behind Vladimir Kuts in the 10,000 meters. Alan wasn’t looking for work, as he was focused on rounding out his training for the forthcoming Games.

Pat Clohessy had aspirations to join the priesthood of the Catholic Church as a young man, but his poor vision was looked upon as a hindrance to that profession, so he eventually accepted a scholarship to run for the University of Houston, where impaired vision was not a constraint. Pat’s nickname was “the village idiot.” Now don’t get the wrong impression. Pat did not lack ‘smarts’; in fact, where intellect is concerned, Pat could give all of us half a straight start. But he did have a charming naivety that tended to endear him to his companions and all that knew him. Later in his life Pat was appointed as head distance coach of the Australian Institute of Sport and was also the personal coach of Australia’s renowned marathon runner Rob DeCastella. Here’s a picture of Pat the scholar in our Mountain View retreat, studying even then for the next semester.

Barrie Almond was the practical one of the group. He, more than anyone, ran and organized the household and most of the daily activities. As a half-miler and miler he had the distinction of finishing a close second to Herb Elliot in an Australian 880 yards championship. Very few runners ever made it into the frame at the end of a race against Herb Elliot. The only other one I can think of, off hand, who did is Merv Lincoln, in a mile, when Herb was still a teenager, and even then Merv was second like all the rest.

My bedfella, Ollan Cassell, a part-Cherokee, and a great 440 runner for Houston U., would later, as I have already written, ascend to the highest administrative level in US amateur athletics: Secretary of the AAU. In 1960 though, as a member of the Houston track team, he was an easy-going fellow, quiet and studious. He was also troubled. Ollan and his future wife Kathy were having a romantic disorder, and as Kathy was in Houston, there were frequent late night telephone conversations spoken in hushed tones followed by hours of tossing and turning in our double bed. They eventually got the problems all worked out, I’m happy to say, and, the last I heard, they were still married after fifty years and had six children, an achievement in itself.

How Ollan succeeded in becoming “boss cocky” of the AAU amazes me. He never displayed any obvious administrative skills while a member of the summer household. Nor did he reveal any of the characteristics later ascribed to him during what some have dubbed his “reign of terror” as Secretary of the AAU. Years later, the occasional awestruck person would ask if it was really true that I knew Ollan Cassell personally. “Know him?” I’d say, “I slept with him for four weeks in the summer of 1960!” Not sure what that did for Ollan’s reputation. Those who knew me thought little about it.

The decision to allow three Australians ─ later, five ─ and one love sick Cherokee to take possession of their home for a summer was probably not the best choice for the family who owned our Mountain View residence. It’s not that we weren’t conscious of the need to do the right thing. In fact, we made every effort to be model tenants. There were no parties or lady visitors or excessive drinking bouts. Drinking was heavily constrained by our lack of money. What was lacking was ‘house nouse’.1 We were all dorm dwellers and not fully house trained. As a consequence, accidents happened. Pat, for instance, put a pot of potatoes on the stove and either forgot to put water in it or failed to see that it had all boiled away. (You can see how he got his nickname.) Barrie tried to redeem the situation by plucking the pot from the flame, but by that time, the handle was red hot, so he dropped it onto the laminated kitchen counter, producing a permanent scorched decoration as a reminder of our visit. Pat’s other contribution was allowing his oily hair (Remember, this is 1960.) to rub against the wallpaper of the master bedroom where he slept. We did try to remove the small stain…and managed to expand it into what looked like a substantial slug track. Not a good idea. There were other mishaps too, but the worst was of my making.

I had spent an extended time in the back yard without a shirt one afternoon and was displaying a nice rosy-red glow on the shoulders and back. Here I am in the garden of Mountain View. You can see what a prime candidate I was for a sunburn.

I secured a volunteer to apply some lotion to the affected areas and plonked down semi-naked on what looked like a small ornamental stool that served as a side table. “Delicate” may be a more apt description than “ornamental,” because its edges snapped off and collapsed onto the floor in what seemed to be a jigsaw of a couple of dozen pieces of assorted sizes, grouped around the legs, which were broken but still attached to a small part of the top surface. I spent countless hours reassembling this table, carefully gluing each piece of wood into place. I did my best, but when the restoration work was completed and my masterpiece was placed in position, it had a decided list (so much so, in fact, that the group of shells placed there as decoration occasionally slid off).

After six weeks’ holiday, the owners of the house ─ I think their family name was Christianson ─ returned. “Christian” by name, but when they saw the fruits of their generosity, their response was less than we were hoping “Christians” might display. Who could blame them? Total forgiveness would have been a very big ask.

Prior to their return, Al had departed for the Olympics, Ollan had gone to New Jersey to meet with Kathy and her parents, and Denis, Barrie, Pat, and I had moved to another home in Sunnyvale, where once more we were the recipients of the kindness frequently displayed by generous Americans, and again we were allowed to stay rent free. This time, happily, the home survived our stay intact.

Pat, a brave man of principle, decided that he should remain at the Mountain View home to explain what had happened. He genuinely believed the owners would be very understanding. In retrospect, it was too much to expect of mere mortals. So the morning they arrived, we had an urgent call from Pat for rescue as the Christiansons were about to physically eject him from their home (which they did). We had by this stage purchased a car (more about that in the next episode), so Barrie and I went to pick him up.

There is surely no sight more forlorn than that of a man sitting in the gutter with his bag and a box of cornflakes beside him.

Next episode: “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go!”

1 A slang Australian expression meaning ‘know-how.’   

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