Wednesday, April 1, 2015

V 5 N 26 Part 8 The Lawler Chronicles The Fugitive

Episode III: The Fugitive

The trip south to Houston was uneventful ─ it must have been. I can’t remember it. Think I got a ride to Waco…then to somewhere just north of Houston, and then into Houston proper. My sole purpose in coming to Houston was to obtain cheap or free accommodation and to minimize my food expenditure. The prospect for work was practically nil as the summer was too far advanced, but I’d decided to take anything on offer, provided it wasn’t cleaning girders on a missile site.

Al Lawrence, true to his word, had a place for me to stay for the first week or two. The address was 8114 Glencrest. I’m not sure if this was the home of the Maxwells, a lovely family who befriended Al, Barrie Almond, and Pat Clohessy, and other needy Australians when required. If any “Summertime” subscribers can throw light on who the owners of 8114 Glencrest might have been, I’d be most grateful.

Another beneficiary of the free accommodation at 8114 was a recent arrival from Australia, Laurie Elliott, the brother of then Olympic 1500m Champion and world record holder for the mile, Herb Elliott. Our stay at the “Villa Capri” was all too short. After a period of two weeks, Al informed us that there was no longer room at the inn.  I’m guessing, but if the home was the Maxwells’, it could be that their son Bubba was coming home for the summer, which meant that the two recent additions to the household needed to move on.

Laurie was okay. He was starting a summer course at the University of Houston, so Johnny Morris, the track coach at the University of Houston, had arranged for him to stay in the one dormitory opened for summer students. The dorm was largely empty, as few students enrolled for summer school. Al lent me a rubber mattress and suggested that I ever-so-quietly slip unobserved into the dorm after dark to find an unoccupied room. As there were no mattresses on the unoccupied beds, it was thoughtful of Al to provide me with that essential piece of equipment. The rubber mattress, I know for a fact, came out of the Maxwells’ motor launch.

I wasn’t the only practitioner of this nightly escapade. Don Brown, known as “Brownie,” a Canadian long jumper on the track team and a reprobate of huge proportion, was my co-invader. Like a pair of Ninja warriors, we would stealthily creep into the dorm through the main door, if unguarded, or through a window, when necessary, and look for an empty space.  During the day I stored my mattress and meagre collection of belongings in Laurie’s room.

All too soon, the word started to circulate that the dorm had an infestation of unwanted residents. The dorm supervisor and the university’s security guard were told to be alert and on the lookout for two fugitives, one of whom had red hair. There is little prospect of my being identified these days in a line up, but in 1961 I had flaming red hair. Their first move was to lock the side entrances to the dorm. When the front entrance was guarded, which wasn’t very often, Laurie left a window open for us. Then they decided to do a ‘search and destroy’ mission at night, but Brownie had connections, and we knew ahead of time when the search was to be conducted. We were even told when the search was over and it was safe to enter the dorm. That was the game we played for the remainder of the summer ─ an adult version of hide and seek. We somehow stayed out of reach of the posse and managed to enjoy the hospitality of the university.

Food was the other problem. And here again the brotherly love of our Aussie comrades came to the fore. Barrie Almond had some kind of supervisory role in the school cafeteria. Somehow, he managed to have me signed on as a member of the student body and given a job as a busboy for three hours a day at 60c an hour. Mind you, from rocket scientist to busboy in a period of a few weeks was a significant come-down, but at least I was earning $1.80 a day and could eat three good meals free of charge.
From a letter to Charlotte dated August 21, 1961, I see that I informed her of three notable events in the cafeteria. My job as a busboy was to push a cart around the cafeteria collecting the dirty dishes and trays. While performing my duties on one occasion, I approached the table where the supervisor of the dorm was eating. His single piece of information about me was my red hair, but with a crew cut and the cafeteria hat pulled down around my ears, I had no trouble collecting his dirty plates. Why, he even thanked me when I cleaned his ashtray. (Well, that’s a bygone era: ashtrays in a school cafeteria.)

You may have observed that working in restaurants and cafeterias always includes an element of high drama. From the afore-mentioned well preserved document, dated August 21, 1961, here is my description, verbatim, and ungrammatical, of one such incident.

The cash register incident occurred one morning when the chef and number one cook turned up late. Everything was chaos, and before I knew it, I was operating the cash register. The only trouble, I didn’t know the prices, and there were too many lines to remember all the prices; as a result, I had to do my own pricing at times. In order to keep harmony, I was taking 10c off the total each time, as I figured there would be less complaints for undercharging than overcharging the customers.

I was also given the responsibility for maintaining an adequate supply of milk in glasses. Any leftovers at the end of the meal time had to be disposed of down the drain ─ a cardinal sin, as far as management was concerned. With the double trauma of operating the cash register and keeping the glasses filled, I exceeded the milk demand and was faced with a serious oversupply. I drank six cups myself, persuaded Barrie and Al to imbibe, and finally, as cashier, I was offering two glasses for the price of one. To make the offer more attractive, I said, “Buy one glass, and get the second one free!”  Marketing always was my best attribute.

1961 was the year that the University of Houston had a huge influx of Australian athletes, all long and middle distance runners. Johnny Morris must have been the most despised coach in America when he paraded his stable of Australian studs at various track meets and cross country events. I was there when one of these athletes, Bob Cousens from Victoria, arrived at the campus. When we were introduced, there in the company of the other Australian athletes, I said, “My goodness, Johnny Morris has recruited Boofhead!” Boofhead was a popular comic strip character in Australia at that time. As you can see from the image below, his most striking feature was his bushy crop of black hair, not that dissimilar from Bob’s hair. From that day till this one, his athletic colleagues at U of H refer to him as “Boof” the shorter version of “Boofhead”.
Bob wasn’t all that fond of his new nickname ─ or of me, for that matter, for being the one to christen him. He should have known, though, that to object to being called “Boof” was a sure way of entrenching the practice. I have to say that the feeling was mutual. We openly displayed our dislike of one another. But one evening in a bar, probably our customary local waterhole, the Algerian, we were sitting together on two stools, all on our lonesome, just the two of us. We spoke openly about our dislike for each other, and having said all that was to be said, we decided to put aside our grievances and accept each other for who we were. That reconciliation has lasted to this day.  When Boof, or I should say Bob, comes to Sydney, he never fails to contact me to get together for a meal or a beer. In fact, last year, 2009, when he was in Sydney competing for the USA team in the World Masters’ Championships, he made the final in the 200m in the 70 – 75 year age group, and I went out to the Olympic stadium to see him run. He started well and was up with the leaders when they came off the bend into the straight, but then he seemed to be flagging and losing ground. I was quite close to the bend, so I started shouting, “Boof! Boof! Boof!”  Those long-suppressed resentments started to erupt, and with a surge of adrenaline, he stormed past the opposition for a convincing win in 29 seconds. There is nothing like some good old homespun support to lift an athlete to victory.

Winning a World Masters’ Championship gold medal wasn’t Boof’s only notable accomplishment at the games. Later that day he ran on a relay team, but what was most interesting was that he ran on the Australian team, not the US team. I think he created history. Who has ever heard of coming to a world championship event representing one country and running a relay for another? But did this behaviour astonish anyone? Those of us who know Bob just shrugged our shoulders and figured, “Well, that’s Boof, and what else would you expect?” Yes, that’s Boof, and God bless him.  As far as I know, he is the last of our 1960’s era jocks to have both the energy and the ability to drag himself up onto the victory rostrum.

It seems that every Australian athlete who arrived in Houston was given a nickname that has stuck with them all these years. “Digger” was the name given to Laurie Elliott. Laurie was tall, tan, good looking, and liked a few beers. I guess you’d say he was the epitome of what we imagine our Australian troops on Gallipoli in WWI to have been like. They and our WWII soldiers are known as “diggers.”

Alan Irwin was the smallest in stature on the team, so he was anointed “the mouse.” Even to this day when athletes of that era refer to “The Mouse” instead of calling him by his Christian or last name, there is instant recall.  I’ll leave it to you to guess how his teammates referred to the first girl Alan dated. I don’t know if she is still called Minnie.

Perhaps Geoff Walker had the most poetic of labels. He was known as “the Dixie Lightfoot.” Geoff was a very firm-footed runner, unlike some of us, who could possibly be better described as “twinkle toes,” by comparison. When Geoff ran one of his first meets at the Mason-Dixon Indoor Track Meet, his remorseless pounding of the wooden track echoed around the stadium, earning him his nickname.

As for me, I was known as “Bluey,” common slang for people with red hair in Australia. I suppose some would claim that calling red blue defines our contrary nature. Fortunately for me, the dorm supervisor was not familiar with Australian slang. If he had been, he might have taken my hat off, had a look, and apprehended one of the two fugitives. As the lowest of the low in the cafeteria, “Bluey” was often being summoned to do this or that.

Without money, the summer social life in Houston was quite sparse. There was the occasional beer drunk at the Algerian and the odd movie or two. Frugality was the order of the day (and night), and to conserve finances, Al Lawrence and I travelled halfway across town to a Mexican theatre, where the price of entrance was 40c.  I think we were still overcharged. One film we saw, “Buffalo Gun,” described as a “B” grade movie, was really a “B-double-minus”!

Occasionally, we would get to swim in the pool at Ollan Cassell’s apartment. He and Cathy were now married with a baby boy. I will never forget Ollan holding his son over the first floor balcony above the pool a la Whacko Jackson.  

I was once taken water skiing in the Maxwell’s launch by Bubba Maxwell on Clear Lake (or was it Clear Creek?). Skiing close to the bank, I passed over a snake, a water moccasin, no doubt. Thanks to Mr Thompson’s coaching the previous summer, I managed to stay upright as I bisected the snake with a ski each side of his head. Sad to say that, some years later, Bubba was killed when this same motor launch flipped over.

The social event of the summer was undoubtedly Barrie Almond’s marriage to “Maid Marian.” It was a gala affair at which the Australians almost outnumbered the US contingent.

If Barrie’s wedding was the social event of the year, the highlight of my Houston summer sojourn was Hurricane Carla ─ one of the worst storms to hit Houston. The eye of the storm passed over the coast 100 miles west of the city. The date was early September, and I was planning to be back in Abilene by September 10th to register for classes. I had begun my return journey knowing that the hurricane was on its way. Endless updates were reporting on its progress and advising everyone to stock up on food and to fill their bathtubs with water.

Someone from the school had driven me to the outskirts of Houston, where I could more easily catch a ride back to Abilene. But I began to think about staying in Houston for one more day just to see what it was like to be in the middle of a hurricane. After all, I reasoned, I had already escaped unharmed from my missile site adventure and had just skied over a water moccasin without any ill effects, so a hurricane couldn’t be all that bad.

When I arrived back in Houston, the usual suspects had taken note of the warnings and forecasts and filled the bathtub in one of their apartments…admittedly, it was filled with ice and beer rather than water. The idea, they said, was to have a “hurricane party.” While the hurricane and the party were at their peak, several of us decided to have a training run in a nearby park. It was a large open space, treeless in the middle. Everywhere else, branches were being snapped off and trees were flying through the air, so the lack of trees was good. We thought it would be a good time to make an attempt on the world record for the 100m (aided by Carla, of course). I’m not sure about the velocity of the wind at the time we made the attempt, but a hand-held stop watch carried by one of the participants had several of us under eight seconds! It was quite exhilarating to almost literally fly over the course at a speed that, as far as we knew, no previous human being had ever attained. We figured not many athletes had ever attempted to break the 100m record in a hurricane, unless, of course, there was more than one hurricane party that day in Houston.

My planned 24 hour stay in Houston was extended to three days, but not because of the party, which sputtered out quite early. Carla, as I said, was one of the worst storms ever to hit Houston, and the devastation was extreme. Power lines and trees were down everywhere, and it was three days before the roads could be cleaned up enough for me to recommence my trek back to Abilene.

For the third time I was late back to ACC and missed the first two days of the new semester. Nice, though, to see Charlotte again.

1962: The Teamster
A Fully Accredited Member of Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters’ Union

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