The goring of horses

Only 10 pages in to “Death in the Afternoon,” I am in disagreement with Hemingway’s view of the most despicable act in bullfighting.  The goring of innocent horses.

Picadors riding on horses place lances in the bull’s neck during the Second Act of this “sport” the Spaniards call Tragedy.  They do this to weaken the neck muscles and force the bull to charge the matador, in the final Third Act, with head and lethal horns lowered.   A matador could not fight a bull otherwise without injury or death.

As the picadors place the lances, the bull gores the horses, disemboweling them.  The Spaniards have tried to prettify this by putting a quilt over the abdomen of the horse, so you often do not see the blood and guts pour out.  Not only that, but the horses that come into the arena for the other fights smell the blood and gore and are terrified.

“I believe,” writes Hemingway, “that the tragedy of the bullfight is so well ordered and so strongly disciplined by ritual that a person feeling the whole tragedy cannot separate the minor-comic tragedy of the horse so as to feel it emotionally.”

In other words, the end justifies the means.  In that case, you can justify all sorts of atrocities.

If in politics, say, you want a better America and the only means of achieving it is to torture and eliminate people who do not agree with the end result, then what do you have?  This moral issue is a difference of opinion I did not consider when reading “Death” as a young man,  So, in the first chapter, I’m already against bullfighting as a sport or a tragedy.

To read further, I must do my own pirouette.  I must say does reading the book as travelogue, the ends, justify putting myself through all the issues that lay ahead?  I am pushing ahead for now.



Ali’s attraction

No single post on Long Row has ever drawn more interest in one day than “Muhammad Ali and the real draft dodgers — our fathers.”  Hundreds responded on June 4, the day after Ali’s death.  No other post is even close.

The post, published five years ago (June 23,   2011), also generated more comments than any other.  All of those comments were critical of the post and painted Ali as a coward and a draft dodger.  One comment called the author an “idiot.”

Few other people in the world could draw that kind of visceral interest.  Ali was special.  He was controversial.  He was hated and loved. There seemed no middle ground.

The gist of Long Row‘s post was a defense of Ali as a military-draft dodger.  Ali was one of a few black men to stood up to a white-dominated society and, I wrote, much of the antagonism against Ali was due to white-hot racism.

To many young Americans, Ali’s plight is ancient history.  They have little interest in the long-ago.  Or even yesterday, it seems. Here, for some who may years from now stumble onto these pages, is brief history of those times.

Already the world heavyweight boxing champion at a time in the 1960s when social issues and racism were at a peak, Ali refused to be drafted into the military on April 28, 1967, as the unpopular Vietnam war heightened. He had recently joined the Muslim religion, changed his name from Cassius Clay and claimed he was a “conscientious objector.”

Some Ali quotes at the time infuriated whites and scared blacks.

“I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” he was quoted as saying about America’s enemy. “No Vietcong ever called me ‘nigger.'”

“Why me? I buy a lot of bullets, at least three jet bombers a year and pay the salary of 50,000 fighting men with the money they take from me after my fights.”

In no time, Ali was stripped of his championship and convicted of draft evasion.  He waited in limbo for 3 1/2 years — losing the prime years of his boxing career, ages 26-29 — until on appeal the Supreme Court court reversed the lower court on June 28, 1971. Ali was granted draft status as a conscientious objector.

An uproar followed.  Even now almost 50 years later, the seething hatred of Ali is palpable. And misplaced.

I grew up during that era and remember many draft-eligible young men, most of them white and middle class, finding a more “acceptable” way to avoid the draft and the fight in Vietnam.  They got college deferments.  To me, they are the real draft dodgers.  No one mentions them today as racism again sweeps the land. These guys were our fathers,siblings, friends and acquaintances.

Ali all his life stayed true to his religion.  He proved a devout Muslim.

As long as there is racism in America, Ali will receive an undeserved black eye. That means a very long time indeed.


That artichoke thing

SCC's Artie the Artichoke

Artie the Artichoke

While I relish eating the “meat” of an artichoke leaf, particularly when  dipped in hot, melted butter, that is about the limit of my endearment.  Except for its pretty bluish flower, the artichoke is one of plant world’s also-rans.  Even the taste is bland if eaten plain.

So, one of the amazing things when I first moved to the arid lands was to learn of a local college team named the Fighting Artichokes.  After laughing, I grew disgusted.  How can anyone degrade the most sacred shrine of America that is its sports teams?

The real thing.

The real thing.

Scottsdale Community College’s student body in a moment of anguish over the school’s budget in the 1970s, grasped  onto the artichoke in hopes to embarrass the institution which seemed to outlay a too generous portion to athletics.  Anyone who follows community college sports knows that almost no one attends the games, and that athletic departments can not support themselves without public financing.  At that level of play, community college sports are welfare projects.

So, out of this mess was born the team mascot, Artie the Artichoke.  And as camp as it sounds, the student body has embraced him, apparently in defiance of all logic and heavenly standards.

I personally have never seen a sports contest at Scottsdale CC.  I think I will put it on my schedule for a football game in the coming season.  Just to see the mascot at work, and listen for the opponents yell  “Go, ‘chokers.”

Delta's Fighting Okra

Delta’s Fighting Okra

The one game I would pay dearly to watch is Scottsdale v. Delta State University.

Delta, a four-year school in Cleveland, Mississippi, has a mascot that was ranked No. 1 by as the worst sports name in our fair land.

The Fighting Okra.

Scottsdale CC finished at lowly No. 4.  Hard to believe.


Umpiring by sound

Home plate umpire watches and listens.

Home plate umpire watches and listens.

If you go to the ballpark for a game, you are almost sure to hear a heckler yell to the umpire, “You’re blind as a bat.”

Having umpired more than 1,000 baseball games from kids to pros, I discovered the ear was as valuable as the eye.

Take a close play at first base.  The umpire has his eye on the runner’s foot to see when it touches the bag.  And at the same moment he listens for the ball to hit the first baseman’s glove. Then he makes the call.  Which got there first, foot or ball?  So it is not so much a bang-bang play as a thud-thud.

It is the same with the home plate umpire.  A manager storms out to question whether a batter was hit by a pitch.  “How can you possibly see a 90 mph fastball clip the loose end of a batter’s jersey?”  The answer is, no, I didn’t see it.  I heard it. And the batter is awarded first base. A pitched ball makes a “tic” sound when it touches the shirt.  You will rarely see a catcher argue those calls.  He hears what the umpires hears.

The same could be said for foul balls.  A runner attempts to steal second base as the batter swings at a high pitch that eludes the catcher’s mitt.  Everyone but the umpire and catcher think the runner will now be safe on second base.  But the umpire has heard the “tic” of the ball grazing the bat, and the runner must return to first base.

Maybe the heckler should yell, “You’re deaf as a rock.”



Cam Newton’s moment of horror

I believe there’s a moment in almost everyone’s life when they commit an act of cowardice. No one may notice it, but it lives within you forever. I know it has for me. And I’m ashamed of myself every time I think of it.  That’s why I have sympathy for Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback, who seemed to show fear in not diving for his fumbled pass attempt late in Super Bowl 50.

I wonder if that is why he was so sullen and silent in the post-game media session. Perhaps he was waiting for someone to ask him about that moment for which he had no answer and may have had to lie.  He could have said, “I thought it was an incomplete pass, not a fumble.”  Yes, he could have said that.

That moment there on the football field late in the fourth quarter was so out of character for Newton’s cocky demeanor that it would be doubly humiliating to confront reporters after the game.  Many of those reporters, he knew, probably did not like him and wished him the worst.  Some of that dislike was provoked by the quarterback’s seemingly sky-high views of himself.  Some of it was racist.  Reporters, no different than American society, are at odds with blacks who show-boat while accepting in their white counterparts.

Like Newton’s moment of fear, mine occurred on a football field when I was 18. The fear came upon me so suddenly that I was unprepared. I can not explain why it happened. It just did. No one ever mentiioned the incident to me. Maybe no one saw it for what it was. So it has gone as a dirty little secret all these years.

The difference for Newton of course was quite different.

NFL players are not to show fear. It is an unwritten rule of the game.  They must appear above all towers of physical and emotion strength.  It is the image the NFL likes.  To appear human is the antithesis of everything NFL.  

And of course while only a few hundred witnessed my dreary moment in a long-forgotten high school game, millions saw Newton’s so-called disgrace on television.  And the CBS analyst covering the game, Phil Simms, mentioned it for what it was to most of us viewers:  Newton was afraid to risk his body for what could have been a game changing moment.

If you really look at Newton’s demeanor in the post-game interview, it was not that of a fierce warrior crushed by defeat on his sport’s biggest stage.  What I saw was a little boy, pulling a hoody around his torment and sinking into the blackness of a reality that may scar him a long time.

It is a hard thing to get over, that moment, when the doubts that long have existed in you seem to prove utterly true. Will we ever see again the hot-dogging, fun-loving Cam Newton so visible before Super Bowl 50?

Trump and me

I’ve never met Donald Trump.  Seen him once like 32 years ago in Florida.  It was enough.

It was on Amelia Island, near Jacksonville.  Ritzy resort on the Atlantic, The Plantation.  They gave you a card key and you stumbled around the island with a map in search of your room.  I found mine.  Figure there’s still some guys out there in the trees by the cliffs looking for theirs.  I was there as a reporter to cover an important meeting of the United States Football League.  Surely you remember the USFL.  No?

The year escapes me.  Probably 1984, in the autumn when the weather was nice and the sea wind was kicking up whitecaps.

The league was abuzz about Trump’s joining them.  If nothing else he is exciting.  I remember waiting outside the room where the owners were meeting, and suddenly Trump comes out to make a call.  Yeah, no cellphones in those days.  Nice looking guy, lots a hair.   I couldn’t hear what was said, but Trump was animated.  Probably chatting about one of his real estate deals on another island, Manhattan.

The USFL fathers were innovators.  They created a professional football league that played in the spring, not like normal teams do in the fall.  I’m trying to remember where all the teams were.  Phoenix for sure.  Birmingham, Philadelphia, Oakland, Denver, Los Angeles, Tampa.  Even Portland and San Antonio belonged.  The idea was to compete with the established NFL, but no head to head.  At first.

That’s when Trump came along and destroyed it all.  He wanted to go mano a mano with the NFL.  Play in the fall, he said, and even owners followed the piper.  A 1986 fall season was “planned” to throw god-awful fear into the NFL.  Trump had acquired the New Jersey Generals, signed the Heisman Trophy winner, Herschel Walker, from Georgia.  Most of the owners didn’t have the dough to compete with him.  Or at least didn’t want to throw their fortunes away.

Toward the end of its fragile history, the USFL and Trump decided to bring an anti-trust suit against the NFL.  The game plan was not to keep playing in their own league.  They wanted money, compensation for discriminatory TV scheduling.  Trump thought he could leverage the NFL, get his own franchise among the big boys.  The case went to court in 1986.

I have a book, “The $1 League,” by Jim Byrne, a former PR guy for the USFL.  It tells it all.  A jury sided with the USFL and awarded the owners $1, which for legal reasons was tripled to $3.  The league folded on the spot.  Everyone lost money, including the Donald.  The irony is that Byrne’s hard-to-find book is worth about 75 times more than the entire disastrous league.

For all his self-described wealth, for all his charisma, Trump turned out to be a fool on that deal.  Thank’s for the memories, Donald.  My vote for President?  I don’t think so, even if Republicans are stupid enough to give you the nomination.  And they’re probably capable of doing that.

Riding high and wet

My occasional  travels to Oahu’s North Shore over the past 30 years led to an unexpected view of myself.  I could have been, maybe should have been, a surfer-boy.

I clearly remember a few days after I was released from the Army, stopping at a road junction in northern Nevada.  I stewed there for many  long minutes pondering what next to do with my life.  Turn east to Kansas and home.  Or turn west and head for adventure, possibly on the beaches of California.

In many ways I pine for a do-over, for I did go to Kansas, get married, have children and enter the rat-race.

In my heart now, I believe I should have turned west and become a surf rider, a juvenile who matures slowly if at all while living a carefree life at the seashore surrounded by other like-minded mates.  Hacking my way through an alien “adult world” all these decades proved dispiriting.  Grubbing for dollars and owning stuff has never been a big part of my makeup.

So, having done no more than body-surf modest waves on Sandy Beach outside of Honolulu, I resort these days to watching surfer movies in hopes of catching a glimpse of what might have been.  That’s why last night I switched on the DVD player to peer into director John Milius’s 1978 drama, “Big Wednesday,” a nostalgic look-back at his own life as a surfer and coming of age on the waves.

Milius divided his maudlin tale into four ocean swells covering 12 years in the lives of three friends as they surfed a favored Los Angeles beach, sometimes together, sometimes alone:   South Swell (1962), about being young.  The West Swell (Fall 1965), focusing on life changes and differences in personality.  Winter Swell (1968), a time of separation.  The Great Swell (spring of 1974), a chance for reunion.

These unlikely friends are united only by their love of surfing.

Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent) is a world-class big-wave surfer who suffers bouts of depression and alcoholism.  Jack (William Katt) is the solid-citizen, reflective and often remote who volunteers for the war in Vietnam amid protesting peers.  Leroy (Gary Busey) is a fun-loving character with an addiction for fist-fights.   The glue that keeps these buddies from drifting apart is an older surfboard maker, Bear (Sam Melville).   Friendships are essential to life, Bear preaches, although he ends up divorced, a drunk living a lonely existence near the beach.

The climactic last scenes arrive on a “big Wednesday” with a big storm and some of the highest, meanest waves ever seen on the beach.  Matt, with the urging of Bear, comes forth to surf these most dangerous of waves.  He has tried in vain to invite Jack and Leroy to surf with him, all now in middle age.  Will they show up on their own for this once-in-a-lifetime event of Mother Nature, drawn by their deep connection to surfing and friendship?  Is there no lasting bond for these three?  Are their younger days of camaraderie, surfing and partying together, only memories and nothing more?

Milius, the director, described his film this way:

“The idea was to show the spirit of old-time surfing,” he says in a post-film commentary. “This was a time that was past, you know.  Black and white.  It was a time that had gone by and would never be the same again.”

While the idea was good, the execution was not.  Wooden, overly sentimental and bogged down in a queasy plot, the film is saved primarily by the surfing photography and watching doubles, the so-called master surfers (Ian Cairns, Peter Townend, Bill Hamilton, Gerry Lopez, J. Riddle and Jackie Dunn) do their marvelous maneuvers on large breakers.

Sometimes, in a search for a meaningful and well-done surfing film,  you have to wade a few hours in shallow water.  And that’s what I did here.