The Force was with us

The last date I took to see Star Wars became my wife.

Even though these two events (taking her to see Star Wars and marrying her) happened years apart, they are not mutually exclusive. Only a woman mad enough to join my quest for the perfect campsite (sight unseen, parts unknown) and then cheerily hike through dark New England woods so we could drive 20 miles to see a re-released movie that I insisted she must see, could possibly marry me.

The summer of 1982 I was working at a bowling alley in Coram, which is basically the geographic center of Long Island, and she waited tables in a Westhampton restaurant that was probably owned by the mob. We’d been dating since the previous fall and wanted to get away together for a few days before the next college semester.

She’d never been camping and I’d never been to New Hampshire, so we borrowed a tent from one of my coworkers, stocked up on food and booze, bought a map and took off. That was the extent of our planning, and we were incredibly lucky.

We caught a late ferry from Port Jefferson and crossed the Long Island Sound to Bridgeport then I drove the old Pinto through the night, amped on coffee and mescaline. We saw dawn break over the White Mountains and scanned our map for likely places to camp, looking for spots where the remotest-looking roads crossed running water.

Somewhere near one of these innocuous intersections, we saw an unmarked trail, pulled over to park, loaded all of our stuff on a thick tarp (because we didn’t have a backpack between us). We set off, single file, into the woods, lugging our stuff, the Swift River (or a tributary of it) to our left.

About a mile in we found our spot – flat and open, not 20 yards from the river. Nobody had been here for some time – we had to make our own fire pit. At night, we saw more stars than we’d ever seen before and slept to the sound of rushing water that didn’t come from a faucet. We cooked all our meals over the campfire, except for that one date night.

The morning of our arrival, while scoping out potential sites, we drove back and forth along the highway and passed through the village of North Conway where Star Wars was playing at a little downtown movie theater.

This was the original film from 1977, recently re-released with the subtitle, Episode IV: A New Hope. The first sequel in the series, The Empire Strikes Back, had come out two summers earlier. So, the original installment was five years old already.

Naturally, I’d seen both films, probably about five times each. I’d somehow managed to even take dates a couple of times. These were one-offs. Apparently, salivating over space adventures isn’t the best way to keep a girlfriend. But this one … she was different.

As we drove by the marquee she said, “Star Wars. Is that still playing? I never understood all the hoopla.”

After composing myself, I said, probably with a tone bordering on indignant and incredulous, “have you seen the movie?”


She would have left the conversation right there and been fine, but I persisted.

“So, how can you form an opinion about it,” I asked, defensively – she’d only questioned the hoopla, not the film’s quality, but a plan was forming.

“Just sayin’,” she said.

“Well, you’ve got to see it,” I said.

“Fine, whatever,” she said.

Two nights later, we set out from our campsite (trusting in the gods of such things that we would find it unmolested by man/beast/other when we returned later that evening) for an unusual date night.

We ate dinner in North Conway then saw the movie. She loved it. We loved it. We talked about it on the drive back and then on our flashlight-illuminated hike to our campsite and then as we lay on a blanket outside our tent, looking up at the stars.

It occurred to us then, as we peered into the brilliant vastness hovering above New Hampshire, that our eyes perceived starlight that began blinking long, long ago in galaxies that were far, far away. If our life together were a movie, this might have ensued:

They lay there for a few minutes, staring at eternity, when he said, “I love you.” She waited a beat, squeezed his hand and responded, “I know.”

Of course, neither one of us had the gumption yet to utter those three weighty words, “I love you,” to the other (nor the timing and wherewithal to respond, “I know,” when it finally did happen). We were just babes, really, and the story of “us” had barely begun.

Still, though, the sentiment of the words had already rooted itself and now, all these years later, it feels older than starlight.



Meeting Yogi Berra When I Wasn’t Supposed To

I met Yogi Berra on my birthday one time when I wasn’t supposed to. Here’s what happened.

My family had a print shop in Covington, Georgia. I left a job as a sports writer to join the family business. But I had some regrets. Mostly, I missed going to sporting events for free. So I made a plan. It was called The Hillside Tattler.

This was 1986, a great year for Major League Baseball, unless you’re Bill Buckner or a diehard Red Sox fan. Anyway, it was a long time ago.

Back then, before the advent of electric carrier pigeons, if you were a newspaper on the fringes – meaning, you weren’t a metro daily covering major league sports on a regular basis – you got into major league games by writing to the ball club’s media relations department, stating your intentions on a copy of your newspaper’s letterhead. That’s how I’d done it as a legitimate journalist, when I had a press pass.

But now all I had was a press, and a print shop. So I designed a masthead for the phony The Hillside Tattler, shrunk it down to create a piece of letterhead and typed a letter to the Braves media guy (I think it was the late, great Wayne Minshew), begging for a pass, claiming our newspaper, located in a distant rural Georgia town I made up, wanted to write a feature story about what it’s like to play out the string of a major league season. Our uncultured rube readers would get a real kick out of that, I wrote, more or less.

The red hot Houston Astros were coming to Atlanta to play the Braves for a late September three-game weekend series. The Astros were on their way to an epic National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. The Braves were on their way to the cellar. I asked for two passes for a Friday night game, which happened to be my birthday – one for a writer (me, the fake editor of the fake newspaper) and one for a photographer (my brother Steve, who actually is a great photographer).

The passes arrived in the mail and we went to the game. Got there in time to see batting and fielding practice, saw NBC broadcasters Tony Kubek and Bob Costas. My brother, who is a little over 5-foot-8, smiled as he noted how short the 5-foot-7 Costas is.

Then we met Yogi, also 5-foot-7, but that didn’t elicit any cracks from my brother or me. We’d grown up with a father who was a big Yankees fan so Berra was something between a saint and a super hero in our house, the archetype clutch player, one of the greatest catchers ever, who helped the Yankees win 10 World Series then led both the Yankees and the Mets to the World Series as a manager. The bow-legged Berra could have been the size of a bowling trophy. He was still a giant.

He was coaching the Astros at the time, standing near the third-baseline watching the team workout. He kindly answered a couple of questions, and I wrote it down in a reporter’s notepad that I later asked him to sign – further proof that I wasn’t an actual journalist at the time, and I don’t know if Yogi saw through the facade or cared.

The thing is, he didn’t give me any Yogi-isms, just answered my questions about the Astros’ pennant run, said something about the season Houston ace Mike Scott was having, how he looked forward to playing his old team, the heavily favored Mets, in the upcoming NLCS and how he was pretty used to busy Octobers, what with all of his postseason history. “What am I gonna do,” he said, “go on vacation? This is my vacation.”

Then he went back to work.

The Braves won the game, 5-4, then lost seven of their last eight games.

Eventually, we lost the print shop and I went back to sports writing for about 10 years. Covered a lot of baseball games, got to cover some World Series, including the Braves championship run in 1995. Those were some great times, and all of it on the up and up, with actual stories written on deadline and everything.

But the first Major League game I ever covered was the Yogi game, and I was there under false pretenses. So, I didn’t write about it until now, almost 30 years later. Next time, I won’t wait for Yogi Berra to die to get around to it.

Connecting the Dots, Sharing their Stash

Bill Bolling has dedicated his life to engaging, educating and empowering disparate – sometimes, desperate – people and institutions, bringing them together to solve the problems within their communities, coaxing the body politic to heal itself. It’s been one long and elaborate game of connect-the-dots for Bolling, who is genetically inclined to always say yes, but does not want this story to be about him. He wants it to be about the dots.

“In fact, it’s very uncomfortable on a certain level to get plucked out as the guy who did this or that, because one never works alone,” says Bolling, founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank (ACFB). “I guess I did create what we might call the container that allows all this good work to go on. But I did that with the help of a lot of other people.

“It’s all about the community. It always has been, and I’m just one among the many.”

Nonetheless, this is Bolling’s story, because he’s Georgia Trend’s 2012 Georgian of the Year, for creating and growing and maintaining the container – he also calls it a tool – that has been feeding hungry people since 1979, when he started the South’s first food bank (and one of the nation’s first) in the basement of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.

And his job has never seemed so critical. A miserable economy, high unemployment, increased poverty and a disappearing middle class are adding up to more hunger, and the ACFB has responded, increasing food distribution by more than 30 percent a year for the past three years.

Without increasing staff and utilizing more than 1,000 volunteers a month, the ACFB dispersed about 34 million pounds of food in fiscal 2010-2011 to more than 700 partner agencies in 38 North Georgia counties, including Metro Atlanta, and Bolling doesn’t expect the trend to reverse any time soon, either.

“For the past several years, we were all just working harder, thinking that this economic climate was an anomaly and things would go back to the way they were. I don’t think it’s going back.

“But we’re not broke; we’re not without resources,” he says, meaning the collective “we,” all of us, not the ACFB by itself. “I think that maybe we were intoxicated before. We started to feel like we were owed all this … stuff. And this is our wake-up call. We weren’t owed anything, so now let’s figure out what really has value.”

Leave it to Bolling, the eternal optimist, to find a silver lining even as more stomachs are growling.

“In my talks, I always say there aren’t many good things that can come out of a depression or a recession or whatever this is. But when I say that we’re distributing 34 percent more food, and dealing with the logistics of that, all the trucks, the warehouse, it just means that thousands more people are helping their neighbors,” he says.

“It’s really neat to see what people are capable of doing for each other in uncertain times. In the past, so many of us used to think of those ‘other people’ or that ‘other guy.’ Maybe they were immigrants, maybe they were poor people, maybe they had personal problems and made bad choices, but they were the ‘others.’

“Now, that ‘other guy’ is your brother-in-law or your neighbor.”

Bolling says that 20 percent of the people looking for assistance through the ACFB today have never asked for help before. And when you consider that about half of the people fed through the ACFB have jobs but aren’t earning a livable wage, it’s easy to understand the thoughts and emotions driving the Occupy movement.

“We’re living in a new reality,” says Bolling. “It’s a challenge for all of us in America right now, and we’re operating out of fear. Fear is the common denominator. It’s what sells today. It’s the core emotion we’re dealing with as a society.

“We should remember that for over 200 years we’ve faced every challenge. We’ve gone through tough times. It’s what gives us character. So, we’re in one of those times now. But if your orientation in life is to see problems as opportunities, then we are living in incredible times right now.”


Building Community

Bolling was the only kid in tiny Denton, N.C., who drove a tractor to Little League practice. The tractor was a gift from his grandfather, Ben Carroll, who told him to plough gardens all around the rural town for widows and people who didn’t have much of their own.

“That was the world I grew up in. Everybody seemed to help everybody,” says Bolling, who was six when his birth father died and he moved with his mother, Becky, to live in a house Carroll built just for them.

Becky eventually married Don Garner, a man that Bill still thinks of as “Dad,” not stepdad. Garner owned a small broom manufacturing company, which is where Bill spent most of his after-school hours, working and letting the entrepreneurial spirit sink in.

But he inherited his sense of community service from his grandfather, who was the city manager, policeman and dogcatcher (among other things) in Denton, a city of about 800 some 40 miles south of Winston-Salem. And when a house caught on fire in the middle of the night, he’d wake up his eight-year-old grandson Bill, who lived next door.

“I was his sidekick,” Bolling says. “We also had a little farm on the edge of town, raised some animals, grew our own food. And my grandfather would go out and lease more land and grow more food. We’d fill up the truck and ride around town – he knew where the needy families lived.

“I guess my grandfather was the first food banker I ever met.”

Bolling joined the Air Force at 17, right after high school, and spent almost two years in Vietnam working on C-130s’ airborne navigation systems. He saw plenty of combat from the air, got shot at, and it left its mark.

“Those are big markers in a young life, going to war,” says Bolling.

When he left the Air Force in 1969, he got involved in the anti-war movement and the Civil Rights Movement and got seriously involved in his spiritual journey.

He worked a thousand jobs, give or take, and was, at different times, a carpenter, surveyor, salesman and carpet cleaner, went to college at Appalachian State (Boone, N.C.) on the GI Bill, then moved to Georgia for grad school (he studied Humanistic Psychology at West Georgia College), met his wife, Haqiqa, and together they started an interfaith community on 10th and Myrtle streets in what was a rough part of Midtown Atlanta at the time.

The community worked with homeless people, the mentally ill, taught and practiced meditation, even started a restaurant, and Bolling discovered that he was an entrepreneur and a leader. He also started volunteering at St. Luke’s and learned to always say yes.

“I had been running a community kitchen for about four years and didn’t have a vision of what the food bank would be. For me it was a matter of getting some other congregations to open their doors and help feed the hungry,” Bolling says. “I actually went out and promised all these congregations all the food they needed if they would just open up. Lo and behold, one of them said yes, and I didn’t have the food!

“So that’s how the food bank started – I needed some place to store the food.”

He introduced himself to everyone he could in the food industry, and when someone called to say, “We found 15 tractor-trailer loads of this food in our warehouse, and its almost out of date … can you take it?” Well, the answer was yes.

“The answer is always yes. That’s how you learn to figure things out,” Bolling says. “I couldn’t keep 15 tractor-trailer loads in that basement, so you start thinking about who else you can share it with.”

Moveable Feasts

St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance, the world’s first, was established in Phoenix in 1967 by John van Hengel, who developed the food “banking” concept – individuals and resources (like grocery stores disposing of food in damaged packaging) could deposit food and funds, and social agencies could make withdrawals of food for their clients at no cost.

By the late 1970s the idea was spreading fast, and when Bolling started the ACFB, about a dozen others around the country were cropping up. They met to share knowledge and ideas, formed a national network called America’s Second Harvest (now known as Feeding America), and the ACFB had the franchise for the entire Southeast.

“I helped start food banks in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida,” Bolling says.

The network grew within Georgia, too, as banks started in Savannah, Macon, Augusta – there are seven across the state today (an eighth is being developed in Gainesville) under the umbrella of the Georgia Food Bank Association, headquartered at the ACFB. Together, they serve more than 2,500 agencies that feed people in all 159 Georgia counties.

“Necessity was the mother of invention,” says Mike Firmin, founder and executive director of Golden Harvest Food Bank in Augusta, established in 1982.

“Second Harvest didn’t have Augusta in its expansion plan. It wasn’t considered a major food distribution center,” Firmin says. “But this community had great determination, and Bill saw that. He saw it in me and in how I described what we were doing in Augusta. He lent his support; he shared food and connections. Basically, he kind of discipled me in the food banking movement.”

Today, the Augusta food bank serves more than 400 nonprofit agencies in Georgia and South Carolina. And you can hear a bunch of those stories from other food banks across Georgia, nonprofit entrepreneurs whose core business is to feed the hungry by leveraging the resources in their communities.

“One of the great things about food banking is it provides a very real, locally governed structure for people of goodwill who want to make a difference to plug into, at every level, with their time or their money,” Firmin says.

And Bolling is the guy who first started rolling that social snowball. It’s grown to startling proportions.

The ACFB is now in its fourth location – a state-of-the-art, LEED-certified 129,000-square-foot facility (a first for any food bank in the country) that features one of the state’s largest rooftop solar power arrays. About 110 employees and hundreds of volunteers work in the acquisition, processing, packaging and shipping of food. They have a fleet of trucks that make deliveries to partner agencies all over the region, utilizing logistics software acquired from UPS and a fleet of 15 tractor-trailer trucks.

“We’re learning something new every day, and when you’ve got to learn something you ask yourself, ‘Who’s the best?’ Well, we were growing rapidly and we had a logistical challenge, but Atlanta is the center of logistics,” Bolling says. “We’ve got UPS. We’ve got Coca-Cola, which sends out 800 trucks a day. I invited all of them to the table to teach us.”

Bolling talks a lot about the table, about bringing people of different political or religious ideologies to the table where they discover common ground and goals.

“One of Bill’s key talents is his remarkable ability to engage the entire community, to relate to all segments of the community,” says Rob Johnson, chief operating officer at ACFB. “He’s always striving for inclusion of as many people as possible. One minute he’ll be talking and interacting with someone on the street, a homeless person, and the next he’ll be meeting with a senator or a CEO.”

Johnson, who started one of the first overnight homeless shelters in Atlanta, was one of Bolling’s early shoppers. He joined ACFB in the 1980s after doing a feasibility study that led to the launching of Atlanta’s Table, a pioneering partnership in which the ACFB picks up prepared, ready-to-eat food for quick turnaround from local restaurants, caterers and hotels. That program led to passage of a state law protecting food donors from liability. The ACFB handles about 600,000 pounds of prepared food every year now.

Through the years the ACFB has added a variety of other projects to its mission. The Community Gardens Project has inspired more than 175 gardens all over North Georgia. Communities are growing their own food, and by the way, the food bank collects about 100,000 pounds of food a year from these gardens to feed others.

Kids In Need provides school supplies for more than 300 Title I schools in a dozen systems. The Atlanta Prosperity Campaign connects working families and individuals to money-saving programs and existing benefits, such as earned income tax credits – last year they brought more than $22 million back into the pockets of people who really need the cash (i.e., not the proverbial one percent).

“See, that’s what I call economic development,” says Bolling, who has worked every angle he knows to make it all happen, but sees some tough challenges ahead.

There was federal stimulus to help meet the demand of the past couple of years. That money’s gone now, but while most banks were trying to figure out what to do with their federal cash injections, the food bank was putting its stimulus to work on the street.

And the food bank is looking at a 30 percent cut in aid from the USDA, even as it takes on the job of managing the federal TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program) contract for Georgia – a perfect example of public-private partnership that actually works.

“The collection, transportation and accounting for food? We do that better than the government can, so it makes perfect sense,” Bolling says. “A dollar coming into the food bank makes $7.30 worth of food going out the door. The government can’t come close to that. The TEFAP contract takes us beyond the rhetoric of ‘public-private’ to a better reality.”

But now he’s contemplating that rueful exercise that’s become a universal theme in a circle-the-drain economy – doing more with less. Emptier than usual shelves in the warehouse worry him, but a couple of new programs will help keep food moving, he says.

First, the ACFB is servicing retail stores like never before – 87 Walmarts, about 140 Krogers and 160 Publix stores. They get about three million pounds of food a year just from the Walmarts, and it serves as one of Bolling’s classic win-win scenarios.

“Walmart’s commitment in this was not feeding hungry people, it was to the environment. They’re one of the leading companies practicing environmental stewardship, so they’re committed to not putting stuff in landfills,” he says. “That’s stuff we can use.”

America throws away about 40 percent of the food it grows and packages, and Bolling has made it his life’s work to link that otherwise wasted resource with the people who need it. It has brought him in contact with the people who can afford to help.

“I’m not sure why I initially felt like I could go to CEOs or politicians, into boardrooms, but over time I’ve come to realize that I belong at those tables,” Bolling says. “We’re providing a huge community service, an asset, so I need to be at those tables, especially in these times. It’s all about creating win-win situations.”

He isn’t planning on retirement, not anytime soon, though the ACFB is in the midst of sustainability and succession planning.

“I’ll retire as executive director of the food bank some day, but as a sense of purpose, I think I’ll always be feeding hungry people,” he says.

It’s what sustains him, feeding hungry people and bringing others along for the ride, connecting those dots, changing lives, and by extension, maybe the world.

“When one person helps another person, that’s when transformation happens,” he says. Given Bolling’s line of work, and his Christian faith, he thinks often about the classic “stone soup” story and its Biblical relative, the parable of Jesus feeding the 5,000.

“Getting 5,000 different people to share their stash, that’s the big miracle,” he says. “This is our miracle today. That’s the story of the food bank.”

The Power of August

My father died in August. My son was born in August.

My older brother and sister also were born in August. There are more birthdays in August than in any other month. Today, the 17th, is my brother Steve’s birthday.

Happy birthday, Brother – do you remember where we were 32 years ago today? August is when we took our epic trip to the West, when you moved to Southern California the first time, and 32 years ago today is when the West really began showing itself to us.

We had driven through the night, across Minnesota, pitched a tent somewhere in the middle of South Dakota, and woke up to wide plains, rolling hills and the largest stretch of sky I’d ever seen. I gave you a Swiss Army knife. We visited the Badlands, and we made the Black Hills by night. I called my girlfriend Jane from a payphone near the foot of Mount Rushmore. It was after midnight back home in New York.

August also is when my friend Julianne Wilson engineered a life-changing project at my house, making it more accessible for my son, making it a workplace for me, making me fall in love with my community, proving that empathy, compassion and love can find you, even when you feel detached, enclosed in a self-induced shroud of fear and self-doubt.

It’s been 10 years since that project. The hot tub is gone. Jimmy Johnston, the same man who managed that project, who customized my son’s special bed, who built the wheelchair ramp and oversaw most of the miracle that happened in a weekend while my wife was away, who watched the tub fly out of the back of a pickup truck onto Duncan Bridge Road (and survive intact), was here a few weekends ago to manage the extraction of that tub from our house so that it could go to the Habitat for Humanity.

The profundity of August, the very atmosphere of August, can be overwhelming for me. Have you experienced an August in Georgia? Yes, the atmosphere can overwhelm.

August is a word that means distinguished, eminent, venerable, celebrated, hallowed, and so forth.

I am grateful for and respectful of August, a big and hot month, sometimes glorious, sometimes terrifying. Outside the borders of intimate experience, August is monumental. Among other things, we dropped atomic bombs on Japan and World War II ended in August, Woodstock happened in August, and Hurricane Katrina raged in August.

My heart has soared, and been broken, and been mended in August, numerous times.

August is huge, and I haven’t even scratched its surface here, and if it’s just the same to you, this year I might just tip-toe through the rest of the month.

Life Happens

John Lennon wrote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” for his son Sean 20-something years before my son Joe was born. But that phrase, from the song “Beautiful Boy,” has been a constant caption to the ever-evolving picture of my son’s life and of my life since he was born, 14 years ago today.

I’ve never been more terrified than the day Joe was born. It was August 6, 2001, and he was expected to arrive on his mother’s (Jane’s) birthday, November 8. So, we definitely were busy making other plans when Joe’s life happened.

You know how those plans work, those hazy, someday plans. We knew a son was on the way. I thought of us throwing a baseball, so he had a ball and fielder’s glove before he was born. I thought of us camping, hiking, running, and climbing. Father and son stuff, the way I’d fantasized it. The thing is, we’ve done all of that stuff, but in no way has it resembled what my daydreaming had conjured.

Those were hard days, the joy of a new birth jumbled up with the fear that it was too premature and the sadness that still hung over us. Jane’s mom had just died, in late July. My daughter, my very pregnant wife and I flew to California to be with family and see Mom off to whatever waits on the backstage side of the universe. She was wonderful, my mother-in-law, a round-shaped woman who stood an inch or two below five-feet, who could cook a meal that rivals anything you’ve had, who was filled with unconditional love and spoke with the cutest, high-pitched Maltese accent.

In the months before she died, as she and Jane kept in constant touch, Mom would say, “when the baby arrives in July … , ” and Jane would remind her, “November, Ma, the baby’s due in November …” Turns out, Mom was closer to the mark than anyone. A fairly normal pregnancy was rushed to an unexpected conclusion the morning of August 6, and I was terrified. The doctor tried to delay delivery long enough for steroids to promote development of Joe’s lungs. But he was coming and nothing could stop it. About a week after we returned from California, he was here.

Joe spent his first 77 days in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), much of that time in a protective incubator, his tiny body struggling to maintain normal, healthy blood oxygen levels. We spent at least part of every day in the hospital with him, watching him. It was weeks before we could touch him, or kiss him. Evenings in the NICU were punctuated by beeps and alarms, which prompted Joe’s caregivers to make this adjustment or that one.

We didn’t realize it at the time, because we were in a constant state of foxhole readiness (a state of being that we still adroitly assume when necessary), but we kept getting busier and life kept happening. By the time we took him home, it was apparent that Joe had some kind of developmental delay, a big phrase with wide ramifications we barely understood. We got busy hiring a physical therapist and specialists and making ourselves ready at home, and life kept happening. Several months later, when the seizures started and his neurologist said, “Joey has cerebral palsy,” life kept right on, and a year later, when the neurologist died (and this was a mensch among men), life kept on.

In the 14 years since Joe was born, life patterns have veered wildly from anything we could have mapped out, so we threw out the map years ago. Plans? We’ve seen so many of them come apart at the molecular level that even saying the word feels like tempting fate. We make them anyway, but we make them without attachment, and let life get on with itself.

I think that Joe would tell you it’s been a pretty good life that has happened to him so far. The reason I think this is because he smiles a lot and seems to really enjoy the simple things – a pleasant breeze, a fast ride, a good movie, a funny sound, good music, loud noises, curse words, burps and farts. Through his actions, it’s evident that he is enjoying life, which is a good thing since life is going to happen anyway.

There have been imaginary Joes, usually in my sleep, but sometimes when I’m awake, while driving, daydreaming; imaginary sons who can lift me when I fall, or tuck his mother in when she is old. But the real Joe is exactly who he is. It’s not the life I had planned for him or for me. But I’m beyond grateful that life has happened to us at the same time, that our lives have intersected. Because now, 14 years later, I can’t imagine mine without his in it. Well, maybe I can, imagination being a malleable thing. But I don’t want to.

42: Life, the Universe and Jackie Robinson

The film version of my favorite moment in baseball history.
The film version of my favorite moment in baseball history.

The addled mind needed rejuvenation last night at the end of an all-to-real surreal and senseless day. Innocent people in Boston were bleeding and dying from a devastating act of cowardice, a good and kind friend was robbed in Atlanta (and lost some irreplaceable personal items), and a dependable and beloved Athens soup kitchen was destroyed by fire. We won’t bother adding the details of my income tax situation. Suffice to say, a wretched Monday storm for the books.

But it was also Jackie Robinson Day, and that’s the day I woke up to, the day I anticipated, as I do most years. It’s the day when everyone wearing a Major League Baseball uniform dons Robinson’s No. 42, which is also the answer to life, the universe and everything, according to Douglas Adams.

In a way, April 15 is the only religious holiday in baseball, commemorating the day Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first black man to play in the major leagues since they adopted Jim Crow laws in the 19th century, banning generations of dark-hued ballplayers. But thanks to Branch Rickey’s enlightened self-interest (and sense of fair play), Robinson was invited to break the color barrier, and the game became the Game, finally living up to its label as the National Pastime.

By late Monday night, my brain and heart were reeling and almost empty of spiritual nutrition – there were some lingering transcendental fumes, because the wife took me to yoga class with her early in the evening, and it helped. Still, I needed the kind of octane boost that baseball has often given me; a silly game, but my safe haven, a pacifying salve. I know exactly what James Thurber meant when he wrote, “The majority of American males put themselves to sleep by striking out the batting order of the New York Yankees.”

So, I went by myself to see the late showing of 42 at the local cinema. I’m not equipped to take this film apart and offer a cogent review. I’ll leave that kind of heavy lifting to my friend Erik Lundegaard, a great baseball fan, wonderful writer and insightful movie reviewer. I’m looking forward to reading Erik’s review because I always learn something, and this is a movie we both have been waiting for. Anyway, my untrained, two-bits’ worth:

I love this movie. It’s beautiful to watch, it’s emotional, and it’s a great story about baseball.

Sure, it falls into some of the typical baseball mythological film routines and there were times when I thought to myself,  “Ah, The Blacktural.” It has some of the hero-worship elements of movies you’ve seen about Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In 42, in scene after scene, we are told exactly how we are supposed to feel: Jackie was the Jesus of baseball, especially when Harrison Ford, as Branch Rickey, gets going on a Biblical-tinged spiel — but then, Rickey was a proud Methodist. “You’re medicine,” he tells Robinson in the movie. “We need you.” It’s the kind of thing you say to a savior.

Of course, we easily sympathize with Robinson, played well by Chadwick Boseman (who even looks the part). Knowing the kind of opposition the rookie and the Dodgers will face, Rickey tells Robinson, “I want a player with the guts not to fight back.” So, we see pitchers throwing at Robinson repeatedly, and we see baserunners spiking him. He almost crumbles under a withering barrage of insults from the opposition. His wife and infant son are threatened. Imagine turning the other cheek, holding all of that rage inside, forcing to keep your hands at your hips instead of striking back when you have every right and instinct to do so. Imagine the internal, physiological stress of that, and what it can do to a man’s health. Robinson was only 53 when he died. In the movie, Boseman personifies fury held in check.

One of my complaints about the movie is, it never lets on that Rickey made Robinson promise to keep his temper in check for three years, so we never get to see the gloves come off. We never see Jackie fully armed and loaded because we’re not supposed to, because the movie only covers a couple of years, 1945-1947, and while we don’t see enough of the inner combustion that drove Robinson, we do get a glimpse of some of the ridiculous and nasty challenges thrown in his way. It is almost excruciating to watch Ben Chapman, the virulently racist redneck manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, played by Alan Tudyk (“Wash” from the sci-fi TV series Firefly) — not because of the performance, which is outstanding, but because this kind of shit really happened. There is some needed emotional satisfaction when Robinson’s teammates finally stand up for him.

The baseball scenes are fabulous, the story is moving, the acting is solid. I’m a sucker for baseball movies, even the bad ones. I actually sat through The Slugger’s Wife when it was in theaters, the whole damn stinking mess. It hurt like hell, but I sat through it, just as I’ve sat through plenty of 8-1 Braves’ losses (especially when they really sucked, in the 70s and 80s).

I’ll see 42 again in the theater, and hopefully very soon. But nothing can match the first time, and here’s why. The 9:45 showing was almost empty – me, four teenaged boys, and an older African-American couple who had, between them, read every biography of Robinson and gave the film a thumbs up for sticking closely with the source material (and they also said they liked the emotional wallop).

But, what really interested me was the crowd from the 7:10 showing – a busload of kids from Bulloch Academy down in Statesboro, on a field trip to Northeast Georgia. Bulloch is one of the remaining “segregation academies” in Georgia – the all-white private schools that were founded in the late 60s, early 70s, immediately after county school boards voted to finally acquiesce to federal law.

Times change, slowly. There now are a tiny percentage of students of color in Bulloch Academy, but I found the school’s presence at our local theater historically satisfying. Here was a school founded on principles of segregation (42 years earlier, it turns out) sending students to see a movie about a black man who broke the baseball color barrier and was a pioneer of the Civil Rights movement (though it wasn’t really called that at the time).

It was, for me, the a perfect kind of historical symmetry, because these white kids are from Statesboro, where 50 years ago, a 12-year-old African-American (read about it here) became the youngest player to appear in a professional game (Class D minor leagues), and the first black person to play in an all-white league.

They haven’t made that movie yet.

It Takes a Thief – Seven Times

The Chicago White Stockings were the most powerful team in the early National League, winning six pennants in the circuit’s first 11 seasons (1876, 1880-82, 1885-86).

They did it under the shrewd front-office guidance of Albert Spalding, and with a Stone Age version of Murderers’ Row that included Hall of Famers Adrian “Cap” Anson and Mike “King” Kelly, and one of the 19th century’s great sluggers, Abner Dalrymple. Dalrymple was considered so dangerous at the plate in his prime that he became the first player to be intentionally walked with the bases loaded.

Then there was center fielder George “Piano Legs” Gore, one of the era’s most valuable players, who was on seven pennant winners, all in the 1880s. On June 25, 1881, he did something truly extraordinary, running into the record book as the first player to steal seven bases in a game. (Only Billy Hamilton, in 1894, has matched the feat.)

Gore was a complete ballplayer. He hit for average, sometimes for power (second person to smack five extra-base hits in a game), he could field and he could throw.

He could also run really, really well.

Gore finished his 14-year career with more runs (1,327) than games played (1,310), reflecting the sturdy legwork of a player who earned his nickname because of superhero-shaped calf muscles.

In 1880 Gore led the National League in batting (.360). His average took a nosedive in 1881 (he finished at .298), but he was an artist at getting on and around the bases and that Saturday game in June, a 12-8 win over the visiting Providence Grays, was probably his masterpiece.

According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, about 2,000 fans saw an offensive outbreak that “was full of action and at all times interesting. … Chicago won by virtue of superiority in every point of play, but notably so in base-running. Gore’s performances in this respect were something phenomenal.”

Gore reached base five times in five plate appearances, had three solid singles and a walk, scored five runs, and generally made life really stressful for the Providence battery, pitcher Bobby Mathews and catcher Emil Gross. Gore stole second base five times – or every time he reached base – and stole third twice.

At the time, stolen bases were not part of the official statistical records in the National League, but the Tribune nonetheless noted that Gore had set “a record which as a whole has probably never been equaled in a League game.”

The game itself wasn’t a thing of beauty – “… the contest was characterized by numerous errors in fielding,” the Tribune reported. The teams combined to make 14 errors (10 by the Providence club). There were three passed balls (all by Gross), and only one of Chicago’s dozen runs was earned.

At the time the White Stockings were in the midst of their longest winning streak of the season (eight games) and hottest stretch (they went 18-3 from June 4 though July 13). Gore’s record-setting performance came in the second of a three-game set at home against Providence, during which Chicago outscored the Grays 39-20.

As the two teams took the field for Saturday’s game, Chicago was in first place with a three-game lead over the second-place Buffalo Bisons, and Providence was in last place, one win behind Cleveland.

Chicago took a 3-0 lead in the first. Batting second, the left-handed-swinging Gore reached on either an error or a fielder’s choice, stole second, and scored on Anson’s double. He had base hits in the second, fourth, and sixth innings – subsequently stealing bases and scoring each time. Those helped Chicago build a 10-4 lead through six innings.

Gore walked in the eighth and scored on Ned Williamson’s two-run triple to give Chicago a 12-4 lead. Providence scored its last four runs in the top of the ninth on four hits and a wild pitch.

National League rules banned Sunday baseball at the time, so the two teams finished their three-game set on Monday – a 19-12 Chicago victory.

After the series the Grays turned their fortunes around, posting the best record in the league for the stretch run (35-17-1). That included a change in field managers, outfielder Tom York replacing second baseman Jack Farrell. It was Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn’s rookie season, and he led Providence with a 25-11 record.

Chicago went 33-18 after the Providence series to finish 56-28, winning the pennant by nine games over the second-place Grays. It was a familiar pattern – Chicago won three straight pennants, 1880-1882, and Providence finished second each time.

And Gore? He kept on running wild, and not just on the basepaths. Anson considered Gore one of the best players of the era, even included him on his list of all-time greats, but claimed, “Women and wine brought about his downfall.” Gore was suspended from the 1885 World Series for drunkenness, and a year later Chicago sold him to the New York Giants because of all the drinking and cavorting. He helped New York win two pennants.

In his 14 major-league seasons, Gore led the league in runs scored in 1881 (86) and 1882 (99), then scored 100 or more runs a season for seven of the next nine years and is one of the most prolific run scorers of all time (1.02 runs per game). He batted .301 for his career with a .386 on-base percentage, and led the league in walks three times in an era when pitchers stood only 45 (then 55 1/2) feet away.

Ironically, Gore never “led” the league in stolen bases – the National League didn’t start keeping official records on the statistic until 1886. He stole 23 bases that year, a career-high 39 the next, and is credited with 170 stolen bases for his career. But Gore always will be remembered for the day he swiped seven in one game.