Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Team Named Desire

       The first high school football game I saw, 51 years ago, began with a 90-minute delay because the lights wouldn't come on at Shreveport's State Fair Stadium.
       It ended with a touchdown pass on the game's final play. Not only a touchdown, but a spectacular one, and with our team -- the Woodlawn Knights -- winning the first district game they ever played.
Brenda, Brad and Billy Laird
       Wayne Davis was falling and then juggled Billy Laird's pass, finally grabbing the ball -- after a defensive player batted it -- while he was flat on his back in the southwest corner of the end zone, on our side of the stadium.
       The scoreboard clocks read: 0:00. The score read: Woodlawn 12, Fair Park 6.
       For those of us who remember, it was magic. It was a magical season. It was Woodlawn's "Team Named Desire," as it would soon be called by Shreveport sportswriting legend Jerry Byrd and others.
        No question, the 1961 Woodlawn Knights are among my favorite teams. They are why I fell in love with high school football. I'm sure many of the people in my age range from the Woodlawn area (and era) feel the same way.
         I wasn't even in high school yet; I was a ninth-grader at Oak Terrace. But that night, that year, I knew I was going to love being a Woodlawn Knight.
        Woodlawn opened in the fall of 1960, the third all-white public high school in Shreveport, and the first to open since Fair Park (1932). Byrd (1926, the successor to Shreveport High) and Fair Park ha,d been the all-consuming rivalry in town.
       Bossier High, across the Red River, had been the third party in the mix. St. John's, which by 1960 became Jesuit, was the private school in Shreveport but never much of a factor in athletics other than baseball.    
         In 1960, Woodlawn had mostly sophomores and juniors. Seniors could choose to stay at the schools they had been (mostly Byrd and Fair Park), except for those from Greenwood High, which closed as Woodlawn opened.
           So the 1960 Woodlawn football team -- with a new coaching staff headed by Lee Hedges and without practice fields at the school the first few weeks -- was young and green (many kids had never played before) ... and terrible. It wasn't eligible to play in District 1-AAA, but it had to play a varsity schedule. The 0-9 record, with no points the first five weeks, included only one close game.
           But almost all the players -- including a few promising prospects -- were back for '61, including the senior quarterback, Billy Laird, who missed the '60 season with a broken ankle. And Wayne Davis, for some reason, hadn't come out for the team in '60.
             This would be a very small team, physically, by high school standards, even then. Now, it would be laughable. One regular player, tackle Claude Carrigan, weighed more than 180 pounds. Most of the linemen were between 170 and 145. Most weeks they were outweighed 15-20 pounds up front.
              The best running back, Tommy Linder, was about 5-foot-8, 170, but as tough as any player Woodlawn ever had. He teamed at linebacker (and running back) with Paul Clark, bigger and solidly built, a terrific athlete.
              (Getting ahead of the story here, all five of the guys named above would play college ball at Louisiana Tech, all of them regulars, some of them stars.)
             This small Woodlawn team -- seemingly dressed each week in blue jerseys, blue pants and blue helmets -- didn't have much depth, so many players played offense and defense. But this team was so well-disciplined, so well-conditioned, so quick, so determined, so well-coached ... such winners.
              The Team Named Desire just kept winning games, almost every time pulling heroics in the last quarter.
             It set the tone for everything that would happen at Woodlawn the rest of the decade, a decade in which Woodlawn was the winningest big-class school in Louisiana.
            Victory No. 1 in school history came in the season opener at North Caddo, 13-6, on a final drive and a last-minute touchdown. That game ball went in the trophy case.
             Week two was the District 1-AAA opener with Fair Park, where three of the coaching staff (Hedges, A.L. Williams, W.B. Calvert) had been star players a decade or so earlier. And again, a final drive (75 yards, seven Laird completions in a row, including the last-play touchdown pass described above).
              The next three weeks -- Bastrop, Ouachita and Springhill -- were victories, the first two district games in which Woodlawn again made the big plays in the final 12 minutes. Springhill, a tough opponent always, was a 20-0 rout.
             Then came a game at West Monroe, the same place where the first Woodlawn game a year earlier had been a 44-0 loss. This was a 7-0 victory -- preserved by four separate goal-line stands (yes, four). The Knights were 6-0, and 4-0 in the district.
            Byrd, which would become the arch-rival, broke the magic spell the next week with a 26-0 whipping before the first of what would be crowds of 20,000-plus for this rivalry through the rest of the '60s. But Woodlawn bounced back for two more wins before another loss, 19-13 to the first of coach C.O. Brocato's great teams at Jesuit.
             The regular season came down to one final District 1-AAA game -- with the championship at stake -- against a very good Bossier team that had beaten Byrd 21-20 to open the door to the district title. Again, it was at State Fair Stadium; again, it was magic -- a 12-7 victory.           
              The rag-tag team of 1960 had become district champions of 1961. Cinderella story.
              The little Knights were no match for Sulphur in a playoff game, but the Woodlawn tradition had been established.
              Wayne Davis, already a man in '61 and an outstanding pass-catcher and blocker and strong defensive end, was Woodlawn's first All-State player. Billy Laird, mostly a rollout passer in the Wing-T offense but later an accurate, bullet pocket passer in coach Joe Aillet's pro-style offense at Tech, was second-team All-State.
              Both of them would be all-conference players at Tech and be drafted by pro teams.  
Coach Billy Laird
               Billy Laird is now the athletic director/head football coach at Ruston High School. On  Friday night, he begins his 37th year coaching football, his 21st year as a high school head coach. He had several college assistant coaching jobs -- coaching quarterbacks --  and success everywhere; he's also been on some staffs that were let go.
              He got out of coaching a couple of times -- once when his son Brad quarterbacked Ruston High to a couple of state championships (including the 1990 team many consider Louisiana's best ever). But Billy took another coaching opportunity in Nashville, Ark., and was there for 12 years, one team winning a state title and another finishing runner-up once.
               He's had one losing season, his first at Ruston, and while his Ruston teams haven't had the success of two of his predecessors there (L.J. "Hoss" Garrett and Jimmy "Chick" Childress, each with multiple state titles), no one plays Ruston without a battle.
             Coach Laird, as always, loves the passing game. He once told me, jokingly I think, that he dreamed of a game in which his team passed the ball on every play. Maybe that's why he's still coaching at age 68. Really, it's because he loves being around the kids, and loves the game, loves the competition.
          The Laird I know is one of the great competitors -- a fiery one at times, too. He was the hero, I guarantee you, to the great Woodlawn QBs that followed in the '60s -- Trey Prather, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Ferguson, Johnny Booty. He was a hero to everyone who was a Woodlawn fan.
           And, of course, he got the girl -- the beautiful blonde cheerleader/homecoming queen, Brenda Boyette, the Sunset Acres girl from our Woodlawn Class of '65. Although Billy graduated before we got to Woodlawn, he would often show up at the school the next three years, purportedly to see the coaching staff and help counsel quarterbacks. I think he just might've been there to see Brenda, too.
           They married soon after she graduated from WHS. They have this beautiful family.
           Football is still a big part of the Lairds' life. Brad also became a college coach and just left coaching for an administrative job at Northwestern State. Billy intends to coach a couple more seasons.
            I suspect through all that's happened in his football life, though, that Woodlawn's Team Named Desire has a special place in Billy Laird's heart. He would not be alone feeling that way.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Turn on the lights

    No one knows better than LSU and New Orleans Saints fans how hurricanes can mess with football season.
     With that in mind as I write this piece -- and Hurricane Isaac bears down on the state we love (and other Gulf regions -- it is time to turn on the lights for football. At least it is in Louisiana and in Texas (Tennessee, for instance, is already in its third week of high school play).
     Now it's for real, not scrimmages or jamborees. It is the highly anticipated, always exciting time for season openers ... in high school and in colleges.
       It's a neat feeling to arrive at the stadium where people are excited to be there. Good as it is in the bigger cities, it's even better in one-high school towns.
       In my sportswriting career, covering football games -- especially high school football -- has been about as much fun as anything. So my season, my final season, begins Friday night at Wilemon Field in Arlington, Texas. 
Mansfield (Texas) High will be one of the teams in
 the game at Wilemon Field in Arlington on
 Friday night (Fort Worth Star-Telegram photo).
       The Mansfield High-Arlington Bowie game should be one of the top games in this area, and -- as Coach Jerry Adams used to say so often -- if the Lord is willing and the creeks don't rise -- I'll be there to cover it for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
        I have been working parttime for the Star-Telegram this year, covering some high school events last winter and spring, with this football season in mind. After my layoff as a fulltime employee last year, I did want to cover football last fall -- first chance I'd had to do that in a dozen years -- and did so for The Dallas Morning News, where I also worked parttime in the office.
         So that put me at games in Weatherford, The Colony, Dallas' John E. Kincaide Stadium, Wilemon Field, Azle, Keller, Justin Northwest and Fort Worth Christian.
         It was my first time to cover high school games in Texas. Having covered games for much of my career in Louisiana, plus games in Florida and Tennessee, and having seen games in Hawaii and Georgia, I can tell you this: The enthusiasm for high school football is great in every state I've been.
         But Texas indeed does it bigger and better than anyone. Many of the stadiums I've seen -- up close or from passing by -- are larger and more comfortable than anywhere else. The press boxes (and that's a priority for me) are roomier and more comfortable. I haven't covered football at Southlake Carroll, but I did cover a soccer game there, and that's a facility on par with many small colleges, or better.  But the new stadiums at Weatherford and Northwest, just to use two examples, are very nice.
        And I haven't seen the new standard -- Eagle Stadium in Allen (close to Plano and Frisco),  which will seat 18,000 and cost some $60 million to build.  But I have seen Allen play, with its dressout squad that numbered more than 100 and its 700-member band.  Yes, you read that correctly -- 700.
        Bigger and better. 
        That's the point here. In Texas, everyone gets deeply involved. There is great emphasis not only on the football team, but the cheerleaders, dance lines, bands, booster clubs, concession workers, whatever.
           The closest I've seen to matching Texas was in South Georgia, especially at Valdosta High, which had one of the great high school traditions in the country. Talent-wise on the football field, Florida could match Texas, but from my experience in northeast Florida, the facilities and involvement weren't anywhere close.  
          And, of course, I spent a little more than 25 years (through the 1960s, '70 and '80s) watching high school football in Louisiana, where the talent was also superb most years and, as I remember it, the interest was incredible. I'm sure it's still the same in many places; I just haven't been there since 1988.
         Loved covering games at LSU and Louisiana Tech, and a dozen other college stops, and the Cowboys at Texas Stadium and the Saints at the Superdome. Didn't like battling the big crowds or being part of a large media contingent trying to conduct interviews.
         Yet, covering high school football is a bigger challenge.
         At the NFL and college games, you have TVs in the press box to watch the game or watch replays, you are provided play-by-play sheets, statistics, quotes, a regulated interview process afterward. You usually have easy access to what you need to send in your story.
          At high school games, you keep your own play-by-play and your own statistics. It's not as easy as it sounds. Play moves pretty rapidly; you better keep up. And there's usually no replay to watch what you missed (although some stadiums do have video boards now).
          What I found last season -- after my long absence from the high school scene -- was that with the emphasis on the spread, no-huddle offenses and the passing game, my stats sheet -- which I first drew up in about 1970 and passed on to a couple of generations of young sportswriters -- was outdated. Not enough room for passes (30 was the limit) or first downs (20).
            So, with the help of Jason Hoskins in Star-Telegram sports, I have a new form -- up to 60 passes, 28 first downs, room for one back to carry 40 times and another to carry 20, etc. Hey, I'm ready.
              Another thing about high school coverage: Deadlines can be tight. Game ends at 10:15, and you need to have your story in in 30 minutes. If you want quotes, you have to hurry down to the field or locker room and do an interview or two. It's a scramble.
             But unlike the pros and/or colleges, where access can be limited and coaches and even players can get surly or short (sure, the media asks dumb questions), high school coaches and players are usually glad to see you and are cooperative. You might have to dig for information or a usable quote, but whatever you write is usually appreciated.
             Covered my first game in 1967 as a parttimer for The Shreveport Times -- a Sterlington-at-Benton playoff game. My first game as a fulltime Times sportswriter was two years later -- Minden-at-Bossier on a rainy night at Bossier's Memorial Stadium.
             Minden, which had been down a few years, pulled a 6-0 upset. Milford Andrews was the Bossier coach, a terrific coach but not a talkative one even when he won. That night, he was a tough guy to quote.
            I've covered a hundred games in Shreveport-Bossier. But I enjoyed covering games all over Louisiana, especially visits to Haughton, Natchitoches, Springhill, Minden, Ruston, Jonesboro-Hodge, Monroe, Haynesville, Homer, Winnfield; playoff games in Bastrop, Sulphur, Zachary, Lutcher, New Orleans' City Park Stadium.
            Fortunate to cover great players (more than a few who went on to the NFL), great games, so many decided on the final play, state championship games (Haynesville's first two under legendary coach Alton "Red" Franklin, the second one in a 7-7 tie with arch-rival Homer decided on first downs when Haynesville got two first downs in the final minute).
           There was the night in Springhill in '70 when the Lumberjacks lost to Hammond in the state semifinals and, because I was writing my story in the press box and it was late, my girlfriend and I were locked in the stadium (all the gates were chained). I had to call Coach Travis Farrar at home, and ask him to let us out.
            A cold, cold night in the late '90s in tiny Dunlap, Tenn. -- near Chattanooga -- when the home team, Sequatchie County, lost to the team from the Knoxville area, Alcoa. Couldn't write my story for the Knoxville News Sentinel until my hands thawed out. I was in the coaches' office, and everyone left except the janitor. Finally, he said, "I'm leaving. Just close the office when you're done." I could have taken anything I wanted as a souvenir.
             I've got more tales, but that's for the future.
              Last fall, I covered eight games in which only three teams -- I believe -- had winning records (two in the private-school state title game). But I was fortunate; every game I covered was interesting, fairly close and competitive. No blowouts.
             I should be so lucky this year. Heck, I am lucky to be doing this one more season.
             So I finish with this note: Mother Nature, it is not nice to mess with football. Please.         

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Have faith

      Many of these blog pieces have been trips down "memory lane." This one will not be.
      This one will be about my world today, how I view some things. It might offend some, but that's the way it is.
       I like going back to memory lane, but I've never wanted to be considered a person who lives in the past. It's been nearly 50 years since a high school/college classmate told me that's what I did. Obviously, I never forgot.
       We learn from the past, we live in the present, we look to the future. How's that for personal philosophy? Think that guy would approve?
Gratitude: Grandson Kaden taking a nap.
        So, at the risk of too much information, here goes ...
        Every day includes time for gratitude. This year, for the first time, I'm putting it on paper -- my Page-A-Day Notepad Calendar that includes a Sudoku puzzle, a to-do list space and a space for notes (in this case, the gratitude). Bea has kept a gratitude journal for a dozen years; this is my first.
        There is all sorts of gratitude -- starting with blackeyed peas on Jan. 1, personal anniversaries, birthdays, sports events and personalities, the weather.
         On Wednesday, it was "abundant harvest," as I looked around the fresh vegetables and fruits in a grocery store and thought about the thousands of grocery stores in this country with the same displays. How blessed we are to live in this world at this time.
       Which brings me to faith.
       I have faith. I have faith in myself, in Beatrice, in my kids and kids-in-law, in my close friends over many years, in some -- but not all -- of my co-workers. I have faith, and Bea plays a big role in convincing me of this, that things will turn out the way they're supposed to. I believe our creator, our God, is watching over all of us, is a part of all of us, that the things people can't control -- weather, natural disasters, freak accidents -- are God's will..
        I have gotten much better at not worrying about things I can't control.
       And here is something I can't control: How you feel about religion. Here is something I can control: How much I pay attention to your views about religion.
        Honestly, I'm not very religious. I was born Jewish, grew up Jewish, will remain Jewish. But I am not a practicing Jew. This is something I chose many years ago. I'm still very partial to the Jewish faith, and to Israel -- although I don't always agree with its aggressive policies, but I understand why it has them.
         Because of what my parents endured in concentration camps and because much of my family perished there, I probably should be more faithful. My sister and her family are; so are many who were in the synagogue and temple in Shreveport. And that's fine with me.
          I'm not into the rituals of any organized religion, which -- as my wife points out -- is a contradiction considering how I like many of the rituals in the sports world. I am, in fact, at times pretty sacrilegious, and not proud of it.
          I have no problem with anyone practicing their religion. I have a problem with people insisting on telling me what they believe, and what I should believe. Particularly if it blends into their political views.
         Which brings me around to Facebook. I have enjoyed reconnecting with many old friends -- from high school, college, newspapers, athletics -- through Facebook. I like seeing where they are and what they're doing, seeing pictures of themselves and their families, and their updates.
         I do not like seeing many of their political or social views. There, I've said it.
         Sure, I have opinions on politics, on abortion, on immigration laws, on same-sex marriage, on bullying, on the financial crisis, on sexual abuse, on child abuse, on the death penalty ... on whatever. You will not see my views posted on Facebook.
         I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. I can no more change anyone's mind than they can change mine. If it's a sports opinion, that's another matter; it's not that serious. But anything other than sports, I leave it alone. Don't want to discuss my views publicly, or argue about them.
          I will simply summarize by saying much of what I believe is contrary to that of the great majority of my Facebook friends. If that displeases you, OK.
          Frankly, I am tired of anti-Obama posts, and I am tired of anti-Romney posts, and I am tired of seeing posts that base their views on their religious beliefs. Very tired of negativity, of snarky remarks, what some consider cute or clever photos, graphics and cartoons, and in general, the lack of civility.
          So, I "unsubscribed" from many people's updates on the Facebook News Feed ... at least for a while.
          I grew really tired of seeing LSU fans (and others) criticize Les Miles and Jordan Jefferson late last season. I grew really tired of seeing one team's fans being critical of their first-place baseball team -- one of the best teams in the majors -- and its players. Have faith in them, people.
        I have my own first-place team (a sliding team for the past month). Don't want to sound like a hypocrite; in past years, I publicly was very critical of my team and players. But I vowed I was not going to do that this year. And I haven't.
        (I might have to make an exception for the Dallas Cowboys, especially their owner/general manager. I'm not enamored with the quarterback; talented as he is, he's mistake-prone. But I'm going to do my best to refrain.)
        So away with negativity. These days I am a lot happier when I look at Facebook.
        Seriously, one of the most courageous Facebook posts I've seen recently was by old family friend Roy May in the wake of the Chick-Fil-A gay marriage controversy defending his daughter and her partner and calling them among "the most caring and loving people" he knows. He added that, "If you don't like this, you can delete me from your Facebook and your life."
          No matter how you feel about the subject, it took guts for him to say that.
          I'm not inviting people to delete me. I can't control that. I am saying that I'll be back to open News Feed on Nov. 7, the day after the Presidential election.
          Gratitude: I am grateful for this life, for the people who have been it it, for the gifts and the chances I've received. I've tried to keep it simple and to remain positive, and sometimes that requires being selective in my options.
          With that, I'll return to memory lane.               

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A case for integrity

Lee Hedges, speaking at his recent induction to the Ark-La-
Tex Sports Museum Hall of Fame (Shreveport Times photo)
         Whenever I see a reference to forfeited football games and how they are recorded -- such as the ones Penn State just forfeited for 14 seasons -- I think of Lee Hedges.
          For instance, does LSU now list the Capital One Bowl at the end of the 2009 season -- a game  it lost to Penn State 19-17 on a day when the Tigers played miserably on a miserably wet field -- as a victory?
           Before I wrote the blog piece on Lee Hedges ("One coach tops them all," July 31), I checked with Lee Hiller -- longtime Shreveport Times agate guru and record-keeper, expert-on-everything Captain Shreve High athletics) -- for Coach Hedges' year-by-year football record.
           The bottom line was 217 wins in 27 seasons. However, I noticed right away that the list Hiller sent me had the 1963 Woodlawn record as 9-2-1. Don't have to look this up because it is in my memory bank, but that season's record has always been 8-3-1.
           The game is question was the one against Byrd, a 14-7 loss. A couple of weeks later, Byrd was ordered by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association to forfeit eight victories (four in district) because it used an ineligible player.
           Lee Hedges promptly told the media -- and me, as sports editor of the school newspaper and yearbook -- that we should list the game as a loss for Woodlawn in our records. And that's the way it stayed through the years.
           "Byrd won the game," he reasoned. "We don't want anything given to us."
           (The result, however, did stand with the LHSAA, which is why Woodlawn made the playoffs that year as the second-place team in 1-AAA behind Bastrop. And that's what put us in New Orleans on Nov. 22, 1963 -- the subject of a future blog.)
            Somewhere through the years, someone -- not Hiller, not me, not Coach Hedges -- changed the game to a win on his record. When I pointed this out to Hiller, he went back and double-checked and found some instances where Coach's total record had 217 wins and some where it was 216.
             Hiller said he would change it to 216 wherever he saw the discrepancy.
             Sure, it doesn't matter in the big picture. We all know that Lee Hedges is considered by many the best high school coach in Shreveport-Bossier history, and one of the best ever in the state. But this just points out the type of integrity he had.
              As for LSU and Penn State, I haven't seen the latest LSU football guide, but on the LSU web site, on the Les Miles' record page, the Capital One bowl game is listed as a loss. Miles' total record at LSU (75-18, seven seasons) includes a loss to Penn State. The record for 2009 is 9-4.
            And that's fine with me. If the NCAA wants to put an asterisk by that game to note a forfeit, so be it. But I saw the game, and LSU didn't deserve a win.
            I also think of Lee Hedges when I see a reference to a team having a "rebuilding" season.
            Before the 1962 Woodlawn season, after a "miracle" season in 1961 when the team went from 0-9 the year before to a 9-3 record and the district championship in its first year of eligibility, the headline on The Shreveport Times preview story, said, "Knights in Rebuilding Year."
            Coach Hedges' philosophy on that -- and I heard him say this several times -- is that every year in high school football was a rebuilding year.         
            His thinking was that you always put together a new team, You always have a lot of spots to fill. It's not like the pros, where you might have most of a team coming back from year to year, similarly to college programs, too. In high school, especially in the bigger programs, teams are often senior-dominated.
             So in my sportswriting career -- with Coach Hedges' influence -- I tried to stay away from using the term "rebuilding." If I ever did, I hereby apologize.
         One more Lee Hedges note, this one from John James Marshall, the best quarterback-turned-sportswriter in Louisiana history (he was a good QB, the leader of an undefeated state championship team at Shreveport Jesuit in 1976; he was a much better sportswriter and sports editor).
          Covering a Captain Shreve game for us at the Shreveport Journal in the 1980s, John James went to interview Coach Hedges afterward. As John James was leaving, Coach Hedges asked him, "Are you going to call me a 'veteran mentor?' "
          "Well, if you want me to I will," John James replied, laughing.
          "Good," Coach Hedges answered. "I like that."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A trial in Germany (two stories, 1986)

Shreveport Journal, March 20, 1986
Survivor travels to Germany for trial of SS guard
 By Steve Norder, Journal Staff Writer
     The last time Louis Van Thyn saw his two best friends was in January 1945. Now he is going to West Germany to testify against the man who may have killed them.
     The three friends had been together since before the war -- one had been Van Thyn's best man at his wedding. The first time the German Gestapo picked them up, they were sent together to France to work. After that, they were sent to Auschwitz in Poland. Then, in 1943, they were sent to work in a Nazi coal mine labor camp in Jajina, Poland.
     When they parted in 1945, Van Thyn's two friends joined 1,500 other labor camp prisoners, then thousands of prisoners from concentration camps, on a forced trek to Germany. Almost 60,000 started out on the "death march." Only 315 survived.
     Those who did not die from exhaustion or starvation died at the hands of the Schutzstaffel -- SS guards.
     "If an SS guard had not hit me with a hammer, I would have been on that march," said Van Thyn this week as he prepared to leave for Hannover, West Germany. "Now I am going over there to testify about those events."
     Van Thyn has been subpoenaed to testify in a murder case against Heinrich Niemeier, who, as an SS guard, has been accused of shooting 15 to 20 prisoners during the death march.
      Niemeier was a 21-year-old SS Rottenfuehrer, or corporal, in the Totenkipfverbande, or Death Head division, according to Rainer Ullrich, the German judge in the war crimes trial. "He is accused of taking prisoners from Jajinagrubbe as part of the death march from Poland to Germany," the judge said in an overseas telephone interview today.
     The trial has been going on since January 1981, Ullrich said. "I do not expect it to end until later this year," he said. "The prosecutors summoned 85 people from six countries, including Canada, Israel and the United States, to testify."
      Van Thyn said he is anxious to go to Hannover. "I want to see this man to see if I recognize him," he said. "I did not go on the death march, but if this man was at Jajina, I want to see him."
       The memories of that time spent in the Nazi camps have not faded for Van Thyn, or his wife Rose, who is one of the few survivors of the march. Both lost their spouses in the camps, both lost their parents and brothers and sisters -- all to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
       Rose was spared because she was selected, along with 500 other women, to be used by the Germans for "medical" experiments.
       Louis was saved because he could work.
       The Nazis needed slave labor to keep their war machine going. They took the prisoners -- mostly Jews from the occupied countries but also political prisoners, Slavs from Eastern Europe and captured Russian soldiers -- to work in the factories and mines.
       Van Thyn was one of those forced to work for the Nazis. In July 1942, when the German Gestapo picked up the Van Thyns along with other Jews, Louis was sent to a work camp in France, where he spent the next three months cutting trees. Then the Nazis began their relocation program.
        "The German SS loaded us in cattle cars and we were sent to Auschwitz," Van Thyn said.
        Auschwitz -- the German name for Oswiecim, Poland -- was one of the four most infamous death camps. It actually consisted of a main camp surrounded by about 40 work camps, Van Thyn said. When people were taken off the cattle cars, those who were deemed unable to work -- women, children, the old and lame -- were immediately sent to the gas chambers.
        Those men who were healthy were sent to labor camps. "I only spent one night there before we were marched 12 miles to Jawisorvitz, which was a coal mine camp," Van Thyn said. "My work in the French forest, being in the Dutch army and a love of playing sports, as well as my young age, helped prepare me for the work in the coal mines."
        He worked at Jawisorvitz for six months before being sent back to Auschwitz. There, Van Thyn helped lay railroad tracks for more trains to come to the camp to bring more people.
        "Then in late 1943 about 400 of us were selected to go to Jajinagrubbe," Van Thyn said. The prisoners were housed in a school at first. Later, when the camp swelled to 1,500 workers, barracks were built.
        "We worked in two shifts," Van Thyn said. "The day shift would dig for coal. Then the night shift would work on the air pipes, do the shoring of the mine shafts and any work that needed to be done. I worked during the night."
         Working in the coal mines was much better than working at Auschwitz itself, Van Thyn said. "To go to the mines from the camp, we walked through the village of Jajina," he said. "We had a chance, secretly and quickly of course, to talk with outsiders. Also the Germans used three or four civilian workers in the mines."
         The civilians could smuggle in luxuries such as food or a blanket. Food was especially important, Van Thyn said. "There was never enough food to stay alive," he said. "We would get a piece of bread or some thin soup. But even with as little as we got, many would save their bread to exchange for cigarettes with the civilians."
         The workers also were deprived of sleep and beaten by their guards, many of who were former German criminals. Most workers did not survive the coal mines. "We lost about 200 a week," Van Thyn said. "Those who were too sick or hurt to work were sent back to the gas chambers. The Germans were constantly bringing replacements from Auschwitz."
         But things started to change in January 1945. The Russian armies were rolling into Poland from the east. In order for the Nazis to keep their slave labor, the workers at all camps were to be marched into Germany. Van Thyn would have been on that march, if a guard had not struck him with a hammer.
        "That saved me," he said. "I was counting prisoners as they entered the mine and made a mistake. The guard hit me with a hammer."
        The blow was severe enough that Van Thyn's arm swelled and he had to go to the hospital. "If it had happened a month earlier, I would have been sent to Auschwitz," he said. "If it had not happened, I would have been on the death march. But when the guards rounded up everyone to go on the march, they forget 27 in the hospital."
        Lying overlooked in the hospital, Van Thyn survived. His two friends died.
        "Afterwards we were sent to Odessa, then we went by boat to France," Van Thyn said. "I arrived in Belgium in July 1945."
        He found his family was gone. Van Thyn later met Rose, who had also lost her family, and they married. In 1956, the Van Thyns, with their two children, moved to Shreveport.

Shreveport Journal, April 12, 1986
Van Thyn's testimony helps Germany war crimes case
By Steve Norder, Journal Staff Writer
      The West German government paid more than $2,000 for one hour's worth of testimony, but Louis Van Thyn gave the judges valuable information.
      Van Thyn, a Shreveport resident since 1956, was asked by the German government to testify in a case against Heinrich Niemeier, a former Nazi SS guard corporal accused of killing 15 to 20 Jewish prisoners during a "Death March" from Poland.
       "Since I was not on the march, I could not tell them anything about it," said Van Thyn, who returned Wednesday from the trip to Hannover which was completely paid for by the Germans. "But I did tell them about the work camp and identified some of the SS guards who were at the camp. The chief judge said I gave more information than any previous witness."
        Van Thyn, born in Holland, had fought against the Germans in 1940 as a Dutch soldier. Later, after the German occupation, Van Thyn, along with other Jews and political prisoners, was forced to work for the Germans. That led to his deportation -- along with millions of other Jews -- to the Nazi death camps of Poland.
        But instead of entering the gas chambers, Van Thyn was again taken to a forced labor camp to mine coal for the German war industry. He remained at Jajina, Poland, from 1943 until early 1945.      
        The approaching Russian armies forced the Nazis to evacuate all the camps and send almost 60,000 prisoners -- including Van Thyn's future wife, Rose -- to Germany. Only 315 survived that march.
         According to previous testimony of the trial, Niemeier's role in the killings during the march had been known since 1945 but following the war he went unrecognized. Then in 1977, Paul Ommerborn, a former prisoner, accused Niemeier of being one of two guards who executed prisoners who could no longer walk.
         "An Italian Jew was turned over to him (Niemeier) on account of being in poor physical condition to be placed on a wagon," according to Ommerborn's account. Ommerborn told Niemeier that the prisoner had very bad feet. Niemeier said to him give the prisoner and he shot him in the back of his head and left the prisoner lying in the street, he said.
        Niemeier has already served six years in prison for that killing. He is now on trial for executing up to 20 others.
        "Though I tried to see something in Niemeier that I could recognize, I could not identify him," Van Thyn said. "During the whole time, he never looked at me."
        Van Thyn was questioned -- with the help of a translator who could speak Dutch as well as German and English -- by the German prosecutor and Rainer Ullrich, the president of the nine-judge tribunal.
         "Once the defense attorney found out I had not gone on the death march, he was not much interested in me," Van Thyn said.
          Shortly before the evacuation, he was hit by a guard and sent to the camp hospital. Normally that would have meant a trip to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. But since the Russians were approaching and the Germans were organizing the march, the prisoners in the hospital were forgotten. They remained in the camp until liberated by Russian soldiers.
          "I did tell the court about the coal mine camp and how the guards treated us," Van Thyn said. "They showed me 48 pictures of men, most of them in German SS uniforms. I could identify only six or seven. It has been a long time since those horrible days."
         Van Thyn said there are many small trials taking place in West Germany. They have become so commonplace that no one bothers to watch the proceedings and there were no reports in the local newspapers.
         Niemeier's trial, in which 85 witnesses from Canada, Israel and the United States will give testimony, is expected to end later this year.

Dad takes on a Nazi

      OK, the headline might be a little misleading. My dad didn't really take on a Nazi. But in 1986, he did go to West Germany and -- reluctantly -- testified against an already once-convicted Nazi SS guard.
       The German government had gotten his name as a former concentration camp/labor camp prisoner and called him, asking him to testify in a murder case against Heinrich Niemeier, who was accused of shooting 15 to 20 prisoners during a death march.
       Dad told them that, yes, he knew of the death march, but he had no memory of Niemeier. He didn't feel like he'd be of any help in the trial. They told him to think about it, and they'd call again.
       They were offering a free trip -- all expenses paid -- to Hannover, West Germany. But as I recall, he was hesitant.
        Still, after a short time, and considering that he could take a side trip to see our family's friends still in Amsterdam, he said, what the heck, and agreed to make the trip. Free always did sound good to him.
        He was one of 85 people from six countries -- including Canada, Israel and the U.S. -- to testify in this trial.
        I had nothing to do with this, but the Shreveport Journal -- where I worked then --  ran two stories on his trip, one before and one after. They were written by our old friend Steve Norder, who with wife Lois just left the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
       The first story, on March 20, 1986, ran across the top of Page One, with the headline, "Survivor travels to Germany for trial of SS guard). The second story ran on April 12, headlined "Van Thyn's testimony helps German war crimes case."
         (For those interested, I will link the entire stories in a separate take on this blog.)
         My dad wasn't the vengeful type. He was, for all his wartime experiences, one of those optimistic people, able to see the bright side. When I watch the tape of his testimony for the Shoah Foundation's Holocaust Survivors Film Project -- some 4,200 testimonies -- I am reminded of this.
       (And I can tell you it isn't easy for me to watch it, still. He will have been gone four years on Aug. 27.)
       I'm not saying he didn't have prejudices. Nothing German pleased him.
       He was not about to ride in anyone's Volkswagon, not coach Ellace Bruce's at Oak Terrace Junior High and not coach A.L. Williams' at Woodlawn High. A.L. used to tease him ("c'mon, Louis, let's go for a ride.") When Bea and I first married, we had a cocktail table with German wine labels on it. He strongly suggested we get rid of the table. We did.
       He wasn't going to use any German products if he could help it. He never rooted for any German sports team, I know that. And I'm wondering now, knowing how much he loved basketball and loved great players, how he would feel about Dirk Nowitzki, knowing that his daughter-in-law is an ardent Dallas Mavericks' fan.
       I suspect he might've made an exception for Dirk, and for Beatrice.
       But testifying against a Nazi SS guard he really didn't remember didn't thrill him.
       I know that Steve Norder's story says he was anxious to go to Hannover ("I want to see this man to see if I recognize him. I did not go on the death march, but if this man was at Jajina -- a labor camp in Poland -- I want to see him.") But my recall is that he wasn't that eager to do it.
     Dad had only one physical scar, a nice-sized one on one of his elbows. Mental scars? Who knows; he kept them well-hidden.
      The scar on his elbow came when a German SS guard beat the hell out of him, for stealing a potato is the way I remember the story. Another beating he took probably saved his life.
      "If an SS guard had not hit me with a hammer, I would have been out on that [death] march," he is quoted in the 1986 story."
      Instead, he wound up in a camp hospital. When other men were taken on the death march -- including two of my dad's best friends, one of whom had been in his first wedding before the war -- the prisoners in the hospital were left behind.
       Soon the Russians came in to liberate the camp; dad actually wound up on a ship that carried him and several others to Russia. Long story, probably for another blog.
       Dad told Norder that at the trial he "did tell them about the work camp and identified some of the SS guards who were at the camp. The chief judge said I gave more information than any previous witness."
        But about the man on trial ... "I tried to see something in Niemeier I could recognize; I could not identify him. During the whole time, he never looked at me."
        And I have to laugh when I read this paragraph because it shows how matter-of-fact my dad could be. "Once the defense attorney found out I had not gone on the death march," he told Norder, "he was not much interested in me."
        Dad might not have relished being part of this trial, but in my opinion, it was -- even 40 years after the fact -- an interesting twist. And for Dad, any chance to go back to Holland for a visit was a good one.            

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The road to (and from) Ringgold

      Not much goes on in Ringgold, Louisiana. It is typical conservative small-town America -- no big buildings, not much new, really. In fact, it has an old and faded look.
       One main grocery store, a pharmacy, the funeral home, and a few churches -- and there you have the main intersection "downtown."
       Not much traffic. In fact, at the only stoplight in town, two or three cars stopped for red at one time means a traffic jam.
       But this past Saturday, Ringgold was a nice place to be. And the people who attended the Ringgold High School Class of '62 reunion -- which included members of the Class of '61 and the Class of '63, and some guests/spouses -- were a nice group to join.
        My wife Beatrice was (is) in the Class of '63. This was her first Ringgold High reunion. She was looking forward to it, but honestly, she also was anxious. These were people she had not seen in 50 years. As with any reunion, you don't know exactly what to expect.
       Quick summation: No problem. Enjoyed it all. I will guess that the three dozen Ringgold graduates and the spouses/guests did, too.
       No problem finding the spot. The '62 Chevy Impala -- I think it was an Impala -- parked in front of the United Methodist Church was a good clue.
      But we know our way around these parts.
       Ringgold (population 1,495), 35 miles southeast of Shreveport on Louisiana state highway 154, is a special place for us. So is Jamestown (population 139), the village five miles east of Ringgold.
      In Jamestown, the only traffic signal was a blinking light at the only four-way intersection in town. It's a short distance from where Bea grew up on what we call Shaw hill. It's also a short distance from where Jamestown School once stood; that's where she went through fifth grade.
     Then the school -- elementary, junior high, high school combined -- closed, probably for lack of numbers. Bea remembers the fifth grade had five people (and with sixth grade in the same classroom had 11 total).
       So off to the big town she (and her siblings) went. Bea's final seven years in school were at Ringgold.
      Bea will tell you that despite its small size, Ringgold High in the late '50s/early '60s had an outstanding administration and faculty, a whole bunch of smart kids, grads who went to Harvard and other top-notch universities, its future attorneys and engineers, and beauty pageant winners on the state level.
      It also had a boys basketball team known mostly for (1) three Class B state championships in a five-year period, plus a 66-6 team that didn't win state; (2) its barber-pole red-and-white, Harlem Globetrotters-style shorts; and (3) one of the best players in the state in that era.
      Barrie Haynie stood taller than anyone at the reunion, literally and figuratively. No question he was the best-known person in the room.
       He's still 6-foot-5, but not the stringy kid he was then. He's filled out nicely, not fat, but a big man these days. He is, though, still the affable guy he was when he was chosen "Mr. Ringgold High" and earned all sorts of basketball honors.
       And when he was given an enduring nickname, the "Ringgold Rifle." He was quite the sharpshooter.
       He could fill the basket from anywhere, a wonderful shooter. With big, burly Billy Ray on the inside, they were an unstoppable combination on the 1960 and '61 state champions -- Barrie's sophomore and junior years.  As a senior, he averaged 35 points and 20 rebounds a game.
      Billy Ray, who is deceased, went on to play at Northwestern State. Barrie played college ball at Centenary, and thus his number of fans grew. Centenary home games when he was there were televised on a delay basis, late night, so a bunch of us high school kids grew to root for the Gents.
       How good was Haynie? He set a school record with 46 points in 1966 against the Elvin  Hayes-led University of Houston Cougars, then one of the country's best teams.
      Still, Barrie was only the second-best scorer at Centenary behind his road roommate, Tom "Captain Hook" Kerwin, a 6-9 forward-center who will be the subject of a future blog here.
       And Barrie had another roommate at home, Karon Orr, also a member of Ringgold's Class of '62. They married while still in high school. At Saturday's reunion, they were the longest-married couple, just a bit longer than Judy and Bill Holmes. The applause for both couples was well-deserved.
       As you might expect, Barrie and I swapped some stories and memories. He told me of the "benefits" of being a top-level college recruit; I promised not to divulge the details. You'd be surprised.
Barrie Haynie, right, at the reunion
       Barrie and Karon shared this story. When Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, then the most powerful coach in college basketball, was invited to speak at Jonesboro-Hodge's basketball banquet in 1962, he requested that the Haynies attend. So Barrie sat next to Rupp, even though he could not offer him a scholarship because he was married.
         Barrie came back to Ringgold High in 1967 to coach the Redskins for seven seasons, becoming the first player to play in the state tournament and then return as a coach in 1969. He was principal at the school for 19 years -- longer than anyone else has held the job -- and oversaw the beginning of a football program, and he's still working, in his 20th year as Bienville Parish director of transportation and maintenance.
      No wonder he's Mr. Ringgold.
     But I don't mean to slight the other Ringgold kids at the reunion. About half have stayed in the immediate area; Northwest Louisiana is their comfort zone, and more power to them. Saturday's event, though, brought back people from California and Florida, and even Texas.
     The bond was evident; the togetherness of growing up in this little town, at this school so special to them, the memories of that school located just as you come into town (the artist's drawing of the old buildings we saw Saturday was impressive and heartwarming).
     It is no more, but the people in town are proud, too, of the new school complex just off the road to Jamestown that opened in 1979.
      Distinct memories of Saturday:
     -- The tributes to the class members who are deceased, three prayers and a candle lighting. Well  done.
     -- Good company, good food (fried fish is always OK with me), fine organization (thank you, Janice Marler & Co.).
     -- The presence of the widows of basketball coaches Bob Corley (boys) and J.C. Davis (girls), both women still radiant and popular. 
      -- Stories told to Bea, one woman thanking her for her friendship in their senior year, the other a fellow school-bus rider remembering how Bea had written short stories and read them to her on the bus rides. "You encouraged me to read, and to write," she told my wife.
       Bea is still an avid reader, and writer. And I can tell you she's proud to be a Ringgold Redskins  graduate.
      "That was a very nice experience," she said as we pulled out of a town we remember fondly.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Whatever happened to Baby Lou?

    Other than Mickey Mantle, my favorite baseball player when I was a kid was an infielder named Lou Klimchock.
    Guys my age from Shreveport will know him. He was "Baby Lou" Klimchock when he first played for the Sports in 1959.
    "Baby Lou" because he was only 19 years old that year when he was perhaps the best prospect in the Kansas City Athletics' farm system and one of the Texas League's best hitters. He had a big  season -- a .315 batting average, 44 doubles, 19 home runs and 85 RBIs.
     He also made 36 errors at second base, a hefty number which foretold his future.
     The nickname was given him, most likely, by Sports radio announcer Irv Zeidman and picked up by the rest of the media. He was a good-looking kid, and I would say he was the team's most popular player with the kids in Shreveport-Bossier.
      I know he was at my house. He batted left-handed; so did I. He wore jersey No. 4; so did I. He held his bat high above his head; I tried that (didn't work). He could flat-out hit; I could hit, in my dreams.
       We all thought he was going to be a major-league star. It didn't work out. But over a 13-year period, he was in the big leagues for all or parts (mostly parts) of 12 seasons; it is perhaps a tipoff to his career that he played 11 years in Triple A, and that he was a major-league regular only one time -- in 1969 with Cleveland. By the end of the next season, he never got back to the majors.
        But I guarantee you that, other than the Yankees' box score and Mantle's line, the second thing I looked for in the box scores was Lou Klimchock's name.
       In this spirit of the "whatever happened to ..." series our sports staff did at the Shreveport Journal in the early to mid-1980s, about a dozen years ago I decided to find Lou. It was early in my Internet life, so it was easy to find him.
        He lived in Tempe, Ariz.,and was the president of the Arizona Major League Baseball Alumni and was involved with youth baseball in that area. All those things are still true today. Baby Lou is 72, and has a grandson, Mitch Nay, who was Arizona's Gatorade Player of the Year at Hamilton High in Chandler, a third baseman drafted 58th overall in June by the Toronto Blue Jays. Only an injury has kept him from starting his pro career.
        And Lou is the hitting coach for an independent pro team playing in Peoria, Ariz.
        His major-league numbers: 318 games, 669 at-bats, 155 hits, a .232 average, 21 doubles, 13 home runs, 69 RBIs, a .264 on-base percentage. OK, it isn't much.
        It was a long way from when he was 18 and hit .389 with 25 home runs at Pocatello, Idaho, in the Pioneer League, and then was our guy the next year in Shreveport.
        In researching his career, I've seen him described as a "light-hitting" infielder and an "indifferent fielder." He came up as a second baseman, but also played some third base and some outfield, and even was a catcher one game for Cleveland in 1969.
       We never expected to see him back in Shreveport after '59, but he was only so-so with Dallas-Fort Worth in Triple-A in 1960 (.270 in 72 games), then came back to the Sports for 11 games near the end of the season.
         One problem, as I recall, was a mysterious ailment in which one of his legs fell asleep repeatedly during games ... a nerve condition. So he was back in Shreveport again in 1961, but only played 44 games and hit .248. At the end of the season, Kansas City gave up on him and traded him to the Braves' organization.
        And so his travels began -- Braves, Senators (and back to the Braves; he was the player to be named in a trade for himself), Mets, then Indians. Mostly, he kept landing in Triple-A, where he had some impressive seasons. After his minimal success in Cleveland in '69, he wound up back in Denver for two final Triple-A seasons.
         Then he retired as a player. But he really never has left baseball. Check the attached story for the good he has helped create for ex-major league players and for kids and charities in Arizona.
        I had a folder of Klimchock clippings, baseball cards, photos out of the newspaper. Kept it in a box that included other material from my early interests in sports up in the attic.
        My mother threw the box away. That's right ... she threw it out. Garbage. Gone.
        I know the Klimchock cards didn't have monetary value. I valued them for the memories.
        When I told Lou this story in 1999, he asked for my address. A few days later, I received a nice note, and an autographed photo and baseball card. It's framed, and you can see it above.
         He was, I imagine, a nice young man way back then, and it was a pleasure to talk to him again and know that he has a family he cherishes and a continuing role in baseball. Baby Lou is still someone's hero.