Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Stoney" was a pitcher to follow

    For the eight full seasons he pitched in the major leagues (1968-75), George Stone was my favorite player ... well, my favorite non-Yankee.
     The left-hander from Ruston, La. -- Ruston High School and Louisiana Tech (our first connection) --  was the first MLB player I knew personally.
     I'm writing this now because a week from Saturday, George will be inducted into the Louisiana Tech Athletic Hall of Fame. It is an honor long overdue -- to adapt a phrase the great Jerry Byrd used so memorably one day in the mid-1980s to greet an irate caller to Shreveport Journal sports ... what took them so long?
       Not only was "Stoney" one of the greats of Tech baseball, he was a two-sport star, both at Ruston and Tech, a basketball player of some note. At 6-foot-3, he wasn't big for a forward in college, but he was a smooth shooter and a tough inside presence.
       In the 1965-66 season, he led Tech in scoring -- a somewhat surprising statistic to me considering that he had to shoot when he could ... or whenever Leon Barmore, at guard, was unable to get off a shot. (Yes, that's intended for a laugh.)
        A neat part of this induction will be that George is going into the Tech Hall of Fame the same time as O.K. "Buddy" Davis, the longtime Ruston Daily Leader sports editor. They were in the same class at Ruston High ('64 graduates) and if there was a bigger George Stone fan than me in sportswriting, it was Buddy.
     After checking what the Yankees had done, and often before because those were dark years in Yankees history, the first baseball item I checked was how "Stoney" and his team -- Atlanta Braves for five years, New York Mets for three -- had fared.
      On days when I knew George was pitching, and he was a starter for much of his career, he was a top priority. I probably saw him pitch a dozen times, on trips to Houston and Atlanta, and we visited before and after games, once even in New York City in his last season ('75).
      Most of us who saw Stoney pitch and play for Ruston, the T.L. James Contractors in American Legion baseball (state finalists in '63 and '64), and then at Tech in 1965 and '66 could sense he had major-league talent. He just had that look about him.
        It was no surprise when, after his sophomore year at Tech, the Braves picked him in the fifth round of the '66 MLB Draft. (That made him the first Tech player ever drafted; the draft was begun the year before, in 1965.)
      Bearing proof of his talent, only a year later he was pitching in the majors -- a couple of appearances near the end of the '67 season. A year later, he began his eight-year stay.
      And he first made it before MLB's second expansion, when there were still only 20 teams instead of 30 as now, so talent wasn't as diluted. It was much tougher to make it to The Show in those days.
        He was not the dominant pitcher that a couple of other North Louisiana guys in the same era were -- James Rodney Richard (from just outside Ruston) and Vida Blue (from Mansfield) -- but Stoney had his moments.
         His 60-57 record and 3.89 earned-run average are modest numbers, but consider this: In his best two seasons, 13-10 in 1969 and 12-3 in 1973, his team won its division and played in the National League Championship Series, and in '73, he was -- by most accounts -- the Mets' best pitcher in their stretch run to a surprising NL pennant and World Series appearance.
       And in that World Series, he got a Game 2 save by pitching the 12th inning and also appeared (too late to prevent an Oakland A's victory) in Game 7.
        Here's another thing that he can say, and it's a fact: He was teammates with Hank Aaron (Braves) and Willie Mays (Mets). How cool is that?
         He was also teammates with Joe Torre, Orlando Cepeda and Tom Seaver, among other big names. But for us from North Louisiana, his most notable teammates were his cousin and fellow pitcher, Cecil Upshaw (from Spearsville, Bossier City and Centenary College), and outfielder Ralph Garr, the so-fast "Roadrunner" also from Ruston and then Grambling College at the same time George was at Tech.
        The Upshaw-Stone connection made for a lot of good stories, in Shreveport and Ruston, and in Atlanta and other stops. Looking for background material to provide Teddy Allen at Tech for a Hall of Fame story on Stoney -- and Teddy doesn't need much help to produce a wonderful story -- I dug out my folders of clippings on those guys and it reminded me that a half dozen of those stories were written by a certain young sportswriter and baseball fan for The Shreveport Times. Ah, good times.
        Also, Stoney first was Garr's teammate with the 1968 Shreveport Braves, Atlanta's Double-A farm team. It was the year pro baseball returned to Shreveport after a six-year absence, and that was neat in itself.
        George had pitched in Double-A (Austin) for most of the '67 season and the Braves were going to assign him to Triple-A (Richmond, Va.) in '68. But because he was still going to Tech for the spring semester, he began the season with Shreveport. Garr was a starting outfielder and began his major-league career (although only briefly) late that season.
          Stoney only joined the team for home games at SPAR Stadium, driving over from Ruston every day when the Braves were in town and taking his turn in the starting rotation. Once school ended, he went on to Richmond ... and was in the big leagues by July.
           Several times some of us also at Tech came over to Shreveport with him in April and early May. On one of those trips, we first stopped by the Van Thyn home in South Broadmoor for a pregame meal. My parents were pretty fond of Stoney, too.
           Because in addition to being a helluva athlete, George was a soft-spoken, polite young man (yes, just like me). A few years later when he was in the big leagues and my Dad and I would visit with him at the team hotel in Houston, Stoney never let Dad pick up the check. I think Dad liked that.
          And we always enjoyed visiting with his parents -- his dad, a big man, was a Ruston police officer; his mother, now 88, is still traveling and helping attend to great-grandkids (George and Dianna have five grandchildren). There was also look-alike younger brother Mike, later a Ruston High and Legion ball catcher.
          Whatever happened to Mike? He's been the sheriff of Lincoln Parish for a decade and in the sheriff's department for three decades. ("Now everyone knows Mike," says George. "I'm just his older brother.")
       For most of his career, Stoney was a starting pitcher, a reliable and consistent one, with a reputation as "sneaky fast," maybe a low 90s fastball thrower whose easy motion and good breaking stuff -- curve, changeup, slider -- kept hitters off-balance. He wasn't a strikeout pitcher, per se, but he had fine control and didn't often get in trouble because of walks.
         He was also "sneaky fast" as a competitor. Nice guy, no doubt, but if you pushed him, he would push back. At Tech, in the 1965-66 basketball season, he tangled with a much bigger inside player from McNeese State, Ed Green (from Holden, La.) ... and got booted from the game. In baseball, he got into it on a much bigger stage.
          On June 28, 1969 -- Shreveport-Bossier Night at the Astrodome, incidentally -- Stoney was matched up on the mound with the Astros' Don Wilson, a hard-throwing right-hander from Monroe. In the second inning, George put down a sacrifice bunt. When he felt Wilson tagged him a little too enthusiastically, George came up swinging. The Associated Press photos, copies of which I saved all these years, show that -- maybe -- Wilson got the best of the ensuing wrestling match.
          "Yeah, he won the battle," George said, laughing when I reminded him last week, "but I won the war." He pitched well and got the win in a 5-1 Braves' victory.
           That October, he started Game 4 in the NLCS against Cincinnati (no decision).
Mets' fantasy camp
 photo, 2007
            I first saw Stoney play in 1964, his senior year at Ruston High when we (Woodlawn) played home-and-home games with his team. He didn't pitch either game, as I recall, but he played first base and impressed me as a hitter and helped Ruston win both games.
           And he was a good hitter -- for a major-league pitcher. He had 72 hits in the big leagues (about nine per season), had one home run (was it lucky, George?) and four doubles, and drove in 39 runs. He was far from an automatic out.
           It was indicative of the talent he had. But his biggest talent was that smooth left-handed pitching style and his competitiveness.  
           His career got cut short by a partial rotator cuff tear suffered midway in the '74 season. He missed much of a full season, but with diligence, made it back to the Mets in the '75 season to a gutsy June 13 victory in San Diego that left him in tears afterward after the long battle back.
             We saw him at Shea Stadium in August during a personal two-week baseball tour. Happened to see Dianna just before gametime outside the front gate and she invited John W. Marshall III and I to sit with her behind home plate. After the game, Stoney gave us a ride back to our hotel nearby.
              That was his last season in the majors. His arm was worn out -- maybe with today's medical advancements he might've managed a few more seasons -- and after a trade to the Texas Rangers in the spring of '76, he just couldn't go on.
               Having earned his degree at Tech, he went into coaching and teaching in the Ruston area for a couple of decades. He and Dianna, married for 42 years, now live on a few acres just outside Ruston -- his mother lives in town -- and they raised two daughters. Now they are "Pop" and "Mimi" and there are four grandsons. Batting practice awaits; they'll be facing a smooth left-hander.
                And they'll be facing someone who is -- at long last -- a Louisiana Tech Athletic Hall of Famer. Where have the years gone?                  

Friday, October 25, 2013

Considering a no-watch policy

     This might be un-American, or un-Dominican, or un-Puerto Rican: I am boycotting the World Series. Again.
     The fact that the Boston Red Sox are in it could be a reason. Sure, I'm envious or -- as some of my friends suggest -- bitter. I didn't watch the Series in 2004 or 2007, but then I didn't watch it in '05 or '06 or '08 or last year, either.
     Those were all years when -- you might've guessed -- the New York Yankees weren't in the Series. I did make an exception in 2010 and 2011 because watching the Texas Rangers, our home-area team, in the Series was such a novelty.
     Truthfully, I didn't even watch much in '09 when the Yankees gloriously won the Series. Too nervous to watch, I followed -- closely -- by Gameday on Internet, then turned it on live when I knew the Yankees would win. Yeah, it's chicken.
     Fact is, I watch very little baseball on TV these days. Bet I didn't watch a dozen times this whole season, watched only a couple of games start to finish.
     Not that I don't care. I follow almost every Yankees game on Internet, check scores frequently, read a half-dozen stories every day. Heck, yeah, I care about winning -- and there wasn't enough of that this season.
     But my days of watching sports on television are diminishing. Used to be I almost never missed a championship event, in a number of sports.
      Now I miss more than I watch. I don't see many NBA and NFL games, and I'm selective about college sports, although I've probably watched more college football this season than in many, many years. Still enjoy watching golf, but not as much as I once did.
     And here is the reason I am watching team sports less and less, here is what I would tell the athletes: "I cannot even stand to look at you."
     (OK, so I borrowed this from -- to hear it told -- a Republican House member from Texas.)
     No, really, I cannot stand to watch how the players these days prance and preen and pose and -- biggest reason -- how they celebrate ... anything and everything positive.
     Seems as if it gets worse, more out of control, every year. It is very much a "see-me" world.
     High-fives and hugs are OK. Handshakes? Does anybody do handshakes anymore? These increasingly popular chest bumps are marginal. The "curtain calls" out of the dugout have become routine.
     Can't stand how batters pose at home plate when they obviously just hit a ball that is going to leave the premises of the playing field. Can't stand pitchers screaming after a strikeout or a big out. Really can't stand how the whole team gathers at home plate after a walkoff home run (or any walkoff win) and starts hopping around in a scrum. Then there are the pies-in-the-face routines, the tearing-off-the-jersey nonsense.
     And it doesn't matter when it is -- mid-April, late July, whenever, whatever -- these teams act like they've already won the World Series, rather than one regular-season game.
     Plus, now when the victories really do count -- division clinchers, wild-card clinchers, playoff clinchers -- the celebrations are totally out of sight, everyone wearing goggles and beer, champagne, whatever, being poured on everyone. They used to save the champagne for only pennant- and Series-clinching games.
The bearded Red Sox: Not everyone thinks it's so cool.
(Brad Penner/USA Today photo)
       I can extend my complaints to the fans. The rhythmic clapping on two-strike counts gets old, just like "the wave" has gotten old. Watching the towel-waving home crowds have become boring to me. Don't like looking at them.
       (I also cannot stand to look at the Red Sox's out-of-control bearded wonders, how classless they look, and I've been told by a friend, how classless they act in the dugout, starting with their beard-pulling shenanigans.)
       Do not mistake what I'm saying here. From a pure baseball standpoint, the Red Sox belong in this World Series because they had the best team in the American League all year. Bragging here, but I told my Yankees fans' group after Opening Day (when Boston won at Yankee Stadium) that they were a team that would be formidable.
       I'm talking about how the players look and act. Yes, I prefer the Yankees' "clean" look and I prefer athletes without bunches of tattoos ... and you can say that's an "old fart" attitude, and I will agree. Guess I need to take my "old fart" medicine.
       The Yankees, too, have had their tattoo guys and their guys who pull their jerseys out of their pants and who act goofy. We have A-Rod; everything he does has "self-involved" all over it. And the Yankees, too, do their team-hopping and pie-throwing after walkoff wins. Not many players act as civilized after victories as Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter did for years and years.
       Just like the Red Sox, the St. Louis Cardinals belong in this World Series. As in Boston, St. Louis is a baseball town and the Cardinals have a great following. They have become the model franchise of the past decade and they remind me of the better Yankees days.          
       In football, I can't stand the touchdown dances and the sack dances and the gyrations after any tackle-for-loss plays and defensive backs signaling "incomplete" after pass breakups and -- thank you, New York Giants of the mid-1980s -- the Gatorade/water bucket over the coach's head.
       I do watch selected NFL games, such as Broncos-Colts last Sunday night (because I like to watch Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck). But I have to stop watching the Dallas Cowboys and here's why: I am 0-3 watching them live this season; they are 4-0 when I tape the games and watch later.
       In basketball, it's the poses after a thunderous dunk or a spectacular blocked shot or a long-range "3" that really makes a difference. Even our man Dirk has his double "3" signal, and there was "Jet" Terry taking off on the runway, and Vince Carter revs up his motorcycle.
       (Although I don't watch much NBA, I do watch the Mavericks some because Beatrice loves them, watches as many games as she can, and so I need to familiarize myself with the team to be able to answer the 15 minutes of analysis I receive each morning after games.)
       Now ... college football. It bothers me that so many of the college kids act just like the NFL players after key plays -- or even routine ones. There are penalties, of course, for taunting (and that's OK with me), but I've seen LSU players get away with trash-talking several times this season.
       I'm using LSU here because that's the team I watch most.
       What's left me irritated most is to see an LSU defensive back break up a pass, wave his arms as if he's done something noteworthy, then give up a long pass play -- sometimes on the very next play. If you've watched the Tigers all season, you know they've given up a bunch of long pass plays or runs.
       Leaves me wondering if the LSU coaches talk to their players about these "see-me" moments.
       There is one college team that does very little showing off. Yes, Alabama. The head coach doesn't put up with it; you can see him talking to players when he feels they've crossed his line; sometimes he talks to them sternly, or beyond stern.  A few weeks ago, he sat out his best running back for the first quarter after a post-touchdown throat-slashing gesture the previous game.
       Alabama is about winning and behaving the "right" way as you do it, and you have to respect that.
       On the other hand, Alabama is not a team I want to watch win. If I watch at all.
       As for the Series, good luck watching. I'll read about it.
       Now about those "old fart" pills ...    

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The most beautiful part of East Tennessee ...

      We are back home in Fort Worth after a week's visit to East Tennessee, an area we consider one of the most beautiful in the country.
      On those one or two days when the leaves turn their fall colors, it is a spectacular, breathtaking sight. It is one of our favorite memories of our time there, and one we try to recapture.
      We lived in Knoxville for almost six years when I worked in the sports department of the News Sentinel, and Beatrice also worked in the paper's editorial/news department.
      When we left in December 2001, we left part of our hearts. Because we enjoyed living there as much as any place we've been, but also because we left behind our Rachel, then a junior at the University of Tennessee.
      So we've returned to the Smoky Mountains region at least once almost every year, sometimes twice, and it's become an annual October trip to coincide -- hopefully -- with the leaf-turning time, but moreso for another reason.
      The young girl we left behind is now Mrs. Smith and -- oh, she'll love this -- she is not as young as she once was. But she's grown up a lot. She is a wife and a daughter-in-law and a dedicated middle-school librarian and ... the most conscientious mother I know, other than her own.
      Our first grandchild, Josephine Nicole Smith ("Josie"), was born Oct. 23, coinciding wonderfully with those leaves. She turned 6 today.
      So we go to see what we think are the two most beautiful faces who live in that beautiful confluence of trees, rolling hills, lakes, streams and those surrounding mountains in a smoky setting.
      Rachel would tell us that Russell's face is beautiful, too. I leave that for his mother-in-law to say and I'll say -- jokingly, please -- that he has a face for radio.
      Actually, he has a voice for radio. He is the host of "The Drive" -- a sports-talk show in Knoxville and East Tennessee weekday afternoons from 3 to 5. And in between talk of Vols football and other matters a week ago, we tuned into the show as we were heading into town and heard him mention the re-opening of the national park and, within the first five minutes, the fact that "the in-laws are coming in."
      Nice to hear at the end of the long drive we've become accustomed to making. It is, depending on the length of the stops, some 15 to 16 hours, with an overnight stay, either in Memphis but mostly in Meridian, Miss.
      We have gone the "northern" route -- I-30 and then I-40 through Little Rock and Memphis and Nashville -- but we only do that occasionally, primarily to see our friends, the Pruetts, in Germantown (a Memphis suburb).
      We prefer to take the "southern" route -- I-20 through East Texas, North Louisiana, central Mississippi and across Alabama through Tuscaloosa (don't stop there for too long, if we can help it) and Birmingham, and then north on I-59 into Chattanooga and on to Knoxville.
The neighborhood tree in Knoxville: Usually bright
 orange when we arrive, but not this year.
      That way, leaving Fort Worth by about 8 a.m., we drive some 8 1/2 hours to Meridian, then six hours the next day -- all the driving in the daytime (it's getting tougher to drive at night). On the way home on recent trips, we've gone from Knoxville to an overnight in Ruston, La., which affords me a chance sometimes to see some old friends from our long ties in North Louisiana.
      Taxing as the travel is -- we get stiffer and tire more easily each time, it seems -- we have this down to a routine.
      Worn as we are the second day going toward Knoxville, when we get about 50 miles south of Chattanooga, the terrain begins to change -- the mountains, seemingly, begin to rise, the trees begin to change colors to the wonderful reds, browns, yellows and purples mixed in with with the greens.
      When we see that, we know it is autumn.
      We can usually judge the full impact of the leaf-turning when we reach Russell and Rachel and Josie's neighborhood. There is a tree at the corner of their street -- our last left turn before their driveway -- that is usually a bright orange by the time we get there.
      But not this year. It was orange mixed with green, still trying on its fall coat.
Josie, birthday cake for breakfast as she turns 6.
      And here's why: We were early this year. The trip -- which we've taken for all of Josie's birthdays except for when she turned 1 (Bea was on a cruise and I was working) -- was a week before her birthday.
      That's because Josie is now in kindergarten, and so her fall break from school, and her mother's, was last week. Rachel suggested we time our trip to allow us to spend four full days with them.
      We made the most of it -- the birthday party and a wonderful dinner at Russell's parents' home -- shopping trips for the women, a couple of restaurant meals, visits with friends -- and a day of football for Russell and me.
      We discussed his show and SEC football and -- for a change -- we got to see his Tennessee Vols beat a ranked opponent (for the first time in four years) and see my LSU Tigers lose to Ole Miss (for the first time in four years). Not a good finish to that Saturday.
      But, of course, it's the visit that counts, and spending time with Josie is always precious. We see her maybe three times a year -- sometimes we also make a spring trip, and they come to Texas in the summer -- and we are always awed at her growth.
        I could write a full blog on this, but I'll limit it to a couple of examples. She can draw beautifully, such as a life-like bunny sitting in grass; she writes her own "books," cutting up sheets of paper into pages and stapling them together, then penciling an 8- to 10-page "story"; and, as she pointed out several times, "I can read." Indeed, she can.
        She sounded out the words on my sweatshirt -- "Louisiana Tesh" she said (her mother told her the "ch" is a "k" sound -- and the next day I saw her sound out the "Woodlawn" on the royal-blue light jacket I was wearing.
        She can take the many children's books in her room and her home -- remember, our daughter is an extensive reader -- and actually read them to you.
        OK, I'm her Opa, and I'm a little partial, and a little amazed.
        But this is a major reason we go to East Tennessee -- the little girl who looks like and reminds us so much of our little girl.
        (Of course, an hour away from where we live, there are two little boys -- Josie's cousins -- who remind us of the little boy who was such a joy in the early years of our marriage.)
        Yes, it's a long trip to Knoxville and back, and it's so much a part of our lives.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Louisiana sports history as good as it gets

      I don't make a habit of recommending books to buy, but I have one that's close to my heart and I'm a bit partial because I helped edit it.
     Game Changers: The Rousing Legacy of Louisiana Sports has just been published, and it would be a perfect Christmas gift -- or a gift at any time -- for any sports fan, but particularly those from our home state.
     Because Louisiana has produced as many great athletes, teams and sports moments as any state in this country. Might get arguments about that from New York, California and the state where I live now -- that big one right next to Louisiana. Argue away; you'll never change my mind.
     The book's author is Marty Mule', who has been one of Louisiana's best sportswriters for nearly 50 years, and this is a state -- again I'm partial -- that is much stronger in sportswriting than most people would believe.
     This is the eighth book by Marty, who was in high school in New Orleans and at LSU at about the same time I was in Shreveport and then at Louisiana Tech. For more than 30 years, he was on the sports staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and he has a wealth of knowledge about the state's sports history and its players and coaches.
     The idea behind this book was the new Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame facility in downtown Natchitoches. The plan was to have the book ready for the Grand Opening on June 28.
     That didn't work out, but it's here now, and it's a publication worthy of accompanying the beautiful new building.
     Believe me, Marty doesn't need a lot of editing. The stories in this book are well-written and well-researched, with plenty of depth and color. Marty is a fine story-teller.
      It is 213 pages, with 87 chapters, so it might take you a couple of hours to read it. It has plenty of LSU and New Orleans Saints football, and a broad range of other subjects.
     I got involved when someone recommended to Marty that he check with me for ideas about the chapters on high school athletics. Until I left the state for good in 1988, that was one of my main interests, but of course, plenty of other sportswriting types in Louisiana had the same interest.
     I contributed some ideas, then proofread what Marty had done on high school athletics, plus a chapter he had sent on another subject with which he knew I had some familiarity: Louisiana Techsters basketball.
     He then asked me to proofread/edit some additional chapters, and it grew from there until I had helped with much of the book. It was a fun project that took up just a little more time than I had first imagined; I'm terribly busy these days.
     But after a brief holdout -- I'm just kidding, OK -- the sponsoring Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Foundation agreed to pay me a bundle (three figures) for my services.
     It really was a pleasure to do. I do love the state, and love the sports history, and am proud to have been able to watch and write about just a few of the people and events.
     In addition to the chapters that are about or mention my Woodlawn High School connections -- Lee Hedges, A.L. Williams, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Ferguson and Robert Parish -- one of my favorite chapters is about Orville Kince Davis ... O.K. "Buddy" Davis, the longtime Ruston Daily Leader sports editor who is one of my closest sportswriting friends in the state. We were Louisiana Tech students at the same time all those years ago.
     Marty wrote the chapter because of Buddy's ties with one of the state's greatest legends, Eddie Robinson, and with Grambling College athletics, and it was written long before Buddy's health challenges surfaced shortly after the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame opening.  
       Coach Eddie is one of the main characters covered early in the book -- right after the Saints' glorious 2009 Super Bowl season. But that's only the beginning of an interesting journey through Louisiana sports.
        I would like to guarantee that the book is accurate. And just to make it easy for you to order the book, here is the web page:
        Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah.  Good reading.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The gates of hell

     "The sky is wounded forever. Auschwitz was an unspeakably appalling attack upon everything that humanity stands for."
       -- Inscription on the Auschwitz memorial in Amsterdam, by Dutch artist/writer Jan Wolkers
An aerial view of the main camp at Auschwitz ... there was also the
extermination camp at Birkenau nearby (Picture from
 the National Archives, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.)
(11th in a series)
       Auschwitz, the word itself, the name, connotates evil. Tragedy, death, famine, humiliation ... and, in the case of my parents, survival.
       It was a word spoken often in our home, but when you are a kid, it's really only a word. As you grow older, as you read and begin to grasp what it meant, it became more of a reality.
       My parents, as I've written before, didn't obsess about it, not in my opinion. The experience didn't overwhelm them; they went on to live their lives, and they were great lives.
        But, yes, there was survivors' guilt -- the loss of their families, their loved ones, so many friends, so many of the people around them in the camps -- and it never went away.
        Yes, there were depressive times, especially for my mother; and, yes, they wanted the world to know what they'd been through. They felt that, as survivors, part of their mission -- in addition to raising two wonderful kids -- was to tell of the inhumane treatment they had somehow escaped.
         As many people reading this blog know, my mother for more than two decades spoke publicly at schools, civic organizations, churches and conventions about her Holocaust experiences. My father,  whose English was passable but not fluid, did an interview on tape with the USC Shoah Foundation in 1996.
          Auschwitz was one of 356 concentration/extermination/work camps established by the Nazis throughout Europe. Some of the other names also are familiar: Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbruck, Buchenwald, Treblinka.
           But Auschwitz -- located in Oswiecim, Poland, near Krakow, established in May 1940 -- was  the biggest, and the baddest. An estimated 1,100,000 people were murdered there, most in the gas chambers, most Jewish, the great majority Polish.
            Auschwitz, the records show, was evacuated by the Germans on Jan. 18, 1945, and liberated by the Russian Army nine days later.
            Dad was one of 27 men remaining in the camp then. Some 700 men had been marched out in the woods and shot just days before.
           To hear Dad describe the day he stepped off the train for arrival at Birkenau -- the extermination camp next to the main camp of Auschwitz -- is, in my view, the most gut-wrenching part of his entire testimony.
         He had been a prisoner of the Germans, the Nazis, for more than four months -- this was after a short time as a Dutch Army POW -- when he and about 1,000 others, mostly Jews but also some Romas (gypsies) boarded the train in Mechelen, Belgium, bound for ... who knew where?
          "They told us nothing," Dad said to the interviewer.                         
           She asked him to describe the arrival at the station and what happened soon thereafter.
            My Dad, during the interview, is not often emotional. But that question made him stop for a moment.
            "Boy, that is something," he said, slowly, shaking his head. "We got off the train, and the SS guards came out with dogs [German shepherds] and everything." (Which, I believe, he meant the huge military presence and the machine guns/rifles.)
           "They told us to leave our suitcases and stuff lying over there," he continued. "We can get it later, they say, and you know it was all in German, and German was not the main language for us. So the half we didn't understand what they were saying.
           "They were hitting [people] already, and we were sent to barracks. And we saw the children and the women on the side. It was like a dream. I don't know if you'd say it was a dream, but it was something ..."
             What did you think, why were the women and the children on the side?
             "No idea. No idea," he answered. "We were talking, 'What is here?' What did we know about concentration camps at that time? We had heard and read from it before the war, what happened in Germany, [but] you no realize that happened today to you yourself."
            The Germans/Nazis had no use for the women and children. The records at the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam -- which we visited in April -- show that the wife of my Dad's older brother, Regina Van Thijn-Kok, and my Dad's baby nephew, Nico, went to the gas chambers Nov. 5, 1942 -- probably hours after their arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
            Apparently, Dad's mother, Sara Van Thijn-Van Beem, and his little brother, Jonas, were at Auschwitz for more than a year before being sent to the extermination camp at Sobibor, Poland, where they were gassed June 11, 1943. My grandfather, Nathan Van Thijn, his occupation listed as dispatch clerk, died at Sobibor on July 16, 1943. Records show that some 250,000 died at Sobibor.
            Dad's brother Hyman, a furniture maker, died in the Gleiwitz, Poland, camp on Oct. 21, 1944.
            The bitter facts are on a panel beside the Auschwitz memorial in Amsterdam. Before the German invasion of 1940, there were 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands; between July 15, 1942, and September 1944, some 107,000 of them were deported. Only 5,200 survived, to return to Holland after the war.
            There were some 95,000 Dutch Jews sent to Auschwitz and Sobibor. Only 500 returned.
            That's one of every 190, two of 380.
            Two: Rozette Lopes-Dias (married name Lezer) and Louis Van Thyn.              
            They did not know each other, they were each married at the time they went to Auschwitz, each in their mid 20s. Their Holocaust experiences were separate. Neither of their spouses survived.
              They would soon find each other in Amsterdam, and their stories had happy endings. But the memories were haunting.
(Picture from the Main Commission for the Investigation of
 Nazi War Crimes, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.)
            "In the barracks, we had some people [dressed] in blue and white stripes that were shaving us [shaving the hair from their bodies] and giving us numbers [tattooed on their forearms]," my Dad recalled. "and the SS was walking around there, they start hitting people already, and they took the biggest men first because they couldn't hit back. One tried to hit back, and he was shot right away."
            Dad's identity became No. 70726.
            "We saw the first night, there were rats on the ground, they killed them and they let [made] someone eat them," he continued. "I mean, there were different things they did over there.         
            "I remember I go [to] the bathroom and there was a man standing next to me, he was already in the camp. He asked if I had something to eat for him. He spoke Yiddish, and I no spoke Yiddish, thus I don't know what he was talking about. He asked me for some food. He say, 'Bad over here, bad over here.'
             "We could understand that."
              The next day he would see, for the first time, the infamous gate at Auschwitz, the one inscribed with "Arbeit Macht Frie" (work will make you free).
              I'm thinking it should have said "The Gates of Hell." Because for the next 2 1/2 years, that's what it was.
             Next: Living the nightmare

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Transition camp, and then ... Auschwitz

(Tenth in a series)
       Before the concentration camp, before Auschwitz in my parents' case, there were the transition camps.
       These were only intermediate stops on the way to hell on earth in the early 1940s.
       In The Netherlands -- our home country -- this meant Westerbork, a camp in the northeast part of the country, actually close to the German border. That's where my mother and her mother were sent, a few days after the rest of their family. That's where my father's family went; that's where most of the Dutch citizens picked up/arrested/captured by the Germans went.
       But it's not where Dad -- Louis Van Thyn -- went. By then, he was not living in Holland.
       He had left his original family by choice, back in 1936, to move to Antwerp, Belgium, and apprentice in diamond cutting.
       He left the family he married into, in Belgium, by force. He'd already been a POW as a member of the Dutch army -- this was after Holland had surrendered to the invading German army in May 1940 -- only to be released and to return to Antwerp.
       But, of course, the Nazis didn't lose track of him, or many others. By confiscating national, city and synagogue/temple records, they were able to identify and eventually make prisoners of much of the Jewish population all over Europe.
       While conditions increasingly tightened on the Jews, Dad sometimes defied the at-dusk curfews and rode his bike to make some money doing odd jobs ... until his little free time was up. The Germans came and took control of his life.
       It was May 1942.  He never again saw his wife of eight months, Estella, or her parents. For three years, he was a prisoner.
       And, as he related in his 1996 Holocaust interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, he would make two intermediate stops ... before Auschwitz.
       First stop: A work camp in northern France.
       "We spent around three months there. ... It was by the town of Charleville, in the French Ardennes [the dense forest region] by the Belgium border," he told the interviewer.
       Asked for the camp's name, he replied, "I don't think it had a name. ... I want to go there one day and see, but there is nothing there that you can see it was a camp." (He never made that visit.)
       Conditions weren't harsh -- not like they would be soon -- because, he said, "We got enough to eat; we [had] our own clothes on. We did some work there, we worked every day.
       "There was an organization, TOT in Germany, they were in charge there. There were no rifles, no guns. All we did was work."
       On the other hand ...  "It was a camp but you could walk out if you wanted to walk out," he said. "But one [man] walked out, and they said if there's a second one, they're going to shoot a bunch of people. That's what they said, but they never did."
       What kind of work was being done?
        "We were working in the woods; we cut trees down," Dad said. "Then we cut the trees all the way down to small pieces. The Germans, in that time, used coals to move their trucks. They had little coals, and they worked with that. We burned that, or did something with it, and then they used that later on as fuel, or gasoline."
        Then the SS arrived.
        The Schutzstafffel -- the elite of the Nazi war machine, the special forces that protected Hitler and the Nazi Party leaders. As the world would find out in the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, the SS was the unit that carried out most of the Nazi war crimes, the primary culprit in the Holocaust.
        It was time for the next stop.
The Mechelen camp: This was the Kazerne Dossin, an infantry
barracks converted to a prison camp. (It is now the site
of a Holocaust memorial museum.) (Photo from Wikipedia)
        "One night, at the end of September, the SS came there," Dad said, "... and picked us all up and took us in trucks to Malines, a camp, an old military fort [in Belgium]. 
        (Dad referred to the camp as Malines, which is the French name. It was a transit camp in the town of Mechelen -- halfway between Antwerp and Brussels, the two major Belgian cities -- and it was a major railroad hub, the taking-off point for most Jews from Western Europe headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau.)
        "That was a camp to send people through," Dad acknowledged in his interview. "We spent three days there. I met my cousins there; one cousin was with me, and we met some people. My aunt was there with her daughter-in-law and the baby."
        The camp conditions? "They fed us, and we were in rooms," Dad said. "... We were handled real well; we didn't know what was going on, that they were transporting [people] to Germany. That was all that they let us know."
        Handled real well, he said. What a deception, what a smokescreen. If these prisoners, if my Dad and so many had known what was ahead, would their mind-set have changed? Would their will to live have been different? 
        It's hard to imagine what they were thinking. My mother always said her father, if he had known his fate, would've chosen a way out before he became a prisoner.
        Records show that between Aug. 4, 1942, and July 31, 1944, 28 trains left from Mechelen and took 24,916 Jews and 351 Roma (gypsies) -- about 1,000 each week -- to the death/work camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. By the end of the war, 1,240 survived.
        (How accurate are these numbers? Remember, again, the Germans were meticulous record-keepers.)
        Dad told the interviewer he learned after the war that he was in the 15th transport out of Mechelen; his wife and in-laws had been in the 13th transport. So he apparently missed them by two weeks.
        And the deception continued, in one sense. So many of the prisoners sent to the concentration camps traveled by the infamous cattle cars -- packed full of people, no room to move, no restroom facilities. But Dad's transport ... "We were sent in regular trains, not in cattle cars.
        "We were in the train for three days. ... We were about 400 from France, and there were other people, maybe around 1,000, and we arrived in Birkenau. ... It was men, women, children ... I don't know where the others came from, maybe from Belgium somewhere."
        The interviewer asked, "When the train stopped in Birkenau, what did you think, what did they tell you?"
        Dad: "They didn't tell you nothing."
        But what he saw, he never forgot.
        Next: The gates of hell

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Not up for Sainthood, still seeing stars

Drew Brees has been a Super QB for the Saints; think Tony
Romo will ever have a pose like this? (Lyons/Getty photo)
     Did something Monday night that I rarely do: I watched a New Orleans Saints game. And it was fun.
      I saw an NFL team that is popular in the Ark-La-Tex and seems to know how to win consistently.
      This was one day after I watched the other team popular in the Ark-La-Tex that is consistently a .500 team -- win one, lose one, beat bad teams, lose to good ones (and sometimes lose to bad ones).
      I am not a Who Dat? guy, never have been. I'm not anti-Saints, either. When they won the Super Bowl in 2009, it was a great story, especially what Hurricane Katrina did to the city and area and team four years earlier.
      But when the Saints first began playing, the team with the star on the helmet was beginning to win big and was the most exciting team in the NFL. I've rooted for the Dallas Cowboys for 50 years; I didn't want to switch then, and I don't want to switch now.
      Let me clarify one thing -- I watched the Saints' game on replay. Dancing With The Stars has priority here on Monday nights. And I'm better off watching the Cowboys on replay, too -- so I can choose if I want to watch or not.
      Anyway, here I am writing about NFL teams. I can no more do anything about "fixing" the teams I root for than I can fixing the government shutdown. But at least writing about the NFL, I'm writing about something that matter
      I saw a Saints team with an exciting, some unstoppable offense, a hard-hitting. opportunistic defense, and a head coach who is confident, brash, decisive, innovate, daring and sometimes -- according to media friends -- arrogant. He did, after all, get his training from Bill Parcells.
      Sean Payton is a lot of things Jason Garrett -- nice guy -- is not.
      I saw a quarterback wearing No. 9 who is confident, smart, efficient, accurate as can be, a media darling -- and winner of one Super Bowl title. This guy is Pro Football Hall of Fame material.
      The Saints' offense almost always has receivers running wide open.
      The other NFL No. 9 I watched last weekend is, in my opinion, not all that smart a player (how many times can you throw to a double-covered Jason Witten, as he did repeatedly last Sunday?). He's mistake-prone (fumbles, interceptions, taking sacks) and so often struggles to get his players lined up for plays.
       Tony Romo has some of what Drew Brees has, but he doesn't know much about winning big games, or a lot of little ones. However, it's hardly his fault alone that the team is mediocre. He doesn't have enough good players around him. His offensive line is good at holding, false starts and giving up sacks.
       The Cowboys' offense often struggles with everything. Where was Dez Bryant in the fourth quarter of their two losses? Over on the bench yelling at people?
       I previously have expressed my frustration with the Cowboys owner and (laugh here) general manager, and the head coach.
       Even coaches with good track records become average with this franchise, just as Hank Stram, Bum Phillips and Mike Ditka did with the Saints. Which shows it's the players' ability that counts, not necessarily the coaches.
      Payton and Brees brought their magic to the Saints in 2006; by 2009, that meant Super Bowl gold. That one title matches the total number of Cowboys' playoff victories over the past 16 seasons.
        Of course -- and everyone who's been around knows this -- it wasn't always this way. For their first 20 years, the Saints were as bad as any franchise in NFL history; the Cowboys in that time were as good as any franchise.
        The rivalry then? What rivalry? The Cowboys won 11 of the first 12 times they played the Saints, and the one loss -- in the season, 1971, that the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl -- was a Craig Morton gift at Tulane Stadium, the kind Craig often bestowed on the other team (such as in Super Bowl V).
            Now, to show you how this rivalry has turned, the Saints have won seven of the last eight meetings; the only Cowboys win came in 2009 -- the season the Saints won the Super Bowl -- at a time when New Orleans was 13-0 and cruising toward the playoffs.
            Sure, the Cowboys had the game won on Thanksgiving Day 2010, leading by four points, time running down, and completing a long pass. But in what has become typical Cowboys luck, receiver Roy Williams (remember him?) had the ball simply taken out of his arms by a Saints defender at the New Orleans 11.
              It took Drew Brees five plays to drive the Saints 89 yards for the winning TD with 1:55 remaining.
              That game was classic of what's become of these franchises. The Saints had a 17-0 lead, frittered it away because the Cowboys showed a lot of fight, and then the Saints won it at the end while the Cowboys faded away.
               It was interesting to see Tim Fletcher write about the Saints-or-Cowboys-on-TV debate (when only one game can be shown in the market) in The Shreveport Times a couple of weeks ago because that's exactly what we were writing about in the mid-1980s when I was at the old Shreveport Journal.
              The argument used to be that the Saints were Louisiana's team so they should be on in Louisiana. Counter argument: Dallas is three hours away from North Louisiana, a ride down I-20. New Orleans is five hours away, a tougher trip.
              Football-wise, no argument. The Cowboys were by far the better team to watch.
              But starting in 1987, when the Saints were 12-3 -- their first winning record ever -- and made the playoffs for the first time, and the Cowboys began their decline under Tom Landry (even The Man in The Hat couldn't keep his winning touch forever), it was an argument.
              Still, it took another 13 years before the Saints won their first playoff game. By then, the Cowboys had slipped into mediocrity; only three times in the last 14 years have they won 10 games in one season, and promptly lost in the playoffs.
              So all these years later, the Cowboys have become the Saints, the Saints have become the Cowboys.
              This Cowboys team, so far, looks mediocre again, making a Hall of Fame QB out of Philip Rivers last Sunday, for instance. Chargers receivers ran free all game and Dallas never found a way to cover tight end Antonio Gates. San Diego was more dominant than the final margin (30-21) showed.
               The Saints are 4-0 for the first time since their Super Bowl year, all is forgiven for Coach Sean Payton (suspended last season for the ugly Bountygate/lying scandal), Brees looks like Superman again. The running game looks so-so at best, but flipping those passes in the flat to Darren Sproles (seven catches, 114 yards, more than 16 yards per play Monday night) takes care of that.
              The defense, coordinated by the wild-haired, loudmouth Rob Ryan -- whose Cowboys defenses the previous two years couldn't spell turnover -- might be as good or better than the Super Bowl-winning defense of 2009 (which wasn't all that great, but knew how to get the football).
              Bottom line: The Saints look like a Super Bowl contender, the Cowboys look like a contender for a .500 record, maybe. But it's early, things could change.
              I'm still not going to say, "Who Dat?" and I'm pretty tired of seeing it on Facebook. But I think I recognize good football when I see it.
              The teams meet Sunday night, Nov. 10, in the Superdome. Any chance Dancing With The Stars can be moved up one night?