Thursday, November 28, 2013

'Same Way Turkey Day'

      We will count our blessings today, and we hopefully will count a lot of Dallas Cowboys' points late this afternoon into evening.
       I don't intend to overeat and I don't intend to over-indulge on football. Both are easy to do on Thanksgiving Day.
       The traditional Thanksgiving meal is a feast, and so is the football menu. My extensive research for this piece -- that was maybe five minutes -- shows that football has been played on this day since the Pilgrims arrived ... well, since the start of college football more than 100 years ago.
       If I recall correctly, Texas vs. Texas A&M was a Thanksgiving Day tradition. Now, of course, they no longer play each other (for the time being). But Texas still wants to play at home on Thanksgiving, and so tonight Texas Tech is the opponent, and next year LSU will be at Texas A&M on Thanksgiving.
        Of course, we more closely identify Thanksgiving football with the NFL. Today will be the 74th time that Detroit will be the host for the early game (the tradition began in 1934). The Cowboys have played the afternoon game since 1966 (with the exception of 1975 and 1977, when the then-St. Louis Cardinals were the attraction).
         In 2006, a third Thanksgiving game -- at night -- was added. Geez, did we really need that?
         But -- and this is mostly for my old friends from Shreveport -- when I first identified with football on Thanksgiving Day, it meant Byrd vs. Fair Park.
         For about 30 years, it was Yellow Jackets vs. Indians on Thanksgiving afternoon at State Fair Stadium. It was our "Game of the Year" every year; it drew the biggest crowds of the year (probably 25,000 to 30,000), and almost always determined which team was going to the state playoffs.
         I know that Minden vs. Springhill and Homer vs. Haynesville were Thanksgiving Day regulars through the 1930s, '40s, '50s and into the '60s, and there probably were other traditional rivalries on that day throughout the state ... and the nation.
         For instance, I know the two oldest public high schools in Jacksonville, Fla. -- where I worked for several years -- played on Thanksgiving Day. Lee vs. Jackson was the big attraction at the Gator Bowl Stadium, the one where the men and boys wore suits; the women dressed fancily and wore corsages; and each team talked and thought about beating the other every day of the year.
            Same with Byrd and Fair Park.
            It was purple and gold, The City of Byrd, vs. yellow and black, the Tribe from The Reservation.
Lee Hedges, Fair Park's star running back in 1947, playing against
 Byrd on Thanksgiving Day (photo from Ernie Roberson's
 timeline collectionon Facebook; he got it from a Fair Park site)
       Lee Hedges was one of Fair Park's biggest stars as a player in the late 1940s, an assistant coach there in 1955 and the Byrd head coach from '56 to '59, and went on to be the winningest head coach in Shreveport-Bossier high school football history. On a recent two-part series on Shreveport's KTBS-TV (Channel 3) about his career, the first topic was this rivalry.
             "We never talked about championships at Fair Park," Coach Hedges said. "We talked about beating Byrd on Thanksgiving Day. That was the main goal. Anything beyond that I don't remember them talking about that very much.
             My Woodlawn friends will swear that our rivalry with Byrd in the 1960s was unmatched. And it was an intense rivalry. But I'd be hard-pressed to call it a bigger rivalry than Byrd-Fair Park over all those years.
            Those schools came into being almost together -- Byrd opened in the fall of 1926, Fair Park in 1928. It was, and maybe this is a cliche', a cultural clash.
           Byrd was just a couple of miles from downtown with an upscale enrollment, sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers, oil and gas execs, one-time debutantes turned Junior Leaguers, and the city's politicians, movers and shakers. It was a school known for academic achievement -- and its leaders didn't mind bragging about it.
          Fair Park was the school out west of town -- right across from the State Fairgrounds and State Fair Stadium, with hard-scrabble kids whose parents were blue-collar workers, and some of the kids actually had to come into the city limits to go to school.
           Woodlawn, which opened in 1960 as the third white public high school in town, was much more like Fair Park than Byrd. 
            But let's tone this down, and be realistic. Byrd had its less-fortunate kids; Fair Park had its well-to-do kids. Still, the feeling was Fair Park (and later Woodlawn) was "the other side of the tracks." 
            So feelings, and maybe jealousy, ran deep.
             I came into the rivalry late; I had never seen a high school game in any sport until my ninth-grade year (fall 1961). I had read about Byrd and Fair Park in the newspaper and two of the older kids who lived across the street had gone to Fair Park, but I knew little about the depth of the rivalry.
             As the Thanksgiving Day game approached, Byrd always had "Go West Day" when its students dressed up as cowboys. Fair Park had "Beat Byrd Day" when its kids dressed as Indians and teepees were built on the front lawn in front of the school.
             And so, I saw one Byrd-Fair Park football game on Thanksgiving Day ... the last one, in 1962. Byrd clinched the district championship with a resounding 28-0 victory and got the only playoff spot from District 1-AAA (only the champions advanced), leaving -- yes -- Woodlawn in second place.
             (That day, in 1962, also was one of the most memorable Detroit Lions' Thanksgiving Day games. From 1951 to 1963, the Lions' opponent for that game each year was the Green Bay Packers. In 1962, the Packers were the defending NFL champs and came in 10-0. But the Lions sacked Bart Starr 11 times -- beat him up, really -- and beat the Pack 26-14. How notable was it? It was the only game Green Bay lost all season.)
             A vivid memory of that Byrd-Fair Park game in '62: Some Fair Park students boldly crossed over to the Byrd side of the stadium -- Fair Park always was on the stadium's East side, closest to the school across the street -- and stole the papier mache Jack the Jacket mascot.
            They damn near got it to the top of the stadium and were going to send Jack flying to the ground before a Byrd posse got there and saved Jack's crown. It wasn't that funny. But Byrd did get the last laugh on the football field.
             Starting in 1963, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association state football playoffs expanded, with the second-place team in each district also advancing. That meant starting the playoffs earlier, and so Thanksgiving Day was too late for a regular-season game.
             Byrd vs. Fair Park became just another final regular-season night game.
             Here, though, is one endearing memory from the Byrd-Fair Park rivalry. This was a Byrd student section special.
             Because in the early '60s, Byrd regularly beat Fair Park in football and because Byrd also had Fair Park's number in basketball -- at one point Byrd won 21 of 22 in the series (even in the 1962-63 season when Fair Park won the state title, Byrd won four of the teams' five meetings) -- the Byrd student section during those heated basketball games regularly taunted Fair Park with this chant, "Same Way Turkey Day! ... Same Way Turkey Day!"
              Well, it's no longer same way Turkey Day, is it?
              But the memories of a great time, a great regular event, in Shreveport athletics carries on with those of us who remember. Even those of us from Woodlawn could appreciate the historic schools, Byrd and Fair Park.


Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Newspapers are leaving the building

        It was interesting to me to see the reaction when The Shreveport Times last week announced it had plans to leave the building where it's been located for a half century.
The Shreveport Times building -- but not much longer.
        There are many things about which I'm sentimental. Newspapers buildings are not on that list.
        So when I saw, on Facebook and on The Times web site, repeated references to how "sad" this impending move is, my reaction was the opposite. Here's what I posted:
       No, no, this is not sad. This is progress. That building has outlived its usefulness in newspaper terms. The Times (and Journal until 1991) has been there since 1962, so that's 51 years. No longer a good location, in my opinion.
       If there is a newspaper building about which I should be sentimental, The Times building is it. I worked in that building for some 25 years -- 13 fulltime, 12 as a high school/college student and later parttimer.
       That's where I began my career -- in the summer of 1963 between my sophomore and junior years in high school -- and that where the Shreveport phase of my career ended in late summer 1988. And, honestly, when I left, a whole new world opened for me and my family.
       So I learned a lot about life and newspapers in that building at 222 Lake. There were lots of great days and great times, and a few awful ones. Worked with many good people, and some I could have done without.
       But I am not sad when I think about that building or that location. The parent Gannett Corp. has listed $3.1 million as a sale price, and good luck getting that much. Frankly, my dear ...
       Wherever The Times goes next to put out its newspapers will be fine; it will continue to put out an interesting product. Yes, no matter what, I still enjoy reading the paper.
       Many people will say the newspaper business is declining and certainly the loss of jobs and circulation would indicate that. But the other way to look at it is that it is changing, so the needs within a building are changing.
        Plus, I can identify with the newspaper moving. Because The Times is the fourth paper for which I worked any substantial amount of time that has moved in recent years.
        In 2002, shortly after I left the paper, the Knoxville News Sentinel left the old, cramped building on the edge of downtown it had been in for decades for a building new facility just a few miles away overlooking the long Interstate 40/75 stretch in town.
        In June 2010, just a few months after our first visit to Hawaii since I worked there in 1980-81, The Honolulu Advertiser folded when it was bought out and became part of the  merged Honolulu Star-Advertiser. So the old building at 605 Kapiolani Blvd. -- which we visited again on our trip -- is now abandoned. Built in 1929, it had housed The Advertiser (for 81 years) and the Star-Bulletin.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram's former home
           In 2011, shortly after my layoff notice from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the paper left the building -- cold, damp, home to bats, and after five sets of layoffs, too large -- where it had been since 1921 (90 years).
           It went one block east to the then-named Commerce Building; renamed the Star-Telegram Building, and the new fourth-floor newsroom -- where my career ended with one year of parttime work -- has a good feel.   
           So compared to those other papers, The Times' 51 years just off the viaduct leading into and out of downtown Shreveport isn't that much.
        Now, about my sentimental feelings toward old structures. At Louisiana Tech University, they're tearing down the Caruthers and Neilson dorms, which opened when I was a student in the mid to late 1960s. I lived in both places, beautiful then. Now, it's obviously time for them to go.
        I didn't mind when the old Tech football stadium or Memorial Gym were replaced or when decrepit SPAR Stadium in Shreveport -- finally -- was abandoned for Fair Grounds Field in 1986.
        Shreveport really should rebuild the home and visitors' sides of Independence Stadium (once State Fair Stadium) ... if it could afford to, and Hirsch Coliseum was outdated by the mid-1970s when it was 20 years old.
        Didn't bother me to see the old Yankee Stadium renovated, almost totally, for a second version that opened in 1976, or when it was replaced by the billion-dollar newest Yankee Stadium in 2009.
        Didn't care that Comiskey Park in Chicago or Tiger Stadium in Detroit are gone, or the cookie-cutter roundhouse '60s stadiums in Atlanta, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Cincinnati were torn down. Good-bye and good riddance, too, to the Kingdome in Seattle.
        The Astrodome? The Eighth Wonder of the World in the '60s, the fabulous new building in Houston? It's just stands now as a long-ago relic, taken over by critters and atrophy. Soon it won't be there anymore, and that's OK.
        Frankly -- and this makes some of my baseball friends uncomfortable, and tees off fans of these particular teams -- I am not enamored by the old "palaces," Wrigley Field in Chicago and Fenway Park in Boston. They've been renovated and revamped, and I think those teams should rebuild modern stadiums elsewhere. Yeah, blasphemy.
        Not very sentimental, huh?
        But, gosh, I do like the tradition of so many of the college football stadiums around the country. Of course, these universities have spent millions (billions) of dollars expanding and updating. Just to name two with which I'm pretty familiar, LSU's Tiger Stadium and Tennessee's Neyland Stadium, don't look much like they did even 20 years ago.  
        And where I'm really sentimental is the schools in my hometown. I wouldn't want to see Woodlawn abandoned, or Byrd, Fair Park, Bossier, Loyola College Prep ... none of the old places, or the newer ones.
        It hurts to see my junior high, Oak Terrace, so majestic and unique and built on a hill at the west end of my neighborhood, sitting empty. I was in seventh grade the year it opened (1959) and started on the path to my sportswriting career there.
        I like that Sunset Acres Elementary, which opened in 1954, is still in operation. Very sentimental about that schoolground.
        But newspaper buildings? Nope. There's a time to go, and often it's way past time. So let The Times move on a new place and a new day. The memories are enough.
        Wonder what they did with that clock that crashed to the floor when Steve Oakey, in one of our frequent ballgames in the sports department, hit it with our wadded-up tape ball  one night?
        Better yet, I remember my little girl in the old Journal newsroom, hissing like a snake as she crawled across the carpet, or posing for the photos in the old studio or up front coloring with Miss Althea. And my 2-year-old boy, even before I was "Dad," asking on his first visit to the newsroom, " 'Bout ready to doe, Neeto?"
        He was ready to go, to leave the building. Now everyone is, and that's good. That's progress.  


Friday, November 22, 2013

Re-posting: Nov. 22, 1963 -- the darkest day

      Nov. 22, 1963, began as a dark, gloomy day in New Orleans. It would become darker.
      It's a day easy to remember, hard to forget. The news was stunning -- and sickening -- by early afternoon. The weather kept getting worse. It poured that night. How appropriate.
      Where were you when JFK was assassinated?
      The Woodlawn High School football team was in the New Orleans area, at the Holiday Inn -- off Airport Highway -- in Metairie. We were playing at East Jefferson High School, just down the road from the hotel, in a Class AAA first-round playoff game that night.
       It was my junior year; I was a manager/statistician/school sports editor; it was Woodlawn's second playoff game in its four-year history; its first one on the road.
       At about 11:45 a.m., I was hanging around the hotel lobby when Coach A.L. Williams (the running backs/defensive backs coach) and Lee Prather (father of our quarterback, Trey Prather) said they were going to drive down the road and look at the stadium. Did I want to go along? Sure.
       We got back to the Holiday Inn about 12:30 p.m. As we walked back into the courtyard -- where a couple of the coaches were sitting near the swimming pool -- players began bolting out of their lower-floor and second-floor rooms yelling that "the President has been shot in Dallas!"
       How suddenly life changes.
       The horrible news that President Kennedy had died came a half-hour later. Football didn't seem so important anymore.
       We should not have been in New Orleans. We should not have been in the playoffs at all. But we also could have been playing in Shreveport that night. We had Byrd High School -- our good buddies -- to thank for it all.
       We had lost to Bastrop (13-7) and to Byrd (14-7), and it looked as if we were going to finish third in District 1-AAA, out of the playoffs. But two weeks before the regular season ended, the news broke on a Tuesday afternoon: Byrd had used an ineligible player, and had to forfeit eight wins overall, four in the district -- including our game.
        We were back in the race. Think practice at Woodlawn wasn't spirited that day?
        If Byrd could beat Bastrop that week, we had a chance to win the district. So we, for once, were rooting for Byrd. Our just rewards? Bastrop, an unheralded Cinderella-type team with three super players, beat Byrd 19-13 ... and deservedly won the district.
        So Bastrop was at home for its first-round game. Woodlawn, in second place, was on the road. On Thursday, as JFK and Jackie made their way to Texas, the Knights took the bus to New Orleans, with a stop at LSU for practice.
The most endearing moment of the long weekend of
the JFK assassination -- John-John salutes his father.
       Like the rest of the nation, we were mesmerized by the TV reports that afternoon. JFK wasn't popular in the South, but he was a charismatic man with a beautiful family (Jackie and two young children) and the news of the shooting from the Texas School Book Depository Building was riveting.
       Many of the Woodlawn students, including the cheerleaders, pep squad and band, learned of the shooting on their way to New Orleans.
       What I learned just recently, from Coach Williams, is that afternoon there was a lot of discussion with the East Jefferson people -- and the Louisiana High School Athletic Association -- on whether the game should be postponed. It wasn't.
       As far as I know, every game in the state was played that night. (So were the college games the next day and the NFL on Sunday ... a decision for which Pete Rozelle -- one of the great commissioners in sports history -- was criticized forever.)
        From our standpoint, it should have been postponed. It began raining in mid-afternoon, and it rained, and rained, and rained. There were some breaks, and it just drizzled some, but most of the game was played in a downpour. Especially when we had the ball.
        Sounds made up? Nope, I'm not kidding. I know this because I watched that game film hundreds of times. In fact, Coach Williams remembers that the East Jefferson coach (Bob Whitman) apologized to the Woodlawn staff at midfield at the end of the game because he knew his team had gotten the best of the weather deal.
        It was a 7-7 tie settled on first downs, which was the rule then (before overtime became mandatory). East Jefferson had six first downs to Woodlawn's five. If the first downs had been tied 6-6, we would have won on penetrations inside the 20; we had the edge, 3-2, because we had recovered two East Jeff fumbles inside their 20. We scored after one of them, but not the other.
         In the game's final minute, Trey Prather threw a fourth-down pass to my close friend Ken Liberto, who made a sliding, one-handed catch -- fabulous catch, really -- but out of bounds by inches. It would have been the first down we needed to advance.
         Instead, we were out. It was a loss (of sorts) for us.
        The country's loss that day? Immeasurable.
         Liberto loved that catch. Loved it so much that during the winter and spring, we had the game film and a Woodlawn projector at Trey's house and we watched the game and that play hundreds of times. That's now I know how hard it rained whenever we had the ball.
        The next day the bus ride home was long and quiet. We went through Baton Rouge, where LSU was playing Tulane, a 20-0 Tigers' victory before the most quiet Tiger Stadium crowd in history. After getting home on Saturday, we spent the rest of the day and most of the following two days watching TV.
         On Sunday morning, more stunning news -- Jack Ruby shooting alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas jail on live TV. I missed that; I was at the Woodlawn gym with Trey and Ken, who were shooting baskets because our basketball season was going to start on Tuesday. When Ken dropped me off at home, my mother gave me the news about Oswald.
         I'm not sorry I missed that scene.
        We didn't have school on Monday, the day of the state funeral. The images of that day are many and vivid in our memories. It was a sad, long day that concluded a sad, long extended weekend.
         For the generation before us, the "remember where you were" moment was Pearl Harbor. For this generation, it's 9-11. For the people my age, Nov. 22, 1963, was the darkest day.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A wedding, and a woman, to remember

Barb and Joel Bierig escort Becky on
their way to the chuppah.
     While LSU and Alabama played football two Saturday nights ago, we were at the Bierig-Cohen wedding in Plano, Texas -- a weekend in which special old ties were renewed.
      Old ties means the father of the bride, Joel Bierig, and his mother, the bride's grandmother, 87-year-old Steffi Bierig. My connections with them go back 36-37 years, but there's another sort of connection with Steffi that you'll find a few dozen paragraphs below.
      The wedding began at 7 p.m., kickoff time in Tuscaloosa. Let's say that I enjoyed the wedding festivities a helluva lot more than what I saw on recorded TV late that night into early Sunday morning.
      Everything about the wedding, from the invitations to the guests' gift bags to the rehearsal dinner to the ceremony to the reception/dinner/dance afterward was beautiful and classy. Sometimes even the biggest football game of the college season can be put on hold.
      This was a unique wedding for me, a traditional Jewish wedding under a chuppah, the canopy which covers the bride and groom, their parents, the four attendants and the rabbi. Think the wedding scene of Fiddler on the Roof, and you've got the picture.
      Unique for me because it was the first time since October 1955 -- 58 years ago -- that I'd been to a traditional Jewish wedding. I was 8 (and two months from leaving Holland for the United States) when my mother's first cousin -- her closest remaining relative after World War II -- was married in Amsterdam. Elsa, my sister who was 4 then, was the flower girl; my parents wore formal attire as part of the wedding party.
      Somewhere, we have two dozen photos from that wedding. But we also have some film that shows scenes of the wedding -- I am barely visible for a split second -- and, later on the same film, the Van Thyn family departing Amsterdam by car and then walking onto the boat that carried us across the Atlantic.
Becky and Joseph Cohen, at the rehearsal dinner.
      Back to this wedding. The lovely bride, Rebecca "Becky" Bierig, is the daughter of Barb and Joel Bierig, and she has worked and lived in Dallas since graduation from the University of Missouri. She and Joseph Cohen had been a couple for four years before their marriage on Nov. 9.
      Joel was a longtime sportswriter who began his career -- just after graduation from Missouri -- at the Shreveport Journal in early summer 1975. That's where we first met.
      Joel was, as I've told many people over the years, as good a sportswriter as anyone I've known coming right out of college, the first of a whole string of talented young writers -- many in their first jobs -- to work for the Journal for the next decade.
      (In fact, a fellow Mizzou grad who followed Joel to Shreveport and Journal that same summer, Steve "Tiger" Richardson, sat with us at the wedding events. Steve went on to write sports for The Dallas Morning News, still lives in Dallas and is now executive director of the Football Writers Association of America and a noted college football/basketball author.)
      Joel stayed at the Journal for about a year, then moved on -- and up -- to several newspapers before landing at the Chicago Sun-Times as a baseball writer, covering the Cubs and White Sox.
      That was a natural for Joel because he grew up in the Chicago area, and still lives there. But in 1990, when he was 37, he decided to leave sportswriting because (1) he wanted to spend more time with his kids -- Becky was 4 then, Brian was 1 -- and (2) he joined his family's business.
      His father, Jerry J. Bierig, was Joel's biggest fan as a sportswriter, but he was delighted that his son wanted to join the family's sales agency, which represents paint- and hardware-related products.
      It was sportswriting's loss, although Joel still does some free-lance writing.
      Now, Joel is the company president. But he'll tell you that the heart of that business is his mother. Steffi is as well-preserved, as spry and mobile, as sharp and active as just about any 87-year-old you will meet.
      She is still there most every day running the company's books and keeping things in order. For instance, as she showed me, if they need business cards, she designs and prints her own. If Joel needs advice -- and maybe sometimes if he doesn't -- she's ready with it.
     As Steffi was being escorted into the hotel ballroom where the wedding was held -- with the chuppah an awe-inspiring sight -- I thought of how proud she looked ... and how far she'd come for this moment.
     Because her life began in Germany, before World War II. In 1938, she was a 12-year-old Jewish girl -- Steffi Lewin -- living with her parents in Berlin.
     How perilous that was. The concentration camps, and perhaps death, were only a couple of years away.
      So she has a connection of sorts with my family. Steffi is not a Holocaust survivor, per se, as my parents were. She is someone whose family -- luckily -- found a way out of Germany, out of Europe, before the Nazis began rounding up the Jews, and other non-Arians, and making them prisoners.
Steffi Bierig
      Because her parents were fearful of what was happening with young Jewish men, they sent  her older brother (16 then) to the United States to live with relatives.
      And because her family had the means -- her father was a dentist, her mother was his assistant -- and they already had family in the U.S., they had a connection and a way out.
      Fortunately, they were selected among the quota allowed into this country in those pre-war years.
      When she was a student at Missouri, Becky (the bride) wrote a paper about her grandmother for a women's history class. It was entitled "A woman’s view: Examining the herstory of the Holocaust."
      With Becky's permission, I will share a few items from the paper. Such as ...
      -- The anti-Semitism she encountered in her public school, kids chanting, "You killed Jesus Christ!" as they studied the New Testament in religion class. And before she transferred to a Jewish school, she would come home crying because an anti-Semitic teacher gave her a failing grade in penmanship when she “had perfect handwriting.”  
      -- More than 3,200 German children (60 percent boys and 40 percent girls) were sent by their parents to Palestine to work in agriculture.             
      -- She recalled her mother having to comply with a Nazi order requiring Jewish women to prepare Sunday meals using only one pot.
      -- A former dental patient of Steffi’s father who belonged to the SS warned him, albeit indirectly, about the November 1938 pogrom known as Crystal Night. (Nazi legislation forbade her  father from treating non-Jewish patients and required him to display a yellow star outside his residential office.) Without giving a reason, the patient warned the family to leave home for three days.   
      “We walked the streets for three days,” Steffi said.  She recalled seeing typewriters and office cabinets thrown into the streets as windows of Jewish homes and businesses were smashed. “Two spinsters kept us for a while. We couldn’t stay anywhere too long because we didn’t want to put anyone at risk.”
      To their relief, they found that “nothing had been touched” when they returned home. “Somebody had been looking out for our place,” Steffi said, convinced that the sparing of her home was not a result of mere oversight. 
      (Steffi told me this story when we visited in Plano because the wedding, coincidentally, fell on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.)
      -- Steffi  and her parents immigrated to Chicago in October 1939 under the sponsorship of relatives who had been living in the U.S. for nearly 30 years.
      (The trip itself, though, wasn't a smooth one; they could not travel west in Europe; instead, they wound up going to Norway and taking a boat across the Atlantic from there, so the trip took two weeks "and we were sick almost the whole time," Steffi told me).
      -- Allowed only $5 per person and suitcases packed by authorities, the family went from financially well off to having to use overseas trunks as furniture. In addition to confiscating the family’s bank account and furniture -- which had been “refurbished for America” -- Nazi officials did an incomplete and careless packing job. “We weren’t allowed to be present,” Steffi said. “They stole a lot of the stuff we wanted to take.”
      -- As her father was not certified to practice dentistry in the U.S., he learned occupational therapy. Her mother worked selling lingerie out of a suitcase door-to-door and also worked in a lighting factory.
      Steffi went to school, but "had jobs always” -- babysitting, live-in nanny during summers, working at a mail-order catalog office and, although she was underage but fudged on her application, working at a Venetian blind factory, where she made 35 cents an hour.
      Her story has an amazing twist, which takes us back to where we began -- with the Bierig family.

      In 1951, she met another refugee from Germany, who also got out before World War II hit full blast. Jerry Bierig also had settled with his family in the Chicago area, and was a traveling salesman. 
      They married that year, Joel was born a couple years later and then sister Debbie followed. In 1971, Jerry formed his own agency as a wholesale manufacturers' representative. That is the company in Flossmoor, Ill., a south Chicago suburb, that Joel is running now. Well, Joel and Steffi.
       And for the Bierigs and the Cohens, and all of us who were there, the wedding weekend was a wonderful experience. No matter how that football game came out.

Friday, November 15, 2013

For eating out, visit Cajun

         We enjoy eating Cajun food, and have for years, and we have a special reason for encouraging people in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to visit the Cajun Tailgators food truck.
         Our kids -- daughter-in-law Ann Keady and her husband, our son Jason Key -- own and operate the truck.
Ann Keady (daughter-in-law):
 Cajun Tailgators owner/operator.
          You might already know this, if you've seen my frequent posts on Facebook and occasional e-mails the past two years. If those fall into the "shameless promotion" or marketing category, so be it.
         Ann originated the business idea; she and Jason built on the plan; and because Jay is an avid and, we think, creative cook, he  formulated many of the recipes. They found and financed the truck, equipped and decorated it, and it's been rolling since early 2012.
         We think Cajun Tailgators -- the first Cajun food truck in the D-FW area --  is the best you can do on the very active and still expanding food-truck circuit in this area.
        And now there is more: Cajun Tailgators is about to add a permanent location, a restaurant/cafe in "old" downtown Plano. It is just off North Central Expressway (U.S. 75), a couple of blocks from the Avenue-N and 15th Street exit. The address: 1112 E. 15th Street, Plano.
        Jason and many others have spent many hours the past few weeks renovating the space into a workable, comfortable place to eat Cajun food. It's shaping up nicely, and a late November grand opening is in the works.
An inside look at the new Cajun Tailgators restaurant
         But nothing will change with the food truck; it will continue to appear almost daily in various locations and, as it has since February 2012, is available, too, for catering and private outings.  
          In addition, Jason can put together a crew to do crawfish boils in season (and he can invite Dad to sample the product any time he wants).
         The restaurant, which is 1,500 square feet and will seat 34 (plus an outdoor patio area), will feature all the items the food truck offers, plus an expanded array of PoBoys and other features (see the photo with much of the menu).
          It will give them a permanent commissary to prepare the items that will go on the food truck, plus a nightly parking spot for the truck -- both expenses for which they previously had to pay for separately.
          Plus, they love the idea of the permanent location to host their friends and the public. We love it, too.
          Personally, I wasted  half my life not eating Cajun food. How stupid.
          But not being a Louisiana native -- or a U.S. native -- and then growing up in North Louisiana before the Cajun food craze began to spread, it really wasn't part of the agenda.
          If only I had met gumbo, etouffee, boudin, jambalaya and boiled crawfish years earlier, I might've gotten hooked before I was almost 40. Beatrice also is from North Louisiana, but her advantage was that she married -- in a previous life -- and wound up living in Southwest Louisiana in her early 20s.
          So not only did she learn to eat Cajun, better yet she learned to cook some of the cuisine. Her son has expanded the family's knowledge.
          I can remember in the early 1970s, on trips to cover sports events in South Louisiana, watching people eat boiled crawfish. It looked unappealing, too much work to get that little piece of crawfish meat out of that miniature lobster.
            How wrong was I? Very wrong.
            It was another decade, at the Louisiana Sports Writers' Association convention in Lafayette (the heart of Cajun country), when I gave it a try at a crawfish boil. I was hooked. Bea loves them, too.
            So that's been 25 years and, other than fried catfish and (thanks to my Dutch genes) smoked eel, boiled crawfish is my favorite meal -- with the corn, small potatoes, onions and mushrooms mixed in. (And, yes, I've learned to suck the juice out of the crawfish.)
             Plus, I've learned to boil the ingredients, a few pounds at a time, right here in our kitchen, thank you. Got my own formula and what I've learned as my stomach has gotten older, I can't really handle the spicy stuff anymore.
the crawfish pistolette
              We don't do it as often -- we've cut back on potatoes and corn, among many other things -- but it's nice to know that when it's in season and the trucks deliver the goods from Louisiana, we can go to the nearby Fiesta and buy live crawfish (if the price per pound is right).
              Meanwhile, we know that if we want Cajun food, there is a food truck and now a restaurant we can visit and get whatever we want -- and at Cajun Tailgators, we know it's going to be good.
                I would recommend the crawfish pistolette, probably the most popular item on the menu, and the roast beef PoBoy. But the fried boudin balls are great, and the Natchitoches meat pies, and the shrimp creole, and the gumbo, and ... Ann and Jason's oldest son, Jacob, prefers the "doughnuts" (the beignets).
                Believe me, any of the items will work.
                If you want to take a look online, check; see Twitter @cajuntailgators; on Facebook, go to; or phone 214-783-2385.            
                So if you're near Plano, you know where to visit. We recommend it.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Living the nightmare in the camps

The main gate at Auschwitz
(12th in a series)
     My Dad's first day at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, in early October 1942, had to be the most horrific day of his life (he was 23).
     The second day was the next horrific day.
     Think about it; in the 33 months he was a prisoner of the Nazi war machine -- the final 28 at Auschwitz or the surrounding area -- there couldn't have been "good" days, only some that weren't as severe as others.
      Face it, for thousands and thousands -- including members of our family -- there was no second day in the camp. The first day was a trip to the gas chambers.
      So for the survivors, every day was the next day to endure whatever torture was ahead.
      In his 1996 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, Dad recalled the arrival by train, the overbearing German/Nazi military presence, the rifles, the police dogs, the women and children separated from the men, the unhealthy and elderly men also separated, the standing at attention for seemingly hours, the shooting of a man for disobedience, the order to shed his clothes and possessions, the shaving of all his hair, the numbered tattooed on his left forearm -- his identity for the next couple of years.
      That was the first day, and a night spent in one of the many barely equipped barracks. What was ahead? Who knew? Only the Nazis. But Louis Van Thyn and his fellow prisoners must have known it wouldn't be good.
      "The next morning they put us together and they stand us in line, and they gave us some blue-and-white clothes, and they walked us," Dad said in his interview. "The only thing we could save was our belt and our shoes, and I had my military shoes on. But they took my socks away, too.
     "So we walked from Birkenau to Auschwitz. We came in the gate with [the] 'Arbeit Macht Frei' [sign]."
     It was only the beginning of the day.
      Auschwitz was the largest and most deadly of the Nazi concentration camps; the overhead photo of the camp layout, which ran with the previous chapter of this series, "The Gates of Hell," shows the scope of it.
      Here is some basic information on the camps from, the web site of the official Auschwitz Memorial and Museum:
      The camp opened in former Polish army barracks in June 1940, and 20 brick buildings were adapted -- six two-story, 14 single-story. At the end of 1940, prisoners began adding second stories to the single-story blocks and the following spring, they started erecting eight new blocks.
The barracks at Auschwitz (from
      By mid-1942, it was a complex of 28 two-story blocks, most used to house prisoners. Each block was designed to hold about 700 prisoners; in reality, they housed up to 1,200. There were three-tiered bunk beds, but many had to cram more than three people in them.
     In the first months, the prisoners drew water from two wells and relieved themselves in a provisional outdoor latrine. After the rebuilding of the camp, each building had lavatories and toilets, but very basic and very public, and very unsuitable for the number of prisoners involved.
      Plus, there were more than 40 sub-camps in the area -- founded at various German industrial plants and farms -- in which the prisoners were used as slave laborers. The most significant of these for this series was Jawischowitz, where my Dad spent much time, working in the coal mine.
       After that walk from Birkenau into the main Auschwitz camp, with the infamous sign, Dad and a group of his fellow prisoners were made to keep walking ... to Jawischowitz -- the camp located just outside the village of Jawiszowice.
        "I cannot remember, moet [must] be 10 miles or something from Auschwitz," he said in the testimony. "And we come in a camp and there was already a Dutch commando over there, and he was telling that we had to work in the coal mines."
         According to the list of Auschwitz sub-camps on the Auschwitz web site, the camp existed from August 1942 -- just a couple of months before Dad arrived -- to the liberation on Jan. 17, 1945. It was a site for coal mining and surface construction work at the Brzeszcze-Jawischowitz mine, with 1,988 prisoners involved.
        It was part of the Reichswerke Hermann Göring, the economic conglomerate for the Nazi cause -- dealing primarily in mining the ore and producing the steel needed for the war effort, and named for and headed by Göring, considered the second most powerful man in Germany to Hitler.  
        All the walking left Dad in pain -- and without shoes.
        "But after a day that I walked from Auschwitz to Jawischowitz, I had no socks on, and I had blisters on my legs [feet]," he recalled. "Thus the next day I go see the doctor, and you could not keep your shoes on, you had to set them in the hall. And when I come back from the doctor, my shoes were gone.
        "That was one thing I still had from my own, so I had some wooden shoes that were wood underneath and leather backs. And we had all kinds of clothes we used for socks ... tallises [Jewish prayer shawls]. I remember we cut tallises. For the vroom [Orthodox] Jews, that was real bad. That was really, really bad."
        Before the work began, before they really learned what this camp was about, there was more humiliation.
        "The next day we had to go on a field in Jawischowitz, we had to make sport -- they called it sport," Dad said. "We had to run around, or sit down, or lay down, [whether or not] there was mud or nothing.
       "Those were kapos that did that," he pointed out. The kapos were -- according to the definition from the web site Jewish Virtual Library -- trustee inmates who supervised the prisoners, carried out the will of the Nazi camp commandants and guards, and who were often as brutal as the SS itself. And some of them -- almost unbelievably -- were Jewish.
      If it wasn't the kapos, Dad added, it was "the haftlinge -- those were the criminals from Germany. That were our leaders, the criminals from Germany. Many people don't understand that today, that Germany took all the criminals out of prisons, and made them the leaders in the camps.
      "There were block elders, block fuehrers [they were SS]. But we no saw too much SS; we saw the commandos from the block. You saw the block fuehrer going around. He let the inmates be the leaders over there, and they were terrible."
      Next: Working in the mines

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What is really important, in my opinion

      Not writing about sports today, not directly. This is one of those slice-of-life pieces -- as some of my journalism friends call them -- that I like to write occasionally.
      Unlike many of my blog pieces, which I formulate in my mind beforehand (mostly during my daily walks), I'm going "stream of consciousness." So bear with me.
      OK, I want to write about love. Yes, you read that correctly.
      When I told our daughter about the subject matter, she replied, "The Beatles said it best: All you need is love."
      Well, there are other needs -- food and clothes come to mind first; money and shelter are good to have; restrooms and bathrooms are nice; and you can add a variety of your own "needs."
      Then there is entertainment -- television, movies, videos, video games, games. In reading a couple of non-sports books the past month -- yes, that does happen -- I came across this passage: Sports "is a foolish waste of precious time."
      I never quite heard it put that way. Pretty sure I don't totally agree.
      But, honestly, I'm disenchanted with a few things this week -- in sports, in politics, in the world. And what I keep coming back to is that all these games, involving these teams which we (I) love, the results are fleeting. There are going to be more games, more results next week, next year.
      We can always come back to the video tapes and games, and the movies, and the television.
      Family endures. Love endures. A family's love endures. I keep this first and foremost in my mind; this is what is really important to me.
      Friends, too, the friends that have been there seemingly forever. Maybe you don't agree on some things in sports and politics and social issues, but you put aside those differences and know that those people will be there for you whenever.
      But what brings all this to the forefront is (1) the books I've been reading about a complicated family relationship involving the religion in which I was raised and (2) our children and their children.
      We had some complicated family relationships; the Van Thyn parents had been through a helluva lot before Elsa and I came along, and maybe that explains some of the dysfunction in our home. And, honestly, Elsa and I passed that along to our respective spouses and kids.
      I can assure you of this: I always felt loved -- not only at home, but in school and everywhere beyond. I was lucky to find a spouse who was loyal beyond belief -- a loyalty not always reciprocated -- and we tried to pass our love on to our kids, who endured some tough battles of their own.
      Unlike Elsa and me, our kids were able to know and enjoy being around their grandparents. They loved them all a lot, but there is one moment that stands out for me.
      At my Dad's funeral, the time came to lower the casket in the grave and we then began the ancient ritual of burial, shoveling the dirt on the casket. I see this clearly still; as long as my memory holds up, I will not forget my kids' turn to shovel -- Jason in his dark suit, Rachel in a black dress. Rachel sobbing, Jason's eyes hidden by sunglasses but I'm sure he, too, was crying.
      They loved their Opa Louie, and they were feeling the loss.
      It was one of the saddest moments I've experienced, and one of the grandest. Gosh, I loved my kids so much at that moment.
      Now it's their kids -- Rachel's Josie (who is 6), and Jason's Jacob (4) and Kaden (2) -- who love their Opa (that's me) and their Granny. And it's that love, unconditional, that innocence, that totality, which is the greatest gift we've experienced.
      It's like this is what makes all the years, all the problems and successes, worthwhile.
      We felt this way about our kids, too, of course, but when you're young and you're working and you're involved in the world, and you're worried about doing what's right for your kids, you can screw it up. I know I was too hard on them at times, especially Rachel.
      Believe me, they are 39 and 34 now, and we still worry about them; they still turn to us, especially their mother, for nearly daily updates, for guidance and advice.
      Their kids -- our grandkids -- can wear us out, and they can try us out, and, yes, they need to be disciplined at times. By the time that it's time to say good-bye and go home, we are ready.
      And not long after we leave, we miss them.
      When, after a four-day stay in Knoxville last month, we told Josie that we were leaving to go home to Texas, she dropped her head and said, "Awww." Knowing that she probably won't see Opa and Granny again for a few months, she wanted more time with us.
      Last week, as Jacob and Kaden were set to get in Jason's car for the hour's ride home after a busy afternoon spent with us (an afternoon that, thankfully, included long and hard-fought naps), Jacob said, "We'll come back tomorrow." Kaden, on one visit, pitched forward on all fours and screamed "nooooooo" when told it was time to leave. 
      This, to me, is clearly what love -- and feeling loved -- is about. It's all we need.