Friday, February 28, 2014

Judge him on football ability, period

       I am not here to endorse or condemn homosexuality. But I will endorse Michael Sam's right to play in the NFL.
      Whether or not he becomes an NFL player, he's already a success. There is much debate if he will even make a team -- or get a chance, for that matter -- but to "come out" and publicly state that he is gay took courage.
      So he's a gay football player. So what?
      He's a football player, that's what the NFL is about. Sam himself said this, and I totally agree: If he is good enough to make a team and, more importantly, good enough to help a team win games, he will play.
Michael Sam (from
      All the other stuff ... it's superfluous. Something for everyone to discuss.
      Much has been written and talked about in the past three weeks, (Dallas) WFAA/Ch. 8 sports anchor Dale Hansen's commentary supporting Sam went viral, or national, or was trending -- whatever term you want -- and now I'm giving my thoughts because, as we used to kid about Jerry Byrd's sports columns in the old Shreveport Journal, I want to get in my two cents' worth.
      My wife says I'm piling on. True.
      But I have had friends ask my opinion, and I have asked friends for their opinion. And I have to say this -- whether you like it or not -- I admire this young man.
      I had one friend tell me that "this is the ruination of the NFL" and, on a large scale, what's wrong with America today. I had another question "the elephant in the room," Sam's presence in an NFL locker room.
      One view is that Sam increased the pressure on himself in his bid to earn a roster spot on an NFL team, and the pressure on whatever team, coaches and administrators willing to draft him. I agree.
      Because, wanted or unwanted, this is a media story. It was inevitable that an active or prospective NFL player would say he was gay, and the media would be all over the story.
      I dare say a number of sports across the spectrum are filled with gay athletes. Some, but not many, have "come out" publicly, such as Jason Collins in the NBA and Robbie Rogers in Major League Soccer. And there are gay coaches out there, too.
      Here is a question: How many locker-room incidents, how many reports of "unsavory" behavior, have you heard or read about?
      I can think of one -- a recent WNBA player, a prominent one, in an incident with her ex-girlfriend, also in the WNBA.
      There have been, in my opinion, much uglier cases involving sports figures -- the O.J. Simpson and Rae Carruth murder trials, the Aaron Hernandez mess, the Miami Dolphins' locker-room hazing/bullying, and the Coach Jerry Sandusky child molestation over a long number of years.
      Yes, Michael Sam might face some locker-room challenges, might have to deal with teammates -- or opposing players -- with things to say or pranks to play. The "jokes" are already going public.
      But a young man who has been living a gay life most likely already has faced those type challenges. If he was afraid, he would not have made this public. He must feel that being open and honest is the best way to face this in the NFL.
      No pulling offensive guard or tackle going to block Michael Sam is going to stop and ask him if it's true that he's gay. Nor is Michael Sam, after a sack, going to ask the quarterback, "How does it feel to be sacked by a gay guy?"
      Now the tackle or back that he slips past to get the sack might hear it from his teammates, but -- as I noted about the Dolphins -- we've seen what kidding around can lead to on a football team.
      So you'd hope these players would be grown up about this, as much as NFL players grow up.
      We know there have been gay players in the NFL, and in the NBA, and in Major League Baseball. But we always found out afterward. Again, did you hear of any incidents involving those players?
      So, yes, Michael Sam is breaking a barrier. So did Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, and so many others -- blacks and women -- in sports over the past 60 years. We no longer are concerned with how many blacks are on our favorite teams, and I'm disappointed when women are told they don't belong in auto racing or they don't receive equal prize money in major tennis events.
      This is another "first" in the sports world, and I'll be glad when a "first" isn't a media story. Might not happen in our lifetime.
       Here's what gives me hope. Michael Sam "came out" to his Missouri coaches and teammates before last season began. No one said a word publicly; this story did not break until Michael announced it early this month.
       All he did was play football -- good football, SEC Defensive Player of the Year -- and help Missouri win the SEC East and win the Cotton Bowl game. So what if he's gay?
       Since his announcement, there has been support from all over. Critics, too, of course, including the "anonymous" NFL sources.
       When the extremists from Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kans. -- known primarily for their anti-gay protests -- came to the Missouri campus to protest Sam's announcement, some 2,000 Missouri students turned out in very cold weather and staged their own protest -- a long wall, with their backs turned to the Westboro people.
       As another of my friends suggested last week, maybe this younger generation is the generation that will accept that homosexuality is here to stay -- it's always been here, really -- and out in the open, and it's OK. Even for football players.
       Honestly, I'd never heard of Michael Sam before three weeks ago. LSU didn't play Missouri, and I am not a close enough follower of other teams to know much about their players. Now I'm reading and hearing that he is undersized for an NFL defensive end, but his speed and pass-rush ability -- and a possible move to outside linebacker, if he can do it -- could make him an NFL player.
       But Mel Kiper Jr., who we know knows more about the NFL Draft than anyone (that's what we've heard for years), projects him as a fourth-round pick, at best, depending on whatever team is willing to deal with the "distractions."
       When I suggested to a friend that the Dallas Cowboys might draft Sam, or take him as a free agent, because Jerry Jones is always publicity-conscious and unafraid of distractions, he said the Cowboys would lose a lot of fans. Yeah, like three 8-8 seasons in a row -- and no playoffs-- doesn't do that.
       If Michael Sam can consistently shed blockers and make tackles, if he can whip the guys in front of him, if he helps a team win the Super Bowl and holds up the Lombardi Trophy, you think that team's fans will care if he's gay? They'll be cheering him like a champion.
       And if he doesn't make an NFL team, or even gets much of a chance, I think he'll still be all right with himself and with plenty of others. Plus, I just don't see the NFL falling apart. Not yet. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dad's lesson: We're not moving

      Before I tell you about my Dad's lesson on prejudice at my first major league baseball game, I need to write generally about prejudice.
      This has been on my mind since University of Missouri football star Michael Sam "came out" and announced he was gay, the first NFL Draft prospect to do so. And then Richard Petty -- the "king" of NASCAR -- made his comments about Danica Patrick's driving career and chances (none, according to him) of winning the Daytona 500.
      The resulting publicity -- much greater, of course, about Michael Sam than Danica -- said to me, "This is just prejudice."
      And before I solve the world's problems, I'm thinking, what are my prejudices? Do I need to look at these things, and change my mind-set? 
      My blog advisor -- to put it one way (because she's also my roommate and my cook) -- suggested I look up the definition of prejudice before I began writing about it.
      So here is a three-fold definition I found online: (1) an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason; (2) any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable; (3) unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature, regarding a racial, religious, or national group.
      Michael Sam certainly fits in a group -- homesexuals -- against which there is a prejudice. Danica Patrick fits in a large group -- women -- and a very small group (women racecar drivers).
      Writing about them could be separate blog pieces, and I intend to write about Michael Sam and the NFL. And I must say that, given Danica's racing record, maybe Mr. Petty's feelings aren't preconceived. I'll let others debate that one; I don't know much or care much about NASCAR and auto racing.
      For now, I want to consider where I've been with my prejudices and where I'm going.  
      In August 1963, Dad and I went to Houston to see the second-year Colt .45s play on a typical steamy Sunday night at Colt Stadium, a makeshift, hurriedly built ballpark that was predecessor to the fabulous Astrodome about to be constructed next door.
      The Colt .45s, a terrible team (no other way to put it), were facing the Los Angeles Dodgers, who that season would win the World Series. My first major league game.
      The Dodgers had five black players in their lineup -- for the record, Maury Wills, Jim Gilliam, Tommy Davis, Willie Davis and John Roseboro. Houston had one -- Jimmy Wynn.
      Also for the record, I had never seen a black athlete playing baseball. The only black athletes I'd seen in person were the Harlem Globetrotters in a Shreveport appearance.
      I must admit: The sight of those black players warming up before the game caught my attention. But soon, I'd forgotten that.
Louis Van Thyn
      We were at the game with a married couple we'd known since our early days in Shreveport; they were friends of our family. Not long after we'd settled into our seats -- fairly good seats on the third-base side -- a black couple came and sat down next to us.
      Our friends got up and moved to open seats a few rows away.
      Dad, who'd faced a lot of prejudice in his life because of his religion and who worked with a dozen black men at the pipeyard, didn't like that. But we got up and went to sit with our friends.
      Just a few minutes later, another black couple -- this one with two small kids -- came to sit next to us. Our friends again got up and moved a few rows away.
      I thought we were going to move, too. But Dad said no, we're not going anywhere. And we watched the rest of the game from there; we even -- oh, wow -- talked to the black couple and kids.
      When the game ended, Dad and I said good-bye to the couple -- our friends; nothing was said about what had happened. We went to our hotel, and I'm not sure we ever saw that couple again. I am sure the experience stuck in my mind.
      As I've written before, my mother -- not long after we came to the U.S. in 1956 -- was appalled at the treatment of blacks in Shreveport and the South. But when you live in a society, you can't always change the things you don't agree with or don't like. 
      And maybe some of a kid's thinking is influenced. I admit, unfortunately, that I probably used the "n" word a few times ... until I learned better. I sure as heck didn't use it at my home.
      I think the only time I was in the same school as black kids was in my senior year at Louisiana Tech University, where there were only a couple (none in any of my classes). We had one black athlete in my time at Tech. 
      But I did see some Grambling College basketball games; with O.K. "Buddy" Davis, rode the Grambling team bus to Natchitoches twice for an historic NAIA playoff series with Northwestern State. I think Buddy and I were the only white people on that bus.
      When I began as a fulltime sportswriter the next year, and schools soon were integrated, it means much more exposure to black athletes, coaches and administrators. It meant a lot more lessons for me, too -- and not all were pleasant. 
      I've addressed this previously I can say that -- with Dad's lesson in mind -- I was always aware of the importance of trying to treat all people as equals.
      So prejudices ... you might understand how I feel about the neo-Nazis or skinheads and about the Ku Klux Klan, and I know I have plenty of company. Can't find a place for people with those kind of prejudices.               
       Hate to admit this, but I am uncomfortable with street beggars -- those who come up and ask for money or food. I do have empathy for the homeless, but I prefer to make my charitable contributions in my own way.
       With a Jewish background, it would be easy to be prejudiced against Arabs, Palestinians, etc., but my view has softened because these people deserve their rights and a place to live. Figuring out the Middle East solutions ... who can do that?
        I sense a lot of prejudice in my old country, Holland, against the many Muslims/Middle East people who have moved in there. Just as I feel there is prejudice here now against many Hispanics ... the same type prejudice the blacks once faced (and still do, to an extent).  
         But this country's prejudices go way back, if you think about what the white pioneers and the next few generations did to the native Indians.
         Personally, we -- Bea and I -- wondered about moving to Hawaii in 1980 and living among the many native Hawaiians and Orientals there. I worked with several people of Japanese-American heritage at the newspaper there, and it was fine. The people in sports at The Honolulu Advertiser were not only talented and dedicated, they became good friends ... and still are.
          Here's another personal prejudice I had years ago: women sportswriters. Never thought it could happen. Still doubtful when locker rooms were opened to them. 
          But was I wrong. There are many excellent, knowledgable women writers out there, and many who work well in -- and lead -- sports departments, and the problems have been minimal. They have my respect.
          My generation has had to grow with the growing world of homosexuality. It was a hushed issue, practically unspoken, when we were kids, and we made fun of it. Yes, I used the "q" word -- the word "gay" was still years away -- and when you were told that someone might have a partner of the same sex, it was unsettling.
         A personal story: When Bea and I began our relationship and then married, she had a young male friend who was gay. He helped Bea babysit Jason when Jay was just learning to walk. I met him a couple of times and I was terribly uncomfortable ... and terribly rude.
I finally demanded Bea to get him out of our lives.
         I am embarrassed to relate this story; it was an unfortunate prejudice.
         We now have friends in same-sex relationships; we have friends whose children are gay; over at least five newspapers where I worked, the workplace included dozens of gay people. It was rarely discussed, and almost never a problem. I say almost because one employee was fired after an inappropriate drunken incident.
         Point is: We have come a long way. We have a long way to go. In my next blog, I will write about my views of Michael Sam and the NFL.
         But if I'm sitting at a game, and a gay couple comes to sit next to me, I'm not moving.                

Friday, February 21, 2014

Beds and a band: Life in the camps

(17th in a series)
     One of the funny parts of my Dad's 1996 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation came when Renee Firestone -- originally from Czechoslovakia and with an accent herself -- asked Dad (Louis Van Thyn) to talk about "fixing the beds" in the concentration camps.
     But Dad misunderstood, in a couple of ways. He thought she was asking about a band and that she was asking about the satellite camp in Janina, where he spent the early part of his Holocaust experience. Actually, she was asking about the main camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau because she knew that -- indeed -- it did have a band.
      So his answer did not make much sense, at first.
The three-tiered wooden bunk beds at Auschwitz
(photo from Jewish Virtual Library)
      "No, we didn't have a band," he answered. "Christmas, 1943-44, my friend wrote a book in Holland. He was a [musical] conductor later on in Amsterdam, in 1945 and before the war, too. He was in Janina, and he goes back as a muselmanns [a prisoner thought to be on the verge of death] to Auschwitz. What happened with him is he saw some people he know, and he [was placed] in the band.
      "He was a speaker [about the Holocaust] later on in Holland," my Dad added, likening it to what my mother did in Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana for years. "... I saw him last summer [1995] when I was in Holland; he was already a sick man [and died shortly afterward].
      "He wrote a book [about his Holocaust experiences]; he was a trumpet player in Auschwitz; he was in the band."
        After all that, Ms. Firestone corrected Dad:  "I wasn't talking about a band. I was asking, in Janina, you said you had to fix beds. You had beds in there?"
         Now Dad understood.
         "Ya, we had bunk beds, three high," he replied.
          OK, so ... about the beds and the band (or orchestra).
          Dad's recollection of the housing situation at Auschwitz when he first arrived was that the prisoners were taken to a school. "There were only 200 people there, and there was a special room," he said, "and we were with eight men over there. Everyone had his own bed.
         "You know we were the prominent men in that time," he added, with a laugh. "Later on they [the Nazis] made some barracks and we were sent to the barracks."
         And in those barracks, three-tiered wooden bunks were placed, so it was three men for each bed ... unless the prisoner population was overcrowded, which it often was.
         Here is how the living conditions are described on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum web site:
         "Each day was a struggle for survival under unbearable conditions. Prisoners were housed in primitive barracks that had no windows and were not insulated from the heat or cold. There was no bathroom, only a bucket. Each barrack held about 36 wooden bunkbeds, and inmates were squeezed  in five or six across on the wooden plank. As many as 500 inmates lodged in a single barrack."
          Dad remembered that "we got one blanket and we got a mattress, a real thin mattress. And a pillow. But sometimes they [other prisoners] stole your pillow. You put your bread [the thin slice of brown bread prisoners were given each day] under there, and it was gone, if you no watch it. The best way was to eat it right away; then you know you got it."
          He also recalled that "my friend stole [some] blankets and [we] put them around the body for the night shift, and took them to the coal mines and sold them for bread and something else."
           A description from the Jewish Virtual Library:
           Dampness, leaky roofs, and the fouling of straw and straw mattresses by prisoners suffering from diarrhea made difficult living conditions worse. The barracks swarmed with various sorts of vermin and rats. A constant shortage of water for washing, and the lack of suitable sanitary facilities, aggravated the situation."
           Yet, Dad would say that there were times, after hard days of labor in the mines or in the main camp, that the prisoners could relax.
           "When we were off work, we could move freely in the camp," he said at one point in the testimony. He also noted that at times "we'd have 7-8 Dutch people coming together to talk on the steps of Block Nine, where Sanders [boxing champion Leen Sanders, mentioned in the previous two parts of this series] was a block leader."
           And there was also the band, or the orchestra.
           The Nazis, the camp leaders and the SS hierarchy had to keep themselves entertained -- I suppose -- and one way to do that was with a camp orchestra. And because many of the Jewish prisoners, and some of the non-Jews, had musical backgrounds, they were able to do this.

The orchestra at Auschwitz (from Jewish Virtual Library)
          This might have been an advantage for those prisoners, given that they needed time for practice and so, according to information from, they were placed in special labor groups -- they still had to do manual work in the camps -- and given some special privileges (if  "privilege" applies to the concentration camps).  
           Auschwitz was the largest of the concentration camps, but far from the only one with an orchestra, according to what I've read.
          Here is how the web site described it ...
          "The repertoire of prisoner bands throughout the Auschwitz camp complex included -- in addition to special camp compositions -- all forms of contemporary musical life: marches, songs, parlour music, light music, dance music, hit-tunes, film and operetta melodies, classical music, and excerpts from opera ...
          "Each respective program was determined above all by the interest of the camp authorities and the function allotted to each orchestra, as well as to the level of the orchestra, its personnel, and its rehearsal possibilities."
         So when Dad -- finally -- recalled the band at Auschwitz, he wasn't making it up.
         In fact, his first cousin, Joopie Scholte, who figured prominently in Dad's life in Antwerp, Belgium, just before World War II and very much afterward, was a musician and a band member.
         The Nazis had another form of entertainment at the camp: A whorehouse. But that's a story for the next chapter.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

You don't have to like what you read

       Before I posted the blog piece on Muhammad Ali on Saturday, I told my wife there would be some people who would not like it. Not at all.
       Easy prediction.
       On Saturday night, I received a message that began ... "please take me off of your mailing list if you are sending out something on Cassius Clay telling how great he was." It goes on to say he was a "draft dodger" and "the worst character image young people" could follow, not a hero and role model or a good American. And it ended with, "Sorry, but I can't help the way I feel about that man."
         Fine. I am OK with that. This is America, and we are all entitled to our opinion. If your opinion doesn't match mine, and you don't want to see mine anymore, so be it.
         I will not reveal who this person is -- that would not be right -- but it is a friend from 50 years ago, and I hope, a friend still.
         This is the fourth cancellation request/demand I've had through e-mail. One person didn't state a reason, one was a Louisiana Tech fan -- which I am, too -- offended at my being also an LSU fan.  Another didn't like me being with the "liberal media." (In my case, one has nothing to do with the other.)
         I make my blog available to some 750 people, through e-mail and Facebook and the web site tied in with Google. I have no idea how many people regularly read my blog pieces; I suspect a great number never even look. They might (or might not) wonder why they're on my mailing list or how they got there.
          Again, I'm OK with that. A lot of pieces -- about my family, or my Dad's Holocaust experiences, or about Shreveport, Woodlawn, Sunset Acres, or about Holland, or about sports topics -- are not for everyone.
          I do know this: When my blog pieces are "shared" on Facebook, several times on occasion, that's when I get the most readership. Best example was the recent eulogy I posted about Mr. J.W. "Bubba" Cook Jr., the longtime Woodlawn principal.
          The only other blog piece which got more readership, and more shares, was the one on Phil Robertson and Terry Bradshaw's two years together as quarterbacks at Louisiana Tech ... and how badly they played those seasons.
          It always feels nice, as a person or a journalist, to receive praise, and I've gotten enough. One friend -- we go back 50 years, as do many of the people on my mailing list -- told me he likes a lot of the blog pieces, "but some I don't agree with. ... But I then say, 'That's just Nico.' "
          Yes, it is. And I'm not apologizing. Nor am I seeking more praise.
          My intention with the blog was to write about my life, my family and my career, and every now and then, offer some opinions on what's going on, particularly in the sports world where I'm most familiar.
          And, of course, I have opinions -- always have had, something most people who know me from way back realize. I try to be non-controversial, particularly on social or political issues because I'm not trying to change anyone's mind.
          But on sports matters, I do offer "out there" opinions because -- old fartness setting in -- I'm not real happy with a lot of what goes on in the sports world these days.
          "You really got on your soapbox in your blog the other day," another old friend said to me a month ago.  I can't even remember which article they were referencing.
          As a sports columnist/writer, you learn early on that receiving criticism is part of the job ... if you're doing it right. Learning to deal with the criticism is part of it, too. Actually -- and this is going to surprise some old friends -- I felt I was not opinionated enough early in my career; I thought I skirted issues or didn't express myself clearly or sharply enough.
          Now that I have all these years of writing experience, and even more importantly, life experience, I think I have a better balance on how to express opinions and handle what they bring.
          There were, in fact, three people who responded to my piece on The Beatles two weeks ago who did not share the same admiration and love for them that I did. That came as a bit of a surprise to me, but I see their point.
           I read a lot of stories, and see a lot of posts on Facebook, that I don't agree with, or don't like. Sometimes I react and offer criticism, and then I wish I would have let it slide.
           This is why there are "delete" buttons on the computer or the "mute" button for TV. I have done some deleting on Facebook and I know I've been deleted. Again, that's fine.
           My wife and others encouraged me to start a blog; it wasn't something I wanted to do until I semi-retired from newspaper work. I didn't really envision what it would be like, but I've found that I enjoy it. Keeps my writing skills sharp a couple of times a week (other than the lengthy e-mails my wife so loves -- not), and hopefully, some people enjoy what I write.
           Some of these pieces come together fairly easily, as this one did; some of them I have to do some research and I have to work at writing.
           The series on my Dad's Holocaust experiences, I think, is a good story -- no matter what anyone thinks of the writing -- and I wanted to get it on record ... for my family, our kids and my sister Elsa's kids, and their kids. It's not a fun story, not a pretty one.  It is a cathartic one and I wish -- I have written this -- that I could ask my Dad more questions about it.
           Much of what I post online -- in blogs or on Facebook -- is self-indulgent; that's especially true of the Throwback Thursday photos. But many of those have been popular.
            What is important to remember, I think, is that everyone comes from a different perspective. Muhammad Ali (and at first Cassius Clay) is an example. He was speaking as a young black man who grew up in the South, and then as a converted Muslim, too, whose religion opposed war. How could we, as young white kids, identify with that?
            My perspective is as a European native and naturalized American (and I am proud of that) and as a person of the Jewish faith. So I don't have all the same views as many of my old friends. But I try to understand the Christian viewpoint, and accept that it is part of the world we live in. I need to keep an open mind and maintain a balance.
           I want to be satisfied with what I write on my blogs, and I was satisfied with what I wrote about Ali. The main point was that he was a role model for athletes who talk loud and long -- and can back it up. His politics and religion were up for debate 40-50 years, and I let go of it.          
          If you don't like something I write, aren't comfortable with it, remember it's just me. I suggest you move on, hit "delete" if you want. Maybe, hopefully, you will like what I write next time. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Talking or boxing ... always The Greatest

      Even now, 20-25 years after he went silent publicly, he is still the heavyweight champion of trash talking. In my opinion, the undisputed champion.
      In this age of boastful, self-promoting, showoff, see-me athletes, they all come in second to The Greatest ... of ALL time.
      He was Cassius Marcellus Clay when he first began telling the world how great he was. For the last 50 years, we've known him as Muhammad Ali.
      He made us laugh when he was young and such a braggart, such a popoff. He also teed off a lot of us with his loud mouth, his arrogance, his newly found Muslim faith (thus, the name change) and -- mostly -- when he refused to join the U.S. Army.
      He was the most polarizing athlete in my lifetime.
      Beloved by millions, known all over the world, arguably the most popular athlete on earth; only Pele, soccer's superhero, was in his class world-wide, I think.
      Despised by so many people: A black man raising hell in the early 1960s, calling out the white racists and then wanting no part of a war that many -- initially -- supported.
        And if you supported him, if you thought he was right, you might be called a "n----- lover."
        Look, I'm not here to debate the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Like many, I thought the U.S. government -- the President and Congress -- knew what they were doing. We thought we had to stop the Communist surge in that faraway place, in the rice paddies and the funny-sounding cities and villages.
         We all found out how duplicitous our elected officials and our military leaders could be, or at least how badly they miscalculated that war. But that's another story. This is about Ali.
          So he didn't want to join the military, basing it on his religious beliefs. Honestly, I wish he'd joined the Army; surely, they would have given him a ceremonial job and encouraged him to take a "feel-good" role.
           But he didn't choose that and he was willing to give up his heavyweight championship to follow his principles. So the boxing powers-that-be -- those patriots -- took away his title and refused to sanction his fights. And for three years, he was banned from boxing, forced to make his living doing speeches, mostly on college campuses.
           The shame of that was, from an athletic standpoint, is we missed him at his very best, when he was -- as he often told us -- "young and pretty" and practically untouchable in his fights.
            It wasn't his politics or his religious beliefs that interested me. Like my good friend Ken Liberto, who in our junior year in high school (fall 1963) started talking about "this Cassius Clay guy" as the young professional began winning every fight and also predicting the round in which he would win, we loved his pure athletic ability -- how damn good he was, and how much fun.
           The young Cassius, the young Ali and then the older one. Whether he was boxing or talking, he was always The Greatest.
           This piece came about after the televised rant by Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman moments after the NFC Championship Game last month when he disparaged an opposing receiver and the opposing team.
           That made Sherman the focus of the national media and the NFL-watching public for the next two weeks. His trash talk was the talk of the country.
           When I mentioned to my wife -- the non-football fan -- how outrageous Sherman was, how angry he sounded, she said, "And what about Ali?"
           Good point. Ali really started it all, didn't he?
           Well, actually he copied his act from a 1950s wrestler/self-promoter named Gorgeous George, whose bragging and platinum blond "good looks" -- ha! -- made the public laugh and pay attention to him.
           The young Cassius Clay was a smooth-looking, talkative kid and as he turned pro, he caught the media's attention -- and found fans -- by promoting himself, making up rhymes in predicting the round he would win in, belittling opponents ... and then backing it all up by winning every fight, often in the designated round.
           The boy could talk, and punch, and move. "The Louisville Lip" -- from Louisville, Ky. --  danced in the ring, and he was the fastest heavyweight anyone had ever seen -- with his quick hands and his feet, and his unconventional style (he didn't try to cover up; he simply slipped punches by moving his head and his feet).
           Can't forget: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."
           He beat some no-name chumps and one big name past his prime (Archie Moore). Few knew how good he was or could be. But because he talked and talked and maybe some people wanted to shut him up, he was matched up with the fearsome heavyweight champion, Charles "Sonny" Liston.
           Never before -- maybe never since -- has a challenger badgered the champ more than Clay did Liston. Called him "The Big Ugly Bear," invaded his camp several times, called him out at every opportunity, made up poems and rhymes and insults ... and, really, made Liston think he was crazy. And maybe he was crazy ... like a fox.
           Think Richard Sherman was loud and obnoxious? He was a mouse compared to the young Clay.
           And, of course, the fight in Miami Beach on Feb. 25, 1964, is history -- the absolute lesson Clay gave Liston, the pounding Sonny's face took, the "ointment" in his eyes that blinded Clay for almost a round, the absolute shock of the upset in the making, the over-the-top, dancing, screaming celebration by the new champ when Liston sat on his stool and didn't come out for the seventh round.         
           I listened to the fight on radio at my house. The next morning, when I got in the car for the ride to school, Liberto was so excited, yelling, "I told you! I told you!"
           Over the next few years, Ken re-enacted the fight ... like hundreds of times. He was Clay/Ali;  I was Liston. He'd dance and jab -- "movin' and stickin' -- and we always wound up laughing.
           We laughed, too, so often at Ali's interviews. He was so unpredictable, such a clown, you never knew what he'd say, how he would make fun of his opponent-to-be. One of my favorites was against a guy he only talked about fighting, basketball superstar Wilt Chamberlain, the 7-foot-1 mountain of a man.
           Chamberlain towering over Ali; they're talking about signing for a fight; they're both jabbering (Ali more than Wilt, of course); comparing the huge reach advantage Wilt would have over Ali (a big guy himself), and the perturbed Ali saying, " ... and cut that beard off because I'm not fighting billy-goats."
           Best of all, he could be a verbal match for the pompous, verbose, self-proclaimed best announcer in boxing, Howard Cosell.
           Those Ali-Cosell interviews, dozens of them, brought laugh after laugh. Anyone who could make fun of Howard (like Dandy Don Meredith also could) was good enough for us. Best of all, Ali repeatedly threatened to pull off Cosell's toupee.
           Here is a link to one of the classic interviews:
           But Cosell always -- always -- defended Ali's right to his religious views and criticized boxing's banishment from boxing. And he was one of the few media people to do so.
           When the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in Ali's favor, Cosell was vindicated. And years later, Cosell memorably told Ali, "You are exactly what you said you were."
           We liked the nicknames Ali made up for opponents -- Floyd Patterson was "The Rabbit," Ernie Terrell "The Octupus," George Chuvalo "The Washer Woman," Oscar Bonavena "The Beast," and, of course, the best of all (other than Liston) Joe Frazier "The Gorilla."
           Ali and Frazier -- three great fights, two of them classics. So many people were so happy when Frazier handed Ali his first pro loss -- and knocked him down in the 15th round -- in their title fight on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. Finally, Ali couldn't brag.
           It was, and I've written this before, the most anticipated and the most exciting sports event I remember.
           Ali found a way to brag about it anyway, about how Frazier ended up in the hospital in intensive care. And Ali kept talking, kept the public interested for every fight ... and he had one more big surprise for us -- like the first Liston fight -- when he knocked out another "awesome" heavyweight champ, the unbeaten and fearsome young George Foreman in 1974 and regain his title.
            "The Rumble in the Jungle" -- fought in far-off Zaire -- was when Ali invented the "rope-a-dope," standing against the ropes for several rounds and letting Foreman pound him ... and wear himself out, until Ali knocked him down and out. Liberto and I went to Monroe to watch that one on closed-circuit television -- it wasn't on in Shreveport -- and again were wildly and pleasantly surprised.
           A year later, we also saw the third Ali-Frazier fight -- "The Thrilla in Manila" -- and it was the greatest fight I've ever seen, two courageous, talented men slugging it out, both totally exhausted near the end. Frazier couldn't make it for the 15th round, but Ali admitted he had been ready to quit, too.
           Ali should have retired right there, but he kept fighting, losing and regained the title one more (two bouts with clumsy, spacy Leon Spinks). He fought twice more after that, both terrible losses in which he took beatings -- and he paid dearly for it.
           He paid for it with Parkinson's disease. It is difficult to see him now in his increasingly rare public appearances. You can see the tremors and the frozen facial expression. After some years, he could only mumble. Now he doesn't talk at all publicly; his sweet fourth wife, Lonnie, speaks for him.           
            And yet, when you do see him, he's still the center of attention. One of the great Olympic moments ever was Ali emerging from the shadows to -- shakily -- light the flame beginning the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. That was 18 years ago, and he was already much afflicted with Parkinson's.                      
           Was he the greatest boxer ever? Hard to say. Some would say Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano (who never lost a pro fight) or, pound for pound, Sugar Ray Robinson or the still-going Floyd Mayweather.
            But, for showmanship, for generating publicity, for making his fights an "event" and for multi-million dollar attractions, Ali had no equal.
            The Mouth That Roared is a distant memory, one for us older folks. The trash talkers of today -- and the kids who are their fans -- should know, though, about The Greatest. His talk wasn't cheap.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Food was always an issue

 (16th in a series)
      Many people who knew my parents knew this: They loved to eat.
      They loved to eat at home; they loved to eat out; their tastes were diverse. My mother loved to cook and -- yes, I'm biased about this -- she was good at it. My wife says "good" isn't a strong enough description ... "she was an excellent cook."
      We rarely lacked for good meals, and what my mother really loved was sweets -- especially pastries, the cookies and cakes she learned to make in Holland. Beatrice's opinion again: "She was a superior pastry chef."
       And here is my theory: When you go basically three years without much to eat and when what you are given to eat is basically crap, if you survive this ordeal, you appreciate whatever comes afterward.
       Three years away from home, most of it spent at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp or the satellite camps near it, left my parents -- like the millions of other Holocaust prisoners -- famished.
        I know I'm repeating myself here -- and I probably will write this several more times, but how did they survive, how did they deal with this, how did they find their way out, how did they rebuild their strength, and their lives?
        Watching my Dad's 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview, he repeatedly makes reference to food -- or the lack of it -- and how the prisoners bargained for it, traded for it, tried to keep their meager rations hidden, and how grateful they were when someone -- such as the Dutch boxing champion Leen Sanders who I wrote about it in the previous chapter of this series -- provided them with extra helpings.
      Dad (Louis Van Thyn) mentions some of the specifics -- the black bread, sausage and leftovers from the kitchen. My mother (Rose) always talked about the "soup" that was served. "They called it soup," she would say. "I called it mud."
      This is a description of the food from the web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Examples of the type food the Holocaust prisoners were
fed -- the brown bread, a pat of margarine, the "soup" or as
my mother called it, the "mud." (from
      "Inmates were always hungry. Food consisted of watery soup made with rotten vegetables and meat, a few ounces of bread, a bit of margarine, tea, or a bitter drink resembling coffee. Diarrhea was common. People weakened by dehydration and hunger fell easy victim to the contagious diseases that spread through the camp."
      More about that from a web site entitled, describing a present-day trip to Auschwitz and the food regimen there:
      "-- Breakfast included a coffee infusion, something insipid and bad.
       -- Lunch consisted of rotten vegetable soup that most said tasted like vomit.
       -- Dinner was a piece of bread (made mostly out of sawdust) and margarine or butter. Every now and then there was sausage made with the excretions of the prisoners, which is why they always had diarrhea."
      Just as he talked in awe of Leen Sanders, my Dad remembered a couple of others in the camp who did favors for the prisoners.
      In his Holocaust interview, Dad said, "There were two gentile butchers -- their name was Bateman, they were in Auschwitz, and after the war, I saw them again in Amsterdam -- and they did many people favors. We brought them socks from the tailor shop, we smuggled socks out, and we exchanged [for food].
      "There was one boy there, his name was Rabi -- and I know him later in Amsterdam -- and he had a job in Auschwitz feeding the pigs," he added. "And he took the food from the pigs; that was good food, and [gave] it to us."
      Pig food ... better than what the Nazis provided the prisoners? Hard to imagine. But when you're really hungry, slop will do.
      Leen Sanders, given special privileges as a noted boxing champion in Europe and made a block "elder," credited what he did -- regularly stealing food and goods from the Nazis right there in camp -- to being "an organizer." And Dad uses the same term in describing how the prisoners did what they could to survive.
      "We were off [work] at about 5 or 6 o'clock, and we'd go walking for an hour [when] I was still in the tailor shop [in the main Auschwitz camp]," he said. "One [person] helped the other one. You could not help everybody, and nobody could help you all the time. You had to organize many things, and we worked good together. That was one of the benefits I got in the camps."
      (Next: Everyday life in the camp)

Friday, February 7, 2014

"Ladies and gentlemen ... The Beatles!"

      I am so ready to watch The Beatles' first television appearance in America on Sunday night. Just like 50 years ago -- to the day, to the hour.
      The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show -- all over again.
       I've seen it hundreds of times -- on so many TV specials, on YouTube videos. It's exciting every time I watch it.
      CBS has a 90-minute special Sunday night it is calling The Beatles: The Night That Changed America -- A Grammy Special. I am sure you've seen it promoted a time or two the last couple of weeks.
      Starts at 7 p.m. (Central time) on Feb. 9, just as it did in 1964.
      What a night that was. I fell in love with those four "youngsters from Liverpool," as Ed Sullivan said in his intro, and I've never stopped loving them.
       Which puts me in select company -- with millions and millions of people.
       Here's my opinion: It was the second greatest moment/event in television history. The only one better, a little more than five years later -- July 20, 1969 -- was the night two men first stepped on the moon.
         John, Paul, George and Ringo. Gosh, I love writing that. So familiar to us all ... well, those of us who were kids/teenagers in the 1960s.
        A lot of us -- maybe most of us -- already loved rock and roll, but The Beatles took it out of sight. Suddenly, Elvis -- the king since his own early Sullivan appearances in 1956 -- had challengers for the No. 1 spot in the genre.
         Yes, The Beatles started a revolution ... to use the title of one of their songs from later in the decade.
         Their songs -- with such simple lyrics at first -- were so catchy, so fresh, so upbeat ... so different.
         Best I recall, we began hearing the songs on the radio -- I Want to Hold Your Hand, She Loves You and Please, Please Me at first in late 1963/early 1964.
          By that time, they were already giant stars in Germany and Great Britain. We had never even seen their pictures in the newspaper, but many of the kids at school were talking about the songs and then the word spread: They were coming to the U.S., they were going to be on the Sullivan show.
Here they were -- "these youngsters from Liverpool" and Mr. Sullivan
(Photo Express Newspapers/Getty Images ... taken from
           So there we were on that Sunday night, 73 million of us, watching. And I watched the YouTube video again this week so I could post Ed Sullivan's introduction ...
           "Now yesterday and today, our theater's been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles. Now tonight, you're gonna twice be entertained by them. Right now, and again in the second half of our show.
         "Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles! Let's bring them on."
         But you couldn't really here the "let's bring them on" part for the screaming of the girls in the audience.
          And there they were, with their mop tops -- that hair was SO long for those days -- and their mod suits, and their slightly goofy behavior. And, man, so many adults were just outraged.
           We loved it. We loved them. They were funny, with flippant wisecracks. Who knew how great their talent would prove to be, how much they would change, how serious they were about their music, how John and Paul would prove to be among the world's greatest songwriters.
            It is no accident that the first song they played, All My Loving, was maybe my favorite Beatles song forever.  Plus, I also loved the second one, Till There Was You, which Paul had explained in a Royal Variety Performance in Britain the year before was from The Music Man and "recorded by our favorite American group, Sophie Tucker."
           I could go on and on about that first Sullivan show and their appearances the next two weeks. But if you want more, here's a link:
           I know this: That Monday, The Beatles is about all anyone wanted to talk about at school.  
           For those seven years or so, we relished almost every new song/album they released. The silly A Hard Day's Night and Help! movies were classics, at least to us.
          Actually, I never saw A Hard Day's Night until many years later; I think the reviews were bad and I wasn't that interested. But Help! came out during our years at Louisiana Tech and Ken Liberto -- my great friend and perhaps a bigger Beatles fan than me -- said we should go see it in the theater in Ruston. So we did.
           Ken liked it so much, we went to see it again the next week. He had -- as I've written before -- his own lyrics to some of the songs.
            At home, we must've had seven Beatles albums -- my sister Elsa also loved them -- and the first one was Meet The Beatles (their second album released in the U.S.). But it got scratched up, and there's a story there.
            In high school, I didn't attend dances or plays or many school functions (other than athletics). But for a program at school one night, the cheerleaders needed a Beatles album. For some reason -- I think it was because a cheerleader was the girlfriend of one of our star athletes, Trey Prather, they asked if they could borrow my Meet The Beatles album.
            I must've told Trey about the album and he told Barbara, and so that's how Barbara and another cheerleader came to my house.
            But when they brought the record back the next day, a portion of it was badly scratched ... right on the song All My Loving. I never did tell them about that. So someone let Barbara know she owes me an intact Meet The Beatles album.
            In 50 years, this has never changed: Every time I've seen Paul or Ringo on television, or the clips with John and George -- both of them gone too soon; John gone way too soon -- I've stopped and watched. And I still get a thrill watching them perform or listening to them.
            About John's murder -- Dec. 8, 1980. We were living in Hawaii; I was working at The Honolulu Advertiser. After Lennon's death was announced and it became known that the shooter, Mark David Chapman, had been a Hawaii resident for the past couple of years, the newspaper staff went to work.
              By the next day, they practically had his life story and dozens of angles/stories from people who had known Chapman there. It was as fine a job of journalism as any publication I was associated with in my 40-plus years of newspapering.
               One of Paul's many tour stops in the past couple of decades was at American Airlines Center in Dallas a few years ago. We didn't make that one -- too many people, too high a price -- but we did attend one of the dozen Ringo All-Starr Band tour stops in Grand Prairie in 2006, tickets obtained through a KERA (public television) donation.
              Ringo was not only fabulous, but extremely generous with his touring partners.
               I first heard about this Sunday's show during the Grammys a couple of weeks ago when Paul and Ringo not only had front-row seats, but also performed individually and then -- great thrill again -- together near the end of the show.
               I was thinking during those Grammys of the kids of today ... did they know these guys? Do they really know how big The Beatles were? Do they know they are legends?
               I mean, I had never heard of Bruno Mars before that night and, damn, what about those guys wearing the space suits? Do you suppose that was really Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wearing those helmets?           
              Daft Punk? C'mon. (I had to look up the name, OK. I really wasn't paying that much attention once Paul and Ringo left the stage.)
               But I can tell you one kid -- well, she's not exactly a kid anymore -- who fell in love with The Beatles. Our Rachel became a Beatles expert in the mid-1990s when she was a teenager ... after watching The Beatles Anthology, a six-part series.
              Rachel is an expert on John Lennon. She knows the songs, she knows the history. I know that In My Life is one of her favorite tunes.
              Guarantee you, Rachel knows more about The Beatles than a lot of people, certainly more than her mother and dad.
               But we were there at the beginning. We saw that first Sullivan show. We were watching on the night that changed America. And now, it will seem just like Yesterday, we can see it again ... and enjoy it just as much as ever.
              Yeah, yeah, yeah ... YEAH.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

This marriage thing ... it's not that easy

The happy couple (most of the time) after 37 years of marriage
(photo taken last November; we look different than we did in 1977).
        It is our Monday morning routine and we are at one of our grocery-store stops when after one of my smart remarks, Beatrice says to me, "Shut up."
       One of the checkout guys is laughing. "Sounds like love to me," he says, and now I'm laughing, too. Bea, not so much at first. But a moment later, she too thinks it's funny.
        It is love; it really is. When you have been married for 37 years -- and today is that anniversary, thank you -- you have a lot of moments like this. Just shut up, and take it.
       Here is what I have found out over the years, a real surprise: Marriage is not easy. A relationship with a spouse is not easy. Relationships of any sort take work, but especially if you're living with this person.
        I am writing this with her approval. And she not only is helping me write part of it, she will be proofreading and editing. Let's be clear about who's in charge here.
        I always think of Coach James Farrar, the wise man who left us 16 months ago who used to say often, with a laugh: Any man who says he's the boss at his house will lie about a lot of other things, too..
        I'm just kidding. We actually take turns being the boss, making the decisions we need to make together. Except when Bea really has her mind made up.
        I would not trade, though. This has been the most fulfilling, the most exasperating, the most complete experience of my life. Would I do it again? With her, yes. But I know, after 37 years, I would do it a helluva lot better.
        We have survived this -- somehow -- because we have grown ... a lot. And I can say that I had a lot more growing to do than she did. After all, she had been married for 10 years already before Sunday, Feb. 6, 1977.
        I was so happy to bring her and Jason, a month short of 3, into my life, giving my parents a daughter-in-law and grandson just like that. And I filled a need for them. When Rachel came along two years later, we had a complete family.
        But, no matter how prepared I thought I was at age 29, I wasn't. There was so much to learn about being married, and it took me a long, long time to learn a lot of it.
        Wait, I'm still learning every day.
        But this marriage barely survived, mostly because of my stupidity. You don't need the details.
        Had we not left Shreveport-Bossier in 1988, it might not have survived. No offense to Shreveport-Bossier because I love the place, but we needed a change of scenery, a fresh start of sorts.
        We've had to have a few more restarts in other places, and we've had to leave jobs and friends and homes behind, but here we are in "senior citizens" territory, in a place we love (Fort Worth), with a regular routine, with plenty of interests and places to visit locally, with our kids grown and with their own spouses and kids.
        We're an hour from our son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons and a phone call and Facetime away from our daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter.
        Life is good, except for those days -- or hours or minutes -- when it's still a battle.
        Yeah, we still have our moments. There are times when we just don't agree, when words get heated, when tempers rise, when we're back in the old behavior.
        Can't deny it. I've learned a lot about marriage in 37 years; I haven't learned everything.
        But eventually we can calm down and talk it out, talk it through, reach a peace agreement.
        We continue to evolve; we continue to make changes.
        In the past five years, we have moved to an apartment and downsized, we've operated with only one car -- and bought a new one -- and we have shed a lot of possessions we no longer value as we once did.
        She's taught me so much, in so many areas -- about acceptance and tolerance, about balance, about giving. About books, the local museums, cooking (I'm still an amateur), clothes, cleaning, caring for kids and grandkids. She says I've taught her a lot, certainly about newspaper work; it was special when we both worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel. We've learned a lot together.
        We worry about each other's health; she is a colon cancer survivor of 12 years, thank God. When I was having blurred vision and stomach issues (as in, it was too big), we found out that a better/healthier diet could fix those problems.
        We have worked hard on eating healthier, dropping much of the guilty pleasures. And we each try to exercise regularly.
        We think alike on a lot of social/political issues, probably more liberal than many of our old friends. But we have our differences. For instance, she's an early riser; she goes to bed much earlier than I do. I'm a night person because I worked nights all those years. But I'm getting better at rising early.
        Still, she likes her space in early mornings. So do I. But we do try to start each day with a hug and a kiss. That's nice.
        I do like to take my walks through the neighborhoods; she prefers exercising in the apartment workout room.
        She's an eclectic reader, loves to watch PBS shows or the Science Channel or the Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Michio Kaku, Oprah Winfrey deep-thought shows. I tend to stick to sports or biographies or political books and shows.
        She's become completely anti-football; I am becoming anti-NFL but not yet ready to give up the college and high school games. She loves the NBA; I can root for the Mavericks, but don't care about the rest of the league. I still love baseball and one particular team; she doesn't care at all.
        (Oh, and I wouldn't trade her? Well, my team does need a solid third baseman right now.)
        We don't have, I believe, an "old" mind-set; we think the world today is so much better, more advanced than in "the good old days." OK, we were lost quite a bit watching the Grammys and we don't do reality shows ... unless Dancing With The Stars fits that category.
        But we're still willing to travel. The trip to Holland last year -- her idea originally -- was spectacular. We have some U.S. destinations on the wish list, including the annual fall trip to Knoxville, Tenn., and we have our local stops (Bass Hall, book-club meetings, the library, the occasional eating-out trip).
        Here's what you learn about marriage: You learn to share and sacrifice, and do what you can to keep that other person happy. And when that becomes difficult, you learn to find something to keep  yourself happy.
        Also, don't ever think this is easy. It still takes work every day.
        We're proud of each other, and we're proud that we've made it this far. It feels good; it feels like an achievement.
        I think we can make it another 37 ... minutes, maybe, if I survive the posting of this blog.
        Well, 37 hours, or 37 weeks, or 37 months. How's that? That's three more years; that would be 40 years. We'll check back then, and hopefully, Bea will be here to help write and proofread the blog on that one. And I'll just shut up.