Thursday, August 28, 2014

Opening-game memories -- Part II

          As I said in the previous blog piece, LSU has been a tough opening-game opponent for any football team, especially the 18 seasons leading up to this one. Tough, but not always intimidating.
          The 17-1 record in that time includes some shaky victories and a couple that I consider great ones.
          Hopefully, Wisconsin will be added to the list of opening-game victims Saturday night, but it's a toss-up game. This Tigers team appears to have plenty of talent, plenty of potential -- and plenty of questions because it is one of the youngest teams in Les Miles' 10 years as coach.
Tyrone Mathieu, the "Honey Badger," and the LSU Tigers went Duck hunting
at Cowboys Stadium to open an almost-perfect 2011 season (
          We'll see soon enough, won't we?
          There are many people who have much more expertise in LSU football history than I do; mostly, I've been a fan and follower from a distance, even in my 25 years of sportswriting in Louisiana. But I have my favorite opening-day LSU victories and my least-favorite opening-day losses.
          I had to do some research to find that the Tigers had lost five consecutive opening games -- 1991 (at Georgia), 1992-95 (all Texas A&M, two at home, two away) before this current streak of success began.
          Now, for my favorite openers ... start with three years ago, 2011, the 40-27 thumping of highly touted, high-scoring Oregon at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. That was the coming-out game for Tyrone Mathieu as a legitimate star, the "Honey Badger" campaign and the first of 13 victories in a row by a team that was equal to any LSU team in history.
          Yeah, it ended badly with that one-sided loss to Alabama, but those Tigers were as dominant or more so than any of the three national championship teams. Hey, it's my opinion.
          Two favorite openers were ties -- 6-6 with No. 1-ranked Nebraska at Tiger Stadium in 1976 and 21-21 at Florida in the first game of the Bill Arnsparger coaching era, a sensational game (if I remember right) by running back Dalton Hilliard against a team that won Florida's first SEC title (later vacated because of NCAA penalties).
          Another favorite: The first game of the Les Miles coaching era: 35-31 at Arizona State, played there because Hurricane Katrina made it impossible to play at Tiger Stadium. Remember how the Tigers were behind 17-7 after three quarters, rallied to take the lead on special-teams plays, fell behind again -- and then won on a long late drive and JaMarcus Russell's 39-yard TD pass to Early Doucet ... on a fourth-down scramble and heave.
          (What we didn't know then: It would be a trademark of Miles' teams ... flounder for a while, then somehow put it together, make pulsating comebacks, and -- in Les vernacular -- finish first.)
          Another personal favorite: Last year, 37-27 over TCU, against at Cowboys Stadium. We live close to TCU, but I'm not a Frogs' fan -- no fan of the head coach -- especially against LSU. The Tigers didn't even need their top running back (suspended).
          The Tigers have had some one-sided opening wins over the years against lesser opponents and some against "name" schools in which they built nice leads and then had to hold on -- such as at Washington in 2009 (31-23) and against North Carolina in Atlanta in 2010 (30-24). In those, they were about one play from disaster.
            But in my opinion, no LSU opening win was more fortunate than the last one of Nick Saban's coaching era (2004). The defending national champions, ranked No. 4, trailed Oregon State 9-0 at halftime at Tiger Stadium and were still down 15-7 with 1:38 remaining before driving for a TD and tying two-point PAT and forcing overtime. And they won 22-21 when Oregon State's kicker missed a PAT kick for the third time in the game.
            That was a night when Saban had a lot of Les Miles-type luck.
            I looked this up: From 1956 through 1971 -- 15 seasons -- LSU opened all but one season against either Rice (five times) or Texas A&M (9).
            The only exception was 1966, and that was a memorable night at Tiger Stadium: When Paul Dietzel, coach of LSU's 1958 national champs and great 1959 team who left abruptly -- and disgusted LSU fans -- after the 1961 season for the head coaching job at Army -- returned to Tiger Stadium to begin his coaching stint at South Carolina. He was supposed to be greeted by "The Big Boo," but it didn't happen and LSU was happy with its 28-12 win that night.
             In a 13-year period (1958-70), the only time LSU lost its openers were memorable for me.
  In 1961, the Tigers went to Rice and its 70,000-stadium was full that night. Dad and I made that trip to Houston to see friends and go to the game. LSU lost 16-3, its only loss of Dietzel's last season there; it won its last 10, ending with the Orange Bowl. I remember one of the Rice stars that night: fullback Roland Jackson, from Ruston.
              The reason I remember the 1970 opening loss to A&M was because it was so stunning. Most old-time LSU fans will remember it. The Aggies had minus 42 yards rushing, but LSU had six turnovers and here's the main reason we remember it: A&M won 20-18, on a 79-yard Hail Mary pass in the last minute, Lex James to Hugh McElroy. Unbelievable.
              (It wasn't quite as bad as Iowa's last-play, 56-yard touchdown pass to beat LSU 30-25 in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year's Day, 2005, in Saban's last game as LSU coach. But it was bad.)  
            In the previous blog, I wrote about some of Louisiana Tech's opening-game challenges and my memories of two openers while I was in school there. In researching Tech's football history, I came upon this gem: When it lost its 1973 opener at Eastern Michigan, 21-19, it was the only loss in a 38-game span. Amazing; the most successful Bulldogs era ever.
            That was the last two games in '71; a 12-0 season in 1972; 12 wins in a row after the loss at Eastern Michigan with the last one the NCAA Division II national championship; and then 11 more wins in 1974 before a loss in the second round of the national playoffs.
            What Keith Prince, the longtime Tech sports information director, remembered about that one loss was that Jerry Pope kicked what all the Tech people thought was the winning field goal in the last minute. Only the officials didn't think so.
              NFL openers are another week away, but a quick note about the Dallas Cowboys. We've learned that no matter how they do in their opener under Coach Jason Garrett, it's only the start of an 8-8 season (three in a row).
              Once upon a time, when The Man in The Hat coached the Cowboys, they won 17 opening games in a row and 21 out of 22 (only loss to the Steelers, 36-28, in 1982). You could count on Tom Landry's teams starting 1-0, just as you almost always could count on them making the playoffs.
              But that was then. Now the playoffs are only a hope, only something they talk about. But they have won five of their last seven openers ... after winning one of the previous seven.
              Let me know when they are worth watching ... or when you-know-who is no longer in charge. 
              For more than 50 years, I followed high school football -- first as a student, a manager/statistician and then in my sportswriting career. Covered many a season-opening game, and dealt with others on the sports desk as an editor. It was always a love. It was work, but a love.
               But I have a special memory of the first high school opening game I covered, in 1969, my first year as a fulltimer at The Shreveport Times: Minden at Bossier, Memorial Stadium in Bossier City.                           
               As happened with several other games I've mentioned, it rained -- significantly. And the visiting team, Minden, whose program had floundered for several years, pulled a muddy 6-0 upset of a Bossier team that the year before had come within one late Woodlawn TD pass of winning what would've been a surprising district championship.
               The Minden people, and coach Billy Roach, were elated. Bossier's coach was Milford Andrews, an excellent high school baseball and football coach but not -- from a media standpoint -- all that quotable. That night, Milford didn't have much to say at all. The rookie reporter, admittedly unsure of covering the first game of his career, had about as much success getting quotes as the coach's team did scoring.
                I don't have a copy of that game story, but I know it wasn't an effort I liked.
                Don't recall much about other openers I covered, but I do know the last two: In 2011 for The Dallas Morning News at Weatherford's beautiful new stadium ... the Kangeroos -- great nickname -- upset the visiting Haltom Buffalos (yes, that's spelled correctly) 28-20, and in 2012 for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at old Wilemon Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where Arlington Bowie outlasted Mansfield 59-43.
                 The wild, fast-paced game, with touchdowns coming rapidly, had me thinking that I was too old to keep pace with the statistics and play-by-play that you need to chart in covering high school football. It was -- there's a laugh here -- the beginning of the end of my career.
                Now I can just sit here and write about the opening week of football season -- and how much I've always loved it, no matter who won or lost. But I prefer that my teams win.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Opening-game jitters ... and memories

       The opening game of the football season -- and I'm talking mostly high school and college -- can be a scary experience for teams and fans. I learned that a long, long time ago.
       Even if you anticipate have a very good team, or a great team, they don't just hand you victories automatically. This is why they play the games.
       At the risk of jinxing the LSU Tigers, they have lost one season-opening game in the previous 18 seasons -- 26-8 at Virginia Tech in 2002.
       But talk about some close escapes, the Tigers have had a whole string of them through the years. We'll get to that in a moment.
       Saturday night's opener with Wisconsin in Houston figures to be another close one, especially if you look at the preseason Associated Press poll, with LSU ranked No. 13 and Wisconsin No. 14.
        My other college favorite, Louisiana Tech, frankly can only hope for a close game. There might not be a bigger underdog on the opening weekend than the Bulldogs, who will visit No. 4 Oklahoma. The Sooners and their fans think they can win the national championship, and why not after last season's Sugar Bowl domination of mighty Alabama.
       For Tech, this task is not an unusual one. Few schools nationally, if any, have played more challenging season openers over the past 15 years. Here's a partial list of the teams Tech has faced, just in openers: at Tennessee, at Nebraska twice, at No. 1 Florida State, Oklahoma State (in Shreveport), No. 2 Miami (in Shreveport), at No. 10 Florida and at Auburn.
        Challenging, agreed?
        Yes, most of those are "money" games -- Tech being given a tidy sum to play them, but that's the life of a mid-major program. Other opening-game opponents for the Bulldogs included Houston (twice), North Carolina State, SMU, Mississippi State, Southern Miss and even the historic first-ever meeting with Grambling (4 miles from Tech) in Shreveport in 2010.
         And sometimes it pays off in a victory -- against Oklahoma State (39-36) in 2002 -- or an impressive showing on national TV, a 30-23 loss at Nebraska in 1998 in which Shreveport's Troy Edwards put on a receiving show unequalled in Division I history at the time (21 catches, 405 yards) and led to his winning the Fred Biletnikoff Award as college football's top receiver and being a first-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
          Good memories (OK, I had to look up the facts). But I have a bunch of opening-game memories. So let's turn on the nostalgia machine.
          Remember these are my memories, so it's a lot of Woodlawn High and Louisiana Tech and LSU and the Dallas Cowboys, and from my journalism career. Bear with me.
This is not a quarterback pose, but this
guy was the winning QB in the first
 game of my high school days, but --
unfortunately -- not for my team. Three
years later he was a QB for my college's
team; I was the statistician.
         Here's where I learned not to take season openers for granted -- my sophomore year at Woodlawn (1962), my first game as a team manager. We played North Caddo at State Fair Stadium, and we should have won. We didn't.
          We were going to have a darned good team; many of the players were back from the year before when Woodlawn -- surprisingly, in its second year -- won the district championship ("The Team Named Desire"). North Caddo, meanwhile, had only a so-so program.
           But that late September night, it rained -- hard. And after we drove a long way for a touchdown on our first possession, we never scored again. We lost four fumbles, a botched punt try was blocked and rolled out of the end zone to give North Caddo a safety, and we completed three passes all night.
          On the first play of the second half, we fumbled the ball away at our 13-yard line. North Caddo soon scored the winning TD, on a 5-yard run by its quarterback, Phil Robertson. You might have heard of him.
           We would lose only one other game in a 9-2 season, a tough 10-0 game with arch-rival Byrd, which would go on to play in the state championship game. North Caddo had no business beating us.
            But that was a lesson for our team -- and for me. Do not assume victory.
            It wasn't much easier the next season opener, at North Caddo. But we worked hard for a 13-0 victory. The best quarterback in that game was not their guy, Mr. Robertson; it was our guy, Trey Prather. Trey was an All-State QB a year later; the future Duck Commander, no matter what you might read in his bio, was not ever All-State. But he was All-North Caddo.
            In my senior year, our opener against North Caddo was a 47-0 breeze; Gerald Burnett ran 70-something yards for a touchdown on our first play from scrimmage. But the next year, in Terry Bradshaw's first start as Woodlawn quarterback, the team won 59-0 at North Caddo. Woodlawn went on to the state championship game; North Caddo, I think, did not win a game.
            The best opener in Woodlawn's glorious football decade of the 1960s, though, was in 1968 against a big, strong LaGrange team in Lake Charles. LaGrange jumped ahead 21-6 in the middle of the second quarter. Then Joe Ferguson started hitting passes like he could do, and the 34-21 comeback victory was the first of a 14-0 state-championship season.
          Phil Robertson was one of the QBs in the first football game of my high school days, and he was one of the QBs in the first football game of my college days -- at Louisiana Tech, in September 1965.
           He played in that game, as a second-stringer to Billy Laird for our Tech team, which at that point was playing its most significant opener perhaps since Coach Joe Aillet's second and third years of his 26-year tenure at Tech, 1940 and 1941, when his teams opened at LSU.   
           The game at Rice had a "big time" feel in Rice's then-magnificent 70,000-seat stadium, which within a decade would be host for a Super Bowl. OK, so only an estimated 22,000 showed for our game with Rice, which had as legendary a coach (Jess Neely) as Coach Aillet was at Tech.
            Again, it rained, significantly, and while Tech was a decided underdog, our team played well. But we were a passing team, and the rain hurt us more than Rice. We lost 14-0, but felt we could've won in better conditions. Truth is, Rice had an awful season -- 2-8 -- and, funny thing, its only victory was against then-mighty Texas, two years removed from a national championship.
             One of Rice's touchdowns was due to a punt return by Chuck Latourette, who went on to play five years in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals.                  
             The game meant a lot to me -- my first as the Tech statistician/student sports information assistant.
              But the most memorable opener of my Tech days was in 1968, a trip I didn't make and a game I didn't see -- a 20-13 victory at Mississippi State when our junior quarterback was sensational, as he would be often in the next two seasons. Yes, Terry Bradshaw. And that victory felt big-time, too -- Tech's first against an SEC school since Coach Aillet's 1946 team had upset Ole Miss (whose QB was Rebels legend/future NFL star Charlie Conerly).
               (Next: My LSU opening-game memories)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Taking a job, and a tram ride, in Amsterdam

(31st in a series)
      I remember the uniform, especially the hat, and the whistle, and the coin dispenser. My Dad's tram conductor/driver uniform in Amsterdam.
      Dad (Louis Van Thyn) would remind me that when I was a pre-schooler in the late 1940s/early 1950s, I would play with that hat and the whistle and the coin dispenser, and I'd want to go with him when it was time to go to work.
Family portrait, late 1947, Amsterdam -- my father in his
 streetcar conductor's uniform.
      For a little more than nine years, late 1946  to late 1955, Dad's job was to guide people on the tram (streetcar) or to drive them. And he always felt blessed to have had the job. Just as he was  later in the United States, where he worked for one company for 29 years, he was content.
      Because when he and my mother returned from living in Antwerp, Belgium, before they married in October 1946, he needed to find a job. It hadn't worked out in Belgium; Mom had never lived anywhere outside of Amsterdam -- you don't call three years of being a Nazi work camp/concentration camp prisoner living -- and Dad had no idea of what to do, how to start their lives again.
      He knew he couldn't work inside; learning diamond cutting was no longer for him. He had to be outside; he had to be among people. He loved to talk; anyone who knew him fairly well in Shreveport-Bossier and the United States (and even those who didn't know him well) could sense that.
      One possibility, I suppose, would have been a job with the company in his old neighborhood, the one his mother and several family members had worked for in the late 1920s and 1930s -- De Vries van Buuren. According to the IAmsterdam web site: The 100-year-old firm, in the heart of the Jewish quarter, was a major textile wholesaler; it produced ready-made garments, such as the ones sewn by Dad's mother. By 1927, it was located in a complex of buildings near the Rembrandt House.
      It had a mainly Jewish staff in the pre-war days, and it was closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. But the war years wiped out much of the staff. By 1954, the company moved and it closed in 1983.
      And probably the company brought bad memories for Dad on his return to Amsterdam.
      So being a conductor on a tram route turned out just right. But it took a little good fortune. As a Holocaust survivor, maybe he was due that.
       "I was glad to get a job in Amsterdam," he said in his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview. "There was an ad in the paper in Amsterdam [looking] for some [tram] conductors, and you had to be 1 meter 70, and I was 1 meter 69. I know that.
      "And I come to that [company] office from [in] the city, and I stand on my toes, with my heels a little bit up. It worked. They put down 1 meter 70. [Then] I had to take a second examination somewhere else and I did the same thing (stood on his toes), and they saw that.
      "And [the man] says I cannot take you, you are 1 centimeter too short. I say, 'I need a job. I was so many years in the camps, I need to work, I got to make a living [his voice raising]. There's nothing else that I know.' And he let me go [through]."
      The job -- and the uniform -- was his. It was the start he needed, and soon enough, he and my mother received a big surprise. Late in 1946 or early 1947, unexpectedly they found out they would be parents. I was due in mid-August; I arrived in mid-June, a tiny baby bound for an incubator and not ready to come home until nearly two months later.
      In my first 8 1/2 years, in Amsterdam, we rode the tram often. We did not have a car; few people in The Netherlands did. My parents each had bikes, and I remember some long trips on the back of those bikes -- me riding behind Dad, my younger sister Elsa riding behind Mom. Other long trips we took by train.
      I remember going into downtown Amsterdam one evening near Christmas time; I remember all the lights -- red, green, yellow -- and how festive it looked. I remember going there another day for the arrival of St. Nicholas, riding his white horse in the parade, surrounded by his Zwarte Piet helpers.
      I remember another day -- this stuck in my mind -- that we were supposed to meet Dad and ride the tram he was driving (think he would've charged us?). But instead of stopping, the tram flew past us and Dad never even looked at us. The story was he had a medical emergency on board; he was rushing toward the nearest hospital.
      For a young boy, it felt like Dad had abandoned us. I don't know if Elsa remembers it, maybe she was too young. 
      I've gone back to The Netherlands three times since we came to the U.S.; the first two times with Dad. One of the great pleasures of those trips was to ride the trams again, and to watch Dad's great delight in doing so. I remember that a couple of times he would sit right behind the driver and talk to him about the days -- 35, 50 years before -- when he was the driver.
Jan and Lena DeVries -- my mother's
aunt and her second husband; they
lived two houses to our right.
      He still could remember the routes for each of the lines that he drove. And I can tell that line No. 17 from Centraal Station on the edge of downtown runs to our old neighborhood and a five-block walk to our old house at 131 Jan Hanzenstraat in the Old West part of Amsterdam.
      "We lived in Amsterdam in a house what still is there," Dad said in 1996. (It was still true when Bea and I took the tram to the neighborhood and the walk to the house a year ago.)
      "But it was a two-story house; you don't have too many two-story houses there," Dad added. "An uncle from Rose had a house and he married her aunt, and that house came empty, and you could not find a house [in that post-World War II era). That was a big, big shortage of houses in Holland. But he let us use that house. We moved from Antwerp to Amsterdam, and we got that house."
      The uncle was Philip Kopuit -- my grandmother's brother. He had died while in hiding with his wife and son (my mother's cousin) in South Holland during the war. His widow was my mother's aunt, Helena -- Tante Lena, as we called her. She remarried after the war, a tall, bald man with a wooden leg -- Jan DeVries (Oome Jan for us). They lived two houses to our right.
      "A two-story house," Dad repeated in the interview. "There was no bathroom; no bath -- you had to go to a bathhouse. Two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs. ... We find out when we left that the house had not a wall on the side. Next to the wall, it was just bricks. It was cold all the time in that house and the wallpaper was on the back side of the man's house next door. So old; that house was about 200 years old.
      "But we lived happy over there."
       I take his word for that. I do remember the house; it was tiny; it was crowded. It had a backyard, no bigger than the room I'm sitting in as I type this. And, yes, the house was cold. I can see the coal stacked up, ready to put into the furnace.
      (And on each of my trips back, I have gone to that old street, to that old house, to the beautiful big canal just down the way, to my first school three blocks away. I know the way there.)
      My mother hated that cold -- and in Holland, it was often cold. I don't know if she lived happy there. I know that by 1955, she was ready to leave -- not only that house; she was ready to leave the country.
      "I start as a conductor in Amsterdam and then later on I become a streetcar driver," Dad said of his job. "And a month before I left Holland, I decided I would try for bus driver. That was all one company, and that would've been a promotion. But I quit [to go to the United States]."
       What he did not know until more than a decade later was that he could have had a better position.
       "One of my superiors was a sea captain before he took a job as an inspector with the city," Dad said. "I was real close with that man; he was [a member] in the same union. When I in 1968 was back in Holland, he said, 'Louis, I go tell you a secret now. When you was ready to quit the streetcar company, you was ready for promotion to be an inspector.
       'But I was in America before the war,' " the man added. " 'I know what America was. I was not ready to stop you. I could've [tried] to keep you over here and told you you were ready for a promotion, but I not want to stop you.' "
       I'm sure that my Dad thanked him for that. I'm also sure that I'm grateful to that man. Because on Dec. 28, 1955, we took the boat to America. The streetcar uniform became only a memory.
       (Next: Dad, his first cousin and the estate)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Depression, suicide ... it's all just sad

       When we first moved to Fort Worth, to the TCU area, one of our neighbors was a single father with a teenage son. The boy was quiet, shy, reticent really; he rarely spoke -- even when I joined him and his dad throwing a football behind their apartment.
       He seemed troubled, I thought. A year later, after they'd moved, I knew for sure.
       The boy's photo appeared in the Star-Telegram obituary section one day. There was a brief story nearby -- the 13-year-old had shot himself.
       Counselors had been brought in to talk to the kids at the neighborhood middle school he attended.
       We were shocked, of course ... but not all that surprised.
       I know some people whose deaths were by suicide. An orthopedic surgeon/team doctor -- a very good athlete when he was younger and even in his mid-30s; a couple of terrific coaches and friends, one cancer-stricken, the other with an Alzheimer's-stricken wife, both in their 60s when they died by their own hand; a sports-desk copy editor I worked alongside, smart and upbeat.
My favorite Robin Williams appearance: The next-to-last
Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, May 21, 1992.
       Good people, all of them. I remember the shock of their deaths, and the surprise and sadness I felt.
       Sure, I could give you the names. Many of my friends know them. But the names aren't important here; the cause of their death -- and how we feel about it -- is.
       The news about Robin Williams and the subsequent stories about the circumstances of his death and of his mental and physical problems touched off a national conversation and renewed awareness of mental illness, long-term or short, or of someone not being able to cope with the circumstances.
       How many athletes and movie/television stars, and other prominent folks have gone that way, some of them recently? How many people do you know who took their own lives? And how did you feel about it?
        So here's my take on it; this is what we in Shreveport Journal sports in the mid-1980s used to call the "two cents factor" -- this is my two cents' worth.
         I am taken back and, frankly, bothered by the Facebook posts I've seen which refer to suicide as "cowardly" and "taking the easy way out." I felt that way a long time ago, and then when my friends took their own lives, I changed my thinking.
         I think it's too judgmental; we just can't read that person's mind; we can't walk in their shoes. Everyone has a choice about their own life, even the choice on how it ends.
          What I believe we need here is not criticism, but sympathy, understanding. The overwhelming sense I have about suicide is sadness -- for the person, for their families. Sometimes, when people are old and sick and their quality of life is practically nonexistent, suicide is merciful. (Yes, that's the case for permitted euthenasia.)
         And there is an exception: The cases when a person the world has judged to be criminal, end their own lives. That's merciful, too ... for the rest of us. That's my opinion.
         You might not agree. I've talked to a couple of friends who don't. I understand the critical viewpoint; I understand some of it is religious-based or one's view on social issues. Some people don't think it's fair for the families left to grieve.
          Here's what I can tell you: I've seen depression.
          I've seen it in the home I grew up in. It was never clinically diagnosed, but it was there. Certainly there were good reasons for it. But when you are young, and one of the two people you most depend on is -- at times -- out of control and, let's be honest, out of their right mind, you are affected. It is unsettling.
           And I've seen it in the mirror. When I was a much younger man, I felt it. I really didn't know where I was going, what was next in my life. Marriage and children supressed those feelings, but there were times when I made major mistakes in my life that I had those old thoughts of uncertainty and, yes, despair. Sometimes I was out of my right mind (why are my friends not surprised by this?).
             My wife had a couple of those times, too -- before and after our marriage -- and I have a close friend who went through a tough time years ago.
             So I think about my friends dealing with cancer or with Alzheimer's, or with other mental and physical problems, and I just empathize. Suffering is part of the human condition, and we all must judge how much suffering we can -- or must -- handle.
              I think about those friends I listed above, and how much they gave us -- in medicine, or coaching, or newspapers -- before they chose to end their lives. I think about Robin Williams and I'm grateful, I think we all are, about all the wonderful movies and TV shows he gave us, all the laughs, the serious acting by this seemingly always-on personality.
              How could you not be a Robin Williams fan? He was so quick, so smart, so wild, so crazy, so charitable, so funny. And, yes, so troubled -- but he owned up to that ... until this terrible ending.
              I think about that teenage boy who lived next door; that maybe he never got the help/treatment he needed or if he got the help, it just did not make a difference.
              Mostly, when I think about suicide, I think about what my mother always said about her father, my grandfather, a personable, self-educated man. If he had known, my mother insisted, what the Germans/Nazis were going to do to him and his family, he would have found a way to end his life and save the misery of what was to come.
               But he didn't know. He didn't have to make that final call; it was made for him.
               So I'm not going to judge anyone who deals with depression; it's their battle; I don't think they choose to be depressed. And if they decide suicide is the answer, it's their choice. It's not ours.
              The bottom line, as I've said, it's just sad.

Friday, August 15, 2014

When Rose met Louis: Starting a new family

This might be the first photo of Rose and Louis Van
Thyn together: Taken in Amsterdam's Vondelpark
late in 1945 -- a year before they married.
(30th in a series)
      They did not know each other before World War II, although they lived in the same neighborhood, only a few blocks apart. They knew of each other's families.
      They each lost every member of their immediate families; all died in the Nazi prison camps. They each lost their first spouse.
      Maybe the marriage of Rozette "Rose" Lopes-Dias-Lezer and Louis Van Thyn was one of need, one of convenience. Hard to say how deeply in love they were when they married in Amsterdam on Oct. 14, 1946 -- some 14 months after they met.
      But we know this for sure: For the next 62 years, they were bonded, they were a team.
      They became, among others, symbols of the Holocaust, at least to their friends in Shreveport-Bossier and to the many people who over a couple of decades heard their stories.
      I also know this: My sister Elsa and I owe our lives to them.
      My mother didn't even know she could have children after the Nazis' medical experiments on her and so  many other women in infamous Block Ten of Auschwitz. So I was a surprise; Elsa, not so much so.
      When they met after the war, after the Holocaust, after they each had survived the terror and the imprisonment of roughly 2 1/2 years in concentration camp (in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and also in my father's case, a couple of mining satellite camps), it was almost by chance.
      Almost, because Dad had come from Antwerp -- where he had lived since 1936 -- to see what Amsterdam looked like in August 1945. I'm not sure he was looking to date anyone, or for a new wife ... like my mother, he was at a loss, just looking to start his life again somehow.
      Like Dad, who from the time the Nazis deserted the camp where had been held spent four months traveling through eastern Europe before returning home, my mother had spent a few months working for the American Army in Germany before she came back to Amsterdam.
      I intend to tell her story when I finish this series on Dad, but in a 2006 speech she gave in Shreveport she described her living conditions as "a meager situation." She was among a group of women Holocaust survivors being provided for -- barely -- by an organization in Amsterdam.
      They met not long after she got back to town.
      They were, as Mom recalled, in a building "that used to be a place where people worked cutting and polishing diamonds. The machines, called 'mills,' were still there. They had put cots between them so we had a place to sleep. The women were in one room and across the hall was a room for the men -- all Jewish survivors."
         And along came Louis, who temporarily was living in his parents' apartment back in the old neighborhood.
          They met because of Appie and Jannie van de Kar, both survivors who were married before they were sent to Auschwitz and both old neighborhood friends of my parents. Dad had reunited with Appie in Amsterdam after the war; Jannie was my mother's constant companion in Auschwitz and her close friend afterward.
         In his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview, Dad was asked: "How did you meet your second wife?"
         "We were coming together, the girls from Block 10 in that house where Rose was in a diamond manufactory," Dad said. "They put cots down there. And that couple that live in Israel [Appie and Jannie], they had a little attic [in the building].
        "We came there on one Sunday afternoon all together met [with] 10, 15 people," Dad went on. " They were all single people; that [the van de Kars] was the only married couple. But many coupled up, and married later on.
         "And I met Rose, and I was still living in Antwerp. I date her a couple of times, and she decided to come to Antwerp. She smuggled her way to Antwerp; she had no passport to go to Antwerp. She stayed with us [his uncle and aunt]. She and another girlfriend -- she's still in Antwerp -- also from Block 10. So we stayed together and married later on."
          That's Dad's recollection. Here is my mother's, in the 2006 speech:
           "He [Dad] came to Amsterdam in July 1945 in the hope he would find some family. He came to the building where I was living with some friends. We started dating and had a good time together.
           "We also had a lot in common. He invited me to come to Antwerp where he was living. After a few weeks, I gave it a try. And I liked it. Louis had a lot of friends there and they all were so kind and helpful. We lived there for a few months and we went back to Amsterdam."
          That is not exactly how Elsa and I remember it being told over the years.
A 1995 photo taken by Scarlett Hendricks
and published in SB Magazine.
          Dad tried to go back to learn to become a diamond cutter, the original reason for his move to Antwerp. But he found the work tedious and uncomfortable; he found he could not handle the quiet and the confinement indoors. He had to try something else.
          And although Mom maintains she liked it in Antwerp, we always were told that she missed Amsterdam, what friends she had remained there. It had always been her home; Dad, on the other hand, had had many experiences outside that city.
           So Rose wanted to go back to Amsterdam. Believe me, what Rose wanted, Rose got -- and not much would change over the next 60 years.
           Dad took care of all the financial matters and most of the logistical matters throughout their whole marriage. But I think he would have told you that when my mother made up her mind about important matters and moves in their lives, that's the way it was going to be.
           And even though they spent the next nine years living in Amsterdam, life and marriage became routine, Dad got a steady job that he liked (more on that later), they built a group of friends -- many of them fellow survivors or those who escaped the Nazi horrors by being hidden -- my mother maintained she knew that someday she would leave The Netherlands for America.
           I really believe that if it had been his choice, Dad never would have left Holland. But he was willing to try, willing to give up most of what they had to make the big move late in 1955.
           It took some fortitude.
           Worked out pretty well, because they were courageous and -- no doubt about this -- they received a tremendous amount of help from people in Shreveport-Bossier.
           They persevered through the early days when they were homesick and when learning the new language was difficult and Dad could not find a job he liked and Mom had a little one at home who had to learn English on her own.
           "Life for us after the war was real good," Dad said in his Shoah Foundation interview. "We were blessed with two children; I had a good job, and made a nice living. We love our life."
           And if, starting in August 1945, Rose and Louis had to learn to like each other and then love and appreciate each other, and to live together, there was one commonality that resonated. At least that's how Dad saw it.
            "That I married a wife who was a survivor herself makes much difference," he said in 1996. "We can talk over things that many people not can talk over, and that makes it much better for us. We know some marriages where the wife or the man was not in the camps. They have a different lifestyle. We come from the same town, we come from the same neighborhood, that makes much difference for us."
              (Next: Life in Amsterdam, a new job)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is it nearly time for football? Already?

     I read somewhere that the college football season kicks off in two weeks. Really?
     Unlike most fans of the sport, I'm not ready. I'd rather wait until mid-September (read on for the reason). I know that sounds strange to those who know me, but I've enjoyed the off-season. Lot less stress.
     I promise I will be ready by 6 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 30, when Louisiana Tech starts the upset of the college season at Oklahoma. And the game I'll be most interested in kicks off two hours later in Houston.
      I'm kidding about not being ready, of course -- I've had it on the mental calendar for a few days/weeks. OK, for a few months ... like since last New Year's Day.
     Actually, there are Division II -- or whatever it's called these days -- games on Saturday, Aug. 23, and the following Wednesday. But you won't find the TV in this apartment tuned in to football until Texas A&M at South Carolina at 5 p.m. the next day.
     Yeah, that's right -- no NFL preseason here. No NFL anything, perhaps, all season ... unless the Cowboys go on a 16-game winning streak in the regular season. Somehow I don't see that happening.
     Point of all this is, football is starting earlier and earlier every year. At least that's the way it seems to these older eyes.
     Hey, I saw where the high school volleyball season began Monday in the Fort Worth-Dallas area. It's Aug. 11. It just doesn't seem right. Summer ends far too soon.
     The high school football season here begins the same weekend as the college football season. What fascinates me about Texas high school football is that teams that make it to the state championship games, in most classes, will play 16 games ... that's as many as most NFL teams play.  
     It's too much, in my opinion. Too much, too soon these days in the world of sports. Maybe in the world, period.
     Television and money rule big-time sports. That's why college football begins the last weekend of August and runs through the second week of January. Why the NFL starts playing preseason games the first week of August and the Super Bowl is on Feb. 1. Why there's a football game on almost every night.
      College basketball pushes up into early November and March Madness winds up as Championship April. The NBA season goes from mid-October (preseason games) until the end of June ... and my wife is ready for the Dallas Mavericks to start playing..
     Baseball goes from mid-February (spring training) to the end of October, at least for the World Series teams. For some teams' fans, the season might as well have ended at the end of July.
     Golf and tennis seasons are almost never ending; after the official events, there are unofficial, high-money-for-appearances events. Soccer season is almost year-round; the regular season has started in some European countries ... and didn't the World Cup just get finished?
     I know this won't change, and I must accept it. But this thought is straight from geezer-dom, I can remember the days when it was all so much simpler and, better yet, so much shorter.
     This hit me the other day when I was on my walk and it was 95 degrees in mid-morning and the high school football team in my area was on the practice field. It's too hot for those kids, I thought.
     Then I thought about August 15 because that was a big day for Louisiana high school football players back in the day. Yes, that was the day official practice began -- the two-a-day practices. There were no "conditioning" days then; it was full pads-for-practice from the start.
     And it was hot then, too. But perhaps kids of those days were more accustomed to it because we spent a lot of summer days outside, and we didn't have air conditioning in our homes -- oh, maybe a window unit or two, but not central air -- or our schools.
     Here's the other thought I had. Our teams didn't start practice until Aug. 15 -- and the college teams didn't start until a week or so after that -- because no games were played until the third week of September.
     And yet, even with an 11-game regular season (but no open dates), the state championship games were settled by the first or second week of December.
     College football, too, did not begin until well into September. I thought that was the case, but just to be sure, I did my 10 minutes of research for this blog. Until 1980, LSU never played a season opener before Sept. 11. Until 1979, Louisiana Tech never opened before Sept. 7. But starting in the mid-1980s -- with a few exceptions -- season openers were in the first week of September and they've remained there, now pushing into late August.
Heat or not, it will be full soon: LSU's Tiger Stadium, with the
 south end-zone expansion (top), has a new capacity: 102,321
(photo from LSU Football on Facebook)
     The Cowboys, and  the NFL, played no games before Sept. 12 until the 16-game schedule was adopted in 1978. Since then, the season openers have all been played before Sept. 14.
     And we all survived just fine. The New Year's Day college football bowls marked the end of the season. The Super Bowl was played in mid-January. No problem.
     Maybe it's because I'm older and can't take the heat, but it seems to me, it gets hotter and hotter every year -- at least here in the Deep South. So why in the heck are we playing football earlier and earlier?                               
     Sure, playing in air-conditioned, domed stadiums makes some games pleasurable. Night games outdoors are (barely) tolerable in late August/early September. Day games? If the fans are willing, more power to them. I'm not going there.
     It's all tough on the players. One reason schedules are expanded these days is because the size and speed of the athletes makes it -- it seems to me -- a more brutal, taxing game. So one or two built-in open dates in the schedules are probably necessary.
     Also, college football and the NFL are more popular than ever. They're still expanding college stadiums (hello, 100,000 seats at LSU's Tiger Stadium) and NFL stadiums are full, and while the ticket prices just keep rising (again, too much for me), there's no backlash ... yet. (Not even for the 8-8-every-year Cowboys.)
     So I can sit here and type that it's too much and I can long for the days of third-week-of-September opening weeks. But because I'm not a turn-back-the-clock guy -- the world today is what it is, and that's OK -- I better get ready to watch some football in a couple of weeks.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Finding the survivors

(29th in a series)
      Dad (Louis Van Thyn) wasn't one to wallow in his grief. In his life, he always seemed to bounce back and keep a positive outlook on the world. And after his world -- everyone's world -- was rocked by the Holocaust, he found a way to go on.
      As much as he missed his lost family -- and he always would -- I can just imagine his joy when, after returning home to Antwerp and later to Amsterdam, he found fellow survivors.
      He was asked about the remaining family as his return was discussed in his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview.
      The first person he mentioned was a woman, Sien Lisser. She was born Sien Van Thyn.
      "I got back a sister from my father; she was hidden by some gentile people, with her husband (Jacob)," he recalled. "They were hidden in a houseboat in the north of Holland. She lost a daughter (Lisbeth) 21 years old, and he and she nimmer [never] come over that. He died in 1965 and she died in 1972."
      That was the closest relative from his father's side of the family to survive, but there also was "my first cousin (Maurits Van Thyn), whose father Bennie was a brother of Dad's father, my grandfather."
      In 1996 at the time of the interview, Maurits was, Dad said, "living in Israel, in the same town [Nahariya] my friend (Appie van de Kar, mentioned in a previous chapter) lives. We were two times in Israel and we visit him. Maar [but] they have no children. [His wife] was in Block 10."

Jacques and Eef Furth, 1955: Both Holocaust
survivors, they married after World War II. They
were my parents' best friends in Amsterdam, and
my fill-in uncle and aunt in my first eight years.
      (Block 10 was the infamous Auschwitz medical experimental block where my mother also was imprisoned).
      There were two even more significant survivors he would find again soon after the war, both would be among the most important people in my father's life -- and my family's -- for the next 40-50 years.
      One was his sister-in-law from his first marriage to Estella Halverstad -- Eva. I have written about her previously: This was my and my sister Elsa's adopted aunt  in Amsterdam -- Tante Eef.
      She also was a diamond cutter and an Auschwitz survivor, and after the war would marry another survivor, a gentle man named Jacques Furth, yet another diamond cutter who would be Dad's closest friend in The Netherlands for the rest of their lives.
      The other I mentioned in the previous chapter: Joseph "Joopie" Scholte. He was one of the two sons, and the only survivor from his family; his mother and my father's mother were sisters (maiden names: Lena and Sara Van Beem).
      "From my mother's side, I got a cousin," Dad said in the interview. "He was in the same camps (Auschwitz and then Jawisowitz) that I was, and he stayed in Jawisowitz and did the 'Death March,' and he came back."
      (As noted before, Dad was in the camp hospital and remained there while most of the men in the camp were either killed, died on the Death March, or like Joopie -- fortunately -- survived."
      But as Dad then added about his cousin, "And his wife not come back. He remarried a French girl, she died, and he's living in Nice, France."
      That's condensing a story which I will tell later. Joopie had his sorrow, too -- the loss of his parents and his first wife and their infant daughter in the Holocaust, and when he remarried, he and the French girl never had children.
      Sum of the story coming later: Joopie, a diamond cutter who retired to live on the French Riviera, made Dad the heir of his finances and his possessions. Theirs was a friendship and a connection to remember.
      In his interview, Dad also said that "We find some second cousins later on in Holland, and I find one in Brussels. I was in Brussels, and he knows me real well -- he was a diamond cutter in Antwerp -- and he say, 'You going met [with] me to home; you got nobody, you're going to my home.'
      "I was living in Amsterdam and he was married to a gentile girl, and I knew her, too, and they took me in in Amsterdam for a month. And that's when I met Rose."
      Later, "I find out that they come to the United States. We were [on vacation] in Los Angeles, we were at the farmers' market, and there was a second cousin of mine living there. We find that out  [from] one of Rose's girlfriends from [Auschwitz] Block DD. They say, 'We have a visitor tonight,' and she called her name. She got her husband's name -- he was a German -- and she comes in and says, 'You are a cousin of mine.' And my wife says, 'You was in school with me, in the same trade school.' "
      Then he added that they had spoken to the couple by phone the previous week "and they're both sick." (This was in 1996, remember.)
      And then we found Uncle Alex.
      "We were in Amsterdam, and we had a second cousin from my father over there," Dad remembered. "My father had three second cousins still in Holland; I find that later on. And we visit him sometimes, and we were in Holland -- we were already [living] in the United States about 10 years -- and he says, 'You miss your cousin from New York.' And I say, 'We no have no relatives in the United States.' He say, 'Yeah, your father had a cousin that lived in New York.' And he gave us his name and address in New York."
      Dad remembered that when Elsa was a student at LSU (early 1970s), "She looked in every telephone book in the United States, and she found the name 'Van Thyn' in New York, but we never wrote. And that was that cousin."
       Alex Van Thyn, who was in his upper 70s when we met him in 1976, was a cousin of my Dad's father.
       "And Rose sent him a letter, and three days later, he was here [in Shreveport]," Dad said. "He wants to see us. He was a diamond cutter, and he left before the first war [World War I] to the United States. He came here [Shreveport], and then six months later my son (me) married, and he came back for the wedding."
       So for a couple of years, he was Uncle Alex to us -- and Bea and our little Jason.
       Then, as Dad said, completing the story, "he died. But he had two daughters living in Long Island, and we still come together. And he had a sister, that cousin of my father, and we still come with their children; one lives in Florida and one lives between Philadelphia and New York. We visit him, too."
       As I've written previously in this series, family meant so much to Dad. He lost most of two families in World War II, but he took a lot of joy in his "new" family. 
       "So we find some relatives again," he told the interviewer. "We find some second cousins; they were all married. And -- what is a good thing -- all the three cousins of my father, or four -- three in Holland and the one over here -- died over 80 years old. One died six weeks ago, and we got a letter, he was 94. He was the last one of that generation."
       Yes, finding all those cousins was important. But the most important person he found just after World War II was the little woman named Rose.
       (Next: Rose and Louis: starting a new family)            

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A gathering of my old friends

Two sportswriters and longtime friends: O.K. "Buddy" Davis
(right) is a Hall of Famer; the guy on the left is a blogger.
     I touched my past but managed to stay in the present Friday and Saturday in Shreveport. Good combination.
       It was a pleasure to see so many familiar faces and at least say hello at the Ark-La-Tex Sports Museum Hall of Fame induction reception Saturday evening at the Shreveport Convention Center.
      As I indicated in a couple of Facebook posts and e-mails last week, I had ties to each of the six people honored -- lots of respect and admiration for all of them, and a couple (sportswriting pal O.K. "Buddy" Davis and Coach A.L. Williams) have been close friends for 50 years or more.
       But I did not stay for the banquet. I am off the reunion/banquet circuit ... for now. Did enough banquets to last me for years and years, and turned down several  reunion invitations last year.
        OK, some I'm fudging a bit here because going to the reception Saturday was like a reunion. I saw many people I had not seen in years and at times it's tough. As a friend noted, "I had a hard time putting names on faces that I knew."
         I agree.
         Still, I did not have the need to hear three hours-plus of speeches. I know the introductions and speeches were good, and I was told they were good, but I knew a great deal about each of the inductees -- and agree totally that they were deserving of the honor.
         Bea and I had more of a need to take the 3 1/2-hour drive home to Fort Worth, and I'm sure we were  home before many of the people who went to the banquet did.
         Since my parents died -- in 2008 and 2010 -- we don't get to Shreveport-Bossier all that often anymore. We come in for Holocaust-related events and mostly for funerals, when we see some of the people we know, but it's not a pleasant occasion.
          The Hall of Fame reception was not the top priority on this trip, visiting with a few people important to us was -- Bea's youngest sister and her family, a couple of ailing friends (saw one, called one) and the sweet woman who was our longtime neighbor and my mother's best friend for 51 years, 87-year-old Lou Gwin. She's hanging in there, and we had a wonderful visit. She spoiled us, as usual, with homemade pound cake.
           Plus, we attended the Friday night service at B'nai Zion Temple, where we received a  surprising honor (thanks to Rabbi Jana), and I sat next to my closest Jewish buddy from boyhood, Ben Sour Jr. Then we went to Ben's house to meet his family and enjoyed a sensational meal and visit.
           (Ben, the SMU/Oakland A's/Los Angeles Kings fan, remembered that we became friends because we both wanted to be sportswriters. I made it; he went on to a more successful career.)
           But the timing of our trip did tie in nicely with the Hall of Fame induction.
           While Bea went to visit her sister, I spent most of two hours at the Shreveport Convention Center, a fairly new building I don't think I'd ever seen. It was built long after we left Shreveport in 1988, and I don't recall even driving through that north part of downtown since then.
           The people who run the Ark-La-Tex Sports Museum have done a nice job with the exhibits. I understand that this is a new location for the museum, which was dormant for six years.
           This was -- one reason for my attendance -- a largely Woodlawn/Louisiana Tech crowd because of the background of these inductees. So these were some of my favorite people and longtime friends.
           The crowd touched every phase of my life in Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana: Kids from Sunset Acres days; my junior high principal's widow, son and grandson; high school coaches, teachers and friends; Tech football, basketball and baseball players from my era, before and after; players from other schools; guys whose games I covered and wrote about early in my career; media co-workers and friends; highly successful coaches; many of this Hall of Fame's past inductees; and area sports legends.
           Then the Woodlawn football connection: Best I could count, 17 former players. They were there to proudly witness Coach Williams' second Hall of Fame entry in the past seven months.
           One scene that Woodlawn people will love: Billy Laird and Joe Ferguson kidding and laughing with each other -- two of the five great Knights quarterbacks of the 1960s, both with long, brilliant careers in football and coaching.

Ralph Garr, left, and his presenter,
Joey Cannatella, a kid from Sunset Acres.
           A personal highlight: the presence of two Sunset Acres guys.           One was Ross Oglesby, the big/fast kid who lived just down the street from us and became an All-State running back -- "Ross The Hoss" -- and state champion hurdler. He's  now, well, a few pounds over his playing weight, but the same lovable Ross. Seeing him, as I've done over the years, was not a surprise.
            The other was a thin, small guy in a suit, wearing an Atlanta Braves hat and talking to Ralph Garr and his fans. Dang, that looks like Joey Cannatella, I thought, but I didn't get a chance to go over and talk. Joey was one of those friendly little kids in the neighborhood, often hanging around while the older kids -- yes, I was one -- played games on the schoolground. 
             Reading the story in Sunday's Shreveport Times, it indeed was Joey, now a Shreveport attorney -- and he did the introductory speech for "Alligator" Garr. Little Joey.
            Another beautiful moment: John McConathy with his arms around 91-year-old Clem Henderson, whispering in his ear, sharing a thought. Two coaching giants of Shreveport-Bossier high school basketball in the late 1950s/early 1960s, two longtime school administrators after that. Two state championship coaches -- McConathy at Bossier in 1960, Coach Clem at Fair Park in 1963.
              Two tough competitors whose teams had many great battles. It would have been complete if Scotty Robertson had been there. His Byrd teams beat Bossier and Fair Park often. Scotty left us three years ago this month.
              McConathy, the former NBA player now silver-haired but still stately. Henderson, ailing but standing tough, his handshake grip ever strong, the ex-Marine with the rock-hard body and attitude, a Fair Park staple/leader for three decades. These men worthy of respect.
             One of the first people I saw Saturday night was Buddy Davis. I had visited him three times in Ruston since his stroke last summer, and -- as always -- we had a great time together Saturday. There's the usual good-natured ribbing and the mutual memories; Buddy's sports knowledge is as broad and deep and sharp as anyone I know.
              We looked at some of the Hall of Fame exhibits, Buddy wheeling around and pointing out some of our favorites.
              Any time I spend with Buddy is good time.
              A couple of weeks ago, on his birthday, we traded several e-mails ... as we do often. And Buddy -- the sweet-natured great friend of everyone -- wrote that it's not the games and the memories, not the thousand bylines, that count most in a career. It's the people we know, the friendships we've made ... and that have carried on over all these years. Those are irreplaceable.
              I agree totally, and it always comes through most on visits to Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana. It's not where Bea and I live anymore -- and it won't be -- but it's always really home in my heart.