When the NBA Finals started, I didn’t know which team I’d be rooting for.
“I’ll find out while I’m watching the games,” I told daughter Jodie, a star basketball player in her youth. “You know I love Curry and Klay Thompson – and Steve Kerr – and have rooted for them since they got together.”
But then there was the hometown thing. “We’ll see,” I said.
What I discovered as I watched nearly every minute of the first four games was that I wasn’t rooting for either team – just reflexively throwing a fist in the air when I saw a great play.
Then came Game 5 – and the revulsion I felt when Toronto fans cheered Kevin Durant crumpling to the court.
“That’s classless,” the Warriors’ Draymond Green said later.
Clueless is more like it.
These are not basketball fans – a year ago, they wouldn’t have known Kawhi Leonard from Elmore Leonard. – or even sports fans.
They’re not cheering for the players– they’re cheering for themselves.
Look at me!
I’m on the bandwagon!
I’m a winner too.
The Raptors, christened to capitalize on a craze – the dino-mania that accompanied the success of the movie Jurassic Park–are now a craze.
Everybody’s talking about them. Canadian media going nuts.
It’s Game of Thrones, a royal wedding, the latest viral cat video.
Maybe the spectators who shelled out $120,000 for a pair of courtside seats Monday night in Toronto got what they paid for.
Hey, there’s Drake!
And there’s the guy in the turban waving a towel under the basket!
That Golden State guy – whatshisname – is hurt! Alright!
They wouldn’t know Bill Russell from Bertrand Russell.
And then there are the thousands in the square outside the arena, in a place also named for the Spielberg movie.
If there were humans in the Jurassic Period, this is what they would look like. Huddled in a confined space. In the cold. Screaming like maniacs.
Hate to tell you folks, this ain’t Woodstock. You can watch the show on an indoor TV.
They wouldn’t know Wilt Chamberlain from Neville Chamberlain.
Never mind. This is a hockey country. That’s what I’ve been told for the forty-plus years I’ve lived here.
In the mid-’70s, when assigned occasionally to cover the Canadiens at the Forum or the Leafs at the Gardens, I had no reason to doubt the fans in the stands knew their sport.
It was a different story when the crowds showed up at Exhibition Stadium and later the SkyDome after the Blue Jays arrived in Toronto. (Forty years later, the team’s TV broadcasters – Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler – are still calling games as if no one watching knows anything about baseball.)
After I spent one season in the pressbox, in 1978, I joined a friend, Alison Gordon, for a game in her season-ticket seats at the ballpark.
She introduced me to a seatmate and said, “Ken’s dog is named Yaz.”
“What?” the woman replied.
“Yaz – after Carl Yastrzemski,” Alison said.
On Monday night, sitting on my couch in the suburbs, I echoed Durant’s exclamation of “fuck!” as he limped off the court – and added a “you” for the Toronto fans who had cheered.
They wouldn’t know Oscar Robertson from Pat Robertson;Jerry West from Adam West; Karl Malone from Bugsy Malone; Paul George from Chief Dan George; Chris Paul from Rand Paul; James Harden from John Wesley Hardin; Kyrie Irving from Washington Irving; Anthony Davis from Jefferson Davis, Blake Griffin from Merv Griffin.
I really don’t care who wins the NBA championship.
But, thanks Raptors fans, I’ll be rooting for the Warriors.
I had a non-essential organ removed as a child, which classified me 4-F (ineligible for service during the Vietnam War). “It’s a family tradition,” I said. “My dad had a bleeding ulcer that kept him out of World War Two.”
* * *
On my parents visiting when I lived in Vancouver in the early 1970s:
I took them to Victoria, where they stayed at the Empress, and drove them across Vancouver Island. We stopped at a light in the pulp-and-paper-mill town of Port Alberni, the smog so thick you couldn’t see across the street, so stinky you wanted to gag.
“I know,” I said, “disgusting.”
“To the people here, it smells like money,” said my dad, a vice president of sales for Saxon Paper Company in New York, far from the mills that produced his product.
“No,” I snapped. “To them, it should smell like cancer.”
We didn’t talk much after that.
* * *
On a rapprochement in Montreal in the mid-’70s:
My dad and I did not always get along. When he managed our little league baseball team, he was hardest on his son. Through my teenage years, he became more and more competitive, asserting his status as the alpha male in the house.
My parents were very different people. My mother read books and was a devotee of the Broadway musical theater … Dad was a working stiff who liked to play softball during the summer months and poker with his cronies year-round.
(Years) after I left home, I tried to improve our relationship. I invited him to Montreal, when I was working there, for a father and son weekend. Took him to an Expos game. Took him out to dinner at a Spanish restaurant down the street from my apartment, where I was a regular and got the VIP treatment. Took him to the press club in the Mount Royal and introduced him to my colleagues. He didn’t drink much. Jews aren’t boozers. But he seemed to accept his son as the exception.
* * *
For most of my adult life, we lived hundreds of miles apart. We occasionally talked on the phone, and saw each other maybe once a year.
The last time dad and I spoke was during a visit with my parents at their home in Lake Worth, Florida. Linda and I and our daughters, Jodie and Lacey, stopped for a couple of days en route to our annual vacation on Sanibel Island in March 1995:
We all went to play miniature golf. Again, dad wasn’t up to it. He walked along, shaking badly (from Parkinson’s), sat on a bench while we putted.
On one hole, I backhanded a short putt and it spun out of the cup. I laughed and picked up the ball. Jodie, keeping score, asked, “How many, dad?”
… We left, as planned, after mini-golf, headed west, leaving behind the ugly side of the Sunshine State.
* * *
A few days later, my mother called around 5 a.m. to say dad had had a massive stroke.
Linda and I and the kids left before dawn. I retraced our route across the state. Just after the sun came up, I spotted a caracara picking at some road kill. I’d never seen one before. I’d have to make a note of it – Near Clewiston, Fla. – beside its drawing in my National Geographic field guide.
We went straight to my parents’ house and got the story. My mother – by then, I called her Dot – and dad had been out with friends the previous evening. They’d stopped at a frozen yogurt shop. Dad bit into his cone and immediately remarked that the chill went straight to his head. An ice cream headache.
But it wasn’t that. A few seconds later, he collapsed. An ambulance came. Took him to JFK hospital in West Palm Beach …
I took Dot back to the hospital. Dad was in the intensive care unit, hooked up to machines … basically brain dead, a ventilator keeping him breathing.
Dot and I talked to his doctors. We decided to keep dad breathing (until my sister and her family and my daughter Kate arrived).
When the family was all there, we agreed to have dad taken off the ventilator. He was moved from the ICU to a private room on the same floor.
… (I was alone with dad) … standing next to the bed when suddenly his eyes shot open. He stopped breathing. With the index and middle fingers of my right hand, I closed his eyes, as I’d seendone in movies.
I summoned a nurse who confirmed my pronouncement …
Dad died on March 15, the Ides of March. The funeral would be two days later, on St. Patrick’s Day, to allow people time to arrive from out of town …
The chapel at Menorah cemetery looked like everything else in the endless suburban sprawl of South Florida – modern and soulless. The room would require no alteration to host a seminar on time-share condos after we and the casket cleared out.
There was a nice turnout, as is said, for the early afternoon service …
Before the service began, before the casket came out, I folded a baseball into his left – pitching – hand. I considered adding a videotape I had sent him – of his Mets beating my Red Sox in the 1986 World Series – but there was no room in the box for a VCR …
I read an excerpt from Red and Me, my story of his baseball career. I got through it, overcame my dread of speaking in public. Jodie and Lacey stood with me at the podium for support.
Having not packed for a funeral, I wore a ratty denim shirt and jeans to address the properly attired crowd …
Kate gave her best shot at a eulogy but broke down crying. I rescued her from the podium.I didn’t cry. I never cry.
Afterwards, we moved outside where a forklift raised my dad’s casket to his vault in a wall, joining all the other Jews who retired to Florida and wound up in an enormous filing cabinet.
We all went back to what was now Dot’s house. The traditional post-funeral feast was catered by one of the Jewish delis that sprung up throughout southeastern Florida to capitalize on the great migration from the cities of the Northeast …
Driving back to Sanibel the next day, I replayed my dad’s death and funeral in my mind and tucked it away in my memory. Research …
Watching the PGA championship from the favorite golf course of my youth, I think about the dead guy I encountered in the trees on the sixth hole and the family mutt buried off the 15th fairway.
In the early 1960s, during my high school years, I lived in Plainview, Long Island, about five miles from Bethpage State Park and its five courses: Red, Blue, Green, Yellow and Black.
I started playing Bethpage as a teenager and returned often in later years during visits to New York.
I retain vivid memories of the Black, especially the opening holes, with the cavernous bunker across the fairway on No. 4.
Which brings me to the snack bar – breakfast hotdogs – off the sixth tee and the shot I hooked into the trees on a steamy Fourth of July.
Looking for my ball, I saw an old guy sitting with his back against a tree trunk. He was obviously another golfer, wearing the requisite duds and spiked shoes.
I figured he was taking a break from the heat and fell asleep. Didn’t want to disturb him. Found my ball and played on.
When my foursome was on the 14th hole, we heard the ambulance sirens. After the round, in the clubhouse bar, we got the news that a golfer had been found dead on the front nine.
Over beers, I told my golf buddies about the gent in the woods, which, in short order, brought up the old joke about the guy whose golf partner drops dead on the second hole.
“What did you do?” he’s asked.
“Oh, it was awful,” he says. “For the next 16 holes, it was hit the ball, drag Harry.”
During another round on the Black, walking off the 15th tee with my dad, I pointed toward the road on our right and asked: “Didn’t you bury Buff around here?”
When I was a kid, all the family pets – first parakeets, then the dog – were named Buff, after a beautiful collie we met during a vacation trip to New England.
I never cared much for our dog. He was spoiled and disobedient – you’d tell him to come and he’d run away.
I was long gone from my parents’ home – they had moved to an apartment in Queens – when Buff died, so I’ve had to rely on family lore.
The way I heard it, Dad stashed the corpse and a shovel in the trunk of his latest big-ass Buick and drove thirty miles to the familiar woods of Bethpage State Park. My mother and sister came along for the internment on a dark and stormy day in the early ’70s.
As far as I know, nobody ever visited the gravesite – possibly because no one was sure exactly where it was.
HANOI (ENS) – Here is a transcript of Wednesday’s meeting between the Supreme Leader of North Korea (SLONK) and the President of the United States (POTUS), as recorded and released by the Russian embassy in the Vietnamese capital:
POTUS: Good to see you again, Chairman Kim. And thank you for all your letters.
SLONK: I’ve only sent you one.
POTUS: Yes, but as I’ve told the press – such love. I’ve come to think of you as my third son.
SLONK: You already have three sons, Mr. President.
Pause. Crosstalk. Inaudible.
SLONK: How are your feet, Mr. President?
POSTUS: Excuse me?
SLONK: I was told you couldn’t go to Vietnam because of bone spurs on your feet.
POSTUS: And you came here by train because you’re afraid to fly.
SLONK: Since we last met I read a very interesting book by one of your great American actresses – Stormy Daniels.
POTUS: Don’t believe everything you read.
SLONK: So, the little mushroom?
POTUS: More like a Cruise missile. Ask Ivanka.
SLONK: Your daughter?
POTUS: No, my wife, Ivana.
POTUS: That’s what I said.
Pause. Crosstalk. Inaudible.
SLONK: Is there something urgent on your phone, Mr. President?
POTUS: Just checking something.
SLONK: Your attorney, Mr. Michael Cohen, does not begin testifying before your Congress until later.
POTUS: I bet you know what to do with rats – you exterminate them. But in my country, your enemies get to put a rat on TV to spread lies about his president, the man who gave him a good job – and paid him a lot of money, made him rich – for many, many years. What do you do when the people around you turn against you?
SLONK: There are no such rats, as you call them, in the Democratic People’s Republic.
POTUS: That’s because you know how to take care of them.
SLONK: And this Mr. Mueller?
POTUS: Don’t worry about him. I got all the judges.
SLONK: Like Don Corleone.
SLONK: I meant no disrespect, Mr. President. I am a great fan of your American movies. I have more than 20,000 videotapes and DVDs, the largest collection in the world. Most of the old ones were inherited from my father, who was a great leader and also a great filmmaker. He made a great Godzilla movie, a metaphor for what happens when nuclear weapons are unleashed for evil purposes.
POTUS: Have you thought about the deal I proposed?
SLONK: Which deal is that, Mr. President?
POTUS: The condos – on the beach.
SLONK: I am considering it, Mr. President. Why did you pull out of the INF treaty?
POTUS: What’s that?
SLONK: The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed in 1987.
POTUS: Don’t worry about it.
SLONK: But President Putin says it could create another Cuban Missile Crisis.
POTUS: I said don’t worry about it.
SLONK: But, at the same time your administration is asking us to denuclearize, you and Russia are starting another arms race.
POTUS: It’s good for business. If I were you, I’d buy lots of defense stocks. That’s what I’m doing.
SLONK: I can’t invest in your markets thanks to the sanctions you’ve imposed.
POTUS: Find a middleman. Maybe one of your children.
SLONK: My children are a state secret – and babies.
POTUS: Isn’t it true that you can take as much money as you want – billions of dollars a year – from your country’s treasury?
SLONK Yes, of course. Can’t you?
POTUS: Not yet. I’m working on it.
SLONK: Is there something urgent on your phone, Mr. President?
POTUS: Just checking something.
SLONK: Would you like to take a break to watch Hannity?
POTUS: You’re a good socialist like Stalin, not like Bernie or that Puerto Rican from Queens.
SLONK: I’m not sure I follow, Mr. President, but I am true to the socialist ideals of the motherland.
POTUS: And you keep the motherland, as you call it, pure by not having people just pouring over your border, infesting your country.
SLONK: No, we have a very secure southern border. But that doesn’t mean we don’t feel a threat that the 30,000 American troops in the south will invade our country.
POTUS: I told you I’d take care of that.
SLONK: Good. So that is settled. You will withdraw the troops.
POTUS: Can you take care of something for me?
SLONK: If I can, Mr. President.
POTUS: Can your missiles reach California?
The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism is available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.
Born January 31, 1919, he died so young – 53 – it’s hard to believe he would have been ONLY 100 today. Here is a reprise of a piece I wrote a few years ago:
My first baseball reporting assignment was Jackie Robinson’s funeral.
On October 27, 1972, a taxi dropped me off in front of the grand entrance to Riverside Church in Manhattan. It was a sunny day with a bit of a chill, World Series weather.
I waded into the crowd outside, celebrity mourners on a Friday morning in their best Sunday suits, middle-aged men looking like they were gathered for an old-timers’ banquet.
I spotted Pee Wee Reese being interviewed by Howard Cosell. Nearby, Roger Kahn was chatting with Don Newcombe.
Everyone knew Jackie had been wasting away for years, blinded and crippled by diabetes and other ailments.
But only nine days earlier, he had been in Cincinnati for the second game of the World Series between the Reds and the Oakland A’s.
Wearing a dark suit, his hair white, he had thrown out the ceremonial pitch – to Johnny Bench – from the commissioner’s box in the stands.
The Series ended, the A’s won, and two days later Robinson died of a heart attack at the age of 53.
I was a 25-year-old reporter for UPI. I’d grown up in the city, a Brooklyn fan, like my dad.
He’d taken me to games at Ebbets Field. Robinson and Reese, Campanella and Snider, Furillo and Hodges were my childhood heroes.
In the late ’60s, with the Dodgers long gone, I drifted to San Francisco in the summer after the Summer of Love, discovered passions other than sports.
But here I was in the autumn of 1972. Back with the Boys of Summer. Feeling like a kid again.
My press pass got me inside a VIP enclave, which was roped off and guarded by the NYPD. A church office had been converted into a reception room.
I wandered among the greats of the game. There’s Hank Aaron! I shouted inside my head. There’s Willie Mays! Ernie Banks! Campy in his wheelchair.
I wanted to go up to these guys and talk to them. But I really had nothing to say, nothing appropriate for this moment or any other. So I stood and gawked until it was time to file into the church.
I was working, though my duties were not defined. The main man on the story was UPI sports editor Milt Richman. I was to cover any news angles, though I was not sure what they might be.
About 3,000 people filled every pew inside the vast Gothic Revival church.
I sat next to Will Grimsley, AP’s lead sportswriter, a tall, thickset Tennessean who politely introduced himself, then sat scribbling notes on a large writing tablet. He picked up his pace when a young black preacher delivered the eulogy, his booming voice and theatrical style gripping the audience.
“In his last dash, Jackie stole home,” said Reverend Jesse Jackson, pausing, before picking up speed, as if he too was racing to the plate.
“Pain, misery and travail have lost. Jackie is saved. His enemies can leave him alone. His body will rest, but his spirit and his mind and his impact are perpetual and as affixed to human progress as are the stars in the heavens, the shine in the sun and the glow of the moon.”
It was a hard act to follow. And nobody did. As Rachel Robinson and her family filed out behind the coffin, we all stood. Grimsley stretched and looked around the cavernous church.
He tapped me on the shoulder. “See that guy over there, that’s Bill Veeck,” Grimsley said, pointing to a man in baggy chinos and a ratty gray sweatshirt, standing alone in the back, sobbing into a handkerchief.
Veeck was known as an outlaw team owner, famous for such stunts as sending a midget up to bat to draw a walk. But he had also signed the American League’s first black player, Larry Doby, and gave Satchel Page a chance to pitch in the majors.
Grimsley wandered off to talk to Veeck, while I went to find Richman.
“I want you to go to the cemetery,” the sports editor instructed. “I’ve arranged space for you in one of the cars in the funeral procession. Call me when you can with notes and quotes.”
The route to the cemetery in Brooklyn was mapped out to travel through New York’s most heavily populated, badly scarred black neighborhoods. And these were tense and violent times in a city where the loudest and most militant voices did not count Jackie Robinson among their leaders.
But, as the hearse rolled slowly through Harlem, quiet, respectful crowds lined the sidewalks. Children in school uniforms stood at attention. Women sat on stoops, heads buried in their hands. Old men leaned against lampposts and wept.
It was a similar scene in Brooklyn, in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
By the time we reached Cypress Hills Cemetery, it was near dusk. The weather had changed.
Dark clouds moved in as the pallbearers, Jackie’s former teammates – Reese, Newcombe, Jim Gilliam and Ralph Branca – Doby and Bill Russell, carried the casket to the gravesite.
I stood beside a tree, apart from the scene, added some notes to the ones I’d written during the drive, found a payphone near the cemetery gate and called Richman before catching a ride back to Manhattan.
A longer version of this story appears in my book, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.
On New Year’s Day, at around 4 a.m., I was bushwhacked by an illness that bore an intriguing similarity to one that knocked me on my ass and changed my life about four years earlier.
I considered this latest excruciating episode might be a vengeful god punishing me for spending a portion of Christmas Day provoking my granddaughters to command their new Google Thought Servant to make progressively more disgusting fart noises.
But my ruminations also took a page from my personal silver-linings playbook – and a passage in my book on the aftermath of the last bout of plague, in late November 2014:
I was sick in bed for about a week. Not sure what was wrong. Linda checked my symptoms on the internet. I either had an intestinal flu, kidney failure, or cholera. Didn’t go to a doctor. Didn’t get a diagnosis.
When I came out of it, I felt okay. That evening, as was my habit, I poured a glass of red wine. Tasted awful. That was it. Not a drop since.
So, after my fifth consecutive sober New Year’s Eve, I took to bed, crashed into that familiar state of misery, and periodically contemplated the possibility I would ultimately discover an upside at the apex of the abyss. In one more – or less – semi-coherent moment, I was convinced I would find the taste of cigarettes as repellent as alcohol.
Other nocturnal visions included a full head of hair, a flat stomach and the sex drive of a Tijuana teenager.
My recovery, however, was not seamless. On the third day, cocky enough to venture a drive to the store – for cigarettes – and a full dinner of Linda’s spicy meatballs and spaghetti, I received another 4 a.m. attack of wretchedness.
I will not detail the symptoms, but this time they included one more that the internet suggested might be attributed to the venomous sting of the blue-ringed octopus.
Still anticipating another post-affliction surprise – and there was one – I wondered whether it would be payback for all the times I raised a glass of Pellegrino and toasted the wisdom of the great Dean Martin:
I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.
Would I snap out this this malaise with a shot of Dewar’s? Pick up where I left off after decades of dedicated drinking?
A week after New Year’s I was back on my feet, though a bit wobbly. Besides the short-term loan of a plate of meatballs and spaghetti, my sickbed sustenance had consisted of iced tea, the aforementioned Pellegrino – both with lemon – toast, scrambled eggs, and Lipton chicken noodle soup, .
I have always been a red meat and potatoes guy. But the New Year’s Eve rack of lamb with rosti had become a recurring nightmare. As had the spicy meatballs. And, as far as I was concerned, garlic, oregano and onions were now banned substances.
“Would you make me some boiled chicken?” I asked Linda the first night I could face a full dinner.
“Boiled chicken?” she replied with a disapproving look, as if I’d asked for blue-ringed octopus a la mode.
“Yeah, you know, like Woody Allen ate when he was sick in Annie Hall– just plain chicken.”
“How about if I steam a chicken breast?”
“Sure,” I said, still cashing pathetic-patient chips. “But no spices – nothing.”
I baked a small potato and sliced a cucumber, slathered it in Hidden Valley Ranch dressing – the original.
It was all edible, if not enjoyable.
Since then, none of my dinners has featured red meat. All have included salads with Hidden Valley Ranch dressing.
White. Bland. Born in the heart of Reagan country.
I grew up on pastrami, veal parmesan and grilled steaks. In adulthood, added Mexican, Szechuan and other spicy favorites. Always drenched eggs with the hottest salsa I could find in Canada.
“Is it real hot, or Canadian hot?” I’d sneer at restaurant servers.
Has that guy gone the way of the Dewar’s-drinking dodo? Would my greatest eating adventures now be boiled-chicken tacos topped with ranch dressing?
So many questions. So little of appeal in the fridge and the pantry.
In the meantime, I’ve diagnosed my illness as Quadrennial Early Winter Plague (QEWP), a name I’ve registered with the North American Society of Geriatric Neologists.
The Expat Files: My Life in Journalismis available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.
A Swiss-American who also lived in Canada for a spell, she’s traveled the world and built a successful business called Kate’s Magik in Tucson, Arizona, blending essential oils, while launching and maintaining a singing career.
But let’s start at the beginning.
In the fall of 1968, her mother Anita and I were living in Livermore, California, where I was a reporter on the Herald & News.
I also reviewed movies playing at the local Vine theater. That’s where we were, as I pick up the story in this excerpt from my memoir:
On the night of December 4th, after an hour and a half of staring at Jane Fonda’s pointy tits in Barbarella, as the credits were rolling, Anita nudged me and said, “I think we better go to the hospital. My water broke about an hour ago.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“You have to review the movie, don’t you?”
We rushed home, grabbed the suitcase that had been packed for a week, called the doctor and, after midnight, hit the freeway. Since Anita had started her pregnancy with an obstetrician in San Francisco, that was where we were headed. I pointed my Mustang west, toward the Bay Bridge and Children’s Hospital in the city, about forty miles away.
Katherine Lisa Becker arrived at about 4 a.m. on December 5, 1968. We would call her Kate. She was supposed to be Katharine, like Katharine Hepburn, but I couldn’t spell.
Over the next year or two, we moved to my hometown of New York and to Anita’s hometown of Bern, Switzerland. It was just the beginning of Kate’s travels. And she seemed to take it all like a champ, a happy and exuberant kid.
Then, it was back to Gotham, where I landed a job with United Press International.
Since I worked a lot of night shifts at UPI in New York, I’d spend days with our daughter, taking her to the playground or nearby Flushing Meadows Park, site of the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs.
I took her to the U.S. Open tennis at Forest Hills, where my press pass gave us a place on the players’ patio. After she insisted on going to the bathroom on her own, she emerged holding hands with Evonne Goolagong.
“Does this child belong to you?” asked the teenage Aussie star.
“Yes,” I replied, “is everything okay?”
“Of course, we had a lovely chat.”
Kate and I would often go to lunch at McDonald’s – we were addicted to the fries and managed to choke down the cheeseburgers – or just hang around the apartment.
Kate was four when her parents split up. She and her mom moved to Bern in early 1973. The next couple of years, I spent vacations with my daughter in Europe.
Anita’s father, Hermann, let me borrow his second car, a Citroen Deux Chevaux, an ugly little beast that rattled and wheezed from Bern across the Alps, into Italy. We drove past the beautiful Lago Maggiore and on to Verona and Venice.
Kate was only six, but she never complained about our wanderings in the back streets of Venice, or my prolonged stop admiring Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin in an off-the-beaten-track Franciscan church. She seemed happy with the reward of chasing pigeons while I smoked and drank in the Piazza San Marco.
By the time we got to Florence, however, she was bored – we said hi to David, raced through the Uffizi in about four minutes, hightailed it for the Mediterranean coast, and checked into the Grand Hotel in Viareggio …
Kate and I spent the night at the bar. The bartender took a shine to Kate – she was a charming child – and kept the Shirley Temples coming while her old man ventured from Campari and soda to scotch. We probably ate dinner as well.
In the morning, we walked on the beach but it was a cold October day and we didn’t get far. After more than a week on the road, the ugly little Deux Chevaux chugged back over the Alps to Switzerland.
Starting the next year, Kate flew unaccompanied to North America for visits. Then, when she was fourteen, she came to Canada to stay, in suburban Toronto, with Linda and me and baby Jodie.
We enrolled Kate in Clarkson High School. She was hard to place, since she had not had much of an education in Switzerland.
She spoke English with a cute Swiss-German accent. Spelling and grammar were not her strong suits. She studied my Oxford dictionary and filled the margins with notes.
I insisted she start in a class with students her own age – she’d be fifteen in December. I didn’t want her feeling alienated in school, as she had been in Bern. Kate would excel at drama and find an ally in her drama teacher.
We got Kate through high school and a bit of college before she was off on her own, her wanderlust in full bloom. She would marry for the first time, in May 1989, the ceremony in our backyard.
Over the years, as Kate moved on, she’d come to Canada to visit with us, or meet up when we were on vacation.
And we’d go to visit with her, first when she lived in New York and later in Tucson, her home for the past sixteen years.
This week, Kate and her mom are in San Francisco, back to where her journey began.
My book, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, is available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.
During a cleanup of my home office this week, I rifled through a box of old photographs. Among them was the only shot I have of my dad and me (above), plus some of me as a kid that fit in a story I wrote a long time ago and shared in this space just before Father’s Day 2016.
Here it is again, with pics inserted and a bit of tinkering with the copy:
My father was a left-handed shortstop. When I was a boy, and he was in his early thirties, I’d tag along to his softball-league games on Sunday mornings.
Watching him field ground balls, seeing him go to his right, deep into the hole, I often feared his legs would tangle and he’d topple trying to pivot and throw. But he never did. He always made the play.
He was such an exceptional ballplayer that his left-handedness did not restrict him to first base or the outfield. Besides, he had experience.
When he was ten, at P.S. 106, in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, his English teacher, Mrs. Busch, coached the school’s baseball team.
In class, Mrs. Busch honored the rules of the New York City school system – she forced her left-handed students to write with their right hands.
But on the ballfield, at St. Raymond park, she championed the unconventional.
“Never mind that you’re left-handed,” she told the skinny, little red-haired boy. “You’re the best ballplayer in the school and you’re my shortstop.
It was 1929, the year of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the stock market crash, the dawn of the Great Depression. But my father’s horizon extended only as far as Jerome Avenue and 161stStreet, to Yankee Stadium, the House that Ruth Built and still inhabited.
When my father wasn’t playing ball he was watching the Yankees: Ruth, Gehrig, Dickey, the double-play combo of Leo “the Lip” Durocher and “Poosh ’Em Up Tony” Lazzeri.
For four bits, my father would scramble for a place in the centerfield bleachers. On summer weekdays, he would grab a free seat in the upper deck, with thousands of other kids, guests of the Yankees’ benevolent despot, Colonel Jacob Ruppert.
Every boy on every sandlot in New York City dreamed of playing on that holy turf in the West Bronx.
When Hy Becker graduated grammar school, after the eighth grade, Mrs. Busch wrote in his autograph book: My wish is to someday see you in a Yankee uniform.
“I really thought I’d be a big league ballplayer,” my dad told me years later.
* * *
The photograph shows a knobby-kneed toddler in bloomers, holding a tiny baseball bat in a left-handed stance.
It was snapped in July 1948, at a bungalow colony in Rockland County, north of New York City.
On the back, in my mother’s script, it reads: Kenneth at 20 months.
I have no recollection of the time or place. But I know who positioned me in that left-handed batting pose.
I was born in the Bronx and lived my first five years there, on Walton Avenue, a dozen or so blocks from Yankee Stadium.
I retain only two recollections from that time: Playing catch with my mother on the sidewalk in front of our apartment building; my dad and I walking hand-in-hand along Jerome Avenue, toward Yankee Stadium, on a sunny Sunday morning.
We stop at Macombs Dam Park, across 161stStreet from the stadium. We sit on a bleacher bench along the first-base line.
A game is in progress, between teams of black players. My dad points to right field. “Your dad used to pop them over that fence all the time.
“Son,” he adds, caressing the back of my neck, “most of the big league parks are set up for left-handed hitters.”
It is now afternoon and we are inside the stadium, between games of a doubleheader. We are standing at a field gate, just up the line from the Yankee dugout.
My father is talking with a player in a Yankee uniform. “Son, this is Eddie Lopat. We used to play ball together.”
But I’m not interested, tugging at his trousers.
“I don’t want to talk to him,” I cry. “I want to talk to Joe DiMaggio.”
* * *
My father was born in Brooklyn on June 12, 1919, the second son of Henry Becker, a first generation American of Russian-Jewish origin, and Bessie Becker (nee Agran), a Polish immigrant.
He was named Hyman and denied the option of a middle name. When he was four, his family moved to the Bronx, where he would live for nearly 30 years and always be known as Red.
In 1933, Red left P.S. 106 and enrolled at DeWitt Clinton High School. He chose the all-boys school because of the reputation of its baseball team.
Clinton would afford him citywide competition, some of the best school-league baseball in the country.
When my father entered high school, Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg was batting .300 in his rookie year with the Tigers; Frankie Frisch, the “Fordham Flash,” was the player-manager of the “Gas House Gang” St. Louis Cardinals; Gehrig was in his ninth full season with the Yanks.
All three would go on to the Hall of Fame. All three were products of the schoolyards and sandlots of New York City. When the baseball season finally came around at Clinton, the school discontinued its sports programs. The Depression, it was reasoned, was no time for games.
My father would remain at Clinton, however. Some days he would forget his homework. Some days he would forget his civics book. He never forgot his baseball glove.
At lunchtime, he would meet his new friend, Joe Lobel, and they would toss a baseball. My father was teaching himself to pitch. Joe was his catcher.
Red was still short and skinny – he’d grow to no more than five-foot-six – but he could throw a baseball with great velocity. And he had developed a snapping curveball.
He and Joe worked out together day after day, through the winter of 1933-34. In the spring, they played together in the school’s intramural league.
They became best friends. (Thirteen years later, Joe married Red’s kid sister, Emma.)
On their intramural team was another southpaw, though he played mainly first base in those days.
Edmund Walter Lopatynski would change his name to Eddie Lopat and spend a dozen years in the Major Leagues, eight of them as a successful pitcher for Casey Stengel’s great Yankee teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He would win 21 games in 1951 and pitch in five World Series.
At family gatherings, going back as far as I can remember, my Uncle Joe would take me aside and confide: “Your dad was as good as Lopatynski and better than most of them other guys that made it.”
Red and Joe also played together on a sandlot team called the Mactes (pronounced Mack-tees). My father never knew where the name came from. He figured it was Indian.
They called their home The Valley, a dusty ballyard in the recesses of Crotona Park in the Bronx.
Their coach was a man named Pop Babbitt. He had watched the boys for several weekends and decided to take them on. He raised money, bought them uniforms and booked their games.
Pop Babbitt told the boys he was a representative of the hat-blockers union. My father later learned that kindly old Pop was a well-known racketeer.
The Mactes of the 1930s fielded a pretty good ballclub. Red was the ace pitcher, Joe the catcher, Meyer “Mike” Feig at first, David “Doodo” Rosenbaum at second, Jerry “Lover Boy” Zucker at short, Louis “Sleuch” Marino at third; an outfield of Irving “Sloppy” Levy, Harold “Bucky” Bachner and George “Flash” Sosa.
Every weekend, April through October, the Mactes and similarly organized teams travelled the parks and playgrounds of New York.
They came into neighborhoods and hustled ball games. The players each would chip in a couple of bucks, whatever they could afford, in some cases a week’s salary, and bet on themselves.
Pop would cover bets from all comers. By game time, Pop would be holding a couple of hundred bucks, a lot of money in those days.
The action was particularly crisp at a rocky pit of a ballpark on Vyse Avenue in the Bronx. Tall apartment buildings surrounded the field.
Middle-aged men and women, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, sat and watched the games from rickety fire escapes. Boys in short pants pressed their faces against the chain-link fence. Girls in Sunday dresses perched on wooden benches.
A ballgame was an entertainment for the neighborhood and the neighborhood turned out.
The Mactes archrival was a team called the Beltonas, (pronounced Bell-toe-nas), another squad of Bronxites that sported the superior double-play combination in Harold Grossman at second and Milton “Mickey” Rutner at shortstop.
Grossman and Rutner also played for James Monroe High School, the Bronx alma mater of Hank Greenberg. Rutner’s exploits at Monroe earned him publicity and attracted big league scouts.
He went on to make a career of professional baseball, mainly in the minor leagues. His Major League career amounted to 12 games with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1947. His lifetime Major League batting average was .250. I wonder if my father would have swapped his successful business career for 12 games with the A’s.
The Mactes also played against a team that wore the uniform of McElhenney’s Bar and Grill and had a star pitcher named Harry Feldman.
My father did not admire Feldman’s stuff. They had their share of duels and Red usually came out on top.
But old man McElhenney knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a scout for the Giants. Harry Feldman pitched for the Giants for six seasons, through the war years, appearing in 143 games.
I know my father would have gambled his future against a chance to pitch six seasons in the Polo Grounds. That’s what he was hoping for when he went to a tryout in 1941.
* * *
My father was born a Yankee fan. In his father’s house there was no choice. A stubborn and opinionated man, my grandfather would not condone the least act of rebellion.
A printer by trade, he survived the Depression without major discomfort. He fancied himself rather prosperous, taking the wheel of his sleek 1929 Chevrolet on weekends, cruising to ballparks to watch his son Red play.
Between games of a Sunday doubleheader, he’d take the family to the Hunts Point Dairy Restaurant on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx. After lunch he’d return Red to the ballpark for the second game.
My dad remembers when his father as young and vigorous. I remember my grandfather only as an invalid.
In 1941, he was injured in a subway crash and taken to a hospital where he was told he had bone cancer.
He left the hospital, abandoned his business and went home to die.
He took to his bed and stayed there for 27 years, smoking cigars and following the Yanks on radio and TV, until he died in 1968 at the age of 76.
My dad did rebel in 1939, becoming a Dodger fan. He liked the style of the team’s new player-manager, Leo Durocher, the same “Leo the Lip” who’d played shortstop for the Yankee teams of my father’s childhood.
The Dodgers were a scrappy bunch with colorful names – Goody Rosen, Cookie Lavagetto, a pitcher with an alien moniker, Van Lingle Mungo.
My grandfather, of course, mocked the Dodgers, Dem Bums.
In 1951, my father and I watched the deciding playoff game between the Dodgers and Giants, on the television in my grandfather’s apartment on Featherbed Lane in the Bronx.
When Bobby Thomson hit the home run to beat the Dodgers, my father’s face turned ashen. My grandfather laughed. “Don’t matter, the Yanks would beat either one of them.”
He was right, of course – the Yanks won the World Series over the Giants in six games. But that was the time I too became a Dodger fan.
My dad tried to stick with the Dodgers after they abandoned Brooklyn for Los Angeles. But, over the years, the players changed and the distance remained the same. He gravitated to the Mets. I became a Red Sox fan.
* * *
My father’s crack at the big leagues came in 1941. He was 22 and had played seven seasons for the Mactes.
He had graduated from Clinton and worked at various meaningless jobs. One was making milkshakes in a storefront stand on 34thStreet in Manhattan, where he earned $8 a week and the owner taught him to cheat the customers by pretending to add ice cream – “just rap the side of the container with the empty scoop.”
He had developed an ulcer when he was 17 and it hemorrhaged two years later. It would leave him unfit for the army when the United States went to war, after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
That summer of ’41, Pop Babbitt called my father aside during a game in Crotona Park. It was a muggy city day and the crowd was sparse, a few kids sitting on the boulders that guarded The Valley.
“You’re never going to be noticed playing ball here,” Pop told my father. The old racketeer handed Red a clipping from the Daily News, announcing a mass tryout at the Polo Grounds.
“Why don’t you go down, Red,” Pop said. Red took the clipping, stuffed it in his pocket, and trotted to the pitcher’s mound.
When the day of the tryout came, he went to the Polo Grounds, joining hundreds of young men in mix-and-match uniforms and well-worn cleats, all hoping they’d somehow stand out.
Red was ushered into a group that surrounded Sam “Sambo” Leslie, a first baseman with John McGraw’s Giants and still a member of the organization.
Sambo, a Mississippian with the abhorrent nickname, passed around his big first-sacker’s mitt, letting the bush leaguers try on a big league glove. It would be the high point of the day for Red.
He thanked Sambo, found someone to throw with and went off on the sidelines to warm his arm.
Soon, the young men were arbitrarily divided into groups of 10 or 15 and assembled at the right field foul pole. Each group was directed to dash to the left field foul pole. When they arrived, most – Red included – were told go home.
“They never even saw me pitch,” he’d tell me, more than 40 years later. “I was fast, I felt sharp, and they never even saw me pitch.”
* * *
In 1951, my family moved from the Bronx to Bayside, Queens, to a new complex of two-story apartments called Clearview Gardens.
The young families that settled in Clearview were refugees from the Bronx and Brooklyn, young breadwinners climbing the ladder in the post-war boom.
They gave their wives mink stoles and themselves new cars with automatic transmissions. They gave their sons new bats and balls and gloves, and safe places to play.
Our ballpark was a vacant lot behind the apartments. We played hardball until we broke Mrs. Kiff’s kitchen window too many times. Then we switched to stickball.
Every spring, we sawed off old broomsticks and spent our allowances on a fresh supply of pink rubber balls, Spaldeens.
Our field was laid out with the foul lines stretching to the fence of a children’s playground in left and to the end of Mrs. Zimmer’s kitchen window in right.
A ball hit off the apartment-house wall was a ground-rule double. Onto the roof was a triple, over it a home run.
We played stickball from the first warm day of spring until the first freezing day of winter, then switched to football, snow or shine.
A basketball hoop erected by our dads in a parking lot accommodated a third sport. A spotlight allowed night games.
There were also more organized sports, provided by Tony DePhillips, a part-time bullpen catcher for the Yankees who owned a sporting goods store in Bayside and ran the DAC. (DePhillips Athletic Club), our Little League.
* * *
My father left the Mactes and stopped playing baseball when he was 23, when he met my mother. (He says the timing was coincidental).
That year, 1942, he’d taken a job as an usher in a movie theatre, the Loews Fairmont in the Bronx, and couldn’t make the Mactes weekend games anyway.
The disappointment of the tryout at the Polo Grounds also dragged him down. But the luster of those years never left my Uncle Joe, who never stopped telling tales of Red on the mound.
“Your dad was sneaky fast – ya know what I mean? – and he had a hook that was no nickel curve,” Joe told me in the early 1960s, when we were weekly golf partners – our families lived in neighboring towns on Long Island.
“There was this one game, in Crotona Park it was, and Red was as sharp as a tack. He was strikin’ ’em out like gang busters – I think he got ten of ‘em – and we only played seven innings in them days. I just sat back there and it was like playin’ catch – wherever I put the mitt, he hit it.”
We were sitting outside the clubhouse at Bethpage, waiting for our tee time. The sun was rising. I looked down the first fairway of the Black Course, sparkling with dew.
“That day he coulda beat the Yanks – and he was just a kid,” Uncle Joe said with a sigh. “Your dad woulda made it to the big league if anybody’d ever seen him.”
When my Uncle Joe died, my father lost more than his brother-in-law and boyhood chum. He lost his catcher and biggest fan.
* * *
I began playing organized baseball the summer of 1954, when I was eight years old. The DAC league played its games at Sylvania Field, on the grounds of the Sylvania Electric Company plant in Bayside.
Our team, sponsored by a bar and grill, was managed by my dad. He drilled us in fundamentals. Batters were pressed to make contact, to punch hits, not swing wildly from the heels.
“Get that bat off your shoulder,” was a recurring shout from my dad on the sidelines, generally followed by “a walk’s as good as a hit,” a cliché my father truly believed.
He made us take one strike to test the opposing pitcher’s control. He encouraged us to bunt for hits and sacrifice when a sacrifice was called for: usually with a runner on first and none out, always with runners on first and second and none out. He loved the squeeze play.
Infielders were expected to get in front of the ball: “Take it off your chest, knock it down, then throw ’em out.”
Outfielders were taught to turn their backs on the ball, never backpedal. He showed us how to use our gloves to shield the sun. No one – not even a first baseman – was allowed to catch with one hand.
The catcher was expected to stay on his toes, the better to throw his body in front of errant pitches.
On me, the pitcher, the manager was roughest. Not mean. Not unreasonable. Simply most demanding.
He allowed me to throw a fastball and a changeup, pitches that were, in my case, generally indistinguishable. He did not allow me to throw a curve.
“You’re too young,” he’d say “you’ll hurt your arm.” He demanded control. “Throw strikes, throw strikes,” would echo in my head through the years.
When I walked a batter, I could hear him sigh. The same when I struck out swinging at a bad pitch.
He wanted us to be a scrappy, hustling bunch. We won games on bunts that turned into four-base errors. We won games drawing walks with the bases loaded. We won games scooting home on passed balls and wild pitches.
He taught us the proper way to slide and we boasted the dirtiest uniforms in the league.
I won the league batting title with an average over .400. More than half my hits were bunts. My father was proud.
My pal Barry, my catcher, called me a “sissy bunter” and tried to swipe my trophy.
* * *
On a warm October afternoon in 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers won their first World Series. The final innings of the game were broadcast over the public address system in my school, P.S. 184, into my fourth-grade classroom.
After school, I ran to Oggie’s Delicatessen, where I had arranged to meet Barry, win or lose. Barry was from Brooklyn and as dedicated a Dodger fan as I was.
He was already there and we shouted and jumped up and down. He had seen the last inning of the game on TV and told me how Podres had jumped into Campanella’s arms. We imitated the embrace.
We bought two knishes, smothered with mustard, two huge dill pickles and a giant bag of Wise potato chips. We walked along Utopia Parkway, across the bridge over the Cross Island Parkway, and camped on a hill overlooking Little Bay. We sat there until dark, talked about the Dodgers and laughed at their victims, the Yankees.
When I got home, the celebration started all over again, this time with my dad.
Barry and I maintained our friendship for several years, though I’d stopped playing DAC ball and spent my summers as a counselor at a camp in the Catskills, where I discovered smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and the pleasures of going into the bushes after dark with Laura Yules.
In 1960, my family moved to Plainview, Long Island, where I finished my baseball career.
My sophomore year at Plainview High I played third base respectably and had an average year with the bat. I was on the junior varsity and figured I’d move up to the varsity my junior year.
It didn’t happen. I was the last player cut at spring tryouts and bounced back to the JV. After three games, I quit and joined the golf team.
My dad was disappointed, yet he seemed to know my interest in baseball had waned, that I’d peaked too soon – sometime between the ages of eight and ten.
* * *
My dad played softball well into his fifties. That’s when I first saw him play shortstop left-handed, in a league in Queens.
In the early 1960s, when I was home from college, we went out on the front lawn of the house in Plainview to have a catch.
“You think you can still pitch?” he teased.
He crouched down, gave a big target, and I tried to muster a hard fastball. It smacked his glove and broke his thumb. It never healed properly.
* * *
I met Eddie Lopat at Fenway Park in Boston in 1978, when he was scouting for the Montreal Expos and I was covering baseball for a Toronto newspaper.
I didn’t tell him how I’d snubbed him as a small child, how I cried for Joe DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium.
“You know my father,” I told Lopat, “you played together at Clinton – Hy Becker.”
“Never heard of him,” Lopat said. I found the remark hurtful and didn’t say another word to him.
When I told my dad, he said, “No one ever heard of Hy Becker. You should have said Red Becker.”
He never understood why I gave up the baseball beat after only one season.
* * *
In 1982, I played one game at first base for my newspaper’s softball team. I got two hits, a double and a homer.
A hard throw from the shortstop broke my thumb. It never healed properly.
* * *
My dad died in March 1995 at the age of 75. I tucked a baseball beside his left hand in his casket.
The story behind this story and more on my relationship with my dad is in my book, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.
One of the great mysteries of our time is how the cowardly creep now in the White House has yet to be publicly reduced to a quivering, blubbering blob of orange Jell-O.
How has someone with the intelligence, vocabulary and personality of a sewer rat spouted so much shit for so long without anyone throwing it back in his face on camera?
I realize he never puts himself in a tough spot, goes only to safe spaces, surrounds himself with fellow fools and toadies.
But whose fault is it that during news conferences and one-on-one interviews no one ever lays a glove on him?
The most revealing moment of the 90-minute Q & A – mainly A – with the media last week came when CNN’s Jim Acosta attempted to address the effluent in the room.
While POTUS was insulting the reporter – “You are a rude, terrible person” – and an aide was trying to wrest the microphone from Acosta, at least five of his colleagues were raising their hands. Call on me, Mr. President … Please, Mr. President … Pretty please, with sugar on top.
This was a time for White House press corps to be a corps. Fat chance. Not with this crowd.
I’ve been waiting for nearly two years for one of them to say: Mr. President, I have a followup question: What the fuck are you talking about?
Meanwhile, the media continue to bring a briefcase to a gunfight. After the administration pulled Acosta’s White House pass, CNN fired off a lawsuit and the reporter got his piece of plastic back.
The only hope is to change the cast. Rewrite the script. Put De Niro in Acosta’s role at the next presidential press conference. No way Agent Orange – using his same words – dismisses and gets away with dissing the Raging Bull.
POTUS: I’m not concerned about anything on the Russia investigation because it’s a hoax. Put down the mic …
De Niro: Fuck you.
POTUS: CNN should be ashamed of itself having you working for them.
De Niro: The United States of America is ashamed of itself for having a douchebag in the White House.
POTUS: You are a rude, terrible person …
De Niro: You are an ignorant, racist motherfucker.
POTUS: You’re a very rude person.
De Niro: Get down here and I’ll kick your fat ass back to Queens.
POTUS: The way you treat Sarah Huckabee is horrible and the way you treat other people are (sic) horrible.
De Niro: As if you give a shit.
POTUS: You shouldn’t treat people that way.
De Niro: We’re coming for you, scumbag. Tell your pal Putin and your brain-dead followers – like the one who sent me a bomb – that your days are numbered.
POTUS: That’s enough.
De Niro: You talkin’ to me?
POTUS: That’s enough.
De Niro: Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?
That last line, courtesy of Travis Bickle, would also be an appropriate followup question from the next reporter – besides Acosta, so far mainly black women – he attacks or insults.
My book, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, is available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.
Fifty years ago today, I walked into the scene of a family massacre in northern California.
Before the cops ordered me out, I’d looked down on the bodies of two little kids, their mom and killer dad, with his pistol at his side.
I was a few days shy of my 22nd birthday, only a couple of months into my first job as a reporter, with the Herald & News in Livermore, about an hour’s drive east of San Francisco.
I’d been covering mostly typical small-town tripe – meetings and petty crime – struggling with my unreliable two-finger typing and atrocious spelling, trying to learn AP style from a more experienced fellow reporter, Ron Iscoff.
I was chronically frustrated, periodically bored, and unsure I was even cut out for the news biz.
But, as I recount in this excerpt from my memoir, all that changed over a couple of days:
My education as a journalist seemed stalled until November 13, 1968. It was a week after Richard Nixon was elected president – I cast my first ever ballot for Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers, who was the candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party.
On a Wednesday evening the next week, I was the only reporter in the office when a call on the police radio announced: “One-eighty-seven at 353 North I Street.”
I had learned the California police codes. I knew 187 was a homicide. I jumped in my Mustang and sped to North I Street. There was an empty cop car with lights flashing. I spotted a door wide open to a second-story apartment.
I walked in. The first thing I noticed was the place smelled like stale vomit. The second thing was that the television was on and, lying in front of it, on his stomach, was a young boy. He was wearing pajamas. He wasn’t moving.
I walked closer. The hair on the back of the boy’s head was matted with dried blood. I heard voices and followed the sound farther into the apartment.
I passed the small kitchen. Breakfast for four – untouched bowls of cereal, a quart of milk – was on the table. Entering a back bedroom, I saw three cops standing over a man’s body.
“What the hell are you doing here,” shouted one of them, the chief of police, John Michelis.
“The door was open,” I said, straining to look beyond them, into a closet, where two more bodies – a woman and little girl – were slumped in a corner.
“Well, get the hell out,” ordered the chief.
I stood outside and scribbled in my notebook, every detail I could remember. I noted the uneaten breakfast as evidence of when the murders might have been committed. I drew a diagram of the apartment and where the bodies lay. I should have been repulsed by what I’d seen. But I was excited.
Iscoff showed up. We decided – he decided – that I would stay at the scene and talk to the cops and neighbors, and he’d go back to the office and work the phones.
We had the name of the family and a strong hint from the cops that Paul Cranfill, 27, had shot his wife, Lynne, 25, and their two children – five-year-old Bobby and two-year-old Cathy – before turning his pistol on himself.
We collaborated on a pretty good story that night – me writing and Iscoff rewriting – including most of those Ws: who, what, when, where. The next day we would try to figure out why.
We filled the front-page with an impressive amount of information gathered over only a few hours. The cops had told me that Cranfill’s brother, Carl, had come home at about 4 p.m., walked into the dark apartment – the lights were off and the drapes were drawn – and taken a two-hour nap on the living room couch, within a few feet of his nephew’s body.
He called the police when he saw the boy, apparently hoping he could be resuscitated – a word that sent me to the dictionary, since I was the world’s worst speller.
My uninvited walk through the crime scene gave us a good description of where the bodies were found. The cops told me it looked like a triple-murder-suicide and that all had been shot in the head. When I asked the chief if the breakfast dishes suggested the time of the crime, he confirmed it probably occurred that morning.
We got some good quotes from the owner of the small apartment complex – “they were a real happy family” and “excellent tenants” – and from Cranfill’s employer at an electronics factory, who called him “a good worker.”
We also learned that police had found a newspaper clipping on gun control. A neighbor who took target practice with Cranfill said he was “a good marksman.”
A search of the Herald morgue unearthed an article from the previous summer, when Lynne Cranfill had been featured as “Homemaker of the Week.” She had described her husband as “a kind person.” All this went into the story.
On the front page, the paper reprinted a photo that had accompanied the homemaker article, of Lynne Cranfill in the apartment with little Cathy and Bobby sitting beside her.
When the paper was put to bed that night, Iscoff and I had a celebratory drink and plotted the next day’s follow-ups.
For several more days, we shared a byline, alphabetically, me on top, and tried to get at what was in the killer’s head before he put a nine-millimeter slug in it.
We found out that Cranfill was a gun nut, that besides the murder weapon – a P38 semi-automatic – he also owned a .357 Magnum, a .22-caliber pistol and a .30-caliber carbine. He was also apparently nuts. A doctor told us Cranfill had a “paranoid-schizoid personality,” that he had been taking Thorazine, an antipsychotic tranquilizer, and that his family had been advised to put him in a mental hospital. His wife refused.
We learned that Cranfill was “up to his neck” in debt. “He must have owed well over $6,000” and had been planning to file for personal bankruptcy, a relative told us.
Iscoff and I had a good run with the story. The Cranfill tragedy wasn’t exactly the crime of the century but, for me, the rush was extraordinary, everything I’d hoped for when I stumbled into the newspaper racket. When it was over, I went back to covering meetings and checking the police blotter.
Chief Michelis, to punish me for invading his crime scene, called me into his office, sat me down for a good scolding, and showed me his photo collection of gunshot victims, mainly of men who had blown away their faces with shotguns. As Hemingway had, I thought.
Instead of puking my guts out, as Michelis had presumably expected, I asked questions about the story behind each picture.
* * *
What I now find repulsive is that Paul Cranfill shares a gravestone with the wife and kids he slaughtered.
The gravesite, at Memory Gardens Cemetery in Livermore, is about a mile and a half from the apartment where Lynne, Cathy and Bobby were shot dead.
The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism is available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.