Father’s Day

My dad, Hy Becker, would have been 99 years old today. I don’t know how he would have felt about my portrayal of him in my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism. But I know he was pleased with a long story I wrote about him a long time ago, as I recall in this excerpt from my book:

One night, in the bathtub, I was reading Russell Baker’s memoir of his childhood, Growing Up. It was sweet and funny and evocative of his formative years in Virginia during the Depression.

In the steamy bathroom, soaking in the tub, I had an inspiration. I would call my dad and interview him about growing up in New York in the 1920s and ’30s, before I came along. I didn’t know much. I wanted to know more.

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. Her son would be weaned on show tunes. My first of many Broadway shows was Bells Are Ringing, with Judy Holliday. For my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me tickets – to take my sister – to see West Side Storyat the Winter Garden Theatre.

Dad was a working stiff who liked to play softball during the summer months and poker with his cronies year-round.

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.

He seemed especially proud of me when I was on the baseball beat. It would have been his dream job – other than pitching in the majors – when he was a young man. I got him tickets to Yankee games when I was in New York covering the Blue Jays.

Baseball was the strongest bond between us. That’s where I took the story after I interviewed him on the phone a couple of times in early 1983.

The piece ran about five-thousand words. I called it Red and Me since I flashed back and forth between his baseball career and our baseball relationship. I particularly loved his tales of playing ball in the sandlots of the Bronx, the pictures painted of the borough of my birth in the years before the war.

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.

During our interviews, dad was Red again. He may have been in his sixties, yet he was back in the spotlight, on the pitcher’s mound. He seemed happy. Then, never one to hide his emotions, sad when he told me about the day his dream died during a mass tryout for the Giants at the Polo Grounds in the summer of ’41.

The young men were arbitrarily divided into groups of ten or fifteen 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 to go home. “They never even saw me pitch,” he’d tell me, more than forty years later. “I was fast, I felt sharp, and they never even saw me pitch.”

I would give the story to my dad for his birthday later that year.

* * *

That was 35 years ago today. Hy Becker died twelve years later, on March 15, 1995, at the age of 75. I read an excerpt of Red and Me at his funeral in Florida.

The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism is available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

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Anthony Bourdain on blasting bunnies and chowing down on reptiles

Anthony Bourdain, who was found dead in France today of an apparent suicide, was a gifted gonzo writer as well as a bad-boy TV star. My first taste of Bourdain was a 1997 novel called Gone Bamboo, a whacky tale of a CIA-trained assassin and rival Mafia hit-men on a Caribbean island. In 2001, I wrote this travel column for Canadian Press on another Bourdain book:

Anthony Bourdain is a famous New York chef, best-selling author, and chauvinistic carnivore.

But, he writes in his new book, “for my entire professional career, I’ve been like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part II, ordering up death with a nod or a glance. When I want meat, I make a call …

“Every time I have picked up the phone or ticked off an item on my order sheet, I have basically caused a living thing to die. What arrives in my kitchen, however, is not the bleeding, still-warm body of my victim, eyes open, giving me an accusatory look that says, ‘Why me, Tony? Why me?’ I don’t have to see that part.”

At least not before he took his act on the road, traveling the world to write A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal.

cook's tour

Bourdain has now been up to his elbows in the butchery of a pig in Portugal, chowed down on a Mexican resort’s pet iguana, blasted bunnies in Scotland, and slurped down the still-beating heart of a cobra in Vietnam.

This is extreme sport for the wine-and-food-tour set. Bourdain approaches his itinerary with a heart-of-darkness hunger honed on Joseph Conrad novels and Francis Ford Coppola movies.

“I wanted adventures,” writes the executive chef at Les Halles in Manhattan and author of Kitchen Confidential. “I wanted to see the world – and I wanted the world to be just like the movies.”

He trips from Portugal to Spain, France to Britain, Russia to Japan, Cambodia to Vietnam, and across North America, gorging on cuisine and culture, drinking too much wine and vodka, awaking ill or hung over before spilling his guts into the story.

His arrival in a Portuguese village is greeted with the slaughter of a pig. Bourdain first stands dumbstruck, a bit queasy, as the critter’s throat is slit. But he soon joins the festivity.

“God help me, I assisted, stepping right in and putting my hands inside the warm cavity, pulling away heart, lungs, tripe, intestines, liver and kidneys,” he writes. “I felt bad for that pig, imagining his panic, pain and fear. But he tasted delicious.”

In Mexico, Bourdain is treated to a corn-husk-wrapped treat, after his host sacrifices the hotel’s iguana mascot. “When I unwrapped my tamale, I found I had been honored with the head and forearm  – still on the bone. The texture was like chewing on G.I. Joe.”

He goes hunting for rabbits in Scotland, and finds himself surprisingly skillful with a shotgun. “To my shock and no small amount of dismay, I’d blown the spine out of something that had once looked very much like Bugs.”

The piece de resistance is served in Vietnam, where a snake handler cuts out the heart of a live cobra and presents it to Bourdain.

“I bring it to my lips, lift my head back and swallow. … The heart still beats … and beats … and beats. All the way down.”

Ken Becker is the author of The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Notes from the cave

paul simon

I was reminded the other day that Paul Simon is on his farewell – “Homeward Bound” – tour.

Got me thinking that so many of Simon’s songs begin like the opening lines of every great story – you want to know what happens next.

The Mississippi Delta

Was shining like a National guitar.

I’m following the river,

Down the highway,

Through the cradle of the Civil War.

Graceland

One and one-half wandering Jews.

Free to wander wherever they choose.

– Hearts and Bones

Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.

I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.

So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies.*

And walked off to look for America.

– America

From the next line –  “Kathy,” I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh – I tripped into Kathy’s Song and wondered: Who’s Kathy?

Turns out she was a 16-year-old girl Simon met – he was 22 – when he was living in England and playing folk clubs in the early 1960s. A photo of the young lovers illustrates the cover of The Paul Simon Songbook (1965).

Paul & Kathy

 

* Mrs. Wagner’s single-portion pies were sold across the East and Midwest states until the bakery went out of business in 1968.

Mrs. Wagner's Pies

* * *

I could stomach only the first fifteen minutes or so of the Showtime documentary called The Fourth Estate, chronicling the New York Times’s coverage of the Trump presidency so far.

Such bullshit – editors and reporters obviously performing for the cameras. Then again, even if all these super-serious men and women are on the level – How can you not laugh, gag or rage at Trump? – it’s not like any newsroom I’d want to be in.

Guess not much has changed since I was a copyboy at the Times in the mid-1960s. As I recall in my memoir: The Times was insufferably full of itself and its perceived place in the world.

* * *

Recent headline:

Headline

If the Schnorrer in Chief has a guiding doctrine, this is it – the presidency for fun and profit.

* * *

Watched the first two Godfather movies after reading the passages in Jim Comey’s book comparing Trump to a Mafia don. Biggest difference: the Trumps are a family of Fredos.

* * *

Bill Maher, on his HBO show, does a bit called: “I don’t know it for a fact, I just know it’s true.”

I’ll play:

  • For every dollar Michael Cohen got to influence the don, the don got the don’s share.
  • The don trashed the Iran nuclear deal to raise the price of oil for his pal Putin and the rest of the Rooskies who have the U.S. president in their pocket.
  • The don initially had second thoughts on his summit with Kim Jong Un when he realized schlepping to Singapore would cut into his time on the golf course promoting Trump properties.

* * *

Watched The Hot Rock, with Redford, George Segal and the incomparable Zero Mostel. It’s set in my New York of the early ’70s, the last time I lived in Gotham – shots of the Twin Towers under construction and the Pan Am Building when it was still called the Pan Am Building.

Redford in Hot Rock

I went to the premiere at Radio City in 1972, a fundraiser for ex-GOP mayor John Lindsay’s lame bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

* * *

Sarah Huckleberry dropped four interesting words during one of her bull sessions in the White House briefing room last month.

In dodging a question, she said her boss is “working hard to make this country better, whether it’s through building our economy, creating jobs, defeating ISIS, fixing our judiciary system …”

Fixing the judiciary system?

That’s supposedly the linchpin of the devotion to Trump for a big chunk of his supporters, especially evangelicals – appointing ideology-first judges who will blindly rule against abortion, gay rights and most other progressive advances of the past half-century.

Add the fixed judiciary to the current GOP control of the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government and you have a right-winger’s wet dream – the promise of a white Christian version of Sharia Law made in the USA.

* * *

While the wannabe dictator wields his power in Washington, an exhibit of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms is on display this summer at the New-York Historical Society museum on the West Side of Manhattan.

four-freedoms-by-norman-rockwell

The paintings – Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want – were inspired by president Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union speech in January 1941.

FDR argued against American isolationism promoted by powerful America First war profiteers and Hitler sympathizers. He warned that freedom could be lost – as it had been in much of Nazi-occupied Europe – if the U.S. did not step up its aid of Britain and join the war against Germany.

I saw the paintings when they were at the Guggenheim Museum in New York after 9/11.

Once again, the message is clear:

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

Till it’s gone …

– Joni Mitchell

My memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, is available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

 

‘He’s gone’

My only son was born thirty-six years ago today. He died two days later. Here, in an excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, is what happened:

Sean David Becker was born at 8:47 p.m. on Sunday, May 23, 1982 at the Mid-Maine Medical Center in Waterville. He arrived a couple of weeks early, but seemed to be a healthy six-and-a-half pound boy. I called our families and friends in New York and Toronto and spread the news.

I took Monday off and spent most of it with Linda and our baby. The new mom in the next bed was fifteen years old. Her mother, the new grandma, was Linda’s age, thirty-one.

On Tuesday morning, at about six o’clock, alone in bed in the house in the woods, I got a call from Linda in the hospital.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“Are you okay? The baby?”

“I heard them screaming ‘Code Blue’ in the middle of the night. I didn’t know what it was. The nurses told me he wasn’t breathing.”

“Is he okay?”

“I’m not sure. They took him to Portland.”

I rushed to the hospital. Linda was getting dressed. I found out Sean had gone by ambulance to the Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he was in the only neonatal intensive care unit in the state. That’s where we found our tiny baby hooked up to machines, his eyes closed, barely moving, except for the occasional spasm.

His doctor, Douglas Dransfield, escorted us to a small, private room. He gave us the prognosis. Sean, he said, had stopped breathing the previous night in the nursery in Waterville. He had been resuscitated, but not soon enough to prevent brain damage. After arriving in Portland, he had had seizures. His vital signs were very weak.

If he lived, Dr. Dransfield said, our son’s mental capacity would be negligible. But, he said, it was unlikely our baby would survive more than a day if taken off the ventilator that was breathing for him.

“Does that mean he’s basically brain dead?” I asked.

“Yes,” the doctor replied. He said it was our call.

Linda, who had given birth fewer than forty hours earlier, sat in a chair and cried. I held her and asked the doctor to give us some time to talk. We didn’t have much to say. We knew what we would do. We told the doctor we wanted Sean taken off the ventilator. He suggested we find a hotel and someone would call us when the time was near.

“It could be hours,” Dr. Dransfield said. “It could be days.”

We checked into the Hilton. I called my parents in New York and Linda’s mother in Toronto and told them the situation. I didn’t phone anyone in Waterville (where I’d worked as a reporter on the Morning Sentinel for ten months).

We went to the hotel bar, had a drink, telling the front desk to route any calls for us there. We were back in our room after ten o’clock when the hospital phoned. I answered.

“We think you should get down here,” the nurse said. “Do you want us to call a priest to administer last rites?”

“No, of course not,” I said. “Why would I want my baby to have last rites?”

Linda, raised a Catholic, burst out crying.

“Yes, please call a priest,” I told the nurse.

We jumped in a taxi and went to the same small room we had been in before. It was very dark. A nurse brought Sean in and placed him in Linda’s arms. She held our baby. I held her.

Sean hardly moved, barely seemed to be breathing. The nurse came back a couple of times to check his heart and respiration. The third time, she shook her head and said, “He’s gone.”

We sat there a while, a sad little family, our baby dead. It was 11:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 25, 1982.  Our son had lived fifty hours and forty-three minutes.

Linda fell back on her Catholicism, God’s will. As a nonbeliever, I had nothing to hold on to and nobody to turn to. I paced the halls of the hospital, went outside and screamed into the night.

Dr. Dransfield, who had been incredibly kind and inspired great confidence, had stayed the night with Sean. He came back to talk with us after our dead baby was taken away.

“You did the right thing,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

Linda didn’t say anything. She was weak and totally spent, going from new mom to grieving mom in two days.

I gave Dransfield permission to order an autopsy. We both wanted to know what killed Sean. We never found out, the results deemed “inconclusive.”

* * *

My thoughts about Sean are scattered throughout the book, including this passage in the final chapter:

I often think of my only son, wonder what kind of man he would have turned out to be. The only evidence of Sean’s life is a thick file stuffed with his birth certificate, hospital and post-mortem documents, correspondence with his doctors, notes and cards of condolence, a lock of his light brown hair, a footprint in faded purple ink, a photo, in black and white, of Linda holding our newborn, and a color photo of his grave.

The Expat Files is available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Bar talk: A tale of rape

Forty years ago this month, while covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Sun, the most memorable story from a road trip to the West Coast had nothing to do with baseball, as I recall in this excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism:

I began the season hoping to get along with the people I was writing about.  At thirty-one, I was older than most of the players, but not by much. At first, they seemed to accept me more than the other writers.

I’d been a decent athlete in my youth and could still handle a glove and a bat without looking like a klutz. During pre-game warm-ups, I’d play catch or shag flies in the outfield.

The only player I socialized with was pitcher Dave Wallace. He was different from the others, more thoughtful and a lot smarter. I was about a year older. We’d both been born and raised in the Northeast. He was from Connecticut, and had graduated college. We’d talk about baseball but also about other things, books and movies and life.

Dave Wallace

Early in the season, on a day off in Oakland, I rented a car and took Wallace to Sausalito. I’d called my old hippie friend, Barry Ginsberg, who met me in the No Name Bar while Wallace had a look around the town. Thankfully, after Barry described in great detail being abducted by aliens, he had to go to work, as a chef at the nearby Trident restaurant.

Wallace joined me at the No Name and we settled in for the night. An attractive woman, a blonde about our age, sidled up to us at the bar. “You look like baseball players,” she said.

“He is,” I said.

“I hate baseball players,” she said.

“I don’t like them much either, except this guy,” I said, pointing to Wallace.

She was really drunk. And really wanted to talk. She said she was a stewardess for United Airlines and sometimes worked on charters for major league teams.

On one late night flight, she told us, at thirty-thousand feet, her crewmate had been dragged into a lavatory and raped. She said the airline insisted her crewmate not press charges, that nobody believed her, that everyone assumed she had initiated the event and only cried rape later.

I believed her story. I asked some questions, trying to identify the rapist. But she kept shaking her head and guzzling vodka. “That’s why I hate ballplayers,” she concluded, before staggering off into the night.

Wallace and I were quiet on the long drive back to the hotel in Oakland. We didn’t have a chance to talk much after that night. He was released by the Jays and, when no other team gave him a chance, he retired at the age of thirty.

The cerebral Wallace would go on to have an accomplished career as a major league pitching coach. I would turn the flight attendant’s tale of rape into the plot of a novel.

The Expat Filesis available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Mother’s Day

My mother – I called her Dot – died two years ago today. The photo above was taken when she was a docent at the Dreher Zoo in West Palm Beach and was displayed at her funeral in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

Since then, there have been many times I’ve thought: I wish I could talk to Dot about this … or that. Nothing heavy, mind you. Nothing personal either – at least not from my end. Just stuff of mutual interest.

After my dad died in 1995 , I phoned Dot about once a week, usually on Sundays. (We hadn’t lived in the same country for decades.) We chatted most often about politics, books, movies, TV shows.

She was always well informed, and had strong opinions. A lifelong liberal Democrat, she’d loved FDR and thought Eisenhower, Reagan and Bush Jr. were idiots. She was happy to have lived long enough to see Obama elected president.

Some of our last conversations were about Donald Trump running for president. She was revolted that he had a shot.

My sister Janice and I have talked about being relieved Dot did not live to experience the daily disgust of the biggest idiot yet in the White House.

Dot and I would also commiserate on the state of American culture as reflected in the popularity of what she called “nonsense” – some of the books that topped bestseller lists and movies and Broadway shows that were smashes at the box office.

In her later years, I became her maven on what to read and what to watch. I turned her on to such TV series as Homeland and, as her eyesight diminished, sent her the audio book every time a new novel came out by Nelson DeMille or Daniel Silva.

Our conversations generally wrapped up with her asking about my family: wife Linda, daughters Jodie and Lacey – Dot talked to daughter Kate all the time – and, later, granddaughters Annie and Zoey.

These were the things we talked about. That was our relationship. Every time she asked about my health or other matters I kept private, I changed the subject.

She’d tell me more than I wanted to hear about her latest malady – there were many. I’d tell her about my work but not about my more personal writing. I thought I’d save that news until a book was published. The timing never worked out.

I finished my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, about a year and a half after she died. As the title suggests, the book is mainly about my forty-plus years as a reporter, editor and teacher. Dot and my dad play minor roles in the narrative, not always flattering.

Since she’s been gone, since the book was published, I’ve thought more about the traits we shared: basically antisocial, incapable of small talk, intolerant of ignorance, more than satisfied to make a meal of the meaty bones on a prime rib of beef.

I now wish I had not waited so long to see her for the last time, to say goodbye. And wish I’d given her a less perfunctory sendoff in the final chapter of my book:

My mother, Dot, died at the age of ninety-four. Amazing she lived that long, with all the ailments and all the surgeries. She added to the inventory after moving north from Florida. A broken hip, followed by a broken fibula, finally persuaded her to use a walker. She was nearly blind by the spring of 2014, when she moved into my sister Janice’s house in Tarrytown.

Two years later, Dot got pneumonia and faded fast. I talked with her on the phone. She was barely coherent. But she had been that way before, through other serious illnesses. How can you discern when someone is really at death’s door?

Kate flew to New York to be with her grandma. I talked with her and Janice on the phone. Jodie wanted to go but was waiting for me. Finally, I said, “let’s go tomorrow.”

On May 10, 2016, Jodie and I drove to Tarrytown. We arrived in late afternoon, in time for the final hours. Dot couldn’t speak. Her eyes were closed. Her breathing labored. She looked tiny in the bed. I took her hand. She seemed to respond.

“Ken’s here,” Jan said.

“She’s been waiting for you,” Kate said.

A couple of hours later, I was on the patio having a smoke with Jan when Kate and Jodie came out to say she was gone.

Linda, Lacey, Hugh, Annie and Zoey made it to the funeral, as did other close family. Rabbi Brian flew in from Portland, Oregon, to preside at the service. I eulogized Dot’s toughness. Her casket was flown to Florida and lifted into her assigned place in the wall, beside dad.

The Expat Files is available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

 

Inside baseball

The photo above shows Mark Fidrych talking to the ball before delivering a pitch on Opening Day in Detroit forty years ago today.

I was in the press box in Tiger Stadium on April 7, 1978, covering my first major league game as a baseball beat writer, for the Toronto Sun. (More on me later.)

Two years earlier, Fidrych had been a 21-year-old sensation, voted 1976 Rookie of the Year in the American League.

Tall, with long curly hair and a goofy grin, he was nicknamed “The Bird” because of his supposed resemblance to Big Bird.

He was known as much for his eccentric on-field behavior – talking to himself as well as the ball, getting down on his knees to play in the dirt on the mound, like a kid in a sandbox – as for his pithing proficiency. He  was on the cover of Rolling Stone as well as Sports Illustrated.

But his star burned out quickly. A series of injuries limited Fidrych to fewer than 30 games over the next four years. He was done at the age of 25.

He died, at 54, in a truck accident on his farm in his native Massachusetts, in 2009.

I recall that Opening Day in 1978 in my book, though The Bird was edited out in the chapter that begins with my first trip on the road with the Toronto Blue Jays. What follows is an earlier draft of that passage, which notes Fidrych’s performance. (And here is his line in my scorebook.)

Scorecard

Flying north from Florida with the Blue Jays, I was as anxious as the players and coaches to get the season going. It’s a cliché to say that all teams start with a clean slate, but it really does have that feeling, that anything can happen over the next six months, 162 games. Not that the Jays had a chance to win the pennant, but maybe they wouldn’t be as awful as everybody expected.

This was also my first taste of travel with a big-league ballclub. The players, by contract, flew first class, which meant the twenty-five young men took up the forward cabin on the wide-bodied Lockheed TriStar, L-1011, on the flight from Tampa to Detroit. The manager, coaches, travel secretary Mike Cannon, trainer Ken Carson and the writers, had the first rows of seats in coach. We all had the same luggage: large, gray, hard-sided Samsonite suitcases. In the pampered world of professional sports, players – and the rest of us, who tagged along – were not required to handle their own luggage, except to and from home. Someone else put the bags on the bus, on the plane, on another bus, and turned them over to hotel bellboys who delivered them to our rooms.

The charter bus picked us up at the airport in Detroit and deposited us at the Westin in the new Renaissance Center complex. In 1978, Motown was not a place for sightseeing, unless you enjoyed the sight of buildings still burned out from the 1967 riots or wanted the thrill of being robbed at gunpoint. So, the baseball lifestyle of hanging around the hotel seemed like a good idea.

After opening day was rained out, I spent a lot of time in my room, watching TV, reading, talking to Linda on the phone and ordering room service. Since my paper paid the team for my accommodations, my only obligation on checkout was to pay for incidentals such as phone calls and room-service charges.

Despite the rainout, there was a story to file. The day before, the Jays had bought John Mayberry from the Kansas City Royals and he’d just arrived in Detroit to join the team. There was a news conference to meet Mayberry, a genuine slugger capable of hitting thirty home runs in a season. Teaming with Rico Carty, the Jays had two power threats in the middle of their lineup.

The next day, the season began in warm sunshine at Tiger Stadium, filled to the rafters with kids and grownups playing hooky. The game, though, pretty much set the tone for the rest of the season for the Toronto team. The Tigers sent out pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, who unceremoniously mowed down the Jays, going all nine innings in a 6-2 win.

As for my major league debut, I followed the other writers on their appointed rounds. The pregame ritual included hanging around the cage during batting practice, chatting with the coaches and the managers; setting up my typewriter at my assigned spot in the press box; joining my fellow scribes in the private dining room for the complimentary pregame meal.

During the game, I dutifully kept score in my genuine baseball writer’s scorebook – shipped directly from the genuine baseball writer’s scorebook company in Cincinnati – ate the available free snacks and drank the free beer and listened to the wisecracks of the hometown Detroit writers – mainly going on about designated hitter Rusty Staub, speculating on his sexual predilections.

After the game, I dashed down to the clubhouses, talked to Jays’ manager Roy Hartsfield and the pipe-smoking Tigers’ manager Sparky Anderson, went back to the press box to write my story and hand it page by page to the gofer who delivered it to the Western Union operator who transmitted it to the Sun.

It would generally take me about the same time to write a story as it would take the players to shower, dress, eat their free postgame meal and drink their free beer, which would mean we’d arrive at the bus for the ride back to the hotel at about the same time.

All of these chores would become routine, some more onerous than others, depending on the city and ballpark.

On my first trip with the team to Texas, I bought a new pair of cowboy boots because it was the style of the day and all the cool baseball folks wore cowboy boots. But the footwear also proved practical for the postgame walk to the clubhouses in Arlington, which were down the outfield lines, requiring a walk through the stands where giant cockroaches had moved in to feast on all the litter of ballpark chow.

If you’d like to read more about my baseball-writing career, and how it nearly destroyed my lifelong love of the game, here is a link to order The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

Sea lions and dingoes and roos, oh my!

When I was doing the final edit of my book, one of the most painful cuts was a chapter I called ‘Eats Roots and Leaves,’ detailing the best trip of my travel-writing career – ten days in Australia. Here it is, with some of my photos of the critters I met in Oz:

Dingo

In January 2000, I flew from Toronto to Los Angeles on Air Canada, in coach, then boarded a Qantas 747 in business class for the fourteen-hour flight to Sydney.

When I had flown in my younger days, I was always relieved when the no-smoking sign went dark after takeoff. For one thing, I took it as a sign we weren’t going to crash. For another, it meant I could light a cigarette.

Drinking and smoking had gotten me through many long-haul flights. But, by 2000, nearly all airlines worldwide, including Qantas, had banned smoking. Drinking, however, was encouraged, especially in business class, where my fellow passengers began the flight with cocktails and moved on to wine with dinner. I abstained, having decided years before that I didn’t want to arrive at any destination either loaded or hung over.

I had brought along a carry-on bag filled with books. I read Carl Hiaasen’s Sick Puppy cover to cover while my seatmate and most others got a full night’s sleep. I don’t sleep on planes.

Arriving in Sydney just after dawn, I was met by a uniformed chauffeur, who put my bags in the trunk of a black Mercedes and drove me to my waterfront hotel near the Harbour Bridge. I would have a driver on all my travels this trip, as well as a guide when I ventured into the wilds of Oz.

In arranging my itinerary before leaving Canada, I stressed: No small planes! But I was conned into a seaplane from Sydney to Whale Beach for lunch at a cliff-top restaurant called Jonah’s.

I regretted it as soon as I climbed into one of the two seats behind the pilot. My companion, a nice lady from the Australian Tourist Commission, pointed out the sights while I sat with my eyes closed and my knees turning to mush. When we finally landed, fifteen minutes later, a boat had to get us because the plane lost power and couldn’t taxi to the dock.

“I hope there’s another way back,” I told the nice lady, “because there’s no fucking way I’m getting in that thing again.”

She laughed and promised to call a taxi for the return trip.

“There’s a land route!”

“Sure, but it takes about an hour back to Sydney,” she said.

“I wouldn’t care if it took a month.”

It didn’t matter. The plane was broken.

In the city, I researched assignments in advance of that summer’s Olympics interviewed the mayor and other bigshots. But my excursions into the less populated corners of Australia were the most memorable.

Leaving Sydney – business-class on Qantas, of course – I flew to Brisbane, where I was picked up by a young woman who told me a joke I never forgot – after revealing that “roots” is Aussie slang for having sex.

Q: Why is a man like a wombat?

A: He eats roots and leaves.

She drove me up the Sunshine Coast. We stopped for lunch – I ate a “bug,” a lobster-like sea creature – at a beachside restaurant in Noosa and saw a kookaburra sitting in an old gum tree.

Kookaburra

It was another three hours or so to the ferry at River Heads, followed by a thirty-minute sunset cruise to the Kingfisher Bay resort on Fraser Island. Dinner was in the open-air Seabelle restaurant, which provided one of the best leads I’ve ever written:

I was dining on kangaroo fillets when the dingo strolled into the restaurant.

Not a bad opening line, either, if I ever set a novel Down Under.

My next stop was Kangaroo Island, where I pleasantly overdosed on shooting wildlife – with my Nikon – and there was nothing but saltwater between me and Antarctica.

The island was lousy with exotic birds: enormous wedge-tailed eagles, tiny fairy penguins, rainbow lorikeets, glossy black cockatoos, yellow-billed spoonbills, black swans with bright red bills.

Black swans

I also got within camera range of New Zealand fur seals, a giant lizard called a goanna, wallabies, a spiny anteater called an echidna, New Zealand fur seals, and spent hours on a beach with a herd of sea lions.

Sea lions

My guide and I stopped for lunch in a picnic ground, where I called home from a phone booth. Daughter Lacey answered.

“Right now,” I told her, “there is a big mama kangaroo and its baby lying in the shade, under a picnic table, about two meters away” – metric for my Canadian daughter.

“Cool,” she said. “What time is it there?”

“It’s lunchtime. Tomorrow. My guide – his name is Greg – is cooking steaks on the barbecue.”

“Kangaroo steaks?”

“That’s what I had for dinner the other night.”

“I can’t imagine eating a dead animal while one of its cousins is watching,” Lacey said.

“There were no live kangaroos in the restaurant. But there was a dingo.”

Later that afternoon, I got within petting range of a koala.

Koala

 

After two nights on the island, I flew back to Sydney, spent a couple more days tying off the loose ends of my reporting, before boarding a Qantas jumbo jet, business class, to Los Angeles. Naturally, I didn’t sleep.

The coach section of the Air Canada flight to Toronto was about half full. I moved to a vacant row in the back of the center section, told a flight attendant not to wake me for anything, and fell asleep across the three seats – until a beverage cart smashed into my head.

“Hey!” I cried out.

“You shouldn’t have your head in the aisle,” the matronly flight attendant scolded. No apology.

Welcome to cattle class. Welcome back to Canada.

If you’d like to read the 34 chapters that survived to the final draft, here is a link to order The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

What’s my line?

We can credit the New York Times if the loose cannon in the White House fires special counsel Robert Mueller for crossing a “red line” by poking around in the president’s finances.

What some pundits predict will be a constitutional crisis might be traced to Trump’s acquiescence to a suggestion from reporters Michael Schmidt and Maggie Haberman during an interview with the Times last summer.

SCHMIDT: “Last thing, if Mueller was looking at your finances and your family finances, unrelated to Russia — is that a red line?”

HABERMAN: “Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?”

TRUMP: “I would say, yeah. I would say, yes.”

The reporters had to know the answer, that this was a sketchy rich guy hiding his tax returns and shady deals.

The Q&A was akin to asking children if they would be unhappy if there were no more desserts at dinnertime.

Predictably, since that interview last July, the conventional wisdom has become that the president declared his business out of bounds on the Russia investigation. Never mind that the dunderhead in the Oval Office never had an original thought, that the idea came from the interviewers, not the consistently incoherent interviewee.

No matter. The media love lines – the red one from Obama on Syria, the one in the sand from Bush Sr. in Iraq.

Trump’s supposed red line has been repeated so many times on TV – his primary source of information – that he probably believes he drew it himself.

For Schmidt and Haberman, the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of Trump whisperers, their mischief was rewarded last Thursday when they reported that Mueller had subpoenaed documents from the Trump Organization.

The media verdict was nearly unanimous:

  • Mueller Just Stepped Over Trump’s Red Line – Bloomberg
  • Did Robert Mueller Just Cross Donald Trump’s Red Line on Russia? – CNN
  • Trump Drew a Red Line for Mueller; Mueller Just Crossed It – The Hill

The headlines sent yaps flapping on cable news. Will Trump use it as an excuse to fire Mueller? What will the Republicans do if that happens? Will they finally slap down the Cowardly Lion? Will he start a war to wag the dog? Will he loot the treasury and hijack Air Force One?

I made up that last question. The rest, in some form or another, were solemnly posed and debated on cable news and editorial pages – by the same folks who habitually tell us any one of Trump’s outrageous, or disturbing, or demented, or cruel, or abnormal, or insane, or racist, or sexist, or senseless, or nonsensical, or stupid utterances or actions may derail “his agenda.”

The Chiseler in Chief , who upchucked tweets at Mueller on the weekend, has no agenda other than to pad his bank account and his ego. That’s always been his raison d’etre, besides getting laid.

The bonanza of the GOP tax cuts and other schemes we don’t yet know about are probably taking care of the money. Watching himself on TV day and night is the ego boost he craves – and undoubtedly a substitute for sex unless Melania and the Secret Service are giving a free pass to porn stars and Russian hookers frequenting the East Wing.

Bill Maher, who talks nearly non-stop about Trump on his weekly HBO show, said during the latest episode: “I don’t want to hear about this every day, this disgusting vulgar man and what he’s done, and what he’s said – and we always have to debate the latest batshit thing that comes out of his mouth. I just think people need a break – it’s exhausting, we’re exhausted.”

Some of the weekday cable news hosts seem to be punch-drunk. Nicolle Wallace on MSNBC often can’t stop laughing at the insanity. Don Lemon on CNN giggles a lot.

But it’s still all Trump all the time.

The one true thing he has said is that the media are secretly rooting for him to be around as long as possible, that he is a boon to TV rating and print/digital subscriptions.

He’s also raised the profile and bank balances of all the newspaper journalists who now appear regularly as “contributors” on cable news – When did journalism join the performing arts? – including Haberman on CNN and Schmidt on MSNBC. They give serious answers to serious questions.

But I’ve yet to hear either of them asked why they handed a Zippo to the Arsonist in Chief.

Ken Becker is the author of The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.

A Left Coast review of The Expat Files

My pal Hal Quinn (photo caption below), having not had the opportunity to kick my ass on the golf course since the ’90s, and having failed 362 attempts to post a review on Amazon, sends this along:

In these disturbing times of The Liar in Chief tweeting in the middle of the night about so-called ‘fake news,’ there could not be a better time for a book about real news, real journalism, and real journalists. Even those who read the Washington Post rather than tweets, watch PBS not FOX, most know little of how journalism works and what the life of a journalist is like.

For that vast majority, The Expat Files makes for very instructive reading (it should be on the reading list of the college where Becks, as I call him, taught and at every Journalism School) and as importantly, it is so well crafted that it reads like a novel not an autobiography as it relates most of the historical signposts of a generation from a front row seat. Becks’ life and our times are told with a reporter’s attention to detail and accuracy, and a novelist’s style and pacing. At times, it is also funny – and funny is the hardest to write.

Becks and I have been friends since we first met decades ago as he mentions in the book. I thought I’d get a bit more than a mention, maybe a chapter, but this isn’t about me. I enjoyed every page of it anyway.

– Hal Quinn, North Vancouver

Photo caption: For those who don’t know Quinn, he’s the tall, bearded golfer, writer and raconteur on the left. I’m the other guy, now lamenting the loss of his chili-pepper hat.