Lt. Bruce Logan, right, Cu Chi Region, 1966-67
Bruce Logan served two tours in Vietnam as an officer, and counted himself lucky when he returned to the United States. Now he and his Canadian wife, Elaine Head, consider Vietnam a second home.
Some Americans go back to confront their bad dreams in the cities and countryside. They are often touched by the conciliatory tone of word and deed.
In a village outside Hanoi, Logan and Head were invited to a feast at the home of a woman named Phuong. In a matter-of-fact way, she described President Nixon’s Christmas bombing of 1972, the bodies and the rubble. The former officer expressed his sorrow for the carnage.
“In response, Phoung turned her misted eyes to mine, laid her hand on my forearm and said, ‘I am so glad that you did not die in the war and that we are here to have dinner together in my house.’
“At that, everyone had a silent cry, for long ago pain, for the moment we had shared, and for the gift of forgiveness in Hanoi.”
Logan and Head tell many stories like this in their book, Back to Vietnam: Tours of the Heart,
published by JOTH Press, Salt Spring Island, B.C. and First Choice Press of Victoria, B.C.
My wife and I had similar experiences in 1991 when we were visiting Vietnam as part of her child-care work. People casually divulged details of the war – but only if we asked. Mostly they demonstrated reconciliation, north with south, Vietnamese with Americans.
Not everybody goes back. I have friends who lived through terrible times in Vietnam and do not care to go back. I was never there in wartime; I understand. I had a nice visit with Sen. John McCain once, and asked why he and his buddies help send goods to Vietnam. He shrugged, quite modestly, suggesting it was the right thing to do. I think about that when I see him on television. There is a good man in there
Like many combat veterans, Bruce Logan kept the war inside him, but he and his second wife, Elaine Head, visited Vietnam in 2006 with a group of veterans and their families. The book has touching stories of finding old foxholes, places where soldiers and civilians died, where horrible memories live, tempered by the forgiveness of the Vietnamese, that sometimes feels like a miracle.
The glorious byproduct of the visits was gaining a family. In the World Heritage town of Hoi An,
just outside Da Nang, Logan and Head met Le Nguyen Binh and his wife Quyen, who operate Reaching Out
, a distributor of hand-crafted goods made by people who might be consider disabled. My wife and I have purchased some of their high-quality goods. (I wrote about Binh
and Quyen in a previous post.)
Binh and Quyen have made a standing offer for Logan and Head to live in Hoi An, and be cared for in their old age, perhaps even be cremated there. Not yet, Logan and Head say, politely. They still conduct tours
for Americans who need to return to Vietnam. Their sweet book is graced by their anecdotes, their adventures, their bond with their other home.
Bruce Logan in Vietnam; Elaine Head and Bruce Logan
I was in awe of Sam Toperoff days into my freshman year at Hofstra College. From my workship with the athletic department, I knew he was a transfer basketball player, out of the service, waiting to play the following season.
Then he turned up in a sociology class, and he stood out. He was 5-6 years older than me and knew how to talk in class.
I still remember Professor Nelson explaining the sociological concept of brothers and others – the circles of life, people we care about, people we don’t necessarily care about.
“You, Toperoff, are my brother,” Professor Nelson said, “and the rest are others.”
A hundred people in this huge lecture hall, and the professor knew Sam’s name.
Toperoff started for a couple of seasons of varsity ball. My strongest memory of him is singing – maybe a Belafonte song? – in the locker room before a road game, nervous energy, channeled into song.
He was a force. Stephen Dunn
, the shooting guard, now a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, tells about listening to Sam and another teammate in a hotel room, talking about Moby Dick. Imagine. Not women or zone defenses, but words, concepts.
(That was quite a team -- a novelist and a poet, starting.)
Sam taught at Hofstra for 20 years and has written 13 books on extremely varied subjects,
including the gripping Pilgrim of the Sun and Stars,
about a Basque peasant who makes a pilgrimage to the Vatican. Sam also wrote sports for magazines and for 15 years worked for public television, most notably a travelogue series. My wife bought all of them.
Now Sam lives in the French Alps (in a house he built) with his wife and daughter and grandson. He is a hero to his pals because he has continued to write. Lillian & Dash
, his novel about the long affair between Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, is being published by Other Press
in July of 2013.
Sam has gotten good advance attention, including a Kirkus review
. The novel is available via Amazon and other sources. I've read it, and I love the dialogue and insight into two talented people from another time and place.
It’s been a lot of decades; Toperoff still scores.
Sam, left, Asher right, in the French Alps.
Two Left-Handers. Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2011. Photo by the great Doug Mills.
I’ll be talking about my book, Stan Musial: An American Life, on Saturday, Nov. 10, in Harrisburg, Pa.
The talk will also be streaming live at 3 pm at:http://pcntv.com/
The talk is part of the Harrisburg Book Festival
, Friday through Sunday, at the terrific Midtown Scholar Bookstore-Café, 1302 N. Third Street in Harrisburg. Tel: 717-236-1680.
My appearance has been arranged through my daughter Corinna Vecsey Wilson, vice president of programming and host
The book was a New York Times best-seller in 2011. For a couple of glimpses of Musial, please see: http://old.post-gazette.com/pg/11191/1159123-148-0.stmhttp://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/the-story-of-stan-the-man/
Musial will turn 92 on Nov. 21, and is the icon of St. Louis. I will be linking his modest, hard-working persona to his Pennsylvania roots in Donora in the western part of the state.
Stan the Man was one of the great baseball players of his time, or any time. At first I thought the subtitle should be The Forgotten Man (reference to the song in High Society) but when I began researching his roots as an immigrant's son in zinc-and-steel-and-smog country, I realized the subtitle An American Life was much better. It is always an honor to talk about one of the sporting heroes of my childhood.
Prayer Wall/ Photo by George Vecsey
How could we have waited so long to visit Turkey?
My overall impression of Istanbul was of overlapping cultures and tastes, centuries of civilizations.
We were touched by amplified prayers wafting through this huge city, summoning worshippers to the mosques at mid-day.The windowsill in our hotel had a tiny sticker with an arrow pointing toward Mecca, making it easier for travelers to pray.
At the same time, life went on, with people dressing and apparently living their varied fashions.
We love cities. We took trams and ferries the way we take the subway or commuter train in New York. We found succulent small plates of appetizers -- mezze -- everywhere, but I have to say, our best meal was at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art
, a great airy space alongside the Bosphorus, with stimulating contemporary exhibitions. And I found a great bookstore near the ferry in Kadikoy, with soccer books by Franklin Foer and Simon Kuper, translated into Turkish.
One thing I did not do was take an anotated walk around the neighborhood featured in My Name Is Red, the compelling novel by Orhan Pamuk (please enjoy the Updike review
from 2001), which takes place near the Galata Tower
. Next time.
For sheer reading pleasure, please enjoy the current essay by Pamuk
on the drying-up of the Bosphorus.
We went to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, expecting history and we encountered something close to literature.
One stele, or marker, contained a tribute to a Roman captain, Iulius Callineicos, from the third century, C.E. “Greetings passerby! Callineicos, you have set sail to the limits of Lethe (the mythical river of forgetfulness), having survived many fierce tempests. Still the sea did not swallow you in its depths, [but] the earth has wiped you from the face of the earth, you who wanted to take after your brother Calligonos, who left long ago from the face of the earth. The decision of the Fates (Moirae) was thus: Here lies Iulius Callineicos, captain.”
Callineicos was sent by one great civilization; his service is still noted in the heart of another great civilization.
Stele of Callineicos in Archaeology Museum/ Photo by George Vecsey
Chris Hayes/ Christopher Hitchens
At first I thought Chris Hayes was a trifle callow when he began making cameos on MSNBC, but he has quickly become one of the most thoughtful talk-show hosts on television.
And my long-time impression of Christopher Hitchens was of a skanky mixture of alcohol, tobacco and ego, but now I am enjoying his last collection of essays.
My wife kept saying there was more to both of them, and she’s usually right. (She told me to take a fresh look at the noted wingnut Ted Turner during his hilariously epic Goodwill Games venture with the old Soviet Union in the late ‘80’s.)
Hayes was tall and young and enthusiastic when he started to pop up on the Rachel Maddow show. It wasn’t that I disagreed with him about much, but I just didn’t think the world needed another true believer on the left or right.
Fortunately, somebody saw enough to give Hayes his own show
, Up w/Chris Hayes, on Saturday and Sunday mornings from 8 to 10 on MSNBC. He knows his stuff, and he also lets his guests speak – in paragraphs, in complete thoughts – without shouting them down or belittling them, which is surely the mode on cable these days.
Hayes is a master of getting smart guests, most of them from the liberal end, but he is gracious and fair to all guests (as is the well-prepared Maddow.)
Last Sunday Hayes had three panelists I did not know, all of them interesting, as well as Edward Conard
, who helped build Bain Capital and is the author of the current book, Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong.
In the course of a civil conversation, Conard agreed that Mitt Romney was “legally” the CEO of Bain until 2002, a point Romney does not choose to concede.
I could not tell if Conard felt he was able to fully represent his book, but he seemed to fit in with the other panelists.
(Melissa Harris-Perry strikes pretty much the same thoughtful tone on MSNBC on weekends from 10 to noon. May their tribe increase.)
Christopher Hitchens was an acquired taste. I had caught him preening and pontificating over the years and was mostly turned off. (As my friend Pincus once said about somebody at work, we grew up in different schoolyards.)
A few years ago, at my wife’s urging, I read Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch-22
, about a life far more Dickensian than I could have imagined. After he died, I began reading his last book, Arguably: Essays
Hitchens takes readers places we do not have time to explore – authors, countries, mind sets. I have no idea how he managed to know so many people, be so many places. He even had himself waterboarded
-- without Dick Cheney ordering it.
Just one essay will stand in for all of them. Given the ferment that has come out of Tunisia in the past few years, I was delighted to discover Hitchens had visited there for a July 2007 essay in Vanity Fair. It began: If we all indeed come from Africa, then the very idea of Africa itself comes from the antique northern coast of the great landmass, where the cosmology is subtly different and where the inhabitants look north to Europe and southward at the Sahara. Here was the mighty civilization known as Carthage, which came as close as possible to reversing what we think of as the course of “history” and conquering Europe from Africa instead of the other way around. With its elephants and armies and under the brilliant generalship of Hannibal, it penetrated all the way through Spain and France and down over the Alps…
Hitchens soon introduces us to the wine and cuisine and feminism and education level of modern Tunisia as well as the tensions within Islam that more or less prepare the reader for the revolution
I am going through the Hitchens collection slowly, hoping somehow it will keep expanding. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that avowed atheist found a way to file from the beyond?
In 1989, a publisher sent me on a modest book tour, which included a day in San Francisco.
There I was taken around town by a media escort named Kathi Kamen Goldmark, one of the most charming people I have ever met.
From then on, every time I pecked away on a book I did so with the ultimate goal of once again being driven around The City by this interesting lady who knew the parking spaces, the back doors, the on-air “talent” and where to hang out for coffee between appointments in the city by the bay.
Over the years Goldmark organized the writers’ rock band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, and wrote her own book, and generally became more of a star than some wordy doofs like me she had escorted.
It was a jolt to read her obituary
in The Times on Sunday after she passed on May 24, of breast cancer. I will always have the vivid memory of chatting about books, Steely Dan, New York, the ‘60’s, and maybe even a bit of discreet gossip about other authors who had sat in my seat.
Her passing reminds me of the episodic life journalists lead. Particularly at The Times, we have doors opened for us, we are taken inside, we meet people for an hour or two, and then we write our impressions – and we always remember that one encounter.
Just off the top of my head I can think of some epic people I interviewed and essentially never met again – The Dalai Lama (just to drop a name), Colleen Dewhurst (on matinee day), Tony Blair (I knocked on No. 10
and just went in, pre-arranged, of course), Ronee Blakley (the lead in the Altman movie Nashville), Joyce Carol Oates (she had a boxing book going), Ruud Gullit
(the great Dutch footballer, in a restaurant outside Genoa) and Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, the boxer who was doing time in New Jersey (“for something that he never done,” as Dylan put it; the guard offered me a seat on a spare electric chair in the waiting room, but I declined.)
What I’ve learned is that these singular events do not come around again, although other singular events do. While pushing my Musial book in 2011 I had the distinct delight of being driven around one day by Elaine Bly, master St. Louis media escort, with her Tennessee accent and her BMW.
Carpe diem. Enjoy the time. My condolences to Kathi’s family, friends, band mates, and all the one-day wonders like me, who had the pleasure of meeting her.
This Cover Tended to Catch Attention
The thing I remember most about Naked Came the Stranger is that Mike McGrady and Harvey Aronson shared the profits. This is such stunning behavior that it needs to be put in a separate category from Mike’s (a) being a superb journalist and (b) coming up with a noted publishing hoax or scram or prank or whatever it was.
When he passed this week at 78, Mike was celebrated not only in respectful obits
in the Washington Post and New York Times but also in an editorial in the Times
. It said he should be most remembered as a columnist; Mike went to Vietnam for Newsday in 1967 and his point of view was stated in the title of his series, later a book: A Dove in Vietnam.
When Mike got back, having sniffed out the hypocrisy of that mad endeavor, he and his colleague Aronson came up with an idea for takeoff on all the bad sex novels that sold zillions of copies. Proposing a novel about infidelity in the suburbs, they invented the main character, a scorned wife on a mission, and they encouraged co-workers to write our own steamy chapters.
(I was in the sports department at Newsday until 1968. Like many ball players, I have fond memories of my first team – a great newspaper back in those days, built by the visionary publisher, Alicia Patterson. Miss P. Harvey Aronson -- who called himself H. Casey Aronson -- was mostly the manager of the Nightside Softball Team. In his spare time, he sometimes edited and wrote and nurtured young talent.)
A lot of us received printed memos in the office mail, inviting us to take part. (Kids, this was before there was such a thing as e-mails, or computers.) Some of us contributed our foolish little chapters and became co-authors for life.
McGrady and Aronson cobbled together our efforts and sent forth into this land a cover, lurid for its time, and words that might have been erotic if they had not been so hackneyed. But at least we were trying to be ridiculous. It was not an accident.
The results are well-known – a novel under the Nom de Smut of Penelope Ashe. We were all Penelope Ashe, whether our scribblings were accepted or blended into one chapter, or merely noted with grace by Mike and Harvey.
Some in the so-called reading public – even reviewers -- were fooled; some suspected nothing could be this bad unintentionally; some people actually bought the damn thing and read it. We went on the David Frost show with a naked model based on the figure on the cover. Ultimately, somebody made a porn movie with the same title, and Stan Isaacs rented a hansom cab to take a few of us to the, um, grand opening.
But the most astonishing part was that McGrady and Aronson divided the income into equal parts – one-twenty-fifth, as I recall. The occasional checks financed the odd trip to the city, or milk and diapers for growing families, or an after-hour round set up by Leo at the Midway bar and grill in Garden City. Mike and Harvey had the idea, they did most of the work, they publicized it, and yet they shared the booty. I used to ask them about their egalité, and they just shrugged. This was the right thing to do. Tell that to people who collaborate in show business or web ventures or high finance or politics or lottery partnerships. Fairness is not a given.
A word about my own miserable efforts. While working an occasional shift on dreaded rewrite on the overnight sports desk, I was waiting for night baseball games to end on the West Coast. Having taken typing in junior high school, I batted out a chapter in an hour. Then the Dodgers beat the Giants, or vice versa, and I finished my excursion into soft porn.
I'm still not sure if this is a good thing or not, but mine is the cleanest, most tasteful, chapter in the book. For the hapless schnook in my chapter I gave the name Morton Earbrow. I remembered that Casey Stengel once said Gil Hodges was so strong that he could “squeeze your earbrows off.” I wasn’t quite sure what an earbrow was, but it sounded like a word I could resurrect in my one-hour career as 1/25 novelist. (Oh, yes, a sample of my dreadful prose
-- intact, as I recall -- was cited in Mike’s Washington Post obit. Recognition at last.)
We all went our separate ways. Mike settled in western Washington State, and urged his pals to come visit. I wish I had, but I could never get further west than the pho emporiums on Aurora in Seattle. I’m left with fond memories of a colleague with talent and humor. And integrity.
Let's Remember Mike This Way
And this way.
Appel Takes Us From Wee Willie to the Boss
The guilt pile teeters dangerously in my study, sometimes toppling of its own imbalance.
I have so many writer friends who write so many books that I cannot acknowledge all of them.
We writers are odd birds
, as described by Roger Rosenblatt in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. We hunker in corners and rearrange words and offer them to a world addicted to flickering electronic images. But what else is a web site good for, if not to mention just a few books by friends that I recently read and enjoyed? Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees From Before the Babe to After the Boss. By Marty Appel. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
This book is said to be “definitive,” and I would add “thoroughly enjoyable,” particularly when Marty unleashes his own memories, which by now are institutional. Marty started in 1968 as an assistant to Bob Fishel, the great Yankee publicity man, and he has grown into writer and man-about-baseball. He was not there in 1903, but Marty has surely done his homework, describing the arrival of a forlorn franchise from Baltimore, with Wee Willie Keeler playing right field on a makeshift wooden platform over a swampy area of right field in upper Manhattan. He brings us to the later years of Posada-Rivera-Jeter.
The parts I like best are the things Marty learned along the way from Yankee lifers. One of them is the mystery of who stole the ancient Mosler safe with individual drawers that once secured the valuables of Keeler, Griffith and Chesbro of the original Highlanders. The safe survived moves from Hilltop Park to the Polo Grounds and then to the first Yankee Stadium, but as the Yankees prepared to move to Shea Stadium during rebuilding in 1974-75, the safe vanished. I asked Marty to elaborate and he said the venerable clubhouse man, Pete Sheehy, just shrugged in his inscrutable Big Pete way. Marty doesn’t know that secret, but he surely knows the Yankees, particularly the Boss, whom he saw up close, with all his complexities. The Longest Fight: In the Ring With Joe Gans, Boxing’s First African-American Champion. By William Gildea. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2012.
I vaguely knew the name Joe Gans, but Gildea introduces us to the man and the era, the early 20th Century. Gans was so good and so dignified that some white boxing fans of that time actually managed to get past their blatant prejudices and detect his humanity. Gildea has done masterful research and writing, recalling a gold-rush outpost in rural Nevada, where in 1906 Gans staged an epic fight-to-the-finish with Battling Nelson. The match itself is re-created excellently, but I liked even better the way Gildea presents the details of the time – what people ate, how they traveled, how whites and blacks interacted in daily life. Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry, and Baseball’s Greatest Gift. By Harvey Araton. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt. 2012.
My colleague and friend Harvey Araton knows a good story when he hears it – how Guidry and Berra, Yankee greats of separate generations, spend time together every spring, as special eminences in Yankee camp. Guidry dispenses his Cajun frog legs and Berra dispenses his Hill wisdom. Berra is a national institution; fans will discover the humanity of Guidry. Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball. By R.A. Dickey with Wayne Coffey. New York: Blue Rider Press. 2012.
Dickey discloses his turbulent childhood and his own imperfections as he seeks spiritual and intellectual growth, until he becomes a very late bloomer with the Mets. This book contains raw stuff – abuse, addiction around him, how Dickey took chances with his life by sleeping in empty houses and trying to swim the Missouri River. Far beyond the usual sports diary.
(Caveat: Long ago I formulated a so-called policy -- a stuffy word, to be sure -- that I do not give jacket blurbs. These are not reviews, and not identified with The New York Times in any way, but rather personal georgevecsey.com
tributes to friends who got good books published, and more power to them.)
Gildea Makes 1906 Pulsate
By now, I can envision videos of Jeremy Lin’s amazing adventure
of the past two weeks being downloaded from the United States to China in a new form of cultural exchange.
Lin is the Chinese-American basketball point guard from Palo Alto and Harvard who has scored 20 points in five straight games after nearly being cut from this erratic franchise.
His foray against the Lakers
and other teams would do wonders for the self-image of home-grown Chinese professionals, who do not believe they have the psyche or the soma to compete against Americans, even the discarded Yanks who wash up in the Chinese league.
This confession of inadequacy is one of the many powerful points of one of the best books I have read about contemporary China – Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing by Jim Yardley, just published by Knopf.
Confession: I know and admire Yardley
, a colleague from The New York Times, formerly posted in Beijing, now in New Delhi.
In 2008, Yardley caught up with Bob Weiss
, a lifer player and coach in the National Basketball Association who, on a bucket-list kind of whim, had accepted a job coaching the pro team in Shanxi, a marginal team in the coal region of China.
As it happens, Weiss wound up working with a Steinbrennerian character named Boss Wang, who treated him the way the American Boss used to treat Billy Martin – you’re up, you’re down, you’re in, you’re out.
Weiss’ patience and curiosity kept him in this grim city, working for a tyrant, and opened up space and time for Yardley to meet itinerant Nigerian, Taiwanese, American, Kazakh and Chinese hoopsters.
Eventually, the Chinese professionals grew to trust the Mandarin-comfortable Yardley, providing insights into their souls.
“As we all know, Asian players are not as capable as players elsewhere.”
This was the sentiment not of an outsider but of Liu Tie, a lanky former player who was often ordered by Boss Wang to coach the Brave Dragons instead of Weiss.
Liu’s volunteered observation stunned Yardley, who writes that their dialogue “would run roughshod over political correctness parameters in the United States.”
But Liu stuck to his beliefs: “We know we Chinese players are different than African American players. They are more physically gifted. We are not. But we believe that by working harder, bit by bit, it’s like water dripping into a cup. Over time, you finally achieve a full cup.”
Many of the Chinese players exhibit deference when they see the skills of Donta Smith or Bonzi Wells, two Yanks who pass through, and they watch the admirable work habits of Olumide Oyedeji, a selfless Nigerian center who has passed through the N.B.A.
But what they lack, just about everybody agrees, is the individualistic gall to “take it to the rack and stick it,” in the immortal words of Benny Anders
, circa 1984, once a promising flash with the University of Houston.
Since the international “take-it-to-the-rack” gap is freely admitted by Chinese pro players in Yardley’s book, the solution would seem to be a communal viewing of the recent rampages by their soul brother from California. Lin has played with schoolyard abandon and Ivy League intelligence in reviving a Knicks team that was going nowhere with its solipsistic superstars, Anthony and Stoudemire.
So the question for the Knicks now is not how Lin is going to co-adjust with them, but rather how they are going to co-adjust to him.
Lin has been penetrating on the best in the game, like Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol of the Lakers, and if they shut him down, he kicks the ball to somebody else. This discipline is unheard of these days, in an age of N.B.A. players “who shoot when they should pass and pass when they should shoot,” in the caustic words of former Knick coach, Jeff Van Gundy
The fault is not in the genes or the hearts of the Chinese players; their coaches and bosses need to let the game evolve beyond ideology, into art with a purpose.
On every level, Yardley’s book is a treat. Like so many of the best recent books on China, he takes us places we are not likely to be going, even as tourists. He takes us to the gyms and arenas as well as the hotels and restaurants and train stations of modern China. He lets us see China through the eyes of not-at-all-ugly Americans like Bob and Tracy Weiss, as they explore a new land. Yardley has the same empathy for Chinese working people as he does for an itinerant player from Kentucky or a failing point guard from Taiwan.
For years I have thought that the ultimate book on Chinese basketball was Operation Yao Ming The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar, by my friend Brook Larmer, published by Gotham Books in 2005. Now it’s a tie.
To prepare for covering the Olympics in Beijing
in 2008, I read a dozen terrific books, including China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Random House, 1995; River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, by Peter Hessler, HarperCollins, 2001; and Oracle Bones, A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, by Peter Hessler, by HarperCollins in 2006.
Yardley’s book on the Brave Dragons joins them. And the commerce goes both ways – Jeremy Lin videos are surely winging their way electronically to China, to show the next generation: dudes, you can do this.