Jim Smith and I used to goof around in the Newsday sports department. He was going to college and covering high-school sports, just as I had started.
Then he came up with No. 34 in the draft lottery and wound up in Vietnam, first as a typist, then on guard duty, then covering the war for Stars and Stripes.
When he came back, he was different. They all were, the ones who came back.
Years later, in 1991, my wife and I were in Vietnam through her volunteer child-care mission, and I came back with new friends and mostly good memories. I saw Jim at a game, and offered to show him photos. He shuddered. Didn’t want to go there.
Now Smith is 67 and retired, and has written a touching and valuable book, “Heroes to the End: An Army Correspondent’s Last Days in Vietnam,” published by iUniverse, also available on e-book.
The words come back. Tu Do Street. Hootch. Charlie. Tunnels. ARVN. Words from history. Words people live with.
Jim is very clear about the journalism he produced, under orders to write only positive stories. But he has fleshed out the details with memories and notes he stashed and letters he sent home.
He makes it clear that he was no hero. He had only four months up close to the fighting, in 1972, when casualties had been downsized, and he only began inching closer to combat near the end, so he would know what it was like. He came under fire twice, never fired a shot.
Most Vietnam books go for the big picture – how LBJ and McNamara and Westmoreland and so many others ignored and misrepresented and lied.
Smith’s book concentrates on the people who did the dirty work; some thought they should go harder, others thought it was all a waste. Smith fluctuated from dove to hawk. He kept his hair fairly short, so officers would give him stories.
He concentrates on the mundane, the down time, the bitching, the carousing, but the old horrors creep in, nevertheless.
Mostly he saw the humanity – some young Americans who discovered they were quite good at firing a machine gun from the door of a helicopter or seeking out Vietcong in the brush. They were warriors. Others were not.
Smith was a reporter, glad to get back to base, to Saigon, to his apartment and civilian clothing and the girlfriend he almost brought home with him.
The closest thing to a big picture comes from meetings with Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, who questioned the war and later was the hero of Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, “A Bright Shining Lie.”
“I had more respect for Mr. Vann – for that is what I always called him – than for anybody else I met in Vietnam.”
After Vann died in a helicopter crash, Smith held back from punching a captain who said Vann had been a showoff.
Smith displays admirable journalistic curiosity about the South Vietnamese, Montagnards and South Koreans he observed in combat.
Then he came home to cover local news and we resumed goofing around during a fractious school-board feud in Great Neck. (How petty it must have seemed to a reporter back from war.) He married a colleague from Newsday, Lynn Brand, and they have a son, Peter.
In retirement, Jim Smith is on the board of United Veterans Beacon House and is donating the profits from his book to veterans’ causes. He served. As he reminds us of that war, I would say he is inching closer to hero status all the time.
Thousands of children and adults have been poisoned in Flint, Mich.
On Wednesday night in Flint, Rachel Maddow – who has served as a national conscience in this latest tragedy mixing politics and pollution – held a “town-hall” meeting on MSNBC.
The meeting provided information and a bit of catharsis for people in Flint -- but no detectable action or shame from the dim-bulb state government that has occupied poor towns in Michigan in recent years.
However, Flint is not the only place where poisons have been let loose. More below.
This horror in Flint has been coming for years, since Gov. Rick Snyder began appointing unelected “managers” to run some Michigan towns, many of them with large black populations. It looked like the bad old days of South Africa.
To save a few bucks, Snyder’s brain trust chose to use water from a polluted river rather than Lake Huron. None of Snyder’s “experts” knew enough to install filters, so lead began showing up in the water – and in children’s bodies.
Lately the governor has been standing around, looking a bit stricken, as people passed out donated water bottles, hardly a solution to the health crisis.
On Wednesday night we learned that it might cost over $10,000 per house to replace the poisoned lead pipes. No work has started. The state government is now in the position of needing help from a federal government that it has vilified as the enemy -- kind of where we are in this country these days.
Maddow has been shining a light on some states with Tea Party and Koch Brother types – North Carolina, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Michigan and Virginia. She reported on Bob McDonnell, then the governor of Virginia, for his fetish for highly personal medical scans of women, labeling him “Governor Ultrasound.”
McDonnell and his estranged wife are now appealing prison sentences for corruption while Maddow has moved on to Flint, which badly needed a friend.
America is good on polluting itself. The New York Times, in the Jan. 10 issue of its Magazine, ran an absolutely riveting article about how DuPont dumped its refuse in the water table of northern West Virginia for many years. A highly responsible mainstream Cincinnati law firm allowed one of its corporate lawyers to take up – and win -- a pollution case.
But with pollution, there are no victories.
I recently talked to Mike Glasser, a friend of a friend, who is taking chemo for cancer he believes was incurred while mixing chemicals amounting to Agent Orange.
But it was not in Vietnam, where we dumped it willy-nilly. It was at Chanute Air Force Base in eastern Illinois, long closed, with people and animals and lakes and land showing signs of chemical damage.
One young reporter, Bob Bajek, took up the issue for a local weekly, and managed to get a highly detailed story published pointing to chemicals used at Chanute more than 40 years ago.
Bajek doesn’t work there anymore. One of his superiors said he stirred up trouble, writing things people didn’t like to read.
* * *
Here are two links by Bob Bajek:
His reporting on the pollution:
(click link below:)
and the response to his work: (click link:)
* * *
None of this is new. May I recommend this version of “Black Waters,” performed by Kathy Mattea, from South Charleston, W. Va., as courant as when the great Jean Ritchie of Viper, Ky., wrote it in 1971.
Mattea's prelude is worth hearing. Black waters are now flowing in Flint.
While we were sleeping Friday night, wondering if we would lose power in the storm, the Mets were signing Yoenis Cespedes for one, or three, or five years, depending on how it goes.
Some people think it’s a good financial deal, compared to what some teams have overpaid for sluggers over 30.
But having witnessed Cespedes in the World Series last fall, when he batted .150, I’m just not convinced.
He played at half speed, his brain and will apparently turned off, looking like musical “Damn Yankees,” when Joe Hardy reverts to a stumbling middle-aged man.
Was he hurt? Was he comatose? Or was his sudden reversal the reason he had passed through three teams in four seasons since leaving Cuba?
Then again, I had been comparing his power and agility to Willie Mays after Cespedes shockingly arrived with the Mets in August. He carried the Mets to the World Series as pitchers suddenly had to revise the way they approached the Mets’ lineup. He made every hitter better.
But he regressed in the National League series, coming up with a sore shoulder after being spotted playing golf in Chicago on the day of the fourth game. He was doubled off first base – way too far, way too lethargic – for the last out of the fourth game of the World Series. And he was stumbling around in the outfield.
That performance undoubtedly cost Cespedes a lot of money. The Mets’ front office played it well, waiting, waiting, until other teams had spent on other players, and Cespedes seemed to be hanging back, wanting to return to New York.
Early Saturday morning, Mets’ buff David Wachter sent me a message:
Yoenis Cespedes $75 for three - $57m more for last three years 2019, 2020, 2021.
2006, 2007, 2008 Jason Giambi was paid $60m.
Cespedes sought $132/6 - $75/3 $57.
Mark Teixeira's contract last three years up to age 35?
2014, 2015, 2016: $69,375,000.
$57,000,000 - 2019,2020,2021.... How many tools did those Yanked first baseman have?
Could they be a late inning substitution in left or right, a pinch runner?
No one offered that money ....
As a Met fan I feel like a miracle happened....
Miracle? Good poker by Sandy Alderson? Admirable decision by Cespedes?
Depends who the Mets get – Willie Mays or Joe Hardy.
Ted Cruz, the lawyer who scorns election ambiguities and disclosure rules, also scorns “New York values.”
We know what Cruz is doing – going after the evangelical vote by raising that old specter, the urban type, with noses and accents and odd names and weird food tastes. You know. The city where America’s children go if they think they can make it there.
Cruz was going after Donald Trump – and welcome to that – by making him typical of New York. But as somebody who grew up a crucial half mile from the Trumps, I have to admit, the Donald, in his own vulgar way, represents a sub-group, his home borough of Queens.
Simon & Garfunkel. 50 Cent. My Jamaica High chorus members, The Cleftones, who played PAL basketball for the 103rd Precinct. Bernadette Peters. And I remember my friend’s older sister, when I was 10 or so, raving about “that Tony Benedetto from Astoria”. The man is still singing, but now to Lady Gaga.
Many of us from Queens form a yappy lot. Is it the vital separation from “The City” – Manhattan? Looie Carnesecca, for many years from Jamaica Estates, says New York pizza is the best because of the water. Is it the brackish water of Flushing Bay and Jamaica Bay and Newtown Creek that makes Queens people tend to mouth off? Or is it the relative space and light that grows characters?
John McEnroe. Jimmy Breslin. Howard Stern. Fran Drescher. Christopher Walken.
Trump is a mouthy rich boy, but Cruz prodded him into the first dignified moment of his campaign, maybe of his life. Trump stuck up for us, the people with the New York values.
Athletes? The common ingredient of Queens jocks is the need to handle the ball. Point guards. Control freaks.
Bob Cousy-Dick McGuire-Kenny Anderson-Kenny Smith- Mark Jackson-Nancy Lieberman, who took the A train from Far Rockaway to Harlem to get a game. Peter Vecsey, who played for Molloy and writes about hoopsters. And from Jamaica High and St. John’s, Alan Seiden, known in the P.S. 26 schoolyard as “And One,” because he called a foul every time he took a shot.
Bob Beamon, from Jamaica High, was a dunker, not a passer. He could leap. Leaped to a world long jump record in Mexico in 1968.
The thing about Queens is that the subway and elevated lines all head west, toward The City. I remember slouching in class at JHS 157 in Rego Park, watching the No. 7 El rumble toward The City.
Trump lived a few blocks from the last stop on the F Line but I wouldn’t bet he ever took the train. Probably got chauffeured to his prep schools.
With all this glorious diversity around him, somewhere along the line Trump developed outsize prejudices. This tells me he never spent much time with Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard. He would have a different facial look if he had.
Queens College graduates: Jerry Seinfeld. Ray Romano. Howie Rose, Mets voice.
Cruz is playing to the base, the red-hots who cheered him in South Carolina and might caucus for him in Iowa on Feb. 1. His code words of “New York values” are an insult to the Chinese in Flushing and the Koreans along Northern Blvd. and the Latinos around 82nd St. and the South Asians around 74th St. -- and my friend Alton Gibson from South Jamaica who disregarded his guidance counselor’s advice to take vocational classes, and got himself advanced degrees and a good career. Those New York values.
Mario Cuomo from South Jamaica who married the beautiful Matilda Raffa and led a life of good works and talented children.
In Queens, we talk and write and sing and dream.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Stephen Jay Gould. Stephen Dunn, zone-busting guard and Pulitzer Prize winning poet. Francis Ford Coppola. Sam Toperoff. Lucy Liu. Russell Simmons. Idina Menzel. Michael Landon. Cyndi Lauper. Joe Austin, Mario Cuomo’s coach for life.
The bright young woman from the English class in Jamaica High a decade ago, now a college graduate doing advance work for Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. The bright young woman from two decades ago, now getting her teaching certificate in the grand building on the hill.
Those voices Those accents. The great spices emanating from open doors and adjacent apartments in Astoria and Bayside and Hollis and Ozone Park. The dreams. The drives. The New York values.
I was thinking about Monte Irvin before the State of the Union speech. Irvin died Monday and my friend Ray Robinson, the writer, called me to commiserate.
Ray once wrote a story about Irvin visiting him at his home on Fire Island, dutifully hitting fly balls at the edge of the surf to young fans who knew a Hall of Famer was visiting. Irvin was always a gentleman.
The early great black players were individuals: the activist Jackie Robinson, the lifer Roy Campanella, the energetic Willie Mays, the stoic Larry Doby. Monte Irvin was a centrist, a veteran of the Negro Leagues, who played in Newark, across the river, while lesser players were performing in Brooklyn, Harlem, the Bronx.
When he got his chance, Irvin had eight seasons to show the great player he was.
Later, he was brought into the Commissioner’s office, perhaps as a gesture, perhaps to offer real counsel.
Either way, he was available, to talk about the past, to talk about the present. Some reporters were lucky enough to spend time with him around ball parks and hotel lobbies. He was a link; he was a guide.
(The National Football League did somewhat the same with Buddy Young, the splendid little running back, a pioneer black star right after the War. What a treat to sit around an otherwise tedious summer camp and talk about Illinois and the New York Yankees football team.)
A personal note about Monte Irvin: in the mid-‘60’s the baseball writers held a summer outing at Bear Mountain, including a hardball game. I was playing left field, and Monte Irvin, long retired, lofted one so far over my head that I think it landed in the Hudson River.
Monte was always available for history and opinions. Around 2009, I called him for my Stan Musial book (he thought Musial was a positive force in those days) and I reminded him of the shot he hit at Bear Mountain. Not surprisingly, I recalled it more than he did. He, after all, had tagged Warren Spahn and Robin Roberts much the same way.
I thought about Monte Irvin again during the State of the Union speech, as President Obama made a passionate call for Americans to somehow dig back to their better selves.
At the end, I saw some black members of Congress near the exit – Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee from Jamaica High School and Yale and now Houston, always there for his autograph. I saw the sheer pride emanating from them, but that is also how we feel about him and Michelle Obama, with the pride of family members.
When the President casually offered to give some tips about Iowa to current candidates, my wife and I whooped it up. Oh, right. He won two elections, come to think of it.
We look forward to the Obamas maintaining a standard of dignity and thoughtfulness over the decades. The president’s speech soared like Monte Irvin’s home run.
* * *
LOVELY CODA TO THIS POST:
(Jon Leonoudakis, who made the recent documentary on Arnold Hano, another grand old writer, displays the bond among Hano, Ray Robinson and Monte Irvin:)
From Jon Leonoudakis:
After I heard the sad news of the passing of Monte Irvin, it struck me there was a wonderful story to share about him that is largely unknown.
Ray Robinson and Monte were good friends, and in the summer of 1963, Ray invited Monte and his wife, Dee, to join Arnold Hano, his wife, Bonnie and their nine-year-old daughter, Laurel, at their place on Fire Island for a weekend. When the kids in Ray’s neighborhood learned Monte Irvin was staying there, they begged him to come out and play ball with them. Remarkably, Arnold Hano had his 16mm film camera with him and captured Monte playing with the kids. It is a very sweet story and I’ll be sharing it with the world later today. Click on the link above.
When I first saw the footage while making the Hano documentary, I asked Arnold, “Who’s the black guy in the Sports Illustrated T-shirt?”. The reply via e-mail: “Monte Irvin.” I nearly fell out of my chair! I then set about interviewing Arnold and Ray about their recollections of that weekend. It wasn’t something I could fit into the body of the film, but I hoped there would be an outlet for it at some point.
Rest in peace, Monte Irvin.
* * *
Ray Robinson’s 1984 article about the day Monte Irvin visited him at the beach:
Theodore Roosevelt is back in the news, since armed protestors occupied a national wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, including land put aside for the ages by Theodore Roosevelt.
The old Rough Rider would have had his own ideas how to disperse these intruders. I feel I have an insight into the strength (and temper) of Theodore Roosevelt, since his daughter once bawled me out.
This was in 1974 when I wangled a tour of Sagamore Hill from Roosevelt’s second daughter, Ethel Derby, of Oyster Bay.
Mrs. Derby was polite, and formidable and knowledgeable, but the interview almost ended in the first minutes when I referred to her father as “a hunter.”
“Don’t think of him as a hunter,” Mrs. Derby said. “He was a conservationist. Sometimes he shot deer for food. He also helped classify many animals. But he was not a hunter. Young people who visit get the wrong impression.”
I knew some of the trophies in the American Museum of Natural History had been donated by Roosevelt, whose father had been a founder of the museum. And a few heads and hides are now spread around the very male, very dark, family home Roosevelt had built.
In 1974, his daughter was mad at me. I caught Joyce Dopkeen, the Times photographer, looking at me as if to say, “You are blowing this interview, dude.”
Fortunately, Mrs. Derby was as gracious as she was loyal, and she continued the interview, her memory vital at 83. She made sure to tell me her father had made many positive gestures toward African Americans, and that she was from the liberal wing of the Republican Party. She also said kind words, but no excuses, about President Nixon, who had been kind to her, and was soon to resign because of the Watergate scandal.
She was a tribute to her patrician father and mother, Edith Carow Roosevelt, her father’s good friend in childhood, whom he married two years after his first wife died in childbirth.
My faux pas with Mrs. Derby has long dominated my memory of the interview. Last fall my wife and I were accorded a tour of Sagamore Hill through friends, Brian and Janet Savin of Connecticut, and I only vaguely remembered having been there with Mrs. Derby, decades earlier.
I have since read “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book by Edmund Morris, which covers Roosevelt’s family life and early political years leading up to his replacing the assassinated President McKinley in 1901.
Mrs. Derby’s father was a complicated man – brilliant intellectual skills, deft political operator, source to friendly reporters, high morals, but impetuous, often losing his temper even to close friends. After the first 600 pages, I went to the Web and found plenty of educated speculation that TR was bipolar.
Morris also makes it clear that fellow Rough Rider volunteers were falling all around him as Roosevelt led the charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba in 1998.
The best part of the book is about Roosevelt’s visceral love of the west – chasing down three rascals who stole his boat, resisting the suggestion he hang them, turning them over to a sheriff.
In his first terrible months after the death of his first wife, Alice, he went to his ranch in the Dakota territory and shot just about anything that moved – “making his total bag 170 items in just 47 days,” Morris writes.
I’m glad I didn’t have that statistic at hand when I interviewed Mrs. Derby, who passed three years later. Her father would have been proud of the way she scolded me – and the way she continued the interview, as she had promised.
*- Junior Griffey emerged from the pile at home plate with a Seussian smile – winning run in an epic victory over the Yankees. (We all knew he had been chastised by Billy Martin as a kid.)
My daughter Laura Vecsey was a sports columnist in Seattle that year. Griffey had mood swings, but the way he went back on a fly ball…. My son David Vecsey also worked in Seattle those years. His first child was born in 1998. The next day at the ball park, Griffey approached David and said, “Where’s my cigar?” and David produced one, you bet.
Junior had seen a lot of disruptions as the son of a major-leaguer; his goal was to be a family man. I hope they are enjoying his deserved selection to the Hall of Fame.
When reporters brought up drugs, Griffey flexed his whippy arms and said, "I train on pizza." He knew what he was telling us. Nice Hall of Fame diet, Junior.
*- Nobody hit a ball with a sharper concussion than Mike Piazza. You could have your nose in your laptop and the crack would make you jerk your head up to follow the orbit. David Waldstein knows him much better than I do: don’t miss this in the NYT today.
There seem to be two criticisms of Piazza: that he had a poor arm for a catcher, and showed alleged symptoms of steroid use when he joined the Mets. I say, if he was that bad a catcher, some manager would have made him play first.
Apparently, reporters noticed pimples when Piazza emerged from the shower. I was not on Zitz Watch that day. No other evidence. I go with the crack of the bat.
*- I cannot believe Peyton Manning would take illegal substances, even with a neck injury threatening his career. Not all athletes can make that judgment, particularly at those prices, but few athletes reach Manning’s level with his family history and support. (see: Jeter, Derek.) I believe Manning would know what he risked if he did something illegal -- not right from wrong but self-protective from self-destructive.
* - Back around 1970, I wrote that the football Giants were a “brown-bag team,” having followed them from one college camp to another, with family divisions and cronyism rampant. But then George Young was installed as GM, Wellington Mara and John Mara and Bill Parcells and Lawrence Taylor established order.
When Tom Coughlin arrived, he was a strange tormented dude, early on. The Giants actually staged an intervention: why so miserable, man? He’s been a self-aware grump ever since, totally acceptable.
Now, when I see John Mara – as solid a sports owner as there is, along with the Tisch family – allowing Coughlin to retire and talking about finding a place in the organization for him – and admitting that Jerry Reese’s personnel choices haven’t all worked out – it makes sense to me. The Giants are loyal. The Giants have won four Super Bowls. The Giants are not a brown-bag outfit.
One of the joys of being old is the occasional discovery of something lovely, something you never knew existed.
That’s what happened Sunday when we saw the filmed performance of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” -- not in London but in Kew Gardens, Queens.
I am embarrassed to admit I never knew the play, after four years of being around the wonderful Shakespeare Festival at Hofstra College in the late ‘50’s. That was the biggest thing on our little campus, because the president, John Cranford Adams, was a noted Shakespeare scholar, and had made sure we had a Globe Theatre in the new playhouse (soon deservedly named for him).
I can still see friends in costume, wielding swords, wooing, declaiming. (Francis Coppola was backstage, learning his craft.)
However, in five decades of seeking out Shakespeare all over London, I still had to verify that the “The Winter’s Tale” was his, when it popped up Sunday at the deus-ex-machina art-film house in a funky corner in Queens that reminds me of some blessedly static part of London.
Yes, it was Shakespeare. My wife had seen a version at the pit at the Barbican. The plot was for me to discover.
Branagh was excellent as the jealous king who touches off the tragedy but the star was Judi Dench as the wise elder who speaks truth to the king. She is 80; her voice and psychic power could cut and polish a diamond.
The elders in the movie house seemed to love Dench. They spoke English and Russian and other languages of our city; the lady next to me was Jamaican.
No plot giveaways here. I will only say that I remember tearing up near the end of Stoppard’s “Arcadia” a few decades back when the tectonic plates of two separate centuries, two sets of people at a country estate, gracefully overlap.
I wish I could say, “Don’t miss this,” but this was essentially a one-off item that may pop up elsewhere at the rare theaters that provide quality films. (The movies in my town are mostly banal trash.)
To find quality performances, one has to monitor the schedules for the Metropolitan Opera, the National Theatre Live, the Bolshoi Ballet, and now Branagh’s enterprise in the gorgeously renovated Garrick Theatre at Charing Cross. (My London rellies saw a sold-out “The Winter’s Tale” on Christmas Eve and reported that rare British happening, a standing ovation.)
I didn’t stand in the movie house in deepest Queens on Sunday – too busy wiping away a few tears before the house lights came back on.
“Have you made a resolution?” my wife asked. Had not.
She said that rather than make grandiose plans – join a health club -- it is better to lighten the load, leaving more room and time for better things that come up.
She is consolidating some details – stuff that banks and companies don’t seem to know how to do anything, on automated phone hell. Made sense to me.
I hereby vow to write less in the new year about things I don’t care about – sports that vanished in my rear-view mirror years ago. Just because the web is an endless maw doesn’t mean we should try to fill it, minute by minute.
For a while, I’m going to lay off Donald Trump and Pete Rose (who may, in fact, be the same person.)
Plus, any web site that inserts 15-second video commercials is getting X’d out of my queue. That’s not why we learned to read and think, to watch stuff jump around.
I will write about stuff that excites me – like discovering a new Shakespeare play (for me, that is). But enough for today.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.