Nice to be back in the NYT, twice in one day – courtesy of two hard hitters, Gordie Howe and Muhammad Ali.
The Times resurrected a column I did in 1996, the morning after Ali’s stunning appearance, carrying the Olympic torch.
Then by coincidence, they also used a column I prepared a year ago, when Gordie Howe had a stroke.
Two great athletes in vastly different sports, one expanding his strong personality over the years, the other subordinating himself to his sport and his home of Canada.
* * *
Some thoughts on the farewell to Ali:
I was asked to provide some color for the funeral for the lively New York television station, NY1, which, alas, I cannot access on Long Island due to cable rivalries.
I spent a pleasant afternoon with Roma Torre, the anchor (and daughter of epic New York Herald Tribune journalist Marie Torre.) She let me share some of my glimpses of Ali, in Louisville, where I lived for a few years, and at boxing events. In between, we watched the farewell to Ali.
It was fascinating to see Ali as touchstone for the religions and passions and politics of so many disparate people – the activist, Rabbi Michael Lerner of New York, Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation (unidentified as a great Syracuse lacrosse player and teammate of another Greatest, Jim Brown), and so many Ali women, with his verbal gifts and his beauty.
When I called home, my wife raved about Billy Crystal, for catching Ali (and Howard Cosell) just perfectly, telling how Ali stopped jogging at a swank country club in the New York suburbs after Crystal mentioned that the place was known to exclude Jews.
The one over-riding impression of Ali was a man who did righteous things, in small and hidden and often funny ways – in contrast to his public bombast and occasional cruelties. I liked him even better afterward.
* * *
My column on Ali at the Atlanta Olympics revived my memory of how it came about – as pure afterthought, blessed inspiration, the next morning, on three hours of sleep, when I had committed to covering the first gold medal of the Games, for shooting. My strongest memory is of an Iranian woman in full chador, competing, making it a truly universal Olympics.
But as I banged out my column smack on deadline for the first Sunday edition, I realized we (I) needed to get back to what it mean for Ali to materialize like that, high above the stadium, like a comet, glowing brightly. I consulted with our Olympic bureau chief, my pal Kathleen O. McElroy, and we got a short column done for the second edition, and for posterity. How sweet that the NYT would find it again this week (with a photo by the great Doug Mills, now taking photos of President Obama in the White House.)
* * *
It touched me to see Ali buried in Cave Hill Cemetery, in one of the most beautiful corners of Louisville – steep hills, limestone outcroppings, Beargrass Creek flowing through it, with tombs of many famous Louisvillians – veterans on both sides of that ghastly Civil War, plus George Rogers Clark, Joshua Speed, Barry Bingham Sr. and Barry Junior (who was so hospitable to me in my two-year stint as Appalachian Correspondent for the NYT) and Col. Harland Sanders (whom we once saw eating ice cream one night – in a Howard Johnson’s.)
We almost bought a house in that funky old neighborhood of the Highlands – always sorry the deal fell through -- and when I returned for the Derby I would duck the Oaks on Friday and go jogging in the Highlands, including through Cave Hill Cemetery. When it quiets down, I’ll go back and pay respects to Ali. RIP.
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.
Fred Thompson’s obituary reminded me of another time and place, when fewer public figures made me feel, well, I think the word is icky.
In the very early ‘70’s, I was a New York Times Appalachian correspondent based in Louisville.
There were giants in those days, who believed in government. Some of them were Republicans. I got to write about Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky, Mayor Richard Lugar of Indianapolis and a young United States Attorney from Western Pennsylvania, Richard Thornburgh, who gave me a private seminar in jury selection that informs me to this day.
One lovely fall day, I took a ride around Nashville with Sen. Howard Baker, who was running for re-election. He brought along his campaign manager, tall and droll, Fred Thompson.
I don’t remember a word. My story included Baker’s Democratic opponent saying Baker was too liberal toward the antibusing movement. I only remember good conversations in the car and Fred Thompson’s pipe. For a lefty from New York, I was not at all surprised to see things from their perspective, and to enjoy their company.
The Watergate break-in had taken place three months earlier. It was not mentioned in my story. None of us had any way of knowing Baker would be a major figure in the hearings, and that Thompson would become famous for whispering to Baker, as one of his chief assistants.
I was not the slightest bit surprised when Baker was seen as a stalwart, honest man who examined the evidence against President Nixon.
I followed their careers, as Thompson became an actor – well, he was always an actor – and a senator himself.
Recently, I came across a story I had written in 1972, about possible legislation to limit strip mining – ripping coal from the surface of hilly Appalachia. The two proponents were Sen. Cooper from Kentucky (who was about to retire) and Sen, Baker from Tennessee, both Republicans, from coal states.
I thought about the way current senators grovel in front of coal -- Joe Manchin of West Virginia (a nominal Democrat who sometimes seems like a nice guy) and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky (who does not, ever.)
In the year of Trump and Carson and the nebbish Bush and the twerp from Florida I call El Joven, I remember a sunny day driving around Nashville with Howard Baker and Fred Thompson – and not feeling like I needed a shower afterward. What has happened?
I heard the girls were heading south on I-75, known in the mountains as Hillbilly Highway because it takes people home on weekends and holidays.
Get off and take the Valley View Ferry, I urged. I used to do it whenever I could, from Louisville to Eastern Kentucky.
Stop at the Kentucky Horse Park, I insisted.
Don't forget the Boone Tavern at Berea.
I sometimes forget how much I love that part of the world.
* * *
It's not Appalachian, per se, but treat yourself to the Gary Bartz version of "I've Known Rivers," adapted from the Langston Hughes poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."
I’ll be discussing my long relationship with Kentucky this Saturday in my town, Port Washington, Long Island – at the Dolphin Bookshop right after 3 PM.
Mostly I’ll be talking about how a few years of living in Kentucky gave me enough material to fill my head and my books and my articles forever.
I doubt I’ll get to all the stories, so let me tell how this photo with Secretariat came to be taken:
It started on May 6, 1989, when Sunday Silence won the Derby. At the media party late that night, a friend offered a tour of Stone Farm, where Sunday Silence’s sire Halo lived.
Oh, and on the way back up Winchester Road we could stop at Claiborne Farm to see Secretariat.
I am not a racing guy, never bet, have no clue who is running in the Derby on Saturday, but when I covered the Derby, I could learn the new cast of characters. Mostly, I loved the mystique of the Derby that makes Kentucky so different. I get misty when everybody stands and sings “My Old Kentucky Home.” I love the John Prine version:
Plus, nobody passes up a chance to see Secretariat.
First, we stopped at Stone Farm and visited Halo’s stall. I moved close to the wooden slats, only to feel the strong, insistent nudge of the groom, Handsome Sam Ransom, moving me back.
“He bite your head off,” Handsome Sam said.
The other horse people nodded. Mean SOB. I didn’t give Handsome Sam enough credit in my column that week:
We paid homage to Halo and his genes from a safe distance, then headed to Claiborne Farm. My guide, Fara Bushnell, who had some thoroughbred business with a couple of English buyers, handed me a couple of sugar cubes. Not supposed to feed the horses, she said, but….
We walked over to the fence, alongside a low hill of lush Kentucky bluegrass. I put a sugar cube on my palm. The hillside began to shake, better than an earthquake -- a 19-year-old, reddish of color, with a white patch on his nose.
Big Red lumbered over. He knew the drill. A wet nose nuzzled my palm, taking his present.Then he stood still, allowing me to touch his swaybacked side. My friend snapped the photo. Big Red could go now.
I never saw him run in person, but I have written about him dozens of times since, whenever some interloper tries to win the Triple Crown. I cannot tell you who the greatest baseball player or basketball player was, but I will tell you that nobody came close to Secretariat, the way he won the Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont.
Five months after my visit, Secretariat was put down lovingly at Claiborne Farm. Enough was enough. They said the earth shook when he went down. The great Bill Nack wrote an homage to him that you really ought to read:
Big Red is only one reason I revel in the legends of Kentucky – the miners, the politicians, the hard-shell county judges, the singers, the farmers, the complicated world of Louisville, the charming madam and collector of majolica in Bowling Green, Pauline Tabor.
Kentucky was endlessly fascinating. (Don’t judge it by McConnell and Paul.) I’ll talk more at the Dolphin Bookshop, down near the scenic Town Dock in Port Washington, this Saturday. Hope to see you there.
They played music from deep in the collective continental soul. Four Canadians and a drummer from Arkansas.
First time I saw Levon Helm was backstage at the Garden during the Dylan tour in ’74. Somebody had placed a backboard outside The Band’s dressing room, and he was messing around with the ball, between shows. Wish I had said hello, but I was spying on Dylan’s sound check, so I kept moving.
Now his family says he is dying of cancer.
My favorite song from Levon is Ophelia because it is so….so…southern.
Boards on the window/Mail by the door….
Reminds me of funky neighborhoods in the south, where people come and go.
Although what could be more southern than Levon’s buzz-saw rasp on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down?
Only met him once. He played Loretta Lynn’s father, Ted Webb, in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter. I had written the book for Loretta, and the movie people graciously invited me to the openings in Nashville and Louisville.
I was afraid the movie-makers might commit a Beverly Hillbillies version about a part of the world I love. But as soon as I saw Levon as the slender, bashful miner, I knew the movie was going to be respectful.
The second night, there was a party at the hotel, with Loretta and Sissy Spacek jamming together. Sissy could crack up Loretta by imitating her voice and her down-home bended-knee gestures.
Levon was singing backup. It was the women’s show.
During a break in the music, my wife sidled up to Levon and told him how good he was in the movie, and then she added, “You can sing, too.”
He might have had a bit to drink, but not enough that he couldn’t detect the compliment.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
“He was so cute,” she recalled on Tuesday, when we heard the awful news.
We were in West Liberty once, visiting a gracious old lady in a double-wide. I recognized downtown on CNN, remembered a left turn into the countryside.
When you live somewhere for a few years, it is always part of you, an alternate universe.
My wife was driving along the Ohio one day, with our three children in the car. She had lived in Texas as a kid, and recognized a funnel cloud when she saw one.
Get into the lowest ditch, the radio said, so she did, but the twister veered away.
It’s coming to get us, she said after that. It’s coming right up Brownsboro Road.
I covered a tornado in Green County that spring. A little boy, sleeping in his farmhouse, had been impaled in a splintered tree. By the time I got there, the sun was out, a beautiful spring day in Kentucky.
Eighteen months after we moved back home, the same system that crushed Xenia, Ohio, blew straight up Brownsboro Road, demolishing the town houses on the corner, ripping the roof off our kids’ old school.
This Friday night we held our breath for Henryville and West Liberty and all the rest from where we used to live.
* * *
Below: The view from the Courier-Journal Building.
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.