Archive for the ‘Remembrances’ Category

My Appointment with the FBI and a Long-Delayed Connection

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

You don’t just open the door and walk into the Berkeley FBI offices. You don’t get into the offices at all. You ring a bell and someone opens an inner door, which he closes, certainly locked, behind him. Then he opens the outer door and you are let into a sort of antechamber, which contains a small table and a couple of chairs. It was May 17, 1974, and I was there by invitation.

A couple of days before, or perhaps the day before, I had gotten word from the secretary of my group at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab (still called the Rad Lab by most of us), where I was a grad student research assistant, that someone had called and left a message for me to call him: someone from “the government” he had said. I thought she emphasized the word a little ominously, but it was probably just the word itself. What government agency would refer to itself as the government? That didn’t sound like an income tax question. It made me a little apprehensive.

My fears were not groundless. The man whose call I returned turned out to be with the FBI, and he was asking me to come talk to him about something, which he didn’t go into, and soon. I took whatever appointment he suggested, which, when I started to write this, I thought I remembered as having been in the morning. Based on some research into other events with a known time, I reason it’s more likely to have been in the afternoon. I remember waiting in a cafe or drugstore across the street from the offices for the appointed time to arrive.

Why me? Why now? I tried to think of any possible reason for the FBI wanting to talk to me. True, I belonged to a radical socialist group, but I was not by any stretch a leader at that point, nor could I think of anything that would have made me or my group stand out. The days in which our group had served briefly as a point of contact between the Berkeley student movement and the early Black Panther Party were well in the past. Our small organization’s leading role in organizing the Peace and Freedom Party (PFP) and the drive to get it on the 1968 ballot in California had been a major achievement, and members of our group had also been instrumental in bringing the PFP and the Black Panther Party into an electoral alliance. There was nothing illegal about it, but with J. Edgar Hoover still in charge of the FBI, it’s a safe bet that we had gathered a lot of attention from the FBI back then. We had been involved in some illegal demonstrations over the years. No one doubted that our office’s telephone was tapped, and we pretty much assumed our own phones were too. But I had never heard of anyone being called in to talk with the FBI. So why me now?

By May 1974 the mass student movement was long since dead and so was the Black Power movement. US troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam. There were a few organized remnants of the student-based movement, largely made up of people who had decided to devote their lives to political activism when it was exciting and seemed historically important, and who were now faced with mass political apathy and smaller memberships.

Since our group was for overthrowing not only capitalism but also bureaucratic communist rule and thus had no more allegiance to Mao or Fidel than to Richard Nixon, we had always been a small minority on the left and were scarcely acknowledged as being part of it by the Maoist groups and Maoist-flavored “crazies” that had dominated the movement and who would have certainly put us up against the wall, along with many others, if some catastrophe had ever put them in power. The group I was in probably wasn’t significantly smaller then than it ever had been in the past eight years (excepting a few brief periods of recruitment, which had always been followed by sectarian splits to reduce the number again).

Our “purist” positions for democratic rights such as free speech, free press, and the right of workers to strike (real socialism as we and Marx, we thought, viewed it) and belief that revolutionary change had to come through the activity of the working class had never held much appeal to many student radicals. We didn’t even like Che, and most student radicals didn’t like workers or any Americans, really, that weren’t oppressed minorities or student radicals like themselves. The worst of them basically thought that any white American that hadn’t thrown off “white skin privilege” (as they had) by joining the Black Struggle was a “pig,” worthy of being murdered and mutilated, a sentiment so memorably captured in the Bernadine Dohrn (soon to be a visitor in the White House?) “dig it” speech eulogizing the Manson gang murderers.

It’s probably hard for people that didn’t live through it to understand how deeply pathological was the hatred toward almost every aspect of “AmeriKKKa” by many in the American student left; or to understand at what a low intellectual level, despite their academic credentials, those people operated—truly a Nazi level of both hatred and intellect. Directing their hatred against the overwhelming majority of their fellow countrymen was not likely to be a winning formula, but I think they equated destruction with winning and overestimated their own strength by several orders of magnitude.

The recent appearance of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a violent, radical microcult with a charismatic (to them anyway) Black leader, Donald DeFreeze (SLA name Cinque), a convicted armed robber recently escaped from prison, showed that the militant slogans were still capable of inspiring in 1974 a few fringe characters—heroic in their own eyes and those of a lot of spectator radicals—to acts capable of gaining enormous publicity. In relationship to the mass upheavals that had occurred a few years before, they were like the last kernel of popcorn that pops a few seconds after all the rest have finished popping in a sustained eruption. They had in a short time assassinated Marcus Foster, Oakland’s popular first Black school superintendent (agent of the oppressor to them for his “fascist” decision to require student identification cards), and kidnaped Patty Hearst. They were very audacious and cruel, if not overly bright.

The organization I belonged to had decided to “industrialize,” that is to have everyone get jobs in important unionized industries such as auto and steel in order to attempt to influence and recruit workers, largely through supporting or starting rank-and-file organizations to fight for union democracy and militancy. Some in the group had already moved to a few industrial centers such as Detroit, where the national headquarters was now located. Yes, it sounds extremely quixotic, but it was at least logical from the Marxist analysis of the working class as the key actor in this stage of history. I didn’t think I was going to go to work in an auto plant, but I had been helping put out and distribute a dissident Teamster newsletter, while still trying to finish my Physics PhD thesis at Berkeley. It would soon turn out that my estimate of how much political work I could do would not meet the standard of some others, who of course were feeling their own personal conflicts about sacrifices, and I would leave the group.

I knew that several years earlier the FBI had visited a woman who had just broken up with our group’s most prominent leader, hoping that they might catch her in a weak moment in which she might be willing to reveal a few secrets out of spite, I suppose. It had been pretty creepy that they had that kind of knowledge in the first place. Also, a year or two before, my landlady had told me the FBI had come by looking for the previous tenant who was also a member of the organization, a real (as opposed to a converted student) worker with a skilled trade. I had made a long distance (payphone to payphone) call to pass that information on. I never knew why they were checking on him; maybe they just didn’t like to lose track of some people. I doubted this coming interview had anything to do with that. But I was worried because there had to be some reason they wanted to talk to me, and I figured it had to be about something political, yet I didn’t have a clue what it could be. Was the Teamster paper the best bet? It seemed too insignificant by far. The situation seemed more than a little Kafkaesque, to use a term that used to be in vogue.

Although I can’t remember whom in the organization I talked to about the interview beforehand, I know that I talked to some experienced person in the leadership both to get advice on how to proceed and to let them know about something that might turn out to be important. I definitely don’t remember being given any hint of what it could be about, and I don’t remember any advice anyone gave me. It never even occurred to me to consider getting legal advice. I was going to have to play it by ear.

The FBI agent was friendly and motioned for me to sit down. He sat down opposite me and pulled out a stack of what turned out to be photos and put them on the table. Who? What a relief! They were pictures of SLA members. Of course I knew who they were, as almost everyone did then, both real name and SLA name, because of the enormous publicity around the Patty Hearst abduction and the subsequent public demands and responses.

I thought the FBI was being awfully thorough though to have brought me in to talk about the SLA, as I had never had any contact with any of them that I knew of. All I could think of was that, since one of them, Nancy Ling Perry (SLA name Fahizah), had worked as a lab assistant in the same lab in which my wife (from whom I was now separated) had done graduate research at Berkeley, they had made some sort of computer match of all conceivable connections between members of known radical groups and SLA members. My wife did of course know Ling, as she called herself then, and had mentioned her having quit her job to do political activity or something and having said goodbye to everyone, quite some time before the SLA had gone public with the Foster murder. But I had never even met Ling. I remember my wife saying “There’s Ling” once as we were driving down a Berkeley street, but I didn’t see anyone and didn’t slow down.

Ling had been a Berkeley student but had never been involved in politics at all during the height of the student movement when many thousands in Berkeley were drawn in. About the only thing I can remember hearing about her, and it’s quite striking, considering her future path, is how terribly she agonized over the necessity for killing animals (very primitive ones, I think) for some of the lab’s experiments. I knew my wife had not had any involvement whatsoever with Ling’s new associates and hadn’t talked to her since she’d gone underground, so I didn’t have to worry about what I should say from any standpoint I could think of.

I clearly remember my feeling of relief upon seeing the SLA photos, but I can’t remember whether the sight of the photos came as a complete surprise, as presenting something I hadn’t even considered. Given the prominence of the SLA in the news, such a possibility, however unlikely, may have occurred to me, since everything seemed unlikely. Thirty-four years leaves little of certainty. In any case, it turned out I was wrong, once I’d seen the SLA pictures, to have assumed they’d called me in because of that distant secondhand connection.

The FBI agent asked me if I recognized any of the people in the pictures, and I told him that of course I recognized them as the same ones that were in the news every day, but that I didn’t know any of them personally. The next question he asked me took me by surprise. “Can you think of any reason why your name and place of work would be in Nancy Ling Perry’s handwriting on a slip of paper left behind in an SLA safe house?” He may have said telephone number or room number as well; I’m not sure. Well, that explained why he had called me at the Rad Lab. Despite being totally surprised by this news, I was able to come up with a plausible answer pretty quickly by telling about the lab connection and how Nancy Ling Perry could easily have heard where I worked and what my name was.

The FBI guy seemed satisfied immediately. “Yeah, we already knew about the lab connection,” he said. “But for all we knew she could have been your girl friend.” We were done, and it had been so easy. He was definitely in a good mood, and, before I left, he added that, from what he was hearing, they had the SLA cornered in Los Angeles at that very moment. I think he was basically viewing it as a closed case already.

I had heard, as everyone had, about the previous day’s bizarre events in which the SLA had surfaced for the first time in Los Angeles. One of the SLA members had been caught shoplifting a pair of socks and had only escaped along with his wife when Patty Hearst, now known as Tania and acting as an SLA member herself, had shot up the front of the store. Luckily no one had been hurt then, and the inept SLA group had left a parking ticket on the van they’d been driving, which gave away the location of the gang hideout. After stealing a couple of cars, the SLA trio found a new place to stay rather than returning to the original place. Before the police arrived at their haven, the other six SLA members in LA, including Ling and Cinque, alarmed by the failure of the foraging party to return, had fled in the wee hours of the morning and forced their way into another house, which seems to have been a place for people to wander in at all hours to get drunk or high.

I’m sure I first heard from the FBI man that the police definitely knew where the SLA members were hiding. As I mentioned before, I first thought I recalled my meeting at the FBI offices as having taken place in the morning, but from some online research it doesn’t seem the police discovered the exact house the SLA members were in until early in the afternoon, when the mother of the woman in whose house they were called the police to report it. They had already learned in the morning the general neighborhood since they had identified the SLA members’ parked vans. In any case it was late afternoon before the press knew anything, so it’s likely I got the news early from an FBI agent that saw no need to keep it a secret, and possibly couldn’t restrain himself from telling someone.

I’ve been imagining the FBI man could have just been going through the motions in an interview that now seemed to him less significant than it might have before. He had asked me no follow-up questions that I can recall, not even what my wife’s name was. Now that I think about it, he could well have reviewed a couple of files before the interview, learned of the connections, and have thus been waiting for me to give the expected answer, watching only to see if I got flustered and seemed trying to hide something. Who knows?

Insightful PS to the above paragraph: The more one writes and thinks about something from the distant past, the more one remembers, and the more one may then understand. I only just now added the word “connection” to the end of the statement recorded four paragraphs above “Yeah, we already knew about the lab connection” because that final word had became very distinct to me in my memory, and its absence in the written report of my meeting was something I felt I had to rectify. I heard the FBI man say “connection,” but its significance had never been apparent to me. He was saying that he had known that I had a connection to the lab Ling had worked in even before he called me. From the time he said it until just before this moment, I had not realized the obvious meaning of his words, and had interpreted them as equivalent to “We knew Ling worked in a lab. So that makes sense.” So my speculation (made before I added the “connection” and understood what it meant) in the previous paragraph can now be taken as proven, as it is the obvious way to interpret his words. The dumb thing is that I had always realized that there was something funny about the way he’d expressed himself, since that “connection” didn’t exactly fit with my interpretation.

Why didn’t I analyze this logically at the time? I guess that I was just so relieved to be out of there so easily that I wanted to leave the whole thing behind me, even mentally, as soon as possible. The surprise revelation about how my name had come up probably played a role also. It was confusing new information presented in a stressful situation. I had to find a reasonable explanation that would satisfy the FBI man. I was really only interested in that result, and my mind set about solving the puzzle. It was an easy puzzle, but, under the circumstances, probably all I could deal with.

How many other words that didn’t quite fit at the time I heard them spoken are waiting to be understood? How many readers immediately understood what the meaning of “Yeah, we already knew about the lab connection” was when they first read it? Probably all or almost all, I’m now guessing. Yet I, the only one to whom it was relevant, have waited thirty-four years to get it. I feel like shouting Eureka! And then Duh!

Why had Ling, whom I had never met, written down my name and workplace anyway? She may have had nothing specific in mind. Maybe it was just something she’d thought might come in handy in case they ever wanted to plan an attack on the Rad Lab, which was falsely viewed as some kind of weapons research place by some radicals, who probably mixed it up with the other Lawrence Lab in Livermore, also run by the University of California, which was indeed used for designing and building thermonuclear weapons. In any case, there is no doubt that some people would have liked to bomb the Rad Lab as a symbol of an oppressive system if nothing else. The very fact that it was a large government-funded facility up on a hill overlooking the Berkeley campus was enough to make it an appealing target. Perhaps a fake id card with a real person’s name on it would have been thought useful? I can’t see any use my name could have had really, and I guess they didn’t value the information very highly or they wouldn’t have left it behind.

I distinctly remember one other thing about that day so long ago. I heard the news on the radio that all the SLA members that had been in the house in LA were dead, either shot or burned to death, while I was riding across the Bay Bridge to a meeting in San Francisco that evening with a few others, one of whom felt one of the deaths personally.

The Second Most Important Event in My Life

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

Excluding from consideration my birth, the two most important events in my life have been moments in which I have suddenly and for the first time become fully aware of something fundamental and wonderful about reality which has permanently changed my perception of the world. The first of these (second in importance) occurred when I was sixteen years old, some forty years before the other (which was, I now see, actually the long-delayed completion of the first). This event from my high school days was not connected with any notable historical event or outwardly impressive occurrence. It was personal and internal, purely intellectual and unaided by any drug; and it affected the future course of my life in manifold ways.

There have of course been key events involving people and personal relations in my life which have determined the unique details of it, including those most important ones—in regard to earthly happiness—of wife and offspring; but none of these events, even those that seem to have been ordained by benevolent providence, changed my basic understanding of the world in the way the two I’ve called most important did.

The dramatic (though secret at the time) change I am writing about today occurred early in the fall semester of my junior year when I was one of a group of students gathered around our physics teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom. We were there to watch our teacher (then, I believe, in her second year at our school), a young woman, imposing by virtue of both her appearance and intellect, go through a physics demonstration.

That I was taking physics that year as a junior was pretty much an accident. I can’t recall if this was usual or not, but I clearly remember that my father had helped guide my decisions on which courses to take that year. He had recommended that I take physics. I think the idea was to get a hard course out of the way before the other hard courses that would be coming up my senior year. Whatever the reasoning, I had written physics in, and no one had suggested I switch, though somehow everyone else seemed to know that the standard path was to take chemistry in the junior year followed by physics the next. I remember being surprised to discover on the first day of school that all the other students in the class were seniors with whom I had never taken a class before.

Anyway, once I had signed up for physics, I remember expressing my dread of it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like natural science; I was very interested in biology, mainly from my fascination with the diversity of life. I was also interested in the stars, solar system, and planets. But I just didn’t like the sound of physics, about which I had somewhere obtained the vague notion that it dealt with how machines worked. Machines were neither alive nor celestial, and I think I held their being man-made and functional against them. From all I can remember, I seem to have had no idea that physics was a quantitative, as opposed to a merely descriptive, science; and I don’t think that concept even existed in my mind.

I recall a fellow student trying to sell physics to me as a great way of increasing my understanding of how automobiles worked. However, I really had no interest in the actual workings of any machines, including those most highly esteemed ones around which social life and status in our high school revolved. I had had to learn a certain amount about how cars worked, or at least the terminology used in discussing modifications for speed, just to avoid being seen as irredeemably ignorant in the most important area of knowledge (at least of those unrelated to sexual matters) in the male adolescent culture of my group. But when that fellow student tried to convince me that physics would be valuable because of the insight it would give me into the internal combustion engine, it only made my heart sink lower at the thought of having to endure a year of such boring stuff. Even accounting might have been more attractive.

Before I go on, let me briefly sketch what kind of place I was in emotionally, academically, and socially. The central fact of my life and that of my family was that my father was an alcoholic on the way down. That affected our family in numerous negative ways that anyone can easily imagine. For my mother, my sister near me in age, and me, it meant a good deal of anger, embarrassment, shame, stress, fear, worry, and resentment; which is not to say that we never shared good times with my father (for example the choosing of courses I mentioned), just that we could not depend on him for anything; and the bad times were frequent.

A few years earlier I had fallen in with a group of boys, among the leaders of which were a couple (one of whom I considered a good friend) that had an antisocial streak, which I didn’t share but which I was too weak to reproach or reject. It was a good feeling to have a group to “run around with,” and I enjoyed a greater status being with these kids than I had felt before, having come to this town in the seventh grade and found myself lacking the friends or standing I might have acquired in elementary school.

As a result of some thrill-seeking (for them, not me) illegal acts with my companions, I had gotten into a little trouble with the law also (hinted at in Times I Might Have Died). My milieu was basically a semi-delinquent one that overlapped with that of kids that had already dropped out of school and who carried switchblades. My companions liked to go looking for fights (which I hoped we wouldn’t find) and drive fast. We all smoked cigarettes, and we regularly found ways to purchase beer illegally, so that I may have been placing myself in danger of following my father down the path to alcoholism.

The year before I had skipped school many days. For example, in those days when World Series games were played during the daytime, I hadn’t missed watching a single one on television though the series went to seven games. My fellow baseball-watching friends and I got caught for that and made a short gesture toward running away from home to avoid facing the consequences. To my shame, I reflect that none of the others finished school, lacking the academic capital to fall back on that I had.

I was in no danger of flunking out of school, but my grades were not great, certainly not what they should have been; and I had been something of a class comic going back to the second grade, partly as a way to gain respect as one willing to go against authority, risk punishment, and take it like a man when it came in the form of getting “busted,” as we called paddling. I had decided it was time to get serious about school and had definitely ruled out getting involved in any illegal activity (with the exception of alcohol possession), but I was still without any real purpose or idea about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had no girl friend and had trouble envisioning that situation changing. To say I was not a happy lad, would be an understatement.

As I try now to remember back fifty years, I wish I could see my old physics text to see what subjects came first in it, so I could tell if we had gone through other topics before coming to the way the pressure in a fluid depends on the depth; for that was the subject of the demonstration on this momentous day. It may have been the very first thing we dealt with in that class, though I have a feeling it was not. I can’t remember if this was the first classroom demonstration.

Physics demonstrations can be quite dramatic, and there are high school teachers and college professors who go to a lot of effort to make entertaining shows for students out of them. These demonstrations can have a certain magic show quality, as things can occur that go against the students’ expectations, sometimes accompanied by impressive sounds and visual displays.

The physics demonstration I was to witness that day was not of that dramatic type. It might even be the most boring of all physics demonstrations, as it is merely a series of measurements, with no motion or visible phenomena occurring, except for the adjustment of the measuring device to the different conditions. Nothing visibly exciting happens in the statics of fluids.

How I wish I could remember in detail the actual steps my teacher went through in the demonstration! But those are lost forever. I can only remember what the demonstration was about, but not what the apparatus looked like in detail. The demonstration was designed to show how the pressure in a fluid depends on the depth below its surface. The specific details are not really important in the context of the story. The apparatus must have consisted of a manometer for measuring pressure differentials, a flexible tube to connect one side of the manometer to a means of probing the pressure under water, and a vessel containing water.

Here is a plausible guess at the steps I must have witnessed my teacher carrying out. The teacher lowered the probe into the water, and we saw the fluid in the manometer adjust to the new pressure it was experiencing on the side connected to the probe. The fluid level in the manometer column on the probe side went down, and that on the other side went up. My teacher recorded the difference in the two levels, which is a measure of the pressure in the water, and also recorded the depth in the water at which it had been observed.

She moved the probe lower into the water tank, and we saw the manometer fluid levels respond once more, this time with a greater difference between them. My teacher recorded the new pressure and depth and went on to repeat the procedure at several more depths in the water. Then she made a graph of the measured pressure versus the depth, to show that the points traced out a straight line. She thus showed us that the measured pressure p followed a simple formula: p = constant • h, where h is the depth. It was the same linear relationship that we had in our books.

Alternatively (and, as I’ve said, I don’t remember), she may have started with the equation we had in the textbook and for each depth calculated a predicted pressure measurement, which she would then compare to the actual measurement to show that it was very nearly the same.

Whatever procedure she followed, she certainly had my full attention and could not have made a more successful demonstration from my perspective. Thank you, Virginia Rawlins, dear first physics teacher!

What had I seen? Changing the depth of the probe had caused the manometer fluid levels to change, and to change in a very precise way. The measured values of the real-world quantities of pressure and depth were related through a simple algebraic equation in the abstract world of mathematics. As I pondered what was being demonstrated to me, my mind’s eye must have looked back and forth from the physical to the mathematical. From the real to the abstract back to the real. From the predicted to the measured back to the predicted. What is going on? There is new and important information here, but I can’t tell what it means.

I suppose only a few milliseconds elapsed between the powerful seismic disturbance, which must have occurred deep beneath the surface of my consciousness, and the resulting tsunami of revelation that slammed into my conscious mind and swept away its previous view of the world, now revealed to have been pathetically inadequate.

I remember that I walked back to my desk totally stunned by that first look into the deep mathematical order of the physical world. I knew I was in my physics class, but everything and everyone around me seemed distant, muted, and temporarily irrelevant, as my mind worked on reconstructing its view of reality.

Here was a mystery deeper than any I could have imagined; and a power greater—the ability to know what a physical measurement was going to be before it had been made! The physical measurements I had seen carried out in the real world with real physical objects and fluids had been written down and the corresponding numbers shown to fit almost perfectly with a particular relationship that existed only in an abstract world having no connection with the physical one I lived in. Or so I had thought until that moment. This unexpected, undreamt of connection between those two independent worlds—one the physical world as I haphazardly experienced it, the other a precise realm that existed only on paper and in people’s heads—was the most astounding fact I had ever encountered.

The world was describable by mathematics! I had to know all about it! I had to learn all the physics there was. At first I assumed everything to be known had already been discovered; that it was just a matter of learning it. While it was a disappointment to find out that not everything was known, it also meant there was still an opportunity to help finish the job. As soon as I heard about relativity and quantum physics I wanted to know why we weren’t learning them, not realizing that would require math and physics far beyond what I knew.

Later that year, when my mother and I visited the physics classroom during the school open house night, my teacher said to me “Bobby, we’ve got to get you a scholarship,” and to my mother “He’s the most brilliant junior student I’ve ever had.” Now, for all I know my teacher had never had a single junior physics student before, but it filled me with joy to hear her words, as I had had no idea she thought so highly of my abilities. Now I knew for sure what my next step in life was going to be. I was going to major in physics in college and go as far as I could with it. Thank you again, Mrs. Rawlins!

This personal discovery of my passion in life and my teacher’s encouragement gave me a new focus and goal. I decided I needed to make all A’s from then on and almost did. With the help of (in retrospect, almost laughably small) student loans and family support, I found a way to pay for college, which was pretty cheap at the University of Texas back in those days, and successfully got physics and math degrees there. I fulfilled a dream by going on to get my PhD in Physics from the University of California at Berkeley. I imagine I will write more about my experiences both as a physics student and a physicist later. There are a couple of posts already here about my time in Berkeley.

Looking back at how adrift I was at the beginning of my junior year in high school, I can say that my discovery of physics may have saved me. I never said anything about my experience to my teacher or anyone else back then that I recall. It was personal, possibly a little crazy-sounding, and ultimately incommunicable. A number of questions have arisen in my mind during the course of my writing about that life-changing experience of long ago. Why me? Why then? Why with such suddenness? Maybe I’ll return to them at a later date.

From my current outlook on the world, I believe that what was so stunning about the universe’s being describable by mathematical laws was that it hinted at the Divine Intelligence behind that mysterious order. I did not make that connection at the time, however, and instead came to adopt the viewpoint that the perfection of physical laws governing the universe (as I would have put it) only showed the superfluousness of the God concept. Now I view my recognition of the beautiful mystery and power of physics as a gift from God which launched me on a trajectory that led eventually to my recognition of God’s existence some forty years later.

Times I Might Have Died

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

I have not lived a life fraught with peril. I have never been in combat, nor have I been attracted to dangerous activities such as mountain climbing or sky diving, which others find recreational. The physics jobs I had were not dangerous. I was on one demonstration where a man was shot to death by the police, but I was not even aware of it when it happened. Yet, there have been a few moments in my life which have left a lasting taste of possible fatality.

This is not going to be an all-inclusive account. The one serious car accident I was in is not going to be dealt with here. Instead I am going to talk about three times when I was lucky, and nothing serious happened. Yet the thought of those times makes me realize that I’m alive through luck or providence, and thinking about them gives me an uneasy feeling, a bit like having to go through them again. What a short life it would have been! The three incidents have in common the hurtling toward a road, with the danger of death coming at the road. The scenes seem well suited for appearing in a nightmare, and I suppose that may be what makes them so vivid and gives them their lasting power to evoke fear.

The first of these times was when I was quite young, probably eight. To my shame at the time, I was one of the last among my peers to learn how to ride a bicycle. But I got one for Christmas, and I mastered bicycle riding pretty quickly after that. To be more precise, I mastered the balance and pedaling part. I didn’t get braking. This was an old “balloon tire” American bike without hand brakes. To brake such a bike one has to apply pressure to one of the pedals in the sense opposite to that which propels the bike forward. I understood there was something different about the pedal work to brake, just not what. Instead of standing up and applying the back pressure on one pedal, as I had observed others doing, I stood and applied pressure to both pedals, one in one sense and the other in the other, so that I just balanced them and might as well have taken both feet off the pedals. It was coasting, not braking.

I think I knew that method wasn’t quite right, but it resembled what the others were doing to brake. I remember that when I needed to stop, I would run off the sidewalk into the grass to help me slow down, then dismount while the bike was still rolling to pull it to a stop. I was not thinking this through or verifying stopping power. I guess I basically thought I knew how to brake the bicycle just from the looks of things without analyzing the actual effect. It never occurred to me to ask anyone, adult or child, to show me how to brake.

Highway 80 ran right through my small hometown as broad, red-bricked Main Street, whose surface, I remember, seemed especially hot to our bare feet in the summer. This was the busiest street in Eastland, Texas. Given our theme of luck and fate, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that Eastland was named after an early Texas Ranger, William Mosby Eastland, honored for a brave death as the first to draw a black bean, fatal in the “lottery of death” ordered by the Mexican dictator Santa Anna in 1842 to determine which prisoners were to be executed after an escape attempt.

One day I was out riding my bike by myself and rode up by the high school, which was on a hill above Main Street. I rode along the street that went past the high school parallel to Main St. then turned to go down the steep hill, intending to turn right on Main as part of my loop back home. I don’t remember if I picked up extra speed by pedaling downhill, or if my acceleration was strictly due to gravity, but I know that I was going fast as I came to Main Street. Of course, any attempt at braking with my method could do nothing to slow me down.

This is naturally the part of the journey that gives me that uneasy feeling and makes me want to ward off the memory even as I call it up today. I was trying to make the right turn, but I was moving much too fast for that, and I was moving so fast that a driver in a car approaching that intersection would have had little warning time to try to stop. Unable to slow down, I might as well have shut my eyes and trusted God or Fate to get me safely across. I crossed Main Street at an angle, unscathed, then hit the curb on the other side of the street and went on up it.

Embarrassment now became stronger than fear. There must have been people around that had seen me hit the curb. I tried to give the appearance that that had been my intent all along by continuing to turn to the right so as to ride on the sidewalk alongside Main Street. But I was still going too fast to do that either. I ran into a low stone wall, which finally stopped the bike. More embarrassment. I wasn’t hurt; and the bike, though dented, was still rideable. I can’t remember if I walked it home or rode it. It would have been sufficiently uphill for safe riding.

Eight-year-olds do get killed in bike accidents, and I could have been one of them. In those days, I might add, a kid would have been as likely to wear water wings as a helmet when riding a bicycle. I don’t remember telling my parents about the accident, and I don’t remember when I learned how to brake my bike. The accident did teach me not to go down steep hills until I had mastered stopping. Rest assured that I made sure my own helmeted children learned to brake before they went very far on their bikes.

The next time that sticks in my mind was when I was fifteen living in Garland, Texas. My friends and I would ride around in a car almost every evening. This was a Saturday night, and we were out late. It was one of the rare times when I had gotten our family Ford and was the driver for the night. There were five of us, all fifteen or sixteen years old. It was well after midnight, perhaps as late as 2 am, and we were in a heavy rainstorm. Without going into the details here, suffice it to say that we were being chased by a determined adult in a pickup who had good reason, relating to certain decorative auto accessories recently in his possession, to be chasing us. The consequences of his catching us might be physically dangerous, for all we knew, and would likely involve trouble with the law (and of course our parents) for us. It was a living nightmare: I was responsible for making sure we didn’t get caught.

The windshield wipers on the car were of the type that completely stopped working whenever you accelerated, which meant a lot of driving blind, given the circumstances of the heavy rain and frequent acceleration. We were sliding around like crazy, fishtailing as we turned corners on the slippery streets. The part I remember most vividly is our approach to a major thoroughfare we would have to cross. The chances of a car coming down that street were much lower so late at night than during regular hours, but still not zero. There might be some other speeding teenagers! Before we came to the street someone shouted “Don’t slow down!” so I flew across the street without slowing or looking. The street had been empty; we had won that round of automotive Russian roulette. Soon after that, however, we realized we were not going to shake the guy anyway, so that we had better stop and throw ourselves at his mercy.

Playing the mental tape of the approach to that intersection at full speed gives me the same quasi-panicky feeling as remembering that uncontrolled street-crossing on the bicycle years before and makes me want to put my hands out in front of me to stop it. The difference between the two times, during the actual events, was that I remember being scared of a crash at the time I crossed the street in the car. I was conscious of the possibility that I might be in my last seconds of life. Now I wonder what in the hell were a bunch of kids that young doing out that late in a car? That was the fifties in Texas.

The third incident occurred sometime later while I was in high school. Near the town I lived in there was a 3M plant. Next to the plant was a street that mainly served as a way for workers at the plant to enter the plant parking lot. The street, which was probably less than half a mile long, ran between a major street and what amounted to a country road. It was straight and wide and had very little traffic except when workers were coming to work or leaving. The 3M plant was on one side of this street, and the fenced backyards of houses that faced away from the street were on the other. This broad side street was regularly used as a drag strip by area teenagers, illegally of course.

A drag strip needs to be a quarter of a mile long plus sufficient additional track length to enable the racers to stop or slow down enough to turn after crossing the finish line. The object of a drag race is to accelerate from a complete stop to the quarter-mile line in the fastest time. Improvised drag races along the 3M strip were head-to-head matches between two cars that raced side by side for a quarter-mile. I don’t recall what landmarks were used for the start and finish lines, but I assume there must have been some. One kid would stand in the middle of the street in front of the two cars and signal the start of the race with a dramatic gesture. The cars would accelerate to the finish line and then start braking because the street’s end was not far ahead. Even beyond the obvious danger of speeding, each race would have been something of a gamble, as the street was not marked as being one way, so an unlucky driver could have turned onto the drag strip from the country road to meet a speeding car head-on. Drag races were usually late at night when that danger was minimized. In addition to accommodating two-car races, the 3M road provided a place to see what speed your car could reach in a quarter of a mile.

I don’t remember any of the circumstances of the next event beyond the fact that I was once again driving the family Ford and that I had two passengers in the front seat beside me, Bobby and Jim. Bobby was a year ahead of me, Jim in my class. I recall that it was broad daylight, most likely on a Sunday. Probably at their urging, I drove to the 3M “drag strip” to see what the car could do in a quarter. I should mention again that I didn’t drive all that much, usually relying on one of the other members of our group to get his family car or, in the case of a couple of them, drive his own personal car, to cruise around in. I really didn’t share my friends’ fascination with cars and speed. Somehow I had ended up running around with a certain group, starting with a couple from my neighborhood, despite my not feeling a very deep connection with them or sharing their tastes and opinions on much of anything except music and sports. It did provide me with a group identity, something to do, and a certain status, since a couple of the group were known as being very tough in a fight.

Anyway, there I was at the wheel of our Ford, ready to make a test run. The car had an automatic transmission. I revved the engine up, while holding the brake down with my left foot. The back wheels spun slowly, squealing a little, but without propelling the car forward until I took my foot off the brake and the car surged forward “burning rubber.” There was no gear shifting required on my part; all I had to do was keep that gas pedal on the floor as we raced up the strip, checking the speedometer to see what speed we’d reach in the quarter. I believe it was about eighty miles an hour. We continued speeding on. On down the straight road, pedal on the floor. I must have seemed transfixed.

“Bob! Bob! Shut off!” Jim’s voice broke through to my blanked-out mind to alert me to the reality of the danger we were in, as we rushed toward the road at the end of the street. I don’t remember what was on the other side of the road, probably a ditch and a barbed-wire fence, but we would not have wanted to go flying into it at ninety miles an hour. I managed to slow the car down, without a panic stop, just enough to make the turn onto the road. Fortunately, there wasn’t a car on the country road approaching the intersection at the same time.

I don’t know what was actually in Bobby’s mind, but he was merciless in ridiculing Jim for having been so afraid as to cry out. I was still in a daze, weak with relief and residual fear, realizing how close we had come to a terrible crash. I didn’t join in Bobby’s razzing of Jim, but I also didn’t let on that we had been in danger because of my freezing at the wheel. And I never thanked Jim. I was weak, and in my weakness I didn’t want to acknowledge weakness. I haven’t seen Jim in close to fifty years.

Jim Allen, I hope you have had a good and interesting life, which you are still enjoying. Thank you for speaking up that day when seconds truly mattered.

It’s Only One Game

Saturday, May 10th, 2008

I recently wrote (Looking Back At a Rocky Little League Start) about my unplanned entry into Little League coaching when my son was seven years old. That had been coach-pitch ball, where everyone batted each inning, no matter how many outs were made, and no score was kept, except by the players of course.

The following spring we were excited by the prospect of real baseball in the Little League minors. One afternoon, my son, a friend of his, and I were at our neighborhood park engaging in a little preseason baseball practice. A Little League team, or as we later learned, two teams—minor and major league affiliates—were practicing on the diamond, while we were in deep right and center field. This is not a regulation park with Little League fences, so the field is regularly used for frisbee tossing, sunbathing, etc. when games are not being played.

My son and his friend caught the talent-scouting eye of one of the coaches on the diamond. The coach walked over to talk to us to see what was what. He asked the boys if they played Little League. The friend did, but was about to move out of town. All the interest was then focused on my son. The coach, whose name was Jon, invited him to join in the next team practice. Actually, since it was an unofficial practice, he called it a get-together or something like that.

I remembered a story I’d read in the local paper a few years before about a coach in our town being arrested at a ball field right in front of his team for conducting an early unauthorized Little League practice. The league president had called the cops on him supposedly for practicing on a city field before receiving permission from the city. I had thought it was crazy, and that the more practice kids got the better, but there’s no denying the early bird coach had probably been seeking an advantage. These coaches must have felt the heat was off as far as any consequences as extreme as arrest went. They probably would have said that everyone was doing it.

I guess my son and I were flattered by Jon’s desire to have my son practice with his team. Or, more likely, I was flattered, and my son was just happy for the chance to get started with real baseball. We came to the next unofficial practice of these Little League Red Sox. We were delighted to see that Wilson, one of our favorite kids on the “traveling team” from the previous year was there as well. Since his older brother was on the major league Red Sox, Wilson was guaranteed a spot on its minor league affiliate, which made it all the more attractive to us.

What a step up it was for my son to be practicing with experienced players under experienced coaches! Jon’s son was on the minor league team, and he seemed to be a very nice kid, which won Jon points with me as a potential coach for my son. I liked the way the coaches treated the kids and ran the practice, so both my son and I were quickly sold on the idea of being on the Red Sox. I planned to sign up to be eligible for coaching again in case my son’s team had need of coaching help. It felt like the Red Sox were our team already.

The player draft was conducted before one of the Little League meetings. Jon came from the draft to the meeting where I was waiting and told me there had been no problem; the Red Sox had landed my son. I glanced at the list of players in the draft Jon was holding and thought I saw next to my son’s name the notation “Will only play for Red Sox.” Since that went far beyond anything we would ever have said, stretching a strong preference into a requirement, I realized there had possibly been some chicanery involved in getting my son. Assuming I saw what I thought I saw, I still don’t know if the statement was actually used or just held in reserve in case someone tried to draft my son before the Red Sox could. I never said anything to Jon about it; and, since I didn’t, the only sure thing is that I let it go by without comment despite my suspicion.

It appeared that I was going to be Jon’s main assistant coach. I was looking forward to helping and learning from Jon and was glad not to have the responsibility for a team, which had been thrust upon me at the last minute a year before. There seemed a good possibility that I might inherit the managerial role the following year after Jon had moved up with his son to the majors. For now I was doing whatever Jon asked me to, whether putting balls on the tee for batting practice or hitting ground balls to players.

During a practice shortly before the season was to start Jon asked me, somewhat dubiously I thought, “Can you handle this team?” Thinking he needed to go to the bank before it closed or something and wanted me to run the practice for half an hour or so, I said I thought I could for a while. But no, he meant could I take over the managing job for the season! His son was being called up to the majors along with a couple of the other older players, and Jon was moving up with him to help coach at the next level. This meant I would be on my own and with a team depleted of some of its best players. It seemed to be my fate to have a team thrust on me each year. Despite my doubts, I said yes I would try, part of the reason being that I didn’t want to take a chance on whoever else might get the job at that point, as there were no other candidates on Jon’s coaching staff.

If I had been reluctant to take on the seven-year-old coach-pitch team the year before, I really felt in over my head now. This was real baseball, and I imagined it as being close to what my only experience with organized ball had been when I was a teenager. What about run-down pickle drills? What drills would I use at all beyond the most basic fielding and throwing to bases? Could I throw strikes in batting practice? My coach-pitch experience should help there. I would have to start learning the Little League rule book. I would at least be able to know for a fact that no rules were being evaded or stretched by our team. Teaching kids how to pitch? I’d never pitched. Time to order some videos and books! I did find some that were helpful, but time seemed so short.

The two best older players left on the team, Tim and Dennis, nine and ten years old, respectively, were unhappy because they hadn’t been called up to the majors along with the others they liked to consider their peers. There was some talk of their quitting, but fortunately they came to the first practice with me as the manager. Dennis’s mother even helped out by throwing some batting practice.

We had not a single experienced pitcher now, but had some kids that wanted to try. I had already identified Tim as the one kid with the arm, control, and confidence a pitcher needs, but he was untested. Beyond him I wasn’t sure who the best prospects were. I held a couple of tryouts using a pitching targetI had just bought. It was a big tarp mounted on a frame about five feet high and three feet wide with a Little League size strike zone cut out in the middle and with net pockets to catch balls in the strike zone, including special small pockets for balls put on the corners of the strike zone. Most of my pitcher candidates had trouble hitting the target at all, I mean the whole tarp, never mind the strike zone. Dennis, the tall ten-year-old I’ve already mentioned, was promising I thought; but, upon further consideration, he was sure that he didn’t want to pitch. Too much pressure obviously. I put him at catcher, as I wanted a good player there. My son was someone to consider for the future. Mark, another ten-year-old was sure he wanted to try.

A stressful non-baseball problem also arose before our first game. The team had gotten a late addition to its roster in the person of Don, a big ten-year-old with a strong arm, which made me think of him as another potential pitcher. A couple of days after Don showed up I got a call from the mother of Rob, a returning nine-year-old whom I was considering for second base. Rob’s mother was extremely upset that Don had been added to the team. A few years back in the early grades, Rob’s mother had gone high up the school hierarchy to ask for protection for Rob against Don, whom Rob was afraid of. After that, according to Rob’s mother, Don’s mother had accosted her in public and physically threatened her.

I have no way of knowing what the actual situation was between the boys, but I’m sure both mothers had been acting forcefully, in the way that came most naturally to them, in defense of their sons, as they saw it; Rob’s mother to protect her son from bullying (as she perceived it) and Don’s mother to protect her son from unfair accusations and classification (as she perceived it). Whatever had happened, and it had been a few years now, Rob’s mother had gotten a restraining order against Don’s mother back when the original incident took place and was still scared of her.

Much as I hated to be involved, all I could see to do was to call Don’s mother to arrange for him to go to a different team, as he was the newcomer with no ties. To my surprise, she was adamant that Don would not move, that she had no problem with the situation, so Rob’s mother should move her son if she had a problem. Furthermore, she would sue Little League if we “discriminated against” Don by attempting to move him. Obviously, I was stepping into a drama that had been going on for some time, so that what seemed a very reasonable request to me was being perceived as yet another unfair move against Don to be resisted by all available means.

I called Rob’s mother to bring her up to date and see how she felt. She had already talked to Rob about the possibility of his moving to another team; his team loyalty was stronger than whatever residual fear he had of Don, and he wouldn’t consider changing teams himself. That was heartening. This parental conflict was more than I had bargained for, but I couldn’t see anything to do but to go ahead with both boys on the team, keep an eye on things, and hope for the best since the initial conflict had been years in the past.

Don’s mother had showed up with him the first day, ready to become a coach for the team and fully assuming she would, as she had previously coached Don’s soccer team. I only had one assistant coach at the time, the mother of one of the eight-year-old rookies. She was good with the kids, but not very knowledgeable about baseball. She had signed on to coach with Jon mainly to help keep her son, who was a reluctant participant in Little League (only playing at her insistence, I gathered) and prone to bug watching during team practices, on task. So, I could have used the help. But given the situation, I told Don’s mother I was not going to have her as a coach. That evidently surprised her as much as her unwillingness to consider moving her son to another team had surprised me. She said “You’re bold,” I believe the adjective was, but, despite some talk about taking it to the league president, she accepted my decision, and later on in the season became pretty friendly.

I was probably more nervous than the kids about our first game. I didn’t know what to expect. I had barely had a chance to decide who would play where. Wilson and my son were rookies starting at third and short, respectively; Tim and Dennis were new to pitching and catching; and none of the other starting infielders had played their positions before.

The kids looked sharp and focused in their pre-game fielding practice. Tim started the game for us on the mound (figuratively speaking, since our league’s “mounds” were as flat as the rest of the infield, though there was a pitching rubber, which always had a hole in front of it). The Little League pitching rules then in effect (they have since moved to limits on actual pitches per game and week) placed limitations on the number of innings in which a player could pitch. My plan was to get three innings out of Tim and then bring in someone else, leaving Tim eligible to pitch again in our next game, which was only two days off. One pitch in the fourth inning would have made him ineligible for three days.

At the end of Tim’s three innings, I was proud of how the team had been playing and relieved at the way things were going. Tim had pitched well, and our team had a 4-3 lead. Win or lose, this was a respectable showing, and my fears of a fiasco seemed unfounded. Things went downhill fast after Mike was replaced at pitcher. Mark pitched the fourth inning and only got two outs, while giving up five runs. The rule in our minor league was that a team could only bat once through their order in an inning until the final inning. We batted ten or eleven in our league, as we played with four outfielders and had the option of an extra hitter. The fifth inning was worse, as Don failed to get anyone out before I switched to my last known available pitcher to finish it. That last pitcher happened to be the eight-year-old son of the manager, and I would have to stick with him, no matter what. He let in a couple more runs, but struck out the last batter of the inning for the only out we got. We failed to score in the bottom of the inning, and we were now down 15-4 through five.

The Indians’ manager came over to talk to me somewhat apologetically. He wanted me to know that he knew what it was like to be in my shoes, for the previous year his team had won only one game and that was by a forfeit (in other words, they had lost every game). He may have sensed we were on the brink of a similar season with a rookie manager and a depleted team with obvious pitching problems, or maybe he was just recalling similarly lopsided games. I appreciated his words. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking: why not tell your players to swing the bat if the pitch is at all hittable? Under similar circumstances now, I would probably make that suggestion, but as a rookie manager I felt more inhibited I guess.

The point of the managerial conference was that, being down by more than ten runs after five full innings, under regular Little League rules our team would have had to concede the game, but our league allowed the manager to decide whether to continue or not. A factor to take into account was that teams would not be limited to one time through the batting order in the sixth inning, which is the last inning in Little League. I suppose the memory of our good start and that strikeout of their last hitter influenced my decision to gamble on getting them out fairly quickly, so that we could get one last at bat and hopefully score a few runs to end the game on a somewhat positive note. I probably didn’t really think through the worst case scenario thoroughly, focused as I was on the potentially upbeat ending.

I soon regretted my decision to continue playing. Though the sixth inning started off well enough, with two of the first three batters being retired, from then on the inning became a walkathon, as the batters all seemed to come up looking for a walk, which was indeed to be found. Those two early outs proved to be a curse, as they held out the hope that the next batter could always be the last. It wasn’t as though the opposing batters were all walking on four wild pitches; there were some excruciating walks on 3-2 counts. At this point an adult umpire would almost surely have called any pitch a kid could reach with a bat a strike, but the teenage umpire was sticking by the strike zone as he saw it without considering the score or the fact that the hitters weren’t swinging at anything. Not then, nor ever, did I complain about an umpire’s call, but I think it would have been a good idea to have suggested expanding the zone a little to him if I had thought of it before the inning had started. As the opposing team was not limited to one turn in the last inning, players were coming up for the second time in the inning, and walks continued to bring in runs. I felt bad for the rookie pitcher, needless to say. It was another of those infinite-loop nightmares.

With nine more runs already in, and the score standing at 24-4, there was no way to foresee when or if we’d ever get that final out. Better late than never, I asked for a timeout, walked out to the mound, and waved the team in for a conference. “What’s he doing now?” one of the opposing team parents asked disgustedly within my wife’s hearing. “OK, guys, we’re going to call it a day. Remember, it’s only one game.” “Finally!” said Tim. One of the fathers later told me that Tim’s post-game assessment had been “This team sucks!” What a coaching debut!

Despite the ignominious conclusion of our game, I could see reason for hope. We had had the lead after three innings. We had made plays! If you’re a beginning coach in your team’s first game, the sight of your infielders fielding ground balls and making good throws to first base, where the first baseman catches the ball for the putout—no matter how routine the play should be—is indescribably beautiful. All our trouble had come after I’d taken Tim out. Given that it was the team’s first game and none of the pitchers had ever thrown a pitch in a game, it probably wasn’t too surprising that most of them had trouble throwing strikes. The importance of pitching and experience was not a new discovery. With Tim pitching in our next game, we should have a fighting chance, depending on the quality of the opposition.

I guess it was the combination of the devastating score and the other manager’s reference to their winless season that nonetheless made thoughts of an 0-18 record for the year start to prey on me after only one game. Would I be hoping for a forfeit before the season was over, so I could at least match last-year’s Indians with that one “win?” Would the kids realize there were reasons for optimism, or would they be crushed beyond hope? Would kids start quitting the team? Would the parents start to mutter about my incompetence? What about my son? Had I shattered his confidence by leaving him out there to walk so many batters? All of my doubts about being ready for coaching were weighing on me.

We didn’t have long to wait for our next crack at a victory, as we only had one day off before taking on the Cardinals. Nonetheless it seemed like a long time to me, and it was long enough for us to hear one of my son’s friends say in a matter-of-fact, not a teasing, way that we must really be bad to have lost to the team he knew hadn’t won a single game the year before. I wasn’t pessimistic, just worried.

Contrary to my fears, the kids seemed to be fine. No one failed to come to the game, and they showed no signs of being disheartened. They were not sullen or mutinous. They were kids from eight to ten years old, eager, almost all of them, to play baseball, the greatest game ever invented. Tim was our starting pitcher again. I planned to use up his weekly allotment of six innings in this one game, so long as he seemed OK.

No matter how he may have felt about his team’s chances, Tim pitched even better in this game; and we were still making plays. Through four innings we had a slim 3-1 lead; and each team had recorded only one hit. Then in the fifth we started to hit; we scored three runs in both the fifth and sixth; and we took a 9-2 lead into the bottom of the sixth. In that last inning, with one run in, the Cardinals had runners on first and second with no outs. Then Tim struck out a hitter and got the following one out on a popup.

The next batter hit a ground ball to the third-baseman Mark, who fielded it cleanly and then looked up to see the large runner from second coming right at him. To my great relief, instead of throwing to first base, Mark did the right thing, tagging the runner out, though rather harder than necessary, as often happens in the Little League minors. It was one of the most memorable outs I’ve witnessed in my entire baseball-watching life. Thank you, Mark!

There were smiles all around on our side and great relief for at least one of us. The winless season was no longer a possibility! Tim had pitched a four-hitter with twelve strikeouts, the biggest strikeout coming in the fifth to end the inning with the bases loaded. Dennis was going to be strongly encouraged, maybe even pressured a little, to get over his reluctance to pitch.

Our team would go on to win its next nine games, with both Dennis and my son joining Tim in pitching the team to wins along the way, before losing by one run to the Cardinals in our third meeting with them. Suddenly we were among the elite teams in the city. But with that came the coach’s burden of higher expectations. There was really no escape from the pressure that year, but the second kind is better.

An important thing coaching has taught me is that kids naturally have the highly desirable combined ability to both treat their current activity or contest very seriously and to recover completely from what seems briefly to be a devastating setback or defeat. This was one of the things I had been hoping to instill in the kids on my team: try your best, but don’t dwell on losses. It turned out they didn’t really need to be taught that, if such a thing could be taught except by example anyway.

Being responsible for preparing the team to play its best—to win if possible—and imagining (rightly in some cases) that the other parents were just as anxious about their child’s and their child’s team’s game success as I was, was both a burden and a privilege. I’ve observed that parents seem more anxious about their children in sports when they are younger, I suppose because they seem more vulnerable; and, for some, because of the parents’ hope that they will see their child blossom into a star athlete.

Looking at pictures of that team, I am struck by how little they were. How could their winning or losing baseball games have taken on so much importance to me and to other parents? Part of it is the natural desire of the teacher to see his students perform well, whatever skill they are supposed to have mastered. Obviously, being the father of one of those little players who also took baseball seriously was the main reason, but I didn’t share many of his childish enthusiasms.

I think that points to the answer: baseball provided a bridge I could cross over to his world where play was extremely serious, yet fun, a bridge back to childhood itself. That feat is pretty much impossible for most of us through watching or joining in on other types of play—playing Star Wars, say, to take an example from my son’s childhood. I think the rules and the scoring of baseball are part of what makes the bridge work: the game is still fun and dramatic for grownups. And in organized baseball, the children are able to come partway across the bridge in the other direction toward the adult world. This ambiguous and unconscious mixing of worlds may be the reason that some parents behave so badly, so childishly, at their kids’ games. This would be an inherent danger.

I don’t fully know what to make of the sort of mania we can get into following our young children’s organized games, but I know my son and his friends have good memories of their early Little League days and so do their parents, so I guess no further analysis is needed in way of justification.

Looking Back At a Rocky Little League Start

Thursday, May 1st, 2008

Spring is here, though in New England it’s still a bit hard to tell except by the trees that have finally leafed and blossomed—and the start of Little League baseball. I’m sure the kids have been playing ball since February in Florida, but in New England we don’t get started until late April, and even then we typically have a lot of cold rainouts.

This is the first season in nine years that finds me neither managing nor coaching a team. Although I’ve approached seasons thinking I would just be a parent in the stands before, this time I feel sure I’ve passed the point where I might heed a call to fill in as a last-minute replacement. This definitive retirement is harder than I had anticipated, and I find my heart nostalgic for those earlier years when my son was little and his anticipated playing and my unexpected coaching were all in the future.

I remember looking forward to the day my son, greatly enamored of ball sports from age two, would be able to play Little League baseball. I had only become interested in baseball at age ten, and I had missed out on the Little League experience through living in small towns without a league until I was thirteen. By then it was time to move up to the next level, and, lacking the experience of the earlier years that all the other kids had, I was always one of the worst players on my teams.

I had not fulfilled my dream of becoming a good baseball player, even after hours of practicing alone, fielding balls bounced off my grandparents’ brick chimney and catching make-believe popups tossed as I high as I could make them go. Hitting fast pitching was impossible to learn on your own. I was glad to anticipate that my son would be able to get the full benefit of Little League coaching in the town we lived in. I had played catch with him and so on, but I was looking forward to having experienced coaches take him beyond what I could teach him.

We were lucky to live close to a park that included a Little League diamond. It didn’t meet the full Little League specifications, and the topography of the outfield was complex (hills and holes, irregular dimensions), but the field was adequate for local minor league play and far better than the vacant lot I had done my neighborhood playing on. It had an infield, home plate, and a pitching rubber, though no true mound. Our family had attended a couple of games there to see an older boy on our street play. People brought lawn chairs and blankets to sit on in outfield foul territory.

Over the years my son and I would spend many hours on this field, often just the two of us, doing fielding practice, hitting practice, and pitching practice. “Can we go to the park?” was a daily question of his to me during the baseball months for those years, and the answer was almost always yes. Later I would spend a lot of time there with my daughter working on her windmill pitching delivery for softball.

The first level of Little League is tee-ball, which takes kids as young as five. Tee-ballers in our section of town met in the aforementioned neighborhood park on Saturday mornings. Looking at the Little League rule book gives one the idea that tee-ball should basically consist of regular baseball games, only without pitchers, the batters hitting off a tee instead. In our town, there were no games at all. It was really just some practice in the basics of throwing and catching followed by extended batting practice from a tee.

Batting practice is the most boring activity for the player not batting at any level, but most hitters will make contact with the ball on the tee, which helps. On every ball that was hit, at least half a dozen fielders would try to be the first to get to the ball. There were numerous fathers (mainly) there shouting out technical reminders to their sons (mainly) from the sidelines. I avoided this, as it seemed both distracting and somewhat overbearing, however well-intentioned, though I watched to see how my son was doing and how he compared to the others just as attentively as the rest. Having had a weak throwing arm myself, I was glad to see that my son’s arm was among the best, as I had guessed it would be. Rules and positions were not being taught much to speak of, but the kids got caps and tee-shirts that gave them the feeling of being on a real team.

Despite the lack of games, my son loved tee-ball because he felt he was getting started in real baseball. He would dive for balls in the infield just as he had been diving for imaginary balls for almost as long as he’d been able to walk, mimicking the highlight plays he’d seen on television.

After two years of tee-ball we were definitely ready for something else though. We had hoped he could start minor league ball at age seven, but our league held fast to the eight-year-old minimum then in effect. They did, however, have planned an intermediate step for seven-year-olds, which, though part of the tee-ball program, was actually one in which the coaches pitched in something resembling real games.

Each baseball park run by the city was to have one or more traveling teams, so called because the teams would travel to all the parks in the city to play each other. It happened that our park didn’t have enough kids to field a traveling team and wouldn’t have had a coach for it anyway, so after a couple of weeks of getting the runaround at our old park, we were glad to get the go-ahead to go to another park and join its traveling team.

This was a larger park which contained two baseball diamonds, one Little League and one full-sized, arranged so that their deep outfields merged without a fence between them. The tee-ballers were in the big expanse of outfield, and the traveling team had the small diamond. Trish, who seemed to be in charge of the traveling team program, ran the park’s traveling team workouts for the first couple of weeks. The practices had pretty much been limited to batting practice with Trish or someone else pitching, at least since we’d arrived from our park. The third week Trish wasn’t there, so eventually one of the parents was enlisted to run the practice. It was not a good choice, though the guy had a heart of gold, I think, which became a problem in this instance.

Especially at the beginning level, there are going to be a few kids that have trouble hitting a pitched ball even when it’s being pitched to them for the sole purpose of being hit. One of the first hitters in that day’s batting practice was such a kid. Either his hand-eye coordination was below average, or he felt the pressure of having everyone watch him try to hit to an incapacitating degree. Swing and miss followed swing and miss. It was a painful experience for witnesses, but doubtless much worse for the two principals.

As the swing count rose, the kid had probably become exhausted as well, and he wasn’t coming any closer to making contact than he had been on the first pitch. It was like a nightmare of the I-can’t-get-out-of-this-loop type, which is the kind I sometimes have as I’m just waking up in the morning. Really, it must have been a sort of feedback loop, in which every pitch that was swung on and missed made the guy pitching all the more determined to give the kid one to hit, so he wouldn’t finish the session discouraged I guess. Or maybe he had it in his mind that every kid was to be alloted a certain number of hits. It was driving me nuts, but as I didn’t know the fellow pitching and was just a parent without any particular standing I felt obliged to just watch and hope. The time to end the week’s activity came with the unfortunate bat swinger still at the plate.

The combination of the late start and the long time spent on one kid who couldn’t hit the ball meant that the whole session had gone by without my son having so much as touched a ball or picked up a bat, and he could not have been the only one so deprived.

As we walked without speaking back to the car, I saw my son was near tears and angry. He, who had maintained his high spirits through those earlier tee-ball sessions, was now throwing down his glove in frustration and saying he was ready to quit. It was quite a shocking turn. I decided I would step forward to offer some advice (let the kid hit off a tee to finish?) if a similar situation arose in the future, no matter how awkward it might seem.

Next week Trish was again absent, and there was no equipment for the team either. I tossed out a ball we had brought with us just to get the boys started playing catch. At least everyone was going to touch the ball this week. As I surveyed the scene, a man I had never seen before approached from across the outfield. His face, which was shining with hope, made me think of a leprechaun. He came right up to me, and his very first words were “Will you coach this team?” He was the director of tee-ball I learned. Given the sorry state of the program and my son’s disenchantment with it, I was ready to view this as an opportunity. I saw another coaching candidate behind the backstop, a father of one of the other boys, and told him that I would coach if he would also. I don’t remember if we had so much as spoken to each other before; but he agreed after some heavy-duty coaxing.

I realized just how desperate the director must have been to find a coach when he told us we should gather at a spot across the field where the team would get shirts and caps for the team picture-taking. So the boys and their brand new rookie coaches (wearing team caps as well) had their team photo made, and no one would need to know exactly how long the coaches had been on the job. I was also somewhat stunned to hear that we had our first game coming up next week.

Knowing that practically nothing had been accomplished toward preparing them to play baseball in the previous weeks, I was afraid we would be embarrassed in a game and the boys would become demoralized. I told the team “We have a game next week,” and asked them “Are we ready for a game?” Thinking as an adult, I expected that they would sense their unpreparedness, start to feel the same anxiety I did, and hopefully say something like, “No way,” so I could say “OK, let’s get to work to make up for lost time.” Instead I got an enthusiastic “Yeah! Yeah!”—a bring-‘em-on this-is-what-we’ve-been-waiting-for sort of cheer, complete with leaps and pumping fists, led by an irrepressible kid named Michael.

This was a good reminder to me of what the main object of this program was—kids having fun playing baseball, not coaches running a major league development camp. I was glad they had misinterpreted my question as a call to get pumped up. I smiled and said all right, but I thought we needed to get ready, and we spent the rest of the time working on routine infield plays, running the bases, and hitting.

To become an official coach in the league you had to fill out an application of course, but also attend at least three league meetings, which were really just meetings of coaches. The meeting place was in the basement of the annex to a Catholic Church, whose name I hadn’t even heard before, even though it ran a school; which I mention to point out that, even though I had been living in my town for about fifteen years, my acquaintanceship with many of its institutions, not just Little League, was pretty limited. I eventually found the church and a place to park in the nearly full parking lot.

The room was packed and loud with animated talk, as attendance was always highest just as the season was getting started since coaches were chomping at the bit to get the go-ahead to start practices if teams had been selected or to find out when player tryouts and drafts would be if not. Schedules, equipment, and uniforms all had to be obtained. There was no league web site to convey information back then, so attending meetings was the way to find out what was going on.

I probably stood out a bit in the crowd, if only for my beard and longer-than-average hair. It was a very working class group. Some of the coaches came to meetings wearing their work uniforms. The word for the second person plural used by many in the group was “yous,” which I’m not sure I had encountered in person before, though it was obviously very common. I’d guess I was one of only a small percentage of the coaches in the room that had attended college. I should add that, while the population figure might indicate this was not a small town, among those born here there was a prevailing small-town-like mistrust of the outsider, meaning anyone that hadn’t grown up in the town and shared the same experience of school, church, and youth sports. Despite my fifteen years of residency, they were in a way right to view me as an outsider, if not to mistrust me.

I think most of the professional-class, college-educated people that had moved into town in large numbers during the past few years had put their kids (when they had kids) into the thriving soccer program instead of the declining baseball one. That may be worth writing about someday, but there was no way I was going to encourage one of my kids to play soccer, especially not in preference to baseball. So the love of baseball made me part of this baseball coaching fellowship, even if I might seem different from most of the others in some ways. I reckoned that in baseball savvy I was probably near the bottom.

The local Little League was not a welcoming organization. Though my fellow new coach and I received pro forma permission to take the field without having completed the meeting attendance requirements with the promise we would rectify the situation as soon as possible, not one person came up to us to say hello, glad to have you aboard or anything. I think it was mainly just an organizational culture that didn’t foster welcoming.

The first team we were up against was from the section of town that reputedly had the best teams most years. The coaches, a man and a woman, were of the very serious-about-winning type. They were preparing players for next year’s minor league teams, and of course they had sons on the team. Their main difference from me was that they had grown up in this town, knew Trish well, and were established insiders in youth sports, including hockey, which was as foreign to me and my son as cricket, since I had grown up in Texas and had never had a pair of ice skates on my feet.

The way the games went was that each coach pitched to his own team, while the coaches of the team in the field stood on the field as well, positioning players and giving tips on where to throw the ball in different situations and so on. Everyone in the complete batting order would bat once each inning, no matter how many outs had been recorded. Runners would advance around the diamond as in a real game (except there was no stealing), but the score would not be kept. That was the theory.

We were the home team, and Trish was on the scene, overseeing the proceedings. After the other team had batted through their order, they took the field, and I stepped to the pitching rubber. As soon as our leadoff hitter had gotten a bat, donned a helmet, and stepped to the plate, I delivered my first pitch, which was accompanied by shouts of “Hold on!” from the other team’s coaches, who had not completed the positioning of their defense. From the tone of their outcries, my failure to reckon how long these preparations might take was evidently an outrageous breach of etiquette or an imagined attempt to gain an advantage in a game with no scorekeeping, I’m not sure which. Startled as I was by the vehemence of the protests, I apologized for not having checked before pitching, but that was not sufficient.

The male coach had only one word to express his exasperation at my quick-pitch transgression: “Unbelievable!” I might have expected Trish to step in and say something like, “Just relax. Cut him some slack. It’s his first game. No harm done.” But what she said was quite different.

Trish spoke only to the coach, ignoring me: “This is what they’re sending me. I have to work with what I’ve got.” For all these years, right until I started writing about it, I had always viewed this comment of Trish’s as an expression of insider versus outsider hostility or an excessive deference to the other coach; but it has dawned on me that there may have been some hurt feelings involved that I wasn’t aware of, and hadn’t considered, which would somehow make her comment easier to take. I can imagine that Trish may have been expecting to coach our team herself but had discovered the job had been stripped from her.

And that “unbelievable” expression of disgust at my incompetence might have been spoken partly in solidarity with Trish, who could have painted us as usurpers to the other coaches before the game. But that’s just speculation. The sure fact is that the league was not in very good shape, and insulting new volunteers was not helpful.

Whatever the motives for the decidedly unfriendly comments, I shook them off and let the coaches get their defense set; then I proceeded to pitch strikes to our hitters, which was the best answer I could have come up with since most of our guys could hit. Our team thoroughly outplayed the other one. Even though we were not keeping an official score, it goes without saying that the players were keeping track of how many runs had crossed the plate for each team.

After the game had ended and I was lugging the equipment bag to the car, another car pulled up alongside mine. Michael, his face glowing, had something he was bursting to say: “We dominated them!” Non-competitive games for kids only appeal to grownups, I’ve found.

According to the kids on our team—and I really didn’t keep score or encourage them to—we “won” every game we played that year, which is believable. Just by chance, we had a lot of future all-stars on that team. The season was over when school finished in late June, but I hated to have that be the end. One of the parents knew a coach who would keep his Little League team’s equipment for the summer and let us use it. We agreed to keep meeting every Saturday morning, so long as we had enough to play with four or five on a side. We got together almost every week during the summer, unofficially of course, and with a few extras (a little brother, a big brother, a couple of friends) each time. I know we formed tighter bonds and learned more baseball because of those extra weeks.

I coached most of the boys on the traveling team at least one or two times more, either on all-star teams or regular Little League teams. I still have the ball they signed and presented to me back then when they could barely print their names. The ink has faded, but the memory of who and how they were has not.

The boys on the team are sixteen now, young men really. Though a number of them have moved to other towns, I still see some of them and their parents from time to time, occasionally at school events, but most often at baseball games, now high school or Senior Little League. I don’t know how frequently I’ll see the boys once they have graduated, but I hope enough to tell how they are faring in life. I should add that, as I put in my time in the coaching ranks, I became accepted by the other coaches and gained their respect. There’s no denying that it helped that my son and daughter became known as good players and that teams I managed won a few city championships.

Coaching Little League baseball and, later, softball (when my daughter decided, to my delight, that she wanted to play) became an important part of my life, a totally unexpected one, and it all started when a desperate tee-ball director approached me from across a green field teeming with five-to-seven-year-olds to give me the call I hadn’t realized I was waiting for. I suppose one can look at any unexpected turning point in one’s life as being due to fate or providence, depending on one’s outlook on life and the cosmos, but this one has really stuck in my mind.

I knew I liked teaching baseball to my son, but I discovered I liked to teach other kids as well. Little League involvement also changed my relationship to the community, as it gave me a role in the daily lives of people and their children to a degree that I would never have had otherwise. Thinking about what I’ve done in my life that’s not strictly family related, I’m not sure that Little League coaching doesn’t seem the most significant.

Ronnie Knox, Marcel Proust, and I

Tuesday, April 1st, 2008

Marcel Proust was not a household name in the household I grew up in; I don’t know about yours. Can you remember the first time you ever heard Marcel Proust’s name? Unless the preceding sentence was it, probably not I’d guess. I can remember perfectly, and with the help of the amazing power of the worldwide web and Google, I can put an approximate date on it. This was actually an important event in my life. But first a little background.

Back in the 1950s there was a young football player in California, an outstanding passer who could also run and punt, named Ronnie Knox. Ronnie was California high school athlete-of-the-year for 1952-53, and had become one of the most sought-after players by college recruiters in the whole country. Ronnie was also good-looking, and was nicknamed “Golden Boy.” His overbearing stepfather, Harvey Knox, had moved him from high school to high school searching for the right coach to best showcase Ronnie’s talents. Then Harvey, acting in effect as Ronnie’s agent, had basically sold his services to the highest bidder, the University of California at Berkeley. The problem turned out to be that Cal already had one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and he had another year of eligibility.

Unwilling to see his son playing second string to anybody, even for a year, Harvey Knox pulled Ronnie out of Cal and took him south to UCLA, even though it meant losing a year of college playing eligibility. Harvey also got Cal in trouble with the NCAA by revealing some of the incentives that had been promised Ronnie in violation of the rules. It was at this time that I first heard about Ronnie because the story made it into national magazines.

California glowed with Hollywood glamour compared to my home state of Texas, and I took an interest in this West Coast story. I was twelve at the time and very open to finding new sports heroes. Mickey Mantle was my number one hero, and he would never be equaled by anyone else in my eyes, but I didn’t have a college football hero, so I think I mentally filed Ronnie away as a candidate for that position. In any case, Ronnie’s name stuck in my memory; but, as he had a year without playing, and I was in Texas and not going to get out-of-state football news unless it made it into a national magazine, I pretty much forgot about him, although his name would pop up every now and then. Ronnie took over the starting tailback job in the first game of the 1955 season for the UCLA team, which completed the season ranked fourth in the country. He played well in his team’s last-seconds loss in the Rose Bowl on January 2, 1956, which I may have seen on television, though I don’t remember it.

In an unusual move for the time, Ronnie decided to turn pro without playing his senior year at UCLA. He signed with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League and played the 1956 season with them. He was drafted in the third round for the next year by the Chicago Bears, but only appeared in one game for them, whether due to an injury, or just being in a backup role, I don’t know. In any case, he went back to Canada to play for the Toronto Argonauts the following season. It was after that return to Canada that I became aware of Marcel Proust through the unlikely medium of a pro football quarterback’s words.

In the online archives of Sports Illustrated, one finds that the November 3, 1958 issue had as the second entry in its They Said It feature the following:

Quarterback Ronnie Knox of the Toronto Argonauts, an I-like-football-but man: “If I had to make the choice between a month of playing football and a month of reading Marcel Proust, I’d take Proust.”

I’m almost sure I saw the quote in some other magazine as well, with a phrase that described Proust in some inadequate way (but definitely mentioning he was French and probably that he had written a long work called Remembrance of Things Past) for those sports fans like me, who didn’t have a clue who Proust was.

To me, it was an altogether extraordinary statement. First of all, how could a gifted football player rather do anything more than play football? As a non-athletic teenaged sports fan who could only dream of being that skilled and successful at a sport, I tried to imagine what an exquisite pleasure the reading of this unknown-to-me Marcel Proust must be, at the same time thinking what a remarkable person Ronnie Knox must be to have the sensibility to appreciate this rare talent to such a degree. Now sixteen, alienated from fifties Texas culture and society, a reader myself, and vaguely attracted by the beatniks, I found Ronnie Knox, already a somewhat legendary figure, and Marcel Proust, this new intriguing writer, each causing the other to seem more exceptional in my mind.

Though I have no reason to doubt him—and it’s really just the difficulty I have in imagining any other pro quarterbacks I can think of as being that devoted to Proust that makes me say this—I don’t know for a fact that Ronnie actually ever read Proust. It could have just been an impressive name he’d picked up somewhere in college, but that thought never arose in my mind at the time, even to be rejected. All I had to go on were the words on a page. He’d rather read Proust than play football! Someday I too would read Proust, I thought, and then I will become one of the initiates and understand. I had no idea what Proust had written about, which was probably just as well. I very likely pronounced Proust as Prowst in my mind.

From that day on the mystique of the name Proust never faded for me, but I didn’t actually read any Proust until I was a junior at the University of Texas in a European Novel course. The sheer length of Proust’s one work of lasting importance was intimidating, and I thought I should read it straight through. I’d heard a professor recommend it as a summer project. When Ronnie talked about a month of reading Proust he wasn’t talking about rereading the same pages over and over. I may also have wondered if I would pass the Ronnie Knox test of Proust appreciation.

My English professor took an unusual approach. Proust’s long work had been published in separate volumes over time, so there was some slight justification for viewing it as a collection of several novels instead of one long one. The professor had us start toward the end with the sixth book in the series, called ridiculously in the translation we were reading The Sweet Cheat Gone (French title: Albertine Disparue). His reasoning was that the first volume (Swann’s Way), was not typical of the rest of the book, (presumably because the narrator was largely recalling scenes from his early years and because a good chunk of the volume—the Swann in Love section—was told in the third person, unlike the rest of the work) so that to really get to know what Proust was about we should read a later volume.

In practice this decision meant that we were thrown into the middle of a strange situation with numerous unknown characters whose personalities, sexual tastes, and foibles had been revealed and developed over the course of the earlier volumes; not to mention the narrator’s frequent references to earlier events, thoughts, and experiences from those volumes. I can’t remember exactly what I thought of the experience, and about all I can recall from class discussions of the book was the professor’s point that the narrator’s female love interests (e.g., Gilberte and Albertine) had all been given names which were the feminine forms of masculine ones, since Proust’s actual experience was with men. I emerged from this first sampling of Proust as committed to reading the whole work as ever, and with a better idea about what that meant.

It was not, however, until some eight or nine years later that I recommenced reading Proust. It was in Berkeley at a turning point in my life, marriage ending, when I felt the need to renew my acquaintance with great literature, which I sensed I had nearly lost touch with, having spent so much time on physics graduate studies and research and on political meetings and demonstrations. This Proust was still in English translation. I can’t remember if I skipped the previously read volume or reread it, but I did finish all of Remembrance of Things Past, which is what the translator Scott Moncrieff chose to call Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I not only enjoyed the reading but had my approach to the world changed by it. I may want to talk about Proust more some other time, but that’s not my purpose now.

My aim had always been to read Proust eventually in the original French, and I had started learning French during my last year at the University of Texas, but hadn’t advanced very far until I started studying it in earnest about the same time that I took up Proust in translation again. A few years later, back in Austin, I felt ready to attempt A la recherche du temps perdu in Proust’s own language. Of course it was slow at first, but in time I found that I could read pages-long sentences without getting lost, which is a testament to Proust’s writing, of course, and also to its ability to train the reader’s mind to start thinking like Proust (or to have that wonderful illusion). After I don’t know how many months, I finished the full journey en français. A couple of years later I bought a beautiful three-volume French Pleiade edition as a treasure to keep and as a promise to myself to read Proust again someday.

One day not long ago, well over twenty years after that book purchase, and with no particular thought at all, I picked up the first volume of the Pleiade edition, started reading “Longtemps je me suis coucher de bonne heure,” and was swept into Proust’s river again. I’m a little over halfway through the second volume now, and, if anything, enjoying it more than during the earlier readings. But that is impossible to judge with the greatest writers, the unique power of their art being impossible to remember fully when it’s not being actually experienced. This is something Proust himself notes, as I recall.

Only in the course of writing this have I come to realize how obviously, thoroughly, and appropriately “Proustian” this whole experience of mine with the name Marcel Proust was. For the narrator in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu recounts numerous examples of words and names that took on enormous importance and aesthetic meaning for him just from his having heard or read them in some prestigious or romantic context—La duchesse de Guermantes and Balbec, for example—names that he had endowed in his mind with incomparable and exquisite qualities before having made a real acquaintance with the persons or places they denoted.

Just to finish with Ronnie Knox—he decided to quit football for good during his second season of playing for Toronto. The Time magazine online archive for September 26, 1959 records the following.

Badgered by a bad back, and no longer able to throw the long ball, cleft-chinned, curly-haired Quarterback Ronnie (“Golden Boy”) Knox, 24, quit the Toronto Argonauts in Canada’s rugged Big Four, thereby put an end to one of football’s most unfulfilled and peripatetic careers (three high schools, two colleges, four pro teams), which had largely been botched by the boisterous stage-mothering of stepfather Harvey Knox. “Football is a game for animals,” said Ronnie. “I like to think I’m above that.” Dreaming of higher things, Ronnie allowed he might toss off a novel or some poetry, already had some lines at hand that lurched with the proper beatnik beat:

Beauty is a thing of Ragmud But the maid left late. So don’t look under the apple tree Let’s rebel, man.

Who knows what kind of personal conflicts and disappointments may have lain behind that severe rejection of his profession? Or maybe the physical cost was just too great. I vaguely remember hearing that he tried acting for a while, which some web site listings confirm, but I never saw him in anything that I can remember. All I could find on the web were appearances in a handful of episodes of weekly tv dramas (e.g. an episode of Perry Mason), all from the 1958-1963 period. An astrology web site had his (to them) essential data plus a tiny picture of him taken some time after his playing days, in which he did not look happy. I’m not surprised he didn’t make it as a poet, but I don’t know what became of him. There’s also a movie/tv technician of the same name that shows up in online searches. Could it be the same person? If anyone knows, drop me an email.

So would I have read Proust at all without Ronnie Knox? Well, I read James Joyce (haven’t gotten all the way through Finnegan’s Wake, I confess), to mention someone comparable in some ways—writer of genius from roughly the same time period, but not exactly popular—so I can conjecture that I probably would have, but I can’t be sure. Perhaps literature, despite my having enjoyed reading as far back as I can remember, would not have secured such an important place in my mind without that adolescent connection between Proust and an unconventional star athlete.

Ronnie, old man, a lot of years have passed, and I hope the time has been good to you and that you have had a chance to read Proust as much as you wanted to. If you should somehow stumble across this, please know that I am grateful to you.

The Perfect Italian Woman

Friday, March 21st, 2008

For a couple of decades I lived under the illusion that, though I had spent all my life in the USA (Texas, Berkeley, and Cambridge), my true spiritual home was in Europe. I had convinced myself that there were many more people in Europe, especially France, with whom I would feel a close affinity than there were in my native land, whose faults I knew so well, but whose virtues I largely took for granted without even being conscious of them. There was also the alluring mystique of the beautiful, intellectual (yet thoroughly natural), sensual European women, different from American women in some indefinable way: in their Europeaness.

A brief visit to Europe when I was around thirty had only enhanced its romantic lure (that of Paris, especially) but I did not get across the Atlantic again until some ten years later when an opportunity arose to work for a year in Torino, Italy just at a time when my personal situation gave me a strong inclination to get the hell out of town anyway.

Torino would not have been my first choice as a place to begin my possible new life in Europe, but it would have to do for a start. As a rather provincial, industrial city, an extremely polluted one, it did not match my idea of the European paradise; wasn’t even close. I was working as a consultant for Aeritalia, the Italian national aerospace company, in the Space Division.

Torino was off the beaten track for tourism. I remember some Torino native asking me “Come maì Torino?” Meaning why had I picked Torino, of all places. The lack of foreigners in Torino meant that, outside of Aeritalia, where there were some other foreign consultants and where the Italian engineers liked to practice their English with me, I was forced to speak Italian. I had only started my self-study of Italian a little before I came to Italy, so I was far from fluent in it.

A major problem that I found in Torino was that almost the only women I saw in public were either married or too young. Meeting women outside of work was going to be a problem. This was disappointing, and a major deviation from my naively imagined life in Europe. I was later shocked to hear how matter-of-factly some of my Italian coworkers talked of utilizing the services of local prostitutes.

For the past several years, I’d been living in Cambridge, Mass. and spending a lot of time in Harvard Square, which my workplaces and abodes had been near to for most of that time. The Square’s numerous bookstores, street performers, cafés, restaurants, and bars attracted lots of graduate students, professors and other academic staff, and assorted artistic and hippie types; along with undergraduates, high school kids, yuppies, and general seekers of a good time. Harvard Square had been a place where it was possible to meet a woman; and, in addition to my wanting a comfortable milieu, that was a reason for hoping I’d find a similar place in Torino.

There was no such place, but I did find that the area around Via Po, which ran down to the Po river bridge, was the university neighborhood and probably as close as I was going to find. One Sunday afternoon after I’d been in Italy, feeling rather forlorn most of the time, for about six weeks, I was sitting in the Gelateria delle Alpi on Via Po, by myself as usual, drinking a beer and eating what the Italians called a “toast,” which was basically a grilled cheese sandwich.

A beautiful young woman at another table caught my attention. She was tall, vibrant, and dramatic in an oh-so-Italian way. Her attire—running shoes, pants, and sweater—made me think she might be a student, though she was no young kid. Advanced drama student I guessed. She was talking to her Italian girl friend with sweeping Italian gestures. Her big expressive eyes were especially beautiful. She wore no wedding ring.

I was spellbound. She kept looking at me, or looking to see if I was looking at her, in the mirror. In stature and flair she reminded me a bit of my second wife, whom coincidentally I had first seen in a café in Austin (speaking French, I now recall). This was not necessarily a good sign, though I didn’t think about it at the time. But this woman was gorgeous and vivacious in a way that shouted out her Italianess.

This made up for the weeks of feeling isolated in an unfriendly city that didn’t welcome foreigners. She was altogether the most appealing woman I’d seen since my arrival in Italy—the Italian dream woman really, not obviously married and not a teenybopper; and it seems she might even be interested in me, if those looks my way meant anything. Did I dare approach her, especially with my meager knowledge of Italian? I was getting nervous at the thought of it, which was not good.

Now she and her friend were getting up to pay and leave. I might never see this perfect Italian woman again! I dove in without further thought.

“Parli inglese?” (Familiar, rather than polite form. See if she speaks English.)


“I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed watching you and your friend talking. Avec des grands gestes italiens.”

I remember throwing in the stupid (and probably incorrect) French phrase, no doubt accompanied by some gestures of my own to add to the ridiculous effect, but I can’t account for it. I guess I wanted to be speaking to her in Italian, but French came out instead. I continued quickly.

“Sono americano and I really enjoy…”

She had to have completely misinterpreted the thrust of my words, for she interrupted me before I could complete the sentence in which I was going somehow to express my admiration for her as the quintessential Italian woman.

“So you could really tell I was an American,” she said. It was more a statement tinged with disappointment than a question; and in perfect American English.

Questa donna italiana! She—an American! While she seemed disappointed that I’d seen through her act and approached her as a fellow American, so she thought, I was briefly disoriented, for I had fallen for the act so completely that the truth had suddenly exploded both my imagined reality and the hope that sprang from it. I don’t remember the rest of our sputtering conversation very well, not that it amounted to much.

The sad truth was that both of us were trying to escape America and Americans. She said she particularly liked Torino because there were hardly any tourists. She was with a theater company, so my guess had been pretty close. She had to get back to her friend. Yeah, I was getting the brushoff, but it really didn’t matter anymore, and I was left to ponder what it meant that my perfect Italian woman had turned out to be American. As American as I was.

“How Are You This Evening, Professor?” Asked the Roulette Croupier

Monday, March 10th, 2008

When I was a graduate student doing research in experimental particle physics at the University of California in Berkeley in the 1968-74 period, I shared an office with another graduate student up on “the Hill” in Building 50B of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab.

Jerry, a sociable young researcher whose office was across the hall, was frequently at the center of conversations right outside my door. Jerry had a pretty loud voice, so I heard a lot about what he and his friends were up to. The talk might be about rock concerts or other recreational activities as well as physics shop talk. Sometimes people would go skiing, sometimes people would take a trip to the casinos in Reno, which wasn’t that far away.

At some point, Jerry and a few other junior physicists and grad students decided to apply their physics knowhow to the problem of beating the roulette tables at Reno. From my memory of Jerry’s hallway accounts, augmented a little by answers to questions I asked someone (Jerry, probably) at the time, I can sketch the outlines of how the project went.

As far as I know, they came up with their scheme independently from any previous attempts. Their idea was a sort of Gordian-knot-cutting approach that didn’t require a detailed analysis of the roulette ball’s motion. No equations of motion required!

YouTube has a collection of roulette wheel videos (mostly advertising ways to make money playing roulette!) for those of you as unfamiliar with how a roulette wheel works as I was until a few days ago or who would like to refresh your memory. The basics are the following. The croupier launches the roulette ball so that it races around a circular track that encompasses the rest of the roulette apparatus. The track is banked, and the ball is traveling along a section of the inside of a cone, but due to the ball’s high initial velocity, it hugs the wall and doesn’t start to roll downhill toward the center of the apparatus until it has slowed down substantially.

Frictional forces slow the ball down; at some point gravity has its way, and the ball rolls downhill, eventually coming to rest in one of the numbered compartments of the inner wheel. To make things more interesting the inner wheel rotates in the direction opposite to the way the ball travels around the outer circle.

I never knew the full details of their scheme, but I know that the basic premise of their method was that an essential parameter of the roulette ball’s motion followed an exponential decay law. The method depended crucially on the fact that roulette bets can still be placed for some time after the ball has been launched, which gave them a short time in which to make measurements and calculations and then place their bets based on the results.

Exponential decay of a certain variable occurs when the rate at which the variable decreases in time (decays) is proportional to the current value of the variable. The constant of proportionality is called the decay constant. For any fixed time interval (say half a second), no matter when the timer starts, the value of the decaying parameter will always be found at the end of the interval to have decreased by the very same percentage from what it was when the interval began.

The speed of the ball around the outer perimeter in the first part of the spin must have been the parameter they were focussed on, since it’s the only variable you could realistically hope to obtain in real time. What’s more, ball speed would be the crucial variable to know. If you know the value of an exponentially decaying variable (ball speed in this case) at any time, then the decay constant tells you what its value will be at any later time.

Exponential decay of the speed would imply that the the frictional force slowing the ball down was proportional to the speed. This wouldn’t have to be strictly true, just a sufficiently good approximation. Any detailed analysis of the ball’s motion would clearly be impossible in real time. Exponential decay would just be a hypothesis to test, and evidently, in the experience of Jerry and his friends, it was good enough to make money on.

They had no device for measuring speed directly. The requirement would be to time the position of the ball at three points and with sufficient accuracy to determine the decay constant. I assume a hidden programmable calculator would be used for all the calculations, since they would have had to use the measurements to solve for both the speed at some particular time and the decay constant. How they would have input this data into the calculator, I don’t know. I wish I had actually seen them in action, as it must have been fascinating. They would only have needed to determine the decay constant once for a given roulette wheel and ball combination. Then only two measurements would have been required during a spin to determine the speed at a known time.

I’m guessing that they would have used their speed formula to determine the point on the wheel at which the ball would lose contact with the outer rim and begin its descent, which would occur when the component of the gravitational force parallel to the cone’s surface became greater than the component of centrifugal force acting in the opposite direction. Yes, I know centrifugal force is not a “real” force; but, mathematically, it’s a convenient fiction for calculating when the gravitational force starts to make the path of the ball deviate more from the straight line it would follow (in the absence of wall or gravity) than it would deviate if the centripetal force exerted by the wall on the ball were acting alone.

To calculate this point would require knowledge of the angle that defines the interior conical surface on which the ball is moving, but that would either be standard or something they could calibrate from observing a few roulette spins, always assuming the method was reasonably sound. Once the descent has started, the motion is probably similar from one roulette spin to the next, even allowing for the possibility of hitting a deflector on the way down. Those occasional deflections aren’t going to make or break the method as a potential money-maker.

The roulette-beating team would have had to take into account the motion of the inner wheel as well, but that would be simply a matter of keeping track of a constant rotation. With all that knowledge they should have had an excellent chance at correctly identifying the sector (though not the exact number) the ball should end up in. They would have bet on some contiguous range of numbers, for I can’t imagine the method could have done better than that. Individual bets would not pay at long odds, but they could consistently win if they could predict the sector the ball would end up in.

After the team had advanced their technique sufficiently, they rented a roulette wheel for testing their method under realistic conditions. The method perfected, they set off for a dry run in Reno. The results of that expedition convinced them they could be making money at it even under the pressure of a casino environment. Perhaps they won a little money playing for low stakes.

I assume that on their next trip to Reno they were ready to make some real money, perhaps even to win an enormous jackpot, but I don’t know that for a fact. Inside the casino, it was soon apparent that things were not going to go well. Jerry was greeted with “How are you this evening, Professor?” Now even though this was not 100% correct about Jerry’s job title, it was enough to indicate some serious intelligence work on the subject of who he was, and it conveyed very adequately the desired message of “We know who you are and what you’re up to.”

Whether Jerry and his friends decided to leave on their own then or were escorted out, I can’t say. I do know that they were joined in the parking lot by some professional intimidators, who made it clear they had better not come back. So ended the story of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab roulette scheme, or at least the last I heard of it.

Jerry, if you should by some amazing accident stumble upon this article, I ask you to write up your experience, as I’m sure it would be very entertaining. Send it to me by email, and I will post it (without revealing your full name if you prefer) if you can’t think of a better outlet. Of course, Jerry may be the one with the magnificent Tuscan villa I imagined for Bob in my previous post, in which case he will not want to give away any trade secrets.

Also, if anyone makes a fortune from the secrets revealed in this post, please don’t forget to come back and make a donation. Just remember I don’t condone breaking any laws, and I believe there are now laws about using any sort of computer in a gambling casino, at least in the most up-to-date jurisdictions.

Finally, let me propose that the Department of Homeland Security could benefit from hiring a few people that work in casino security. They know how to identify suspicious characters and follow their moves to see what they are up to. And they don’t waste time with random searches.

Why Gamble? Hire a Physicist.

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

I landed my first and only free-lance physics job right around the time I turned in my PhD thesis with all the required signatures to the UC Berkeley graduate office in 1974. It was at a time when I was without an income or a place to live. No, I wasn’t on the street. I had plenty of people I could crash with, and my mother was sending me a little money, but it wasn’t an ideal situation, to say the least. As part of a cost-cutting move, I and at least one other grad student, who like me must have seemed destined to maintain his Research Assistant status at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab indefinitely, had been given a cutoff date for support by the particle physics research group we belonged to. Fortunately, I had been able to use the Lab’s computer facilities and my office there to finish writing my thesis during the summer, albeit without being paid. I’m afraid the other student I spoke of never did finish. I hope things turned out all right for him.

Anyway, I needed to make some money while I figured out what my next step would be. I had personal reasons for staying in the Bay Area, and having given my physics research a much lower priority than political activity (remember, this was Berkeley) for so long, I don’t think it even occurred to me to ask my thesis advisor Ron Ross to help me get a postdoc somewhere, which would have been the normal course for a new PhD to follow. Ron and I weren’t on bad terms exactly, but he hadn’t understood my participation in student strikes and so on, and we hadn’t interacted all that much for quite a while. To be honest, I hadn’t really expected to finish my degree. I was definitely not on the normal career path. I should add that when a physics professor called Ron about hiring me several months later, he gave me a strong recommendation, for which I am grateful.

Now the University maintained a bulletin board in some campus office where jobs available to Cal students were posted. I found out about this and went to check it out. One unusual posting intrigued me and seemed to have my name on it. Someone was looking for a physics grad student that had completed the graduate classical mechanics course. I believe the posting was even more specific about needing to be able to derive equations of motion using the Lagrangian formulation of mechanics. Though it had been years since I’d taken the course, this sounded right up my alley: a textbook problem, though I assumed it must be a pretty hard one.

The office put me in touch with my prospective employer, who turned out to be a former UC Berkeley math teacher, one currently engaged in a court battle with the University over some unfair practice, so he claimed, related to his being no longer a teacher there. I don’t remember the details, but it sounded pretty hopeless. The guy, whom I’ll call Bob, wanted to make sure I could handle the problem first, and then that I would agree to work on it without knowing its purpose, which was to remain secret. He said the work was related to some device he and others were planning to make. He also assured me that it was not weapons-related.

After he had determined I might be capable of succeeding at the task, he brought in one of his partners (there turned out to be several) in the secret venture to help negotiate my pay rate. This was not easy for me since I had been making a low Research Assistant salary for several years and had no idea what hourly rate I should get as a new Physics PhD (or near-PhD, whichever it was). We agreed on something, which was definitely an improvement over nothing, but which was unfortunately, as it turned out, an hourly rate instead of a flat price for the whole job. Afterwards the partner, call him Ben, felt obliged to tell me he thought I had sold them my services at too low a price.

The problem to be solved was that of a sphere rolling down the inside of a cone. It must be a funny kind of a device they wanted to build. Some kind of guidance system? Bob explained that all they needed were the equations of motion because they had other team members who were computer programming experts that would be able to solve the problem numerically.

Bob had tried to find the equations of motion in numerous physics books, without success. Something he had seen in a paper or a textbook by some Russian physics professor had led him to believe that, if he could only reach that particular Russian, his quest would be over. Bob had been trying to track the professor down, making long-distance calls to the Soviet Union for several days. I believe there was a language problem. In the meantime he was turning to me to get the project past this crucial step.

It wasn’t a very hard problem, and I found the equations all too quickly from the standpoint of income. Bob, however, was a very generous fellow, and I benefitted from his generosity beyond the money I earned for solving his problem. For example, when Bob heard I didn’t have a regular place to stay he told me I could come by his house any time. The window by the front door was always unlocked, so I could just climb in if no one was home. I slept on his living room floor two or three nights, though it was not a very restful place. Bob actually found the equations in a text book not long after I had obtained them, so it was just as well he hadn’t spent too much on it.

It was not the best time in Bob’s life. In addition to losing his job, he had split up with his wife (though his teenage son was living with him), and the bank was foreclosing on his house. Eviction was imminent. He was approaching that problem from a legal angle as well, working on a presentation to US Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to halt the eviction, arguing that the bank had not sent the final notice to his actual address. Not only that, they had knowingly sent it to the wrong address, and this was a widespread practice by California banks, thus making the issue one that the Supreme Court should take up.

Bob had obtained all the proper legal forms for petitioning the Supreme Court, but still had to type his argument and the requisite names in them. I helped him with that. This was in the days of the typewriter, before computer word processing. I believe he needed a lot of whiteout. Whether Bob’s drinking was a cause of or a result of his current troubles, he was definitely drinking too much at this time, and I had a very hard time waking him up so he could get the Supreme Court package sent out in time. But the package was sent and received, and a court clerk affirmed by telephone that Justice Douglas had taken it home with him to read overnight. Even I felt some satisfaction in knowing that, though I had no hope for a Supreme Court intervention. There was something admirable about Bob’s never-say-die spirit.

The rest of Bob’s team also seemed to have seen better days. At least one other, a large, morose programmer, had a drinking problem. The group also included two rather attractive women of the same name, but of different stature, one being referred to as “tall Gwen” and the other as “small Gwen.” I think small Gwen may have once been married to Ben.

Bob once took me, his son, Ben, and one of the Gwens out to eat in a nice restaurant but got his credit card rejected, which I mention just to show what dire straits he was in. He managed to come up with some alternative payment method, which I don’t recall now. Much worse than the credit card refusal, which could happen to anyone really, was the night an angry artist came with a burly friend to retrieve his paintings from off Bob’s wall. I was asleep on the living room floor when the two of them burst in, one of them saying “Rip off an artist, will you?” as he knocked Bob down. It was over pretty fast. I lay low. Later Ben asked why Bob hadn’t waked him up, for he would have come downstairs with his 38. I relate these details just to give you a picture of the kind of life these guys were leading. It would take Dickens to really do them justice.

Anyway, everyone in on the project’s secret seemed to be counting heavily on it to turn their fortunes around. They had a code name for the project: The Number. They spoke of The Number a lot, sometimes in ways that indicated they viewed time as before The Number and after The Number. What could this mysterious project be?

The name provided a clue, and you probably have guessed it by now. Although I have to say I never had it verified by one of them, and I never even mentioned that I thought I might know the secret, what else could it have been but a project to beat the roulette wheel at a casino?

I’m afraid they hadn’t thought it through sufficiently, for I can’t see how they would have made practical use of any kind of solution they came up with, never mind that a sphere rolling in a cone hardly seems an adequate model. I wasn’t going to be the one to break the news, and they never asked me what I thought. My job was done, and I moved on.

I imagine they eventually gave up, but for all I really know Bob may now be living in a magnificent Tuscan palazzo, sending out a new money-gathering party to Monte Carlo whenever the wine cellar needs replenishing. Or maybe I was just wrong about what The Number was. What do you think?

I actually know of some physicists that found a way to beat the roulette wheel, but they ran into other problems. I’ll tell that story in my next post.