Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine
"He's a real Mr. Transistors." (PAGE 94)
Stories and Sketches
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine
THE well-known American writer ... but perhaps it's best not to say exactly which well-known American writer ... they're a sensitive breed! The most ordinary comments they take personally! And why would the gentleman we're about to surprise be any exception? He's in his apartment, a seven-room apartment on Riverside Drive, on the West Side of Manhattan, in his study, seated at his desk. As we approach from the rear, we notice a bald spot on the crown of his head. It's about the size of a Sunshine Chip-a-Roo cookie, this bald spot, freckled and toasty brown. Gloriously suntanned, in fact. Around this bald spot swirls a corona of dark-brown hair that becomes quite thick by the time it completes its mad Byronic rush down the back over his turtleneck and out to the side in great bushes over his ears. He knows the days of covered ears are numbered, because this particular look has become some-what Low Rent. When he was coming back from his father's funeral, half the salesmen lined up at O'Hare for the commuter flights, in their pajama-striped shirts and diamond-print double-knit suits, had groovy hair much like his. And to think that just six years ago such a hairdo seemed ... so defiant!
Meeting his sideburns at mid-jowl is the neck of histurtleneck sweater, an authentic Navy turtleneck, and the sweater tucks into his Levi's, which are the authentic Original XX Levi's, the original straight stovepipes made for wearing over boots. He got them in a bona fide cowhand's store in La Porte, Texas, during his trip to Houston to be the keynote speaker in a lecture series on "The American Dream: Myth and Reality." No small part of the latter was a fee of two thousand dollars plus expenses. This outfit, the Navy turtleneck and the double-X Levi's, means work & discipline. Discipline! as he says to himself every day. When he puts on these clothes, it means that he intends to write, and do nothing else, for at least four hours. Discipline , Mr. Wonderful!
But on the desk in front of him--that's not a manuscript or even the beginnings of one ... that's last month's bank statement, which just arrived in the mail. And those are his canceled checks in a pile on top of it. In that big ledgerstyle checkbook there (the old-fashioned kind, seriouslooking, with no crazy Peter Max designs on the checks) are his check stubs. And those slips of paper in the promiscuous heap are all unpaid bills, and he's taking the nylon cover off his Texas Instruments desk calculator, and he is about to measure the flow, the tide, the mad sluice, the crazy current of the money that pours through his fingers every month and which is now running against him in the most catastrophic manner, like an undertow, a riptide, pulling him under--
--him and this apartment, which cost him $75,000 in 1972; $20,000 cash, which came out of the $5,000 he got as a paperback advance for his fourth book, Under Uncle's Thumb, and $536.36 a month in bank-loan payments (on the $55,000 he borrowed) ever since, plus another $390a month in so-called maintenance, which has steadily increased until it is now à a month ... ad although healready knows the answer, the round number, he begins punching the figures into the calculator ... 536.36 plus ... 460 ... times 12 ... and the calculator keys go chuck chuck chuck chuck and the curious little orange numbers, broken up like stencil figures, go trucking across the black path of the display panel at the top of the machine, giving a little orange shudder every time he hits the plus button, until there it is, stretching out seven digits long--11956.32 --$12,000 a year! One thousand dollars a month--this is what he spends on his apartment alone!--and by May he will have to come up with another $6,000 so he can rent the house on Martha's Vineyard again chuck chuck chuck chuck and by September another$6,750--$3,750 to send his daughter, Amy, to Dalton and $3,000 to send his son, Jonathan, to Collegiate (on those marvelous frog-and-cricket evenings up on the Vineyard he and Bill and Julie and Scott and Henry and Herman and Leon and Shelly and the rest, all Media & Lit. people from New York, have discussed why they send their children to private schools, and they have pretty well decided that it is the educational turmoil in the New York public schools that is the problem --the kids just wouldn't be educated!--plus some considerations of their children's personal safety--but--needless to say!--it has nothing to do with the matter of ... well, race) and he punches that in ... 6750 ... chuck chuck chuck chuck ... and hits the plus button ... an orange shimmer ... and beautiful! there's the figure--the three items, the apartment in town, the summer place, and the children's schooling--$24,706.32!--almost $25,000 a year in fixed costs, just for a starter! for lodging and schooling! nothing else included! A grim nut!
It's appalling, and he's drowning, and this is only the beginning of it, just the basic grim nut--and yet in his secret heart he loves these little sessions with the calculatorand the checks and the stubs and the bills and the marching orange numbers that stretch on and on ... into such magnificently huge figures. It's like an electric diagram of his infinitely expanding life, a scoreboard showing the big league he's now in. Far from throwing him into a panic, as they well might, these tote sessions are one of the most satisfying habits he has. A regular vice! Like barbiturates! Calming the heart and slowing the respiration! Because it seems practical, going over expenses, his conscience sanctions it as a permissible way to avoid the only thing that can possibly keep him afloat: namely, more writing ... He's deep into his calculator trance now ... The orange has him enthralled. Think of it! He has now reached a stage in his life when not only a $1,000-a-month apartment but also a summer house on an island in the Atlantic is an absolute necessity--precisely that, absolute necessity ... It's appalling! --and yet it's the most inexplicable bliss!--nothing less.
As for the apartment, even at $1,000 a month it is not elegant. Elegance would cost at least twice that. No, his is an apartment of a sort known as West Side Married Intellectual. The rooms are big, the layout is good, but the moldings, cornices, covings, and chair rails seem to be corroding. Actually, they are merely lumpy from too many coats of paint over the decades, and the parquet sections in the floor have dried out and are sprung loose from one another. It has been a long time since this apartment has had an owner who could both meet the down-payment nut and have the woodwork stripped and the flooring replaced. The building has a doorman but no elevator man, and on Sundays the door is manned by a janitor in gray khaki work clothes. But what's he supposed to do? He needs seven rooms. His son and daughter now require separate bedrooms. He and his wife require a third one (a third andfourth if the truth be known, but he has had to settle for three). He now needs, not just likes, this study he's in, a workroom that is his exclusively. He now needs the dining room, which is a real dining room, not a dogleg off the living room. Even if he is giving only a cocktail party, it is ... necessary that they (one & all) note--however unconsciously--that he does have a dining room!
Right here on his desk are the canceled checks that have come in hung over from the cocktail party he gave six weeks ago. They're right in front of him now ... $209.60 to the florists, Clutter & Vine, for flowers for the hallway, the living room, the dining room, and the study, although part of that, $100, was for a bowl of tightly clustered silk poppies that will become a permanent part of the living-room decor ... $138.18 to the liquor store (quite a bit was left over however, meaning that the bar will be stocked for a while) ... $257.50 to Mauve Gloves & Madmen, the caterers, even though he had chosen some of the cheaper hors d'oeuvres. He also tipped the two butlers $10 each, which made him feel a little foolish later when he learned that one of them was co-owner of Mauve Gloves & Madmen ... $23.91 to the grocery store for he couldn't remember what ... $173.95 to the Russian Tea Room for dinner afterward with Henry and Mavis (the guests of honor) and six other stragglers ... $12.84 for a serving bowl from Bloomingdale's ... $20 extra to the maid for staying on late ... and he's chucking all these figures into the calculator chuck chuck chuck chuck blink blink blink blink truck truck truck truck the slanted orange numbers go trucking and winking across the panel ... 855.98 ... $855.98 for a cocktail party!--not even a dinner party!--appalling!--and how slyly sweet ...
Should he throw in the library stairs as a party expense, too? Perhaps, he thought, if he were honest, he would. Thechecks were right here: $420 to Lum B. Lee Ltd. for the stairs themselves, and another $95 to the customs broker to get the thing through customs and $45 to the trucker to deliver it, making a total of $560! In any event, they're terrific ... Mayfair heaven ... the classic English type, stairs to nowhere, going up in a spiral around a central column, carved in the ancient bamboo style, rising up almost seven feet, so he can reach books on his highest shelf ... He had had it made extra high by a cabinetmaking firm in Hong Kong, the aforementioned Lum B. Lee ... Now, if the truth be known, the stairs are the result of a habit he has: he goes around the apartment after giving a party and stands where he saw particular guests standing, people who stuck in his mind, and tries to see what they saw from that position; in other words, how the apartment looked in their eyes. About a year ago he had seen Lenny Johns of the Times standing in the doorway of his study and looking in, so afterward, after Lenny and everyone else had gone, he took up the same position and looked in ... and what he saw did not please him. In fact, it looked sad. Through Lenny John's eyes it must have looked like the basic writer's workroom out of Writer's Digest: a plain Danish-style desk (The Door Store) with dowel legs (dowel legs!), a modernistic (modernistic!) metal-and-upholstery office swivel chair, a low-slung (more Modernismus! ) couch, a bank of undistinguished-looking file cabinets, a bookcase covering one entire wall but made of plain white-painted boards and using the wall itself as its back. The solution, as he saw it--without going into huge costs--was the library stairs--the stairs to nowhere!--an object indisputably useful and yet with an air of elegant folly!
It was after that same party that his wife had said to him: "Who was that weepy-looking little man you were talking to so much?"
"I don't know who you're talking about."
"The one with the three strands of hair pulled up from the side and draped over his scalp."
He knew she was talking about Johns. And he knew she knew Johns's name. She had met him before, on the Vineyard.
Meeting Lenny Johns socially was one of the many dividends of Martha's Vineyard. They have been going there for three summers now, renting a house on a hill in Chilmark ... until it has become, well, a necessity! It's no longer possible to stay in New York over the summer. It's not fair to the children. They shouldn't have to grow up that way. As for himself, he's gotten to know Lenny and Bill and Scott and Julie and Bob and Dick and Jody and Gillian and Frank and Shelly and the rest in a way that wouldn't be possible in New York. But quite aside from all that ... just that clear sparkling late-August solitude, when you can smell the pine and the sea ... heading down the piney path from the house on the hill ... walking two hundred yards across the marshes on the pedestrian dock, just one plank wide, so that you have to keep staring down at it ... it's hypnotic ... the board, the marsh grass, your own tread, the sound of the frogs and the crickets ... and then getting into the rowboat and rowing across the inlet to ... the dune ... the great swelling dune, with the dune grass waving against the sky on top ... and then over the lip of it--to the beach! the most pristine white beach in the world! and the open sea ... all spread out before you--yours! Just that! the sand, the sea, the sky--and solitude! No gates, no lifeguard stands, no concessions, no sprawling multitudes of transistor radios and plaid plastic beach chairs ...
It is chiefly for these summers on the Vineyard that he has bought a car, a BMW sedan--$7,200--but very lively!It costs him $76 a month to keep it in a garage in the city for nine months of the year, another $684 in all, so that the hard nut for Martha's Vineyard is really $6,684--but it's a necessity, and one sacrifices for necessities. After three years on the Vineyard he feels very possessive about the place, even though he's a renter, and he immediately joined in with the move to publish a protest against "that little Albanian with a pickup truck," as he was (wrongly) called, some character named Zarno or something who had assembled a block of fifty acres on the Vineyard and was going to develop it into 150 building lots--one third of an acre each! (Only dimly did he recall that the house he grew up in, in Chicago, had been on about one fifth of an acre and hadn't seemed terribly hemmed in.) Bill T----wrote a terrific manifesto in which he talked about "these Snopes-like little men with their pickup trucks"--Snopeslike! --and all sorts of people signed it.
This campaign against the developers also brought the New York Media & Lit. people into contact for the first time with the Boston people. Until the Media & Lit. people began going there about ten years before, Martha's Vineyard had always been a Boston resort, "Boston" in the most proper social sense of the word. There wasn't much the Boston people could do about the New York people except not associate with them. When they said "New York people," they no doubt meant "Jews & Others," he figured. So when he was first invited to a Boston party, thanks to his interest in the anti-developers campaign, he went with some trepidation and with his resentment tucked into his waistband like a .38. His mood darkened still more when he arrived in white ducks and an embroidered white cotton shirt, yoke-shouldered and open to the sternum--a little eccentric (actually a harmless sort of shirt known in Arizona as Fruit Western) but perfectly in the mood ofstandard New York People Seaside Funk--and found that the Boston men, to a man, had on jackets and ties. Not only that, they had on their own tribal colors. The jackets were mostly navy blazers, and the ties were mostly striped ties or ties with little jacquard emblems on them, but the pants had a go-to-hell air: checks and plaids of the loudest possible sort, madras plaids, yellow-on-orange windowpane checks, crazy-quilt plaids, giant houndstooth checks, or else they were a solid airmail red or taxi yellow or some other implausible go-to-hell color. They finished that off with loafers and white crew socks or no socks at all. The pants were their note of Haitian abandon ... weekends by the sea. At the same time the jackets and ties showed they had not forgotten for a moment where the power came from. He felt desolate. He slipped the loaded resentment out of his waistband and cocked it. And then the most amazing thing happened--
His hostess came up and made a fuss over him! Exactly! She had read Under Uncle's Thumb! So had quite a few of the men, infernal pants and all! Lawyers and investment counselors! They were all interested in him! Quite a stream --he hardly had to move from the one spot all evening! And as the sun went down over the ocean, and the alcohol rose, and all of their basted teeth glistened--he could almost see something ... presque vu! ... a glimmer of the future ... something he could barely make out ... a vision in which America's best minds, her intellectuals, found a common ground, a natural unity, with the enlightened segments of her old aristocracy, her old money ... the two groups bound together by ... but by what? ... he could almost see it, but not quite ... it was presque vu ... it was somehow a matter of taste ... of sensibility ... of grace, natural grace ... just as he himself had a natural feel for the best British styles, which were after all the source of theBoston manners ... What were the library stairs, if they weren't that? What were the Lobb shoes?
For here, now, surfacing to the top of the pile, is the check for $248 to John Lobb & Sons Ltd. Boot Makers--that was the way he wrote it out, Boot Makers, two words, the way it was on their bosky florid London letterhead--$248!--for one pair of shoes!--from England!--handmade! And now, all at once, even as chuck chuck chuck he punches it into the calculator, he is swept by a wave of sentiment, of sadness, sweet misery--guilt! Two hundred and forty-eight dollars for a pair of handmade shoes from England ... He thinks of his father. He wore his first pair of Lobb shoes to his father's funeral. Black cap toes they were, the most formal daytime shoes made, and it was pouring that day in Chicago and his incomparable new shoes from England were caked with mud when he got back to his father's house. He took the shoes off, but then he froze --he couldn't bring himself to remove the mud. His father had come to the United States from Russia as a young man in 1922. He had to go to work at once, and in no time, it seemed, came the Depression, and he struggled through it as a tailor, although in the forties he acquired a dry-cleaning establishment and, later, a second one, plus a diaperservice business and a hotel-linen service. But this brilliant man--oh, how many times had his mother assured him of that!--had had to spend all those years as a tailor. This cultivated man!--more assurances--oh, how many yards of Goethe and Dante had he heard him quote in an accent that gripped the English language like a full nelson! And now his son, the son of this brilliant, cultivated but uneducated and thwarted man--now his son, his son with his education and his literary career, his son who had never had to work with his hands more than half an hour at a stretch in his life --his son had turned up at his funeral in a pair of handmade shoes from England! ... Well, he let the mud dry on them.He didn't touch them for six months. He didn't even put the shoe trees (another $47) in. Perhaps the goddamned boots would curl up and die.
The number ... 248 ... is sitting right up there in slanted orange digits on the face of the calculator. That seems to end the reverie. He doesn't want to continue it just now. He doesn't want to see the 6684 for Martha's Vineyard up there again for a while. He doesn't want to see the seven digits of his debts (counting the ones after the decimal point) glowing in their full, magnificent, intoxicating length. It's time to get serious! Discipline! Only one thing will pull him out of all this: work ... writing ... and there's no way to put it off any longer. Discipline, Mr. Wonderful! This is the most difficult day of all, the day when it falls to his lot to put a piece of paper in the typewriter and start on page 1 of a new book, with that horrible arthritic siege--writing a book!--stretching out ahead of him (a tubercular blue glow, as his mind comprehends it) ... although it lifts his spirits a bit to know that both The Atlantic and Playboy have expressed an interest in running chapters as he goes along, and Penthouse would pay even more, although he doesn't want it to appear in a one-hand magazine, a household aid, as literary penicillin to help quell the spirochetes oozing from all the virulent vulvas ... Nevertheless! help is on the way! Hell!--there's not a magazine in America that wouldn't publish something from this book!
So he feeds a sheet of paper into his typewriter, and in the center, one third of the way down from the top, he takes care of the easy part first--the working title, in capital letters:
RECESSION AND REPRESSION POLICE STATE AMERICA AND THE SPIRIT OF '76
THE MAN WHO ALWAYS PEAKED TOO SOON
The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie
Down a perfectly green tunnel, as cool and quiet as you can possibly imagine--no, it's not a tunnel, it's more like a hall of mirrors--but they're not mirrors, those aren't reflections, they're openings, one after another, on and on --just a minute! it's very familiar!--out of this cool green memory comes a steward, a tiny man, in uniform, a white jacket, perfectly starched and folded and creased like an envelope over his crisp little bones. Who doesn't know him! Here comes Bye Borty-bibe--
He's saying it!
Dowd wakes up and it's 5:45 on the button, as always, and he looks across the stateroom at the steward. The steward is a little Filipino in a white jacket who hesitates, so as to make sure Dowd actually wakes up at bye borty-bibe, as he always pronounces it, and then he disappears down the passageway.
There is something eccentric in the way the day begins. It's terribly genteel!--having a little servant in a white jacket come by and respectfully summon you into consciousness so you can go hang your hide out for human skeet and sweat horribly. More servants will come in after Dowd leaves and make up his bed and clean up the stateroomand dust off the TV and the safe and clean off the desk and take out the laundry. Only your laundryman knows for sure! That was the usual joke, but there were some men who came aboard for the first time, and after a couple of hops north they would actually wonder whether it could get so bad--whether a man could get so frightened that he would literally lose control--only your laundryman knows for sure!--and whether later, in the bowels of the ship, in the laundry room, there might actually be some little laundry humper, some sweatback, some bye-bye steward of the soul, who would, in fact, know.
In the first moments, when you wake up, it's as if you're furiously scanning, painting all the stray trash on the screen, although usually that begins to fade as soon as you're on your feet. In a moment Dowd would be out in the good green passageway. The passageway is a very cool and immaculate green, not luxurious, you understand--in fact, every twenty feet there is a hatchway with a kneeknocker you have to step over, and as you look on and on through these hatchways, one after the other, it's like a hall of mirrors--but it is green and generally pleasing to the nervous system. Actually ... that is not all there is to it. It is also good because, if the truth be known, being on this good green passageway means that you are traveling first-class, sleeping in a stateroom, with only one roommate, and you have the aforesaid servants standing by. It is not even a subject that one thinks about in so many words. And yet the ship is constructed in such an obvious fashion, in layers, that one can't help but know that down below ... they are living in quite another way, in compartments, with thirty to forty souls to a compartment, and they wake up to a loudspeaker and make up their own bunks and run along to a loudspeaker through gray-and-beige tunnels and eat in a gray-and-beige galley off trays with scullion gullies stamped into them, instead of in a wardroom.
A wardroom!--also genteel in its way. Like the rest of them, Dowd is usually doing well if he gets up in time to make it to breakfast with his guy-in-back, Garth Flint, in the smaller wardroom, where they eat cafeteria-style. More than once he hasn't even managed that and has departed with nothing in his gullet but a couple of cups of coffee, notwithstanding all the lectures about the evil consequences this has for your blood-sugar level. But when they come back, Dowd and Flint and the others can enjoy the offerings of a proper wardroom, the formal one. They can take off the reeking zoom-bags, get dressed, sit down at a table with a white tablecloth on it, write out their orders on club slips, after the fashion of a men's club in New York or London, and more little Filipino stewards in white jackets will pick up the orders and serve dinner on china plates. The china has a certain dignity: it's white with a band of blue about the rim and a blue crest in the center. The silverware--now, that's rather nice! It's ornamental and heavy, it has curlicues and a noble gravity, the sort of silverware one used to see in the dining room of the good hotel near the railroad station. So they have dinner on a field of white and silver, while little stewards in white jackets move about the edges. The bulkheads (as the walls are known here) are paneled with walnut rectangles framed with more walnut; not actual wood, which is forbidden because it is inflammable, but similar enough to fool the eye. Off to the side are clusters of lounge chairs upholstered in leather and some acey-deucey tables. Silver and heavy glass wink out of a manly backdrop, rich as burled wood and Manila cigars; for here in the wardrooms of the Coral Sea the Navy has done everything that interior decoration and white mess jackets can do to live up to the idea of Officers & Gentlemen, within the natural limits of going to war on the high seas.
The notion often crosses Dowd's mind: It's like jousting. Every day they touch the napkins to their mouths, depart this gently stewarded place, and go forth, observing a checklist of written and unwritten rules of good form, to test their mettle, to go forth to battle, to hang their hides out over the skeet shooters of Hanoi-Haiphong ... thence to return, after no more than two hours ... to this linenfold club and its crisp starched white servitors.
One thing it is not good to think about is the fact that it would be even thus on the day when, finally, as has already happened to 799 other American aviators, radar-intercept officers, and helicopter crewmen, your hide is blown out of the sky. That day, too, would begin within this same gentlemanly envelope.
Fliers with premonitions are not healthy people. They are known as accidents waiting to happen. Now, John Dowd and Garth Flint are not given to premonitions, which is fortunate and a good sign; except that it won't make a great deal of difference today, because this is that day.
To get up on the flight deck of the Coral Sea, Dowd and Flint usually went out through a hatch onto a catwalk. The catwalk hung out over the side of the ship just below the level of the deck. At about midships they climbed a few feet up a ladder and they would be on the deck itself. A simple, if slightly old-fashioned, procedure, and by now second nature--
--but what a marvelous low-volt amusement was available if you were on the Coral Sea and you saw another mortal, some visitor, some summer reservist, whoever, make his first excursion out onto that deck. He takes a step out onto the catwalk, and right away the burglar alarm sounds in his central nervous system. Listen, Skipper!--the integrityof the circuit has been violated somewhere! He looks out over the railing of the catwalk, and it might as well be the railing of the goddamned Golden Gate Bridge. It's a sixty-foot drop to the sea below, which is water--but what conceivable difference does that make? From this height the water looks like steel where it picks up reflections of the hull of the carrier, except that it ripples and breaks up into queasy facets--and in fact the horizon itself is pitching up and down ... The whole freaking Golden Gate Bridge is pitching up and down ... the big wallowing monster can't hold still ... Christ, let's get up on the deck, away from the edge--but it's only when he reaches the deck itself and stands with both feet planted flat that the full red alert takes over.
This flight deck--in the movie or the training film the flight deck is a grand piece of gray geometry, perilous, to be sure, but an amazing abstract shape dominating the middle of the ocean as we look down upon it on the screen --and yet, once the newcomer's two feet are on it--geometry--my God, man, this is a ... skillet! It heaves, it moves up and down underneath his feet, it pitches up, it pitches down, as the ship moves into the wind and, therefore, into the waves, and the wind keeps sweeping across, sixty feet up in the air out in the open sea, and there are no railings whatsoever--and no way whatsoever to cry out to another living soul for a helping hand, because on top of everything else the newcomer realizes that his sense of hearing has been amputated entirely and his voice is useless. This is a skillet!--a frying pan!--a short-order grill!--not gray but black, smeared with skid marks from one end to the other and glistening with pools of hydraulic fluid and the occasional jet-fuel slick, all of it still hot, sticky, greasy, runny, virulent from God knows what traumas--still ablaze!--consumed in detonations, explosions, flames, combustion,roars, shrieks, whines, blasts, cyclones, dust storms, horrible shudders, fracturing impacts, all of it taking place out on the very edge of control, if in fact it can be contained at all, which seems extremely doubtful, because the whole scorched skillet is still heaving up and down the horizon and little men in screaming red and yellow and purple and green shirts with black Mickey Mouse helmets over their ears are skittering about on the surface as if for their very lives (you've said it now!), clustering about twin-engine F-4 fighter planes like little bees about the queen, rolling them up a stripe toward the catapult slot, which runs through the deck like the slot in the back of a piggy bank, hooking their bellies on to the shuttle that comes up through the slot and then running for cover as the two jet engines go into their shriek and a huge deflection plate rises up behind the plane because it is about to go into its explosion and quite enough gets blown--quite enough!--quite enough gets blown off this heaving grill as it is, and then they explode--both engines explode into full afterburn, 37,000 pounds of force, and a very storm of flame, heat, crazed winds, and a billion blown steely particles--a very storm engulfs the deck, followed by an unbelievable shudder--kaboom!--that pounds through the skillet and destroys whatever may be left of the neophyte's vestibular system, and the howling monster is flung up the deck like something out of a red-mad slingshot, and the F-4 is launched, dropping off the lip of the deck tail down with black smoke pouring out of both engines in its furious struggle to gain altitude--and already another plane is ready on the second catapult and the screams and explosions have started again and the little screaming-yellow men with their Mouseketeer ears are running once more--
--and yet this flaming bazooka assembly line will, in the newcomer's memory, seem orderly, sublimely well controlled,compared to the procedure he will witness as the F-4's, F-8's, A-4's, A-6's return to the ship for what in the engineering stoicisms of the military is known as recovery and arrest. To say that an F-4 is coming back onto this heaving barbecue from out of the sky at a speed of 135 knots ... that may be the truth on paper, but it doesn't begin to get across the idea of what a man sees from the deck itself, because it perhaps creates the notion that the plane is gliding in. On the deck one knows different! As the aircraft comes closer and the carrier heaves on into the waves and the plane's speed does not diminish--one experiences a neural alarm he has never in his wildest fears imagined before: This is not an airplane coming toward me, it's a brick, and it is not gliding, it's falling, a fifty-thousand-pound brick, headed not for a stripe on the deck, but for me--and with a horrible smash! it hits the skillet, and with a blur of momentum as big as a freight train's it hurtles toward the far end of the deck--another blinding storm!--another roar as the pilot pushes the throttle up to full military power and another smear of rubber screams out over the skillet--and this is normal!--quite okay!--a wire stretched across the deck has grabbed the hook on the end of the plane as it hit the deck tail down, and the smash was the rest of the twenty-five-ton brute slamming onto the deck, as if tripped up, so that it is now straining against the wire at full throttle, in case it hadn't held and the plane had "boltered" off the end of the deck and had to struggle up into the air again. And already the Mickey Mouse helmets are running toward their fiery monster ...
The obvious dangers of the flight deck were the setting, the backdrop, the mental decor, the emotional scenery against which all that happened on the carrier was played out, and the aviator was he who lived in the very eye of the firestorm. This grill was his scenery. Its terrors rose outof his great moments: the launch and recovery. For that reason some crewmen liked to check out the demeanor of the aviators during these events, just as they might have in the heyday of the chivalric code.
When John Dowd and Garth Flint came out on deck in their green flight suits, carrying their helmets and their knee-boards, they were an unmistakable pair. Dowd was the tallest pilot on the ship, almost six feet five. Six years ago he was captain of the Yale basketball team. He was so tall, he had to slump his way through the physicals in order to get into flight training, where six four was the upper limit. He looked like a basketball player. His face, his Adam's apple, his shoulders, his elbows--he was a tower of sharp angles. Flint was Dowd's radar-intercept officer. He was five eight and rather solidly built. He was not small, but next to Dowd he looked like a little jockey.
Today they were to go out on a two-ship formation, with Dowd's roommate, Dick Brent, flying a second F-4B. Dowd's would be the lead ship; Brent's the wing. The usual monsoon overcast was down within about five hundred feet of the deck. It was another day inside the gray pearl: the ship, a tight circle of the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin around it, a dome of clouds, fog, mist, which was God's great gift to the North Vietnamese.
They climb aboard and Dowd eases the power on to taxi the ship toward the catapult, while the aircraft directors nurse it onto the slot. The catapult officer is out there on the deck with his Mousketeer ear baffles on and his yellow jersey flapping in the wind. Assuming the preliminary stages have been completed correctly, the catapult officer is supposed to hold up five fingers to show the pilot that all looks good for launch. If the gauges look okay, the pilot then shows that he is ready for his little slide-for-life ... by saluting. At this point three things are supposed to happenin a very rapid sequence: the catapult officer drops to one knee (to avoid having his head removed by the wing) and throws his hand forward like a cheerleader doing the "locomotive"; the pilot cuts on full afterburn; and a seaman on a catwalk across the deck presses a black rubber button and throws both hands up in the air. This somewhat hopeless-looking gesture says: "It's done! We've fired the catapult! You're on your way! There's no stopping it!"
To Dowd this is another eccentric note. This man who fires the slingshot--or who seems to--actually he's signaling the steam-catapult crew below deck--this man, who appears to flick you into the sky or the sea with his finger, according to how things work out, is some little swabbo making seventy-eight dollars a month or whatever it is. Somehow this fact puts just that much more edge on the demeanor of the pilot's salute, because what that salute says is: "I hereby commit my hide to your miserable care, sir, to you and your sailor with the button and your motherless catapult. I'm a human cannonball, and it's your cannon."
So it is that today, just before he cuts on full afterburn and sets off the full 37,000-pound explosion and consumes the skillet in the firestorm and braces the stick so he won't lose control in the bad lurch of the slingshot, just before the big ride, in the key moment of knightly correctness, Dowd rolls his salute off his helmet with a languid swivel of his wrist, like Adolphe Menjou doffing his hat ... a raffish gesture, you might say, with a roll to it that borders on irony ... but a friendly note all the same ... For this is a good day! They are flying again! There is no bomb load--therefore less weight, therefore an easy launch! ... a good day--otherwise he might have, or would have been entitled to, according to the unwritten and unspoken rules (especially since he has more than one hundred missions behind him)--he might have ended that cool rolling salute byleaving his middle finger sticking up in the air, in an accepted fashion that tells one and all: "You're only giving me the grand goose. Why should I salute? (Here's one for you.)"
But this is a good day!--and Dowd surrenders to the catapult without even an ironic protest, and he feels a tremendous compression, so great that the surface of his eyeballs flattens and his vision blurs, and the F-4B shrieks, and he and Flint hurtle down the stripe and off the bow of the ship, half blind and riding a shrieking beast, into the gray pearl. It couldn't have been a smoother launch; it was absolutely nominal.
Dowd heads on through the pearl, through the overcast, with Brent's plane about five hundred yards back. The ride to the coast of North Vietnam will take them about twenty minutes. Just how high the cloud cover will be up around Haiphong is impossible to say, which means that the game of high-low may be a trifle too interesting. The weather has been so bad, nobody has been up there. Well ... now somebody's going up there. Already, without any doubt, the Russian trawlers in the gulf have painted the two aircraft on their radar screens. Painted! Such a nice word for it! The phosphorescent images come sliding onto the screen, as if a brush were doing it. And with those two delicate little strokes on a Russian radar screen somewhere out there in the muck, the game is on again.
American pilots in Vietnam often ran through their side of the action ahead of time as if it were a movie in the mind ... trying to picture every landmark on the way to the Red River delta, every razorback green ridge, all that tropical hardscrabble down below, every jut in the coast, every wretched misty snake bend in the Red River, every bridge around Haiphong harbor, every change of course,the angle of every bomb run from the assigned altitude ... But just try to imagine the enemy's side of it. Try to imagine your own aircraft (encasing your own hide) sliding onto their screens like a ghost stroke (observed by what Russian?) and the trawler signaling the coast and the cannon crews and SAM battalions cranking up in the delta and devising (saying what exactly?) their black trash for the day, which could be inexplicably varied.
One day flying over Haiphong would be "a walk in Haiphong Park," as Dowd would put it. The next day the place would erupt with the wildest storms of ground fire since the bombing of Berlin, Merseburg, and Magdeburg in the Second World War, absolute sheets of 37-millimeter, 57-millimeter, and 85-millimeter cannon fire, plus the SAM's. The antiaircraft cannons now had sights that computed the leads instantly and automatically, and they were more accurate than anything ever dreamed of in the Second World War or the Korean war. But it was the SAM's that were the great equalizer. It was SAM's that made aerial combat in Vietnam something different from what the aces of wars gone by--admirable innocent fellows!--had ever known.
Dowd used to say to himself: "The SAM's come up, and the boys go down." One way or the other! The SAM's, the Russian surface-to-air missiles, were aimed and guided by radar. They climbed at about Mach 3, which was likely to be at least three times as fast as your own ship was going when you heard the warning over your radio ("I have a valid launch!"). The SAM's were not fired at random--each had a radar lock on your aircraft or somebody else's. The only way to evade a SAM was to dive for the deck, i.e., the ground. The SAM's own G-forces were so great they couldn't make the loop and come back down. "The SAM's come up, and the boys go down." And the merriment has just begun. The dive brings you down so low,you are now down into the skeet range of that insidiously well-aimed flak! This, as they say, put you between a rock and a hard place. Sometimes the North Vietnamese also sent up the Mig-21's. But they were canny about it. The Migs went up mainly to harass the bombers, the F-105's, A-4's, and A-6's, to force them to jettison their bomb loads (in order to gain speed to evade the Migs) before they reached the target. But occasionally the F-4's got a chance to tangle with them. What a luxury! How sporting! How nice to have a mere Mig to deal with instead of the accursed SAM's! Of course, you just might have both to contend with at the same time. The North Vietnamese were so SAM-crazy, once in a while they'd fire them up in the middle of a hassle and hit their own planes.
Dowd saw his first SAM last year when he was on a flak-suppression run. Other aviators had always told him they looked like "flying telephone poles," but the only thing he saw at first was a shower of sparks, like the sparks from a Roman candle. That was the rocket tail. And then he could make out the shaft--all of this happening in an instant--and it was, in fact, like a pale-gray telephone pole, moving sideways through the sky as if skidding on its tail, which meant the ship it was after had already dived for the deck and the SAM was trying to overcome its own momentum and make the loop. You were always reassured with the statement, "If you can see it"--meaning a SAM--"you can evade it"--but there were some pilots who were so egotistical they believed that the one they saw was the one that had their name on it. A fatal delusion in many cases!--for the SAM's came up in fans of six or eight, fired from different sites and different angles. "The SAM's come up, and the boys go down"--and Dowd and his whole formation hit the deck and got out of there. Not long after that, Dowd and Flint were hit by ground fire for the first time--it was to happen four more times--in the same sortof situation. They had just come down out of the dive when they took hits in the port ramp and intake duct. Fortunately it was 14.5-millimeter fire, instead of one of the big cannons, and they made it on back to the ship.
High-low! In what?--ten minutes?--Dowd will have to start playing the same game again this morning. Soon he will have to decide whether to go above the overcast or right on the deck. Above the overcast they will be safe from the gunners, who need visual sightings in order to use their automatic lead mechanisms. But right above the overcast is where SAM rules like a snake. More aviators have been wiped out by SAM's popping out of the clouds they're sitting on than any other way. Rather than contend with that automated blind beast, some pilots prefer to come in low over the terrain in the eternal attempt to get in "under the radar." But what is it really, a strategic defense or a psychological defense?
Such was the nature of the game that Dowd and every other pilot here had to play. Many of the pilots who flew over Vietnam had been trained by instructors who had flown in the Korean war. What tigers those old Korea jocks were! What glorious memories they had! What visions those aces could fill your skull with! What a tangy taste they gave to the idea of aerial combat over Southeast Asia! The Korean war brought on the first air-to-air combat between jet fighters, but it turned out to be dogfighting of the conventional sort nonetheless, American F-86's versus Soviet-built Mig-15's mainly--and it was a picnic ... a field day ... a duck shoot ... American pilots, flying F-86's in all but a few dozen cases, shot down 839 Korean and Chinese Mig-15's. Only fifty-six F-86's were lost. Quite a carnival it was. Morale among American ground troops in Korea slid like the mud, but the pilots were in Fighter Jock Heaven. The Air Force was producing aces--fighter pilotswho had shot down five planes or more--as fast as the Communists could get the Migs up in the air. By the time the war stopped, there were thirty-eight Air Force aces, and between them they had accounted for a total of 299.5 kills. High spirits these lads had. They chronicled their adventures with a good creamy romanticism such as nobody in flying had dared treat himself to since the days of Lufbery, Frank Luke, and Von Richthofen in the First World War. Why hold back! Jousting is jousting, and a knight's a knight. Colonel Harrison R. Thyng, who shot down five Migs in Korea (and eight German and Japanese planes in the Second World War), glowed like Excalibur when he described his Fourth Fighter-Interceptor Wing: "Like olden knights the F-86 pilots ride up over North Korea to the Yalu River, the sun glinting off silver aircraft, contrails streaming behind, as they challenge the numerically superior enemy to come on up and fight." Lances and plumes! Come on up and fight! Now there was a man having a wonderful time!
In Vietnam, however, the jousting was of a kind the good colonel and his knights never dreamed of. The fighter plane that the Air Force and the Navy were now using instead of the F-86--namely, the F-4--was competing with the new generation of Migs and was winning by a ratio of two to one, according to the air-to-air combat scoreboards, regular league standings, that were kept in various military publications. That was nothing like the fifteento-one ratio in Korea, of course--but more than that, it was not even the main event any longer. Not even the heroic word "ace" carried the old wallop. The studs-of-all-thestuds in Vietnam were not the pilots in air-to-air combat but the men who operated in that evil space between the rock and the hard place, between the SAM's and the automatic cannon fire.
In the past three years--1965, 1966, and the year just ending for John Dowd, 1967--the losses had been more brutal than the Air Force or the Navy had ever admitted. Jack Broughton, an Air Force colonel and commander of a wing of F-105's flying over Hanoi-Haiphong from out of Thailand, described the losses as "astronomical and unacceptable," and they were increasing sharply each year. What made the North Vietnamese game of high-low--SAM's and ground fire--so effective was a set of restrictions such as no combat pilots had ever had to contend with before.
Flying out over Hanoi and Haiphong was like playing on some small and sharply defined court. These two cities were by far the major targets in North Vietnam, and so there was very little element of surprise along the lines of switching targets. They could only be approached down a ridge of mountains ("Thud Ridge") from the west, out of Thailand, which would be the Air Force attacking with F-105 fighter-bombers, or across a wide-open delta (perfect for radar defenses) from the east, which would be the Navy attacking from carriers in the gulf. The North Vietnamese and the Russians packed so much artillery in around these two cities that pilots would come back saying, "It was like trying to fly through a rainstorm without hitting a drop."
God knows how many planes and pilots were lost just trying to knock out the North Vietnamese ground fire. The Air Force had Wild Weasel or Iron Hand units made up of pilots in F-105's who offered themselves as living SAM bait. They would deliberately try to provoke launches by the SAM battalions so that other ships could get a radar lock on the SAM sites and hit them with cluster-bomb strikes. This became the ultimate game of radar chess. If the SAM battalions beamed up at the Wild Weasels and committed too early, they stood to get obliterated,which would also allow the main strike force to get through to its target. On the other hand, if they refused to go for the bait, recognizing it for what it was, and shut down their beams--that might give the strike force just enough time to slip through unchallenged. So they'd keep shutting on and off, as in some lethal game of "one finger, two fingers." Their risk was nothing, however, compared to that of the Wild Weasel pilots, who were the first in and the last out, who hung around in the evil space far too long and stood to get snuffed any way the game went.
Navy pilots, Dowd among them, were sent out day after day for "flak suppression." The North Vietnamese could move their flak sites around overnight, so that the only way to find them was by leading with your head, as it were, flying over the target area until you saw them fire the cannons. This you could detect by the rather pretty peach-pink sparkles, which were the muzzle explosions. The cannons made no sound at all (way up here) and seemed tiny and merely decorative ... with their little delicate peach-pink sparkles amid the bitter green of the scrabble. Dowd and his comrades could not unload on these flak sites just anywhere they found them, however. As if to make the game a little more hazardous, the Pentagon had declared certain areas bomb-free zones. A pilot could hit only "military targets," which meant he couldn't hit villages, hospitals, churches, or Haiphong harbor if there was a "third-party" ship there. So, naturally, being no fools, the North Vietnamese loaded the villages up with flak sites, loaded the churches up with munitions, put SAM sites behind the hospitals, and "welded a third-party ship to the dock" in Haiphong harbor, as Garth Flint put it. There always seemed to be some neutral flag in port there, with one of North Vietnam's best customers being our friends the British. One day one of Dowd's Coral Sea comrades came in for a run on a railroad freight depot, pickled hisbombs too soon, went long, and hit a church--whereupon the bitter-green landscape rocked with secondary and tertiary explosions and a succession of fireballs. The place had gone up like an arsenal, which of course it was. Every now and then Dowd would be involved in a strike aimed at "cutting off" Haiphong harbor. This was not to be done, however, by mining the harbor or blowing the docking facilities out of the water or in any other obvious and easy manner. No, this had to be accomplished by surgically severing the bridges that connected the port with the mainland. This required bomb runs through the eye of a needle, and even if the bridges were knocked out, the North Vietnamese simply moved everything across by barge until the bridges were back.
If you were a pilot being flung out every day between the rock and the hard place, these complicated proscriptions took on an eerie diffidence, finally. They were like an unaccountable display of delicate manners. In fact, it was the Johnson Administration's attempt to fight a "humane" war and look good in the eyes of the world. There was something out-to-lunch about it, however. The eyes of the world did not flutter for a second. Stories of American atrocities were believed by whoever wanted to believe them, no matter what actually occurred, and the lacy patterns that American bombing missions had to follow across Hanoi-Haiphong never impressed a soul, except for the pilots and radar-intercept officers who knew what a difficult and dangerous game it was.
If the United States was seriously trying to win the battle of world opinion--well, then, here you had a real bush-league operation. The North Vietnamese were the uncontested aces, once you got into this arena. One of the most galling things a pilot had to endure in Vietnam was seeing the North Vietnamese pull propaganda coup afterpropaganda coup, often with the help, unwitting or otherwise, of Americans. There was not merely a sense of humiliation about it. The North Vietnamese talent in this direction often had direct strategic results.
For example, the missions over N----D----. Now, here was one time, in Dowd's estimation, when they had gotten the go-ahead to do the job right. N----D----was an important transportation center in the Iron Triangle area. For two days they softened the place up, working on the flak sites and SAM sites in the most methodical way. On the third day they massed the bomb strike itself. They tore the place apart. They ripped open its gullet. They put it out of the transport business. It had been a model operation. But the North Vietnamese now are blessed with a weapon that no military device known to America could ever get a lock on. As if by magic ... in Hanoi ... appears ... Harrison Salisbury! Harrison Salisbury--writing in The New York Times about the atrocious American bombing of the hardscrabble folk of North Vietnam in the Iron Triangle! If you had real sporting blood in you, you had to hand it to the North Vietnamese. They were champions at this sort of thing. It was beautiful to watch. To Americans who knew the air war in the north firsthand, it seemed as if the North Vietnamese were playing Mr. Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times like an ocarina, as if they were blowing smoke up his pipe and the finger work was just right and the song was coming forth better than they could have played it themselves.
Before you knew it, massive operations like the one at N----D----were no longer being carried out. It was back to threading needles. And yet it couldn't simply be blamed on Salisbury. No series of articles by anyone, no matter what the publication, could have had such an immediate strategic effect if there weren't some sort of strangecollapse of will power taking place back in the States. One night, after a couple of hops, Dowd sank back into an easy chair in the wardroom of the Coral Sea and picked up a copy of some newspaper that was lying around. There on the first page was William Sloane Coffin, the Yale University chaplain, leading a student antiwar protest. Not only that, there was Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale, standing by, offering tacit support ... or at least not demurring in any way. It gave Dowd a very strange feeling. Out in the Gulf of Tonkin, on a carrier, one was not engulfed in news from stateside. A report like this came like a remote slice of something--but a slice of something how big? Coffin, who had been at Yale when Dowd was there--Comn was one thing. But the president of Yale? There was Kingman Brewster with his square-cut face--but looked at another way, it was a strong face gone flaccid, plump as a piece of chicken Kiev. Six years before, when Dowd was a senior at Yale and had his picture taken on the Yale Fence as captain of the basketball team ... any such Yale scene as was now in this newspaper would have been impossible to contemplate.
The collapse of morale, or weakening of resolve, or whatever it should be called--this was all taking place in the States at the very moment when the losses were beginning to mount in both the Navy and the Air Force. Aviators were getting shot down by the hundreds. Sometimes, at night, after dinner, after the little stewards in white had cleared away the last of the silver from off the white line, after playing a few rounds of acey-deucey in the lounge or just sinking into the leather billows of the easy chairs, after a movie in the wardroom, after a couple of unauthorized but unofficially tolerated whiskeys in somebody's stateroom--after the usual, in short, when he was back in his own quarters, Dowd would take out his mimeographedflight schedule for the day just completed and turn it over to the blank side and use it to keep a journal. In 1966 and 1967 more and more of these entries would make terse note of the toll of friends: "We lost Paul Schultz & Sully--presumably captured immediately on landing in parachute. Direct hit from SAM coming out of clouds--site near Kien An." Or: "Bill C. got it over Ha Tinh today--body seen bloody on ground."
Or they were about how John Dowd hadn't gotten his: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. I think today was a give day. 8 SAM's or so fired from multiple sites and it looked like a few had my no. on them. However they missed their mark & so this entry is made ... Doc H. presented those who participated in the 'A' strike with a little vial of J. W. Dant cough medicine."
In light of all that, it may be of interest to note one fact concerning the mission to Haiphong and points north that Dowd has just headed off on: he did not merely volunteer for it--he thought it up!
For four days, which is to say, ever since Christmas Day, the coastal ports of Haiphong, Cam Pha, and Hon Gay have been socked in with bad weather. Dowd suggested and volunteered for a weather-reconnaissance hop to find out how bad it actually was, to see if the soup was moving at all, to see if the harbors were by any chance clear of third-party ships and therefore eligible for bombing, and so on. If anyone had asked, Dowd would have merely said that anything was better than sitting around the ship for days on end, doing make-work.
But anything--even playing high-low with SAM over the North?
The answer to that question perhaps leads to the answer to a broader one: How was it that despite their own fearsomelosses in 1965, 1966 and 1967, despite hobbling restrictions and dubious strategies set by the Pentagon, despite the spectacle of the antiwar movement building back home--how was it that, in the face of all this, American fliers in Vietnam persisted in virtuoso performances and amazing displays of esprit throughout the war? Somehow it got down to something that is encoded in the phrase "a great hop."
The last time Dowd and Garth Flint were out was four days ago, Christmas Day, during the American Christmas cease-fire; and what a little tourist excursion that was. They flew a photo run over Route 1A in North Vietnam, came in under the cloud cover, right down on top of the "Drive-In," as it was called, fifty feet from the ground, with Garth taking pictures, and the Charlies were down there using Christmas Day and the cease-fire for all it was worth. The traffic jam at the Phun Cat ferry, going south to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was so enormous that they couldn't have budged even if they thought Dowd was going to open up on them. They craned their heads back and stared up at him. He was down so low, it was as if he could have chucked them under their chins. Several old geezers, in the inevitable pantaloons, looked up without even taking their hands off the drafts of the wagons they were pulling. It was as if they were harnessed to them. The wagons were so full of artillery shells, it was hard to see how one man, particularly so spindly a creature, could possibly pull one, but there they were in the middle of the general jam-up, in with the trucks, bicycles, motorcycles, old cars, rigs of every sort, anything that would roll.
Now, that was a good hop--and Dowd so recorded it in his journal--an interesting hop, a nice slice of the war, something to talk about, but merely a photo hop ... and not a great hop. There was such a thing as a great hop, and it was quite something else.
Sometimes, at night, when Dowd would write on the back of his flight schedule, he'd make such entries as:
"Great hop! Went to Nam Dinh and hosed down the flak sites around that city. Migs joined in the caper, but no one got a tally. Think I lucked out in a last-minute bomb run & racked up a flak site pretty well."
The atmosphere of the great hop had something about it that was warlike only in the sense that it was, literally, a part of combat. A word that comes closer is sporting. Throughout his tour of duty on the Coral Sea, no matter how bearish the missions became, Dowd seemed to maintain an almost athletic regard for form. Even on days he spent diving from SAM's and running the flak gauntlets, even on days when he was hit by flak, he would wind up his journal entries with a note about how well (or how poorly) he drove his F-4 back down onto the carrier, and often with a playful tone: "2nd pass was a beauty but only received an OK--which was an unfortunate misjudgment on the part of the LSO [landing signal officer]." Or: "Went to Haiphong Barracks. 3 SAM's launched--one appeared to be directed at yours truly--however with skill & cunning we managed to avoid it, although it cost us our first bombing run, which was in question due to lack of a target--no flak tc suppress. After whifferdilling around we rolled in on a preplanned secondary target. What deleterious havoc this bombing caused the enemy is questionable. However the overall mission was quite successful ... RTB good approach except for last ¼ mile. Received cut-1 for my efforts."
A great hop! With skill & cunning we managed to avoid ... death, to call it by its right name. But pilots never mentioned death in the abstract. In fact, the word itself was taboo in conversation. So were the words "bravery" and "fear" and their synonyms. Which is to say, pilots never mentioned the three questions that were uppermost in theminds of all of them: Will I live or die? Will I be brave, whatever happens? Will I show my fear? By now, 1967, with more than a hundred combat missions behind him, Dowd existed in a mental atmosphere that was very nearly mystical. Pilots who had survived that many games of high-low over North Vietnam were like the preacher in Moby Dick who ascends to the pulpit on a rope ladder and then pulls the ladder up behind him.
Friends, near ones and dear ones, the loved ones back home, often wondered just what was on the minds of the fliers as the casualties began to increase at a fearsome rate in 1966 and 1967. Does a flier lie on his back in bed at night with his eyes wide open, staring holes through the ceiling and the flight deck and into outer space, thinking of the little ones, Jeffrey and Jennifer, or of his wife, Sandy, and of the soft lost look she has when she first wakes in the morning or of Mom and Dad and Christmas and of little things like how he used to click the toggles on his rubber boots into place before he went out into the snow when he was eight? No, my dear ones back home--I'm afraid not! The lads did not lie in their staterooms on the Coral Sea thinking of these things--not even on Christmas Eve, a few days ago!
Well ... what was on their minds?
(Hmmmm ... How to put it into words ... Should it be called the "inner room"?)
Dowd, for one, had entered the Navy in 1961 without the slightest thought of flying or of going to war. The Navy had no such designs for him, either. Quite the contrary. All they asked was that he keep playing basketball! At Yale, Dowd had been an aggressive player, the sort who was matched up against other college stars, such as Dave De Busschere of the University of Detroit (later of the New York Knicks). At the end of his last season, 1961,Dowd was drafted by the Cleveland entry in the new American Basketball Association. He had his naval R.O.T.C. obligation to serve out, however, and the Navy sent him to Hawaii to play ball for the fleet. This he did; his team won the All-Navy championship in 1962. There was nothing to stop him from playing basketball for the rest of his service stint ... just putting the ball in the hoop for Uncle Sam in heavy-lidded Hawaii.
Now that he was in the military, however, Dowd, like many service athletes, began to get a funny feeling. It had to do with the intangible thing that made sports so alluring when you were in school or college, the intangible summed up in the phrase "where the action is." At Yale, as at other colleges, playing sports was where the action was--or where the applause, the stardom, and the honor were, to be more exact. But now that he was in the Navy, something about sports, something he had never thought about, became obvious. Namely, all team sports were play-acting versions of military combat.
It is no mere coincidence that the college sport where there is the greatest risk of injury--football--is also the most prestigious. But the very risk of injury in football is itself but a mild play-acting version of the real thing: the risk of death in military action. So a service athlete was like a dilettante. He was play-acting inside the arena of the real thing. The real thing was always available, any time one had the stomach for it, even in peacetime. There were plenty of ways to hang your side out over the edge in the service, even without going to war. Quite unconsciously, the service athlete always felt mocked by that unspoken challenge. And in the Navy there was no question but that the action-of-all-actions was flying fighter planes off carriers.
In his last year at Yale, Dowd had married a girl namedWendy Harter from his home town, Rockville Centre, Long Island. About a year and a half later they had a son, John Jr. And then, out in Hawaii, on those hot liquid evenings when the boy couldn't go to sleep, they would drive him out to Hickam Field to watch the airplanes. Both commercial liners and military fighters came into Hickam. By and by Dowd was taking his wife and his son out there even when the boy was practically asleep in his tracks. One night they were out at Hickam, and Wendy surprised Dowd by reading his mind out loud for him.
"If you like them so much," she said, "why don't you fly them?"
So he started training ... with a vague feeling of pour le sport. This was 1963, when the possibility of an American war in Vietnam was not even talked about.
A man may go into military flight training believing that he is entering some sort of technical school where he is simply going to acquire a certain set of skills. Instead, he finds himself enclosed in the walls of a fraternity. That was the first big surprise for every student. Flying was not a craft but a fraternity. Not only that, the activities of this particular brotherhood began to consume all of a man's waking hours.
But why? And why was it so obsessive? Ahhhhh--we don't talk about that! Nevertheless, the explanation was: flying required not merely talent but one of the grandest gambles of manhood. Flying, particularly in the military, involved an abnormal risk of death at every stage. Being a military flight instructor was a more hazardous occupation than deep-sea diving. For that matter, simply taking off in a single-engine jet fighter, such as an F-102, or any other of the military's marvelous bricks with fins on them, presented a man, on a perfectly sunny day, with more ways to get himself killed than his wife and children could possiblyimagine. Within the fraternity of men who did this sort of thing day in and day out--within the flying fraternity, that is--mankind appeared to be sheerly divided into those who have it and those who don't--although just what it was ... was never explained. Moreover, the very subject was taboo. It somehow seemed to be the transcendent solution to the binary problem of Death/Glory, but since not even the terminology could be uttered, speculating on the answer became doubly taboo.
For Dowd, like every other military pilot, the flying fraternity turned out to be the sort that had outer and inner chambers. No sooner did the novitiate demonstrate his capabilities in the outermost chamber and gain entrance to the next ... than he discovered that he was once again a novitiate insofar as entry through the next door was concerned ... and on and on the series goes. Moreover, in carrier training the tests confronted the candidate, the eternal novitiate, in more rapid succession than in any other form of flying.
He first had to learn to fly a propeller-driven airplane. Perhaps a quarter of an entering class might be eliminated, washed out, at this stage. Then came jet training and formation flight. As many as 50 percent of those left might wash out at these stages. But in naval flying, on top of everything else, there was the inevitable matter of ... the heaving greasy skillet. That slab of metal was always waiting out in the middle of the ocean. The trainees first practiced touching down on the shape of a flight deck painted on an airfield. They'd touch down and then gun right off. This was safe enough--the shape didn't move, at least--but it could do terrible things to, let us say, the gyroscope of the soul. That shape--it's so damned small! And more novitiates washed out. Then came the day, without warning, when they were sent out over the ocean for the first of many days of reckoning with the skillet. The first day wasalways a clear day with little wind and a calm sea. The carrier was so steady it seemed to be resting on pilings--but what a bear that day was!
When Dowd was in training, aviators learned to land on the flight deck with the aid of a device that bore the horrible, appropriate name of the "meatball." This was a big mirror set up on the deck with a searchlight shining into it at a 3-degree angle--the angle of the flight deck--so that it reflected at the same angle. The aviator was to guide himself onto the deck by keeping the great burst of light, the meatball, visible in the center of the mirror. And many, many good souls washed out as they dropped like a brick toward the deck and tried to deal with that blazing meatball. Those who survived that test perhaps thought for a brief moment that at last they were regulars in Gideon's Army. But then came night landings. The sky was black, and the sea was black, and now that hellish meatball bobbed like a single sagging star in outer space. Many good men "bingoed" and washed out at this juncture. The novitiate was given three chances to land on the deck. If he didn't come in on his first or second approach and flew by instead, then he had to make it on his third, or the word "bingo!" would sound over his earphones--and over the entire flight deck, as he well knew--meaning that he would have to fly back to shore and land on a nice, safe immovable airfield ... where everyone likewise knew he was a poor sad Bingo coming in from the carrier. It didn't take many bingos to add up to a washout.
One night, when Dowd had just started night training, the sea and the wind seemed to be higher, the clouds seemed lower, the night blacker than he thought possible. From up in the air the meatball seemed to bob and dart around in a crazy fashion, like a BB under glass in one of those roll-'emin-the-hole games you hold in the palm of your hand. Hemade two passes and leveled off a good two hundred feet above the ship each time. On the third time around ... it suddenly seemed of supreme, decisive, eternal importance that the word "bingo" not sound over his earphones. He fought the meatball all the way down in a succession of jerks, shudders, lurches, and whifferdills, then drove his plane onto the deck through sheer will, practically like a nail. The fourth and last deck wire caught him, and he kept the throttle pushed forward into the "full military power" position, figuring he was on the verge of boltering off the end and would have to regain altitude instantaneously. He had his head down and his hand thrust forward, with his engine roaring--for how long?--God knows--before it dawned on him that he was actually down safe and could get out. The whole flight deck was waiting for him to shut off his damned engine. As he climbed down from the aircraft, he heard the skipper's voice boom out over the speaker system:
"How do you like flying now, Lieutenant?"
He noted with some satisfaction, however, that they then closed down the deck because of the weather. And was he now in the fraternity at last? ... Hardly. He was just beginning. Everything he had learned to do so far became merely the routine. He was now expected to perform such incredible stunts day in and day out, under conditions of fleet operations and combat.
Being a carrier pilot was like being a paratrooper in that it took a while to learn how many different ways you could be killed in the course of an ordinary operation. A fellow F-4 jock, a friend, an experienced aviator, comes in one night low on fuel, not sure he has enough for a second pass, touches down long, bolters, tries to regain altitude, can't, careens off the far end of the deck, fifty thousand pounds of metal and tubes, and sinks without a trace. It allhappens in a matter of seconds, just like that. Another friend, with even more experience, a combat veteran, gets his without moving a muscle. He's in his F-4, in the flight line, waiting for his turn on the catapult, when the ship up ahead somehow turns at the wrong angle, throttles up without a deflection shield behind it, and the whole fifteen tons of thrust hits his F-4, and the man and his guy-in-back and the ship are blown off the deck like a candy wrapper and are gone forever--in an instant, a snap of the fingers, just like that.
Yet once an aviator was in combat, all that, too, became simply the given, the hazards of everyday life on the job, a mere backdrop. From now on one found new doors, new tests, coming up with a mad rapidity. Your first day in combat ... your first bombing run ... first strafing run ... the first time you're shot at ... the first time you see a SAM ... which also means the first time you dive for the deck straight into the maw of the flak cannons ... the first time your ship gets dinged by flak ... and the first time you see someone else in your own formation blown out of the sky over the North--and in many ways what an aviator saw with his own eyes was more terrible than the sudden unseen things happening to himself.
For Dowd and Garth Flint this came one day during a bombing run near the Iron Triangle. They were closing in on the target, barreling through the eternal cloud cover, unable to see even the ships in their own wing, when all at once a great livid ghost came drifting straight across their path, from left to right. It was an F-4. It had taken a direct hit, and smoke was pouring out of the cockpit. The smoke enveloped the fuselage in the most ghostly fashion. The pilot had cobbed it to starboard in a furious effort to reach the water, the gulf, to try to bail out where Navy rescue planes could reach them. In the blink of an eye the ghastlycartridge disappeared, swallowed up by the clouds. They would never make it. Dowd and Flint plowed on to the target, following their wing command, even though the gunners below obviously had dead range on the formation. To have done anything else would have been unthinkable.
Unthinkable, to be sure. By late 1967 thinkable/unthinkable played on a very narrow band. The options had been cut back sharply. Both Navy and Air Force fliers were getting theirs at a rate that was "astronomical and unacceptable," by ordinary logic, as Jack Broughton had said. But fliers with a hundred missions over the North were people who by now had pulled the rope ladder up into the pulpit. Somehow they had removed their ties with the ordinary earth. They no longer lived on it. Home and hearth, loved ones and dear ones--it wasn't that they had consciously lost their love or dear regard for such folks and such things ... it was just that the dear folks back home were ... so far away, back there through such an incalculable number of chambers and doors. The fliers over the North now lived in, or near, the fraternity's innermost room. Or, at the very least, they now knew who it was, finally, who had access to that room. It was not merely he who could be called "brave." No, it was he who was able to put his hide on the line in combat and then had the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness to pull it back in the last yawning moment--and then was able to go out again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, and do it all over again, even if the series proved infinite. It was the daily routine of risking one's hide while operating a hurtling piece of machinery that separated military flying from all other forms of soldiering and sailoring known to history.
Even without going into combat career Navy fighter pilots stood one chance in four of dying in an accident before their twenty years were up, and one chance in twoof having to punch out, eject by parachute, at some point. In combat, especially in Vietnam, God knew what the figures were. The Pentagon was not saying. No, the Pentagon itself seemed bent on raising the ante to ridiculous heights, imposing restrictions that every aviator knew to be absurd. And "the nation"? "our country"? "the folks back home"? They seemed to have lost heart for the battle. But even that realization seemed ... so far away, back through so many doors. Finally, there was only the business of the fraternity and the inner room.
All of the foregoing was out-of-bounds in conversation. Nevertheless, there it was. The closest aviators came to talking about it was when they used the term "professionalism." Many extraordinary things were done in the name of professionalism. And when everything else went wrong, this professionalism existed like an envelope, in the sense that each airplane was said to have a certain "performance envelope." Inside, inside that space, the aviators remained one another's relentless judges right up to the end, when not a hell of a lot of people outside seemed to care any longer. They were like casebook proof of something an English doctor, Lord Moran, had written forty years before. Moran had been a doctor treating soldiers in the trenches during the First World War, and he wrote one of the few analytical studies ever addressed specifically to the subject of bravery: The Anatomy of Courage. In the wars of the future, he said, aerial combat, not soldiering, would have "first call on adventurous youth." But the bravery of these adventurers, he said, would have a curiously detached quality. For the pilot, "love of the sport--success at the game--rather than sense of duty makes him go on."
The unspoken things! Bye borty-bibe ... every morning when he woke up and rolled out of bed in his stateroom,the components of the game of high-low lit up in every aviator's brain, and he would all too literally calculate the state of his soul that morning by the composition of his bowel movement, with diarrhea being the worst sign of all. Well, not quite the worst; for occasionally one would hear some poor soul in another cubicle of the head ... vomiting. One would be curious ... but in another way one would just as soon not know who it was. (After all, he might be in my wing.) Since none of this could be spoken, demeanor was everything. (Only your laundryman knows for sure!) It was like jousting! One did return to the carrier like a knight! ... or as near to knightly status as was likely to be possible in an age of mimeographed flight assignments and mandatory debriefings.
The most beautiful possible moments came when you brought your aircraft back to the deck from battle half shot up. Just a few weeks ago Dowd and Garth Flint came back with an 85-millimeter shell hole shot clear through a rear stabilizer wing. It looked as if you could put your arm through it, and it was no more than a yard from the fuselage. Dowd and Flint had scarcely opened the cockpit before the Mouseketeers, the deckhands, were gaping at the damage. Dowd climbed down to the deck, took off his helmet, and started walking away. Then, as if he'd just remembered something, he turned about and said to the onlookers: "Check that stabilizer, will you? Think maybe we caught a little flak."
How gloriously bored! The unspoken, unspeakable things! All the gagged taboos!
No doubt that was what made American airmen, while on leave, the most notorious bar patrons in the Philippines, Japan, and Thailand during the Vietnam years. In keeping with a tradition as old as the First World War, drink and drunkenness gave pilots their only license to let it out. Notto talk about the unspoken things-not to break the taboo --but to set free all the strangled roars, screams, bawls, sighs, and raving yahoos. Emotion displayed while drunk didn't count. Everybody knew that. One night Dowd was drinking at a bar at Cubi Point with an A-4 pilot named Starbird. It was getting to that hour of the night when you're so drunk you can't hear any more. Your skull itself is roaring and your screams and songs get beaten back by the gale. The bartender announces that the bar is now closed. He slides a brass pole under the handles on the tops of the big beer coolers behind the bar and locks them shut. Starbird reaches across the bar and grabs the brass pole and emits a roar of sheer gorilla fury and pulls it up out of its mooring, until it's looped in the middle like a piece of spaghetti, and announces: "The bar just reopened."
After a long season of such affronts by many roaring souls, Navy bars and officers' clubs in Subic Bay began ruling themselves off limits to pilots returning from tours in the North (Yankee Station). Then came a gesture from on high that Dowd would never forget. Admiral Red Hyland himself sent out a directive to all clubs and pubs within the purview of the Fleet, saying: It has come to my attention that the cocktail lounge conduct of aviators returning from Yankee Station has occasioned some negative responses. This is to inform all hands that the combat conduct of these men has been exemplary, despite the most trying conditions, and now hear this: THEY WILL BE ACCORDED THE FULL PRIVILEGES OF OFFICERS AND GENTLEMEN! (For you I bend the brass! The bars just reopened!)
At last!--someone had come close to saying it! to putting it into words! to giving a tiny corner of the world some actual inkling that they just might have ... the ineffable ... it!
That memo, like all memos, soon vanished down the memory hole. Yet it meant more to Dowd than any medal he ever got.
High or low? The weather doesn't get any better as they pull closer to Haiphong, and Dowd decides to play it low. It looks like the kind of overcast the SAM's like best, high and solid. Dowd, with Brent off his wing, comes into Haiphong at about two hundred feet at close to Mach i. Suddenly they break out of the mist and they're over the harbor. They bank for one turn around it, which immediately cuts their speed down to about 450 knots. It's peaceful, just another inexplicable stroll in Haiphong Park. The overcast is down to four hundred feet, meaning it's hopeless so far as a bombing strike is concerned. Besides, the inevitable third-party ships are welded in ...
The weather is so bad, it's as if the enemy has decided to take a holiday from the war, knowing no bombers will be coming in. There's no sense loitering, however, and Dowd heads out for a look at Cam Pha and Hon Gay, two ports north of Haiphong. High or low ... Dowd stays down low. There's nothing below but a smattering of islands.
All at once Dowd sees a streak of orange shoot up over the nose on the port side. Garth Flint, in the back seat, sees another streak come up under the nose on the starboard ... They both know at once: tracer bullets ... They go to school with the tracer bullets ... The tracers show the gunners whether or not they're near the mark ... and without any doubt they're near the mark. Then they hear a sound like twack ... It sounds like nothing more than a good-size rock hitting an automobile ... the shot hit the bottom of the nose section ... Dowd immediately cobs it, gives it full power in a furious bid to get up into the cloud cover and out over the gulf. Every warning light on thepanel is lit up red, but he still has control of the plane. Smoke starts pouring into the cockpit. The heat is so intense he can barely touch sections of the panel. It's so hot he can hardly hold the controls. The fire seems to be in the hydraulics system of the wheel well. He tries to vent the cockpit, but the vent doesn't work. Then he blows the canopy off to try to clear the smoke, but the smoke pours out so heavily he still can't see. Everything metal is becoming fiercely hot. He wonders if the ejection mechanism will still work. He can hardly hold the stick.
For Garth Flint, in back, with the canopy gone, it's as if a hurricane has hit, a hurricane plus smoke. Maps are blowing all over the place, and smoke is pouring back. It's chaos. They're going about 350 knots, and the rush of air is so furious Flint can no longer hear anything on the radio, not even from Dowd. He wonders: Can we possibly get back onto the carrier if the smoke is this bad and Dowd can't hear radio communications? Oddly, all his worries center on this one problem. An explosion right in front of him! In the roiling smoke, where Dowd used to be, there's a metal pole sticking up in the air. It's made of sections, like a telescope. It's something Flint's never seen before ... the fully sprung underpinning of an F-4 ejection system, sticking up in the air as they hurtle over the Gulf of Tonkin. This spastic pole sticking up in the front seat is now his only companion in this stricken ship going 350 knots. Dowd has punched out!
Flint stares at the pole for perhaps two or three seconds, then pulls the ring under his seat. He's blasted out of the ship, with such force that he can't see.
Meanwhile, Dowd's furious ride is jerked to a halt by his parachute opening. He assumes Garth is floating down ahead of him. In fact, Dowd had yelled over the radio for Garth to eject and assumed he was on his way, not knowingGarth couldn't hear a word he said. Considering the way he had cobbed the engine and turned the plane to starboard and out over the gulf, Dowd expects to see water as he comes down through the clouds. Instead, little islands--and the live possibility of capture--are rising up toward him.
Reprieve! The wind carries him about a quarter mile from shore. Just the way the survival training told you, he prepares to shuck his parachute before he hits the water, at the same time keeping his life raft uninflated so the people onshore can't spot him so easily. He hits the water ... it's surprisingly cold ... he inflates the flotation device he's wearing--but feels himself being dragged under. The water, which looked so calm from above, is running five- to seven-foot swells. It pitches up and down in front of him and beneath him, and he's being dragged under. He can't comprehend it--the parachute, which he thought he had so skillfully abandoned at the textbook-proper second, has somehow wrapped around his right leg in the slosh of the swells and he's going under. He pulls out the knife that they're issued for just such a situation. But the nylon cords are wet and the damned knife won't cut them. He's going under. For the first time since the flak hit, the jaws of the Halusian Gulp have opened. I'm going to die. At first it's an incredible notion. Then it's infuriating. To die by drowning out in this squalid pond after a ten-cent shootdown on a weather-recce mission--it's humiliating! Another fly-boy disappears into the Cosmic Yawn! He's swept by a wave of the purest self-pity. It's actually about to happen--his death--the erasure of John Dowd from human existence--in a few seconds--just like that! The ineffable talent, the mystical power--it!--that let him hang his hide out over the Jaws and always pull it back--he doesn't have it, after all!--he is no more special than the hundreds ofother pilots who have already been swallowed up over the North! It's pathetic. It's a miserable and colossal affront. His whole life does not roll before his eyes--only the miserable pity of the here and now. He does not think of home and hearth. He does not think of Mom at the shuttling sewing machine late at night or the poignancy of seeing one's own child daydreaming. No, there is only the here and now and the sum total of this total affront to all that comprises John Dowd--being dragged down in a fish pond by a parachute, holding in his hand a knife that the Navy issued for a task that it won't perform--it's utterly piteous and pathetic! ... Jesus! How I pity myself now! ... And that makes him furious. He gives the parachute a ferocious yank. Whuh?--in that very explosion of the final anger he discovers something: the damned thing is caught --not around his leg but on his knee-board! ... The board is attached to his flight suit so he can jot down figures, keep charts handy, whatever ... one last breath! Now he's completely underwater ... He can't see ... He grabs the knee-board and rips it off his flight suit ... a miracle! ... he's free! ... The parachute is gone ... the death anchor ... He bobs back to the surface ... Christ! ... the hell with the colossal affront of fate ... There's only now! ... Never mind! ... He inflates the raft, as it says in the manual ... He's on the side of manual now! ... Oh yes! ... Navy-issue! ... Why not! ... He climbs on the raft ... He's not drowning any more, he's on his belly on a raft swooping up and down with the swells of the gulf ... Never mind the past! ... He scans the water and the nearby island ... Not miserable Fate, but islanders with guns ... That's what he's looking for ... Is that one of them? ... But on the water ... there's Garth! ... Flint is on a raft about two hundred yards away, bobbing in and out of Dowd's line of vision ... It's all shaping up ...Never mind Fate! The hell with colossal affronts! He's pulled it back after all--out of the Jaws ...
Meanwhile, Dick Brent, in the other F-4B, has seen Dowd and Flint eject. After about fifteen minutes of diving and fishing down through the clouds, Brent spots them on the water below and radios the position. Brent sees a few people on the shore of an island, looking out toward the two men, but the islanders don't seem to be making any attempt to go out by boat to retrieve Garth and Dowd, which also means capture them. (In fact, the islanders had long since learned to leave well enough alone. American pilots in the water were often followed by screaming rescue aircraft that blew every boat out of the tub.)
After about another thirty minutes Spads are coming in low over the water. To Garth Flint it appears as if the Spad pilots don't see him, only Dowd. Over his emergency radio Flint says: "If you see two pilots, rock your wings." One of the Spads rocks its wings. The Spads call in a helicopter known as a Big Mother. The helicopter, too, heads straight for Dowd. A morose thought crosses Flint's mind: "He's a lieutenant, I'm only a lieutenant (j.g.)--so they're picking him up first."
Then it dawns on him that they're going after Dowd because he's in closer to shore and therefore more vulnerable to gunfire or capture. Hell, it's going to be okay.
Back on the Coral Sea Dowd and Flint were debriefed in the ready room. They drank coffee and tried to warm up. The china had a certain dignity. It was white with bands of blue about the rims and blue crests here and there. The silverware--now, that was rather nice. It was ornamental and heavy. The questions came, one after the other, and they went through everything that happened. Yet during this debriefing the two men were waiting for somethingelse. Surely, they would mention something else. But they didn't. It was a debriefing much like every debriefing. Just the facts! No quarter given! No slack in the line! Then the commander of their squadron said, with a note of accusation: "Why were you flying so low?"
Now, that was really too much! Why ... you bastard! But they said nothing except the usual. What they wanted to say ... well, how could they have put it into words? How, within the inner room, does one say: "My God, man, we've just been into the Jaws!--about as far into the goddamned Jaws as you can go and still come back again!--and you want to know why we flew so low! We've just been there! at the lost end of the equation! where it drops off the end of the known world! Ask us about ... the last things, you bastard, and we will enlighten you!" There were no words in the chivalric code for such thoughts, however.
But all at once the skipper of the Coral Sea, the maximum leader, a former combat pilot himself, appeared--and he smiled! And that smile was like an emission of radio waves.
"We're glad to have you back, men."
That was all he said. But he smiled again! Such ethereal waves! Invisible but comprehensible, they said, "I know. I've been there myself." Just that!--not a sound!--and yet a doxology for all the unspoken things. How full my heart, O Lord!
Flint took one day off before going out on his next mission, on New Year's Eve. Dowd had suffered a back injury in the ejection from the F-4B, and so it was another two days before he climbed back into the metal slingshot, got slung off the skillet, and went flying over North Vietnam again.
A Short Story
THE Bible says, "Woe be to the crown of pride, for it shall be trodden under feet," and if that be true, I was due to get stomped from the moment I said I'd do it. I built it up so big in my mind. That commercial was going to take care of so many things. I built it up to where it was going to change my life! I'm not talking about the money I got for it, which was $5,000, because I mean I make $65,000 a year from the Astros. It was some other things. That commercial was going to eliminate some of the things I had to live behind, all this stuff they say ... like, "Willie Hammer can hit a baseball but he doesn't have ... this ... or he doesn't have that ..." Hey, it's going to be embarrassing to get into this stuff, man! It has to do with pride, and like it says, "Woe be to the crown of pride"!
What I am saying is, yes, I got whipped, but I got whipped in a way that had nothing to do with cracking my head. That was an accident purely. I slipped and fell and hit my head, and that is all. They say I was "knocked out." I'd say I was more like stunned. What burns me up is that some people think Foley did it. How can they believe that? Take a look at that sucker! He's an advertising man! He's nothing but a pillow-butt Irishman. I can't stand to see a man who doesn't keep himself in any better conditionthan that. It's hard to tell white people's age, but he isn't very old. He must be thirty-five, along in there. He's got these little small white hands--and then check out the rest of him. The rest of him is a fat factory! He's chugging away and putting out the fat!
I'll tell you when he got his licks in. That was while they were shooting the commercial. He had me whipped there, and that I will admit; him and his whole bunch of Ritz crackers. That's what I call your modern up-to-date cracker, your cracker who is too liberal and too well educated and has his necktie pulled up too tight to trifle with techniques like yelling jigaboo or burr-head from out of the right-field stands.
The night before I was supposed to do the commercial they picked me up at the New York Hilton, Foley and his sidekick, a little snapper called Norm Lane. We were supposed to get acquainted and so on. This Norm Lane was a bouncy little number who chuckled and nodded at anything anybody said. They took me over to a place called the Palm Restaurant on Second Avenue. All the way over they kept raving about the Palm Restaurant. They kept saying, "Fabulous steaks." Foley would say it and then Norm Lane would nod a lot and say the same thing. They said it about twelve times.
We get there, and to be frank about it, the Palm Restaurant reminds me of one of those Creole restaurants in Houston where the gumbo soup has grains of sand in it and they let somebody's nephew paint murals up on the wall. The Palm Restaurant had a lot of really bush-league drawings up on the wall, mostly of celebrities nobody ever heard of.
But it was popular, all right. There must be a lot of people in New York as crazy about the Palm Restaurant as Foley and Norm Lane. It was packed with well-dressedwhite people, all of them grinning and babbling until it looked like their teeth were boiling. I was the only colored person in there, but I didn't mind that. Sometimes I enjoy that. If you're a professional athlete in top condition and you walk into a place full of ordinary men, it's like you're built in neon. And any athlete who tells you he doesn't know that feeling is telling a lie. It's in the way you carry yourself. It's in your neck and the set of your jaw. Your power always shows through. If you have a neck size 17 and you pull your shoulders down a little, it makes your neck fan out like a cobra. And if you're dark like I am and you always wear a white shirt like I do--then they really turn around and check you out! I hadn't reached the point where I could walk into a restaurant in New York and people would say, "There's Willie Hammer," but I can read it on their faces when white men are looking around and saying to themselves, "That black dude there has something about him. I wonder who he is."
Foley and Norm Lane were right in their element in the Palm Restaurant. They were knocking back drinks and talking a frozen rope. Some old white snooker comes in with one of those girls you see with the chalky-white skin and dark-red lipstick and slumped-over shoulders and a nylon blouse that her tits show through and the kind of shoes that girls like, the platforms, with the five-inch sole and the seven-inch heels, silver-colored. She comes wobbling in on top of the shoes, and everybody does a number on her. Foley says he loves this Second Avenue because it's "the nipple tango" from one end to the other. He has a lot of expressions like "the nipple tango." He'll call somebody "Mr. Transistors" and after a while you'll figure out that what he means is, the man is cold-blooded, he has no heart. Or he'll say "slip into the linen envelope" and he just means "go to bed." Every time Foley or Norm Laneget off one of their lines, they're looking at me, as if I'm very tight into the conversation the whole time, only they're really just batting it back and forth with each other.
"I don't know what it's like in Houston, Willie," Foley says, "but it's a laugh and a half here. We can't hire a secretary in our office any more. She has to be an 'administrative assistant.' I'm not kidding you. And so then what do they do?"
Norm Lane is nodding and grinning like he couldn't agree more, but what he says is: "Foley doesn't understand Jewish girls, Willie."
Foley steps right over that one, he just keeps his number going: "They don't want to be treated like sex objects, right? So they wear pants to the office, but these pants are so unbelievably snug in the rug--"
"Foley doesn't understand--"
"--and they don't wear bras, and the whole office is like one big nipple tango. What I'd like to know is, what would they do if they wanted to be sex objects!"
"Foley doesn't understand Jewish girls, Willie," says Norm Lane.
Foley says, "What do Jewish girls have to do with it?"
Norm Lane says, "Are you kidding? Look around some time. Without Jewish girls there wouldn't be any women's liberation. The peep show is just to give you a little tingle, a little uppie, prior to surgery."
"For chrissake, Norm. Don't pay any attention to him, Willie," says Foley. "He's out to lunch."
Foley sounds a little ticked off, although I don't know why, because the only Jewish person at the table is Norm Lane himself. But anyway, Foley turns his back on him. He turns to a waiter and tells him to bring another bottle of wine. So Norm Lane says to the waiter: "Yeah, and bring him a new conversation while you're at it."
This Norm Lane was Foley's yes-man but, like you see, he'd agree with him and then put an edge on it or a twist to it or just try to top him.
The more Foley and Norm Lane went on, the more uncomfortable I got. You could tell that the reason they made out I was in the conversation was that I wasn't even close to being in it. It's a funny thing being a professional athlete and being well known. When you're with people you never met before, for about the first fifteen minutes they're impressed that you're even there, that you're actually breathing the same air they're breathing. It's like you have a glow and they're tickled pink about the light. But after a while you see them looking at you. They've got their heads cocked. Then it dawns on you. They're waiting for you to say something! And not just anything, something outta sight! They're waiting for you to be a character. They're waiting for a little hot-shot personality to go with the hot-shot athlete they see on the ball field. If you happen to be somebody who believes in self-control and you don't believe in saying something if you don't have anything worth saying--well, the hell with you! I can't tell you how many times I've met people and afterward I know they've gone away saying, "Well, he's nothing but a piece of furniture!" That goes double with the sportswriters. I get so tired. If the sportswriters come around and you don't have a line of cool breeze and a little smoke to blow up their fannies, they start writing that you're "softspoken," "unassuming," "reserved," "remote," "aloof," you're "a man of quiet dignity," you "let the bat do the talking"--and what this really is, it's a code. What they're really saying is, "Hey, chief! This guy's dull! a deadhead! a washout! poor copy! nerve gas! He'll put you to sleep!"
So I keep trying to think up something to get into theconversation with Foley and Norm Lane. I want to show these two New York advertising aces some live wire. I'm racking my brain. Do you know that feeling when you're at a table and you're being left out of the conversation and you're waiting for something to come up, any subject you have a little nugget of information about, anything you can throw into the conversation--just so they won't think you're a deadhead? Well, just then Foley starts talking about all the pushovers Joe Frazier fought after he beat Ali, such as Terry Daniels. Terry Daniels? Hey, I know Terry Daniels! I know the man personally! Hey! Wait! I got a nugget here!--but Norm Lane is in there like a flash and he's wondering if boxing will survive as a big-time sport after Ali retires, and Foley says, hell, television can keep any sport alive, he saw his nine-year-old son watch a whole curling match on the Wide World of Sports, which reminds Norm Lane of a vacation he took in Scotland and it was the worst vacation he ever took, which reminds Foley that the only place worse than Scotland is Finland, because trying to find something to do in Helsinki is like trying to sell encyclopedias at a funeral--and I'm still sitting there saying to myself--"Terry Daniels! Is it too late for me to get in there with Terry Daniels!" Too late? Why, those suckers were already halfway around the world and heading for Asia and I hadn't even gotten my mouth open.
So I just sat there in the Palm Restaurant and let the noise and the gabble roll over me. But to be truthful, there was more than these two jivemongers that was bothering me. I had one of those time bombs that you get. It was sitting in the back of my head at all times, like the tooth that's got to be pulled sooner or later. This time bomb was about the script for the commercial that I'd be doing the next day. I'd had the script for a month, and the first time I read it I knew I had a problem. But I was afraid if Isquawked about it, if I even raised a peep about it, they might cancel the whole deal. That gives you an idea of how bad I wanted to do the commercial. I couldn't stand the thought of losing that beautiful shot, no matter what. I figured I could straighten out the script in the meantime. I figured I could think of something. So I kept putting it off. I didn't even want to talk to my lawyer about it. I didn't want to talk to my wife about it. I especially did not want to talk to my wife about it. I could see Loretta backing me up against the wall with a prime-time Loretta lecture, with a smoking hot mess of words that not even blue darters like your Foleys and Norm Lanes could keep up with. I didn't want to talk to anybody about it. I didn't want to have to think about it. I would take care of it when I had an opening. In other words, I had my head stuck about three feet down in the sand.
So here I am in the Palm Restaurant the night before they're supposed to shoot the commercial, and I still don't bring it up. "Well," I'm saying to myself, "these guys are half in the bag now. They're knocking back the wine and talking a coastal fog. Yeah, there's no point to bringing up this heavy business right now ... There'll be some way to do it tomorrow ..." You know how that number goes.
They told me to be at a studio over on East Forty-eighth Street, X.T.O. Teletronics, at eight-thirty in the morning. At eight-thirty sharp I came in there carrying a duffel bag with six Louisville Slugger baseball bats in it and two dozen official National League baseballs. I felt a little funny about that, coming in there carrying a duffel bag. I mean, here I got on a $400 gabardine suit, tailor-made, a $32 shirt, a $15 Italian silk necktie, and a brand-new pair of McAfee shoes from Saks Fifth Avenue that set me back $87.50, and I come in toting a duffel bag full of bats and balls. But I wasdetermined to be handing out those bats and balls. You're going to laugh when I tell you why. Woe be to the crown of pride!
The studio was nothing like I figured on, because all I had to go by was television studios. This place was huge. It was big as an airplane hangar in there, only gloomier and full of all kinds of scaffolds and equipment and lines running everywhere. The ceiling was up so high, maybe five or six stories high, it was just a big black gloom up there, and they didn't even try to hang lights from it. All the lights were on poles and stands sticking up in the air, spotlights and floodlights and lights with flaps and reflectors. It was hard to get your bearings or make out anything in depth, because one second you're in the gloom and then bam! a big shot of light hits you in the face.
Finally I make out Foley and Norm Lane and the rest of them from the advertising agency, but there seem to be thirty or forty other people besides, people fooling around with microphones and lights and even a forklift--and this kind of threw me, too. I thought it was going to be half a dozen people and a camera. Everybody was white except for one kid who runs errands and plays the fool. This kid, when somebody would tell him to go do something, he'd point at the man and say, "I gotcha covered!" and roll his eyes and then go do it.
Foley and Norm Lane come on over and make a big fuss over me and start introducing me around. I hoisted the duffel bag and unveiled the bats and balls. I think they really liked getting those things. I was passing them out and I'd say, "I thought maybe you all might like to give these to your kids."
There was a little backing and filling over who was going to get the bats, because there were only six of them. They had my signature on them, "Willie Hammer." Foley madesure this one older ace got one right away. He was from the company that made the perfume we were going to do the commercial about, Fabrilex. He had one of those big thin noses that some white people have. He thanked me for the bat and took a grip on it like he was at the plate, and he smiled. When he smiled, his mouth had a way of creeping up under his big nose. Foley points to him and says, "Now, that would scare the hell out of a pitcher, wouldn't it, Willie?"
Foley was ribbing this man, but at the same time he was doing a little friendly fanny-rubbing. He was showing this man a lot of attention. Foley acted toward this man the way Norm Lane acted toward Foley. Foley was the big organizer and the big noise around here, but the man from the Fabrilex Company was the main man in this setup.
The man said to me, "This is a heavy bat," and, to be honest, I was grateful for that remark, because it gave me a chance to do some talking and not just stand there like a fence post. I told the man how I like a 36-ounce bat with a big handle because it has better balance and I can control the heavy end better. I have a whole theory about controlling the heavy end of the bat. I have a whole speech about controlling the heavy end of the bat. It is the only speech I do have, and I was grateful for the chance to do my number. A lot of the studio crew were gathered around, and they were all quieted down, listening, looking very serious, as if to say, "Hey, this man is hitting .380 in the National League and we best to pay attention." I liked that; it made me feel like I had a grip on the situation.
With everybody standing there, my friend with the nose let me know he'd played a little ball himself, in college some place. He just slipped it in, but he made sure he slipped it in, if you know what I mean, and I liked that, too. It's a thing I've noticed everywhere, and this man, thisexecutive of a big corporation like Fabrilex, he was no different from anybody else. This country is full of about 100 million men who played a little ball, some sport, some time, some place. And wherever it was, it was there they left whatever feeling of manhood they ever had. It grew there and it bloomed there and it died there, and now they work at some job where the manhood thing doesn't matter, and the years roll by. But they've got this little jar of ashes they carry around ... "I once played a little ball ..." They see a professional athlete, and it stirs up the memories ... They can feel the breeze.
But wait a minute, we got to--without any to-do they take me out in the middle of the studio and set me down in a little swivel chair. It's like the lights are all right down on top of your head, and hovering above you, in the gloom out beyond, you can make out the shadows of the monster rigs of equipment and the stagehands closing in.
I told myself, "Big boy, you've let it get down to the nub, haven't you? How you going to take care of that script in front of an army!"
The director takes a seat in a little chair facing mine. He is the weirdest-looking sucker in the room. He was one of those white guys you see now who is pushing fifty but he wants to look like a kid. He's got on tennis shoes and a blue-jean outfit, the jacket and the pants, and he's nearly bald on top, but he's let the hair around the sides grow real long, and it looks like it must've been kinky but he conked it, and it hangs down to his shoulders like a hula skirt around his bald head. The man's a sketch. The whole time he's smiling at me most warmly, like we have a most deep understanding, us two.
"All right, Willie," he says, "I'm just going to run through it once, the way you'll be doing it."
He has the script in one hand and a bottle of the perfume I'm supposed to be endorsing in the other and the smile on his face and the conked hair on his head fluffed out in all its glory.
"The camera will be on you, Willie. You'll be looking right into it. When you start talking, the idea is to sound as if you're just finishing a commercial. You're just winding it up. You're saying: 'And so, men ...'"
And here the man starts putting a lot of acting into it. He throws it into his shoulders and twists his body, which makes all that shrubbery on his head flop around.
He says, "'And so, men, if you want a cologne that's a real man's cologne ... smooth, cool, and very romantically inclined ... take it from me, Willie Hammer. Do what I've done. Switch to the new ...'
"And then you hesitate, Willie. You pull your head back, like this. You look at the bottle of cologne in your hand as if you didn't even know it was there, as if it's some kind of strange object you've got there. How did this get here?
"You're staring at the bottle. And then you say, real slow, as if you're reading the name on the bottle for the first time and you can't make it out--you say, ' ... the new ... Charlie Magnet?' You say it like a question, as if you're saying, 'What the hell is this thing and what have they written on it?' You say, 'Charlie Magnet?' Like that.
"And then, Willie, you look off-camera, as if there's somebody off here to the side who you're looking at. You look off like this, and you say: 'Hey! What is this Charlie Magnet jazz!'
"Got it? You're still holding the bottle up like this, Willie, and now the camera leaves your face and comes up tight on your hand and the bottle and the label, and the viewer will see the actual name of the cologne for the first time: Charlemagne."
Only he says it softly, the way somebody might say, "Reverend Jones."
"And then, Willie, the announcer comes in with the voice-over. He says, 'This Charlie Magnet, Willie Hammer, is Charlemagne, the new King of Colognes for the man who likes it on top ... especially created by Fabrilex to bring out the king in you.'
"At that point the bottle montages into an outline in color and there's an animated sequence. It's really a fabulous animation, too, Willie, and I want you to see it, but we don't have to worry about that now.
"Anyway, the announcer, in the voice-over, will be saying: 'Before Charlemagne, a man's cologne was just a fragrance. Charlemagne is more. Charlemagne contains a totally new ancillodermal skin conditioner that brings out the full-bodied glow of the real man ... plus! an exciting new fragrance created especially for Charlemagne by the famous Adam Chigneau ... a fragrance that says King ... after dark and in the dawn ... Be a real magnet, Charlie ... Score day and night ... like Willie Hammer!' "Then it cuts back to you, Willie. Now the camera is back on you, and you're looking at the bottle again, like you were before we cut away. You still look puzzled, but you're also smiling a little. You look quizzical."
And here the man gives me a demonstration of quizzical. He wraps his eyebrows around his nose and screws up his mouth and hooks his chin down over his collarbone.
"And then, Willie, you say: 'This Charlie Magnet here has all THAT?'
"And the announcer's voice says: 'That's right, Willie.'
"And then you look directly into the camera, and you open your eyes wide, like this, in mock surprise, and you say: 'You know ... I think I'll TRY it!'
"Then you drop the act, and you break into a big laugh,and the camera pulls back, and the word Charlemagne is superimposed on the screen, and underneath it, in smaller letters, it says, 'The King. You're on top.' And in the background you're holding up the bottle and laughing. The viewer can see you completely now, sitting in the chair and laughing and having a good time.
"It's a hell of a cute bit, I think, Willie. You say, 'You know ... I think I'll TRY it!!!'"
And with this, the man does the laugh, too, only I never heard such a laugh in my life. It's like a scream. It's like he stuck his hand down his throat and brought a laugh up from out of his belly and he's holding it up over his head, bleeding.
Doesn't faze him at all, though. The next instant he's just looking at me with that Nurse Mary grin of his, and he's saying:
"Well ... that's it. Shall we get to work?"
And that's about when she hit the fan.
Big boy! Your time just ran out!
Right here I had a feeling like all the air was rushing out of the place, creating a mighty vacuum ... a mighty emptiness like outer space ... and into that vast and mighty silence here comes a single sound ... a voice! ... the voice of some countrified nigger, saying:
It was me, of course! It was me, sending this brilliant message out into the vastness, up toward the monster rigs and the multitudes of X.T.O. Teletronics, New York City, Network TV, U.S.A ... . naw ... and that word was swelling up inside of that monster place like a big brown oil bubble, and I could see the whole bunch of them pulling away from the dumb trifling messiness of that one word I had cut loose!
And even in that very moment I couldn't understandhow so much could be racing through my head and how so little could be coming out! I meant to be saying, "Hey, man, let's change a few words here and there! Hey--it'll only take a second!" But I was nearly paralyzed, because even here at the zero hour there were still two hard grabbers working on me, one of them screaming like Loretta and saying, "You can't do this!" and the other one, the golden mule, saying: "You got to! This is what you been waiting for all this time!" So the only sound that got out was "Naw."
But you can't leave it at that, sucker!
My brain labored powerfully, and I expanded upon the concept.
I said, "Naw. It sounds dumb."
"Whattayamean, Willie?" That is the director.
"Hey, what's up, Willie?" That was Foley, coming in from the edge of the set, out of the gloom.
"What's the matter with the man? What's he talking about?" That's my pal from Fabrilex, the ace with the nose, who played a little ball, talking to Foley.
The director waves Foley off, as if to say, "Let me handle this." Out loud he says, "Let's take a break."
Then he takes me over to the side, out of the lights, into the gloom by the rigs, and he starts talking to me in a low voice as if there's just the two of us and we're going to see what the trouble is. But I can feel Foley, the Fabrilex man, the monster rig, and all the giants of the gloom giving me a look you could pave a street with. The director is saying why don't I tell him exactly what the problem is. Why don't we talk it over. I've seen the script before, haven't I? I've had it for a month, haven't I? ... Yeah ... It didn't look so bad before now, did it? ... Naw ...Then why was it "dumb" now?
So I tried to tell him. I tried to get my thoughts together,but I couldn't think in that place. I was trying to think of some way to tell him without having to go into the whole thing.
I told him, "I don't like it where I'm supposed to say 'Charlie Magnet.' That's what sounds dumb. How can I get out there and act like I can't read 'Charlemagne'?"
"Willie!" he says. "It's a gag! It's a cute bit. Naturally you know how to read the word. That's obvious. That's the whole point. You're so confident, you can make fun of yourself. The commercial makes fun of itself. It's actually a very sophisticated commercial. You should get involved in a bad commercial! I have! I know!"
The whole time he's talking I can also hear everything else in the room just as loud, people talking, things moving around, my buddy from Fabrilex saying, "He's your inspiration, Foley." The director keeps looking down at the floor and pulling his chin and disappearing inside his conked hair.
Finally I say, "Look, man. Why don't we just rewrite it a little ... you know? ... take the Charlie Magnet out. That's all I want."
He looks up at me for a second--and lifts his eyebrows and gives his mouth that little end-of-the-line smile, the one that says, "Willie, my dear friend, why don't you ask me to tell the rain to turn around and fall up?"
All of a sudden he pulls real close to me and puts his arm around my shoulders and he says: "Willie ... goddamn it, I know exactly what you're thinking. But you can't take it that seriously, because nobody else will, including the people who watch it. You've got to tell yourself: 'It's only a commercial.' This isn't my life, either. I'm a filmmaker. I don't throw my heart and soul into a commercial. I come out here and do a professional job. I do a damned professional job. There's no one who does a more professional job. They get their money's worth--but that's all they'regetting! And that's all they're getting from you! You're not putting your heart and soul on parade, either! We're both doing the same thing. We're both using this thing as a vehicle. Trotsky used to--there's an old saying, 'You don't have to believe in the trolley company to get where you want to go.' Listen, I'm not going to let you look bad in this thing. That I promise you! Hell, you'll look great! So, for God's sake, don't you make me look bad. Let's just work together, baby, and get this thing over with and forget it."
"Baby," he says--and gives my shoulder a little squeeze! Brother! You 'n' me! These people are too much! They put on their blue jeans and their tennis shoes and they call you baby! Check it out, Mr. Soul Mate Funk! You're nuzzling up against a $400 suit and a pair of $87.50 McAfees!
Man, what do I need some turkey like you with his arms around me for ... when right this minute I can hear my wife's little lecture in my head: "Willie! It's not enough to hit baseballs and go down to Lashford's and have your pretty clothes made! You have a responsibility!" The responsibility of which she speaks is my responsibility to the Black People and to the Black Youth. Loretta's right; I could do a lot more than I've done, and I feel bad about that. She thinks the good light 'n' bright folks of Bayou Grove are looking at her as the wife of ... a Tom! Right! --even though I am the one who is black, and I am the one who grew up on the street, and she and the whole Bayou Grove crowd are the light 'n' brights who went to the university and never even had a bottle of soda pop with an uneducated young rascal before they met me--but none of that has anything to do these days with being Black Enough! When we give a party, you'll see a couple oflawyers looking light, bright, rich, and ready out by the wall of Aucuba bushes that cost me fifteen hundred dollars to put around the swimming pool, and they'll be saying:
"Well, don' none-a my clients care!"
"They better! Don' nobody hide the cob on a Jasper Charlie like that with a writ of mandamus or quashing a subpoena."
"I can dig it."
"Gon' take more'n the A.C.L.U., baby!"
"Uh-hunh. Don' say I said it, but a little bird tol' me De Judge gon' murphy that sucker with a certoriari an' he's gon' smack the dead an' that's gonna ice his you-knowwhat!"
Hide the cob? Smack the dead? I don't even know what these people are saying half the time. The only place I ever heard "smack the dead" before was in a card game they used to play out on the stoops called "coon can," and I know these light 'n' brights never got within ten miles of a game of coon can. Man, there's so much Soul amongst the rich, the smooth, and the creamy in Bayou Grove these days, James Brown would have to fall down on his knees and beg for driver training ... And all the while I can see Loretta watching ... Her retarded husband looks okay ... It's just when the poor gugger tries to open his mouth that the situation gets embarrassing ... That's the word! ... They're all staring at me ... wondering when I'm gon' Come Back ... and get Black Enough!
All I need now is to do this Charlie Magnet trick on nationwide TV ... Can't you hear the rest already? ... "Willie! You had to do it! You had to go steppin' 'n' fetchin' on nationwide TV, so everybody in town would know I was married to Super Tom!"
Man, I should walk out of here right now and tell you people to stuff your commercial in a very old place. And Iwould make that noble move, too ... except for one little thing ... I want to make a commercial so bad I can taste the icing!
You people don't even know what the nationwide TV commercial means to the big-league ballplayer, and you're the people who make them ... There's so few players chosen that a lot of fellows in the big league, they define the superstar as the man who gets picked for the commercial. They begin to look at that man in a different way ... "Hmmmmm ... we got a famous cat on our hands ...!" The colored players get chosen least of all, and they do complain. A bunch of players will be sitting around in the clubhouse watching TV, and somebody like Johnny Bench will come on doing his deodorant commercial, and you'll hear some colored player say:
"Shit ... Johnny Bench ... Hey, man, get busy and start a write-in campaign to those suckers. I sweat just as much as Johnny Bench and I got more home runs."
And some white player will say: "Yeah, you'd think they'd at least pick you guys for the toothpaste commercials."
"Hell, man, the only thing we like about you people is your perfect thirty-two!"
And the whole bunch of them, black and white, they'll laugh at stuff like that, because that shows they're cool, they're the Modern Ballplayer, they're above the color thing. But I stay out of this Race Razz. I see it as thin ice. I see a cool stick of shitfire with a wick on it. I say the only thing puts you above the color thing is getting the commercial itself. That says: "This man is so hot, he's such a giant, such a superstar, even white people buy what he endorses." This shuck word "superstar" is stuck in every brain! I have to take orders from the manager, while the superstar walksall over the manager and me, too. I have to double up in the hotels, while the superstar gets the single room or the suite. I go out and hit .344 lifetime, three full seasons, and I get sixty-five thousand a year, while the superstar like Reggie Jackson hits so low they don't even mention it in those big stories where they call him the "superduperstar" and put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Two-sixty-four lifetime, that supershuck is seventy points below me, and he gets more than a hundred thousand--but he's what the white sportswriters like. He's the Black Hot Dog. If your success happens to come from the same thing as the better class of white man's--namely, self-control--it's so long, Willie, and don't let the doorknob hit you in the butt on the way out.
That's why getting picked for this commercial is something unbelievable, like something wonderful that fell out of the sky. But you have to throw in this Charlie Magnet shit, don't you? You have to tell me to go out there and play Rastus in the Pineywoods ... Anyway, man, maybe if I knew how to tell you all that, you'd see why it gives me no thrill to speak of when you hug me in your blue-jean arms and you call me baby and you tell me you understand.
They must have seen the sucker wasn't getting anywhere with me, because then the heavyweights started moving in. The next thing I know, Foley and Norm Lane are standing next to me, and the Fabrilex ace is just a few feet behind. Right away I know this is a new Foley I got to deal with. The fat little sucker isn't smiling like a perch any more! He and Norm Lane have on the matching long faces.
Foley says, "Okay, how we doing over here?"
The director says, "I don't know ... I think it'll be all right."
Foley says, "How about it, Willie?"
I say, "Man ... how can you expect somebody to go out there and act like they can't read?"
Foley says, "Willie"--but I can't believe what I'm hearing. He just lays out my name, out flat. Willie. He's got that tone that says, "Sonny boy, we've been giving you a lot of room to make your mess in, on account of your age, but as of right now ... you're gonna commence to act right!" I can feel the man is about to jerk me around in front of all these people, but for some reason I've got no heart. I can't get my spirit up against the man, the way I did with this director here, and his whole number was that he was my friend!
"Willie"--he says my name again, and this time he turns his palms up and spreads out his arms as if to say, "You see all this, Willie, this huge place, these lights, these tremendous rigs, this studio, this advertising business, this network TV, this New York City, and above all ... us ... us terrific people, with the power and the talent--do you see all of us waiting for Willie Hammer to stop acting like a baby!"
"Willie," he says, for the third time, "you say you don't know how I expect anybody to do this commercial. For God's sake, man! Eleven famous men, in addition to yourself, eleven professional athletes, are doing this commercial, and they're doing it the same way you are. Nolan Perry has already done his. Brook Howard has done his. Tommy Cash has done his. Nobody, not one of them, has thought for one second that this commercial makes them look bad. They're not idiots, Willie! They all have agents, or a lawyer, like you do, and these guys don't live in a tree, either. Now, if it doesn't make them look bad, can you tell me why it'll make you look bad?"
The man was giving me a goddamn lecture! I couldn't believe it! I wanted to let him have it. I wanted to say,"You left out just one thing, fat boy. All those guys you mentioned are white!" But shit, all I said was: "I don't know about those guys. All I know is--why can't I do it the regular way?"
Foley says, "The regular way," and looks off in the distance.
I say. "The way--aw hell, man, you know what I'm talking about, the way Hank Aaron does it, what he says in the Brut commercial. He says, 'I use it. I like it.' He says, 'You use it. You'll like it.' The regular way, man! What's wrong with that?"
Foley says, "The Brut commercial!" and Norm Lane starts pursing his lips and shaking his head, in a way that says, "Poor Willie. And to think he used to have a full deck."
"Yeah!" I said. "The Brut commercial."
Foley says, "Willie, that kind of commercial--that's what does make you look bad. Not only bad--dumb! That's the old style. You can't do that any more. That commercial didn't do a thing for Hank Aaron."
"Willie, I'm glad you--" That was Norm Lane trying to break in.
"People aren't blind," Foley says. "They know athletes get paid money to stand up in front of a camera and say 'I use this' or 'I use that.'"
"Willie, I'm glad--Foley, let me say something--"
"This commercial doesn't do that," Foley says. "It does just the opposite. You're not being one of those jerks who gets up and says, 'Uhm Wullie Hummer un' uh use Chullymun.' You're saying, 'Hell, no, I don't use Charlemagne. I never even heard of it before! But it sounds good, and maybe I'll try it.'"
"Foley, let me say something," says Norm Lane. "Willie, I'm glad you mentioned Hank Aaron, because you wantto know what really made Aaron look terrific? It wasn't the Brut commercial. It was the Gillette commercial."
"That's right!" says Foley. "He's absolutely right, Willie!"
Norm Lane says, "You remember that series, don't you, Willie? They had Hank Aaron and Tom Seaver and Larry Csonka, and the voice-over says, 'I, Larry Csonka ...'
"'I, Larry Csonka.'
"'Do solemnly swear ...'
"'Do solemnly swear.'
"'To always use faithfully ...'
"'To always use faithfully.'
"'The new Gillette Platinum-Plus ...'
"And here the Csonka, or whoever, would start goofing it up. He'd say, 'The new Gillette plutonium platter.'"
Foley says, "They'd say, 'Gelatinous pitcher-a pus!'"
Norm Lane says, "'A skillet of blistering schmutz!'"
Foley says, "'A pillager village of lust!'"
They're going on this way ... They're going crazy over this dumb Gillette commercial ... They're laughing! singing! bawling with joy! ... It's a duet ... a concert ...
I said, "Hank Aaron ... did that commercial?"
Foley says, "Oh, God, yes."
Norm Lane says, "Oh, Christ, yes, yes. He was beautiful."
Foley says, "Not only that, Wiilie--and I'm not exaggerating--that commercial made Hank Aaron!"
Norm Lane says, "No question about it. It defrosted him!"
Foley says, "How many years did Aaron play before anybody really noticed him? How many home runs did he hit before anybody said, 'Hey, this guy is more than just a pretty fair country ballplayer'? About six hundred. And you know why? Because the word about Aaron was thathe was a stiff. You'd hear people from the networks say, 'Trying to do anything with that guy is like watching grass grow.'"
"You always get it wrong, Foley," says Norm Lane. "What the guy said was 'like watching Astroturf grow.'"
Foley says, "The Gillette commercial made a lot of people look at Hank Aaron as a human being for the first time and not just a base-hit robot. They saw him clowning around. They saw he had a sense of humor. They saw he had a personality, and on top of that he was honest. That commercial was a breakthrough, Willie. It was a breakthrough in our business, and it was a breakthrough for Henry Aaron. This isn't generally remembered, but it was right after that you started hearing Aaron referred to as a superstar."
Oh, those slippery pink little pimps. Before I knew it, they had me turned completely around. They had me. All I expected from the commercial in the first place was a miracle ... and these two pimps give me a goddamn preview in living color!
After that I let them take me back out onto the set. Let them, if you get the picture. I was feeling used, trifled with, but they had me. I really wanted the goddamned commercial now.
Shooting the thing was pure hell. I'd say a few words, and the director would say, "Cut," and he'd say, "Now, this time, Willie, just relax," or he'd say, "Have fun with it." Have fun. The main thing on my mind was to pronounce every word exactly right, so that when I got to the Charlie Magnet part, people couldn't help but know it was just a gag. I was laying those words down like tiles.
But they acted like I couldn't say anything right. They'd say, "All quiet! Speed! Roll it! Action!" "Cut!" and then"Take 9--Charlemagne Willie Hammer" and then "Take 10--Charlemagne Willie Hammer" and then it was getting up to "Take 24," "Take 25--Charlemagne Willie Hammer" and it was like they had this cripple on their hands. The man would have these breaks, and he'd take me off to one side again and tell me not to worry about the takes. He'd say the commercial only runs thirty seconds, but it always takes all day to shoot one. He'd say, "There's nothing wrong with you, Willie. Nobody expects you to be an actor, Willie." I knew what that code stuff meant.
We'd gotten up to about "Take 43--Charlemagne Willie Hammer" and I was just sitting there with my legs crossed, and this colored kid I was mentioning before comes onto the set and he says, "Hey, man!" and he gives me a wink and he kneels down and takes out a little penknife and he scrapes something off the bottom of my shoe and hands it to me. It's a price sticker! It says "Saks Fifth Avenue" in little letters at the top and "$87.50" at the bottom. The kid points his finger and he says, "I gotcha covered."
And two people laughed! And then I knew! All day long, out in the shadows, in the gloom, on the rigs--all day long these bastards had been goofing off my brand-new McAfee shoes: "Another cotton chopper's caught the bus to New York City!"
We said goodbye to "Take 50--Charlemagne Willie Hammer." We were down at the part where I say, "You know ... I think I'll TRY it!"--and then I'm supposed to break into my big laugh. I couldn't get that laugh out. It wouldn't come. There was no way I could make it come. I would get to the point where I was supposed to laugh ... and I could hear these terrible sounds coming out of my own mouth. I was braying, I was moaning, I was baying at the lights ... The bastards ... a chuckle over here, a snort back over there ...
"Action!" "Cut!" "Take 55--Charlemagne Willie Hammer," and I mean I'm struggling out here under these goddamn lights, and one more time I say, "You know ... I think I'll TRY it!"--and one more time nothing but some kind of miserable croak comes out.
"Cut!" "Take 56--Charlemagne Willie Hammer," "Action!" and one more time I'm saying "You know ... I think I'll TRY it! "--and one more time I'm wondering what kind of fool noise I'm gonna make on this try--when all of a sudden I hear this voice crying out:
"Hey, Willie! Your fly's open!"
Hunh--a tornado! My eyes keel over! I'm checking out the lap of my $400 gabardine suit! I know I'm gonna see it! ... the final piece of shit! ... the gaping fly! ... They're gonna use it! they gonna make their breakthrough! ... into a hundred million homes with the gates open for a willie hammer! ... My brain's catching up ... Hey, sucker, that voice ... it's Foley's! ... your fly's not open, sucker, you're just a poor jerk out here in the spotlight in New York City ... goosed by the fat boy for all to see! ... I'm relieved ... I'm embarrassed ... I'm mocked ... I'm had ... It all rushes together in my belly ... It cries out for air ... I hear it coming up from out of my boyhood ... the sound of the sucker who's got himself made fool of again ... the sound of the most pitiful jerk that ever got dumped on in the high-school locker room! ... the sound of the goosy lucy who gets the joke too late ... the sound of the fat bubba with his head caught in the bummer ... the last living cry of surrender of all the sad-ass suckers, dull tools, hopeless fools, and natural-born flaming nutballs of this world ... What I'm saying is: I laughed.
That laugh came from down so deep, from out of such a deep well of shame, in such a gush, it stopped everything cold. It was like thirty or forty people in the giant gloom,out on the rigs, sucked in their breath at once--and then suddenly the man was jumping up in the air and throwing his conked hair around and yelling:
"Beautiful! It's a wrap, Willie! You're my baby!"
--and then the whole goddamn place caves in on me--it's like one huge laugh cracks out from the monster ... from one and all ... they're gasping ... they're weeping ... racking their guts ... squalling like babies ... The man must see the look in my face ... He's no fool ... he's ready to scram ... he's telling me:
"No kidding, Willie. That's beautiful! I'm serious! Oh, Jesus!"
He's biting on the sleeve of his blue-jean jacket to keep from laughing ... He has a mouthful ...
Foley's saying, "Goddamn! You're a good sport, Willie!"
He's no fool, either ... he's moving off, him and Norm Lane, talking over their shoulders ... Everybody's moving around ... trying not to look at me ... laughing their asses off, weeping, snuffling, shaking their heads ... It's like steam has gone off in my head ... Just get the hell outta here, man! No, I hung on to my Plan. So help me. I came into this place in the morning with the duffel bag full of bats and balls and I gave them to one and all like the Santa Claus of the big league, and that was so when the job was done, I could hit these people up for two or three cases of Charlemagne cologne and shaving cream and after-shave lotion and come walking back into the clubhouse in the Astrodome and hand this stuff out to the ballplayers and say, "Yeah, they gave me all this stuff to give you guys. Help yourselves." And they'd get the message the cool way. They'd say, "Goddamn, Hammer got a commercial. That sucker's got the superstar thing going!"
But could a man like me really be in such a sorry state ... and could a crocodile like me really turn into such ahummingbird, that after getting jerked around and humped over the way they had done it to me, I could really walk up to Foley and ask for a goddamn shitload of Charlemagne? The answer is ... a man can sink that low! A man can lose that much self-respect! The supply is run out! ... It's leaked clean away ... There's nothing left but Vanity! There's just a goldfish flopping on the table! With thirty seconds left!
That was how come I make for the door on the side. Hey, Foley! It opens onto a stairwell. They're in there. The sound of those two pimps hits me like the biggest gob of spit in the history of the world. Those two fat pimps were up against the wall, by a fire extinguisher, laughing like goddamn crazy people.
Foley's back is to me, but Norm Lane can see me. His little eyes open like "This is the Last Day." Willie Hammer is going to be giving the lecture now! I move toward Foley, but just to tap him on the shoulder and spin him around--I swear that's all!--my fist wasn't even closed! ... I try to move toward him ... My damn foot slips! ... My damn brand-new McAfees ... they're like ice! ... Foley has halfway turned his head ... he's got a look on his face like Norm Lane ... He's done for! He's mine! He's finished! He's seen the eye! He's a spot of grease! He's a moth hole!
... But shit, I'm sinking ... It's eternity and no time at all! I'm sinking and Foley's shooting up in the air! ... I can't believe it! ... I'm falling on my ass!
And that's when I cracked my head against the wall. So help me, I wasn't knocked out. I was only stunned. I slipped. I don't care what lies the sucker tells. People like him have themselves to live with. Like the Bible says, "When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it."
AFTER MY LITTLE set-to with Willie Hammer, Norm Lane started calling me the White Hope. He called me that over a thousand lunches in every American Express mess hall in the East Fifties. That and the "Schwartze Patrol" and "Captain Midnight." Norm Lane happens to be one of those people who think that because they were born Jewish, the ordinary polite conversational racial regulations are suspended. If I said a tenth of the things he says all the time about Jews and blacks, he'd be shocked out of his pants.
I don't know ... I may be too sensitive about it, but I've always had the feeling that in New York, in our business, the Irishman has to keep proving he's Enlightened. I could be wrong, but that's the way I feel. You aren't exactly presumed to be a bigot--nothing so gross as that--you're just presumed to have a calloused sensibility. You're presumed to be a cop in a business suit. Neat and sweet-smelling--but still a flatfoot! So you feel like you have to pray in public a lot, to Peace, Art, Equality, and Good Taste, pray out loud for all to hear ... wear a little Dr. Scholl's on your soul ... Leaving the Daily News aside, which isn't all that hard to do--the press, television, advertising, show business, the arts, are a club for Jews and Protestants. I swear to God, an Irishman is a rarity! an exotic!--and I grew up thinking the Irish ran New York City. I was only wrong by about forty years. I finally reached New York, out of college, and all our boys had was the Police Department, the Fire Department, a couple of unions that didn't bear public mention after sunup, the Daily News, Representative Charles Buckley of the Bronx, and Cardinal Spellman giving a Christmas message from the U.S.O. on Lexington Avenue. What a grim slide! I think the Armenians and Turks are in better shape! The Turks have Ahmet Ertegun!
Well, I'll tell you one thing that Norm Lane and all myother Jewish and Waspo pals managed to forget after the Willie Hammer business. It so happens that I am one of the few people in advertising who has gone out of his way within the industry itself for black people. The fact is, I stuck my big vilified Irish neck out for Willie Hammer!
The Fabrilex account was only the biggest thing in my career. So I chose that moment for one of my fits of Enlightenment ... Fabrilex is the old American Elastic Fabric Company, which made girdles. After the Second World War they expanded into a big line of female health and beauty aids and became Fabrilex. And now they were making their next great leap, moving into men's toiletries with the Charlemagne line, with an advertising budget of ten million dollars. That's about par for a new line of that sort. It was not something that happened every day with our agency, however. Our cut was 15 percent, or one and a half million dollars. When I was named the account executive for the campaign, that was big news. People sent me cards.
My opposite number at Fabrilex was a horrible grim Waspo bastard named Wynn Sprague. He has one of those English noses you could shave roast beef with. He's a real Mr. Transistors. He doesn't laugh, he just grins and lets the noise on the loop come out. Sprague is their vice-president in charge of advertising and one of the four or five big men in the bunker.
Like any corporation with half a brain among its assets and the desire to unload a few billion dollars' worth of Closet Queen ointment on the American male, Fabrilex wanted to introduce the Charlemagne line with jock commercials. They wanted to introduce all their sweet things in the spike-bending paws of the most supervirile superstars in the world of sports. The budget for the twelve jock commercials for Charlemagne cologne was $500,000.
So far, the usual ... and then the Enlightened Irishman had to step in. Sprague and the Fabrilex people didn't have the faintest desire to include a black athlete in the series. They knew, as everybody knows, that endorsements by black celebrities only move merchandise among black people. But more to the point, they turn off a lot of whites; and the more personal the product, the greater the risk. In Cincinnati, Ohio, at Fabrilex Central, the appeal of putting Charlemagne into the sturdy mitts of Willie Hammer or any other black man might be described, using a scale of from one to ten, as at about minus 740. So why couldn't the Enlightened Irishman leave well enough alone?
Here we get back to praying in public and allied matters. I do, in fact, believe that advertising is no longer the Big Con, the "Madison Avenue" of the late forties and early fifties. There's no reason why advertising can't have a conscience and a sense of responsibility. As a matter of fact, it is only because a few of us feel that way that you now see any black faces in network advertising at all. It has nothing to do with marketing and demographics--believe me--and even less to do with the goodwill of the manufacturers. The entire push has come from inside the agencies in New York, and I've done my share.
I can remember the arguments with Sprague and his gimlet deacons very well. I'd bring out the statistics: nineteen of the leading thirty hitters in baseball were black. Almost all the great running backs and offensive ends in football were black. Sixty-five percent of the players in professional basketball were black. It was not realistic to run a big advertising campaign featuring professional athletes and not include a single black man. "Realistic" was the word I chose, but it was essentially a moral argument and cut no ice in Cincinnati ... until I mentioned the Possible Protests. Quite a few organizations, such as B.L.A.S.T.(Black and Latin Alliance for Soul Talent), were beginning to agitate about the absence of black faces in all phases of television. I don't know whether it was the thirty-story monument that Fabrilex had just built to itself in pulsequickening downtown Cincinnati, a prodigious office complex that nobody wanted to move into ... and all they needed now was a mob of raving black militants picketing out front and they'd really have a gone elephant on their hands ... or whether it was the sneaking fear that the merciless Zulus might creep out into suburban Morley Heights to continue their vicious work by night ... a little tinkling of the glass in the French doors of the Sprague manse, a twist of the knob ... and Uhuru! Mamba Jabba Zabba! Gee-dum! ... the whole mob pouring in, bones through their noses, crazy for spareribs ... In any event, Sprague gave in. One blackamoor would be okay.
It is at this point, after the first hurdle, that the Enlightened Irishman must have not only high ideals but fancy little dancing feet. What he must avoid at all costs is choosing the athlete who looks like the Black Threat. That's why a fine gentleman and great athlete like Willie Stargell of the Pirates is never chosen. Millions of white men watching him hit home runs for the Pittsburgh Pirates see a black man who looks about seven feet tall and who doesn't prime himself for the pitcher's delivery in the accepted fashion, which is by wiggling your ass and your bat a little bit. No, he whomps the bat overhead toward the pitcher like an ax or a sledgehammer, as if he's ready to pound him into the ground feet first. That's why the token black jock is so often a Grand Old Man, on the safe side of forty, like Willie Mays or Hank Aaron.
Willie Hammer appealed to the Enlightened Irishman precisely because he wasn't the solid safe old man. Hammer was young, he had just come into his own, he was leadingthe National League in hitting by forty-five points, and in every picture he looked lean, powerful, and yet handsome in a way that verged on the delicate, somewhat like Vida Blue or Rod Carew. The agents who usually knew about prominent athletes, such as the people at Mattgo, knew little about Willie Hammer. So we did what you do in such cases. We sounded out his club's p.-r. man, a man named Connie Fisher. You approach the p.-r. man on an insiderto-insider basis, as one media sophisticate to another. You say, "I'm sure you understand the things we need to know, and it'll be absolutely confidential." They'll usually level with you. They're flattered as hell, of course.
"Willie's okay in my book," Mr. Connie Fisher said, "but he doesn't say much. There were some guys here from NBC interested in Willie for a Black Stars special they were thinking about. One of them said, 'I've been hanging around that guy for a week now. It's like watching Astroturf grow.' That broke me up. The other one said, 'Willie Hammer. Good hit, no spiel.'"
"Well," I said, "what's his basic personality? Is he ... does he strike you as ... surly or ..."
"You mean is he a Bad Mother?"
I was so high-minded, I despised the man for using such an expression ... although, in fact, he was putting into words exactly what was up in my towering ivory cortex.
"Oh hell, no," he said. "Willie's a gentleman through and through. He's basically conservative. He likes to live well. He has a beautiful home out in Bayou Grove, which is the black gold coast here, I suppose you'd say. He has a beautiful wife, light-skinned, and I think she's active in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Willie isn't active in politics at all, as far as I know. Willie likes good clothes, and I'm not talking about Scarlet Creeper pimp clothes and all that. He goes to the most expensive tailor inHouston. There's not a box-holder at the Astrodome who can hold a candle to the man. Not that I'm saying this is the world's greatest center of refinement. Hog-stomping baroque goes over just fine here. But Willie is pretty as a picture by anybody's standards, black or white. In fact, I think that's Willie's main problem. He doesn't know whether he's black or white."
Norm didn't think Willie Hammer sounded like any great ball of fire. But he had some check marks, too. He was good-looking, something of a fashion plate, even. That was always something to think about in a jock commercial for men's perfume, because they're always done in street clothes. The idea in a men's-perfume commercial is not the locker-room crusade against B.O ... . The idea is, going out and cutting just colossal freaking mountains of ice with the ladies.
What really sold me, I must confess, was the name ... Willie Hammer ... I swear to God, was there ever a more perfect name for a baseball player! I kept thinking of Dick Butkus. As a personality in TV commercials, Butkus was a stiff, a cipher, a nullity. But the appearance of the man! He came rolling in front of the camera like a hill. And inside of this behemoth was a squeaky little voice, which somehow made it better. And my God, the name!--a goat the size of a rhinoceros!--what the hell else could he be but the greatest middle linebacker in the history of football? He didn't need a personality. He might have rolled over on it in his sleep. And that was the way I started thinking about Willie Hammer. Willie Hammer! Willie Hammer! It was a Buffalo Bayou two-beat!
In fact, I didn't start getting the clanks until Norm and I finally met Willie in New York and took him over to the Palm the night before the shooting. My boy was ... a ... stiff! He seemed so out of it that right away Norm and Igot the same idea: he was such a country boy that the Palm might be a letdown. We always take our jock stars to some famous trencherman's steak house, like Gallagher's or Stampler's or the Palm, and I think the Palm is the best. But the sight of it doesn't exactly say City Lights. So all the way over in the cab we kept saying, "Well, it's a little weird-looking ... but they've got fabulous steaks."
Willie had nothing to say all night. He acted like Eastern had checked his head through to Montreal. On the other hand, he came walking into the Palm looking like a million dollars ... except that he had some kind of weird trick thing he kept doing with his neck, and people were kind of staring at it. Norm and I were burning out the ignition just trying to keep the conversation going with the guy. Norm finally got off onto one of his Jewish forced marches, about women's liberation and castration obsessions and, Christ, I don't know, the worst load of cod you can imagine --it embarrassed me, although I have to admit I didn't know how you reached the man. But he looked good! And he was still named Willie Hammer, all night long!
By the time we got to X.T.O. the next morning, the Enlightened Irishman was very much on edge. Our shootings so far had not exactly delighted the Client, meaning Sprague. I detested the son of a bitch, but he wasn't stupid. He knew what he was getting. Nolan Perry and Brook Howard had been only fair. Tommy Cash had been a disaster. I wasn't even sure we could use what we shot. Tommy Cash is one of those garrulous country boys who has a big red barn full of cornball personality in an ordinary conversation. In front of the camera he just congealed. The only part of his personality that was left was that he didn't know what he'd said from one second to the next. Well, at least Willie's entry was encouraging. He completely surprised me by turning up with a duffel bag full of bats andballs. He won Sprague over right away. This was a very good sign in my book, because during a shooting there are two kinds of the Client. The Class A Client is a lamb. He gives you your head. He may not like what you're doing, but he doesn't butt in on the set. The Class B Client is a Sprague. He's got his nose into everything. I've seen guys like that stop a whole shooting and tell you to scrap it. One of the sad facts of life is that the Client is the Law west of the Pecos. Somehow Willie had slipped a training muzzle over the Client right away.
So when Willie suddenly balked--right off the top--without a word of warning--I was freaking dumbfounded. There was Willie out in the middle of the set saying Naw. I must confess that many vile thoughts bubbled up into my brain. "Goddamn it, Willie, don't you turn into the Bad Mother on me! Don't you turn into the pseudo-ignorant malingering darky on my time--"
But I swear to Christ, in the next moment I was filled with the most overpowering pity and guilt. The man was obviously in some kind of anguish. And he was alone out there under the lights. He didn't even have an agent along. All at once the sight of his elegant suit and his new shoes with the spanking-tan soles and the goddamned price sticker still on them--it was so touching that I can't describe it to you. All of a sudden I was just looking at a poor black guy who had made his way in the world as best he could. I was halfway on the verge of walking out there and saying, "Okay, Willie, let's just call it off."
Well ... that's not quite entirely true, is it, Irishman? You were sweating ... you could feel the chilly breath ... Sprague didn't even bother to whisper. The Client doesn't have to bother. "What's wrong with the man?" he kept saying, as if I'd foisted off a horse with the heaves on him.
I was praying that Marshall Lewis, our director, could pull the thing out quickly. Marshall is a very sensitive guy --but, then, all the directors in TV commercials are very sensitive, come to think of it, artists, you understand--it's only people like Fellini and Antonioni who sit around talking about money and cars--but, anyway, Marshall has always been very good with celebrities who aren't actors. Marshall's basic technique is to create a creek of sympathy that is so wet and so deep that he and the performer go washing down it together, buddies against the elements. But he's also a bit soft. I knew that the only thing that was going to turn Willie around was to get tough. Well, hell, I guess I was really trying to protect myself in front of Sprague. I had to look in charge. Ordinarily this would have been Norm's problem, as agency producer, but I wasn't leaving anything to the Charming Flake. Sprague was standing there now saying things like, "He's your inspiration, Foley," as if to say, "If this one goes under, Butterfingers, this is the last ship you'll ever sail."
I didn't even know what the hell I was going to say to Willie. All I had figured out was a tone. I looked stern. I turned my palms up toward heaven, exactly the way the priests used to do it. It wasn't me who pulled it out, however. It was Norm. He saw the key as soon as Willie mentioned Hank Aaron: if Aaron could go out and make this kind of commercial, then Willie could do it. Of course, then we got pretty outrageous about the whole thing. The whole bit about how they said covering Aaron was "like watching Astroturf grow"--that was what they said about Willie himself! We were really rotten bastards! We were describing Willie Hammer in the bluntest possible terms, right to his face, and calling it "Hank Aaron"!
The shooting was dreadful, just dreadful. Willie started saying the lines with the most incredible prissiness. Hesounded like Martin Luther King--Martin Luther King orating in slang about a men's perfume.
The goddamn Sprague was having fits. "Foley, Foley, Foley, Foley" was his chant all afternoon. It was too much like the liturgy of interment to make the jolly Irishman feel very good. I caved in, friends! You bet! I looked after Foley very well! I cranked up my quivering guts, resolved to save the day for Charlemagne, Fabrilex, Mr. Wynn Sprague, and downtown Cincinnati.
Seeing Willie out there trying to laugh was the brutal final touch. You never heard such sounds in your life. Sometimes he sounded like an owl, an owl with intestinal flu, out in the middle of Interstate 95. Everybody was bleeding for the guy. I could hear stagehands clearing their throats out of their own agony for the man. But did the Enlightened Irishman's heart bleed? No longer. He had replaced it around 4:30 p.m. He was 100 percent Mr. Transistors himself now, ready to play all data as it lay. I didn't think up "Your fly's open." The computer did it. The digits made me do it. It just popped into my brain. But when it worked--well, I mean, it was a genuinely funny moment. The whole X.T.O. Teletronics crew collapsed. Relief, weariness, sheer off-the-wall wackiness--they just broke up. It was just as funny as hell for about five seconds ... until you saw what was on Willie Hammer's face. I beat a fast retreat. I ducked out the fire exit with Norm Lane, but the goddamned Norm got me laughing all over again. And that was when Willie suddenly appeared.
He was 185 pounds of trouble from top to bottom. He was the red dragon in the Book of Revelation with fire coming out of its eyes. He didn't say a word--he swung on me!
Now, in that kind of moment, things happen or they don't. I haven't kept myself in top shape, although I used toplay a little ball, at the University of Massachusetts, and I guess I've never really been out of shape. I did the only thing I could do. I slipped his punch and I hit him. I hit him with my fist, or maybe it was my forearm. Norm can't remember, either. His version is a blur, another little belch of the Lane laughing gas.
Anyway--the poor guy was out cold!
It's curious, the things that stick in your mind at such a time. He was laid out flat on his face and I could see the soles of his shoes and they were as bright and clean as a brand-new varnished pine board. Out of the blue, something popped into my head, something I hadn't thought about in thirty years, not since the time when I was a kid and my folks took me to the cathedral to see the ordination of a prior, and the good brother laid himself out prostrate on the floor of the sanctuary, and his head pointed toward the altar and the Powers that be and his feet pointed toward all of us--and the soles of his shoes were snow-white! immaculate! As if he were pure and walked only on clouds! It seemed like the most marvelous thing! But why was he lying there? What had he done to God?
THE INCIDENT NEVER saw print anywhere, despite the liveliest rumors. Both men were resolute about denying all. The black athlete, for reasons of pride. The advertising executive, so as not to jeopardize the biggest account of his career. The matter of the Fallen Star would have made jolly reading, but not in Transistorsville.
In the long run, however, the advertising executive did not find the incident at all hard to live with. The story had the most extraordinary appeal. Via word of mouth, he became a legend in the industry. In no time he was presidentof his agency, handled 10-million-dollar accounts galore, set himself such a salary they drew straws for him down at the Church Street I.R.S., was named co-chairman of a national foundation promoting Black Culture, won many scrolls and plaques in the Brotherhood line, ascended to the board of one of the most prestigious museums in New York, was photographed standing beside his gutsy (the decorator's term) new seventeenth-century refectory table for Town & Country as an ornament of the Cultural World.
As for the black athlete, the commercial was anything but a disaster. The incredible pomposity of his delivery, followed by a laugh that seemed like a propane explosion in the solar plexus, was taken as evidence of a natural-born comedian. It was one of those commercials that people repeat lines from. He became known as a personality and, in due time, as a superstar. He returned from his New York trip with the scales lifted from his eyes. He began to Come Back, as the saying goes, to Speak Out, to Lead, and, for the first time, to be Black Enough. He said he guessed he had merely needed a chance to get away by himself and think. A term he coined, "the Ritz cracker," entered the language. His wife fell in love with him. Civil-rights leaders never failed to look him up when they were in town. Businessmen courted him and steered him to several million dollars in a short time. He appeared at a White House dinner in a set of tails of which his tailor was publicly proud (in Stitcher & Cutter), and the President remarked on his uncommonly dry sense of humor.
Copyright © 1967, 1968, 1969, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976