I wish I’d been more on the ball and returned to somehow punish the scoundrel who sold me my first car. The deed occurred on an ominous weeknight when my stepfather drove me east of Sacramento to a fine suburban home where a slender dorky old man at least forty-five opened the door and said, “Come on and I’ll show you the little jewel.” He was referring to his 1963 Dodge Polara, which featured an oblique hood like the head of a Doberman pincher and a swell push-button automatic transmission. The cost was eight hundred dollars, a lot of dough in 1969.
I took an enchanting test drive before eagerly handing over the cash, which I hadn’t earned and that came, I believe, from my natural father in Kentucky. In the morning I proudly joined the line of privileged teenagers driving out of our neighborhood toward school. Finally, I was an adult with wheels. But a few days later, in the school parking lot, the damn car wouldn’t start. Clearly, I’d been sold a lemon and reported this to several friends, one of whom got in the driver’s seat, turned the engine over a few times, examined the gauges – he must have been mechanically inclined – and determined the vehicle was out of gas. Okay, I should’ve checked, but I’d been secretly worried about how I’d pay to keep the car rolling since gas in those days cost almost twenty-five cents a gallon. That, incidentally, is still the only time I’ve drained a tank.
It was, however, but the first of innumerable vehicular mishaps, which in this piece will be confined to those, and other experiences, concerning the 1963 Dodge Polara. Within a month I discovered the car was bleeding something that looked like oil, and the car refused to move no matter how frantically I pushed the buttons from drive to reverse and back. A tow truck was summoned and at the gas station a mechanic determined the transmission had dropped, which meant it was dead and had to be replaced at a cost about a third what I’d paid for the car. Okay, at least I’ve now got a trustworthy machine, I concluded.
Merrily I drove toward the end of my junior year, playing lots of basketball and studying only when teachers or parents growled, and one day, a wild, thick-whiskered friend at my side, I approached the intersection a block from school and pushed brakes that went soft and fast to the floor and slowed us not a bit from forty miles per hour we were barreling toward an intersection full of cars. I pumped the brakes and ultimately laid on the horn before fortuitously rolling unscathed through the intersection. My friend and I howled when we should have been either solemnly silent or outright weeping. Since I was incurably naïve and optimistic during this era, I assumed the brakes would somehow repair themselves but they didn’t and over the next fortnight I had several similarly frightening intersection experiences before heading to the service station.
In a short time, on a Friday night, I was driving slowly and responsibly with another friend on a nearby street. We must have been talking about sports or girls or the next party. The topic of conversation is forever lost but the mechanical development unforgettable: with stunning suddenness the accelerator, as if grabbed from under the hood by a diabolical creature, shot to the floor and the car roared. My 1963 Dodge Polara wasn’t a hot rod but had a V-8 engine and quite soon we were zooming fifty, sixty, seventy miles an hour, and my newly-serviced brakes weren’t helping much. Thankfully, with common sense that spontaneously emerged from an unknown source, I grabbed the keys and turned off the ignition. Being young and nimble, I was able to lean down and operate the accelerator by hand as I drove home, peering over the dashboard. Soon after the accelerator was fixed I put a heavy foot on it in the school parking lot and, not having looked, backed rapidly into a friend’s small car, damaging his but leaving my tank unscathed.
I graduated from high school in June 1970 and that summer, compelled by nest-clearing parents, worked as a sweeper and box stacker in a factory south of downtown Los Angeles, daily getting my eyes burned by dirty air but miraculously avoiding noteworthy mechanical mishaps. And that fall, for the first of about ten times, I enrolled in college and soon dropped out. What I’d decided to do was drive around the United States, visiting relatives and friends. In late November I headed west to San Francisco and then south to Carmel and beyond on cliff-side Highway 1 to Los Angeles where I turned east and traversed Arizona and part of New Mexico and then moved across the vast Texas plains to Tyler, where I visited a multimillionaire geologist and oilman, my great-uncle, Jimmy, who had visited each of the dozens of countries I named and who also complained a great deal about the “nigras” who worked for him, strictly in menial capacities, and attributed any good they’d achieved to their “getting some white blood” and wouldn’t listen to other opinions.
Onward, through northern Louisiana, I guided my Dodge to Grambling University, the nation’s most famous predominantly-black university, and stopped to look around. Wearing cowboy boots I strode into the gym where a man about thirty was shooting baskets. After saying hello I joined him on the court where the great Willis Reed had starred several years earlier.
“Can’t play in those,” he said.
I graciously took off the boots, revealing pink socks, and stepped on the court and quickly determined I was slipping as well as not looking too good, so I pulled the socks off and began to swish all manner of jump shots, and the gentleman, who’d revealed he was the swimming coach, suggested I go talk to basketball coach Fred Hobdy, who the swimmer said would give me a scholarship. I’d decided not to play organized ball after high school, not liking practices run by shrieking coaches and also dreading pre-game nervousness that began two days before tipoff. But I wanted to meet the coach. A tall, husky man greeted me in his office. After exchanging introductions, Fred Hobdy asked, “How many points did you average in high school?”
“Twenty,” I said.
“Okay, we’ll give you a full scholarship.”
“Don’t you want to see me play first?”
“We’ll get you out here first, then see how you play.”
I didn’t reveal my convictions and instead accepted his offer of a small plastic meal ticket for the school cafeteria and the opportunity to be shown around campus by star forward Charlie Anderson and Jim Gregory, the first white football player in the history of pro-producing Grambling under legendary Eddie Robinson. I only briefly talked to Gregory, then a blond fellow who had a cute blond girlfriend. He never started at Grambling, playing behind future pro James Harris, but years later, in 1981, was the subject of a TV movie, Grambling’s White Tiger.
Charlie Anderson, lean and muscular at six-foot-eight, talked to me in his dormitory and proudly presented several letters he’d received from NBA coaches. I asked Anderson if he thought he could make it in the pros, and he said yes. He tapped his Afro and stressed his primary hoops worry was that he’d often been hitting his head on the rim. That night Grambling played, and Anderson, indeed, displayed pro skills, soaring to release accurate jump shots and rebounding with authority. A few months later, back in California, I picked up the newspaper and read he’d been killed by a hit and run driver in Grambling.
Coach Fred Hobdy stopped by my motel room after the game and reiterated his interest, and that was the last contact we had. His distinguished coaching career lasted until 1986 when he became Grambling’s athletic director. He died in 1998 at age seventy-five.
In the morning I drove to Vicksburg, Mississippi and visited the Civil War battleground where eight thousand soldiers died during the Siege of Vicksburg after which the Northern forces of General Ulysses S. Grant captured thirty thousand Rebel soldiers he decided to “parole” rather than try to house and feed as prisoners. The fall of Vicksburg, which allowed the North to command that portion of the river, and the Confederate defeat a day earlier at Gettysburg, permanently turned the war against the slave-driving South. The soldiers would’ve marveled at my car and laughed as I kicked it for not starting. The guy in the tow truck told me the “battry” was dead.
No problem. I got a new battry and invaded Oxford late on a Sunday afternoon and, serendipitously, the University of Mississippi basketball team was practicing. All the players were white, a sight athletically laughable and socially appalling. The best of them was six-foot-six Johnny Neumann, then a sophomore, who’d been touted as the next Pete Maravich. And that looked like a reasonable projection. Neumann dribbled skillfully, albeit without the flair of Pistol Pete, repeatedly looked one way and passed the other, and hit jumpers and drove for layups as he pleased. That season he averaged forty points a game and afterward became the first to use “hardship” status to leave college early and sign with a team in the old American Basketball Association. He had a few good seasons, sometimes posting a scoring average in the teens, but was considered a ball hog and drifted to several teams before the NBA absorbed the ABA in 1976. Neumann struggled three seasons before heading overseas at age twenty-seven and performing two more years and then coaching numerous teams in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. This June he became head coach of the Romanian national team.
After Mississippi’s practice ended I turned on the rather dim and disjointed headlights and drove all the way to Memphis, thinking about Elvis Presley as I entered his town. I rented a motel room in a wretched neighborhood like the one he must have been born into in Tupelo. The place so unnerved me that I placed several plastic cups of water on the top of the lower window frames so I’d be alerted if bad guys tried to break in. Next morning I heard some guys laughing after one said, “Look at that.”
I should’ve driven by Graceland when Elvis was alive but wouldn’t cruise his street until the summer of 1978 when the singer was a year in his grave. That morning in December 1970 I was in a hurry to get to Nashville to visit Charlie, the man who’d coached me when I was a high school junior. Earlier in this piece I implied basketball coaches are lunatics, but that’s only when they’re coaching. Off court they’re usually friendly and dynamic guys. Charlie, who’d played with three future pros at the University of San Francisco and missed a critical layup in the NCAA regional playoffs that helped John Wooden win an early title at UCLA, had tired of the prep coaching regimen, and of his chair-throwing state of mind, after two years and begun studying psychology at Vanderbilt University. He and his charming wife hosted me for several days. One night I saw a solid performance by stocky forward Perry Wallace, the first black to play basketball in the Southeastern Conference. I do regret a year later calling and haranguing the coach while I was under the influence of alcohol and LSD but am pleased that in 1981 I called sober and learned about his new life as an affluent psychologist who lived by the Pacific south of Los Angeles and boated every weekend.
The 1963 Dodge Polara next took me an hour up the road from Nashville to
Bowling Green, Kentucky, the place of my birth and then the home of my father, George Titus Clark, and his third wife, Josephine. Regrettably, every time my drawling, cigarette-inhaling father tried to lecture me about the dangers of heading into the Northeast winter – “You cain’t keep a car warm even with a heater when it’s below zero outside” – I began smiling and then laughing until I laughed harder. At first he was tolerant and introduced me to a lass who studied at Western Kentucky University. We went to the drive-in to watch John and Mary, and quite early in the movie I suggested the lady join me in the spacious back seat where, despite my inexperience, she started purring and the car rocking and by the time we’d finished all the windows were fogged and we never did see Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow.
I was fortunate to attend two games at Western Kentucky during the finest season in the school’s distinguished basketball history. I don’t need to Google the schedule. I still remember the Hilltoppers played Virginia Commonwealth and Duquesne. Diddle Arena was then configured to seat about twelve thousand fans, quite a few in a town of about thirty thousand. Both games the crowd was large and loud, especially for the Duquesne matchup against giant twins, Gary and Barry Nelson, who seven-foot Jim McDaniels overwhelmed as he fired like a sharpshooter and devoured rebounds. The Hilltoppers later advanced, in March 1971, to the NCAA Final Four, losing by three points in double overtime to Villanova. McDaniels seemed ready to star as a pro. And for part of a season in the ABA he did, averaging twenty-six points a game before moving into the NBA. Somehow, the man who’d smoked Artis Gilmore for 45 points in college, didn’t perform well at the next level. I read that he’d clashed with Seattle Sonics coach Bill Russell and thought, “Must’ve been Russell’s fault.” But, a few years ago, on Western Kentucky’s website, I read an interview with McDaniels, and as he bemoaned his professional experiences he sounded like a tender youth who’d been denied the kindness and emotional support he craved. That’s why Jim McDaniels shot only forty percent from the field in his NBA career. That’s why he averaged only about five points and four rebounds a game. He lacked mental toughness. That’s not a personal criticism. I simply assure you the man had the physical talent to excel against anyone.
Western Kentucky didn’t have any more home games coming up, or I was too shy to call the young lady again, or I was simply immature: whatever the cause, I wasn’t motivated to ingratiate myself in Bowling Green and kept giggling every time my father offered fatherly advice, and we agreed that I better head out into the Northeastern winter. I didn’t respond to his letters for several years, and only spoke to him a few times by phone, in the spring of 1971 back in Sacramento, when I’d gather with a friend or two and we’d call and speak in Southern accents, talking tomfoolery. If he recognized my voice, he never said. I saw him only one more time, briefly, before 1978 when I visited him in the hospital where oxygen tubes and morphine made his dying of throat and lung cancer a little less horrific.
As December 1970 deepened, I headed into Ohio and stopped in Cincinnati to see Riverfront Stadium, home of the Reds baseball team that, powered by Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, and Joe Morgan, soon earned the title Big Red Machine. Up the road in Canton I visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A day later I was in Columbus, driving around Ohio State University and admiring their football stadium which was ruled by coach Woody Hayes, who frequently spent late Decembers in California, insulting the media and, frequently, losing in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.
My only night in Columbus I attended a basketball game between the Buckeyes and visiting Butler, which in 2010 stunned many observers by advancing to the NCAA championship game before losing to Duke. In 1970 Butler was led by Billy Shepherd, a short but prolific scorer who’d been named Mr. Basketball as a prep in Indiana. Despite Shepherd’s fine play, Ohio State won impressively behind the inside work of seven-foot Luke Witte and the backcourt generalship of Jim Cleamons, who after that season was drafted in the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers for whom he’s now an assistant coach. Witte’s most publicized experience came the following season, in January 1972, against the University of Minnesota. With thirty-six seconds left in the game, he was fouled hard and knocked down. Minnesota’s Corky Taylor extended a hand to help Witte up and, with a jerk, kneed him in the groin. The prostrate center was then kicked and stomped by Ron Behagen. After several other black Minnesota players had assaulted white opponents, generally from the blind side, Witte was carried off the floor to the hospital for several days. Too often, those who complain of racism are more racist than those they condemn.
I entered Akron, Ohio in late December 1970, fourteen years before the birth of LeBron James, who as I write this is starting his fanatically-hyped ESPN special to announce his destination as a free agent, and saw a cold, gray, and rather rundown city before driving to the nearby suburb of Barberton to visit my great uncle, Jerry, brother of my maternal grandmother and the earlier-described Texas oilman, Jimmy. Jerry was about seventy-eight years old, had long been retired from his factory job at Firestone, and sometimes spoke scathingly about his wealthy brother and vowed not to attend the funeral if Jimmy predeceased him. Jerry spent each morning watching TV. The weather reports amazed this visitor from California. A map of Ohio would be placed on the screen, and the highest temperature anywhere in the state was usually about nineteen degrees.
After the forecast, we’d head out to lunch. Since my car had developed a myriad of complications, it was in the shop most of the time, and my uncle provided transportation, driving his big American sedan too fast over roads often slicked by ice and banked by snow. Frequently he pulled a few feet into oncoming traffic, eliciting many alarmed horns, then jerked the steering wheel hard right and almost went off the road that side.
“Be careful,” I’d say.
Mercifully, my car returned to action, and I several times took it to Akron gyms, which my still-lucid uncle had outlined for me, and played basketball with some of the locals, none of whom could’ve imagined the distant coming of the strong, the fast, the leaper, the passer, the shooter, the franchise, the celebrity, the ultimate Akron hero LeBron James, who, I see on my computer screen, has just announced he will join all stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat to form one of the most gifted threesomes in NBA history. The citizens of Cleveland, a half hour from Akron and just as dreary, have lost their most cherished athlete and citizen ever – even more revered than football Player of the Century Jim Brown, who retired from the Browns in 1965 and is still missed – and suffered a severe civic indignity. People had said their weather was wretched, their economy a wasteland, their cultural landscape barren. And now their favorite son, their father figure, really, has – in their eyes – abandoned them. In fact, LeBron James has abandoned no one. He blessed Cleveland with seven years of success, albeit without an NBA title, that would’ve otherwise been unimaginable. Yet, some Neanderthals are at this moment burning LeBron’s number 23 jersey in effigy. They’ll get over it. They’ll just have to be Lebron fans from afar, like most of us. I trust he won’t be too taken aback that I brought in New Year 1971 by drunkenly rolling in the snow not far from where he’d be born on December thirtieth, 1984.
I stayed about three weeks with my uncle, and the holiday respite and retooling reinvigorated my Dodge and enabled it to take me to Buffalo, another disrespected city, where I watched the NBA Braves, whom most readers won’t remember, and to Niagara Falls which I saw from both sides, stunned in the United States by the expanse of water hurtling toward the end of the earth, and overwhelmed in more-scenic Canada by the eternal aquatic explosions, and still sad that wicked Joseph Cotten murders his unfaithful wife, voluptuous Marilyn Monroe, in Niagara. I then went to Rochester and promptly to bed and early next morning toured the Syracuse University campus and thought on these cold grounds, amid these leafless trees, had stridden four astonishing running backs, immortal Jim Brown, tragic Ernie Davis, who won the Heisman Trophy and soon died of leukemia, elusive Floyd Little, and massive Larry Csonka. Syracuse had not yet become a national basketball power, though it had produced future NBA Hall of Famer, and current Detroit mayor, Dave Bing. I saluted and left and don’t remember where I spent the night. It didn’t matter. I focused on the next target: New York City.
In the morning on a toll road east of town I was pumped and unworried about not having enough change and asked the lady in the booth to accept about a dime less, and she barked, “You’ll pay (this).” I reached into my pocket for some folding money my mother and stepfather had just wired, and handed out the extra change. Those New Yorkers are tough, just like Sinatra implies. I’m still having trouble making it in Bakersfield, so I doubt I could make it in New York City. I certainly couldn’t have in early 1971. But I had a great day. I drove through Harlem, feeling history in buildings old and mysterious, and I remembered Louis Armstrong, who was still alive and whom I’d seen perform in Sacramento several years earlier. Next I went to the Bronx, to the House That Ruth Built, to Yankee Stadium, home of more Hall of Famers and World Series champions than any place on the planet. It was naturally closed for the winter but I parked and found an employee, an older fellow, and asked if he’d let me peek into the pantheon of baseball. He opened a door and from the first base side I gazed at the diamond so often seen on television, noted the outrageously long left-center field fence, the nearly unreachable center field wall, and the preposterously short right and right-center fences. Out there and on the infield had roamed Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, and in the years and decades since would perform equally talented, but now black, superstars Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. I’m still moved by those sixty seconds I communed with Yankee Stadium.
I went to Little Italy and ate a small loaf of fresh bread. I drove down Wall Street, and I drove down Broadway, and everywhere I was rocked by all the horns, especially those from taxi drivers, who shocked me by blowing at pedestrians hurrying to quite legally cross the street. Those New Yorkers really are tough. Soon I rode to the top of the Empire State Building and looked down at stunning Central Park. Later I went to the place you get on a boat to go to the Statue of Liberty. I’m still not sure why I didn’t go on out and visit the majestic lady. I was just satisfied looking at her from the shore. Before long, it started getting dark.
I headed across the Hudson River, gassed up, and drove nonstop to Philadelphia where I checked into a motel and on TV watched a Marquette University basketball game coached by dynamic, street-smart New Yorker Al McGuire. In the City of Brother Love the next day I saw the Liberty Bell and some buildings where the Founding Fathers worked before and after Philadelphia became the nation’s first capital. I also passed by Veteran’s stadium, soon to be the new home of the Philadelphia Phillies and Eagles.
I decided to start working my way back home. Heading west, I next stopped in Pittsburgh, which surprised me with lovely hills and trees and rivers. Following my sporting instincts, I drove to the Hill District, a name I evidently hadn’t taken literally, and to Schenley High School, home of Maurice Lucas, a senior prep All American. The school was closed on a weekday, due to a strike, but the doors were open and I entered a dark, closed-in concrete world, like a bunker, very unlike any high school I’ve seen in California. Lucas would proceed to star at Marquette University and for the Portland Trailblazers, which, led by shot-blocking, outlet-passing center Bill Walton, as well as the sharp elbows, hard fists, and deft shooting of Lucas, won the NBA championship in 1977.
I also cruised by old Forbes Field where, for the only time in his career and days before he retired, Babe Ruth, playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, hit three home runs in a game. In a career of massive homers, Ruth hit perhaps his longest, and upon returning to the dugout exclaimed, “Boys, that one felt good.” I miss Babe, though he died in 1948, a few years prior to my birth. I also miss rifle-arm, swing-at-anything Roberto Clemente, who played his best years in Forbes Field. After the devastating earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua in late 1972 – the former downtown was still leveled when I visited the city in 1989 – Clemente gathered rescue supplies and chartered a plane, bound for Nicaragua, that crashed off the coast of his native Puerto Rico on December 31. His efforts are still celebrated.
I had now been gone from home about two months and was getting tried and skinny and bored – and cold, too, as my father had warned – so I decided to drive straight home on Highway 80 but hurried too much and passed right by the exit to South Bend, Indiana, and thus missed the Golden Dome of Notre Dame and the eternal gridiron landscape of Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian, and the many All Americans who played for them. The only other regret on my way West came when my Dodge quit running in Davenport, Iowa. Actually, it had been running well until I stopped for gas and afterward turned the key and heard grinding first and then nothing. On a day about zero degrees I shivered in the service station office while the mechanic went to junk yards to find the part he needed. The repair completed, I drove fast and, excepting motel sleepovers, straight through Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. They were all cold and foreboding. In late January 1971 I arrived home, weighing fifteen pounds less due to lack of regular exercise. Twenty years later I gained thirty pounds in a few months for the same reason.
I don’t know why I didn’t resume playing basketball independently. I certainly had time. The basketball coach at Sacramento City College had arranged for me to register late, but I took only two classes and squandered much time drinking and smoking pot, and never considered consequences. One night, at an apartment complex, I pushed the reverse button in my car, shot backwards, and then punched the drive button and rocketed into the side rear of an unoccupied car in the next spot, knocking it over a few feet, and then repeated the process and nailed the next car over. My vehicle, unlike the others, was barely damaged. I should have been arrested but, in a more lenient era, was reprieved since the incident took place on private property, and the police simply ordered me to pay, which the family insurance policy did. My parents promptly dropped me from their policy, leaving me uninsured and unobligated to acquire protection. I’m glad laws and perceptions have toughened.
Deciding I’d try to weight lift my way back into the mainstream, in June 1971 I purchased a barbell and four hundred pounds of weights, loaded them into the big trunk of my Dodge, and headed for the same summer job I’d had the year before. My old machine struggled trying to climb the Grapevine where a steep upgrade leads into mountains that divide the Central Valley from Southern California, and before I was half way up my engine was smoking and stinking like something on fire. After a tow job, some more repairs, and waiting for nightfall, the car limped into L.A. A week later, having relearned why I’d hated the job, I quit. And before leaving town I gave a lawn job to the in-law of a relative, who did not understand I did such things, however perverse, as an expression of affection, and he vowed to send me the bill. Thankfully, the old Dodge hadn’t been strong enough to tear up any grass, but my misuse of the vehicle strained relations.
I pulled those heavy four hundred pounds, which I did not lift a single time, back over the Grapevine, and down Highway 99 through Bakersfield, my home since 1991, and on to Fresno where the car lost power. The engine was still running but the car wouldn’t move. I exited and saw the same fluid I’d noted a couple of years earlier when the transmission dropped. Cursing the car and myself, I flagged someone down to take me to the nearest gas station. To the tow truck driver I said, “Know anyone who might be interested in buying this car?” He promised to look around. I called my parents a hundred and seventy miles away in Sacramento, and they less-than-delightedly agreed to come and get me.
When they arrived I promised I’d straighten up my life. Momentum started shifting my way. I got a forty-dollar offer for my 1963 Dodge Polara and countered with a fifty-dollar request. Forty tops, the guy said. Okay, I’ll take it.