Books postsSunday March 13, 2011
Opening and Closing: Louis Menand on Wild Bill Donovan and the Hollywood View of History
Nathaniel Rogers over at Film Experience has a fun feature he does semi-regularly, called “First and Last,” in which he shows readers a screenshot of the first and last images of a movie and asks them to guess the movie. It's harder than you'd think.
This isn't meant to emulate that. Yesterday I simply read Louis Menand's review of Douglas Waller's “Wild Bill Donovan," about the founder of the O.S.S., and thus the granddaddy of all U.S. foreign intelligence operations, and was particularly impressed by Menand's opening and closing paragraphs. I wanted to share.
Here's the opening:
There is history the way Tolstoy imagined it, as a great, slow-moving weather system in which even tsars and generals are just leaves before the storm. And there is history the way Hollywood imagines it, as a single story line in which the right move by the tsar or the wrong move by the general changes everything. Most of us, deep down, are probably Hollywood people. We like to invent “what if” scenarios—what if x had never happened, what if y had happened instead?—because we like to believe that individual decisions make a difference: that, if not for x, or if only there had been y, history might have plunged forever down a completely different path. Since we are agents, we have an interest in the efficacy of agency.
Here's the closing:
Waller believes that Donovan got his nickname from his soldiers in the 165th, one of whom is supposed to have shouted out, during a particularly intense drill, “We ain’t as wild as you are, Bill.” Other writers, such as Tim Weiner, in his eye-opening history of the C.I.A., “Legacy of Ashes,” claim that it came from a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers who was called Wild Bill Donovan in tribute to the number of walks and hit batters he was responsible for. The first story suggests fearlessness, the second recklessness. Donovan had both. It is good that his time onstage was brief.
Scene at a Barnes & Noble II
Scene: The Barnes & Noble on the Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis three days before Christmas. I enter the store for the second time in the span of an hour to buy a DVD (“How to Train Your Dragon”) for my nephew Jordy. That's when I spot an author table near the door. The table is small, the author ready, no one is paying attention. Too bad, I think. Wonder what the dude wrote? Then I see the book propped up around the table:
I go over, pick up the book, leaf through it. I exchange pleasantries with the author, Bob Showers. He begins to explain how the book came about.
Bob: I contacted the Twins organization for official photos from the period. See these? I got all of these from the Twins. Then I brought them along when I interviewed the players to jog their memories.
Me: Oh, so it's an oral history, too. Wow, you interviewed Killebrew?
Me: Hey, has anyone written a biography of him?
Bob: Well, biographies have been written, back in his playing days, but...
Me: I'm talking about a big bio, like Mays and Aaron just got, but about Harmon. There'd be less interest nationally, of course, but ... I don't know. All the more reason to do it. I'd like to read it anyway. Hey, the Beatles!
Bob (nodding): Beatles played at the Met in '65, Eagles in '78.
Me: I remember that concert. The Eagles, not the Beatles. God, great photos. Cesar Tovar, Rich Rollins, Ted Uhlander. Love the '60s uni. That “Twins” script and the TC caps. Hated it when they went to the red cap and the beltless stretch pants in the mid-seven- ... Holy crap!
Me: It's ... me.
I'd come across a photo that I knew well but hadn't seen in decades: Dave Edwards, on June 13, 1979, bounding toward the Twins dugout after hitting a late-game, two-run homer to give the Twins an 8-6 lead over the New York Yankees. The shot is from behind so you can see his name and number (33), the Twins players in the dugout, including Kenny Landreux and Johnny Castino, smiling and ready to congratulate him, and about ten rows of cheering fans. The photo made the front page of the sports section of The Minneapolis Tribune the next day, and I kept it for years, because I was in it. Me, my father, and my friend Dave Budge sat in row 8 that night.
Me: Right there.
Observer #1: That's you?
I look up. By now we've drawn a crowd.
Observer #2: Right. Sure, that's you.
Me (vaguely amused): Why would I make that up?
Bob: The guy in front of you is wearing a CheapTrick concert T-shirt. When was the photo taken? June 1979? I bet he was at that CheapTrick concert at the Met around that time.
I flip through more pages. I'd planned on buying it anyway. Now it's a done deal. Me and two other guys start talking about the last Twins game at Met Stadium. Turns out we were all there.
Me: How odd. Because that crowd was, like, sparse.
Observer #1: Less than 25 thousand.
Bob: 15 thousand.
Observer #1: That low?
Me: Right? So it's weird that 30 years later three of those 15 thousand would be in the same Barnes & Noble at the same time. Weird but cool.
And remember to check out author tables. I'm not saying you'll find yourself but you never know.
Scene at a Barnes & Noble
Scene at a Barnes & Noble in downtown Minneapolis three days before Christmas...
Clerk: May I help you find something?
Me: I'm alright. Wait. Actually, yeah. I'm looking for a book: “The Letters of Saul Bellow.” Where would that be exactly?
Clerk returns to information desk and stands before computer.
Clerk: What was the name again?
Me: “The Letters of Saul Bellow.”
Clerk clatters on keyboard. Pause.
Clerk: How do you spell that?
Me: Saul? S-a-u-l.
Clattering on keyboard. Pause.
Clerk: Is that one word?
Me: Um. Saul: S-a-u-l. Then there's a space and it's Bellow, B-e-l-l-o-w. Saul Bellow.
Clerk: Here it is. Yes, we should have several copies.
Clerk comes out from behind information desk. He's wearing a button that says: “I'm NOOK Smart.”
The Joy of Mere Words
I often re-read George Orwell's essay, “Why I Write,” because it's short, and good, and I need a reminder now and again. I need bucking up.
I've always liked this part in particular:
When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e., the sounds and associations of words. The lines from Paradise Lost—
So hee with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee,
which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling “hee” for “he” was an added pleasure.
For me it was later, when I was about 19, and taking a freshman literature course at the University of Minnesota. One of the books on the syllabus was Ernest Hemingway's “In Our Time,” and one of the stories in that collection was “Soldier's Home,” about a young man, Krebs, coming back from the Great War. This is the second paragraph:
There is a picture which shows him on the Rhine with two German girls and another corporal. Krebs and the corporal look too big for their uniforms. The German girls are not beautiful. The Rhine does not show in the picture.
That seemed wholly perfect to me in a way that no paragraph ever had. Hemingway gives us an image, which, because we're romantic fools, can be romanticized; then, with the next three sentences, he takes away all romantic notions. Some part of me still thinks “The Rhine does not show in the picture” is the greatest sentence ever written in the English language.
I stared at the paragraph after I'd read it until tears came to my eyes; then I took it downstairs to share with my father. Because the joy of mere words needs to be shared.
What about you? When did you first discover the joy of mere words?
Review: "Cardboard Gods" by Josh Wilker
“Cardboard Gods,” Josh Wilker’s coming-of-age memoir as revealed through his baseball card collection, should have immediate resonnance for the following groups:
- Baseball lovers.
- Baseball card collectors.
- Folks who grew up in a dysfunctional family.
- Folks who grew up in the 1970s and remember what it was like when the more anarchic elements of the counterculture lapped up to your front door, and then inside, and then washed away your world.
That first group isn’t as big as it used to be, but if you’re 1), and you’re a boy, you were probably 2). The fourth group is obviously tied to a specific time. It’s the third group that’s the mother lode. That’s most of us.
Wilker hit the jackpot with me. I’m all four—with the proviso that I collected baseball cards in the five-year period before Wilker did: Topps 1970-1974, rather than Topps 1975-1980. We’re almost a tag team. Just as I got done, he started.
Question: Does this make me an easy mark? Or a tougher sell?
The latter, I think. Rob Neyer pushed the book on his ESPN blog, and he has a to-die-for blurb on the front cover (“Josh Wilker writes as beautifully about baseball and life as anyone ever has”), but I still picked it up with skepticism. What does Neyer know? What can Wilker tell me about my times that I don’t know?
That skepticism died on page 9.
Wilker’s subtitle is “An All-American tale told through baseball cards,” and the first chapter is called simply “Topps 1975 #533: Rudy Meoli,” and includes what we used to call an “in action” shot of Meoli at the plate. Wilker writes:
Behold the uniformed maestro at the center of everything, his head thrown back in awe, his arms outspread as if to proclaim: Behold.
We look back at the card to see if we’ve missed something, to see if we’ve misread what’s going on there. We haven’t. Five-year-old Josh Wilker has. The adult Wilker writes:
For a long time, I lived in an angelic state of stupidity and grace. ... For a long time, years, I didn’t understand that I wasn’t witnessing the occurence of something magnificent in Rudy Meoli’s card from 1975, my first year of collecting. I didn’t understand that all I was looking at was some little-known marginal who’d just squandered one of his rare chances to reveal any previously undiscovered magificence by hitting a weak foul pop-up, the easiest of outs.
But the writer in him doesn’t end with the adult mea culpa; he pushes on toward an angelic state of understanding and grace:
Even to this day there’s a faint residue on my inability to interpret the blatantly obvious in this picture. On some level, perhaps the only level of any importance in this life, I still think of Rudolph Bartholomew Meoli, a backup infielder with a .212 lifetime average and more career errors than extra base hits, as one of the most thrilling performers of his era, a superstar in the reign of happiness and confusion.
That was the moment when I thought, “OK, this is going to be good.”
Baseball cards turn out to be a brilliant framing device. Not because Wilker’s childhood was idyllic. Because it wasn’t.
His parents were more-or-less happily married until his mother took a bus from their home in Willingboro, N.J., to attend a peace rally in Washington, D.C. in 1969 and wound up falling for her hippyish seatmate, Tom, who, by 1973, had moved into their home. He was, in fact, sleeping with the mother while the father took a smaller room down the hall. In his own home. In which he paid the bills.
What baseball card could possibly represent such family trauma? A 1976 Mike Kekich card. That year, Kekich was with the Texas Rangers, and he would end his career a year later with the nascent Seattle Mariners, but he’s famous, or infamous, as one of two 1973 Yankees pitchers—Fritz Peterson is the other—who traded entire families: wife, kids, dogs. After several weeks, Kekich tried to call off the switch, but by then Peterson and his wife were cozy and wanted to make the switch permanent. Peterson basically told him what we kids told each other when we wanted a baseball-card trade to be permanent: “No backs.” Kekich wound up in the metaphoric smaller room down the hall. Hell, he wound up with the Seattle Mariners.
Wilker’s story gets worse before it gets better. His mother and Tom, dragging along five-year-old Josh and his more aware, older brother Ian, moved to backwoods Vermont expecting paradise. They wound up in a shitty home surrounded by shitty neighbors. They wanted to live off the land but the land was harsh. They tried to start a non-competitive school, which only increased the contempt of the neighbors. The family was isolated and ostracized, and poor Josh could barely make it down to the grocery store and back without being picked on. That’s part of the reason for the baseball cards. He needed something certain. He needed big men he could hold in his hand. He needed cardboard gods.
Wilker frames this chapter on social experiment gone awry with “Topps 1975 #407: Herb Washington,” that great baserunning experiment of Charley O’Finley’s that went awry: the professional pinch-runner who was caught stealing more than half the number of times he stole. The adult Wilker remains understanding. In the face of a more affluent acquaintance named Wendell who scoffed at the idiocy of the family experiment, Wilker writes:
Whether the useless innovation of Herb Washington signaled the apotheosis of the A’s dynasty or foretold the team’s impending descent at champion-sprinter speed into abject late-1970s suffering is beside the point. The point is that life is not to be methodically considered and solved like a math equation. Life, fucking Wendell, is to be sprinted toward and bungled beyond recognition.
In this manner, the book continues. Wilker’s childhood confidence falters and there’s Mike Cosgrove with a face full of faltering confidence. Girls make him self-conscious of his clothes and there’s the 1977 Chicago White Sox team card, the players wearing collared shirts and shorts, the most embarassing uniform in a decade of embarassing uniforms. He discovers death and there’s Lyman Bostock.
Because Wilker is a Red Sox fan, one anticipates the one-game playoff with the hated New York Yankees in 1978. Yet for some reason the representative card is “Topps 1975 #299: Bucky Dent,” back when Dent was with the Chicago White Sox. Wilker explains, sympathetically:
...here’s the tragic figure of Bucky Dent, the mildly promising, light-hitting young Chicago White Sox shortstop who after being named to the Topps All-Star Rookie Team in 1975 was killed in a horrific wood-chipper accident.
Sure, Wilker says, there’s that odd rumor that Dent didn’t die during the ’75 off-season; that he was eventually traded to the Yankees, and, in that one-game playoff, came to the plate with two on and the Yanks down by two, and after a delay, and after a new bat, he hit a homerun over the Green Monster in left field to put the Yankees ahead, and the Yankees would go on to win the game, the ALCS and the World Series, all on the back of the puny Dent, who, himself, would become a shirtless pin-up boy and lousy TV actor (see: “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders”). But then Wilker writes reasonably:
Clearly, the stronger Bucky Dent theory is the one in which Bucky Dent was tragically chopped into pieces, then minced into bits, then pureed into a mush of flesh and feathered hair and eye black by a ravenous, extemely efficient wood chipper before he was ever able to make any significant impact on baseball history or on the innocence of, say, a ten-year-old Red Sox fan in East Randolph, Vermont on October 2, 1978.
Wilker is particularly excellent on that childhood. He watches “The Incredible Hulk,” tags after Ian, yearns for Yaz. “Go with me, Josh!” young girls ask and he thinks “Go where?” Bullies descend:
“Hey, doofus,” the second one, Denny, said. “How many hours in a day?”
“Hey, yeah,” Muskrat said. “How many days in a week?”
“He doesn’t know. They don’t know shit.”
“Hey, how do you spell dog? How do you spell cat?”
“Why is your hair so curly and long?” Denny said. “You must be a woman.”
“Why are you a woman?” Muskrat said.”
He is less excellent on his dissolute twenties and thirties, but that’s a tougher sell. Children are powerless and thus sympathetic. By the time you hit 25, if you can walk and talk, you need to get a life. Wilker, the character, doesn’t even sprint towards his bungling as his parents did; he wanders, shuffles, meanders. One loses patience with him, as he does with himself. But in that wandering, drop by drop, comes the wisdom to write this book.
My own baseball card collection is long gone, sold to Joe Roedl in sixth grade for a few dollars, but I can’t see any of the Topps series from that period—or, more, from the coveted period preceding mine, particularly the 1965 series with the team name embedded in a pennant in the lower left corner—without a yearning to have. Those cards look the same—as immortal as gods. But I’m 47 now, not 8, and the places I bought baseball packs, Little General and Salk’s Drugs on 54th and Lyndale in south Minneapolis, don’t even exist anymore. We said it to each other when we were trading baseball cards back then but time says it better to us: No backs.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard