Jul 3, 2009

David Halberstam and Me

In an email conversation with a friend, I was reminded of my limited autograph collection. No, this is not much of a motorcycling topic, but it is something I want to write about while I'm still able to remember the story. Since this blog is now offending a lot more readers than my other outlets, I figured this story best deserved to be a Geezer rant. Your opinion may vary.

My name collection includes the members of the 1964-era Ventures on a Ventures album, Dizzy Gillespie's sign (or something) on an LP, Larry Niven's elegant script on an SF paperback, Kurt Vonnegutt and Elmore Leonard's scrawls on hardbacks, and a short note signed, "your friend" on the inside page of a first edition of The Amateurs by David Halberstam. I once had Bobby Hannah's autograph on a baseball cap, but I wore it so often playing California beach basketball that the signature and the hat faded into obscurity. I had some pretty cool ballplayer autographs on 1950's baseball cards from when my father took my brother and I to see Dad's beloved Yankees crush the local version of the Globetrotter's foil opponent; the Kansas City Athletics. All the cards were trashed as my parents moved to their new home, when I was 20-something and had been long gone from their old home.


Each of my current name collection comes with a story, but when I met David Halberstam he was my ideal of an American writer. He looked very much like the photo at left, including the smile. It was 1997 and he was promoting the only book he wrote that I dislike, Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, at a local college/bookstore book-signing promotion. I wanted to hear why he though Michael Jordan was interesting and to tell him how much The Amateurs had meant to my family.

A few years earlier, my youngest daughter had wrapped her Toyota pickup around a Ford F250, head-on, and in the hospital she picked up The Amateurs to help fuel her massive physical rehabilitation effort. Halberstam's scullers inspired her to migrate her doctor's evaluations from "she'll never walk again" to "don't run anything longer than 5k, at least for two years."

My father, more recently, had been felled by a heart attack that destroyed 70% of his cardiac capacity. I gave him a Book on Tape of The Amateurs to consider while he went from bed-ridden to having survived another 30 years, post-infarction.

I loved the book for itself and for what it have provided my family. "Nobody beats us" was a mantra I chanted everytime I hit the basketball court for all those years on the beach in California.

After failing to find the courage to talk to Mr. Halberstam during the Q&A period, I slunk into the line to wait for his autograph. When he accepted the book for signing, he mentioned, "Of all my books, this is my wife's favorite."

I gave him a brief rundown as to why I'd brought it, rather than any of the dozen other Halberstam books I owned. We had a long, friendly discussion as he signed copies of the Jordan book for everyone in the line behind me. He gave me late-term-wannabe-a-writer advice that has put me in print often in the last decade. He asked about my daughter and my father and was particularly interested in the details of my daughter's physical rehab and therapy. We talked about Jordan and Magic, my favorite, and how they were different and similar. He had played enough basketball to know what makes that sport special and left me no insider knowledge with which to defend my position; other than my opinion, which he respected and understood and disagreed with strenuously.

This afternoon, I'm reading Everything They Had, a collection of Halberstam's of sports columns written between 1955 and 2005, and I'm savoring my moment with that spectacularly insightful, rational, sincere man.

The friend who inspired this deviation from my usual topics of motorcycling and burning fuel pointlessly has a lot of Halberstam's style in his own work. I hadn't realized that until I had this most recent collection for comparison. It is obvious as I read David Halberstam's insight on sports and athletes and my friend's insightful comments on some brainless thing I had written.

Some people leave nothing but good memories.

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