Monday, March 15, 2010

“It will all come out OK, I hope so’’

In his Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography “Growing Up,’’ former New York Times columnist Russell Baker writes poignantly of what it was like to be a child during the Great Depression.
Baker’s story, published in 1982, chronicles the struggle of his widowed mother and her efforts to raise two children at the height of the Depression.
Taken in by relatives, the young widow’s best prospects for securing “a home of our own’’ appeared to be a marriage and Baker writes tenderly of a doomed romance between his mother, Elizabeth, and Oluf, a Danish immigrant who was a baker by trade.
The story is told first through Baker’s own memories of Oluf’s very proper parlor visits with his mom and later, when Oluf left to scour the country looking for work, through the letters exchanged between the two adults.
Oluf’s story resonates powerfully today. Before the Depression, Oluf had owned his own bakery. But the Depression forced him out of business. Initially, he found work at other bakeries in town, but as the economic disaster deepened, he was forced to hit the road in a wild and desperate effort to find work in his trade.
His letters to Elizabeth detail the story of his decline. At first, they are filled with hope and good humor, even though the job prospects remained unpromising. “Well it will all come out OK, I hope so,’’ he wrote.
But as time passed, Oluf began to lose hope and his letters began to betray his sense of despair. Finally, he wrote Elizabeth a last letter telling her not to write to him any more.
“I am lost and going and not interested in anything anymore,’’ he wrote. And with that, he simply disappeared into the Depression.
In March, the sale of the East Valley Tribune was approved and 19 of the remaining 33 newsroom employees were terminated. As a former Tribune editor and columnist, I found the news heart-breaking, if not unexpected.
I learned the fate of many of those former colleagues through their Facebook posts. As you might suspect, many of their friends and former co-workers left comments saying how sorry they were to hear the news and trying to offer some encouragement.
“I am so sorry to hear the news, but you are talented so you’ll find something,’’ was one of the general themes.
“This just means something better is coming your way!’’ was the tenor of the more hopeful responses.
But there were other comments that seemed to betray a sense of uncertainty.
“Good luck in your search.’’
“Hope you find something soon.’’
“Hang in there.’’
They say history is written by the winners and the survivors.
It is true there was a V.E. Day. It is also true a lot of fine soldiers never lived to see it. It is true that the country survived the Great Depression. But lost in the history are those who did not.
There is no way of knowing how many Olufs were crushed, maimed and destroyed by the Depression of the 1930s.
Similarly, we have no way of knowing how many of millions of Americans who have lost their jobs will become the Olufs of this generation.
It’s been almost three years since I was fired from the Tribune. As an ex-convict, I realize I go to the back on the line when new journalists enter the job market. In that sense, I am farther way from my goal than ever, which is why it is increasingly difficult for me to say, with any real conviction, “Well, it will all come out OK, I hope so.’’
To be honest, the notion that “tomorrow is another day’’ has become more of a necessary lie than a rallying point. More and more, I begin to fear that, like Oluf, I am “lost and going and not interested in anything anymore.’’
So when I encountered those former co-workers on Facebook, I did not encourage them to look to the future, because I have lost all confidence in it.
I simply wrote, “I am so sorry.’’
It is the only honest thing I can say.

Slim Smith is a free-lance writer living in Tempe. You can reach him via email at

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Savin' the Wave

A couple of weeks ago, an old friend from high school, Kathy Wallace, sent me an invitation to join a website dedicated to our high school.
Apparently, this is the latest thing in social networking. All you have to do is plug in the name of your school (be sure to included “high school’’ followed by a dot followed by the letters
Well, I’ve been strolling down memory lane ever since, getting in touch with old classmates, some of whom I haven’t seen in 30 years.Perhaps because of this, I find that long subdued memories from high school are emerging once again.
And, maybe because it is September and football season, my mind drifted back to a particular memory of my days as a member of the Tupelo High Golden Wave football team.
Now, I know what you are thinking: I am going to blather on about how I rescued the Wave from certain defeat with an inspiring heroic effort in the final desperate seconds and was ridden off the field on the shoulders of my teammates and into the embraces of a bevy of lithe, awe-struck young cheerleaders.
Well, if I were Lea Paslay or Tom Alef or Felix Rutledge, that might well be the story I would tell.But even highly selective, much embellished memory does not permit me to tell such a tale, mainly because a bunch of my old football teammates have found this blog and would quickly expose me as a fraud.
So, the story I will tell, while much less heroic, is compelling in it own sort of humbling way.
If memory serves, it was 1976. The game in question was against Pine Bluff, Ark.,
Now, this was a momentous game for the Wave, not because it was a game against a team from a neighboring state, but because it marked the first - and only - time in my football career that we actually got to spend the night at an out of town game.Because Pine Bluff was about a seven-hour bus ride, it was determined that we would bus over early in the afternoon on Thursday so that we would be rested and ready for the game on Friday night.
There was a rumor that several of the players sneaked out of our Holiday Inn rooms and walked a few hundred yards to a Pizza Inn, where they bought pitchers of beer and played the juke box for a couple of hours. I suspect there was some truth to this rumor, mainly because I was there.
Now, in 1976, I was not prominent in the plans for head coach Dennis Waite and the coaching staff. I think I was third or fourth team at about five positions.
So, for me, the trip to Pine Bluff was not accompanied by any pressure. I figured I would do what I almost always did at games - convince a friend in the grandstands to sneak me a bag of popcorn, which I concealed in my helmet.
I figured I would munch on popcorn and watch the game and the cheerleaders; my attention being equally divided between the two.
Let me pause here to discuss the cheerleaders of my generation. They were generally not chosen because of their athleticism, although , of course, there were sometimes athletic girls on the squad. Back in those days, cheerleaders were chosen primarily because they were good looking, energetic and could be convinced to shout, with great zeal, such inane things as "Two bits. Four bits. Six bits. A dollar. All for Tupelo, stand up and holler!''
I liked the cheerleaders a great deal - and from a great distance. The idea of approaching any of these beautiful, flawless creatures would have been, in my mind, an act of unimaginable arrogance.
Girls like that go for the players who don't stand around like a doofus eathing popcorn out of their helmets. So, my strategy when it came to high school girls was to focus on the flawed ones, much like a lion picking out the wounded wildebeest from a great herd of "really hot'' wildebeests.
Well, there were no wounded wildebeests on our cheerleading squad. They were all wonderful, exalted creatures.But I could still admire them from afar, like fine art.
So, while Coach Waite and his staff poured over their game plan with the starting lineup just prior to the game, I already had my game plan down and I was very confident about it, too.
But about an hour before we were to bus to the stadium, word began to leak out: Clay Stewart, one of the starting outside linebackers had come down with some sort of stomach flu and wouldn’t be able to play. Then, I got word that another player had suffered a similar malady. And another. And another.
By the time we got on the bus, about a dozen players were out of commission.And as we moved slowly down the side streets toward the stadium, it began to dawn on me that I might actually play, and not just in the last few minutes when the outcome had already been determined.
Rob Mosely got the start in Clay Stewart’s spot. The back-up to Rob was…well, I wasn’t sure who it was. Heck, it could even be me, for all I knew.
But as the game progressed, I sort of forgot all about what might happen if Rob got hurt.
About three minutes into the second half, with the Wave holding a narrow lead, I was munching on popcorn and ogling the cheerleaders when I happened to turn my attention to what was happening on the field.
Just then, Rob went down in a pile of players and didn't get up.Now by this time, I was well down toward the end of the bench, which is a good spot to be in if you happen to be eating popcorn out of your helmet. Coaches generally frown on players eating snacks on the sideline. You would be surprised how touchy coaches can be about things like that, in fact.
Then, I heard this booming voice: It was Fred Davis, one of the coaches, a wiry black man of indeterminable age who spoke with a gruff, guttural voice that you could hardly understand.
“Miff’’ (Smith),’’ he bellowed.“Miff!’’ he yelled again, as I was trying to ditch the popcorn.
And it hit me: I WAS GOING INTO THE GAME!!!
Sprinting toward the middle of the sidelines, where the coaching staff prowled, I quickly snapped by chin strap.
“Miff!’’ Davis yelled. “I’m here coach!’’ I responded, ready to sprint out onto field.
“Good!’’ Davis barked. “We need your helmet.’’
So, I gave coach Davis my helmet and sort of slinked back down to the end of the sideline. It was embarrassing. Not only that, I didn't have anything to eat popcorn out of.
We bused home after the game and my buddy, Steve Stanfield, gave me a ride home. I walked in the door about 4 a.m. and mama was sitting in her chair in the living room. Mama just couldn't sleep until all her boys were home.
“Who won?’’ she asked sleepily, emerging from her chair to give me a hug.
“We did,’’ I said. “24-16, I think.’
’“Oh, good,’’ she said. “Did you get to play?’’
“Nah,’’ I said. “...but my helmet did.’’
So that's my football story.
I know. It ain't exactly “Rudy.’’