My Father loved watching the Wide World of Sports. He would grab a beer, usually Rheingold or Schlitz, open a can of sardines, find his favorite chair and settle in for an hour long smorgasbord of “sports from around the globe”. I can still see and recite the opening montage of the show, ending with the poor downhill ski jumper landing on his head, tumbling down the side of the mountain. The smell of the sardines filled the room, he would always teasingly offer one to me, knowing I was minutes away from a bad physical reaction. I was 6, maybe 7.
My Father was my hero. Far from perfect as a husband and father, but he was my everything. He had a couple of tatoos on his forearms, a mermaid and a snake. Both he acquired during his tour of duty in Korea. Playing mostly basketball, never hearing any stories of him seeing any real action. He would pull me on his lap and make the snake dance on his forearm by simply making a fist. My love of R&B and Soul music came from my Father. Memories of seeing him dancing to Sly and the Family Stone still flood my mind. He was the life of the party, he had a reserved bar stool at the local bar. Hearing “Me & Mrs. Jones” wafting out of the juke box as I sat, surrounded by guys telling tall tales, smoking cigarettes, patting me on the head and watching my Dad do his thing. Everyone seemed to know him. He could tell the perfect joke at a moment’s notice. I wanted to be him.
But there’s always two sides to every story and my Dad had a dark side, it’s where my temper came from. He struggled to hold a job, born with an amazing ability to draw, but never knowing what to do with it. I thought he was a Globetrotter when I was a kid. He could dribble between his legs and behind his back. In a single motion toss the ball in the air, catch it with his right index finger and then with a swift, soft caress with his left hand start spinning the ball on its axis. Then seemingly when he was done defying gravity he tossed it back up in the air, cradled his arms like he was about to hold a baby and let the ball fall gently on his right forearm. And with a subtle rhythmic gesture the ball would smoothly roll around his arms, up under his chin and back around. It’s as if it was connected to his arms by magic. Then with one last flick of the arm he would toss the ball to me. By then my eyes were too fixated to catch the ball. I was in a trance, my Dad was a freaking Globetrotter. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends.
I couldn’t shake the thoughts of doing something big, something crazy, something like I was reading and watching on TV. How were these people doing what they were doing? What was their magic formula? How did they train? What did they eat during these events? What did they think about when they were doing all of this? I scoured the Valley in search of magazines and books on all things running, cycling, marathons, triathlons, whatever that sounded remotely close. I drove my 1962 Ford Fairlane down Ventura Boulevard out of Canoga Park, thru Reseda into Encino and down into Sherman Oaks, looking at every book store and magazine stand for something about Running or Triathlons. Magazine stands back then where on the street corners, under small roofs with pull down walls. A guy sat on a small bench in basically a cubby hole taking cash and giving change. Hocking newspapers, magazines, candy and cigarettes mostly. I found it fascinating standing looking at the titles, wondering who the hell reads all this shit.
That 1962 Ford Fairlane was my first car. It cost me $650. I earned that money playing senior league baseball. My step father made out a contract. For every hit, strike out, play in the field I earned money. A single was $2, double $4, triple $6, homerun $10. Strikeouts were $3. On and on. Every stat had a dollar value attached. Good and bad, I could also lose money. For example, every error cost me $5. I didn’t commit many that year. After every game I would rush home with stats in hand and count the dollars I just made. He wanted me to be a baseball player, obviously. He had me pegged to play at Miami Dade Junior College when I was 12. From there get drafted. From there who knows. It was his dream not mine. I played until I was 16. When we moved to the Valley in 1976 I started to play more basketball than baseball. As a freshmen I played both basketball and baseball. I quit the baseball team just weeks into the season. It broke his heart. I didn’t really care. All my attention and passion was focused on basketball. It wasn’t long before he just stopped going to my basketball games. Honestly, it took a while before I even noticed.
We lived in Canoga Park a few blocks away from Pierce Junior College near Woodland Hills, CA. In Junior High School my parents received a permit that allowed us to live anywhere in the Valley, but they were strongly encouraged to enroll me at Taft High School, when the time came. Seems I was pretty good at basketball in the 8th grade. One of the Jr High Teachers was also the JV Basketball Coach at Taft. Taft was in Woodland Hills; we could not afford to live in Woodland Hills. We bummed around the Valley moving 9 times in 4 years. My Mom liked to move. But my Stepfather forced us to move. He had trouble holding a steady job. When he did land steady work, he didn’t like to pay income taxes (my mom found that out painfully later on). My Stepfather caught the acting bug. He had this small, low budget movie made about his life as a NY narcotics cop in 1972. It just so happened to win 5 Oscars and was named one of the Top 100 Movies of all time. He had a cameo role, playing his real-life boss in the movie and wham-o, he was smitten. And just like that they were whisked off on a cross country tour promoting the movie. Mom was hit on by Gene Hackmen and Joe Namath. She almost took out Sammy Davis Jr’s good eye at the Oscars. She was having the time of her life. She was also a knock-out.