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Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Game of Change

“From our side of things, the college basketball standpoint, this game is equivalent to the march on Washington, or to Little Rock. How powerful is that?”
Shaka Smart

This is a nice little story about defying  tyranny, of good triumphing over the iniquity of evil; with a small slice of pathos to arouse one’s sense of fair play, served up by the most unlikely of heroes – a segregation busting tobacco chewing self-professed Mississippi Redneck with the apt nickname of Old Magnolia Mouth.

 The world of modern major college athletics, especially the cash cows of every major collegiate athletic department - football and men’s basketball – are today all about big business and big money. To deny so is just refusing to face reality. The term student-athlete on most NCAA Division 1 campuses is an oxymoron.

However, even against such a callous backdrop of cynicism, through the NCAA’s thick layer of cash, will ever so often pop through a reminder of how powerful for the good of humanity athletics can be, defying cultural gridlock by unifying diverse groups on the level playing fields of athletic competition.

Before Madness took control of March, the NCAA basketball tournament was just a nice cozy little post season get together to honor teams who had completed good conference seasons. No national TV, no insane fanatic adulation by the masses, no million dollar payouts to universities and coaches, no coach losing his job for failure to garner an invitation to “the big dance;” just a nice little tournament. Back in 1963 the National Invitational Tournament held at Madison Square Garden - today reserved for those losers not invited to the NCAA post season party – was held by many in higher esteem than the NCAA’s event.

Mississippi State’s University’s outstanding men’s basketball teams of 1959, 1961 and 1962, nationally ranked and Southeast Conference Champions of each year, victorious over the legendary Adolph Rupp coached Kentucky Wildcats, had turned down invitations to the NCAA tournament and thus the chance to compete for a national title, giving the NCAA selection committee a blow off that seems hard to believe by today’s standards. The reason: the state of Mississippi, at that time, did not allow its student athletes to participate against racially integrated teams. The segregationist state leaders considered allowing whites and blacks to compete against each other in a basketball contest morally corrupt.

Rupp, ironically a known segregationist himself, had with the blessing of the state of Kentucky, no problem waltzing his second place team in through the back door and into the NCAA dance as the Southeast Conference representative - a replacement on the bracket for the balking Mississippi State Bulldogs.

In the Deep South of the early 1960’s, the gauntlet of racism had been dropped and the line of discrimination clearly drawn; segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever. To take a stance less conservative was viewed as political suicide for a southern politician. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, an avowed segregationist, was too astute of a politician not to hang his hat with the popular racist views of the time. It would be 1967 before the Southeast Conference had it first black basketball player and 1968 before any league school gave a football scholarship to a black athlete.
However, by 1963, even in the most entrenched bastion of segregation – Mississippi - the winds of racial inclusion were beginning to blow. They would soon reach full mast. The previous fall, in 1962, black student James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi, albeit with the help of the US Army and the state national guard, integrating Mississippi’s flag ship and previously all white university, located in Oxford, 90 miles south of the Mississippi State campus in Starkville. Less than a month after the completion of the 1963 NCAA basketball national tournament, Martin Luther King Jr. would write his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," an essay that became an anthem for the civil rights movement.

Then along came Babe “Old Magnolia Mouth” McCarthy to set the athletic world of Jim Crow segregation on its ear.

Babe McCarthy, with his so-called "honey-dew Mississippi drawl,” had carved out a niche for his basketball Mississippi State Bulldogs in a state that had previously given faint notice to the sport, relegating round ball to a mere winter diversion in the eyes of the state’s fanatical football fans. Three times previous, in four years, Babe and his team had been left on the sidelines seething when denied their due by the segregation laws of the state, forced to watch his personal nemesis, Adolph Rupp and his runner up Wildcats seize the playoff spot his Bulldogs had rightly won on the court. McCarthy vowed to his team it would not happen again in 1963. “Win your way onto to the bracket again and this time I will take care of getting you there,” was his pre-season promise to his tall and talented cagers.

McCarthy had always been the happy go lucky type, the guy who could come into a small southern farm town as a stranger and within weeks have a seat of honor around the wood stove down at the local feed store. Born in 1923, raised in the depths of the Great Depression in one of the poorest states’ in the Union, Babe had the gift of gab, dripping with rural Mississippi charm. But, dismissing him as just another good ole boy looking for an easy job in the shade would be a gross under calculation of the slick McCarthy’s grit and ambition. 

A right out of college job as an oil salesman didn’t turn out to be McCarty’s appropriate life’s calling. All his life, Babe never was one to have much luck with money. He had little time for such picayune concerns. He was the kind of guy that could go into Fort Knox with a grain scoop and a gunnysack and come out with his wallet missing.

But Ole Babe did turn out to be a fine basketball coach for the town of Tupelo, MS, about the time another young local boy with long sideburns and gyrating hips, singing about a hound dog, was just starting to make a name for himself playing that fancy guitar of his down at the skating rink on Saturday nights. Yes, Babe was a fine coach in Tupelo --for the junior high team.

A graduate of Baldwyn, Mississippi High School, class of 1940, Babe spent three years as a student at Mississippi State University. Upon early graduation in 1943, McCarthy volunteered for the Army and service in World War II as a transport pilot. He returned to Baldwyn following the war’s 1945 conclusion to coach the local high school basketball team from 1946 to 1950, his team winning the state championship in 1948.   

McCarthy cut his coaching teeth as a young 20 something gung-ho pied piper for his hometown high school. He preached effort, team work and accountability. No excuses. The play of his Bearcats became for McCarthy a reflection upon his performance as a coach. It may be an imperfect world, he told his boys, but within the confines of the Baldwyn gymnasium, Babe would accept nothing short of perfection.

In 1951, during the hot days of the escalating Korean War, Babe joined the newly established military branch of the Air Force. Over a three year hitch, Babe coached a Memphis Air Force basketball team to third place in the worldwide Air Force tournament. From 1953-1955, returning to civilian life, Babe bade his time as coach of the Junior High team in Tupelo.

It seemed a long shot in 1955, when at age 31, a man who had never played college basketball and whose last coaching experience had been at the junior high level, applied for the head basketball coaching position at Mississippi State University. But that didn’t deter the confident McCarthy. Still, Babe’s ebullience and self-salesmanship, aside, it was a surprise when the Bulldogs’ Athletic Director Dudy Noble hired Babe, claiming later that he admired and was sold by the fast talking McCarthy’s boldness. Babe had told Noble at that 1955 interview, “if I don’t win big within three years, you don’t have to fire me, I will quit.” Noble told several in the athletic department that the new hoops coach he had just hired, “sure does have a mouth on him.”

But, with the squalid condition of the basketball program at a college with an already inferiority complex over Ole Miss, the state’s rich man’s University over in Oxford, hiring such an unlikely candidate really wasn’t that far-fetched. Applicants were not lining up three deep in 1955 to be the basketball coach at Mississippi State. When Noble’s judgment was challenged on why he hired a coach with such limited on court coaching experience, the AD replied: “The team is playing like junior high players; I thought they needed a junior high coach.”

Babe hit the ground running, holding true to his promise to quickly build a winner in Starkville. His teams showed steady improvement. A 12-12 record in Babe’s rookie season of 1956 was a harbinger of good times to come.

McCarthy’s Bulldogs followed the promising start with marks of 17-8 in 1957 and 20-5 in 1958. MSU moved from a sixth place SEC finish in 1956 to 3rd in both 1957 and 1958. He had the Bulldogs poised perfectly for a big year in 1959 and pounce they did. Lead by future Boston Celtics star Bailey Howell, the Bulldogs rolled to  a 24-1 record, a top five national ranking and the securing of an undisputed Southeastern Conference Championship, rarefied company for such a previously unheralded program. 

Before sending his team onto the floor for the decisive 1959 conference showdown with the arrogant Kentucky five, Babe told his confident team, "Now, let's cloud up and rain all over 'em." The college basketball world was in awe of how quickly “Old Magnolia Mouth” had delivered on his seemingly outlandish promises of four years before. After his team’s impressive 65-58 defeat of Kentucky, clinching for MSU the SEC championship, Babe boasted to the national press, “We can beat anybody in the country on our home court.”

The crusty old Rupp took from the start exception to the boasting of the cock-sure upstart young coach over at Starkville, taking personal affront to his impetuous barbs. McCarthy became a pain in the backside of the Baron of the Bluegrass, a man who had over the previous 30 years built at Kentucky the nation’s unquestioned top program. Always maintaining a saturnine and brooding front, Rupp’s aloofness intimidated many a coach, but not the spotlight loving and free swinging Babe who showed no respect or fear of the Adolph Rupp mystique. Contrary, he went out of his way in his gamesmanship to irritate Rupp.

In 1958, when Rupp’s Kentucky team beat Mississippi State in Lexington, the Baron ordered a black wreath nailed to the door of the visiting team’s dressing room. After the game, Babe smiled and then removed the wreath, taking it with him on the return trip back to Starkville. He told his team, we will just file this one away for future reference.

The next season, McCarthy had the home crowd whipped to a frenzy for Kentucky’s visit to Starkville for a rematch. The inspired MSU crowd (mob) did its part from the opening tip, harassing Kentucky with cowbells and students beating on plow shares. The clamorous cheering section, like none ever seen before in Starkville for a basketball game, had rowdy students jammed into the old MSU field house from the floor to the rafters.

Mississippi State won the game and Babe ordered the wreath he had taken in defeat off his team’s locker room door in Lexington the previous year to now be nailed to the dressing room door of the vanquished and dethroned Wildcats. The next year, in Lexington, MSU would beat Kentucky again. The State students, showing no respect in his home arena for the man considered the day’s top college hoops mentor, left a dead skunk under Rupp’s chair.

McCarthy followed up the breakthrough season in 1959 with Southeastern Conference titles in both 1961 and 1962. In all three seasons’, MSU turned down the invitation to represent the SEC as its representative to the NCAA’s National Tournament.

The following March, Governor Barnett’s marching orders to the President of Mississippi State University, Dean Colvard, were once again clear and cut to the racist bone: the again Southeastern Conference champion Bulldogs, with a sparkling 1963 regular season record of 24-1 and a number 6 national ranking, were forbidden to cross the state lines of Mississippi with the intent of playing a basketball game against an integrated team. To give some judicial muscle to his directive, one widely rumored that McCarthy’s team this time intended to defy, the Governor enlisted the help of another powerful state segregationist, Sen. Billy Mitts, a former Mississippi State student body president. Mitts was instrumental in securing a willing state judge to issue a temporary injunction to prevent the team from leaving the State.

But, back in Starkville a plan of defiance was brewing. McCarthy needed a deceptive scheme to get his team out of the state of Mississippi and to East Lansing, MI and a NCAA Regional match with the Chicago’s University of Loyola and its four black starters.

Tired of his nationally ranked team becoming an annual sacrificial offering on the Segregationist alter of bigotry, McCarthy focused his legendary determination on finding a way of getting around his racist bosses’ edicts. He would, “come hell or high water,” he told his players, find a way to get his 1963 team into the NCAA’s integrated tournament. Borrowing from football’s playbook, Babe pulled off one of the   greatest end runs in sports history and in doing so struck a mighty and symbolic blow to the crumbling Jim Crow laws of the Deep South.

McCarthy would share after the game that he never could have gotten his team out of Mississippi ahead of the serving of the trip quashing subpoena if not for the resolve and courage of a sympathetic University President Dean Colvard, a man determined to take a stand against Jim Crow. To not actively use his position to integrate his University, he believed, made him culpable for the injustice of segregation.

Marion A. Ellis in the 2004 book Dean W. Colvard: Quiet Leader, wrote: "Colvard had several reasons for wanting the team to compete. First of all, it would give a positive boost to the MSU and Mississippi image. Second, he felt the four seniors on the team deserved a chance after having played together for three years and having won the SEC championship all three years."

The progressive thinking Colvard was determined to bring the university out of the Neanderthal days of the Civil War and into the Space age of the 1960’s. He was, however, going to use wise caution in choosing the ground for his upcoming battle with the state’s segregationist politicians. "It had begun to look as if our first major racial issue might pertain to basketball rather than to admissions," Colvard later said. "Although I knew opinion would be divided and feelings would be intense because of the law, I thought I had gained sufficient following that, win or lose, I should take decisive action."

To get their team to Michigan and into the NCAA Regional Tournament, Colvard supported McCarthy in a plan of deception right out of a James Bond movie. He agreed to have McCarthy leave the state a day early, crossing over the Tennessee state line, thus out of the jurisdiction of any Mississippi state court injunction. While McCarthy was laid up in Memphis for the evening, Colvard discreetly traveled to Alabama for a speaking engagement, also conveniently placing him out of the reach of the serving of any legal injunction.

The plan then called for the coach and the university president to meet up the next day in Nashville where the team’s plane would make a quick landing to pick them up for the last leg of the trip to Michigan.

The following morning, in a cloak and dagger move, an MSU assistant coach transported the freshmen basketball team, disguised as the varsity, to the Starkville Airport.

The local politician and law enforcement guardians of segregation swallowed the bait, rushing to the public airport, attempting to issue a futile injunction to a freshman team who had no intention of leaving the state. Meanwhile, the real varsity starting five was secretly shuttled to a private undisclosed airport where waiting was a private plane to wing the athletes to East Lansing and a date with destiny. Once the starting five were safely in the air, a call was made to send the reserves to the same secret airport as a second plane was idling in wait for the trip to Michigan.

"Being split up was the nerve-racking part," Mississippi State player Bobby Shows, one of the five starters, remembers. "We didn't have our coach. We didn't have half our team. We didn't know if we were going to be able to play the game. But it wasn't us boys. Don't build us up. It was Dr. Colvard and Coach McCarthy. Those two men had the backbone. When coach told us to jump, we said, ‘how high.’ We were just kids. We obeyed our coaches. So when Babe said, ‘boys if we win it again, we are playing in the tournament, come hell or high water,’ we believed him."

The team had help from an unexpected source. “We didn’t understand the politics,” said Shows. “But we were on pins and needles. Just as we took off, the sheriff drove through the gate. He waited until we were in the air, cause he knew we had switched airports, but turns out he wanted us to go so he was in no hurry to get there before we were in the air.”

On March 22, 1963, in East Lansing, MI, Jerry Harkness, the African American center for Chicago’s Loyola University Ramblers, stepped into the center jump circle and extended his hand to the waiting Joe Dan Gold, center for the Mississippi State Bulldogs. As the two shook hands, the glare of the popping flashbulbs of the media photographer’s cameras momentarily blinded both men. The official tossed the ball between the two 6’9 players and what was to become known as “the Game of Change” had finally began.

"When those flashbulbs went off -- boom, boom, pop, pop -- you felt the history of it right there," Harkness told ESPN in a 2012 interview, "but I don't think many people even know about it now. That game, if you ask me, was key. I felt like it was the beginning of things turning around in college basketball. I truly believe that. I just don't know how many other people know about it."

For the all-white Bulldog team, the trip to East Lansing and the NCAA Midwest Regional Tournament had followed a twisted path.  The long anticipated game now almost became an afterthought. So relieved to finally be able to compete in the NCAA Tournament, 50 years later, MSU players feel all the drama to just get to the tip off had mentally worn out the Bulldogs, taking the edge off of their game, thus their performance that day was uninspired. “We just put on our tennis shoes and went to go play," said Mississippi State player Bobby Shows.

A Loyola team with four African American starters and ranked at the time 3rd in the nation had been well prepared and understood the Jim Crow system that their opponents were defying. Later, the Chicago school’s black players said that they respected the resolve of their Dixie opponents.

Loyola coach George Ireland, to educate his northern team, had taken his team during the 1962-63 regular season on road trips to the Deep South, entering white only tournaments in Houston and New Orleans. The Ramblers players witnessed discrimination firsthand at restaurants that refused to serve their black members and hotels that refused to house them. In Houston, the team was taunted with chants of “nigger” that cascaded down from the stands. In New Orleans, the team’s black players were not allowed to stay in the same hotel with their white teammates, forced instead to bunk in the homes of black families on the “colored” side of town.

The Ramblers - both black and white alike – used the ugly experience to help them remain focused on their goal, winning a national title. In 1963, Loyola head coach George Ireland said: "I feel Mississippi State has a right to be here, no matter what the segregationists say. They may be the best basketball team in the nation and if they are, they have a right to prove it."

Mississippi State jump to any early lead, but soon the superior floor game of the Ramblers took over. Loyola led 26-19 at the half. Mississippi State went on an 8-4 run to pull to within 30-27 early in the second half but would get no closer. State did make one more sustained run at Loyola. Cutting the lead to four with two minutes to go in the game, the Bulldogs missed on an open field goal attempt. The missed shot was a turning point in the game’s eventual outcome. Bulldog’s radio play by play man Jack Cristil remembered in 2011 that it was "a good shot that just didn't go down. We had to start shooting, and Loyola beat us by 10, 61-51. It was a disappointing loss, but it had been a marvelous opportunity for the young men."

Loyola followed the historically significant win over Mississippi State with another victory in the Regional finals the next evening. The next week they would go on to win the 1963 NCAA national championship, upsetting the defending champion and heavy favorite, the University of Cincinnati and their star black player, Oscar Robertson, in a thrilling 60-58 overtime win.

Loyola guard Ron Miller, in a 2013 interview, reminisced with writer John Thomas: "I remember the (Mississippi State) guys being nice. I remember the guys wishing us luck (after the game), and wanting us to win (the national championship). And during the game it was polite. They played a very hard, very aggressive, very strong defensive game, very clean, and they didn't back off."
In reality, the game itself proved to be anti-climactic. Mixing the two races on the basketball court had resulted in no breakdown of America’s moral fiber; no fights or riots, only the intense play of two teams dueling for post season advancement.

Back in 1963, the NCAA played a third place game in their Regional Tournaments. The Bulldogs reclaimed some pride by defeating another integrated team from the north, Bowling Green of Ohio and their African American star player, Nate Bowman, securing for a trip back to Starkville the consolation trophy. “We are not going home empty handed,” McCarthy told his team.

They for surely were not.

When the team returned to Starkville, MS, they found their reception to be surprisingly warm, almost joyous for a team who had failed. The team’s plane, after sneaking off undercover just several days prior, now landed at an airport packed with cheering fans. Polls taken that spring showed overwhelming support for the team’s defiance of the state law. It was, many now say, the beginning of the end of Jim Crow. “When we got back the cars were lined up for 20 miles with thousands of kids there to see us,” remembers Shows. “The KKK boys were pretty nasty, ugly minority. Most people were not like that. And even though we lost, we came home winners. All of us did.”

The MSU players did not recognize in 1963 that what they had just done was more than a game but an impacting catalysis to a changing way of life in Mississippi. "My dad was pretty much a segregationist until the latter part of my college career," remembered Mississippi State player Bobby Shows. "He wasn't Ku Klux Klan or anything, but he used the N-word in the house. He didn't know any better. But he was 100 percent in favor of me playing in that game. He wanted me to have a chance, and after it was over, I can't remember him ever saying anything derogatory after that."

Both the Coach and the President kept their jobs; no formal censure for their insubordination was ever issued. McCarthy stayed at MSU through the 1966 season, but never again qualified the Bulldogs for the NCAA Tournament. His teams won four SEC titles and he was named SEC coach of the year four times.

For a state that has a long and miserable record on civil rights, the courage that Colvard and McCarthy displayed in their daring defiance of the Mississippi Legislature and diehard segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett; is in many ways one of the states’ few shining historical moments of race based righteousness.

“They say athletics can break down barriers and that game did,” said Chuck Wood, a reserve on the 1963 Loyola team. “That game had a social implication on the south and the state of Mississippi. That tournament game was in March. In August, blacks registered at the school for the first time and we had no incidents. They didn’t need the National Guard. They didn’t have any problems like they did before.”

After one unfulfilling year coaching George Washington University in the nation’s capital to a forgettable record of 6-18, McCarthy was finished as a college coach. Out of his element in the District of Columbia, McCarthy’s career overall college coaching record settled at a final total of 175 wins and 103 losses. "Coach McCarthy was really ahead of his time," remembered Cristil in 2011. "He was a great innovator and a great motivator. McCarthy could get players to play above their talent level in the system they ran. McCarthy's teams challenged the best and generally came out on top."

Babe spent the rest of his coaching years in the professional ranks of the newly formed American Basketball Association. In 1968, as head coach of the New Orleans Buccaneers, McCarthy had two future coaching legends on his player’s roster, Larry Brown and Doug Moe. Morten Downey, Sr., father of the future talk show host, was the team’s President.

Coaching six pro ABA teams in a seven year period, the wacky and unpredictable maverick league fit Old Magnolia Mouth’s sense of the insolent. The ABA is remembered for its trademark red, white and blue ball and the introduction to basketball of the 3 point line. The short lived league was also infamous for bounced pay checks, folding franchises and shifting rosters. McCarthy called his years in the pro circuit his most enjoyable on the bench. McCarthy was twice named the ABA Coach of the year, in 1969 and 1974. He was the first coach in the history of the league to reach 200 wins.
Fittingly for a man who had always enjoyed his slightly off kilter reputation, after winning the league’s top coaching award in 1974, McCarthy was fired by the Kentucky Colonels. He never coached again.

Award winning sportswriter Bob Ryan covered McCarthy when he coached in the ABA. Ryan told Terry Pluto in the book Loose Balls, a definitive history of the ABA, “This guy was special. He had that wonderful southern accent that made him sound like Charles Loughton in Advice and Consent.” Long time editor of the magazine Basketball Times, Larry Donald, has many memories of McCarthy from back in the ABA days, most centering on his outgoing behavior. “He loved to talk and tell stories. When he coached the Kentucky Colonels, he had a suite at the Executive Inn, which was right across the street from the Arena. After games, he would invite the reporters over, open up a bottle of Jack Daniels and then talk until the break of day, so long as there was someone around to listen.”

McCarthy was a player’s coach. Doug Moe remembers how Babe, as his coach in New Orleans, could sense when to lay down the hammer, but also when to back off. “He worked us hard, but he knew not to take practice too serious. A couple of times he would bring us to the gym to practice and then he would say, ‘boys the doors are locked and I don’t have a key. Why don’t we just take it easy today.’”

On March 17, 1975, Babe “Old Magnolia Mouth” McCarty died after a short battle with colon cancer. He was 51 years of age and was laid to eternal rest under the Pine trees in the pastoral setting of the country cemetery of his home town of Baldwyn, MS. His pallbearers on that unseasonably warm spring day were members of his 1948 Baldwyn Bearcats state championship basketball team.

McCarthy faced death with the same “bring it on” attitude he displayed when staring down the likes of Adolph Rupp and the Governor of Mississippi. “Why panic at 5 in the morning because it’s still dark outside,” he reasoned, days before his death.

It was reported in the local paper that the overflow crowd attending the funeral of the smooth talking local boy who had snookered the conservative state establishment while spitting in the eye of the segregationists; was composed of mourners in the comfort of bib overalls that far outnumbered those attired in stiff shirt and tie.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Redemption, One Step at a Time

The stars awaken a certain reverence, because always present, they are inaccessible.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

At 58 years of age, he sat dead in the cross hairs of a midlife crossroads, precariously perched on a cliff of mental despair. He was unhappy but not sure why, so he said the hell with it all, casting away a six figure a year Florida optometry practice and started to hike the Appalachian Trail, releasing his burdens and personal demons one step at a time.
Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing

Twenty one years later, he can still be found hiking, expeditiously clicking along on a Texas Panhandle High Plains back road at a steady pace of three miles an hour. He has for a generation crisscrossed America, logging over 40,000 miles. However, he cares little for such acknowledgements, his hiking not stirred by ostentatious motives as he seeks neither wealth nor recognition. Now, a near Octogenarian, he continues trekking on, he claims, for a Zen like inner peace the incessant steps deliver. He is a man in a desperate race with the setting sun of life. He will not win, this he tells me, but like the Man of La Mancha, effort is the key. “I am not afraid to die,” he philosophies. “I want to leave this world as I came in, with nothing. My grandfather died in the woods, my father died in the woods and I hope to do the same.”
His given name is Meredith, “a boy’s name back when I was born in 1938,” he assures me. His surname is Eberhard. However, within the world of long distance hiking he is known by his chosen moniker of Nimblewill Nomad and he is a legendary and revered figure, the Michael Jordan of long distance trekking. At 79 years of age, he is a walking machine.

We crossed paths outside of Shamrock, TX on a hazy September, 2017 late afternoon. Mr. Nomad was within one day of reaching the halfway point of his latest odyssey, hiking the path of America’s “Mother Road” – Route 66. He began his sojourn on July 26 amidst the toxic urban sprawl of South Chicago and should reach the trail’s end in the land of Milk and Honey, just past Thanksgiving. Upon completion of the 2300 mile journey he will symbolically dip his swollen feet into the Pacific Ocean, just off the Santa Monica, CA pier. Along the way he will use his Apple 7’s smart phone’s photo app to recreate and archive the best he can of what is left of the Depression era Grapes of Wrath migration trail, a movement that has come to represent the Great American Dream. “Route 66 is a highway we simply cannot forget. It cuts right across the heart of America, the very soul of this great nation. It is our Main Street,” Nomad says. “This road tells stories of hope and heartbreak, of starting over, new dreams found beyond the hazy blue. Route 66 represents what makes us a great nation.”

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing and textHe is a man impossible to pigeonhole, but if I must - a mixture of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Johnny Appleseed, would seem apt. In a radio broadcast in October, 1939 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union as a potential ally of questionable intent: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” A fitting evaluation of Mr. Nomad’s personality, I would conclude. He is a man who disdains personal wealth and has a strong reverence for the power of nature, but in a written article this past July defended the right of big industry to pollute the atmosphere with fossil burning fuels. He is outgoing to a fault, never considering personal security as he warmly greets every “On the Road” traveler he encounters. Yet, he told me, he has not been in contact with either of his two sons or his ex-wife in, “at least 15 years.” For a recent acquaintance, it is hard to understand the intent and purpose as he wanders.  Yes; a man whose life is, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Image may contain: sky, outdoor and natureHis long distance hiking resume is unchallenged. Nomad has hiked the "Triple Crown" of American Trails: the Pacific Crest, the Appalachian and the Continental Divide. He has hiked all 11 National Scenic Trails (only one other hiker has accomplished this feat) and he was one of the first to completely hike the Appalachian Trail from the Florida Keys to Maine, a trek he later named the Eastern Continental. He chronicled his adventure in a book titled Ten Million Steps. Later, he repeated the trip with a southbound course, originating in Canada; etching for time his walk with a second book titled Where Less the Path is Worn.

In 2011, I had written a book on US Highway 83, the last non-interstate highway in the US system to run border to border, in this case, from West Hope, North Dakota to Laredo, TX. I had searched for and recorded the past, present and future in three small hamlets located on this isolated path. I nicknamed the road, “America’s 50 Yard Line.”  I try each fall to revisit Highway 83; to follow up on earlier stories and to indulge in a sort of personal catharsis. Old Route 66, much today under Interstate Highway 40, intersects Highway 83 in Shamrock, TX. This is where I first laid eyes on Meredith Eberhard, AKA Nimblewill Nomad. I found it symbolic. He and I share a common interest in the “off the beaten path” history of the back roads of America.

My wife Shawna and I first spotted Nimblewill on an east bound service road, hiking west, into the oncoming traffic. He was a striking figure, slightly hunched while rhythmically striding along with his custom made walking poles clicking in cadence. From a distance, one could not tell his age; only that he was thin with unbound and unkempt beard and hair. (He stopped cutting his hair and beard years ago.) Upon greeting, he smelled of a man who had spent the last two days in the heat of the Texas Panhandle hiking over 45 miles, with an in between a night’s stay in a long ago abandoned gas station. As we greeted each other, he immediately apologized for his hygiene. “I must be some sight and an even worse smell for someone you have just met,” he offered. His handshake was remarkably strong for a man whose wind burnt face gave a strong hint of his age. He was attired in long acrylic shorts and a long sleeve white dress shirt. When he removed his sunglasses, his pale eyes were deep set giving off a vague sense of weariness and wisdom. He wore a trendy racing hat while supporting himself on two Cressida Antishock trekking poles. He had distinct tan lines on both his wrists and ankles. His appearance was disheveled but his clothing was high tech. His greeting was genuine and without pretense. My immediate reaction was to like this man.

We offered to pay for a night’s stay in a nearby motel and a good evening meal in return for an after dinner interview. “Your generosity is most kind,” he said in acceptance.

I started the post meal interview while seated in my adjoining motel room with the obvious question: So why is a 79 year old man vagabonding across the nation? “After all is said and done,” Nomad explains, “the question boils down to this; and it’s really quite simple: How many of us can honestly say we’ve ever dealt straight up with who we truly are as a person — as a kind, loving, caring, and forgiving person?  Here’s the problem.  When we start this thought process, when we begin probing, we become very uncomfortable, very fast!  But with all the diversions and distractions around us — distractions that we create, along with all those that simply occur day-to-day here in the “real world,” we’re able to block out and avoid these painful thought processes.  On the trail, however, where one is alone mile after mile, day after day, month after month, where these diversions don’t exist and can’t be created, eventually all the masks, all the facades, all the little games played and replayed get stripped away.  It is then you come face-to-face with yourself!”

His commitment to his toil is total. A quick Google search told of a rumor he had surgically removed all ten of his toe nails in an attempt to avoid infections. True he confirmed, removing his shoes and socks to show me the proof. “Took a long time to find a doctor who would do it,” he said with a twinge of pride in his voice. “He used a pair of surgical pliers to pull them out one at a time. Hurt like hell and I couldn’t walk for a couple of weeks, but don’t have to worry anymore about infections or in-grown toe nails. It was a good investment.”

Nomad prides himself of traveling light. “I have learned over the years,” he says, “to haul only what I need and not just what I want. At my age, I have to travel light. I can still do up to 30 miles a day but I can’t pack 20 to 30 pounds with me like I use to when I was younger. Not counting any food or water I might haul, my pack goes about 11 pounds.”

“It speaks to our life’s priority, how much ‘stuff’ we collect and haul around with us,” Nomad says.  “Our life’s pack, its size, gives a strong indication of our own insecurity. Many fear the dreaded unknown. The greater our fears, the more stuff we haul around through life. To find inner peace, we must face this reality, we must lighten our load. Here is a quote for you, my new friends, ‘Feed your faith and your fears will starve to death.’ Every year I intentionally lessen my possessions, and every year my happiness increases, makes me richer, not poorer.”

He allowed for a peek inside of his nylon pack. Listed below are the contents, total weight is 10.9 pounds:
1.      Gossamer Gear® Murmur™ Hyperlight Backpack
2.      Nimblewill Tent (Cuben fiber body 0-8.1 – Silnylon Fly 0-6.9 -stakes 0-00.7)
3.      Mountain Hardware® Phantom™ 45 sleeping bag (converted to quilt)
4.      Therm-A-Rest® NeoAir™ short sleeping pad
5.      Dollar General® emergency poncho
6.      GoLite® Ether Jacket
7.      ZPacks™ Challenger Rain Paints
8.      Aquamira® water purification tablets (6)
9.      Gatorade® 32oz bottle (2@1.8)
10.   Photon® Micro Light II® w/cap-bill clip 
11.   Silnylon ditty bag
12.   First Aid in Ziploc® (iodine/alcohol preps, Neosporin®, bandages, powder, floss, razor blade)
13.   Garmin® eTrex™ GPS w/2AA batteries
14.   Apple® iPhone 5S™ w/case/charger
15.   14-days OTC (Osteo Bi-Flex®, GNC® sports meds, Ecotrin®, regular aspirin)
16.   2.1 Maps and data in Ziploc®

No toothbrush, no soap, no extra clothes, no toilet paper.

He will admit to a few worldly possessions, like an old pickup truck with a camper shell, housed now back with a friend in Alabama. He winters in his truck, often times parked in either a Walmart parking lot of a state park, spending hours in public libraries preparing meticulously for his next hike. Nomad survives off the funds from a merger social security check. If the money runs out before the month does, he simply does not eat. He has a few keepsakes stored at a sister’s house in his native state of Missouri; but most of what he has to show in terms of personal possessions collected over nearly eight decades lies now in a small backpack dropped by a leaking window air conditioner in a budget motel room in Shamrock, TX.

I tackle the age issue, an inquiry as to the toll that his grueling day after day efforts take on an aging body. “I have had made share of hurts, aches and pains, for sure,” he admits. “The worst was on my Continental Divide hike. I had to shut down at Silverthorne in Colorado, had made it about half way when I came down with the shingles. It took me a good six months to recover from it. I went back the next year to finish the hike, on down to the Mexican border. I simply ask the Lord each morning to lay it on me, challenge me, testing my faith. I don’t always have the luxury of having a fine steak dinner like you provided tonight. A lot of times I survive on what I would call crap food, lots of gas station hot dogs and the like. I depend on the Lord to provide and it seems each day he takes pity on this old man by allowing generous people like you two to cross my path.”

His list of hiking injuries are worthy of an overworked MASH unit. Once,” he confided, “I was struck by lightning. It was up in Canada.” He has broken both his ankle and his shinbone, obvious calamities in the middle of a hike. He has fallen and broken ribs. Even sans toe nails, his feet are a constant source of torture and torment.  He pops Ibuprofen pain tablets as if they were M&Ms. “I use to use straight aspirin,” he says. “Doctor was really on me about how hard it is on my liver. Now I go to the Vitamin I,” he adds with a chuckle. “I always know when I have taken too much and need to cut back, when my ears start ringing.” Yet, with the exception of the bout with shingles, he has finished every odyssey he has begun.

Nomad travels with very little money. When a Good Samaritan does not materialize to provide a night’s lodging, he will erect his pup tent in what he calls a “stealth camp.” It could be a roadway ditch or it could be behind an urban dumpster. “I find beauty wherever God leads me,” he says. Earlier, on his Route 66 Odyssey, he had found refuge on a stormy Oklahoma night within an abandoned side-of-the-road warehouse. When he told the waitress at a local diner the next morning where he had stayed the previous night, he was informed, “it’s full of rattlesnakes.” He has no fear of the trail’s unknown; with faith he will somehow procure whatever his needs may be. “I put my faith in the Lord to protect me. I say the same prayer each morning as I shoulder my pack. I ask the two angels assigned to me, one on each shoulder to watch out for this old lost soul.” Providence, he says, has always found him.

He readily admits he is hiking away from his past, the decadent and reprehensible life of a man named Meredith Eberhard. Today, he tells me, that person no longer exists. “I am ashamed how I lived the first 58 years of my life,” he states. I notice his eyes are misting. “I was a classic Type A personality. Not a likeable person. I didn’t like myself, even. My walks have changed that.”

Along the Appalachian Trail, over 20 years ago, the Nomad found God. He today is a deeply religious man, an antithesis of his odious pre-hiking self. He says walking alone, mile after mile, gives a man time to think, time to ratiocinate with increasing clarity the meaning of one’s life. Surprising, to me, his faith has no “New-Wave” feel to it. It is not mystic or humanist based. It is; he leaves no doubt, a down-home-rock-solid-old-time conservative religion. “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior,” he proclaims, his voice full of emotion. “I believe in the Bible as the true word of God.” His hearing is almost gone, he tells me, but his is not deaf tone to the melodious sounds of nature. “You cannot experience nature in the sense I have - just listen - and not believe in a higher being. The world is too complex for a mind of our human limitations to have conceived or created, or to logically explain. That is where faith comes in.”

His spiritual transition has taken time. It has been often painful. Enlightenment did not come cheap. “I sold my optometry practice in 1993 and started spending more and more time alone developing a piece of land I had bought in Northern Georgia, next to a little stream named Nimblewill. I took the name as my own.” Over the next five years, a time he says today he recalls little of; Nomad gave away most of what he owned, eventually divorcing his wife and reinventing himself as a perpetual long distance hiker with no permanent address and few worldly possessions. By the year 2000 and the completion of his eastern seaboard 4,000 mile marathon, the excoriation of Meredith Eberhard was complete.

“Now, I wear my heart on my sleeve,” he says. “Finding the Lord Jesus Christ was an emotional experience for me, the most humbling in my life. I have learned the virtues of love, patience, compassion, and understanding.  Today, I live purely by faith and trust.  I rely on a higher power. Today, I see life from a whole new vantage, a wide and endless horizon and how is the view from here?  Well, it’s called wisdom. Wisdom comes through faith and trust and that trust is administered by God.”

We live in a world fraught with inconsistencies, unpredictability’s and galloping variables. But that is not the world of Nimblewill Nomad. His is a refreshing story. At an age well past when most men have taken up the rocking chair, Nimblewill hikes on, day after day, mile after mile. Along the way he lives a life of freedom most can only dream of. But Nomad is not a dreamer, he is a doer. Possessing a kind soul that warms the spirit of all he encounters on America’s “Open Road,” this little old man  accepts each new day’s challenges with a smile and a nod to a God he knows will provide. He models an inter-contentment I find envious; knowing his task for today will be the same as yesterday’s and identical to tomorrow’s:  keep moving west at a never varying pace of three miles per hour, straight into the setting sun on a direct course to the Land of Milk and Honey.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Of Harry, KMOX and Summer Baseball 1965

Of Harry, KMOX and Summer Baseball 1965
“I just got hooked on the radio, the voice of it all. It was my connection to metropolitan America, if you will. Sports, in particularly baseball then 'cause of its rich sediment of numbers, was one of the first things a young person could peg up with adults on - that is, you could know as much about Jimmy Fox as your father did.”
George Will

Harry Caray
For an eight years old boy in the summer of 1965, when the sun goes down his world expands beyond the limits of rural Missouri. Equipped with only a $4 Sears’ transistor radio, a cheap pair of ear phones and a stash of AA batteries; major league baseball is magically carried through the wonders of the AM airwaves and into his darkened bedroom.

Like a Bob Gibson fastball splitting the night air, the smooth voices of legendary announcers - Hall of Famers like Bob Prince, Jack Brickhouse and Ernie Harwell - mesmerize a boy who lives for nothing but baseball. It allows him a glimpse of greatness, of faraway places, of men who threw and hit baseballs so hard and far that they disappear.

When these radio broadcasting giants speak of America’s pastime; drums roll and flags unfurl. Each summer weekday night KDKA carries the Pittsburgh Pirates; WGN the Cubs (only on the road, Wrigley Field has no lights); WCKY the Cincinnati Reds and if the air wave gods are cooperating this night, the Tigers on Detroit’s clear channel WJR 760.

Ernie Harwell broadcast Detroit Tigers games for over 40 years. In his final broadcast on Sept. 29, 2002, he told his listeners, “Thank you for letting me be a part of your family. Thank you for taking me with you to that cottage Up North, to the beach, the picnic, your workplace and your backyard. Thank you for sneaking your transistor under the pillow as you grew up loving the Tigers.”
However, these are the backups, mere seconds, only to be tuned in on those rare sticky muggy summer nights when the hometown’s St. Louis Cardinals are idle. Most nights; like a favorite Uncle, KMOX radio broadcaster Harry Caray will bring to a wide awake boy all the trials and tribulations of his Cardinals. Set to 1120 on the dial of the red plastic incased radio’s screen, KMOX is the best sports radio station in the history of the worlds’ of 8 years old boys. Caray, the longtime voice of the Cardinals, is the anchor for a city’s ongoing love affair with its baseball team. 

The boy’s dad saw summer life through a prism of family, farming and work. He liked his Schlitz beer cold, his Teamsters’ union strong and his kids quiet and orderly. His two favorite Cardinal mangers were the last one and the next one.

May 1965, the boy accompanied the father to his first live Cardinal game, his first trip to the soon to be abandoned and torn down old Sportsman’s Park. A victim of urban blight, city leaders said. But, seen through the eyes of an 8 years old, it was just like Harry had promised it would be; an awe inspiring and breath taking green cathedral.

The new smells and sounds of a major league baseball park are intoxicating to the boy. The cigar smoke hangs heavy but sweet over the green and lush outfield grass. He arrives early enough for batting practice. The ringing sound made by the crack of a major leaguer’s bat (his ears has never heard such a dominant and forceful sound in the local sandlots) has him on the edge of his left field bleacher seat, glove in hand, just in case.

 Sportsman's Park
If he could have gotten just a little closer, he could have seen with his own eyes the dent in the scoreboard atop the left field sun soaked bleachers caused by Mike Shannon’s 1964 World Series rocket shot home run. Harry said it traveled at least 450 feet from the home plate where 3’7” midget Eddie Gadel had once been sent to pinch hit in a Bill Veeck publicity stunt. That had been years earlier, and not even by the Cards but by the dearly departed St. Louis Browns, but Harry loved to retell the story, at least once every home stand. It was the same home plate Enos Slaughter had touched after scoring from first on a single, a famous mad dash that won for the Birds the ‘46 series, another of Harry’s favorite stories.

A boy’s first trip to a live Cardinals’ game with his father is a sacred part of growing up in St. Louis, MO; a welcome rite of passage, a treasured father son experience the boy would make with his own son to the “new” Busch Stadium, 30 years later. However, for a boy who came of age in the Cardinal’s golden years of Brock, Gibson and Musial; summer baseball memoires are of the radio; KMOX and Harry.

Mom’s routine never varied. Never. Just make sure your bedroom door is left open.  Nightly rounds are made at precisely 9:55 when the lights in the kitchen down the hallway go dark (head phones out, radio under pillow) followed by footsteps (roll on to side, feign sleep), then stir slightly and sleepily mumble when tucked in for the night while awaiting the “all clear” signal, the closing of the bedroom door. Just follow the plan. It is the perfect crime carried out night after summer night, the great escape to the magical after-hours world of Cardinal baseball.

Win or lose, no matter how dire the Cards situation may appear, to not remain always the loyal listener would be treasonous. Late September, 1965 finds the Red Birds mathematically eliminated from the National League pennant race, double digit games behind the hated Dodgers with only single digit games left to play, hopeless. The West Coast game will not start until 10 pm and will not end until well after midnight. This is a school night. So? Koufax is on the hill for the Bums and this minor league wunderkind of whom Harry’s rave reports from down on the farm have teased fans all that long and frustrating summer is to make his Cardinal debut tonight. Bobby Tolan, speed to burn and Harry says he is the perfect future right field complement to All Stars’ Curt Flood in center and Lou Brock in left. This kid can’t miss, Harry assured (but he did).

Fifty years later, in a now middle aged man’s life, the memory of 1965 Cardinal baseball on a cheap transistor radio is lovingly ingrained deep and vivid. Like a well thrown fastball that hisses as it sears the muggy night air; an unhittable aspirin tablet, bringing fear to all those who might dare to disrupt the secure summer nights of an 8 years old boy.