Marilyn Portemont passed through town yesterday on the way to her 72nd visit to the Indianapolis 500. But for reasons beyond our control, Christine and I didn't get to see her. It was also a week where I heard from a couple of other very special old friends, James E. Strates, and J. H. Martin.
I've been having trouble with the little and ring fingers on my right hand, with both having been swollen and red for a couple of weeks, so I finally went to my doctor yesterday. He diagnosed it as gout, which surprised me since I know what gout is, having had it before. The last time was at the NCAA Final Four Basketball Tournament at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
Our planned visit with Marilyn and her daughter, Suzette Hooper, was postponed, since they encountered trouble with their van on the way to Nashville and their arrival was going to be much later than we had scheduled, plus I wasn't feeling very well, either.
The first gout episode occurred after I had been the guest all week of Denzil Skinner, the hand-picked choice of The Pritzger Family (owners of Hyatt Hotels) to run the massive Superdome. Skinner, who had previously managed Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, and I partied hardy every night, which isn't tough to do on Bourbon Street. I watched the games from his suite next to an array of celebrities and his personal friends, including me, and co-worker Ray Pilszak, our aging sales director.
Also enjoying the contests, company, and festivities were Al Hurt, Pete Fountain, Edwin Edwards, the colorful three-time governor of the Bayou State, who flashed a gun he had in his boot, leggy Chris Owen, who owned the top nightclub in town, where I had sat next to Charley Finley, owner of the Oakland Athletics the previous night, Owen still beautiful and dancing, was actually in her 70s.
There was a long list of characters that also included Bill Curl, whom I had known when he was sports information director at Tulane University, and I was a sportswriter for The Nashville Tennessean. When I covered a game between the two historically bad football teams, Vanderbilt and Tulane, Curl referred to it as the Toilet Bowl, not very kind. He went to work at the Superdome the day it opened and became known as the Mayor of Bourbon Street. He knew everybody, literally, and they knew him.
Who would want to leave an atmosphere like this? Nobody in their right mind, or should I say toe, right. That's what happened to me on the afternoon of March 19, 1982, as Coach Dean Smith's North Carolina Tar Heels were ready to face Coach John Thompson's Georgetown Hoyas in the title game. Early that afternoon, I spotted Pete Carlesimo in the stands. He's more well known now as the father of P. J. Carlesimo, who coached Seton Hall University, and five National Basketball Association teams, including Portland, Golden State, Seattle, Oklahoma City, and the Brooklyn Nets. Like his father, P. J. graduated from Scranton Prep High School in my hometown of Scranton, Pa.
Isn't it funny, how one thought leads you to another. Some memories never fade. That one never will of me being so excited to say hello at The Superdome, to the man who was the head football coach of the University of Scranton for 25 years and where I had seen so many of the games he had coached. Here's another thought that popped up from those years, our school was probably the only one in history to turn down a bowl bid. Known as the Royals after being called the Tommies when the school was earlier named St. Thomas, we were unbeaten in 1954, the year of Hurricane Hazel, and my junior year in college, until we ran up against a team called the Quantico Marines.
Their quarterback was a legend, Eddie Lebaron, and we got shellacked. Nevertheless, with me cheering loudly for a team that included my neighbor Johnny Woodbridge at guard, the Tommies turned Royals had a stellar season and were invited to go to what was then called the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando. Believe it or not, the players turned down the invitation because it would have interfered with them earning extra money by taking part-time post office jobs during the Christmas season. It could only happen in Scranton, or maybe Wilkes-Barre, which the Scranton Tribune sports editor, Chic Feldman, always fondly, or probably not so, referred to as the unconscious village.
This does not have a happy ending. I kept yelling from behind his seat to the coach who continued to ignore me. I was really hurt, and hurting, too, since what turned out to be gout in my big toes had me in tears. I had to fly back to Nashville and leave before the game which had North Carolina, featuring stars such as James Worthy, Sam Perkins and a young guy named Michael Jordan, winning 63-62 over Georgetown which was led by Patrick Ewing and Erik (Sleepy) Floyd. Within a week I was limping around one of the many related Kissel midways in Cincinnati, and spending time with Bob Kissel and his mother, Olga, at their home. What a legacy she left, and what an honor it was to meet her.
Years later I ran into the Carlesimos again with a much better outcome. It turned out the man who was one of the Seven Blocks of Granite at Fordham when he played there, was deaf and couldn't hear me. By now, he had been athletic director at Fordham and head of the National Invitational Tournament. He and his wife apologized profusely, but it wasn't necessary. This was a very special moment for me.
Out of the blue, I received a call from Strates, who was chairman of OABA in 1974, and a 2002 inductee into the organization's Hall of Fame. We hadn't had an opportunity to chat in quite a while, and he just wanted to check on how I was doing. He's 89, and I'll be 86 on July 18, so we mostly talked about doctor visits, which consume a good bit of our time these days. The man with an infectious smile and military manner still travels to show dates, still commanding as much attention as his train.
I did many interviews with Jimmy when I was editor of Amusement Business and he was always kind, and informative. All you had to do was ask one question and keep writing. He had plenty to say, as I'm sure he still does, but this wasn't that kind of call. At the start of each season I'd get his perspective on what to look for and J. D. Floyd of Cumberland Valley Shows would always say he couldn't wait each year to read Strates's sermon. Strates and Jerry Murphy had the contract here in Nashville at the Tennessee State Fair for several years, and I always loved visiting their suites, with my friend Bill Alter of National Ticket Co. in Las Vegas. Strates was always smoking big cigars at the time.
The next year when I visited him at the Montgomery County Fair in Gaithersburg, Md., I asked about the cigars, and he started saying how evil they were. He had gone on a Pritikin regimen and wanted to talk about health. He had me interview Serge Coronas, who booked his circus with Strates Shows, and that turned out good. But when I saw Strates and his children later that year, James E., also Jimmy, just kind of smiled, and I knew times had changed again. But I did ask about them when he called, and he's off again. It was really heartwarming to hear from a guy who has defined this industry.
He pointed out that with all the technology today, such as pacemakers and defibrillators, and other electronic devices, his did might even be still alive. We didn't get to discuss the 1972 flood that hit his carnival, the only one remaining that moves by rail, stranded for weeks, maybe it was months, in Wilkes-Barre, of all places. I'll call him next time and ask what he thinks about the H-2B foreign Visa program, state of the industry, etc. All I need to do is ask one question and I guarantee you that by the time he has finished talking I better not have gout in my fingers. They'll be sore.
J. H. Martin, president and GM of the Greater Baton Rouge, La. Fair for years, and I had lots of fun times at Midwest Fair Manager meetings before we both kind of retired. Like Strates, he always had plenty to say, and a joke to tell. Martin e-mailed “Glad to read your recap in your column. Since I am in remission, I agree with your decision going forward. Enough is enough. Now I can travel, and we will.
“We were packed and ready to drive to New Orleans yesterday morning to catch a Southwest flight to Las Vegas, through Denver. But they were canceling so many flights out of Denver, we canceled, threw our bags in the car and drove to Biloxi and Beau Rivage for a couple days of rest, good food, and a few slots. We'll probably go to Vegas next month. Life is good for us old folks!” It's good to be alive!
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Have all great days, and God Bless!