Balm of Baseball Memory

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A portrait of the writer as a 13-year old Astros fan.

Now that Super Bowl LI has moved from conclusion to legend, let’s turn our attention to baseball. Our story begins after a recent lunchtime workout at the New York Sports Club in Rockefeller Center.

In the locker room, I walked by a guy who must have felt strained. He was rubbing himself down with balm. While I didn’t see him, I caught the aroma of the balm wafting around us. That scent, that instant, was all I needed to trigger a cascade of 45-year old memories.

The smell of balm carries me back to the athletics center of Mission High School in Mission, Texas, where I had been the baseball manager for my freshman and sophomore years in the early 1970s. I became manager by default; my delusions of actually playing for the Eagles baseball team ended quickly, given my inability to hit, field or throw. Still, coach Jake Longoria shrewdly pegged me as the perfect manager, one who combines the talents of a mule, farmhand and nurse to lug the equipment, rake and water the infield, store the players’ watches and wallets during the game and play faith healer to the pitchers’ achy-breaky arms.

So I became the manager and that’s where the balm comes in.

As baseball history shows, pitchers have a rough job, in the physical sense. They do a fast, repetitive motion that puts their young arms to enormous stress. Those arms get sore during a game and need TLC. At some point after a game I’d rub down pitchers’ arms with balm. I especially remember working on Rudy Gallegos, our pitcher with the overpowering fastball.

Over my two years as manager, the aroma of balm imprinted itself in my memory. Cozy, warm, immediate, relaxing, even a marker of male bonding—balm packed all those positive connotations. Over the last four-plus decades, that unmistakable scent takes me back to steamy Texas nights, road trips to McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville, the crack of the bat, pranks on the bus, wins and losses, the swoosh of sprinklers watering the field after a game, the sharp knock of bats rattling around in a maroon canvas bat bag (which I used as a laundry bag in college).

The smell of balm is my gateway drug to other baseball memories. The Houston Astros moved into the Astrodome—accurately touted then as “the eighth wonder of the world”—when I was in elementary school. A family friend took my younger brother Cooper and me on a trip to Houston to see the Dome. Fifty years later, I can still remember the thrill of walking into that cavernous space age oddity. Round, cool and ringed with those candy-colored seats, the Dome could easily hold the entire population of Mission five times over. In those days, when the three- or four-story Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg was the local skyscraper, the Astrodome simply had no rival for a “wow” factor. I became a staunch fan of the struggling Astros.

Summer nights passed with a transistor radio pressed to my ear, listening to the staticky radio signal from almost 400 miles away. On drives back from family vacation in San Antonio, my family would listen to AM broadcasts of games in our 1968 Chevy Impala with the white vinyl roof. While New York kids cheered on the Mets’ 1969 pennant drive, I was happy that the Astros finished the season at .500 (including a July 30 sweep of a doubleheader against the Mets at Shea Stadium). My mother thrilled me on my 12th birthday with the first edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia. I devoured its lists of players, teams and their records, and wondered how Connie Mack could spend 50 years managing just one team, the Philadelphia Athletics.

Since then I’ve seen major league games, with stops at Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field (well, across the street in the rooftop viewing areas), and long-gone Cleveland Stadium, plus the Astros at Minute Maid Park. I can still read a box score. Despite the sleep demands of my post-middle age body, I prop myself up to watch every World Series game to the final out and beyond, no matter how late it goes. Of course that included the rain-delayed seventh game of the screaming, stomping, heart-stopping 2016 Series.

And if I run out of energy and doze off during the midnight commercials during the Series, I know I’ll eventually wake up and smell the balm.

My Night at LaGuardia Airport

The devastating attack at the Istanbul airport came a day after I had flown into New York’s LaGuardia (LGA) Airport, returning from my high school reunion at South Padre Island, Texas. The confluence led to some very sobering thoughts about the vulnerability of at least LGA to a terrorist attack. For all the talk about beefed-up security, what I saw through the daze of 10 hours of travel alarmed me as I stumbled around LGA after midnight.

A series of unfortunate events placed me at the airport far later than I had planned. My plane from Dallas was supposed to arrive at 10:20 pm on Sunday night, Instead, it left Dallas an hour late and I arrived at LGA at almost 11:30 pm. Then I had to wait 20 minutes for my carry-on suitcase to arrive in the baggage pickup, after I had had to check the carry-on because of a lack of overhead-bin space in the back of the plane — I was in the dreaded “group four.”

LGA was already shutting down. My plane must have been one of the last to arrive for the night as retail stores and the TSA area were closed. I had planned to grab my bag and dash to the M60 bus that would take me to the Metro-North Station at 125th Street, where I would get a train home to the suburbs. Instead, the night dragged on. While irately waiting at the baggage carousel, I decided to use the courtesy phone nearby to ask about the schedule and where to get the M60 bus, which I’ve use before at LGA. It’s a great convenience for the price of a subway fare.

I punched in the number on the phone for ground transportation details. I heard only a rapid beep-beep-beep. The phone didn’t work at all, not even a busy signal or endless ringing. Total malfunction. This made me wonder about the state of communications equipment at LGA. That was my first concern.

I got my carry-on after midnight and followed a sign to where the M60 would be on the ground level. I walked past the chaotic taxi line, where hundreds of people waited for cabs to come. Honking confusion colored the scene outside baggage claim. At the late hour people were exhausted and frantic to get away from LGA. If anybody wanted to cause problems, they would find a target-rich environment right here.

I didn’t see the M60. Nor did I see any central point where I could get customer service information, nor did I notice any security. I asked one of the very few airport workers around where I could find the M60. She pointed me to the center island of the pickup area. I didn’t find anything there. I asked another worker, who told me the bus could be found on the upper level.

“How do I get there?” I asked.

“Go inside and take the escalator,” she said.

But the building’s doors had signs saying the terminal was closed from midnight to 5 a.m. for maintenance.

“How can I get upstairs if the terminals are closed?” I asked myself. Simple — I just pushed on a door and went right in. Even at 12:15 am, the terminal felt wide open, if dimly lit. People sat against walls with their luggage, others wandered around. Nobody moved them out or kept a security eye on the terminal. Again, maybe I was missing security that was keeping a low profile, but I felt I could stroll anywhere and nobody would stop me. I could have overlooked some type of security in depth — I was more focused on my escape of LGA than on taking mental notes.

I found the escalator and scrambled upstairs. I did indeed find the M60, bought my ticket from a vending machine, got on the next bus to come and arrived at 125th Street five minutes before the 1:14 am train arrived. That was the next to last train of the night.

My night at LGA unnerved me. I’ve used the creaky, unloved, inaccessible and under-construction airport for decades. New York Governor Cuomo promises a massive overhaul to raise it to a more world-class level. I applaud that effort, but what I saw suggested he’d better kick some NY butt to raise the basic operations of LGA right now. Have courtesy phones that work; have readily visible customer service reps at all hours so travelers aren’t stumbling around confused and trying to sort out their transportation options. Monitor access to terminals so that “closed” means “closed,” not “closed unless you push on the door.” I can’t imagine the desperation of travelers with small children or those who can’t speak English or lack a sense of where they are going at LGA.

In the wake of the Istanbul bombing, New York will, as always, ramp up security at airports, train stations and other target-rich hubs. That’s all well and good and I welcome the additions. But unless the basic infrastructure works, I’m afraid a temporary uptick in the police presence is not much more than security theater.

And I don’t want to be there when the theater’s curtain comes down.

 

 

Apocalypse Now, and Then

I recently watched seasons 4 and 5 of The Walking Dead (TWD). I found the series mesmerizing and haunting, brimming with moral questions about survival, loyalty, the need and nature of violence, how societies function, how societies evolve when traditional structures vanish. I kept putting myself in the show, wondering what I would do and how long I would survive (probably answer: not very long).

TWD is simply the latest in my long chain of fascination with apocalyptic literature and film. I never tire of the genre and I’m not the only one to look for such works. The new NBC series You, Me and the Apocalypse is just the latest.

As with so much in life, I can trace my apocalyptic vision back to adolescence.  In junior high school, I read the book Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. Published in 1958, it is about a town in Florida that survives a nuclear attack.

What really drilled the end times into my consciousness was the Charlton Heston film from 1971, Omega Man, for my money still one of the best of the genre because of Heston’s rock-like presence, the stark images of a deserted downtown Los Angeles and the kill or be killed relationship between Heston’s character, a scientist with plenty of weapons, and the light-sensitive cultists who survived a plague and want to kill Heston and his representation of technology. Fellow survivor Rosalind Cash, tough talking and sharp dressing, introduces a wary romantic angle.

Sex and death go together in Omega Man. Heston’s violence and his coupling with Cash and her big Afro hairstyle hit me at just the right age to be dazzled by the combination of love in a time of danger.

The impressions stayed with me as I read Stephen King’s The Stand, wordy but with powerful images, and saw the mini-series with adorable Molly Ringwald. Independence Day, 28 Days Later, 28 Months Later, The Day After Tomorrow (the rare apocaptic movie where global cooling is the threat, not space aliens or zombies or viruses) and the compelling World War Z, with an Israeli angle. Lately I’ve found myself turning to books with the long slog of Seveneves, when the disintegrating moon creates a hard rain that destroys life on the surface of Earth with the survivors reduced to seven women in a space station; Station Eleven, a very well done novel of survivors after a fast-moving virus (is there any other kind?) wipes out most of humanity, with some very eerie imagery, such as planes taking off from an airport and never returning.

Read enough and patterns emerge. What’s left of society inevitably returns to a Hobbesian jungle where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short; the Age of Aquarius isn’t part of the picture although false hopes of new ways of living tantalize survivors (a theme in TWD).

The fearful attraction of the literature comes down to the question of a personal test: Could I survive? Against the weather, the aliens, the breakdown of civil society; could I bring any useful skills and the mental toughness to make fast, sometimes bloody decisions? My Significant Other says about herself, “Oh, I would be the first to die.” I’d like to think more positively, but I know the feeling. I’m an Eagle Scout, so if being able to tie a square knot, pitch a tent and find the Big Dipper enhance the odds of survival, I’m all set. But the characters on TWD and in the world of Station Eleven need more of the stalking and skinning skill set, not to mention lethal combat.

Still, I try to nudge the odds in our favor. I’ve already planned our escape route if society goes totally haywire. We’ll load up backpacks, put on our sturdiest hiking boots, stock up on granola bars and my multi-tool Swiss Army Knife and we’d hit the road (driving, I’d hope, not walking) to my brother’s ranch in the Houston area, stocked with a fish pond, cattle, trucks and enough other protective devices to keep a small army of zombies, foreign invaders or overly sensitive college students at bay.

And I’d take a cell phone charger. I don’t know how I could survive at all without that.

A Story of Sevens

When it comes to time cycles, the Torah had some unnervingly accurate things to say. Just in Genesis, we find the seven days of creation, the seven years that Jacob worked for Rachel (getting Leah, and then working again for Rachel), the seven cows and the seven ears of corn in the dreams that Joseph interpreted. The stories take a personal meaning because they helped me view my own life over the last 35 years as a series of seven-year cycles. Or, more accurately, I’ve lived through major life changes come around every seven years. I’m sure deeper thinkers have more to say on the Judaic significance of these cycles, like this guy.

The seven-year cycles began in 1980. In the most fateful decision of my life, I moved to Brooklyn a week after I graduated from Princeton University. I was starting a job at Forbes magazine as a reporter-researcher and needed a place to live. A Forbes editor had just left a share situation in a brownstone on State Street so I moved in. My hometown of Mission, Texas receded into my personal history as Brooklyn and a high-pressure job in publishing set my future. As soon as I moved, I began a quest for a Jewish experience that I had lacked in my life. My quest took me through every mainstream branch of Judaism, with stops at the Village Temple, the Flatbush minyan, Lincoln Square Synagogue and the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, before I finally settled on the Kane Street Synagogue.

1987: After three fun but poorly paid years as a freelance writer, I join Video Store Magazine. As the same time, the glorious summer of 1987, I start dating my own Rachel, whom I would marry two years later in the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn. After months of diligently studying Russian at the American-Soviet Friendship Society I embark on an epic tour of the USSR with two college friends, with stops in Moscow, Tblisi, Sochi (yes, the Olympic Sochi, which I’ll always think of as a seaside resort) and Leningrad. Life is extraordinarily good.

1994: I’m still at Video Store, and that summer my wife and I become the parents of Samuel, with the Hebrew name of Reuven Yisroel. A bris on the eighth day welcomes him into the covenant. I’m a work-at-home dad — not so easy to do as I imagined. What did I expect? A year later, Video Store lays me off from what became my last job in journalism. Good-bye reporting, hello (eventually) corporate communications!

2001: Seven years later and everything falls apart rapidly. I’m laid off a writer/editor job by a consulting firm as the economy tanks, then 9/11 happens six weeks later and 45 miles away from my home in Connecticut. Sam is at a Jewish day school iwhen I learn of the attacks, and I recoil with fear at the thought at his school could be an unprotected target. Then my marriage finally reaches its end. Life reaches a nadir of personal and professional bleakness.By early 2002 I have a job as a proposal writer for an accounting firm, and by October I move out of the house as the divorce process picks up speed.

2008: By the time the next cycle turns, the wreckage of 2001 had been gradually repaired. In 2008,after five years of thrashing around in the online dating world, I meet Naomi, a graphic designer, and we start building a relationship that looks very promising, built on a sturdy foundation of indie music and film and ice cream. I weather the financial crisis that hits in September in my new job doing proposals at another accounting firm.

2015: A new cycle, a new place. After seven years as a couple, I moved in with Naomi. I’m in a new town in a new state — or rather, I returned to New York after 24 years in Connecticut. In a nifty bit of cyclical magic, I celebrated my 35th Princeton reunion in May, gong back to the launching pad from which I started my adult life in 1980. Sam is doing a senior college project in Kyoto, Japan and will return in early October. I’m now visiting shuls in my new area to find one that works for my partner and me. I’m at a Modern Orthodox shul for the High Holidays, a place with services remarkably similar to Beit Chaverim, the Modern Orthodox shul I attended in Westport. We’re checking out a range of places, with no denominational restrictions. Indeed,  The year 2015 will no doubt find me settled into a new shul with a liturgy that now sounds very familiar to me.

2022: To be continued.

American Sniper Déjà Vu

I recently watched American Sniper and responded strongly to it. The Texas culture of sports and faith that gave rise to Navy Seal Chris Kyle felt accurate, as did the American wrath after 9/11.

What also struck me was how familiar the scenes and emotions felt when lined up against another film about an elite military unit dropped into a different world in the Middle East, where the men were fighting to protect each other. That movie was The 9th Company, a 2005 Russian movie about Soviet troops in Afghanistan near the end of the Soviet incursion into the country, which started in December 1979 and ended in early 1989. Like American Sniper, 9th Company had a factual base, about a 39-man Soviet unit pinned down by mujahadeen attackers in a mountain outpost.

While 9th Company deviated farther from history for its dramatic punch, the two movies track closely in their emotional arcs. It starts with bravado and tough training, the families left behind, the arrival in an Asian country (Afghanistan for the Russians, Iraq for the Americans) where the foes don’t wear uniforms and use children for attacks, and where the local culture sometimes shows an eerie and chilling politeness to the military forces. Both movies feature tough operational lectures by commanding officers. 9th Company is especially striking with the in-country professional outlining what’s “haram” — forbidden — in Afghanistan and he stresses the women. That’s not an issue in American Sniper, but the cultural context is similar. Out against the enemy, the geopolitical forces that drove the interventions vanish into the background and the motivation force narrows down to protecting your squad and yourself while executing the mission. The western technology edge, especially the helicopters, looms large.

The films share a climactic battle, with Russians stranded on a hill, Americans isolated in a building under attack. The Russians get the worst of it in the movie (although the reality wasn’t quite as Alamo-like as film version with the Russian version of the Lone Survivor) and the Americans, with Chris Kyle, do what Americans do in a howling sandstorm.

I wondered what the discussions would be like if U.S. and Russian veterans met to talk about their war experiences. The U.S. government opposed the Soviet invasion and imposition of a Communist regime in Afghanistan, and funded the mujahadeen, with fateful results. The Russians came and went, and then 12 years later the Americans came and threw out the Taliban, but we’re still there. What would they say? What did they accomplish, what bonds, if any do they share?

I won’t push the parallels too far; The U.S. Army is by no means the Red Army in training or combat approach. Still, the overlap of the experiences as strangers in a strange land is striking. I can only hope the genre does not grow larger.

 

 

Next on the Discard Pile: The Rolodex of Memories

First I replaced the LG dumbphone with the Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone, then I stopped renewing my annual purchase of monthly Day-Timer inserts and now . . . I’m ditching the Rolodex.

Unlike the other techno tools, I haven’t used my Rolodex in years. I had a circular one once, but the current one is flat. After a recent move, I’m trying to simplify my life and a Rolodex brimming with cards for people from decades past at companies that no longer exist looks like a prime candidate for Goodwill. Jotted in my jiggly handwriting and free from any email addresses, URLs and Twitter handles, the cards record a pre-digital life that must be impossible for young people to imagine. Those were the days you memorized phone numbers and carried them in your head, not your pocket.

Still, I linger before sending it off, mostly because the names evoke times and places, both personal and professional.

Most of the cards date from 1987 to 1995, when I was the east coast editor of Video Store Magazine. The cards give contacts at movie studios, retailers and trade associations involved with entertainment and consumer electronics. Some cards of note:

  • CompUSA
  • Bizarre Video Productions
  • Mark Harrad, the very savvy PR manager for the anti-piracy program of the Motion Picture Association of America. He would arrange for members of the press to attend FBI raids on places making or selling illegal videos; I was an observer at a Brooklyn raid, an edge experience.
  • Sega
  • Kay Bee Toys
  • Montgomery Ward
  • New York Public Library telephone reference
  • Artist Mark Kostabi, who did a book of his paintings called “Sadness Because the Video Rental Store Was Closed;” I did a story about the book and he gave me a copy, which I still have
  • Tandy Corp.
  • Atari Computer Corp.(written on the back of a Rolodex card that bore the name and phone number of a fellow Princetonian I dated once, more details to come)

Video Store laid me off 20 years ago this month, ending my career in business journalism, so those cards lost any value, but I hung on to them anyway.

Rolodex

Other cards stir memories of personal connections:

  • The phone number for the Harriman Institute at Columbia University; I fantasized about studying Russian there and becoming a kremlinologist or East Bloc-hopping journalist in the twilight of the USSR. But I stayed in journalism and fate took me in a very different suburban direction.
  • Project Dorot, a group matching volunteers with the Jewish elderly, where I was a friendly visitor from 1980 to 1994, teamed with a German immigrant named Rena Frank.
  • A woman named Shira, who I had one date with and then we both moved on to other things and she made a very good life for herself.
  • A woman named Shula (a/k/a Sheila when I met her at a singles event in 1981). We had a date on my 25th birthday and a photo shows us both looking spiffy. She’s wearing a beret like Faye Dunaway wore in “Bonnie and Clyde.” She urged me to eat organic foods and was into algae products.
  • That fellow Princetonian who I dated once or twice, who has the same 212 phone number, over 30 years later. Good for you!
  • Women with the confusingly universal Jewish name combination of Laura/Laurie/Lori/Lauri/Lauren Friedman/Freeman/Friedman/Friedmann/Freidman. I could never remember which was which, although one walked out on a first date we had to see Shakespeare in Central Park. She had to get ready to go to the Hamptons the next day and she saw I was “really enjoying the play,” so she up and left during the intermission. I scratched her off my dating list, but I kept the phone number, or was that the number for Lori/Lorie/Laurie/Laura/Lauren in Brooklyn who liked to get stoned? I’ll never know. Trying to find one Laurie Friedman in New York is like trying to find one Maria Garcia in Texas — the proverbial needle in the haystack of similar names.
  • Texas Monthly, when I dreamed of relocating to Austin in 1990 for a completely different career in journalism.

Two or three decades separate me from these people and memories. Technology moved on. The discardable contact entries in cellphones and computers store the intricate contact details for hundreds of contacts, across multiple phones and emails. I make no more scribbled updates on Rolodex cards or address books. I type updates in bloodless Arial fonts, or just hit “delete and they’re gone.

The Rolodex kept the old paper life around long after the Rolodex lost its use. I’ll save some of the cards just for old time’s sake (a sentimental weakness of mine). But something’s got to give in my endless efforts to declutter and this small tool, a rope tying me to the past that will never be relevant again, has got to go.

Still, for all I know, Shira/Shula/Laurie/Lauren still has a forgotten address book that includes some guy (wasn’t he a writer? Whatever happened to him?) who lived at 131 Amity Street in Brooklyn.

 

Mind Games, From Texas to Brooklyn

On a recent visit to the Brooklyn Museum, I checked my backpack. When I retrieved it several hours later, I noticed a piece of paper tucked into its outside webbing. The page had been torn from a museum map and said this on it:

I caught you staring at me from across the room but you didn’t come right over. Were you being coy, well it worked. Maybe you felt the need to see the others, knowing that I would seize your full attention. You held your hands behind your back, resisting your desire to touch me. I longed for you to come close but we had to keep our distance under the watchful eye of another. You slowed, staying long enough to see all sides of me. You quietly traced my contours with your looking. I am wondering how I appeared in your eyes. I don’t know if I am projecting but you seemed to be trying to uncover something, as if I held a secret for you. So did you get what you wanted from me? Course I am left with the lingering feeling of our encounter.

Bklyn Museum-edit

That’s all. No address, no name, no closure. After my pulse returned to normal, I wet a finger and ran it across a word to see if this was, in fact, an actual written note and not a pre-printed piece of performance art that some transgressive artist had photocopied and stuck into my backpack as performance art.

The black letter smeared slightly. The writing was real.

I thought about this mind game of a note, which did not match any reality that occurred that evening at the museum, where I strolled with my girlfriend the whole time. The only time a note could have been slipped into my backpack was when it was in the check room. Not even a Mossad super-agent could have done the drop in the seconds between the time I got the backpack and when I noticed the note.

I’m left with a mystery of identity and intent that cannot be solved.

This comes about 40 years after other mysterious notes blossomed in my locker in high school. The similarity in anonymous, teasing targeting is remarkable. Somebody knows how to get inside my head, first in 1975 when I was a teen, then 40 years later when I’m past middle age and relentlessly approaching senior citizen status. Times change, but the mysteries of human contact linger on.

I still have the notes from the years of high school confidential. They bore the initials “M.R.” The apogee came with the piece shown below. I thought I had saved them, but I can’t find them. Somehow I expressed my curiosity to M.R. and she responded with loopy adolescent female notes that eventually make references to her buck teeth. I’ve turned over every file and yearbook I have but can’t find anything but the piece de resistance, a piece of heavy mat card, colored on one side in a stylized “W” and written on the other.

MR front-2507_001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The back of the card said, “Someone lost something, all yours, FINDERS KEEPERS. This is a suviner from an admirer ‘M.R.'”

MR back-2510_001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never heard anything else. I doubt M.R. used her actual initials. It could be one person, it could have been a group project from kids who wanted to see how I’d react. I imagine I reacted exactly the way they wanted me to.

Forty years later, the note in the Brooklyn Museum sent my musings backward to M.R. For all I know M.R. and I are connected on Facebook, or I’ll see her (and never know) at my fortieth high school reunion next summer in the pulsing humid heat of Hidalgo County, Texas. Maybe she’ll read this and come clean, if she even remembers.

In the age of Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging and the other digital toys, I wonder if the art of the handwritten anonymous mash note has been lost, dissolved and made beyond quaint in the waves of the Web. The Brooklyn writer must at least be in her 40s to have the wit and drive to actually write an anonymous note. I can’t see somebody raised on iPhones doing that. Writing a note and sticking it in a book bag or in a locker — that’s basic training in the emotional arena of mind games. The impulses must play out online, but I just don’t know. I can safely guess, however, that nobody is going to hang on to a tweet or IM for 40 years.

A Farewell to Camo

I couldn’t sign in to Gmail. I couldn’t check street directions. My cell phone photos were lame. I couldn’t IM on the run.

In short, I had a very old cell phone that worked well for calls and texts and not much else. While my LG Chocolate had served me loyally since early 2010 (early Jurassic period in cell phone years), I felt increasing pressure to trade up (way up) to a new-fangled smart phone. Every time I looked at the Verizon Wireless site, I promptly got emails and even calls enticing me to get something fresh and new.

Finally, something clicked, or snapped, and last weekend I became the proud owner of a Samsung Galaxy S5 from Costco.

new phone 100-edit

The oddest part of the change involved not the phone, but the cell phone holder. While the Galaxy is my fifth cell phone since 2001, I have had the same cell phone belt holder since 2003. It’s been a faithful companion, literally by my side for 11 years through untold tens of thousands of miles of train commuting plus trips to Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Cuba, the Czech Republic and Germany. Cell phones came and went, but that cell phone holder remained.

I can still remember when and where I bought it during a visit to my brother in Houston May 2003. We visited a Fry’s Electronics store to take care of my digital lifestyle needs. I walked out of the store with two epochal purchases. First, I got a Vivitar Vivicam, a one-pixel (!) camera that marked my entry into digital photography (and not a bad little webcam, either). My 20-year old Canon AE-1, purchased at infamous 47th Street Photo in New York in November 1981, immediately became an antique.

And I got what struck me as a funky and anti-East Coast accessory for my cell phone, a camo pouch with a Velcro flap that came down to keep the phone in place. I liked it and it liked me back. The holder held my phone well, back in the era when cell phones were not multimedia slabs the size of roof tiles. The camo especially appealed to me, redolent of the huntin’ and fishin’ culture I grew up with in Mission, Texas, on the Mexican border. With my camo, I felt a tiny bit like a real Texas bad-ass when it hung off my belt, an incongruous sight on the 7:17 a.m. train from Fairfield County, Connecticut to Grand Central Station. TSA airport security guys especially eyed it. Fortunately, they never got nervous and Tased me as a suspicious character—but I learned to calm them down by taking the holder off at security screenings, along with my college ring, wallet, shoes, keys and any other items they wanted to finger.

When I got the Galaxy, I knew it was far too bulky to fit in the camo holder. Could I at least maintain this odd-ball style element? I looked around online for suitable camo or western-style holders, but nothing looked sturdy enough. Meanwhile, I heard sensible advice from smartphone veterans that I should skip the outdoorsy fashionista posing to get a sturdy case that covered the delicate glass corners of my smart phone. Some day, they said, I’ll drop the phone and I’ll want its delicate innards and outtards protected.

That made sense. I nosed around online and got a feel for what I needed. Then I went to Staples in New York and got the biggest, baddest, blackest holder I could find, a rugged Otter Box that swaths my sensitive Galaxy in rigid plastic that looks like it could withstand a direct hit from a sledgehammer. When I snap it on my belt, I feel like RoboCop.

So, farewell my camo companion. We had a great run all over the world, lots of memorable calls and texts came my way from those buzzing little flip phones you so ably cradled. But I’ve got a new techno fetish object hanging off my belt now.

1969, the Summer of the Astros

Think Major League Baseball in 1969, and everybody rightfully remembers the Amazin’ Mets who went all the way and won the World Series. For me, however, 1969 was the glorious summer of the Houston Astros. The apogee of their great ride for the year took place exactly 45 years ago today, July 30, 1969 — more on that in a moment.

The Mets and the Astros grew up together as expansion teams in the National League. The Astros began in 1962 as the Colt .45s, then changed their name when they moved into the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Astrodome. I remember going to the Dome in 1966 and being stunned at the enormous structure with the colorful seats, air conditioning and soaring rounded roof. Coming from Mission, Texas, pop. 11,000 at the time, this first-hand exposure to the Big Leagues made me a confirmed Astros fan.

I had an Astros poster in my bedroom, and I read the Street & Smith Baseball Yearbook cover to cover. For my 12th birthday in 1969 my mother delighted me with the massive first edition of the MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, which I scoured the way Baptist preachers turn to the Bible for inspiration. Look, there’s Babe Ruth! Old Hoss Radbourne! Baseball replaced cars as my adolescent obsession, although girls soon replaced both. And baseball was more than a reading interest; I played for four years as a bench-warming near-sighted right fielder in Farm League and Bronco League. In 1969 I played for the Lions Club team, doing what I could with my beloved Rawlings “Brooks Robinson” glove. Like Calvin with his Hobbes, I will always have my battered, frayed, faded but undaunted glove.

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Transistor radios gave me access to the Astros games, beaming through the humid Texas atmosphere almost 400 miles from Houston to Mission. The tinny sound took me to the big cities and the famous stadiums where the Astros played—Wrigley, Candlestick, Busch and Shea, the home of the Mets. I especially remember listening to Astros games when my family returned home on a Sunday afternoon from vacation in San Antonio. My mother would tune in the game on the 250-mile drive in our 1968 Chevy Impala (with the white vinyl roof) and we’d listen to the game as we passed through the flat brush and farm country interrupted by the towns of Pleasanton, Campbellton, Three Rivers, George West, Alice, Falfurrias (home then and now of the Border Patrol checkpoint) and tiny Rachal that separated the rest of Texas from the Rio Grande Valley across from Mexico.

The great thing about baseball was that the games just kept on coming. As much as I loved the Dallas Cowboys (Mission was the home town of coach Tom Landry), they only played 14 games in the regular season. The Astros, however, played 162 games, with the scratchy sound flowing for hours most nights from the little radios around Mission. Like a true kid fan, I couldn’t wait for the games to come on, and to check the box scores and standings the next day in the McAllen Monitor or Corpus Christi Caller. I can still hear the announcers’ voices in my head.

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Looking at the 1969 team roster, all the memories flooded back with names that I learned by heart 45 years ago. I couldn’t name a single player in the current Astros roster, but I can reel off plenty of players from the ’69 Astros: Larry Dierker, Jack Billingham, Wade Blasingame, Don Wilson, Jim Ray, Fred Gladding, Jim Wynn, Dennis Menke, Johnny Edwards, Doug Rader, Joe Morgan.

The Astros and the Mets crossed paths in memorable games that season. One bump on the Mets’ improbable road to glory came when the Astros swept two three-game series. I remember the apex, the very apotheosis, of my Astros summer came on July 30, when the Astros took a doubleheader at Shea Stadium, 16-3 in the first game (Jim Ray got the win, Fred Gladding the save, Jerry Koosman the loss) and 11-5 in the second game, Larry Dierker with the win and iron-man reliever Gladding picking up his 21st save, Gary Gentry took the loss..

The first game especially stands out in my mind because Gladding batted twice and got a hit. Now, a pitcher getting a hit in a major-league game is always notable. For Gladding, that hit against the Mets marked the only hit in his major league career with the Tigers and the Astros, giving him a lifetime batting average of .016, 1-for-63, the lowest non-zero batting average in MLB history. And I can say . . . I was there listening when he got that one hit. The Astros announcers were suitably giddy and stunned when Gladding unleashed the heavy lumber for his shining moment as a batter.

Gladding led the majors in saves that year, with 27. The Astros finished at .500, 81-81, for their first non-losing season. The legendary Mets—they beat the Orioles in the World Series. In the decades to come I would attend games at Shea Stadium, and during return trips to Texas I’ve seen an Astros game or two at Minute Maid Park, which replaced the outmoded Astrodome. The Mets won the World Series again in 1986, and the Astros won the National League championship in 2005 but lost the World Series in a sweep to the Chicago White Sox. Recent Astros seasons have been horrendous, although I read in Sports Illustrated that the team has embarked on a statistics-driven rebuilding campaign; I wish them well.

My interest in following any pro team with boyhood zeal faded long ago, when I moved from Texas to the Northeast. I politely cheer on the Mets and the Texas Rangers in their pennant runs and I cringed when the Rangers lost the World Series in 2010 and 2011. Games are too loud, too long and too late for my preference. No sports event should last longer than parts one and two of “The Godfather.” I like watching the plays of the day on ESPN when I go to the gym, but that’s it for the regular season.

Still, nothing will erase the memory of the Astros summer of 1969, when a boy, a transistor radio and a team combined for sports magic.

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Jack Brabham and the Car-Crazy Kid

I read recently of the death of Jack Brabham, 88, a renowned Australian race car driver who was active from the 1940s to 1970. The name and the news took me way back, 45 years at least, to when I was a car-crazy kid who avidly read Car and Driver, Hot Rod and other car magazines to keep up with the racing news.

My father, a racing enthusiast who named my brother Cooper and me after cars or drivers, must have influenced this interest, although he lived far away. As a somewhat-typical American boy, cars fascinated me, anyway. I built plastic and metal models; my mother used to take my metal parts to the Tipton Chevrolet dealership in Mission, Texas, where the guys in the repair shop would happily prime the pieces before I painstakingly painted them (a big thanks to my friend Renee Zamora-Hernandez for confirming that Tipton was the name of the dealership in the 1960s). I avidly collected the glossy marketing brochures from Tipton and Spikes Ford in Mission. Salesmen sometimes found me in their showrooms sitting in the cars, dreaming.

On the long drives to San Antonio for family vacations, my brother and I competed in car-counting games. I took Cadillac, he took Mustang, and we kept track of the number we saw to see which was the most popular car on the 250 miles of highway going up to the Alamo City.

I never cared so much for the mechanics of cars as for the culture, especially the speed side of cars. Indy racing, Can-Am, Formula 1, drag racing with the long pointy vehicles and the tire-spinning burnouts before the staging lights counted down from red to green to start the five-second races along a quarter-mile strip — I remember all of that.

The high-glamour world of Formula 1 especially caught my attention and Jack Brabham was a great driver of the era. The photos with the memorials showed a man I instantly recognized, square-jawed, determined, ready to put his pedal to the medal.

Back in those days I avidly tracked the standings and teams with the enthusiasm I would soon show for baseball, my next kid obsession (I can recite the names of most of the starting line-up of the 1969 Houston Astros and a good chunk of the pitching rotation, but that’s another column).

I became a big fan of Texas’ own Team Chaparral, owned by Midland oil executive and driver Jim Hall. His low-slung white cars burned up the track in the Can-Am series of races in 1966 and 1967. I remember being thrilled by the daring design of the car. Hall rolled out the 2E car at exactly the moment I went car crazy and photos online indeed show the look I remember from the pages of Car and Driver. The details:

The 2E was based on the Chevrolet designed aluminum 2C chassis and presented Jim Hall’s most advanced aerodynamic theories to the racing world in the 1966. The 2E established the paradigm for virtually all racing cars built since. It was startling in appearance, with its radiators moved from the traditional location in the nose to two ducted pods on either side of the cockpit and a large wing mounted several feet above the rear of the car on struts. The wing was the opposite of an aircraft wing in that it generated down-force instead of lift and was attached directly to the rear suspension uprights, loading the tires for extra adhesion while cornering. A ducted nose channeled air from the front of the car up, creating extra down-force as well. By depressing a floor pedal that was in the position of a clutch pedal in other cars, Hall was able to feather, or flatten out, the negative angle of the wing when down-force was not needed, such as on a straight section of the track, to reduce drag and increase top speed. In addition, an interconnected air dam closed off the nose ducting for streamlining as well. When the pedal was released, the front ducting and wing returned to their full down-force position. Until they were banned many sports racing cars, as well as Formula One cars, had wings on tall struts, although many were not as well executed as Hall’s.

In layman’s terms, the Chaparral 2E had a “spoiler” on the back, and that’s forever imprinted on me as the ultimate in car design, other than gull-winged doors from a 1950s Mercedes-Benz. Every time I see a modern car with a spoiler — Subarus — I’m transported back to the days when I saw myself as an honorary member of Team Chaparral.

Other bits and pieces of racing lore stayed in my brain from 1967, the year I turned 10. I must have kept up with the news in Car and Driver and newspapers like the McAllen Monitor. The horrific accident at the Grand Prix of Monaco on May 10 that killed Lorenzo Bandini sank deeply into my subconscious. Photos of the crash, in which Bandini was terribly burned, soon appeared in Car and Driver with an angry editorial; 47 years later, I instantly recalled his name and scenes of the crash that I read about. The violence and nature of Bandini’s death must have shocked me.

A happier racing memory came from later in the same month. I’m thinking back on the Indianapolis 500 of May 1967, when Parnelli Jones shocked the traditionalists by almost winning in the STP candy apple-red gas turbine car, which led most of race until it broke down with three laps to go after a $6 ball bearing failed. To this day I associate the letters “STP” with game-changing innovation — which ultimately went nowhere in terms of impact on Indy racing, although it caused a massive stir that year. A.J. Foyt won the race — he’s just one of the familiar names from that era that leaped back into my awareness from that era; I couldn’t name a single driver from any circuit of today, but names like Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, Graham Hill and, of course, Jack Brabham feel as familiar to me as Bronx kids in the late 1920s recalled Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and their Yankees teammates.

Of course, I clearly remember my family’s own cars. My mother had total loyalty to Chevrolets that she bought at Tipton Chevy throughout the 1960s. She first bought a rear-engine Corvair in 1962 or so, then traded three years later for a sporty 1965 turquoise Malibu that, truth be told, I wouldn’t mind driving today. Following the pattern of the day, in 1968 she bought a yellow two-door Impala, with the popular option of the era, a white vinyl roof. She stopped upgrading after that, and the yellow Impala was the car my brother and I drove after taking Driver’s Ed in the mid-1970s.

Hands down, though, the hot wheels in the family in the 1960s and 1970s belonged to my mother’s Aunt Sue in San Antonio, a retired teacher. She tooled around the Alamo City in her early ’60s white Thunderbird, a bitchin’ ride with creamy leather bucket seats and the power windows. Power windows! I had never seen those before. In the late 1960s, alas, she traded the T-Bird in for a boat-like Lincoln Continental, painted gold, with plenty of room. I liked riding in her Caddy when we visited San Antonio on family vacations, but she just couldn’t top the T-Bird.

My interest in cars and racing faded away, replaced by baseball and girls and other primal quests. I bought my first car in May 1979 for a summer job as a reporter for Newsday on Long Island, a rusty 1971 AMC Hornet station wagon. Desperate for the required transportation for the job, I bought it for $500 from a graduate student. It served its purpose but I never drove it unless I had to in that gas-crisis summer, when long lines snaked around service stations nation-wide. I took it back to Princeton and parked it behind my eating club during my senior year. I used it to move to Brooklyn after I graduated and heaved a sigh of relief when I donated it to Goodwill as soon as possible.

I didn’t own a car for 11 years, until my wife and I moved to the suburbs and we bought a tan 1984 Saab two-door. It had a manual transmission, so I had to take driving lessons to learn how to drive the thing. To my surprise and pleasure, I actually learned how. Three years later we bought a red four-door 1986 Saab when our son was born. The tan car died in a train station parking lot and we got a Taurus station wagon. After we divorced, I got the red Saab, which proved increasingly unreliable. I liked the unique look of Saabs and their solidity but 1986 was a wretched model year and the car became a terror ride as I wondered when it would stall at a stop light or just not start, as once happened after I picked up my son after a Labor Day sleepover with a friend in Westchester County. A $200 AAA pick-up to my repair shop in Stamford ensued.

Fed up with Saab’s clunkerness, I got to the point where I rented cars on the weekends my son was with me so I could have reliable transportation. In April 2005, that year of miracles, I made the best consumer purchase ever when I bought a 2004 Hyundai Elantra at the short-lived Hyundai dealership in Stamford, Connecticut. The dealership closed a month after I bought the car, but I’ve had nine years of trouble-free cruising.

My silver four-door blends into every parking lot in total anonymity. Nobody’s going to be impressed by the tape deck it still has (how’s that for old-style technology?) but it gets me around the suburbs and handled ferocious New York blizzards, so long as I don’t actually drive during a snow storm. As much as I dream of late-middle-aged-life crisis Corvettes and T-Birds–my car fantasies always involve classic American Iron from Detroit–I’m sticking with the utilitarian services of my Elantra and its tape deck.

Truth be told, even expensive current models fail to impress me. The Westport train station parking lot packs in row after row of grey, black and silver sedans from BW, Audi, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz. They all look alike and I stroll past them. I only nod and gaze with passion with longing at the stray Corvette or curving Porsche. If I see a low-slung piece of superpowered road-candy, or an antique. I’ll whip out my camera to get shots from different angles.

Still, I can look back on my days as the car-crazy kid following Sir Jack Brabham and the home-state Team Chaparral. And sometimes where I accelerate through the mild uphill curves of the backroads of Westchester and Fairfield Counties, I grip the wheel of my Hyundai, feel the wind in what’s left of my hair and think, “Ja, fine European road handling.”