Walk it Off

37 years ago last week, I was a newly hired teacher at the Tenacre Country Day School in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Within 24 hours, had it not been that fate and luck interceded in the form of a self-assured and winsome mother of a student, I might well have lost my job. As I begin my 38th year as a teacher, this guardian angel needs to be formally acknowledged for saving my educational career. Like most such stories, however, it was initially clothed in innocence and naivety.

In the fall of 1980, after three unfulfilling years as a reporter, advertiser, and retailer, I was offered a job as a co-teacher at my elementary school alma mater, the Tenacre Country Day School in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The day before classes began, the school’s incredibly supportive Assistant Headmaster, Paul Schmidt, exclaimed to me during our orientation meeting, “Shaun, if you don’t know what to say to a child, just think what your mother might say in the same situation.”

That seems easy enough, I thought at the time.

Thus, the next day at recess, when I went out for the first time to play Nerf football with my third grade class – I threw a spiral to a robust boy named Greg Hoffman, who was then accidentally tripped by another classmate. As I recall, Greg tumbled to the ground and then attempted to regain his feet. With literally no arsenal of experience behind me, and already swelling with growing apprehension, I instantly remembered what my assistant headmaster had told me the day before. I then tossed some motherly advice to the injured Greg so effortlessly that I figured it would instantly take care of the problem. He nodded, got up slowly, and limped back to the huddle.

Now my parents were classically “old school” and capably represented their much-venerated generation. Like virtually every father I knew growing up, Dad, who was born in 1913, had been tempered by war – in his case – the invasions of both Leyte Gulf and Iwo Jima – while Mummie, born in 1920, had raised four children during the crux of the Nuclear Age. Ultimately, you didn’t want to disappoint such adults – that was the boundary we all danced around as children – and for that – our parents gave us an enormous berth. We could be gone for hours, and if we showed up on time for dinner, they never asked where we were. This kind of easygoing ambiance was lucidly encapsulated one September morning when, as I was quietly eating breakfast before school. Mom, who was sipping on her Sanka, glanced at me and asked, “Are you now in fourth or fifth grade, Dear?”

“Fifth grade, Mummie,” I replied.

“Good for you,” she replied.

If such adults could put most anything in perspective; employ an intoxicating mix of common sense and pragmatism; and believe that learning from mistakes was essential to a child growing up into a productive adult; then it was also true that my parents and their peers were as tough as nails. Indeed,  virtually every one of my coaches growing up had either landed on Omaha Beach or had fought at Guadalcanal – even as many of their wives worked in the factories back home after having spent their childhoods enduring the Great Depression. As tough as the men were, their wives were even tougher.  In our particular neighborhood, such expressions as, “Suck it up – and tough it out;” The world most certainly DOES NOT revolve around you!” –  and, my personal favorite – “You are not special. Now Mozart and Shakespeare – they were special!” were among the many pronouncements we heard from our mothers in growing up.

Thus, later that day, when I heard that Greg Hoffman had been picked up by his mother and then taken to the doctor for X-rays, I became increasingly alarmed. Therefore, I called my older brother that night, a young man who was already a seasoned administrator at a local private school. When I shared with him what my Tenacre assistant headmaster had advised me during orientation – that – when in doubt – tell a child what your mother might have said in the same situation – there was an extended pause on the phone. My brother sighed, “Let me take just one guess. You told him to… ‘Walk it off.”

“Well, yes,” I mumbled.

“Nice job,” he replied, “Mummie would have told Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre to walk it off. Expect to be grilled at school tomorrow. This is not good.”

After a sleepless night….I arrived at Tenacre the next morning with dark circles under my eyes and a copy of The Boston Globe’s Help Wanted Section in my right hand.

Five minutes later, as the cars streamed into Tenacre’s front entrance, I observed a station wagon pull up in front of the school, and a cordon of students and teachers immediately encircle it. Out of the back right passenger side, I then caught a glimpse of two crutches followed by a solitary figure, who was not sporting the “modest little ankle wrap” I had prayed to see, but rather was encased entirely in plaster, the surface area of which exceeded the Shroud of Turin.

To complete the nightmare, Greg’s mother, Mrs. Isabelle Hoffman, emerged from the driver’s side of the car, scanned around like a hawk looking for its prey, saw me, and bellowed, “Shaun! Don’t move an inch! I need to talk to you!”

As she escorted Greg into the building – in a wheelchair – of course – I remained immobilized, awaiting my fate. Even Anthony Scaramucci lasted longer in the White House than I would have at the time. How could I possibly tell my parents that I had just been fired as a teacher after just one day on the job?  Undoubtedly, Mummie would have told me to just walk it off, and….well….” it isn’t the end of the world, Dear..”

After spending five minutes in unremitting purgatory, Mrs. Hoffman marched out of Tenacre’s main building and walked briskly towards me. Not until I had read Stephen King’s The Green Mile would I again feel how profoundly terrifying it is when someone is waltzing toward you intent on strapping you into “Old Sparky.”

Seconds later, Mrs. Hoffman stopped in front of me, looked fiercely into my eyes, took a deep breath, and thundered, “Shaun…I just want to thank you for making sure that Greg doesn’t grow up to be a wimp!”

I almost uttered, “What did you just say?” Instead, I caught myself, stuck out my hand, smiled at her, shook Mrs. Hoffman’s profusely, and exclaimed, “It’s a pleasure, Mrs. Hoffman…..” For whatever reason, God had made sure that the one woman in the area like my mother happened to be Greg Hoffman’s parent.

That evening, at my parents’ house in Wellesley, I told my family what had happened earlier that morning.  Mom, who, like John Irving’s memorable character, Owen Meany, forever spoke in capital letters, commented after hearing the story, “WELL OF COURSE MRS, HOFFMAN THANKED YOU, DEAR! WHAT ELSE COULD SHE POSSIBLY DO?”

Another guest at the table that night, my brother, looked at me with death-star eyes as I told the tale. My father looked at his milk glass and chuckled to himself while my mother asked for my opinion.

“You’re so right, Mummie,” I said while beaming at my sibling, who glared at me and whispered, “You are lucky.

37 years later, here I am still working in the classroom. Greg Hoffman is 45 years old, and a certain mother from Wellesley, Massachusetts has remained my patron saint for almost four decades. While there are hundreds and hundreds of students, teachers, administrators, and parents I need to thank for providing me with such a meaningful career over the years, there’s really only one person I am indebted to – Mrs. Isabelle Hoffman of Wellesley, Massachusetts.

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My Beautiful Nauset

In Willa Cather’s classic novel, My Ántonia, Jim Burden, the story’s narrator, reads a passage from Virgil about the notion of Patria. Jim’s teacher, Gaston Cleric, explains that it does not mean, country, as traditionally translated, but refers instead to the intimate rural village where Virgil was born. Eventually, Jim realizes that his own memories will continually be rooted in Black Hawk, Nebraska and the nearby prairie, his “Patria,” the place where he feels most “at home.”

When I first read this much beloved American narrative in legendary English teacher Wilbury Crockett’s junior English class at Wellesley (MA) High School in 1972, Mr. Crockett asked us to think about our particular Patria. As he said at the time, “It is that essential place where you can be unfettered and uninhibited, and think of time not as a straight line but as a circle.”

Even then, I knew what it was, raised my hand, and shared it freely with my classmates. My particular Patria is situated on a five-mile stretch of beach called Nauset in Orleans and Coast Guard in Eastham, which smugly juts out into the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean at the forearm of Cape Cod. In between the two communities is a natural cleft that parts the beaches in two, creating an intimate harbor called Nauset Inlet.

The waters off of this section of the ocean have been the site of more shipwrecks than any other span of coastline this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, one of the reasons that the Cape Cod Canal was constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1909 and 1916 was that such treacherous seas at this distinct point of the Massachusetts coastline caused most ships to literally pause to a standstill on the way to either Boston or New York. “The Devil lies off the coast of Eastham,” wrote one New York sea captain in the 1880s, “and it is wise not to play a game of chance with him.”

Where the Cape is at its narrowest, the waters off of ocean side are most perilous. Incredibly, there are less than three miles of land between placid Cape Cod Bay and the intolerant North Atlantic at this point. A brisk east wind off the ocean frequently blows at seventy miles an hour; storm surges during winter nor’easters can take chunks of parking lots out to sea in a single gust. Over the last trio of winters, the Cape Cod National Seashore has had to replace three newly-constructed wooden staircases each April.

But when the ocean is tranquilizing, and the weather is accommodating, there is no spot on earth more breathtaking in both its immensity and grandeur. Created by Ice Age glaciers ten-thousand years ago, formed and redesigned by wind and tide, the peninsula’s shore is a naturalist’s paradise. “A wild, rank place without flattery,” is the way Henry David Thoreau described it in his posthumously published travel memoir, Cape Cod. Given the fact that most scientists believe that such a uniquely shaped peninsula has a shelf life of between 2,000-8,000 years left, no wonder naturalist John Hay called the Outer Cape, “this fragile outpost.”

Poet Sylvia Plath, who worshiped this particular stretch of land on the outer beach throughout her childhood summers, ended up spending an extended, eight-week honeymoon with her husband, Ted Hughes, in Eastham, a half-mile walk from Nauset Light Beach. Five years later in London, Plath memorized my Patria in her confessional poem, “Daddy,” when she wrote… “And a head in the freakish Atlantic/Where it pours bean green over blue/In the waters off beautiful Nauset.”

Another frequent visitor to the Outer Beach, Norman Mailer, once wrote a letter to a friend about Nauset Beach’s “terrible beauty that lies beyond the reaches of mortality.” When President John F. Kennedy, a longtime resident of Hyannis Port, proposed making the outer beach a national park, he informed his Department of the Interior, Stuart Udall: “We need to preserve the Outer Cape for our grandchildren and their grandchildren so that they too can see the power of nature in its full and uncompromising splendor.”

I first walked this stretch of beach in 1956 when I was just beginning to walk. Sixty-one years later, I still amble along its soft humps of sand no matter the season. As a young boy, I sprinted along the rivulets made by the tide and then fervently jumped over them. When I was four, I got swept away by a rogue wave so fierce that it took my more than a hundred yards toward the Nauset Beach parking lot. I made my first sand castles by its shore the next summer, hoping that somehow my intrepid fortification would withstand both logic and Mother Nature.

As I grew older, I partook in countless games of Wiffleball, hoping that my yellow dart of a bat could somehow strike a ball hard enough to peel through the gale for a home run. As a teenager and young adult, I held the hands of a few girls, strolling with them to Nauset Inlet to show them the view while hoping they loved it as much as me.

Consequently, it was not surprising that one of those girls, my wife, a proud Canadian, shared the same adulation for the Outer Beach as I have. Over time, our two sons developed the same kind of long-term relationship with it. They too have felt its allure.

But it is not just those seamless summer days that make me return year after year. I also love the beach in the winter; during torrential April rainstorms; after a relentless January blizzard; in the evening chill of an early October day. During one fall nor’easter, a friend of my mother phoned her at Mum’s cottage in Eastham and asked her about the weather. “Simply glorious,” my mother, the quintessential New Englander, quipped, without a hint of irony. While Nauset’s loveliness has always seduced me, it is its inexorable power that has always transfixed me beyond any words to express it. I can never get enough of it.

Thus, as I reconnoiter through the seasons feeling both grateful and humbled to have lived so long, it is evident that the outer beach of Cape Cod has served as my personal North Star. After all, I have visited many places and have lived on both sides of the Atlantic, but I have always returned to my formidable and breathtaking Patria. In its azure waters, I see the ripples of childhood and promise in the morning tide. And when the sun begins to set over the ever-changing dunes twelve hours later, I realize now as an old man that each day on earth is measured in the enduring push-pull of the tides and the capriciousness of the sea.

 

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50 Years Later, “Ode to Billie Joe” Still Haunts

“It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day/I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay/And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat/And Mama hollered out the back door, Y’all, remember to wipe your feet’/And then she said, ‘I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge/Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge’.”

50 summers ago, the psychedelic era was launched in June with the release of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Within the next 10 weeks, rock and roll’s roulette wheel hit paydirt on almost a daily basis as an avalanche of superlative music catapulted from the soul of a young generation that that had begun to yearn for peace, love, and understanding.

For the first time, rock and rollers were joyfully listening to a host of rousing debut albums by the likes of Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin; the Grateful Dead; the Doors; the Jimi Hendrix Experience; and the Jefferson Airplane. New performers such as Van Morrison; Joni Mitchell; Laura Nyro; Linda Ronstadt; Gordon Lightfoot; and Grace Slick were all in the midst of generating their initial releases. In addition, a number of veteran stars were simultaneously producing their most celebrated tracks to date including Jackie Wilson; Aretha Franklin; Marvin Gaye; Stevie Wonder; the Marvelettes; the Mama and the Papas; the Lovin Spoonful; and James Brown. From “All You Need is Love,” to “Light My Fire;” from Somebody to Love” to “(Your Love is Lifting Me) Higher and Higher;” from “Purple Haze” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a perfect storm of art, politics, and culture merged to define an entire era.

Despite the incandescence of such disparate musical masters, the tune that was ultimately named 1967’s “Song of the Year” was so unlikely that uber rock critic Lester Bangs later called it, “the most unlikely hit in the history of rock music.” At the time, its mystic chords wove such a haunting tale of loss that Janis Joplin said that she felt nauseous after hearing it for the first time.

The song, of course, was “Ode to Billie Joe,” composed and recorded by a then obscure singer-songwriter from Chickasaw County, Mississippi named Bobbie Gentry. As someone who faithfully listened to the Top 40 on AM radio back then, I distinctly remember the first time I heard the tune in August 1967. While I wasn’t sick to my stomach like Janis had been, I felt as if Scout Finch had somehow emerged as a pop singer. After all, I had just finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and the vernacular and context of the song were as Southern as fried okra, pimento cheese, and chitlins.   

“And Papa said to Mama as he passed around the blackeyed peas/‘Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense, pass the biscuits, please./‘There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow.’/And Mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow/Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge/And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

For virtually all listeners, what attracted them was that searing, fingerstyle-like groove, which began the number so remarkedly. That Bobbie Gentry, just 23 at the time, could make her Baby Martin acoustic guitar sound intensely primeval was part of the magic. While the public was drawn to the song as a lyrical, homespun ballad, “Ode to Billie Joe” found almost universal acclaim among musicians for its musicianship. On his celebrated SiriusXM show, Bob Dylan recalled when he heard the beginning of “Ode to Billie Joe” for the first time. “It felt primitive, searing -as if the bark had been whittled off a tree,” Dylan quipped. “That girl got my attention straight away.” Otis Redding was quoted as saying to producer Dan Penn, “When I heard that distinct strumming in her intro, I knew it was going to be ‘some kind of trouble’.”

To hundreds or civil rights volunteers, “Ode to Billie Joe” summoned up the searing image of FBI agents methodically combing the same Tallahatchie River for the bodies of SNCC volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner three years earlier. In 1967, I had not only read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird but had impulsively leafed through my sister’s old copy of William Bradford Huie’s Wolf Whistle, a harrowing account of the 1955 Emmett Till murder. In the end, fourteen-year-old Till’s tortured body had been tied to a cotton gin fan and thrown off the Black Bayou Bridge and into the Tallahatchie below by two supremacists who had objected to him “talking fresh” to a white woman. Of course, no one knew those waters better than Bobbie Gentry.

Of course, no one knew those waters better than Bobbie Gentry.

As the world soon discovered, she had spent the first thirteen years of her life a short walk from the Tallahatchie River Greenwood, Mississippi before moving with her divorced mother to Arcadia, California for her teenage years. Bobbie supported herself with a variety of clerical jobs after high school and also worked for a spell as a fashion model in LA. Eventually, Gentry attended the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and began to appear in a variety of local nightclubs in the area. In the winter of ’67, Capitol Records executive Kelly Gordon heard a demo Bobbie had recorded and signed her to a one record contract based on the strength of a single she had written entitled, “Mississippi Delta.” Because her original number needed a B-side, Gentry dutifully composed “Ode to Billie Joe.” As Gentry said later on, “The ballad just came in the form of a dinner conversation back at home. It wasn’t true, but there were elements of truth throughout it. I felt it captured the essence of time and place pretty well.”

The executives at Capitol immediately recognized that the B-Side should be the featured number and reversed the sides. The entire affair was recorded by Bobbie Gentry on July 10, 1967, at the famed Capitol Records Studio C near Hollywood and Vine. It only took five-takes and forty-minutes of time for Gentry to lay down her masterwork.

Veteran record producer Jimmie Haskell was given the responsibility of “layering” the song, which had originally been Gentry’s solo guitar and vocals. As Haskell later explained to music historian, Gary Theroux, “Bobbie’s lyrics sounded ‘cinematic’ – very visual –  so I composed the string arrangement as if it were a movie.” His arrangement turned out to be a revelation adding, even more intrigue to a tune dripping with subtlety. Ultimately, Haskell used four violins, one viola, and two cellos to compliment Gentry’s picking, which remained the lead instrument throughout the ballad. Because single records had to fit on one side of a 45 in those days, most labels insisted that hits be less than five-minutes in length. Somewhere buried in the Capitol Records vaults there supposedly is the complete seven-minute version of the song, which contains at least one more verse where a “girl named Sally is heartbroken over the death of her beloved Billie Joe.”

“And Brother said he recollected when he and Tom and Billie Joe/Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show/‘And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?/”I’ll have another piece of apple pie, you know it don’t seem right!“/I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge;/“And now you tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge’?”

What transpires, indubitably, is nothing less than a Southern Gothic Tale, replete with every possible human emotion that frames the four-and-a-half minute song. Written in a dialect that has so much fidelity in it that you feel as if Eudora Welty could have written it, the casual dialogue that transpires over a family meal finds the narrator’s life crumble apart amidst conversationalist tones. It is Faulkner-as-musical-verse-form with a Flannery O’Connor sensibility to it.

As Bobbie Gentry said years after she had recorded her magnum opus, “The message of the song revolves around the nonchalant way the family talks about a suicide that had both obvious and unintentional consequences to the family around the dinner table. In my mind, ‘Ode to Billie Joe’ is a study in unconscious cruelty.” Within a year of Billie Joe MacAllister’s death, the brother would marry and move away; the father would die of the flu; the mother would plunge into paralyzing depression, and the daughter would be haunted by the boy whose demise was both tragic and unlikely.   

And Mama said to me “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?”/“I’ve been cookin’ all morning and you haven’t touched a single bite”/“That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today”/“Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way”/“He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge”/“And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

Just for kicks, I once asked my advanced English students to dissect Gentry’s tale. They came away from the experience obsessed with the unfolding fable that the vast majority of them have just read and heard for the first time. Many of them zeroed in on the family dynamics. One insightful boy wrote: “The narrator just can’t let on that the news is profoundly devastating. She can’t let on that it’s killing her. Interestingly, though, I feel that her mother somehow knows anyway and is quietly dying inside as well. That is because her hard working father knows as well, but because he apparently viewed Billie Joe in mostly negative eyes. Thus, he wants her daughter to just ‘suck it up.’ Life is hard where they live, and that’s the way it goes sometimes. Finally, her brother is both reflective and sensitive about Billie Joe’s death. It seems to shake him to the core to such an extent that he ends up marrying his girlfriend and moving away.”

The overarching wonder of the tune, of course, lies in the death of Billie Joe McAllister and why he ended up committing suicide in the first place. One of the geniuses of the song is that Bobbie Gentry’s “show – don’t tell” writing never reveals the mystery, which is why “Ode To Billie Joe” is a featured number on the Smithsonian Institute’s Masters of Country Music box set. There, preserved for all-time is Gentry’s dark and exotic husky voice who sang a tune unlike anything else on the radio at the time, with a narrative that was steeped in mystery and intrigue. As Bobbie told journalist Fred Bronson ten years after the release of “Ode to Billie Joe”: “Everybody has a different guess about what was thrown off the bridge—flowers, a ring, a draft notice to go to Vietnam, even a baby. Anyone who hears the song can think what they want.”

During the closure of my English class discussion on the ballad, another exceptionally enterprising student exclaimed, “This is very much an example of the ‘butterfly effect’ in action – is the concept that small causes can have large and sometimes unexpected consequences.”

When I asked her to expand on her idea, she later wrote about it in her English journal: “Every little thing does matter in life, and the things we take for granted might be difference-makers for others. Something incredibly inconsequential to you might alter the world of another. That is why this is such a heartbreaking song. It reminds you that have no idea how much trouble each person experiences in life. I guess all we can do is provide a human bridge over any troubled waters for others. Isn’t that what empathy is about?”

“A year has come ‘n’ gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe/And Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo./There was a virus going ’round, Papa caught it and he died last spring;/And now Mama doesn’t seem to wanna do much of anything;/And me, I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge -/And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.”

50 years ago this summer, an unlikely songwriter composed, performed and sang a tune whose pathos and innuendo made it an instant classic. When the first sweltering chord of “Ode to Billie Joe,” is struck, I still take notice and listen intently all these years later. john Steinbeck once famously said, “Everyone has one good story in them.” While there were some good stories that were told in the summer of 1967 – Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child” and Paul McCartney “She’s Leaving Home,” among them, it is this somewhat obscure, inconclusive ballad whose bell still tolls for us all.

 

 

 

 

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The Year The Impossible Was Not Just a Dream

On a balmy Sunday afternoon, September 18, 1966, my father and I strolled down an unassuming alley in the Back Bay section of Boston then called Jersey Street, entered Gate A, and sat in our appointed seats in Section 14 at Fenway Park.

Another summer of disappointment would officially end for the Boston Red Sox ten days later.  On the final day of the season, the team would finish with a demoralizing 72-90 record, good for ninth place, one-half game out of last place in the then ten-team American League.

At the time, the Red Sox were considered a genuine loser with a disquieting moniker – “The Country Club.”  Boston’s only professional baseball club was known to overpay and coddle its stars while playing in a then-feeble stadium where the average attendance was less than nine thousand a game. The last major league franchise to include an African-American on its big league roster, the organization was a backwater for deep-seated colonialism that had come to define the team itself.

Not surprisingly, the Sox hadn’t had a winning season in a decade, and despite the presence of a handful of talented prospects emerging from Boston’s AAA squad in Toronto, a sparse crowd of downcast loyalists sat passively as the Olde Towne Team lost their final home game of the season to the California Angels.

As my father and I watched from our red seats along the first baseline, we witnessed starting pitcher Jim Lonborg removed in the fifth inning after another unsatisfactory outing. He would then be replaced by journeymen hurlers Rollie Sheldon and Garry Roggenburk. Despite the looming presence of such emerging sluggers as Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Conigliaro, and George Scott, Angel hitters Jim Fregosi and Paul Schaal outmatched the Sox, 5-3, handing Boston its 86th defeat of the season.

At 3:29 pm, when the final out was made, even the most casual of fans recognized that one more futile Boston baseball season was already in the books. Observing my gloom, my father, who had come to accept disappointment as an unswerving baseball companion, put his arms around me and said fiercely, “Don’t worry, son.  You know what they said in Brooklyn in the old days?  ‘Wait until next year!’ ”

“I hope so,” I muttered as we walked past five thousand torn scorecards, confetti for another melancholy season.

As Dad and I sauntered out of Fenway that afternoon, little did we know that our ragtag baseball team was actually on the cusp of a truly remarkable Magical Mystery Tour – the most unlikely, surreal, and joyful of all Red Sox seasons. To the absolute astonishment of the entire baseball world, a franchise that had once been nicknamed “The Red Flops” by the head of its own fan club, would, over the course of the next twelve months, inexplicably defy nearly insurmountable, 100 to 1 odds to emerge as a truly immortal squad – The Impossible Dream Red Sox.

As a result of the 1967 miracle, Boston’s major league baseball entry would not only fill Fenway Park with regularity over the next five decades, but the team itself would experience an unprecedented renaissance, finishing above .500 forty-two times while maintaining the second best winning percentage in the majors from 1967 through 2013, when it won its third world championship in nine years. The entity that would lovingly become known as “Red Sox Nation” would find its origin in 1967 when “The Cardiac Kids” captured the soul of each and every New Englander. Even today, fifty years later, the colors from that improbable year still linger.

A few weeks before his death in 1986, my father murmured to me, “I’ve seen everyone from Babe Ruth to Bobby Orr, but ’67 has no comparison.  It stands on its own.”

My first recollection that things would be different on Jersey Street began at precisely 2:02 pm on the afternoon of September 28, 1966, when minor league manager Dick Williams was formally introduced as the new field general of the franchise.

My father and I watched a synopsis of the press conference later on that evening through the incisive lens of veteran Boston sportscaster Don Gillis. During his nightly report on WHDH TV, Channel 5, Gillis conducted a now legendary interview with the new Boston manager in which the volatile Williams spat out a series of declarative sentences in rapid fire: “I’ll tell you what, Don. We’ll have a hustling ball club.  And they won’t quit. They didn’t quit on me in the minors in Toronto, and they won’t quit on me here. In the end, I honestly think that we’ll win more games than they lose.”       

As Gillis concluded his report, Dad exclaimed, “You know what? I believe Williams and what he just said.  After all,” Dad winked to me, “Williams is a National League guy!”   

Like thousands of other old Boston Braves fans, my father had never transferred his allegiance to the Red Sox. As a young man, he had seen Babe Ruth hit a gigantic blast into the legendary “Jury Box” in right field at old Braves Field. From Rabbit Maranville to Bob Elliott, he had lived and died with “his boys.” When the Braves abruptly departed for Milwaukee in March 1953, Dad lived in a perpetual baseball gulag; the only time I had ever seen him root outright for any baseball team occurred when the National League representative played in the World Series each fall.        

“Maybe this Williams guy will follow through on his words,” my father exclaimed as he flipped off the TV.  “Wouldn’t that be something?”  

On Monday morning, February 27th, the 1967 Boston Red Sox assembled for the first time at Boston’s spring training facilities in Winter Haven, Florida. Many of the players were stunned when they were individually phoned by an apologetic desk clerk at the local Holiday Inn at 7:00 am. From veteran John Wyatt to rookie Reggie Smith, the same message was delivered: “Manager Williams expects you on the field at 9:00 am sharp – or you will be fined for being late.”

By the following week, local scribes were calling the Red Sox daily drills the most organized and detailed they had ever seen. Repetitious fielding drills involving cutoffs and situational hitting including hitting to the opposite field were interspersed with a series of sprints, crunches, and volleyball. “The game involves strong legs, pliable arms, superb hand-eye coordination, and teamwork,” Williams told veteran Boston Herald scribe, Harold Kaese. “If they don’t work hard, they will sit on the bench with lighter pockets.”

After six weeks of daily practices, scrimmages, and exhibition games, two leaders emerged during the late winter foray – left-fielder Carl Yastrzemski, whose unremitting workout sessions with local trainer Gene Berde the previous fall and winter was already paying enormous dividends, and pitcher Jim Lonborg, whose darting fastball began to be complemented by a tumbling curveball that seemed to drop six to eight inches as it approached home plate.

Despite the apparent transformation of the team, only 8,234 fans greeted the Red Sox as they played the first official game of the 1967 season. Twenty years later, Hall of Fame baseball scribe, Peter Gammons, would compare the annual Opening Day festivities in Boston to a “Druid Rite of Spring.” On this scrubbed-up, blustery day, however, the usual skepticism prevailed; there would be 25,000 empty seats at the Fens that day despite the absolutely spotless weather.

Still, the Bosox won a 5-4 contest behind the starting pitching of Jim Lonborg, the power hitting of Rico Petrocelli, and the superb fielding of Tony Conigliaro, who made a brilliant stab in right field on a ball smoked by Ron Hansen with one out in the ninth. When my father returned home that evening, he joked to me, “See, they’re winning more than they’re losing!”     

Two days later, a truly seminal event occurred that would make not only Boston fans, but baseball fans everywhere, stand up and take notice. On Friday afternoon, April 14 in the South Bronx, Yankee veteran Whitey Ford started for New York in the home opener at the Stadium against the Red Sox. The starting pitcher for Boston was a lanky lefthander from California named Billy Rohr, whose main attributes at the time were a sneaky fastball and a lollipop curve.

After sprinting home from school to take in the end of the game, I was stunned to hear from an animated Ken Coleman, who was broadcasting the game on WHDH radio, that the young Boston hurler had not given up a hit while walking five through eight innings.

According to Coleman, the only scare in the contest had occurred in the bottom of the sixth inning when Yankee outfielder Bill Robinson ripped a smash up the middle. The ball had struck Billy Rohr on the left shin, rebounded to Red Sox third baseman Joe Foy, who then gunned the ball to George Scott at first for the second out of the sixth. Since that time, the Boston rookie southpaw had breezed through the seventh and the eighth and was on the cusp of baseball immortality as I paced back and forth in my bedroom.

On the very first pitch of the bottom of the ninth inning, Yankee hitter Tom Tresh lashed a flat heater from Rohr and lined it well over Carl Yastrzemski’s head into the cavernous outfield at Yankee Stadium. As soon as the ball was struck, Yaz sprinted flat out – and – at the last second – lunged at the ball like a wide receiver, his body extended to its furthest reaches. Announcer Coleman, who had instantly measured the distance to where the ball was heading from where the Boston left fielder had started from, realized that the Boston outfielder was somehow closing in on Tresh’s rocket. At the last second, Yaz leaped and tumbled – and then got up to his feet, clutching the ball skyward for all to see. The Red Sox lead announcer then precipitately screamed into the mike, “And he dives and makes a TREMENDOUS CATCH!”

New York first baseman Joe Pepitone followed with a pedestrian fly to right, which outfielder Tony Conigliaro easily caught for the second out. With the Red Sox leading 3 to 0, Billy Rohr was only one out away from pitching a no-hitter in his first major league start. Seven pitches later, the Boston left-hander left a hanging curve over the outer portion of the plate, which Yankee catcher Elston Howard looped to right field for a base hit, a little flair that was out the grasp of both Tony C. and second baseman Reggie Smith. As Howard rounded first, thousands of Yankee fans jeered him – the first and only time that the revered Yankee catcher was ever booed after getting a base hit in the Stadium. One pitch later, New York’s Charley Smith popped to Tony C, in right, and the Red Sox mobbed a humble Rohr on the mound.

A few seconds later, the phone rang. “Did you hear that Shaunie?” bellowed my father.  “Absolutely fantastic!” Two nights later, Dad and I watched proudly as Billy Rohr was formally introduced to a national audience on Ed Sullivan’s celebrated Sunday night entertainment show on CBS.

From the time Rohr pitched his one-hitter against the Yankees on that memorable afternoon in April 1967, Dad began to follow his “new boys” on a pitch-by-pitch basis. Fourteen years after the Braves had departed New England for Milwaukee, James Lawrence Kelly finally became a Red Sox fan. Until the day he died nineteen seasons later, my father and I would follow the daily exploits of the team together.

Unlike previous years when the eventual pennant winner had sprinted to the lead by mid-spring, the American League quickly turned into a veritable quagmire. As the season progressed, no team emerged from a pack whose leader changed virtually every day. While the defending World Champion Orioles eventually fell out of contention thanks to an unyielding series of injuries, the dangerous Minnesota Twins emerged as the most balanced squad in the league.

As the season began to unfold, most baseball experts believed that the White Sox had the best pitching staff, while the Tigers possessed the league’s most prodigious offense. One last squad lingered near the top of the AL standings that spring like unhurried fog descending on a humid night – the youthful Red Sox.

Indeed, as the Boston nine kept itself above .500 and within a handful of games of the lead during the first ten weeks of the season, the team had begun to discard its longstanding country club reputation. The Sox were becoming known as a hustling, talented bunch that had developed a habit of coming from behind in the most unanticipated of ways.

One afternoon after a particularly satisfying win, I began to look closely at the 1967 schedule that adorned my bedroom wall, next to a picture of my latest Boston sports hero, a certain crew cut-haired teenager named Robert Gordon Orr. When I observed that the Sox had a home game against the best team in the league, the feared Minnesota Twins, on the last day of the season, I scurried down to my father’s study.

“Daddy!” I shouted, “Do you think that Mr. O’Connell can get us tickets to the game on October 1st? I have a feeling it might be an important one.” My father and Dick O’Connell, the team’s general manager at the time, were old friends who had served in the Navy Reserve together.   

“I’ll call Dick tomorrow,” Dad replied. “He will surely like your optimism, Shaunie!”    

Ten days later, I received an envelope in the mail with a Red Sox logo adorning the front. When I tore it open, four tickets tumbled out onto the floor. Inside the envelope was a short note. “Dear Shaun,” it read, “I wish all Red Sox fans had your faith. May these tickets bring you great joy.  Sincerely, Dick O’Connell.”

A month later, on the evening of June 15th, nearly 17,000 fans turned out at Fenway to see them battle the first-place White Sox. At the time, Boston was in third place, five games behind Chicago. Earlier that day, I had graduated from sixth grade and was now officially on vacation. Dad wanted to “break out the summer” by having the two of us take in some baseball at Fenway.

When we sat in our assigned seats in Section 27, we noticed that the crowd was more boisterous than previous games that we had been present at in the past. In centerfield, a homemade sign had been draped on the back wall with a large picture of the team’s insignia with the accompanying words – “The Little Engine That Could!”

For nine innings, we watched from our seats along the third base line as two improbable hurlers, Red Sox rookie pitcher Gary Waslewski and veteran journeyman Bruce Howard battled each other to a scoreless duel. Hard-throwing reliever Johnny Wyatt came out of the Boston bullpen in the tenth and shut the Chisox down. Hoyt Wilhelm and John Buzhardt did the same for Chicago. As the two squads walked off the field to conclude the tenth frame, Dad turned to me and beamed, “Now this is a National League kind of game!”

In the top of the eleventh inning, Walt “No Neck” Williams led off the inning with a scorching double into the leftfield corner.  After monitoring the flight of the ball, my father quickly surmised, “The White Sox’s manager, Eddie Stanky, will have Don Buford bunt. Remember, Eddie once played for the Braves!”

As George Scott and Joe Foy crept in to cover the anticipated bunt, the Chicago batter suddenly left his squared-off position in the batter’s box and lashed at a John Wyatt fastball toward right field. First baseman Scott desperately lunged for the ball, caught it on a wicked hop, and beat a stunned Williams to the bag. My father fiercely applauded as he shouted through the din, “Gil Hodges himself could not have gotten to that ball!”

After the second out, however, light-hitting Ken Berry dribbled a single to right with Williams hustling in from third. I slumped into my seat as Tony C. lobbed the ball back to Mike Andrews at second. Dad tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, son – the big boys are coming up for us.”

However, when Yaz popped to first baseman Tommy McCraw and George Scott broke his bat on a soft liner to third baseman Dick Kenworthy, all hope seemed lost. “We’re staying for the final out,” Dad said emphatically as I remained seated, watching Joe Foy tiptoe towards home plate. The Red Sox third baseman took a deep breath, fingered his bat, and promptly grounded a single between short and third.

As fan favorite Tony Conigliaro slowly walked up to the plate, everyone at the Fens began to stand. Having led the American League in home runs two seasons before, Tony C. was now mired in a prolonged slump. A recent two-week stint at Camp Drum as a member of the Massachusetts National Guard had left him in a hitting stupor. Aware of Conig’s hitting funk, pitcher John Buzhardt promptly threw a pair of unforgiving curves; the kid from East Boston grunted each time as he missed by a foot. Like an airless shroud, an unsettling stillness commenced settled over Fenway.

With the count 0-2, Conigliaro settled into his familiar stance, his bat cocked, his coffee eyes staring out assertively at the White Sox hurler. Another curveball was tossed by Buzhardt, but the sphere seemed to deflate by the time it approached home plate. In less than a second, the streaking ball disappeared into the left field net above the scoreboard as the Red Sox team swirled around Tony C. as he gleefully approached home.

“Never, ever count this team out!” Dad shouted as we joined in the hosannas that swelled around us. Minutes later, we headed home on Route 9, drained and elated; as we listened on WHDH, Red Sox announcer Ned Martin concluded the post-game show be exclaiming, “The Cardiac Kids have come through once again!”

“This is the most fun I’ve had in baseball since the ’48 Braves!” Dad cried out as we entered our darkened driveway in Wellesley.

Over the next three months, the fortunes of the Red Sox turned into a proverbial Paragon Park roller-coaster-ride. In late June, a massive brawl in the Bronx ensued after Jim Lonborg plunked Yankees pitcher Thad Tillotson square in the back in retaliation for Tillotson’s beaning of Joe Foy. Injuries to pitchers Dave Morehead and Bill Rohr were offset by the unanticipated emergence of hurlers Jose Santiago and Sparky Lyle. Veteran second baseman Jerry Adair, utility man Norm Siebern, and pitcher Gary Bell were added to the team in crucial mid-season trades. Later on, catcher Elston Howard would be picked up on waivers from the Yankees. Ellie’s leadership behind the plate would prove absolutely vital to the team for the remainder of the season.

On August 18th, however, tragedy struck when Tony Conigliaro was plucked on the left cheekbone by a tailing fastball thrown by Angels’ hurler Jack Hamilton. The young Bosox superstar would not play in another major league game until two seasons later.

Despite Tony C’s injury, the Red Sox found themselves in sole possession of first place for the first time since 1949 as they played the rubber game of a vital three-game series against Chicago on the afternoon of August 26th. The Red Hose subsequently defeated the hard-charging White Sox at Comiskey Park when noodle-armed Jose Tartabull threw out a bewildered Ken Berry who had tagged up from third base to complete an astonishing double play to end the game. When the umpire’s right hand went up after the dust had settled, shouts of ecstasy could be heard throughout our cottage on the Cape as my entire family watched the game on my grandfather’s decrepit Philco.

“While Tartabull’s throw was truly incredible,” gushed Dad five minutes after the contest ended, “it was Ellie Howard’s blocking of home plate with his left foot that saved the day!” Not long after the ’67 season, longtime announcer Ken Coleman pointed to this game as the most critical victory of the year.

A few days later, the Red Sox were featured in both Life and Sports Illustrated, with Yaz gracing the cover of SI. Nearly every kid within the confines of Route 128 and beyond painstakingly cut the cover page from the rest of the magazine and scotch-taped it to his or her bedroom wall, where it resolutely remained for years afterward, a venerable sports icon, yellowed and self-important.

By this time, the 1967 Red Sox began to creep into the mindset of the American psyche, a society that was not only in the midst of an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam but which was also in the throes of one of the most dynamic cultural phenomena in its two-century history that became known as “The Summer of Love.” Fueled by the anti-war and civil rights movements, the emerging hippie counterculture in San Francisco, and the unprecedented release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in mid-June, anything else that was “in” that summer was subsequently embraced by the greater culture as a “happening.” From the national debut albums of Van Morrison, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Laura Nyro, the Grateful Dead, and the Jefferson Airplane, within an astonishing ten-week period in late spring to the release of the summer’s irrepressible anthem, John Lennon’s “All You Need is Love,” the musical harvest that intrepid baseball summer was simply unparalleled.

The magic of the times even touched a previously xenophobic baseball franchise far away from San Francisco, for as the Boston Red Sox wove their way to the top of the standings, they suddenly became the next “in thing.”  During a late-summer series in Yankee Stadium, thousands of Yankee fans began to root for the Red Sox because, as one fan explained to New York writer Dick Young at the time, the Sox seemed “incredibly cool.

As the days turned breezy and the early fall evenings lengthened, Boston’s American League entry and the other three teams vying for the pennant moved in and out of first place like cars in a traffic jam. On September 23rd, with only a handful of games left in the regular season, just one game separated the four top teams. It was apparent that the AL pennant would probably be decided the following weekend when the Red Sox would host front-runner Minnesota, the Tigers would take on the Angels in Detroit, and Chicago would host the lowly Washington Senators. By Friday, September 29th, however, the light-hitting Chisox were eliminated from contention by Phil Ortega and the Senators who defeated White Sox ace Tommy John by a 1-0 score.      

On Saturday, September 30th, Detroit remained on the brink with an impressive 5-0 win over the Angels. A scheduled doubleheader at Tiger Stadium would be held the next afternoon. At Fenway Park, the Red Sox defeated the Twins in an absolute do-or-die situation behind the starting pitching of Jose Santiago and the seventh-inning heroics of Carl Yastrzemski, who launched his forty-fourth home run of the year into the Twins bullpen off of Minnesota reliever Jim Merritt. Yaz, who drove in three runs with the blast, would ultimately secure baseball’s Triple Crown the next afternoon with a clutch two-RBI, four-hit performance.

With one-hundred-and-sixty one games played, the Red Sox and the Twins were tied for first; the Tigers were only a half-game behind the co-leaders. The closest pennant race in American League history would ultimately be determined within the bookends of a single autumn afternoon.         

October 1, 1967.

My father, brother, and I arrived at our appointed seats in Section 15 more than ninety minutes before game time. NBC had smartly decided to televise the game nationally, A horde of scribes and sportscasters scurried around both teams as they took batting practice. Over the next hour, the old ballpark began to brim over with Sox fans; there were standees everywhere, including scores of young supporters who stood along the rickety edges of the billboard signs that stood at attention on Lansdowne Street beyond left field.

“Dad, Mr. O’Connell was really generous!” I exclaimed to my father.  “These are the best seats in the ballpark!” We glanced out onto the field from our perch near the Red Sox dugout. “It’s nice that there is an important baseball game to be played here in October,” Dad replied. “It’s been a long time.”

The team that had long been a laughing stock was now featured on the front page of The New York Times as the closest race in American League history came down to the wire. Overhead, a gaggle of news helicopters flew around the perimeter of Kenmore Square while two-hundred reporters jammed into Fenway’s overcrowded press box. The old park was bulging at the seams as game time approached – nearly 35,000 fans – a far cry from the smattering of fans who had come to witness Opening Day less than six months previously. In the centerfield bleachers, a homemade sign hung on the back wall of the park reminded us of the time, the place, and the incomparable moment: “The Sox Are Totally Groovy,” it read.

Twenty-five minutes before game time, Jim Lonborg slowly strolled out to the Red Sox bullpen to a thunderous ovation. While his 22-9 record was singularly impressive, he was 0-3 against the Twins coming into the game.  Meanwhile, Dean Chance, Minnesota’s starting pitcher with a record of 20-13, also began warming up in right field. One-fourth of his victories in 1967 had come against Boston.

Some sixty miles to the southwest of Boston’s Back Bay in Southbridge, Massachusetts, Seaver Miller Rice, my great uncle, and his infirmed wife, Gertrude, were listening intently to the pre-game show on WHDH radio as they had for the previous one-hundred-and-sixty-one contests. Rice, then seventy-four years old, had seen Cy Young pitch for the Boston Americans and had been one of the thousands of enthralled spectators at Fenway Park in 1912 when young Smokey Joe Wood had out-dueled the immortal Walter Johnson in one of the most famous baseball games ever played within the confines of the City of Boston.

A devoted husband, Seaver had served as the solitary caregiver of his elegant spouse, Gertrude, who had been bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis for more than a decade. Like thousands and thousands of other “shut-ins,” the daily Red Sox radio-casts had enabled the Rices to get through the summer months that year with aplomb. Gertrude Rice’s favorite player, first baseman George Scott, never ceased to put a smile on her still beautiful face. “I think George and the boys are going to come through for us all today!” she exhaled, staring at her clock radio that was positioned next to her bed. Her husband, like many devoted Boston fans at that moment, was too nervous to even reply.

Back at Fenway Park, the Red Sox started off badly, not surprising given their inexperience in pressurized games. With a runner on first and two outs, Harmon Killebrew singled to left-center as runner Cesar Tovar began sprinting around the bases. Yaz charged the ball, but it skirted behind him for an error, allowing the Twins to score their second run. Meanwhile, Twins starter Dean Chance continued to mow down the Boston nine, allowing only three hits in the first five innings.

As the bottom of the sixth began, Minnesota led 2-0, with pitcher Jim Lonborg leading off the frame. The Bosox pitcher noticed that Twins third baseman Cesar Tovar was playing back. As Chance hurled his first pitch of the inning, Lonborg suddenly swung his bat around, squared a perfect bunt down the third base line, and beat it out.  

Lonnie’s unforeseen bunt – comparable to Red Sox utilityman Dave Roberts’ dramatic steal nearly thirty-seven years later – opened up the floodgates. Ten pitches later, Chance was out of the ballgame, after Jerry Adair, Dalton Jones, and then Yaz lashed singles to tie the score. When shortstop Zoilo Versailles gambled on Ken Harrelson’s high chopper and threw home, Jones slid in safely to make the score 3-2 in favor of Boston. An error and a wild pitch enabled the fourth and fifth Boston runs of the inning to score.

“Three more innings!” my father barked above the deafening roar that engulfed the ballpark.

  In the top of the eighth, Yaz completed his signature season by throwing out Bob Allison at second after the Minnesota slugger had rammed a hanging curve hard against the leftfield wall. The Boston outfielder retrieved it off the Monster, whirled around, and threw a laser to second baseman Mike Andrews for the third out. While the Twins had scored on the play to make it 5-3, we breathed a collective sigh of relief as the Sox happily disappeared into their first base dugout.

 After Boston went quietly in the bottom of the eighth, my father and I, along with everyone else at Fenway, got out of our seats and stood as the Red Sox took the field in the top of the ninth. “Three more outs, my boy,” Dad patted me as I gripped my program nervously.

Centerfielder Ted Uhlaender led off and skipped a grounder to Rico at short. At the last second, however, the ball took a bad hop and struck the Boston shortstop square on the cheek. With a runner at first, Lonborg got two quick strikes on rookie Rod Carew. On the third pitch, the Twins phenom lashed a ball right to second baseman Andrews who tagged Uhlaender and then heaved the ball to George Scott who scooped it out of the dirt for a double play.

A groundswell of emotion began to bubble all around Fenway.  I placed my hands together, literally praying for one more out. For five years, I had followed a franchise that had long defined both mediocrity and failure; but now, after six miraculous months of unspoiled play, the Boston Red Sox were on the abyss of pure baseball ecstasy. As pinch hitter Rich Rollins approached the batter’s circle, I felt a gentle hand pat my back. I looked over to my left. Dad gave me a wink as Rollins dug in.

Seventy miles away in Southbridge, Massachusetts, Gertrude Rice fingered her rosary beads and said a silent prayer as she lay in her bed, listening to the reassuring voice of Ned Martin on WHDH radio. “They are going to pull this all off,” Seaver Rice smiled at his wife. “It’s an absolute miracle.”  

Gertrude Rice began to shed tears of joy.

Back at Fenway Park’s crowded press box, renowned New York uber-scribe, Jimmy Breslin began to compose an on-the-spot tribute to the Boston Nine just as Jim Lonborg began his windup:

   “Here’s to the Red Sox of Boston

   Home of the bean and the cod

   Where Cabots now cheer Yastrzemskis

   And ol’ Beantown is suddenly mod.”

One floor above where Breslin was sitting, WHDH engineer, Al Walker, sat up straight in the radio broadcasting booth to watch the proceedings as announcer Ned Martin sat huddled next to him. Both men had spent several excruciating years in the wilderness with the Red Sox – and both wanted to get this moment just right. Walker had just finished communicating with head Red Sox announcer, Ken Coleman, on his headset, who was in the Red Sox dressing room waiting to interview the Red Sox after the game. The local radio engineer leveled the crowd noise with his announcer’s distinct baritone as Ned Martin intently watched Rich Rollins dig in at home plate. The Red Sox number two announcer took a deep breath and began talking on the air, “Jim Lonborg is within one out….of his biggest victory ever…his twenty-second of the year….and his first over the Twins.”   

He then paused – letting the listener take in the scene.     

“The pitch……is looped toward shortstop….”

A living and breathing thesaurus, Martin could have used any of a host of words from his prodigious vocabulary, but he chose “looped.” My father later described Rollin’s popup as “a little squirt from the hose.” “Looped” was an inspired choice, impeccably capturing the bending flight of the ball.

As the ball began to topple, Ned’s voice hurriedly changed; his tenor commenced to soar as he exclaimed, “Petrocelli’s back…he’s got it!  The Red Sox win!”       

The Sox radio announcer then took in a breath of air, mostly to observe the players and fans who had instantly enveloped the jubilant Lonborg to the right of the pitcher’s mound. Absolute chaos ensued, but Ned Martin was well equipped to describe it. He immediately punched out, “And there’s pandemonium on the field!”

The last ingredient of Martin’s call contained just one word – and a cacophony of elation. Mindful that he was describing the action to a devoted radio audience, Ned paused, and then called out, “Listen!”

An opus of horns could be heard – the air-kind that were allowed at the time by management – instruments of exultation that always gave out a piercing glee as they resounded throughout the ancient ballpark. The fans’ collective primal-shouting verified Martin’s precise account. Martin and Al Walker both stood up as thousands of fans swirled onto the field.

Also standing in his usual upstairs box along the third base line was owner Tom Yawkey, who received hugs from his wife, Jean, and from the vice president of the team at the time, Haywood Sullivan. Tears streamed down his ancient face as the Red Sox principal owner for more than thirty years watched the proceedings.

Down below in the stands, my father grabbed me as I began to move toward the mob scene on the field, Dad yelled, “You’ll get killed out there.  Enjoy it from here!”

For the next twenty minutes, the Red Sox themselves attempted to make it safely back to the dugout from amidst the euphoric horde. Jim Lonborg was physically carried out to right field before being rescued by a flock of policemen. As we watched the ensuing bedlam on the field, my father gestured to the field and shouted above the clamor, “Life doesn’t get any better than this!”  

A year previously, Dad and I had walked out of Fenway Park dejected after another losing season. As we maneuvered through the hubbub of the euphoric throng encircling Kenmore Square, the Red Sox, ninth place finishers the season before, were now on the cusp of an improbable pennant.

We listened to the Tigers game on the radio on the triumphant ride back to Wellesley. Detroit had won the first game against California; Ned Martin announced that a one-game playoff would be played at Fenway the following afternoon if the Tigers prevailed in the second game.

An hour later, I paced back and forth in my bedroom, pulling with all of my might for the Angels to preserve their 8-5 lead. With one out and one on in the bottom of the ninth, Tigers infielder Dick McAuliffe walked up to the plate to face veteran California pitcher, George Brunet.

Through the haze of the fall afternoon in Tiger Stadium, legendary Detroit announcer Ernie Harwell barked out, “McAuliffe hits a ground ball to Bobby Knoop who shovels to Fregosi for one – there’s the throw to Don Mincher – and it’s a double play!  Boston has won the American League pennant!” I jumped up and down for what seemed like an hour. My mother then flew into my room and squeezed me extra hard.

“After all of those years of following this team – and now look what they’ve brought you!” she exclaimed with blinking eyes. Within minutes, more than twenty of the neighborhood kids formed a spontaneous parade up and down our street, Radcliffe Road, as their jubilant parents stood by their doorways, clapping and yelling with all of their hearts.

Later that night, before I went to sleep, I went to say goodnight to my father.  “I can’t believe that we’re American League champs!” I admitted to him with a tone of wonder in my voice.

“We did it, Shaunie!  We did this thing together,” Dad smiled as he gave me an extended hug.  

On the morning of October 2nd, I rushed downstairs and ran outside to fetch a copy of the day’s newspaper. I hastily opened up The Boston Herald and saw a colored team picture of the Red Sox with a bold headline that proclaimed, “Pennant Is Ours!”   

“Best news headline I have read since ‘Japs Surrender!’” grinned Mom as I showed her the top half of the front page.

Two days later, I brought my tiny transistor to Wellesley Junior High School in order to hear the World Series. In Mr. Briggs’ math class, we huddled around my radio and listened to the start of the Sox pregame show. It turned out to be an eighteen-minute recap of the regular season with music, poetry, and audio clips cohesively threaded together in an emotive tribute that announcer Ken Coleman called, “The Impossible Dream.”  

As we began to listen to the Series that afternoon, we knew that the odds of securing a world’s championship that year were somewhat remote, for facing the Red Sox in the World Series that fall was the plucky St. Louis Cardinals, the most balanced and talented team in either league at the time. Most baseball experts had already picked St. Louis to win the Series in five games.   

In Game 1, the Cards started fast out of the gate with a dramatic 2-1 victory at Fenway behind the seamless pitching of the fearless Bob Gibson. The Sox came back in Game 2 with abandon; Yaz lashed two prodigious home runs while ace Jim Lonborg lost a perfect game bid with two out in the eighth inning when Julian Javier stroked a double into the left field corner. Ultimately, Lonnie tossed the second one-hitter in World Series history, a peerless pitching performance in the most pressurized of circumstances.  

After Game 2, my joyful parents brought back a Red Sox American League Champions banner and a World Series program for me to have as mementos – they had been guests of old friends Dom and Emily DiMaggio – and were still soaring from Lonnie’s near-perfect game. Dad laughed when he told me that he saw New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy at the game – proudly wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap. “That will go well in the Bronx when he runs again,” my father quipped.     

In St. Louis, the Cards won games 3 and 4 behind the sterling pitching of Nellie Briles and Gibson, who seemed especially unhittable in the glare of the Midwestern afternoon sun. However, Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg valiantly came through for the Boston nine in Game 5 at Busch Stadium as Lonnie pitched another complete game victory, a three-hit masterpiece in which he gave up his only run of the game to St. Louis with two out in the ninth.   

Back at Fenway for Game 6, few fans believed that Boston could come back, especially when journeyman pitcher Gary Waslewski was announced as Dick Williams’ surprise starter. In the end, however, the improbable Red Sox struck again as they had all season. “Waz” pitched a heroic, five-and-a-third innings – giving up just two runs, while Rico Petrocelli, Carl Yastrzemski, and Reggie Smith hit back-to-back-to-back home runs in the fourth inning off St. Louis starter Dick Hughes. Key hits by Dalton Jones, Carl Yastrzemski, and Reggie Smith off old friend Jack Lamabe secured the game for the Boston nine in the seventh.     

 In Game 7, Manager Dick Williams went with his heart over his head and chose Jim Lonborg to pitch on only two days’ rest against the relentless Bob Gibson. Laboring for the third time on three days rest, the future Hall of Famer dominated the finale, permitting Boston just three scratch hits while striking out ten batters.

After forty-nine hard-fought innings over seven inexorable games, George Scott struck out to end the Series, a signature bullet from the golden arm of Gibson, who was immediately swallowed up by a throng of exultant Cardinals teammates. The whirl of John Kiley’s organ could be heard in the background as the silent throng at Fenway slowly began to head for the exits.

Later that night, my eyes began to well with tears as I lay on bed, staring at the ceiling. Suddenly, a shaft of light filtered through the darkness as a hulking figure approached my bed. The man who sat down at the corner of my cot had survived the Great Depression, had fought at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and had helped raise four children during a most tumultuous time period.

“I, too, am sad, Shaunie,” my father said, as he touched my face.

For the next half-hour, Dad and I talked. With a beckoning autumn wind blowing outside my window, we both admitted to each other that St. Louis had a vastly superior team. “The Red Sox gave it all they had,” my father said simply. In the next day’s edition of The Boston Globe, renowned sportswriter Ray Fitzgerald called it, “The Series nobody lost.”   

After a moment of silence, Dad patted me on the shoulder and sighed, “Lonnie had the heart of a lion out there today. Gary Waslewski, of all people, kept us in Game 6! No, son, there are no regrets here. They will be forever champions in my book.” He kissed me goodnight and whispered, “What a season!  What an incredible season!” Dad left quietly, and I closed my eyes, with a kaleidoscope of images that formed the template of a miracle swirling in my mind.

Thirty-seven years later, in the afterglow of the most remarkable post-season performance in Boston baseball history, I visited my father’s grave, only a short walk from my old bedroom in Wellesley. With me was his youngest grandchild, Max, a ten-year-old boy at the time who lived for every Red Sox victory.

As we walked to Dad’s gravesite, both Max and I were adorned in matching David “Big Papi” Ortiz tee shirts. As we stood over his grave, the sun began to glisten on the leaves that lay scattered like tiny islands on the carpeted lawn of Woodlawn Cemetery. A week before, the most prodigious parade in New England history had celebrated a team that had redefined the adjective “extraordinary.” The last two-and-a-half months of the 2004 season had completely eliminated the pathos that had become an unwieldy appendage to longtime Sox loyalists. The ensuing tarpaulin of elation that enveloped the region had reminded my mother of V-E Day.

And yet, for more than one-half of the 2004 season, the Red Sox had not played up to their potential; by the end of July, they found themselves hopelessly out of the divisional race. The team actually needed a sustained winning streak three-fourths of the way through the season in order to even qualify for the playoffs

I coaxed Max as he looked over his grandfather’s grave. “Go ahead, Maxie. He would want to hear it from you.”   

“Grampie!” Max bellowed, “We won it!  We’re World Series champions!”

Max and I then did a little dance at the lip of my father’s gravesite, an imitation of Manny Ramirez greeting “Big Papi” after a home run, our fingers pointing to the sky. We then placed a Red Sox World Series Championship cap on the top of Dad’s gravestone and quietly departed, driving past scores of gravestones where Red Sox hats and banners of various shapes and sizes hung proudly like bright flags on a fleet of ships.

As Max and I pulled out onto Brook Street, I began to think about the ’67 Red Sox, my father’s favorite team. While the Cardinals had celebrated a seventh game victory around the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park that year, the entire season had been nothing less than one long joyride. Unlike 2004, there were never any pockets of despair in 1967. “Sustained delight,” my father had called it at the time.

“You know, Max,” I exclaimed as we drove past my old house on Radcliffe Road, “if I could relive my life for a two-month period, I would surely rewind the past eight weeks we just experienced. How could I not?  However, if I could relieve an entire season, Dick Williams would be the manager, Yaz would be in left, and Jim Lonborg would be on the mound.”

I paused and looked at my youngest son, “And my Dad would be there to take it all in once again.”

“I bet I’ll look at 2004 the same way when I’m old like you,” Max said brightly.

“Yep, I’ll bet you will,” I smiled, recognizing how astonishing it was that fathers and sons and baseball seasons could be so extraordinarily intertwined in a such an unshakable bond.

Later that evening, after I had returned to Connecticut and had tucked Max in for the night, I sat in the dark and played “The Impossible Dream” album for the first time in nearly twenty years.

Like a specter from the past, longtime Red Sox announcer Ken Coleman’s tremulous voice concluded the forty-minute audio tribute to the ’67 Sox with these words:

  “For Boston is a tradition town

  With a history to uphold

  And when Bostonians remember –

  This story will be told

  Proudly fathers will tell their sons

  Of this year and this team

  How by courage and grip

  And refusing to quit

  They forged –

  Our impossible dream.”

I turned off the recording and slowly walked upstairs.  As I settled into bed a few minutes later, I recalled what my father had said to me in my old bedroom in Wellesley following the seventh game loss to St. Louis nearly four decades before.

“Maybe, Shaunie, what we are really sad about this evening is that the magic – like all good things – has come to an end. That is something to mourn.”

He paused and patted my knee. “But you know what, Son? What the Red Sox gave us this past season borders on the unachievable. Ultimately, we will thank God that we bore witness to it.”

A half-century has now passed, and those of us who lived through that remarkable year still fiercely cling to its memory for what it launched ­– the birth of Red Sox Nation – and for what it brought us – that at least for one time in our lives, the impossible was not just a dream.

My father, as usual, said it best. When reflecting on the 1967 Red Sox just a few days before his own passing, he whispered, “The best pleasures in life are always unexpected.”

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Words Do Matter – JFK at 100

 

That voice of his echoed phrases that were readymade for granite monuments. During his all too brief presidency, he asked us to seek justice because it lay at the heart of fairness. He implored us to make peace with our adversaries because, while our differences came to define us, our shared experiences were even more enduring. He challenged us to go the moon—not because it was easy, but because it was hard. He encouraged us to create an educational system that was second to none. He asked us to leave our earth better than we found it. He implored us not to let our fears hold us back from pursuing our hopes.

For John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, who would have reached the century mark on May 29, it was always about heightened possibilities and ascending aspirations. As he said in his most prodigious foreign policy speech in which he introduced the policy of detente with the Soviet Union: “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Unlike most leaders in our present age of self-absorption, Kennedy rarely used the pronoun “I” in his speeches. Instead, he would implore “us,” “we the people,” “my fellow citizens.” The commonality as Americans was a reminder that we were collectively involved in our ongoing experiment in representative democracy. In JFK’s world, every voice mattered. If you conduct a phrase search of Kennedy’s prose, “let us begin” and “let us continue” would be the two most common ones.

As a leader, Jack Kennedy believed that the limitations of one’s language represented the limitations of one’s world. Thus his prose soared, inspired, and dared others to dream. The author of three books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, Kennedy once stated, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

Like other great orators, he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. Like Lincoln, JFK inevitably appealed to the better angels of our nature and beckoned us to employ the bookends of fairness and civility in order to alter perspective, and, when need be, instigate or alter public policy. In the final analysis, President John F. Kennedy’s words seem to appeal as much to future generations as it did to his own:

“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our most fundamental resource.”

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”

“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.”

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

“We prefer world law, in the age of self-determination, to world war in the age of mass extermination.”

“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”

“In every time period in every place, immigrants to our nation have continually enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.”

“Today, we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. … It ought to be possible, in short, for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to his race or his color.”

“The supreme reality of our time is the vulnerability of Earth, which is under our care and loaned to us from one generation to the next.”

“The world is very different now, for man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty – and all forms of human life.”

“So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear – but let us never fear to negotiate.”

“Let us call a truce to terror. Let us invoke the blessings of peace. And as we build an international capacity to keep the peace, let us join in dismantling the national capacity to wage war.”

“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

“Every man can make a difference, and every man should try.”

” Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

For President Kennedy, the buck clearly stopped in the Oval Office, and it was his job to make “those hard decisions” that eluded others. “The margin is narrow,” he stated early on in his presidency, “but the responsibility is clear.”  When he triumphed, it was because we accomplished it together as one. When Kennedy suffered a defeat, he took full responsibility for it.

A day after the Bay of Pigs Invasion, an unmitigated disaster that nearly unraveled his administration before it had even had a chance to get started, JFK met with the press to announce the bungled events that had occurred in Cuba over the previous seventy-two hours. With millions of Americans watching on television, the President stated unequivocally, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan…I am the responsible officer of the government….and the fault here lies entirely with me.” Immediately afterward, his approval rating rose to 61 percent in the Gallup Poll because JFK had the audacity to take sole blame for the crisis.

Of course, when logic and reason did not work, Jack Kennedy often used his celebrated wit to disarm both the press and his political opponents. At a press conference two years into his administration, Kennedy was asked by a reporter: “Mr. President, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution recently saying that you were pretty much a failure. What is your response, sir?”

“Well, I am sure it passed unanimously,” Kennedy quipped.

In 1963, when Congress continued to block important New Frontier legislation, a prominent journalist asked the President, “Sir, don’t you need to have a heart-to-heart talk with the Republican leaders in order to iron out your differences on the proposed federal budget?”

Kennedy replied, “I think those discussions would probably begin at a lower level.”

Later on, when Kennedy was asked how he became a war hero as a Purple Heart-decorated commander of a PT cruiser in World War II, he joked, “It was easy. They sunk my boat.” Like Winston Churchill, John Fitzgerald Kennedy realized the value in exploiting self-deprecating humor as a potent political windscreen. One of his favorite quotes came from Aubrey Menen, who once said famously: “There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.”

“Look forward,” John F. Kennedy once said, “for our land is bright and our time on this planet is all too brief.” As the nation’s thirty-fifth chief executive, he fervently believed in the germination theory of public policy; the seeds you plant today will be bear fruit in unexpected and totally unanticipated ways sometime down the road. In JFK’s celebrated inaugural address, he proclaimed, “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Unlike most leaders in present-day America, the future was much more important than the present in JFK’s lens. It was also the theme of his favorite anecdote, which he retold for the last time in his beloved Massachusetts just three weeks before he was assassinated:  “When he was in his late seventies, the great French Marshall Lyautey asked his gardener to plant a tree in the backyard.

‘But, sir,’ replied the gardener, ‘it won’t reach maturity for a hundred years.’

‘In that case,’ replied the Marshall, ‘plant it this afternoon.’”

As we pause at this time and celebrate his life and what he meant to us, President John F. Kennedy’s words, even more than his deeds, still light up the sky fifty-four years after his death. In the end, JFK’s prose continues to motivate, guide, and inspire countless Americans to think beyond themselves to give the best they have in order to make the world a better place. As his youngest brother, Ted once reminded us – the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

 

         

 

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The Fifth Horseman of Notre Dame

On May 24, 2007, one of the greatest football players in the history of the University of Notre Dame passed away after a courageous, eight-year battle with ALS. In the fall of 2006, nine months before Peter succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s Disease; I wrote an extended piece on him for the Notre Dame Football Annual. To honor him and those who continue to fight such an unforgiving disease here is that original article in its entirely.

He sits in a solitary wheelchair in the kitchen in the center of action so he can wordlessly observe the comings and goings of his beloved family.  During the day, he receives regular nourishment using a peg lodged in his stomach. He breathes through an incision in his windpipe that has left a permanent opening in his throat. His tracheostomy and his feeding contraption keep him alive. If the weather is nice, he is moved outside where he often listens to music or a book on his iPod. On special occasions, he may be transported to the local theater to view a movie of interest. At dinnertime, he is moved back to his bed where he watches television until he habitually goes to sleep at 11:00 pm.

Peter Demmerle, consensus All-American wide receiver, an integral member of the 1973 Notre Dame national championship football team, co-chairman of the insurance department at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae in Manhattan, the father of four energetic daughters and an equally spirited wife, has moved nary a muscle in four years. As his devoted spouse, Kate, admits, “Peter is considered ‘total care’ in that he can do nothing for himself these days.”

ALS will do that even to the strongest of men.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” is a swiftly progressive, intrinsically fatal neurological malady that attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscles. When a person contracts ALS, the upper and lower motor neurons completely degenerate, halting any messages to an individual’s muscles. Unable to function, the muscles gradually weaken, degenerate, and tremor Eventually, the ability of the brain to start and control voluntary movement is lost.  

Total paralysis – of all limbs and such major muscles as the diaphragm – occurs in every case, frequently with unrelenting haste. Incredibly, such an unbending disease does not typically impair a person’s mind, personality, intelligence, or memory, nor does it affect a person’s ability to see, hear, touch, or taste.

The cause of ALS is not known; scientists do not yet know exactly why ALS strikes some people and not others. While most ALS patients succumb fairly quickly, Peter Demmerle has hung on for an astounding seven years. The gifted wide receiver who persistently battled for each and every ball tossed his way at Notre Dame back in the glory years of the 1970’s is now fighting a far more imposing opponent.

The disease came on with little warning. During the summer of 1999, Demmerle began having difficulty pronouncing certain words. He also noticed that when he turned his head to back his car down the driveway, his neck would often go into excruciating spasms. As the summer turned to fall, he realized that he could not stick his tongue out straight – it began to veer to the side. Somewhat alarmed, he went to doctors, had the diagnostic tests, and was told that he was incurably ill.

His brother, Mark, recalls: “Peter asked me to join him for coffee at the Darien (CT) Starbucks which was very unusual given his work schedule. He told me that he had been diagnosed with ALS and that the illness was terminal. My brother then informed me that he had to resolve matters with his partners at his law firm in New York. Pete explained to me what causes the disease and briefly explained the new course his life would take.  I was speechless.”

The initial days of the illness were, in some way, the most trying. “We watched a lot of very scary movies those first months because that was the only thing that would take our minds off of what we were processing,” remembers his wife, Kate.  “Peter says that he eventually came to terms with the disease because he had no choice – ‘it was the card I drew,’ he said at the time.”

Before the diagnosis, Peter Demmerle had drawn a number of winning hands over the first forty-six years of his life until ALS stealthily crept into his system seven years ago. Because his father and uncle had both attended the University of Notre Dame, Pete Demmerle was weaned on the inimitable, cherished traditions of the Fighting Irish almost from the moment of birth. His brother, Mark, affectionately recalls a picture taken of Peter at the age of five clad in a Notre Dame sweatshirt while holding a football. A native of New Canaan, Connecticut, young Demmerle gradually evolved into the quintessential scholar-athlete by the time he hit early adolescence. In the end, Pete Demmerle seemed destined to play football at South Bend.

The future All-American wide receiver began to learn the fundamentals of the sport in middle school even as he developed a genuine love for the game when he played Pop Warner Football for the New Canaan team in the mid-1960’s. While he had a number of athletic mentors early on, his most influential instructor growing up turned out to be his high school coach, Bob Lynch. As Mark Demmerle fondly remembers, “Coach Lynch stressed the fundamentals of football; he refined the level of playing to a honed sophistication rarely seen at the high school level. New Canaan High School won consecutive state championships; some of Peter’s receiving records still stand in the state of Connecticut today, including his 102 receptions in the 1970 season.”   

As his graduation from New Canaan High School neared, it was anticipated within the Demmerle family circles that Pete would head off to Notre Dame. Scores of representatives from the customary “jock schools” also appeared on the front steps of his house in Connecticut. Ultimately, Pete Demmerle was inundated with scholarship offers from a multitude of colleges. However, because he was seeking a rigorous academic institution that equally emphasized creditable intercollegiate competition, Demmerle felt that Notre Dame, more than any other institution, suited his particular needs. In the late summer of 1971, he headed off to South Bend.

From the start, fabled Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian recognized that he had something truly unique in the wide-receiver from Southwestern Connecticut. As Mark Demmerle recalls, “Peter was blessed with extraordinary motor skills as a young man.”  

Coach Parseghian and his coaching staff quickly discerned that the unpretentious kid from New England was inherently talented, smart, and industrious. During his first months on campus, Demmerle could often be seen after practice, polishing his skills as a wide receiver. Looking back at that time through the lens of perspective, Mark Demmerle now believes that, “Peter simply capitalized on his strengths and focused on his weaknesses.”            

It was not just the Fighting Irish coaching staff that became aware of the unique qualities of the new wide receiver from Connecticut. Dave Casper, a burgeoning star on the team at the time, noticed straightaway that the freshman with the imposing talent and the impeccable work ethic had the potential to serve as one of the building blocks to a future championship team. “Pete could run, catch, block, and was smart.  He always seemed to be in the right place at the right time,” Casper remembers, thirty-four years after he first played with Demmerle. Casper, who would later blossom into a celebrated All-Pro tight end with the Oakland Raiders, calls Demmerle, “the ultimate teammate and friend.

“I lived with him in Sorin Hall the last three semesters I was at Notre Dame,” recalled Casper recently. “Pete was a great player, a great guy, and a terrific person. He spent the time and effort to be a great player and spent time in his room studying to be an excellent student, and yet, he still found time to be a friend to many on campus.”  

Beyond all of this, what truly drove Pete Demmerle to succeed was his conspicuous passion for the game of football. “Natural ability and expert coaching are simply not enough to excel at the level of consensus All-American,” states Mark Demmerle.

Like most freshman, Pete Demmerle paid his dues during his first year on the Notre Dame football squad, learning the intricacies of the game from Ara Parseghian and his staff. Demmerle began to play regularly by his sophomore season and soon became a favorite target of quarterback Tom Clements.

In the concluding contest of the season, the up-and-coming wide receiver scored the only touchdown on a five-yard pass by Clements in a devastating loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.    

Peter Demmerle and his Fighting Irish teammates were determined to do better the following season. After a series of encouraging spring practice sessions, Coach Parseghian knew that he had assembled a special squad for the 1973 season. In the end, his team would not lose another game for a year-and-a-half. The legendary Parseghian would win his last national championship in the process.

While Notre Dame would secure its collegiate title on New Year’s Eve, longtime Fighting Irish fans point to the game that was played in South Bend on Saturday afternoon, October 28, as the defining moment for the 1973 squad. On that day, the best two teams in college football, Notre Dame and USC, faced off in a nationally televised contest.  

The previous year, Coach John McKay’s USC squad had not only humiliated ND by a score of 45 to 23 but had won the national title as a result. On this afternoon, however, Irish running back Eric Pennick sprinted for 118 hard-earned yards in a 23-14 victory that snapped USC’s twenty-three-game winning streak, with the Irish limiting the impact of the Trojan’s explosive running back, Anthony Davis. Not surprisingly, Peter Demmerle hauled in a handful of clutch catches in the contest as well, cementing his reputation as a “go-to guy” on the Notre Dame side.

“The 1973 USC game has always been Peter’s favorite game that he played in at Notre Dame,” remembers his wife, Kate. “After all, playing for the Fighting Irish had been a boyhood dream of Peter’s. He used to tell me how amazing it was to run onto that field and hear the incredible roar of the crowd.”  

Two months after the USC game, the undefeated Irish met the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl for a shot at the national championship on the last day of 1973.  

The Tulane Stadium crowd saw the lead change a handful of times during the spirited contest, highlighted by Al Hunter’s 93-yard kickoff return, key second half grabs by both Pete Demmerle and David Casper, and a 19-yard field goal from kicker Bob Thomas that put the Fighting Irish ahead in the contest, 24-23. Late in the fourth quarter, an Alabama punt pinned Notre Dame inside the Irish one-yard line, but Coach Ara Parseghian’s intrepid call resulted in quarterback Clements’ lobbing an unanticipated 38-yard pass to backup tight end Robin Weber to ice the game.

Peter Demmerle, the kid who had dreamed of playing football in South Bend, could now claim to be an invaluable member of a Notre Dame national championship team.

The next year as a senior, Demmerle would achieve All-American and Academic All-American status.  

Sadly, he would blow out his right knee in the 1975 Orange Bowl, a contest in which Notre Dame defeated Alabama for the second year in a row, 13-11. As he was helped off the field that day, Peter Demmerle’s seamless playing career for the Fighting Irish had come to an end.

The young man who had held on as firmly to his academic textbooks as his ND football playbook felt thoroughly equipped for the challenges that faced him upon graduation. “Peter majored in English literature,” remembers his wife, Kate. “He felt that Notre Dame prepared him academically for anything that he would want to pursue. I think that he felt that he had great professors and loved the campus life there.”

While he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the 1975 NFL Draft, Demmerle was determined to follow a different path in the end. Within a year, he began attending Fordham Law School. As his brother reflects, “Peter had goals and a sense of direction in life. He lived in the present while keeping a responsible vigil towards the future.”

After passing the bar exam in 1979, Demmerle joined the famed international law firm of LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae in New York. While he began his career in utilities, the enterprising lawyer soon became actively involved in the insurance practice of the firm.  

Utilizing the same astuteness, resolve, and leadership skills he had exhibited on the football field at Notre Dame Stadium, Pete Demmerle eventually became a lead insurance partner and ultimately chaired the Insurance Practice Group. His work centered mostly on property and casualty insurance regulation and legislation.

In time, Demmerle played an indispensable role in the winning reorganization of the Lloyd’s of London insurance market. “His work at the law firm literally saved Lloyd’s of London from bankruptcy – an insurance company that had been in business since 1688,” recalls Mark Demmerle proudly.

Just ten years after his last game for Notre Dame, Peter Demmerle was considered a national leader in both the legal and business communities.

In the interim, he had met an engaging and elegant lawyer, Kate LaFleche, whom he married in 1981.  Within three years, they would have their first child, Cara. Over the next nine years, three more daughters, Alice, Tessa, and Nina, would form an integral fabric that would redefine the lives of both Peter and Kate Demmerle. During Pete’s work on the Lloyd’s account, his family would reside in London twice but would eventually settle in Greenwich, Connecticut, not far from Demmerle’s head office in Manhattan.

In the fall of 1999, he was considered a model lawyer, husband, and father when ALS so suddenly took him down. The world for the entire Demmerle family would change beyond comprehension almost overnight.

Pete’s once powerful body began to decline as the disease took hold. Soon, his ability to communicate also became a complicated issue. During the first year of his illness, he did have the use of his speaking voice, though he began to slur his words as it got harder for him to talk. Gradually, his personal computer became the most efficient way to reach out to his family, his friends, and to his fellow ALS patients. Early on, he and Kate became leaders in the Connecticut chapter of the ALS Society. As he had done throughout his entire life, Peter Demmerle took the ball and ran with it.

Today, according to his devoted wife,“ Peter can communicate needs and basic thoughts by moving his left arm very slightly to answer a yes or no question if he is in his wheelchair. Otherwise, he has to spell out anything else. We will hold up a plexiglass letter board, and he focuses on one of six letter groups. Then we ask him to shift his eyes to the left for yes when we read out the correct letter.” Some his friends claim that Peter has the soul of a poet. Despite the tragedy, Peter Demmerle will simply not be stilled. His eyes have now become the way he best expresses himself.

Not surprisingly, he has continued to take an incredibly active interest in the lives of each of his four children. In a real sense, they have not only grown up within the shadow of his paralysis but have also taken on his voice as well. Ultimately, Peter’s and Kate Demmerle’s greatest legacy are their four incredible daughters.

Cara, the oldest, graduated from Yale this past spring. Cerebral and unpretentious like her father, Cara plans to pursue a career in public health. She points to her father’s genuine modesty for being as grounded as she is. “Most of my dad’s close friends at work didn’t know he played football at all until they were interviewed for an article about him and ALS.”

The understated manner that he became so renowned for among his circle of friends was also not lost on his eldest child. “Dad once described his condition as ‘poor, but not awful’ – when he could not breathe, speak, eat, or move on his own – and I think many people find that unflinching commitment to stay alive to be very inspiring.”

Cara Demmerle also credits her father with something even more vital – that how one treats others matters more than anything else. “Dad has taught us all to be more patient, understanding, and committed. Whatever the precise lessons we have each learned, these lessons will impact those in all of our lives as his children. To me, this is what a “soul” – is – the impact, however small, that one person has on another, the change that one person can cause in another, and the ripples that change causes in more and more lives as a result.”

All four daughters stress their father’s self-effacing sense of humor and his ability to laugh at the absurdities of life. Peter’s second daughter, Alice, credits her father’s marvelous wit as one of his greatest attributes. “Dad’s humor played such an important role in our family; I feel that he has taught us all to take life a little less seriously as a result.”  

Alice, a freshman at Vanderbilt, has the athletic dexterity and academic acumen that Pete possessed at a similar age.  Still, she recognizes that her mother, Kate, has taken a palpable burden with love, grace, and humility – as has her three sisters. “My mother has always emphasized our need to carry on a ‘normal’ life, despite the literal and figurative handicaps of my father’s disease.  She works so hard to let us live the lives we want.

“Often, I feel like I overlook all that she has done for our family, working tirelessly just so that we feel less situationally affected by his disease. My sisters have all amazed me with their ability to carry on, despite the draining sadness they were all experiencing.”

Tessa, the third of four daughters, is a Renaissance figure worthy of her father’s standing at Notre Dame. A diligent student, proficient athlete, gifted stage performer, and conspicuous student leader at The Greenwich (CT) Country Day School, her recent performance in the leading role of Jesus in an ambitious local production of Godspell was dedicated to her dad. Like her sisters, she has been inspired by him over the years. “When I was first told of my father’s diagnosis, I could not have possibly imagined the strength and willpower I would learn from his experience,” she admits.

“Years ago, my father could have quit, but still, every day I see my father, living, breathing, and smiling. This strength he possesses, this will to live, overwhelms every possible aspect of the disease, “states Tessa emphatically. “Dad has shown to me that one’s will to live can be much stronger than any obstacle that may come your way. And for this, I am truly grateful.”

The Demmerles’ youngest daughter, Nina, was only six when her family was so suddenly struck down.  Despite the tragedy, she is her family’s ray of sunshine, a luminous beacon of light in her father’s daily existence these days.  “My dad continues to play a paramount role in my life. He has made me recognize what I have, and how much I need to treasure it,” she acknowledges.  

Nina continues to spend countless hours each week with Peter, caring for him, watching his favorite TV programs alongside, and sharing amusing anecdotes about her days as a seventh grader in school. Her mother has such confidence in her youngest daughter’s skill as a companion and caretaker that she can leave her husband in the loving hands of thirteen-year-old Nina for brief periods of time.     

Every morning he wakes up and tries to make the best out of the state he is in,” relates Nina.  “Dad never focuses on the negatives, but is always trying to look for the positives.”

While Pete Demmerle’s illness has brought out the very best in each of the members of his family, his extended Notre Dame family has also been an invaluable source of inspiration and strength for Peter, Kate, and their family.

Kate Demmerle declares, “Peter has been very touched by his Notre Dame professors, roommates from Sorin Hall, and his teammates. All have made enormous efforts to visit him and stay in touch.”  Fellow Notre Dame All-American Dave Casper has been there in particular for Peter throughout the past seven years. Casper came to the hospital when Demmerle had a risky procedure completed, he made certain that Peter was in formal attire and appropriately acknowledged at the Walter Camp Awards, and he made it possible for Pete to be present in Canton, Ohio when Casper was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Pete’s a great friend,” says Casper simply.

Another one of Demmerle’s classmates, Art Moher ‘75, reflects on Peter Demmerle, the man. “Although there are many of our classmates who knew Pete better than me, I doubt very much that any are prouder of him and the way he has handled this unspeakably bad break. Pete’s remarkably clutch play on the football field pales in comparison to his fight against ALS. In his daily ordeal, he has elevated the moniker ‘Fighting Irish’ in his private and painful struggle even more than his stellar football career at ND.”

The love, support, and encouragement that Peter Demmerle continually gave to his Fighting Irish teammates have been returned in spades.  In a now-famous email sent when he still had the capacity to type, the Notre Dame legend wrote:  “I have learned that friendships brighten my day and sustain my desire to participate in life. I have learned from countless acts of kindness from perfect strangers that, on the whole, the human condition is kind and good. For these lessons, I am deeply grateful.”

Like any great winner, Peter Demmerle has always accepted – even embraced – life’s challenges. In doing so, he has experienced the exhilaration of victory in his fifty-three plus years.  

Three decades ago, he was a flawless wide receiver for the Fighting Irish.  Today, he clings to life itself even as his condition has worsened to the point of total paralysis. As his astonished family and friends have witnessed over the past seven years, the bookends of bravery and faith have sustained him while inspiring scores of others.     

“As an athlete, my father will always be the untouchable football player, captured in photographs soaring through the air in order to make a perfect catch,” reflects Pete’s daughter, Alice. “His scrapbooks and newspaper clippings will always remain an important documentation of his healthy abilities and personal dedication to the game he loved.

“As a father, he will always be the kind, thoughtful, humorous, and determined man I have known my entire life. His approachability and understanding will undoubtedly guide me in my own decisions as a parent in the future.

“As a man, he will always be the honorable and admirable fighter who never gives up, despite the magnitude of the difficulties with which he is faced.”

Peter Demmerle’s second eldest daughter concludes, “My father’s legacy is layered with his so many characteristics. I cannot decide what I am more proud of – his ability, his kindness, his dedication, or his fight.

“I am amazed by it all.”

 

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For You, Blue

My first love in life turned out to be a honey-haired, ocean-eyed twelve-year-old girl whom I met on Cape Cod during the summer of 1967. While I haven’t seen her since, Cindy remains like a fixed star in my mind, a dimpled spot of rapture in the midst of the clumsiness of preadolescence.

We met by happenstance on an elongated stretch of Nauset Beach in Orleans where we were both looking for wampum, the distinctive shells found along the Eastern seashore beaches, which Native Americans used to use as a currency. I noticed her straight away, a young colt with long blonde hair that parted her back and light-azure eyes that framed her angular face. That she had newly mounted braces on her teeth that accentuated her crater-like dimples only added to the luster.

Before long, we exchanged names, hers was Cindy, and we continued on our mutual excursion together along the outer beach of Cape Cod. “What grade are you going into this fall?” I asked her as I found another piece of wampum, which I coyly gave to her.

“Seventh at my local junior high in New Jersey!” Cindy replied sprightly. She beamed when I informed her that I too was about to embark on an identical academic sojourn in Wellesley, Massachusetts. We both giggled shyly, paused for an instant, and then blurted out to one other, “What is your birthday?”

“January 28th!” we clamored to one another in unison.

Our smiles turned to wonder as we immediately began to appraise one another. I had never met another person who was actually born on the same day, and neither had she. Cindy looked at me a long time, sighed, “Oh, Shaun,” and then she spontaneously took my hand into hers.

At that moment, I entered a new continent of experience. The only thing missing was the sky opening up and a celestial choir singing in the background. My heart began to pound, and I felt a bit lightheaded. By the end of our walk searching for wampum, I was utterly in love with her.

By the end of our first wampum quest, Cindy had informed me that she would be staying on the Cape for the next two weeks. I also learned that her parents, who typically summered on the Jersey shore, had decided to venture to Cape Cod that summer on a lark. “Let’s meet tomorrow afternoon on this stretch of the beach, Cindy!” I beckoned, hoping that she would acquiesce.

She smiled affirmatively and said, “I will wait for you, Shaun. I promise!”

Over the next two weeks, we developed an unbending game plan that ended up working flawlessly. Because Cindy’s family daily encamped in a rented Boston Whaler at Nauset Inlet, she would cross over the dunes to the ocean side where I awaited her. After all, it had been her initial quest for wampum there that had brought us mystically together.

On an impulse, I began to bring my transistor radio with me. While Cindy and I sat looking at the waves repeatedly pound onto the bleached sands of Nauset, the music of that extraordinary summer played in congruence with the consoling sounds coming from the ocean. We chatted continually as we sat in the dunes together, watching the waves crash relentlessly away. When the Beatles’ “Getting Better,” from their incomparable Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band masterwork, blared out from my little transistor, Cindy asked me to dance with her in the dunes. “Why not!” I grinned at her and began to churn and kick with her into the sand as Paul McCartney crooned in the background.

For the only time in our childhoods, we were able to converse about our fears, our desires, and our dreams with someone from the opposite sex. In an otherwise inhibited time in our lives, we felt profoundly free and unfettered. By the third day, I began calling her “Cin” as John Lennon, my hero at the time, had done for his first wife. Cindy replied, “Well, Shaun is as close to John as you can get, so I will just call you Shaun!” The funny thing is, though, she eventually began calling me “Blue,” after what she called my blueberry-colored eyes. (Two-and-a-half years later, when George Harrison came out with a Beatles’ single entitled, “For You Blue,” I felt as if the Fab Four had somehow been in on our little joke in some cosmic way).

During our jaunts, we conversed about our mutual passion for reading, music, baseball, and the seashore. We also discovered that humor had long fueled our mutual engines. One morning, not long before she left for New Jersey, we walked to the end of the opening of Nauset Inlet. “You know, Blue,” she said to me, “we are somehow intertwined together because of our shared birthdays and our shared interests.”

“I know, Cin,” I replied. “You are the first person that I’ve never had to explain how I felt or what interests me. You seem to just know.”

“Yes, most would say that’s because we’ve seen life exactly from the same time frame,” she exclaimed, her deep dimples becoming even more pronounced on her precious face, “but I feel as if we needed to meet here and now.”

I seized her hand, and we continued into the swells of the ocean, where we lifted each other up in the roiling Nauset surf when it knocked us down.

Before we knew it, our days had dwindled down to mere hours. The Ancient Greeks are right, each and every pleasure is fleeting. We knew it, ignored it, and then had to look it straight in the eye. “Our worlds are going to change, Blue, next week when we both start junior high,” Cindy whispered. “I am truly grateful that we’ve been here for one another.”

I gulped in some air and nodded to her. And then, I did something that remains the proudest of my childhood. I precipitately opened up my arms, and Cindy tumbled into them. A preadolescent, ambiguous hug eventually morphed into an emphatic, sustained embrace.

Neither of us wanted to let go of the moment.

When we did, Cindy put her hand on my cheek, looked into my eyes, and whispered to me, “I want to kiss you, Shaun.”

It ended up being the first romantic caress for both of us. I was transfixed, tremulous, and tongue-tied. Cindy looked into the depths of my soul and said through blinking tears, fiercely, “I will never, ever forget you, Blue – or this moment.” I looked at her ocean-colored eyes and believed it. We then parted, and the summer that had framed our lives to that moment had suddenly ended.

For years afterward, I skimmed that same stretch of beach in late August, hoping that she would, like some enchanted siren, emerge from the depths of the ocean once more. Eventually, I came to realize that by the time Cindy and I had said our farewells to one another that scrubbed up August afternoon so long ago, we were different people.

As the years unfolded like shuffling cards, I never forgot her.

During a recent late winter snowstorm, I ended up listening to Sirius 60 when an old Johnny Rivers standard came on through my computer’s speakers. Recorded at the very end of the magical summer of 1967, the song, “Summer Rain,” became a hit on the radio later on that fall and winter. Through the venue of Rivers’ distinctive baryon-noble voice, I was immediately catapulted back to the precipice of Nauset Inlet a half-century ago:

“She stepped out of a rainbow
Golden hair shining like moon glow;
Warm lips, soft as her soul –
Sitting here by me, now
She’s here by me.

All summer long we were dancing in the sand
And the jukebox kept on playing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band!

We sailed into the sunset –
Drifting home, caught by a gulf stream;
Never gave a thought for tomorrow –
Let tomorrow be, yeah
Let tomorrow be.”

While I probably could find out whatever happened to Cindy, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I prefer to remember her at twelve with our entire lives in front of us. Over the years, sentimentality has won out over pragmatism. Still, there is a jar of wampum that resolutely sits on my teacher’s desk. And then there are the memories of that long-ago August at the forearm of Cape Cod. The shifting colors of the sky; the immaculate sand dunes; her velvety hands; that one surreal kiss – and our love, which, at least for me, has never reverted to the past tense.

 

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