Sunday, September 25, 2016

Quick story about The King

It's been a tough year for legends in sports, with Gordie Howe, Muhammad Ali and Arnold Palmer all gone, I've only been to a few golf tournaments over the years, but I do remember being part of Arnie's Army at the U.S. Open in Oak Hill in the late 1960s. He was always my favorite golfer.

I played golf with a guy who had a really funny story about Arnie. Let's call the person Mike.

Mike had the most unusual swing I've ever seen on a golf course. He turned the clubhead 90 degrees inward on address, so that a normal swing would have resulted in hitting the ball with the top of the club. Somehow, he went through various motions that make Jim Furyk's swing look like Ernie Els', and smacked the ball long distances. I have no idea how he did it, but it was impressive.

Mike was a businessman, and some time ago he played in the Milwaukee Open's pro-am. He's on a tee, getting ready to hit, but looks over to the next fairway and sees Arnold Palmer looking his way. Talk about pressure! In spite of that, Mike takes his normal swing and clobbers the ball, and then moves quickly down the fairway.

After the round, Mike went to a reception for all the players. And who comes up to him but ... Arnold Palmer. Mike thought to himself, "Oh, boy, he's going to give it to me for my swing." Sure enough, Arnie says, "Were you the guy I saw hitting the ball on the fifth tee today?" Mike says sheepishly that yes, he was the one.

Arnie smiles and says, "That was one helluva drive," and patted him on the shoulder with a smile.

There will never be another Arnold Palmer - he made the sport cool, and he made it much more popular with his personal magnetism.

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Saturday, July 02, 2016

Post Card from Iceland

"We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow."
- "Immigrant Song," Led Zeppelin

It was always difficult to say where you were in Iceland.

We came out of the Reykjavik airport (actually located 45 minutes away, in Keflavik) shortly before 1 a.m after a 5-1/2 hour flight from Toronto and the usual wait for customs and luggage. The sky looked like twilight - dark enough to put on car headlights, but light enough so that objects could still be seen in the distance.

It took some time for the bus to fill up with fellow visitors, and then the vehicle dropped off a few people along the way before arriving in Reykjavik at about 2:15. Along the way, we came to the realization that it was getting lighter outside.

Welcome to Iceland, late June edition.

Whenever we mentioned that we were headed to the North Atlantic country, the first question from others centered on the midnight sun. Yes, we did not see darkness for the entire nine-day trip. The day we were in Akureyri on the north coast, sunset was at 12:50 a.m., and sunrise was at 1:25 a.m. So it never became completely dark. That made it important to make sure the curtains in hotel rooms covered up as much of the windows as possible. On the other hand, walking down a fully lit street after 10 p.m. is a unique experience.

We took a bus tour of Iceland with 19 others that covered more than 2,000 kilometers over the course of a week, seeing a couple of cities, a few towns or villages, waterfalls, deserts, glaciers, mountains, hot springs. and sheep - lots of sheep. I will post notes on individual locations (with pictures) on my travel blog when I get to them. Here are some observations, with the help of some members of the group who turned from strangers to friends in much less than a week:

 * One of the odd parts of a trip to Iceland is that a look at the words of an Icelandic location provided no clue to English-speaking people on how to say it. There are 36 letters in their alphabet, and some combinations of letters produce unknown sounds to English speakers. When we were in Egilsstaoir (missing a squiggle under the o), no one had much of an idea about how to say it - so we didn't. The volcano that blew up in 2010, causing air travel problems for the world, is called Eyjafjallaokull. There are YouTube videos with instructions on how to say that one. T-shirts spell it out phonetically - AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuuti-uh. And good luck.

Names are no better. Our bus tour guide said her name once, but she thankfully said to just call her Steffi. The bus driver's name was the same story but he provided no snappy nickname. After he introduced himself on the bus, I let out a stage whisper, "Let's call him Skip." It got a good laugh, and the name stuck for some through the trip.

* We figured the bus tour would be tiring, as we had to change hotels every night for five straight nights, and it was. It led to a feeling of "If it's Sunday, it must be Reykjahlio" at times. But there were plenty of stops along the way to break up the drives, so we saw a lot and no one collapsed. No complaints here.

* Looking for a trip to a foreign country where communicating is easy? Iceland is your place. Just about everyone speaks English. All of the major signs that tourists see have both languages printed on them - along the lines of Canada's use of English and French. However, all of the television outlets from Iceland used Islandic, and a daily English newspaper didn't seem to be available anywhere. Therefore, it was tough to keep up with the latest news of the host country. Interestingly, a  Presidential election took place early in our stay, and we had no idea who won until an Internet search produced a result. (There were no roadside signs for candidates, either, come to think of it.)

* We did happen to be visiting when Iceland had its "Miracle on Grass" moment. The national soccer team had qualified for the Euro soccer tournament for the first time, causing a bit of a frenzy, and then advanced to the round of 16. There mighty England awaited, but Iceland came through with a 2-1 win. England's population - 51 million; Iceland's - 330,000. We could hear fireworks from our hotel in East Iceland. How embarrassing was the loss? The coach of the English national team immediately resigned after the game. Soccer has grown in popularity in Iceland as more and more fields have added artificial turf.

* There were English stations on cable television - mostly from the BBC. They devoted much air time to the Brexit vote. That result dismayed our new British friends who were traveling on our tour, and not just because they had to watch the trip become more expensive by the day as the pound suffered a beating in international currency trading. 

* A quick note on weather is required. It rained a little every day, but usually only for a short time. Temperatures were in the low 50s under mostly cloudy skies. Apparently that rare 70-degree day sends everyone running to the beaches (just to relax, not to swim in the freezing waters), but none of that took place while we were there.

* The hotel rooms were on the small side by American standards. They were missing top sheets, meaning we slept directly under a nice quilt, and clocks. The showers were a little claustrophobic, which was surprising in a place where people shower naked together (men and women are in separate rooms, for the record) before heading into the hot springs. One of our rooms did not have a bar on the floor to prevent shower water from flowing all over the bathroom - causing a small flood. The room did come with a squeegee, though, which was a first.

A native gives me advice on what to see in Iceland. He was a little stiff.
* Speaking of missing, there are no good sweatshirts in all of Iceland. Anywhere. I looked. There are a few clever t-shirts, including one that used the quote at the top of the story. But sweatshirts didn't get more witty than the one that read "Iceland." There were no long-sleeve t-shirts, either. Say, isn't this country right below the Arctic Circle? We told Steffi that she should quit the tour business and sell sweatshirts and flower seeds (none of those around either). "Steffi's Shirts and Seeds" would clean up.

* Iceland is an expensive country to visit. Just about everything but wool (remember, lots of sheep) has to be imported, which adds up after a while. Lunch for two was in the range of $35 unless you had a couple of tasty Icelandic hot dogs (they add a bit of lamb to them). A small soft drink was at least $3. Salads were relatively scarce on menus, and pricey when found. A 1,000-krona note is worth $8.16, at least as of this writing, which caused some mental mathematics whenever we looked at prices. One other point about prices - tipping is more or less not allowed in Iceland. Natives consider it a handout, so it is included in the price. You'd be surprised how helpful that is for tourists.  

* Driving can be an adventure in Iceland, as few roads outside of Reykjavik have more than two lanes and the rural areas feature many dirt roads. As a result, collision shop owners do well there. We had thought about renting a car and driving around Iceland outselves, but letting Skip do the driving proved to be a good decision. If you are interested, the country is slightly smaller than Kentucky.

* Iceland is a place for serious photographers. We saw several people at the major attractions with large cameras and plenty of extra equipment, such as tripods. Last year on our European cruise, we saw a far greater percentage people using tablets - which, at least to me, shouts out "amateur." I will say, though, that some phone cameras are good enough to take quality photographs these days. 

* Someone asked about the lack of wildlife on display in parks, shorelines, etc. Then we all realized that most animals never could migrate to Iceland. There are plenty of birds, though, including the cute-as-can-be puffins. The island also is home to about 100,000 horses - one for every three people, more or less.

* For what it's worth, there was a surprising amount of graffiti in Reykjavik - more than you'd think in an area with less than 250,000 people. We asked a few people about it, and we got answers ranging from drugs to immigrants.

* The "Buffalo is the center of the universe theory" was proven a couple of times on the trip in casual conversation. (As you may know, there's always some connection to Buffalo, no matter where you go.) We were chatting with a couple of Americans when I mentioned I was from Buffalo. "Oh, one of my best friends works for the Buffalo News." After a few stories about co-worker Sue Schulman, we became pals in no time. And Steffi trained at Roswell Park Cancer Institute during the 1970s, spending several years in Buffalo. Amazing.

Iceland has plenty of natural wonders scattered around the country, and people - native and visiting - are welcoming and friendly. It made for a fine vacation.

It's always nice to return home - or at least to the Toronto airport.
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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Lunch with Gordie

If my Twitter feed was any indication, every single sports reporter who was working in the 1960s through 1980s did some sort of story with Muhammad Ali. There were all sorts of accounts of encounters with The Greatest Of All Time bouncing around after Ali's death.

Except from me. I missed out. I think the only time Ali and I were in the same building was when Don King promoted a boxing card at Memorial Auditorium, and Ali showed up.

But as for Gordie Howe, who died last week, well, that was another story. I had a regular lunch date with Gordie once a year for a few years. That deserves a bit of an explanation.

The Sabres used to have a media luncheon once a month during the hockey season in the mid-1980s. It was a chance to have steak for lunch on the team, and talk to team management. Once a year, Howe would come in to town to promote the Emery Edge Award, which went to the plus-minus award winner.

I'm not even sure what the company did, and why it sponsored an NHL award, but no one really cared. Howe turned up, had a nice lunch, and told stories about hockey. It must have been a nice way to make a few dollars. I know I sure enjoyed his visits, and everyone else did too.

My best memory of Howe came at one of those sessions. Gordie had just finished lunch when he went to get a pitcher of water for a refill. After filling up his own glass, he asked the group if anyone else wanted water. A few said yes, and Howe started refilling glasses.

At that point, Sabres' public relations director Gerry Helper got up to start the more formal part of the ceremony. He thanked everyone for coming and then said: "Let me introduce a few people to start. First is your waiter, Gordie Howe." Everyone laughed hard, including Gordie.

I covered Gordie's last game in Buffalo, on March 6, 1980 (it was Bobby Hull's last game in Buffalo as well, as he was a Whaler then), and I probably stuck a microphone in Howe's face after the game. It struck me that it was like interviewing my father, since he was 52.

The lunches were better. Let me assure you from personal experience that Gordie Howe really was as nice as everyone has said he was. I've got an autographed copy of his autobiography on my bookshelf, and it's not going anywhere.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

One degree of separation from the Boss

This is definitely the week to tell this story.

It was the summer of 1978, and I was at a wedding in New Jersey - not far from the fabled Jersey Shore. A high school friend was getting married, so a few of his buddies made the drive down for the ceremony. It was an eventful weekend for a variety of reasons - a massive midnight swim in the hotel pool right on Route 23 in which some of the boys, um, forgot their suits, a car accident that left my 1970 Torino stationary, etc.

But for our purposes, let's stick to the reception. The seating was a little haphazard, and we were placed with a couple from New Jersey. The woman in question was suitably blonde and beautiful, leaving the rest of us trying to at least start a conversation in an awkward way.

During the reception, the disk jockey played some sort of canned music appropriate for the time. After a few songs, I had had enough disco or the equivalent at that point. "This is New Jersey. It's clearly time for some Bruce Springsteen," I said to the table.

The expression on the woman's face lit up. "Are you a fan?" she asked. "Absolutely. I saw the band live last year, and immediately went out to buy all of the albums," I replied.

Then she said, "It's so nice to see good guys do well." That sounds a little enigmatic, so I asked for an explanation.

She told me that once a week, members of the band in some combination used to come over to her house. They'd sit around, play poker, and eat chili. I thought that was quite cool. After I replied in a way to show my jealousy, she mentioned that Clarence Clemons never played much poker. He'd stay in the kitchen with the woman's father, talking about the good old days since they were the oldest ones in the house for those parties and eating chili.

The story is now 38 years old, which means those actual poker games probably are more than 40 decades in the past. But it still fun to hear stories about people like the members of the E Street Band, who were making friends as they tried to scratch out a living doing something they loved. The boys may have thought they were paying their dues at the time, but I'll bet they think of those days every so often as simple and pure.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016


After almost a year of campaigning and discussion about Presidential politics, someone finally will get to cast something resembling a ballot very soon. The Iowa caucus will be held on Monday. While standing around for 90 minutes and then announcing your Presidential preference in front of a crowd is a long way from the classic secret ballot that usually comes with democracy, it's all we've got for the moment. So we'll take it.

The odd part is that so many candidates didn't even get that far. We started with about 17 reasonably well-known Republican candidates and five Democrats, and that number has been cut by a little less than half in the past several months. I can't imagine what someone like Senator Lindsay Graham is thinking - "I don't mind losing an election, but I didn't even make it as far as the first caucus. What happened here?"

This weekend, then, isn't a bad time to look at the landscape, and one particular point is striking. I'm not sure who said it first, but a political analyst once noted that the more upbeat, hopeful, positive candidate usually wins Presidential elections. Certainly that applies to races like Obama over McCain and Reagan over Carter, among several others. When in doubt, look for sunshine.

It raises the question - who exactly would you consider the candidate who is the most positive outlook this year? It's difficult to find one out there.

Admittedly, the Republicans have been out of power for eight years, and they need to make a case for change. That's been enhanced because some party members have moved deeper into the conservative side, and they are the ones with the most enthusiasm (more likely to vote in primaries) and the loudest voices. But the candidates themselves have fallen over themselves to be less than pleasant in the process. How many of them would you really like to have next to you in a bar sipping a beer?

Donald Trump might offer a more sunny outlook than most, with his slogan about making America great again. But that's only if the country blindly follows his leadership, and only if you aren't a Muslim. Unrestrained megalomania, even by Presidential candidate standards, is never pretty. And really, anyone that makes fun of someone with disabilities, as Trump did to a reporter, is beyond contempt. Besides, a New York Times story on Sunday points out that 1 out of 8 of Trump's tweets contain some sort of personal insult. I would call that a sunny outlook.

Even without Trump, it's a strange group of the rest of those still standing, who basically complain about the state of the country without getting into many specifics about how to improve things. Yes, some think outlawing same-sex marriage would help, some think spending much more money on military spending would help, and some think that essentially bolting the doors when it comes to immigration would help. I'm just not sure where the public as a whole (meaning next November) is in agreement on all of that that. And none of the candidates - Trump in particular - seem to think that telling the truth is particularly helpful. Even when factual errors are made, the falsehoods are simply repeated on the chance that people will believe them.

The leaders besides Trump are Ted Cruz (he's the one standing alone at the bar in our beer test), and Marco Rubio (the one getting proofed at the bar) for now, since they have done well in polling to date. Both seemed to spend the last debate complaining how our country had been ruined in the past seven years. They also turned to religious viewpoints every so often, which appeals to Iowa's evangelical voters, but has the effect of making those who don't share those beliefs feel like they aren't invited to the party.

Otherwise, we have Jeb Bush, looking confused as to why his campaign never took flight and turning bitter as a result. We have Chris Christie, who has a sarcastic New Jersey sense of humor that might not carry well in other parts of the world, and who brings up 9/11 enough to make him an updated version of Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. We have John Kasich, who many not be joyful but at least acts like an adult and thus worries Democrats looking over the field of possible opponents. There's also Ben Carson, who is clearly in over his head but is at least pleasant some of the time, and Rand Paul, whose libertarian views are heartfelt but not a great fit for the Republican Party. I'm not sure I would have picked all of these people to survive this far.

Along those lines, Mike Huckabee came off in his first Presidential campaign in 2008 as being the sunniest of personalities, even though a few of his ideas were odd. His rhetoric was more harsh in  2016 - even if on a personal level he seemed like a fun person. Maybe that was a small factor in his microscopic support level this time, although Ted Cruz was a new face in '16 that pretty clearly worked hard to woo voters from that part of the electorate.

If you are looking for relief in the sunshine department on the other side of the legislative aisle, there's not much help. Bernie Sanders is never going to be confused with a stand-up comedian. Besides, you have to wonder if anyone who was a member of the Socialist Party has a chance of winning a national election. Then there's Hillary Clinton, who once again came into the nominating process with tons of natural advantages (name recognition, money, etc.), and hasn't been able to close the sale. That's partly because Republicans have been pounding the Clintons for a quarter-century, in some cases with some justification, and it has left some scars. But she's also not a natural campaigner; her speeches have many of the right notes but no one hears much music.I once said about Bill Bradley that he'd be a better President than Presidential candidate, and the same description may apply here.

However, Clinton probably has the best case to prevent a reasonably sunny outlook about the future. President Obama never has been good at selling his own accomplishments, surprising considering his rhetorical gifts. But, the unemployment rate has done nothing but drop since he entered office. The price of gas is down to $2 a gallon. The stock market is way up over where it was in 2009. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, and Americans have stopped coming home in body bags. Millions of people have health insurance. Yes, the Middle East is still a mess, and terrorism is still a threat, but I'm not sure anyone could have solved those problems. In those big areas, the record could be considered pretty good. Clinton was part of Obama Administration, and thus can piggyback on some of the accomplishments as well as distancing herself from other aspects of Obama's policies.

As the Iowa voters get ready to caucus, I must remind myself that no matter how desperate we are for some sort of results, if only to give the endless consultants on all-news stations (where do they get these people, anyway?) something to talk about, Iowa isn't the best test of popularity. Ask those well-known Presidential nominees, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. But Iowa can offer some surprises - ask Pat Robertson - and it's with a certain degree of glee that we all wait to see what might happen. Along the way, we'll have to see who has a smile or his or her face as we go forward from here.

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