Sunday, July 19, 2015

Uncle Van

I can tell you when the first time I ever saw Van Miller on television, give or take a month or two. I can tell you when the first time I ever saw him in person was. And I can tell you when the last time I saw him in person was.

I just find it a little difficult to tell you how surprising it is that I ended up being something of a friend of his over the years.

The start of this "relationship" with Miller, who died on July 18, came in 1965, when our family moved to Elmira, New York from northern New Jersey. Elmira wasn't close to much in the electronic sense back then, and we had to sign up for some fancy invention called cable television in order to see any channels besides the one (!) that was in Elmira. The Syracuse and Binghamton stations were on there, but so was one from Buffalo - WBEN-TV. I quickly dove in to watch the local sports news, and at that time Van Miller presented the sports during the 6 and 11 p.m. news.

I knew about the National Football League in those days, having followed the New York Giants in New Jersey. But I didn't know much about the American Football League then. Van offered a course in the AFL, and as the play-by-play announcer of the Bills, you could tell he wasn't too objective about them. It should be added that the Bills were in one of their few glory periods then, and you could count on Van to wave the flag for them on his sportscasts.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I moved to Buffalo in 1970. I already had a head start on sportscasters of the town, although I think I started watching Ch. 2's Mike Nolan for whatever reason when I arrived - probably because he was on first. But I listened to Van broadcast the Bills when the games weren't on TV, and heard him do the play-by-play of the NBA's Braves. He was obviously really good, an announcer who could bring the action to life. Our high school group watched him courtside as he broadcast Braves' games. When one of the Buffalo players went up for a dunk, Van rose from his chair right along with him to give him a figurative boost to the hoop.

More importantly, I saw Van for the first time up close in person during the winter of 1972-73. My high school fielded a team for the quiz show, "It's Academic." Van was the host. The taping was held at the Ch. 4 studios on Elmwood Ave. As a high school reporter, I talked my way into joining the studio audience for the show so I could write about it for the school paper. Van was glib and professional as a broadcaster in that role too. I no doubt was too shy to say anything to him at the time, but it was something of a thrill to see a real NFL/NBA announcer in the flesh.

After 1973, I went to college, came back to Buffalo, and started to pop up in local press boxes for games. I went to enough of them to become a familiar face, and got to know just about everyone in the sports media in town. That eventually included Van, probably through my friend and Ch. 4 weekend sports reporter Brian Blessing. It was easy to see that Van had something of an on/off switch. Sometimes he'd be quiet and sit in the background. Of the three TV sports directors at the time, Van probably was the least accessible - with Ed Kilgore the most visible and open, and Rick Azar just ahead of Van. But when the situation called for it, Van could turn on the personality and become the person you saw on the air. When I introduced him to friends, because all of them knew Van and wanted to meet him, he was always friendly and gracious to them.Van would joke a little with the guys and flirt a little with the girls.

When I started working for the Sabres, Van would sometimes call up for information. Let's say there was no other caller like him. I'd pick up the phone and hear, "It's Uncle Van!" I'd laugh and say hello, and then Van would say, "Where are WE practicing today?" Sometimes I'd answer, "I don't know where you and I are practicing, Van, but the team is out at Sabreland in Wheatfield." All in good fun.

One of my favorite Van stories centered on a conversation in the Sabres' pregame media room, where dinner was served. My friend Glenn and I were talking about football free agency with Van over a meal. It should be noted that the media room frequently ran out of silverware, causing some odd eating moments. Well, Glenn made the point that no matter how much money Bills' star Bruce Smith was getting, it was a bargain compared to what he'd make as an unrestricted free agent. Van looked at Glenn and said, "You make a good point for a guy who eats steak with a spoon." We all dissolved into laughter.

One time Van and I were talking when he showed up a little late for a game, and I told him, "It's 2-2, but the game is closer than the score indicates." He loved it - he repeated on the air a few times over the years.

Eventually in the late 1990s, Van started to cut back on his duties. He retired from Ch. 4 in 1998, and stayed on the Bills' broadcasts until 2003. I'd see him occasionally at events, watching the slow decline that can come with moving into one's 80s. The last time I saw him was in 2013, when Larry Felser - whose story parallels Van's for me when it comes to going from larger-than-life figure to friend - died. At Larry's funeral, Van wore a Bills sweatshirt. He's the only one who could get away with it. I made sure to go up to him after the service - "Hi Van, it's Budd Bailey, good to see you again." He said the right things back, but it was tough to tell as he spoke through his personal fog how much he actually remembered.

That's not the way I want to remember him, of course. I can still hear him providing the soundtrack to some great moments in Buffalo sports history, expertly described with genuine enthusiasm. There won't be another like "Uncle Van" any time soon.

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Monday, July 06, 2015

Across the pond

Brilliance of the Seas - home for 13 days for 2,500 cruisers
Our two-week European vacation is over - our first trip together across the Atlantic. We were in eight countries in those 14 days. In my case, that's pretty good for someone who had been in four countries in more than 59 years.

Travel is supposed to be educational, and a trip like this - complete with different languages and strange-looking money - qualifies. You wouldn't think I'd take pride in buying camera batteries in a Helsinki store - but I did. I'll put up pictures and specific comments on my travel blog. In the meantime, here are some of the things that struck me as interesting while serving as a slightly naive European traveler as I went from the United States to Canada to the United Kingdom to Denmark to Estonia to Russia to Finland to Sweden to Denmark to the United Kingdom to Canada to the United States:

* Who was the big winner at the end of the Cold War? American business. We walked into a mall in Tallinn, Estonia, a place that has thrived since the Soviets left, and saw familiar stores and brands. With a few superficial changes, the mall could have been in any well-off U.S. area.

That's even true in St. Petersburg. The Cyrillic alphabet does tend to obscure some names, but McDonald's and Subway tended to jump out. There's one word that doesn't need to be translated to catch the attention of Russian shoppers when it is on a billboard: "Sale." And speaking of billboards there, it was funny to see one of the M-and-M characters depicted in that format.

* By the way, we visited six capital cities. I believe each one had an Irish pub, a Mexican restaurant, and a Texas steak house. Nothing says Denmark like some good ribs. 

* It really is true that you can get by in many European cities if you speak only English. That might not be true outside of tourist areas, but many service workers could deal with visitors quite well. I was surprised that many of the kiosks at attractions that had descriptions in two languages usually used English as the second one - even in Russia.

* The oddest scene of the trip might have come at the Hermitage, the famous museum in St. Petersburg. The biggest attraction in one of the zillion rooms in the place was a painting by Leonard da Vinci. Suddenly, a large group of Chinese tourists surged around the painting, leaving me crowded and a little scared. That was a first. I have felt that way at sporting events, but not in an art gallery. According to veteran travelers, life in China is of course overpopulated, and that has led to a different and smaller definition of "personal space" that what the West usually accepts.

* When we were getting ready to enter the Hermitage, it look us a while to cross the square to get to the entrance. Our group was there at the same time the St. Petersburg Marathon was finishing. I recognized the look of those runners who had taken more than five hours to complete the 26.2-mile distance. It's a universal expression.

Speaking of running, I did it a few times on the ship. On the first sail day, I used the treadmill - and was reintroduced to the concept of running on a platform that swayed with the waves. The running track was better, even when fog made the top of the ship a bit blurry when I looked at it.

* The best pre-trip advice I received was from someone who said not to worry too much about money. The ATMs generally are all connected, and credit cards are accepted in most places. I didn't have the chance to do much shopping in Russia, but the one souvenir store I entered took dollars, Euros, and credit cards. It really is a global village in some ways.

* In most of our European stops, we saw traffic lights that went from red to red and yellow, quickly followed by green. The only other time I've seen red and yellow on together was in New England, where it was used for pedestrian crossings. (It still may be, for all I know.) In Europe, it's almost like it's a signal to start revving the engine.

* There's a major business opportunity in Europe for a good shirt designer. Most of the souvenirs we saw in that area were rather boring. The exception was in Skagen, Denmark, an artsy resort area that had some specialists in that area and were rewarded by a brisk business.

* I think it's fair to say that it looked as if more people in Europe smoked than they do in America, but it didn't look like an overwhelming edge.

* Odd cultural moment: a small band greeted tourists at Catherine Palace. The song of choice: "Yellow Submarine." 

* I can't say I ever thought of the Baltic Sea as an Interstate Highway for ships before this, but it was true. At any given moment, we could see another big ship - usually a barge - in the distance.

* Cruisers (my shorthand for people who travel this way a lot) love to talk about the differences in ship lines, but - based on two experiences, Holland America last year and Royal Caribbean this year - the similarities are far greater than the differences. Our stateroom was almost a carbon copy of last year's home. The companies both made plenty of suggestions to drink, gamble, buy jewelry, and pose for photographs. Royal Caribbean might have been a little louder when it comes to promoting its upscale restaurants, ones that charge an extra fee for dining. Holland America does get credit for handing out a daily news summary from the New York Times. Without signing up for Wifi services, which is pricey, it was impossible to keep up with the outside world - so we didn't.

* Last year we couldn't imagine what it was like to be on the same boat with 1,200 people. This year we were on a boat with about twice that. That thought was a little scary, but Royal Caribbean did a good job of keeping the size of the lines for goods and services down. A little wait is to be expected at times like getting on board or getting luggage, but realistically that part was smooth. I will add that the food seemed a little better on Holland America. I would think feeding half as many people would provide a bit of an advantage in that department.

* The cruise lines try to keep the customers occupied when they are on board, particularly during "sail days" when the ships don't go to port. We often showed up for trivia games, and got to meet some nice people that way. Those contests were pretty tough to win, and not just because a few people might have used their phones to look up answers. With the United Kingdom and Australia well represented on board, some questions were geared in their direction - leaving some Americans stumped.

At one point in a game, I asked myself the question, "Do I really want to win a game about identifying disco songs?" I need not have worried, finishing well back in the pack. There was no such ambiguity about winning a game all about American history, particularly when it was played on July 4.

*  Most of the time it was hard to know that there were people with some serious money on the boat, even though you might have guessed that about people who were more than willing to pay $14 for a mixed drink. However, at certain points in the cruise economic class became apparent. That was on the so-called formal nights, when everyone was told to dress for dinner. Suddenly the children on board, who looked like typical kids the rest of the time, were in obviously expensive suits and dresses.

* The first show I saw on our ship featured an ABBA tribute band. I should have seen that coming. After all, this was a trip that featured a stop in Sweden, and ABBA made substantial contributions to the Swedish treasury over the years through record royalties. Besides, ABBA was popular starting in 1977, which means those in their late 50s know the songs well - and that's the start of the sweet spot of the cruising demographic. ABBA songs popped up at other times during the trip as well.

One act prompted some lively discussion after the show. Was the guy portraying Elton John in a tribute band actually playing the piano, or was the guy in the back row doing the work for him? Since "Elton" wasn't touching the foot pedals, most people guessed he was faking it. The entertainment star of the trip was a "comedy mind reader" named Mike McClean, who was quick and clever throughout his act.

* We had only been on a cruise ship once before, and the crowd on the Alaska trip last year was mostly American. This featured more of an international cast. It's hard not to bump into strangers on the big ships, if only because seating at the buffet restaurant is limited and you have to take any available seat. That means conversations can go in unexpected directions.

For example, I got plenty of lessons about immigration within the European Union. A worker from Poland can do better in the United Kingdom than he can at home, even if he takes less than the going rate for a skill. That's led to some hard feelings. I asked how Northern Ireland and Ireland were getting along these days, and was told that while the people didn't exactly trust each other, it was in their best interests to get along and so they did so - a little grudgingly.

The conversation could go the other way too. A couple of Europeans had followed the shootings in South Carolina, and wondered why Americans didn't do something about this obvious problem. It was hard to explain to them why American politicians used the mass killings as a launching point for a discussion about ... the Confederate flag. My guess is that the political leanings of the group as a whole are more conservative than the population at large. It costs a good-sized amount of money to travel this way.

Generally, though, the conversations stuck to travel. The cruising population is pretty well off and has seen a lot of the world. That often gives them a perspective and curiosity that doesn't come with day-to-day life for most. They helped make the trip a memorable experience.

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