Wednesday, December 17, 2014

No Questions Allowed

Here's the text of an ESPN commercial hyping the so-called College Football Playoff:

No computers. No excuses. No more debate. This is what you asked for: a college football playoff on ESPN.


There's no questioning the qualifications of the four teams anointed to participate in the semifinals. No. 1 Alabama (12-1) plays No. 4 Ohio State (12-1) in the Sugar Bowl and No. 2 Oregon (12-1) meets No. 3 Florida State (13-0), the defending national champion, in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. The winners advance to a final game on Jan. 12, The semifinalists are the winningest schools in Division 1 and belong in any playoff field. So where's the beef?

Well, I have two beefs, or beeves, if you're into Middle English. First, although the computer rankings have been dispensed with, the nabobs of college football having discovered that computer results are only as good as the programming they are fed, the new rankings are generated by a 13-member committee, which means that it's still a popularity contest. You cannot eliminate human error from anything dependent upon human judgment. Any pilot will tell you that.

A major criterion for the committee is strength of schedule, which was also heavily weighted in data provided the computer in years past. Strength of schedule is subjective. Reliance on the Southeastern Conference's perceived strength led to embarrassing errors by broadcasters before the 2009 Sugar Bowl, when Utah of the Mountain West Conference (a non-BCS league) beat then-No. 4 Alabama 31-17. Before the game, the Fox team of Kenny Albert and Darryl Johnston discussed the belief that no player on the Utah roster was good enough to start for Alabama.

Similarly, Boise State of the MWC opened the 2011 season by beating Georgia 35-21 on the road, leading the Bulldogs' Brandon Boykin to tell The Sporting News, "They're just as good as any SEC team." What does that say about the MWC's strength of schedule?

The second problem is that a four-team field isn't a playoff, it's a bracket. Can you imagine how the popularity of March Madness would wane if it began with the Final Four?

Even an eight-team field wouldn't be a real playoff, but it would got a long way toward silencing critics of the coalition of university presidents and preferred conferences who founded the ridiculous series of "championships" created by picking two teams to play for the crown. Their initial attempt to rig the system stemmed from the desire to keep the popular year's end bowl games going while creating the aura of an authentic title game. They set up the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2006, and explained that there could not be a full playoff, because the big schools' student-athletes were too busy cramming for finals in December to participate in a series of elimination games.

At the same time, schools of the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly the 1-AA class, were allowed to continue with a 16-team playoff system that produced a real national champion. The inference was that the FCS field either didn't have student-athletes _ or that their classes weren't tough enough to tax the ability of football players to juggle athletics and education.

The new CFP marks another attempt to hoodwink fans who want to see the championship decided on the field. And, in this initial attempt, one of the previously preferred conferences got stung. It's the Big 12, which has two teams _ Baylor and TCU _ that absolutely ought to be allowed to prove on the field whether they could handle Alabama, Oregon, Florida State or Ohio State.

Baylor (11-1) is ranked fifth by the committee and Texas Christian (11-1) is sixth. TCU's only loss was to Baylor in in a 61-58 shootout in Waco, Texas. The Bears sustained a 41-27 loss at West Virginia the next week, but if that's an elimination factor, then someone should be looking at Alabama's performance in early October, when the Crimson Tide stumbled in a 23-17 loss at Mississippi and then squeaked by Arkansas, 14-13,

After all the regular-season games and conference championships, The Associated Press ranked Baylor fourth ahead of Ohio State, and the CBS Sports final poll had TCU fourth, also ahead of the Buckeyes. So much for ESPN's "no more debate" about which teams belong in the four-team playoff field.

While we're on the subject, it's also worth mentioning that ESPN is a sponsor of the college playoff. That strips the network of the neutrality required in the highest standard of journalism and certainly led to the hyperbole _ and hubris _ of the ad.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Obliquely Speaking

The AP, my employer the last 32 years of my journalism career, also served as the springboard to one of the most enjoyable sidelights of my experience as a journalist _ a chance to play professor at a distinguished institution of higher learning. I doubt Syracuse University would have come calling in the autumn of 1984 had I not been the Syracuse correspondent for the world's largest news-gathering organization at the time. But I was, and the university did, in the form of an invitation from Dr. Sam Kennedy, chair of the Newspaper Division of the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, to organize and teach a sports-writing class the following spring.

I gulped while accepting, having just been informed that I would have to develop everything from scratch. I'd also been told that the university had the resources to cover for me in the event airplanes fell from the sky or ships collided in the St. Lawrence Seaway (one of my favorite beats) on the one day a week that I was to scheduled to lecture on sports writing. That was reassuring, and I set about writing a syllabus, compiling a reading list and mapping out a schedule that would allow me to be in class three hours per week and then grade the spot quizzes and writing assignments for 15 students.

It was during the preparation phase that I realized I wanted to teach one principle of good writing which I could not find in Stanley Woodward's "Sports Page," the textbook that first year. It was the principle of triad chords in music _ harmoniously stacking a set of three notes. The application in prose is to stack three similar thoughts, with each repetition intensifying the effect of what the writer is saying. I'd seen the triad used frequently in the work of incomparable Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, and planned to cite examples from his writing. Murray, who won the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association's Sportswriter of the Year award 14 times, mixed caustic humor with deep insight. He famously described tennis as:
"A game in which love counts for nothing, deuces are wild, and the scoring system was invented by Lewis Carroll."
In another column, one of my favorites, Murray borrowed a proverb attributed to Dutch theologian Desiderius Erasmus to begin his epic putdown of boxer Floyd Patterson:
"In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In a congress of murderers, a cutpurse is an honest man. And, in a heavyweight division of palookas, Floyd Patterson is a champion."
The catch was that I didn't have a term for what Murray was doing. I came up with one in the nick of time, coining the term "oblique entry" for that type of circling a subject to create interest at the top of a story. It worked well _ it was gratifying to watch the young would-be writers in the class reach for notebooks, It was also a bit alarming: I could envision one of them telling a real professor something like, "Mr. Reisner says Oblique Entry is the way to catch a reader's attention," and having that get back to the faculty lounge. So I told them something like, "Now, this is my own term. You won't find it in a textbook, because I haven't written a textbook. But try repetition of a theme at the start of a feature story or column if you want to jazz up your writing."

I've followed my own advice on utilizing the harmonic triad many times since, and people seem to like it.

In the most extreme example in "The Leather Man," Chapter 31 is 50 percent oblique entry. The first half of the three-page chapter discusses the Bear River Massacre, a little-known battle between a cavalry regiment and the Shoshone Tribe in southern Idaho. Some estimates put the Native American loss of life at 450, making it one of the greatest slaughters in Indian Wars history.

As the story unfolds, readers come to understand that the chapter is not really about the battle _ the historical markers which interpret it for interested motorists simply lie on the route the Canyon State team bus has taken to reach Logan, Utah, and a game against Utah State which the Wranglers have little chance of winning.

A paragraph in the middle of the second page conveys the message. As the bus passes the monuments, sports information director Marc Carter tries to imagine the scene near the Bear River in January 1863, and an idea strikes him:
What we're heading into is a long way from a massacre, but that's probably what the Sunday papers will call it.
That sentence is a bridge between the drawn-out entry and the introduction to the most important game in Canyon State's history. Carter's musing continues, and he expounds on the reasons Utah State is an overwhelming favorite: tradition, more money, a history of success against a stronger schedule, and great players. Carter, a character in my work-of-fiction first novel, recalls eight Aggies players who began NFL, AFL or Canadian Football League careers during a seven-year span beginning in 1959.

The Canyon State-Utah State game, pairing a fictional college with an existing university, posed a special problem for me. I had to choose at the outset whether to invent a successful, upper-level college program or work around the pitfalls inherent in a meeting of fictional-historical teams. I chose the latter and made it work by not giving the year of the game or mentioning a Utah State player or coach by name. I want Aggies fans of all ages to know that I have great respect for the program. In fact, it was their dominance of regional opponents in the 1960s that led me to pick them as the overwhelming favorite against Canyon State.


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Pink Cheeks and Gray Around Their Eyes

There is one truly poignant chapter in the first half of "The Leather Man" _ Chapter 12, in which Ben Steinbrecher is forced to confront the fact that he will never get to play in the National Football League despite having been born with physical gifts bestowed on only a handful of mortals.

That's one of the steps that reduces Ben from Superman to Everyman, and it humanizes him.

As a superhero, Ben would have been just one more comic-strip character in a panoply of fictitious friends of society; a role model born of wishful thinking instead of strategic planning. As a human being, by way of contrast, Ben remains large and forceful, but he becomes someone readers can relate to because his shift in focus from playing a sport to coaching others is an allegory about reaching adulthood _ tutee become tutor, a theme as old as literature itself. Consider Paul's wake-up epistle to early Christian converts in Corinth:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
In Medieval times, an understanding of the common destiny of mankind gave rise to morality plays, in which personifications of moral values try to persuade a protagonist to choose good over evil. "The Somonyng (Summoning) of Everyman," written late in the 1400s, became the flagship of the genre. Its frontispiece describes it as (in modern English) "a treatise how the high Father of Heaven sends Death to summon each creature to come and give account of their lives in this world."

Death also contributes to the poignance of a later chapter, but in a different, sharper context: Quintus LeClaire, whose post-Vietnam adventure of rediscovery begins with the decision to track down the parents of a slain Marine Corps buddy, finally gets to meet them in Chapter 30.

The circumstances are different than he could have imagined when he boarded a bus in Louisiana half a year earlier. In the interim, he has become the starting tailback at a small college in Idaho's Magic Valley, has found friends and allies, including a police chief who understands the horrors of combat, and has begun to put his life back together. As the chapter unfolds, Quintus turns out to be a better ball carrier than anyone expected: He sets a school single-game record for yardage rushing in Canyon State's season-opening victory over Northern Oregon.

What Quintus isn't privy to is that Sam Moody, the police chief, has arranged for a surprise visit by the Royale Evans family of Portland, Ore., the parents and younger brother of Royce Evans. After the game they are escorted down to the field to meet the young man who befriended their fallen family member. In an emotion-charged scene, Quintus shakes hands with Royale and Viola Evans and exchanges compliments with Rindell, a prep-school linebacker.

Royale tells Quintus that Royce called him a white man he could trust _ a weighty homage from a black man during the Civil Rights Movement. Quintus realizes that Royale is looking for something more and begins to describe the reconnaissance mission he and Royce were on:
The point man stepped on a mine and we started taking fire. Royce was behind me, so we wound up on our bellies behind a log until we figured there was a machine gun off to the left.
Quintus says he and Royce were hit taking out the machine gun, and Royale expresses his condolences, saying the letter of notification he received gave him no suggestion that anyone else on the mission had been injured. Then he asks for one more piece of information: Did Royce have any last words? That question leads to what I consider to be one of the best of all the original word pictures in my book:
He had been trying to reconstruct the scene, intuiting that the question would be asked, but it was difficult. There had been trees and tall grass, and bullets hitting them filled the air with fiber like the inside of a sawmill. Noise, confusion, nineteen-year-olds with pink cheeks and gray around their eyes, looking like Death warmed over while the real thing went flying around at Mach Two.
Quintus' attempt to convey a final message, rather than the message itself, brings peace to the hearts of the Evans family, and bringing them to Canyon City proves to be one of the best moves the Purple Stampede booster club could have made.


Friday, September 12, 2014


Foreshadowing is a particularly important tool in a novel because it creates tension, a singularly good way to hold a reader's attention.

Literature is usually excluded from the sequential arts, a term applied to comic books, Such arts employ sequential images to tell a story or impart information. But I wrote my first novel with chapters which are sequential by subject interwoven with other chapters which have little to do with the tension-building sequences.

A significant theme of "The Leather Man" _ the crumbling of Ben and Gloria Steinbrecher's marriage _ is hinted at in the second, third, 11th and 15th chapters. In the latter two, Ben meets Sherry Sullivan, and Brock Banning, a standout in Ben's Canyon State Wranglers defense, reminisces about striking up an acquaintance with Gloria. With character development for the novel complete, the theme of marital instability then forks into separate sequences in the middle section, defined in my earlier post "Balancing The Book" as Chapters 16-39.

Chapter 20 ("St. Agnes' Eve") is where Sherry has to confront her feelings about Ben, and another sequence begins with Chapter 26 ("Undertones"), in which Gloria feels compelled to catch Canyon State practices, something she's never done, to watch Brock in action.

By Chapter 29, the Gloria-Brock angle has taken a tick upward: She's looking through the wine section at a grocery store when her mind drifts to the previous day's last full-contact practice session before the season opener. Specifically, she remembers the middle linebacker with the tight pants whose fierce roars at the offense are especially audible with no crowd noise. Then she awakens to reality with Brock looking at her over a display of cheeses.

Gloria wonders if she's blushing, but bounces back quickly with a mild put-down:
"You're Brock, right?" she said, feeling more in control as soon as she uttered the words. Let him try to cross that gorge! I met you last spring, didn't I?"
Brock isn't fazed by the low-caliber snub and reminds her that he met Gloria and Sandy Wilson, another coaching wife, months ago in a college hangout where she ordered gimlets. He observes that her tastes seem to have evolved from gin to wine. Gloria says she has a small wine collection at home, Brock responds that he wouldn't mind sampling it, and Gloria tries one last bit of banter, saying that "Coach Steinbrecher" doesn't invite players to his home.

That's when Brock breaks through the persiflage:
"You said it was your wine," he answered, looking into her eyes. "I wasn't thinking about any group get-together, just a private look at all the burgundies and chardonnays lying on their sides."
That's enough to alert Gloria to a turning point in their relationship, and, as if it weren't, Brock lets her know, a few sentences later, that he's been eyeing her from the practice field:
"The way you and Sandy have been coming to practice, I'm surprised you didn't know my number too."
"Fifty-one," she replied. "I'll let you know about the tour."

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sports Information

My intention when I began to write Chapter 27 of "The Leather Man" was to broaden the average reader's grasp of sports information directors and what they do. That is to say, what I imagine they do; I never worked in the field of sports coverage as anything but a reporter, but I had a chance to observe some of the best SIDs in action.

The first who impressed me was Larry Kimball, who retired  in 1997 after 31 years as the head man for Syracuse Univerity's press-box operations _ a string that included attending 383 consecutive Orange football games and 42 Intercollegiate Rowing Association regattas. Tom Duddleston Jr. of the University of Arizona nearly matched Kimball's longevity before retiring in 2013. Duddleston was known for his dry wit, including hilarious public-address announcements at Wildcats home games that a ball carrier had committed "self-tackleization" by tripping over his own feet. On the professional level, Budd Thalman sticks out for his professionalism _ during his 13 years with the Buffalo Bills, the team made the playoffs just three times, but the NFL asked Thalman to assist with media relations at seven Super Bowls.

In my opinion, sports could not have grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry without SIDs, who went by that title in the 1960s but today are more likely to be known as media relations directors. In the upper level of college sports, most of them have titles that include the words "vice president" _ apt when you consider that they direct a roomful of assistants and run press boxes filled with hundreds of media types. Whatever the position is called, the work is the same: Facilitate coverage of the events lined up by the institutions or professional franchises which field the teams that attract the fans.

Implicit in that sentence is the need to deal with some unpalatable situations, starting with the outcome of almost any game _ there can only be one winner in most sports, and nobody likes losing. Then there's the matter of player behavior; it's axiomatic that being strong and aggressive doesn't always lead athletes to act like adults.

But SIDs have to be unflappable, and most are. The acid test is when the situation involves a funeral.

Doug Tammaro grew in my estimation when I saw how he handled Arizona State's tribute to Pat Tillman after Tillman was killed in Afghanistan in April 2004. Tammaro, ASU's athletic media relations director, joined the Athletic Department as an assistant SID in 1993, a year before Tillman arrived on the Tempe campus. Tillman developed from the last Sun Devils football player to receive a scholarship that year to the Pac-10's Defensive Player of the Year by the time he was a senior, then went on to star for the Arizona Cardinals. He became a national icon in May 2002, when he turned his back on a $1.2 million annual salary to enlist in the Army Rangers, and I believe his death by friendly fire marked an early turning point that swung public opinion against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Although you could tell Tammaro's personal feelings were involved, he handled the news conference with aplomb and tact. It was a nice touch that former Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis was invited. McGinnis' comments about Tillman as a man's man were poignant and powerful.

In my novel, the Canyon State SID is Marc Carter. He is working on the football flip charts for the Wranglers' season opener when Canyon City police chief Sam Moody walks in with a request for complimentary tickets _ one of the most frequent incidental requests that sports information offices receive.

In a short conversation, Moody explains that he's tracked down the family of Royce Evans of Portland, Ore., and that they'd like to see Quintus LeClaire play his first game. It turns out Evans was a friend of LeClaire who was killed during LeClaire's last firefight in Vietnam, and Moody believes meeting his friend's family could help the troubled tailback cope with his combat experiences.

After handling that request, Carter returns to preparations for the game, interrupting his routine to wonder if LeClaire will play up to his potential. If he does, Carter still sees a tough road ahead to get national attention for any player at a small Western college. He wraps up the subject by noting that it's all speculation until the kickoff:
The thing is, he needs to do something spectacular first. You can't sell brass as gold bullion, no matter how you hype it.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Lost Contain in the Sun

The first full weekend of college football offered ample opportunity to reflect on the demise of English as a beautiful language, potentially full of mystery, elegance and a rich vocabulary.

Within minutes of turning on the set, I caught the first misuse of "contain," which is a verb everywhere but in the confused grammar that fills the networks on autumn weekends. To most ex-jocks, contain is a noun, usually applied to some defender's allowing a back to slip by him or a receiver to get behind him, as in: "He lost contain." That is one of the ugliest-sounding sentences in the language. And, since grammar is nothing more than a description of the way words are used, it will likely become standardized usage because of the reach of TV. English lovers will have lost another round.

The crime of contain as a noun lies in the fact that it's not needed _ it duplicates containment. I have to believe that the "ment" was dropped for no other reason than that it shortened each sportscaster's sentence by a syllable. Having once been forced to do color commentary for a high school game, I acknowledge that each syllable must be weighed in terms of air time. But, if that's truly the case on the national level, why not use "kept charge" or "lost sway?" Or how about "control" or "oversight," each with only two syllables? Why twist a perfectly good verb into a monstrous noun?

It's true that other verbs serve well as nouns _ "fire," "treat," "maintain" and "voice" have seen dual application for so long no one knows whether they started as action words (verbs) or substantives (nouns) But it's equally true that English is a phonetic language, which is why everyone uses the article "an" instead of "a" ahead of the word "ape." And, because our language has always been shaped by the way words sound together, English speakers chose containment when they referred to keeping someone or something in check. Until now.

I can't blame the other glaring sign of illiteracy on sportscasts, although it shows up in them with great frequency. It also occurs in telecasts of every stripe, and on the highest level. I caught part of a Fox Business show Saturday on which one of the commentators said, "The corporations, who ... " I didn't get the rest of the sentence, because I wanted to scream, "No, lady, corporations are not people. Even Michael Moore (a one-man property conglomerate, according to his divorce papers) could tell you that."

For centuries "who" referred to people, and "which" referred to groups or things. But "which" seems to have been dropped from most vocabularies. Any day now, I expect to hear a newscast about an automobile accident which begins, "The car rammed a tree, who stood beside the road."


Thursday, August 28, 2014


Misdirection, a mainstay of offensive game planning, works in matrimonial mischief as well. Gloria Steinbrecher seems to have learned something from watching the Canyon State staff prepare for the season opener: Suggest that the play is headed one way when it's actually going the other. But her husband isn't considered a defensive mastermind for nothing; he senses something is up from the start.

The cat-and-mouse game between the sexes provides a dark side to Chapter 26 of "The Leather Man." In a stronger marriage, the chapter would consist of a congenial chat between a defensive coordinator and his wife about the potential of the Wranglers' impressive linebacking corps. But, in the context of the Steinbrecher marriage, Gloria's half of the exchange unfolds as a layered cake, with her superficial comments nuanced to mask the undertones of her growing attraction to Brock Banning.

By mid-June Gloria has to acknowledge that she's been thinking about the middle linebacker, whom she met in late March while bar-hopping with Sandy Wilson, the wife of offensive-backfield coach Jerry Wilson ("The Pike"). In a soliloquy she wonders what Banning has been doing during the Southern California summer:
Soaking up beach culture and hanging around with a lot of women in bikinis. But how could I even be thinking about that? It's his life, and he's the right age to enjoy it. A moment later she was amazed at the depth of the envy the thought evoked in her.
When the players begin returning to Idaho's Magic Valley six weeks later to start training camp, Gloria makes a half-hearted effort to get Banning out of her mind. That dissolves into an even stronger craving to see more of him, and Sandy provides the method by reminding her many wives of coaches watch practice sessions before and during the season, most to show support for their husbands.

Gloria takes the misdirection game a dangerous step further the week before Canyon State's opener by initiating a conversation about the linebackers. Her opening gambit is to ask Ben about David Talty's hand ("Pain"), followed by another question about Danny Malahewa, the other outside linebacker, whom she refers to as "the Hawaiian kid." Then, having circled the issue, she inquires about Banning. Ben replies:
"He's an animal, and that makes him the right man to play in the middle. You remember him from last year?"
"He's caught the attention of everyone at bridge. He reminds them of Burt Reynolds, only scarier. The girls all want to see him in action."
"What kind of action is the bridge club into?"
"Well, I think the point of reference is football. You men forget some women would like to see Canyon State improve too."
By then Ben is uneasy about where Gloria is going with her new-found interest in his work. But, in the excitement of the fresh start each new season brings, he puts his concerns aside to concentrate on his work.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014


I can't remember why I decided to include a chapter on pain in my first novel, but I know when. What is now Chapter 24 of "The Leather Man" was one of the first chapters I typed during the winter of 1973-74, my first as The AP's new sports editor in Helena, Mont. I've dealt in other posts with the long delay in completing the book, so I'll move past that now.

I assume that the decision referred to above grew out of an understanding that it's difficult to examine the sport of football without encountering the subject of pain. Readers might recall from Chapter 16 that Canyon State trainer Wayne Shipwright draws a sharp distinction between pain and discomfort and scorns athletes who equate the two as one and the same. In Shipwright's view (imposed by the author, I have to confess), discomfort is something that can be worked through; pain is a signal to stop the activity which caused it. In other words, there's no gain from real pain, which creates nothing but more pain if the workout continues.

The latter point of view evolved during my distance-running career, which coincides roughly with the origin of the saying, "no pain, no gain" in the early 1980s. From the first the expression sounded catchy, but fishy. After some thought, I explained its incongruity per the reasoning above. I received visual confirmation of my theory during the 1983 Skylon Marathon, which separates itself from other events by having the self-proclaimed "World's Most Beautiful Finish Line" (Niagara Falls). I was never a world-class runner, and I stopped running for a drink about 17 miles into the event. Out of curiosity, I took a look inside an assistance tent before I left. There I saw a strapping young man, who obviously had been many minutes ahead of me but would never be able to equal my time on that particular day. I heard a medical professional say the words "dislocated ankle," closed the flap and continued on my way, seeing the vignette over and over in the final nine miles. I was struggling with discomfort; he with pain.

Years of covering the Buffalo Bills and Arizona Cardinals of the NFL; the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes of the NHL; the Phoenix Suns of the NBA; baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, and a host of major college teams helped immerse me in sports medicine and opened my eyes to injuries I'd never imagined.

My personal acquaintance with pain in a sports setting began my senior year in high school, when I separated my right shoulder in wrestling practice. A few months later I spaced out in the middle of a double forward flip on the school's new trampoline, landed on my head and suffered the indignity of breaking my nose with my own descending knee. I wrestled in college without further injuries, but ended my football and rugby careers by pulling hamstrings. I also rolled an ankle playing basketball and broke the other skiing a few semesters later.

My thirties and forties were kinder, and that's when I managed to compete in a variety of distance events, including four marathons and two triathlons, with no interruptions for rehabilitation. But my luck caught up with me again in the so-called golden years. The toll: a torn shoulder tendon from injudicious weight lifting at the Phoenix YMCA, and a left shoulder separation and damaged sciatic nerve in my right hip. I managed both at one time when I was running to catch up with an golfer shooting nothing but birdies on the front nine of her round at an LPGA event in Tucson, Ariz., and stepped in a hole left by removal of a tree. (I know, I wasn't competing in a sport, but it was in a sports setting.) Finally (I hope), I cracked vertebrae in my lower spine doing another weightlifting no-no at my home in Idaho Falls.

Everything in the last 40 years flavored my understanding of pain and contributed to the ways I rewrote the chapter about David Talty's training-camp injury.

The reader learns that Talty, a linebacker, gets his right hand smashed between two hard objects, a ball carrier's shoulder pads and another player's helmet.
He was instantly occupied with the message, receiving thousands of stimuli from three fingers, which, at the moment of impact, had become four-inch blood blisters.
Talty remains on the ground, his body curled protectively around his hand, until Shipwright arrives. The trainer considers using an ointment containing Arnica montana to soothe the bruised fingers until he realizes it can't be applied to an open wound. He helps Talty to his feet and takes him to the training room, where he washes and disinfects the fingers, tests them and decides there are no broken bones. Shipwright then ices the bruised fingers, bandages them, helps Talty remove part of his uniform and tells him to shower.
While he doffed the rest of his gear left-handed, Talty noticed the pain had sharpened his senses: He was keenly aware of textures _ wet towels flung like rectangles of color in a Piet Mondrian painting, the purple lockers dented like moonscapes, the stainless steel whirlpool bath reflecting the metallic pall of asylum decor.
Shipwright notices that Talty, coming out of not only the initial pain but the tension caused by worrying about his place in the season to come, is getting upbeat, and the trainer feels the reward of being in a position to help:
It doesn't matter how big the kids get, they always feel better when they're hurt and somebody pays attention.
The chapter ends with the realization that the Wranglers have dodged a bullet and contributes to a rosy feeling about the season ahead.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cervantes Redux

The picaresque novel is to prose fiction what the buddy film is to cinema. An undercurrent of sometimes good, sometimes dark humor runs through them, which may explain the appeal of both: Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote," the definitive picaresco work of fiction and a pillar of modern Western literature, first appeared in 1605. But it still brings smiles to readers' faces, and nothing evokes Quixote's joust with windmills, which he ludicrously believes are giants, more than the sedan-become-assault-vehicle's crash into the parade grandstand in "Animal House," released in 1978. Recall, for example, Tim Matheson's line that seals the deal: "I think that this situation absolutely requires a really stupid and futile gesture on somebody's part."

But humor alone is not enough, and that's where the true picaresque narrative departs from the average buddy movie. The subgenre draws on themes that were present in Roman stories about gladiators and on Arabic literature so ascetic a slaphappy sidekick would have seemed out of place. The Arabian influence was very strong in everything Spanish: The Moors put most of the Iberian peninsula under the crescent flag in the Eighth Century and did not lose their last foothold until 1492, when the joint monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile defeated Emir Muhammad XII after the siege of Granada. Cervantes was born 55 years later.

I wasn't even thinking about roguish vagabonds when I began writing "The Leather Man." Its title character is a bigger-than-life football coach whom life seems determined to whittle down to size. But I did apply the word "picaresque" to Quintus LeClaire at one point in the writing process before editing it out. Rather than dominate the novel, his friendship with Preston "Taters" Jones is a subplot that enlivens it.

LeClaire is a war-damaged Marine who drops onto the the Leather Man's team through a series of circumstances and quickly becomes friends with Jones, a starter in the same Canyon State College backfield. Taters is important to Quintus, whose last close friend was killed in Vietnam, and vice versa. But, as much as they stabilize each other, each has a wild side that threatens to destabilize the other.

Taters, who plays blocking back to Quintus' featured tailback role in Canyon State's I Formation, is the son of a car dealer in Soda Springs. That's a blessing for Quintus, who wound up in Idaho after running afoul of the Canyon City police department while on a bus trip _ Taters provides the ride as well as being a pal, and it's quite a ride: a Dodge Coronet hardtop with a 425-horsepower, hemispherical-head engine that meets Taters' need for speed. In Chapter 22, the metallic green car with airbrushed flames on the hood is barely moving on a street near the campus _ and still attracts the attention of coaches Ben Steinbrecher and Jerry Wilson.
It was not yet midnight, the team's weekend curfew hour, but the coaches still found something unsettling in the passage of the car, its engine rumbling through chromed tailpipes with a voice choked on air and high-octane gasoline.
Wilson, who coaches the offensive backfield, and Steinbrecher, the defensive coordinator, have just come from a wild goose chase _ investigating a false drug-use allegation against quarterback Edison Green _ and Wilson remarks that they probably should have been after the two running backs, noting that, "LeClaire looks like he's breaking rules just lacing up his shoes." But they decide they've had enough curfew and rules enforcement and go home for the night.

The fun is just starting for Taters and Quintus, who pass a bottle of whiskey back and forth as they rumble through Canyon City neighborhoods in Chapter 23 until they arrive at a city park. There, they see a teammate, albeit from the defensive side of the ball and a known loner _ linebacker Brock Banning. Inebriated though they are, the two are mildly taken aback to see Banning urinating on a rest-room door. They ask why, and Banning gives a laconic reply: The door is locked.

Quintus and Taters could accept that as logical, but Banning's distracted behavior and uncoordinated movements draw Quintus' attention. No stranger to marijuana after nearly two years in Vietnam, he asks Banning if he has plenty of Zig-Zag paper, a favorite wrap for users. That irks Banning:
"You two are seriously impairing my enjoyment of the outdoors. Why don't you zigzag out of here while you're in condition to drive?"
Quintus ignores the threat, calls Banning "fat man" and tells him to wise up, because he's jeopardizing his career using pot in a 1960s small city with police seemingly everywhere. It becomes clear to Taters that his friend isn't so much worried about Banning's career as he is ready for his first fight since leaving the Marine Corps. He also sees a more sinister intent in Quintus' eyes:
It was then that Jones comprehended what it meant to be a combat veteran: He's playing a game. Banning thinks fighting means beating somebody up, and Quintus thinks it means only one man walks away. With that realization came the responsibility to keep it from happening.
Taters manages to separate the two, possibly saving a life and preserving Canyon State's season. He also comes out of the evening with a greater understanding of the adventures he's likely to run into hanging out with his new best friend.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Bird of Paradise

Treachery is most ugly when it strikes a vulnerable target. That describes Edison Green despite a strong first week of training camp, and the chicanery that leads a woman to accuse him of marijuana use comes close to undoing the promise shown by Canyon State's rebuilt offensive backfield.

Green, already carrying the weight of having to prove himself after transferring from a junior college, bears the extra burden of being a black quarterback in an era when almost all signal callers at the college and professional level are white. Chapter 21 of "The Leather Man" tells readers that Green has established himself as the Wranglers' starter and is just beginning to feel comfortable as the team leader when Jerry Wilson, his position coach, and Wranglers defensive coordinator Ben Steinbrecher show up at his room to ask if the accusation is true.
The first thing that came to Green was Gram's face, solemn and proud, as she recited her instructions for behavior the night he caught the bus for Canyon City. The second thing was the injustice of it. In an era when Timothy Leary was a household name and even non-dropouts were turning on and tuning in, a young man had stood by his grandmother's advice: Leave that to the honkies.
Wilson can see the season falling apart before it starts. He took the detail under protest in the first place, pointing out to head coach Buck McKinnon that the call smacked of a prank and was almost certainly bogus. But McKinnon, whose previous team had a 3-7 record, feels his own career is in jeopardy and wants to squelch any potential drug scandal even if it means losing the most promising quarterback he's ever had in camp. Luckily for Wilson, Steinbrecher volunteered to accompany him on the unwelcome assignment. Steinbrecher has no doubt that Green has been falsely accused, but he is more relaxed than they are. What no one but Steinbrecher knows is that he has an ace to play.

That feeling of security allows Steinbrecher to admire "the accoutrements of soul" in Green's room, starting with an elephant-hide shield imported from Africa, a Lava Lamp and photos of Green's two-sport heroics in high school. He joins the conversation when Green asks if the two plan to search his room for drug paraphernalia, saying:
"There was a phone call, and we had to take it seriously because a serious allegation was made. As the starting quarterback, you are the face of the program. Be content with that. We know you're not a quitter, because the lady who raised you said so."
The reference to Gram takes the steam out of Green's dudgeon.

He asks how Steinbrecher could have any idea who raised him, and the defensive coordinator explains that he went to visit Gram in Phoenix at McKinnon's request to assure her that her grandson would be treated well in Idaho. Still incredulous, Green asks for verification, and Steinbrecher tells him about the red bird of paradise tree in Gram's backyard. Since Green's boyhood, Gram has used it to teach him the need for parental- and self-discipline by citing the constant attention and training it takes to coax a bush into a tree with a single trunk. It is a detail no one who isn't on good terms with Gram could know, and it's just enough to guarantee that the Wranglers will keep their stylish backfield intact.


Sunday, August 17, 2014


I'm finding out that book signings, which I dreaded after publishing "The Leather Man," can be some of the most pleasant moments in an author's journey. Yesterday's, my second overall and first in a Barnes & Noble store, was a good example.

The first person at the table _ set up just inside the entrance off the Grand Teton Mall promenade _ was a lady who wanted to buy a copy for her husband. He had been a star athlete at American Falls (Idaho) High School decades earlier, when I was a newly minted prep-sports reporter for the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello. She said he'd kept a clipping of every story that mentioned him and wanted to read the book as soon as he heard about it, but they'd missed an earlier signing in Pocatello. Her visit put me in good mood that lasted the rest of the night. Friends kept stopping by, including a couple whose house is next to mine. I was so surprised I nearly apologized for having to sell them the book.

Everything about the process of becoming a novelist, from trying to write a prologue that invites readers to keep going; to keeping track of themes developed early that need to be repeated later; to choosing the right ending; to query letters and looking for an agent has been a learning experience for me. But, in the end, it all seemed to come naturally until I got to marketing. As I indicated in my first post, just starting a blog was an unfamiliar experience, but nothing to rival the feeling of sitting face-to-face across from people and having to ask them to spend mortgage, food, furniture or education money on a product of my imagination _ made tangible only because it now comes with pages and a beautiful cover.

After two signings, however, I'm looking forward to many more. The experiences have been nothing but positive: Will Peterson of the Walrus & Carpenter bookstore in Pocatello and the staff at the Idaho Falls Barnes & Noble made me feel at home from the start.

Still, I think a signing at the Twin Falls Barnes & Noble on Sept. 13 will top everything. After all, the city nestles on the south rim of the spectacular Snake River Canyon, with 212-foot high Shoshone Falls, the nation's most massive unshared waterfall (most of Niagara Falls' water drops on the Canadian side) lurking a few miles east. Shoshone Falls also graces the backdrop of this blog, along with the front and back covers of "The Leather Man." I'll find it inexplicable if the upcoming signing doesn't attract a lot of visitors.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

St. Agnes' Eve

An oblique reference to Woody Guthrie's haunting "Pastures of Plenty" ("The Leather Man," Chapter 9) aside, two works of poetry are cited in my novel. Both are used in character development.

In Chapter 19, the Canyon State sports information director refers to the poem "Ozymandias" for a reminder that the fickleness of sports reflects the vagaries of life itself. The second occurrence comes in the next chapter, where readers learn more about Sherry Sullivan, the elegantly beautiful special-education administrator and instructor who meets title character Ben Steinbrecher through his visits to see his son Teddy.

Sherry and Ben recognize the attraction between them as soon as they meet, and both independently dig in to fight it for the same reason _ Ben is married, and neither he nor Sherry wants to deal with the implications of their getting too friendly, let alone the consequences of breaking up a family. But the magnetism continues to grow with Ben's weekly visit to the institution which houses his son and employs Sherry.

Her recognition of the depth of her feelings about him takes place in the context of putting on makeup. In a series of soliloquies, Sherry admits that she's taking greater care than usual to get everything right because she knows that Ben is driving to western Idaho from Canyon City in the state's midsection. Exasperated over having to redo her mascara, she chides herself for letting thoughts about him intrude into her life:
I'm a better woman than that. After what I went through, the abuse and the divorce, I told myself I'd never look at another man again. I'm supposed to be beyond that, and he's not even my man. Maybe that's part of the attraction, another side of her said. There's no attraction, was the reply. Even if there was, I have enough character to reject it. But reject is such a harsh word, it doesn't even go with Ben; he's so gentle. Soft on him already, huh?
Sherry continues dressing, alternating between trying to empty her mind of everything but the familiar process of getting ready and recognizing what amounts to a fear that getting too close to Ben could mean not being able to be around him at all. She rehearses her life story, flavored with the pain of her parents' divorce, the recognition of her athletic talent, and the disappointment of her marriage to a libertine who laughs at her academic achievements and cheats on her even as she is delivering their child:
She spent the next few years back with her mother waiting tables to get enough money together to begin floating resumes, embittered by the incongruity of a trained professional doing menial labor.
That experience and the relief of finding employment at the state-run institution for the mentally handicapped set up the chapter for an ending that refers to "The Eve of St. Agnes," John Keats' 42-stanza poem. The exhaustive work is based on the medieval belief that a maiden who fasted and followed other rituals the night of Jan. 20, the eve of the Feast of St. Agnes, could have a vision of her future lover. Madeline, the virginal daughter of the lord of the castle, sees a glorified version of Porphyro, who loves her, and then awakes to see Porphyro in her bedroom, led there by Angela, an aged nurse. After a magical return to sleep and the dream of her lover, Madeline awakes and they leave for Porphyro's home "o'er the southern moors."

The masterpiece by Keats, written in 1819, has influenced generations of writers because, in part, it contrasts near-Arctic cold with the pageantry and warmth inside the castle, where, "The level chambers, ready with their pride, Were glowing to receive a thousand guests." It influenced me so much when I read it in college that I memorized the first stanza and made a mental note to use something about the contrast of cold and heat if I ever did a major work of creative writing.

The chapters in "The Leather Man" that deal with the Canyon State-Utah State game are based on that dissimilarity. But, by the time I wrote the book, I'd discovered that other writers had beaten me to the idea of naming something "Fire and Ice." Among them, the great Robert Frost gave that title to a poem. It has nine lines, the same as one of Keats' Spenserian stanzas.

During the writing of my novel, though, I found the right place for a St. Agnes' Eve reference. It's the penultimate paragraph of Chapter 20, part of Sherry's last soliloquy:
But you've got a good job now, she reminded herself. A position, actually. You have people who appreciate you, and children to love and care for, your own and the sweet, helpless kids at the school. And one of them has a father who looks a lot like the man you envisioned when you were little Sherry Seaberry, throwing rocks in the backyard creek and hoping for just one St. Agnes' Eve glimpse of her soul mate.
The chapter turned out to be one of my favorites in the book, because it represented a special challenge: I wasn't sure beforehand whether I could develop female characters in a way a woman could relate to. It was with great relief that I learned after completing it that one of my daughters asked another one, "How did dad get in touch with his feminine side?"


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Having Contractions

In a forest of commas, colons, hyphens, ampersands, pound signs, ellipses and parentheses, the apostrophe stands alone as the most misused and misunderstood of punctuation marks. It could hardly be otherwise _ apostrophes probably are used more often than any marks but periods, and their applicability dates back to Latin rules of grammar which even some English teachers may never have encountered.

Part of the confusion lies in an apostrophe's usefulness. Apostrophes are used to show possession, appearing on either side of the letter "s" according to whether the word is singular or plural. They also help form contractions. And, a while ago, purists insisted on putting an apostrophe anywhere in a word where a letter had been deleted.

The third usage probably was the earliest to vanish. It certainly was a goner by the time cartoonist Al Capp ended the 40-year run of the comic strip Li'l Abner in 1974. Under the old rule, the "Little" in Li'l Abner's name should have been written Li''l' (an apostrophe for each deleted letter). Capp followed that rule in the less successful strip Abbie an' Slats, created three years after Li'l Abner, but evidently he saw where punctuation was headed and decided one apostrophe was enough for a resident of Dogpatch. That may have been a good thing, but I doubt it. Having been freed from a rule of grammar, two generations since then have decided to ignore all logic when deleting letters in words. The effect is obvious in the world of cooking. On one on-line recipe page I found these concoctions: Pork n' Beans and Hamburger Casserole; Pork N Beans Cake; and Pork 'n' Bean Soup. That's three versions of and, shortened, plus the original "and" in all its glory.

The most frequent mistake in the use of apostrophes, though, occurs with the use of it's as a possessive pronoun. I see daily examples of this mistake _ and not just by high school sophomores. It shows up in corporate publications, advertisements, and news tickers local and national. What makes the misuse embarrassing is that "it's" is a contraction of "it is" _ the shortest complete sentence in the English language after "I am" _ and never should be used to indicate possession. "Its" (without an apostrophe) is the possessive form of the third-person, singular, neuter pronoun "it." To anyone troubled by indecision about which is which, remember: The apostrophe in it's combines two words; its without punctuation is a pronoun, used to indicate that "it" possesses something.


Now, about the uses of apostrophes where some rules still apply: Possession depends on number, meaning how many persons, places or things the noun represents.

If the noun is singular, the construction is usually simple _ the word, plus an 's at the end (the dog's collar, for instance). If plural, the apostrophe goes after the s (the dogs' collars). Of course, as usual with English, things can get complicated, especially with nouns like thesis, species or bus that end in s. The standard way to indicate possession with them was to put the apostrophe outside the last letter, but the trend in modern usage seems to be toward adding an 's, especially after common (non-capitalized) nouns. Many publications today do that while merely adding an apostrophe to the final s on a proper noun (Thomas' truck).

The one rule that seems to have remained inviolate is to never use an apostrophe when putting an s at the end of a singular noun to make it plural. In other words, never write about the Brewer's when you're talking about the Brewers, Arizona's first family.

As a former sports writer, I can't wrap this up without relating it to sports. I've always preferred team names that ended in s, but I could see the future coming when the WNBA added the Phoenix Mercury to the teams I had to cover in the Grand Canyon State. Even though it sounds singular, Mercury is a plural noun, and those who covered the team had to learn to write "Mercury's," "Mercury are" or "Mercury have," referring to their possessions, accomplishments, wins, losses or transactions. Maybe it's playing in basketball venues, but the trend went wild in the Arena Football League, where six of 14 teams have singular-sounding names. I like the Spokane Shock and Portland Thunder of the National Conference, and I'm fine with the Tampa Bay Storm, Pittsburgh Power and Philadelphia Soul of the American. I just don't know about the New Orleans VooDoo. I'd have trouble writing about the VooDoo's mojo with a straight face.


Monday, August 11, 2014

Picture Day

On any level of football, tension enters the picture with the arrival of training camp. It gives the coaches about a month to find out if the individuals they've picked to start can cohere into an effective team, with effectiveness measured in victories. Head coach Buck McKinnon knows that his every decision from August through the end of the season will be scrutinized, debated and second-guessed. For players, camp offers the opportunity to advance up the depth chart or drop into scholarship limbo. Even sports writers and sportscasters feel their pulse rates quicken with the knowledge that each player move, the slightest limp by anyone, or a heated discussion between coaches can turn into a story that suggests or demands coverage, and most approach late summer resolving to improve their own speed and delivery of the news.

At Canyon State, camp begins with Picture Day, when the players debut new uniforms, and members of the news media in and around Canyon City turn out to photograph and interview them. For sports information director Marc Carter, Picture Day signals the start of his favorite time of year:
It was a golden afternoon, weeks before the autumnal equinox, but the leaves were nearly ready to turn. That would set the arroyos ablaze with a carotene cascade that meandered like molten shrapnel toward the city. It was time for football, a few months when life was good and a team called the Wranglers could be as popular as rodeos and fishing.
The current season's Picture Day carries more interest than most: The Wranglers have landed what the coaches believe may be a blue-chip prospect _ an unusual catch at Canyon State's level _ and head coach McKinnon can't wait to see if tailback Quintus LeClaire can provide the offensive punch his Wranglers have been lacking. LeClaire, a star in his native Louisiana, took a circuitous route getting to college: He enlisted in the Marine Corps out of high school, was nearly killed in Vietnam, and only wound up in Canyon City because he got arrested aboard a bus stopped there. Carter had to phone LeClaire's high-school coach to get the material for his eye-catching biography in the football media guide, which goes modestly viral by Canyon State standards.

Gifford Richards, the sports editor of the local newspaper, is a non-believer at first, making fun of Quintus' Cajun surname by calling him "Ee-claire." But Richards surprises Carter by waiting around until the end of the mile run which is McKinnon's traditional ending to Picture Day. The coach has assigned various groups target finishing times, based on the amount of running they're expected to do during a game. The offensive and defensive backs, the fastest players on any team, have to finish in 6 minutes, 45 seconds, to avoid McKinnon's wrath. All of the backs, including new quarterback Edison Green, beat the time easily, suggesting improved team speed, but LeClaire's 6:18 mark disappoints Carter.

He asks LeClaire in Chapter 18 if he got off-course, and the reply reminds Carter once again that LeClaire may be a different kind of athlete:
"It wasn't a track meet. All I wanted was to make it without pulling a hammy," says LeClaire, who came close to world-class sprint performances while in high school.
He didn't look angry, just serious. Carter scanned the answer in his mind and found it reasonable. Maybe that's a blue-chip approach to something like the Run. We've never had a blue-chipper here, so how would we know?
The SID notes that even the perpetually sarcastic Richards seems deferential around LeClaire, another sign that the Wranglers may need to be taken seriously for once.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Balancing the Book

Balance is nearly as important in a novel as it is on an athletic field, a fact I wrestled with most of the way through the process of writing and editing "The Leather Man." I think the book turned out well, although I'm still waiting for feedback from readers, the ultimate arbiters.

I had completed and copyrighted the original manuscript, described in an earlier post ("Words (2)") before I encountered "The Writer's Journey," Christopher Vogler's important and influential book on the art of producing screenplays. As Vogler himself points out, his tome works just as well planning the points that make a novel work for readers. I discovered that I had _ without reference to anything but my imagination _ peopled "The Leather Man" with most of the Archetypes Vogler considers essential. I had a Hero, an Antihero, a Mentor, a Shapeshifter, Allies and a Trickster.

Similarly, I'd written situations to cover most of the Stages of the Journey, outlined in what Vogler calls Book Two of his book.

In my novel, both title character Ben Steinbrecher and Antihero Quintus LeClaire hear a "Call to Adventure," refuse the call, meet a mentor, cross thresholds, encounter allies and enemies, face ordeals, find rewards and reach Vogler's version of "Resurrection" before both are able to "Return with the Elixir."

But _ as I wrote in the fourth post _ my book was out of balance and over-written. Editing out the fat reduced the size of the first part, which illustrates how the components of a college football team are assembled, along with introducing the characters. But I had to revise and rearrange most of the second part, which covers training camp through a road victory which marks the high point of the season. The final third of the book wraps up football completely and moves quickly into the part where both Steinbrecher and LeClaire face unanticipated challenges that test their sanity and their will to live.

After submitting the final manuscript to Archway Publishing, I did a page count and found a pleasing symmetry: "The Leather Man" now runs to 272 pages between the Prologue and Epilogue. Of those, the 90-page first section contains a Prologue and 15 chapters. There are 24 chapters and 96 pages in the second section and 16 chapters and the Epilogue in the final 86 pages.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Pike

Anyone who believes that human behavior patterns develop early would conclude that Brock Banning was destined to be a creep. Banning, the major villain in "The Leather Man," is a sensualist, a bully and an egotist wrapped up in an athlete good enough that Canyon State College, which he hopes will be his steppingstone to the NFL, can't afford to bench him. As the middle linebacker in coach Ben Steinbrecher's defense, Banning plays just well enough to hold onto his starting role while wearing on everyone's nerves like a pebble in a running shoe.

Referred to earlier in the book, he gets the stage to himself in Chapter 15, turning up back in his hometown of Long Beach, Calif., after completing his junior year at Canyon State. True to the instincts of many predators, he visits one of his favorite hook-up spots _ the Cinnamon Cinder dance hall, which flourished on a traffic circle near the intersection of the Pacific Coast Highway and Lakewood Boulevard during the Vietnam Era, the time setting of the novel.

Finding nothing promising in the Cinder, he drives to The Pike amusement park. As many of his Canyon State teammates would put it, even Banning had a childhood, and he spent a lot of his at The Pike, riding there on the Pacific Electric Red Car line fondly remembered by long-time residents of Southern California. He recalls that it had seemed special then:
The Pike was a perpetual, seaside county fair, with weight guessers, barkers, bumper cars, arcades, fast-food places and peepshows where prepubescent boys tried to sneak a look before the proprietor shooed them away. It had carousels, sideshows and a huge roller coaster that formed a Figure Eight over the ocean.
Banning recalls the charm of the Cyclone Racer, which seemed in his youth to be "a wooden toy from Mount Olympus, an archetype of coasters, hiding a world of speed, excitement and pelagic mystery behind its mass of support beams."  Now, however:
It was the last double-track wooden coaster left in the United States, a dinosaur on the verge of extinction _ not from an asteroid impact but from wet rot in the pilings and competition from real-estate developers on the prowl for oceanfront property.
Although he's getting impatient at the lack of prospects for an amorous evening, Banning reminds himself that being on the beach is still better than life back in Canyon City, Idaho. He doesn't spend long beating up on the college town, though. Instead, he remembers his chance encounter with the wives of two Canyon State coaches, including pretty Gloria Steinbrecher. Banning, who transferred to Canyon State after two years of junior-college ball at Long Beach City, has already wounded Ben Steinbrecher once without Steinbrecher knowing it. It was Banning, the new arrival, who came up with the sarcastic sobriquet "Leather Man" for Ben, his defensive coordinator. It quickly gained currency among players and other students because of the coach's melanin-saturated skin and powerful build.

Banning flirts with Gloria and Sandy Wilson in late March, buying them gimlets in a bar close to the campus before he finds out they are coaches' wives. A few months later on the beach he is still considering whether to push his luck even further when he returns to Canyon City for training camp. He quickly dumps the thought when he decides to visit a former Long Beach Polytechnic teammate, now a fraternity member at nearby Long Beach State. He finds his former buddy, Paul Nash, at the frat house, and they discuss Banning's experiences at Canyon State (3-7 the previous season), ways to beat the Selective Service draft, the Vietnam War, and entertainment options in the area and nearby Orange County.

Nash finally proposes hitting the Red Witch, a Los Angeles Harbor bar which usually has something exciting going on:
Their eyes met, and both grinned. The Red Witch was a dive in the Harbor area, a haunt for longshoremen, bikers and other habitues of bare-knuckle excitement.
"Far out," Banning said. "Do you want to take my car? I'm parked out front."

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Sweet Spot

The character of Joseph X. Talty, known throughout "The Leather Man" as Uncle Joe, is fully developed in Chapter 14. The chapter also adds details about David Talty, Uncle Joe's nephew, introduced at the end of Chapter 9 and fleshed out in Chapter 10. David surmises in Chapter 10 that he is going to be named one of Canyon State's four football captains once training camp begins, and his character takes on importance as the novel progresses.

Chapter 14 explains how David was orphaned _ his parents died in a car crash on the twisting stretch of Highway 93 between Challis and Salmon, Idaho towns which grew up along the Salmon River. David's two sisters were old enough to get by on their own, but Uncle Joe took his nephew in and raised him.

The values Uncle Joe instilled in David were as colorful and varied as Uncle Joe's experiences in heavy-equipment operation for one of the world's biggest construction companies, not to mention his expertise in philosophy, Irish history, mechanics and sports. The chapter begins with his attempt to talk David out of the blues after breaking up with his girlfriend during the previous semester in college. He asks:
"What could be worse than breaking up with her?"
David tries to humor Uncle Joe out of the questioning mode by mentioning the death of musician Buddy Holly several years previous, but all that does is get his relative started. He quickly cites the assassination of President Kennedy, every U.S.-involving war between 1914 and Vietnam, and the 105-day siege of Derry in 1689 by Jacobite forces seeking to restore James II to the English throne:
"You can't talk about real misery until there's bloodshed and broken families. You losing a two-timing woman? I had a worse experience last summer when I hooked a steelhead the size of a railroad tie and lost him after his belly scraped the bank. Even if she was your life, boy, grief is the road to dementia."
David is home for a few weeks before he returns to the campus in Canyon City, in Idaho's Magic Valley, to prepare for camp. An outside linebacker, he hopes to maximize his contribution at the position by packing on muscle without losing any speed or endurance. In pursuit of that goal, he does a 10-mile training run daily, heading uphill (south) along the Lemhi River, a tributary of the Salmon, to the halfway turnaround point. Because of the absence of formal weights at Uncle Joe's small ranch, he's also been told by team trainer Wayne Shipwright to do pushups and chop firewood to build up his arms and shoulders. To strengthen his legs, the trainer suggests pushing a pickup truck, which Joe finds hilarious:
"Make sure you don't shove it into the river," Joe said, still smiling hugely. "Put it in first gear if you want a real workout."
The exchange gives David a chance to muse about Uncle Joe's apparently endless store of knowledge about how things work _ electrical systems, nutrition, human nature, and the physics of matters as apparently diverse as mechanics and sports. As the evening winds down, Uncle Joe tells his nephew once again about the Clout of Clouts, a home run he hit during a pickup baseball game while on a construction job in South America. From that story Joe mentions the Sweet Spot, an always changing place where an athlete is able to exert the maximum force of one moving object _ bat, foot or fist _ against another moving object without experiencing any resistance:
"When you square up a round ball on a round piece of wood, you don't feel anything. No wonder they call it the Sweet Spot."
From that Uncle Joe extrapolates one more piece of wisdom, explaining that sports are important because, "It's as close to immortality as humans can get." The chapter ends with David and the world-wise old man who brought him up seeing eye to eye.


Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Never having met one, I find it easy to picture the average literary agent as Jabba the Hutt. In my mind's eye, he (or she) downs a fine steak au poivre, wipes away a droplet of heavy cream stippled with cognac (or is that grease?), emits a refined burp and demands, "Bring me a Wookiee cookie."

If that picture is unflattering, consider how Jabba-agents treat query letters from unknown authors: If only moderately successful, they handle the query themselves, opening the envelope with a pair of bronzed tongs to avoid contamination from the masses, unfolding it with the same, enjoying a good laugh and then slipping a printed rejection notice into the previously enclosed, self-addressed, stamped envelope before sealing it and tossing it into the outgoing mail. A Jabba-agent who's been feeding at the fifteen-percent trough for a longer time might have a secretary to perform the same function.

The one-page query letter is a stupid idea. It requires an author to summarize a 100,000-word novel, for example, on a single, letter-size page. That's ONE PAGE. In other words, it has to be written in code, and if you aren't able to crack the code that will trigger some spark of interest in the agent's mind, or if you haven't just escaped from an Iranian prison or had an affair with an A-list Hollywood star who doesn't want to see that information get out, the letter is wasted, along with two envelopes and postage. Even if it's the best query in the world, it might be doomed if the agent has enough clients generating revenue from their books to support him in his fat-cat world.

Why does the situation exist?

Because over the decades agents have convinced all of the nation's major publishers not to allow unrepresented authors to submit manuscripts directly to them. If you doubt that, simply choose any number of major publishers, check their Websites and read their submission instructions.

Why am I venting like this? And why now, after self-publishing a very good, exceptionally literate novel ("The Leather Man") after failing to find an agent in the conventional way? Because of what happened at my alma mater last week: I drove south to Pocatello to set up a book signing and to see if the Idaho State University Bookstore would like to put my book on its shelves. It seemed like a reasonable question _ the book revolves around athletes and coaches at a fictional Idaho college that bears a strong resemblance to ISU during the Vietnam Era, when the action in "The Leather Man" takes place. Also, it was written by an Idaho native and ISU alumnus, and it has an attractive cover that features a shot of Shoshone Falls, one of the state's most amazing natural wonders _ eye-catching to the max.

I was told in no uncertain terms that the bookstore would not touch a self-published book. I asked why and was told that those were the orders from Follett, a corporation in Illinois. I wondered why there was no local control over the items sold in the bookstore, and what passed as ISU management told me Follett gave them no discretion to consider a local author's self-published book, no matter how appealing or meritorious.

Follett Corp. grew out of a family-owned bookstore provider that got started in 1873. It's still privately held, but with outside directors. It has grown nearly as many arms as an octopus and generates $2.7 billion in annual sales by managing more than 930 campus bookstores and providing course materials and other support services to 1,600 independently managed campus stores.

I had to admit the edict to avoid all vanity-published items seemed to make sense at first _ my personal observation is that many self-published authors don't have the talent to be commercially successful and should expend their creative energies in a different direction. But it still stuck in my craw that the one-size-fits-all approach denies local bookstore officials the freedom to use their judgment in weighing whether a work of fiction would be of interest to their students. And that was before I found out about the Follett-IMG partnership.

IMG came into being as International Management Group in 1960. It grew rapidly into the world's biggest collection of _ you guessed it! _ sports agents. I got to deal with many of them during my 14 years as The AP's sports editor for Arizona. Some were easy to work with, some were not, and the rest were in between. So far I haven't seen any sign that IMG has literary agents among its 3,000 employees and in its 130 offices, but the fact that Follett's Higher Education Group announced an affiliation with IMG five years ago has me wondering: Are the agents of IMG influencing the corporate giant's bias against unrepresented authors in the selection of books offered in campus bookstores? That would not be kosher.


Wednesday, July 16, 2014


After five chapters that broaden the character of Quintus LeClaire and _ to a lesser degree _ Canyon City police chief Sam Moody and three that focus on other characters, the spotlight of "The Leather Man" shifts entirely onto Ben Steinbrecher, the title character, and his family.

Chapters 12 and 13 reveal a surprise: The nickname "Ben" is the shortened form of Benaiah, not Benjamin. Benaiah was the royal bodyguard of Old Testament kings David and Solomon. The newborn Steinbrecher receives the unusual name because his birth dimensions _ 12 pounds and 24 inches long _ remind his father of the importance of the number twelve in Christian theology. They set the Rev. Frederick Steinbrecher thinking:
Were there not twelve tribes of Israel, twelve apostles of the Lamb, twelve gates of solid pearl in the walls of the holy city envisioned by St. John and twelve angels standing sentry there? It seemed obvious to the minister that his son was born to some special purpose which would require equal portions of earthly fortitude and spiritual guidance.
Benaiah was a good role model. The son of the high priest Jehoiada, his unswerving loyalty to the Israelite monarchs was notable even by Bible standards, and his lack of fear was astonishing: Chapter 12 begins with the story about Benaiah chasing a lion into a pit and killing it there, apparently unbothered by the tricky footing created by a rare snowy day. The elder Steinbrecher hoped to inculcate the qualities of courage and steadfastness in his firstborn son and frequently referred to Benaiah and other Hebrew warriors in his bedtime stories.

In a short span of Chapter 12, Benaiah grows into a gifted athlete whose favorite sport is football. His talent as a tight end earns him a scholarship to North Dakota, his state university, and he stars for the Fighting Sioux, apparently destined for NFL stardom until he tears a knee ligament during his senior season. The career-ending injury comes on the heels of his marriage to Gloria Wise. It isn't long before Gloria's selfishness appears as a thread that runs throughout the rest of the book, and the marriage that should strengthen Ben becomes part of his life challenges.

The last part of the chapter is touching. Frederick gives Ben enough money to pay for a still-experimental knee reconstruction in an attempt to revive his career. It helps steady the joint, but not enough to allow Ben to ever try his luck in the NFL. Tearfully he promises to repay the money, but his father cuts him short:
"It doesn't seem to me that you remember the text of our first conversation about your operation," Frederick said. "I did not loan you the money. Don't you remember the Parable of Talents? The Lord wanted to see some gain on what he imparted to each servant. The varying amounts were inconsequential _ it was how the money was handled that was important. You took a chance on something that had the potential to enrich your life and your family's. It doesn't matter that the operation failed; your decision was correct."
Chapter 13 uses a playful, Bible guessing game between Ben and Sam Moody to reveal the meaning of Ziklag, first mentioned in Chapter 8.


Monday, July 14, 2014

Mrs. Sullivan

Sherry Sullivan makes her appearance in Chapter 11 of "The Leather Man." It's love at first sight, although neither she nor Ben Steinbrecher is willing to admit it. She is introduced as the curriculum manger of the institution which young Teddy Steinbrecher calls home, because his mother won't allow him in her house, but it's revealed later in the chapter that she doubles as a teacher of Teddy and other learning-challenged children. The school has a shortage of qualified instructors, assistant administrator James Allen explains to Ben, whose schedule as a coach at Canyon State College in another part of Idaho only allows him one visit to Teddy per week.

The electricity between Ben and Sherry is evident from the start. Ben, usually slow to reveal details about himself, feels befuddled after trying to clarify Allen's mistake in identifying him as the head coach of the Canyon State Wranglers. Sherry shows some advance knowledge of Ben's past by asking if he doesn't coach wrestling as well.
"Yes, as a matter of fact." Ben was taken aback. He felt mesmerized, as if he had gone for a stroll and awakened in a crosswalk wearing his boxers. How did this diverting stranger know that much about his career? He plowed ahead: "I coach football, assist with the wrestling program and run the weight room. It's just that, well, football is in season now, and that makes it difficult to focus on anything else. If you're a coach, I mean. I don't really coach the Canyon State team _ I'm an assistant to Buck McKinnon." Ben stopped, feeling oafish. No one had asked for a resume, and he was not in the habit of volunteering one.
Sherry rescues Ben by telling him that participation in sports (in an era before the Special Olympics movement got off the ground) seems to help the development of the mentally handicapped. Allen suggests that Ben begin his visit with Teddy, since he arrived later than usual and is running up against the time when the students need to be in their dormitories. Ben finds Teddy and carries the eight-year-old in is arms because Teddy wants to be held, finally putting him down near the playground. That's where Teddy finds and picks a mature dandelion, causing Ben to ponder:
What keeps a mind from ripening?
At that moment that Sherry reappears, and Ben takes his first honest look at her, seeing beauty that takes his breath away. Ben, who is six-feet-six, is attracted by the fact Sherry is five-ten, athletic and beautiful, with long legs, "a generous mouth, strong but delicate nose, prominent cheekbones and eyes the color of nutmeg." She also continues to exhibit the ability to get him to talk about feelings he isn't used to sharing:
"What do you think about when you're with Teddy?" 
"Sad things mostly." Ben was grateful she didn't smile, and he wondered again how she'd extracted the information. Men in his profession were not often afforded the luxury of sadness, and he rarely used the word. "I think about the way things are versus how they might have been. Maybe some artist could visualize 'Might Have Been' as a subject _ you know, take it out of the abstract."
The discussion gets deeper before Teddy finally saves his father, wandering back while Ben is trying to figure out how to avoid discussing his difficult marriage to Gloria. He is determined to honor his wedding vows, starting with controlling his thoughts, and the drive home becomes a wrestle with himself to stop replaying his conversation with the ravishing educator.



Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Beer Bust

I got my first glimpse of the Salmon River Canyon 50 years ago. It was a mind-altering experience _ the sheer volume of emptiness within the chasm, and its freedom from signs of humanity. From that day in June 1964 forth, I always intended to write something that used the canyon as a setting. I just didn't know what until I began work on "The Leather Man" after my retirement from journalism.

My first attempt to write about the relatively unpublicized gash in the earth's crust was an unpublished short story, "The Wind in the Canyon," which I wrote during my school's Christmas break that same year. I couldn't decide what to do with it and eventually submitted it as a paper in a creative-writing class at Brigham Young University the following spring. But, given the size of the canyon, which constricts the river for better than 200 miles of its 425-mile length between mountains that soar 7,000 to 8,000 feet above the water, I deemed anything "short" to be inadequate. The second-deepest defile in North America deserved more, I felt, something sublime ... "Moby Dick" with the crazed pilot of a jet boat chasing a white steelhead, perhaps. Or, "War and Peace" involving combat between budding entomologists and the pesky larvae of the Douglas-fir tussock moth. Or, an epic beer bust?

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I didn't exactly grow up in a metropolis. The closest version of one would have been Ogden, Utah, about 100 miles south of the roadside general store my parents ran in Virginia, Idaho. But between childhood and the two months I spent living in a tent deep in the Salmon River Canyon, I had lived and worked in San Francisco; spent nearly five months visiting 22 countries in Europe (including Yugoslavia, which since then has been split into seven nations); and then returned to do missionary work for my church in Austria and Bavaria. That allowed me to familiarize myself with elegant avenues and narrow side streets in amazing places like Vienna, Munich, Nuremberg and the resort cities on the southeast shore of Lake Constance.

So I felt world-wise by the time I resumed my education, and I didn't mind getting back to nature. It was with excitement that I noticed a job opening on a BYU bulletin board _ the U.S. Department of Agriculture was looking for insect collectors in Salmon, Idaho. I applied, was told when to report and went home to Marsh Valley for a few days before the trip into country I'd never seen before to exterminate some kind of bug that was killing off beautiful Douglas firs.

The work sounded simple: Climb hillsides, stopping every 500 feet of elevation to collect moth larvae from the branches of infected trees and kill them in test tubes half-filled with formaldehyde. The reason for the increments: The larvae can be sprayed effectively only in the fifth of seven growth stages, and they grow faster at lower, warmer altitudes. Back to the schedule: Eat lunch at noon, being careful not to sit on the tubes, and bring the samples back to the unit entomologist before sunset.

We were told to wait at pickup points along the Salmon River Road for a ride to the campsite at Corn Creek, about 50 miles downriver from the gravel road's starting point at North Fork. Reality turned out to be not quite so simple: None of us was in shape, and no amount of training could have prepared anyone for pre-OSHA work conditions, even in a government agency.

Looking back, it all seems fun, but I realize now I had a few near-death experiences. Once, I ran out of climbing room and had to grab a rocky overhang, let my feet dangle over a drop of perhaps 20 feet onto a slanted rockslide that could easily have conveyed me back to a lower collection point _ and pull myself up blindly onto the shelf, praying all the while that it wasn't some rattler's warming spot. Another time I climbed a steep wall of granite, peered over the knife-edged ridge and looked straight down into a bend of the river 2,000 feet below. The rock held, obviously, or I wouldn't be writing this.

Temporary workers have no union, but we finally complained enough that the USDA began airlifting us in small helicopters to mountaintops from which we could collect bugs in reverse order, top to bottom. Once summer arrived and the larvae hatch began in earnest, the air show started. It was spectacular: We got to watch a variety of World War II surplus aircraft _ thick-bodied P-47 Thunderbolts that used to strafe German railroad lines and factories, B-17 bombers, and sleek, nimble F-51 Mustangs outfitted with tanks full of insecticide. The fighter planes were used because they could knife down a mountainside just above the treetops, hit exactly the grove they wanted to hit and then pull up, missing the opposite side of the canyon by what looked like inches.

The memories were still alive decades later, and Chapter 10 of "The Leather Man" employs them in several ways _ giving tidbits of the history of the magnificent chasm that defeated the Lewis and Clark expedition, introducing several elements of the novel, including new characters, and the first suggestion of the kind of organic racism that can exist when members of the predominant race are unfamiliar with people of a different color.

In the person of Blaine "Froggy" Lund, that kind of xenophobia is a misnomer: A powerful left tackle on the Canyon State College football team, he doesn't fear much of anything, but he subscribes to a fallacy widely held in the Vietnam Era _ that black athletes, despite their superb athleticism, could not be good quarterbacks. Froggy, whose mistrust of strangers applies equally to anyone, has consumed more beer than the other three football players in David Talty's car combined, and he provides comic relief by trying to complete the sentence, "Ever' numb-nuts between here and Texas wants to move to Idaho." The other occupants of the vehicle continually interrupt him, and he has to start over again and again.

The four are staying at Uncle Joe Talty's cabin south of Salmon, but they decide to drive into the canyon north of the city to consume the beer they avoided during spring practice, which just ended. Preston "Taters" Jones, one of two occupants of the back seat, interrupts Froggy to ask if he wants to exclude everyone, including Danny Malahewa, a heralded linebacker who should strengthen the Canyon State defense:
"You know Danny's good, man," Froggy cranked his head around, an impressive accomplishment for someone with a neck as thick as a Doric column. "You're good, Danny. You're welcome."
But Malahewa is of Hawaiian extraction, and he takes umbrage a few minutes later when Froggy suggests that Edison Green, a black player and the team's new quarterback, won't be able to win close games. David tries to defuse the situation by pointing out that Froggy is inebriated and by asking Malahewa about his experiences against black players at high school in Los Angeles. The new arrival from a junior college in Utah is glad to oblige:
"We're, what's the word? ... conditioned to think only white guys play the position. You think about it: Almost every kid in Pop Warner starts out playing for white coaches, and half the coaches volunteer so their sons get to be quarterback. If a black kid gets ahead of that game, you better respect it."
The malty tour doesn't get quite as deep into the canyon as Corn Creek, which is where the all land-based transportation ends, and David turns around after a rest stop to head back toward Salmon. It is slow going, though, and at another stop of necessity I shared, through him, my feeling about the place:
Before they reached North Fork, it was time for another rest stop. The canyon had widened and the road was away from the river. The clouds had scattered, and the moon was up, throwing an argentic light across the knobby foothills and glinting off the water like varnish. The view affirmed what Talty had grown up thinking: If there's a more beautiful place on Earth, I'd like to see it.

In Memoriam

I realized this week that I put the cart before the horse when I started providing brief capsules that summarize chapters in "The Leather Man." I forgot the dedication page, possibly because it's not identified as such. It conveys an obscure reference to three young men whose lives touched mine. It reads simply:
To Dana, Morgan and Rayce. Their fire died too soon.
Believe it or not, it took me a long time to find the right combination of those few words, because my feelings run deep about the trio. Although they never met, they are forever linked in my memory because they shared certain things in common: Each was fearless, athletic, ran afoul of the law and died young. The passing of each one influenced the way I looked at life for years.
  • Dana Richardson was a few months older than I was, but he seemed to know so much more about life. He was handsome, quick with a quip and street-tough. In the melting pot of Marsh Valley (Idaho) High School, formed before the 1955-56 school year by consolidating three rural high schools, he represented the factory kids. Inkom had industrialization because of the Ash Grove Cement plant, basically the only non-agricultural industry in Marsh Valley, and that set the kids from Inkom apart. But Dana got along with everyone who didn't cross him. He played fullback on a remarkable Class 3A high school team which _ in the fall of 1957 _ nearly upset Pocatello High School, a nationally ranked 5A institution that had 10 times as many students as Marsh Valley's 305. The Indians scored late to win 7-6, but the mismatch was so unusual it was written up in newspapers as far away as Salt Lake City. That season was a high-water mark for Dana: The day before graduation, some other seniors and I went to visit him at the Bannock County Jail. Speaking through the metal door, we wished him the best. A few years later, despondent over the breakup of his marriage, he took his own life.
  • Morgan Judd lived to be 41, quite a bit longer than the other two. He died in 2003 after an extended bout with Reiter syndrome, a nasty type of arthritis which reacts to bacterial infection in the body. Some believe his arthritis worsened during his years in prison on an armed-robbery conviction; others attribute it to having to spend time in meat lockers because of his work as a meat-cutter. Much as in Dana's case, a woman proved to be Morgan's undoing. He entered a Circle K in Tucson, Ariz., with a butcher knife to get the money his estranged wife demanded in payment for the chance to hold their baby. In happier times Morgan was a standout third baseman and designated hitter for St. David High School, where he also starred as a football lineman.
  • I never met Rayce Rindfleisch, but after his funeral I felt I knew him as well as the other two. A user and dealer of methamphetamines, he was shot to death on Feb. 27, 2008, by a Bonneville (Idaho) County deputy while trying to escape from a home where he commandeered a couple's vehicle. Those facts paint a grim picture, but there was another side to Rayce. He was an exceptional athlete _ an Idaho state wrestling champion at Blackfoot High School, an all-state football player, a promising cage fighter _ and a friend to lesser beings. One of the speakers at his funeral was a former teammate who had the misfortune to wrestle in the same weight division, essentially condemned to be a sparring partner for a more talented athlete who was always going to represent the varsity in meets. The second-stringer was halfway through his eulogy when he acknowledged as much and added, "One thing about Rayce: He never hurt my feelings." I was so impressed I used part of the phrase in my book. Rayce Rindfleisch was 31 when he passed away.