Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Bierce Curse

The Cubs are winning again. I don't even need to look at the standings. Every weekend the Cubs play at home, the trains are packed. And it reminds me of the fall of 2003, when I was still living in Elkhart, making the long daily commute to Chicago (a lot of my writing was done on the South Shore Line). The Chicago call center, where I worked, was closing at the end of the year, so I was but planning to move to Philadelphia where I had a guranteed job. The Cubs were winning then, too. In fact, they were ahead three games to two in the National League playoffs. Here's how I may have caused the Cubs to lose that series. I wrote the following article for the Elkhart Truth, which didn't print it:

Studs Terkel has made it official. I didn’t cause the Chicago Cubs to lose the National League Championship Series. He did. Terkel, the author of such oral history classics as The ‘Good’ War and Division Street, confessed all in the October 19 Chicago Tribune. I’m eternally grateful.

Otherwise, I’d be living in shame for the rest of my life, sure that I had summoned up the spirit of onetime Elkhart resident Ambrose Bierce to quash the Cubs’ World Series hopes. What I thought was the Curse of Bitter Bierce, happened as follows:

“The Cubs are winning! The Cubs are winning!” my wife exclaimed as I came home from work. It was the sixth game of the series. She had never been excited about baseball before, but having the Cubs in the playoffs was special. I should have encouraged her, but the cynical spirit of Ambrose Gwinett Bierce won out.

“The Cubs,” I said, “will find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.” It wasn’t particularly original. Bierce (or Terkel) could have come up with something more creative. But it did its work. Less than half an hour later, a fan reached over the railing to try to snag a foul ball, interfering with Cub outfielder Moises Alou, who was trying to catch the same ball for an out.
We all know the rest of the story From that moment on, the Cubs could do nothing right. In the seventh game, the Cubs didn’t even tease us with the prospect of winning.

“You made them lose!” my wife said, only half in jest. And I knew I had, with Bierce’s help. Bierce was not a man with a small ego. In his early days in the San Francisco newspaper business, his by-line was “A. G. Bierce.” Some wag (what would the wretch be at) referred to him as “Almighty God Bierce.” An ego so powerful that it could reach beyond the grave, snaring others into his cynicism.

And my disparaging remark, I knew, borne by the spirit of Bierce, went on to infect the Cubs. Forget the misguided fan. It was Bierce, assisted by Wylder.

But Terkel rescued me from obloquy. “No, the guilty party is I,” he wrote, “a lineal descendant of Evil Eye Finkel.”

Finkel, he went on to explain, was “the emperor of Hexdom.” It was Evil Eye Finkel who, at the 1927 Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney fight cast his eye on the referee when Tunney was down, paralyzing him for seven seconds before he waved Dempsey into a neutral corner and began his count. That 16-second “long count” cost Dempsey the title.

He was there at the famous horse race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit. And it was War Admiral who got the Evil Eye. He caused first basemen Bill Buckner and Leon Durham to miss easy ground balls, depriving their teams of a championship.

“And it was I,” wrote Terkel, “during the sixth game of the series, whose baleful eye followed the TV camera toward the left-field stands. It was at that moment that the satanic genes in me erupted and zeroed in on that altogether decent young man in the Cubs cap. What happened was inevitable.”

“I was the surrogate for my ancestor, Evil Eye Finkel,” Terkel went on. “I cannot prove that he was kinsman of my blood, but I am certain that in my heart of darkness that he was. My mother had the same glittering eye and her maiden name was, dear God, Annie Finkel.”

Terkel can have the credit. At the age of 91, he wins on seniority alone. Besides, anyone who can write such a wonderful piece of prose at 91 gives hope to mid-lifers like me. Age does not have to rob us of our wits, or, for that matter, our wit.

Of course, if Terkel is 91, how could an ancestor of his have caused Durham’s and Buckner’s errors in 1984 and 1986, respectively? Maybe the Bierce curse is alive after all. And that may not be all bad. For the great pessimist offers a blessing along with the curse. How else could a town the size of Elkhart produce so many notable writers and artists?

Poet Kenneth Rexroth, who spent his early childhood here, was proud of having lived near Bierce’s Elkhart home. (Bierce didn’t live at the “Bierce House” at 518 W. Franklin, but that’s another story.) Charles Gordone, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, also grew up within walking distance of the Bierce House. So did cartoonist Jay N. “Ding” Darling, a two-time Pulitzer winner. Journalist Howard James, who also received a Pulitzer, must have walked by the Bierce House scores of times.

But to receive the Bierce blessing, one has to leave Elkhart. Like Bierce, Rexroth went to San Francisco. Gordone wrote his play, “No Place to Be Somebody,” in New York. James went to Boston, and Darling found fame and fortune in Des Moines.

I’ll be moving to Philadelphia at the end of the year, so Bierce may yet bestow his blessing on me. And perhaps he’ll withdraw the curse. But just in case, don’t put any money on next year’s Phillies.

Friday, July 06, 2007

"Then Came Bronson:" A View from the Cutting Room Floor

It's summer, the season of exhaustion for those of us in the travel business. So here's a vignette recycled from early December, 2004:

I turned 53 (a prime number) November 30. My brother sent me a birthday card containing a reminder of a long-ago trip and my one encounter with network television. In the summer of 1969, I took a train-bicycle trip to the Tetons. I rode the train from Iowa City to Victor, Idaho, changing trains in Omaha, Pocatello (ID), and Idaho Falls. The last leg of the rail trip was by mixed train (a combined freight-passenger train, in this case, a freight train where passengers rode in the caboose). From Victor, I bicycled over the Teton Pass. Somewhere in the Grand Teton National Park, there was a sign announcing the filming of a new TV series, "...Then Came BRONSON." Shortly beyond the sign was an assortment of trailers and tents of the film crew. I must have been something of a sight, with a frame pack on my back, on my trusty Raleigh Sports, loaded with two full saddlebags.

As I was riding by, somebody on the film crew called over to me, asking whether I wanted to earn ten dollars. Of course I did. Ten dollars in 1969 was the equivalent of forty or fifty dollars today. I was ushered into one of the tents, where I signed a contract which, according to one member of the film crew, bound me to MGM (now Sony??) for the rest of my life. I rode past the cameras a couple of times, and that was that. Alas, the footage ended up on the cutting-room floor.

The NBC series, "Then Came Bronson" (the ellipsis preceding the title seems to have been dropped), lasted all of one season, 1969-70. It featured Michael Parks as Jim Bronson, a San Francisco newsman who quits his job after a friend commits suicide. He then sets off on a motorcycle journey through the American West. Some have said that it was TV's answer to Jack Kerouac's On the Road. The show began with Parks on his motorcycle, stopped at a traffic light, and the motorist next to him starts the following conversation:

Driver: "Taking a trip?"
Bronson: "What's that?"
Driver: "Taking a trip?"
Bronson: "Yeah."
Driver: "Where to?"
Bronson: "Oh, I don't know. Wherever I end up, I guess."
Driver: "Pal, I wish I was you."
Bronson: "Really?"
Driver: "Yeah."
Bronson: "Well, hang in there."

In spite of a dreary pilot episode, which included such clichés as a runaway bride (played by a young Bonnie Bedelia), the series itself had some fine moments. One episode, "A Long Trip to Yesterday," included singer Slim Galliard ("Cement Mixer, Putti Putti," "Yeproc Harisi"). Other guest stars included Keenan Wynn, Bruce Dern, Elsa Lanchester, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Kurt Russell, and baseball great Don Drysdale. It dealt with environmental issues, the plight of American Indians, gambling addiction, the relations between the Amish and the modern world, and occultism. Had I been included, I'm not sure which episode I would have appeared on, but I don't think it would have been "Your Love is Like A Demolition Derby in My Heart." (Honest, there really was an episode with that title.)

"Then Came Bronson" got some publicity a few years ago when Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene reminisced about the show. It seems he was obsessed with the "mother-daughter" episode ("A Famine Where Abundance Lies") of TCB, in which an attractive widow and her gorgeous teenaged daughter both fall for Bronson. "It sounded like the ideal form of courtship," Greene wrote. See Greene's obsession with beautiful women eventually caused his downfall, when it was revealed he took sexual advantage of a seventeen-year-old high school student who had been the subject of one of his columns. (He says the affair stopped short of sexual intercourse, but the whole episode did serious emotional damage to the woman involved.)

Greene's summary of the show is pretty accurate: "'Then Came Bronson' was a one-season series [1969-1970] about a man on a motorcycle. Michael Parks played Bronson, who mumbled and murmured so that you could understand only about 10 percent of the dialogue, who rode off to a different town every week, who had zero lasting relationships in his life, and who had no visible means of support." He concludes that it's one of two shows he really loved.

I hope I haven't bored you thoroughly with Bronson and my brush with network television. But this kind of reminiscence isn't all bad, even it it's just an escape from depressing current events. Maybe Bronson's best advice is his signature line:

Hang in there,