Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Perry Wallace: An Appreciation

I was introduced to Perry Wallace when we both were in high school. My school, Overton, played his, Pearl, in the Regional basketball tournament. Our team was all white, Pearl’s was all black and therefore exotic to us, and before every game, during warm-ups, as an intimidating ploy their players stood in a semicircle at half-court and glowered at the other team. I wondered if they worked on this at practice.

The game started, and on our first trip down court I got the ball on one wing, and seemed to be wide open. Our coach, Tommy Griffith, had told us several hundred times at least before the game to always give a head fake before shooting, as the Pearl guys were fabled blocked-shot artists. However, as I said, I was wide open to my mind, so I jumped (a rather generous verb) and shot. Out of nowhere, a Pearl player flew at me and swatted the ball fifteen rows or so into the stands, imperiling the well-being of a knot of fans seated there.

That was my introduction to Perry Wallace. Pearl beat us by 15, the closest anyone came to that great team (the greatest in Tennessee high-school history is the general consensus) all year, I believe. Wallace went on from this legendary beginning to play at Vanderbilt. (No strings pulled, either: Perry was valedictorian of his high-school class.) He was a six-five center in one of the nation’s best conferences, yet he flourished. My college team played Vandy, and we upset them, but Wallace dominated.

Years later I heard from some of his ex-teammates about the horrible and harrowing ordeal that Wallace endured as the first black player in the SEC--the vile baiting, the cretinous catcalls, the objects hurled, the noose waved (a noose!), the rage, the venom, the unreasoning hatred--and his courage and stoicism in the face of it. My admiration grew even greater.

I followed his career from afar as he became a lawyer and a professor and a judge, always the very model of dignity and grace. I read Andrew Maraniss’s excellent book, Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South. And I went out with my son to the game at Vandy in 2001 at which the school retired his jersey. After the game I made my way up to him and shook his hand; I don’t know if he remembered me, but that was all right either way--I wanted my son to meet him.

So Wallace’s death was a shock to me. He was a hero of mine. Great athletes come and go, but his heroism was of the kind that doesn’t fade with time. His story affirms something about America--something shameful, yes, but something noble, over and above it. His legacy will endure. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Let's dig up that little green stick

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian novelist (War and Peace), died on this day in 1910. Near the end of his life he wrote:

"The meaningless absurdity of life is the only incontestable knowledge accessible to man."

In his later masterpiece, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy tells the harrowing story of the slow, and then rapid, decline of Ivan Ilyich, a judge who has never before given death a second thought. Ilyich the materialist, forced to confront the stark truth of his inevitable passing, turns metaphysical: Will his death be his destruction?

"Death is over; there is no more death," are Ivan Ilyich's last words.

Tolstoy himself, as he neared death, resolved to find a more spiritual life on earth – at the age of 82, he ran away from home. He contracted a chill on the train, forcing him to disembark at a station along the way. The chill turned to pneumonia, and he died in the stationmaster's room, surrounded by journalists, who recorded his last words:  "But the peasants – how do they die?"

As he had requested, Tolstoy was buried on his estate, at a spot where his brother once claimed to have buried a little green stick on which was written the secret of universal love and understanding.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A one anna two anna let me blow my brains out

Lawrence Welk died on this day in 1992. He was the cause of the slow death of millions of kids growing up in the 'fifties. Seeing his show now, one can look on it with amusement, but to a kid seeing it live every week, his parents looking on enthralled, it was an inkling that there is something malevolent at the heart of life.

While reading about Welk on the Web, I came across This great site   

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

If they'd known she was dying they'd have baked her a cake

Lady Nancy Astor died on this day in 1964. She was the first woman to serve as a member of the British Parliament, as a member of the House of Commons.

Her last words, when she woke briefly during her last illness and found all her family around her bedside:

"Am I dying or is this my birthday?"

Friday, April 28, 2017

V for Victory

Basketball coach Jim Valvano died on this day in 1993, after an inspiring fight with cancer ("Never give up") that engaged millions of people who weren't even basketball fans.

"Be a dreamer," Valvano said. "If you don't know how to dream, you're dead."

To see Valvano's famous speech at the Espy Awards show months before he died,
Go here

To find out about the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research, Visit here

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Dusting off the Bard

William Shakespeare died on this day in 1616. He was also born on April 23 in 1564 (open to debate).

The slab above his grave reads:

Good friend, for Jesus' sake forebeare
To digg the dust enclosed heare;
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones


Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' the great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finish'd joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exerciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing will come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!

(Cymbeline, IV, 2)

For one writer's opinion of Shakespeare, visit Today in Cynic's Almanac

Monday, April 17, 2017

Be nice and die

French writer Marie de Sevigne died on this day in 1696. She was famous for her witty letters to her daughter.

She wrote:

"It seldom happens, I think, that a man has the civility to die when all the world wishes it."

This is also the date of death of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin died peacefully in his sleep on April 17, 1790, at age 84. His funeral at Christ Church in Philadelphia attracted the largest crowd of mourners ever known, an estimated 20,000. He was buried beside his wife, Deborah, who had died 16 years before him.

The tombstone on their grave said "Benjamin and Deborah Franklin: 1790."

This inscription had been spelled out in Franklin's last will and testament. As a young man, he had written this epitaph for himself:

The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

Of the thousands of maxims and pithy sayings that Franklin wrote down, here are a few on death:

"Many men die at twenty-five and aren't buried until they are seventy-five."

"Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead."

"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing."

And, of course:

"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Roll over, Beethoven, and tell us again

Ludwig van Beethoven died on this day in 1827.

His last words are subject to debate. Here are some conjectures:

"Pity, pity...too late."

"Applaud, my friends, the comedy is finished." (Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est.; the formula traditionally used to end a performance of commedia dell'arte.)

"I shall hear in Heaven."

"I feel as if up to now I had written no more than a few notes."

(To his friend Johann Hummel, who was at his bedside): "Is it not true, Hummel, that I have some talent after all?"

"There, do you hear the bell? Don't you hear it ringing? The curtain must drop. Yes! My curtain is falling."

One biographer says he said nothing, simply shook his fists defiantly as a thunderstorm raged outside.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Or the thought of murder

The French novelist Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), author of The Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma, died on this day in 1842.

"True love makes the thought of death frequent, easy, without terrors;" Stendhal wrote, "it merely becomes the standard of comparison, the price one would pay for many things."

Our favorite quotation by Stendhal:

"The only excuse for God is that he does not exist."

Thursday, June 16, 2016

To my bed of dirt

George ("Superman") Reeves committed suicide on this day in 1959. He was being visited by friends, when he announced:

"I'm tired. I'm going back to bed."

He went to his bedroom and shot himself in the head.

For a year's worth of super-entertaining last words:

Farewells: An Almanac of Parting Thoughts