Biographies & Memoirs



IN 1963 THE Illinois team won a trip to the Rose Bowl. I assigned myself and Dave Reed to cover the story. The U of I Foundation paid for our train tickets. My sports editor was Bill Nack, later to become one of the greatest of all American sportswriters, but I don’t recall him on the train. He probably hitchhiked.

I’d watched the great 1963 team from the sidelines as Curt Beamer’s caption writer, seeing Dick Butkus and Jim Grabowski close enough to get mud kicked in my face. I wanted to see Illinois in the Rose Bowl; that was an excuse. Much more urgently I wanted to see California. I’d been as far west as Peoria. Since reading On the Road I had subscribed to the whole California mystique, and already I used “Hollywood” as a weary adjective for a world I knew nothing about.

We took the Illinois Central to Chicago and boarded the Santa Fe for Los Angeles. We slept sitting up. There were two cars chartered by the Student Senate, and the bar car became like Saturday night in Campus-town. I became friendly with a voluptuous young woman and under a grey woolen railroad blanket in the middle of the night, rocking through the midlands, we made free with each other. I recall her warmth and enthusiasm; I wish I could recall her name. Many undergraduate women acted as if they were making a gift of something, but in her dexterity she seemed to be gifting herself, and I found it so exciting that it was a hungover dawn before we finally fell asleep.

Across the deserts and the plains we rocketed in a Thomas Wolfean journey, dismounting at lonely stations like Durango to toss footballs in the night air. Union Station was an art deco set. We moved into the Biltmore Hotel on Pershing Square, and in the ancient gilded bar with its two-story ceiling we ate peanuts and threw the shells on the floor. Six to a room, we slept on cots. I read the Los Angeles Times a page at a time, and Jim Murray’s columns twice. I walked outside in shirtsleeves in winter. Nearby we bought Mexican street food and lingered uncertainly outside bars with women smiling at us through the windows.

This was all brand new. Dave and I stuck together like strangers in a new land. Hicks from the sticks. He played the mandolin, and we sat on a ledge in Pershing Square and together sang songs we knew from the Campus Folksong Club: “Amazing Grace,” “May the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Tennessee Waltz,” “This Land Is Your Land.” We put a cup on the sidewalk and made a few quarters, we two fresh-faced, tousled-haired, pink-cheeked lads from the cornfields, and never thought it odd that our fans were middle-aged men who avoided eye contact with one another.

I will spare you any mention of the Rose Bowl Parade and the game itself. What remains is one night. Dave and I found ourselves on Hollywood Boulevard, reading the stars on the Walk of Fame and examining the handprints at Grauman’s Chinese. Half a block off the boulevard we found a club named Disco a Go-Go. We sat at a railing and watched the lights of a disco ball revolve upon the small and shabby dance floor, and the dancing couples seemed to be glamorous and cool. One girl in a black sweater and pleated skirt danced with a Troy Donahue type, his blond hair in a pompadour because the Beatles were only just happening. She had the largest breasts I had ever seen on a young and slim woman. She and her date pressed eagerly against each other. I was hypnotized. I remembered the girl with the white parasol that Mr. Bernstein would never forget in Citizen Kane. This was California. This was Hollywood. This was life. It was all ahead for me. Yes.

How we found ourselves later that night in front of the Mormon temple on Santa Monica Boulevard I cannot remember. We must have taken a taxi, although why we went to that address I can’t say. Neither of us had any idea what it was. I remember standing with Dave, gazing up at the golden angel on the spire, and then noticing how late it was. I said we had better take a taxi to the Biltmore. Dave, who had matched me beer for beer, said he would walk. He wanted to see more of Los Angeles. Getting into a taxi, I asked him if he even knew the way. He asked me how many Biltmore Hotels I thought there were in Los Angeles.

The next morning all my roommates had already left when I awoke very late to a pounding on the door. It was Dave. He limped into the room and pulled off his penny loafers. The heels of his socks were soaked with blood. He limped for the rest of the trip. Now that I know Los Angeles I think it’s impossible that he walked all the way back. I stay in touch with Dave, who became a journalism professor at Eastern Illinois University, but he’s never told me what happened. The bastard probably met up with the girl in the pleated skirt.

Illinois won the Rose Bowl, there was much celebration, and we boarded the train for the journey home. I found my makeout partner, but I had a painful earache and slipped the porter twenty dollars to put me in a Pullman sleeping compartment. So great was the pain I didn’t even invite my friend to join me. I took three aspirins and a double scotch and far into the night read the Modern Library edition of Fifty Stories by John O’Hara.

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