My great-grandmother called H.L. Mencken an “idiot” and he responded

Going through my grandmother’s things recently, at the old folks home, my mother found a letter that H.L. Mencken sent to my great-grandmother in 1926. Short and expressing genuine bewilderment, this letter references a point of conflict that Mencken simply calls “this Becky Bolling bilge.” (Preliminary research hasn’t revealed what this was.)

The letter, signed by the man himself, begins: “Dear Mrs. Whitehead:- I am genuinely astonished that you should think me an idiot.”

I’m an admirer of much of Mencken’s work, but I couldn’t be prouder of my great-grandma for provoking his pen.

The Oys of Summer

A locker room peak at two of the subjects in my upcoming Details feature on the Israeli national baseball team. Find the March issue of the magazine for more. Proud of this one.

Old Sport

“Bringing the ball up,” said Kobe Bryant, “and having me kind of initiate the offense and score and stuff like that, it’s making me work a little more than I will when Gatsby gets back.” … Gatsby would be [Steve] Nash, sidelined until at least Monday because of a small fracture in his left leg. –Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles, Gatsby quickly learned, was a valley of rashes. There were the rashes caused by the filthy air. And those caused by elective surgeries. And still those caused by the straining lenses of the paparazzi. Nonetheless, Gatsby was taken by the city’s strange charms. He wandered the streets late at night with his dear Spalding basketball—same as he had the parched arroyos of Arizona and the strip malls of Texas—considering the passing sports cars, the misplaced model/actresses and the scientology literature he’d just been handed by a man who very well might have been a movie star. He was not in Phoenix anymore.

Tired and a tad lonely, he turned back towards his 12,500 square-foot home in the Hollywood Hills with its tower and its lagoon and its acres of unshorn grass.

The smog had blown off, leaving a loud bright night. Street people coughed, surprised by the lightness of their lungs. The silhouette of a six-foot-six basketball player moved across the star-stricken street; it, too, carried a ball. Turning his head to watch, Gatsby saw that the silhouette belonged to Kobe Bryant, captain of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Entertaining a delegation of Canadian mounted police, Gatsby had recently said, without sarcasm (for he was incapable of that), “It would be hard to put on a Lakers jersey.” Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this was his: he hated the Lakers. But now the Lakers had purchased the rights to his manifold skills, and Bryant, that old skillful snake, was his teammate.

He noticed now, not for the first time, Bryant’s butterfly crown tattoo.

“Hello, Mamba,” Gatsby said, using Bryant’s self-styled sobriquet. The taller man stared back with hard eyes and a flickering tongue before answering: “Hello, old sport.” Bryant had thickened a bit in the middle since they’d last met, but his had always been a cruel body.

They walked together for a time, the point guard and the shooting guard, in silence. “I like your haircut,” Bryant finally said, in his husky tenor. “It makes you looks like an urbane character in an early twentieth century American novel.”

“Thank you,” replied Gatsby in his nasal countertenor. “Metta World Peace recommended a barber in East L.A.”

Eventually, the two men saw a party, which happened to be spilling out of Gatsby’s own palatial estate. In they walked, passing Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and curling gold medalist Adam Enbright, who were having a tête à tête à tête in front of a fountain where non-native fish swam. “I didn’t know he lived in L.A.” Gatsby said to Bryant, motioning towards Jeremy Lin, who was splashing a drink upon the keys of a ghostly grand piano as James Dolan looked on with an inscrutable expression.

Walking into his own great room, Gatsby ran into Portland Trail Blazers rookie guard Damian Lillard, a slight fellow with sad eyes who was leaving the party with two finger bowls of champagne. “Your face is familiar,” Lillard said, bemused. “Were you the MVP at one time, rather long ago?” Gatsby smiled, clutching a highball that had magically appeared in his hand, which he deftly passed to Bryant, who was heading for a backdoor. “Why, yes,” Gatsby said, “In the year 2005. I suited up for the Phoenix Suns then.”

Gatsby and Lillard spoke warmly for a few more minutes before bidding one another goodbye. It was then that Gatsby stumbled on one of Lillard’s wing-tipped shoes and found himself in the cold hard grip of his own marble floors, clutching his left leg. There was a collective gasp in the room. Jordan sighed. Bird shrieked. Bryant, squeamish and fearful of initiating the Lakers offense all on his own, fainted in a hulking heap of flesh and ink.

A butler hurried forth with a telegram from Mike D’Antoni, the new coach of the Lakers. D’Antoni had coached Gatsby back in the southwest, when they were younger, less daunted. “Get back as soon as you can, old sport,” the note said. “Or my time here will be even shorter than my stay in New York.”

Last Shots

This is a personal essay I wrote for a magazine a few years ago. When my grandmother died yesterday, I came back and revised it some. In memoriam: Caroline Yundt Bethea

**

Last Shots: When and where will yours occur? Considering a family’s final shots.

My uncle retired from tennis when he was twelve, having just become the best boy his age in Georgia. At the time it was just a childhood moment. But it would turn out to be his high water mark. “Wine, women and song. That’s why I stopped playing,” he told me years later, when I had the courage to ask. He glossed over the particulars, which others would fill in. “Leave it at that,” he said. But I can’t.

He quit baseball, too, at 17, for older girls, harder drugs, and the presumed excitement of Vietnam. It was said that he could have gone pro with a racquet and a bat, or headed to Hollywood with his looks. But destiny, if you want to call it that, had others designs. He became a Marine, stacked bodies on the frontlines, and got hooked on heroin before he was old enough to vote. Childhood ended abruptly. Tennis, a game, no longer made sense to him. Maybe it never had.

When he came back home to Atlanta, a hardened man at twenty, he tried to quit the heaviest drugs. Eventually, he did. But he never picked up a racquet again, or a bat either—except to chase a thief out a window. He put his hands to work in construction, where they grew huge and callused, frightening to shake. He worked with what remained; it was too late to re-construct what might have been.

His brother—my father—also went to that war, but he was older, and in Military Intelligence. As a freshman in high school, he’d been a “fantastic” number six singles player on his state champion team, “but a lousy six as a senior.” He’d pretty much stopped playing by then, at 16, when he got the keys to a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria with a T-bird engine, which his sister wrecked two years later while he was at Yale, where he preferred the angles and odds of billiards to those of tennis. By the time he entered law school, after the war, there was no time for games anyway.

My grandmother was the source of their skill. Equal parts tomboy and debutante—she took pills to suppress perspiration at summer parties in pre-AC Atlanta—she won more southeastern doubles titles than she can recall. She didn’t start until she was 30, “because it wasn’t a natural thing for a woman to do back then.” But once she did, the trophies and plaques accumulated in her closet. She’s since given them to her grandchildren, along with wooden racquets and thick woolen tennis sweaters. Some are now in my closet, next to my first racquet, a Prince CTS Synergy, and a few small trophies of my own. Our awards are intermingled, collecting dust together.

Nicknames weren’t part of the women’s game in the 1950s. They just called my grandmother Caroline. To an aspiring “Pistol” Pete, this was disappointing. She deserved a fierce nom de guerre. I saw her across the net just once, but that was enough. She wasn’t afraid of putting her headstrong sons and grandsons to shame, beating us until we were bigger than her, embarrassed by our efforts. She loved to win.

Grandmother’s last shot came when she was 66, playing with some old friends in Ponte Vedra, Florida. My grandfather and namesake—who told his sons he could beat them using a squash racquet and his off hand, though he never made good on that claim—had been dead for 13 years. My father was vice president of the largest producer of scratch-off lottery tickets in the world. The prodigy uncle was pouring concrete in Los Angeles. A third son, of which little is spoken, was in the grave. It was a different world than she’d grown up in: girls were encouraged to play sports, and Billie Jean King, seizing her own opportunity, had beaten Bobby Riggs.

“I was running back for a lob,” Grandmother told me a few years ago, ”and I flipped over, smashed my hip. It was broken. They kept playing, if you can believe it, while I sat on a hot, wooden bench. I sat quietly. Finally, some men from a house party took me to the hospital.” She skipped a detail in the retelling: she made her final shot.

**

She died yesterday, at ninety, in an old folk’s home seven miles from the courts of her youth. Her tomboy body had shrunk considerably; her hands couldn’t have held a racquet. But her brash humor remained. When I saw her, on Christmas, I re-read a birthday letter she’d written me thirteen year earlier. It began: “Your grandfather always said If you give a gift, give it with no strings attached. That is splendid advice which I will NOT follow.” On she went with six attached strings (“Take a girl to a movie at the Tara . . . Do NOT buy that extravagantly overpriced popcorn.”). She hadn’t been an easy mother, I was told. But as my grandmother, she’d been near perfect. I owe my sense of humor to her, and my love of letters, and what remains of my tennis game.

I’ve let my skills rust some since high school, where I was number one on a middling team. I’ve never been much more than average: my backhand is consistent—I’m the only one in the family who’s ever used two hands—but my forehand is erratic, and my second serve is slow. I’ll never be much more than a decent rec player. I only resemble Agassi from the forehead up.

But I’ll play on with the knowledge that I’m doing more than just playing. I’m speaking a language—one that doesn’t require words. This aspect of tennis was always useful in my father’s family, where we tend to not talk about difficult things. Instead, we watch tennis on T.V., and talk about tennis, and, using our memories, see each other play again. We share the court in my mind, if nowhere else. And there, every time I hit the ball, I follow through.

Donald Young and the Parking Meter

It’s good to be Young again (#hopefully)

“Show me some love!” shouts Donald Young. The twenty-two-year-old is returning serves at Georgia Tech’s Bill Moore Indoor Tennis Center, off 10th Street, in late October, and he just hit a forehand into the tape. “Again,” says Mike Sell. The United States Tennis Association’s national coach is standing well inside the baseline, blasting 120 mile-per-hour serves at Young, while his mother, Illona, watches.

Young nets a volley, and yells something ungentlemanly. “Hit it harder,” says his mother. The coach launches another ball. And another. Young smacks five Agassi-like returns in a row. That’s it. That’s how Illona taught him. Now he’s joking with the coach sent, graciously, by the organization he ripped.

It’s been a strange year for the aging prodigy. In September, Young reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open, his best finish at a major tournament, climbing to 41st in the world. This January, he’ll aim even higher at the Australian Open. Last spring, he nearly ended it all—with fewer than 140 characters.

In April, Young lost a French Open qualifier to the 176th best player in the world. Having recently beaten Andy Murray, then ranked number two, he thought the USTA should have awarded him the wild card outright. So, after losing it to an unknown, he got on Twitter, at his parents’ house in Peachtree City, and pointed a brazen middle finger: “[Expletive] USTA!! Their full of [expletive]! They have screwed me for the last time!” read the tweet, hashtagged #enoughsaid. The USTA immediately held a press conference reminding Young, and the world, of their past support—including 13 wild cards.

Meanwhile, a re-tweeting orgy ensued. Roddickwatch: “The USTA has wasted more time & money trying to develop Donald Young into a viable tennis star. You either have it or you don’t. He doesn’t.” James La Rosa: “Screw All My Children and One Life to Live, Donald Young is my favorite soap opera ever.” Patrick McEnroe, General Manager of USTA Player Development: “Unbelievable.”

Young grew up in Chicago, the only child of two tennis pros. He played in his first tournament at age six, before he could keep score: “I won,” he says, “But I didn’t know it.” At 15, he turned pro, urged on by John McEnroe , endorsed by Nike and Head. He’s won over a million dollars since. But by the end of last year, having never cracked the top fifty, he was unsponsored. He needed help.

“Some of the expectations were a little high for a 15-year-old,” Young says. “You’re expected to continue at that rate. But I’m still 22. You don’t get old in tennis until you’re 27.”

Young spent last winter in Los Angeles, with top Americans Mardy Fish and Sam Querrey. They told him to work hard. So did his hero, Pete Sampras, who hit with Young, playfully dubbing him “a princess.” Living with his parents, who cook and do laundry, Young can focus on playing three hours a day, sprinting and lifting weights. (His parents run South Fulton Tennis Center, in College Park.) Hard work is working.

Tomorrow, he and his mother leave for a tournament in Basel. “I want to play well,” Young begins. His mother interjects: “You don’t go way over there at the end of the year unless you plan to do some damage. Before you leave, you’ve already spent thousands of dollars.” Young answers another question, then Illona sighs. “Alright, we’re running out of money. I put thirty more minutes in the meter, too.”

Billy Redden, the Banjo Boy from Deliverance, Speaks

My oral history of the filming of Deliverance is coming out in the September issue of Atlanta magazine. In the process of reporting it, I spoke with Burt Reynolds (hirsute star), John Boorman (short-fused English director), and Billy Redden. Redden played Lonnie, the somewhat deranged looking banjo savant. Turns out, he doesn’t know how to play the banjo and he’s not daffy. Today, Redden works at Walmart in Clayton, Georgia. Here he is, below, on a break from pushing carts around. For more on him and the rest of the crew, and how they made one of the great southern films of all time, buy the issue.

Persistence Hunt: The Film Trailer

The chase begins August 13th.

GROWN MEN CHASING ANTELOPE: The Persistence Hunting Film Campaign

Yesterday, I spoke with New Hampshire’s “Word of Mouth” radio, hosted by Virginia Prescott. We discussed my recent Outside magazine feature, “Fair Chase.” If you haven’t read it, this is the teaser: On the plains of New Mexico, a band of elite marathoners tests a controversial theory of evolution: that humans can outrun the fastest animals on earth.

The interview will be aired at noon today, and it’ll mention the film in the works about the same crazy persistence hunters. This August, they return to eastern New Mexico to try to run down a pronghorn again. To fund the filming of this scientific/athletic/gustatory/quixotic pursuit, a kickstarter campaign will launch in the next few weeks. Stay tuned for details, and an exciting trailer. This won’t be a pedestrian film.

Contact me for immediate updates: charlesbethea@gmail.com

And thanks, in advance, for your support!

From John Rocker’s Junk Folder: “you gutless pukes.”

A few days ago, I received a well-written email from John Rocker. It wasn’t the first—I’d gotten at least twenty over the previous two months, some of them more than 1,500 words long—but this one was forwarded from his long-suffering publicist, Debi Curzio. I’d recently written an article about Rocker for Atlanta magazine’s 50th anniversary issue. I thought it was a fair story—perhaps even too fair to baseball’s most infamous player of the last two decades. But Rocker was not pleased. I share his reaction below because I’m curious whether other readers of the story found it to be fair, interesting, or, well, anything like what he describes.

Though she predictably sided with her employer in the email to him below, Rocker’s publicist called a few days later to pitch me on another Atlanta Braves closer she represents. “Would you be interested in writing about Craig Kimbrel?” Curzio asked. (The Braves current closer, Kimbrel is having a good season.) It hadn’t occurred to me, I said. “The only thing I ask,” she continued, “is that you don’t compare him to Rocker.”

So she liked the article? “Yeah, I think it was well-done, overall,” Curzio said. “John’s tough to please.”

***

From: Debi Curzio [mailto:[redacted]]
Sent: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 9:26 AM
To: John Rocker
Subject: Re: article

Sorry John. This email landed in my junk folder. Just found it.

Very well done. I would use every word except “gutless pukes.” I think it’s fine to send to him if you still want to. As for the editor, I will call him if you want me to as well.

—– Original Message —–

From: John Rocker
To: debi@[redacted]
Sent: Wednesday, May 04, 2011 4:43 PM
Subject: article

Charles,

Thank you for refreshing my memory as to why I swore off print articles. You guys are all the same. You try and come across “buddy, buddy”, all the while having 95% of the article already written before the interview even takes place. All you need is the ability to use some quotation marks; so your article will be called an interview instead of an op ed piece. I rarely read my own press, but thought I would check this one out. Based on the minimal amount of things I’ve read about myself this seemed like nothing more than a typical effort at plagiarism. There was little to nothing in this article that hadn’t already been hashed, rehashed and then had the rehashing rehashed again. Even after going to great lengths to offer up additional material via email correspondence very little of the information I related in my emails was included in your article. Two points specifically were the detailed accounts I gave you regarding incidents with Jeff Pearlman and Steak Shapiro. Each account has been voiced numerous times by Pearlman and Shapiro as they have direct access to a media medium. You asked me to recount my version of the stories which I did in a very lengthy email. After making such an effort, however, once again a slanted version of the stories was told by you leaving out nearly everything that was included in my version and solely focusing on what the biased media has already reported on numerous occasions.

On the flip side there was a glaring omission of any accusations of racism or bigotry. At first glance this would appear to be an attempt to possibly turn the page from something the media has long obsessed about yet has been disproven time and time again by accounts from my personal life. Thinking about it in a little greater detail, however, it would have been very contradictory to you and what small amount of credibility you have to have taken that angle as there is moderate mention of Otis Nixon and Alicia Marie. This couldn’t be a positive article though. Imagine the hazing you would receive from your trollish brethren if you had done something so bold as to write a nice article about “John Rocker”. So instead you churn back through the archives of pointless blather to find some good quotes or accusations that would stick to your “Don’t forget that John Rocker is an asshole” theme. You awkwardly shove in comments about me supposedly not liking to speak to kids even though I was going to speak at a high school. I fail to see the relevance of such a comment in an article/magazine such as this except to reinforce a negative image that seems to be the tone of the majority of the article. There are several similar comments that completely lack relevance minus the reiteration of the theme that seems to be obvious. My only question is; was that the point? Actually, I already understand the answer to that question as being; it doesn’t matter how nice or personable someone is to you gutless pukes the song will always remain the same. I guess somewhere in my brain a naïve little kid must still live that foolishly hoped a new “fresh” article could be written. I certainly gave the open door of information for you to do that with. But as usual got pretty much the same old load of BS. I guess maybe one day I’ll do an interview with someone who possesses a bit more talent than the ability to merely cut and paste.

Winning Feels Good

Chris Jones, a man who has twice won magazine journalism’s highest award, recently wrote an honest (and polarizing) meditation on losing. It appeared on his blog, Son of Bold Venture, a great resource for writers—young, old, aspiring, established, cynical, naive—on writing. It begins:

“I wish I didn’t care about awards, but I do, very much. I understand from a purely rational perspective that awards don’t matter in the grander scheme of things; I get that winning an award (or not winning an award) doesn’t change the words on the page; I know that an incredibly small percentage of the world even has any idea that writers sometimes win trophies for their writing, or that people are still writing at all. I’m sure more people care about who caught the year’s biggest bass.” And then continues, a paragraph later: “But I’ve always kept score. I don’t know why, exactly. I just know that Gary Smith has won the most National Magazine Awards, with four. I know Tom Junod has won two. William Langewiesche has also won two. I like the validation of their company. I like being able to think, late at night, that maybe I belong.”

I relate to much of this: that winning matters to me. That I want to belong to a coterie of writers I admire. And that there’s some ambivalence in wanting these things. So it’s with a somewhat uneasy pleasure that I report having won the 2011 City and Regional Magazine Award for Reporting. My winning story was “Final Exit” (available here), a piece about a suicide and the people who worked both for and against it. It took some eight months to report and write, if you include the two months spent trying to get people to talk to me. It was basically the first piece of investigative reporting I’d ever done, and I’m stunned and honored to have won an award for it. I’ve always thought that reporting was the hardest part.

I write this sitting in a Tokyo apartment, back from four days of reporting on the tsunami, feeling like I have the best job in the world. Maybe even an important one. I’m exhausted and satisfied and perhaps a little high on the horse. My view from the 28th floor:

I’d like to think I’d feel the same way, sitting high up here in the sky, if I hadn’t won that award. But I’m not sure. Winning feels good.