On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner (Part 2)


I pitched my tent at the Browns Gap campsite, only about 20 yards from the AT. Then unrolled my sleeping bag, and tossed it inside the tent, along with my nighttime needs: flashlight, foam pillow, some fresh clothes, my journal, and a yellowed copy of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

I set up my stove on a flat rock, and found a bigger rock to use as my dinner chair. Quickly got some water boiling, dumped in my packet of Ramen noodles, and hunched over the pan with my spoon poised. Then I heard a noise behind me.

Turning around, I saw a young woman come sidling down the trail, swinging two trekking poles. She either didn’t see me, or decided to ignore me, because she continued toward the road crossing a half mile away. It was getting near twilight, and I wondered if she’d be able to find a decent campsite, since I hadn’t seen much between here and Dundo Picnic Grounds several miles back.

Ramen noodles ain’t gourmet, but, for me, it was a feast. I’d covered over 17 miles that day, and I was as tired and sore as a pack mule. I also had some serious chafing on my inner thighs due to sweat-soaked underwear. After supper, I hung my bear bag high up on the log beam, and scrubbed my skillet, using just my fingers and a little water. I packed my skillet in my backpack, which I leaned against a tree. The skillet had a slight residue from the noodles. But I wasn’t too concerned.

Blackrock Mtn view2

Summit of Blackrock Mountain

I smeared some antiseptic lotion on my thighs, then crawled into my tent. Too tired for Huck and Jim, I waited for darkness to fall while laying spread-eagled on my back. Then clicked off my flashlight as a multitude of insects began their nightly symphony.

It was a long while before I fell asleep. I was buzzing from the day’s activities, and one alpha cricket kept an incessant screeching for hours on end. But eventually I fell into a deep, deep slumber.

At home I wear earplugs. They help me sleep more soundly. But I promised my wife I wouldn’t use them out here in the woods. So the sound that awoke me was loud and unmistakable.

Still spread-eagled on my back, in the midst of some weird, cozy dream, my eyelids suddenly shot open. “Oh, boy. That’s no cricket outside my tent.” It was a combination of sniffs, snorts, and grunts. Beastly and guttural. And it was right outside my tent’s mosquito netting, which was at my head. Later, I remember thinking it sounded like a gigantic pig. But there were no wild pigs in these mountains.

I listened to the snorting for a few seconds. “The only animal around here that could make those baritone notes is a large bear,” I thought.

I recalled something I’d read about loud noises helping to scare off bears.

“HEY, WHAT’S GOIN’ ON!!!?” I yelled in a shaky voice (not expecting a reply).

black bear

Ursus americanus

There was a spooky silence for about a second. Then what sounded like a locomotive crashing through the brush. Then silence again.

I lay still for about five minutes. I turned on my flashlight and glanced at my watch: 3:02 a.m. I think I was more sleepy than scared. The damn bear had awakened me from one of my best sleeps in days. But, eventually, I strapped my flashlight on my head, unzipped the netting, and stepped into the clearing.

I first checked my backpack, which was about 30 feet from my tent. “Looks ok.” Then I walked a short distance to the right, over to the bear beam. I shone my flashlight into a void of blackness. “Bear bag undisturbed.” Everything seemed fine. The cicadas continued their rhythmic drone. But there were no other sounds.

I ducked back into my tent, but not before pulling out an old fishing knife that was buried in my pack. I knew I’d probably never use it, but it gave me a sense of security. Didn’t help much. I remained wide awake until the first rays of sunlight


I’m not sure why the bear got so close to my tent. Certainly he smelled me and my sweaty clothes and skin (if not the antiseptic lotion). Maybe he was attracted by my skillet. I hadn’t used soap on it, but it was still fairly clean other than the slight film on the surface, and I’d stuck it deep into my pack. He may have smelled my bear bag. All foodstuffs were wrapped in either plastic or foil. But supposedly a bear can detect human food from up to a mile away. So who knows?

I felt like a zombie from lack of sleep. But I knew that once I hit the trail, I’d be ok. After packing up my gear and chomping on a Pop-Tart, I looked around for telltale signs of my nighttime guest. The only evidence was a small patch of dirt that looked like it may have been clawed up. It was about 20 feet from the head of my tent. Hard to believe I was that close to the beast.

Big Meadows view2

Valley view from Big Meadows

As I started down the trail, I had a humorous thought: “It’s too bad I never saw him. We might have hit it off.” I wasn’t more than a hundred yards from my campsite when I heard the now-familiar crashing sound. I looked to the right and glimpsed a large, black form pounding through the undergrowth, over the hillside. He turned his head, once, then disappeared. I gripped my camera tightly for about five minutes, hoping he’d peek over the hill. But he never did.

Looking back, I’d probably invaded his feeding grounds earlier that night, and he was waiting for me to leave the next morning. The homemade bear beam was there for a reason.

So I did see him. And, he saw me. He was an adult bear, and black as the previous night’s darkness. He was the second bear I’ve seen in the wild. I saw one in the foothills outside Boulder, Colorado in 1983, while hiking with a friend. But that encounter wasn’t nearly as, shall we say, “intimate.” Now I can claim to have seen wild bears on both sides of the Mississippi. Could there be a grizz in my future?? Do I want one in my future??


Three days later, on Labor Day, I arrived at Skyland, the end point of my hike. I met a lot of nice people between Browns Gap and there: Rob and Paul at rain-soaked Hightop Hut; the couple from Charlotte whom I met at Big Meadows Campground; Katie and her “pack dog;” not to mention the Honeymoon Hikers and Jackson. The Shenandoah AT around Labor Day sees many visitors, which is good in some ways, but bad in others. With the popularity of books and movies like Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” and Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” more and more people are taking to the woods and trails. It’s great that folks are shedding the shackles and manufactured pleasures of the cities and suburbs, and finding some spiritual peace in places where “things happen the way they’re supposed to happen.” But where there are crowds, there are problems. The trail litter I saw each time I approached Skyline Drive is ample proof. Not to sound preachy, but hopefully the Millennial Generation will use their smartphones to protect the wild places better than my generation and my parents’ generation did.


At about 7 p.m. outside crowded Skyland Lodge, my driver Dubose Egleston Jr. pulled up, his yellow pickup plastered with signs advertising his shuttle service. I loaded my gear in the truck bed and hopped in front. Dubose was interesting. Short and pudgy, he talks with a sometimes incomprehensible Southern accent, and as if he’s chronically short of breath. Dubose relishes conversation (and Coors beer), and at one time he served on the Waynesboro City Council (“Ah never talk ‘bout national politics. Gits ya into trouble. But ah’ll talk yer ear off ‘bout local and state politics”).

Sunrise at Hazletop Mountain, highest point on my hike

Sunrise at Hazletop Mountain, highest point on my hike

Dubose has been shuttling hikers for 13 years, and estimates he’s hauled several thousand of them. On our drive back to Waynesboro, he told me about some of the more memorable ones: the guy he picked up at the airport who wore a three-piece suit and penny-loafers, and planned to buy all his gear at Wal-Mart (“He gave me the creeps”).

Also, the mysterious man who carried nothing but a white duffel bag (“He never said what was in it, and I never asked. He was creepy, too”). And the guy he called “Rambo,” who wore full camouflage, a handgun, and a knife the size of a bayonet (“He looked like he was goin’ into battle. We didn’t talk much. Just ‘bout the weather”).

I told him about my bear encounter at Browns Gap.

“Ah shuttled two young women from Wisconsin one time,” he said. “They were real ‘cited ‘bout hikin’, but tole me the only thing they were ‘fraid of was bears. They had convinced themselves they were goin’ to be attacked by a bear.”

I laughed.

Dubose Egleston Jr.

Dubose Egleston Jr.

“I said ‘Lemme get some gas here, an ahm goin’ to set you straight.’ After ah got back in my truck, I tole ‘em ‘Black bears ain’t the same as grizzly bears. They don’t attack people.’ I said ‘There has never been a bear attack on humans in the state of Virginia.’”

“What did they say?” I asked.

“You’d a thought ah lifted five pounds offa each of their shoulders!” he said. “They were so relieved to hear that. They practically threw their arms around me. Ah don’t know what it is, but somewhere ‘tween the Midwest and here, people get this notion that black bears are vicious man-eaters. It just ain’t true.”

I asked Dubose if he heard from them after their hike.

“Yep. They couldn’t git over what ah tole ‘em ‘bout bears. After they got home to Wisconsin, they sent me a big block’a cheese. That was nice. But ya’ll take a look at me. Cheese is the last thing ah need.”


On the Appalachian Trail: The Bear Who Came to Dinner


“Aren’t you worried about bears?” (my boss)
“Oh no. Now I have to worry. Aren’t there bears and wolves in those mountains?” (my mom)
“Why do you do these things to me?” (my wife)
“Are you gonna pack a sidearm?” (my friend Dave)

These are a few of the reactions I got this past summer when I announced that I’d be doing a solo hike through Shenandoah National Park, on the Appalachian Trail.

There’s something about camping in the woods that scares the bejeebers out of people. It might be the stories we read as children: Hansel and Gretel, Peter and the Wolf, Where the Wild Things Are. Later on came feature films: The Wolf Man, The Night of the Grizzly, The Edge. Be it bears, wolves, cougars, giant venomous snakes, bloodthirsty bats, witches, goblins, headless horsemen, Texas chainsaw killers… dense, dark forest has become a metaphor for danger and fear.

black bear

American black bear (Ursus americanus)

The reality, of course, is that our cities – and increasingly, our suburbs – are far more dangerous. But humans can’t seem to shake certain embedded fears. And of all creatures in the woods, nothing seems to worry people more than bears.

Bears are big. An adult American black bear (Ursus americanus), averages 125-550 lbs. Its cousin, the more aggressive grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis), averages 400-790 lbs. Some freak grizzlies grow even bigger. Both species are omnivores, eating both plants and animals. But a grizz standing on its back feet can reach over nine feet in height, and can take down large mammals such as bison, moose, elk, and caribou. His claws can grow to four inches in length.

Also, although extremely rare, bear attacks do happen. The most infamous occurred in Glacier National Park on the night of August 12, 1967. On that night, two young women, Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, were dragged from their sleeping bags by two hungry grizzlies… unbelievably, in separate incidents nine miles apart. Their bodies were eventually located by searchers. Helgeson hung on for a few hours before succumbing to blood loss. Only portions of Koons’s body were found.


Grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilus)

But horror stories like this occurred back when little was known about bear behavior, and campground bears were still feeding at open-air garbage dumps. The two grizz that killed Helgeson and Koons were later tracked down. One had glass imbedded in its molars, and the other had a torn paw pad, probably from stepping on broken glass. Wildlife officials speculate they were in extreme pain when they attacked.

But I didn’t need to worry about grizzlies when I began my hike. The only grizz in the lower 48 are in Yellowstone and in small pockets of Montana and Idaho. However, there are a lot of black bears along the AT, particularly in Shenandoah National Park, which has a number of public campgrounds (“Hey, hey, hey Boo-Boo, do I smell a pic-a-nic basket?”). Like many people, I was hoping to see a bear on my hike. But I never thought I’d share my campsite with one.


I started my hike at Rockfish Gap, outside Waynesboro, Virginia. The first day I covered six miles, some of which found me slogging through a relentless rainstorm. I camped near a large cairn at the top of Calf Mountain. It was a good campsite, right next to the trail, with good, flat stones for setting up my campstove, and enough tree branches on which to drape my soggy clothes.

I got an early start the next day. Watered up at a spring near the shelter halfway down the mountain. While filling my canteen, I met a hiker coming from the shelter. She was a middle-aged woman who was trekking 100 miles to Manassas Gap. She called herself “Owl.” Hmm. Shouldn’t she be hiking at night??

Sawmill Run Overlook2

Scenic overlook at Sawmill Run

At the base of Calf Mountain at Jarman Gap, I officially entered the park. It was at a fire road near a huge gnarled tree, maybe the oldest I’d see on the entire hike. Later, at Sawmill Run Overlook, I gobbled some trail mix and provided a curious spectacle to a few tourists who were cruising along Skyline Drive.

Then at Turk Gap, I met my first thru-hikers, a college-age couple who’d started way up in Maine months earlier. They were headed for the Springer Mountain trailhead in north Georgia. They represented the “advance guard” of southbound thru-hikers, and they had the lean, muscular look of swift, veteran hikers. Surprisingly, they gave off no odor, and they also looked really clean and manicured – even the man’s red beard looked shapely.

Near Riprap parking area I met a young woman. She was an emergency nurse from nearby Charlottesville, out enjoying a sunny day hike. Then I lunched at the edge of the parking lot, where I met another solo day hiker. I would bump into him again, the following day, at Loft Mountain campground. His name was Jackson, and he was a high school senior from Richmond, Virginia. He was just bouncing between campgrounds, doing short hikes on the AT, and squeezing in some summer kicks before the school year started. Nice kid, long blonde hair, really laid back. I noticed his truck had a plate that said “Don’t Tread On Me.” I wondered if his parents might’ve named him after exalted Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

As I approached Blackrock Mountain, I started to get really thirsty. Also, worried, since I only had a few drops left in my canteen. Two years earlier I’d hiked the AT through Georgia, and I’d crossed a lot of mountain streams and springs. But Shenandoah was extremely dry. Climbing the straight ascent up the side of Blackrock was taking a toll.

Blackrock Mtn summit2

Summit of Blackrock Mountain

Help came in the form of two more thru-hikers coming down the mountain. They were a married couple, the “Honeymoon Hikers.” They’d already done a northbound hike on their wedding honeymoon, and were now hiking southbound. Amazing! Mr. Honeymoon told me the summit wasn’t far ahead, and after that it was smooth sailing. He said Dundo Picnic Grounds was only a few miles ahead, and it had a water pump.

Blackrock Mountain summit was aptly named: huge, dark boulders stacked a hundred feet high, like a scene from Planet of the Apes. I rested on one of the rocks, then savored a smooth downhill trek into Dundo Picnic Grounds. At Dundo, I replenished my water at the pump, and took a refreshing sponge bath. There were lots of picnic tables here, but the only visitors were an elderly couple enjoying an early supper at one of the tables. Before exiting the grounds, they circled their car over to the water pump and kindly offered me some granola bars and bananas.

Now it was time to find a campsite. I was hoping for a nice, quiet, trailside site similar to Calf Mountain. But at Browns Gap, where Skyline Drive again crossed the AT, there was just an empty parking lot and a couple lonely fire roads that meandered into the woods. It was getting late. A few cars whizzed by on Skyline Drive. I started to clear out a primitive tent site near the parking lot. But it just didn’t feel right.

When all else fails, hit the trail. So I started up another incline. About a half mile up… voila! There, on the left, was my home for the night: a clearing, moderately used, with flat ground for my tent. And at the far edge of the clearing were two skinny trees, about ten feet high. A horizontal log beam was resting on two forks carved at the tree tops. It looked a little like a pole vault bar. Someone had built this thing to hang his or her food bag so marauding bears wouldn’t get it.

Usually, backpackers will seek out a single tree that has a high, horizontal limb on which to hang their bear bags. So this designer bear beam was really convenient. Surely this construction project took a lot of time. But why would someone devote so much time and energy to building it? Maybe a ranger built it.

Was Yogi or Boo-Boo in the vicinity??

(end of Part 1)


California, Climate Change, and the Calamity of Fire

Smoke rises from a fire near Butte Mountain Road, Thursday Sept. 10, 2015, near Jackson, Calif. Lions, tigers and other cats big and small are being evacuated as California's biggest wildfire continues to spread, possibly threatening the park where they live, officials said Thursday. (Andrew Seng/The Sacramento Bee via AP) MAGS OUT; LOCAL TELEVISION OUT (KCRA3, KXTV10, KOVR13, KUVS19, KMAZ31, KTXL40); MANDATORY CREDIT

The fires have ravaged California for months now. Some are so monstrous they’ve acquired names: Valley Fire, Butte Fire, Rough Fire.

The raging flames that have scorched northern California this past summer are approaching Biblical proportion. About 700,000 acres are now barren and black. Over 20,000 people have been evacuated. Approximately 15,000 firefighters have been sent, in packs, to fight the blazes. In the month of July alone, California spent 23 million dollars fighting the wildfires.


Charred remains of Middletown, California, after the Valley Fire

An entire town, Middletown, has been destroyed. The magnificent, ancient sequoias are now being threatened. And fire officials say the worst may yet arrive.

Why does California (and to a lesser degree the other 49 states) seem to be increasingly plagued by fire?

From April through October, California experiences a hot dry climate. The state is also graced with large areas of wilderness, national forests, and national parks, which contain large quantities of timber and brush.

But unlike similar dry, timber-laden states, California also deals with the Santa Anna and Diablo winds that gust off the Pacific Ocean. This combination of dry climate, wind, and extensive flora creates an ideal tinderbox condition.

Since 1932, scientists have been monitoring wildfires in California. Of the 20 largest fires, 14 have occurred in the last 20 years. The Valley Fire, which has so far killed five people and injured four firefighters, could possibly be the worst fire ever – once the smoke finally clears.


Firefighters trying to protect giant sequoias

According to Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, 95 percent of California’s fires are caused by man. Power tools, campfires, cigarette butts, downed power lines, arson, and even gunfire are chief culprits, particularly in more populous southern California. As commercial and residential development pushes more people closer to fire-prone timberlands, wildfire activity will only increase.

The California fires and other U.S. blazes are now on track to make 2015 the worst year for fires in the nation’s history. According to International Business Times, “In the Western U.S., the average annual temperature has risen 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, leading soil and plant moisture to evaporate, rainfall to diminish and snowpack to rapidly melt — all factors that increase the risks of longer, stronger wildfires.” fire graphsCalifornia is now in its fourth year of drought, which has dramatically exacerbated the fire quotient.

And there’s a financial cost. According to the research firm Headwaters Economics in a 2013 report, “Federal wildfire protection and suppression efforts now average more than $3 billion a year, compared to less than $1 billion in the 1990s.”

As temperatures continue to rise, some scientists predict that wildfire activity could actually double in the next 35 years.

And as California Governor Jerry Brown said on Monday, watching helplessly as his state toasted like a giant marshmallow: “This is the future… Climate change is not going to go away.”








drought map

A Walled Mind: My Interview with Donald Trump


I will build a great wall – and nobody builds a wall better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

Let’s ignore the poor English (referring to his single great wall as “them”) and the economic and political unreality of constructing such a monstrosity. This is a man who refers to people he dislikes as being “stupid,” “fat,” “ugly,” “lazy” (easier to sling playground insults than conduct a thoughtful debate). He’s neatly packaged all Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists. He’s also insulted American P.O.W.’s by saying that his heroes “don’t get captured.”eyes

One would think that, at minimum, this last remark would alienate Trump from conservatives. Instead, Trump has skyrocketed in polls. He currently leads his closest Republican presidential competitor (Ben Carson) by a huge 16 percentage points, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll (http://wwlp.com/2015/08/27/donald-trumps-poll-numbers-on-the-rise/).

What does this say about today’s Republican Party? Toto, are we not in Kansas anymore?

I thought it would be interesting to conduct a fantasy interview with “The Donald.” After all, he is one of the reigning kings of fantasy television (generally referred to, oxymoronically, as “reality TV”). So before his circus act gets old with voters – and it will – here’s my mock interview with one of the most bloviating megalomaniacs ever to enter American politics. And that’s saying a lot.


longitudes: Thank you for allowing me to interview you, Mr. Trump.

Trump: It’s my pleasure.  I’m more than happy to speak with small people such as yourself.

chinlongitudes: Why do you think you’re currently leading Republican presidential contenders by such a large margin?

Trump: What’s so surprising about that? Look at my competition! An African-American who picked the wrong political party. A coupla inexperienced Hispanics. A coupla Bible-thumpers. And a Bush.

longitudes: Your remarks about some people, especially women and minorities, might be considered insulting.

lipsTrump: Look, the problem with this country is it’s too thin-skinned! Look, whatever happened to freedom of speech!

longitudes: Well, nobody’s denying your First Amendment right to say racist, narrow-minded things. But don’t you think a presidential candidate should behave more professionally?

Trump: “Professionally?” I’ve been at the top of my profession all my life! Do you know my net worth?? Can your small mind even grasp how important I am??

longitudes: You promise, if elected, to build a “great wall” along the America-Mexico border to stop illegal immigration. How do you plan to do this?

Trump: With bricks and mortar, you idiot!

longitudes: How will you get this expensive bill through Congress? After all, this isn’t exactly a pork-barrel legislature.

Trump: I don’t need Congress.  Do you know my net worth??  I’ve got the money!

longitudes: Do you plan to also buy the 2016 election?

Trump: I already have. With a little help from the Citizens United decision.

longitudes: You once claimed that Barack Obama shouldn’t be president because he wasn’t born in America.

Trump: That’s right.  He produced a “Certificate of Live Birth.”  That’s not the same as a “Birth Certificate.”  Anyway, I don’t consider Hawaii as being part of America.

longitudes: Are you serious??

Trump: I certainly am!  And a lot of so-called “birthers” agree with me.  They may not be the best and the brightest.  But they will be, once they elect me.

longitudes: What do you say to critics who have called you an egomaniac and a xenophobe?

Trump: Look, I happen to think a healthy ego is a good thing. You could probably use a little more ego, you two-bit pseudo-journalist. What kind of question is this, anyway? What hole did you crawl out of? Look, do you know how important I am??? What the hell’s a xenophobe, anyway??finger

longitudes: A xenophobe is someone who’s afraid of people of foreign origin.

Trump: Hey, I’m not afraid of anyone!! How did you think I got as far as I did? Do you know my net worth?? I love foreigners! I hire them all the time. They’re great on TV, too. They add color.

longitudes: One last question, Mr. Trump. Longitudes is a big proponent of environmental stewardship. What is your stance on climate change?

Trump: (Hey, I was just joking about that “color” remark). What… climate change?? I love climate change! How can you not love the four seasons?

longitudes: No, you don’t understand, what I’d like to know is…

Trump: Look, all climate change is is a hoax created by China to give them an edge in manufacturing. Dammit, it’s China, China, China!

longitudes: You were once quoted as saying “It doesn’t matter what the media writes, as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” Do you ever wish you hadn’t said that?

Trump: Look, you go write whatever you want, Skippy. I’ve got more…mouth1

(Trump is interrupted by an aide, who whispers in his ear)

Trump: …Look, I’ve gotta go. Jeb Bush’s wealthy donors are dropping like flies. I feel a speech coming on.

longitudes: Well, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule, Mr. Trump.

Trump: Hey, my pleasure. You’re alright, kid. If you ever want a slot on “The Apprentice,” let me know.

longitudes: Well, thanks, but I’ve never even seen your show. I usually watch PBS.

Trump: Typical liberal. Have a nice life, loser.


Waiting for Roger


We wind through the parking lot while glancing at license plates. There are cars from all over the eastern U.S. and Canada. This year’s crowd appears unusually large. It’s a polyglot of young and old, white, black, Asian, Indian. We hear a few European languages. There are even some women wearing burqas. Not exactly a baseball or NASCAR crowd. Lynn and I feel lucky to live just a few miles from this popular tournament.

Each year in August, we attend the first day of the Western and Southern Open, an ATP tennis tournament located northeast of Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s the last major tournament before the U.S. Open in New York, and a lot of pros use it as a “tune-up” for that Grand Slam event. This first day is qualifying day: unseeded players compete for a chance to gain a first-round spot in the tournament. We like opening day because the tickets aren’t pricey, it’s an all-day pass, and one can see some frenetic matches between the lower-ranked players.

Also, we get to rub shoulders with the top seeds, many of whom emerge to hit the practice courts.

We step inside the main gate and head toward the neon marquee displaying today’s scheduled matches and practice sessions. A few names we recognize: Benjamin Becker (no relation to Boris), whom we saw in a tough qualifier last year; Urszula Radwanska, younger sister of former No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska; grass-court specialist Nicolas Mahut… but our eyes light up when we see who will be practicing on Court 8 at 3 p.m.: Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.


Stan Wawrinka

We must find a spot for this one. Federer could be the greatest ever. He has won a record 17 Grand Slam events. He held the World No. 1 spot for an astounding 302 weeks. Now, at age 34 (geriatric, for tennis), he’s ranked No. 2. He recently reached the finals of Wimbledon, where he lost a close match to No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic. When Federer does finally retire, tennis may never see his like again.

Federer’s also fun to watch. He glides around the court like a low-flying raptor, and his serve and ground strokes are as smooth as butter. He never gets rattled, barely perspires, and his game has no weakness. Off-court, he’s just as smooth. He’s a devoted husband and father, has an easy smile, and speaks seven languages. So far, he’s avoided celebrity “foot-in-mouth disease.” Everyone loves him, including the players he regularly trounces. If there’s such a thing as a “perfect” athlete, it’s Federer.

Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka is no tennis slouch, either. Wawrinka’s steadily risen through the ranks. He’s currently World No. 5, and he won the French Open just last spring (he’s also tied to a recent controversy involving foot-in-mouth player Nick Kyrgios, which I won’t go into).

If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll overhear some tennis tips from former No. 1 Stefan Edberg, who now coaches Federer (and who has a sportsmanship award named after him, that Federer’s won 10 of the last 11 years). Lynn and I are in agreement: the practice session at 3 p.m. on Court 8 will be the highlight of the day.

But first on the agenda is the Becker match. It’s a quickie. Becker loses to a 17-year-old German kid, who could be a dominant force in years to come. Next, we swing by Court 8 to watch Serbian Jelena Jankovic, a former World No. 1. Lynn likes her distinctive facial features. I like other things about her.

Then it’s over to the food garden for some expensive cuisine and irritating music. As the clock approaches 2:30, we head back to Court 8 for the Federer practice.

stacks of hats

Brand Federer on display

The crowd is queuing up. We stand for about 20 minutes, until two chairs suddenly become available. I’m an inveterate people-watcher, so while we’re waiting, I scan the crowd. The first thing I notice are the hats. Baseball caps with a serif-laden “RF” on the front. It’s Roger’s personal brand, courtesy of his biggest sponsor, Nike.

A chunky African-American woman in front of me dons one of these caps. She’s sandwiched between a few other “RF” caps. The woman next to her has a button of the Swiss flag pinned on her purse. The word “Roger” is printed on the white cross. Then I see a skinny man wearing, not only an “RF” cap, but a faded “RF” t-shirt as well. He seems to be jockeying for a prime viewing spot. Then he sees the chunky woman and moves toward her.

The two of them begin talking. The man has a sort of New Jersey accent. I lean forward in my chair to catch some of the conversation.

“Where are you staying?” Jersey guy asks, with a large grin.

fed fanAt the Comfort Inn,” the woman responds.

“I’m at the (something),” says smiling Jersey guy.

The woman says something that I can’t hear. Smiling Jersey guy responds with “You just never know!”

By this point, all sitting and standing positions have been taken. I allow a boy and girl to sneak in front of me. They have difficulty seeing over the railing, so I offer my chair for them to stand on. They look at me suspiciously, but hop up on the chairs anyway.

“Be careful, guys,” says Lynn. “Those chairs can wobble.” But they stay on the chair.

Then I see a movement behind the outer fence on the opposite side of the court. It’s a golf cart. There’s a low drone from the crowd. The drone builds. There are oohs, aahs, then loud clapping. A group of autograph seekers behind the fence begins chanting “Fed-er-ER! Fed-er-ER! Fed-er-ER!”

A volunteer wearing blue and yellow Western and Southern garb swings the gate open. Federer and Wawrinka emerge onto the court. They’re accompanied by two guys, probably trainers or coaches. No Edberg.stan_fed

The chunky woman is craning her neck. Smiling Jersey guy offers one more “You just never know!” then moves closer to the court. He squeezes into the viewing fence line, next to several kids holding yellow and pink, autograph-laden tennis balls the size of basketballs.

Federer is wearing a turquoise shirt and his trademark Nike headband. He’s at the far end of the court. Wawrinka is nearer to us. Neither has yet cracked a smile. They begin exchanging baseline shots. Some of the shots fly beyond the baseline, but they return everything. They remind me of boxers repetitively jabbing an overhead punching bag. Business as usual.

A couple of Federer’s shots skid off the top of the net. Wawrinka swings wildly at them. Now they’re both smiling.

Lynn and I watch for about 10 minutes, then leave to watch the Mahut qualifier. This match is on a stadium court nearby. As we’re walking, I glance at the top of the stadium. Maybe a hundred people are gathered on the top row. Brightly colored flags of various nations fly above them. The observers look like passengers standing along the railing of a departing ship. None of them are watching the Mahut match. They’ve all turned to see Federer and Wawrinka exchange practice shots.

genius at workLike the Becker match, Mahut’s is a quickie. He wins in straight sets. The match is just under two hours. We still have time to see Federer and Wawrinka finish up their practice session.

We cross the walkway. The crowd has grown even larger. Lynn has claustrophobia, so she hangs back. I manage to squeeze up the ramp toward the viewing fence. I can barely make out the players. Their shirts are now wet from perspiration. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen Federer sweat. Cincinnati humidity.

Soon, they finish their practice and stride toward the opposite gate, near the golf cart that will whisk them to the locker room. They sit in their chairs, towel off their faces, and gaze across the empty court. They gulp some liquids. Then they stand up and slowly walk toward the viewing fence, toward the fans. The crowd erupts. The blue-and-yellow-clad volunteers smile benignly.

Federer begins at one end of the viewing fence, and Wawrinka at the other. In strategic but genial fashion, they sign their names at whatever is thrust toward them. Then Federer smiles and raises his hand. The crowd erupts again. Wawrinka’s cue. He stops signing, and both walk side-by-side toward the waiting golf cart. The volunteers adopt positions between the players and the crowd, hands behind their backs, military-like.

Many of the kids run down the ramp, fuzzy basketballs clutched tightly to their chests. They scoot down the walkway, hoping to skirt around the practice court and intercept the two pros before the golf cart departs. Two middle-aged men rush out with them. One of them is cradling a book with colored photos of Federer.

I look for smiling Jersey guy, but can’t find him in the mass of people. Maybe he found a new spot, at the outer fence, near the golf cart.  Did he snag an autograph?

You just never know.

western and soouthern

Turning to Gray: Cam Ne, South Vietnam, 1965

50 years

safer in vietnam

The news today will be the movies for tomorrow
And the water’s turned to blood
And if you don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray

– Arthur Lee and Love, from their song “A House is Not a Motel”

At 6 PM EST on August 5, 1965, the report aired on the CBS Evening News. It was suppertime in America. Housewives were preparing or serving dinner. Husbands were relaxing after work. Children were tumbling inside after a day of play in the hot summer sun.

vietnam_war_mapThose Americans who’d tuned their televisions to watch CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite – “the most trusted man in America,” according to many opinion polls – would see something they’d never seen before.


In early 1965, CBS had set up a news bureau in Saigon, South Vietnam. A 33-year-old Canadian-American journalist named Morley Safer headed the bureau. He was one of the first reporters to be permanently assigned to cover the Vietnam War, which, by the end of 1965, involved 200,000 U.S. soldiers.

On August 2, Safer was in the city of Da Nang in northern South Vietnam. He heard about a Marine Corps mission that was being sent to a complex of hamlets located south of Da Nang, in a place called Cam Ne. This collection of peasant huts was inhabited by families who, for generations, had survived by subsistence farming in the many rice paddies in the region.

Marine private near Da nang

Marine private, merely a boy, near Da Nang in 1965. He may have been present at Cam Ne

Safer heard from one of the marine units that the mission planned for the following day was “search-and-destroy.” It was being referred to as “Operation Blastout 1.” Safer was asked if he wanted to come along… “Please come along,” said the marines.

The platoon left Da Nang early the next morning. It traveled in APCs (armored personnel carriers), and a few amphibious vehicles due to high water. Safer and cameraman Ha Thuc Can (“This wonderful man,” according to Safer) accompanied the troops. Ha Thuc Can was the only person who could speak Vietnamese.

During the journey, Safer talked to a captain. The captain told him that all the houses in Cam Ne were to be destroyed. The marines had supposedly been subjected to sporadic sniper fire from Viet Cong entrenched in Cam Ne, and the captain said the marines were now going to “really tear it up.”

Safer thought the captain was exaggerating. Never before had he heard of a “search-and-destroy” mission, against civilians, executed by a ground strike. Before August 3 – at least since Sherman’s torching of Southern homes in the American Civil War – such missions were directed at confirmed enemy targets and involved either artillery fire or air attacks.

When the marines arrived at the first “village,” they immediately began setting fire to the huts, which were made of thatch. Some used flame throwers, and others used cigarette lighters (later, some marines boasted they were the “Zippo brigade”). Other marines fired their weapons, although the only Americans shot at until then were struck “in the ass” from friendly fire.

zippo 2

Marine using lighter on thatched roof at Cam Ne

One marine aimed his flame thrower down a hole in the dirt floor of one hut. Ha Thuc Can pleaded for him to stop. Ha Thuc Can bent over the hole, speaking quiet Vietnamese into the darkness. He eventually coaxed out a family of six, including an infant child. The family was in tears and, says Safer, “frightened stiff.”

Safer reported that, by the end of the day, one baby was killed, three women were wounded, one marine was wounded, and 150 houses were destroyed. He sent his report by telex to his bosses back home.


When CBS News President Fred Friendly and anchorman Cronkite reviewed Safer’s report – which included filmed footage of Cam Ne’s destruction – they became very nervous. They knew this story would ignite controversy. Friendly contacted Safer twice to confirm its veracity. And, twice, Safer confirmed his story.

When Safer’s news report was digested by American families, perceptions of the Vietnam War changed:

I think [viewers] saw American troops acting in a way people had never seen American troops act before, and couldn’t imagine… This conjured up not America, but some brutal power — Germany, even, in World War II. To see young G.I.s, big guys in flak jackets, lighting up thatched roofs, and women holding babies running away, wailing — this was a new sight to everyone, including the military, I suspect.” (Morley Safer)

After Cam Ne, the Pentagon wanted Safer fired. The Defense Department began monitoring TV news broadcasts. President Johnson told CBS President Frank Stanton that CBS had “shat on the American flag.” He was convinced that Safer was a communist. When told that he was Canadian, Johnson replied “Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.”

cam ne villager

Morley Safer and elderly man at Cam Ne

The marines felt that Safer’s story was distorted and didn’t convey that Cam Ne had been fortified by the Viet Cong with trenches, underground tunnels, punji stakes and booby traps (though the VC had withdrawn by the time the marines arrived). They felt he downplayed sniper fire and (their contention) that the villagers were hostile to American troops. Initially, they claimed that only a few houses had been destroyed by artillery. “It was just blatant bullshit,” says Safer.


But the legacy of Cam Ne has less to do with Viet Cong hostilities than with how the Vietnam War was being fought by the United States. And, as Safer observes, perceived by Americans at home. Things became murkier, more nebulous. American boys were, suddenly, no longer shining white knights fighting to protect freedom (however that concept may be defined). And, only three years later, the ugly reality of Vietnam would come crashing home after the massacre of unarmed civilians at My Lai, South Vietnam.

Today’s operation shows the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him we are on his side.”

Safer was correct on all counts except one: there was no American military victory.

(Note: Morley Safer has been a “60 Minutes” correspondent since 1970 and has received numerous awards. His story on Cam Ne was voted by fellow journalists as one of the top 100 journalism works of the last century.






Da Nang 1965

To Sir with Love: Knights and Dames in Merrie Olde England

middle ages

Recently, famed singer-songwriter Van Morrison was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. The pudgy, red-headed imp with the soulful voice, who wrote “Gloria,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Tupelo Honey,” and the evocative albums ASTRAL WEEKS and MOONDANCE, is now “Sir George Ivan Morrison.”

I tried to find a quote from the queen as to exactly why she chose Morrison, as opposed to, say, Steve Winwood, or Richard Thompson. But she’s pretty low-key, and I couldn’t dig up a quote. Media outlets (many of whom just copy each other’s stories) say it’s because of Morrison’s contributions to music. Also, his promotion of tourism in Northern Ireland… (huh?).morrison

Morrison joins other high-profile rockers Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Elton John as knights on the British chessboard.

Being a parochial American, I’ve always cast a dubious eye at this British honors business (actually, I should spell it “honours” out of respect for my distant cousins across the pond).   Why do some men get Sir’ed, and others do not? Why are some women Dame’ed, and others ignored? Why is this title-before-the-name stuff so significant?

I remember when Mick Jagger was knighted. I thought it insulting that Keith Richards wasn’t similarly honoured.  I asked my brother, “If Mick can get Sir’ed, why not Keith, too?”

“I think we both know why Keith wasn’t Sir’ed,” he deadpanned.

The British honours system is very complicated, comprising all sorts of orders and classes, both civil and military, and depending on the class, you don’t always get to be a Sir or a Dame. Queen_Elizabeth_IIblack garterThe tradition dates to 1348, when King Edward III of England established the Most Noble Order of the Garter to recognize men who displayed acts of chivalry. The order’s emblem is, of course, a garter, accompanied by the motto “Shame on him who thinks evil of it.”

I don’t know why anyone would think evil of an article of feminine underwear. Then again, I’m a 21st-century bullet-headed Yank, so what do I know?

This original order eventually expanded to other orders based on degrees of service or professional achievement. Some include The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (but isn’t the Garter the “most ancient”?); The Most Honourable Order of the Bath (which I assume recognizes cleanliness and hygiene); and The Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick (which recognized Irish peers in the UK, until 1922, when The Irish Free State seceded. Van the Man, however, is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he evidently works at a tourist agency).knights

In addition to orders, there are medals, which recognize bravery or good conduct, and decorations, which recognize specific deeds. There were three decorations related to India. But when India gained independence in 1947, these were somehow put on the back burner.

There have been a number of individuals who have either turned down their awards, or had them revoked. Believe it or not, Emperor Hirohito of Japan was a Knight of the Garter… until December 7, 1941.

My favorite rejection of one of these honours was John Lennon‘s. He and the three other Beatles were recognized as Members of the British Empire (MBE) in 1966. But three years later, Lennon returned his award insignia (against his Aunt Mimi’s wishes) to Buckingham Palace, with a note to the queen saying he was protesting Britain’s “support of America in Vietnam,” and for “’Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”beatles

All joking aside, there are numerous individuals, most outside the entertainment sphere, who have done amazing things, and being honoured as a Sir or Dame brings their achievements to public light. For example, English journalist Esther Louise Rantzen is now a Dame due to setting up a charity for child protection, and another charity to assist people struggling with loneliness. Ebola virus survivor Will Pooley is now a Sir, honoured for his energetic efforts to prevent the disease’s spread.

And if you’re from outside the British Isles, you can be an honorary knight or dame.  Like Rudolph Giuliani or Edward Kennedy.  Or Hirohito.

The Sir and Dame stuff is also good fodder for late-night comedians, and for dumb Yanks like me who have nothing better to write about.

As I’ve always said: it’s better to be Sir’ed than slurred, and better to be Dame’ed than damned.


Crossing the Finish Line: Nick Greco, 1940-2014

Nick Greco photo

Once in a while you cross paths with someone who makes you wish you’d known them better. This happened to me with Nick Greco.

I met Nick last June while doing some yard work for a friend. I was poking around in a bed of ornamentals, and I suddenly felt somebody near me. Looking up, I saw a tanned, wiry man looking down at me. He had a bright smile.

“Hi, I’m Nick,” he said.

“Hello. I’m Pete.”

“I live over there,” he said, pointing to the house next door. “Do you do small landscape jobs?”

I followed him to his house, a tidy-looking ranch with a very nice landscape. He introduced me to his attractive wife, Judie. He then showed me a cluster of overgrown knockout roses that had evidently suffered from severe winter kill. I told him I’d be happy to clean them up a little, and we made arrangements for me to stop by the following week.

Later on, I learned a little bit about Nick from my friend. She said that, like me, Nick was an avid runner (and being in his ‘70s, he certainly had the lean look of a distance runner). She also said he’d had a bout with prostate cancer. His marathon running and struggle with cancer had caught the attention of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who offered him the opportunity to carry the Olympic torch through Cincinnati, Ohio. Which he did, in 2001.

Then I recalled the license plate on his sports car. It said “Torch 1.”

Although Nick had beaten the prostate cancer, his fight wasn’t over yet. He was now battling another foe: lung cancer. His doctors claimed the two were unrelated. Talk about lousy luck.

Well, I spent about two hours pruning Nick’s roses. Later, he told me he liked my work, and asked if I could trim up the rest of his shrubs. I agreed, and stopped by a few days later. It was a gorgeous sunny day. A few wispy clouds floated in the sky, and some mallards were skimming across the pond in his backyard. Then I caught a familiar odor. A local “lawn doctor” was treating the public spaces in Nick’s neighborhood, and the smell of 2, 4-D weed killer filled the air. The unnatural, clinical odor was a dark cloud that ruined an otherwise beautiful day. I hopped in my truck, rolled up the windows, and left.

But I returned later, and Nick and I got to know each other. I told him I liked the Mediterranean ring of his name, and that my son was also named Nick. He said he was originally from the East Coast and his running had taken him as far as the granddaddy of all races, the Boston Marathon, which he ran an impressive five times. He’d also run the New York Marathon twice. This was after he’d made a decision to change his lifestyle. Before his first New York race, he’d quit a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit and lost over 50 pounds.

rosesNick also invited me into his home (something that doesn’t often happen to dirty, clammy-skinned landscapers). He showed me some running photos, as well as his marathon finisher’s medals. I also noticed a boxed set of Rolling Stones CDs in the den.

“Nick, looks like you and I have a few things in common!” I gushed. He flashed a smile.

Over the next few weeks I made several visits to Nick’s home to putter around his yard. He always came out to meet and talk with me, and a couple times he opened up about his sickness. He showed me the medicine patch on his chest, which he said helped reduce the pain. Occasionally, the pain in his back was so bad that it forced him back inside his house.

We also talked about running. When I drove to Duluth, Minnesota in June to run Grandma’s Marathon, he promised to follow my running progress on the race website. I thought this was really nice of him, and I occasionally thought about this while I was up in Duluth. It was nice to know that someone from back home was keeping tabs on me. When I returned home, I gave him my souvenir race t-shirt in appreciation of his support… though I’m sure yet another marathon shirt was the last thing he needed.

In August, my friend told me that Nick wasn’t doing so well. The cancer had spread throughout his body. I saw Nick one more time after that. He was leaning against the side of the garage. He was waiting for Judie to help him into the car to take him to the hospital. I walked over and put my hand on his frail shoulder.

I didn’t know what to say, other than the lame “Hang in there.” His own voice was but a whisper. All I could make out was “Pete, I’m in a bad way.”

He died just a few weeks later. His family was at his side. At his funeral, his friends wore running shoes in tribute to him.


Yes, Nick and I shared a few of the same interests. But even if we hadn’t, he impressed me with his charm and friendliness. He’s another one of those people who, though I didn’t know very long, I wish I’d have known better. His passing was another dark cloud on an otherwise beautiful day.

I’m not real religious. But I’m sure one day we’ll see each other at some marathon finish line somewhere. We’ll talk about our latest race. Maybe we can listen to one of those Rolling Stones CDs from that boxed set in the den. That’ll be cool.

running shoes

Damned Yankees and Unreconstructed Rebels


Last week my wife and I visited our daughter in Nashville, Tennessee. She and her fiancé had recently moved there, so we headed down from Ohio to “house-warm” their new home.

The new place needed some yardwork, so Mike and I made a trip to the nearest Home Depot to get a few things. While searching for corrugated pipe, we were approached by “Jimmy,” a store employee.

“Can I help y’all with anything?” Jimmy asked in a thick Southern drawl. He looked about 55 years old. He had big, sad eyes and a large belly that fully stretched his bright orange apron.

“Well, we’re looking for some piping to divert water from a downspout,” I said. “My daughter and her fiancé just bought a new house, and we need to fix a few things.”welcome nashville

“Where d’yall move from?” he asked.

“From Philadelphia,” Mike responded.

“Oh… a Yankee,” he said with just a trace of a smile.

(I felt something coming. Sure enough, it came).

“Know the difference between a Yankee and a damned Yankee?” Jimmy asked us.

“Uh… don’t know,” we answered.

“A Yankee comes down here then goes home. A damned Yankee stays!”

mapMike and I laughed. Mike then offered an olive branch by saying his original home, Maryland, was a “border state.”. I thought about telling Jimmy that I went to a school in Pennsylvania… near Gettysburg. Then I thought that might not be a good idea.

Jimmy then elaborated that he actually wasn’t prejudiced. He liked everybody, no matter where they hailed from. To prove it, he waylaid us for about 10 minutes while he talked about himself.

Jimmy turned out to be really nice, and very helpful. But his “damned Yankee” joke, and his insistence that he wasn’t prejudiced toward Northerners, reminded me that, yeah… attitudes are just a little different in good ole Dixie. Victorious in the war, we Yankees don’t make North-South distinctions as often as Southerners, even in jest.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a fellow Yankee mutter the term “Damned Rebel.”



Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant

The American Civil War ended 150 years ago this month. The Battle of Appomattox Court House occurred on April 9, 1865, where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee’s capitulation created a wave of Confederate surrenders throughout the South. The last land battle, the Battle of Palmito Ranch, occurred on May 12-13. The CSS Shenandoah held out until November, when it finally waved the white flag off Liverpool, England.

In victory, Grant was magnanimous. He forbade his troops from celebrating, and his terms of surrender were generous in the extreme.

In defeat, Lee was dignified and noble. He discussed with Grant the last time they’d met, twenty years earlier, during the Mexican-American War. Following Appomattox and for the rest of his life, Lee would not allow anything unkind to be said of Grant.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee

There have been a lot of changes in the last 150 years: Reconstruction, industrialization, Jim Crow laws, two World Wars, civil and voting rights, a black president elected, instant mobilization and communication… Elvis.  But despite our long, strange trip, there remains a gnawing resentment in some quarters. It stems from the fact that a long, bloody war was fought, and a collection of rebellious states was vanquished. Many of the descendants of those who lost the war cling to a forlorn hope their ancestors will one day be vindicated.

But the resentment is more complex. Today it’s bound up in, not only the Rebel flag, but passionate feelings about racial and ethnic diversity, religion, culture, tax policy, states’ rights versus federal regulation, immigration, health care access, etc.  Sure, there are many Northerners who are just as passionate about these issues.  But I don’t think it’s as visceral as down South.

A few years ago I read a great book: “Confederates in the Attic” by Tony Horwitz. Horwitz – a Civil War buff, a liberal, a Jew, and a Yankee – made a solo journey through the South, meeting and talking with various neo-Confederates about the war (some of whom merely had a fetish about a bygone era, but others who were full-fledged racists and xenophobes). At the end of his journey, he came to this eye-opening conclusion:

For many Southerners I’d met, remembrance of the War had become a talisman against modernity, an emotional lever for their reactionary politics…While I felt almost no ideological kinship with these unreconstructed rebels, I’d come to recognize that in one sense they were right. The issues at stake in the Civil War – race in particular – remained raw and unresolved, as did the broad question the conflict posed: Would America remain one nation?”

In the 1860s it was a regional conflict.  confederatesToday the conflict is more ideological.  I don’t think America will allow itself to become ripped apart ever again. But things seem to get uglier all the time in Washington. And I see more “Don’t Tread On Me” flags lately than I care to.

That being said, I thought Jimmy, Mike and I showed the right spirit.  Like Ulysses S. Grant, Mike and I were magnanimous in laughing at Jimmy’s Yankee joke, and patiently listening to him ramble.

And I’m confident that Jimmy – similar to Robert E. Lee – will never allow anything ugly to be said about carpetbagging Yankees like us.


Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part Two)


(Tuesday, March 24 is the late Steve McQueen’s 85th birthday. To honor this charismatic actor, here is the second of my two-part commemoration of the man and his films)

There’s a scene in the movie THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) where American POW Virgil Hilts, known as “The Cooler King” due to his repeated banishments to the isolation box, squats on the dirt in his cramped cell, smiles, and begins to bounce a baseball against the opposite wall. There’s no dialog. But the character’s actions imply “You bastards may be able to kill me. But you can’t eat me.”

This scene is one of many examples of why Steve McQueen earned the title “The King of Cool.”

THE GREAT ESCAPE served notice that a new matinee idol had arrived in Hollywood. As film critic Leonard Maltin observed, “The large international cast is superb, but the standout is McQueen; it’s easy to see why this cemented his status as a superstar.”

After this movie, McQueen was offered one juicy role after another. He was paired with some of the most ravishing starlets in Hollywood: Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Ann-Margret, Suzanne Pleshette, Faye Dunaway, Jacqueline Bisset. He commanded top dollar for his films. In 1968, his peak year, he starred in two blockbuster films that perfectly exploited his antihero credentials: THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and BULLITT.


Getting passionate with Faye Dunaway in “The Thomas Crown Affair”

In THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, McQueen portrays a wealthy playboy and sportsman who dabbles in high-stakes crime on the side. He’s an ultra-intelligent, smooth operator who enjoys playing chess, riding his dune buggy, reading the Wall Street Journal, and – just for kicks – robbing banks. After masterminding one multi-million-dollar bank heist, an insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway) is hired to trip him up. She comes close to nabbing him in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse, but of course, she eventually succumbs to his charm. The split-screen scene where McQueen and Dunaway compete in a sexually charged game of chess, then kiss rapturously while the camera whirls around them, is one of the great moments in cinema history, and it assisted Michel Legrand in winning an Oscar for the song “The Windmills of Your Mind.”


Classic photo of McQueen and shoulder holster, from his quintessential film, “Bullitt”

McQueen’s next movie, BULLITT, which was produced by McQueen’s own Solar Productions company, has an even more iconic sequence. The storyline is nothing exceptional: a police lieutenant appropriately named Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is hired to protect a government witness, who is eventually killed, and Bullitt has to contend with both the Mafia and a vengeful politician (Robert Vaughn). But the film is special for its on-location camerawork, the piece-de-resistance being a high-speed car chase across the hills of San Francisco. This 10-minute chase is considered one of the most exciting ever filmed, with veteran racer McQueen doing the close-up driving scenes himself, including a classic spinout in a turbo-charged, 1968 Ford Mustang GT (the high-speed scenes were done by several well-known stunt drivers, one of whom had doubled for McQueen during the motorcycle jump over barbed wire in THE GREAT ESCAPE). During filming, the two cars reached speeds of an astonishing 110 mph. The BULLITT car chase scene became the model for dozens of other similar chases peppered throughout commercials, comedies, and action films. But other than maybe THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) starring Gene Hackman, none have come close to McQueen and BULLITT.

After BULLITT, McQueen had enough power and a big enough bank account to race cars and bikes whenever he felt like it. He not only made sure his films had at least one car scene (at least, those set in the automobile age), he also made documentaries about racing, most notably ON ANY SUNDAY (1971), a motorcycle documentary partially produced by and featuring McQueen, and which critic Roger Ebert said “does for motorcycle racing what THE ENDLESS SUMMER did for surfing.”

But McQueen’s film output slowed down considerably after 1969. On the night of August 9, two close friends, actress Sharon Tate and hairdresser Jay Sebring, became victims of the Manson Family murder spree. McQueen had been invited to Tate’s house that same night, but had turned it down because he had a date. He was also supposedly on Manson’s hit list after his production company rejected a Manson screenplay. McQueen’s first wife, Neile, claims that Steve was so spooked he started carrying a concealed handgun everywhere.


Dressed for speed in LE MANS

In 1971, McQueen realized a dream and produced a movie about the renowned 24-hour road race in Le Mans, France. Racing fans love LE MANS for its authenticity – and McQueen never looked “cooler” – but the film plot was fairly opaque, and it was essentially a vanity project for McQueen (he’d turned down the lead role in the earlier racing film, GRAND PRIX (1966), the role eventually going to fellow race enthusiast and friend James Garner).

During the 1970s, McQueen only made five feature films. Two of them, the lighthearted rodeo homage JUNIOR BONNER (1972) and the crime thriller THE GETAWAY (1972), were done with infamous director Sam Peckinpah, who had an affinity for antiheroes and how they cope in a brutal world. In THE GETAWAY, McQueen portrays an ex-con who robs a bank and goes on the lam with his girlfriend (played by Ali McGraw). High on style but low in substance, THE GETAWAY was a much-needed hit for both McQueen and Peckinpah. But it also broke up McQueen’s marriage to Neile, as he and McGraw became lovers during the film, and eventually married (then divorced in 1978).

In 1974 McQueen was reunited with Paul Newman, one of the few actors who could compete with him at the box office. They headlined the Irwin Allen disaster epic THE TOWERING INFERNO, with McQueen playing a fire chief, and Newman portraying an architect. Both actors wanted lead billing… but which one would get it? The producers solved the dilemma by putting McQueen’s name first, on the left, but Newman’s name slightly higher, on the right! Additionally, both actors received the same pay and had the same number of lines. Poor William Holden, also in the film, had evidently become too old to compete with the other two!

McQueen’s last film of the ‘70s was another vanity project: AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, based on a Henrik Ibsen play, and in which McQueen played a principled doctor who has a feud with his materialistic neighbors. The McQueen everyone knew and loved was practically hidden behind a beard and spectacles, and the film had an extremely limited theatrical release.


Taking a break on the set of TOM HORN, his second-to-last film

McQueen returned to familiar territory for his last two films, TOM HORN (1980) and THE HUNTER (1980). The former is a period piece based on true-life cowboy bounty hunter Horn, who was controversially hanged for murder in 1903. In THE HUNTER, McQueen played a contemporary bounty hunter, and was reunited with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN co-star Eli Wallach. Although both movies were up McQueen’s alley (recalling bounty hunter Josh Randall in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”), both were unfortunately critical and commercial disappointments.

It was during the filming of TOM HORN that McQueen started to have trouble breathing. He was eventually diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive type of lung cancer (though McQueen was a heavy smoker, Neile cited the cause as asbestos exposure, possibly received from Steve soaking his racing facemask in the chemical, which was an oft-used fire retardant… it was long before the dangers of asbestos were known). McQueen fought valiantly against his cancer. He even resorted to controversial treatments that involved coffee enemas and injections of live cells from cows and sheep. But on November 7, 1980, after surgery in Juarez, Mexico to remove a massive tumor, he died of cardiac arrest. He was only 50 years old.

pickup truck

Layin’ back with James Coburn in pickup truck. Note the Castrol motor oil and Lucky Lager beer bottles

Since McQueen’s death 35 years ago, he’s been the subject of many biographies. He’s been name-dropped in songs by the Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Webb, Sheryl Crow, UFO, and many others. The English band Prefab Sprout named an entire album after him. According to Wikipedia, possessions by the late actor sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He had a collection of 130 motorcycles that sold in the millions within four years of his death. Lines of expensive clothing and watches have been inspired by him. Most tellingly, his estate is in the top 10 of highest earning deceased celebrities. Long after his death, the King of Cool remains a hot property.

And how many actors have been inducted into both the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the Hall of Great Western Performers?

For a brief moment in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a rugged, blue-eyed ex-reform school punk named Steve McQueen burned like red lava flowing from an active volcano. Even in ensemble films, McQueen was so magnetic a presence you couldn’t tear your eyes away from him. If you were born too late to catch him the first time around, his films are still easily available. Below is a short list of what I consider his best flicks (I’ve already discussed three of them).  So grab some popcorn, turn down the lights, and enjoy a Great Escape with the King of Cool.


2. NEVADA SMITH (1966). Based on a character in Harold Robbins’ novel “The Carpetbaggers,” this is a compelling Western about revenge. McQueen plays a half-Indian teenager (you heard right) whose parents are brutally murdered by three outlaws. One by one he tracks them down. McQueen gets to display his athleticism in some great action scenes, including a tense knife fight with his former Actors Studio buddy, Martin Landau. The final scene with Karl Malden is killer.nevada smith

3. THE SAND PEBBLES (1966). McQueen was nominated for four Golden Globe awards during his career, but this was his only Academy Award nomination. sand pebblesHe plays a rebellious, Brooklyn-bred machinist’s mate stationed on a Yangtze River gunboat in 1926. He’s not only convincing in his role, but the film has a great supporting cast, including Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough, and Richard Crenna.


5. BULLITT (1968)

6. THE REIVERS (1969). One of the best all-round movies McQueen made, THE REIVERS is based on a lesser known novel by William Faulkner. It’s a totally winning slice of rural Americana, with McQueen stepping out of his comfort zone and playing Boon Hoggenbeck, a conniving roustabout who cons a young boy into “borrowing” his grandfather’s 1905 Winton Flyer automobile for a trip down the backroads of Mississippi. mcqueen_reiversThe film comes a little close to Disney territory, but there’s enough sobriety to keep it honest, and McQueen never looked happier. And this time he gets to goof in the mud with an antique set of wheels!

7. PAPILLON (1973). McQueen shares the spotlight with another Hollywood legend, Dustin Hoffman, in this tale (based on a true story) about two Frenchmen who are exiled for life to Devil’s Island prison off of French Guiana in the 1930s. No need to worry about Hoffman, though: McQueen is the whole movie. This film is full-fledged action-adventure, and it’s both long and intense. It deals with the indomitability of the human spirit (think of it as THE GREAT ESCAPE on acid). Like so many McQueen films, this one features several classic scenes: a skillfully photographed slow-motion sequence of McQueen stumbling into a jungle river while trying to escape; and the final shot, when he catapults himself off a massive cliff into the ocean. Characteristically, McQueen insisted on doing this dangerous stunt himself. The King of Cool got his way.