I have always been a fan of the Indianapolis 500, watching or listening as the cars zoom around the 2½ mile race track 200 times each May. My all-time favorite driver was A. J. Foyt, who won the 500-mile race four times. But the driver that amazed me the most was Jim Hurtubise, a maverick racer who was a contemporary of Foyt. The following incident is the reason.
While racing in Milwaukee in 1964, Hurtubise was in a horrific crash. He suffered burns over 40 percent of his body and was fortunate to live. His hands were badly burned to the point that no one expected him ever to drive again. He underwent many surgeries; when it came time to repair his hands, the surgeons told him that his fingers would be in a straight position and he would never be able to make a fist again. This would end his racing career.
Instead, he ordered the surgeon to mold his severely burned hands so he could grip a steering wheel. Not long after his recovery, he won the 1966 USAC Stock Car Race in Atlanta and went on to race in six more Indianapolis 500-Mile Races and retired from racing in the late 1970s.
One racing fan recalls as a l2-year-old shaking hands with Hurtubise after the accident. He said it was awkward with his hands in that permanently curved position. But Hurtubise smiled and said, “Excuse the hand. I had the doctors fix it that way so I could continue racing.”
He may never have won the Indianapolis 500, but he won for me the title of Most Committed and Determined Athlete ever.
When I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois in the early seventies, my favorite newspaper columnist was Mike Royko, a writer for the Chicago Sun Times. Earlier he had written for the Chicago Daily News. When that paper closed its doors in 1978, Mike took the task of writing the eulogy for the paper, to be printed on the front page of the final edition. The following story was the touching way he closed his remarks.
“When I was a kid, the worst of all days was the last day of summer vacation, and we were in the schoolyard playing softball, and the sun was down and it was getting dark. But I didn’t want it to get dark. I didn’t want the game to end. It was too good, too much fun. I wanted it to stay light forever, so we could keep on playing forever, so the game would go on and on. That’s how I feel now. C’mon, c’mon. Let’s play one more inning. One more at bat. One more pitch. Just one? Stick around, guys. We can’t break up this team. It’s too much fun. But the sun always went down. And now it’s almost dark again.”
When Royko died nearly 20 years later, this same story was told as it related to his influence. But this time the ending was, “It is dark, dear friend. We miss your light.”
Changing the context of a story or pithy saying is an effective way of making your point while using mostly the words of someone else.
In his book Let Me Tell You a Story, Tony Campolo relates a time when he was in a New York skyscraper elevator filled with solemn business people. He told his fellow passengers they all looked too serious and asked them to join him in singing “You Are My Sunshine.” Maybe it was the way he said it, but remarkably they all joined him in singing the song.
When he got off at the seventieth floor, one man got off and walked down the hall with him, wearing a big smile on his face. Campolo asked him, “Are you going to the same meeting I’m going to?”
“No,” he said. “I just wanted to finish the song,”
Something about singing a song changes our attitudes. For twenty-five years a lady came in regularly to clean our home. I was sometimes working in my office as she worked. It was uplifting to me that she sang hymns most of every day. By her singing, she made the day better for herself and for those who were in some other part of the house.
I have learned that if I listen to songs with a positive message, I enjoy the day more. I can’t help but feel better after listening to and sometimes singing with Don Gibson, “Take the time to touch the morning before it slips away,” from Touch the Morning, or, “ I can see clearly…Look around you there is nothing but blue skies,” from “I Can See Clearly,” by Johnny Nash.
Let singing be a part of your daily routine. May you also want to finish the song.
My interview with Happy Chandler was significant to me, but another personal interview meant even more.
I regret not learning more about the childhood of my parents and their siblings, so a few years ago, I asked my only living uncle, 80-year-old Uncle Joe, if I could film an interview with him. He was glad to do this and I could tell he was curious and pleased about the activity. He sat in his living room chair, I set up my equipment, and for the next hour he reminisced about his early years. My questions included, “What was it like growing up in the Depression?” and “What did you do for fun as a boy?”
I learned that my father, who was 17 years older than Uncle Joe, sought a job after high school in order to help support his parents and younger brothers. I knew he did not go to college but I did not fully appreciate why until my discussion with Uncle Joe. A reason for this, he told me, was that my grandpa was a carpenter and a stonecutter and it was virtually impossible to find work during winter months.
He also told me that John Smith, the owner of Smith’s General Store in Fayetteville, Indiana, would carry them financially through the winter. Grandpa would pay him back during the warm weather when he could find work more easily. Uncle Joe said he did not know what the family would have done for food and coal without this compassionate and trusting storeowner.
Not only do I have these narratives on record for my children to learn about their ancestors, but also I have a unique account of the childhood background of my father that I would have never found in a history book.
A memorable moment for me was the result of a simple phone call to a resident of Versailles, Kentucky. The person happened to be Albert (Happy) Chandler, two-time governor of Kentucky, United States Senator, and Commissioner of Baseball.
In the late seventies, I was doing research on the public speaking of Governor Chandler. I found his home number through directory assistance, so I called there to see if he would allow me to interview him. Governor Chandler himself answered the phone. I asked if I could interview him. His response without hesitation was, “Come on down, son! Mama and I would be glad to have you.”
I assumed the interview would last a few minutes, but instead I was with him for about two hours. My wife and 7-year-old son were waiting in the car. When he found out, he insisted I bring them into the house. He reminisced not only about his public speaking but also about many of his experiences as a political leader and baseball commissioner. He was animated, entertaining, and informative and seemed genuinely to enjoy visiting with my family and me.
I mentioned that he was known to sometimes sing a verse of “My Old Kentucky Home” in his speeches, and he immediately sang a verse for us. He stressed how good he felt physically even though he was in his eighties at the time. He made a fist and asked me to “feel his muscle.”
What had started out as a interview about his campaign speaking turned out to be an experience I still look back on as one of the most pleasant and memorable afternoons in my career. It all started with a simple phone call—to a celebrity who chose not a have an unlisted number.
Because of chomping down on a “sugar daddy” sucker, I broke a tooth and filling which required serious dental work. In discussing this procedure with my dentist, I told him about my huge fear of dentists and that I would probably grimace, make guttural sounds, and tense up with any drill-like sound.
Then I finished by saying, tongue-in-cheek, “How about a glass of whiskey?”
His response was, “Well, that’s fine with me, but after I have a glass my hands get a little shaky. I’m not sure that is a good idea.”
I said, “No, I’m referring to me!”
“Oh,” he said. “It’s always about me! me! me!”
We both had a good laugh and his reaction made me feel less negative about my condition. Using humor is a great way to diffuse a difficult situation.