Thursday, December 6, 2012

Christmas Eve and the TV Santa


Christmas Eve and the TV Santa
by Greg Larson

             Mom stuck her head in the rec-room during the afternoon of Christmas Eve in the early ‘60s and announced, “You boys need to shut off that TV and put on your coats. We’re going to take your baby sister to see her godmother who is in an old folk’s home.  This will be our Christmas present to her.  When we get back, your dad should be home from the office party, and your brother will be home from his friend’s house.”

My younger brother, Timmy, and I looked at each other in panic.  We had just settled in with the couch pillows on the tile floor and had cozied up to the black and white television set.  The Looney Tune cartoons were on, and it would soon be time for our favorite afternoon show with Santa on KAKE-TV, channel ten.

“But Mom,” I replied, “It’s Christmas Eve.  We’ll miss the most important show of the year.  Santa Claus and KAKE-man are going to load the sleigh and they’ll be taking off at the end of the show to fly around the world.” 

At the age of twelve, I was tired of pretending to believe in Santa.  He was nothing more than a big benevolent clown who enjoyed Coca-cola . . .but the Santa and KAKE-man show was tradition.  Besides, I didn’t want to see Timmy’s Christmas Eve get spoiled.  I couldn’t believe it.  This was like shutting off a World Series game to go to the grocery store.

Timmy whimpered but it did no good.  Mom was on a mission.  Nothing was going to stop her from parading us and our eight-month-old baby sister in front of her old friend.  She pulled our red parkas out of the closet and handed them to us in the living room while she tucked little Amy Jo into the baby carrier.

I looked at the white-flocked Douglas fir full of glass ornaments, and tried to visualize Christmas morning.  Dad always turned on the flood lights attached to the 8mm movie camera, and we had to wipe the sleep out of our eyes and squint to see what Santa brought us.  I pictured a fantasyland of electric trains and toy trucks.  This day came just once a year.  It had better be good.

Mom loaded us into the baby-blue Plymouth and began the drive to the other side of the city.  Other than an occasional Christmas tree lot and some decorations in a few store windows, it seemed just like another gray winter day . . . really gray. 

Our little sister’s godmother was someone Mom had met and admired in Mother’s Club.  In fact, Mom had named Amy Jo after the elderly Amy.  I had no clue what all those women did at the club meetings, but Mom went to it every month.  On those evenings, Dad made his famous grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for us.  After we dined on the sandwiches, he made popcorn in the big skillet with a lid, and we all settled in to watch the cowboy shows on TV.

The gray streets of Wichita continued to slide past as Timmy and I sat in silence, looking out the car windows.  We didn’t care if some old woman was a righteous role model.  We wanted cartoons.  We wanted Santa Claus, the star of the show, and KAKE-man, his little puppet-sidekick.

It was getting dark outside as Mom pulled the car up to the curb and stopped in front of an old mansion that housed several elderly people.  Timmy and I begrudgingly followed Mom as she carried Amy Jo.  We trailed behind during the walk up to the house.  I could picture Casper the Friendly Ghost hiding in the bushes, or Vic Morrow from the show Combat setting up a command post inside the big house.  I braced myself for a boring eternity inside a place full of old people.

As we entered the mansion, a wave of heat came over us.  I began to sweat in my parka.  The place had a musty smell and was full of big furniture, dark carpets and thick varnished woodwork.  There were a few stained glass windows in the living room and hallways.  It seemed more like Halloween than Christmas Eve. 

Mom introduced us to the elderly Amy in a wide hallway with an old sofa and some side chairs.  We smiled while the gray-haired woman patted our heads with her bony hand encased in wrinkled skin and said, “You have such wonderful looking children.”  Then she sat down to converse in mom-talk and look at our little sister.

Timmy tugged at my coat sleeve and pointed to the corner of the hallway.  Just a few feet away stood a TV cabinet with rabbit ears on top.  We stared at the dark screen. 

He walked over to Mom and tapped her on the shoulder.  “Mom, can we watch TV?”

“Oh boys, not now,” she said as she turned and continued talking to her friend. 

He was persistent and tried again, “Mom, we want to watch KAKE-man.”

She caved in and sighed, “I suppose it’s okay if you keep the sound turned down.”

We hopped over to the set, clicked on the volume and turned the knob to channel ten.  The reception was snowy, so I grabbed the rabbit-ear antennae and moved them around.  Slowly, a fuzzy looking Santa came into view. He was loading the plywood sleigh with bags of packages.

“Ho, ho, ho, KAKE-man. Do you think we have enough toys for all the good little girls and boys this Christmas?  We’d better finish filling the sleigh so we won’t be late.  It takes a long time fly all the way from the North Pole to all the cities and towns around the world.  Ho, ho, ho!”

I had studied the North Pole in my grade school geography book.  It didn’t say anything about a Santa village with elves.  The omission of Santa in the book sealed his fate for me.  I knew it was a big fraud, but a lucrative one for sure, as long as we played the game along with our parents.

Even with the raspy sound coming from the speaker in the TV set, we sat mesmerized by the screen for the next few minutes.  Santa checked his list, and KAKE-man jumped around inside the sleigh.  The excitement was building.  This happened only once a year.

KAKE-man’s voice squeaked, “These packages are heavy, Santa, and it’s so-o c-c-cold up here.”  It was hard to tell the difference between the fake snow on the show and the fuzzy snow on the TV screen.

“It’s time to go boys,” said Mom as she shut off the TV and said her “good-byes” to the old friend.

Timmy and I were horrified, but we held our emotions in check while still inside the mansion.  Once outside, my little brother began to sniffle and smear tears on his cheeks.

I grabbed his shoulder, “Hey, maybe he’s up there in the clouds somewhere.  You never know, you might see him if you look close enough.”  I knew there wasn’t any sleigh up there, but I had to give him some hope.  Besides, he might mistake a blinking light on a small plane for Rudolph. 

          Little Amy Jo cried and Timmy pouted on the way home.  I looked out into the darkness and noticed that most of the businesses had closed early and turned out the lights.

I thought of the evening ahead.  It was a night for singing Christmas Carols at the piano and reading the scripture of the real Christmas story from the Bible.  I sensed that spending time together that evening was really important to Mom.  She seemed happiest when we were doing things as a family.   When it was time for bed, we set out a glass of milk and some of the decorated sugar cookies on a plate for Santa.

The TV screen was dark that evening.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

Fairsted: Frederick Law Olmsted's Home in Brookline

Fairsted: Frederick Law Olmsted's Home in Brookline
travel memoir, historical non-fiction essay and photos
by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

               The October sunlight washed the maples in Brookline, Massachusetts, creating intense colors of orange and gold in the foliage as my wife, daughter and I walked along the sidewalks of the Boston suburb. Our weekend morning destination on the recent visit in Brookline was the National Historic Site of Fairsted.  It was the home and office of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect.  At the age of sixty-one in 1883, he moved his family there from New York. 

              Our walk to Fairsted began on Beacon Street, near my daughter’s apartment, where the transit lines come out from under the city of Boston, and the dense urban setting becomes a bit more relaxed, with spacious tree-lined avenues and bay-windowed buildings.  During the walk, the apartments gave way to large single-family residences with well-kept yards and flower beds.  It was hard to believe we were less than five miles from downtown Boston.  At an unassuming corner, we found the small National Park Service sign announcing the historic site.  The property was bordered with a pine fence, along with lush green bushes, maples, oaks and other trees.

               Olmsted was a self-educated man of many talents, a contemporary renaissance man.  He is best known as the father of landscape architecture and as the key designer for Central Park in New York City.  He was also a journalist and a writer, and he deeply loved America.  His passion was the outdoors, and he was compelled by a vision for the future of the country.  He truly believed that outdoor parks and green space soothed the soul and brought peace to hectic lives, and that these spaces needed to be available to all citizens.  In the mid-1800s, the European notion was that large gardens and parks were private tracts which were only available to wealthy landowners.  Large American cities were becoming congested, and Olmsted believed it was a critical time to begin incorporating parks and landscaped boulevards into city master plans on a regular basis.

               Brookline was on the edge of Boston when Olmsted decided to move there.  It was out on the edge of the city where subdivisions were beginning to carve roadways into the hillsides and former farm fields.  He was seeking a peaceful setting where he and his family could move from New York City.  His friend, the architect Henry Hobson Richardson, convinced him to find a home near Richardson’s Brookline residence.  Olmsted found a two-acre plot of land with an 1810 farmhouse and barn.  The property was owned by two elderly sisters.  It was their home for their entire lives and they did not want to sell.  In a short time, Olmsted struck a deal with them.  The basic agreement was for Olmsted to purchase the property for $13,200, as well as design and build a house at the rear of the site, allowing the sisters to live rent free for the remainder of their lives.
Entry drive and front door at Fairsted

               Our footsteps crunched on the gravel along the circular entry drive, and I touched the ends of a hanging bough of a massive hemlock.  The tree was centered on the circular island and shaded the entry to the house.  We met the park ranger who led us on the tour.  She explained when Olmsted redesigned the grounds of the property he created the new driveway and planted the hemlock when it was just six feet tall.

               Olmsted’s redesign of the grounds of Fairsted was similar to the process he employed on major parks.  He created distinct areas of interests, each for a purpose.  The “hollow” or wild dell was a sunken area carved out of the natural Roxbury puddingstone, creating a subdued retreat with an unkempt natural feeling, with vine-covered slopes and a grotto.
The Hollow

                We followed the ranger down the rough stone steps into the Hollow, brushing against the leaves of the rhododendrons, the cotoneaster boughs and yew shrubs.  She told us that Olmsted’s planting strategy was to use various shades of green with only a limited use of color from flowers.

               Charles Sargent, an arborist and friend of Olmsted’s, lived just across the street from Fairsted. Olmsted collaborated with Sargent, the director of Harvard’s arboretum. Together they designed the layout for the 265-acre Arnold Arboretum, and convinced Harvard and the City of Boston to incorporate it into the Boston park system, making it the world’s first public arboretum.

As Olmsted revised the landscape at Fairsted, Sargent provided him with a living gift: a cucumber magnolia tree, with yellow blossoms in the spring which bear red/pinkish fruit that look similar to cucumbers.  Olmsted planted it on the east edge of the property, near the rock garden path.

               The park ranger made a point of showing us the cucumber magnolia tree, the largest magnolia I’d ever seen.  She held a bud from the end of a branch and showed it to me.  I inspected the tiny symmetrical bud which had a fine sculpted quality.  The tree had survived 130 years of New England weather, and it stands today on the edge of the grounds like a stately king in fine clothing.

               Olmsted continued to improve the property at Fairsted.  He relocated the barn and removed a dying orchard, thus creating a large, open expanse of ground on the south side of the house.  He kept a lone elm, which became the focal point of the pastoral setting.
South Lawn at Fairsted

               The park ranger led us to the south lawn, and explained the elm became diseased and had to be cut down in 2011.  Experts hope to create a cultivar from remnant cuttings and plant a new elm in its place sometime in the future.

               With multiple commissions for Boston park projects, along with project collaboration with H.H. Richardson, Olmsted’s design practice thrived.  He expanded his business, and included his surviving sons, Frederick, Jr., and John, as part owners, and he hired well-educated apprentices.  He built additions to the house, and created a room called the conservatory, which became his favorite place to rest and contemplate as he turned more of the business responsibilities to his sons.
The Conservatory and view of the south lawn

               Once inside the house, I was drawn to the conservatory room. It seemed as if a peaceful spell had been cast upon me.  I stepped onto the brick floor and touched the stone aggregate coatings on the walls. The view through the large windows conveyed the south lawn and the various shades of green trees at the edge of the property.  The room seemed a part of the landscape, but it was also a part of the house.  I understood why Olmsted enjoyed his time there.  The ranger shared that Olmsted attempted to grow vines on the interior walls.

               The landscape projects continued to pour into the firm, and it prompted Olmsted and his sons to create additions to the rambling Fairsted structure.  Frederick Law Olmsted retired from the firm in 1895, and died in 1903.  His sons continued to manage a thriving practice, adding functional spaces to the office, including drafting rooms, photo filing, drawing storage, and blueprint developing equipment.
Drafting room

               The open drafting room, with ribbed-wood panels and open trusses was inviting.  I walked up to a large drafting table set on sawhorses, and touched the edge of the  table top, full of thumbtack holes from decades of pinning down large drawings.  I pictured the draftsmen with visors and aprons, tracing long curved roadways onto huge drawings of future parks.  I could almost smell their pipe smoke and envisioned it wafting up into the rafters.
               Olmsted’s landscape design practice created a legacy of thousands of projects throughout 44 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada.  The most notable projects were Central Park (New York City), U.S. Capitol Grounds redesign (Washington, D.C.), Columbian Exposition fairgrounds (1893 Chicago World’s Fair), Stanford University Campus (Palo Alto, California), Biltmore Estate (Asheville, North Carolina), and the string of parks in Boston called the Emerald Necklace.  Olmsted was also instrumental in convincing the federal government to create a national park system.

               When we left Fairsted, I felt as if I had stepped out of a time machine from the late nineteenth century, and had returned to the present. We walked across Brookline, back to Beacon Street to a park with a garden and a bench near my daughter’s apartment.  This pastoral setting was a prime example of Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision . . . a vision of peaceful parks within the dense cities of America, with spaces for all of us to enjoy.

Martin, Justin. Genius of Place – The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press – A member of the Perseus Book Group, 2011.
Fairsted. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior
Frederick Law Olmsted. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Six Miles to Burlingame

by Greg Larson

Preface (July 6, 2017)

I wrote this blog at a time when Gretta and I were at the peak of our fitness and in good health. Thank you for letting me share it with you on the one-year anniversary of her death from cancer.

            It was one of those memorable spring mornings in Eastern Kansas when I filled my lungs with cool moist air and thought how great it was to be alive. The meadowlark perched on a fencepost and announced the sunrise.  The sun's first rays painted the clouds lavender and pink, and the dew sparkled on the prairie grass. 
            Gretta and I pedaled our tandem bicycle to the east, leaving Council Grove behind us.  The Flint Hills stretched to the horizon, like a rumpled green blanket that faded into the early morning haze.  We were riding with a group of two hundred cyclists along a seventy-five mile route of paved roads and highways.  Topeka was our final destination to complete a three-day tour.
            We pedaled all morning through a collage of rural scenes: cattle drinking from mirror-surfaced ponds, horses standing beside weathered barns and wild flowers blossoming near the barbed-wire fences.
            I guided the bike around a long curve to the north on U.S. Highway 56 and estimated it was about six miles to Burlingame.  The town would be a good spot to stop for lunch.  The clouds thickened during a long and slow ascent to the north.  We crested a hill near Elkhorn Knob and viewed the valley before us. What we saw was both breathtaking and disconcerting.  Burlingame lay in the valley, about four miles ahead, but further northwest, storm clouds were brewing with veils of rain and fingers of lightning.
            The valley and the storm made a panoramic, colorful vista, but an urgent question needed to be answered.  Would we . . . could we get to Burlingame before the storm?  I estimated the rain and lightning would hit the town in about ten minutes.  We’d have to muster a bundle of energy and average a speed of twenty-five miles an hour to have the slightest chance of beating the storm.
            The bicycle began to coast down the hill.  Sitting on the front seat, I turned my head to the side to talk to Gretta.
            “Storm’s comin’.”
            “Yeah, I see it.”
            “Think we can beat it?”
            “We can try.” 
 “We’ll have to pedal like crazy.  We’re talkin’ time trial speed.”
 “Let’s go for it.”
            The bike gained momentum as we raced down into the valley . . . twenty-five, thirty . . . over thirty-five miles an hour.  I put my hands down in the drops of the handlebars, and focused on the road ahead.  The road noise and the wind made it impossible to talk anymore, but Gretta knew that once we began pedaling, we would not stop until we made it into Burlingame.
            At the bottom of the hill, we stroked a steady pedal motion, seeking a gear and expense of energy that would be consistent all the way to town.  The two of us and the bike became a leg-pounding locomotive. Every so often, I’d glance at the speedometer to make sure we kept our speed above twenty-five miles an hour.  Out of the corner of my eyes I could see the wheat fields begin to stir with the approaching storm.  We rocketed across creek bridges, past thickets and groves of cottonwoods and Osage orange trees.

             Rumbles of thunder rolled across the prairie.  One thousand-one, one thousand-two . . . I began counting the time between lightning and thunder.  A ten second delay meant the bolts were less than two miles away.  I could smell the rain in the air. Time was running out.  We kept pushing the pedals, maintaining the speed.
            Some of the other riders stopped along the side of the road to put on their bright-colored rain jackets.  Many riders continued, but at a much slower pace than our tandem.  I felt like a Ferrari passing slower cars on the back stretch at Le Mans, pulling the bike wide to pass the riders in a blur.
            With a clap of thunder, our adrenaline flowed faster.  Sporadic raindrops, the size of silver dollars began hitting the pavement as we flew past the city limits.  The bike vibrated along the brick-paved street with elm branches waving overhead.
            The limestone buildings of downtown came into view, and we turned onto the main street.  Like a port in a storm, the large windows and lace curtains on the storefront at the Santa Fe Trail Café wooed us to a stop, and we parked the bike across the street between two buildings.
            Flash, crackle, BOOM . . . the thunder and lightning unleashed torrents of rain.  We ran across the street and dove into the café.
            As soon as we shut the door, our glasses fogged over.  The only sound that came out of us was heavy breathing.  I peered over the top of my glasses and saw a short grandmotherly woman with rosy cheeks walking towards us.  Her greeting made us feel at home.  “Hi! You folks just made it in the nick of time.  Sit wherever you like.  We’ve got burgers, sandwiches, and homemade pie.”   
The spring day was still young, and we had lived life to the fullest.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Ultimate Tchotchke

The Ultimate Tchotchke
travel memoir
by Greg Larson
     You have them.  I have them.  We all have them.  Some have gathered dust.  Some are handled reverently and command a place of prominence in our homes.  Some are expensive, and some are cheap. They’re the trinkets we bring back from our travels near and far.  They trigger fond memories and funny stories of unusual happenings in strange lands.

     Gretta and I don’t spend much time shopping on our trips, but we do like to bring back something to remind us of our travels.  She enjoys finding playing cards that have pictures of the country or area we’ve visited.  She also looks for silver spoons that have a country’s emblem on the handle, or she’ll search for a good refrigerator magnet.  I look for one special thing to bring home . . . something that embodies the essence of our experience in a different place.

     Logic doesn’t always factor into the decision on what to purchase.  In 2007, I noticed a pair of stainless steel coffee cups in the window of a shop in the Latin Quarter in Paris.  I envisioned them full of steaming French coffee and whipped cream.  The cups were made in Brazil.  Go figure.  But I have fond memories of surprising Gretta by sneaking out of the hotel, speaking broken French to the shopkeeper, and seeing Gretta’s big smile when I came back and showed her the treasure.
Brazilian coffee cups from Paris, France
     Knick-knacks were not on our mind as we began an epic bike trip across Italy in 2005.  Every day was its own adventure as we moved from one village to another.  Our starting point was the town of Fano, on the east coast of Italy.  The weekend was in full swing when we arrived, and thousands of people had flocked to the beach.  We discovered they were celebrating the Festival of the Adriatic Sea.  The town had a party atmosphere and was full of vacationers. We ate a seafood dinner in an open air restaurant next to the beach, and were told the festival parade was about to begin, and it was going to come right past us.

Festival parade comes by the restaurant
     Women wearing giant hats with replicas of lobsters and clams danced down the street, followed by a brass band, pirate ship floats, and fire-breathers in Renaissance costumes.  The parade looped around the main boardwalk no less than four times.  As it came near the restaurant, we got up from the dinner table to go watch the revelers and participants, who became more inebriated with each pass. One of the unanswered mysteries was the parading woman in a costume decorated with a vacuum formed aircraft carrier.  It seemed like we were in a very strange dream.
Strange costume

     People on the floats threw candy at our feet, and I picked up the pieces that were close to me.  Nearby, a woman with her three-year-old granddaughter watched while children scooped up the treats.  The little girl was crying because she wasn’t quick enough grab any of the pieces, so I bent down and offered my candy to her.  Immediately, big smiles came to the faces of the girl and her grandmother.  I had just performed my first act of diplomacy with a smile, and without speaking a word of Italian.

     Candy and trinkets kept raining down from the floats.  Gretta lurched for the unopened plastic bags of inflatable beach toys being thrown to the crowd.  In a flash, she grabbed two inflatable pillows.  “These should be good for something!” she exclaimed.

   The next morning we dipped our bike wheels in the Adriatic Sea and began our 450 mile trip westward to cross the Apennine Mountains, with our goal of making it to the Tyrrhenian Sea in eleven days.  After several days of riding past farm fields, vineyards and forests, we pedaled across the Madonna della Cima mountain pass and roared down the highway towards the ancient town of Gubbio, built on the mountainside. Arriving in town, we pedaled up the quaint cobblestone streets and into the town square.

     Gubbio is the quintessential Italian village.  We fell in love with the stone buildings and streets, the carved wooden doorways and the potted plants.  We learned it is a town with an ancient festival celebrating the patron saint, St. Ubaldo, and two other saints, St. Giorgio and St. Antonio.  Every year, three tall wooden boxes topped with figures representing the saints are carried by teams through the streets, and then raced to the top of the mountain to the Church of St. Ubaldo.   Gubbio is also known for the Taverna del Lupo (Tavern of the Wolf), where St. Francis of Asissi visited in the thirteenth century.  Apparently, a wolf was terrorizing the village, and St. Francis was asked to come to coax the wolf out of the village.  He spent time with the wolf and prayed for it, then he asked the tavern to set out food and water each day.  He assured the townspeople if they followed his instructions, the wolf would no longer be a problem.
Taverna del Lupo

     In the late afternoon, Gretta and I walked the narrow streets and discovered some ceramic shops displaying large and colorful plates and vases.  Several pieces with a pattern of grapes, oranges and sunflowers caught my eye.  They were large, and the quality was good.
Ceramic shop in Gubbio

     “Gretta, look at these.”  I showed her the group of pieces with the sunflowers.  “One of these big platters would make a great souvenir."
     Gretta had a concerned look on her face.  “How would we ever get it home in one piece?  I do like the colors.  Maybe we could have it shipped home.”

     I pointed to a square plate that was fourteen inches in width, and asked one of the workers in the shop how much it would cost to have it shipped.  She told us that the shipping cost would be more than the cost of the plate.

     We thanked her for the information and told her we would look around the store.  My mind began to race with thoughts about our bike tour and how nice it would be to have some type of trophy to remind us of the accomplishment.  The British Open golf tournament has a silver claret jug as a prize.  The winner of the Tour de France gets a fancy French bowl.  Some of the competitors get Lalique vases. Although our bike tour was not a competition, certainly an Italian ceramic plate would be something to always remind us of crossing Italy on a bike.

     “Let’s get the plate,” I said to Gretta, “We’ll find a way to get it back home, even if I have to carry it in my lap.”   The shop worker covered the plate with bubble wrap and craft paper.  Once back at our hotel, I packed the plate deep into my suitcase.  It would be safe riding in the van each day.
Vineyards and fields in Italy
     We continued our tour through the countryside and the villages each day, passing vineyards, grassland, and fields of sunflowers, and heard bells toll from villages nearby.  When we dipped our front wheels in the Tyrrhenian Sea, we had emotions of accomplishment, but sadness that our tour was at its end.

   On the train ride back to Rome, Gretta smiled and said, “I think I have a solution for getting our ceramic plate home safely.  Do you remember those inflatable pillows I picked up in Fano?  We can put the plate in a shopping bag and put a pillow on either side of it.  You can take it as one of your carry-on pieces of luggage on our flight home.”

     I thought it was a great idea, and that’s exactly what we did.  Once our flight was in the air, I put the shopping bag on the floor between my legs.  I fell into a deep sleep and dreamt of pedaling the bike across Italy.

     Today, the plate is hanging on the wall of our kitchen, near the entry into the living room.  The colorful tchotchke is a constant reminder of our first bike trip to Italy, and our accomplishment of touring coast to coast.
The Ultimate Tchotchke

Monday, September 3, 2012

Football Players: Pawns in a Dangerous Game

           Preface: During research on my grandfather, John Beck, who was an all-conference halfback during his senior year of college football, I discovered that football was almost banned in the early twentieth century due to the large number of injuries and deaths that occurred.  The game has changed, but it continues to be a dangerous sport.
          The following essay received first place in non-fiction submittals in a six week writing seminar in which I participated last year.

Football Players: Pawns in a Dangerous Game
non-fiction essay
by Gregory E. Larson

          The quarterback for the Washington Redskins, Joe Theismann, held the ball on a routine play during the Monday Night Football game with the New York Giants on November 18, 1985.  Two of the Giants’ defensive linebackers, Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson, tackled Joe, and in an instant both the tibia and fibula in his lower right leg snapped like chicken bones. Theismann, suffering from compound leg fractures, lay motionless on the field.  A nation of football fans was shocked and horrified, and Joe’s professional football career came to an abrupt end.  Television viewers watched the slow motion replay in horror as Taylor’s knee hit Theismann’s lower leg, fracturing the bones and creating a limp attachment.  With each replay, viewers turned their heads away from the television.  The injury was too sickening to watch.  The incident shook the American football fan’s psyche to the core. They wanted to see a clash of modern day gladiators – they just didn’t want to see a career-ending injury.

          Football has been, and always will be, inherently dangerous.  Throughout the history of the sport, both college and professional football organizations have attempted to address various safety issues to help protect the players and make the game more enjoyable for the fans.  As each safety issue is corrected, others arise to be given attention, but the violence and danger continue to be an integral part of the game.  

          In the early years of college football, 1880 to 1905, the deaths and injuries incited a public outcry to ban the sport.  Mass formations and flying wedges (players locked arm-in-arm) were commonplace.   Injury-prone gang-tackling (piling on the ball carrier) and the lack of protective clothing also contributed to player injuries. In 1894, the Harvard versus Yale game became known as the “Hampden Park Blood Bath.”  Four players sustained crippling injuries, and future games were suspended between the two teams until 1897.  There was enough concern about the violence of the Army versus Navy contests that authorities suspended the games from 1894 to 1898.  Deaths and injuries in the sport continued to mount.  In the years between 1880 and 1905, 325 college football players died, and 1,149 were seriously injured.

          In 1905, the public clamored for the President, Teddy Roosevelt to either ban the sport, or bring the colleges together to work to improve the safety of the game.  On October 9, 1905, Roosevelt sat down with representatives of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to discuss the issues.

          Ironically, on the weekend prior to the Roosevelt football summit, the brutality that occurred during a game between University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College highlighted the continued violence. It became known as the Tiny Maxwell Incident. 

Tiny Maxwell was a 240 pound player for Swarthmore College.  He was a brute of a man who played both offense and defense.  When he carried the ball, it took three players to bring him down.  Pennsylvania was a football powerhouse, and they didn’t want little Swarthmore College to ruin their reputation, so they developed a plan to rough up Tiny Maxwell.  On every play, the Penn players gang-tackled Maxwell, and inflicted slugs and punches to his face.  By the end of the game, Maxwell’s nose was broken and his eyes were so swollen that he could hardly see, and he had to be led off the field.

          Supposedly, pictures of Maxwell’s bloody face were given to Roosevelt prior to his meeting with Harvard, Yale and Princeton.  At the very least, the images were a convincing argument that changes were needed.   Roosevelt’s meeting prompted the colleges to create the American Football Rules Committee.  The committee formulated several rule changes which initially reduced injuries by spreading out the game over the entire field of play.  The key changes were:

·        Creation of a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage
·        The distance required for a first down was increased from five to ten yards
·        Mass formations and gang tackling were banned
·        The length of the game was reduced to two thirty-minute halves
·        The forward pass was recognized as a legitimate offensive play

In 1906, college football deaths were reduced to six, of which three were caused by fist fights between Ivy League players. 

          By 1909, the danger returned, with thirty-three football-related deaths.  More changes were made to the game in 1910 and 1912, including a ban on flying tackles.  Field goal points were reduced from four to three, and touchdown points were increased from five to six.

          College Football blossomed as a sport in the years following World War I.  Many of the veterans returned from the war and entered college.  The deaths and violence experienced in Europe made football seem like a parlor game.  The prosperity of the 1920’s, and the relief that war was over, seemed to heighten the enjoyment for the fans during their Saturdays at the stadiums.  The radio broadcasts also created legions of followers.

          But the danger continued to lurk on college football fields throughout the United States during the 1920’s.  At Kansas State Normal (currently Emporia State University), many veterans returned from the war to play football.  Their coach, Bill Hargiss, followed the strategies of Knute Rockne, the coach at Notre Dame, who was perfecting the wide open game of passing and open field running.  It was in the latter part of the 1920 season when tragedy struck the Normal team during a game against Washburn College.  In a light mist on a muddy field, Normal’s big fullback, Jack Reeves, took the ball and plunged through the line.  A sideline tackle by one of Washburn’s players broke Reeve’s neck.  He was carted off the field and died while the game continued.  His teammates were not told of Jack’s death until after the game.  The news broke the spirit of the Normal players.  The game for the next week was cancelled, and the final game of the season was played, but Normal lost to College of Emporia, 24-0.

          Tragedy struck again at Kansas State Normal in 1921.  Don Davis, Normal’s outstanding running back was playing with an ear infection.  He was tackled hard in a game against Baker University, and the infection spread to his sprained and bruised shoulder.  Davis’s condition deteriorated, and he died on November 21, 1921.  The final game of the season was cancelled.

          In 1923, Normal was renamed Kansas State Teachers College.  For the football players, the deaths of years past were behind them.  The college fans looked up to those who continued to play the game.  To them, the players were heroes, and carried an aura of invincibility and machismo. 

The senior quarterback and halfback, John Beck, had the best game of his career at the beginning of the season, scoring three touchdowns and two drop-kick field goals.  He paid a heavy price through the physical pounding he received from the opposing players.  The coach put him on the bench for the better part of two games to allow him to recuperate from his injuries.  While Beck sat on the bench during a game against Southwestern College, KSTC tied the score, and then intercepted a pass.  Time was running out and KSTC was within field goal range.  This prompted coach Hargiss to call time-out and walk over to Beck, who was known by the fans as Johnnie with the educated toe.  They knew he was suffering, but they yelled for the coach to put him in the game.  A great cheer went out from the crowd as Beck stood up and did his best to mask the pain as he limped out onto the field.  He kicked the winning field goal and became the hero, upholding the macho image of a football player who ignores pain and injury to do anything for the team.

While college football continued to grow as a sport, there wasn’t much public interest in professional football in the early twentieth century.  After World War II, the National Football League grew in popularity as the public sought out sporting and recreational venues.  The league’s largest expansion occurred in 1970 when it merged with the American Football League and expanded to twenty-six teams.  The players continued to increase their size and speed, due to improved nutrition and physical training, which included major emphasis on weight lifting. 

With larger, faster athletes, new safety issues have emerged, such as concussions and bone/joint injuries.  In 2004, the average weight of an NFL defensive tackle exceeded 300 pounds.  Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers have become open targets for massive defensive players who move at lightning speed. The Joe Theismann injury is a prime example of this vulnerability of the ball carrier.  The defensive players have learned to be effective by lowering their heads just prior to executing a tackle, thus creating a battering ram of tremendous force.  The NFL has attempted to counteract these issues by imposing new rules to penalize players for intentional use of the helmet as a weapon, and for late tackles or hits to the quarterback.  The immediate injuries are obvious, but there is now concern among the players and the league regarding long-term effects from the heavy and repeated blows a player receives during his career.  One recent NFL study determined that football veterans over the age of fifty are five times more likely than the average population to exhibit some form of dementia.

Will the danger in football ever be eliminated?  The NFL history has shown that violence continues regardless of rule changes and fines to players and teams.  The constant changes to the rules seem like a whack-a-mole strategy.  When one safety issue is solved, another pops up.  Fans enjoy the violence as long as it doesn’t get out of control.  They see the players as gladiators on the field, and get a rush from screaming out their anger or their joy, releasing all their pent-up emotions each weekend.

The NFL has attempted to address player safety through rule changes, but the recent discovery of the bounty system that existed within the New Orleans Saints team has shocked coaches, players and fans.  The NFL alleges the Saints organization promoted and supported cash payments of $1,000 to $1,500 to defensive players if they were able to inflict enough pain to cause the opposing players to be carted off the field.  The Saints have been fined $500,000, and the head coach, Sean Payton, has been suspended for the entire 2012 season.  The defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, has been suspended indefinitely.

The story continues to unfold, but the existence of a locker room tape provides a glimpse into the attitude and directives of Gregg Williams as he prepared his team for a game with the San Francisco 49ers. 

Williams’ instructions to “kill Frank Gore’s head” seem eerily similar to Pennsylvania’s pre-game plan to injure Tiny Maxwell over 100 years ago. Williams told his players to turn Gore’s head “sideways.” He also directed them to inflict injury on Kyle Williams, a San Francisco wide receiver, who was recovering from a concussion:  “No. 10 [Williams] . . . about his concussion.  We need to put a (expletive) lock on him right now.”

It causes the fans to ask, “Has anything really changed?”

If football safety were taken to the extreme, the players would suit up in marshmallow-like suits, wearing foam helmets the size of pumpkins, chasing each other like Michelen men, bouncing and rolling around on the field.  Football would be in danger of losing its soul if that scenario became reality.  Fans want to see the physical strengths and weaknesses of the players tested on the field.  They want to see the muscles and the sweat, the action and the glory.

So for the time being, college and professional football will roll the dice and let the game continue to be played in a heady mix of television money, fanatical followers, packed stadiums and slow motion replays . . . and they’ll wait for the next tragedy to occur.  

*  *  *

History of American Football – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Violence and Controversy (1905)

Miller, John J.  How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.  Wall Street Journal, Thursday, April 21, 2011, page A13.

Pagano, Richard.  Robert ‘Tiny’ Maxwell.  College Football Historical Society, Volume I, No. IV, May 1988.

Keyes, Ralph.  Tiny Maxwell Cut a Wide Swath As a Football Player, Ref and Writer. 

Markowitz, Fred A.  Football – For the Sport of It (A history of football from 1893 to 1962 at the Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia).

Football game summaries, Kansas State Teachers College, Yearbook, The Sunflower 1924, pages 116 - 117.

Wallace, Francis.  Knute Rockne.  Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1960

Futterman, Matthew and Albergotti, Reed, NFL Flags Saints for Bounty Hunting.  Wall Street Journal, Thursday, March 22, 2012, page A1.

Mellinger, Sam.  NFL, Fans Share Blame for Pain.  The Kansas City Star, Thursday, March 22, 2012, page A1.

Babb, Kent.  A Stunning Penalty.  The Kansas City Star, Thursday, March 22, 2012, page B1., 04/04/12, Bounty Tape Transcript: Saints assistant Gregg Williams tells his players to try to seriously hurt 49ers players.