COFFEE WITH ALI

This is a reblog of a post I did June/8/2014, right after Muhammad Ali died.

It recalls an isle of calm for me in the sea of fire. Civil Rights Protests. Anti-Vietnam Protests. Looting, destruction, and shouts of blame from both side of the political aisle.

When this incident took place, we had Hope. We knew that once things calmed down the Civil Rights would take hold in fact not just word. And we knew that we would never go to a War again unless it was really needed, and we would never allow the War to last very long.

But like the song says: ‘We were young and foolish.’

I need an isle of calm today so I brought it out and read it. So topical! Topical in that it follows my Dalton Trumbo posts regarding a man standing up for his beliefs, only to be persecuted by politicians whose only belief is pandering to the lowest common denominator. So topical! I wish today’s violent ‘protesters’ could hear the words of Muhammad Ali, a man known for his violent art, speak with the wisdom of Martin Luther King, a man known for his non-violent speech.

There was this old bulll standing in the middle of the railroad track and far away the train was comng fast. But that old bull just stood there and the people all admired the old brave bull. And the train blew a warning…anotherand another as it came full steam head on. And the people oohed and aahed because that old bull never flinched. Just stood his ground…And…

And all those people that oohed and aahed when the brave bull was standing tall in the center of the tracks, just looked around at what was left of him scattered in little pieces for a good miles, yup, all those people who called that bull brave a short time before changed their tune.

Boy, was that bull ever stupid,” they said, and walked away.’

Thus spoke Muhammad Ali talking about Violent Protesting.

Today I have Hope. I believe that when the stupidity of the politicians is removed from the equation, the genius of our medical scientists will find a cure and a vaccine for the Virus. As far as the Civil Rights issue is concerned…Hatred and genocide are embedded deep in the history of this country.

ali rip            The Champ and I spent the better part of an hour, just the two of us, talking and drinking coffee in the stagehands’ room, my office, at Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota.

I called him Champ, even though he no longer had the belt, lost it, not in the boxing arena, but in the political area.He was on a lecture tour, Pro  Civil Rights, Anti  Viet Nam Involvement. Although the latter was the stated reason for taking away his right to be called World Champion, the former had earned him powerful enemies, just as it did for Martin Luther King. Overlooked by the main stream press, the Champ had a third point he stressed, namely Anti Violence. After his speech at Northrop, there was to be  an interview and a Q&A with reporters from TIME. Finally what he was actually saying was  more important than his celebrity status.

Today Americans accept his views; but in the late 60’s, these views were tinder for the fires that were spreading out across the land. But the Champ spoke his piece and stood his ground even though it was highly controversial and had cost him greatly. It wasn’t that he was wrong, it was just that he was ahead of his time. I had always felt strong about Civil Rights; but it really wasn’t until our status in Nam changed from advisory to full scale combative, that I took a better look and decided against us being there.

When the Champ and his welcoming committee walked backstage, he commented on the aroma of coffee coming from the open door of my room. One of the committee said he would run to Dinky Town and get him some coffee. I told the Champ that I would be glad to bring him a cup in his dressing room. He nixed both offers and instead said he wanted to go in the room, drink coffee and relax. When some of committee tried to follow us in, he held up hand. He told them to stay out, close the door, and see to it that nobody bothered him until he came out.

He commented that he realized they meant well, but he was getting tired of the constant ‘meaning well’ pressure of people. He said he was tired of the tour, tired of being away from home, his wife, and especially his little baby girl, Maryum, his first child. He slumped down in the chair, and when I handed him a cup of the fresh coffee, he raised the cup in thanks. I respected his need for silence.

In those days, boxing was followed much more than today. Early TV had free major matches weekly. And sitting across from me was a boxer I had followed since his Olympic days. I remembered listening to a radio as he did something nobody thought he would, take the title away from Sonny Liston. Oh, there was no way I would have called him the ‘Greatest’ at that time. His best was yet to come.

But, that day, I was more in awe of him as a great human being than a great athlete. It takes a brave person to stand up for one’s beliefs the way he did and at what cost.

When he finally did break his silence in the room, he spoke of being afraid his little girl, Maryum, wouldn’t even know her daddy, because he was away so much. She wasn’t even a year old yet, and he heard that the first year of a baby’s life was so important in their life. And she wouldn’t even know her daddy.

I assured him she would know her daddy, even though she wasn’t seeing much of him at this time. I told how I had worked two jobs for years, and now at Northrop, I was averaging over eighty hours a week, and my sons, only four at that time, always knew their daddy. He had nothing to worry about. He smiled and said he hoped so.

He opened his wallet and took out several pictures of his little Maryum and asked if I had any pictures of my sons. He looked at my pictures and wasn’t satisfied until he remembered their names and could match the name with the right boy.

We didn’t talk about his boxing career, about civil rights, and about his refusal to be drafted. We just talked. There was no chucking or jiving, no boasting and poetry on his part. His public image was set aside and he presented his personal side. Just two men, two fathers, talking, taking the time to know a little about each other.

He was interested in what went on at Northrop. I told him about the various attractions: lectures, music, dance, even a week each May of seven different Metropolitan operas on tour and how much work and how many stagehands it took to put them on. The Metropolitan Opera was familiar to him because of where the building was in relation to Madison Square Garden.

We did touch on boxing when I mentioned that recently Paul Newman had been at Northrop talking against our involvement in Viet Nam, the Champ told how much he liked Newman playing Rocky Graziano in SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME.

I related how I got so excited watching Sugar Ray Robinson defending his crown against Graziano on TV, that I knocked over and broke a lamp. He laughed and asked who I was rooting for, and I told him Sugar Ray, my favorite boxer. He said Sugar Ray was his favorite too.

The time flew by. He finished off his second cup of coffee, thanked me, and followed as I led him to his dressing room. Naturally, his committee followed also, ready at his beck and call for anything he might want, or anything they think he might want. As much as I admired the man that day, I wouldn’t have traded places with him. I could see one of the reasons he was tired and just wanted to go home and play with his baby.

My coffee with Ali took place almost a half century ago. I remember seeing his arm raised in victory many times. I remember seeing his arm raised as he lit the Olympic torch. And I remember he raised his cup in thanks for my coffee. I was so fortunate to have sat and had a quiet talk with the man now referred to as ‘The Greatest’.

R.I.P. CHAMP

There were event entering into this story and after; but I will save them for another time. Right now I am too sad because he is no longer with us.

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PRINCESS MARGARET

PRINCESS MARGARET

Over the centuries, stagehands have managed to get themselves in all kinds of trouble; but I might be the only one ever accused of trying to assassinate Princess Margaret of Great Britain.

I was working long hours doing the stage electric prep work for the start of another Guthrie season. It involved me hanging, focusing, regelling, and relamping the instruments that would be used in all the upcoming productions, as well as the specials that would be needed for the first play on the boards, KING LEAR, directed by Michael Langham. Len Cariou, fresh from starring in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC on Broadway, for which he received a Tony nomination, was playing Lear.

Seldom does an actor as young as Cariou was at the time, play Lear. Langham explained that this Lear would be very active physically. A good actor, like Len, could handle playing age; but an older actor could not handle the physical demands that this Lear would need.

It was anticipated, not only locally, but in the English -language theater world. So much so Princess Margaret, on a tour for some benefit, was stopping off at the Guthrie to watch a rehearsal. The rehearsals were still confined to the rehearsal room and would not move to main stage for a few more days. All the hoopla should not affect me at all. And it wouldn’t have if I had not bothered to return a tool from the shop that I had borrowed.

I drove around to the loading dock. In the park across the street there was a convention of police, Minneapolis police, Hennepin County police, plain clothes police, and about a dozen of Royal Canadian Mounties looking like drum majors in their bright red uniforms. Police cars parked everywhere, leaving the drive open to where I wanted to go. I drove down, went in the side door to the shop and replaced the tool.

But when I went to drive out, there was a car blocking my way to the street. The cars ended about a hundred feet up so I drove on the sidewalk, crossed over the grass and got on the street. A Minneapolis cop watched my maneuver and ran across the street, hollering at me to pull over to the curb. He ordered me out and yelled at me for driving on the sidewalk. His commotion drew a small crowd of bored policemen.

I explained why I was driving on the sidewalk and pointed out the car blocking the driveway.

‘That’s an unmarked police car,’ he blared in a raspy smoker’s voice.

‘Well, then,’ I shot back at him, ‘He can’t plead ignorance of the law about blocking off a driveway.’

I heard a few laughs from his audience. He whipped me around and made me place my hands on the car and frisked me. Then some cop said I looked like the leader of the protesters that were hounding the princess all day. Soon others began to agree and more cops came over from the park.

I told them that I didn’t know what they were talking about. I had been working all day and asked why anybody would be protesting her.

A Mountie stepped forward and said, ‘Irish Republican Army. Down here the cocknobbers call themselves the Free Ireland Organization. Just a bunch of hosers with a fancy name.’

‘Free Ireland! Do I look Irish? Hell, I don’t even watch the St. Paddy’s Day Parade on TV. Free Ireland!’ I wanted to say more but that little voice inside my head, my personal Jimmy Cricket, spoke up, Cool it, Don. Yes sir. No sir. Let’s get out of here. They’re just showing off.

Raspy whipped me around to face him and then pushed me against my pickup..Cool it, Don. ...Little Voice made sense. But the cops began a Greek Chorus accusations and arguments pro and con.

That’s him. Same size, hippy beard’

The loud mouth was wearing expensive clothes’…

‘Changed ‘em so he could sneak up on the lady’…

Back and forth. I tried to ignore it all just like the little voice was urging me to do. I was building up to tell them all what they could go do, in spite of it being anatomically impossible. Don’t Don. Please don’t. I concentrated on staring at Raspy’s shoes. Yes sir. No sir. Nothing else, Don.

A few were shouting just to forget it. One suggested kicking me in the arse eh, and sending me on my way. Some reminded the group that they were paid to do a job and damn it they should do it. Arrest him!

I looked into Raspy’s eyes. ‘On what @#@#ing charge?’ I said. Cool it, Don.

That’s when Raspy announced, ‘For attempted assassination of Princess Margaret of the Great Britain in England..’ That got everybody’s attention, especially mine.

‘Attempted assassination! With what?’

‘With this,’ he shouted and held the Swiss Army knife he had taken out of my pocket, high so all the cops could see.

I used it as a handy tool at times. It had two actual knife blades. One very small. One would have been normal pocket knife size except half of it had broken off years before.

My little voice went unheeded. I put my face as close to Raspy’s as possible and said, loud enough so most of the cops close by could hear, ‘You are some sick son-of-a-bitch!’

You damn fool, Don, you did it now!

I managed to duck his first punch at me, and had enough self-control to realize it would be insane to retaliate. Rope-a-dope! Rope-a-Dope! This time I listened. I did my best Mohammad Ali impression, leaned back against my truck and used my fists and forearms to my face.

A lot of commotion. Lot of shouting. A lot of grunts from me.

‘Hit him.’

‘Give me shot.’

‘Not in the face’

‘Kick him in the arse, eh.’

‘Punish him. Punish him.’

Even a God Save The Queen.

There’s no business like show business.

I’m glad I was providing comic relief for what had been a boring day for most of them. I just wished it could have been something that didn’t hurt so much, like maybe telling them a joke or two.

Show business… If you would have been content to stay in one of your real jobs, Don, you had before show biz, you wouldn’t be getting your arse kicked now. The little voice had a good point. My arms were getting tired of holding them up.

‘#$!@ you, Whiskey Breath!,’ I screamed at Raspy.

He took the bait. ‘Skinny,’ he hollered, ‘Get the car. This yoyo’s going downtown.’ He cuffed me, and shoved me in the back seat and got shotgun seat. The better to swing his arm at me. Skinny had a little difficulty driving. His beer belly rubbed against the steering wheel.

Don’t even think about laughing.

‘So, rummy, who will sweep up and empty the garbage when you are sitting in a cell?’

When I told him I wasn’t a janitor and he asked what I did there, dance in the chorus? When I told him I was the Master Electrician, he asked how a rummy like me got to be a Master Electrician.

(Now this was back in the days of releasing of the Nixon Tapes in censored transcripts.)

‘Well,’ I told him,’It was either being a Master Electrician or an Expletive Deleted” cop.’

DUCK!

I pulled back far enough so he fist didn’t reach my face. Skinny spoke up and warned him to wait until he had me alone before he continued with the rough stuff. When we got to the main jail, Skinny left us off and Raspy pushed me into a small room, Oh. Oh. He didn’t bother to close so that was a good sign. And an even better sign was he took off the cuffs. You can’t rope-a-dope with your hands behind your back.

He tried to get me to blow into a breathalizer, but my ribs were hurting so bad…

‘Damn rummy,’ he said, ‘Can’t even blow up a balloon.’

I pushed it back at him. Oh, no, Don. Let is pass. ‘Here show me how. You’re so full of gas…’

Finally I accomplished the test but he made me do it two more times. He did not like the results. ‘Upstairs,’ he said and pushed me toward the elevator.

Watch it, Don. That thing can stop between floors and your ribs can’t take much more.

This time I took the advice of the Little Voice. I headed up the stairs, hollering over my should as to why I wasn’t going in any elevator with him. ‘So shoot me in the back if you want to, gas bag.’

I pressed the door buzzer and told the jailer I had to come in because I was arrested. He was looking at me in a doubting way until he noticed Raspy huffing up the stairs. Raspy told him to throw me in a cell and he would get the paperwork soon. The jailer buzzed me in.

He motioned for me to sit at the desk and asked me questions like my name and address and when he finished I asked him if I could call my wife. I remembered to address him as sir. He smiled and pushed the desk phone over to me, not even compelling me to use the pay phone on the wall.

When I told my wife where I was, she wasn’t happy. When I told her why, it didn’t make her any happier. I asked her to call Tom, a lawyer I went to high school with, tell him what was going on, and then call me back. I gave her the number on the phone and thanked the jailer, again using the term sir. He handed me the newspaper and let me sit there waiting for my wife to call back.

There was an interview in the paper with the leader of the demonstrations. His picture did resemble  me a little. We both had beards. He was a children’s doctor.

My wife didn’t sound very happy when she told me what Tom had told her. Tom had called the Guthrie thinking maybe an explanation from them would straighten things out. He said he talked to somebody named Cranny, who told him he never heard of anybody named Don @#$# Ostertag, and then slammed the phone down. Tom said he couldn’t make it to court in the morning so I should just plead not guilty. He thought I would probably be released without bail and he would be with me when I had to go back. My wife wished me a good night and hoped she would see me the next day. She wasn’t happy.

The next morning, as soon as the judge took her seat, the prosecutor, who wasn’t happy, asked the judge for a side bar. The prosecutor showed the judge the paper with the charges against me, pointing out that demonstrating against anything was protected by the first amendment and the DUI charge was a joke, the result of the breathalyzer test showed nothing. The judge read the paperwork. She asked if the charging officer was in court. Naturally he wasn’t. She ordered that the charging officer either write up legitimate charges and appear with my next appearance, or send a letter apologizing for wasting the court’s time.

‘I plead Not Guilty, your honor,’ I blurted out, catching myself before I used sir.

She held up her hand and said this had to be straightened out first and I would receive a letter either with a new court date or an absolution. She told the bailiff to see to it I got back my personal belongs. He did, even my Swiss Army Knife, and I thanked the kind sir.

I took a bus and got to the Guthrie about ten. Duane, the assistant lighting director wasn’t concerned because I was late. He said we just had a little touchup and we’d be ready when Gill the lighting designer came in town later.

Duane had gone into the rehearsal room after we finished work the day before. He told how the Princess came in surrounded by men in suits. Michael Langham had never met any of the royal family and he was looking forward to meeting Princess Margaret. But just as the Princess was holding out her hand, a red alert came over a walkie- talkie that an employee of the Guthrie might be a threat to the Princess.

The suits pulled out their guns. One had his pointed at Michael’s head. The Princess acted as if nothing was taking place and continued to shake Michael’s hand. They were making small talk as the notification that the red alert was over and the situation was taken care of.

A few people expressed sympathy to me for the incident. Some of the veteran employees kidded me. Len Cariou told me he was certainly glad I didn’t get jail time because he wanted to get back some of the poker money I had taken from him in past seasons.

Michael Langham muttered something about Keystone Kops and shook his head. Cranny avoided me for several weeks. The letter from the court absolved me of the whole thing. My wife was happy. I had sure missed her smile.

My friend, Tom, never sent me a bill. Len Cariou’s poker playing never improved. KING LEAR was the success everyone thought it would be. My ribs healed up in a few weeks.

I thanked my Little Voice and promised to listen to him in the future.Yeah, sure you will.

Wrong time. Wrong Place. Big Mouth.

But the next time I had anything do with Royalty, it was a much more rewarding visit.

Princess Grace of Monaco

And that’s another story… coming soon.