Mr. All-World, Requiescat in Pace

 
stillwagon014.jpg
 

by John Baskin

In the first edition of Woody’s Boys, Jim Stillwagon’s chapter was called “An All-World Ass-kicker,” which was how he saw himself, and not without justification. He was, as writer Alan Natali, pointed out, “an undersized tough guy,” and between the two of them, they produced the best sports interview I ever read. It was intelligent, insightful, and hilarious, and it contained the best one-sentence quote on getting hit on a football field: “I ran down on the first kickoff, and this guy hit me so hard, I looked up at the sun through my shoes and landed on my head.”

He died in early February, which sent me to a copy of that early edition in which Stillwagon was edited out almost as soon as it hit the stores. In addition to its humor and insight, it was also stevedore profane, and Stillwagon decided the profanity might harm his business dealings with a new client. We settled the issue by substituting Billy Joe Armstrong, who was more circumspect if not as entertaining, and so Jim was relegated to the first edition where he remains as the best, funniest, and most insightful football interview ever.

It’s unfortunate it didn’t stay with the half-dozen subsequent editions, for the original first edition is difficult to find these days, and the interview still seems a splendid evocation of a guy who was, in a phrase by Natali, “a kind of weird epic street-poet—Homer meets Dennis the Menace meets Sonny Crockett.” It’s hard to believe that Stillwagon himself wouldn’t say now, “Yeah, that’s me. Pay no attention to all the swearing.”

He came to Ohio State from nearby Mt. Vernon because Woody liked that he had thin ankles, said “Yessir,” and that he’d read Moby Dick. (He really hadn’t, but he’d seen the movie.) He told Natali, “I always think, someday after I die, they’ll go, ‘Did he die? Yeah, I remember him. He played for fucking Minnesota, didn’t he?” But in Columbus, they know better, for his teams won three straight Big Ten titles, a Rose Bowl, and a national championship, and Jim was the first player to win the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi award in the same year. When Natali interviewed him some twenty years after he graduated from Ohio State, people were still saying to Jim, “You look good enough that you could suit up tomorrow.” And his reply: “Man, there’s not enough fucking tape.”

Some of the best passages in the interview came when he recounts his time with Woody after football. When Stillwagon’s mother died unexpectedly, he discovered Woody in the church, weeping.

“I thought, ‘God, how’d he know?’ Catholic mass on a Monday morning. Unbelievable. My dad looked up at me and said, ‘Jim, your mom got a special place in heaven today.’

“I said, “What’s that, Dad?

“‘Oh,’ he says, ‘when your mom gets to heaven, all the sports fans are going to say, “Damn, Woody Hayes went to your funeral.’

“He wrote my dad letters. He didn’t have to do any of this shit. I don’t know how he knew when my mother’s funeral was, all the way from Columbus. He’d call my dad, and my dad and he would talk. He did things like that for people all the time. There’s ten thousand stories.

“A lot of guys were hosing him, but he never thought that way. At the end of his coaching, he always thought that people were giving a 110 percent. If you were with him, he’d go to the end with you…He didn’t even think there were drugs going on. There were the biggest drugheads in the world during the end. Woody would just say, ‘That doesn’t happen, not here.’

“He wouldn’t even comprehend anybody not doing what he was supposed to do. It was really out of control. You could just see it. It was public. Guys were drugheads. He just couldn’t fathom it.”

So if you really want a good picture of Stillwagon—and Woody Hayes, as well—look for Woody’s Boys, the first edition. It’s a great interview, and forgive the profanity.

A Christmas Memory

By John Baskin

My grammar school was condemned. Does that explain why I was a backward child, unable to spell out my desires at Christmastime? I hated the linoleum on the floor of my unheated upstairs bedroom because on winter mornings when my feet touched it I thought my heart would stop and so I wished for carpeting. “What’s carpeting for a child to ask at Christmas?” said my father. I learned carpeting was adult, and so desire persisted, having nothing to do with carpeting anyway.

I thought I wanted Mary Frances Verdin, too, but that could have been because Toby Hunter had her. Toby Hunter’s house had central heating and Toby Hunter had Mary Frances Verdin. That was the way I saw it.

I wanted, of course, what I could get, but that was secondary. Anything I could name I supposed I might be able to get. Even though I wanted Mary Frances Verdin, I was careful not to pray for her.

If anyone in the family had read, they would have given me books. Only my grandmother read, however, and very carefully as though reading were a barefoot act in a rocky field. For Christmas, someone gave her a hardbound copy of Catcher in the Rye. She found that Holden Caulfield took liberties with the language, turned to the back to see if he talked any better and when he didn’t, she burned the book.

We cut the tree on the first Saturday after school was out. I was fourteen, the oldest, and so in charge. My two brothers went with me into the cedars on the hillside pasture. I was looking for a symmetry which, of course, I could never quite find. Because it was Christmastime, my brothers deferred to my impossible standards. After an hour or more, still unsatisfied, I made my choice.

The tree went in the front room, which was never used except for special occasions, and the Christmas lights lit the gloomy front of the farmhouse. Uncle W. W. fell into it once, after he had made too many trips to the laundry hamper. He kept a bottle of whisky under the dirty clothes at Christmastime. Both the tree and Uncle W. W. recovered, although it was touch-and-go with my grandmother.

Grandfather never drank but once, a fact which spoiled my grandmother. On a trip to New York, my grandparents went to a night club because they had never been to one. My grandfather ordered a mint julep. It was served in a tall frosted glass with a large clump of mint and an exorbitant bill. “The goddamned shrubbery is sure high out here,” said my grandfather.

Half the family was present, my mother’s side, twenty-five in the farmhouse on Christmas Day, mamma’s bed sagging under coats, family gifts piled in tiers around the tree, the laundry hamper armed. We spread out to keep the house from listing.

When we went in for dinner, a cat was sitting on the linen cloth lapping gravy from a china bowl. Father picked up a hammer on the pantry shelf, tossed it at the cat, struck him on the head and he leaped to fall dead on the floor, the hammer sailing into a chair, not a dish broken, grandfather saying, “Praise God for eyesight to protect a man’s hearth and gravy!” And we ate.

There are moments when we are young, and all of time seems neatly balanced. Past, present, future, all aligned, as though the machinery of the universe had inexplicably hesitated, allowing me sight that was curved, like time itself was said to be. It was after dinner and I was lying behind my grandfather’s chair, to one side of the fireplace. The voices in the room blended into one pleasant droning sound.

I imagined my grandfather’s life, occurring to me then as a series of images accompanied by sensations that unreeled in my mind like a film speeded up. I saw myself in the pause, the waiting time of my life, and then I saw myself as my own grandfather, more a sensation of how I wished to be than a picture.

Desire, uncalibrated, unknown, moved me, and I knew I wanted everything, or nothing, though I could not name anything. O, I thought, almost in pain, for it was what I could name, for my parents, grandparents, uncountable sweetly sweating cousins, fat uncles, all the Christmas lights, warmth, and pleasures of this room forever!  

Amen.

Lessons Learned from Thirty Years of Orange Frazer Press Book Publishing

Part One:

General Business Lessons

1.    If you start a company and have no staff to answer the phone, act like there are more people by pretending to be three different people. (This only works until you confuse yourself on a two-line phone.)

2.    A building that looks like a Turkish prison is not welcoming to new authors.

3.    Being too busy to put up a sign with your business name can be a good thing if you get a pretty mural painted instead.

4.    A business located on a second floor with no elevator means you only work with healthy authors and clients (mostly).

5.    Backing up a fifty-three-foot semi into an alley to unload pallets into the warehouse is an art for most truck drivers. Canadian drivers do it best.

6.    Canadian drivers will help unload the truck. U.S. drivers will not. (Thought: Just nice folks or if they hurt their back they have guaranteed health insurance…)

7.    Know a great local forklift driver.

8.    Once you have a staff, make sure everyone can cover for everyone else. This does not include the forklift driver.

9.    Make sure your warehouses don’t leak.

10. Start a business about which you know nothing so you can take a lifetime to figure it out. You will never be bored.

11. Never say you can’t do something. Find someone to teach you how to do it.

12. Learn the new/newest technology, even if it makes your eyes cross when your IT guy tries to make you understand and he’s explained it ten times.

 

Part Two:

Specifically, Book Publishing Lessons

13. If former Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Joe Nuxhall (RIP) wanted to go out back to smoke when he wasn’t supposed to, we should have let him. He can yell loudly.

14. If former Ohio State University quarterback Art Schlichter wants to sell you OSU tickets, don’t buy them.

15. If former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson wants to call you ‘Mom’, let him, or he won’t call you anything.

16. Baseball legendary catcher Johnny Bench has hands twice the size of our Sarah’s hands, but he’s not twice the height. (Still a befuddlement.)

17. China will not print a book with the image of the Dalai Lama in it.

18. Chinese printers will get into big trouble if they print a book with the Dalai Lama in it.

19. Opening a fresh box of color books from the printer to inhale the delicious aroma of new ink is not unique to just this publisher and it probably kills brain cells.

20. Even a real falcon doesn’t bring folks to a book signing.

21. A great employee is one with whom you entrust your pets when you’re on vacation.

22. Working with billionaires on books is just like working with non-billionaires on books.

23. If one of your books makes it to the bestseller list of the Washington Post Book World, frame that newspaper page. 

24. People who write and love books are a sweet, intelligent, kind, thoughtful group of folks. (Okay, 99 percent.)

25. Books are not going away.

26. It takes less time to make a list about a thirty-year anniversary than it does to create a book about it.

 

Part Three:

And, Even More Specific Editorial Lessons

27. Fifty percent of everyone misspells pop culture references.

28. When a writer says his manuscript is error-free because his/her English major cousin proofread it, proofread it again.

29. Some writers believe that the comma is a decorative element to be sprinkled casually around the page.

30. Only use three exclamation points in your lifetime. When you die, two of them should be left unused, unless you’re author Phil Nuxhall and then use as many as you like because no one should dampen that kind of enthusiasm.

31. Make sure that the place where you lunch most often has a bar copy of the Chicago Manual of Style to be used to settle lunchtime grammatical disputes.

32. Accept misplaced modifiers as a chronic toxin affecting, well, almost everyone.

 

Part Four:

Possible Wisdom

33. When asked how Orange Frazer has lasted thirty years in such a short-lived profession, say that the tranquility of the hinterland can focus the mind wonderfully.

34. What kind of book do you have when nobody dies in the making of it? 

35. When asked to write thirty things you’ve learned from thirty years of book publishing, write thirty-five and call it ‘Optimism.’

Make Big Money Writing Short Paragraphs!

By John Baskin

It was the first (and probably last) annual Nowhere Else Writing Workshop competition in which I asked participants to write an impromptu paragraph of their day thus far; coming into Nowhere country, if you will. Fifty bucks for the best one. The surprise was that the Orange Frazer Press staffers couldn’t decide on just ONE paragraph, and chose three instead, while fretting mightily over another large handful of good impromptus. 

Marcy voted for Conrad Detwiler, in spite of the unsavory whiff of nepotism (one of the clan of Nowhere brothers).

“Made me laugh,” she said.

Good enough. 

Sarah liked Joules Evans, who said the festival was “like the yellow bus pulling up to your drive on the first day of school.” And there was Dave Fournier, who started out from Philly with Josh Ritter but soon abandoned him on the side of the turnpike.
“No traveling companion should expose the other so quickly,” he said, by way of explanation.

There were many nice lines. “As long as it doesn’t become the Somewhere Else Festival,” said Elizabeth Copas’s mother, taking note of the storm clouds on the way in. “My parents had risen at what I would guess was the Hour of Responsible People,” wrote Kelley Bell, and Ann Bell Worthy said that if you listened closely enough, you could hear the Nowhere grass growing. 

DeAnne LeBlanc, staving off a six-hour drive, complained of getting older, then watched her children stir awake and said, “I fill with joy that they will soon experience the beauty of music that I fell in love with when I was eighteen years old. Life, full circle.” 

And Kathy Jones: “The harmonies feed us.”

Dave Sheffield from somewhere in Ontario said, “Dear Ohio, you’ve exceeded my expectation…” And: “Thank you for your patience.”

Ohio IS a patient state, and our natural prose style is cautious, a bit sedate, but we tend to have good manners, even if it costs us. “If you’re looking for fun and do not particularly need wind, sand, or an ocean, come to Ohio,” our friend Laura Pulfer said once, suggesting a slogan. And among other things, we have Nowhere, which is more Somewhere than you’d first think. The workshop attendees seemed to think so. 

Here’s three good ones, among many good ones…

 

Joules Evans

It feels like Nowhere Else. Or maybe somewhere else? Some other time? Driving over the hills and through the woods—not to Grandma’s house. Butterflies. That’s what it feels like. Not the literal kind. The kind that do somersaults in your belly when you were seven years old and the yellow bus pulled up to your drive on the first day of school. That’s what driving to Nowhere Else feels like to me. Butterflies in my belly. The kind that try to escape but sit stuck in my throat on their way out when the teacher says, “Joules Evans?” Present. That’s what it feels like. Being here. It’s a gift. To be here. Here again. Still here. Here is like Nowhere Else.

 

Conrad Detweiler

Fourteen hours in a truck, plus tomatoes, plus five hours of sleep, plus a quad-espresso
X-hot cream equaled a seminar whose speaker said beforehand “…Don’t know; I make it up as I go along.”

 

Dave Fournier

An hour out of Philly, it was Josh Ritter. I was heading Nowhere with no one, and his easy Southern drawl seemed to be a good first companion. His stream of consciousness ramblings about memory, God, and love became a thin blue stream, flowing alongside and intermittently merging with my own flow of contemplation. Josh raised me to Zion and then crashed me suddenly back on the Pennsylvania Turnpike with the words “Only a full house gonna have a prayer.” He knew the house I was speeding away from was empty, and I hoped I might be heading towards some kind of prayer. No traveling companion should expose the other so quickly. I stopped and politely invited Josh out of the car. He sheepishly apologized but it was too late. He grew smaller and dimmer as I drove off down the midnight highway. My car was now filled with unbridled cowboys and cowgirls, and their incessant punning about their trucks, dogs, drink, and exes soon had me heading Nowhere in an easier fashion.