Saturday, October 15, 2011


Mal was painfully shy with girls all through highschool.  I don’t think that changed until his second year of college, his first at SC.  He was intensely focused on them, however, and liked to hang out at places where there might be girls.  Away football games were particularly prized, as we would ride on an overcrowded bus and a girl might sit on his lap.  (Even then, he was unable to initiate conversation with her.)  Girls I was going with would talk to him – none of them went so far as to fix him up with any of their friends, now that I think of it – but even that took him awhile to calm down with.  In college he dated very tall, very beautiful girls.  So he got over it, I guess.

Autumn of 1969 or 70 we were at a home football game.  Mal must have been talking with some girl and congratulating himself on that, and I must not have noticed.  I entered a conversation with that girl, cut him out completely, and after a few pleasant minutes she left.  Mal grabbed me by the lapels and said  “And the MOUSE…ran AWAY…with the CHEESE!”

Mal had nicknames for everyone and codenames for everything (see “cheese,” above).  Most of his trial nicknames were banal or clumsy, but he kept up with such persistence that he would find one that would stick.  I don’t know where most of them came from, but they each had a story attached.  By a long and uninteresting chain, my name became “Dubs,” and he called me that through highschool.  How Sarge and Hong Kong Howie got their names I don’t know, because a shortened surname was usually his first try.  He had an ability to make the name stick once he had the right one, until half your other friends called you by that name as well.  “Suds” for Sosnowski, “Corn” for O’Connor, “Jam” for Jamrog – Mal christened all of them.

Several would have been cruel if the recipients had heard them.  A one-armed supervisor at the Holiday Inn restaurant we worked at was called The Sleeve.  Mal could also imitate people’s speech, in an overdone, cartoonish way, and usually had a routine for each elementary school teacher, peppered with typical comments.  There was another boss at our first job (Anderson-Little, Bedford Mall, 1968.  They lied and took advantage of us.  Welcome to the working world, boys), but I only remember the laughing about it, not what Mal’s routine was.

Humorously insulting male banter was his specialty.  He would tell detailed stories, with great rolling of eyes and mock anger, about how friends had left him in a difficult situation, such as guarding the beer in the snow.  When he recounted the event, the temperature would always be twenty degrees colder, the wind twenty mph harder, the wait an hour longer than it actually was.  Bill Cosby was the reigning comedian then; Mal could recite whole routines of his easily, and owed a lot of his comic style to Cos.

He wanted to be athletic, and did well at many sports.  Interestingly, he was not especially fast or agile of foot, and was not strong until he took up martial arts training, but he was a legitimately good athlete.  I think it was his hand-eye coordination which was exceptional.  He pitched against Mike Flanagan and won in American Legion ball.  He learned basketball in two years at the Y with no instruction, becoming good enough to make a DII team as a walk-on freshman, and a DI team as a walk-on sophomore.  He remained annoyed that the highschool basketball coach never brought him in to work with him.  There were no other 6-7 students at Manchester Central, let alone sophomores that size.  Additional note on hand-eye co-ordination:  I believe Mal still holds the national record for highest score, first time bowling, set while he was at U South Carolina.  He had some advantage, as he had bowled a lot of candlepin and duckpin with the shot-put sized balls up here.  But still, national record – 229 or something – is pretty good.

He resisted playing basketball for years.  With his height, people always asked him if he played, and he finally consented to play one-on-one with me, just to learn the game.  At almost a foot shorter, and not particularly athletic myself, I consistently beat him badly in 10th grade.  He had no idea what traveling or double-dribble were.  But he found he liked the game, and rapidly became a good jump shooter.  Not many players, and certainly no guards, could contest his shot out there.

He was a better baseball player.  His father had been a minor league or semi-pro player, and Mal had gotten good instruction all along.  I don’t think he ever worked much on other pitches – he was a fastball pitcher with great location.  Unfortunately, he excelled most at a game for which there were no leagues, teams, or scholarships.  We called it Swift Pitch, and it had some similarities to stickball.  It was a pitcher-batter game played with a tennis ball against a wall on which a strike zone had been drawn.  Every open brick wall in the area – schools, backs of stores, even churches -- had those painted rectangles on them in those days.

The six months in which he grew six inches, though, he was amazingly clumsy, banging his head on things, knocking stuff over in restaurants.  But that was a fairly limited stretch of uncoordination.  He was the first person I knew to excel at video games when they came out.

He laughed harder and found more things funny than anyone I have known since, and I am known for that myself.  I don’t recall him being serious with more than one person present, but we did have deeper conversations ourselves when it was just the two of us.  I don’t know if that was true with his other friends as well, but he saw more of Sarge and traveled with him later on, so I’m guessing yes.  He would discuss religious thoughts and experiences, or the difficulty of being away from family, especially after his dad died.  He did not ask himself abstract or philosophical questions much, but his thinking was very straightforward and solid.  His reasoning was good, though not adventurous.  He could get to the heart of an issue quickly.

It is appropriate to reminisce about him, because he was a reminiscer himself.  He was the motive force behind the 8th grade 25-year reunion – I don’t know of another elementary school class that has done that – and the pivotal figure of the annual Swift Pitch reunions.  Even when I first met him, just before 7th grade, he was likely to talk about events that had happened to him in earlier grades, or stories about things classmates had done – good and bad.  He knew some stories of his parents’ childhoods and early adulthood and liked telling them.  He even knew something of his grandmother’s life in Denmark and showed curiosity about it when she visited.  His memory was quite remarkable, and I think he remembered because he liked visiting the past.   I had no interest in Swift Pitch – and several of the participants of those reunions, who I hope never to run into again – so I missed his later nostalgias.  Also, I had children by then.

Odd that he never developed an interest in history, as far as I know.  Perhaps he was concerned with events only when he could make a personal connection.  He read few books, but he had his hands on newspapers and magazines a fair bit.  He used to brag most of the way through highschool that he had read only one book, My Life At Bat, by Mickey Mantle.  In late highschool he started reading other sports biographies, like Jim Bouton’s.

I had a habit in the late 70’s of asking people I had not seen in awhile “What have you been thinking?” instead of “What have you been doing?”  Mal could always answer that in a flash; the question never threw him in the least.   He could launch immediately into some idea about how to make his job more efficient, or what God was steering him towards.  He had little interest in any theological questions, except perhaps wrestling with the paradoxes of omniscience or infinity, of the sort that “If God can/is this, then why is the world that?” Those are young men’s questions, not often revisited until one is old, and I don’t know if he found answers which satisfied him.

I don’t think he considered college until he was a senior in highschool.  He took general rather than college prep courses, and clearly saw himself as one of the non-academic students, the plain folk.  He greatly admired his father, who was a workingman in a technical field, and thought he might go in that direction if he couldn’t play minor league baseball.  There was an especially difficult national mathematics test in those days, the MAA.  A perfect score was around 120, and it was possible to get a negative score.  National champions seldom broke 100, and state champions usually got in the 70’s or 80’s.  Senior year Mal was encouraged by his General Algebra II teacher to take the test, and scored sixth in the school (a large school of 2000).  There were 3-, 4-, 5-, and 6-point questions.  All the hotshots and math cowboys would stupidly head for the 5 and 6-point questions, which were near impossible.  He methodically started with the threes, answered about half, and started in on the fours.  When time was up he was in the high 20’s somewhere.  The school champion had a 36.  He was amazed.  “I beat you?  I beat Kontos?  I beat Greenstreet?”  Yes, you clown, and the valedictorian, salutatorian, and half the calculus class.  I think that was when the possibility of college occurred to him: May of senior year, which is why he started at NHCollege (now Southern NH University) before heading south.

We were among the few who went any distance to go away to school.  In our class of 424, about 1/3 of which went to college, I don’t think there were more than a few other people who went out of New England for school. And those were Northeast:  Colgate, Russell Sage.  Even going to Boston was considered pretty cool and adventurous.  It was a different era, and Manchester was still a mill city.  If people visited another country, it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip.  To go to Bermuda on your honeymoon was impossibly chic: most people went to Niagara Falls, NYC, the Poconos, or the Maine coast. 

We quickly perceived that we had become different from our classmates by going away.  Much of it was probably self-congratulation about how cosmopolitan we had become, but we really did find that our old acquaintances seemed to be having the same conversations as when we left.  I hitchhiked from VA down to SC one Thanksgiving break, and he and Sarge came once to William and Mary, but we didn’t really connect about our college experiences much.  When we got together we would tell old stories and insult each other, and interestingly, we both liked puzzling over things that had happened that seemed strange at the time and figuring them out.  Perceiving that the Smyth Road School principal was an alcoholic, for example – we put those pieces together years later.

Mal and I double-dated to the Naval Sea Cadet ball junior year in HS, or more accurately, I fixed him up with a close friend and went with my girlfriend as well, because he was petrified to ask anyone.  It was required for Sea Cadets to go with a date, I think, and he needed some way out.  He had just grown out of the largest of their uniforms and was about to quit anyway, yet somehow he was convinced he had to go and I had to find him a date.  He was so entertaining and hysterically funny that his date ripped her dress laughing and had to wear a coat the rest of the evening.  When I recently told that woman that Mal had died that date was the first thing she mentioned.

I think his over-the-top (read: juvenile) humor that night was derived from his anxiety, but somehow it worked.  Most likely he mimicked the Sea Cadet hierarchy and others present.  I don’t know how he got involved with that crew.  Most likely his ex-Marine father encouraged him, and there were no Marine Cadets.

We both got involved with DeMolay as well – I’m sure that was originally his mother’s idea, and she talked my mother into it.  June was in Eastern Star, so that adds up.  Our mothers tag-teamed a lot on these brilliant ideas that were going to rescue their sons.

There may have been a time when it was cool to be in DeMolay, and when they actually contributed to building young men of character, but it wasn’t Manchester, 1969.  What a collection of bozos we were:  about 1/3 juvenile delinquents, 1/3 nerds, and 1/3 guys whose families were deeply into Masons or Eastern Star.  Unfortunately, we fit in well with all three groups.  We were supposed to learn pages of secret ritual, wear black capes with red linings, and participate in lots of meetings all over the state.  The group had just about collapsed by the time we got there – there weren’t enough guys to do all the speaking parts of the ritual so we had to double up.  Mal, true to form, developed a routine about each of the leaders, especially “Dad” Darrah, who ruled everything.  “The Dad…has SPOKEN!” was a recurring theme.  He hung on for a bit after I’d quit, and got elected to high office because there was no one else and it was his turn. 

DeMolay did give us the opportunity to be onstage escorts at the NH Junior Miss Pageant in 1969, however, and that in turn allowed us to hang around during rehearsals, attempting to be important.  As none of the young goddesses spoke to us, we were apparently unsuccessful at being suave. Connie Kotrosios was our school’s representative, Barbara-Jo Harden of Central had won the year before was present.  Michelle Cote from Immaculata – a folksinger and the older sister of a classmate of ours – was the eventual winner.  None of the four girls referred to in that preceding paragraph said even a polite word to us or could have picked us out of a police line-up after, even if the other suspects were foreign and had name tags.  So Pep Club worked better than DeMolay, at least for one football and one basketball season.

I think he reached his other leadership positions in much the same way:  being present in a small group.  He was an officer at Charlie Brown’s Basement, the teen hangout that no one came to at the Y (he did learn to shoot a good game of pool, though); we were both officers in the Pep Club, which allowed us to hang out with cheerleaders and majorettes;  I got elected king of the Winter Carnival because Mal threw all his votes to me at the last minute so that Tim Whitehead wouldn’t win.  We were the only three contestants, so Mal and I got to tromp around to different ice events with that year’s queen and her best friend, neither of whom was that pretty or entertaining.  I lit torches and had my picture taken; Mal sat in the back, making fun of Tim Whitehead.  And probably me also.

The kind way to put it would be that he (we) did best in small groups.  The more accurate description was that we had an unerring eye for what was hopelessly lame, and ended up in charge because we were the coolest of the nerds.  Our other friends at the time, Sarge and Ainsworth, fit the same description – they were also Pep Club officers, with a photo perpetuating that horror in the yearbook.  But these lame groups were a way of gaming the system of meeting girls.  Later in highschool I developed other strategies, as did Mal and the others: they were better-looking, for starters, and that eventually smoothed over a lot of 10th/11th grade dorkiness.  But early on, gaming the system in some way was the only strategy likely to work for us.  Mal found all of the lame groups listed above, I think.  Give the boy credit for persistence.

As I reread this, an unbiased observer might ask if we were so often among the dorky kids and rising to positions of prominence among them, whether we were not, in strict point of fact, the actual dorky kids ourselves.  A fair question.  It is rather like all the parents who complain that their nice kids got involved in the wrong crowd, and that’s why they went bad.  At some point, somebody actually has to be the wrong crowd. They can’t all be bringing each other down.  In our case it was partly true.  We may have shone a little brighter than the dorks, but we were not immediately recognized as being horribly out-of-place among them. 

Yet I defend us by noting that we recognized even at the time that this was lame, that we were taking a risk.  Pep Club – well, there’s a name straight out of the 1920’s for ya, eh?  Male cheerleaders.  That could get dangerously faggy in reputation quickly. We were prepared to bail instantly if things looked bad.  OK, NH Junior Miss is out, cheerleaders are now out, I think majorettes are going to be likewise.  What about Future Teachers of America?  That will be all girls, right?  You interested in teaching?  Well, we are now. Yeah, well, tell Ainsworth that unless he’s got a better idea he should pipe down.

I remember Mal telling me that he led the (then) world-record Streak at South Carolina – that must have been late 1973 or early 1974 – and made the cover of Newsweek, among the thousands of others.  There’s a legacy for you.

Once already I have encountered something humorous which Mal would have been the perfect hearer for.  In fact, he would have been almost the only person who would appreciate the gourds in 1-2-3 Penguins singing “Muffin Man.”  It was a private joke, and not a very good one, but it went by, and I wanted to steer him to it, and there’s no Mal to appreciate it.  I imagine that will happen increasingly as I age.  CS Lewis once referred to the peculiar sadness of encountering a joke for which the perfect hearer had died years ago.  I’m beginning to encounter that more, and Mal is going to be that deceased perfect hearer a lot, I think.


GraniteDad said...

Thanks for the great remembrance, Dad.

GraniteDad said...

"Beer in the snow" and "Big Mal cracks his head on the stairs into the basement" are two of my favorite stories from your youth.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Y'know, it's really a shame that you and Ben couldn't have been there. You would have enjoyed it.

Chris said...

Thanks for the reminder about the Naval Sea Cadet Ball. I have never before or since laughed quite that hard. Ripping my dress was a memorable humiliation, but I remember the laughing so much more. I hope he knew how much joy he brought in those few moments that he let us see the real Mal.