I pull out my fifth-grade class picture and my eyes land on a chunky kid who looks like the Big Boy hamburger mascot – without the rosy smile and checkered overalls. Bobby Graham already has the chubby cheeks and wavy black hair. He’s got a pair of Clark Kent glasses on, too, and in the picture he wears the universal expression of the self-conscious. The corners of his mouth are almost turned up, but the rest of his face shows passivity and embarrassment. He looks slightly on edge, sort of saying, “Can’t we just get this over?” The class picture, like every part of fifth grade, was made for other kids than Bobby Graham.
Bobby was big and he was also new, which made him doubly outcast. He sat alone in the lunch room, experiencing the heartless punishment of isolation that kids are so naturally good at imposing on one another. I suppose he would have continued sitting alone all through fifth and sixth grades, through junior high and on into high school,except that one day I sat down across from him. Oh, to be 10 years old again and free–free of judging others by their appearance, free of worrying that you’d be tainted by befriending someone found wanting by others, free even of the tact that governs conversations. Truth be told, I always felt only a step or two away from being an untouchable myself. I was made fun of at school for being skinny and suffered the normal teasing that accompanies being the youngest of three brothers. I wasn’t any good at sports, seemed to be despised by every girl I’d ever met and had a hard time following what was happening in class because I wouldn’t wear my eyeglasses. My 10-year-old heart found it pretty easy to feel empathy for Bobby, and I plopped down across from him and started talking.
“Bobby,” I said bluntly, “I’m the skinniest kid in this school. You’re the fattest. We should become a team.”
Bobby looked around with the same unsure expression on his face that’s in the class picture. I imagine he was looking to see if anyone had put me up to this. After a few moments of hesitation, he answered.
“What’s our team going to do?
“Eat lunch. We’ll figure out some other stuff later.”
“Okay,” he said quietly. We started in on our lunches, and then after a while he said, “Do you get called names because you’re so skinny?”
“Sure,” I said.
“What do they call you?”
“Johnny Sackpants. Bones. The Human Zipper. How about you?”
“Oh you know. Jumbo. Goodyear. God’s Little Acre. Stuff like that. Somebody called me Tanya once.”
“Like the dancing elephant on Ed Sullivan?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I sort of thought that was funny, so I didn’t get too mad about it.”
“How about if I call you Bones and you call me Tanya?” I said, my fifth-grade mind reeling with comic possibility.
He never really did call me Tanya, but I called him Bones and it stuck (proving that even fifth-graders can appreciate irony). We sat together day after day, trying to make each other laugh hard enough to spurt milk through our noses. We ate, we talked, we laughed: the skinny kid and the fat kid, becoming a comedy team, Laurel and Hardy in the fifth grade. Other kids started to sit with us to find out what was so funny, and the class sort of jelled together around us.
Before long, Bobby invited me home with him after school to watch cartoons and Big Time Wrestling. We didn’t fully understand at the time how similar the two worlds were. Both featured violence without anyone really getting hurt, along with memorable ethnic characters like Speedy Gonzalez and Abdullah the Butcher. The cartoons were fun, but the wrestlers stole our pre-adolescent hearts. We were partial to Haystacks Calhoun, fresh off the farm with bib overalls and a horseshoe around his neck, who was introduced as weighing 601 pounds. (That extra pound made all the difference.) And we loved The Mighty Igor, who wore long underwear, women’s shoes, a purse and a perpetually confused look as he entered the ring but who would fight like Samson with the jawbone of an ass once a match got going. Every match was a morality play of good versus evil, with occasional falls from grace and moments of redemption thrown in. More than giving us the real world, Big Time Wrestling gave us the world as we imagined it really should be.
I lived on Concerto Drive, a street that curved up a hill to Grandview Drive. There was sort of a dividing line between my street and Grandview, a line between those of us who had things like patios and drapery and houses like Bobby’s, with pull shades and worn out carpets. Bobby lived with his mother, who would come home from work in the late afternoon as Big Time Wrestling was ending.
I didn’t quite know how to act the first time I saw Bobby’s mom. She sure wasn’t like all the other moms I’d met. I expected someone older and matronly, and I expected she’d be like Bobby, built along the same lines as Mama Cass. Instead, at the end of the first afternoon at Bobby’s, a trim and attractive woman with a stylish green dress on and reddish-brown hair swept up in a beehive hairdo appeared in the kitchen.
“Bobby,” she said as she filled a pan with water, “introduce me to your friend.”
He said my name to her and I looked at her and said hi but was so tongue-tied by her striking appearance that I couldn’t come up with anything else to say.
“I’m Roberta,” she said, “but everyone calls me Bobbi, too. I suppose you can just call me ‘Bobby’s Mom’ if you want. As in ‘Hey, Bobby’s Mom, what’s for dinner.’”
A moment later she asked, “Hey, are you a baseball fan?”
“Sure,” I said, wondering how she’d figured that out.
“I have a very good friend on the Reds,” she said. “Would you like his autograph?”
Did I want his autograph? Did the Catholic kids two doors down tell me God had two sons, Jesus and the pope? Heck yes, I wanted his autograph. Those were the days when I toiled as the weak-hitting, poor-fielding first baseman of the Etherington Realty squad. Although I tended to spend most of our games tossing my mitt into the air and trying to catch it on my head, I was obsessed with baseball. I worshipped the Reds and wondered whose autograph I might get. The Reds had a lot of great players: Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Jim Maloney, Tony Perez. Heck, I’d even settle for Chico Ruiz, the utility infielder. I listened to the games on the radio (“It’s Joe Nuxhall with Reds Baseball, brought to you by Kahn’s … the Wiener the World Awaited”) and every so often my dad would take us to Crosley Field for a game. And then there they were, the Reds, my heroes come to life in their distinctive bright-white uniform vests over deep-red undershirts that seemed to blaze against the green grass of the playing field. As he ran to the outfield between innings, I’d scream at Pete Rose, fantasizing that somehow he would acknowledge me. Maybe Bobby’s mom would bring me an autograph from him that would say, “Your supportive yelling is the reason I hit .300 this year. Thanks!” Yeah, I wanted an autograph.
A few days later, when Bobby came to visit me and delivered the autograph, it read, “To Jeff, Best Wishes, Ival Goodman,” which left me with only one question – who in the world was Ival Goodman?
“Bones,” I asked, “What kind of a name is Ival?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “Sounds kind of Russian, doesn’t it? It’s definitely one to remember.”
I showed my dad the autograph later and asked if he had ever heard of Ival Goodman. “Probably a minor leaguer, or something,” he said, and then he went on to explain that guys who played a little baseball had a sad habit of making themselves into big time players, and poor women like Bobby’s mom wouldn’t know any better. “Best not to say anything about it,” he said, and I felt sorry for her. She’d been duped.
But she hadn’t been duped. It was my dad who was wrong. Ival was the real deal. Ival Richard Goodman was born in Northview, Missouri, on July 23, 1908, and played outfield for the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs between 1935 and 1944. He was a National League All-Star in 1938 and 1939.
I was able to show my grandfather the Ival Goodman autograph a few weeks later in Michigan and he said, “Hey, that’s one of the guys who beat us in the World Series.” The Reds took my grandfather’s beloved Detroit Tigers in seven games in 1940. Ival Goodman was one of the Reds’ best hitters in that Series.
Goodman’s career ended in 1944 when he ran head first into the concrete outfield wall at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis. Although he had hit .320 for the Cubs in 1943, manager Charlie Grimm told him to stay home after his head injury. Abruptly cut loose from his playing career, he got a job as a minor league manager for a while and also worked as a baseball scout. Goodman eventually returned to Cincinnati and became a salesman and a friend of Bobby’s mother. Ival Goodman died at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati in 1984.
I made my own trip to Cincinnati’s Jewish Hospital in 1969, a couple of days before Bobby gave me Ival Goodman’s autograph. I was hunched over in our front room, doing my homework with my nose in a book on the floor and my rear end sticking up in the air. Without provocation one of my older brothers picked me up by my belt loops and threw me across the room. I suppose a psychologist might say he was acting out the latent anxiety in our home surrounding our upcoming move. I just think he did it for the same reason Mallory attempted to climb Mt. Everest – because I was there. I landed on my knees, heard my neck crack, and rolled over onto the floor unable to move. My mother was at a meeting at church, having left me in the watchful care of my older brothers.
I’m being sarcastic when I use the word “watchful.” My brothers and I fought all the time. It all seemed normal to me in those days, but now I’m not so sure. Our dad was gone most of the time, we were moving yet again and things like this were happening.
Eventually, my brothers got scared and called our mother, who called an ambulance. Our little town had a volunteer fire/rescue squad, and before long Doug, the town’s legendary barber/ambulance driver walked into our living room and said, “Hey, is that old Giggles lying there?” He called me Giggles because I’d laughed uncontrollably while getting my haircut listening to him describe the day in his youth when a chicken had taken up residence below his family’s outhouse. Doug and another man rolled me onto a body board and lifted me onto a stretcher, and when they brought the stretcher outside I could hear the neighbors gasp and whisper my name. I can’t say I minded the attention or the thrill of the ambulance ride downtown. Several hours later, Dr. Roth decided I didn’t have a broken neck. He pulled me upright and I saw stars, but I was going to be okay. He outfitted me with a neck brace and told my mother I’d had a whiplash that had sprained all the muscles in my neck.
I wore the neck brace to school the following Monday as a sort of show and tell piece, even though it itched and bothered me. I took it off for good when I got home that afternoon. That’s life as a kid – a neck brace in the morning and running around without a care in the afternoon. I was resilient, and I was back at Bobby’s house like normal on Tuesday.
For a while we’d been seeing advertisements for a wrestling match that was coming to the Cincinnati Gardens. The headline match was Mark Lewin against Thunderbolt Patterson. Mark Lewin was a classic good guy who had no gimmick other than walking around the ring with his matinee idol looks. The evil Thunderbolt Patterson was introduced as being from “the Watts area of Los Angeles” and was accompanied by a long-haired valet named Hamilton, who would get involved when things weren’t going well for Patterson. Thunderbolt had a lot to say (“I’m often imitated, never duplicated”), and was sort of a professional wrestling version of Muhammad Ali. Here was this boisterous black man, with a white valet, wrestling a white man, in a city on the Mason-Dixon Line that was a hotbed of racial tension. I remember sitting in the barber’s chair that fall and hearing Doug entertain the shop by describing his attempts to get the local chief of police to ride with him to an all-black area of Cincinnati and put “George Wallace for President” bumper stickers on cars. Everyone laughed, but there was great fear behind Doug’s racist humor.
We were sitting in Bobby’s living room with his mom, who had come home from the distillery where she worked. When the announcer promoted the match on Saturday night at the Cincinnati Gardens, she said, “We can’t miss that. No, we can’t. Go ask your mom and dad if they’ll let you go with Bobby and me.”
I told Bobby’s mom on the way downtown that Saturday night that I had never been to the Gardens, but my older brother had been once to see the Cincinnati Royals play. She said, “Do you like basketball, too?” I sort of lied and told her I did, but really I’d never watched an entire basketball game in my life. She said, “I have a friend on the Royals. Would you like his autograph?” Geez, who didn’t she know? Being with her was so much fun. Bobby’s mom bought us hot dogs, Cokes, popcorn, and cotton candy (all of which was on top of some pink cake we’d eaten at their home before we left.) The massive amounts of junk food I’d eaten were doing somersaults in my stomach as Mark Lewin’s match against Thunderbolt Patterson approached. It wasn’t only the food I’d eaten causing my discomfort – I was also nervous. Nervous on one level that Lewin might not win, but nervous on a deeper level just from being in that charged atmosphere. We sat looking at the ring through a cloud of cigar and cigarette smoke, and the violent energy in the Gardens made me anxious.
When the main event finally came, Lewin started fast, and for the first several minutes dominated Patterson. In no time, it seemed, Lewin had his man subdued and was standing behind Thunderbolt with his arms around him, getting ready to put the sleeper hold on him. Once that started, the match would be over. But he was standing too close to Thunderbolt’s corner. Patterson realized this and pushed backwards into Lewin and they went into the turnbuckle. Meanwhile, the referee decided to consult with the guy who rang the bell about something. At that moment Thunderbolt’s valet Hamilton hit Lewin over the head with a folding chair. We yelled ourselves hoarse at the injustice of it. Lewin was now disoriented and staggering around the ring, but the referee had missed the most crucial development. How could the referee not see this? We screamed at the referee and he turned toward us, trying to hear what we were saying. Thunderbolt poked Lewin in the eyes, temporarily blinding him and causing Lewin to stumble back into the corner where Hamilton hit him over the head again with the chair. Patterson took the chair from Hamilton and brought it into the ring and slammed it down repeatedly onto Lewin, while the referee continued to look at us, straining to hear what we were yelling. My God, our cries had become part of the problem! Bobby’s mom stood and climbed on top of her chair, screaming, “This isn’t right!” while the referee stared at her and smiled.
Lewin was lying on the mat with his face covered in blood. Patterson was circling him, like a predator, yapping about how great he was. He would circle and then fly down on top of Lewin and violently smash an elbow into his ribs. Then he’d stand up and circle some more before crashing on top of Lewin again. It was savage and visceral and Bobby looked like he was going to start crying. His mom put her arm around him and said, “It’s going to be okay, honey, it’s going to be okay. I believe something good is going to happen.”
After jumping on the defenseless Lewin five or six times, Thunderbolt ignored him to address the crowd. He stood at the side of the ring and yelled, “This man cannot beat me,” with his arms thrust over his head. We booed. Then the miracle happened.
Lewin stirred. He brought himself into a sitting position and shook the cobwebs out of his head. We roared. Thunderbolt put his hand to his ear as if he couldn’t quite understand us. “What’s that?” he said. Hamilton started yelling and pointing as Lewin rose to his feet behind Patterson. Instead of going toward Thunderbolt, Lewin went to the corner and grabbed Hamilton by his long blonde hair. He dragged him through the ropes into the ring. Thunderbolt turned and stood motionless, startled at the sudden turn of events. When he finally moved toward Lewin, Lewin hoisted Hamilton up over his head and threw him across the ring into Thunderbolt. They both crashed to the mat. The referee slapped the mat three times and the match was over – without question the greatest, most exhilarating, thrilling and satisfying thing I had ever witnessed in my life. The referee held Lewin’s hand over his head and then, with great dignity, the bloodied-but-not-beaten Lewin climbed out of the ring and walked back to the dressing room. No one moved because Hamilton and Thunderbolt lay like corpses on the mat. A couple of men in white came out of the dressing room and stuck smelling salts under both Hamilton and Thunderbolt’s noses, and they came back to life. The audience was so emotionally drained that we had lost our ability to scream, and in silence Hamilton and Thunderbolt walked, with heads hanging low, to the dressing room. The lights rose and the three of us looked at each other. We could hardly move.
The night before we moved from Ohio to Michigan, my parents let me sleep over at Bobby’s house. When his mom came home from work, she opened her purse and pulled out another autograph for me. This one simply said the name “Connie Dierking” on a sheet of paper. Once again I wondered who the heck this guy was. I made a face at Bobby behind his mother’s back and mouthed “Connie?” He shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t know Connie from Ival.
Six-foot nine-inch Conrad William Dierking was born in Brooklyn on October 9, 1936. He started at center for a mediocre Cincinnati Royals team, playing alongside future Hall-of-Famers Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas. He had attended the University of Cincinnati and was drafted in the first round by the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers) in 1958. His biggest distinction was being part of the worst trade in basketball history. In 1965 he was sent from Philadelphia to San Francisco, along with two other journeymen basketball players, for Wilt Chamberlain, the best basketball player in the world at that time. Dierking was traded soon after that to Cincinnati, where he played the next five years and, among other things, became friends with Bobby’s mother.
That last night at Bobby’s house, his mom said we could eat anything I wanted for dinner. She didn’t bat an eye when I said, “Let’s have popcorn.” We ate our popcorn on the couch in the living room and laughed ourselves silly watching a Jerry Lewis movie. I loved it. I suppose I loved being there because so many good things happened to me there. I felt like a celebrity at Bobby’s house, feted with popcorn for dinner and given autographs of fellow celebrities. I loved being there, too, because as long as I was there I was safe – safe from moving, safe from having to begin life again in a new place, safe from the unknown future that lay ahead of me.
There’s an obscure line tucked away in the back pages of the New Testament that has taken hold of me lately–Hebrews 2:1. “Pay attention lest you slip away.” Pay attention, the ancient words are saying, because you learn as an adult that you weren’t quite made of the nonstick Teflon you thought you were made of when you were a kid. Pay attention, it says, because you discover that all those events that you thought bounced off of you were simply filed away, lying almost dormant somewhere deep inside. Pay attention, the text says, because if you go back and open those files, you’ll learn where your secret fears and secret desires come from. Pay attention, Hebrews says, because if you don’t pay attention, you stand a chance of slipping away, of growing into something or someone you have a hard time recognizing. Pay attention.
Bobby was the first real friend I ever had, the first kid my age who ever genuinely cared about me. I never learned any of the answers to the riddles of his life. I never discovered what happened to his dad and never found out how his mom knew those professional athletes. The only tangible things I had to remember Bobby and Bobbi by were those autographs, which lasted for a long time, but somewhere over the decades they were lost. Lost because I moved as an adult the same way I was taught to move as a kid–to keep going forward and not look back. Those autographs are just memories now, like the memory of sitting down across from Bobby in the lunch room that day, the memory of going to Jewish Hospital that night, and the memory of being in that raucous arena and seeing Mark Lewin rise from the dead to defeat Thunderbolt Patterson. I still have my fifth-grade class picture, too, and whenever I pull it out my eyes settle on the chubby kid in the second row with the black plastic glasses and thick wavy hair. I smile. He almost smiles back.
Photo Credit: Shawn Harquail