Honoring a soldier

Me and Don Baseball

Don Clarkson was my baseball umpiring partner for five years.

It is Memorial Day, a time which always reminds me of my favorite soldier. Don Clarkson taught me a lot about life during the years we umpired baseball together. And though I’ve run the story about our friendship before, I hope you’ll forgive me for sharing it again.

I miss you, Don.

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I was a reporter for a long time and so, like most of my brethren, I carry a skeptical gene. What this means is we need proof, concrete verification from unimpeachable sources. Prove it or I simply cannot believe.

I’m older now, and though perhaps not wiser, have softened up that gene a bit, so that I can sometimes see unexplained light glowing around its edges. What changed me? A strange encounter one day in a classroom at the school where I teach.

But first, I have to tell you about Don.

When I was nearing 40, I was fired from the TV station where I worked. I’d been a sports reporter and anchor for five stations at both the local and national levels. Surely, I’d get another job soon. As the months passed, then the years, and my hopes for a reporting job dimmed, I started applying for all kinds of positions. Despite a college degree and a resume that included a stint anchoring SportsCenter at ESPN, I couldn’t even get a job bartending. One night, I faced the prospect of an early morning gig standing on an assembly line, courtesy of a temp agency.

I cried.

I did have other skills, though it had been years since I’d spent my time officiating year round. Still, I’d called football, baseball, ice hockey, soccer, and basketball games in the past, and faced with the prospect of standing Lucy-like before a conveyor belt, I’d take a whistle anytime.

One sunny afternoon, I walked toward a baseball field where young players were warming up for a Babe Ruth League contest. As a woman official, I took my uniform and equipment very seriously, not wanting to give the fans and coaches anything extra to harangue me about. So, I was shocked by the appearance of the man behind the plate. Was he really wearing red sweatpants? And using an old-fashioned outside chest protector like the umps in Norman Rockwell paintings?

 The man with the snow-white hair saw me. He smiled, raised a hand in greeting, and waved me over. Geez! He wasn’t even wearing a hat. Despite that inauspicious start, Don and I would be umpiring partners for the next five years.

Umpires spend a lot of time in parking lots, before and after games. Often we set up folding chairs and dress into and out of our gear from the beds of pickup trucks or the trunks of our cars. Sometimes, we just relax, have a cold drink, and let the breeze blow away the sweat accumulated from calling a three-hour game dressed in polyester and plastic, exceptionally poor choices for baseball in the Arizona desert. And, always, we talk.

Early in my friendship with Don, I spent a great deal of time feeling sorry for myself. I told him that I feared chance meetings with people I knew from my media days, dreading that awful question: “So what are you doing now?”

In the meantime, I learned that Don was a Vietnam veteran: an Army Special Forces soldier who did two tours in-country. He was a decorated war hero and his profound limp was the result of a bullet that almost killed him. The close-clipped white beard covered scars left from other battle wounds. Then there was the Post Traumatic Stress caused by memories he carried from the war. But it was the mist that rained from American planes that would transform his life, the Agent Orange defoliant that destroyed the jungles and the lives of soldiers the poison fell upon.

Don was married and had eight children. His family was the center of his world. He was devoutly religious and believed that another life waited, one without the pain of his deteriorating body and the nightmares that plagued him. As a non-believer I argued the point, which might seem mean. But Don loved to do verbal battle, trying to convince me that my skepticism was misplaced.

We talked endlessly, often about my failing marriage to an alcoholic, my sadness at the loss of my career, and my inability to pay my bills. Don, meanwhile, almost never complained. He did tell me harrowing tales of his war years, but would always add stories about the wonderful people he’d met and the beauty of Vietnam.

Don died in July of 2010. He was 60. I’d not been to see him often enough since he retired from baseball. The last few occasions he was bedridden, though he never failed to grace me with a huge smile and a warm hand.

During the next few years I would often think about Don and I would sometimes get the feeling that he was somewhere nearby. Though, of course, that was impossible.

Then, one afternoon, I was standing in a classroom. The teacher behind the desk, who I had known for many years, looked at me with a quizzical expression.

“Who do you know that might be wearing an Army uniform?” she asked, her gaze focusing just behind me.

“What?” I turned around. There was no one there.

“Do you know who he is?”

“Who who is?”

“There’s someone here for you. He’s wearing fatigues. I sometimes see things,” she said with a smile and a shrug.

I turned around again. “Don?” I mumbled.

She paused. “Yes, it’s Don,” she finally said. “He’s got his hands on your shoulders. He wants you to know that he’s fine and you shouldn’t worry about him. And he wants you to be happy.”

In that moment, the skeptic in me began to fray. My normal impulse would be to argue and say “prove it,” but I couldn’t, because I believed her.

How do I explain what happened? I can’t. And while the experience didn’t suddenly make me religious, it did cause me to think about whatever happens next in a new way.

I have never sensed Don around me again. Still, I hope he’d be glad to know that I’ve taken his advice. Now, I do my best to find happiness in every day.

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Sergeant Don Clarkson was a Green Beret who served in Vietnam with the 9th Infantry ARVN Soldiers from December 1968 to November 1970. Don died in 2010 from complications of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Agent Orange poisoning.

 

 

 

In a theater and out of my comfort zone

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One week ago …

I’m now leaving to do something I haven’t done in over 40 years. I’ll be back.

Later …

How did I allow my friends to talk me into this? I love them both dearly, and have gently pushed aside their suggestions over the years, using all kinds of excuses: I have to work. We’ll be on vacation. It’s football season. 

But, this time, I had absolutely no logical reason to refuse. And so, I entered the rear door of a small theater, where I was handed several forms the fill out. One asked me to rate myself from 1 to 10 in a number of areas. The first question: What is your tap- dancing skill level? At that point, I considered fleeing for the door. Tap dancing? Embarrassed, I circled 1, only because zero wasn’t an option.

A short time later, I stood alone on stage at the Starlight Community Theater in north Phoenix, waiting for the lead-in to “As Long As He Needs Me” from the musical Oliver. An orange and white sticker identified me as the second person to audition for the upcoming production of Company.

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The Starlight Community Theater here in Phoenix is doing the 1970 musical comedy Company, and, against my better judgement, I agreed to try out.

 

I know I said it had been over four decades since I’ve been in a play. I’m not counting my turn as the angry wrestling coach in Footloose, a play produced at the school where I teach. No audition was required. The drama folks just thought it would be cool to have teachers play the adults in the show. I had six lines and some chorus singing. It was fun and not too taxing. And I even got a gold Oscaresque trophy from my sweetie that says Anne Montgomery – Best Performance by a Teacher in a Supporting Role.

But today’s audition was wildly different. As I stood there, searching for notes and words, my knees started to shake rather violently. I tried to calm myself. Come on, when you were a sportscaster, you were on live TV probably 2,000 times. You swim with big ass sharks that might bite you, if you don’t behave properly in their watery world. You face down angry coaches as a referee on the football field. You’re a high school teacher.

R-E-L-A-X!

But nothing worked. As I fought to curtail my shaking, I choked on the high notes. The polite clapping when I finished was just that … polite.

We auditioners were told that the director would be in touch to let us know if we would be invited to the next day’s call backs. So, I went home to wait.

“Did you get a part?” Ryan asked.

I looked at my watch. It was almost 6:00 PM. “They haven’t called.”

“Should we go get ice cream?”

Ryan knew of my failure forays to Dairy Queen when I was a struggling young ice dancer. I would have to skate before three judges and then wait for the dreaded list of those who passed their tests to be posted for everyone to read. Whenever my name didn’t appear, my father would hand me a few dollars and send me across the street for a Hot Fudge Brownie Delight to soothe my wounded spirit.

While we did drive past Dairy Queen, we didn’t stop. I wasn’t ready for ice cream.

Later that night, after checking my e-mail and finding nothing new, I went to bed and reconfigured my summer plans as I fell asleep.

The next day …

Holy crap! I read the e-mail again. My call back was set for 1:00 PM. Now I would have to sing “These Are the Ladies Who Lunch.” I was being asked to audition for the part of Joanne, the thrice-married, acerbic, unhappy alcoholic.

There were four of us, clandestinely eyeing one another, sizing up our chances. I’d heard them sing the day before. All had lovely voices.

A little over 24 hours earlier, I’d faced that frightening audition. Strangely, this time felt different. I’m not sure how it happened. But, rather magically, my nerves had fled. I think, something stirred long ago memories of being comfortable on a stage. Enjoying the tension and the audience. When my turn came, I sang, just for the joy of it.

That evening, I got a call from the director inviting me to play Joanne.

“Yes!” I said, for the first time, realizing just how much I wanted the part.

Today …

Rehearsals begin this afternoon. I’ll let you know how that goes.

 

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Anne Montgomery’s latest novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.

 

The sports world: It can be dangerous out there!

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An early morning meeting with  an Olympic archer and a target had me wondering if I might have made a hasty decision.

When I first set my sights on being a sportscaster, I considered the five main team spectator sports I might be asked to cover: football, baseball, ice hockey, soccer, and basketball. Then, I became a certified amateur official in each one, so that I might better understand the games.

What I never considered were the myriad other sports I might be asked to report upon. I recall the day my news director in Rochester, N.Y. – a cranky sort who didn’t allow much in the way of discussion – informed me that I would be driving about 60 miles to do a story on curling. I considered asking him what curling was, but decided against that approach. Today, of course, a quick search on Google would clarify the ins and outs of the strange ice sport that involves little brooms and a “rock” resembling a squashed bowling bowl, but back then there was nowhere to turn for enlightenment. And so, after driving many miles along the barren edge of Lake Ontario, I threw myself at the slider shoes of the curling club members and admitted my ignorance.

Later, when I worked in Phoenix, I was asked to do a series on local athletes who would be competing in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. And so, one bright morning, I faced archer Jay Barrs who would go on to win an individual gold medal at the Games. Had I understood his exceptional skill-level, I might have felt just a little less uncomfortable about my stand-up. (A stand-up, for the uniformed, is the moment in a TV story when the reporter can be seen on camera. It’s the glory shot for we folks with big egos – and generally most of us can’t get our heads through a door.)

The thing about a stand-up is that it should be creative and memorable. I pondered my options. Then, without really thinking it through, I positioned myself just in front of the edge of the target.

My cameraman eyed me.

“Go ahead and shoot, Jay. I’ll stay right here,” I called as as he wondered off with his bow.

His walk to the shooting line seemed to take an extremely long time, during which I considered the possible outcomes. Of course, as he was on the Olympic team, he couldn’t possibly miss, right? But what if he sneezed or became distracted? Might I be wearing an errant arrow in my forehead?

“Ready?” My cameraman asked.

The good news was that Jay Barrs slammed those arrows into the target with picture-perfect accuracy and I managed to perform my stand-up without losing my breakfast.

Then there was the Olympic equestrian, a man whose name escapes me, but whose attitude lingers. I interviewed him, then watched as he took his horse through the jumps, the two gliding artfully over numerous raised rails and once up and over a high bar and down into a water feature. When he finished, he slid gracefully off the beast.

“I like to ride,” I said, only to make conversation.

He cocked an eyebrow, then tossed me the reins. “Go ahead.” He smirked.

What I wanted to say was that I liked to ride through a pretty forest and walk a horse through gentle streams, and, on rare occasions, gallop a bit, if there’s a clear, unimpeded path on which to travel.

He crossed his arms and stared at me.

I know a dare when I see one. So, stupidly, I pulled myself up onto that beautiful animal, and was immediately horrified to discover there was no pommel on the saddle. The rounded appendage one can grip should they be in danger of taking a giant header was nowhere to be found. Seems they don’t use them on British saddles.

Equestrian Man glared at me, a look that said I’d never ride the course.

And, he was almost right, because when I dug my heels into that horse’s sides and went hurtling toward that first jump, I panicked and pulled hard on the reins just a few feet short of the barrier.

I eyed my cameraman, who was shaking his head, acknowledging what I already knew. This was a bad idea. But, I couldn’t let it go. I walked the horse back to the starting point and took a breath.

Moments later, we were flying over that first jump. And then the next. I grabbed a big hunk of that horse’s mane and held on as we went up and over the last barrier and splashed down into the water. A long straightaway at a hard gallop completed the course.

When we stopped, I couldn’t dismount. I was shaking and thought I might be ill. When I finally slipped to the ground, my unsteady legs threatened to deposit me in the dirt. The equestrian, without saying a word, took the reins and led the beast away.

Show jumping Horse

While this is not a picture of me during my show jumping jaunt, it certainly could have been.

“You OK?” my cameraman asked.

“Give me a minute.”

Later, in the newsroom, after viewing my decidedly inelegant ride, my news director was the one who would need a minute. He looked as if he might have a stroke. “What were you thinking?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

He walked off shaking his head.

After that, I got to go back to covering safe sports. Like football.

 

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Anne Montgomery’s latest novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.

My dark pet past

Annd and a Lizard

I did enjoy my lizard friends, still, in retrospect, they were lucky they managed to escape.

I have, over the course of my life, been the caretaker of myriad cats and dogs and birds and fish. I know I’ve been a good pet mom to my animal friends, tending to their needs and holding the four-legged ones tight when, old and infirm, we made that last trek to the vet.

While I have done well by my animal friends, who almost universally came from streets and shelters, I do have a dark past involving some beasts, the memories of which continue to haunt me.

When I was maybe five, I found a tiny, featherless bird, who, despite what appeared to be a broken neck, chirped piteously. I held the fledgling up to my mother, who blinked dispassionately behind black cat-eye glasses.

“Maybe he’s thirsty,” I said.

“I’ll get some water.”

“No, he’s a baby. He needs milk.”

“Birds don’t drink milk.”

“Milk!” I insisted.

So my mother gave the baby bird milk … and it died.

When I was older, I discovered a crow fluttering in the grass in my back yard. I placed the bird on the patio table and decided he might be hungry. I considered what might be tasty to a crow and determined that corn was the answer. Finding none in the refrigerator, I checked the freezer and was delighted to see a package of Green Giant Frozen Nibblets. I rushed to the patio and sure enough, my crow gobbled up that icy treat. A few minutes later, he toppled over … dead.

Then there were the fishes. Shortly after my mother allowed me to plant a rock garden behind the house, my dad and I formed a tiny concrete pond, not much more than a foot wide. I joyfully filled that small depression with water, but quickly sensed something was missing. So, I grabbed an empty Skippy Peanut Butter jar, called my collie dog Betsy, and headed to the brook to do some fishing. Later, I dumped those tiny fish into my pond, quite sure they would be happy with their new living arrangements. The next morning, eager to visit my fishy friends, I rushed to my pond to discover it … empty! I did some pondering on the mystery and determined that the fish had disappeared with the water though some minuscule crack and were now traversing an underwater stream that would lead them back to the brook.

Really.

In a similar fashion, I gathered unfortunate salamanders from under rocks in the woods and plopped them into the terrarium, which I made myself. I gathered soft, green moss, which I was sure the lizards would appreciate, and uprooted other woodland flora to decorate their home. I artfully placed bits of wood and rocks in the tank, along with a jar lid filled with water, so they might get a drink or go for a swim, should they feel the urge. What I never once considered was food. I think I believed my salamanders – some black, some red sporting a dark stripe – would discover reptile sustenance in the dirt somewhere. In any case, the fact that someone, I’m guessing my older brother, “accidentally” dislodged the glass tank top, proved to be a boon for those beasts, because they escaped, heading, no doubt, for the lizard version of McDonalds, never to be seen again.

The good news is that, once I got a bit older, I learned how to better care for the creatures that counted on me for their survival. We kids were required to feed and provide water for our dog and cat every night before dinner. One evening, when we had collectively forgotten to nourish our furry friends, my father admonished us.

“They can’t feed themselves!” he said, clearly disappointed by our neglect. “It’s your job to take care of them. They count on you.”

I stared at my dog, a look she returned with unabashed adoration, and felt ashamed.  From that day forward, my pets have eaten before me. And I have made it my goal to treat all animal friends with kindness and compassion, with perhaps one well-intentioned exception.

The giant goldfish belonged to my two young nieces.

“What’ll we do?” My sister-in-law said, wrinkling her nose at the chubby, orange creature that swam in wobbly circles.

“We will…um…I don’t know.”

She stared at me. “The girls can’t see him like this.”

I considered the alternatives. Finally, I spread my hands wide. “Put it in a plastic bag and freeze it?”

I won’t say any more about that, except that it seemed kinder and less messy than the hammer option or any of the other routes we contemplated. Surely, you can see that my intention was one of benevolence.

I hope.

 

Anne Montgomery’s latest novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.

 

The Book Cove Interview

My thanks to the folks at The Book Cove for interviewing me about writing and for allowing me to discuss my novel The Scent of Rain.

http://bookcovereviews.blogspot.com/2018/05/author-interview-anne-montgomery.html

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Anne Montgomery’s latest novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.

Dancing with Magic

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Michael Jordan (left) and Magic Johnson, two of the biggest stars in NBA history, were known for their outrageous talents on the court and their infectious smiles.

I was a sports reporter for a good chunk of my life. Whenever I share that part of my past, the same question pops up.

“What about the locker room?” people ask breathlessly. “Did you ever go in?”

Well, of course I did. It’s not like I had a choice in the matter. I was a reporter on deadline. If I didn’t head into that messy inner sanctum, I would have returned to the newsroom empty handed. With no interviews, I have no story. With no story, I have no job.

Still, when I wormed my way into the sports world, way back in the early 1980s, the thought of a woman entering the locker room had barely registered on the general consciousness, even though Robin Herman, a 23-year-old reporter for the New York Times, and radio reporter Marcel St. Cyr both gained access following the NHL All-Star game in Montreal in 1975, a moment widely believed to be the first time women reporters shared the same rights as their male counterparts.

When I arrived in Phoenix, Arizona in 1988, a newly minted weekday sports reporter and weekend anchor at what was then KTSP-TV, the question of my entering the locker room became a story in and of itself.

Gene Stallings, the head coach of the NFL’s Cardinals, appeared stunned the first time he saw me in the locker room. Another reporter asked his thoughts on the occasion and Stallings was quoted as saying, “Well, I have four daughters.” His discomfiture was obvious.

I, however, tried to hide mine. I tended toward the back of the horde of reporters who would press up against those locker-room doors, intent on asking insightful questions before the players dashed away, most wanting nothing to do with scribes who might pillory them for their performances.

Once inside, I discovered reactions to my presence varied considerably. The Cardinals locker room had some players who seemed rather appalled that I might see them undressed.

“Just a minute, Anne!” quarterback Neil Lomax would call out. “Let us put our pants on.”

So, I would stand in the middle of that post-game chaos, and do my best not to stare, while waiting for the men who cared to cover up.

There were others who found no discomfort in being exposed. I remember needing an interview with a player who already had a gaggle of reporters surrounding him. I instructed my videographer, a tall man, to shoot up over the group. Then, microphone in hand, I edged my way through the mob and kneeled. When I looked up, I faced a naked man perched on the edge of a metal folding chair who quite comfortably conversed, despite his state of undress.

Suffice it to say, he was rather spectacular, by all accounts. Later, I would succumb to bouts of laughter, recalling the awed expressions displayed by my peers, no doubt brought on by a substantial amount of envy.

I faced a new challenge when the NBA season got underway. While NFL players are often exceedingly large people, basketball players are, almost uniformly, very tall. When interviewing them outside the locker room, I would often arrange myself on stairs, so as not to disappear from the video frame. But inside the locker room, I had no such option. Positioning oneself to interview naked basketball players took some delicacy.

One evening, when the Phoenix Suns were hosting the LA Lakers, I stood outside the locker room, this time at the front of the pack. I felt a rush of insecurity I would never have admitted to at the time. I had no wish to enter that noisy, sweaty realm filled with giant men, some not so happy with their on-court performances. Behind me, reporters on deadline fidgeted like cattle ready to explode from a corral. Then, the door burst open. Lakers star Magic Johnson grinned at us, that beatific smile that would become his trademark. Music blared from the locker room and Magic locked his eyes on mine. Suddenly, I was whirling in his arms, dancing before that throng of male reporters.

Our dance ended quickly. Magic nodded, the grin never ebbing, and walked through the crowd. For a moment, I was afraid to look, conscious that such behavior would be deemed unprofessional. I expected derision, since some of my peers were unaccepting of my presence in their club.

Someone laughed. I turned and was shocked to see a number of those hardened reporters grinning, genial expressions that dispelled an awkward moment. For the first time, I considered that they too might be uncomfortable entering the locker room.

We surged toward the doors, a bit more relaxed. And all it took was a short dance and big smile from a big man. And for that, Magic, I will always be grateful.

 

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Anne Montgomery’s latest novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.