I heard remarkably sad news on the radio this morning: Alex Karras has died.
Even if you don’t know who Alex Karras is, it is worth pausing a moment to note that I heard breaking news on the radio. Not via a Tweet, not thanks to a friend’s post on Facebook.
The radio jock handled it just right, talking between songs about a book his father had let him read (which I happened to know was Paper Lion just by the description), an account of George Plimpton’s saga as a poseur quarterback to get the inside scoop on trying out in the NFL, the Detroit Lions one got to know as a result, the standout “character” who was a lauded defensive tackle. A guy who went on to a legitimate career as an actor (remember differentiating acting careers on “legitimacy”?), and who -- now pay close attention here, this was huge to a pre-adolescent girl paying attention to such things -- married Susan Clark after starring with her in a movie about Babe Didrickson.
The guy had brains and character enough to marry a woman who could carry off Babe.
You might not even know him as a football player. You might know him for adopting Webster. Or for punching a horse in Blazing Saddles.
To me, he was a scary Lion who wasn’t so scary after all. Well, who COULD be scary, but who had brains, too. And a sense of humor.
These are very important character traits for a) an impressionable youth, b) an impressionable young woman trying to figure out if guys were no particularly different, as things had seemed until quite recently, or incredibly so, as culture and occasional circumstance were starting to suggest, and c) somebody from Detroit.
So there I am, driving. I have been riding in cars all of my life. I acknowledge this is true of a lot of people these days, but not all. There are still some New Yorkians, for example, for whom a driver’s license is not a certificate validating your 16th birthday that happens to be issued by the Secretary of State. But there was once a time when most of us knew either in our own family, or a friend's family, a Grown Up Who Did Not Drive. And even in Detroit, I remember my friend's mother telling me about how she got places in a streetcar. A STREETCAR, for the love of Mike. And she lived in Detroit! Wrapping one's head around the novelty of riding in cars is perhaps a lost phenomenon, but there it is, and there it was ghosting in my head as I thought about riding in and then driving cars. Riding and driving in cars, gerund form, present tense, life hapenning; gerund form, passive voice, object of the action.
So there I am, driving. The radio is on. A throwback station, with a strong local identify, running a “freeform rock experiment” for longer than I've lived here, purchased by a conglomerate nearly ten years ago and in jeopardy ever since. And a guy -- a real guy, talking only on this station, not over a satellite -- is weaving a story I’m thinking is going to head somewhere else. And then WHAM. Alex Karras is dead.
The horse goes down.
And the guy catches me up on a few things I didn’t know about Alex’ life in the past few years. He’s had dementia. He’s part of the NFL players lawsuit on head injuries. My favorite Lion of all time.
Mongo, whose character name which then showed up on a player for the football team in my adopted home town.
He slugged the horse, but now he is the one down. One defensive back in a field of NFL players, going down with traumatic brain injuries, one by one. One influence on my periphery, stepping forward from a field of semi-forgottens who re-emerge in my direct line of sight via obituary.
Karras is down. The radio jock stops talking. I keep my hands at 10 and 2 o’clock, as I have during so many flummoxing pieces of news in this past year, and keep the nose of the car between the lines, and continue on to donate the books my sons do not want to keep to an organization who tells me they will find children who do want them.
The news has been delivered, and I have most of an hour there and back to process how a guy who was done playing by the time I was aware of Lions football ended up meaning so much to me. How a personality that I never directly paid attention to, except for that movie--by which I mean the one about Babe Zaharias and not the one with the guys farting around the campfire--ended up throwing me a sucker punch when he died puzzles me. Perhaps because...
It’s being grateful for someone showing that you can be physical and brainy.
It’s the time I saw him interviewed and it was clear he took each of his endeavors seriously, but never so seriously as to be puffed beyond reality.
It’s knowing he ended up with a $#@!*L%! brain injury, blast it all to pieces, which should be no surprise to me, as I’ve been on the concussion trail for over five years now, but oh the thought of his funny self compromised by controllable, avoidable circumstances slays me.
It’s realizing I don’t know if word of mouth, as in word from mouth, will ever be the way I hear an important piece of news again. Chirp chirp. Tweet tweet.
Many moons ago, I was a potentially aspiring musician in training camp, erm, master class, at the very university where the Lions held their training camps. I was there for prospect week. I helped move a couple of players in, in fact; a gaggle of giggling teen flute players showing incredibly large young men how to find their rooms and where the vending machines were and how to get to the cafeteria. Because I had legitimate Lions fans in my family, I knew that one of the guys I was helping out was their number one draft pick that year.
I kind of forget his name. Keith someone. I forget the names of the four guys in the elevator who launched into an a cappella version of “After The Gold Rush,” too. And this even though I never collided with other human beings on a gridiron (or a soccer pitch, or an ice rink, or a rugby field). I forget, but I remember.
The horse wobbles.
My scent of the day, for those who of you who happen to find me and remember that when I was here before I wore perfume goggles as I thought and wrote things, is Arpege. It is neither a current nor a vintage version, and edp from one of the iconic round black bottles with a ribbed gold cap and the image of Mme. Lanvin and her daughter on the side.
AS I SHIFT FOCUS to perfume, I remember more about Karras; Karras was the James Garner buddy in Victor/Victoria. And I have the thought that Arpege, as one of those scents that is not brash but consistently attractive, could have been worn by a number of the characters, in whichever guise they happen to be assuming.
I remember more; there is a punch you don’t see coming in Victor/Victoria: Victoria decks the hustler and kicks him out of her friend’s place. Another whallomp out of the blue. In Blazing Saddles, the recipient is the surprise; in Victor/Victoria, the deliverer. I guess Karras kept on showing up in places where life shows there are fresh angles.
I’m glad Arpege has remained largely the same, with its adaptability underscoring the idea that sometimes you need to re-check your vision and/or your assumptions.
And comforting me as I let some things go.