A quick Sept. 11 remembrance

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I hate to let Sept. 11 fade away without stopping at some point to remember that day, those who lost their lives, and those whose lives were forever changed by the events of that day — which includes all of us in a way, but some of us in a big way, those who lost loved ones, those who responded on the various scenes, those who were injured or who still carry the scars.

I’ve heard people say this a lot, but it rings a little more true to me every year. I look at the unity this nation experienced in the days following those terror attacks, and wonder if it ever can happen in this nation again, as divided as we seem.

I believe that it can, though I’m afraid it will take great tragedy to do it.

If we continue to drift apart, however, we’ll have no trouble finding great tragedy. In fact, it will find us.

At any rate, what continually comes to mind for me these days is a short film you can see in the permanent 9/11 exhibit at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The short film, “Running Toward Danger,” chronicles the work of a few journalists that day.

It’s worth your time to watch below. It’s difficult to watch. But we need to remember. Some of the journalists interviewed in this piece help us do that.

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Thoughts on recent events

47c866e8-94fe-4734-a49a-450a871bd556What do you think? I’ve had a few people ask me the question in the past week, and not about sports. I’ve stepped outside the lines in this space in the past to write about politics, or current events, or history, from time to time. Events of the past week in Charlottesville, Va., and elsewhere have drawn a kind of line, it seems, around which everyone must talk. If you don’t believe me, look at social media.

What do I think?

Before I get to that, I have to tell you, in tense, polarizing times like these, I keep hearing the words of Gerald White. And for that, I have to take you back to the 1980s, and Miller Hall, on the campus at the University of Louisville, on the fourth floor, where someone was scrawling the signature racial epithet on the walls of the dormitory hallway. The residents were tense. I was resident assistant. My job was to keep the lines of communication open and tempers, as best I could, below the boiling point, among the guys who lived on that floor.

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This day in Louisville news: The past century

A couple of my friends from The Courier-Journal have been posting the front page of the past couple of days’ editions on social media. The C-J is devoting its front page entirely to the Forecastle music festival for a three-day stretch. Seeing those covers — and the design and photography are beautiful — gave me the idea for this blog post. July 15 is an ordinary day, and I thought I’d take a look at the front pages on this date every decade, going back 100 years. This is not critique of anything at the newspaper. It will, of course, show how our lives have changed, locally and nationally, and it can’t help but show how the paper itself and its role have changed. But the main thing is that it’s interesting and fun to do. And the middle of summer seems like a good time to do it.

As always when I delve into historical images like this, I need to recommend The Courier-Journal’s archives feature to you. At $7.95 a month, if you’re interested in history of the city, its as good a resource as you can find. Learn more here.

So here, goes. If you’re more interested in the pages, you may click on each for a larger, more readable, view.

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A departure

dscn3315.jpgThe offerings have been pretty sparse from these parts over the past week or so, and there’s a reason for that. Last Sunday night, Delbert Crawford, my grandfather, died at a little after 11 o’clock, at 102 years of age.

My earliest memories of him are of his hands. Holding some toy or other we were showing him, they turned it over, examining it slowly, deliberately. They were strong then, and rough, so rough that they would catch on a sweater if you were wearing one.

The morning of the day he died, I held his hand and it was as soft as a dream. A final memory.

In between there is much, too much to set down here.

But this is how it works. At a Senior PGA event the mind wandered to the accomplishments of old men. At Churchill Downs, it sprinted to him telling about riding his horse, Buck, to school, and of how the horse would take off when he had barely gotten onto him. He wanted to be a jockey for a time, but outgrew it. These are the tracks your thoughts gallop onto even when you need them to go elsewhere.

So tonight, a full stop to look back. I have written about him before in this space, particularly on his one-hundredth birthday, but also when I missed his one hundred second birthday party, and at other times.

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While the poet slept . . .

Another brief retreat from the world of sport.

Last year I spoke to a college writing class and, perhaps unsuccessfully, tried to relate to its students the relevance of poetry in their lives. It can be present, I told them, in the lyrics from their iPods or the taps of their Twitter posts. I told them at some time or other they will find themselves needing to say something important, to answer a question, to offer advice to someone, to say the right thing, to a child, to a friend, a spouse, to someone they’ve fallen in love with, to anyone, and in that moment they will want to be a poet, to say something that can be held, remembered, appreciated, something with meaning beyond its words.

But I don’t think anything quite got their attention like one little story, of a farmer and poet who decided several years ago to let it be known that he was fed up with the choices for governor and that he simply wasn’t voting in the primary out of protest.

We all know people who don’t vote. But when this man, Wendell Berry, said he was sitting an election out, people fretted. Many were upset. Even some who understood were upset. They wrote letters to the newspaper editor. They talked about it on the radio.

One missing vote out of millions, yet it mattered. Hands went up. Why such a big deal?

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Planes, trains (of thought) and automobiles

I missed my grandfather’s 102nd birthday celebration on Sunday because of mechanical problems on an airplane in Providence, R.I.

There was, in that, a fleeting shadow of the transcendental.

When my grandfather was born, there was no such thing as a commercial airplane flight. The Wright Brothers, in fact, were not only alive and kicking, but working for the U.S. military.

The first Wright Brothers’ airplanes did not need batteries once the ignition was triggered. Not so for the Embraer MD-88. The one scheduled to start my trip home had dead batteries at 6 a.m. And, apparently, it takes 5 hours for Delta to rectify such a situation.

In this case, we were informed, the delay came in needing to send to just outside Boston, near Concord, Mass., 60 miles away, for the replacement batteries. What they neglected to tell us was that word was sent to Boston via bicycle messenger, and the batteries transported to Providence by none other than Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz at a lilting walk.

Had Paul Revere taken so long, the British already would have come.

Unless they had booked on Delta.

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Footprints of a wandering mind

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. In fact, I don’t make them. I intended to make an exception this year when a local magazine asked me to submit a few, and I did take a thoughtful stab at it, but to no good purpose. I am, it seems, resolute, in my anti-resolution stance.

My recent resolve has nothing to do with New Year’s. I have been trying lately to pay attention to where my mind is going when it wanders, and to focus less on bringing it back to where I want it than in following to see where it goes. Often it goes back. Sometimes it goes nowhere. In the absence of other things, you will find some of its wanderings here. As in the following . . .

* * *

Something got loose in the dishwasher last night. It was beating in time with the machine, a deep thump against the waterproof wall, like a primitive rainforest drum pounding out a prayer.

No, I wasn’t under the influence when, for a flash, I pictured the dishes dancing inside, spoons splashing.

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Christmas recollection: Santa Scores

I usually try to post a little extra on here at Christmastime, but haven’t gotten around to it this year. So to kick things off, this column I wrote in the Christmas Eve, 2007, edition of The Courier-Journal

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By ERIC CRAWFORD
Dec. 24, 2007

Dear Santa,

I’ve not written you for a long while, I know.

I’m only writing now because I should have written this long ago, but didn’t.

It’s been 30 years since you brought me the best Christmas gift I ever received. Maybe you remember it. It was the only thing I asked for that year a Dallas Cowboys football helmet.

You must get this a lot, Santa. Everybody has one gift they remember more than the others. We all have our own “Red Rider B.B. gun” stories.

I wish I could tell you what it felt like to see the helmet under the tree that Christmas morning, but I can’t. I don’t remember. That’s all right. It holds other memories that are far more important.

It couldn’t have been an easy gift to find. Back then, the NFL didn’t have replica merchandise. The only people wearing Cowboys football helmets were the Cowboys.

The year Santa worked overtime

But I didn’t know the real story behind it until another Christmas, 23 years ago, when in the pages of this newspaper my father wrote about how hard it had been for you to locate that gift. The long-distance phone calls to Chicago, and then Dallas. The fretting over finding it. The worrying over whether it could be found at all.

Way out where we lived, there weren’t many kids to play football with. In fact, about the only one my age was a couple of miles down the road, and she wasn’t really into football and was probably faster than me, anyway. But what I lacked in competition I made up for in room to roam.

On football fall days, I’d take off to yard or field and somehow manage to play all 22 positions plus special teams by myself. I’d save my biggest plays for when the wind would whip the turning leaves into a roar. They were my applause. I kicked the extra points over an electric wire attached to the house.

I didn’t want a real audience, but once in a while somebody would remark to my parents at seeing me diving and falling, making passes to myself in the yard.

When it was too cold, I’d line up under center above the family room couch, Roger Staubach about to hand off to Robert Newhouse for a short-yardage dive.

I played on real basketball and baseball teams, but football, Santa, was always a game in my head, a game of image and of words.

I don’t suppose I’d be writing this if I hadn’t been out in the garage yesterday looking for a place to hide a present. And there, in the floorboard of a battery-powered Hummer, sat the old helmet. There was a T-ball glove next to it, and up on the seats were a Wiffle Ball bat, a pair of roller skates and a tackle box that had been converted into a motor pool for a fleet of toy Army vehicles.

From time to time through the year the helmet will come charging at me on the heads of one of my sons, and I will remember those afternoons when I was the only game in town.

But more than that, I will remember the Santa who loved me like a son.

The gift of lasting memories

It was a gift that gave both of us more than we ever suspected, and I’m not just talking about newspaper columns though those are no small things in themselves sometimes.

Sports has changed since then, Santa. You wouldn’t believe. But I’d like to thank you this Christmas Eve, and I know a lot of other folks would too, for similar gifts they remember. People like us are thankful that, despite it all, sports can still be about more than winning and losing and controversy.

They still can be about families and memories that burn long after the lights on scoreboards and Christmas trees have gone out.

Byron Crawford's "Kentucky Footnotes"

The book, as they say, has dropped. Well, at least it has dropped into the lap of its author, and soon will be available to the public, including folks who attend the Kentucky Book Fair on Saturday, Nov. 13, at the Frankfort Convention Center. (The fair runs from 9 to 4:30, admission is free.)

Byron Crawford’s Kentucky Footnotes, published by Acclaim Press, is his third collection of columns from The Courier-Journal. You’ll be reading more about it in the coming weeks, and I’m hardly an unbiased reviewer, but I will share with you the best introduction to the book that I can provide, which is the one I wrote as the book’s Foreword.

For those who do their shopping online, you can order the book at this link.

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When I first went to work for The Courier-Journal as a clerk in 1992, it wasn’t unusual to have people wander up to me and say, “I’ve worked here for years, but I’ve never met your father.”

Indeed, The Courier-Journal building at Sixth and Broadway in Louisville never was a good place to look for Byron Crawford. He never had a desk there. You were better off heading out of town, finding a little general store somewhere off the main road and asking if they’d seen him. Chances are it hadn’t been too long since they had.

In 1979, Barry Bingham Jr. installed him as the paper’s Kentucky columnist with a great commission — to go therefore into the hills and hollows, the forgotten corners and favorite haunts of his home state, and write about his fellow Kentuckians in his own voice, which was also theirs.

For nearly thirty years, he took his readers into places they lived, or never would have gone. Some days he carried them back in time to a Kentucky as it used to be, or would not continue to be for long. Some mornings, if they were lucky, instead of mountains he would walk them through memories, or his own reflections.

He strived to give his subjects center stage and was reluctant to turn the column toward himself. Yet in compilations like this one, now his third collection of pieces from The Courier-Journal to be published, it is hard to miss his unmistakable voice, his sense of a story told right, his feel for expressing the essence of his subjects.

These pieces do tell us something about him. But perhaps they tell me something more. Growing up, I watched him labor over columns on an evolving series of machines, big bulky computers with screens no bigger than today’s smart phones, lugging them out to the truck for another run through the state.

And I watched him later, when we wrote for the same paper, work with the same effort and care. Most of these stories did not shout from the front page of the newspaper, though some did. But he brought front-page dedication to each one.

I know what his work has meant to the state, if only because one by one, people tell me now and again about the time he came to interview a family member, and how they still talk about that day, or have framed the column, or read a portion of it at the funeral of someone he wrote about. He wondered what the interest would be in another collection of columns. I told him if only his friends bought the book, it could take him through two or three printings. Of course, the appeal of his stories is much wider. They’ve been used in schools and college writing courses, and a while back I even heard of one of his books being used to teach English to students in Greece.

Truly, you never know where his stories will take you, or where they might wind up. I suppose my best lesson in his eye for a story came a couple of years ago. He called me to ask about a member of the University of Louisville football marching band who my mother had seen playing his trumpet from a wheelchair. I told him I didn’t know, that I never watched the halftime show.

While I was focused on writing about what I thought was big news, nationally televised football games, I missed something that he was instinctively drawn to. He called several times to ask me if I was sure I didn’t want to do that story, but I passed.

Shortly after he wrote his column about blind trumpet player Patrick Henry Hughes and the moving story of his father, who not only pushed him through band practice and performances, but to every class, Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly graciously emailed my dad to ask if he could take a crack at writing it, too.

Soon, Hughes was on the national morning shows, and then the Oprah Winfrey Show. His story culminated in the network program Extreme Home Makeover completely re-doing the Hughes family’s house, and millions of Americans were touched by this tale that was told first in The Courier-Journal, by its one writer who saw the value in such stories the most and told them best.

It was an inspiration for many. For me, it was one more example of dad taking a small story and doing big things.

In the following pages, you’ll see what I mean.

A brief political interlude

Heading from a "Coffin Handbill" circulated against presidential candidate Andrew Jackson.

Off the field again, in another rare non-sports, non-newspaper foray into the real world.

Sometimes when you’re a sportswriter, you watch what’s going on around you in “real” life and realize that the biggest games are nowhere near a playing field.

The NFL, for instance, is all up in arms over the subject of head injuries. Meanwhile, some activist woman gets her head stepped on while making a pass rush on a Senate candidate in Kentucky. So, in fact, it appears that your skull might well have been safer on a professional football field than outside a political debate last week.

Every time the election ad season rolls around, I wish I had one of those really deep voices that oozes indignation, you know the ones they use for voiceovers in political attack ads: “We all need air to breathe, but John Candidate (mock disbelief) wants to deny air to senior citizens. Our seniors can’t afford John Candidate. That’s why the Daily Megaphone called John Candidate a ‘worthless sack of #*$*&.’ No air, no way (mock disgust). Tell John Candidate to blow it up his *$$.”

But some time ago I stopped lamenting the rancor of the process. In fact, I’m proposing stricter debate formats that limit, say, U.S. Senate candidates to nothing but, “Your momma” insults.

Let’s take the current Kentucky race between Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway. It might sound something like this:

Conway: Your momma’s so stupid she put paper on the television set and called it paper view.
Paul: Your momma’s so stupid when they told her it was chilly outside she ran out with a spoon.
Conway:Your momma’s so poor when I rang her doorbell, SHE said “Ding dong.”
Paul: Your momma’s so fat when she goes to the movies, she sits next to EVERYBODY.

Etc. Etc. Now you may ask, what has any of that kind of talk to do with the important issues of the day? To which I answer — about as much as anything you’ll hear in a current political debate.

It’s like this — in this Internet age of public revelation and exposure, to run for political office is very much akin to those crazy couples who used to go on the Jerry Springer show. They’re sitting there in those chairs, but you know the ex-girlfriend (or current girlfriend) is waiting just off stage. In American politics today, the boogeyman is always in the wings.

In Delaware, a female senate candidate just had some dude come forward to tell about a Halloween hook-up last year. In Kentucky, we’re hearing about college pranks.

And it’s all predicated on the same theme, the theme of every campaign being run in America today. And that theme, in short, is this: “My opponent is the worst person in the world. Ever. No, really. The literal worst person. I’m not exaggerating. Don’t look at me that way. Evil. EEE-ville.”

It is discouraging. But not because the tone of the discourse is negative. It is discouraging for me because it is unoriginal. We’ve been around a long time in this country, and yet, our political attacks have really not evolved nor kept pace with technology.

Return with me to 1828. Andrew Jackson was running for President of the United States against John Quincy Adams. This country was so young that it still had that new Constitution smell.

But these guys hated each other. Jackson had won a plurality of electoral votes in the election four years earlier, but lost the election when it swung into the House of Representatives and speaker Henry Clay supported Adams and helped swing the vote to him in that body. Several days later, Adams named Clay Secretary of State, and Jackson went ballistic.

Adams’ forces attacked Jackson as an adulterer. Jackson had married his wife, Rachel, thinking she was divorced, but the papers were not yet finalized and he had to re-marry her once the papers were complete. They also labeled Jackson a murderer for his part in court martialing and executing U.S. Army deserters, for his well-publicized duels and for his attacks on Indian villages. They produced the famous “Coffin Handbills,” some of the the first well-organized attack ads in American politics, which detailed these killings with six coffins printed across the page.

They also put out this charming little pamphlet with a catchy title: “Catalogue of General Jackson’s Youthful Indiscretions between the Age of Twenty-three and Sixty.” In it were listed all of Jackson’s supposed fights and duels. It reported him to be an adulterer, gambler, cockfighter, slave-trader, drunk, thief and liar. It also claimed that his wife was too fat.

Jackson fought back. Seizing on Adams’ time as ambassador to Russia, he accused Adams of giving his wife’s servant to the Czar for unwholesome purposes. Adams had introduced the young lady to the Czar, but that was as far as it went. Didn’t matter. The charge of “pimp” was promulgated. When Adams bought a billiard table and chess set for the White House, Jackson accused him of bringing in a “gaming table and gaming furniture.”

The attacks on Jackson’s wife Rachel were especially severe. She was called a whore and a dirty wench. The Cincinnati Gazette asked, “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest office of this free Christian land?”

As happens sometimes, the negative ads had little effect. Jackson won the presidency.

Shortly after the election, before her husband even was sworn in, Rachel Jackson died of a heart attack. Andrew Jackson always believed that the stress of that campaign killed her. I don’t doubt it.

But the stress of election season shouldn’t get the better of us. If anything, the 1828 election shows us that we’ve been slinging mud for a long time, and frankly, much more skillfully and artfully than the ham-handed productions we see today.

No, it’s not the anger or spite or uncivil tone of our campaigns that will get us in the end. It’s incompetence, greed and ignorance. In other words, it’s one thing to talk like an idiot on the stump. It’s another to govern like one.