After all these years, it strikes me that being afraid to interact with strangers might not be such a great trait for a journalist. I wonder if there’s any way my brain’s tendency to freeze at the point of contact could impede my observational skills?
It’s Tuesday, Nov. 13, A.D. 2012, and my subject of fear and loathing is named Carl Cluff.
Cluff, 90, is a retired sportswriter who logged 33 years at the Oregon Journal and then the Oregonian. He was the Journal’s track and field expert, its repository for arcana pertaining to Prefontaine, Bowerman and the Ducks thinclads (I use this noun with an appropriate touch of irony. When I was a kid, back when Cluff was writing about Prefontaine, the newspapers employed all sorts of hackneyed expressions in reference to particular sports. Track runners were thinclads, their cross-country counterparts harriers. The sports pages were full of cagers, gridders, booters, keglers and more. These terms are still employed, but not as popularly as they once were. Well, nevermind.)
Carl Cluff is the reason we spent a whole day in and around Beaverton, which as far as I can tell is a sprawling collection of asphalt and concrete crisscrossed by freeways and inhabited by the usual collection of Safeways, McDonald’s, Best Buys and Targets.
While it’ll never be Portland, Beaverton does have an impressive YMCA. They call it the Hoop YMCA, and it features six full basketball courts. All of them were alive Monday night with the insistent squeak of sneakers, the rhythmic bounce of rubber on wood and the ineffable sound of basketballs snapping cleanly against nylon netting.
I worked out for an hour on a machine overlooking the court front and center. I’ve never really taken notice of how good females have become on the basketball court. You might say I willfully refused to notice.
For the better part of eight years I worked on a sports copy desk, where WNBA contests and NCAA women’s tournaments were unwelcome intruders in a room already packed to the ceiling with excruciatingly mundane fare.
Well, I noticed at the Hoop Y. Two teams, with one substitute between them, went at each other 5-on-5 full-court for the better part of an hour. They ran the whole time.
The team without a sub was a whirl of perpetual motion, cutting and screening and sharing the ball with pleasing unselfishness. Rebounders held the ball high, looked up court and quickly delivered outlet passes. Everybody moved without the ball and followed their shots. Passing eclipsed dribbling as the preferred means of moving the ball up court.
The sight was exhausting and invigorating at the same time.
And that was more than I thought I’d ever write on women’s hoops.
After the Y, we slept in the “Neighborhood Walmart” nearby. Instead of being open 24 hours and lit up like a runway – as most RV-friendly Walmarts are – it closed at 10 and looked like a small grocery store. There were no signs prohibiting overnight parking, so we found a spot far from the front doors and set up camp for the night.
Why had we stopped for Carl Cluff?
My buddy Rick Manugian has been after me for some time to work on a book project that would cobble together stories, anecdotes and memories from old-time newspapermen in what I guess would be a “The Glory of Their Times” sort of anthology (It would of course be nowhere near as good, though this wouldn’t bother Rick because I’m quite sure he’s unaware of Ritter’s masterpiece).
Being a veteran of a thousand unfinished projects, I was hesitant to enlist in another.
It wasn’t until I began to suspect Manugian himself wasn’t so invested in this one that I felt free to invest it with the Johnny Boy curse. And I figured talking to some whiskey-in-the-bottom-drawer newspaper vets might be a good way to collect stories for my primary unfinished project, whatever that is.
Once we crossed the Columbia on Monday, I called friend and former colleague OB, an Oregon native and alumnus of the dearly departed Journal. I asked if he could think of any old-timers from his Oregon days. And OB thought of Carl Cluff.
OB said he wasn’t sure Carl was still alive, but I found him with a little research at the Tualatin Public Library. After a little finessing by OB, I called Carl and set up an interview for late Tuesday morning.
It was about 2 p.m. Monday, which meant we had a day to kill.
Fortunately, every stitch of clothing in our traveling wardrobe was dirty. We found a laundromat, washed a dozen loads, dried, folded and discarded superfluous clothing.
Then we hit the Y and the Neighborhood Walmart.
We got up Tuesday around 8, failed in several attempts to find a McDonald’s with a live outlet and took refuge at a Safeway store, where we charged our computers and phone but had no connection to the Internet. (We need to find a better, less-corporate way of finding wireless and staying charged.)
The dread slowly mounted. When I looked at the phone and noted it was 10:43, the anxiety rose palpable in my gut.
I called Carl at 11, as I promised I would, and asked if he was sure he was up for a visitor.
“I can’t really say for sure,” he said.
That was not promising at all. A long pause ensued. I wanted to give him every possible excuse, because frankly I wasn’t all that sure I was up to it, either.
He said he really didn’t mind if we popped over, and so we were on our way.
Before long we were in Raleigh Hills, a leafy neighborhood of towering trees and sprawling ranch houses. Then we were in the living room of Cluff’s Parkview Avenue home, chatting with Geraldine (Jerry) and Carl Cluff.
Carl Cluff grew up in The Dalles, where his dad operated a delivery business. He graduated from high school in 1940 and joined the Marines. A couple years later, much to his horror, he found himself in the middle of the hellscape that was the Pacific Theater of Operations.
It was, he admits, a terrible time. He won’t say much else, to his kids, Jerry or anyone else.
His older brother got shot up on Guam, but survived. Carl, last survivor of four Cluff siblings, escaped without injury, at least physically.
He returned from the war and enrolled in the University of Oregon’s journalism program. When he finished there, he got his first job at a weekly paper, the Gresham Outlook.
He went from the Gresham Outlook to the Sandy Post, and then to the Journal, which is where he met OB. That means he never worked outside a 30-mile radius from Portland.
The Journal printed its final edition on Sept 4, 1982. It sold on newsstands for 20 cents. The Journal employees, from editor Donald Sterling on down, were absorbed by the Oregonian, which up until that point had been the enemy.
“We didn’t like it, but we went with it up to the Oregonian building,” Carl says. “We weren’t too happy.”
That was about as much as Carl would say on this day.
I was afraid he might not have much to say, but I wasn’t prepared for a wall of fog. All I know about Carl is he has a firm handshake, a kind face and opaque blue eyes behind wire rim glasses. That and what Jerry shared.
I asked all the boilerplate questions you might figure I asked. They weren’t very savvy, and Carl easily pushed aside my frontal assaults.
Did the newspaper business change a lot from the early 1950s to the early 80s?
“Oh gosh, I don’t know.”
What do you remember about the competition between the Journal and the Oregonian?
“I don’t know.”
This absolute. Carl does not know, not anymore. Not today, anyway. He once knew a lot about many things, of this I am sure. He once knew all there was to know about his life.
Carl and Jerry have been married 45 years. It’ll be 46 in May. He’ll turn 91 on Jan. 24. She remembers much of his story. My mind wanders to the song “The Dutchman.”
She reminds me of Margaret, though she doesn’t remember as much about Carl as Margaret remembers about the Dutchman. But she puts in an admirable effort.
“Let us go to the banks of the ocean,
Where the walls rise above the Zuider Zee.
Long ago, I used to be a young man,
And dear Margaret remembers that for me.”
The story he wrote about Prefontaine’s 1975 funeral is now in the Library of Congress, Jerry says.
“I didn’t know that,” says Carl.
Carl was 53 when Pre drove his MGB convertible into a rock wall in Eugene and died at 24. No matter how long you live or how hard you run, you can’t defeat mortality.
She remembered his trip to Montreal in ’76 to cover the Summer Olympics.
She remembered Carl went head-to-head in a spirited rivalry with Oregonian writer Leo Davis, and often butted heads with his domineering sports editor, George Pasero.
Jerry is sweet. She opened her grandson’s toy collection to Max, who didn’t want to give them up when it was time to leave. Kids always offer a happy distraction when the adult things are difficult to parse.
I look down at Carl’s Oregon Ducks slippers and around the room at the Thanksgiving figurines, the encyclopedia collection on the bookshelf, the darkened TV screen. I look for a question that will unlock Carl Cluff, but it eludes me.
“You don’t remember a thing about track and field?” Jerry asks, pleadingly.
“Just about everything,” says Carl, before going quiet again.
“He’s got a file of Prefontaine stories he wrote about so thick,” says Jerry. “He went to Steve Prefontaine’s funeral and he wrote a very moving story.”
“He was something else,” Carl says. “He was just a very interesting person, I enjoyed interviewing him. He was very good interview,“
He locks his fingers together and places them at the side of his head, like small pillow. At one point I wonder if he’s asleep.
Or maybe he’s just waiting for me to leave, wondering when I’ll leave him in peace.
“Getting old is not very nice,” Jerry says.
Since I can’t get him to talk about newspapers, I occasionally ask him about the war. Cynically, I hope I may get lucky and hit the jackpot.
“I was all the way from Guadacanal clear up through the Philippines and in Okinawa,” he says.
I allow that it must have been full of unspeakable horror.
“It was,” he says.
I guess it was hell on earth, at least that’s what people say.
“Yeah,” he says.
What’s going on in there, Carl?
I don’t know if he’s thinking about dead buddies with headless bodies and charred corpses and scattered limbs or men he killed or if he’s just thinking of nothing.
So I ask him.
“I was thinking about the war,” he says.
Anything you want to talk about, I ask.
He shakes his head no.
Jerry says he wrote to his mother every day. She saved all the letters. Plus he kept a journal recording his whereabouts. She thinks maybe their three sons will look through the letters some day, cross-reference them with the journal and maybe piece together a story.
What’s unsaid is that day will come when Carl’s no longer here.
Life is terrible. To paraphrase the Woody Allen joke from “Annie Hall,” it’s an endless procession of misery, suffering and dissatisfaction, and it’s over much too quickly.
I am too old not to be scared to death of death and dementia. I’m too old to be the least bit amused about senility. My dad died at 78, and he didn’t know if he was coming or going.
I’ll be 50 before Carl turns 91. When Max is my age, I’ll be almost 94.
Most likely I’ll be dead long before that, of course.
Jerry breaks the pregnant silence by offering up the story of their meeting. They met in a Los Angeles barroom in 1964. She was visiting from Massachusetts. Her friend, Nancy, was dating Herman, who owned the bar. Carl was in town covering an international track meet.
“He picked me up,” she says, quickly interjecting “No! Don’t write that!”
She returned to Arlington, Mass. and he wooed her with letters. Apparently he was a persuasive writer, an engaging stylist. Those letters don’t exist anymore.
Jerry burned them.
There is a red maple tree in the corner of the front yard. The organizers of the Montreal Olympic Games gave them out as seedlings to all the media.
Perhaps it is the sturdiest survivor of what should be a memorable career.
Somewhere in the house there’s a file which includes every story Carl ever wrote. Somewhere in his head are memories of those stories.
Maybe he truly remembers nothing. Maybe in the end he decided he just wasn’t in the mood to share what he does remember. Maybe his memories are too precious to give up to a stranger. Who knows?
Jerry seems a little dumbfounded.
“I can’t believe it,“ she says. “his whole career was extremely important. It was his love. He lived and ate it. Sometimes it irritated me. He used to say he was lucky; his job was his hobby.”
Jerry’s talking about his run-ins with George Pasero, when Carl lifts out of his reverie and inquires:
“That fellow that put you on me, where the hell has he been all these years?”
This strikes me as close to the real Carl Cluff as I’m going to get today. A momentary burst of passion, a fleeting disavowal of bullshit.
It recedes as quickly as it appeared.
And it’s time to go. So we go.