A Real-Life Walter Mitty
by Keith Schnell
Even those of us who haven’t read James Thurber’s classic short story about a drab little man named Walter who rises to fame and glory within the confines of his own imagination can relate to the deep-seated feeling that no matter how mundane and uneventful our lives are, if presented with the opportunity to do something extraordinary we would rise to the occasion, and get that shit done in the most spectacular fashion possible. This is the story of one man who did exactly that.
Allan Travers Becomes a Baseball Star
Allan Travers would never have gotten his moment in the sun were it not for the fact that Ty Cobb was the biggest asshole ever to play Major League Baseball, or any kind of baseball at all, or even stickball in the abandoned lot full of trash out back of the Alco plant for that matter. When he laced up his blood-stained cleats, pulled on his Detroit Tigers jersey and stepped out onto the field in New York one fateful day in May, 1912, Cobb as already known as the man who had beaten and choked a husband and wife team of groundskeepers who hadn’t raked the infield to his liking. Later, he shanked a security guard who “looked at him funny.” Given this history, you would think that a young fan of the home team would have known better than to spend the best part of six innings heckling Cobb from the comfort of the stands, throwing peanuts at him, calling his mother a dirty whore, and implying that Cobb, who was shockingly racist even for 1912, was half black.
Just before the seventh inning stretch, one of Cobb’s teammates asked incredulously if he was going to stand for that shit, and the notoriously violent and aggressive Cobb decided that no, he was not – and then proceeded to climb up over the outfield wall like an angry wolverine and beat the terrified man within an inch of his life. He continued even as horrified onlookers pointed out that his victim had no hands, having lost them in some stereotypically horrible 19th century industrial accident. “I don’t care if he’s got no feet!” screamed Cobb as he rained blow after blow, before eventually being pulled off by the cops or some shit.
Astonishingly, public opinion was strongly supportive of Cobb – including even the New York papers – but American League president Ban Johnson saw things differently and banned him from baseball indefinitely. The rest of the Tigers, shocked that they’d finally seen the day when a man could be kicked out of baseball for something as trivial as the attempted murder of a fan during the course of a game, immediately went on strike, leaving the Tigers’ owner, Frank Navin, with the prospect of a $5,000 fine for every game forfeited.
The Tigers next game was three days later, in Philadelphia, and like any MLB owner worth his salt, Navin wasn’t about to concede an inch to the players’ union. Instead, he told Tigers Manager Hughie Jennings to “figure something out.” Short on time, Jennings apparently just wandered the streets of Philly, walking up to random strangers like a high school JV coach out for prospects, asking them if they liked to play baseball. He was eventually able to scrape up enough dregs to field a team by playing first base himself and putting his assistant coach behind home plate. The players came mostly from local amateur and college teams, but on the pitcher’s mound was 20 year-old violinist and divinity student Allan Travers.
Travers had previously tried out for the St. Joseph’s College baseball team and been rejected, then relegated to the outright humiliating position of assistant manager – basically a water boy /cub reporter whose main responsibility was to keep track of the actual players’ stats for the yearbook. The conversation between him and Jennings when he was recruited has been lost to history, so I’m going to go ahead and baselessly speculate that Jennings walked into a bar and asked a couple of sweaty guys in baseball uniforms if they’d like to play for the Detroit Tigers. Being fans of the local team, they respectfully declined, but then pointed over to their assistant manager, gently nursing a glass of warm milk in a back booth, and quietly let slip that the man was a god damn pitching machine. Jennings couldn’t believe his luck, walked over to the astonished Travers with a check for $25 and hustled him out before he or anyone else had a chance to speak up.
The day of the big game – May 18th – dawned, and I would love to be able to tell you that the Tigers’ crew of loveable misfits won the game and shortly thereafter the Philadelphia team moved to Oakland, unable to live down the shame of it all. Alas, it was not the case.
Sometime before the national anthem started – and possibly around the time that Travers showed up with a catcher’s mitt and tee-ball bat – 43 year-old veteran coach Hughie Jennings became aware that his starting and only pitcher might need a little inspirational coaching. Looking the kid over, his mind was filled with horrible visions of Travers being hit by a line drive Charlie Brown style and winding up dead ten minutes into the first inning – costing the Tigers their $5,000 forfeit fee. “For god’s sakes, kid,” Jennings rasped, “don’t throw any fastballs.” And with that, the May 18th 1912 Detroit Tigers trotted onto the diamond and Allan Travers had his moment of glory.
The astonishing thing about what happened next is that the Tigers played as well as they did, losing the game 24-2, with Travers allowing 26 hits and finishing his first and only complete game with a 15.75 ERA. For comparison, in holding their opponents to a mere 22-run lead, the Tigers fared no worse than the 2003 New York Yankees did against the Cleveland Indians in one of the most spectacular shut outs of all time. Travers threw mostly slow curveballs, which the pro players were unaccustomed to, and awesomely managed to strike one guy out, giving him the lifetime ability to one-up any bar braggart in America. He walked off the field with his head held high. The Tigers may not have won the game, but by god he got the job done.
That evening, Johnson called the real Tigers together and told them that this time he was god damned serious, and that if they didn’t knock this bullshit off right now, they’d all be banned from baseball for the rest of eternity, so help him. Cobb, his blood lust temporarily sated, encouraged them to comply and submitted to a ten-day suspension. With that, Allan Travers’ career as a Major League pitcher came to an end.
“I was doing fine until they started bunting. The guy playing third base had never played baseball before.”
-- Allan Travers
Scot Halpin Plays Drums for The Who.
Next to the definition of Rock Star in the dictionary is a picture of Keith Moon, drummer for The Who from 1964 until his death in 1978. In that picture, he is passed out on top of eleven topless groupies in a beanbag chair filled entirely with Klonopin, holding a fifth of rye whiskey in one hand and a lit stick of dynamite in the other. He was the reason that Scotland Yard had to develop a technique to dust for vomit.
Moon’s lifestyle caught up with him in true Spinal Tap fashion on November 20th, 1973. The Who were playing a show just outside of San Francisco when, 70 minutes into the set, the Benzedrine he took before the show quit being enough to counteract the Ketamine he also took before the show, and he unceremoniously passed out on top of his drum set. A couple of road men carried him off stage and woke him up with a cold shower and an injection of god knows what, and he came back on just in time to pass out again during Magic Bus. With that, the lights came up, and Pete Townshend stepped up to the mike and asked if there was anyone in the house who could play the drums – “I mean, someone good.”
Standing at the front of the pit that night was 19 year-old Scot Halpin, of Muscatine, Iowa. It had been over a year since he’d touched a drum set, he didn’t particularly want to get up on stage, and he hadn’t even come by his ticket legitimately – but when his friend shouted up to the concert promoter that Halpin could play and the man asked if he could do it, Halpin didn’t hesitate.
I could go into detail about what happened next, but the most important fact is that Scot Halpin spent the rest of the evening up on stage, rocking out with The Motherfucking Who. Google it, watch it on YouTube, anything. I’ll wait. It’s fucking spectacular.
The very best thing about Halpin’s performance, as opposed to Travers’, is that Halpin was actually reasonably good at the drums and went on to be a professional musician. He wasn’t just out on stage making a fool of himself. He legitimately went up there and pulled that shit off -- 100%. And that’s what we all dream of being able to do.
Right Guard Will Not Help You Here
No shit, there I was: sitting half drunk in a flyblown Tiki Bar half a mile down a dirt track along the banks of the Preaek Tuek Chhu River, using chopsticks to feed pineapple chunks to a fifteen year-old prostitute. If you don’t want to hear the back story to that, then you may want to turn off the computer right now and go back to Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul.
My job at that time was to fly out to places like Cambodia prior to the US government spending humanitarian aid money on things like schools and wells, and examine the arrangements in order to ensure that we hadn’t unwittingly agreed to build a library at the bottom of a rice paddy or some such nonsense. It paid well and, as you will see, it was interesting work.
After what seemed like an eternity sitting on planes and in airports I met the rest of my team in Phnom Penh and we took a van down to the city of Kampot – near where we were going to be working and also near very little else of interest. It was there that we met the Cambodian General – neither a sinister nor an ill-humored man, but you don’t get to be a General in the Cambodian Army without having seen some serious shit, and he looked it. I liked him immediately.
Anyway, the General decided that we should all go out to dinner together to bond, prior to beginning negotiations. His aides and mine all piled into a van and we drove off into the darkness, turning off Highway 3 a couple miles outside of town and down a dirt track lined on both sides by chain link fence and concertina wire. Just as I began to visualize arrows whistling out of the underbrush, we pulled up to a restaurant with neither a name nor a Wikitravel page.
The valet parked our van next to some palm trees and the host led us to the grand table underneath the main pavilion. Torches and strings of lights pushed back the jungle darkness, extraordinarily foul water gurgled by at the river bank and a hundred feet away across an empty dance floor a 90 lb. singer in a black dress made for a Barbie doll screeched along to K-Pop on a Karaoke machine. We sat and ordered a slew of shrimp and oyster dishes and were immediately brought big glasses, each with a chunk of ice the size of your fist, which a hovering waitress filled with more booze every time the liquid dropped below the “A” in “Angkor.”
The food arrived and was delicious, as it always is when you’d rather not know how it was prepared*. Just as we were about to dig in in earnest, though, the restaurant staff came and bid everyone stand up. We spread out so that they could slide more seats in between us, and down sat about a dozen young women, who would periodically get up one at a time to go sing on stage.
My interpreter stayed seated to my left, but on my right arm I now had a girl aged, at most, fifteen. For those lechers among my audience, I want to stress as strongly as I possibly can that I don’t mean fifteen as in “nineteen but she looks young does she work in porn,” but as in seriously, no shit, “Jesus, that girl literally is not old enough to babysit.” She had crooked teeth and a mole on her face and was wearing a glittered halter top and about three fingers of black skirt. Every time I looked over, I found her staring at me with a crooked, vacant smile that made me wonder if she was doing it while I wasn’t looking or was just quick when I looked her way. I felt as if I should make conversation, but I spoke no Khmer and all she ever said to me was “Sorry, I go sing now” when it was her turn, accompanied by a disconcerting squeeze on the leg.
Now, I am not such a square as to believe that these girls were sitting there because we were such interesting people (I know I’m not). But I was pretty sure I recognized the standard “we act like you’re hot stuff until you quit spending money” hostess club racket, and since we were already purchasing nickel-a-can beer as fast as we could consume it, there was no way we were going to get conned into anything worse. Furthermore, the food was superb and most importantly, I had a job to do. I ignored my guest, tried to drink faster than the waitress could fill the glass and set about trying to trick my companions into eating hot peppers by eating them myself and pretending that they were delicious.
This story is not meant to gross out even the most squeamish, so I’m going to be perfectly frank and open about what happened next. Which is: I had to pee. I excused myself, stood up with the kind of confidence that stems from the knowledge that your legs will betray you if you show the slightest hesitation, and strode off for the bathroom, which was really just a grass hut with a couple of urinals draining directly into the water behind the restaurant.
I stood in the stall, doing my business, when I heard footsteps enter the building and a short, older man walked up and stood a food behind me, his face inches from the small of my back.
“You like girl?” he asked, quietly but firmly.
I knew what was going on, but I had to pee and wasn’t about to stop.
"Yes, very nice.” I replied mid-stream.
‘You take home, twenty dollar.”
“Oh, no, that really won’t be necessary.”
“You like girl! You take home, TWENTY DOLLAR!”
“No, thank you.”
“You take home?
It was outrageously farcical and awkward, and only became more so when I finished and returned to the restaurant with the pimp following about ten feet behind, still loudly pointing out his competitive prices. He cut it out as I got back to the table and sat down.
I laughed to myself for a minute and then looked over at the girl, who was still smiling dumbly. Jesus, I thought through a fog. Your life must be a nightmare. Behind that lobotomy smile, was she secretly terrified that I was going to take her somewhere and rape her, having paid $20 for the privilege? Was she resigned to what she thought would happen? Afraid she’d be beaten if she didn’t turn a trick? Jealous of the older hookers? Plumb retarded? Shit, who the fuck knew. There was nothing I could do about it no matter what, but suddenly I couldn’t just ignore her anymore.
There was half a plate of pineapple on the table in front of me, the detritus of what had once been a decorative fruit arrangement. Not entirely sure why I was doing it, I picked some up and gave it to her. She hadn’t eaten a bite all evening. She took it, broke her smile for a moment and ate, bowed unconsciously, and went back to her routine. It seemed like the human thing to do; the exact opposite of what I would have done if I’d just bought her in the bathroom like a concierge towel. I have no idea if she took it that way.
We finished our meal and waddled out to the van and back to the hotel. The next day I got out of the same van at the prospective site of a new school building and watched all of the local kids circle around me at the five-meter standoff that’s customary among small children come to see the Rich American who’s going to fix their road / school / soccer field in a PR-friendly gesture that won’t get anyone out of a sweatshop, stop a foreign-funded civil war or bring back anyone’s amputated foot. You can’t make the world a better place as long as there are people living in it, and you’d usually be a fool to try. Sometimes being human means a token gesture.
* e.g. at every county fair in the history of Ohio.
A Cautionary Tale
“Note Found on a Body at the Lincoln Memorial”
By Keith Schnell
I’ve never believed in ghosts, or God, or anything supernatural. I guess that’s how I first got involved in politics, how I decided to go to journalism school. How I found myself working as a press agent for the ACLU, up late one night in my studio apartment in Washington, racking my brain, trying to think of a way to reach the American people.
The TSA had just introduced a plan to use backscatter x-ray machines – a virtual strip-search – on everyone who boarded an airplane in the United States. We had challenged it in court, of course, but we were losing the battle for public opinion, and no one knew how to win it. I’d just stepped away from my laptop to crush another Adderall when he appeared.
There was no blinding flash or puff of smoke. All of a sudden he was just there in the room with me. Richard Nixon.
I was frightened at first, sure it couldn’t be who it seemed. I waited for him to pull a gun, to rob me, rape me, something – but he didn’t. When he spoke, I lost all doubt. It was him. The voice was unmistakable.
“I see you’re having a little trouble convincing the American people to support you,” he said in that fake, folksy manner he adopted in all those newsreels from the ‘50s, when he was telling the public about his dog. “I ran into the same sort of thing back in ’72. Let me give you a hand with that.”
The only thing I could do was answer him.
“I don’t know what to do, Mr. Nixon! If getting strip-searched every time they get on a plane doesn’t rouse people to protest, nothing will.”
He smiled the gleeful smile of a bitter old man about to tell his grandson how all women are whores.
“Oh, ho, ho! Your mistake is appealing to the American people’s sense of courage in the face of terror, their sense of dignity and their self-respect. McGovern thought that shit would work, too. Squashed him like a bug.”
He chuckled to himself, relishing a Pyrrhic victory from 40 years before.
He continued, “what you need is to appeal to their real motivations -- the ones they’ll never tell the pollsters about: fear, bigotry, ignorance. That’s where the real money is: in the gutter beside the lowest of the low roads. Take a look at this commercial I had the boys whip up.”
I was afraid I was about to see Agnew and Hoover looming over my IKEA coffee table.
“There are plenty of ad executives in Hell, son.”
At that instant I was alone in a dark void. A second later, some ghastly projectionist went to work and I found myself watching a TV commercial.
An attractive young woman, blonde and pale as Eva Braun, stood at the front of the line at an airport security checkpoint. She wore a thick turtleneck sweater and a long gray skirt, with her hair pulled back in a tight bun; an outfit to make a burka look like beachwear.
“Golly,” she bubbled, “all I have to do is step into that booth? Sure! Anything to help win the War on Terror.”
The commercial cut to a shot of the scanner monitoring room, where a black man in a TSA uniform, dreadlocks spilling over his shoulders, stared drooling at the screen. A glass pipe and a copy of “By Any Means Necessary” lay on the table in front of him.
The scene faded to black. The words AMERICA: WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT TO PROTECT burst onto the screen in bright white letters.
Then I was back home, listening to Nixon laugh hysterically.
“Whoo! It’ll be just like old times!” He wiped a tear from his eye.
I stammered once before telling him, “That’s the most depraved, cynical thing I’ve ever seen.”
“It’ll appeal to Gen-Xers! Well, I’m off. Gotta go recommend a makeup artist to Rupert Murdoch.”
He was gone.
I stood alone in my room, mouth agape, the bottle of pills still in my hand. It had been a transfiguring experience, as if now I should be clothed in the white robes that I had never much cared for. I knew the truth, and a minute later I knew what I had to do.
By the time you find this, I will be dead. Tell Helen I always loved her.