Briar Patch

November 1973By , and Comments

RETURN OF THE OLD PUCKER

THE ASTRODOME HAS REALLY OUTDONE itself. They had the help, though, of Hollywood press agentry and one of the bigger mouths in professional sports, so the Dome can’t take all the credit. Irregardless of culpability, it was an impressive show, that King-Riggs tennis match, and it drew the largest media attendance in single-event sports history.

All those publications that always cover tennis or sports had writers there, as well as dozens of magazines that rarely think about covering either. Plus there were sportswriters from daily newspapers all over the world: Australia, Japan, Italy; there were eight sportswriters just representing London newspapers. All of this, of course, is harmless enough, just powerful testimony to the drawing power of ballyhoo and hoopla. The only sad thing about it all is that almost none of those “sportswriters” ever wandered over to an obscure Houston skating rink where one of the most truly dramatic events in sports is about to take place.

Houston seems an unlikely location for the greatest comeback ice hockey ever saw. Ice in Texas has always been something to pour whiskey around, and the notion of skating about on it, no less using it for a playing field, appears alien at the very least. It’s strange enough to see Gordie Howe, now gray-haired and a little paunchy, flashing up-ice with that characteristic easy grace, but to see it happen in Houston borders on the bizarre.

Before his retirement in 1970, Gordie Howe had become the greatest hockey player in the game’s history, a man who’s always called (in the kind of apples-and-oranges analogy that sportswriters are prone to) “the Babe Ruth of Ice Hockey.” In a 25-year playing career with the Detroit Red Wings, Gordie Howe had broken every hockey record that imaginative statisticians could invent, not the least of which was his own longevity. Prior to Gordie Howe, the longest career in the bloody, bruising sport spanned 20 years, and that was held by a defenseman. But Gordie was a wingman, like a forward in basketball, and hockey fans always considered it slightly miraculous that he held on as long as he did.

And yet here he is, in Houston of all places, wearing that legendary Number 9 and preparing to play once again at the age of 45. That, one would think, should be drama enough for the romantic pens of sportswriters. Yet there’s more. Gordie Howe was not lured out of retirement by the Houston Aero’s offer of $1 million plus; he did not leave Detroit, which he had possessed in spirit as much as Stan Musial ever owned Saint Louis, because he hankered after the smoggy, humid air of Houston; rather he came to Texas in order to provide the third leg, the eldest leg, of the first father-son combination in professional sports.

In the Spring of 1973, the same year that saw Houston reeling under the impact of a record three ephemeral snowfalls, the World Hockey Association’s Houston Aeros, only one-season old, reached up to Toronto to draft Marty (19) and Mark (18) Howe. Thought to be undraftable because of a National Hockey League minimum age of 20, the two Howe boys were having to content themselves by wreaking fraternal havoc on the teams of Canadian Junior Hockey.

The Aeros’ management, convinced that the old NHL rule didn’t apply in the newly-created, expansionist, WHA, drafted and signed both younger Howes. Their contracts, it is said, exceeded $2.5 million. As two of the hottest young stars in hockey, they were thought to be easily worth it, and the old NHL teams howled mightily that Houston had snatched off both of them. It was still a few months before Gordie would announce the end of his own retirement.

Perhaps the reason all those sportswriters missed the Howe story is that Houston seemed a strange setting for a hockey epic. But, God knows, Houston has long needed a sports team that can finesse a winning season and the Aeros give promise of taking it all in Hockey. Even before the Howes, they had one of the hottest teams in the new WHA, and ended last season with a ten of 13 winning streak.

Houston is just beginning to discover that hockey is a fascinating spectator sport, both faster and feistier than football. Perhaps with the added human drama of the family Howe, the Aeros will earn the recognition they deserve. Even if they don’t play in the Astrodome.

PLAY IT AGAIN, SANDRA

THERE IS A STRANGE MADNESS abroad in the land. Following Billie Jean King’s resounding win over Bobby Riggs in the Astrodome, a new gauntlet (or rather, arm bracelet) has been thrown down.

Kilgore’s own Van Cliburn has been challenged to a piano-playing contest by a female pianist. Susan Starr vows that if Van Cliburn accepts her challenge she would play “with gloves on—to give him an added advantage.”

Ms. Starr has invented a whole new sport to prove her point, and it may well be sweeping the country soon. “I’d like to challenge Van Cliburn and nine other men,” Ms. Starr, began, outlining the mechanics of the challenge. “We would all play the same piece behind a screen and dare a panel of judges to figure out who among us playing is a woman.”

Ms. Starr’s challenge was made in Manila, where she recently gave a concert in a hall where Van Cliburn had played in June. We think it would be a nice competition, but the prospect of sitting through ten renditions of the same piece of music, performed behind a screen, doesn’t sound like as much fun as going to the Astrodome.

SPOON BENDER ANALOGY

THERE IS A SORT OF bird, a schematized gull that I’ve drawn above a triangle, and to the right of the triangle is an enclosed curve. This is the image that I’m trying to project onto and inside the right half of Uri Geller’s head, the half that is facing me as he holds his hand over his eyes and concentrates, with an intensity that is almost material, to receive my transmission. The lines I’ve drawn, which are covered now below my hand, are glowing in my mind like the images that seem to come sometimes on the inside of your eyelids. I may or may not be getting through to Uri, it doesn’t really seem to matter: I’m enjoying the attempt; there’s an exhilaration I’ve never noticed before in engaging another mind on such an intense and specific level.

The experiment fails, or rather fails in its most obvious aspect. Uri is disappointed, and tired. He has done three interviews already today and this press conference in the state capital has so far only evidenced a bad case of Psychokinesisist’s Block.

Uri Geller is an Israeli, 26 years old, who speaks near-perfect and ingratiating English, and is in Austin for his first full-scale demonstration in the South. He says he has been aware of his psychic gifts since he was three, and aware of his psychokinetic abilities since he was seven, when he made the hands on his wristwatch move. The power has been with him in apparently increasing proportions ever since.

Now he’s on tour with it, a fact that moves skeptics and purists to put him in the same league with Oral Roberts or Mark Spitz. Indeed, the first question asked here today is “Why are you touring?”, as though Uri Geller were Jesus on the lecture circuit with the Sermon on the Mount. But he’s heard this question asked before, and he responds by simply stating that he enjoys performing, he draws power and support from an auditorium full of people. And he tours to make money, obviously. He’s no ascetic, and he carries himself with such openness and lack of grandeur that the question of prostitution does not seem to apply.

And though he has been debunked in Time as a charlatan, had his tricks duplicated by professional magicians and fallen on his face in no less a public forum than the Johnny Carson show, he carries with him an impressive set of scientific credentials. He is the star subject at the prestigious Stanford Research Institute, where his powers have been observed and, as much as the term can apply, verified by physicists under rigid laboratory conditions. He is involved in a straight-faced experiment with former astronaut Edgar Mitchell to teleport Mitchell’s movie camera back to earth from where he left it on the moon. Uri sees no difference between doing this and bending a key: Time and distance to not apply once you’re out of the ballpark; teleporting something from the moon is a question of method and not of degree.

But at this press conference he is overdue to bend a key. Therefore one is brought to him and he places it on the table in front of him. In a few moments there is a crack in the middle of it, barely visible, then after another brief interlude during which the key stays on the table it is noticeably bent at about a 45 degree angle.

Uh huh. Maybe it’s because the occurrence is so famous and so documented, but it seems not too impressive. It would be a dull trick for a magician. In fact it’s astonishing how mundane such an occurrence can be, so quotidien it has to be real.

The bending of the key is the only tangibility at the press conference, and the questions keep coming with prefaces like “Frankly, Uri, I’m a little skeptical….”

The audience at the Thursday night performance, however, have come because they believe, have brought their keys and spoons to be bent, their watches to be fixed, their thoughts and drawings in sealed envelopes to be transmitted. Ray Stanford’s organization, the Association for the Understanding of Man, has set up an information booth outside of the auditorium, and at the end of the performance it will be heavily patronized.

Yes, the vibes are good, the audience is consistently with him through a barely adequate rendition of his abilities.

Uri claims he has no conscious control over what he does, does not know exactly what goes on when he does it. Therefore he can offer no guarantees and has to ride the psychic mood the crowd allows him. And when he fails, he gets nervous and his energy level, or whatever it is, drops rapidly. The first part of the program goes well. Uri is an ingenuous and self-effacing stage presence (at one point he asks his audience if he’s stepping on his pants cuffs with his heel—”That’s a terrible feeling.”)

He begins by asking several women (women are more psychically receptive to him, he says) to come up on stage and write names and colors and draw illustrations on a blackboard which is out of his sight. (The “precautions” he uses to keep from seeing the blackboard, like a piece of plywood he holds up in front of his face, are so ludicrous and simpleminded that if indeed his whole act is a fake it is a staggering example of convoluted genius.)

The first thought to be transmitted is the word green, Uri asking the audience on the count of three to say in their minds the color that “Sue” has written and erased on the blackboard.

“Please,” he says, “I really need everybody to think it. Don’t say to yourself ‘My neighbor is thinking it so I don’t have to.’ “

When he counts to three it seems that the audience has done as asked. Everybody is with him, a sacrament of the word green etching itself into the half-visual movie screens of 2000 minds. The mind swell reaches Uri, and he succeeds. There is greater applause.

A few more telepathic demonstrations and it is time for the pyrotechnics. A hundred people volunteer spoons and keys and rings and watches. Uri chooses a watch that hasn’t worked in 9 years and his hand over it. Then he presents it to the audience in true John Cameron Swazey style. Two or three other watches are attempted, but they cannot be resurrected, just as some of the proffered spoons cannot be bent. “Does anyone here have a spoon they really like?” he says. And when one is given to him, he is able to bend it severely, the whole process shown in close-up on the videotape screen above the stage for the benefit of the people in the $2.50 seats.

Shortly after that one he begins making overtures about ending the performance. “Don’t you people want to go home?” he says.

He then answers questions for a while, recounting his life history, his work at SRI, his feelings about Guru Mahara Ji (“Please understand me, I don’t want to make judgments. It just bothers me that people bow down to him.” He drops information about the book about him by parapsychologist Andripa Puharich, due out in December, which he seems to believe will more or less alter the course of civilization.

In his hotel room the next morning, an hour before he is to leave for Houston, Uri speaks enthusiastically about the performance: “I feel that the people were so good and so with me that I was very disappointed I couldn’t give them more. Everybody tells me, ‘Look, if only one little thing happens that’s enough.’ But if you have 2000 people in front of you and you know that they’ve all paid to see you, you can’t overcome that feeling that you want to do more and more.”

We try another telepathic transmission, at my request. I draw a foot with a line under it. Uri’s not getting anything. “Draw something else,” he says, “This time start at one point and make the drawing in your mind exactly as you’ve done it on paper.”

What I’ve got on paper is a rabbit, or rather a circle with two ear-like protrusions and two eyes. Those ears are hard for me to draw somehow up there in my mind, and that may be the reason why Uri receives everything but the ears. It’s a mild success, again more interesting in the ritual than in the result.

I have in my pocket a piece of silverware, a metal version of the “spork” that Colonel Sanders gives you to eat his mashed potatoes with. I don’t want to go into the more perverse details of my life, but this spork has some emotional value, and I’m thinking what a perfect thing it would be for Uri to bend. But I don’t suggest it: it begins to seem like a violation of taste. Either you believe or you don’t, and I do: there are enough bent spoons around already.

YOU MEAN FISH DO IT TOO?!

IN LATE SEPTEMBER HEARINGS WERE being held in Austin on textbooks proposed for adoption in the public schools. Ms. Barbara Glenn of San Antonio complained about women being stereotyped in various texts. She cited this passage: “Boys can flop. Girls can plop. Can fish flop and plop?”

“Plop,” Ms. Glenn testified, “is a word that is a little more negative than flop.”

ONE STEP AT A TIME, BOYS.

THIRTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD DON Dixon is no slug. The Raldon Corporation which he put together in 1969 is one of the biggest home-builders in Dallas County. But when Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, the paternoster of Aerobics (exercise to deliver oxygen to the heart, lungs, and blood vessels), now living in Dallas, ticked off precoronary warning signals for underexercised execs in a speech to the Young Presidents’ Organization last November, Dixon could relate—the high price of empire-building.

Now everyday at noon Dixon drives over from Raldon’s glassed-in-offices overlooking northwest Dallas to the nearby plantation-like home of Dr. Cooper’s Aerobics Institute where he changes into red shorts and jogs two miles in the midday sun. On his first pass around the grounds last year, Dixon ran a mile and “nearly died.”

Ten strenuous months later, still thick-set but 15 pounds trimmer, chewing on the plastic tip of a cigar instead of inhaling cigarettes, his resting heart beat down from 76 to 54 and his cholesterol level reduced, Dixon has reconstituted himself with the kind of exercise that demands oxygen and forces his body to deliver it. That what aerobics does. And that’s why Dixon is no longer the near-perfect profile of a cardiac accident waiting to happen.

Raldon’s Dixon is not alone. The Aerobics Activity Center has a waiting list but only a 15 per cent drop-out rate. Seven hundred and fifty men willing and able to pay $350 a year (half the membership is corporate) belong to the Center with its electronically-paced Tartan-covered indoor running track (runners follow the timed lights like a mechanical rabbit), Resolite outdoor walking/jogging tracks, six-laned Olympic-sized conditioning pool and an aerobic arena (i.e. gym) for fitness classes, basketball, volleyball and aerial tennis. The balcony overlooking the indoor track and gym is equipped with rowing machines, treadmills, stationery riding bicycles (one of the staff M.D’s, a marathoner, sidelined with a leg injured diving to avoid a car, plugs in a mini-TV to cut the monotony while clocking the miles) and the Universal Gladiator (a grand clanking Rube Goldberg apparatus designed so several weight-lifters can work out at once).

Dixon runs in fast company: Dallas Cowboy Quarterback Roger Staubach; the chairman of Redman Industries, James Redman; and the president, Lee Posey; bank presidents Charles Pittman (Exchange Savings and Loan) and Richard Blackmore (Valley View State Bank); Dallas Federal Savings and Loan Association Chairman Lloyd S. Bowles—the kind of men who have historically made up the city’s ruling class. Decision-makers from IBM, Whittier, Chrysler, and Zale Corporation come to Dallas and Dr. Cooper for intensive physicals and an Rx for exercise. Two hundred and fifty women also belong, but since the women’s sign only hangs on the locker room from 9 to 11:30 weekday mornings, they pay just $150. A ladies’ dressing room is on the drawing boards.

Cooper is in Dallas for the same reason the State Fair of Texas is—”true believer” businessmen made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. The former aerospace physician carries on his life’s work in Big D because Tyler Corporation, the trucking and manufacturing giant, bought the site and built the plant for Cooper in a unique form of community philantropy. Each October Tyler sponsors a two-mile timed run for upper management types at the Center. Companies such as TWA, Omega Alpha, and Schlitz field their own teams, run in 15-man heats and are highly competitive.

Before beginning an aerobic program, each member must undergo a complete physical evaluation in the Cooper Clinic. So, hooked up to E KG monitoring leads, his heart throbbing with electronic beeps, Dixon mounted the inclined treadmill to test the upper limits of his cardiac work capacity. He panted his way through the required stress test, flagged at 12.5 minutes and seeded himself to the bottom rung in fitness. Today he can endure the tread-mill test for 20 minutes, a strong performance. Cooper classifies an offensive lineman pro football player as “highly conditioned” who can go 22 minutes on the treadmill, 25 minutes for defensive backfield.

To determine the amount of fat on his stocky body, Dixon submitted to three dunks (for an average) in an underwater displacement tank. Fifteen to 19 per cent fat is allowable for men. Women can have 22 per cent. The clinic offers three grades of exams: Type III, the most complete, takes two days, costs $315 including GI X-rays and a glucose tolerance test. Staff docs go over results, prescribe a health program and custom tailor an exercise plan. Out-of-towners, who make up 40 per cent of clinic traffic, get mailed reports.

As a member of the Center, Dixon automatically turned subject for The Dallas Study, Cooper’s long-range computerized research attempt to correlate the effects of aerobic exercise on health. All data is processed in the non-profit Institute for Aerobic Research now housed in the Savings and Loan basement across the street. A grant from the Moody Foundation of Galveston is underwriting the statistical analysis of medical records to prove whether or not programmed exercise can reduce cardiovascular disease, lung ailments, ulcers, and even mental disorders.

What makes Dixon run? Ken Cooper, of course, got him going. Lean and intense, the doctor’s ardor infects staff and members. Possessed of drive as strong as his high-income prime-movers, Cooper will run with anybody ready when he is. On the track he goads and paces. A champion miler (4 minutes, 31 seconds) back in Oklahoma, he can pull out peak performances leading the pack. Outside the Center is a different story. Cooper gave up dashing around in public on the lecture circuit when he found each stopover had a challenger ready for a showdown.

The Roman Bath quality of the Center and the high price of his preventive medicine leave Cooper open to the charge of elitism, but the doctor hopes to introduce his methodology across the social board. He is interested in geriatric applications and wants to know how exercise figures in mental health. His program has proven results among sightless kids (usually underactive) and asthmatics (generally supercautious about exercising). The Fort Worth school system is adopting the Cooper approach, and in Tulsa, Oral Roberts University will soon boast of its own aerobics center.

If there is a pleasure dome appearance to the million-dollar center, it is off-set by the real exertion acted out there. Preventive medicine is just coming on. You can’t get a degree in PM. It is a new frontier. And if bands of Dallas high-rollers dog-trotting on the double is not without comic value, the record stands: of the 3000 men and women cleared for exercise, not one has yet suffered the pain and alarm of what one victim later described as feeling like an elephant standing on his chest—a heart attack.

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