Warm memories remain in afterglow of Evening Sun THE EVENING SUN SETS AT 85


So today they make the chalk outline and zip another newspaper into the body bag of American journalism, and everyone's telling me not to take it personally.

Look, it's a business decision, they all say. The paper's been losing circulation for years, reading habits have changed, afternoon papers are going the way of running boards on cars, blah, blah, blah.

Except the problem is that I worked for this newspaper for 14 years, and at one time it was a damned fine newspaper with a lot of damned fine people working for it, which is why I tend to take this personally.

I had a 14-year-old Toyota once, and when that sucker died, I took that personally, too. Part of this had to do with the fact that I was now stranded on a shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, with a hard-looking state trooper eyeing me like I was yesterday's garbage.

"You can't leave the car here,' he informed me.

"The car's dead,' I said.

He seemed to have a hard time processing this information, because once again he said: "You can't leave the car here.'

I guess he wanted me to pick it up and chuck it in the woods or something, but finally he agreed to call a tow truck. I sold the Toyota to a junk dealer for parts, and what I got for it barely covered my train ride home.

The point is, whether you've lost your newspaper or your wheels, you tend to take these things personally.

I joined The Evening Sun in November 1981 as a sports columnist. A wonderful man named Jack Lemmon was the managing editor back then.

In so many words, he asked me if I thought I'd like Baltimore, and I said hell, yes, and then I went out and proved it by letting Earl Weaver spit on my shoes.

This was a couple of hours before a game in 1982, and I was interviewing the legendary Orioles manager in the dugout.

At one point, if memory serves, I asked him something pithy like: "Is Palmer ready to go tonight?"

And with that, Weaver sent a stream of spittle flying through the air. It rose about six feet like some kind of lethal liquid torpedo, and as I watched in horror, it landed on my loafer.

Well. I don't know if he meant to spit on my loafer, but he did, a big, brown gob, and then he went on chatting about Palmer, who I suddenly didn't care about anymore.

It's hard acting like nothing untoward has happened when someone's just spit on your shoes. You should try it sometime. But that's exactly what I did.

For the rest of the interview, whenever Earl spit, I made a point of whipping my shoes under the bench so they wouldn't get gobbed on.

Oh, yeah, the memories. I remember the time we almost died on the Colts charter. Well, I say died, but maybe that's an exaggeration. We were in Miami at the time, and the Dolphins had just waxed the Colts 55-0 or something like that.

Anyway, now we're getting ready to take off for the flight back to Baltimore and the plane is quiet as a tomb, because the coach, Frank Kush, hates losing, and the players have to act like they hate losing just as much as the coach.

So we go hurtling down the runway and just as we're about to lift off, the brakes squeal and we go careening into a ditch.

Needless to say, everyone is pretty shook up about this, including yours truly, who is now wind-milling the flight attendants for the beverage cart.

A couple of seconds later, the captain comes on the intercom. And in that Chuck Yeagerish voice they teach at airline pilot school, he says: "Uh, folks, we aborted takeoff 'cause we had a li'l ol' red light wink on up here that shouldn't have winked on. So we're gonna go back and have it checked out.'

Swell. So we get towed back to the gate. And now I'm expecting to see teams of white-suited technicians swarming all over this plane.

I'm expecting to see computers hooked up to the engines and all sorts of sophisticated equipment diagnosing why that cockpit light came on.

Instead -- swear to God -- this is what happens: A door to one of the hangars opens. And out comes this old guy in greasy overalls dragging a stepladder under one arm.

The guy walks over to one of the plane's engines, which naturally is directly under my window seat. He sets up the stepladder. He climbs up, takes an enormous wrench out of his back pocket and whacks the engine three or four times.

Then he climbs down from the stepladder, folds it up, and shuffles back to the hangar.

Maybe 30 seconds later, the captain comes on the intercom and says: "Uh, folks, looks like we got that li'l ol' problem taken care of. We'll be on our way shortly.'

Well. As you can imagine, those of us who had watched this whole scene were terrified. Curtis Dickey, the running back, started praying out loud, and I felt like joining him.

"Please, God," I wanted to say, "let this mechanic from Chet's Sunoco, or whoever he is, know what he's doing."

Thankfully, the trip home proved uneventful, and the engine didn't drop off over Richmond and land in someone's living room, which we all agreed was a good thing.

In 1987, I got tired of covering sports and went to Jack Lemmon to see if he'd let me write a column for the features section.

"Hell, fine with me," he said, and I didn't even have to pay him or anything. Mike Davis, my friend and the features editor at the time, took the same lofty position, only he made me buy him a few beers.

So for the past eight years, I wrote a humor column for this paper. Some of what I wrote was OK and a lot of it was drivel. But not too many papers had a humor columnist. That was the thing about The Evening Sun -- going back to Mencken's day; it was never a paper afraid to take chances.

Now, the paper's folding. I sure wish it wasn't, but it is. The bean-counters say it's losing too much money, and they're probably right. Except that something in my gut tells me bean-counters shouldn't be allowed to pull the plug on a paper with a legacy as rich as The Evening Sun's.

I sure will miss it.

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