Of Capt'n Jack

I've heard marathoners talk of hitting a point in their routine when they
get a "runner's high". I've seen people double the diameter of their retinas watching a waiter bring them an extra-large slice of "Death-By-Chocolate". I've even witnessed people who look like they just won the lottery because they collected $200 for passing "Go".

Us audiophiles and stereo hobbyists have our highs too: an amplifier fresh from the factory with the plastic wrap still pristinely folded; finally finding the exact spot where new speakers image perfectly; seeing a friend's look of amazement when he listens to your stereo and finally realizes you're not nuts.

And the best thing is, you're not confined to just one high in life. Growing up, I was a sports junkie - especially for anything having to do with Willie Mays. My bedroom walls were covered with pictures and posters of him and if I close my eyes and concentrate, I can almost summon the feeling I had when thumbing through a sports magazine and finding a Willie Mays picture suitable for framing.

As I reached my teens in the early 1970s, I found a new high: tackling. I survived four years of high school football because I could tackle. You could say tackling got me high. You could say tackling was my Captain Jack.

And just who or what is this Captain Jack? Well, if you're my age and don't know: shame on you. It happens to be the name chosen by Billy Joel when he wrote the first song to ever hit me harder in the gut than an opposing ball carrier. He wrote it at the same time I played ball, but during an interview with the old WYNY-New York about 15 years later, Joel was asked why he chose the phrase, "Captain Jack", specifically. His answer? "Because if I said 'Uncle Fred', I don't think it would have had the same impact."

Works for me.

Saturday night and you're still hanging around.
You're tired of livin' in your one-horse town.
You'd like to find a little hole in the ground,
for a while.

So you go to the village in your tie-dye jeans,
and you stare at the junkies and the
closet queens.

It's like some pornographic magazine
and you smile.

But Captain Jack will get you high tonight
and take you to your special island.
Captain Jack will get you by tonight;
just a little push and you'll be smiling.

Do I really need to translate this? Yeah, I didn't think so. That's what I like about Billy Joel: He writes songs like a newspaperman.

But please allow me to add this key point: In that same radio interview I referenced, Joel dispelled the notion that the "little push" was about operating a syringe. It's about whatever gets your juices flowing, he said, and don't we all have something like that? Geez, I sure as hell hope so because living life without some sort of Captain Jack -- some source of passion and lust -- must be one mediocre existence. Whether it be your job or racing home to listen to your new CD player, something has to transport you to the place you love, even if only for a few minutes.

And talking about a high, how many people get a second crack at someone they despise? Well, I was one of the lucky ones and let me tell you: It was great.

Getting the opportunity to cover my sadistic high school football coach as a newspaper reporter a couple of years after playing for him was living the dream of every high school football player in history. It was better than seeing your prom queen 20 years after graduation, chain-smoking Salems while trying to cash a third-party check at the EZ-Mart so she can buy diapers for the two naked toddlers taking a pee on the dashboard of her '82 Chevelle, which is illegally parked in the handicapped spot.

Captain Jack, indeed.

Coach Tom 'Vise-Head' Lapham got his nickname because his face was too narrow in proportion to his body. He looked like somebody put his head in a vise with the jaws on each ear and then turned the lever, flattening his face until it resembled a manhole cover standing on its rim. If only this had actually happened, it would have at least explained a stupidity that knew no bounds because we could have assumed his brains went spitting out his mouth as the vise tightened.

Or in other words: He was your typical high school football coach.

Back when I was playing for him, I got addicted to the contact of football and I still can't match the high of the perfect tackle: running to the ball carrier, sticking your facemask right in the area between his stomach and his nuts, wrapping your arms around his thighs, driving him backward with your legs churning, putting him on his ass and falling on top of him. I still get tingly all over just thinking about it - and it's been 33 years.

I wasn't strong or fast and only an average athlete. But because tackling was more about passion than athletic ability, tackling became my way to carve a spot with the Columbia High School Cougars a few years before writing about the team and the other eight high schools in the "Oranges Area" of New Jersey (so named because of West Orange, East Orange, South Orange and your garden-variety regular Orange ... some settler must've really liked oranges, which I suppose is better than if he liked rutabagas).

Don't get me wrong: Maplewood was a great place to grow up. We had plenty of parks, no slums and a mostly good and decent populace. It's just that I always felt out of place, especially with music. While my high school friends were listening to the Allman Brothers and the Eagles, I was listening to Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis.

However, when I first listened to Billy Joel's Piano Man album -- and heard "Captain Jack" -- my musical tastes changed forever. And it wasn't long until I indeed was looking for a hole in the ground.

I was tired of my town and I was different enough from my peers that a hole in the ground sounded pretty good. Nonetheless, I came back to Maplewood after one year at Penn State, to take a job as the local sports editor.

The best part was that I was absolutely relentless when writing about Vise-Head. And I made sure I remembered every frickin' high school wind sprint when interviewing him after yet another loss:

Me: "So coach, what was your thinking when sticking to single coverage on that 6-4 wide receiver who caught four touchdown passes?"
VH: "Well, we didn't want to give them the middle."
Me: "OK, but Nutley runs a toss sweep twice as much as any other rushing play and most of their passing plays are roll-outs with that 6-4 guy running sideline patterns."
VH: "Well yeah, but they didn't get the middle and that's what we wanted to stop."
Me: "Are you looking forward to the time when touchdowns only count when scored in the center of the field, YOU STUPID FUCKIN' IDIOT JERK-OFF?"

... OK, so I didn't say the "stupid fuckin' idiot jerk-off" part, but I didn't have to because his coaching gave me all the chances I needed to exact revenge. My first two graphs on one game story read:

The Columbia Cougars lost their fourth game in a row Saturday, as coach Tom Lapham had no answer for how to stop Montclair tailback Ronnie Johnson, who scored five touchdowns in a 42-6 drubbing. After the game, Lapham must've still been envisioning Johnson with the ball because his eyes glazed over when asked why he didn't have his middle linebacker keyed on Johnson, but instead had him dropping into zone pass coverage.

Your sister's gone out, she's on a date
and you just sit at home and masturbate.
The phone is gonna ring soon, but you
just can't wait
for that call ...

Well, I guess we'll have to talk about masturbation a bit. Personally, I'm for it. Masturbation solves a biological need in short order and with little other bullshit around it - "bullshit" being defined as dating, courting and hoping that because she ordered the lobster, you might get laid that night.

Meanwhile, back at the paper, I had eight other football teams to cover. Fortunately for me, it was before Title IX gave birth to an umbilical cord of girls' sports and still at a time when readers only expected expanded coverage of the big sports - football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring.

In those first few weeks on the job, I led my section with season previews for each of the area football teams. There were three all-black schools in the mix but only one black football coach: Archie White at East Orange. I went to interview Archie and understood maybe 14 words of what he had to say, not counting articles and prepositions. This was a problem.

I had enough white guilt to fill a 50-gallon drum with psychoanalytic horseshit. I was raised in a lily-white suburb of 30,000 people where the black families could be counted on one hand. I was 11 years old when the 1967 Newark riots terrified us nearby residents of Maplewood, giving me my first clue that this country might have a problem with race relations. A year later, some redneck asshole killed Martin Luther King and I developed a soft spot for black people that strangely buttressed my fear of them.

By the time I got to high school, there might have been a dozen black kids in a student body of nearly 2,000. I played football with two of them - one of whom wasn't very good and another who could have been our No. 1 running back if he could have avoided injuries that made him ineffective. The latter was a nice, soft-spoken kid named Al Smith, who dated a white girl and experienced no flak from the rest of us as a consequence. I assume that level of tolerance was part 1970's empathy for racial plight and part fear that Al could kick the crap out of most anyone.

So you stand on the corner in your new
English clothes,
and you look so polished from your hair
down to your toes.

But still your finger's gonna pick your nose
after all ...

I was always pretty well groomed - a little too well groomed for a highschool kid in the 70s. This actually hurt me in the dating arena because most girls preferred a long-haired dope smoker, thus achieving nirvana in figuring out how to drive their parents crazy. But both playing and writing about sports overcame whatever holes there were in my social life.

Two nearly all-black high schools were in our athletic conference, and although they'd whip us unmercilessly in basketball, one or the other was our annual win in football. Both those schools (East Orange and Orange high schools) were among the schools I covered in my year at Walters Publications and my problem understanding the dialect of East Orange's football coach had me worried. I was on my first story involving a black school and coach, and when I sat down to write, I was staring at a blank page in my notebook.

I had two choices: a) write the story without quotes, using only observations I made at their practice and run the risk of looking like I gave them short shrift when compared to the previews I had already published on a couple of white teams; or b) interview him again and admit I didn't understand him the first time.

I wanted to go the latter route but floundered in thinking of how to address the matter without insulting him. And given the aforementioned white guilt developed in my segregated youth, this was a daunting challenge. I thought about asking my editor for advice but decided against it.

Melissa Donovan was the chain's managing editor and my chief boss. Although I also answered to the editors of each of the four papers, Donovan ran the show and she was one tough broad. She was in her 40s, divorced and on a mission to cram as many testicles as possible in her desk drawer. I hate to endorse stereotypes but she was the home office of female bosses who over-compensate for perceived slights due to sex. I had no such prejudice, probably because my mother worked in my dad's paint store and I knew first-hand you didn't have to be a man to do a good job.

But Captain Jack will get you high tonight
and take you to your special island.

Captain Jack will get you by tonight;
just a little push and you'll be smiling.

So you decide to take a holiday.
You got your tape deck and your brand
new Chevrolet.

But there's no place to go anyway,
and what for.

You've got everything, but nothin's cool
They've just found your father in the
swimming pool.

And you guess you won't be going
back to school
anymore ...

It was interesting when my Captain Jack became newspaper work instead of football. I particularly liked layout. For example, I would take an Exacto knife and cut out the background to a photo of, say, a football player running with the ball. I could then use the image for an artistic placement on the page, running the copy around the uneven photo boundaries and/or using a nice overlap with the headline. These are pretty common tricks today but nobody was doing it 30 years ago - particularly not at small-town weeklies.

I could also take tracing paper, put it over a mug shot and use pen and ink to make an illustration. I would then substitute my illustration for the usual boring head shots that dot newspapers everywhere. I got the idea from the Wall Street Journal but instead of hiring an artist, I did it myself.

Once Donovan saw my pages, she let me fashion my schedule whatever way I wanted. But even with that workplace victory, I didn't want to talk to her about my problem with the black East Orange football coach, thinking she might assume some kind of racial schism. After all, two of the four newspapers she directed were in nearly all-black towns and I didn't want her jumping to conclusions about my ability to cover their high school sports.

So per what became my usual when faced with an occupational challenge, I took a small gamble. I went back to the East Orange practice field and
waited for the session to end. I then went up to coach Archie Young and said, "Coach, I've got a problem. I couldn't understand your dialect the other day and was apprehensive about admitting it. So can we please do this interview again, but this time, speak clearly? If I can't understand what you're saying, I'm going to have to make it up and you might not be real pleased with the results."

Archie laughed and said everybody has a problem understanding him (or at least that's what I think he said). Looking back, I suppose just about anybody could've had trouble understanding Archie's mumbles but at the time, I figured it was a problem only because I was white - that other black people understood him perfectly. And I guess this was pretty typical of the white, suburban kid Billy Joel wrote about.

So you play your albums and you
smoke your pot
and you meet your girlfriend in
parking lot.

Oh, but still you're aching for the
things you haven't got.

What went wrong.

And if you can't understand why
your world is so dead,
and why you've got to keep in style
and feed your head.

Well, you're twenty-one and still
your mother makes your bed,
and that's too long.

Man, that's some deep shit there. My father had his first of three heart attacks when I was three years old. He held on for many years but was a shell of a man for many of them.

Still, I had my newspaper work. Word got around about my experience with Archie and apparently, my honesty was well-received. I never had a problem with any of the many black coaches and athletes I interviewed over the course of that coming year - and enjoyed a level of access and cooperation unattained by any of my predecessors.

After a year, you know what I realized? I wished I played for Archie instead of Vise-Head. I also realized it was time for me to move on.

I didn't need my mother to make my bed anymore as Joel suspected, but living on my own certainly had its own challenges, particularly after I chucked the writing career to sell stereos.

Years later I came back to newspapers though. Why? Because Captain Jack gets me high.

Mike Rodman is a journalist and author who lives on the shores of Beaver Lake, in Northwest Arkansas. His book, "Beyond the Sea: A Life in Short Stories" is available at: http://www.mikerodman.com