Don, Sleepy, and Gertrude, RIP

Over our many years in the writing obituaries for daily newspapers we noticed that January was the busiest time of the year on the dead beat, as many terminally ill people cling to life through one last holiday season. This young year has already brought obituaries for three very different individuals, and we think passing is worth noting.
The first obituary we noticed was for Don Larsen, who died New Years Day at the age of 90. Larsen was a journeyman baseball pitcher, just good enough to hang on through a journey of 14 seasons in the major leagues with seven teams before arriving at a career record of 81 wins and 91 losses, but he’s well remembered as the only man to ever pitch a perfect game in the World Series.
He’d been been knocked out of the second game of the ’56 Fall Classic in the second inning by a powerhouse Brooklyn Dodgers squad and didn’t expect to get another start, but New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel gave him the ball for game five, and Larsen went out determined to at least do better. He had a full count against future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese in the first but threw a third strike and retired the side in order, and after that he turned in the most flawless pitching performance ever seen, and on baseball’s biggest stage. Larsen got some help from one of Mickey Mantle’s signature spectacular defensive plays after Dodger great Gil Hodges slammed a likely single to the middle of the outfield, and the legendary Yogi Berra was calling the pitches from behind the plate, but Larsen earned his place in baseball history.
Back in Larsen’s day journeyman pitchers didn’t earn enough to retire to a life of leisure, and he spent of the rest of his working days as a liquor salesman and the a paper company executive. His second marriage lasted 62 years and produced a son and two grandchildren, he got to be in the stands when David Cone pitched a rare regular season perfect game for the Yankees, and he always had that one October afternoon of perfection. This gives hope to all of us journeymen journeying through life, so he’ll be missed, and we hope he’s safe at home.
We were also saddened to read about the passing of Sleepy LaBeef on the day after Christmas at the age of 84. If you don’t know the name that’s because you’re not sufficiently hep to cosmic American music jive, as LaBeef was as rocking and rolling a singer and guitarist as you’re ever likely to hear. His 6-foot-6-inch and 270 pound frame packed a basso profundo voice that could shake a honky-tonk’s roof, and he could do anything with the full-sized hollow body electric guitar that looked like a mandolin in his hands.
Born during the Great Depression in Smackover, Arkansas, as Thomas Paulsey LeBeff, or LeBeouf according to some accounts, he took his stage name from the droopy eyelids he had despite constant coffee drinking and his massive size and burly guitar licks. He grew up playing the black gospel music he loved, but first broke into the music business playing the rockabilly style that was hot in the late ’50s, and despite cutting some classic records for obscure labels he didn’t generate sell a lot of records at a time with the good-looking and hip-shaking Elvis Presley was the big deal. He kept at it long enough that he was around for the big rockabilly revival craze in the ’80s, though, and his Rounder Records releases and live appearances wowed all the aficionados around the world.
One hot August in the ’80s LaBeef played a four-night stand at the Spot Recreation Center, a notorious dive just east of downtown where we liked to hang out, and we were there for every minute of it. The music was as raw and real and rocking and rolling as we could have hoped for, and we got the chance to hang out with the man between sets. He was friendly and funny and turned us on to the gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all sorts of other fantastic musicians we’d been missing out on, and it saddens us to think of all the great American music that the young folks of today will be missing out on from now on.
The death of Gertrude Himmelfarb at the age of 97 is also worth noting, and perhaps more consequential at the moment. She was best known as the historian who came to the defense of the Victorian era, which had long been much derided for its puritanism and imperialism despite the great advances in social justice and modernization she demonstrated had been made, but she was also an important voice for conservatism in general, and wound up playing a role in America’s victory in the Cold War.
She was born in 1922 in a Jewish ghetto of Brooklyn, with immigrant and Yiddish-speaking parents who had no formal education but ambitions that their daughter would do better, and she became a star student of history and philosophy and economics at Brooklyn. While there she met and fell in love with Irving Kristol, a formidable intellectual in his own right, and they remained married until his death in 2009. Both were Trotskyites during their undergraduate courtship, but both gradually grew to recognize the error of their ways, and became leading voices of the neoconservatism that provided the intellectual underpinnings for President Ronald Reagan’s more aggressive and ultimately successful stance against the Soviet Union.
Back then conservatism was an intellectual movement, led largely by such bona fide intellectuals as Himmelfarb and such Nobel Prize-winning economists as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and such erudite commentators as Bill Buckley and Russel Kirk, and it saddens us to think what the kids are missing out on in an age when low-brow radio blowhards such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and such demagogues as President Donald Trump define conservatism.
It’s a rough start to a year when we could use the likes Larsen, LaBeef and Himmelfarb, but we’ll hope somewhere out there are those ready to step up and take their places in history.

J.B., RIP

The wife of our old friend J.B. has recently updated his Facebook status to “dead,” and although you’re unlikely to have ever heard of him we think his passing is worth noting. J.B. was one of those American boys who went off to fight a war in Vietnam and never really came back, and between his rough and rowdy ways and his exquisitely sensitive soul he was something of a local legend around here, and he was another small but important piece of a more ruggedly individualistic America that seems to be slipping away.
It took years of beery and heartfelt conversations before we found out that his name was actually Gerald Brown. Even in the tough south side neighborhood where he grew up no one would dare call him by such an inappropriately refined moniker as “Gerald,” however, although he would tolerate the less pretentious “Jerry” from a select group of childhood chums, and most of the rest of us acceded to his preference for J.B., which somehow seemed most apt for such an colorfully abbreviated character. To an even more select group of friends that he served with in Vietnam he was “Rap” Brown, which had nothing do with the black nationalist leader H. “Rap” Brown, whom our south side white boy friend hadn’t even heard of at the time, and instead was earned by how well he “rapped” on the radio when calling in an airstrike. It took many more years of beery and heartfelt conversations before he divulged that to us, though, and even then we were warned to keep calling him J.B.
Those conversations started when he was owner of The Spot Recreation Center, a notorious dive that just happened to be located exactly halfway between the newspaper where we toiled and the cheap apartment where we resided. The Spot had a pool table and a shuffleboard table and a straight-out-of-a-western-movie bar and an authentic dive flavor, and drew its clientele from the more disgruntled downtown office workers and neighborhood derelicts and local biker gangs, and the chili and the burgers were the greasiest in town, and it regularly booked such spectacular rockabilly acts as Sleepy LaBeef and The LeRoi Brothers, and there was this very attractive barmaid who sometimes wore the most provocative attire, and it was quite conveniently located, so we spent enough time there to strike up an acquaintance with the proprietor. We enjoyed his ribald sense of humor, admired the way he kept a watchful eye out for that attractive barmaid in the provocative attire, and we weren’t the least intimidated by his unmistakeable aura of danger.
J.B. wasn’t a big man, and in fact was several inches shorter than ourselves and possessed of a physique that can most charitably described as wiry, and he had a lot of years and even more miles on him, but anyone with a modicum of street smarts would have immediately  recognized that he was not someone to be messed with. We hadn’t the slightest desire mess with him, of course, and his far superior street smarts immediately recognized this, and he wasn’t the type to menace such friendly types, and he seemed to enjoy our highfalutin conversations about the latest events, and thus we gradually became friends. Eventually he even asked us to write about his war.
J.B. freely admitted he only went to war because he was drafted, not being the sort of guy who could swing an educational deferment, but once he was dragged in he went full hog. He volunteered for paratrooper and Ranger duty and anything in the worst of it. There was a certain exhilaration in his war stories, but also a horror, and he had a drawer full of snapshots that confirmed the worst accusations about America’s behavior in the war, and first-hand accounts that the enemy had behaved at least as badly, and this rough and rowdy man confirmed to us that war truly is hell. He had stories about his jeered return to civilian life, too, still too young to drink in the bar he would later run, and it was always obvious to us that his war had never ended.
We did our best to write that story for the newspaper where we toiled, and we can’t say it did our career any good. Some readers objected to our sympathetic portrayal of such a rough and rowdy fellow, who had done a little time in prison on a rap involving some fraud scheme or another, and who ran a notorious dive just east of downtown, and who was known as someone not to be trifled with, but we still wonder what sort of men they expect to fight their country’s battles. The story also  raised some money for a charity that helped Vietnam veterans by taking them back to their battlefields to find healing, we proudly note, and  J.B. was one of those veterans who took the trip. He wound up moving to Vietnam several decades ago and spent most of the rest of his life there.
After a couple of marriages we know of, one of them with a woman we thought quite sound, he wound up marrying a much-younger Vietnamese woman, who was kind enough to send news of his recent illness and ultimate death, and that’s pretty much all we know about the intervening years.
An occasional e-mail or Facebook posting from “Rap” Brown would invite us to join him for a vacation in Vietnam, where he promised all manner of carnal delight and other great deals on the Yankee dollar, but that was about all we heard of him the past couple of decades. He was going by the name of “Rap” Brown at that point, having decided to fully embrace his nom de guerre, but we’ll still think of him as J.B. We rather liked that south side kid who wasn’t  to be messed with, and we can’t be sure that he was ever really reconciled with his war, so we choose to remember all the spectacular rockabilly and the fine  friendship and the greasy chili and our pal J.B.

— Bud Norman