Friday, October 26, 2012

"Name Droppings," Part 1

A chapter in my forthcoming memoir describes encounters with some famous people I have met during my life as a student, athlete, engineer, academic, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and author. I hope you enjoy Part 1, titled "The Blonde-Headed Singer."


THE BLONDE-HEADED SINGER
            One fall afternoon of my freshman year at Oklahoma State University, my teammates and I were running a layup drill at one end of Gallagher Hall (today, Gallagher-Iba Arena). At the other end, carpenters and other workers were building a stage for that evening’s concert. The banging of hammers and the screeching of electric drills and saws competed with the rat-a-tat-tat of bouncing rubber basketballs, but we were too intent on preparing for an upcoming game to be distracted by the noise.
            Then, as I ran to the back of the line after shooting a layup, I was startled by the fact that the noise suddenly stopped. Basketballs and tools became quiet, as the eyes of players and workers focused on two people who had stepped on the polished hardwood floor. One was a gray-haired man wearing gray slacks and a double-breasted blue blazer with a red cravat, an outfit out of place on any college campus. But, as natty and ludicrous as he looked, he was not the object of everyone’s attention. No, everyone – now, including me – was staring at his companion.
            She was tall and slim, with blond, curly hair reaching down to her shoulders. She wore a black blouse tucked inside black slacks, and her high heels now made the only sound heard in the arena. Even from the distance of half a basketball court, I could see that she was beautiful.
            “That must be Helen O’Connell,” someone said quietly, as the pair made its way toward the stage.
            Since coming to America, I had become a huge fan of big-band music. In high school, I had listened to the records of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, and I particularly liked the band-singers who had become famous in the ‘30s and ‘40s and were making a comeback in the ‘50s: Anita O’Day, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Chris Connor, Doris Day, Bob Eberly, Peggy Lee – and Helen O’Connell. From the moment I learned that O’Connell would be the star of the first of OSU’s annual concert series, I had looked forward to this day. I planned to be back in the arena early that night to get a good seat so that I could see and hear one of my favorites. And now she was here, inspecting the premises.
           Slowly, we resumed practice and started a shoot-around. Each time I threw up a jump shot, I stole a glance in the direction of the stage and our glamorous visitors. Finally, I saw them walking toward us. One of the assistant coaches, Gale MacArthur, holding a ball against his hip, came out to greet them. I saw them shake hands and to engage in prolonged conversation.
            Finally, the coach turned toward the team and blew his whistle. We stopped and turned toward him. He motioned for us to come closer. Unwittingly, as basketball teams tend to do whenever the whistle blows, we formed a semicircle around the trio, and we waited, all the while staring at one person. At this close range, I could see how gorgeous she was, with her turned-up nose, blue eyes, and great figure.
            “Gentlemen,” announced the coach. “This is Miss Helen O’Connell.”
            None of us knew if we were supposed to say something, so we simply smiled and nodded in unison.
            “Miss O’Connell would like to take a tour of the campus,” MacArthur continued. “I’ve volunteered one of you to do it. Who is interested?”
            I felt my right hand shoot up in the air involuntarily. Almost as soon as I raised it, I wanted to pull it down because I knew that I would not be chosen. After all, I was still a walk-on scrub and, surely, one of the scholarship guys would get the nod. I did not want to be embarrassed. But, when I looked around, I was shocked. Mine was the only hand in the air.
            “O.k., Heller,” said the coach. “You’re excused from the rest of practice. Put your sweats on, and give Miss O’Connell a nice walking tour.”
            I rushed to the side of the court and, with trembling hands, pulled my sweat pants over my sneakers and a sweatshirt over my head. I trotted back toward the trio, with my teammates having returned to the shoot-around.
            “Miss Helen O’Connell,” said MacArthur. “This is Charlie Heller.”
            “How do you do, Charlie,” said the voice I had listened to a thousand times on 78-RPM records back in New Jersey.
            “How do you do, ma’am,” I stammered.
            “I’m yours for the next hour and a half,” she said. “So, please show me your beautiful campus.”
            We walked out of the arena into the sunshine and headed past the football stadium and tennis courts toward the center of the campus. Along the way, I pointed out the sights: Bennett Hall – the largest college dormitory in the world; the armory, where hundreds of rifles carried by Army ROTC cadets were stored; the metallurgy Quanset hut; the architecture school. As we approached the library and began to encounter many students on their way to and from classes, I became very self-conscious. I felt hundreds of pairs of eyes staring at the odd couple approaching them: a thirty-something, beautiful, stylishly-dressed, blonde lady in high-heel shoes, accompanied by a gawky, l8-year-old kid, dressed in athletic-department-issue sweats and white Converse sneakers. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see heads turning, as we passed more students on our way to the library.
            I was agitated, but at the same time, I had a feeling of self-importance, from the commotion we were causing on campus. Simultaneously, I was totally intimidated in the presence of such a famous person. I had always been shy and now my bashfulness was rendering me nearly mute. Miss O’Connor broke the silence by asking if we could go inside the library. We entered and, of course, encountered the same curiosity and stares we had met outside. We walked up the center stairs, where I showed my visitor the Browsing Room.
            “Let’s go in and sit down,” she said when she saw the inviting sofas and overstuffed chairs in this pleasant room. She picked up a Life magazine from a coffee table and seated herself in one of the chairs. I sat down opposite her and watched as she thumbed through the magazine. She found an interesting story and showed me some of the photographs. I was beginning to feel a little more relaxed now. There were few students around to gawk at us, and my guest was doing most of the talking. I felt emboldened enough to tell her that I had fallen asleep in this room one night while studying and, when I woke up, the lights were out and the doors to the outside were locked. I pointed out the sofa on which I had spent the night. She found the story amusing.
            A half hour later, we were back outside in the sunshine. It was late afternoon and there were fewer students on the sidewalks. I felt at ease now, and I told Miss O’Connell everything I knew about the history and architecture of each building we passed as we continued our tour. She seemed to be genuinely interested and asked many questions. Finally, we reached Theta Pond, a pretty little lagoon at the base of the campus mall, surrounded by huge weeping willows. Miss O’Connell pointed to one of the benches near the edge of the pond and suggested that we sit down.
            “What’s a guy from New Jersey doing here, so far from home?” she asked after a while. I explained that I had come to OSU for two reasons: to study engineering under a professor who had been our “roommate” in a refugee camp in Germany and to play basketball for the greatest coach in America.
            “You were in a refugee camp?” she asked. “Why?” I explained that we had escaped from Czechoslovakia seven years before, two weeks after the communist take-over.
            “You were in Europe during the war? What was it like? What did you do?”
            I told her that my father had escaped and joined the British Army and that my mother had been taken away to a slave labor camp.
            “Because my father was fighting against them, I had to be hidden from the Germans on a farm.” I repeated what had now become my standard mantra and in such a voice that further questions were discouraged. Helen O’Connell understood and said simply:
            “You brave boy.”
            We watched ducks and geese swimming on the pond and chatted amiably for a while longer when, out of the blue, the singer said to me:
            “I noticed back there in the field house that you have very nice legs.”
            “Where the hell did that come from?” I wondered. After having become totally relaxed in the presence of this older, beautiful lady, I was once again the stammering, embarrassed, shy, 18-year-old kid.
            “Thanks,” I said, but I was smart enough to refrain from telling her that a year before, in my senior year in high school, the cheerleaders had voted me “player with the best legs” on the basketball team.
            Miss O’Connell looked at her watch and informed me that she had to return to her hotel room in the Student Union in order to begin to get ready for her concert.
            “Are you coming to the concert tonight?” she asked as we made our way across the mall to the hotel.
            “Absolutely!” I replied, happy that the subject had been changed from that of my legs. “You’re my favorite singer, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
            “Thank you. That’s a wonderful compliment.”
            When we reached the front door of the hotel, I was ready to shake hands and to sprint back to Gallagher Hall. To my great surprise, Helen O’Connell stopped, put her hands on my shoulders, and kissed me on the right cheek.
            “Thank you for a wonderful afternoon, Charlie,” she said. And then she hit me with a bombshell. “After the show tonight, I’ll be in room 213,” she whispered in my ear. With that, she turned on her heel and disappeared through the hotel door.
            I stood there, totally dumfounded. Had she really said that? What did she mean? Did she – the Helen O’Connell – really invite me to her hotel room? My immature, na├»ve, mind had difficulty in processing it.
            That evening, two guys named Ronnie and George, whom I had met in a calculus class, accompanied me to the concert. We arrived early and sat in the front row. My friends had heard that I had escorted Miss O’Connell around campus in the afternoon – I was already something of a celebrity because of it. Now, as I sat there – watching and listening to Helen O’Connell sing – I wondered what they, and the other 5,000 people in the audience, would think if they knew of the invitation I had received. As she sang, “Green Eyes,” Tangerine,” and “Amapola,” I closed my eyes and imagined that she was singing them just for me, in the intimacy of room 213.
            When the show ended, my friends suggested that we go to Louie’s bar for beers. I started to make an excuse for not going with them, but stopped myself abruptly. I got cold feet. Two scenarios kept running through my mind. In one, I showed up at Helen O’Connell’s door, she opened it and said: “What the hell are you doing here?” In the other, she came to the door dressed in her nightgown, invited me in – and I had no idea of what to do next. Neither was very appealing.
            Later, at Louie’s Club 54, after downing two Busch Bavarians, I said to my friends:
            “You know, Helen O’Connell invited me to her hotel room after the show tonight.”
            Ronnie, a farm boy from western Oklahoma, looked at me and laughed: “Yeah, right. Tell me another story.”
            George, a Tulsa city boy, was more introspective: “I don’t know if you’re kidding us. But, if you’re not, you’re a dumb ass for sitting here with us instead of being in bed with Helen O’Connell.”

 

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