David Halberstam (1934-2007)
Bill Long 5/3/07
R.I.P--The "Best and the Brightest" Journalist
Two San Francisco Bay Area car crashes highlighted my personal news in the past week or so, though only one of them seemed to captivate America. I happened to be in the Bay Area visiting family and friends from April 27-May 2. The crash we all learned about occurred at 3:45 a.m. on Sunday, April 29, when a speeding truck driver tried to round the curve on I-80 between Emeryville and the entry to the Bay Bridge, hit a concrete abutment and caused the overpass to collapse in the searing heat of the resulting fire. This will cause commuter headaches for weeks to come.
But for me the more important crash occurred on Monday morning, April 23, at about 10:35 a.m. in Menlo Park, just a mile or so from where I would be staying. Author David Halberstam, who through his riveting and engaging prose, nurtured a generation of progressive young people who wanted to have insight into the personalities, power and irony of recent American history, was killed in a three-car accident. Everyone familiar with that area knows exactly what happened. Halberstam was a front-seat passenger in a car driven by a graduate journalism student. They had just crossed the Dumbarton Bridge from Fremont to Menlo Park (Halberstam had spent the previous weekend in Berekeley, where he gave a lecture on Saturday night). Halberstam was on the way to YA Tittle's Mountain View insurance office to interview that local legend at 11:00 a.m. on the famous 1958 NFL title football game between the SF 49ers and the Baltimore Colts. To get to Mountain View from the Dumbarton Bridge you go along the Bayfront Expressway. You have three choices to turn left to get over to Highway 101, also known as the Bayshore Freeway, which would have taken the men to Mountain View. You could turn left on University Ave. in East Palo Alto, Willow Road in Menlo Park or Marsh Road in Atherton. Halberstam's driver chose the second alternative. You go into a left turn lane and wait for the signal, since the rush of oncoming traffice on the Bayfront Expressway makes any other turning arrangement hazardous.
So, the young driver turned. I haven't seen yet whether he turned against the light or turned with the light, but his 1996 Red Camry was broadsided by a speeding 1996 Green Infiniti, and Halberstam, in the most vulnerable position in the car, was crushed to death in the ensuing crash. I have been in the front passenger seat when my car was broadsided; it is one of the scarier experiences of life. Halberstam's autopsy showed that he suffered, among other things, several broken ribs, one of which punctured his heart and led to immediate death.
As I was pondering David Halberstam's untimely death before I left CA to return to OR, my mind was drawn back to both the "Halberstam" and "Tittle" parts of the story, and I returned in my mind's eye to a time 25, 30, 40 and 45 years ago when the genius of each of these men made an impression on my life. Let me tell you about those events, beginning with the earliest.
Y. A. Tittle and the New York Giants--early 1960s
I was a fan of the NY Giants as early as I can remember. I think my "football" consciousness began to develop around 1959, when I was seven years old. My father took me and my older brother Rick to Yankee Stadium beginning that year to sit in the $2.50 mezzanine seats to watch the Yankees, but I had to be content to listen to the Giants on radio. I was not disappointed with this, however. Marty Glickman's chrysostomic voice made the action so alive for me that it was as if I could imagine real giants roaming the fields and crushing their opponents. In 1960 the Giants got a new quarterback, the veteran Y.A. Tittle, from the San Francisco 49ers. Beginning in 1961 the Giants won three consecutive Eastern Division championships, though they lost in the NFL title game each time (1961 and 1962 to the Green Bay Packers and 1963 to the Chicago Bears). There was always a palpable air of excitement as I listened to those games in those days. Glickman made it seem like the Giants won every game, and indeed they sported the best record in the NFL in those days. Y.A. Tittle was the primary reason for this stellar performance. I was agog with the Giants and with the seemingly invincible Tittle.
The Late 1960s
Y.A. Tittle retired from the NFL at age 38 in 1964, and he quickly faded from my active consciousness. In 1967 our family moved from a Conn. suburb of NY City to the San Francisco Bay Area. I attended Menlo-Atherton High School, went out for the sophomore football team in 1967, and made all league in my "California debut." I really liked CA. Well, one of the things about life in a new school environment is that it takes you a while to get your bearings and to learn other people's names. My fellow players were always seemingly taking advantage of me, telling me things that weren't true just to see how I would react. One of them said that Y. A. Tittle's son was on my team. I knew they had to be wrong. After all, Y.A., I thought, was back in New York and I was here in CA and it just wasn't possible that Y.A. would live in the area where I was living. Well, it happened to be true. Mike Tittle played middle linebacker for us on our sophomore team. And, occasionally at games and at practice, I would look up from my drills and see a bald-pated, glasses-wearing, broad-shouldered guy standing on the sidelines, and I realized that Y.A. Tittle was watching our practice/game. I never had the courage to ask him for his autograph or even walk up to him to introduce myself. Respectful 15 year-olds, who still believed in God and Y.A. Tittle (sometimes confusing the two), didn't do that.
But then, in the 1970s, I lost my interest in professional football, though I began to pick up books by a young journalist who had recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Viet Nam War. That author was David Halberstam. The next essay describes what Halberstam meant to me.