In 1971, I went to Indianapolis for the 500 with my great friend Billy Richards. I was on assignment and Billy was along for the ride.
Although I’ve since lost touch with him – in fact, I haven’t had any contact with him for years – I can tell you we were once the closest of friends: we drank booze in bars together, and chased women together and, at that time in our lives, that was pretty much all we did (except work, of course).
Billy was a graphic designer and magazine paste-up guy and I was copy editing for a national newspaper and writing about auto racing on the side. We had a lot in common.
On the morning of the Indy 500, I went up to my seat in the press box (at the time, a platform underneath the upper deck of seating on the outside of the main straightaway) and I looked down just as Billy was heading into the infield along with thousands of other people. I called down; he looked up and gave me a wave and then disappeared into a tunnel.
I’ll let him pick up the story.
"So I’m looking for a place to watch the race on the backstretch," he said. "Every available piece of real estate back there is occupied. I’m not that big (five-foot-eight, if he really stretched) so I can’t see over people. So after awhile I figure I’ll just lie down in the grass and listen to the cars go by.
"I’m standing there thinking about this and I look down and there’s this guy lying on the ground – leaning on his elbow, actually – and he’s looking up at me. He’s extremely muscular. His neck is bigger than my thigh. He’s got a square head and a flat-top brushcut. He’s looking at me and he seems kind of threatening and I’m thinking I should leave.
"So just before I start to walk away, he says to me: ‘Hey, you. Can you arm-wrestle?’
"I look back at him and I say, ‘No, thanks.’
"And so he says, ‘Can ya drink beer?’
" ‘Yes, I can do that,’ I say, so he motions me to sit down beside him. He gives me a beer out of his cooler, asks my name and introduces me to his family who are all there, and when it comes time to eat the fried chicken lunch they have with them, they count me in.
"They were from Kokomo and he was a real nice guy and I had a really great time.’ "
We agreed he probably had a better time than me, because I was working and there was no beer in the press box.
I started thinking about that trip, and Billy Richards, yesterday afternoon after I heard about the bombing in Boston.
Because after what happened at the Boston Marathon – the Boston Marathon, for crying out loud – there is a very distinct possibility that starting at the next really big public event, the Kentucky Derby, perhaps, or the Indy 500 right after, the security will be suffocating.
And it will never let up.
It’s highly unlikely that some guy from Kokomo – or others just like him – will be allowed to carry a cooler full of beer and chicken for his family into the infield at Churchill Downs or Indianapolis.
Which is really too bad.
We cry for the victims in Boston. And we cry a little for ourselves, too.
I have my memories. But I wonder about my 16-year-old.
What will he have?