Every so often, my mind takes me back to events that have shaped my life, made me who I am so to speak.
I think of the many times I’ve met famous people, of events I’ve been able to witness first hand and of the wonderful friends I’ve met along the way. I cherish those friendships, I cherish the memories of a lifetime of experiences akin to Walter Mitty, the fictional character conjured up by writer James Thurber in 1939.
Some of the famous people I’ve met were in a passing manner, for sure — Raymond Burr, television’s Perry Mason, whom I met at an airport in Denver 30 years ago, country singer Blake Shelton (I had my picture taken with him at Iowa Speedway several years ago), and actress Ashley Judd (I also met her briefly at Iowa Speedway when she was married to IndyCar driver Dario Franchitti).
There were a few folks who were, or became, famous that I knew a little better. For example, I became somewhat of a friend to Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke nearly a half-century ago. I first met him when seated at the same table during a Packer pre-season press luncheon, then got to know him better when I “rescued” him from adoring fans at a Wausau West High School football game.
I think of my friendship with Dave Marcis, a NASCAR driver who is best known for racing in more Daytona 500 events than any man in history and, through Marcis, I also met the late Dale Earnhardt. When I was involved in NASCAR racing, I met Richard Petty and got to know several of the racing legends. I became friends with Iowa native and NASCAR driver Dick Hutcherson and another Keokuk driver Ramo Stott, the only Iowan ever to win the pole position for the Daytona 500. Of course, during my years involved with the sport of auto racing.
I met many noteworthy people, too many to mention all; I consider some of them to be my friends.
Events, too, helped shape my life.
For example, as a sportswriter only a couple years removed from service in the U.S. Army, I sat in the press box at County Stadium and wrote a story on the first-ever game played there by the Milwaukee Brewers. The year before — in 1969 — the Brewers had been the expansion Seattle Pilots.
Each time my mind wanders back on my life, I think of people, places and events that helped shape my life. I once interviewed a baseball player, born in 1880, who told a vivid story of how the game was played when he was a young man.
One of my favorite stories, as a young writer in Merrill, Wis., immediately after I’d finished my time in the Army, was an account I wrote about the infamous “Eight Men Out,” the Chicago White Sox players who were banned from baseball forever for their part in the 1919 World Series scandal. I learned that several of those infamous players had formed a barnstorming team that traveled the country and played baseball games against local teams. It all ended in a brawl on a Merrill street corner.
One of those players was Charles “Swede” Risberg who was known as a fighter. When Risberg and a couple others engaged in a fight on a Merrill street, it proved to be the end of the traveling team of former players.
Each time I start thinking about those things from the past, though, I’m always jolted back to reality when I reach the beginning — Oct. 25, 1965. You see, I’d been a sportswriter with the Fort Dodge Messenger for just 11 months when I drove to Cedar Falls for a Saturday football game pitting UNI (then Iowa State Teachers College) against Augustana (Sioux Falls, S.D.) in Cedar Falls.
It was on that night I met my hero.
In those days, there was no high-speed U.S. Highway 20 as there is today. To drive from Cedar Falls to Fort Dodge, you took the old highway, winding along a route through Ackley, Iowa Falls, Williams, Webster City and several other small towns. I had nearly finished that journey, it was late at night, and I was tired. I was in a new (to me) 1963 Corvair Spyder — you know, the car that was called “unsafe at any speed.”
I was just passing the gypsum plants on old Highway 20 on the east edge of Fort Dodge, almost home, when I fell asleep at the wheel. I was suddenly jolted awake by the sound of a loud horn. I found myself straddling the center line of the highway, a semi speeding past me almost in the ditch on the opposite side of the highway.
I never found out who was driving that truck — I couldn’t even see what type of truck it was or the company name on its side. Jolted wide awake, I pulled to the side of the road and looked at the disappearing taillights headed east on the highway. It was a sobering experience for a young man who’d just turned 21.
It might have cost me my life that late night in 1965, but a very alert truck driver avoided a head-on collision and, because of it, I lived to see another day. In fact, I’ve lived to see many days and every once in awhile my mind goes back to that fateful late Saturday night.
Each time it does and I think about that trucker, I wish I knew who he was. I wish I could thank him and let him know how much I appreciate his alertness the night he came hurtling toward a young man asleep at the wheel.
Bill Haglund is a retired writer for the Boone News-Republican and Dallas County News and can be reached at email@example.com.