Friday January 11, 2013

Telly Halkias

This Wednesday's anniversary of former President Richard Nixon's 100th birthday found an e-mail sent to me from a longtime reader of this column. The piece included a 1983 interview with Mr. Nixon. It reminded me of Watergate's disgrace, but also of overshadowed deeds, to include opening China to the West, exiting Vietnam, signing the first arms control treaty with the Soviets, and founding the EPA.

For me, however, Mr. Nixon will remain a knowledgeable baseball fan who could grab a burger on the New Jersey Turnpike and talk some hardball with the rest of us.

Mr. Nixon's passion for the national pastime was a matter of record. Yet today, not well known are nuggets such as the fact that Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league color barrier in 1947, had openly campaigned for Nixon and personally thanked the president for once naming him America's best overall athlete.

Three decades ago, during my college years, Mr. Nixon, who hailed from California, bought a New York City townhouse and began spending more time there. The media documented his increased presence in the northeast.

It was sometime around then that I was driving through New Jersey with a buddy after attending a Phillies game in the City of Brotherly Love. We needed fuel and pulled over at a rest stop. My friend went to fill up the gas-guzzler, and I ran into the plaza for some fast food.

After a few minutes of waiting in one of many long lines, I looked around, and suddenly froze. In an adjacent queue just a few feet away was the former president, decked in dark dress trousers, street shoes, a white dress shirt conspicuous for its missing tie and open collar, and a matter-of-fact countenance as if to say: "Yep, I'm just one of the folks."

I must have gawked too long, because the man raised his eyebrows, gestured to my baseball cap, and asked "Yankees fan?"

My memory tells me I only managed a grunt, and he continued: "They look good this year, but might be short a pitcher." I didn't know what to say, so offered up that I was heading back north from Veteran's Stadium.

He countered: "Now there's a team, the Phillies; I'm not sure how anyone pitches to Mike Schmidt." He carried on for a bit, but then the lines moved and we fell out of sync. I ordered my food, and he fell behind me.

With bag in hand I cleared the register and growing lines, looking back to catch a glimpse of President Nixon. The voice was slower but undeniably the one I'd heard on TV so many times. He looked much older and more tired than in his media shots, but most of the footage I knew was from a decade earlier.

I hustled out to the parking lot where my friend was idling the beater and complaining of hunger. He reached for one of the burgers before I settled in my seat. As we rolled away, I blurted out: "Man, I just saw Tricky Dick in there and he talked to me about baseball!"

My buddy's reply: "Nixon? No way, man! He wouldn't be anywhere without a whole squad of Secret Service guys, right?"

"I swear it was him! And he knew what he was talking about, too," I insisted.

We drove off debating the topic, and my people recognition skills, all the way back to New York. My friend, who died in 2003 in the Iraqi desert, took his doubt of my brush with history to the grave.

Yet everything suggests the man I spoke to was President Nixon, from his likeness, mannerisms, recent northeast presence and most importantly, fluid proficiency with the contemporaneous status of the Yanks and Phils. To this day, Nixon confidantes concede it didn't take much to spark a baseball chat if a willing suitor was at hand.

That's why when Mr. Nixon's name comes to mind, I might be one of the few Americans that doesn't think of Watergate, China, SALT, or Vietnam. Rather, I recall a moment on the Jersey Pike when a young guy and an old guy crossed paths in a fast food line and found common ground in recent box scores.

That, and I still wonder if he held the onions on his burger.

Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. You may e-mail him at: tchalkias@aol.com