When There Was a Bad Draft in the Air

The older members of the Boomer generation got to see lots of cool things. They watched Howdy Doody. They wore coonskin caps. They got to play with baking powder submarines.

However, they also held a dread of one day turning eighteen. The draft was on, and a particularly nasty war was ongoing. Kids (and I mean that literally, as I was certainly a kid when I was eighteen) had to make profound decisions. Would they opt for ROTC? Would they volunteer for a more appealing form of service than the swamp-wading, booby-trap avoiding Army grunt? Or would they stay in school, or apply for CO status, or, head for Canada?

The draft began with a proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Back then, a one-time payment would exempt you from having to serve.

After that, drafts would be implemented during times of war and suspended afterwards. In 1940, FDR signed the Selective Training and Service Act which created a draft during a time of peace, although the writing was clearly on the wall regarding the US’s future involvement in WWII.

But after the War, the draft stayed. Fewer young men were drafted in peacetime, but the possibility was there nonetheless. As wars like Korea and Vietnam escalated, more and more youths were sent the dreaded letter from Uncle Sam.

In 1969, a lottery was held which you did NOT want to win. Up until then, the government’s policy was to draft older individuals first as needed, meaning the odds would increase that you would be called up until you reached whatever cutoff year was in place. But the lottery chose birthdates at random as the primary prerequisite of when you would be selected. The later your birthdate was drawn, the less likely you would be called.

Twenty-year-olds were the primary target of the lotteried draft. If you turned twenty on September 14, 1969, you were virtually guaranteed being called up. That was the first date drawn. June 8 was drawn 366 (it was a leap year), so you had a pretty good chance of avoiding the dreaded letter if you were born on that day.

The draft started with twenty-year-olds, then progressed through each older year until 25. Then it dropped to nineteen, then eighteen.

However, even though both forms of the draft were set up to spare eighteen-year-olds, the fact is that many of them were still drafted. Curious.

As Vietnam slowed down, so did the draft. In 1973, it was discontinued altogether. I was fourteen. I was very, very happy. So was every other Boomer male who had evaded compulsory military service. In 1975, even registration was stopped.

But in 1980, Jimmie Carter reinstated registration due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He intended to send a message to the Kremlin. Of course, now the Soviet Union is no more, and Russia is a democracy, and WE’VE invaded Afghanistan. Despite those strange twists of political intrigue, registration continues.

But today’s youths largely view it as a mere rite of passage. We who remember JFK, however, can recall a time when “draft” had a much more sinister connotation than a good cold beer or a chilly breeze in one’s house.

The Tragic Tale of a Man They Called Stringbean

Life in Anneville, Kentucky, located in the backwoods of the backwoods, was not easy in 1915, the year David Akeman was born. His family were farmers who barely scraped by. Entertainment had to be provided by the local folks themselves. Thus arose bluegrass music, which was prolific in the rural areas of Tennessee and Kentucky.

David took a shine to music. He came by it naturally. His parents were musicians as well. When he was seven, he took an old shoebox and some thread his mom gave him and created his first instrument. Five years later, he traded two of his prize bantam chickens to a friend for his first real banjo.

Akeman loved playing and entertaining, and was soon making the circuit of local honky-tonks and playing at dances and such. He was having a great time, but the Depression was on, and he needed to eat. The pittances he earned at gigs weren’t cutting it.

So he got a government job, building roads for the Civilian Conservation Corps. But he yearned to be a professional musician.

One day, established local musical star Asa Martin held a contest, looking for new talent for his own band. Akeman’s self-taught banjo pickin’ got him a gig with Martin’s band for enough money to live on. Sweet!

One night, Asa stumbled over his name when introducing him. So he just improvised “String Beans.” The name fit the tall, lanky performer perfectly, and he became known as Stringbean from then on.

The name also made it easy for him to showcase his comedic talents. Soon, Stringbean was known as the slightly goofy banjo-picking wonder on Asa’a band.

Stringbean jamming with Grandpa Jones on Hee Haw

Stringbean rode Asa’a coattails as far as they would go, but soon ventured out with other groups, and even played a little semi-pro baseball. He caught the attention of another part-time ball player, one Bill Monroe.

The King of bluegrass soon had Stringbean playing with his prestigious group, and he enjoyed three years of touring and performing with them. Then, Bill decided it was time for a change, and replaced him with another banjo player by the name of Earl Scruggs.

Stringbean married his lifelong bride, Estelle, in 1945, and joined up with another banjo picker with a knack for humor by the name of Louis Jones. You may know him better as Grandpa.

Stringbean found himself a regular performer on the biggest country music stage in the world, the Grand Ole Opry. he would appear alongside Grandpa Jones as well as other gigs with Lew Childre. He had thoroughly adopted the Stringbean identity by then, wearing a long nightshirt with short pants and that goofy hat.

He played the Opry throughout the 50’s and 60’s. Then, in 1969, he and his buddy Grandpa were approached about appearing as regulars for a summer replacement for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. The show’s Canadian producers were looking for a rural answer to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. They were fans of the Opry, and had signed several of its long-time stars.

Hee Haw garnered decent ratings, but CBS was in the middle of its infamous “rural purge,” dumping shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Mayberry R.F.D. in an effort to go after a younger demographic. But the show’s producers put a syndication deal together, and it was soon appearing in rural areas like New York, Los Angeles, and, of course, small southern communities.

The money was flowing rapidly into the Akeman household by now. Stringbean, like many Depression survivors, didn’t trust banks. He also didn’t like to appear affluent. So he and Estelle lived in a modest little cabin in the Kentucky woods (though he did spring for a Cadillac).

On the Saturday night of November 10, 1973, Stringbean and Estelle returned from an evening out. They were accosted by two 23-year-olds in their home, cousins John A. Brown and Marvin Douglas Brown. The burglars shot them dead. The next morning, neighbor Grandpa Jones found the bodies.

The murderers figured Stringbean had money hidden on site. They left with a chain saw and some guns, but no cash. 23 years later, $20,000 in decomposed cash was found behind a brick above the fireplace.

Stringbean was one of my favorite Hee Haw performers. Here’s to his memory.

The Race to Defeat Polio

Dr. Albert Sabin

My older brothers grew up with the presence of a horrible, random terror that caused near-hysteria. It could strike absolutely anyone, but seemed particularly fond of children. Perfectly healthy, active kids could be transformed in a matter of days into paralyzed individuals who might require confinement in an “iron lung” just to take their next breath.

The scourge was poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio.

A series of outbreaks took place in 1921. Among those infected was a young adult named Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His strong legs were turned into paralyzed vestiges of what they once were.

Roosevelt was determined to press on despite his malady, and tried to always arrange to be photographed away from his ever-nearby wheelchair. But the American public knew that the man who would come to be their most beloved President was a victim of polio, and FDR spearheaded a drive to find a cure, or at least a prevention, for the disease.

In the early 20th century, the polio virus was transferred mainly by poor hygiene among babies and children. 90% of those exposed would develop antibodies and a lifelong immunity. However, the remaining 10% would be affected by symptoms ranging from minor affecting of muscle movement to complete paralysis.

As personal hygiene improved, exposure to the virus became less commonplace among children. But this worked two ways. The virus still survived, and would eventually come into contact with individuals who might have developed the needed antibodies at a very young age, but now had to cope with an unencumbered virus at a later age. I am good friends with a man who developed polio in the early 50’s at the age of fourteen.

Among the pioneers who fought polio were Sister Kinney, an Australian nurse who used physical therapy rather than immobilization to restore much muscle movement among the disease’s victims. The medical community resisted this outspoken Aussie’s techniques, but eventually she had persuaded many to come to the institute she founded in Minnesota. Among the patients who received care and regained muscle tone was Alan Alda.

At the prevention end, a vaccine was being feverishly sought. In the late 1940’s, Albert Sabin was working on an oral vaccine. Jonas Salk was concentrating on an injected model. They both received government grants for their work, as did other polio researchers.

Multiple iron lung for children

In the meantime, numbers of cases of polio began to surge. The average had remained at 20,000 new cases per year throughout the 40’s, but in 1952, the most-ever cases were reported in the USA: 58,000.

That year, Salk began testing a vaccine prototype at Watson Home for Crippled Children and the Polk State School, a Pennsylvania facility for the mentally retarded. The results were encouraging. By 1954, the vaccine’s test group included thousands of school children. The vaccine was effective, but not perfect. It provided immunity in 60-70% of individuals against against PV1 (poliovirus type 1), and over 90% of the subjects against the other forms of the disease.

In 1955, immunizations began to be given to the general population. The March of Dimes assisted in promoting and organizing vaccinations, and by 1957, the number of new US cases was down to 5600.

Meanwhile, Sabin and his team continued to work on their oral virus, and in 1958, it was tested and found effective. In fact, the immunity it provided lasted longer than that provided by the Salk vaccine. It replaced Salk injections in 1962 in American schools and hospitals.

By 1964, when I was five years old, a mere 121 cases of polio were reported in this country.

We Boomer kids grew up with lots of worries. But those of us who were among the last of the post WWII-population explosion were very fortunate that polio was something we talked about in the past tense, thanks to an army of researchers who had long before declared war on the crippling disease.

The Day John Lennon Died

John and Yoko outside the Dakota in 1980

We younger Boomers remember the assassinations of the 60’s, but we were really too young to be touched by them. I remember my parent’s agonized reactions to JFK, Bobby, and MLK, but my reaction was more of amazement than sorrow.

The 70’s were blissfully free from the types of high-profile assassinations that plagued the 60’s, but it wasn’t without trying. President Ford survived two attempts, but nobody died.

That all came crashing to a halt the evening of December 8, 1980.

A lot of the nation was watching Monday Night Football when Howard Cosell broke into the broadcast to announce that John Lennon had been killed. I was watching MASH, so I learned through a news bulletin.

Now I knew how my parents felt in the 60’s.

I reached up and turned off the television and put John’s Plastic Ono Band on the stereo. John had just released one of his most commercially and critically successful albums, Double Fantasy, and had just appeared on Rolling Stone’s cover (naked, of course). It looked like the 80’s would prove to be an artistically productive decade for my favorite Beatle.

And just like that, he was dead.

John’s memorial in Central Park

I had time to create pen-and-ink drawings back then, and over the next few days created a collage of images of Lennon. It was pretty good, but I have no clue what ever became of it.

John had long been a thorn in the side of conservative politicians, being an outspoken critic of ANY war, but particularly the one in Vietnam. Richard Nixon, whose paranoia led to his infamous enemy lists, was a foe of Lennon’s protests. The US had used a drug conviction to deny him citizenship, most likely in retaliation. But they finally relented in 1976, and John became a model citizen.

Little was heard of Lennon for a while. He took out a full page ad holiday greetings ad in the New York Times about 1978 or so which seemed to hint to fans of a Beatles reunion. But remember, these were the same fans who were convinced that Paul was dead.

In 1980, Lennon and his wife released their joyful celebration of family life, the previously mentioned Double Fantasy. Now we knew what they had been up to during those quiet years, raising kids!

John’s death deeply touched many Boomers, including Paul Simon, who penned these poignant words in his song “The Late Great Johnny Ace”:

On a cold December evening
I was walking through the Christmas tide
When a stranger came up and asked me
If I’d heard John Lennon died
And the two of us went to this bar
And we stayed to close the place
And every song we played
Was for The Late Great Johnny Ace

The Civil Rights Movement

Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King

Generations go through societal changes, but some see earthshaking adjustments. Imagine being born in 1880, and seeing the airplane invented when you were 23, then seeing man on the moon when you were 89. Well, we baby Boomers were eyewitnesses to a similar quantum leap: the Civil Rights Movement, and all that it accomplished.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, slavery was outlawed. However, even though blacks were no longer property for sale, white society, particularly in the south, quickly passed laws which enforced a virtual slavery just a bit less oppressive than the real thing.

Jim Crow laws claimed that blacks and whites could comfortably live separate but equal lives. In reality, the white side of town was invariably much wealthier than its black counterpart, and “colored” schools, water fountains, bus seats, et al were simply inferior versions of the white varieties.

This was the status quo of life from 1865 until 1955. That year, the United States Supreme Court made a landmark decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. A unanimous decision was handed down that the traditional separate but equal situation was unconstitutional.

That meant that segregation had been declared illegal. But things weren’t so easy in real life. The Civil Rights Movement was necessitated by white society’s reluctance to accept blacks as their equals. It was no longer necessary for a black man to “know his place.” But an unfortunately large number of whites, particularly in southern states, saw no reason to stop business as usual.

For example, southern governors such as Orval Faubus and George Wallace refused to desegregate their states’ schools. It took the federal government’s stepping in to allow black students into traditional white schools. And their lives were not sunny under such circumstances, as school faculty sympathetic to segregation would apply pressure via outright discrimination, or by looking the other way as prejudiced students would harass them.

So blacks had to fight for their rights in many cases. The approach for doing so varied from peaceful marches led by Martin Luther King to outspoken activists like Malcolm X calling for death to the white pigs.

Marches took place all over the United States from 1955 through the 60’s. The idea of racial equality was accepted without question by many. It took some getting used to by many more. And an unfortunate vocal number were opposed to the very idea. Many brave men, women, and children gave up their lives protesting unequal treatment.

Racism is not something that comes naturally. Children of different colors playing together is an obvious proof of that. But when it’s taught from an early age, it’s difficult to overcome. Add to that peer pressure from fellow whites, and you can see why the south in general, and localized areas elsewhere, took so long to diversify.

But as the 60’s drew to a close, most communities had come around. Whites-only restrooms and drinking fountains were a rarity. However, many schools were still effectively, if not legally, segregated.

Unfortunately, beginning in 1971, forced busing was used to accomplish that final goal in some areas. Black and white children were bused far away from local schools to diversify others. That was an extremely unpopular situation for all concerned.

But some districts continued the practice for as long as twenty years. By the early 1990’s, busing was pretty eliminated by redrawing school districts, redesigning and/or rebuilding schools that were built with segregation in mind, and introducing “magnet” schools that offered special curricula to entice students from anywhere to voluntarily attend.

Are we racially equal today? Probably not. But we have certainly come a long way since 1968, since I saw my first and only whites-only bathroom somewhere in Mississippi. But unfortunately, black kids who grow up in inner-city poverty simply don’t have the same opportunities as white middle-class children. However, to contend that racism is as bad or worse than it was in our childhoods is simply extremist hyperbole.

Some problems may be beyond mere human efforts.

The Chicago Seven

Riot in Chicago in 1968

Today’s I Remember JFK memory is one you’re no doubt familiar with if you grew up in the 60’s, even if, like me, you didn’t have a clue who they were or what they did. That’s because you heard their moniker, the Chicago Seven, every night on the news.

Indeed, I grew up with the name of the group on trial as familiar with me as terms like Vietnam, Gemini, Martin Luther King, and other subjects of newscasts. But the Chicago Seven were baffling to a kid, because it just wasn’t clear why they were in trouble.

They were charged with, among other things, conspiracy. That was rather frightening, because conspiring was supposed to be an okay thing to do. After all, didn’t the song Walking in a Winter Wonderland say “Later on, we’ll conspire, as we dream by the fire?” Evidently, if we did, we would be subject to arrest.

It was all very confusing to a kid. I was confused enough, because I would overhear my mom say things to my older brother like if he dropped out of school, he would be sent to Vietnam and would be shot. Now THAT was an incentive to keep the grade average up!

The Chicago Seven were on trial because of riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. They were charged with inciting the riots, and other offenses related to stirring the pot which caused violent demonstrations. The eight, later pared down to seven, were extreme radicals. They were Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner. Black Panther Bobby Seale was removed from the trial by a whopping four-year sentence for contempt of court.

I feel sorry for the judge, Julius Hoffman. He was from a generation that was trained to be polite. He presided over a trial of radicals who weren’t afraid to display extreme behavior to get their points across. And display it they did.

One particularly stormy day, Hoffman and Rubin walked in dressed in judicial robes. Hoffman blew kisses at the jury. They were charged with contempt, of course.

In reality, it all seems kind of funny now, but I recommend you read James Michener’s Kent State: What Happened and Why to understand the real fear that was felt by members of law enforcement and judges. It was a real eye-opener to me.

Anyhow, the media delighted in reporting the antics of the Seven, and Hoffman’s attempts to maintain order in his court. Hoffman was called a “fascist dog,” a “pig,” and a “racist” by Seale, hence his long contempt sentence.

In the end, they were acquitted of practically all of the charges, and the few they were convicted of were later overturned. Hoffman was reviled by the radical culture as a hopeless member of the Establishment.

Protests continue today, but more often in the milder form of slams at Oscar presentations. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t miss the days when riots would often accompany public conventions.

1974: The Year of the Streaker

1974 dawned with no hint of its significance. In January, it was just another year. By December, people running around naked in public had become commonplace enough to become, well, boring.

Streaking had been going on at college campuses before that. Princeton was streaked as early as 1970. Notre Dame had a “streaker’s Olympics” in 1972. But the fad hit the big time in the spring of 1974, when students at colleges in southern California and Florida were shedding all of their clothes (except for sneakers, of course) and running across their campuses.

Soon, naked people were seen on newscasts, sporting events, parades, and in at least one state legislative session. The “Streaker of the House” interrupted a meeting of the Hawaiian body of lawmakers.

As the year wore on, streakers went for style, rather than mere running. There were bicycling streakers, roller skating streakers, horseback-riding streakers, pogo sticking streakers, the list goes on and on. Even streaking skydivers dropped out of the sky, although wearing a parachute could arguably cross the line of what defines nudity.

Ray Stevens saw the opportunity to cash in on the fad, and did so big time with his song “The Streak.” The goofy classic hit #1 that year of 1974.

The University of Georgia was the home of the largest simultaneous streak in history. On March 7 of that year, when it’s still quite chilly in Athens, 1,543 students went for a naked run.

Streaking became the hot new activity for the nation’s youth. My school superintendent felt worried enough that an announcement was made warning any potential streakers of the very dire consequences they would experience if they should choose to shed their clothing and take off across the Pea Ridge High School campus.

David Niven handles an Oscar streaker very well

My all-time favorite streaking moment was when the Oscar streaker did his thing that year. I’ve always been a David Niven fan, but he became my all-time favorite British actor the night the streaker ran in front of him flashing the peace sign on the April 2, 1974 presentations of the 46th Academy Awards. The affable, ever clever Mr. Niven didn’t hesitate for a second before stating “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”

By the time the weather turned cold in 1974, streaking as a craze had ended. But occasional streakers continue to show up, mainly at big sporting events. European soccer seems to be a popular arena for naked runners these days, if the proliferation of YouTube videos is any indication. And of course streaking, like practically everything else that was done for the joy of it, has been officially sanctioned by Big Business. Nike has a commercial showing a soccer streaker wearing a certain brand of shoes. Care to guess which?

So here’s to a fad that kept us distracted from things like Watergate woes one year in the 70’s. BTW, if any of you readers ever actually streaked, I’d love to hear about it.

One Small Step for Man . . .

Neil Armstrong’s first footprint on the moon

What a thrilling ride the space program was in the 50’s and 60’s. Russia whizzed off Uncle Sam with a little metallic sphere called Sputnik, and the race was on.

John Kennedy, still stinging from the Bay of Pigs fiasco, made a speech in 1961 in which he set the goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. It made the public go “hmm . . .”

And, though it seemed like a very difficult goal to reach, on July 20, 1969, it was accomplished. And if you remember JFK, you also remember that moment when an announcement was made: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” And a few hours later, Armstrong’s immortal line was spoken as he casually stepped out onto the moon, for the first time in human history.

I remember getting to stay up late to watch the event. I watched breathlessly as he descended the ladder, stepped off, paused a moment, and stated “That’s one small step for (static) man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The static forever raised the issue of whether Armstrong flubbed his line. An “a” would have made more sense. But the static could well have covered it up.

Such is human nature. Perhaps the single greatest accomplishment of the 1960’s, and we argue about what exactly was said. All I know is that if I had just taken control of a spacecraft from a computer that was guiding it towards a field of boulders, found a better landing spot, and set the craft down with 15 seconds of fuel, my first words would probably have been “Holy crap!” or something to that effect.

I remember walking out in the yard and looking up at the moon, a little bigger than half full. I was stunned at the age of nine that, at that moment, men were walking on its surface.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the climax of the space program. Many more trips to the moon were planned, but some were canceled as public interest waned and the cost of the trips was seen as too much when we had problems here on earth.

Speaking of that, one more permanent effect from that night in July so long ago was the addition of this introductory phrase to man’s vocabulary: “If they can put a man on the moon, then why can’t they . . .”

Marilyn Is Dead!

As I have stated repeatedly here, my first coherent memory was the death of JFK. However, many slightly older Boomers have have a similar photographic recollection of the death of renowned tortured soul Marilyn Monroe.

Starlets have handled their fame with various degrees of aptitude. Some, like Mae West, reveled in the attention, and couldn’t get enough of it. Others, like Greta Garbo, felt the need to withdraw completely from public life. Then there are the tortured souls, who simply can’t find a way to cope with stardom’s steep cost.

Norma Jeane Mortensen never knew her father. She barely knew her mother, who spent her own tortured life in mental institutions. Her childhood homes consisted of California foster care facilities. And, sadly typical of foster homes, her young life was scarred by episodes of abuse.

In 1942, at the age of sixteen, she entered into an arranged marriage with James Dougherty. The plan was cooked up by her then-current foster mother, Grace Goddard, in order to keep Norma Jeane from yet another foster move, as Grace was about to move out of the state.

Young Marilyn

Predictably, the marriage didn’t last. In the beginning, Norma Jeane enjoyed playing with the neighborhood children until her husband would call her home. As she matured into adulthood, she decided that she wanted more out of life. By 1946, she struck out on her own.

By then, she had dyed her brown hair platinum blonde, and was now successfully employed as a model. Ben Lyon, a 20th Century Fox executive, spotted her and offered her a screen test. She did well, and went to work under a six month, $125-per-week contract. She also changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.

Real stardom followed, and by 1952, she made her first appearance on the cover of Life magazine.

She was now the toast of Hollywood, but marital happiness proved elusive to the superstar. The Joe DiMaggio marriage lasted a mere nine months, and steely, intense Arthur Miller provided no emotional support for the fragile actress.

She turned to prescription drugs to ease the pain, and her personality began to be adversely affected. Her moods largely depended on what medications were coursing through her bloodstream at the moment.

Suffering from a severe sinus headache, Marilyn took some prescribed antibiotics and amphetamines shortly before an invited performance at the White House to wish President Kennedy a happy birthday. Appearing to be drunk, she caused a spectacle by half-whispering a seductive version of the song.

Marilyn singing Happy Birthday to President Kennedy

As had happened so many times in her life, the public perception of events didn’t tell the whole story.

A couple of months later, Marilyn was found dead in her hotel room. The death was ruled to be an overdose of barbiturates.

Soon, the conspiracy theories flew through the air like filthy starlings heading for their sundown roost. What killed Marilyn? Was it a suicide? Cubans? Russians? Jimmy Hoffa?

Marilyn and Joe were to have been remarried. The despondent once-and-future groom had fresh roses placed at Marilyn’s crypt thrice-weekly for the next twenty years.

Thus ended the tortured life of Norma Jeane Mortensen, aka Norma Jeane Baker, Norma Jeane Dougherty, and Marilyn Monroe. Her death, as depicted on the AMC series Mad Men, was a cause for deep national mourning.

Many point to JFK’s assassination as the end of innocence for the 60’s. However, a case could certainly be made that the demise of this fragile starlet over a year earlier was the real death knell for the carefree times that our prosperous parents had enjoyed after the end of WWII.

Hometown Boy Makes Good

Growing up in small-town America Miami, Oklahoma in the 60’s was a rich experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. It was wonderful living in a community where everyone knew who you were, where you could go anywhere you wanted as long as you were home for supper, and where civic pride was tangibly real.

The city’s pride swelled to the breaking point in 1969, the year hometown boy Steve Owens won the Heisman Trophy.

Owens was a kid that, of course, everyone in town knew. I never met the man myself, but his brother (named Bill, I believe) lived on my street, and Steve’s nephew Tony, who was my age, was a familiar face in the neighborhood gang. And my schoolteacher mom was quite proud of the fact that Steve was one of her students.

I’ve always stated that Miami was Steve’s home town, but I stand corrected. He was actually born in Gore, Oklahoma, and moved to Miami at an early age. While he was a young kid, OU was in the process of compiling an incredible 47 game winning streak. Any football-inclined youngster in Oklahoma dreamed of playing for the Sooners, and Steve was no exception.

In high school, Steve shined for the Wardogs. He averaged 7.2 yards per rush and gained over 4,000 yards in his four years. He caught recruiters’ attention, and happily signed for his favorite school.

Oklahoma’s 1969 Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens speaks at the unveiling of a statue of the Heisman Trophy winner before the Oklahoma-University Alabama-Birmingham’s college football game Saturday, Aug. 2, 2006 in Norman, Okla.

But the coaches weren’t sure what to do with him. Owens was a bit of a paradox. He was a track star who was quite speedy, but he looked slow on the field. The Sooners considered making him a tight end. But in the end, they played him at running back his freshman season.

He didn’t play much, and didn’t dazzle when he did. But the next year, he ran for 813 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. He also scored a TD in OU’s Orange Bowl victory over Tennessee.

In his junior year, he gained 1,536 yards and started getting attention from the press. That year, O.J. Simpson blew away everyone else for the Heisman, but he called Owens and predicted he would win it the next year.

Owens shined in 1969. His team had problems, though, and lost four games. But Steve began putting together a string of 100-yard games the previous year that continued into his senior season. Once, during a shellacking of Colorado, Owens wanted to let up on the hapless Buffaloes. He was reported to have said “Let’s just fall on the ball and forget this 100-yard stuff. It’s not that important.” Offensive guard Bill Effstrom’s response to him was “It might not be important to you, but it’s sure important to us.”

Owens ran hard and picked up 112 yards. He ended up with 17 straight 100 yard games, a record that still stands.

When Owens won the Heisman that year, a small town became ecstatic. Unfortunately, I had moved away by then, so I missed out on the fun. But I was pleased to drive down Steve Owens Boulevard during a visit there a few years ago.

Nowadays, Owens is CEO at a big insurance agency in Oklahoma City. Life turned out well for the gentleman, I’m happy to say. So here’s to a small town boy who made good, and gave perennial bragging rights to everyone from Miami, Oklahoma.