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March 11, 2021

 As I  prepared to begin dropping in snippets from March 1939: Before the Madness as Facebook posts on the corresponding days the rest of the month, I was reminded of this: One frustration for me as an author has been that my book subtitles often have been overlooked or misunderstood. That's not whining. For the most part, I chose them or wholeheartedly agreed they appropriately augmented the titles. And by the time March 1939 came out, I had been through it with six other books.    


In this case, "Before the Madness" had a fairly specific (if subtle) double meaning.


Before the NCAA Tournament became March Madness.


Before the Madness that was World War II, which started in September 1939.


The basketball narrative played out against a backdrop of stormclouds of war. I drop in teletype-like summary reports of what was going on as the first NCAA tounament approached and was played.


The often overlooked, but fitting, fact was that Oregon's John Dick, the leading scorer in the first NCAA title game, wound up a Naval Flyer, then later was captain of the supercarrier USS Saratoga during the Vietnam War and finally a rear admiral.


I'm a bit sheepish to admit this. This wasn't even my first book linking sports and World War II, and even did it more directly in Third Down and a War to Go. Even before the books, I was a voracious reader about, and a student of, the war. But until I researched March 1939, I didn't have a grasp of the fact that as those storm clouds gathered over Europe, many patriotic Americans -- even if repulsed by what we knew of Hitler's maneuverings, posturing and disgusting policies -- were opposed to the U.S. entering "another" war in Europe.


It was barely 20 years after the U.S. lost 116,708 in World War I. 


Anti-war organizations sprung up on campuses across the country -- including many of the same campuses that later were cauldrons during the Vietnam War -- and even career military and mainstream politicians openly expressed their wariness.


In fact, I noted in the book that on March 11, 1939 -- or 82 years ago as I type:


MIDDLETOWN, Conn. -- The fomer commander of the United States Marine Corps displays a shocking disdain for the nation's commander in chief at a Wesleyan University conference on foreign policy. Major General Smedley Butler says he will attempt to make sure that President Roosevelt's son, James, is quickly on the front lines "if his father starts another war." Butler angrily declares: "If we're going to send boys out to fight every twenty years for democracy, what's the use of keeping democracy?"   


Of course, World War II started in Europe in September 1, 1939. And we stayed out of it -- at least officially -- for 27 months. But as that 1938-39 basketball season played out, the young men in the games -- and on the campuses -- were beginning to wonder if they would be called on. They were. Specifically, March 1939 was a tumultuous month, with ominous events. It was Before The Madness



Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming: Texas vs. Arkansas in Dixie's Last Stand


My original working title -- Tin Soldiers and Nixon Coming -- more directly paid homage to Neil Young's song.


Simon and Schuster pushed for The Last of How it Was.


Several pointed out to me that Young's song title was "Ohio" and it didn't come out until 1970, following the shootings at Kent State, and that many would quibble with all of that.


We split the difference (though Arkansas originally was mentioned first), and the subtitle was the publisher's idea. Again, that's not a complaint because I was 100 percent in favor of it. 


"Texas vs. Arkansas in Dixie's Last Stand" was meant to acknowledge that the Longhorns and Razorbacks were on the verge of integrating their varsities and that all-white college football programs were about to be history. That it should  have happened sooner is obvious, and I discuss all of that in the book.


But the subtitle secondarily meant the bitter and season-long fight over the use of the song "Dixie" as Arkansas' unofficial athletic anthem. As I documented, that fight that would have led to black students and sympathizers storming and occupying the Razorback Stadium field in front of Nixon entourage and national television audience at the first note if it the song had been played at the Texas-Arkansas game. But the courageous Arkansas band director, Richard Worthington, agreed to abide by that week's Student Senate vote recommending the banning of the song -- and no renegade band members defied him.


The book got great reviews with the exception of one from an anomymous mainstream scribe -- a keyboard warrior ahead of his or her time -- who clearly had not read the entire book to make that connection.


The 20-20 hindsight is that we should have made sure in cover copy and promotion that the subtitle had a double meaning, too.  But that was my first (published) book, so I had an excuse to not know any better.



Third Down and a War to Go: The All-American 1942 Wisconsin Badgers


I've been asked a lot about how I came up with Third Down and a War to Go, and the answer is: It popped into my head before I had written a word, and I stuck with it. (I even used "Fourth Down and a War to Go" as a chapter name later, in Playing Piano in a Brothel.)   


"The All-American 1942 Wisconsin Badgers" was meant to secondarily mean that yes, there were famous stars on that great Badgers team destined for World War II service and heroism, but also that it was a story I could have told of any 1942 team I selected by closing my eyes and stabbing a pin onto a map. Theirs was an All-American story.


The "problem" was it was pigeonholed at "a Wisconsin book." (Not that there's anything wrong with it.)  


We took the subtitle off the revised paperback edition. We weren't trying to "trick" anyone, but to emphasize what we thought was the American universality of the story ... without coming out and saying it.   




'77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age


The subtitle emphasized the appropriateness of placing the '77 Broncos in the context of the transformative times in Denver that year.


Some just wanted football play by play, but most understood and appreciated my approach. This worked best of all my subtitles. The book was a time capsule for those who remembered that team -- and those times.   



Playing Piano in a Brothel: A Sports Journalist's Odyssey 


The book would have sold better if we had stuck with the original title that was the name of one of the chapters. The Elway Effect. But the publisher went along with my request to go with Playing Piano in a Brothel, a takeoff on the old joke about lawyers.


From there, the subtitle was a no-brainer.


Now we come to my two novels.  



Olympic Affair: A Novel of Hitler's Siren and America's Hero 


This is my best book.


My working title was Leni and Glenn -- meaning Leni Riefenstahl, the notorious German actress and documentary filmmaker; and Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion from Simla, Colorado, and CSU/A&M. 

The catch was I researched this as a conventional non-fiction, narrative history book. The starting point, in effect, was doing a story on CSU honoring Morris with the replanting of an Olympic tree and coming across Riefenstahl's admission in her 1988 memoirs that she had an affair with Morris in connection with the filming of "Olympia," her documentary about the Berlin Games.

Gradually, I realized it would be a much better, or at least more entertaining, book if I let what I knew -- and I knew a lot -- play out on a screen in my head and then filling in the blanks with my imagination. (I was gratified when, in the Philadelphia Review of Books, Jim Blanchet labeled the book's approach as "cinematic.") I opened it with her 1974 trip to Colorado for the first Telluride Film Festival, before flashing back to 1936.


And the publisher supported me on the approach, for which I am grateful.


I made it as "true" as I could, and I in fact believe it's much more an accurate story than many "based on a true story" or "true" movies. And even as "true" as some popular books shelved in the history section. 


I do wish we had completely scratched "A Novel of" and labeled it a sports book or history, while acknowledging on the book jacket or elsewhere that it was a speculative work based on exhaustive non-fiction research. What I regret is that some who glance at the book or come across it online are prone to jump on the term "novel," assume I just made it all up and perhaps move on if historical fiction isn't in their wheelhouse. I didn't make it all up. The book jacket summary more spells out the approach. That probably would have violated book business protocol, but pushing the envelope would have been appropriate.  



The Witch's Season. The Novel: A Team, A Town, A Campus, The Times


This is the book I started in high school -- and finished about 18 times over the years. I intended the roman a clef novel, set in 1968 and early '69, to be my first book. Ultimately, it was my fourth.


Part of it even appeared in Tableau, Wheat Ridge High's student literary magazine, my senior year. 


I made the chapter titles names of songs that were on the charts at the times the chapters took place, and I grabbed onto Donovan's "The Season of the Witch" as the basis of the book title. I modified it to avoid confusion with the 1973 novel by James Leo Herlihy. I later realized I should have just used more of the song lyric and called it Must Be the Season of the Witch or even the more unorthodox Oh, No, Must be the Season of the Witch. Or just Must be the Season.


Same thing: I should have left "The Novel" off the subtitle, this time more for stylistic reasons because I tried to do too much with it. But I wanted to emphasize that this was about a team caught up in the maelstrom that was a college campus and a nation in turmoil in 1968.  I mostly wrote it before, but it came out after, Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming. One's non-fiction, one's a novel based on what I saw up close in Eugene, but I have no problem admitting there are many similarities.            





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