Facing a Tragedy, the “805” Unites

1StrawberriesCoverWooden&Me_cover_PRFor a Personalized Autographed copy of STRAWBERRIES IN WINTERTIME” or “WOODEN & ME” mail a check for $25 to:

Woody Woodburn

400 Roosevelt Court

Ventura, CA 93003

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Facing a Tragedy, the “805” Unites

A dear friend, having gone through hell and back, once told me a startling thing: she would not wish cancer upon an enemy, yet she was thankful for having had it.

Thankful? For tsunami-like waves of nausea caused by chemotherapy; for sickly weight loss and the loss of hair from radiation treatments; for bone-deep pain and ultra-marathon-like fatigue; for haunting fear?

Yes, she insisted, she was thankful for it all because through the tribulation she learned how strong she was. She found out who her truest friends were. And she had gained a new perspective on life.

As a result, she reframed her view of cancer as being a gift instead of a curse. Other cancer survivors have told me a similar thing.1help

As the days and weeks and now the first month have passed since the Thomas Fire metastasized across our county, consuming swaths of Santa Paul, Fillmore, Ventura, Ojai, and beyond, in pitiless cancer-like fashion, I have been reminded of my friend’s reframing.

I offer a similar reframing not callously, especially considering there were lives lost. Nor do I say it distantly, for my father’s hillside home of four decades was among those that became ashes and a standing chimney.

Rather, in addition to being a calamity, I can see the Thomas Fire as a cancer-survivor’s-like blessing. At the lowest of times, our communities stood their tallest. As homes were razed, we pulled together like an Amish barn raising.

Seemingly everyone became a Good Samaritan. Neighbors woke neighbors in the dark of a night eerily lighted by an orange glow and helped one another evacuate.

Strangers gave rides to strangers; trucked the horses of strangers to safety; opened their homes and offered spare beds to strangers.

So many donations of clothes came in to evacuation centers that new offerings finally had to be turned away.

A single illustration of generosity speaks as a wider example. Thirteen families, all renters at a mobile home park and all without contents insurance, lost everything they owned.

A humanitarian made a request at his church and on social media for replacement beds, blankets and bedding, sofas, dining tables, kitchenware, coffee makers, microwave ovens, TVs, air purifiers. Thirteen microwaves appeared the next day.

And everything else listed above, and more, for all 13 families was donated within 48 hours. Toys to give the affected children a semblance of a merry holiday also poured in.

Similar narratives were the rule, not the exception. Moreover, the Samaritan spirit continues.

It is not just people helping people, but businesses have been involved too. To mention one local business that has provided free services, free meals, free clothing, free this and free that, to those whose homes burned down – and to those who were evacuated long-term and also to the heroes who fought the fires – would be to leave out a hundred other businesses that did likewise.

The other day, I read a story shared by a man riding the “L” in Chicago that struck home. He was on his commute, on a bone-chilling Midwest day, and saw a homeless man seated across the train car.

The homeless man’s clothes were basically rags, his sneakers had holes, and blood seeped through his socks of which he wore three or four pairs in a losing effort to keep his feet warm.

A younger man entered the train, saw the homeless man, and did not hesitate to do something noble: he took off his own shoes – actually nearly new, expensive, heavy, black leather boots well-suited for Chicago’s harsh winters – and gave them to the older man in need.

There was more: the younger man pulled a pair of fresh socks from his briefcase and these he also gave the older man, along with some kind words.

Reading the story made my heart sing, and not just because of the obvious good done by one person for another.

The exchange also touched me because the young Samaritan reminded me of Ventura County, our “805” united as one.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at WoodyWriter@gmail.com.

Wooden & Me Kickstarter Front PhotoCheck out my memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” and my essay collection “Strawberries in Wintertime: Essays on Life, Love, and Laughter” …

Grace and Hope in Time of Calamity

1StrawberriesCoverWooden-&-Me-cover-mock-upFor a Personalized Autographed copy of STRAWBERRIES IN WINTERTIME” or “WOODEN & ME” mail a check for $25 to:

Woody Woodburn

400 Roosevelt Court

Ventura, CA 93003

* * *

Grace and Hope in Time of Calamity

I write and file this column midweek, when the fierce and pitiless winds are at a lull, and so the drama will have resumed by the time you read this. All the same, these sentiments will surely have been reinforced when the devilish Santa Anas roared anew.

I write these words after returning from a middle-of-the-night evacuation and, blessedly, finding my home still standing.

I write this bleary-eyed – and with tears in my eyes.1venturastrong

I write this with a heart that feels like it has been stomped upon by a marching band wearing army boots, yet I write this also with a heart filled with love and pride and hope because of the way my longtime hometown has responded to the home-and-heirlooms-purloining Thomas Fire.

Ventura, perhaps as never before, has shown itself to be We-tura.

So, too, has this same spirit emerged in Sant-Us Paula and Our-jai, and all our local communities, as the Thomas Fire scorched a path like General Sherman marching from Atlanta to the sea during the Civil War.

Indeed, when I write “I” here it truly echoes of “we” because the Thomas Fire touched us all in similar ways.

As mentioned, I (we) had to evacuate when flames crested a hill from the north and encroached Foothill Road with our home mere yards across the two-lane blacktop on the south. At 3 a.m. I (we) knocked on front doors and honked car horns to make sure our neighbors were awake and we all got the hell out of Hell’s way.

I (we) had countless friends, co-workers and family members who likewise needed to evacuate and worried about them one and all, as well as about those we do not know at all.

I (we) felt an earthquake rattle my soul learning about dear and longtime friends who lost their homes in Clearpoint and, as the fire surged on, in Ondulando.

I (we) learned of more friends, further down the fire’s path, who similarly were suddenly made homeless.

I (we) worried about relatives – me, about my father’s home at the ocean’s-view-crest of Ondulando and, below in the same tract, my eldest brother’s home and the home of one of my nieces. These fears extended a mile away to my other older brother’s home that lay directly in the evacuated path of this vicious monster.

I (we) hoped against hope all my family members’ homes – along with everyone’s homes – would survive.

Finally, I (we) learned of these fates, one by one: My niece’s home escaped unharmed, as did my older brother’s home. Meanwhile, the fire made a Pickett’s Charge-like charge and overtook the backyard fence of my eldest brother’s home before being defeated.

As for the fate of my 91-year-old father’s home, a home he has lived in for 44 years, his home that holds so much of my late mom? Answer: a solemn shake of the head, “no.” It is gone. Memories from half of a long lifetime disappearing in flame and smoke in a cruel instant.

Thinking of my father and my (our) friends, co-workers, neighbors and everyone who lost their homes, I (we) feel “Home” Survivor Guilt.

Why did my (our) home survive and theirs did not?

1friemanThere but for the grace of god, and the direction of the fickle winds, goes my (our) home instead of theirs.

Grace certainly was on abundant display. Our family members and friends naturally offered one another helping hands and shelter, food and drinking water, hugs and compassion – and so did strangers offer these same things to strangers.

In other words, in Latin, E pluribus unum – “out of many, one.”

Firefighters, as always, were heroes. In truth, however, most everyone rose to the occasion, standing tall and together like our famous “Two Trees. ” It seems a fitting simile, for while our iconic landmark was charred by the Thomas Fire, what it symbolizes – standing side by side as We-Trees – remains unconquerable.

I (we) have never been more heartbroken for my hometown, and yet conversely my heart has never been filled fuller for We-tura.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at WoodyWriter@gmail.com.

Wooden & Me Kickstarter Front PhotoCheck out my memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” and my essay collection “Strawberries in Wintertime: Essays on Life, Love, and Laughter” …

Column: Stan Smith, Part II

My new memoir WOODEN & ME is available here at Amazon

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The Rest Of This Story Took A While

Eight weeks ago in this space I shared a cherished memory of being a 10-year-old ball boy for Stan Smith in 1970, two years before he would ascent to being ranked No. 1 in the world. After literally smashing his wooden racket while hitting an overhead smash on match point to win the doubles title with Bob Lutz, Smith gave me the crumpled frame as a souvenir.

Feeling 10 years old again with my boyhood idol, Stan Smith.

Feeling 10 years old again with my boyhood idol, Stan Smith.

To borrow the signature phrase from the late, great radio broadcaster Paul Harvey, “And now the rest of the story . . .”

Last week I was a guest at “An Evening With Stan Smith” fundraising dinner held at the spectacular home of Valerie and Alan Greenberg to honor the former Ojai champion during this year’s 115th annual tennis tournament.

In addition to my lovely wife, I brought along that old broken Wilson Jack Kramer Pro Staff model racket. I have always regretted not asking Smith to autograph it that long-ago summer day in Ohio.

In Ojai, on a spring night, I now hoped to remedy that.

“Hello Mr. Smith. I’m Woody and we met 45 years ago,” I said as introduction. “I was a ball boy at the Buckeye Boys Ranch tournament.”

“I remember you,” Smith warmly joked. “You’ve grown a little taller since then.”

It can be a dicey thing meeting one’s hero. The risk is that in person he or she will fall shy of the image you hold. My boyhood idol measured up even in my adulthood, which is saying something because Smith stands 6-foot-4.

For the next 15 minutes, Smith, still five-set-trim at age 68, regaled me one-on-one with stories of his Hall of Fame career. Of Wimbledon, where he slept in a narrow bed a foot too short for him en route to winning the singles title in 1972.

Of his days at USC, where he won the 1968 NCAA singles championship and partnered with Lutz – who was also on hand this night – to capture two NCAA doubles crowns.

And of Davis Cup play, specifically his match for the ages in 1972 in Bucharest against Ion Tiriac, against eight Romanian line judges, against a head umpire intimidated by the hostile home crowd, against death threats on the U.S. players.

Tiriac’s “out” balls were routinely called in and Smith’s “in” shots called out. Smith got two such bad calls on one single crucial point.

Still, Smith overcame it all and prevailed in five sets to clinch the Cup. Too, he overcame the urge to punch the gamesman Tiraiac rather than shake his hand at the net afterwards. Instead, Smith coolly told him he no longer respected him, turned, and walked away.

Wayne Bryan, emcee for the evening, began his warm introduction of Smith with a roasting that belonged in a comedy club. Smith laughed so hard I half-expected his trademark blonde mustache to slip off his quivering lip.

But when the microphone was in Smith’s hand, as with a racket, he gave better than he got, displaying a wicked sense of humor and playfulness and grace.

SmithAutograph

Finally autographed 45 years later!

Speaking of having a racket in his hand, when I showed Smith the old Pro Staff he smiled and instantly examined it. He explained how he personally nailed the butt cap secure and showed me where he twice tacked the old-school leather grip in place before tightly wrapping it on.

And then his right hand, a paw really for it is huge and strong, wrapped itself around the oversized 4-7/8 grip. All these years later his fingers instinctively found their familiar grooves in the overlapping seams and he squeezed gently, caressingly almost, and waved the Wilson magic wand ever so slightly to better feel its heft and balance. From his contented smile you could tell it was like he had been reunited with a dance partner from a long-ago Prom.

Then my boyhood hero returned to 2015 and, while I remained in 1970 a little longer, he signed the racket with a single double-tall script “S” next to “tan” which was above “mith”.

And now you know the rest of the story, finally completed 45 years later.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at WoodyWriter@gmail.com.

Wooden-&-Me-cover-mock-upCheck out my new memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece”

 

Column: Stan Smith stands tall

My new memoir WOODEN & ME is also available here at Amazon

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Ojai to Wimbledon, Stan Smith shined

Nearly two decades before fictional Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella built his “Field of Dreams,” a Court of Dreams was laid down in the middle of an Ohio cornfield for the inaugural 1970 Buckeye Open – now the ATP Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.

The green hardcourt was built and they came – Arthur Ashe, Charles Pasarell, Tom Gorman, an aging Pancho Gonzales, and that year’s eventual singles champion, Bob Lutz.

However, it was Lutz’s doubles partner out of the University of Southern California, Stan Smith, who made the quickest – and most lasting – impression upon me.1stansmith

I was a 10-year-old rookie ball boy working the very first match of the pro tournament. Like Smith, my forte was at net where I was quick and confident. But unlike the tall, lanky, blond Californian, I was not falling prey to my own miscues. The opening set was over quickly as Smith didn’t win a game.

In the second set, however, the three-time All-American from USC and 1968 NCAA singles champion found his form. Unleashing aces instead of double faults, put-away volleys and laser-guided passing shots instead of unforced errors, Smith won the second set as fleetly as he had lost the first. Ray Ruffels, a lefty out of Australia, suddenly became Ray Ruffled as Smith ran out the match, 0-6, 6-0, 6-0.

Walking off the court my new idol paused to sign “Good luck, Stan Smith” on the brim of my tennis hat. A week later I got more than an autograph. I scored one of Smith’s rackets – a custom Wilson Jack Kramer Pro Staff model, weighted “Heavy” with an oversized 4-7/8 grip.

On match point of the doubles final, Smith hit an overhead a fraction high of the sweet spot and the wooden racket head collapsed like a dry leaf. Still, the shot had enough power to win the point and give the title to Smith and Lutz.

Before shaking hands with their opponents at the net, Smith handed me his splintered racket. It was like having Babe Ruth give you a cracked bat before his home-run trot.

Behind a serve that came out of the treetops and a net game so monstrous that Romanian star Ilie Nastase nicknamed him “Godzilla,” the mustachioed Smith soon rose to No. 1 in the world. He won the 1971 U.S. Open. He won Wimbledon in 1972. He won the prestigious year-end WCT Finals twice.

Too, Smith was Mr. Clutch in Davis Cup play, going 15-5 in singles and 20-3 in doubles (13-1 with Lutz) while setting a record by personally clinching the Cup five times.

Stanley Roger Smith was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 but his credentials date back to The Ojai Tennis Tournament “Where Champions Are Discovered” and where he won the 1964 Boys’ Interscholastic singles title and added three Collegiate singles crowns, two Collegiate doubles titles and one Open Doubles championship.

More than a half-century after his first appearance at The Ojai, Smith will be back at this year’s 115th edition of the prestigious event. On April 23 he will attend the traditional Thursday Night BBQ and on April 24 will be the guest of honor at a special reception from 5:30 to 7:30 at the Ojai Vineyard Tasting Room to raise funds for capital improvements to the tournament. Tickets can be purchased online at: www.ojaitourney.org.

“The main goal, of course, was to play on the main Libbey Park courts,” Smith, now 68, recently recalled. “That was really special.”

The Pasadena native who now resides in Hilton Head Island, S.C. where he runs his own junior tennis academy, continued: “And the orange juice stand was the other highlight. It’s funny how certain things stand out in your mind.”

Funny indeed. When he was losing that six-love set to Ray Ruffels, this is what stands out in my mind: Stan Smith argued a line call – that had gone in his favor and ultimately gave the point to his opponent.

I think of that whenever I look at that broken keepsake racket hanging on my wall to this day.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at WoodyWriter@gmail.com.

Wooden-&-Me-cover-mock-upCheck out my new memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece”