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Sunday, May 27, 2012

My Day With The Dipper

We were on a mission. The year was 1984, I was twenty-four years old and with my friend Lanny, was embarking on the ultimate road trip. Our dream was to drive from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara, along the famed Pacific Coast Highway, stopping at every watering hole along the way to sample Brandy Alexanders. It was a dream that any young man would envy: A glorious day in the sun, with nothing between us and the ocean but a stretch of blacktop and an endless series of refreshing beverages—a truly utopian vision. We had no idea when we piled into the Volkswagen Beetle with our Wayfarers firmly in place that we would sacrifice this lofty goal of road magic for the sake of a fleeting brush with greatness.

The scenic 101 highway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara is probably one of the most beautiful stretches of American roadways ever paved. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the road winds along the coast, stretching over a hundred miles between these two West Coast cities and well beyond. The Brandy Alexander, of course, is a soothing and tasty, yet crippling mixture of brandy, ice cream and Crème de Cacao. The drink had captured my fancy through a book I had read that summer. The tawdry volume had chronicled the revelries of the late John Lennon and his friend and fellow singer, the late Harry Nilsson, the highlight of which was the legendary tale of the duo being bounced from the Troubadour after a night of sipping the Alexander to excess.

The combination of the beautiful trip, augmented by the tasty beverage was alluring, so one sunny summer afternoon, we dressed for warm weather—colorful shirts, sensible shoes and baggy swim shorts—popped in the “Synchronicity” tape and hit the road to Dreamland.

I don’t even recall the name of the beachfront restaurant that caught our eye. It was the first of our many unplanned stops and it seemed quite promising. Set well back from the ocean, the restaurant boasted several beach volleyball courts and outdoor seating. We had to park a distance from the eatery and walk along the beach. It was a nice day and we figured the exercise would only exacerbate our thirst, so we parked and began our hike.

We were debating the possibilities of flavored ice creams as a Brandy Alexander enhancement when the powder blue Rolls Royce pulled off the pavement onto the sandy roadside, steam billowing from beneath the classically lined hood. I judged the Rolls to be of an early-sixties vintage and Lanny and I stopped walking as the vehicle rolled to a halt. I whistled through my teeth and smiled. Lanny nodded. No words needed to be spoken—it was a very nice car.

I gazed at the automobile with a mixture of awe and pity. It was a beautiful, classic machine—but it was in trouble. The sight was no more pleasant to behold than a broken stained-glass window. The driver’s-side door opened and a long leg emerged, accompanied by a burst of invective that swelled from within the vehicle. The voice was deep and booming and obviously inconvenienced. The other leg followed and then the form from inside the car unfolded itself and rose to its full height. We stared in disbelief at the man who stood before us. He towered above us—over seven feet tall, chiseled like a statue—and glared at his car. He shut the door with a menacing flourish and damned the vehicle with a final curse.

Wilt Chamberlain was irritated.

“Need some help?” I asked. My voice suddenly sounded small and timid from inside my head. Wilt Chamberlain turned to face Lanny and myself, his hands on his hips, and seemed to notice us for the first time. He was silent for a moment, as he glanced upon these two small creatures. I began to feel uncomfortable—he was blocking out the sun.

Wilt smiled and extended his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, the voice still deep and resonant, no longer angry. “I didn’t mean to explode in front of you—it’s just this damned car…” I shook his hand—it enveloped mine as a first baseman’s mitt would swallow a baseball. “My name’s Wilt—Wilt Chamberlain.”

“I’m Jerry,” I said. “This is Lanny.” Wilt shook Lanny’s hand.

Lanny watched his hand disappear. “It’s a beautiful car,” Lanny said, his voice almost a whisper.

“It is that,” Wilt said, watching the steam roll from beneath the hood. “But these old ones—you gotta really watch ‘em…”

“Need some help?” I repeated, immediately feeling foolish for having repeated myself.

Wilt waved his hand. “I’ll call from the restaurant, get it taken care of.” We all began to stroll toward the restaurant, leaving the overheated car behind, hissing on the side of the road. “Buy you boys a drink?”

“Sure, Wilt,” I said, my voice a bit braver. As we walked by the big man, I resisted the urge to hold his hand and skip. Wilt Chamberlain was going to buy me a drink—I would finally have something interesting to tell my grandchildren.

We walked into the restaurant and Wilt greeted everyone he passed, finally stopping at the bar and introducing Lanny and myself to the bartender. “Forrest,” he said, the rich baritone pleasant now, as if his expensive automobile weren’t dead at the side of the road. “This is my friend Jerry.”

“Hello, Jerry,” Forrest said. I shook the bartender’s hand. I was Wilt’s friend.

“And this is my friend Lenny.”

“Lanny,” Lanny corrected—quietly.

We ordered Brandy Alexanders and Wilt got an iced tea, I believe. We sat at the bar and sipped our drinks quietly, like good little boys, as Wilt mingled around the restaurant, talking volleyball and sports with his other friends. I thought about all of the accomplishments Wilt had achieved in the basketball arena: 100 points in one game—record untouchable. Averaging 50 points per game for an entire season—record untouchable. In the years that have followed, not even the great Michael Jordan has approached these two
milestones. In all his years as a professional, Wilt Chamberlain had never fouled out of a ballgame. For a center, this was unthinkable.

Beyond the records and the stats, Wilt had always seemed a Goliathan presence on the court. For many years in my youth, a framed photograph of my childhood hero, Connie Hawkins, the great forward for the Phoenix Suns, swooping around the giant Chamberlain had hung on the wall by my bed. It had always been the penultimate photograph to me—the smaller, agile Hawkins making his magic against The Big Dipper.

We didn’t bother Wilt anymore that afternoon, but we didn’t leave. I assume he made a call and had his Rolls taken care of, but I didn’t see him make the call. What I saw was a very gracious man—a celebrity giant, in stature and in legend—playing host in a place where he just happened to have ended up. We simply watched. And drank Brandy Alexanders, first with Vanilla ice cream, then with chocolate. We never made our roadtrip, not that day, not ever. Some might regret such a great and noble trek having slipped through the cracks, but not me. I had met Wilt Chamberlain—for just a minute, I had been Wilt Chamberlain’s friend.

Lanny and I walked back to the car later that afternoon, passing the place where Wilt’s car had come to a stop and we smiled. “Nice guy, Wilt,” I said.

“Yeah. Nice guy,” Lanny agreed. There was not much more to say. We traded our fanciful dream for a memory that day, and now that Wilt is gone, the memory becomes that much more valuable.

After all, the PCH has yet to fall into the ocean and as long as there is brandy and ice cream, the fanciful dream will always remain in my heart, right next to the place where the valuable memories are stored.

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