Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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The Lure of the Fall

I've been talking and reading a lot about what it takes grown-ups to forgive their parents. Here's a story from the world of sport that indicates an impressive degree of forgiveness. It's about Stanley Wilson, who shares the name of his father, the Cincinnati Bengals fullback who disappeared before the Super Bowl back in 1989 and finally showed up in a "crack house," incurring a lifetime ban from the NFL. Interestingly, I was just thinking about Stanley Wilson the other day, wondering what had become of him. His story really affected me back then. After the trauma of Len Bias's cocaine overdose in 1986, I became richly attuned to the problem of addiction in the sporting world. Roy Tarpley still troubles me. Ken Caminiti is on my mind a lot lately. And the documentary on Sugar Ray Richardson I saw on ESPN Classic last year lingers in my memory more than most things I watch on television.

I've had a weak spot for tales of drug and alcohol abuse since my childhood days of watching ABC After School Specials -- remember how brutally real those could be? -- and then taking sex and drug education in a school district, after we moved to Maryland, where inner-city maladies had to be addressed in the curriculum. There was a book my teacher Mrs. Clarke told us about in sixth grade, when she was reviewing reading material, about a teenager whose brother falls into heroin addiction. I forget the title, but I remember waiting impatiently for my turn to check it out of the library. I think we should spend more time thinking about the way in which cautionary tales circulate among children, often inspiring desires whose pursuit requires them to throw caution to the wind. I mean, as huge an impact as Len Bias's death had on me, I spent my undergraduate years doing all sorts of things that his example should have warned me against.

When I think about it, getting together with Kim has to rank as the best example. Given the experiences she described in the first hours of our acquaintance, not to mention her attempt to steal a cab from some serious looking hoods and the amount of Johnny Walker Red she poured down her throat, a careful person would have headed in the opposite direction. But I plunged right in, a model of ungainliness, and kept doing the same until the point of no return was a tiny spot of light in my rear-view mirror. I took a huge risk, tossing it onto the heaping mound of other risks I'd taken from the moment I set foot on the Berkeley campus.

It's funny to think that Kim has long complained that I'm excessively cautious. While it's true that I do have a tendency to say, "No, you can't do that," or, "Look out! That's dangerous," my words ring false when measured against the record of my actions. I understand why this may be hard for Kim to perceive, in light of the extreme experiences she had from her teens through her early thirties. More pertinently, I recognize why she might be resentful, whether consciously or not, that I indulged in a kind of emotional tourism in order to experience things that she would gladly have avoided. That recognition confronts me with a paradox, however, because it is only as a result of my willingness to hazard a fall that the two of us became a couple in the first place. I fell, in other words, into something good, but only because I risked falling into something bad.

And how, my most tenacious readers ask, did I move from talking about Stanley Wilson to my relationship with Kim? 1989 is the common denominator. Few years have been so full of falling. From the rise and fall of the democracy movement in China, disintegrating alongside my relationship to Annalee in the heat of a Maryland summer without air conditioning; to the collapse of the Cypress Structure and that segment of the Bay Bridge during the Loma Prieta quake; to the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the Berlin Wall that was its metonym, my memories of that year are all about Einstürzendes. Most Americans now regard 2001 as the year most likely to be regarded as the marker of a major historical shift. But 1989 has a lot to recommend it. And the fact that I met Kim in Spats on October 30th, 1989, after watching Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours with Leanne -- yes, I did write "Woody Allen" -- will always be at the top of my list of reasons why.

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