Friday, January 5, 2018

Portugal Against the World: My Father's Last Tournament by Hanno Fuchs


My father wrote this article in 1986 and submitted it to Tennis Magazine, where it appeared later that year.
Seven years ago, a few months before he died, my father was reminiscing about his nearly 70 years of playing tennis.

He was recalling his first tournament win, a junior mixed doubles title in Switzerland, in 1913.

“Didi Vlasto was my partner,” he said. “I was ten, she was nine. She became a great player later on — Lenglen’s favorite doubles partner. And even at nine years old, she already had that simple, sensible forehand. Six feet over the net every time.”

He held his palm in the air, vertically, and pantomimed a smooth firm-wristed stroke above the arm of his chair.

To my father, a consistent forehand return of serve, with just a touch of topspin, was one of the beautiful things in life. Tennis itself was a beautiful thing in life.

But it wasn’t the only thing.

He saw tennis as he saw the world, with calm, clear, judicious eyes. Tennis fascinated him, his whole life long, by its delicate balance between the ego-fulfillment of one’s own skill and performance, and the ego-subordination of giving one’s self to the rhythms and traditions of the sport itself: “how you play the game.” He saw it as a balance between body and mind, child and adult. Between a reasonable sense of one’s own limitations — and the undying dream of the possibility of that perfect day when those limits are transcended.

This memoir is written in honor and memory of that marvelously level-headed view of the world, that sense of realism and proportion that distinguishes the wisest among us. Not necessarily the most successful, or most powerful, or wealthiest, or most worthy of note; merely the wisest.

It was the summer of 1938 when Herr Doktor Bill Fuchs entered his last tournament. I’ve never known the name of the event, or been able to trace it; I only know it was a tournament in Zurich, in which he had played almost every year since the early 1920’s.

We lived in Portugal at the time, refugees from the Nazis. My father had had a respectable tennis career in Germany. I believe his top ranking had been No. 18, a few years before I was born.

He had started playing when he was around seven years old, very early for those days. His father had built one of the first private courts in the respectable bourgeois city of Karlsruhe, on the Rhine river in southwestern Germany; and had also been one of the founders of the Eislauf & Tennis Verein — skating and tennis club — that still exists there, at a streetcar turnaround on the western edge of town.

Little Bill — named Wilhelm, but nicknamed by a visiting American uncle — watched the players on the red clay courts for hours; then went home to his backboard and imitated the strokes he had seen. That’s about all there was to it — there was no army of eager young teaching pros in those days, much less the elaborate junior programs and academies of today.

But Bill Fuchs had good ball sense, fast hands, and indulgent parents. And several idols who were making headlines in German tennis: Otto Froitzheim, Kleinschroth, and the Australians, Windling and Brookes.

Bill became a good junior player, then a fine team player — matches between clubs, between cities, between states and regions were a large part of German tennis. Eventually he became the number one player at Heidelberg University.

That’s a long way from Stanford or UCLA, but it must have amounted to something, because suddenly he was much in demand for serious tournament events.

He faced Bunny Austin, a name still remembered in England, in a Mannheim v. Cambridge team competition. He didn’t win, he told me some time in the years that followed, but he lost “by a decent score.”

He also played against various of the famous “Musketeers” of France. “Someone had to lose to them in the early rounds,” he said with a rueful smile.

But I still have a photograph taken during a match against Henri Cochet at Strasbourg, where the score was 7-5, 6-3 — certainly a respectable result for the unknown young German, just out of Heidelberg.

Might Bill Fuchs have become a champion?

I doubt it. The judiciousness, the sense that tennis was not alone in his life, would probably have prevented him from reaching the required heights in any case. But what really did him in was — Czechoslovakia.

In a tennis frame of reference, that tiny country is a perfectly logical choice as the locale for some series of events — perhaps a crippling injury, a stunning loss, a draining five-setter on red clay — that could have marked a turning point in a tennis player’s career.

Actually, the impact of Czechoslovakia on my father had absolutely nothing to do with tennis. It had to do with a long winter in a logging camp, deep in the thickly-forested Czech mountains, near a town called Stubenbad. That was the German version of the place name; my father proudly remembered the Czech version as well: Vrutky-Rutka Stubnianske Teplicek. He insisted, against all incredulous protests, that this was the actual, precise name. The truth of that is as difficult to trace as the name of that Zurich tournament, but my father all his life claimed for himself the right of embellishment, when it came to making a story interesting.

He had graduated from Heidelberg that spring, in 1923, with a degree in economics and a Ph.D. dissertation of sorts, on the vicissitudes of the lumber industry.

Lumber was the family business. One’s career path was not so much a matter of individual choice in those days as it was a question of family strategy: Bill belonged in the business. And, the family elders announced, if he’s going into the business, he’s going to spend a winter learning it “in the field.” He’s going to Czechoslovakia, to the lumber suppliers, and put his nose to the grindstone in the woods.

Actually, as my father often recounted later, his nose was mostly in the dinner plate. The Czech foresters were not about to see their young German customer blister his hands or freeze his ears out on those bitter cold mountains.

They fed him endless bowls full of steaming Mittel-Europäisch casseroles, overflowing with great chunks of meat and doughy dumplings, accompanied by thick slabs of black pumpernickel bread with sweet fresh butter. They bade him wash it all down with robust Czech beer, or the fiery local Schnapps. They discovered he was an excellent chess player — so the friendly bottle of Schnapps found its way from the dinner table to the chess table, and the glasses were kept filled late into the winter nights.

Three months and thirty-five pounds later, my father emerged from Czechoslovakia as a certified expert in forestry, and forever on the edge of obesity. If the human appetite is indeed regulated by a mysterious inner clock, my father’s was re-set for life, at the logging camp in Vrutky-Rutka Stubnianske Teplicek.

In 1925, Bill’s marriage to the sparkling Marianne only slightly interrupted his gentlemanly shuttling between the solid, sensible environment of the family lumber business and the vaguely decadent meccas of the middle-European tennis scene of the 1920’s: Vienna, Berlin, Baden-Baden, and the like. In fact, when my dear father and mother honeymooned in the Frisian islands near Denmark, it happened by some strange coincidence to be at the place and time of an annual tournament in which Bill had been a semi-finalist the two previous years!

After the Frisian tournament (I don’t know if the new groom, sporting his new expanded waistline, survived the first round) came a more or less idyllic seven or eight years, if the dying years of Germany’s Weimar republic can be called idyllic. Herr Doktor enjoyed an amiable routine of family business and tournament tennis, only briefly, almost embarrassingly, interrupted by the births of his four children.

The tournament at Zurich was on the calendar every year. Doktor Fuchs was a fixture there — not a very shiny one, perhaps; I don’t know how far he ever came in that event. He and my mother long ago disposed of all the engraved bowls and salvers and ashtrays, but I don’t recall seeing anything as impressive as “champion of Switzerland” among them.

That’s not to say he did poorly in his tournament years. In mixed doubles, for one thing, he compiled quite a few impressive titles. Perhaps he had a flair for it; more likely, just an unusual degree of willingness to commit himself to that particular event, which demanded so much of that tolerance and even temperament that were his nature.

The “idyll” came to a crashing end with Adolf Hitler, in 1933.

No invitation to the Rot-Weiss Tennisverein in Berlin. No national championships. No state or regional team competitions.

While Jewish family councils everywhere shook their heads and mouthed the same foolish certainties —  “we’ll be at this sawmill long after those gangsters are thrown out of Berlin” — my family, like thousands of others, discovered the rude end of assimilation, the beginning of sudden and complete separateness.

Still, Herr Doktor played his tennis. Jewish clubs sprang up, and Jewish tournaments, and Jewish rankings. In 1934, Bill Fuchs was “Jüdischer Einzelmeister,” Jewish singles champion. You could look it up, as Casey Stengel used to say. Or, as my father used to say, “a heck of a way to move from #20 ranking to #1.”

Abroad, however, he was still welcomed at his old haunts. He played less often, but he still played at Strasbourg, Noordwijk,Lucerne. And Zurich, especially Zurich.

After all — just in case the gangsters in Berlin did outlast the lumber merchants in Karlsruhe — Zurich wasn’t a bad place to have a bank account. Or to put some gilt-edged bonds into a safe deposit box. There was still no one, not even my pessimistic uncle Jacob, with his dire visions of “pogrom” around every corner and behind every headline, who could conceive of what it would all lead to. Even the idea of another world war still seemed remote.

But if you’re European, you’re practical. You take some money to Switzerland.

And three years later, when we arrived in Lisbon, that money was all we had.

Bill Fuchs was 35 years old. He hadn’t shed an ounce of those Czech beer-and-dumpling pounds. But he could still play some elegant tennis! He made it to the nationals in Estoril in the spring of 1938 — in mixed doubles, of course. I still have the press photo from the day of the finals: smiling Bill, his chunky, no-nonsense partner, and the beautiful blonde safari hunter from Angola, with her partner. Much younger than Bill, of course — they all were by now. But he still had his chessplayer’s angles on the court, and he had found himself another partner with “a sensible forehand.” In mixed doubles, in Portugal, those two things could take you a long way.

But as for singles… well, finally, we come to the title of our tale: my father’s last tournament. As far as we children were concerned, it was another business trip. Dad had to go to Switzerland, he’d write every day. And he did: I remember the post cards with the coats-of-arms of the Swiss cantons — the bull of Uri, the bear of Berne — in almost every mail delivery.

Years later, I found out the obvious: he went to get the money, of course! What did I think we lived on, those first few years, until he built himself a new career and a new business?

This time, unlike the Frisian honeymoon, I think it really was coincidental that the trip was scheduled the same week as Bill’s favorite Swiss tournament; at least, he claimed it was.  But still — seeing it was the same week, and he did happen to be there — why not give it a shot?

Tournaments were a more casual affair in that genteel amateur era. Sometimes there was a Tilden or Johnston or Fred Perry, or one of the four Frenchmen, or Baron von Cramm. But mostly there were the part-time players, the Count Salms of Vienna, the Rudy Ellinsens of Budapest, or Bill Fuchs.

“Of where?” the Zurich tournament folks asked pleasantly, “still Germany?”

“Absolutely not,” my father said quickly. “I reside in Lisbon, Portugal, and now represent that country.”

“Natürlich, Herr Doktor,” his Swiss friends responded, with genuine sympathy, as they accepted his entry fee.

The morning of the first round, my father left his room at the Schweizerhof in good spirits, cheered by the successful completion of his financial errands, by an ample Swiss breakfast, and by a bright blue autumn sky.

He took a taxi to that forever nameless Zurich tennis club, and climbed out at the main entrance, with his trusty five-racket tennis press under his arm. He looked up into the sparkling sunshine.

And started to laugh.

He laughed loudly, helplessly, then doubled over and gasping for breath. The taxi driver must have thought he was seeing a man lose his mind, in broad daylight, on a cobblestoned street in Zurich.

It was the flags, you see. The neat, colorful, gently flapping flags around the perimeter of the compact little stadium.

“We did our best, Herr Doktor,” one of the tournament officials explained, “but we couldn’t find a Portuguese flag in all of Switzerland. Only at the Portuguese embassy, the only place. This is the embassy’s own flag.”

The Portuguese flag consists of two vertical panels, red and green, with a small gold and white shield at the center.

And this Portuguese flag, the embassy’s pride, was so big — so hugely, shamelessly big — one of the flags flying beside it would not have covered that little center shield, the old royal Portuguese coat of arms. It would have taken a dozen of the other flags to match the sheet square footage of that proud Portuguese banner.

It was big. Gigantic.Humungous.

“And so, Herr Doktor, we had to put it in the center, don’t you see? It was the only way it would look — how should I say — in Ordnung… symmetrical.”

One huge Portuguese flag, surrounded modestly by its lesser attendants, like the Stars and Stripes, the Union Jack, the French tricolor. Portugal against the world, for the first and last time in tennis history. Zurich, 1938.

Representing Portugal: the pleasantly portly and delightful Dr. Bill Fuchs.

Representing the world: some skinny 20-year-old American kid named Don McNeill. A year later, U.S. indoor champion; two years later, ranked number one in America. But for now, just a pawn in that unintentional, never-to-happen-again moment in tennis history: Portugal against the world.

The match lasted 30 minutes. The world defeated Portugal, 6-0, 6-1. At age 35, my father finally admitted that his tournament days were over.

But there’s one question I never asked him. One sneaking little suspicion I’ve harbored all these years.

Was it love-and-one… or love-and-love?

Don McNeill isn’t around to ask any more. And Bill Fuchs — well, he would have insisted on his “right of embellishment” to his dying day.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Self-Evident Truths

I am an introspective person, as the title of this blog suggests, but there are times when my "historical context" blares so loudly I have no choice but to bring it to the forefront and do my best to discuss it, to "add my voice," as it were.  Sitting in silence doesn't cut it at times like these.

I've been preoccupied by all of the high-profile violence occurring in our country... I was about to add  the words "as of late," but this is a country -- like many others -- built on violence, forged by inequality, and although we have some lovely language in our foundational scripts and scrolls about self-evident truths, and everyone being equal, someone has always had to be less free in order for the white male power base of the U.S.A. to exist, the way it was designed to exist.

Recently, a couple of changes have occurred in our long-standing modus operandi that have shaken things up and made other truths self-evident -- the ones that had remained mostly hidden up till now.  One is that the electorate in this country selected a black president.  Whatever the motives for voting for Barack Obama (the simple fact that he was different, "CHANGE" being the operative word in his 2008 run, or that he represented a thinking, thoughtful America, or that he was "liberal," or even more to the point, just because he was black), his election terrified a lot of people.  It didn't matter to them how liberal he really was, and in fact he turned out to be a lot more conservative than some of us had hoped.  The election of our first black present, a momentous occasion to be sure, also mobilized a quiet minority of scared racists who are fueled by the rhetoric of reactionaries like Donald Trump and the so-called "birthers."

The other major change is in our personal technology.  Thanks to the advent of smart phones and nearly universal access to the Internet, horrifying incidents of police brutality that we'd never have known about now appear on YouTube and our Facebook feeds daily.  And the overwhelming majority of these incidents involve black men.  True, there have been others who have been victims of police brutality, but most appear to be black males.  There are those who may one day read this and take issue with the two words emphasized in the previous sentence.  Because, as others have already stated, they cannot hold BOTH truths at once, but feel a need to take one side or the other.  Those who side "with the police" will begin almost immediately to question the now dead man:  What was he doing? Where was he going? What was he wearing? What kind of person was he?

This is where the inequality -- the blatant Lack of Rights -- becomes most self-evident:  If you are a black man interacting with the police force, you don't have any rights.  You don't have a right to free speech, or to walk in a "nice" neighborhood at night, and you don't have a right to wear a hoody, or any other clothing you decide to wear.  You are not presumed innocent as a black man.  You are presumed a threat.  This is how it has always been, since the earliest days of our country, when white hegemony kept black people as property to be bought and sold.

None of this is meant to excuse the horrific shooting that happened in Dallas last week.  The answer to police brutality is NOT to brutalize our police.  Instead, we all need to look at these truths as self-evident and to ask ourselves what we're willing to do as a people in the face of them.  If we don't, our biggest danger may not be foreign terrorists but ourselves.  If we don't confront these realities, these truths soon, the FBI will be spending a lot of time with its head on a swivel, responding to the sounds of our well-armed citizenry "locking and loading" in fear-inspired militias all over this country.  Then the only thing ISIS will need to do is sit back and watch us implode on CNN and Al Jazeera.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Diego and His Dogs

A boy, his technology and his dogs
The older of our two boys has an interesting and strong connection with our dogs.  There's a photo I took of Diego recently in which he's seated on the floor in our living room, (or "sala," as we call it here in Casa Reyes-Fuchs) his headphones on, facing the two dogs who are drowsing in the two chairs before him.  Diego is paying attention to them, but not.  He is both attentive and dismissive all at once, and that seems to be just fine as far as Ginger and Ally are concerned.

Of course, the two dogs worship and fawn over me, as they've imprinted on me the role of B.A.D. (Big Alpha Dog), but their love of Diego is far more genuine.  Yes, they love Jackson and Jeanette too, but Jackson's is a "fly-by" kind of love, as he is in a near constant state of motion, so that the dogs wag their tails when he comes by, as if to say, "Okay, we're not going to get too used to this."  With Mom, it's a treat they adore, similar to Diego, but less like a sibling.  They seem to know she's of the B.A.D. class, as well.  

It's with Diego, the teenager, the one who I see breaking out of his shell in how he tries to interact more confidently with adults, like the waitress at our local Mexican restaurant who greets him by his name, that our dogs have the true connection.  Maybe he's a Cesar Millan-style dog whisperer in the making, I don't know.  Or maybe he's just found someone who will love him in the unconditional, non-judgmental way in which he needs to be loved.  

And maybe the dogs have found the same thing.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Nighthawks: Sure It's Crap, but it's MY Crap

A young (uncredited) Rutger Hauer and a bearded Sly on the poster.  What more could you want?

When I was 17 years old, my girlfriend and I went to the movies and saw an unheralded cop drama called "Nighthawks."  Like all boys of my generation, Sly Stallone, as much as I would goof on him, was an undeniable hero, due to the enormous impact of "Rocky" in 1976 and "Rocky II" a couple of years later.  We allowed Sly his flops ("F.I.S.T." and "Paradise Alley") after the first Rocky, and this was bound to be his post "Rocky II" schlock.  

But I'll be damned if Maria and I didn't absolutely love this movie.  What wasn't to love, after all?  You had young, sexy Rutger Hauer playing international terrorist and man-about-town Heymar "Wulfgar" Reinhardt, and young, sexy Persis Khambatta as his evil minion, Shaka Holland.  You had a bearded Stallone as misunderstood Vietnam vet with "57 registered kills"-turned-misunderstood New York undercover cop specializing in "decoy" detail, Deke DaSilva.  You had the Bionic Fucking Woman, Lindsay Wagner, for God's sake!  And, oh yeah, Billy.  Dee.  Williams.

We ate it up.  We wrote each other love notes in high school and signed them "Love, Wulfgar," and "Love, Shaka."  This was our flick.

Normally, my 5 a.m. routine is to wake up, let the dogs out, put some coffee on the stove and turn on the local news, toggling back and forth to Sportscenter.  As it would happen, I woke up this morning and turned on the set, and there, of all things, was "Nighthawks." The wife and kids were sleeping in late, and getting them up wasn't a priority.  So, I watched.  

Rutger Hauer is still riveting.  I realize, now, that he is really what gives "Nighthawks" the energy it has.  The scenes without Hauer feel like an airless room.  The script is "flawed," to put it kindly.  The great international terrorist makes mistake after mistake, and is far too easily located by Deke.  And the image of Stallone taking off the Lindsay Wagner wig at the end, is just too fucking funny.  

Now.  

Back then it was nothing short of awe-inspiring.  

I'm not calling for a sequel, or wanting to start a fan club.  The world has changed since 1981.  Terrorism is not something to be romanticized as it sort of was back then.  Images of buildings exploding on Wall Street and Picadilly bring very real reminders of loss and pain.  At the end of the day, as they say, "Nighthawks" is, quite simply, a good old-fashioned "B Movie."  But it was a lot of fun watching it this morning, thinking back on a youth that was better than I deserved, and giggling ever so slightly at the guilty pleasure of a crappy movie I once loved.  

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Evocations of Summer

This is who I am now, today, in Central Texas, USA -- a middle-aged school administrator on his summer break, sitting  in a local Starbucks, trying to write, and thinking about all the things that summer evokes.  I've had the good fortune of a multitude of summers -- over fifty of them now -- a good forty-five of which contain moments that shine brilliantly in my memory.  Like fish scales or a sunlit lake, they occasionally sparkle.    Breezes bring me back to former summers, as do cloud formations, a young woman's laughter, or the distant call of a passing freight train.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Father-Son "Connection"

Diego and the author, in a rare "cuddly" moment last Christmas
Today my work took me -- as it occasionally does -- to my son's middle school, where members of my AVID team and I were interviewing 8th graders interested in joining our AVID program at the high school next year.  I decided it would be a good idea to run out and get my son some lunch and surprise him in the cafeteria to break bread. Taking my place in the lunchroom a few minutes before the bell, I strategically chose a position where I would be able to see him coming, while avoiding being trampled by a couple hundred 11 and 12 year-olds.

We spotted each other fairly quickly, and he flashed a vague smile, shaking my hand.  I suppose I could have gone for a hug, but I didn't, as he's not generally a big hugger, even in the privacy of his home. "Not this room, we eat in the other room," he said, moving quickly to where he and his friends normally eat.  Pointing to a row of round seats permanently attached to long dining tables, Diego broke it down for me.  "This is my seat, and that one is Alec's," he said, motioning to the one I was about to settle onto.  He raised his eyebrow and said, "You can sit here," motioning to the seat on the opposite side of him.  Obediently, I took the seat he had indicated.

I produced the Subway Sandwich Shop bags and his smile grew a little broader, before he suppressed it.  "Did you get it right this time?" he asked with a grin.  I laughed, (a) because it's a running joke that I can never remember the exacting specifications of Diego's sandwich order (turkey, no cheese, lettuce, no tomato, pickles AND cucumber.  Salt, pepper, oil and vinegar.  NO MAYO), and also because my wife had just texted me his sandwich preferences earlier that morning, when I'd let her know of my plans.

He looked up at a sign on the wall that I could not read and said, "Oh good!"

"What?" I asked.

"We can use technology during lunch.  If everyone behaves well enough in the cafeteria, then they let us use our devices the next day."

"Oh great," I answered.  I had originally pictured us being like those kids at my school when their parents come in, sitting comfortably, laughing, chatting.  That paradigm clearly did not exist in the 6th grade cafeteria experience.

And that was okay by me.  Again, I could have made a big deal of it and forced him (and myself) to put away the iPhone.  "Talk to me, son!" I could have intoned.  "Be here with me in the moment."  Or some such whiny-old-mannish complaint.

But then I told myself, Hey, it wasn't like he was expecting you.  You decided it would be nice to drop in on him with lunch, and I'm sure it was, indeed, nice for him.  On some level.  Two things to consider, though, were that this was his time, and that I was only an interloper.  My experience does not equal his experience.  And my expression of love and joy is not necessarily the same as his expression of love and joy.

In the end, I got to sit with my boy and laugh with him a bit about a new game he was playing on his phone:  something called "aa," in which one has to deposit spokes onto a spinning wheel, trying always to get to the next level.  I watched Diego and his friend Alec laugh together as they played the game, each on his own iPhone.  I feigned interest, asking them about their strategies for beating the game.  They were politely tolerant of me, though I could tell they were much more content just to be playing together, or at least next to each other......

"Well sir," I joked with him as I got up, "good talk.  Alec, you take care."

Both boys shook my hand, and I made my way over to Diego's assistant principal to say hello and drop dime on a group of boys playing "truth or dare" at the next table.  As I left, I took one look back at my son, still a boy, but on the verge of the next phase, laughing, happy and in his space.

A little sad, I made my way out of the cafeteria, leaving the din of too many children behind me.  "This is as it should be," I reassured myself.  "This is exactly as it should be."

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Bringing Them Back

Me and Mom in a Photo Booth, circa 1965
November is "National Novel Writing Month," and I've taken it upon myself to give it a try.  So far I'm desperately behind where I need to be to actually be finished by the 30th, but I've got something.  I'm never comfortable writing about my writing while it's happening, but I will say this:  It's both wonderful and sad to be bringing back people who have been gone from my life for many years.  The process of writing forces me to have to recall details and moments, to make the characters "come to life."

In this particular story, I am bringing to life a character based on my mother, another on my father, and an older couple based on my grandparents.  All of these individuals died years ago, and as I flesh out these characters, it brings a host of emotions.  In one way I'm delighted to see them all, and then there's that sadness, that reminder that they're gone.  If you've ever had a dream in which your departed loved one appears, then you know the regret that comes the moment you wake up.  

By spending time on this novel, I'm prolonging that dream a bit.  It's difficult to go on, however, knowing it will have to end.  But then, one could easily say the same thing about life.  And yet we go on, and do the best we can, in the hopes we leave some kind of legacy for those who come after us.  

So, for this reason I will continue to work on the novel, continue to bring them all back to life, in the hopes I'll create something that I can leave behind -- something that will live on, long after I am gone.