Sunday, October 14, 2012

Memoir of 'Memoir of a Gambler'

There were few places on the ship less conducive to reading than the library. In the summer of 2000, in my early twenties, I was stationed aboard an aircraft carrier. The library sat directly beneath the flight deck, which means that in addition to the thump, rattle, and screech of the planes as they landed, there was the heat from the catapults and their fuel, a heat so thick it invaded your respiration like some perniciously odorless fume, trespassing on your psyche and then inhabiting it. Reading there was out of the question, but we weren’t on the ship to read. Which is why it always surprised me how many great books they had in that library.

I found one of the greatest purely by chance. I knew neither the book, Memoir of a Gambler, nor its author, Jack Richardson. It was the title that hooked me. Our ship would soon be returning to San Diego, after a six-month cruise throughout the Pacific Ocean and Arabian Sea, and so I knew I would soon be gambling again. Having already become a devotee of the sports-gambling culture of San Diego—or, more specifically, its adjunct playground of Tijuana—I needed little encouragement. But in the book I now held in my hands, I would find plenty of encouragement anyway.

On the cover, this Jack Richardson struck a classically arch pose, arms crossed in a subdued brown sport coat and vest, staring self-importantly into the camera; beside him, on a circular bar-table sat a gleaming, thickly cut glass ashtray, a lone cigarillo perched on its edge. The back cover featured a blurb from William Styron (a notoriously selective blurber, even on behalf of friends), proclaiming, “Jack Richardson is a wonderful writer and his book is a powerful portrayal of one man’s obsession—sad, hilarious, erotic, and, above all, pitilessly honest. I readMemoir of a Gambler with fascination and delight.” The bio inside the back flap revealed that the author was a distinguished playwright who had also written for many of the magazines I cherished most, and then, on the copyright page, a partial explanation for why I did not recognize him from any of those magazines: “Copyright ©1979.”

On Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Before becoming the human medium through whom America placed its bootprint on the Moon, Neil Armstrong had already braved his share of disastrous and semi-disastrous high-risk predicaments. He’d had his plane shot down in Korea and had had his engine fail, too, as a test-pilot back home. He knew what it was to be in dire emergencies, the hardware and all other contingencies failing to abide by the mission’s plan. He always made the best of these situations, and lived to touch death once more, all over again and every time. That’s the kind of grace and know-how he brought with him up to the Moon, even if he also brought along a heartbeat that, during Apollo 11‘s first stage, reached the unreal rate of 110 beats per minute. After returning from the Moon, he embarked on the enviable life of adventurer-emeritus. Professor of aeronautics, pitchman of Chrysler cars, speaker of speaches, sitter of corporate boards, and investigator of accidents in space–he fully inhabited the privilege his expertise and dare-devilry had earned him. It must have been a fascinating life, but the man who lived it could hardly have been less fascinating. Without his jets to animate him, he was the living embodiment of Emerson’s warning that “All power ceases in the instant of repose.” He had no political ideas cherished enough to publicly advocate for, and no culture or writings worthy of those names. No one could ever say Armstrong was some hippy-dippy dreamer with his head lost in the clouds. His leaps of faith occurred exclusively in the sky, and there were no leaps left worth making by the time he returned to Earth. A more passionate, more excitable heart would have beat much faster than 110 bpm up in that shuttle–except that the more excitable heart would, of course, have never made it into the shuttle in the first place.

Originally published at The Faster Times