On Lumberin’ Lou & ‘Sweetness’

          When I started to work out at the health club at Loyola, I tended to keep to myself. I was like a fish out of water, really. I wasn’t trying to be anti-social but you cold have mistaken it for such. But that entire rebuilding process- OY VEY!! I had an arm that could have been mistaken for a pretzel, a leg that was completely twisted around where the toes pointed at my right heel, my arm was in a sling and I could hardly walk even with the help of a cane. You’d think that the last place that I’d want to be at was a health club. And, I figured, most of the people that looked at me thought just that. One young man, Chris, walked up to me after I had been there about a year and introduced himself. ‘You got some big balls walking in here looking the way you did last year, Mike. Big balls. You got a lot of guys here that really look up to you for what you do day in and day out. I don’t know, if it was me, if I woulda done it. I think I woulda been too embarrassed. I think I woulda just stayed in front of my t.v.’ I thanked him for sharing that with me. You see, you make a concerted effort, you think that you’re out there all alone and people notice. They stand taller when you walk in, their workouts become a little more serious and their bravado comes down a notch. 

But, I’d get there in the morning for a workout that would last 4, 5 or 6 hours—and sometimes more. And this guy would be sitting in the locker room on a three-legged stool just rubbing HEET or ICY-HOT on his knees. He’d grimace, wrinkle his brow and just stare at me as I hobbled out of the locker room.  After I had been under his watchful eye for about two months with me not willing to initiate any conversation, one day he looks at me and says:’ Jesus Christ, you look like you got hit by a train.’ I just laughed.’ Yah, it does, doesn’t it.’ I guess he was waiting for an answer but I don’t recall hearing a question. He just sat there waiting for me to ‘fess up. ‘Stroke’, I said. His forehead wrinkled and all the air came out of his lungs in this animal groan and his head jerked back like I had just slapped him. ‘Stroke? Stroke? No. How old are you?’  ’48.’  ’48? No, somethin’s wrong, you don’t get no stroke at 48! Nobody does.’ I explained to him that in my rehab class we had teenagers with aneurisms and stroke patients in their 20s, 30s and 40s. While I talked, his forehead just kept getting more and more wrinkled.

            As I turned to leave the locker room, I stopped and turned around and put my hand in front of him. ‘I’m Mike.’  He looked up at me and there were tears in his eyes. ‘Louie, Mike.’  This guy had  a grip on him that would have broken the strongest of hands. ‘How often you come, Louie?’  ‘Monday, Wednesday and Friday. You?’  ‘Everyday.’  ‘Five times a week?’  ‘No, seven.’  I stood there and just waved my cane in front of my body. ‘Look, Lou, what am I supposed to do about this? You said I looked like I got hit by a train, right? I gotta do this everyday. I don’t have a choice.’ Again his head reeled back like I had slapped him. Y’know, with all the other guys, Louie was loud and boisterous but with me he was soft and sweet. This one had a tender heart. ‘I gotta start lifting, Lou. I’ll see you Monday.’  ‘Nice to meet you, Mike. Take it slow, kid.’

           Turns out that Louie was the one they used to call ‘Lumberin’ Louie Gambino, a full-back for the Baltimore Colts in their hey-day during the 50s  & 60s. Now in his late70s, he was still as strong as an ox and still cut a pretty impressive figure. Louie was always very nice to me. Very supportive. I, in turn, would always go out of my way to see him, always kissing the top of his head. With most of my friends being Sicilian,Italian or Greek, for me it was just a sign of respect. Louie thought otherwise. ‘Whattayou, one of them funny boys?’ he’d always ask as he looked around. ‘If you’d like, Lou, I could kick you offa that milkin’ stool of yours.’  ‘You’d do that, wouldn’t you? Kick an old man? No, Mike, stroke or no stroke, you don’t look like the kinda guy I’d want to (screw) with.’  We became very close, he and I. But there is a down-side about becoming fond of people at his age—they’re not around all that long. But, boy, did we make the most of the time we had together. He was a good audience for me. I could get him to laugh at the drop of a hat. But, after a while, I started to come later in the day and my time with Louie all but disappeared. It would be four or five months before I would see him again.

            One day, I walk into the locker room. No cane. Arm out the sling and down by my side. Leg is straighter than it was and Louie is sitting there on his milk-stool with a small towel covering his     loins. ‘Where you been, Mike? Christsakes, look at you, you look like a million bucks!’  ‘I’ve been playing a lot of golf, Louie.’  And then he leans forward and asks: ‘You a prayin’ man, Mike?’  ‘Actually Lou, I just left the chapel. I go either before my workout or after my workout, but every time I come here, I go there.’  ‘Cause everyday you should thank the Lord for the way you look. I can’t believe it. I just can’t (freakin’) believe it!  I thanked him and then I thanked him again as I sat down next to him after I kissed the top of his head. ‘You know, Mike, I knew a lot of tough guys when I played ball, really tough, but them guys ain’t got nothin’ on you. Look at where you been and look at you now. I remember how (screwed) up you were when we met and now look.’ He shakes his head. ‘I’ll tell ya, you gotta be the toughest guy I ever met.’  I just laughed. ‘No, Lou, not tough. I’d never answer to bein’ tough. Tenacious? Yes. But not tough. No, you just keep knocking me down and I’m gonna keep gettin’ up and comin’ at ya. I’m not tough. But I’m gonna keep comin’ at you ’til I wear you down. That’s my strength. The same mind-set that gave me the stroke is going to bring me back from the stroke. But I  never answered to being tough, Louie.’

           But the strongest man I had ever met ironically was a football player. And that was Walter Payton. Pound for pound, there was nobody stronger. Geez, that guy was an animal. He used to frequent one of my favorite courses and a couple of times a year we would tee it up together for a few holes. Nothing serious. But he loved being out on the course and being around his friends. He really loved the game, terrible slicer, but he really loved the game. This is the same guy that used to drive his car with a pair of 125 lb. dumbbells in the trunk and do wind sprints with that much weight. Unbelievable.

            One day, we’re out on the course—my dad, my 2 brothers-in-law and myself and we tee off behind Walter, Dan Marino and a couple of other hulking dudes. And these guys are playing SLOW. (They were all in town for the Brian Piccolo Invitational.) The pro shop was giving these guys carte blanche  so, under no circumstance, were we to go around them. And these guys really took advantage of their status dropping balls left and right practicing all kinds of shots. It took us 2 hours to play 5 holes and I was fed up. When the Payton/ Marino group got to the 6th green, I told my dad to get out of the cart, that I would be right back. The 6th green is probably about 90 yards from the edge of the course, bordered by some houses. There was a birthday party going on in one of the yards with maybe 35-40 kids back there. I drive over in the cart and ask the kids if they’d like to meet Walter Payton and Dan Marino. The kids and their parents all sail across the course to the 6th green. I drive back down the fairway and pick up my dad, wave my 2 in-laws up and drive to the 6th green, now swarming with kids and adults. I stop the cart, smile and say: ‘Walter, do you mind if we go around you now?’  Payton smiled a big smile and points at me saying: ‘I’ll get you for this, Mike. I’ll get you for this,’ as we headed for the 7th tee.

            Years later, in February of ’99 to be exact, I would be confined to a bed at Loyola Hospital paralyzed and I’m looking at the t.v. and this thin little old man is crying, telling people that he needs a liver transplant and asking people to pray for him. It was Walter. SONOFABITCH! What happened? What happened to this beautiful man? What happened to his beautiful physique? He looked like he had aged some 50 years.

            About 6 months later, I had just finished playing a quick afternoon round, jumped in the car and called my wife to tell her that I’d be home in a couple of minutes. She told me that they just announced on the t.v. that Walter had just died. I told her that I would stop at church on the way and light a candle for him. I did stop at a Greek Orthodox church not to far from the course. I went in and sat in the corner. I honestly don’t remember praying that night. But I did ask a lot of questions though. Why is it that one man gets another chance and someone younger and stronger is taken? I don’t know if there is any one answer. These are the mysteries to life, things that are not easily understood while we are in our earthly bodies. Hopefully, one day, all that has happened to us and around us will be explained, the impact we had on others, the impact that others had on us and the interconnectedness of it all.

           At the end of his life, Lou Gambino didn’t fair much better than Walter. He, too, was built like a bull, but when he started to go south he went pretty quick. The last year of his life he was in and out of a coma 5 or 6 times. I would see him at the C.I.C.U. at Loyola, go in and hold his hand and kiss his bald head. But I never got the chance to tell him how much he meant to me and how much he helped me. The saddest part was that he left without saying good-bye. I still miss him and I still say a little prayer when I drive by his house. And I never did get a chance to tee it up with Louie but we did talk a lot about golf. Four years after he passed away, I did write a short story about golf, Peter and The Deacon. Lou is one of the characters in the story. That’s the least I could have done for the guy. I hope you like it, Louie. And say hello to Walter for me, willya?

P.S.  Y’know, with both Walter and Louie up there, God’s gonna hafta be lookin’ over his shoulder all the time. Maybe I should say a prayer for Him tonight. MLProko ©2011 [mikeproko.com]





Published in: on October 24, 2011 at 7:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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