Miracle on the Mean Streets of
By Bill Donnelly
Back in the Day (my, what a lovely way to begin an article) we rarely ran with a program. We would do our many miles during the week and our long runs on the weekend. Our speed workouts were mostly the short races (10ks and longer), and we were always training for a marathon.
But we did usually run with at least one other runner, more often than not with more, because we all, as a rule, ran around the Delaware Park golf course, so you just about always ran into someone, no pun intended. These runs turned into real gab-fests and the more runners together, the more tales were told. These get togethers almost always ended up being pace-runs, for as we talked and our minds would be off the running, we would be slowly picking up the pace until the conversations would almost cease and we would realize we were going near race pace.
Would that realization make us slow down? Cripes, we were a competitive lot, and no one would dare suggest we should slow down. Besides, we had gotten to that point without thinking about it, so we would just go with the flow and fly around the park, still picking up speed. We had some great workouts without even planning on it.
We also told some great stories and tall tales, most of them forgotten in that fog known as getting older. However, some runners were particularly good at telling stories that became unforgettable despite my advancing age, and they were usually about other runners. One such runner that could tell a yarn that would literally knock me over was Hamilton Ward, but we called him Ham.
Now Ham was a great lawyer, and therefore very good with words. He was a Belle Watling, one of the older crew whom I thought was ancient, somewhere in his forties. A good runner whom I believe ran a sub-three hour marathon, Ham got into running late for the same reasons many of those old Watlings did. Change of life!
Something better to do with yourself than just drinking, and Ham had liked to drink Back in his Day. He quit the booze and took up a hobby that was good for his health. He still stays active, but two knee replacements made him give up running, and now you will find him riding a bike competitively, and doing well in his age group (the old-coot group).
I remember the day Ham told this particular tale quite clearly, for it was one of the more memorable runs I ever did. It was a beautiful summer day for running (what day isn’t a beautiful day for running in
) for it was not too hot, yet the sun was shining; the sky was blue and the air clear of humidity. I was running with Ham and my usual running buddy, Norm Schwendler. Norm was a character himself, worth an article just on him some day. Buffalo
The tale Ham told involved another runner who happened to be a Belle Watling, Bob McDonald, also a good marathoner whom I thought ancient. Now back in the early 1960s, Bob was a member of the Army’s precision parachute jumping team, and his unit would travel about putting on shows for civilian audiences. One horrific day the plane carrying them to a show crashed in a fiery ball on take off.
As military rescuers are want to do, they grabbed the ones first who were most likely to survive, and Bob was rescued last or there about, as he was badly burned over most of his body, and he was not expected to survive. Bob showed them, and after being in the
for two whole painful years, he was back, with a few scars and a new wig from the Army every year. Houston Burn Treatment Center
Not surprisingly, Bob also took to drinking intoxicating beverages in too great a quantity, and like Ham, he quit the stuff, took up running, and was soon a Belle Watling. He and Ham were card carrying members of the non-partying party.
Well, back to the tale Ham told Norm and me on that beautiful summer scamper. To put it simply, in December of 1969, Bob was hired by a store in
Cheektowaga to parachute out of a small plane dressed as Santa Claus, and on the way down, release a bag full of ping pong balls with numbers on them. The kids waiting below would scramble for them, and get gifts that corresponded to the balls’ number. The store forgot to get a permit for said event, the Cheektowaga police were waiting, and in front of hundreds of horrified children, they arrested Santa. (This event actually made the Stars and Stripes publication and the ticker on the front of the New York Times building in Times Square.)
Ham represented Bob at his trial (yes, there was a trial) and got him off. And that’s the story, but I could never do it the justice that the telling of it deserves, for only Ham could do that. I think it took two or three laps of the meadow for him to tell it, and I swear that by the end, Norm and I were literally rolling on the ground gasping for air from laughing so hard.
No, I could never tell it with the pizzazz that Ham told it, but I decided to make it into a movie script, which, believe it or not, I will now share with you. This is my first attempt at a script, so just remember that when I don’t seem to know what I am doing.
The scene: a cramped noisy interior of an airplane. A disheveled looking man in a red suit and red cap, and with long white hair and a beard that is obviously a wig, takes a swig of courage from his well worn hip flask. Bob McDonald (to be played by Mel Gibson) is playing Santa Claus, just another in a string of jumps he does to try to make ends meet, or at least so he can afford that next bottle of Wild Turkey. Bob mutters “This wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t so afraid of heights!” Just then he drops his flask, and as he reaches for it, the plane banks to the right and out the door he goes. Trying to grab something to stop from falling, he luckily gets hold of the red bag full of ping pong balls he in being paid to drop. The camera shows the bag going out the door, and then quickly zooms in to the identical bag that he almost grabbed, which is seen to be full of bowling balls. The audience will get it and breathe a sigh of relief that Santa wouldn’t be dropping the wrong balls on the unsuspecting kids below.
The scene: The mall below, filled with children and their parents, faces lit up with anticipation of the excitement to come, little realizing how close they were to being scattered like so many bowling pins. The camera zooms in on one particularly handsome young man, holding the hand of his little brother, whom he brought because he was always looking out for him. The man is a young Bill Donnelly (I’m writing this, so I can be in it-to be played by Brad Pitt) and the boy is Bill’s little brother, Tommy (to be played by Bart Simpson). Tommy in not interested in the gifts he could get, he just wants the ping pong balls. As the balls start bouncing off the pavement and young Tommy’s head, he exclaims “ping pong balls are round, and they are pretty!”
The scene: A relieved looking Bob, thankful for once again surviving a jump, lands on top of a
Cheektowaga police car, its top light spinning. Two police (played by Barney Fife and Gomer Pyle) immediately apprehend the startled looking Santa, handcuff him, throw him in the back of their car (while the song that’s the theme song of Cops, “Bad Boys”, plays) and quickly drive off. The scene becomes chaotic as parents faint and children cry. Even young Tommy, who has five ping pong balls in his mouth, spits out four of them in astonishment of what just happened. He swallows the other. The children, fearful that Santa may end up in jail for Christmas, start collecting whatever nickels and dimes they have in their pockets in order to bail out the old gent.
The scene: The usual spinning newspapers coming at the camera and suddenly stopping to reveal a headline. The first is The Stars and Stripes with the headline “Santa in trouble with the law”. Then comes The New York Times with “
Cheektowaga arrests Santa, Christmas Cancelled”. Next The Evening News says “Plans for Buffalo well on the Way”, Followed by the Courier Express’ “Bills plan on winning many Super Bowls in next Few Decades”. New Peace Bridge
The scene: The
Cheektowaga courtroom is packed as Ham Ward (played by Dustin Hoffman) is about to defend poor Bob McDonald. The judge (played by Harrison Ford) gavels for order. In the crowd we see Bill Donnelly with young Tommy and Bill’s current girlfriend (played by Scarlett Johansson). Later, for the mandatory love scene between the two, I will fill in for Brad Pitt. On the stand is Officer Barney Fife. Ham: “Officer, would you describe the man you arrested on December 13th.” Officer Fife: “Well, he was wearing a red suit with a red hat, sort of a stocking cap. He had long white hair and a full white beard. And he had a big stomach that shook like a bowl full of jelly.” Ham: “That will be all officer.” Ham to the judge: “Your honor, I would like to enter into evidence this letter from young Tiny Tim of .” His Honor: “Let me see it.” He reads aloud the letter: “Dear sir, attached is a quarter, all the money I have. Please use it to help free Santa Claus so we can have Christmas this year.” With that the judge strikes the gavel and cries: “Case dismissed, Santa is free to go.” Pandemonium hits the courtroom, Ham and Bob shake hands, Scarlett and I embrace in a long passionate kiss, young Tommy pops a ping pong ball into his mouth. Lawrence, Kansas
The scene: Bill’s bedroom, Scarlett and I are still passionately kissing. Due to the graphic nature of the scene, and this being a family newsletter, I cannot include all of it now. Needless to say, it goes on and on and concludes with an obviously exhausted but happy Scarlett saying: “Oh Bill, you have just ruined me for any other man.” Fade to the credits with Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” playing.
And most of that is basically the story Ham told us, with a bit of poetic license thrown in for good measure. The kids did collect their money to bail out Santa, Ham did have the police officer describe the man he arrested, and the judge threw out the case after reading a letter from some kid who taped a quarter to it. And to this day, young Tommy hangs ping pong balls on his Christmas tree instead of ornaments.