CHAPTER 2

Into the River

*

ROBERT ALTMAN: I was the eldest child. Born in 1925. Had I been born in 1935 instead of 1925, my life would be totally different. I would be a totally different person. Same if I had been born in 1915.

It all depends on when you’re placed into the river, and where that river takes you—it couldn’t happen the same way a week earlier or a week later. You’re in your time and space in the river. Now, you can swim over toward the bank where the current isn’t as fast, but basically from that point you’re going down the river. You can swim upstream. But just for a little bit. If you swim up against the current a lot, by the time you die you have only covered a short distance along the bank. If you go over to the edge and go with the mainstream, you cover a lot more territory, but you’re not exercising. I don’t think you ever have the energy to beat the river. The river is always going faster than you can swim against it. The reason I think you fight against something is simply because it’s there to fight against.

I think I go upstream because it’s the easiest place for me to go. But I’m over at the edge, not in the center of it. In other words, I’m not out there making the long-distance swim across the channel. I take the easiest path upstream.

SUSAN DAVIS: Bob was the first baby of that generation, and he was the apple of everyone’s eye. One day my mother was over there at the house with Helen Altman and Annette Altman Kiger and probably Marie Altman, and they were taking care of Bob. They were all so excited and crazy.

Helen said, “You know, he’s getting ready to walk, he’s pulling up.”

From left, Barbara, Joan, and Robert Altman, circa 1937

But they were paying no attention. Bob lifted himself up, grabbed the table, and my mother said he didn’t walk, he ran. And he was not even ten months old. They were so stunned. And he never walked after that, he ran. He set a very high bar, the gold standard, for kids to walk. I mean, if you didn’t walk or run by nine or ten months in the family, you know, too bad. You were measured up to Bob.

ROBERT ALTMAN: My mother was okay [laughs]. I think she found being in the background comfortable because she kept going into it. I have a picture of her with a big laugh on her face, holding an apple, a close-up that was taken at some sort of country-club event. It showed her in a way I rarely saw her. I don’t know. I feel elation for her, but I’ve thought: “I don’t believe her in that picture.”

I don’t think that we were terribly close. I don’t know much about her. I only know her in our relationship—that was the job she had in my life, being my mother for a short period of time. She was very kind. But in the best and worst ways of the word. She was, I think, kind of ineffective. I remember a situation where I was eight or nine. I was never a great baseball player, or even a good one. But it was in the culture. I remember what I really wanted was a baseball mitt. And I knew I wasn’t qualified to get it. It would be like getting your first bicycle, you know? And my mother came home—most of my memories of her were from when I was lying on a couch sleeping when I’d have a fever. I was lying on the couch and she came in from a shopping trip.

She said, “I have a surprise for you. I bought you a baseball mitt.”

I went, “Wow!”

She takes this package out and it’s a baseball mitt that she’d bought at the drugstore. It was just wrong, a thing for a four-year-old. And I just got furious.

I realized, if not that day, then shortly after, that I’d hurt her feelings a lot. I understood it. And I didn’t know how to correct it. But I knew that whatever pain it caused me was my fault, not hers. She had no way of knowing. She had the best of intentions, but the worst came out of it. And consequently I think I scared her a little. I think she was afraid of [pause] getting on the wrong side of me.

But I was always proud of her. I mean, I was always happy to introduce her to my friends. And if people would come to my house, I was content and proud. I never had a sense of “Oh God, how am I going to explain her?”

I knew my father a lot better. I mean, I can pinpoint him a lot easier than my mother. Nobody called my father Bernard. He was “B.C.,” but “Nag” was his nickname. I never called him that, but when he was a kid, he was called Nag, ’cause his older brother, Frank, used to say, “Quit nagging me!”

I’d say he was a gambler. But that was an avocation. He was an insurance salesman. And he got his business, I now realize, by being in the country club, and by playing gin rummy, and all that. The more friends he had, the more insurance policies he could sell to all those people. He was kind of a hail-fellow-well-met.

He would come home at night—I didn’t see him a lot. I remember a long session of homework, where I had to write something a hundred times or something like that. And my mother would always have to sit up and do those chores with me. I can’t recall my father and school ever crossing paths.

He was very careful about his appearance, how he appeared to people. He was a natty dresser. I find myself emulating him. Many times I’ve been in a situation where I’ve said, “God, I’m dressing like my father.” But I did that more ten years ago and twenty years ago and thirty years ago than I do now. That’s gone now. But I remember being in military school and he came down to visit once on parents’ day or something, and he had a camel-hair coat on, and he was really natty-looking, and he stood out from the crowd. I thought, “I kind of like that. But that’s not a quality.”

His good qualities are not the kind of qualities that I admire in people today. He was a good guy, people liked him. He went out of his way with strangers. He’d be the first one out on the street with a snow shovel, or if somebody’s car would break down he’d stop; he’d be the first to stop and change their tire. But it all came from himself. It was all about those things that served himself. It was about having everybody like you. If you lose three hundred dollars to that person, that three hundred dollars you get back when you sell them an insurance policy.

BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: How can Bob say Dad served himself? When you do something nice for someone, who gets the best benefit? You do, right? Well, in that sense maybe Bob’s right. But Dad was always helping others. A couple of guys that Dad sold insurance said, “Hell, I don’t care, I want to cancel that insurance policy. Hell if my wife can’t take care of herself.” And Dad would keep those policies current with his own money. I remember him going over when the guy died, and he’d go over and give that policy to that woman. Can you imagine the feeling she had? He must’ve felt good, too. There’s nothing more satisfying than if you can help someone. Dad always wanted Bob to go into the insurance business with him. Of course you know that didn’t happen.

KATHRYN REED ALTMAN: My father-in-law was a real player, a gambler, a swinger, anything goes. I know there were even times when Bob was in his twenties when he and Bob would be going after the same girl and all that kind of stuff. He always had a big wad of money. Bob always had to have a lot of cash, which was so unusual to me. For security or something. A big tipper. I’m sure he was influenced a lot by his dad and his dad’s behavior.

JERRY WALSH: When my father ran for Congress they had a storefront headquarters downtown, and I would go and be a messenger boy. Bob’s cousin Frank Altman, who is the son of B.C.’s older brother and was a friend and contemporary of mine, he and I would go down to the headquarters. We used to love it that B.C. had a receptionist there who was a very sexy little blonde woman named Ginny Hewitt, and she would be nice to us.

Bob later told me that, after the war, when B.C. lived in Los Angeles for a few years, Bob met Ginny Hewitt and he asked her for a date. B.C. took him aside and said, “Listen, son, I’ve got to tell you something here, you know? Ginny and I have a little thing going on.” And Bob said, “Okay, okay, I won’t …!” [Laughs]

KATHRYN REED ALTMAN: His mother was a Catholic convert—his father was born and raised Catholic—and you know what they say about converts. So Bob did all the childhood stuff of the Catholic boy—Catholic schools and an altar boy and all that kind of thing. I nicknamed her the Billie Burke of Kansas City. Billie Burke was an actress in all the old MGM pictures and she was the fluttery one. She never accepted reality. Everything was always just fine, nothing would get serious.

With his mother and sisters

*   *   *

JOHN ALTMAN: He was the oldest cousin of about fourteen from our generation, and the hero to all the rest of us. I mean, my gosh, Mister Charming and a sweet guy, you know? To his sisters, too. You could tell they just idolized him.

ROBERT ALTMAN: Growing up, my sisters were just a couple of toys for me to torment, as I recall.

JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: My first memory of Bob is when he was running away from home. I would have been four or five. I went and got my doll suitcase and packed it with whatever was in the bottom drawer of my dresser. Then he came in and said he wasn’t going, maybe because I was tagging along.

BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: I remember one time we were down at the Ozarks. He said, “Mother, I’m going to take Barbara and teach her how to swim.” Oh, I was so excited. We go down, he throws me in the deep end and says, “Swim.” That’s not a very good thing for me to tell, is it?

I just worship my brother, okay? Let’s get it out. Let’s just lay it on like it is. He couldn’t do anything wrong in my book.

JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: My baby sister was the sweetest, most adorable child you could ever imagine, and we both adored her. She always called Mother “Dolly.” So Bobby and I took Barbara out to the side of the house.

Bob would say, “All right, say, ‘Mo.’”

She said, “Mo.”

“Now say, ‘Ther.’”

She said, “Ther.”

He went over and over it, “mo” and “ther.” I’m watching him and I’m looking at Barbara and she is so adorable. And he would say, “Now put that together.”

And she’d say, “Dolly.”

That was the end of that.

BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: We were reared, the three of us, with etiquette, class, to take people for who they are when you meet them, not what they have on, or their citizenship papers, or FBI record or library card.

SUSAN DAVIS: You have to remember we were brought up Southern. We weren’t brought up Midwest. It was going to cotillions, and we had Negroes, we had black folks. We had nannies. They were the ones who helped raise us. Our mothers were there, but the nanny was the one that put you to bed.

ROBERT ALTMAN: We had a black maid, Glendora Majors—we called her Glen—and she was very important, maybe more important than my mother. A person like that in a household becomes someone in between a parent and a sibling. She was a parent I could manipulate more. She was more of a confidante.

JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: Glen was unbelievable. She was so smart. Played all our games with us, taught me my multiplication tables. She loved Bob. Rabbit, she called him. I don’t know why. Bob loved her, too. And Barbara she called Ducky. It broke my heart because I didn’t have a nickname. Mother was different from Glen. Glen was more of a mother than Mother was. Mother was just so dear and so sweet and so captured; I mean, she had no life but us. She was a very gentle, kind, loving woman. Glen was tougher. Glen was tough love.

BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: When we’d get on the streetcar to go down to Brookside to the drugstore, Glen would say, “All right, I want you girls to sit up front there and be sure you act like ladies.” Well, I’d get up and run back and sit with her. I never knew the difference between black, yellow, green, or orange, Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, Protestant, or whatever. You take people for what they are. And she’d say, “Oh no, now, you go back up there and sit with Joan, and I want you to act like a lady.”

I never knew there was a Depression. We had a nice house. It wasn’t an expensive home. I mean, it wasn’t big, big like if you’d drive down Ward Parkway, the big homes. No, it was just a little house on a street. And we had a formal dinner in the dining room every night. First thing, we’d have to say grace before meals. Glen would go put a clean uniform on, a clean apron, come in and serve dinner. We all had to clean up before B.C. got home. You know, take a bath, put a nice little outfit on. I don’t know if it was a cold bowl of chili, a rotten egg on dark toast, but we ate it, and I had a bottle of ketchup to go with it all, every time. We didn’t know Dad was working at night downtown in a garage where they parked cars to make ends meet. But every night, that ice-cream man would come by, and every kid on our block would be waiting, and Dad would buy every one of them an ice-cream cone.

JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: I was born in ’29, but in June, just before the Depression. So Dad had already bought “Blue Boy,” which was a Pierce-Arrow. And he used to take us for drives on hot summer nights. I remember Bob there, because he asked me why I was crying, and I said I felt sorry for everybody because they weren’t as happy as we were. I can’t imagine anyone having better parents than we did.

BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: Dad took care of Glen all that time, and he took care of Bud, who did the yard work and really was a bum, and of Geneva, who used to come and make our little pinafores with our little matching underpants, and Mabel, who would come and iron and make the biscuits. Dad and Mother always had these cocktail parties, and Mabel would make these little biscuits with ham in them that were just succulent, you know?

ROBERT ALTMAN: I have an image in my head of Glen sitting me down and saying, “Now, you listen to this—the best music that ever was.” She introduced me to jazz. I’ve told people that “Solitude” was the first piece of music I remember hearing. I heard it from her.

Music from the last scene of Kansas City: Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” performed in bass duet by Ron Carter and Christian McBride.

HARRY BELAFONTE (actor/singer/activist): Glendora Majors did something to him, opened him up on race. He’d see through her eyes. She played an important part in his growing up, maturing, and in that maturity he found his own center.

*   *   *

JOHN ALTMAN: I don’t know that we felt it was anything special to be an Altman in Kansas City back then. Maybe it was to other people. I don’t think Bob felt that we were any great shakes, not at all. I don’t ever remember Bob having any kind of preconceived, egotistical position about anybody. I mean, he did not suffer fools gladly, but you had to prove you were a fool first.

ROBERT ALTMAN: My grandmother, my mother’s mother, lived with us all through the time I was growing up. Momma, we called her. She called my father Mr. Altman, and she’d make a face at him when he turned his back. I remember one time she said, “Bobby, get all of your friends in the neighborhood and bring them over there. I want to talk to them. I have a surprise.” So I went running around and I got four or five of these kids, my group who lived in the neighborhood. We went down in the cellar of the house and she came down and sat on the stairs. She said, “Boys, I have a surprise for you.” I just felt so good about this. And she said, “One of you broke my lamp”—or something like that—“and I don’t know how, but you’re going to pay for it. It’s going to be a quarter apiece.” I just exploded. And I called her—I said dirty words, and I screamed at her and ran out. She was just a mean person.

BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: Bob had a doll when he was little. A little boy doll. You’d push the stomach and it would whistle. And the little doll’s lips were puckered. Momma, our mother’s mother, kept it when Bob was away. I would ask to see the doll and she’d bring it out. She wouldn’t let us touch it. She had it wrapped in tissue paper. When Momma died, we gave it to Glen. It was the cutest little thing.

*   *   *

JERRY WALSH: When Bob was about twelve or thirteen years old, he went to a Boy Scouts meeting one evening each week at a location that was near the Kansas City Art Institute. Walking home after the meeting one evening, Bob and several other Boy Scouts discovered that they could climb up a wall and look through a window at a naked woman posing in a life-drawing class that Thomas Hart Benton was teaching at the Art Institute. They spread the word to other Scouts, and for several weeks there was quite a crowd of boys on the wall. Eventually, someone noticed them and told Tom, who came outside and chased them away. Bob concluded the story by saying, “It greatly improved attendance at the Boy Scouts for a while!”

JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: Bob was a Boy Scout, and he went to camp. That’s where he made friends with Phil—I don’t know his last name. Phil was the snake man, and Bob loved snakes and collected snakes. When he came home he brought the snakes with him and he turned the bookcases—you’ve seen those legal bookcases—into snake cases and put them in the back of the garage. B.C., our father, wouldn’t let them in the house. B.C. had a phobia about snakes, but he still pulled his car into the garage every night; it made him very, very nervous.

At Boy Scout camp in Osceola, Missouri, circa 1938, when he was about thirteen

We went on summer vacation and Bob brought Phil with us, which Mother and Dad didn’t understand because he was so much older than Bob. Bob and I went out tracking snakes. And he caught a cotton-mouth by the tail. Bob got his height early—he had zoomed out to six-foot-two by then. So he pulled the snake out by its tail and he was just turning around to hold it out straight, ’cause it was really long, huge. I was barefooted, which I always was. And he wanted me to step on the head. So he kept turning around with this huge snake, round and round, and I’d get up close as I could and I’d look at that mouth. Have you ever seen a cottonmouth? This was a big one; I’m not exaggerating, it must have been over five feet. And I couldn’t do it. He was furious with me. So he said, “Run up and get Phil.” So I ran up—my feet were bleeding—and I got Phil, but by the time I got back, Bob was worn out and he had tossed it. I felt so bad about that. That was his best snake for the whole time.

The next vacation we were on was in the Ozarks. We had a cabin on a high cliff. And again he was collecting snakes. There was a group of goats and for some reason they were chasing me. So I was running. Bobby had trapped a copperhead. He had just lifted up the rock. I ran over it and stepped right on it and killed it, and then I tripped on a log. And I would have gone over the cliff, which was oh, maybe five hundred yards down—it was really, really up there—but Bob grabbed me, saved me. The next day, Bob tied a rope around one of the aspens at the edge, and he hauled himself over that cliff and swung himself into a cave. I thought this was the end. Evidently the cave was filled with stalagmites and stalactites, and as he described it to me, it was just gorgeous. Of course somehow he got out, made his way back up top.

That night, after he was in the cave, the sky had turned just coral. The whole sky was just absolutely gorgeous. We were staying in a cabin. We had our dog Teddy with us. Teddy was a great dog, half husky and half chow. We were all lying out on this sleeping porch—me, my cousin Louise, my baby sister, Bobby, and I think one or two of his friends. The wind started coming and you could hear it from miles away, hitting those trees. This wind was unbelievable, but approaching slow. You knew it was coming. Bob was telling us that he had already chartered a spaceship. They’re coming to pick him up, and he’s going up to the moon because the world is coming to an end. And he can only take two people. Well, it just scared the shit out of all of us. Of course we were all begging, begging him, “Please let us go with you. Why only two?” Barbara, I think, was crying. He really was very convincing. At first we pooh-poohed him, but he convinced us.

*   *   *

ROBERT ALTMAN: I loved movies, but it was like all kids—they were just movies, just entertainment. I must have been seven or eight, and I remember climbing out of the window. I had the mumps. It was maybe a mile, two miles, from my house to the Plaza Theater, and I have this memory of running down to that theater and seeing King Kong, sitting through it a couple of times.

The Four Feathers and Viva Villa!, too. I liked Gunga Din. There was something about the adventure of those films—every one of them took me into a culture and a place, a space on the Earth that was different than anything I knew. Later, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was another—I like that movie a lot. It had a different convention from other movies—the hero was not a hero in the conventional sense. It was all fresh to me at that time.

BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: Oh God, one night Mother took Joan and me to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Bob was home when we got back from the movie. And I’ve always had a yellow streak down my back. The baby, you know. Joan and I were sleeping in one bed because I was scared to death and everything. And Mother said, “Now it’s time to go to bed.” All of a sudden we heard this loud noise. Bob had put on some of Mother’s makeup and got a hanger. He hooked it in his mouth and hooked it around his neck to pull it back, and stuffed this big pillow up his back. All of a sudden here he comes—the hunchback—leaping into the room. Joan pushes me and Bob grabs me. I about had a heart attack. The neighbors called, thought there’d been somebody murdered.

Robert Altman, at right, dressed as a woman for Halloween at age thirteen

ROBERT ALTMAN: My first interest in dramatics was radio. I remember listening to the radio a lot as a kid in the 1930s, lying on the floor like all the kids at that time. My big idol when I was a young man was Norman Corwin, who pretty much created the radio drama. … Anything I know about drama today comes more from Norman Corwin than anybody.

NORMAN CORWIN (radio pioneer): I went to dinner in Woodland Hills with some friends one night and I got in my car—it was midnight or so—to drive back to the city. I turned on the radio and there was a man being interviewed, and the first thing I heard was, “Mr. Altman, have you had any influences in your life?” He says, “Yes, I was influenced by Norman Corwin.” He proceeded to utter the words with which you are familiar—“Anything I know about drama today …” It was an astounding thing to listen to, having just turned on the radio.

He was most generous in his evaluation of my own work, when I was not conscious of having contributed to his art at all. I tried to figure out in what way I might have influenced him, and the only thing I could arrive at was the tackling of subjects that would normally defy dramatic reconstruction. Bob tackled difficult subjects and made them palatable and organized.

I know he said that I was a hero to him growing up. He became a hero of mine as a man. That’s remarkable and rare, to go from being someone’s hero to having him as your hero. That’s what happened between us.

Letter from Norman Corwin to Robert Altman, thanking him for writing an introduction to a broadcast, May 13, 1996: I tend to worry at times that maybe I’ve fooled a lot of people a lot of the time, but when the Altman Seal of Approval is stamped on the product, I say to myself, what the hell, man, a giant has paid you a great compliment, so accept it, relax, and store it in your heart. Which I do. You continue to hit line drive home runs, and I rejoice in them all.

*   *   *

JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: Bob and Dad clashed, but I think that’s normal because he was extremely gifted. Bob was always being punished. Our parents were not brutal, but the hairbrush would come out on any infraction. And you know it hurt. One time Bob got a spanking and B.C. came out of the room and he says, “That’s it, never again.” Bob wouldn’t cry. And B.C. said, “That’s the end of it. I don’t care what he does, I’m never doing that again.”

RICHARD SARAFIAN: One time when Bob was brought into court for something, as a kid, B.C. went to the judge. This is how deeply he felt about his son—he pounded his fist on the table so hard he broke his hand. Bob got off.

BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: Dad pounding his hand—Bob used that later. It was a scene in Bonanza, I think.

Robert Altman to Hal Hinson, story headlined “Robert Altman, His Way; on Art, Money and Vincent & Theo,” The Washington Post, November 18, 1990: I did introduce comedy to Bonanza…. I had Lorne Greene go into the sheriff’s office and demand that his son be released. He said, “You’re not going to keep my son overnight in jail,” then, pounding on the table, breaks his hand. Well, this is something that happened to me and my father when I was sixteen. My father broke his hand telling a cop that he wasn’t going to keep me in jail. And he wouldn’t show that he hurt himself, but from my cell I could see his face go bright red and then white. And I just had Ben do the same thing.

Dialogue from Bonanza, Episode 63, “The Secret,” directed by Robert Altman, originally aired May 6, 1963:

BEN CARTWRIGHT (Played by Lorne Greene): If I were to start doubting my son at this point, everything I’ve lived and worked for would be lost.

*   *   *

BARBARA ALTMAN HODES: The girls from school would be calling Bob all the time. All the time.

JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: I remember his first love—and he’s had many—was a girl with white-blonde hair at Southwest High School. I believe he was a sophomore and she was a senior.

JERRE STEENHOF: Of course I dated him. I was blonde. Every blonde in our high school knew him. If they were blonde he dated them. Most everybody would have one date and that was it. Why? Ha! I think he considered himself pretty fast. My best friend said to me, “How come you went out with him twice?” You know what she was implying!

He was tall and handsome. He had beautiful blue eyes and they sparkled liked nobody’s business. He had a delightful sense of humor. Bob was so neat and so precise in his dress—he had all the class. He knew how to act. My mother thought he was a good kid. He would stand up when she came into the room. He had all the graciousness of any well-raised young man.

One of the reasons he used to come over to my house was my father had one of the first Zenith radios that had a recorder on it. Bob was fascinated by that. Someplace I still have one of the recordings he made. One side was him reciting from Poe, “The jingling and the tingling of the bells,” and the other side was Gunga Din.

JERRY WALSH: Once my parents were disagreeing about whether I should be allowed to do something or not, and my father said something like, “Well, you know, when Bob was that age, B.C. let him do it.” And my mother said, “Well, I certainly don’t want him to grow up and be like Bobby Altman!” The reason behind that was that Bob had had kind of a checkered career as a teenager at different schools.

JOAN ALTMAN SARAFIAN: Bob didn’t like school. In fact, he hated it. I remember when he was in Catholic school, sitting outside while Sister Hildegard was chasing Bob around the room, trying to catch him with a stick to beat him up. Now, most of the nuns were great, but Hildegard was very old—she must have been in her eighties—and Bob was testing her.

JERRE STEENHOF: He went to St. Peter’s for grade school, then he started out at Rockhurst—the Catholic high school—and I think he lasted there two years. Then he came to Southwest High School, which was a public school. I don’t think a teacher or anybody at school really tapped into his abilities. He had a wonderful imagination about things. He was smart, but he was trying to find himself. There was more talent there than people knew. He just didn’t care too much for organized school. He didn’t hit the books. And everybody who talked in class got the seventh-hour study hall. It was detention. He was in there as much as anybody.

Robert Altman, center, as a member of the Wentworth Military Academy track team

As it turned out, he really wasn’t at Southwest all that long. I think I can take credit for him being expelled. He knew the combination of my locker, up on the fourth floor, because he didn’t want to carry his books from one floor to another. So one day he put his books and this cotton-picking green snake in my locker. The snake’s in a jar. He also put a pistol in there. He was in ROTC at Southwest, and I think he wanted to show it to his commanding officer after school. It was a pistol, I think, from World War I. Well, I opened the locker and I let out a scream like a crazy person. It wasn’t long until he was sent to Went-worth Military Academy. I felt badly afterwards.

NORMA MARING (Wentworth Military Academy alumni director): On September 8, 1941, he entered the academy in his senior year. While he was here, he lettered in basketball and he lettered in track.

ROBERT ALTMAN: Back then I perceived myself as being in the higher echelon of the people I knew. Anytime I wasn’t, I had a reason—not an excuse, but a reason. For instance, I ran track in high school. We ran on cinder tracks with shoes with those spikes in them. The mile was the first race of the meet, usually, and the half mile was the last. They’d have me run the mile, and I was, say, third or fourth all the time. Then I would run the half mile. I could have been first in that, but I’d just had the energy taken away from me by running the mile. So I ended up always being second in the half mile. And I’d go, “Well, goddammit! I could have been first if I hadn’t run the mile.”

One time, it was one of those outdoor meets where lots of schools come together. They’d line up maybe twenty, thirty guys, so the takeoff is a sprint. As the mile started, either I hit somebody’s heel or somebody hit my heel, and I went down in the cinders. And these guys ran over me. I actually had holes, spike holes, in me, plus a lot of cinders in my hips and legs. By the time I got back up, they were a hundred yards ahead of me. Instead of just walking off the track, I took off after them. It was a quarter-mile track. And by the end of the half mile, I was in first place. I had caught up with all of them. I had these thoughts—you know, in those races you have a lot of time to think. I’m imagining that I’m going to win this race after falling down, which is inconceivable. I’m running along and I’m seeing these headlines. And then I don’t remember anything—I passed out. And these guys ran around me again. I never even finished the race, but I tried. I think it was because there was a crowd there. I was playing to those unknown people for the first time. I think that’s kind of an important event in my life.

NORMA MARING: He graduated from high school January 23, 1943, but remained the rest of the school year through May. He had not only his high school degree but also some college credits. His first year he took English comp and rhetoric, algebra and trigonometry, general and organic chemistry. He had physics, economics, salesmanship, and physical education. His second year, which ended up being his one semester of college, he had analytic geometry, international relations, and weather and climate.

ROBERT ALTMAN: Mathematics was my first subject. That and weather. I took a course in meteorology and I liked it a lot. I liked the idea of how the different cooling levels of a lake affect the atmosphere. And the whole predictability or nonpredictability of weather. I still keep that in my mind. Under the right circumstances, I would have signed up to go into weather. Although I don’t think I would have liked to be one of these weathermen today. But now I can follow these programs and understand the philosophy of weather and climate. I take that more seriously, or I look at that subject more seriously, than most people. And I think that it helps me in terms of the balance of elements.

NORMA MARING: Every time he came to Kansas City, you’d hear him on the news, he would always say, “I went to Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri. I was more of a social student than an academic student.” His record tells you right there he was academically doing fine. He was a member of Alpha Company, and he had the rank of sergeant, which meant he was trusted with responsibility and leadership.

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