A FEW weeks ago on a bumpy flight to Philadelphia I sat next to a man with overpowering minty breath and no hair. He said he was an unannounced candidate for president.
I wanted to ignore him the way our culture usually dismisses presidential also-rans as interesting lint. But he was there, next to me, clouding me in oppressive mint and demanding that I listen to his reasons for being unannounced.
"Perot made the mistake of announcing, then withdrawing, then announcing again," the man said pungently. "The unexposed bottom is more interesting than the exposed bottom."
Avoiding the minefield of making any anatomical references to politics, I suggested there was a flaw in his reasoning. "How long can you stay unannounced and Cuomo-esque?" I asked.
He grinned as if timing was everything. When I saw the arc of his smile, when I heard an echo of a voice I hadn't heard in 35 years, it all flashed back to me: Lefty Caldersmith and the campaign of '57.
I was in high school, unfocused, gangling, and energetic. Baseball was my outlet and ingress, and Lefty and I were teammates on the Monrovia Wildcats. He was a Taft Republican and I was for Ike all the way. (My mother worked on the county committee to reelect Eisenhower.)
Lefty had a wonderful, mannish smile, but almost no style or coordination as a baseball player. His skill was his talk; he was a verbal hose, a rapid-fire wiz on baseball, politics, cars, rocks, electronics, anything. I think the coach kept him on the team because he couldn't believe one teenager knew so much. He also may have been the only teenager in California who willingly attended city-council meetings and took notes. Bus rides to play other high schools were Leftian monologues punctuated with high and low politics and humor, some of it intentional, and much of it just Lefty being himself. As far as I know, Lefty never played in a single game.
One afternoon in a lull in a monologue, Lefty said that he had decided to run for mayor of Monrovia. Because of my connection to Eisenhower, Lefty asked me to be his campaign manager.
"You're kidding," I said. "Collins has a lock on city hall forever if he wants it."
Lefty leaned toward me and whispered. "The dog pound. A big scandal waiting to be exposed. Filthy conditions. Abuse. A padded budget. Relatives on the payroll. I've got photos."
During the city budget hearings, Lefty had noticed that the allocation for the dog pound had increased regularly every year for the last four years. "More stray dogs and cats," was the explanation Mayor Collins offered when he was asked about the increases. Lefty had ridden his bicycle to the edge of town, slinked in the bushes near the pound, and photographed inhumane treatment of the animals.
"We announce my candidacy in front of the pound," he said. "Pass out the photos. Big surprise. A teenager running for mayor with a shocking story to expose. We'll get coverage in the L.A. Times."
"Count me in," I said.
The next day in study hall we decided on various campaign slogans: "Get Right With Lefty: An Independent Voice," or "Youth Gets Tough: Caldersmith for Mayor for Good." We settled on, "Caldersmith: Young, Honest, and Mature."
Lefty dressed in a coat and tie, and even went to school that way, which got attention and a lot of ridicule. Miss Lacy, the journalism teacher, was delighted with us, but said a candidate for mayor had to be 21 or over.
"We're doing this for experience," said Lefty, "and the dogs."
We wrote a press release, copying the format from a Republican committee press release. We phoned the L.A. Times, Monrovia News-Post, and the Duarte Dispatch and announced a press conference for Saturday morning in front of the dog pound. They laughed.
Linda Ragstaff became the campaign secretary. Her father owned a print shop and said we could have posters printed for half-price.
ON Saturday morning Linda drove us to the dog pound. Benny Buo, the catcher on the team was there, along with Ron Borghetti, the first baseman. Larry Digman, a reporter from the school newspaper, the Wildcat, was there.
The dog catcher, a relative of the mayor, threatened to turn a hose on us. The barking dogs were so loud we had to move a hundred yards away.
Lefty was great. Clear and lucid, with all the facts in place, he joined a long line of honorable men who support Jeffersonian democracy at the local level.
"I condemn the abuse of animals," he shouted. "I condemn nepotism. I charge this dog pound," and he pointed back toward the howling cages,"with misuse of city funds."
After the story came out the next Monday in the school newspaper, Lefty was interviewed by the News-Post. And when he walked into the city council meeting that evening the mayor scowled at him.
Our efforts got action. The mayor was forced to squirm a little in public and commended us for "catching an oversight in the budget." He appointed a dog-pound advisory committee composed of a pet store owner, a retired mule skinner, and a tall, flaxen-haired woman with six parrots. He refused to appoint Lefty to the committee, saying he was "too young and what kind of a boy doesn't even own a dog."
After that everything seemed to fade away inconclusively, as often happens in politics and human affairs. The mayor was forced into a runoff by a candidate who wanted to revive downtown Monrovia with new street lights and potted plants. I don't remember who won.
Lefty began to carry around his press clippings and became a bit of a bore.
The baseball team won 3 games and lost 9. Two games were rained out.
I fell in love with Linda, but the compliment was not returned.
Eisenhower was reelected.
I don't know what happened to the dogs and cats in the dog pound.
On the plane to Philadelphia, I remembered enough of this to make me want to remember all of it. But like the unannounced candidate, maybe the point in politics and memories is to reveal just enough, but not too much, like the memory of mint, which is often better than the mint itself.