AS a boy nicknamed Pee Wee, I wrote the letters very carefully, the first to Loran (Pee Wee) Day, a star halfback on the Northwestern football team, and the second to the coach of the Los Angeles Rams. The year was 1949. War-weary people were establishing family warmth again and kids were starved for sports heroes. I lived and breathed sports.
Truman was in the White House, and there wasn't a football player anywhere in the land possessed with enough unrepentant greed to ask a kid to pay for an autograph. The athletes of 1949 saw themselves and the big-eyed kids hanging around the playing fields quite differently from today's.
In the first letter I stated my case simply.
I had followed the Northwestern Wildcats all season long. Wasn't it a coincidence that my nickname was Pee Wee, too? And that my dad had attended Northwestern briefly, but that Los Angeles was a long way from Evanston, Ill., the home of the Wildcats, who were on their way to the Rose Bowl. ``I couldn't see your games,'' I wrote to Pee Wee Day, ``but could I see your autograph?''
Clever, I thought, a well-crafted persuasion that would be a cinch to elicit an autograph from a hero. My brothers said, ``What football player is going to write you a letter?''
Three weeks passed, plenty of time to conclude that no football player was going to write me a letter.
Then a small package arrived from Pee Wee Day. I tore it open. To my utter, wordless, gossamer astonishment I unwrapped a blue, leatherbound autograph book filled with autographs from the entire Northwestern football team, plus all the coaches. Even Pee Wee's mother and father had signed it.
In my youngster's delirium, suddenly I was very important. Because of Pee Wee's generosity, the relationship I had with him was no longer made of a fabric sewn only in my imagination. I was sure he was different now because of what he had done for me and I for him.
I stared at his autograph, picturing him holding the book and signing it, picturing the entire football team lined up to sign it with Pee Wee's mother and father at the end of the line. I was convinced that he would now play football much better because of me, that I had enhanced his status as if he were a character who had learned a lesson in an Aesop's fable.
I was overwhelmed with righteousness. The point had shifted from him to us. He had empowered me. I idolized him. Beyond all sports I would have done anything he asked. He was the President and I was his Ollie North, or at least his Larry Speakes, willing to tell little lies if I had to.
A week or so later a letter arrived from the Los Angeles Rams. On a single sheet of paper addressed to me with their best wishes, all the players and coaches of the Rams had signed their names. I was absolutely delirious.
Staring at the autographs - Norm Van Brocklin, Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch, Bob Waterfield, Tom Fears, and others, I was completely overtaken by them.
Then slowly, inexorably, after a few days of staring and measuring how enraptured I was, my house of autographs started to crumble as if shaken by the punch line from an Aesop's fable. By weighing the sheer number of autographs, I saw the big difference between chasing so many idols and watching only a few heroes.
Simple. Clear. Idols enslave, a hero enhances.