A Drive to Charleston

Something really weird happened on my drive to Charleston to see a dying friend. My shuffled playlist began playing Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend.” Well, no, that’s not exactly the weird part -- I mean, how weird could it be to hear a song on your playlist? Hearing it was pure chance. I just haven’t heard it much lately.

Ken Burger is dying. These four words stump me. You know that Woody Allen joke about how he doesn’t want to achieve immortality through his work, he wants to achieve it by not dying. I always connected that joke to Kenny. He was the one person I knew who might really beat death. Heck, he beat everything else. Alcoholism. Smoking. Bankruptcy. Various personal abysses. For a long time he was beating the hell out of cancer too.

And then, he wasn’t. Cancer doesn't fight fair.

“Madame,” Hemingway wrote, “all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true storyteller who would keep that from you.” I think about this as I drive through past those South Carolina towns -- Lancaster, Chester, Great Falls, Winnsboro, Smallwood. “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death.” Kenny, of all people, gets that. Kenny is a true storyteller.

* * *

We met after a football game in 1989 … and after Hurricane Hugo had rushed up this same highway I was driving. I told Ken then that the hurricane had downed some trees around my neighborhood and left us without power for a few days. He told me that his house had blown away. That was only the first sign that Ken’s life tended to be more extreme than my own.

We became friends in Orlando, at my first college bowl game. Clemson against California. I don’t remember a thing about the game, don’t even remember being there. What I remember was going to the airport counter to rent my first car and being told that to rent a car in Florida you had to be 25 years old. I was 10 days away from my 25th birthday. The woman was adamant.

“Come on Bubba,” Kenny said. He was standing in the line behind me. “I’ll rent the car and you drive me around.”

He rented a honking Lincoln Continental, and I chauffeured him around Orlando. Unlike Miss Daisy, he rode in the front.

“There’s an easy trick to this column writing business,” he told me. “Write about people.”

That, I remember vividly. Write about people. Kenny was the sports columnist at The Charleston Post & Courier in Charleston, S.C., which made him a hero to me. All sports columnists were heroes to me, but Kenny was in particular. He lived the only life I ever wanted.

“Forget the sports," Kenny said. "Write about people,” That’s what he did. I have never known a sportswriter who cared so little about sports. He was surrounded by people (like me) who had gotten into this business, at least in part, because they loved the games. Kenny did not. He got into it because had had just finished being a political writer, and the Charleston paper had a lousy sports section. and the executive editor was an ex-Marine who’d had enough. One day he called Ken into his office and said, “Fix it.”

Ken stayed in it because, he quickly realized, sports gave him a unique opportunity to see people as they really are, under the strain and tension and elation of victory and defeat. People can in daily life spin scandals into triumph, tragedy into political gain, but in sports there is the black and white reality of winning and losing, and Ken loved to see how people handled each. He could be as unsentimental as a hanging judge -- he invented the term “fire a friend day,” for that moment when coaches are on such a hot seat that their only hope of survival is to sacrifice a longtime coach or coordinator.

He also could be deeply nostalgic and wistful and Southern. He loved to tell the everyday stories of people who overcame failure or defeat or adversity or their own blunders. The writer Pat Conroy has said nobody ever wrote about the wonders of sweet tea as well as Ken Burger.

Write about people. I cannot tell you how many times those three words crossed my mind over the last quarter century. He was amused by how much the sports themselves bewitched me (“Lots of numbers in your column today, Bubba,” he’d say. “Nobody to write about?”). For him, the sports were barely a backdrop. He played golf, but other than that I doubt Kenny ever spent a single afternoon of his free time watching or playing a game he wasn’t writing about. I know he never got an autograph in his entire life. Well, that’s not quite right. He got one. That’s a story.

* * *

Kenny was on the Washington political beat in the mid 1980s, and he was sent out to write about a plan the University of South Carolina had to financially save the struggling Folger Theater in Washington. If you wonder why the University of South Carolina was getting involved in the business of the Folger Theater, well, you aren’t familiar with the general preposterousness of the University of South Carolina. You could spend your whole life at South Carolina asking "Why?"

In any case, there was a press conference featuring South Carolina officials along with Helen Hayes, the First Lady of American Theater, an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony award winner, a theatrical legend of the highest order. Kenny had never heard of her. In the years of telling the story, he would never remember her name.

He got to the press conference early because Kenny always got to places early. That’s another story, but a quick one. When Kenny was a kid, maybe eight or nine years old, his father told them they were leaving for vacation at noon. Ken arrived at 12:10 to find that the family car was gone. They had left him. He began crying and after doing that for a while, a neighbor's car came by. “Get in,” they said. “We were told to pick you up as soon as you finished crying.” He was never late again.

Kenny got to the press conference, and he saw this little old woman there and presumed her to be Helen Hayes. He walked over to introduce himself and shake her hand. She, without prompting, grabbed his reporter pad and signed her name -- the one autograph Ken ever got.

But, this being Ken Burger, the story goes on. The press conference began, and there was a lot of high-minded talk about the theater, and its importance to the world and Gary Cooper and Clark Gable and Williams Shakespeare. Ken listened to this for a while, and then when it was time for questions he raised his hand and asked, “Yeah, so, where’s this money coming from?”

Helen Hayes was dumbfounded. Who was this coarse reporter daring to ask about money when they were talking about the theater? When he asked the question again (and again) she upbraided him. “Young man,” she said, “These impertinent questions have no place here.”

At which point Ken Burger looked at the only autograph he’d ever gotten in his life, tore it from his notebook, and put it at her feet. “I didn’t want this,” he said.

* * *

To get to Charleston from where I live, you drive to Columbia and take a slight left toward the water. There is always a mess of orange cones and rocky highway between Columbia and Charleston, as if the people of Charleston would rather discourage visitors from the rest of the state. The Columbia to Charleston part of the drive is never fun. I started to think about how I would react when I saw Ken in that hospital bed, so much thinner, hooked up to the machines. I had seen the pictures.

At sporting events -- Masters, Super Bowls, World Series, whatever -- Kenny was the coolest guy in the room. He wore confidence. Well, no, technically he wore two of three colors -- black, white or khaki. Sometimes he wore a white shirt with black pants, sometimes a black shirt with khaki pants, sometimes a white shirt with khaki pants. And that was it. He never splashed any color at all. He liked to make the packing as easy as possible.

But, he stood out anyway. Kenny was the one person in the sportswriter sea of neuroses and tics and anxiousness who seemed to have life beat. He sauntered around the scene like he was a restaurant manager just checking to see that everyone was OK. He wrote fast and easily, and he never seemed concerned about the next idea. It would come. “If I have 15 minutes to write about curtains,” he told me many times, “I’ll do it. “

Ken spent 20 years in the reserves -- he is, in many ways, a military man. Show up early, dress neat, stay calm under pressure and do what you have to do. He taught me about the gig line -- that's the line of your dress shirt and your belt buckle and your fly. Those should be in perfect alignment.

“Bubba,” he’d say sometimes, “your gig line is crooked.”

And yet, in other ways, he was the least disciplined man I knew. Four-times divorced. Recovering alcoholic. Financial troubles. College dropout (and graduate). Smoker. “People are complicated,” he would say to me when I asked him about the various inconsistencies of his personality. I know that’s why he so loved writing about people. He liked unwinding their mysteries. More, though, he wanted to know how people made it through their own inconsistencies, their fears, their blind spots, the low moments when they did not live up to their own ideals. That was the stuff that made people human ... and interesting.

He once asked the golfer Hal Sutton how he found balance in his life after his four marriages. Sutton was furious: “You don’t know anything about it!” he raged.

“Au contraire,” Kenny said. It took him a long time to find Bonnie, his soulmate, who sits beside his bed as the doctors give the ever-worsening news. There were four wives and a lot of pain along the way, for Ken and for his family. How do you endure that pain? How do you keep it from discouraging you? How do you learn from mistakes? How do you find a way to forgive each other? In the pictures I’ve seen of him in the hospital bed, Kenny rested on a pillow that says, “Pa Ken’s Keepers,” and displays seven fish that represent his seven grandchildren. Somehow, he found his balance.

“I’m going to die, Joe,” he would say to me when I walked into the hospital room. “I just want to make it to Christmas.”

* * *

We would tell each other stories, mostly. They were stories we had told each other many times before, but telling those stories is better than talking about how the cancer has spread into the liver or the bleak blood counts the doctors report or what it means when they say, "weeks to live," or what the pain feels like or what is to come. “I’ve lived a great life,” he told me. And then, “Do you remember the time in Augusta …”

We would talk about a very nice but somewhat hapless South Carolina football coach named Sparky Woods. We both liked Sparky very much, but he lost a lot of games and he once had his players revolt, and Ken wrote those facts with enthusiasm. One day Sparky called up Ken to confront him, perhaps forgetting the Ken Burger No. 1 rule of Sportswriting: “Be friendly, but you’re not friends.”

“Ken,” Sparky said to start, “let me say I’m not mad at you …”

“Sparky,” Ken interrupted, “I don’t give a (bleep) if you are mad at me.”

Laughing hurt, he would say. Still, he laughed. He remembered the one person he ever fired -- this after he spent time as sports editor -- and how that person used to go around telling people, “If Ken Burger knew even one thing about sports, he’d be dangerous.” The guy presumably meant it as an insult, but no series of words other than, perhaps, “You’re a grandfather” ever made him happier or prouder.

The machine he was hooked up to started beeping loudly every now and again. Ken would look over to see if it was the machine malfunctioning or his body. On this day, it was the machine. “Battery,” he said, and we would talk some more over the noise.

He would talk about his children, and how proud he was of the way they turned out. He would talk about the people in his life he had hurt, and how much he regretted that. He would talk about his love of writing and how many people had been kind to him and Charleston and how the sun looked as it set over the water. He would talk about the nice things his friends were saying and writing about him here at the end. “I’ve asked everyone to write their obits now,” he said. “I want to read them.”

At times he seemed exactly like his old self -- funny, profane, blunt as thunder. At other times, he did not. Burps interrupted his words. Blankness interrupted his thought. He apologized a lot, said the pain medication was making him loopy. “You were too young to rent a car,” he would say every now and again.

* * *

I wanted to remind him of one story in particular. We probably covered fifteen Masters together, and on Sunday, after the winner had finished, we would both walk down to the press conference room and sit down in the front row and wait. It was usually a half hour or so before the winner would be brought in. So we would talk until then.

We talked about all sorts of things -- family, writing, where to eat for dinner -- but to be honest the main thing we talked about was the giant Masters logo behind the wall.


"So," he would say, "how do you play the hole in the logo?"

I would look up, pretend like I was studying it, and always tell him the same thing: "I'd play the hole left, middle of the green, right around Missouri or Kansas. That way you avoid the water and still give yourself a putt."

This was our routine. We were Abbott and Costello.

"Yeah," he said. "But you're leaving yourself on the wrong side of the Mississippi and mountain ranges. That's an impossible putt."

"So how would you play it?" I'd ask.

"You aim for Washington DC and bring the ball back," he said.

"OK. But you're bringing the Atlantic Ocean into play."

"Yeah," he would say. "You've got to take chances in life."

* * *

OK, so here was the weird part. As I drove into Charleston to see a dying friend, Elton John's "Funeral for a Friend," played off my shuffled playlist. And just as it started, just as those windy opening notes began, it started to pour down rain. It rained so hard, that the windshield wipers could not wipe away the water fast enough, and hazard lights blared, and the road turned blurry. Cars stopped on the highway. There was no place to go. "Funeral for a Friend" played, and the rain kept on pouring, and nobody drove. And I thought about a lot of things.

When the song ended -- after it had merged into "Love Lies Bleeding" and was fading out -- the driving rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Cars were moving again. And there was a patch of blue that broke through the clouds.

I don't know what it means. I don't know that it means anything at all.

* * *

Ken Burger died on Tuesday around 9:15 p.m. in Charleston. I can only say about him the best thing I can say about anybody: He made people's lives a little bit better.