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MEET MICKEY ROONEY
Traveling constantly, it is only a matter of time before you run into someone famous. Usually this occurs in an airport. One of our guys spent an hour in Jacksonville, Florida sitting at the bar with someone who introduced himself as Dickie. Dickie was cool, he said, generous with his money and friendly, and it was only with a whisper from behind that he realized he was sitting next to Dickie Betts, the lead guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band.
I have always believed in keeping a distance from famous people. I grew up in the same neighborhood as Richie Hebner, and although I can't call him a close friend, I have known him all my life. The transition from neighborhood tough to schoolboy hockey star to major league draftee to seventeen seasons in Major League Baseball was an intersting metamorphosis to observe.
Watching from a short distance I saw that celebrity has its costs. Anyone you encounter may recognize you. I saw this. I saw it in Richie's eyes even when he saw me - would I say hello? Would the next guy? Richie's eyes always seem to be wandering the faces in a subtle but certain resignation that he'd prbably be called upon to greet - and remember - somebody. From such vague, half-thought realizations came a belief that you should leave celebrities alone. Give them some respect, some space. So what demon possessed me that I would change my mind in Toronto?
Entering Canada to work is about as enjoyable as day surgery. Every order of official papers and appropriate documents are required and we almost never have them, because more often than not we are responding to a breakdown situation which occurred the night before. For an American worker, it is harder to enter Canada than virtually any other country in the world. Canadian Immigration people live for men like me who arrive unprepared. I once had an Immigration woman ask me the value of my tools, and when I lied, "About a hundred bucks," she cast a glare the Gestapo would have envied and yelled, "Dollars! Dollars!" at me. A month later, entering New Brunswick, an Immigration official looked at my box and asked, "What are they worth, about a hundred bucks?"
It was during one such pleasant evening sitting in the Immigration Office in Lester Pearson Airport that I saw Mickey Rooney walk in. He's short, overweight, and older looking than expected. Instantly recognizable. When you first encounter a celebrity it's like seeing someone know, and there is an urge to say hello. But I don't, because I grew up with Richie Hebner.
Ten feet from me he stands with his son, a good-looking guy about thirty-five, both of them wearing black jackets with 'The Black Stallion' emblems embossed on them. Of course I am the only person in the western world that does not know that Mickey Rooney has starred in The Black Stallion movies, and also currently has a series on Cable TV entitled, The Black Stallion. After conferring with the Gestapo, they take their seats next to me.
"Exuse me Mr. Rooney," I say to the son, "I have a daughter who loves horses, what is the significance of 'The Black Stallion'?" In retrospect, this reminds me of President Hoover, who upon meeting the legendary "Red Grange of the Chicago Bears" replied, "Nice to meet you. I've always enjoyed animal acts." The son was gracious with me, however, and explained the significance. At this point Mickey Rooney jumped from his chair and faced me.
"Where do you live?" he asks me.
"You get cable there," he says.
"Oh," I reply, "I don't get cable. I figure the thirty bucks a month I save could buy me a new TV set each year." This is what I said. Honestly. My eloquence and quick wit has never been compared to that of Oscar Wilde's. In the meantime I'm conscious of having insulted Mickey Rooney for not knowing the significance of any Black Stallions. As he's summoned to receive his papers, I say, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were involved with that show."
Mickey Rooney snaps up his papers, turns to me and says, "You listen to me, I make a million dollars a year on that show and I'm not sorry for anything." And he busts by me, his son dutifully in tow.
Panic. He's misunderstood me, and I have about two seconds to make amends.
"Mr. Rooney - I misunderstood!" I called after him.
"Yeah," he replied without turning back. "We both did."
And he was gone. I'd tried to be nice, interested. Friendly. He is the first famous person I've ever tried to speak to, and he just walked away, furious with me. I shrugged, slumped back down and awaited my papers.
But now I am prepared. I look forward to my next encounter with a famous person. Ideally it will be in first class, I'll already be seated, and I'll see him enter the plane, approach, and sit down next to me. I'll give him a knowing smile, and I'll say "Hello."
And I will not utter another word.