A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES
Prologue: Searching for Sports Illustrated
Commercial flight still knocks me out. Distances that once required days or weeks to traverse are chewed up in a matter of hours. You eat breakfast in Edmonton and when you arrive in Montreal it’s beer o’clock. Amazing. Still despite the relative miracle of jet transit in these modern times, there is always time to kill. I spend it dozing or reading. I’d packed an oral history of D-Day I’d already begun. Some of the anecdotes were hilarious, others heroic, but it was heavy going, enough to worry that my eyes would well up in a confined public space. I needed a lighter fallback.
Sports Illustrated is like either one of the winners of the three Ali-Frazier fights: somehow it’s still standing. The Sporting News, first published in 1886, is now a strictly digital entity. Sport and Inside Sports went the way of Look, Life and Saturday Night. Canada’s own The Hockey News has been around since 1947 although it has never weighed in with the same gravitas as the more expansive Sports Illustrated which first appeared in newsstands in 1954. The writing in SI has often been extraordinary. The magazine is the bridge from legendary New York newspaper sports columnists to Roger Angell scribbling baseball literature in The New Yorker. It was that good. And for many males in North America, the February swimsuit issue appeared without fail at the onset of puberty – maybe even hot wired it.
So I wanted to read the 60th Anniversary Issue, dated August 4, 2014. I wanted to revisit some 40 years of an on and off reading relationship, time travel. Forty, 30, 20 years ago, I had to know where the Lions were. Even as sport in general has exploded into a steroidal growth industry, its importance to me has conversely diminished into mere pleasant distraction, something whistling on television in the background of middle age. None of it really matters any more (the annual fate of the Montreal Canadiens being an exception). But when a publication like SI occasionally decides to trumpet its own air horn, I’ll pay the cover price for an economy aisle seat on the Wayback Machine.
At Edmonton International Airport I comb two Hudson News kiosks for SI’s 60th. One store is on the departure level near the airlines’ counters. The other is an infuriating, cattle herding, half an hour beyond the post-9/11 security rigmarole and institutionalized paranoia. Both stores are selling the July 28 issue on August 13. The cover story is NFL Fantasy Pool. As a former subscriber I am reminded of the Sports Illustrated delivery lag in Canada: what happened last week in the United States was actually two weeks ago up here. That didn’t matter so much in the 70s because there were no 24-hour sports highlight channels, the internet was science-fiction and an SI story was deep, as thoughtful and as in-depth as a Nixon Goes to China détente piece in Time.
It seems like every other magazine has Robin Williams on its cover, tears for a clown. His blue eyes are everywhere. I wonder how, after 60, when you’re on the homestretch anyway, how did life get to be too much after you’ve already survived yourself for so long? Ernest Hemingway did the same thing. I’m mystified. Maybe both men weren’t in the present so much as looking ahead. I decide that if I must weep on a flight to Montreal, I’ll cry over D-Day rather than Mork & Mindy.
Time surpassed itself in Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport. Two Relay newsstands were selling Sports Illustrated’s August 11 NCAA College Football Preview issue. An entire week had been kidnapped by aliens. Robin Williams’s face was everywhere still, now in both of Canada’s official languages. And because it’s Quebec, there are soft core porn mags for sale. Maybe that’s what they salivate over up in the rare air of executive class - I wouldn’t know.
Our departure gate is a remote one, down near the end of the concourse as it begins to run out of real estate. There is a third Relay newsstand. I wander in and find the display stack of SI, college football again. Stymied. For some reason I start flipping through the magazines as if they were LPs in a record store rack. An utterly absurd, forlorn yet hopeful exercise, this is what a crazy person does. And tucked away at the back is one overlooked 60th Anniversary Issue never returned to the distributor.