It was impressive watching a procession of friends making their way up to the podium Monday to pay tribute to the friend of many: Mel Root.
Understandably, several of the testimonials took the form of athletics, a host of former teammates telling the large crowd about this story or that — often sprinkled with humor — about some experience they’d had years ago.
But for the record, Mel was more than simply an athlete; he was a coach, a superintendent, an owner of a camp, a husband, father, grandfather, and — a bit of a rarity in these parts — a Republican in a Democratic stronghold.
Several rose to eulogize the 79-year-old Root at his funeral at the First Baptist Church. Now it’s my turn, and as hard as I try to avoid it, here comes another football account.
People didn’t grow as big in the ‘50s as they do now. Accordingly, struggling football programs such as the one we had at Immaculate Conception High School virtually guaranteed a spot on the Colts roster, just by virtue of going out for the team. Our coach, Nick DiDomenico, was able to secure the help of Highlands students, Bob Vanoy, Mike Nyikos and Mel Root. Our offensive and defensive lines must’ve averaged 130 pounds. The visiting Cowboys, experienced footballers and years older, weighed somewhat more. They’d scrimmage with us, sometimes with shoulder pads and helmets, other times with just workout clothes.
Now please realize that in those days, around 1956, just a few pounds made a difference. A starting back might weigh 140; if he were to gain another five pounds, he might become a tackle. It was a joy to scrimmage with Root, Nyikos and Vanoy, getting the feel of trying to bring down a college athlete, or, conversely, being blocked completely out of the play by a player who’d had years of experience before coming to help out the I.C. Colts.
Our team struggled.
The only person whose helmet had a face guard was George Fram, who coincidentally, later became a leading ground-gainer for Highlands. The rest of us sacrificed our pretty, pristine, smooth visages and teeth to the fists, elbows, knees and cleats of opposing B Conference teams.
For as long as Vanoy, Nyikos and Root helped us out, I sensed only praise and gratitude that we had these bigger men to assist us. The only time I carried the ball during the whole season was in a scrimmage which included Messrs. Root, Nyikos and Vanoy.
Details are sketchy, but apparently the football squirted loose from the quarterback’s hands, into mine, as in that scrimmage, I lined up next to Fram. What does a lineman do when he makes an accidental catch?
Run like hell. I did, into the ready arms of Mel Root, who’d moved over from the defensive line to a linebacker position. He stopped me, and immediately, I looked around to make sure my head was still attached.
That play became my Red Badge of Courage. One of my teammates later told me in the locker room, “I wish I’d been tackled like that. How’d it feel.”
Enough sports talk. We miss you, Mel.
• • •
Included in Friday’s Optic was an obituary for George Fidel, a long-time teacher for West Las Vegas Schools. My only dealings with George came when he and co-teacher Betty Leger invited me to be the pronouncer for their Spelling Bee preliminaries.
Between rounds, I asked George if I could have a glass of water. George asked Betty, “Could you bring Mr. Trujillo some H20?”
I replied with, “I’d prefer just plain water, if you have it.”
“But I was ordering you some water,” George said. For a year I wondered if my self-publicized ignorance of chemistry had fooled George. I knew the difference, but did George know I knew? The next year, at another Spelling Bee competition, he told me “We’re fresh out of water, so you’ll need to settle for H20.”
• • •
My relationship with Eddie Flores, whose name also appeared in Friday’s obituary page, goes back to the ‘50s, when we served together in the National Guard. Much later, we became next-door neighbors at Camp Luna. I wrote a short piece on Eddie in 2005, part of which is recounted here.
Before the drought prevented us from washing our cars in our yards, we Trujillos performed a motor-pool feat by lining up our five cars for oil changes, detailing and washing. Some neighbors kept driving by in their souped-up trucks, playing some mephitic and cacophonous gangsta rap. Harvey, a friend who had joined our car-maintenance brigade, owned a vehicle with speakers just as powerful as our neighbor rappers’. I’d recently bought a set of tapes featuring all of Beethoven’s nine symphonies.
We decided to teach our neighbors a lesson. Harvey obliged, inserted the tapes, cranked up the volume, and we treated the entire neighborhood to the best that my namesake, Arturo Toscanini, had to offer. The performance rattled the fillings of our gangsta neighbor cruisers.
Drawn by the breath-taking lyrics of Ludwig Van’s Choral Symphony, Eddie came over, with a “play it again” request. We took the music inside, where he sat through not just Beethoven’s Ninth, but Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, with its many massed brass bands and cannon fire. I assume Eddie was sincere when he thanked me and said, “I give you permission to play Beethoven any time you want.”
Strange, but in our household, we don’t get much opportunity to blast the neighborhood with these wonderful sounds, as most of the music is now piped through headphones, intended for private listening. Nevertheless, I was honored to be the musical host for my neighbor that distant summer afternoon.
We’ll miss all three of you: Mel Root, George Fidel and Eddie Flores.