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STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THOSE YEARS.     /Photo by Carmela Cunningham

Death always takes you by surprise. No matter how old the person is, no matter how frail they have become, no matter what the doctors say, when somebody you care about dies, it is always a surprise.

Not today, you think. Not now. Maybe next year, or next month, or even next week.

My friend Larry “Lash” LaRue died earlier this month, and I find myself at that place where I see something funny or outrageous, and I think, I’ve got to tell Lash about this. And then, it hits me that Lash is gone and he’s not coming back.

And it hurts.

Lash and I knew each other for more than 40 years – longer than either of us had known our wives. We met at the Orange County Register. He was coming from a job as a reporter at the Omaha World Herald; I had been working at City News Service in downtown Los Angeles and before that at the Daily Breeze in Torrance.

We were very different people. The stories flowed from his brain through his finger tips and onto the printed page. I struggled more, agonizing over each word, often going back and changing sentence structure, trying to figure out how I wanted to tell the story and what were the important facts that needed to be in it.

I fought in the Vietnam War, he protested against it. I voted for Reagan, he voted for Carter. He loved sports, I couldn’t care less.

Yet, we loved spending time together. The same things made us laugh, and the more outrageous, the better.

There was an editor at the Register, who was among the stupidest people to ever walk the planet. This editor took all the writers who worked for him to lunch one day and gave us all grades. Larry and I both got C-minus, but it didn’t make us mad. We found it hilarious. We gave the guy a nickname – “the incredible shrinking brain.”

From then on we just called him the Brain – as in the “Brain” wants to know what stories we have coming for tomorrow’s paper. We both knew the “Incredible Shrinking” part was understood.

We were out of control. We probably should have been fired, but we weren’t. They had this thing at the Register where a big story would break and each reporter was expected to call five people on the phone to ask what they thought about it. So we’d get one of those assignments, and we would call the local massage parlor and ask the girls there what they thought about the latest Supreme Court decision. And they would always say stuff such as, “Is that like the Supremes – I love their music.” Another time, we looked up the goofiest names in the phone book, so all our respondents had silly names like Harry Butternut or Betsy Pigg.

And through it all, everybody just shook their heads and let it go, because at the end of the day, we were both good writers at a time when that meant a lot in the newspaper business. Everybody in the business was goofy back then. We would go to lunch at some dark bar, have a few drinks, and walk out blinking at the sunshine about three hours later. The other side of the story was that we would still be hanging around at 9 that night, making phone calls and writing stories.

We both had guns and we would go out in the desert with our .22s and shoot at jackrabbits. The rabbits would run like crazy with the bullets kicking up dirt all around them, and we’d be laughing like mad men and shooting away, until we finally hit one of them and blew off most of his leg. So we went up and shot him to put him out of his misery. We gave up shooting at jack rabbits after that. We both realized we liked shooting at jack rabbits and scaring the hell out of them, but hated actually hurting one of the little guys.

We did a lot of stupid things back then, things that I regret today. Things like racing through traffic, weaving in and out of lanes, just for the wild fun of it. One of those times, he was ahead of me as we neared our office, but I hopped the curb and went screaming and sliding across a vacant field to cut him off and I won. He was laughing so hard he could hardly stand up.

One of the more stupid things we did – or maybe I should say I did – was when Larry talked me into wrestling a bear at the Anaheim Convention Center for a story in the Orange County Register. I asked him why he didn’t want to wrestle a bear, and he said he would like to, but he couldn’t because of an old baseball injury from when he was in college.

He told me, don’t worry, it’s a black bear named Victor, weighs in at about 400 pounds, just tussle around with him and it will be fun. Well, after we set the whole thing up, it turned out that Victor the black bear had died and been replaced by Victor II, a bigger Alaskan brown bear that stood 8-foot-three and weighed 643 pounds.

So we had a strategy. I was going to dance around, taunt the bear, maybe run around real fast and kick him in the butt, put on a show for the audience. Long story short – the bear kicked my ass, knocked me down, and fell on me. I was totally out of it, seeing stars, and bleeding from a cut on my forehead. Victor’s trainer, a guy named Tuffy Truesdell, grabbed me, turned me around, and said, “the crowd loves it,” as he pushed me back into the ring. Victor proceeded to do a repeat performance, while Larry stood by the ringside, grabbing pictures with his camera. It was on the front page of the paper the next day.

We also worked together in 1975 on two murder cases that revolved around the Playgirl Club in Garden Grove. The club had a shady past with hints of public corruption. Not only had the City Council rushed through an after-hours permit for the club, but council members frequented the club where they were given the VIP treatment. Rumors of ties to organized crime were hotly denied by the owners, and the after-hours permit was challenged by several gay nightclubs in Garden Grove that wanted equal treatment. For conservative Garden Grove in the 1970s, after-hours gay nightclubs were out of the question. The after-hours permit for the Playgirl Club was withdrawn as well.

It turned out the club was also a gathering place for off-duty cops and for an illegal weapons business involving machine guns and silencers. At least two people were murdered as part of a cover-up.

The paper wasn’t really interested in sending a reporter all the way to San Bernardino to cover a trial – even if it did center on an Orange County nightclub. Lash and I would sneak out of work – Larry on one day, me on the next – one to go gather information and one to cover for the other.

The story was huge, involving both law enforcement incompetence and corruption. After showing up with stories about what had been going on at the Playgirl Club, we finally convinced editors it was worth the drive to San Bernardino.

One guy, an informant for federal Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents, was killed after he told ATF undercover investigators that he thought he was going to be murdered. ATF promised to protect him, then abandoned him out in the desert because their unmarked sedans made it impossible to follow the murderers’ off-road vehicles into the desert without blowing their investigation.

And when the informant was murdered, nobody bothered to tell his family until his body was discovered more than two years later. When his wife reported him missing, the Orange County Sheriff’s detective – putting in his time until retirement – filed it and forgot it.

San Bernardino Sheriffs, who took over the case when one of the bodies was found in their jurisdiction, quickly nicknamed the ATF partners “Heckle and Jeckle.”

At the end of the investigation, numerous cops were fired, including the main suspect’s brother – an investigator with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office – who  had tipped off the suspect that the investigators were closing in.

Unfortunately, before all the writing was done, Lash – who was having problems at home and the office – got so pissed off that he quit his job and left his then-wife all on the same day. It was also the day that his cat died. It was never entirely clear which event pushed him over the edge, although I always suspected it was the cat.

Lash loved animals.

During the next few months, Lash worked as a private detective. He had a little compact ford pickup with a camper shell and he would climb in the back to stake out suspects. Then during the day, he would go to his old alma mater, Cal State Long Beach, shoot some hoops in the gym, take a shower, and change his clothes.

We would meet up some times and tell each other stories and make each other laugh. Like the time he had staked out a Cadillac that had been repeatedly vandalized. After several nights and hours lying in the back and staring out camper shell windows, he saw the perpetrator throw a bag full of paint on the Caddy and run off.

Lash jumped out of the truck to chase him down, but his foot had fallen asleep, so he ended up limping after the guy, yelling for him to stop. Lucky for Lash, vandals aren’t all that smart. The guy ran into his own apartment and locked the door.

Lash banged on the door and ordered the guy to come out. The guy may have been stupid, but he wasn’t crazy. He stayed put and the cops took over from there.

Larry and I also worked as an unofficial team covering the Skid Row Slasher in L.A., Larry laid in the doorway, posing as a bum, while I was staked out down the block with a .357 magnum snub-nosed revolver, covering his butt. The gun was not at all accurate beyond close range, but it made a hell of a noise and shot a flame about six inches out the barrel that would light up a dark night and scare the bejesus out of any would-be assailants.

Another time, when I was about 50 and Larry was just getting started on his 40s, we decided it was time to go out and prove we still had what it takes to be tough guys, even though we were quite a bit older than we had been. We drove around, going to different bars, seeing if we could stir up a fist fight or at least a push-and-shove confrontation. If that sounds incredibly stupid, neither of us every claimed to be boy geniuses.

We went to a couple of Mexican bars along PCH, drank our cervezas, and tried to look tough. But nobody took the bait, so we finally went to a Navy bar up on Long Beach Boulevard, which had a reputation for violence, and went in and ordered a couple of beers. I had thick, curly hair at the time, and one of the drunks, came up, felt my head and said in a loud voice, “Oh man, I want to butt fuck the guys who does your hair.” I pointed to Larry, who was sitting on the stool next to me, and said “here he is.”

Larry almost fell off the stool laughing. The guy backed right down. Started telling us how he was just joking and all. Bottom line is, we went home a little tipsy, laughing our asses off as we usually did when we got together, and truthfully kind of pleased with ourselves.

Larry got into sports writing. He was covering the World Series in Candlestick Park in 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco. Some of the eastern sports writers, who had never been in an earthquake, split for home. Larry switched from sports writer to reporter and began covering stories of the aftermath, writing about a family whose home was on the epicenter of the quake and about a homeless man, who crawled up the side of a collapsed double-decked freeway to rescue trapped motorists.

Larry later wrote a book, which Carmela and I published, called Major League Encounters – talking about his experiences covering baseball. His anecdotes about the players and the coaches in that very elite world drew praise from all sides. The book is still available on Amazon.

It was during his time as a sports writer that Larry was diagnosed with diabetes. Unfortunately, he didn’t take care of himself – especially traveling with the team, where it was difficult to maintain a proper diet.

Diabetes is a cruel disease, and it took its toll, both on his eyesight and his heart. He made it through his first heart attack – dying on the operating table before surgeons could get his heart pumping again. Although he was eventually able to go back on the road with the Mariners, more cardiac and vision complications through the ensuing years left him fragile and frail.

I wrote an essay four-and-a-half years ago about taking a bus to meet Larry during spring training in Arizona and driving back to Long Beach with him. Part of the story was about how our wives fretted over us, and what a pain in the butt it was, although it was clear that married men live longer than single ones.

Wives will do whatever is necessary to keep their husbands alive and healthy, even if it means nagging, yelling, and lying to do so. And it works. But the sad truth is that wives can only do so much. Death always wins in the end. It’s waiting for us all, the only question is when.

Death claimed Larry earlier this month.

Larry was a dear friend. Carmela and I went to lunch with him in Long Beach on a Saturday, two days before he died. After lunch, we went to drive him back to where he was staying, but ended up just driving around for more than an hour, talking about things, laughing as we always did when we got together, and making plans for when he would be back in town again from Gig Harbor, Washington, where he lived.

We both gave him a hug when we left, we told him that we loved him, and we were looking forward to seeing him again in a little more than a month.

I miss the boy. It’s still hard to believe that he’s gone. He’s almost nine years younger than me, and he died way before he should have. He was a sweet man with a generous and loving spirit.

And he always knew how to make me laugh.

George Lee Cunningham

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