(Note: Bernie's Profile, his life, will follow this remembrance of the day of his death.)
"A Day To Remember"
by Bernie Bukiet
"My name is Bernie Bukiet."...
"My name is Bernie Bukiet."...
"My name is Bernie Bukiet."...
It's as if I have to keep reminding myself of that now--things are so different.
To Tell the Truth, it sounds like I'm back again, in another world, on that old TV program. I remember Tim Boggan, pretending to be me, was on it too. In the early '70's it was a very popular show (and if by chance there are re-runs you may be able to see me again).
Of course Tim didn't fool anybody: could anyone not know who I was?
--Hey, how I speak like this?
English is so easy here. I don't often talk the way I used to, don't sound like myself.
Some up here say I talk like a professor....
Actually, in various times and places I did speak different languages--five by my last count. And you might say I was a professor. (I'm retired now, it just happened.) A Professor of Ping-Pong. And my students liked me. I had a lot of them--Tim, I'm sure, remembers. Scottie! Airrreek!...How young they were. Well, time passes, they've grown up, become men. My long-time friend Dave Sakai, whom I can remember as a teenager--he's into middle-age now. He always said he wanted to live his life like I did mine. But, Dave, who could do this?
When Tim writes my mini-biography--he's promised to do that, and I know he will --I want him to be sure and tell everyone where I've been and who I've met. You know I play before the Shah of Iran with Bobby Fields? Before an Indian maharajah? I play in Pakistan, in Bombay, in Japan, Hong Kong, Saigon, all over Europe....
Most of the people I met in my travels were nice (all the people in the Club up here are). But some, too many, were not--and sometimes Life seemed to favor them. I remember when times were hard I once said, and people laughed, "I should have the money how dishonest he is."
But now as to what I want to remember and tell you about. You'll excuse me if get on with what happened that May day? A good customer's just walked in and I've got to hurry to accomodate him.
May 10th, I think it was, I woke up feeling good--very good I should say for a 76-year-old. But of course I couldn't help but feel young--young at heart anyway. It'd been three months since my heart by-pass, and, since the doctor said it was o.k. for me to play table tennis, I called my friend Ray Fields and he and I agreed we'd go to the Hawthorne Club in the late afternoon or early evening. In the meantime, we had to find ways to spend the few hours that remained.
Ray picked me up at my apartment in Glendale--that's in California, of course, and we went to Venice, or rather Venice Beach, where for two hours or more a Madonna commercial was being taped. You don't think I see girls like her now? Just last night--sex of them! All very nice.
Then Ray and I drove over to Marina Del Rey to look at some boats. Ray, who'd recently worked in the Billy Crystal/Debra Winger hit movie "Forget Paris," was thinking of buying maybe a sail boat. I wished I was going away somewhere. Ray had taken me to Hawaii in '91 and '93 and I loved it there. But who knew if I'd ever get the chance to go back again.
Afterwards, we went to Norm's Restaurant in Inglewood for a N.Y.-cut steak. I always liked the sound of that. It brought back the days when I lived at the Commodore Hotel across the street from my, or rather Bobby Gusikoff's, Club. Bobby allowed me the run of the place, lots of liberty. I made my living there for quite a while, but sometimes it wasn't easy. Especially when I had to play Bobby for, say, $1,000. Not my money of course--I bet $5...only, to tell the truth, sometimes I didn't know whether I should win or lose. But nobody talks about that up here, so I guess whether I won or lost I did the right thing. You remember me, huh, Bobby, with the red and yellow gladiolas--I see this.
After we left Norm's we reached the Hawthorne Club. Naturally I'd been anticipating this day for quite a while and couldn't wait to get out to the table. But I'd only played about 10 minutes when, strange, I'd never experienced anything like it, I...I just lost consciousness, collapsed--fell over backwards and hit my head falling.
Ray kept his wits about him, ran out of the Club and down the block to call 911. Within five minutes the paramedics came and worked on me with their paddles--their electric shock paddles. Then they took me to the Robert F. Kennedy Hospital in Hawthorne.
Ray talked to Dr. Stanaloff who said I'd had a massive heart attack, and, since they had me on a respirator and were working on me, there wasn't anything more anyone could do. After my concentration camp experience, I'd always thought of myself as a survivor--and how many matches had I come back to win! But what was the sense of coming back into this world in the shape that I was in, particularly when it was so easy to go to another? Those who knew me know I was often very practical. So, I guess Ray wasn't too surprised when, the next day, Carol, the head nurse, told him I'd passed away.
About my funeral. Although I really do have to hurry and court my customer now, I want to say a few warm words before I go, for I might not get another chance.
First, I'm very grateful to my friend Ray, especially on such short notice, for giving up a portion of his own cemetery plot to my bodily remains--not something now for me to dwell on, or in.
To Rabbi Bernard Savitz, who'll maybe be singing our National Anthem at Dodger Stadium next month, I have to say thanks for the nice eulogy. You couldn't tell, Bernie, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I wish now I'd given you a few more points in our matches.
I also want to show my appreciation to Mary McIlwain for doing such a nice job--in Topics, or whatever they call the magazine today. As some of you know, my name Bukiet suggests a bouquet of flowers, so no surprise that the overcast scene Mary speaks of was brightened for me by the flower arrangements and by my many friends--Bobby Gusikoff, Bobby Fields, and Ruben Gomez among them--who came to see me off. And Ruben Guillen, I must tell you: that was the nicest kiss anyone ever gave me and the most human tear ever shed for me. Bless you.
Such a fuss everyone's made over me. In fact, visible in my half-open casket as I'd been to one and all, dressed naturally, not in a suit but in an Academy Award "Oscar" shirt, it was as if over the years I'd become...not the "table tennis bum" some official had once called me...but a show-business celebrity.
Bernie Bukiet's U.S. Table Tennis Accomplishments:
*3-time U.S. Men's Singles Champion (at age 38, 44, and 47)Sosnowiec, in southwest Poland, not far from the German border, that's where Bernard Bukiet's table tennis life begins. The year is 1934, and Bernie, like most of the boys he's growing up with, has his mind on football--that is, soccer. His father's dead (he died when Bernie was four weeks old) and he lives with his mother, brother, and sister.
*6-time U.S. Men's Doubles Champion (the last time at age 49)
*3-time U.S. Mixed Doubles Champion (the last time at age 47)
*8-time Member of the U.S. Team to the World's (from age 35 to age 54)
One day a friend introduces him to table tennis--a dining room table, a taut towel for a net, and two wooden rackets. Bernie tries it, says, "I become interesting in it."
Interested he certainly was, so much so that he begins spending afternoons after school at his friend's house. And then he graduates, discovers a bona fide club. And now, day after day, sometimes accompnaied by another boy, Sigmund Novarski, he doesn't come home until late at night, does nothing but play table tennis.
What does Bernie's mother think about her son not going to school, not working like most everyone else?
"She no like it that I don't learn a profession, you understand?"
Bernie's mother would go to the market and people would say, "Oh, your son, I saw he won a tournament." But she is not impressed. In fact, seeing his racket always sticking out of his pocket, she might be exasperated enough to say, "Again with the piece of wood! Why don't you go learn to be a barber?" Bernie's mother of course wants to know where the money for the family is going to come from. If her son brings home another clock, or a coffee service, or a traveling liquor case, it's like something out of a Clumsy Hans fairy tale--what in the world is anyone to do with it?
Still, progress of a kind is being made. By the time Bernie is 19 he's paid his dues and is ready to take his rightful place on the Team that will represent Poland at the World Championships in London. But then--it was the first of the deprivations to come--he is not allowed to go. He's "too young," said the Polish Team Captain who was worried that, if any opposition team members offered Bernie chocolate, he would dump matches to them.
Bukiet, then, in the late 1930's, lays claim to being the #2 player in Poland behind Aloizy ("Alex") Ehrlich, the famous three-time World Finalist. Like many another strong competitor, Bernie had developed his own fingerspin serves, and in the beginning was fooling both Ehrlich and another high-ranking Polish player, Milek Schiff, to the point where his thumb had become all swollen from using them.
So how long could the Polish Captain, or anyone else, keep Bernie from taking his place among the best players in the world?
As it turns out, quite a while. In the fall of '39 the War stops everything. Germany takes Bernie's half of Poland, Russia the other.
"When the Germans came," he would later tell an interviewer, "I was hiding in the basement. I hear rifles pounding and I walk out. The Gestapo beat me because I wasn't throwing flowers at the German soldiers. Simple system: no flowers, get beaten."
Achtung! All young men, ages 16-21, are required to register. They are needed for seven days to clean up bombed-out Warsaw. A piece of soap, some socks, and the equivalent of $5 in cash--these are the incentives. Ten black-covered trucks roll in--"Thirty men to a truck. Let's go!"
Go of course to a concentration camp in Germany. From where you would be put on a cattle train, 30-35 to a car, to be greeted at this or that stop by the Gestapo who, on opening the doors, would pick out "You!"..."You!"..."You!" Whereupon You would be taken to another train and, all too likely, eventually to Auschwitz.
But in transit, from truck to truck, it was Bernie's good fortune to fall in with companions who resisted authority. He listened to them, and lived. "When I started to leave," he said, "my mother followed me yelling, "Stay here, Bernie! Stay here!" People always say, 'Listen to your folks,' but if I listen to my mother then I would have been killed."
It was 200 kilometers to the Russian border--about a 125-mile walk--but that was the only escape route for Bernie and his comrades, and they took it. At, of all places, Ehrlich's home town, they set out quickly in their little boat to cross the border river at night. "I was praying to God to get to the other side, and trying not to think about how many might have died in this river."
But bad luck. Near the shore two Russians on horseback spot them, begin shooting. The bullets go into the air. "Go back! Go back!" the Russians shout.
But Bernie and the other young men persist. "One of my friends spoke a little Russian, and we were all crying and yelling, 'We run from the Germans! We're Communists! We're workers from poor families! We like the Russians!'"
So, o.k., the Russians allow them to cross. Keep them in a place where cattle is kept. Give them tea and bread and soup. After a few weeks an order comes through: Bernie is free to go wherever he wants. Maybe he can get a good meal someplace if he can find work?
He chooses a town where he once played a table tennis match--he'll be no stranger there. It's the winter of 1939 and people are cold and hungry. Bernie goes to a club and they let him stay there, sleep there. He gets along well with a champion, a swimming champ, whose father owns a grocery. The owner gives Bernie a room in his house and it's like Heaven. For six months he is very happy--has food, shelter, table tennis, and can go dancing with the girls.
Then, suddenly, the Russians order all those who have come from the German section of Poland to register. Bernie remembers what happened to those 16-21-year-old boys before. But what choice does he have? If he stays in Russia, he'll be sent at least 500 miles away and that's no good for him, so he thinks maybe he'll go back home to Sosnowiec--he would like to see his mother and brother and sister again.
Three weeks later he's still in town when, at 3 a.m., there's a knock on his door. "What's your name?...Gather up your belongings, you're coming with us."
For six weeks or so Bernie's in prison, waiting for others who do not want to be Russian citizens to be rounded up. Then all of them--maybe 3,500 people--are put onto a train and sent to a concentration camp inside Russia.
From seven in the morning to seven at night, in the presence of guards with dogs, rifles, and machine guns, Bernie's job is to chop down trees. And for 29 months he works on his stroke...so that hundreds, thousands of trees are axed and fall.
"If you worked hard you survived--you got bread and fish and soup. If you didn't work hard, you died. If I wouldn't be young and play soccer and table tennis I wouldn't survive. Doctors, lawyers, educated people--they died like flies."
Bread meant the difference between living and dying. "When you get bread one time a day to live on," he once told a reporter, "you got to make a lot of decisions. Like do you eat the soft part first or the hard? Do you save some for the night? Sometimes it's hard to make up your mind." Bread was like honey. If you were caught stealing someone else's bread you would be killed while everyone watched.
"Saltfish I always got. I needed food--but fish every single day? Out working 10 miles from the camp I could smell they were cooking that saltfish, and I hated it. You could survive on fish and bread. But there was never a vegetable, never butter, milk, or sugar."...
Then one day comes this parade of prisoners before some Polish politician and again Bernie is given a choice. Does he want to stay in the concentration camp or fight at the front?
Fight. "I want to be one time in my life with food and clothes before I die."
So now he's free to take a physical--and, yes, the Russian-held wing of the Polish army will take him. After 12 weeks of training he advances, rifle in hand, to Smolensk--where he promptly gets a bullet through his thumb.
And now, Bernie says with a smile, he gets sent to the hospital.
"You didn't shoot yourself, did you?" I ask him.
Here in the hospital he has an easy time of it. He gets to talk to people, walks around the corridors, goes into rooms. Arm all crooked up, what will this do to his table tennis? But, no, the hand he's shot in is not his playing hand--and, besides, he may never play again.
"I was chasing right away the nurses," he says.
"Did you catch any?" I ask.
"Plenty I catch," he says and grins. "But after sex weeks they send me back to different division."
And now he gets a job coaching--becomes a corporal, a model for new recruits. Together they learn how to follow his commands.
Then, leaving their training behind them, they fight the Germans in Warsaw. "Were you brave?" someone asked him. "Me? I was a coward. What you think I am--a schmuck?"
By 1945 Bernie is in East Berlin. And afterwards his division returns to Poland--so again Bernie is free to go back to Sosnowiec.
He returns to where he lived, looks around, sees only the woman janitor of the place trying to clean things up. "Ohh! Bernard! she says. "You still live!"
But Bernie's mother has gotten sick and died. Bernie's brother is not to come back from the War. And Bernie's sister has had a baby and when she's tried to take care of it has been sent to a concentration camp as useless. The woman thinks she has been burned to death.
Maybe he still has relatives in Munich? He has to go somewhere.
At a train station, he by chance meets a man he's never seen before who says, "Hey, aren't you the table tennis player from before the War?" He takes Bernie home, gives him a room, and fixes him up with a job coaching at a club in Furstenfeldbruck--that's about as far from Munich, 25 kilometers, as Dachau. There's a U.S. Air Force base nearby--and, perhaps helped by someone there, in 1949 Bernie, now 30, decides to go to the American Embassy and ask if he can come to the United States. The answer is not very satisfying. Perhaps he can, but not right away, these things take time.
From 1947-1951 Bernie was the best player in Germany, or thought he was--but not being a German citizen he couldn't enter any of the National Championships.
In 1951, at Frankfurt, the German Team members, who of course by this time know Bernie well, arrange for him to compete as one with them in a practice match against the visiting Americans (who were obligated in return for their air passage to and from the Baden-near-Vienna World Championships to give exhibitions at various GI bases).
Naturally Bernie has stories to tell of his first encounters with these Americans. Reisman, for example--one always has a story to tell about him. Marty, who as a teenager in 1949 had won the prestigious English Open, is at the peak of his game. Boyishly optimistic as ever, Marty offers to spot Bernie five points a game. O.K., but what will they play the set for? Bernie will put up 100 marks, and Marty will bet, well, what Bernie most wants--Marty's official U.S.A. Team jacket.
In early 1952, Bukiet arrives in the United States. After 13 years as a Displaced Person, he will finally find a permanent home. And see how eager he is? He's already wearing his U.S.A. Team jacket.
Spring of course would come, but Bernie had not yet secured a place for himself on anyone's U.S.A. Team or in any American's heart. "Hey, Bernie, you got a nickel for food?"--that was a taunt a particularly nasty New Yorker, who'd urged him to come to the States, delighted in.
In the beginning, Bernie lacked confidence. In the March, '52 U.S. Open in Cleveland, he lost 19, -19, -19, -18 in the 16th's, to the New England player George Ferris (U.S. #12 that year). In Germany Bernie had been an important table tennis figure; here he was nearly anonymous. Before, he had too many friends, now he had no one.
But though he had thought of going back to Germany, an opportunity to try life somewhere else in the States arose and he took it. A Chicago family would sponsor this "Ping-Pong Champion" for six weeks.
But the Chicago table tennis scene wasn't free and easy for Bernie either--he literally cried at the lack of opportunity. Still, Jim Shrout, then the President of the USTTA, and Peggy Ichkoff, the #2 woman player in the country who, when she began to play Bernie on tables he was unfamiliar with, was actually beating him, were quite friendly. "Don't worry, Bernie, we like you better than New Yorkers." But Bernie still had to pay to play three times a week.
His six weeks with the sponsor family were soon up, but he was able to rent a room from a Polish acquaintance. Of course he had to get a job. His first one--unloading incoming grocery trucks--didn't last long because one Monday, tired after coming back from a tournament, he fell asleep in the company washroom and the manager seeing him there fired him.
Luckily, however, a local Chicago player helped Bernie get another job--at a conveyor belt in a soda-bottle factory. Better not fall asleep here, for if the bottles weren't picked off the belt they'd break! Bernie was 13 months on this 7-3 job (one fellow, he said proudly, lasted only a day). His pay: $38 a week.
Then one day, after Bernie had made a commitment to play in a tournament, his boss told him he'd have to work overtime--or, if he didn't, he wasn't to come back, not even, as it turned out, for the check the man owed him.
By this time though, Bernie had found a companion, Madge, who gave him energy and whom he'd be close to for the next four years...until, sick of Bernie going to World Championships without her, she exercised some freedom of her own and left him.
Bernie's continued play in Chicago brought quick results. At the National Team Championships in Nov. at South Bend, playing "a fantastically steady attacking game," he had a perfect 10-0 record, beating both Eddie Pinner and Harry Hirschkowitz of the winning New York team.
In Jan. of '53 he won the first of his St. Joe Valley Opens--from 1943 U.S. Champion Billy Holzrichter of Chicago. Also, in '53, he beat 4-time National Champion Lou Pagliaro to win the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) Open, the perennial Toronto tournament that to many of our players was second in importance only to the U.S. Open.
More importantly, Bernie, now 35, was picked as a member of the '54 U.S. Team to the London World's. At the Wembley venue he reached the high point of his international career. He got to the quarter's of the Men's Singles before losing in 4 to the winner, Ichiro Ogimura--a result that would give Bernie, playing with a hard rubber racket to Ichiro's foam rubber one, a #5 World Ranking.
Of course Bernie was always a fighter. He had earned six war medals in all--but the medal he received from Queen Elizabeth at Wembley is the one he was always most proud of.
At the '55 U.S. Open, Bernie was soundly beaten (as he had been in a Swaythling Cup Men's Team match at Wembley the year before) by 4-time World Champion Richard Bergmann. But he was again on the U.S. Team and deservedly so. At the English Open, the first of the tournaments preceding the Utrecht, Netherlands World's, Bernie had a good win over Michel Haguenauer, the 8-time French National Champion. Then, in the German Internationals at Kiel, he teamed with teenager Klein to win the Men's Doubles.
At Utrecht, Bernie played 1949 and 1951 World Champion, England's Johnny Leach, a friendly match for $10, which he won. Thereafter for years Johnny, though retired, on seeing Bernie would say, "Bernie, Bernie, aren't you going to give me a rematch?"
Back home in '56, Bernie continued as before winning his share of tournaments, including the St. Joe Valley over 14-year-old Norbert Van de Walle who'd upset Hirschkowitz and Holzrichter.
What kind of role model, if any, Bernie might have been for young Norbie I can't say, but he'd certainly been asked to be one by Sanford Gross. Sandy, the USTTA Ranking Chair and later a Hall of Famer, had moved Bernie from Chicago to Cleveland and had set him up there to coach his youthful entourage of juniors.
The most important tournament at this time that Bernie did not win, and it would long haunt him, was the 1956 U.S. Open at snow-strewn White Plains, N.Y. In the 10:30 p.m. final he was up 2-0 on Klein (who'd knocked out Bergmann in the semi's), had then had Erwin 20-15 match point in the 4th...then 20-16...20-17...20-18 (one N.Y. gambler had already taken his "won" money and was getting more than a bit nervous). At 20-18 Bukiet hit hard to Klein's backhand and when Erwin got that back Bernie hit hard again and Klein returned...an edge ball. "From 20-19," Bernie said later, "I couldn't play." He lost that game, and the next at 13. After five unsuccessful years, to have his first U.S. Open "won" and then lost was of course traumatic. Bernie's friends took him back to his N.Y. Essex Hotel room and "for three days," he said, "I lay in bed. I was sick."
But then he was up and off to the Tokyo World's, where he put up a gutsy 18-in-the-5th 3rd-round fight against the strong Romanian sponge player, Toma Reiter, World quarterfinalist in '54 and '55.
1957 was a very good year for Bernie. He'd again been selected for the U.S. Team --this time to the Stockholm World's. And though he lost a tough 5-game match in the Singles to the strong Vietnamese player Mai Van Hoa, he won, at least for a while, the affections of a Swedish girl, Kay, who would come to the States and who after a time he hoped to marry and would even go so far as to buy a ring for.
After meeting Kay, he finally won--at South Bend, playing with pimpled sponge rather than the 6-ounce hard rubber Hock he'd used the year before--his first U.S. Open, taking sweet revenge...20-15...16...17...21-17 in the 4th...over his 18-year-old friend Klein.
Now as National Champion he was picked, along with U.S. teenager Bobby Fields and Team Captain Bill Gunn to make a Goodwill Tour of Asia for the U.S. State Department. To be eligible to go on this trip though, he first had to become a U.S. citizen--which, in Cleveland in 1957 he did...with Henry Landau, Vic President of MGM Pictures, as one of his witnesses.
The Tour was a great success. "I play in Afghanistan and Pakistan, before the Shah of Iran and an Indian maharajah, in Bombay, in Sri Lanka and Singapore, in Saigon, Hong Kong, and Japan."
Bukiet, Fields, and Gunn were given the VIP treatment not only in Iran but wherever they went. "And they call me a bum!.' Bernie would reminisce. "After I win the National's I never have to work a bad job in my life. For this Tour the U.S. government gave me a check for $1900. Embassy people took us everywhere--to fancy teas and dinners. Bands played welcoming us. School children waited for us with flowers. Everybody wanted our autographs."
"Table Tennis is a game," Bernie would say later, "but it gave me all I have."
On returning from his 72-day trip with presents for Kay, it turned out that her presence was conspicuously, and forever, missing. Later, at the '58 Eastern's, where he beat our 10-time U.S. Champion Dick Miles, 19 in the 5th on an end-game flurry of edge balls, he again picked up on his lifelong theme: "I play always to win. I think I'm afraid if I lose, I lose my friends."
At the April, '58 National's, held at Asbury Park, N.J. in the Boardwalk's spacious Convention Hall, Bernie was scheduled to play Eddie Record in the 8th's at 1 p.m. But Record begged off, said for religious reasons he couldn't play until the sun went down. This was perfectly alright with Bernie, because he had a long line of people in the practice room waiting to play him. "People always ask if I'm a hustler," he said once in an interview. "How could I be? It would have to be somebody really stupid to play me for $100, or even $500. I never met him yet. No, I give lessons for a living and play for a dollar or two to make friends. My customers know I'm a professional. They enjoy the experience."
At 7 p.m. Record comes to play, and of course Bernie, having staged a forgetable exhibition with him almost two years earlier, hasn't paid any attention to him. Record? He hasn't any. Certainly he's not ranked in the Top 40. However, unknown to Bernie, after this 20-year-old had won the Dec., '57 Constitution Open in Washington, D.C., Jack Carr, who was to have considerable administrative and coaching involvement in the Sport, described Record's new racket this way:
"Take a foam rubber seat cushion, cut out any old corner, glue it on a fifty-cent paddle, add food dye--and you have the racket that Eddie Record has adopted to improve his game five to ten points."
Bernie, surprised, will describe Record's racket in much the same way--"two sides of thick foam, like the kind you sit down on a chair. You can't hear the sound. I never play against this." Record beats Bernie 5, 14, 17.
On returning from the '59 Dortmund World's, Bernie didn't play much the next two seasons because he was on Tour again with Bergmann and the Harlem Globetrotters....This professional opportunity to make a few dollars got him, if not suspended from the USTTA, placed on probation. Why? Because he (and on occasion 3-time French Champion Rene Roothoft as well) were touring with Bergmann and Japan's Norikazu Fujii, former World Doubles Champ, both of whom had been suspended. Fujii's Japanese Association would not allow their players to play exhibitions for money, and so suspended him. Bergmann's English Association would allow their players to play exhibitions for money, but as the ITTF had this rule that all member associations had to observe a suspension instituted by any one member country, Bergmann in turn had to be suspended for playing with Fujii. In the U.S., where money talks and players are supposed to listen, Bernie's participation in this Tour was sympathetically understood, though it could not, in a Nov. 28, 1960 ruling, overtly be condoned.
Of course Bernie would delight in telling me some of the experiences he'd had over the years with that eccentric but consummate professional, "Richard the Lion-Hearted," and his sometimes fun-loving "B-ball teammates."
When Bernie was with them, Bergmann would always start any one performance with Fujii or Roothoft and naturally they would not play up to their capabilities so that Bergmann's follow-up match would be the more spectacular. Bergmann always carried a typewriter with him and no sooner would the table tennis show be over than he'd go back to his room (being a womanizer he never roomed with anyone) and begin typing letters, working far into the night to arrange exhibitions all over the world.
Bergmann, who in his prime fancied himself the best player who ever lived, and whose last World Championship win was 10 years earlier in 1950, felt that it was certainly not acceptable that he should ever lose to Bernie. Once when they were performing in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, the umpire of their match said to Richard, "I'll bet you can't really beat Bernie." So as soon as the show was over Richard called up the local Y and away they went. When Bernie won all three sets, Bergmann was so depressed he immediately phoned a doctor and talked to him at length. Finally he could say to himself, "Now I know why I lost to Bernie tonight. I didn't have enough salt."
Another time in Honolulu, with Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein watching with movie star Esther Williams, Bernie won 21-19 from Richard! Which, especially as the basketball players were teasing him ("Hah, hah, I bet $50 on Bernie tonight"), caused Richard to grab Bernie by the neck.
The basketball players often liked to tease and play jokes. In Jacksonville, Florida one night, Bernie has some beers with the Trotters at their hotel, which because Saperstein was paying for their lodging was upgraded compared to Bernie's. After Bernie has left the players to walk back to his own hotel, two black guys come out of an alleyway and catch him from behind. Damn, he thinks, these Trotters have got sharp nails. "C'mon," he says, "what are you doing? Let me go!" Then suddenly he realizes it's a knife prodding his neck and not fingernails, and he begins to scream. The lights in an adjacent house come on and a woman yells out, "Let him go! Let him go!" The muggers become wary, do let him go, but not without ripping his shirt. Bernie has $87 in his wallet, and as he opens it to show the cop coming onto the scene some identification, he's asked, "Why do you carry so much money around with you?" Bernie is non-commital--especially about the $900 he's got in a pants pocket.
"I know all the cities in the U.S. and all their restaurants--what time they're opening and what time they're closing," Bernie told me once. It's easy to believe he's given countless exhibitions with many different partners. And just as the aging womanizer Bergmann was upset when Bukiet beat him, so was Bernie when at least on one occasion Sol Schiff (whose greatness he recognized--"Nobody knows how good Schiff was, I know how good he was") beat him in an exhibition. Perhaps among the spectators there might have been, had he proven himself the winner, a female admirer or two? "Why do you do that to me?" he'd asked Sol almost in tears. "Why you want to win? Winning is all I have."
In the '61, '64, and '65 U.S. Opens, Bukiet lost to Klein.
1963, though, was another good year for Bernie. He made the U.S. World Team for the 6th time (losing in the Singles at Prague to runner-up Li Fu-jung). In the Eastern's, after getting by Klein in the semi's, he beat Gusikoff in the final. And in the final of the National's at Cobo Hall he again outlasted Bobby--in the 4th, or rather in the -12, -17, 11, 19, 4 ("I can't lift my arm," said Bobby) 5th.
Bernie's last U.S. Open win--over Danny Pecora, who'd earlier come from Chicago to New York for a year to learn how to play--was in 1966 when he was 47 years old.
The next year Bernie was selected for the 8th straight time for our World Team, and when he proved unavailable, '65 and '66 CNE Champ Pecora took his place.
More spurts of strength followed. There was one more U.S. Open Championship: another Men's Doubles--if not, as in '63, '64, and '65, with Klein, in '68 with Dell Sweeris (and three more runner-up finals with Dell in '70, '71, and '72). And in '69 and '71 two more National Team Championship titles to share (making 8 in all).
The older Bernie got, the more revered he was. But he was much more human than saint-like. He occasionally had a show of temper on court. Disturbed by how he was playing or by something or someone out there at the table, he was known to deliberately break a ball, take advantage of an umpire's bad call, or in a fit of pique just abruptly default. But the most bizarre move I ever saw him make occurred in the '68 Eastern's semi's when he was 1-1 and at 19-all in the 3rd with Harry Hirschkowitz. As play tensely progressed, the umpire said Bernie's foot had moved the table leg.
Bernie does not like this umpire's call, does not like the umpire, perhaps has not liked him before. Words are exchanged. Harry is given the ball. He serves. Bernie in anger doesn't even look, just swats the ball away as hard as he can--only, miraculously, on its rocketed way to the stands, it hits Harry's side of the table! Point for Bukiet! (What the...) Deuce!
The crowd goes wild. It's the greatest shot they've ever seen. Harry impulsively rounds the table, a funny ironic smile on his face, and shakes hands with Bernie. Yes, it was a great shot. No, Bernie is not now going to give him the game--and certainly not the match. As play resumes, Harry seems slightly paralyzed. Bernie wins the next two points easily. And now the match is no longer a match. At the end of the 4-game set, Bernie comes over to shake Harry's hand. Harry waves him away. He's been sportsman enough, hasn't he?
One more anecdote from that same tournament--this one centering on Bukiet's final with Gusikoff.
To many this final match seems something of a gamble. Why get involved? Why bet on the outcome? When Bobby is good, he's very good, but Bernie's so steady.
Gusikoff wins the first game. But at 13-all in the 2nd, and after being visibly troubled for the last few points, Bobby stops play and wants to know who's whistling in the gallery. Whistling? No one is whistling. It's Bernie's shoes--they're squeaking. Another point. Squeak. Squeak. The audience titters. "What is this?" says Bobby. "You weren't making noise the first game." Another point. SQUEAK. SQUEAK. The audience begins to laugh. "Don't think about it, Bobby," shouts a voice from the gallery. SQUEAK. SQUEAK. Surprisingly Bobby settles down to win. "Squeak," he says to Bernie as the game point goes in.
Ah, Bernie, how long has it been since I've taken so much affectionate delight in such drama.
Bernie's 50th birthday comes and goes. He has never played in an Over 40 or a Rating event. How could he? It wouldn't be becoming.
In 1970 Bukiet is named Most Valuable Player at the Team Championships. Then, the weekend after, at Montmagny, Quebec, he beats Canadian stars Larry Lee and Errol Caetano. As Bernie is blocking soft, crooking his arm around every which way, George Brathwaite smiles, shakes his head, and says, "Something must have happened to his arm when he was a youth." Caetano can't get through Bernie without losing more points than he makes. "You make such simple mistakes against these soft, short, change-of-spin returns of Bernie's," says George.
And, unbelievable, months later who has reduced young John Tannehill to tears and is now in the final of the '71 U.S. Open against D-J Lee in that (How-Stay-On-Your-Feet?) slippery hall in Atlanta? Bernie--now 52. For the first time since 1954 he has not been picked for the U.S. World Team--that Team as it happens that in 1971 will make "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" history.
At least in 1972 he's not considered too old to play a match against the visiting Chinese.
In the fall of '72 the USTTA Selection Committee has a new Chair in the person of Dick Miles. This year there will be no selection of players to the '73 World's, but a mano-mano, round-robin Team Trials. The players with the best five records will represent the U.S. at Sarajevo.
The last deciding match of these Trials is between two players with 8-5 records vying for the 5th and last spot on the Team--53-year-old, stay-at-the-table Bukiet and the youthful, acrobatically-energetic Alex Shiroky, who'd beaten Bernie in the '71 Eastern's. Blocking all else from his mind, Bernie, tired though he may be from three day's play, 16, 20 hangs on to win--thus bearing out Miles's comment, "It still takes a good player to beat Bernie." Of course another surprise at these Trials is the #1 Qualifier, Danny Seemiller. His 10-2 record is tops--he's lost only to D-J and to...Bernie.
Bernie's last hurrah was the Jan., '74 $1,000 Rockford, Illinois Invitational where he came second to Danny Seemiller. After that he was no longer the contender he'd previously been. His departure from top-level competition seemed startlingly quick--as if he'd "retired."
He moved to Florida under Joe Newgarden's sponsorship and developed a friendship with, among others, Richard McAfee. Tanned and rested he was always available to play with whatever "customers" might be found at Joe's club, Newgy's.
In 1976 he left Florida and went to Las Vegas for the first U.S. Closed. With Neil Smyth's help he stayed there for a short time working at Caesars Palace.
In 1977 he was in Hollywood--not to be in pictures or on television (though, being the celebrity he was, he'd done some TV shows in the past). He was there to play in the Gusikoff-run U.S. Open, where at the age of 58, he won his first and only U.S. Over 40 title.
As he grew older, Bernie never seemed to care much about playing in tournaments --though both before and after he was inducted into the USTTA Hall of Fame in 1981, he did win some U.S. Over 50 Championships.
The last 18 years of his life were spent in California--thanks primarily to Ruth Guillen and Ruben Gomez's help. Bobby Fields, too, always remained a faithful friend, as did others. Bernie continued to play table tennis in the 1980's and '90's. He would win both the 40's and 50's at the first (1984) Laguna Hills National Senior's Championships, and later his one and only 70's event at the (1991) World Senior Games in St. George, Utah.
After his unlucky accident--a table tennis ball hit him in the eye and, detaching his retina, obscured his vision. The operations he endured were not successful. But over 60 players contributed to a fund to try to help him see well enough to play again.
His health began to deteriorate further. He suffered a blood clot, a colon cancer operation, and a heart by-pass--but he kept on playing.
He had to play.
California-based Leon Ruderman tells the story that when a number of years ago the well-known Israeli Coach Yosef Yeshua had heard that Bernie was living confinedly in the back room of a table tennis club, he pleaded with him to come to Israel. "Our Association will find you a decent place to live," he said. "You'll coach our kids. You'll live out your last years as a respected Jewish hero." But Bernie refused. "I have to play here," he said. "My friends are all here." And, he might have added, "They know my past, know me as a winner."
Rest secure, Bernie. We all know you as a winner, and your many friends will always remember you. See, look how many customers are coming into your upstairs club even now. And we've still got them crowding the stairs. How the court-sound carries, huh? "...And then I hit another one here...and then I hit another one there...and then, BINGO!"
Yes, it is as if "Nobody's home" this evening, Bernie. So many are lined up here waiting to play you and ("Ho, Scottie!...Little Airrreek!") to see again the starlight shining in your end-game smile.