For years, he would call at any time of the day or night. In the last few months, however, after the heart attack that nearly killed him, his calls took on a steadier, saner routine, usually coming just after noon. Finally, I figured out why. He had finished his day’s work and was ready for some conversation. In the past, a day’s work for him had been seven or eight hours of relentless reading or steady writing, but during his recuperation and recovery, three or four was about all he could manage.
No matter where we happened to be, David Halberstam and I talked almost every single day for the last thirty-five years—and that Monday in April was no exception. He happened to be in a hotel room in northern California, having lectured at Berkeley over the weekend, and I happened to be in Rye, New York, playing in a charity golf tournament on a course where cell phones are strictly forbidden. Nevertheless, at just a few minutes past noon, mine began to chirp, and after putting some distance between my partners and me at the third tee, I pushed the button and heard his unmistakably familiar voice.
“Hey, uh, it’s David,” he growled. “Where are you?”
I told him. The Westchester Country Club.
“Ah, yes,” he chuckled, “where those of, shall we say, the Hebrew persuasion are no doubt warmly welcomed and lovingly embraced.”
“I suppose so,” I answered brusquely and explained my problem with the phone. “Can we talk later?”
He promised to call that evening from Los Angeles, but insisted on telling me he had an interview scheduled that afternoon with Y.A. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback who’d become a successful insurance broker in Silicon Valley after his retirement. “You know what Y.A. stands for?” he asked.
“No, but you’re going to tell me, right?” I said.
“Yelberton Abraham,” he said gleefully. “Yelberton Abraham Tittle! Is that the best goddamn name in football?”
For a long time, David had been talking about writing a book about the epic struggle between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts, played at Yankee Stadium in December 1958 for the championship of the National Football League. It would become a legend, known simply as The Game, judged by many as the finest in the history of professional football. And for just as long as he’d been talking about writing that book, I’d been telling him that although it was an excellent idea and perfect for him, he’d never get it done, that there would always be some timelier or more compelling project that would distract him. But an interview with Y.A. Tittle? That was clear evidence that he was on the hunt.
“Hooray and hallelujah,” I said. “You’re finally going to do it.”
“We’ll see,” he said.
“I thought the next one was on Ray Kelly,” I said, referring to New York’s police commissioner, whom David greatly admired and with whom he’d been seriously discussing a book about his career in law enforcement.
“Well, yeah, but we’ll see,” he said again.
“Okay, pal,” I said. “I’m on the tee. Got to run. Talk to you tonight. I love you.”
“And I love you,” he answered. “And by the way, say hello to all the Jews, will you?”
And that was it. It was just past nine o’clock his time. By noon out there on the West Coast, David would be gone.
For over half my days on earth, we were pals. He was rabbi and mentor, tutor and coach, always my hero, and for a very long and rewarding time, my brother. We first met in Nashville in 1970 when we were both reporting on what turned out to be the last political campaign of Senator Albert Gore, Sr., of Tennessee. I was then a national correspondent for The New York Times and David was writing for Harper’s—and although we shared several meals and valuable (for me) discussions during that week, after Gore’s loss we shook hands and went our separate ways.