PORT RICHEY — In his earliest days as a newspaper reporter — these would have been the go-go late 1970s, when print was king and staffs were gigantic — Jim Lamb sought to distinguish himself by practicing first-person journalism. If the pursuit often produced memorable results, it was not always without a harrowing incident.
He swam with Weeki Wachee’s mermaids and ardently believes he was the first to do so, no matter what some history-challenged modern-day TV reporter says; he went up in a sailplane that was hauled close to God’s heaven from a Gowers Corner airport; and he suited up for August two-a-days with the Gulf High football team.
It was this last endeavor that established Lamb’s reputation with coaches, players and readers throughout Pasco County. He was a hard-ridden 31, or maybe he was 32, with the following in his personal rearview mirror: a four-year Navy hitch that included a Vietnam tour (more about which in a moment), a “Dear John” letter and close association with several dozen sailors determined to experience every possible hallucinogen.
“Remember,” he says by way of explanation, “it was the ’60s.”
Plus he was about 50 pounds overweight.
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Nonetheless, Lamb recalls being astounded when, about halfway through his first practice, he collapsed onto all fours and spattered the field with his breakfast. Never one to allow embarrassment to trump opportunity, Lamb milked the experience for two salutary effects, one immediate, one that simmered over most of the next 40 years.
The first: No area coach ever ducked his phone calls. This, as anyone who has covered high school sports knows, is gold. It means not only do your stories lack obvious holes that raise an editor’s doubts about your work ethic, it means you file them in time for happy hour.
The second: Helplessly heaving in the company of teenagers and coaches, then publishing the tale of an adventure gone haywire for an audience of thousands, helped root in him an ambition to tell his story — or, as it worked out, his stories, stories that are not so much of himself as on himself.
“I kept it as honest as I could and still make it PG rated,” Lamb says. “And if I make myself look good at all, I hope I look good funny.”
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The result — to abbreviate the tale — is Lamb’s debut book, “Orange Socks & Other Colorful Tales: How I survived Vietnam and kept my sense of humor,” a trim, fast-moving volume of disparate reflections linked by the thread of a war that remains as detested as its survivors are misunderstood.
“It’s not a story in the traditional sense,” Lamb says. “There’s no beginning and no ending. It’s a lot of little stories that for about 20 years have been knocking around in my head.”
Besides the title tale, involving a pair of day-glow socks sneaked into an otherwise perfect inspection, Lamb discusses Viet Cong rocket attacks as psychological warfare; clumsiness with razor blades and power tools; melancholy Christmases; the joys and drawbacks of unfiltered cigarettes; assaulting Mount Fuji; being Da Nang’s king of pingpong; what it means to have loved and bitterly lost; how to assemble a saloon from spare parts; why if you watch “2001: A Space Odyssey” stoned and then sober, you reach different conclusions; how faith is both journey and destination; and, in a modest stab at literature, an epilogue describing what’s important about being thanked for having carried out a grim but necessary task.
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All these and more are anecdotes Lamb retailed over the years, and if he’d thought of collecting them between the covers of a book he didn’t succumb to the task until a partner in a jazz band, by day a genius electrician in Sarasota, insisted.
Finally committed when health concerns ushered him into early retirement at 62, Lamb, now 68, took to carrying a writer’s notebook in his back pocket and jotting notes as they came to him. It was nearly an inch thick by the time he settled in to type or, as Lamb calls it, “stringing the pearls.”
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If you’d prefer an audio version, Lamb has a reading scheduled Saturday as the centerpiece of something approximating an episode of “A Prairie Home Companion”: Musical performances punctuated by stories of a bewildering place and the perplexing people who inhabited it.
The players will gather at the Oasis Coffee Spot at 9215 Little Road in Port Richey at 5:30 p.m., but attendees will want to set their watches to 1969.