Not Squirmin' Any More

by John Christensen
October 24, 1978, Honolulu Star-Bulletin

Herman Wedemeyer is relaxing with a glass of white wine at Waialae Country Club. The dining room is nearly empty, a few diners easing quietly into the afternoon among the linen and crystal.

Beyond the wide, tinted windows, the sky has clouded over and the ocean is flat and gray.

It is Wedemeyer's day off, and he has just finished a round of golf in which he didn't both to keep score. His health is good...no, great. He's beginning to catch on to this relaxing thing. In fact, you might say he's making a comeback.

Herman Wedemeyer is the most famous athlete Hawaii has ever produced. Better known on the Mainland than Duke Kahanamoku, or Ted Makalena, or Fred Hemmings, more famous even than Russ Francis.

Only Don Ho, Jack Lord and James Michener could be said to have done more to put Hawaii on the map, and they had the advantages of modern communications. In Wedemeyer's day, all they had was the wireless and Arthur Godfrey.

Wedemeyer was known as "Squirmin' Herman," a speedy, elusive, high-stepping halfback at St. Mary's College in Northern California, who could run, pass, kick, play defense and sell candied apples between plays.

Two years in a row, 1945 and '46, he made the All-America dream backfield with the legendary Blanchard-and-Davis duo from West Point and Bob Fenimore from Oklahoma A&M. In 1945, Grantland Rice, the dean of sportwriters, called Wedemeyer "the greatest athlete in the country."

Wedemeyer was so well-known here that a local boosters club raised $35,000 in a few days to get St. Mary's to come here and play the University of Hawaii. Just to see the fabled kid from Kalihi in action.

The mailman delivered letters addressed to "Herman Wedemeyer, Hawaii." Visitors asked cab drivers how to reach him, and got the right answer. Hotel guests asked his whereabouts when they checked in, and found him.

In a fit of modesty, he says now, "I guess I could almost be identified with being a legend in my own time." He peers at his listener, hoping he hasn't offended.

Wedemeyer orders another glass of wine. He is wearing slippers, white corduroy pants and a brown-and-white striped sports shirt. Twenty women descend on the dining room, a flock of chattering birds in bright plumage, to celebrate a birthday.

Wedemeyer regards them benignly. He is an amiable man with an easy, giggly laugh. On May 20, he was 54.

Ah, yes, the comeback.

Herman Wedemeyer was born in Hilo, one of 10 children. His grandfather was a German sailor and wrestler who had run away from home. His grandmother was a local girl.

When he was 4, his father, William, brought the brood to Oahu where he had a job as a crane operator at Pearl Harbor. William Wedemeyer was also, his famous son says, "a helluva baseball player."

In December of 1941, Herman and the St. Louis football team were on Kauai for a pair of games. Saturday afternoon they won. The Sunday game was cancelled on account of World War II.

For 30 days, the St. Louis team was marooned on the Garden Isle, digging trenches and standing duty in canefields, by reservoirs and on the waterfront. Wedemeyer recalls that "every star looked like a parachute."

In 1943, he graduated and was bound for school somewhere on a football scholarship, but didn't know quite where. He had transcripts at Ohio State and Notre Dame, but no word.

"Three other players and I took the first available surface transportation to San Francisco. When we got there, there was still no word, so we turned left and went to St. Mary's."

In 1944, he joined the Navy, but before training began, he went skiing at Lake Tahoe and broke his ankle. And got snowed in. Fortunately, he and his cronies were staying at the Tahoe Tavern, where the only entertainment came in bottles. The thought of a bunch of Hawaiians snowbound in a tavern is an awesome thought. "We were loose," Wedemeyer says with a grin.

It was two weeks before he got to the hospital.

The injury got him out of the Navy, so he joined the Merchant Marines and spent eight months aboard ships dodging bombs and torpedoes in the Philippines.

After college, he played a couple of years in pro football in the All-America Football Conference. He signed a two-year contract with the Los Angeles Dons for the unheard-[few lines of article cut off] job there, too. But the wear and tear got him down.

When it's been your entire life, day in and day out, two years satisfies your curiosity about the professional aspect," he says, scribbling on the napkin with a golf pencil. "I felt it was time to come home. There was no point to keep knocking on the wall, you know? After a while you get dingy."

That's dingy, as in ding-dong, which is what happens when a football player gets hit on the head. They call it getting your bell rung. A little goes a long way.

Then he took a stab at professional baseball in the minor leagues, but had a falling out with his manager in Salt Lake City. So he came home, married, had four children, divorced. And married again, to "a great lady" with two children.

He worked for Hawaiian Airlines, worked for the Ilikai Hotel, worked for Del Chemical. He tried politics, first as a city councilman, then two terms in the legislature.

He won't say much about his political career, murmuring something about the impossibility of pleasing everyone. Too much pressure. Herman Wedemeyer is too nice a guy to be comfortable about not being all things to all people.

Then he caught on at "Hawaii Five-O." It started with bit parts--a cop, a lawyer, a civil defense worker. Then he became a regular, playing "Duke," one of McGarrett's minions. Wedemeyer could look down the road and see his life stretch before him in orderly fashion.

But heart attacks, like plastic surgeons, have a way of changing things.

He had his first heart attack in 1972, lying in bed reading the paper. The body feels strangely numb. The paper falls from his hands. He goes to the doctor, and then to the hospital.

A year later, he comes in from a round of golf; he's been too long in the hot sun. He goes home and has another heart attack.

Wedemeyer is disgusted. "I had gone from being a physical person to a physical wreck. I never knew what I had. The heart attacks were a warning. It lead me back to the right path."

He fidgets with a napkin, folding it around the base of his glass.

"If you were to take my life and wrap it up from the day I was born, it's been a lot of activity. When my father gave me a football, I was kicking or running with it all the time. Or I was out surfing from dawn until the sun went down. When I got home, my eyes ached so much from the glare and the salt water that I would cry at night.

"It was a life of being tightly wound. If that's any indication, I was due for a big slowdown."

When he recovered, he began studying aikido. His interest in martial arts dates back to high school when he studied judo. And while working for Hawaiian Air, he had taken up karate, got his black belt and even opened a karate studio briefly on Maui.

But from aikido he learned deep breathing, "the most important thing I've learned in my life. I also do some meditation and other exercises, but if I get up late and don't have time for anything else, I still do my breathing."

He demonstrates. He inhales deeply, filling the bottom of the lungs first, which makes his shirt balloon slightly at the waist. Then he fills the top, lifting the rib-cage. Finally, he tucks his chin and drops his head forward.

Lifting his head back, he exhales gustily, steadily, through his mouth. "It cleans everything out," he says, and demonstrates by pouring water from one glass into another, and then back. "And it re-energizes you." He is pleased.

He learned how to center his body and how to direct his energy. By directing his energy through his fingertips, he says he has even learned to massage his heart.

Then he took up t'ai'chi, a kind of moving meditation done in dance-like exercises. "It teaches control. You can lower your blood pressure and relax."

And then he met his "sifu," his master, a young adept of "chengar" and kung fu from Taipei. His sifu has taught him to meditate, which he does at night when he can't sleep.

One day, he had the sifu over to lunch. Afterwards, they went into a bedroom and the sifu began meditating. "After a few minutes," Wedemeyer says wonderingly, "I started to get very, very warm. I'm really sweating. Pretty soon, the sifu starts shaking, and that happens about three more times.

"When he came out of it, I was drenched. I was sitting in a pool of water. All his energy had flowed into me."

Later he introduced his sifu to actress France Nuyen, who is also an adept at such things. While the sifu put on a show of dancing and exercises, Nuyen sat on a wall with one leg across her chest, resting in her hand. For an hour and a half.

"The sifu said to me later, 'She is very strong.'"

Wedemeyer isn't so bad himself. He can hold his hand outstretched above his head and kick it with his foot. Easily. Or, if you prefer, he can do a double-kick, or a spin kick.

"All because of here," he says, tapping his forehead. "You combine the physical and the mental. It's 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental." He scribbles on the napkin some more. "It's fantastic. I have so much confidence now in what I can do and accomplish.

"Now, I feel like nothing was ever wrong with me. Like I never had two heart attacks. I feel more normal than the normal person, because I know how to cope with it. Facing that inevitable time becomes so much easier. The things you do from day to day are so much easier."

He is cautious, of course. He's careful about what he eats. Does some walk-and-jogging and has regular checkups. Plays golf. And relaxes. He's working on that. He works hard. He's usually at the studio by 6:30 a.m. and sometimes doesn't get home before dark.

Wedemeyer finishes his wine and goes out in the parking lot. The sun is shining now, and he chuckles as he goes off to find his car. "I never knew what I had," he had said. He does now, and he's working on getting it back.

   
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