There was nothing unduly hazardous about the assignment: cover a track meet in San Diego, a placid California community of flowers and sunshine, and file an overnight story. And, so far as could be determined back in the office, all went well. Associate Editor Pat Putnam's story in the March 1 issue about three record-setting distance runners, Phooey on the Fortune Cookie, was a first-rate piece of sports reportage.
But strange things happen to Putnam when he is involved in a story (and often when he is not), so nobody was outrageously surprised when word eventually came back from the West Coast that Pat had been roughed up and robbed. As he retells it, the mugging occurred in the backroom of a Tijuana watering place, where Putnam and a friend had gone to relax only to find themselves confronted by eight tough-looking hombres wielding knives. The escapade cost Pat his wallet containing several hundred dollars, but his watch was returned when the muggers decided it wasn't up to their standards. Pat was understandably miffed.
Since coming to SI three years ago, Putnam has been our resident Joe Btfsplk—the Li'l Abner character who walks around with a black cloud over his head bringing disaster wherever he goes. The only difference is that Btfsplk usually brings misfortune to others; Pat Putnam brings it on himself. He has been arrested in Texas, caught in the middle of a gun battle in Detroit and been sick with pneumonia in Miami, Des Moines "...and someplace else, which I have forgotten." His penchant for catastrophe first came to light when he was a copyboy on the Miami Herald, where he lost $37.50 in coffee money he had collected from city room staffers (he disappeared for three days to think up a likely story).
Another reel in the Perils of Pat Putnam finds him at the home of his boss at the Herald for a cocktail party. Hardly had he struck up a friendship with the family's Shetland pony when the beast began to sway; suddenly it toppled over on its side. Seems that Putnam was testing the pony's tolerance for vodka tonic.
Reel 3: a cookout on suburban Long Island. Putnam is watching his host make preparations for a barbecue. Pat offers to light the grill. A match is struck. Poof. Fade out on Putnam, eyebrows gone, hairline singed, face a charcoal mask. The barbecue caper earned him the sobriquet (no pun intended) of "The Flame."
At times Putnam makes Joe Btfsplk seem downright lucky. Once, while he was battling a deadline on a Minnesota Vikings story, his hotel was hit by a power blackout. "Write the story by candlelight," his editor told him over the phone. "I can't," Putnam explained patiently. "I'm using an electric typewriter."
When Putnam went off to Detroit to cover the NCAA indoor track championships this week (page 64), everyone here was aware of the danger suddenly stalking citizens of that city, if not the entire upper Midwest. On the other hand, it was decided that if SI can survive three years of close and creative contact with Joe Btfsplk, alias Pat Putnam, lower Michigan ought to be able to get along over a single weekend.
Seems to have worked out all right. Of course, all the returns aren't in yet.