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Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal's Middle Column

Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal's Middle Column

5.0 1
by Ken Wells, Michael Lewis (Foreword by)

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On any given day, millions of Wall Street Journal readers put aside the serious business and economic news of the day to focus first on the paper's middle column (a.k.a. the A-hed), a virtual sound-bubble for light literary fare — a short story, a tall tale, an old yarn, a series of vignettes, and other unexpected delights that seem to "float off the


On any given day, millions of Wall Street Journal readers put aside the serious business and economic news of the day to focus first on the paper's middle column (a.k.a. the A-hed), a virtual sound-bubble for light literary fare — a short story, a tall tale, an old yarn, a series of vignettes, and other unexpected delights that seem to "float off the page." In this first-ever compendium of middle-column pieces, you'll find an eclectic selection of writings, from the outlandish to the oddly enlightening. Read about:
• one man's attempt to translate the Bible into Klingon
• sheep orthodontics, pet-freezing, and toad-smoking
• being hip in Cairo, modeling at auto shows, piano-throwing
• the fate of mail destined for the World Trade Center after 9/11
• the plight of oiled otters in Prince William Sound

...and much, much more. Edited by 20-year Journal veteran Ken Wells, and with a foreword by Liar's Poker author Michael Lewis, Floating Off the Page is the perfect elixir for fans of innovative prose in all its forms and function.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Michael Lewis author of Liar's Poker and The New New Thing For more than five decades, the middle column of The Wall Street Journal has been the antidote to boredom...[The writers] find a subject that is merely delightful to write about — a man who has built a medieval catapult to throw grand pianos across his sheep pasture, for example — and try to persuade you of its significance. Or not...The quality of the Journal's prose is always highest in its middle column because the people making it are having fun.

Andy Borowitz humorist, New Yorker and New York Times contributor Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it's rarely so funny and absorbing as these classic middle columns from The Wall Street Journal. For A-hed addicts everywhere, this book is an unalloyed treat.

Editor and Publisher Magazine "The Wall Street Journal doesn't usually seem synonymous with humor" but this book "proves it too has a funny bone."

Publishers Weekly
Wells, a senior editor at the Wall Street Journal, has put together a terrific collection of the most memorable stories from the off-beat front-page column that covers singular topics like toad-licking and the Miss Agriculture pageant, and leads with irresistible opening lines like "First, pretend that you are a sheep." Wells, who is also a novelist (Meely LaBauve), includes stories of unconventional inventions such as braces for sheep teeth, a low-flatulence bean and underwear for the incarcerated. There are profiles of the unglamorous and overlooked, such as a professional fish-sniffer and the world's most prolific, and unknown, novelist. Readers receive an education in Greek banana policy, the national sewer-fat crisis and what it's like to be a Serbian sniper. Stories also involve reporters trying on new careers, from belly-dancing to auto-show modeling. Although there is a heavy emphasis on humor here, readers can still expect to find a smattering of serious subjects, like rescuing otters after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 or the fate of the mail destined for the World Trade Center after 9/11. For regular WSJ readers, who have loved the middle column, this collection, with pieces largely from the 1970s forward (the column dates back 50 years), is a must. Those who think WSJ stories are only for the business-minded are in for an unexpected treat. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
When most people think of the Wall Street Journal, words like quirky and whimsical don't spring readily to mind. That's because most people don't spend enough time reading the "middle column" of the paper, that part of the front page devoted each day to an offbeat feature story. Veteran Journal staffer Wells has collected 67 of those stories, with topics ranging from silly (people who strive to use only one-syllable words) to heart-rending (the fate of oiled otters in Prince William Sound) to enlightening (an afternoon with Serbian snipers) to downright disgusting (coagulated fat in sewers). Wells has arranged the stories in nine broad categories, rather than chronologically; the reader must flip to the end of each piece to see both the date and the author. He also rejected the original headlines in favor of breezy and occasionally anachronistic titles like "Y2K Alert! (But It's 1980)." Not every piece is brilliant, or even captivating, but the collection features enough top-notch writing to make it a worthwhile purchase for journalism collections. Susan M. Colowick, North Olympic Lib. Syst., Port Angeles, WA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-The column from which this collection derives debuted in December, 1941, and from its 6-decade history Wells has selected 67 engaging examples of journalistic creativity and caprice. Each entry of approximately 1500 words is signed and dated, and tackles an offbeat topic of the staff writer's choice, designed to leaven the daily news offerings and to entertain by wresting readers' eyes from serious matters. For example, one may read about cutting-edge technology in sheep orthodontics, record-breaking distances in piano flinging by trebuchet, and fantasy styling excesses at hair fashion shows. This is a book to be valued equally for the composition lessons inherent in its polished prose and for its appeal to readers.-Lynn Nutwell, Fairfax City Regional Library, VA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt


"A-hed" — Named because it is shaped roughly like a capital A, it is The Wall Street Journal's internal designation for a one-column, three-line, 18-point Caslon Italic headline, with an indented one-column, three-line, 12-point Scotch Roman deck, framed in a box formed by a quarter-point rule, and anchored on each side by dingbats. Alternatively, the feature story that sits under that headline in the "middle column" of the Journal's front page. When executed properly, with solid reporting, wit and fine writing, it is so light and engaging that it seems to float off the page.

What, you may ask, are feuding nudists, dueling translators of the Bible into Klingon, and the makers of high-quality prison underwear doing on the front page of The Wall Street Journal?

They have shared the umbrella of the "A-hed" and become part of its lore.

When the first A-hed appeared on Page One of this newspaper on Dec. 17, 1941, the kernel of a great idea had clearly been planted. World War II had been under way for ten days and the nation, according to the short piece that didn't carry a byline, was caught with a peculiar shortage for those suddenly patriotic times — American flags.

For its time, that story amounted to a flight of sheer whimsy. The Journal back then was known exclusively for its single-minded coverage of business. That valuable piece of journalistic real estate known as the "middle column" was not yet fixed in its offerings; it had taken various styles of headlines and was given over to numerous matters core to the paper's purpose — commodities charts, stock trends, business briefs. But the paper, already more than a half-century old, was in the throes of major change, and that first A-hed was a glimpse of its broader future.

Of course, the Journal is still predominantly and preeminently a business publication, but regular readers of our pages know that the modern paper, here and globally, energetically covers politics, social issues, societal trends and, in its Friday Weekend section, travel, leisure, arts and even sports. And five days a week, on its front page, the Journal delivers up an A-hed whose chief purpose is analogous to an aperitif or fine dessert — it sweetens and pleases the palate of readers ready to tackle (or take a break from) stories about bonds, microchips and commodities futures. Not that an A-hed can't be serious; in its early days it usually was, and it still sparingly is — witness, herein, former Journal staffer Charlie McCoy's moving tale about the efforts to save an oil-smeared sea otter during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, or Joshua Harris Prager's story on the personal trials of former major-league baseball player Bill Buckner long after his game-turning error in the 1986 World Series.

The credit for inventing the A-hed concept surely goes to Bernard "Barney" Kilgore, father of the modern Wall Street Journal, and Bill Kerby, the Journal's first Page One editor. Mr. Kilgore, a mild-mannered Midwesterner, joined the paper right out of DePauw University and became its managing editor in 1941 at the age of 30. More clearly than anyone before, he saw the Journal's future as a truly national newspaper, one that would keep itself rooted in Wall Street but, on its front page, deliver the wider world in a voice that tempered the urgency of a metropolitan newspaper with the analysis and stylish writing of a good magazine. His famous declaration — "Don't write banking stories for bankers. Write for the banks' customers" — cut the Journal loose from its stiff, almost technical writing style. He created a rewrite and editing staff for Page One and put Mr. Kerby in charge of it. Whole new forms were invented — What's News, which delivered world, national and business news in punchy capsules; the Column 1 "leder," whose aim was and is to illuminate matters of social, cultural or political importance, or to demystify events in the news; and, not least, the A-hed.

Year after year, the middle column, according to Wall Street Journal readership surveys, continues to be among the paper's best-read features. It has been emulated by countless U.S. newspapers and some magazines; journalism professors across the nation routinely clip it and give it to students with the admonition: "If you wish to write well, learn to write like this." In 1971, a Fortune magazine feature on the Journal helped to cement the A-hed's place as an icon of contemporary journalism by describing it as a story often so engaging and light "as almost to float off the page" (hence the title of this book).

If Mr. Kilgore, who died in 1967, helped invent the A-hed, it's also true that the form was still very much a work in progress into the 1960s. On many days, the A-hed resembled that very first one — a short business story with a quirk. (One example: a piece on how World War II was very good for the greeting-card industry.) Alternatively, it was often a news feature. When the Soviet Union's Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States in September 1959, his travels and doings occupied the A-hed spot for five days running — an occurrence entwined with a bit of Barney Kilgore lore. Or, as Fred Taylor, a Journal managing editor who was aboard then, recalls: "The late, great Barney Kilgore was gadget happy and had just got one of the first car phones. So the reporters trailing Khrushchev used Barney's car, calling in their stories on the wonderful phone to the extent they ran down the car battery and got stuck somewhere in Iowa."

The success of the A-hed owes as much to the quality of ideas as it does to good writing, and the idea factory itself owes much to Journal culture. Page One has always been famously picky about A-hed ideas, yet famously egalitarian about who comes up with them. It is still very much a decentralized art. Any reporter at the paper can pitch and write an A-hed for Page One, as can (and have) news assistants and interns (with proper guidance and editing, of course). Once an idea is accepted, the paper gives the lucky scribe what most metro newspapers would consider a languid amount of time to report and write a story that is usually under 1,500 words in length. True, many A-heds are done in a day or two, but it isn't uncommon for A-heds to take a week to report and a week to write — even longer. Consider that when Journal staffer Carrie Dolan alighted in the San Francisco bureau as a fresh-faced college graduate in 1982, she soon found herself in conference with Ken Slocum, the taciturn Texan who was bureau chief at the time. A clever features man, Mr. Slocum had a Texan's bias against what he considered fancy, overpriced, big-city hotels. He inexplicably shoved a note across the desk to Ms. Dolan that mused that it was probably possible for a person to travel across country for the price of a single night in the more expensive hotels in the Journal's headquarters city of New York.

Carrie was starting to wonder what that had to do with her when Ken drawled: "So Carrie, you better get goin'" — and then broke into a chorus of the Willie Nelson song "On the Road Again."

And off she went, in an account that appears in this book, driving for a week coast-to-coast in a cheap rental car, trying to prove Mr. Slocum's theory in the A-hed column.

Ms. Dolan's story shows what comes of a quirky set piece, well executed. The A-hed's history is also filled with stories of opportunity — reporters in exotic, remote, even dangerous locations putting their well-honed features eyes to the ground around them and coming up with gems. Barry Newman, unquestionably the current dean of Journal A-hed writers, was banging about the Australian Outback in the spring of 1978 when he realized that the Aussies had built a barbed-wire fence longer than the Great Wall of China to separate sheep-eating dingoes (wild dogs) from the nation's wool crop. It was certainly an A-hed but there was a small hurdle: A New York editor, who could not envision the splendor of such a fence from so far away, cabled Mr. Newman to say that such a story probably wasn't worth spending more than $200 on. So Mr. Newman rented exactly $200 of air time from a local pilot with a small plane and got the color he needed from above.

Tony Horwitz, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper in 1995 for his coverage of workplace issues, recalls covering the conflict in Serbia and realizing that there were probably A-heds even in that madness. So one night, at considerable risk, he crawled up a hill above Sarajevo and into a Serbian sniper's pit where he spent time with Serbian gunmen discussing Isaac Bashevis Singer stories while the Serbs sporadically sprayed sniper fire on Croats below. (Mr. Horwitz, now a full-time author on leave from The New Yorker, got his story; it was impossible to tell whether the Serbs got any of their targets.)

Adventure, pathos, humor, irony — this is the stuff of storytelling and the elixir of storytellers. If The Wall Street Journal were a house, the A-hed would surely be our front porch — a place where stories are spun out with a kind of spare exuberance, for an audience of clever listeners.

So pull up a chair and enjoy!


Copyright © 2002 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

from Chapter One: THE WAY WE ARE NOW

1. Phone Hex

It was a first date, and Lee Cruz was necking in the car. In midtussle, she jostled the cell phone in her purse and, without realizing it, she triggered speed-dial No. 2, which rang up her ex-boyfriend.

He answered and listened in. For 22 minutes.

One thing she says struck her eavesdropping ex as especially memorable: "No, no," she told the new beau. "You're a married man."

Introducing yet another unforeseen hazard of the Information Age — the SEND or TALK button on your wireless phone. On many portable phones, hitting SEND will automatically redial the last number you called or someone on your speed-dial list. So it takes just the tiniest slip of the finger to broadcast the audio track of your life to someone you know who wasn't supposed to hear it.

"He didn't have to sit there and listen to it," moans Ms. Cruz.

But they almost always do sit there and listen.

"Of course I want to hear this," says Andrea Carla Michaels, owner of Acme Naming, a San Francisco product- and company-naming firm.

A few years back, Ms. Michaels was treated to a half-hour answering-machine recording of her boyfriend at the time, Matt Palmer. Mr. Palmer, who had inadvertently pressed SEND on his cell, was discussing women with four male friends after a night of drinking at the Comet Club.

She could have erased the tape once she realized what was going on. But why on earth would she do that?

Ms. Michaels was 37 years old; Mr. Palmer was 27. Would Mr. Palmer's friends make fun of the age gap? "I'm much more in the camp of wanting to know the worst than not wanting to know something," she says. "There's nothing I don't want to know."

In the end, Ms. Michaels herself was unmentioned in the taped conversation. But the next day she called Mr. Palmer and played back a few choice bits.

Mr. Palmer, who now runs MP8 International, an Internet telephony sales and marketing firm in Ketchum, Idaho, considers himself lucky. "It could have been a lot more incriminating than it was," he says.

Few cell-phone nightmare scenarios come close to what Wendy Harrington inflicted on herself last summer. She had been fending off a particularly persistent suitor for weeks, but when he invited her for an island weekend, she accepted, on the condition that her roommate come along, too.

En route on the ferry, Ms. Harrington called her host from her cell phone and left a message giving him her arrival time. Then, as her phone sat in her purse, she apparently hit the SEND button just as her roommate was prodding her to explain why she wasn't attracted to the guy. Ms. Harrington mentioned a few positives. But the 20-minute deconstruction soon turned brutally frank, touching on his habit of practicing his golf swing without a club and the two women's general disinclination to like men who wear cologne and say "shucks." Pouring on the salt, they discussed intimate details of Ms. Harrington's previous relationship with someone she describes as the "kinky doctor."

"I could not imagine a more emasculating conversation," she says. Only as they prepared to step ashore did she realize her phone had been engaged to her host's voice mail all the while.

"I hit END, feel a wave of dread — the kind that seems really bad at first and then just keeps getting worse," she recalls, speaking on condition that her suitor, the island and her hometown not be named. "My stomach is now churning with the knowledge that I might really hurt this nice man who has shown me nothing but adoration."

The poor fellow met the two women near the dock, and his uncomplicated smile suggested that he had yet to listen to the message. The three then headed for a restaurant, and he checked his voice mail. "Wendy, it sounds like you called me from the boat," she remembers his saying. "It sounds like you're having a great time."

She dreaded the denouement, but he stayed on the phone only briefly and said he would get back to the message later.

That set the tone for the rest of the weekend. He received several other phone messages, always skipping over hers to listen to the new ones. They went waterskiing. They ate in restaurants. "The whole weekend his phone is terrifying me," she says.

Finally Sunday arrived, and the women left for home. It was only then, apparently, that her message got through to her gracious host. "We never talked again," Ms. Harrington says. One lesson she learned from the harrowing experience: Lock the keypad on your phone when you put it down.

But the more that wireless phones proliferate, the greater the chances of embarrassing faux pas. Not long ago, Ed Salvato, senior editor of PlanetOut.com Travel, a gay Internet travel site based in West Hollywood, Calif., and some friends were in a car having a very graphic conversation about the sexual adventures some men they knew had at a desert resort.

A half-hour later, Mr. Salvato's mother phoned him. That wouldn't be unusual, except that Mr. Salvato's cell phone was new, and, while he had his parents' number programmed into speed dial, they didn't have his number. They did, however, have a new Caller ID device, and the two technologies colluded against Mr. Salvato. He had unwittingly dialed his parents, who overheard smatterings of the conversation and, after disconnecting, called back the number on Caller ID.

"Did you hear what we said?" Mr. Salvato asked his mother, alarmed. She just claimed to have overheard some "joshing."

"She had 'mother's ears' on," he says with relief.

Some telephonic mishaps aren't about sex. Robbie Herzig was deep into a job interview in Denver when a friend called. Ms. Herzig thought she was sending the call to voice mail, but instead accidentally answered it. The friend overheard her detailed pitch for more stock options and a bigger salary.

Ms. Herzig got the job, and now does strategic planning at ClientLogic, which provides marketing and other services for e-commerce companies. But she has never told her boss about the cell-phone incident.

"I work for a technology company," she explains. "You don't want to admit that you can't work technology."


Copyright © 2002 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

from Chapter One: THE WAY WE ARE NOW

2. "Nothing Personal. We Sue All Our Friends."

SAN FRANCISCO — There was romance in the resumes: She, a computer consultant turned fashion model; he, an Apple Computer engineer turned Silicon Valley entrepreneur. They were young, beautiful, wired for love.

But caution fell between them. During a yearlong courtship, Alfred Tom held back, wary of revealing too much. Then it happened. After an afternoon with friends, Mr. Tom took Angela Fu back to his car. There, on the front seat of his 1994 Integra, he went for it.

"Naturally, I flinched a bit," Ms. Fu says. But in a stroke, it was done: a signed nondisclosure agreement, or NDA, in the parlance of the Net set. Henceforth, Ms. Fu would be sworn to silence about her boyfriend's trade secrets.

DNA, meet NDA, your twisted, alphabetical cousin in the world of baser instincts. Long the province of lawyers, investment bankers and other traffickers in corporate secrets, nondisclosure agreements have gone mainstream.

Propelled by the Internet frenzy, an epidemic of secrecy pacts is spreading through personal relationships, passed between lovers, friends, relatives, roommates, even business partners.

The documents surface at dinner parties, weddings and sushi counters. One entrepreneur NDAed his rabbi, then his rabbi's wife. Bill Gates NDAed the carpenters working on his home. Quincy Smith, who ran corporate development for Netscape before becoming a venture capitalist, fields NDAs from his parents' friends, attached to business ideas.

Ask young and breathless Net heads at a picnic or family barbecue what they're working on, and you'll probably get back some blather like, "An end-to-end solution for e-commerce personalization in the business-to-business space."

Ask what that means, in plain English, and out comes the NDA, materializing from breast pockets and knapsacks, PalmPilots, picnic baskets and glove compartments. "It's one of the critical items for a date: car keys, credit cards, condoms and an NDA," says high-tech consultant Mark Macgillivray.

Most of the forms involve one or two pages of standard legalese, pledging the signatory to silence concerning the bearer's "intellectual property." Judges have ruled NDAs enforceable in all 50 states, lawyers say, but good luck bringing tongue-waggers to court. Proving that somebody leaked proprietary information is seldom worth the time and expense it takes, attorneys say. Still, the truly paranoid — and indiscreet — collect hundreds of sworn secrecy pledges before their businesses ever earn a dime.

Philip Lee, co-founder of SportBug.com — "performance feedback over the Internet using satellite tracking" — usually makes people add their signatures, petition-style, to a two-sentence NDA he keeps scribbled on the back of his notebook. But caught unprepared at a restaurant recently, he dashed off a fresh secrecy oath for some business-school buddies on scratch paper, with his lawyer, who happened to be dining with him, adding "syllables and threatening language over my shoulder," says Mr. Lee, 31 years old.

"The NDA is the 21st-century equivalent of the medieval wax seal," says Kent Walker, associate general counsel of Netscape. "It's a mystical incantation people rely on, when in fact the only real security is to keep your mouth shut."

Mr. Tom tried that with Ms. Fu, until things heated up. At first, when his girlfriend asked about his work, "he said he'd tell me eventually," Ms. Fu, 29, recalls. Finally, after dating a year or so, he popped the form. "I didn't even read it," she says. "I totally trusted him and I knew he trusted me."

Really? After Ms. Fu signed the NDA, "I still didn't tell her much," says Mr. Tom, 30, who, suffice it to say, is developing a wireless-communications product. "But at least she could feel part of the conversation."

Techies accept NDAs as part of the landscape. Some people from other walks of life, however, still bridle at being asked to commit their loyalty to a legal document to catch up with old friends.

Internet entrepreneur Eddie Lou — "We're a first mover in a large, business-to-business vertical space" — had no problem getting his roommates, friends and girlfriend to sign NDAs. He keeps extra forms in his car.

But recently, two college buddies in the East, in separate phone calls, hung up on him when he told them they'd have to sign NDAs before hearing about his business.

When he called back one of them, a close fraternity brother who works in finance in New York, it happened again. "He said, since he's not signing the NDA, he's not in a position to talk to me, and hung up," says the 28-year-old Mr. Lou. "Everybody here says 'Give me the NDA,' but people outside this area don't understand."

In most gatherings of digerati, wielding NDAs confers an aura of value on a start-up, even when, as in many cases, there isn't any. But spring one on the wrong person, like a venture capitalist, "and it's like writing on your forehead, 'Look at me, I'm clueless! I don't know how the game works,'" says Silicon Valley financier Guy Kawasaki.

That's because the bigwigs of the Internet crowd — the professional investors, consultants, securities analysts and top technology writers — scoff at NDAs and don't sign them on principle. They say they see too many similar ideas, dozens or more a week, to have their tongues tied by any single one. Instead, they preach the honor system to prospective entrepreneurs.

Yet horror stories abound of venture capitalists and others who said "trust us," only to use secrets gleaned from one business plan to help another.

"Not only are NDAs important, but I think start-ups should go a step further," says Internet tycoon Sabeer Bhatia, who doesn't even tell hires for his latest company what they're working on until they show up for work. Mr. Bhatia, 31, credits secrecy with giving his first start-up, Hotmail, a decisive six-month lead on the competition, paving the way for its sale to Microsoft for a reported $400 million in stock.

For Hotmail, Mr. Bhatia collected more than 400 NDAs in two years, from employees, friends, roommates — but no girlfriends. "A beautiful woman is a beautiful woman," he says. "I just don't tell them about my business."

Mr. Macgillivray, the consultant, was chatting with friends at a crowded party recently, when somebody piped up with his latest business idea for an obscure computer-graphics process. "Two sentences into it," Mr. Macgillivray says, "he pulled out the NDAs. Even the other Valley people looked at him and said,'You've got to be nuts! We're at a party, pal.' He looked at us with disgust, more convinced than ever we were all there to rip him off."

Jim Busis, co-founder of Wishbox.com — "a universal gift-registry for Gen Y" based in Pittsburgh — brandished several NDAs at the end of a small dinner party in his honor, taking several old friends by surprise. "Here's a man to whom I confided many of the most intimate details of my bizarre divorce, swearing secrecy from me?" says Liz Perle, editor at large of publishing-house Harper San Francisco and a friend of Mr. Busis's since college.

Mr. Busis, 43, explains NDAs are nothing personal, just a legal formality. He also NDAed relatives and friends in town for his daughter's baby-naming ceremony last spring, he says. The rabbi who officiated at the ritual, and the rabbi's wife, signed in Mr. Busis's car on the way back to their hotel.

"At first I giggled and thought, 'Who does Jim think I'm going to tell about this?'" recalls Rabbi Lennard Thal, vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in New York. "Then I was sort of flattered that he might actually have thought, in the circles I run, anyone would be interested."

— PETER WALDMAN, November 1999

Copyright © 2002 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

from Chapter One: THE WAY WE ARE NOW

3. Men Will Be Boys...

TEMPE, Ariz. — A champagne-colored Lincoln Town Car cruises the fringes of nearby Arizona State University, pulling into the parking lot of McDuffy's. It's a popular student hangout with neon beer signs, perky waitresses and sports games blaring on multiple TVs. Four guys in shorts and sneakers pile out and head for the entrance.

"Uh-oh, it looks like I'm going to get carded," says Dave Protz. The joke lasts as far as the door: After all, he is 44 years old.

Mr. Protz has come all the way from Plymouth, Wis., for five days of spring break — spring break for adults, that is. Grown-ups of all ages are taking advantage of a booming economy to whoop it up in the sun. Only instead of family vacations, these folks — mostly middle-aged men — are trying to relive their college days with outings that can resemble the rowdiness of the Fort Lauderdale beach scenes of lore.

Myrtle Beach, S.C., for example, has about a dozen new bars now catering to this special kind of March madness. For the mature spring-breaker, there are bikini contests, 75-cent draft beer and hairy-chest competitions. On a recent night, Jason Rice, a Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce official, happened to drive by Xanadu, a loud nightclub that advertises wet T-shirt contests; he saw a sea of people, many of them with gray hair, waiting to get in. "At this point, nothing surprises me," says Mr. Rice, who estimates that one-third of the town's $2.4 billion in tourism revenue pours in during the spring season.

For many of these post-college spring revelers, golf is the beard — that is, ostensibly the main attraction, and a convenient excuse to spouses and significant others left at home. The Tempe-Scottsdale area and Myrtle Beach have nearly 150 golf courses between them. And another magnet of the seven-iron set, Hilton Head Island, S.C., finds itself not coincidentally another of the places where the over-the-hill gang hangs out for spring kicks. The entertainment is somewhat high-brow in the town of 29,000, but a club called Monkey Business is still packed nightly, even if it requires shirts with collars.

Here in the Scottsdale area, some residents complain about aging revelers racing through town or streaking nude at hot-tub parties. "They're obnoxious," says Debi Gaitens, an executive recruiter who shuns downtown this time of year because of the crowds.

Granted, most of these baby-boomer retreats are hardly the stuff of MTV highlights; some aging spring-breakers declare defeat after one night of heavy drinking.

But on a recent weekend, Mr. Protz and his three buddies, all brothers-in-law from the same Wisconsin town, head straight from the airport to the liquor store to buy three bottles of Absolut vodka, which they promptly drink, stirred into tonic water, in the hot tub at their luxury condo. They groggily call it a night, but not before reminiscing about their own college spring breaks years and years ago. Only today, instead of six to a room in a dumpy beachside motel, they are staying two to a room in a $300-a-night condo.

The next evening, happy hour finds them at McDuffy's, where the presence of a large number of college girls doesn't seem to be a deterrent. "Why should the college kids have all the fun?" asks Mr. Protz, an impish salesman and self-appointed ringleader. A few months ago, he announced to his wife and three children that he deserved a chance to cut loose from the winter stress.

One of the brothers-in-law, Dean Wesenberg, needed a little arm-twisting to persuade him to tag along. "I've never done anything like this," says the clean-cut 35-year-old Mr. Wesenberg, sitting awkwardly on a high stool at McDuffy's.

Around him are bouncers in full referee gear who have had to eject older tourists for getting too fresh with the college girls. "They're pretty harmless but you have to keep an eye on them," says Jake Guzman, a manager at McDuffy's.

Mr. Protz and company, though, take the attitude that, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. The next night, at a club called Giligin's, the group finds itself alone at a table, watching the rest of the crowd dance and throw napkins at each other. They have run out of Monica Lewinsky jokes when two of them finally approach a couple of women at the bar about doing "Jell-O shots."

This, according to a 19-year-old caddie they have met, is a popular game played by college students in bars here. The etiquette, such as it is, goes like this: The shot, a cube of Jell-O saturated in vodka, is placed upon some part of the anatomy. The imbiber then licks it off. Consent is highly advised.

Mr. Protz, in fact, jokingly offers to throw his own body into play. But the women, both youngish lawyers, laughingly decline, although one slurps up the spiked Jell-O from his hand.

Nearby, California lawyer Michael Lonich and 11 other buddies are shuffling about to the Doors' '60s anthem, "Break on Through," while a DJ announces the next special on tequila shots. Each of them is pushing — or well past — 40. "This place is perfect for adult spring break," Mr. Lonich says. His group has spent five days watching spring baseball, playing video games in bars and drinking the night away. They have also played a round of golf a day — which Mr. Lonich says was the primary reason so many of his friends could slip away from their families.

As further proof of this, travel companies that specialize in booking golf vacations say they detect a surge in interest among their mostly male clients in being booked into places where opportunities to play the 19th hole match the challenges of the first 18. "One of the first questions my clients always ask me is where the bars are," says Jeff Savage, president of Tee Time Travel Inc. in Scottsdale.

In fact, a government survey for the greater Scottsdale and Phoenix region found that, except for scenic beauty, golf was the No. 1 reason tourists said they came. But the sport ranked only seventh in activities tourists actually did. Two spots higher on the list: nightclubbing.

Beyond that, at least one campaign to lure golfers trades on the fact that some of the good old boys who go on golf vacations don't mind ending up in places with lots of pretty girls. One ad for a Myrtle Beach golf package shows a young woman on a beach, poised in a sporty golf outfit.

Still, despite complaints in some corners of Scottsdale that the aging spring-breakers indulge in boorish behavior, most people here see the upside. There's little danger the place will turn into a hot spot of middle-age rowdiness: Scottsdale's high-priced hotels and green fees averaging $140 a round deter the honky-tonk tourists. "These aren't kids," says Richard A. Bowers, manager of the city of 190,000 residents. And among the estimated two million golfers who visit Scottsdale annually, most still come for golf.

It's also not entirely clear whether Mr. Protz and the Wesenbergs, having gotten their spring break, will get a break back home. While the men are cavorting about Scottsdale, the Wesenberg wives and Doreen Protz are stuck back in six inches of snow, sipping Tom Collinses and plotting their revenge: Their own trip to Las Vegas. Or maybe Germany?

"He's dead meat," Lisa Marie Wesenberg says of her husband, Dean, who left for the trip on her birthday and hasn't called since. Pam Wesenberg is also perturbed by the male exodus. "I don't think husbands and wives should take separate vacations," she says.

But not to worry. After two nights of bar-hopping and drinking, the spring-breakers opt for condo-cooked dinners, the hot tub and bed by nine. "I'm tired, I want to go home," says Duane Wesenberg, complaining of body aches and a hangover.

— NANCY KEATES, March 1998

Copyright © 2002 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Meet the Author

Michael Lewis, the bestselling author of The Undoing Project, Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short, among other works, lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife and three children.

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Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal's Middle Column 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fabulous. A great read. Great Keillor.