Harold Long followed his heart to '88 convention

MICHAEL OLESKER

July 19, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Doctors, what do they know? They look at the human heart and merely measure the physical damage. Harold Long felt his heart pounding with political anticipation and said, "See you after the convention."'

"Convention?" the doctors said. "You can't go to any convention. You need surgery."

"Gotta go," said Long, who was 58 years old when this happened and should have known better. "I've been waiting too long."

He told them about being 9 years old and working the polls with his father in the city's old 10th Ward.

The doctors were not impressed.

He said he'd always dreamed about attending the Democratic National Convention.

The doctors said he was nuts.

He told them he'd been the second congressional district's top vote-getter for a delegate seat.

The doctors said he could die if he went to Atlanta four years ago.

"If God calls and tells me that, I'll listen," said Long, blithely waving so long. "Otherwise, see you when I get back."

There he was, walking through the big convention mob in Atlanta in '88. Long was the one with the nitroglycerin tablets in his pocket and Bob Leatherwood at his side.

The nitro tablets were there in case Long's heart went bad.

Leatherwood, then built like a building that had learned how to walk, was there to carry him out if things got rough.

"I had a few moments," Long was saying now, sitting over lunch at Johnny Dee's Lounge, behind the 7-11 on Loch Raven Boulevard. "I guess I made it, didn't I?"

A little smile, never far from Long's face, spreads gently. The doctors are such serious souls, and Long, an aide to Baltimore County Executive Roger Hayden, prides himself on approaching life as a glad affair ripe with possibilities.

"My father," he says, wrapping his hands around a grilled cheese sandwich, "was always a happy guy. He'd say, 'I get out of bed and put my feet on the floor every morning. The rest is up to me.' He was a plumber. He had no car. He'd put his tools in this bag and throw it over his shoulder. And I was his shadow."

An accident killed his father when Long was still a boy. But a puckish spirit, carefully nurtured by his mother, lives on.

"Oh, sure," he says. "You could go back to City College for that."

At City, there was an English teacher named John Desch. Long had him for homeroom.

One day Desch told him, "I'm sending you home for cutting school yesterday."

"But I'm Jewish," said Long, who isn't. "It was a Jewish holiday."

"Bring your mother to school," said Desch.

His mother, Sara Long, worked behind a candy counter on Lexington Street. She took the morning off from work and made her way up to 33rd Street.

"Your son wasn't in school yesterday," said Desch.

"We're Jewish," said Mrs. Long, not missing a beat.

Walking her out the door minutes later, Harold Long thanked his mother, who sighed and said, "I think they ought to get me a desk at this school. I'm here more than you are."

In those late-1940s days, all-male City was directly across the street from all-female Eastern High, which was officially declared No-Man's Land. Any boy caught on the premises would be suspended.

"You still dating Louise?" a classmate asked Long one lunch period in the school cafeteria.

"Sure," said Long, referring to the girl he would marry shortly after graduation and who, 40 years after the wedding, he still refers to as "my bride."

"Why don't you go over to Eastern and see her?" somebody dared him.

"For how much?"

Quickly, about $20 was pooled among a lot of guys, betting Long he wouldn't have the guts. He took it, raced across The Alameda and ran into Eastern.

Coming back out, City's principal and vice principal were blocking the way back.

Long pulled his sweater over his head to hide his face. The vice principal, Henry Yost, called out, "Long, it won't do you any good, we know who you are."

He called Long's mother. But Long's sister answered the phone instead, and pretended to be the mother: "It couldn't have been my son," she said. "My son didn't have any money, and he was too proud to borrow any, so he came home for lunch."

And now, over lunch, Long shakes his head in a kind of wonder.

"People look out for me," he says, "and I try to look out for them."

He's Hayden's executive assistant for constituents' complaints.

But, four years ago, some doctors didn't give him a great shot at coming home alive from the Democratic National Convention.

When he made it back, they scheduled his heart surgery -- six bypasses, as it turned out -- for Election Day.

"Normally," says Long, "I'd have worked the polls outside the Hillendale Elementary School. I figured, I'll have the operation that day and avoid the election day stress."

When he came out of surgery, he couldn't speak because of a breathing apparatus but asked for a pencil and paper.

"Who won?" he wrote.

His doctor, his nurse, and his bride Louise all told him the same thing: "Dukakis won."

"They lied to me," Long says now. "That was kind of nice, wasn't it?"

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