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The Puzzlement Of Doomsday Don

by Max Shapiro |  Published: Jul 10, 2013

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Max ShapiroMy fans often ask me where I find the characters in my stories. No simple answer. Some, like the late Dirty Wally, are real (at least I think Wally was real). Some are take-offs of real people, some are totally made up as needed, and one character (Aunt Sophie) was rented from Michael Wiesenberg. Where Big Denny came from is anyone’s guess.

I used to think that Robert “Buddha” Gomez was the most outrageous and puzzling guy I ever wrote about. This intelligent young man was the biggest pai gow player in California as well as a high-stakes poker player. My sweetie and I hung out with him a lot until the day he was arrested and charged with being one of the masterminds in a “Miracle Cars” scheme that conned churchgoers out of some $21 million by promising them non-existent vehicles for pennies on the dollar. In 2003, Buddha was sentenced to 21 years in the slammer and is still there. A book was written on the escapade, and the scam was portrayed in the CNBC series “American Greed.” How Gomez ever expected to get away with the scheme is something I could never figure out.

However, I now think that another of my characters is even more puzzling. That would be Doomsday Don (AKA Don Larrimore). I became friends with Don because we had a lot in common – apart from both of us being addicted to Omaha high-low. Back when the World Series was still at Binion’s, he did the official tournament write-ups, as I did two years later. And his writing background was very impressive. He had formerly been a journalist with a news bureau in Europe and had written several travel books. Sounds pretty grounded, doesn’t he?

But the more I got to know him, the stranger he seemed. He would parade around in casinos with a copy of the New York Times under his arm, declaring that it was the only newspaper worth reading. He said he wouldn’t own a cell phone because his “spook” friends at the CIA warned him people could find him that way. (Who would want to find him in the first place?) Then his nonstop gloom and doom kicked in. He began warning me of vague looming disaster while rubbing his hand down his face and declaring, “You have no idea.” Once he told me that Pierre Salinger, the press secretary to President Kennedy, had offered him a government job, with Voice of America as I recall. You’d think this would be a happy memory, but even here he did his face-rub number.

He later relocated to Europe and promptly began driving me nuts with his screwy e-mails. He bombarded me with obituaries of newspapermen who were “friends and colleagues” of his, asking if I knew them. Then came warnings of impending meltdowns in places like Burma and Sri Lanka, nuclear bombs being snuck into the USA, etcetera. That inspired me to create Doomsday Don, which he enjoyed.

But that wasn’t all. He seemed to think he had been appointed guardian of journalistic grammar and conduct. Whenever he spotted an error in some poker mag, he’d tell me to send them a correction – as if they were paying me to do their proofreading. But what finally drove me off the cliff was something that happened 15 or 20 years ago when the editor of a poker mag (let’s call him “Sam”) apparently put his byline on someone else’s tournament report. When Don heard about it, he butted in and tried to get the editor fired, merely succeeding in pissing off the publisher. Now, after all these years, he was still ranting about it, and most of his e-mails had a reference to “Sam the plagiarist, Sam the plagiarist…”

Finally having my fill, I sent him a joking message saying I was told that he himself had stolen data for his travel books. Instead of seeing it as an obvious gag, Doomsday declared that what I did was “disgusting,” and sternly informed me that he was “signing off.” An explanation and apology didn’t help, and that was the last I ever heard from my gloomy friend, though he shall continue to live on in these columns. But then I later learned that the truth was even stranger than the nutty fiction I wrote about him.

Out of idle curiosity to learn more about him, I researched Don on the Internet. I discovered he was mentioned in a book that said his news bureau once sent him to Russia, but recalled him partway there because he had been talking to the “wrong people.” That was intriguing, but what really stopped me was coming across an incomplete article that had run in the Russian publication Izvestia headed “Espionage and Subversion” that mocked Don for his “misfire” attempt to recruit spies in Moscow. It accused him of lying by writing “student-tourist-journalist” for his occupation when he visited that city in 1956. The rest of the story reads:

Mr. Larrimore was captivated by Moscow, although he tried not to utter this thought aloud. The American liked Soviet girls, but he carefully concealed these feelings behind the dark lenses of his sunglasses. One can understand such conduct by the foreign guest if one recalls the unspecified number of years Larrimore spent in Munich at the so-called Radio Liberation. They don’t train friends of the U.S.S.R. there. Complete, 100% spies are what they train.

The vocation of espionage, strictly speaking, does not exist in a pure form in our time. It must be accompanied by some other kind of occupation. Larrimore, for example, had studied the Russian language. In the C.I .A., his knowledge was evaluated for what it was worth: He was enlisted on the staff and recommended for a trip to our country to recruit spies.

We don’t know exactly which day of his sojourn in Moscow Mr. Larrimore left his hotel in order to take an evening stroll along Gorky Street. But it was precisely on this day the story began that very nearly ended in a real tragedy for the second “hero” in…

And that’s where the story I found on the Internet ended so frustratingly. So, was Doomsday Don really a spy for the C.I.A., or was he just on a self-appointed fool’s mission? The mystery about the gloomy one continues to deepen. Anyone know the answer? ♠

Max Shapiro, a lifelong poker player and former newspaper reporter with several writing awards to his credit, has been writing a humor column for Card Player ever since it was launched more than 20 years ago. His early columns were collected in his book, Read ’em and Laugh.