Saturday, September 24, 2011

OMG, excuse me while I duck


As I write this a rogue satellite is hurtling through the atmosphere and is expected to smash into earth, possibly somewhere in the United States, later tonight. Did I mention that in my high school yearbook I was selected as Most Likely to Be Struck By a Falling Satellite? I'll take my chances, especially since the satellite is far more likely to smash into Bayonne, N.J., birthplace of the real life Rocky whom the news web sites inform me I'll be hearing a great deal more about as an ESPN special and a movie about the "Bayonne Bleeder" come to fruition.

But I digress. What the plummeting parcel of space debris brings to mind, for me at least, is the sometimes cruel sense of humor newspaper people have. Rarely does a tragedy occur that doesn't find newspaper staffers sharing jokes about it within hours.

A case in point. In 1979, I had a supervisor who shall remain nameless but who had, shall we say, issues with his weight. I worked with this fellow for ten years at the New York Post before following him to the New York Daily News, and I'm not ashamed to say he was even a bit of a mentor. But he had a bit of an issue with his weight -- for instance, he went through a phase of bringing salads in to work, smothered in Russian dressing. He also had a daughter who, sad to say, had a bit of an issue with her weight.

And my often non-chubby colleagues, with their sharp journalists' senses, were all too keenly aware of this fellow's issues with his weight. When scientists and the wire services -- this was long before Twitter was a twinkle in its creators' eyes -- one of my colleagues, behind the rotund supervisor's back, where there was plenty of room (slapping myself in face), came up with the idea of appending the appellation "Skylab" to said supervisor's daughter.

The sports department, where I worked at the time, got quite a kick out of this, and it was all they could do in the days before Skylab actually fell to earth in Australia, to not mention the Skylab thing in front of him. So despite their sick sense of humor, I guess they had a touch of humanity as well.

While I'm dwelling on the past, I'd like to mention another newspaper tradition, one which has eluded me through the decades. Today was the last day at work for my colleague Sarah Johnson, who at the ripe old age of 27 (ok, not until tomorrow) is embarking on a solo entrepreneurial career. I got to thinking about how over the years I worked at three newspapers -- roughly ten years at the New York Post, another ten or so at the New York Daily News, and almost 20 at the Bergen Record -- with great, and I mean damn good great -- illustrators. My favorite of them all was Jerry Schlamp of the Daily News, but google him now and all you can find is a little schlampoon here and there. But it was a tradition at all three papers and I'm sure at many others, that when a longtime employee left, either the illustrator or in house cartoonist would make him or her a big cartoon and everybody would sign it.

Mind you, the only one of these I can remember was when a fellow left the Daily News to go to Hollywood where a friend of his was going to help him get a start in screenwriting, and Jerry Schlamp, at least I think it was Schlamp, made him a big cartoon of a fellow lying in bed next to a horse's head, with a scantily clad woman standing next to the bed saying something like "Now, about that screen test ..."

On a sadder note, when I was a clerk at the New York Post I had a colleague named Joe Marcus who at the ripe old age of 37 was still a clerk. I was 18 or 19, maybe 20. Joe was diabetic and missed a lot of work which meant I'd get called at all hours asking if I could come in and work. And then Joe came down with some kind of cancer and was hospitalized.

The Post's cartoonist made him one of these big get well drawings, I forget what the picture was but the word in the balloon was "Fuhgeddaboutit" -- Joe's favorite word. The cartoon sat in the office for three or four days because nobody went to go visit him who could deliver it, and in the meantime Joe passed away. The cartoon was given to his son. I would like to say it always haunted me that I didn't go visit him and bring him the cartoon, but the truth is I forgot about for many years until I got to thinking about this subject.

I left the New York Post following its purchase by Rupert Murdoch and I didn't get a cartoon. And I left the Daily News in a downsizing when so many people were leaving that almost nobody got cartoons, who knows, maybe the cartoonist left, no, he stayed on, but I didn't get one. And I left the Bergen Record with no cartoon in another mass downsizing.

Now, about that headline. Those, without the OMG, were the last words of a forward artillery observer in World War II. His son, Duane Richter of Thermopolis, Wyo., once placed an item in the newsletter of the 90th Infantry Division asking if anybody remembered his father. He got some 80 responses, including one from a veteran who'd been on the phone with Duane's dad when he spoke those words.

So excuse me while I get back under my desk until this darn satellite crashes to earth.