Thursday, November 28, 2013

Woe is me, I've got to work a holiday

Aaron's eBay store
   A distinguished former colleague recently took Walmart and other big box, little box, Jack in the Box and Taco Bell employees to task in his blog for lamenting the fact that they had to work on Thanksgiving when they could be spending time with their families. And then said former colleague went on to point out that in the journalism trade, one was expected to work holidays.
   Even though I've worked more Thanksgivings than you could shake a drumstick at, I have to differ with my distinguished former colleague, although I agree with him on many other points he's made in his blog.
   Reason one is an anecdote. During the Great New York Newspaper Strike of 1978, I think it lasted 77 days or so, I worked in the sports department of one of the three "interim" dailies, a mock Daily News lookalike called the Daily Press, run by a couple of brothers from the Midwest looking to make a quick buck. The temporary newspaper offices were in a downtown office building, and heck, I have no idea where they got the computer terminals and other equipment from, probably Rent-a-Center. One day I was riding up in the elevator with some secretaries and receptionists and one of them asked if I worked for the newspaper. I responded in the affirmative, and she said I was lucky to have such an exciting job.
   These are the people who deserve to spend time with their families on Thanksgiving. You want to be a reporter, a police officer, a firefighter, a nurse, it goes with the territory, you work nights, weekends, holidays, and usually you get extra pay for doing so (although that is no longer the case in much of the newspaper industry). DFC was, of course, saying it goes with the territory, but a little compassion is in order here for people whose jobs are not as exciting and fulfilling as ours.
   And reason two: All the holidays I've worked, the newsroom has been all but deserted. Management types, fuhgeddabouddit except maybe one poor shmuck who's at the bottom of the managerial pecking order and has to supervise the skeleton crew in the newsroom. That's right, skeleton crew, DFC and I both should be namned Armbone or Legbone we've been on so many holiday skeleton crews in forty plus years in the newspaper business. So let's say 80 percent of newspaper people actually do get holidays off -- even Columbus Day at the New Britain Herald -- whereas 100 percent of Walmart and Taco Bell and Best Buy workers not only have to work but don't get any holiday premium in their paycheck. Still, no time card to punch in and punch out to make sure we're not paid any more than our minimum wage.
   Usually there isn't much news on a holiday, and the skeleton staff would get a pretty healthy "slide," or the opportunity to go home early, say on Thanksgiving, work a four or five hour shift, get your full seven or eight hours pay and the holiday premium as well (in the good old days that was time and a half plus a day of comp time, boy, although both of those perks got whacked as the industry nosedived). No such perks for your big box or fast food worker. There was one New Year's Eve 30 or 35 years ago where a bomb blew up in Times Square and there was quite a bit of scrambling on the news desk, but such holiday occurrences are few and far between.
   Thanksgiving is a time for family, perhaps moreso than any other holiday. My own family is scattered across the country, Boston, New York, Ohio, Florida, California, so I kind of relish working on Thanksgiving because I'm with colleagues. I have a lot to be thankful for, even when I was out of work and sleeping in my car I had a lot to be thankful for (that my car was insured, ran and had gas, for one thing, or is that three things?).
   I personally am thankful that stores are open on Thanksgiving, because I've already scored two bargains online, but I feel for the employees who have to handle the mobs of shoppers. As far back as the first Black Friday -- I don't remember when that was but I know I was in the newsroom the day it happened, and even then Black Friday was on a Friday, this year Black Friday began Monday online, and it begins at 6 p.m. Thursday evening at Walmart and Best Buy -- I could see the beginning of a now long established tradition, the annual social phenomenon of overflowing the mall parking lots and the stampede mentality of mobbing the stores. I don't begrudge the employees the desire to be with their families, although I suppose a good investigative reporter would discover that if Walmart closed on Thanksgiving Day and Best Buy opened, a small percentage of the Thursday night throngs at Best Buy would be composed of Walmart workers. But that's their prerogative.
   DFC noted that the one holiday, for him, that was sacrosanct was Opening Day. He's a baseball fan, and working all those other holidays got him sufficient leverage to get the night off, even in a downsized newsroom. Opening Day is just another day at the office for me, but I had my special days, too, I'd cash in my chips for the annual reunion of the 712th Tank Battalion, with which my father served and which turned me into an oral historian when I'm not writing headlines.
   A couple of times I've been on road trips over the Holidays. Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, try and find a cup of coffee on an interstate when every McDonald's and Burger King is closed. Then one New Year's Eve somewhere in North or South Carolina I pulled off the highway and saw the bright lights of a Waffle House. Whereas usually there would be three to five employees slinging hash browns and pouring batter onto waffle irons, there must have been a dozen workers, all in festive hats, you'd think they were having a party. Apparently they not only had to work New Year's Eve, they seemed to relish the fact, possibly because they were being paid time and a half, or maybe it was just a tradition for them, like Black Friday is for shoppers. But that's the image that comes to mind first when I think of having to work on a holiday. When life hands you lemons, make key lime pie. Use evaporated milk and graham cracker crust, and no one will know the difference.
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Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Very Short Career of Professor Elson

A transcript of this article will appear later in this entry.

   In 2005 I received a teaching fellowship for one semester in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. I taught two classes, one in basic newspaper writing and one in intermediate newspaper writing. The fellowship was sponsored by my former employer -- at the time they were my current employer -- and the fact is, I was one of only two candidates for the fellowship, due to the harsh nature of the Syracuse winter; that and the fact that the other candidate was a photographer and the school needed to fill its newspaper writing slots more or less worked in my favor.
   I didn't make a very good professor, in that every time my marking pencil drifted into territory below a C all I could think about was how much my students' parents were shelling out for their kids to get blitzed every Friday night, or how the students were going to be saddled with student debt for years to come. That and the fact that I was a pretty poor student myself back when I was in college, more preoccupied with putting out the student newspaper and working almost full time at the New York Post than I was with my classes.
   But I did try to impart a handful of "real life experience" lessons on the students in my two classes. And one of them was that if you can make a reader laugh, not to mention your colleagues in the newsroom, there's a good chance people will remember your byline.
   I used two articles from my experiences in interviewing people of the World War II era to drive home my point. One was an article that Dale Albee, a lieutenant in my father's tank battalion, had in his scrapbook. It went like this:

Medal? Trooper Asks Only His Shirt

    Private Frederick Gislain, Troop E, 11th Cavalry, doesn't care about a medal. All he wants is his shirt back. It was ripped beyond repair when Gislain, on maneuvers with his outfit near Barrett Lake in the San Diego Mountains on the night of August 6, unwittingly made himself a potential candidate for a heroism citation, his superior officers reported Thursday.
    Gislain and a fellow cavalryman identified as Private Margetta were among a group making its way along the edge of Barrett Lake. At one point, underbrush was so thick the soldiers were forced to wade into the lake.
    Private Margetta’s horse stumbled. Weighted down by equipment, Margetta went down.
    Gislain saw the impending tragedy. He discarded his equipment, ripped off his much-mourned shirt without thought for buttons or fabric, and dived in.
    A minute later, he was back on the bank with Margetta, wet but safe. Out in the lake, Margetta’s horse still foundered.
    A cavalryman isn’t much good without his horse, reasoned Gislain to himself with a speculative glance at Margetta. So he dived in again, risked thrashing hoofs in the dark water, and brought the horse to shore.
    Now Gislain wants a new shirt."

   The other was the article at the beginning of this entry. It, too, was in a scrapbook, kept during the war by Florence and Bruce Andrews of Stockbridge, Mass. It reads as follows:


Woman Swoons in Local Store at Sight of Sinatra Picture

    Women employees of England Brothers' record department learned yesterday afternoon why the term "weaker sex" is in such general use. Yes, the latest in national foolishness, a Sinatra swoon, had a belated but protracted Pittsfield premiere, but this one was different. She wasn't a starry-eyed, ankle socks teen-aged miss, but a mellowing 25 or so.
   At any rate, she passed dead away at sight of a cardboard picture of The Voice, according to Mrs. Edward Roan, manager of the department. Anxious employees, intent on rendering first aid, rushed to her prostrate form, but were rebuffed, and sharply, by two companions, who said smelling salts or any such nonsense just wasn't needed. They played one of "his" records to revive her and as soon as he came on, her condition took a sharp turn for the better.
   Her eyes opened, and so did her voice. In a few seconds she and her associates in madness were splitting the air with screams that were a cross between frenzied delight and agonizing distress.
   Employees were baffled, talked of evicting proceedings, but a tolerant general manager let them go. Punishment of their larynges continued through several more pieces to both the amusement and disgust of an ever increasing audience.
   As they left, they placed heavily rouged lips on his lips, his eyes, his nose, his cheeks, and yes, his hair.

   The date wasn't on the article in the scrapbook, but some years after meeting the Andrews I was able to find the original page at newspaperarchive.com. Due to the size of the page, the headlines are a little hard to read, so after "Russians Lunging for Odessa Hoping To Trap 100,000 Nazis," "Jap Invaders On Outskirts Of Imphal," "Too Few Men Caused Stalemate in Italy," "RAF Mosquitoes Hammering at Smashed Hamburg," "Tirpitz Victors Home in Triumph," and perhaps the most prophetic, as the paper is dated a month before D-Day, "General Denies Invaders Will Lose Heavily." (The general is none other than Omar Bradley). And the picture on Page 1 is of a B-24 returning from a mission in China.





   On Saturday, November 9, at 1 p.m. I'll be talking about my new book, The Armored Fist, at the Stockbridge Library in Stockbridge, Mass. If you don't live too far away, I hope you can attend. For more information, visit the Stockbridge Library website.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

'Headless' headline writer axed

The headless newspaper delivery person of Sleepy Hackensack

   It was big news recently when the fellow who wrote "Headless Body in Topless Bar" was let go after 40 years with the New York Post. Actually, he'd been writing movie reviews on a freelance basis for the Post, so he was probably either bought out or laid off a couple of years ago, and some bean counter likely said, "Why do we need to pay for freelance movie reviews anymore?"
  The firing of Vinnie Musetto went viral, with NPR saying many people consider that the greatest tabloid headline ever written. Not me. First, note how NPR qualified it with "tabloid," as if the New York Times or Washington Post never would let a headline like that grace its pages, which they wouldn't. It's probably taught in journalism school as the ne plus ultra of tabloid headlines.
   If I had the final say, I'd have let the headline through, I may be critical but I'm not a fool.
   I suppose, though, it was a watershed event in tabloid journalism and if it has inspired legions of journalism students to think creatively, so be it.
   There's another headline, though, that I think of as far better as pure headlines go, and it doesn't make fun of gruesome murders or strip clubs.
   It was written by my former colleague Ed Reiter, and won a New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists award, for which it hung for several years on a bulletin board near the copy desk. It's probably still hanging there, although the newsroom has long since been deserted and the staff moved to less valuable real estate.
   The headline was above a gardening story, that's right, a gardening story, about an invasion of slimy pests that were giving people grief. The more I looked at that headline from my seat on the copy desk, or as I passed the bulletin board on my way to the cafeteria, the more it grew on me.
   The headline was "Slugfest in the Garden." To me, looking at that headline on the bulletin board was like looking at a work of art in a museum. It was a double double entendre deal, with slugs being the slippery slimy creatures and the left and right hooks and body blows and haymakers and garden conjuring imagery of both that place the slippery slimies were invading and Madison Square Garden, once the mecca of the so-called "sport of kings."
   So here's to you, Ed Reiter, award winning headline writer and world famous numismatologist (he's also an expert on coin collecting).

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Way to go, Diana Nyad!

 
 Two headlines on the Internet today from the world of aquatics caught my eye.

CNN: Diana Nyad a baby boomer hero

Yahoo!: Beyonce rocks '60s style bikini

   In all seriousness (wait a minute, the above was a serious observation on the state of online journalism), congratulations to Ms. Nyad, and may this month's special edition of the AARP magazine outsell that exploitative issue of Rolling Stone that glamorized the Boston Marathon bomber.
   Now excuse me while, thanks to Nyad's persistence and success, I go practice for my Outback-to-Canberra swim without a saltwater crocodile cage. Owch! Ooch! Shut your mouth, you future pair of high end cowboy boots.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Man With No Lines in Head Writes Headlines

   




Play it again, Sam



   When I recently sent a link to my last post to the CCNY Communications Alumni group on Linked-In, Sam Gronner suggested I let the group know when I write a post concerning my alma mater. I started out as a DIY blogger -- that is, no Blogspot, no Wordpress, I just called a section of my web site "Aaron's Blog" and did it myself. I made a few posts, which required a great deal of linking back and forth, and had none of the bells and whistles that the two main blog arenas offer.
   You won't find those entries unless you follow a series of links to pages which are no longer linked to from the main page, and you won't find them from this blog. So I'll reprint, with a couple of minor edits, one of my first entries from what would eventually become this blog.

   Nov. 19, 2008 -- When I was a teenager riding the subway to Stuyvesant High School from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, long before New York Magazine dubbed it the Yupper West Side; in fact, just a few blocks from where I lived on West 89th Street was 84th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues, which some civic organization trumpeted as the worst block in all of New York City, and to think we moved to the Upper West Side from Hell's Kitchen. Riding the subway I would crane my neck over riders' shoulders to read the headlines in the New York Post and the Daily News, little thinking that I would one day be writing those headlines myself, and gazing in wonder at the origami-esque wizardry of the mostly men in suits who neatly folded the New York Times so that they could manage reading it on the subway.
    As a freshman at the City College of New York, I joined The Campus, one of two student newspapers at the school. The first story I was assigned to write was about a series of old movies to be shown in the South Campus cafeteria. When I opened the paper, a photo from a movie I didn't recognize accompanied my story along with a headline that said, "Welcome now to Rick's cafe."
    I was like, "Huh?"
     I can't tell you how long I resisted writing or even saying things like "I was like 'Huh?'" because it seemed a bastardization of the English language, but everywhere I turned someone was saying "I was like, 'This'," or "I was like, 'That'," and so finally the phrase just slipped out of my mouth, and then it appeared on paper, but while I would leave it in the text of a story I was editing at the Bergen Record, I never entered it into copy myself, not because I didn't think it appropriate, but because it would then pass through the hands of an anally retentive supervisor who would turn red and accuse me of butchering the English language.
   Getting back to my freshman year at City, I took the copy of The Campus with my story in it to one of the paper's upperclasspersons, pointed to the headline and said, "I don't understand this."
    The upperclassperson was like "You're 17 years old and a New Yorker and you've never seen 'Casablanca'?"
    And so I learned my first lesson about headline writing -- a lesson with which several supervisors I  worked under over the decades would disagree. The lesson was give the reader credit for knowing a thing or two about popular culture. There was no mention in my story of Rick's cafe, but the headline writer assumed that anybody who was into old films -- especially at a culturally savvy school such as the City College of New York, which turned out such stars of stage and screen as Zero Mostel, Edward G. Robinson and Cornel Wilde, not to mention more nobel laureates than you could shake a wandful of pixie dust at -- would not only  know where Rick's Cafe was but could toss off lines like "Out of all the gin joints in all the world ... " without ever having been in a gin joint or having seen any of the world beyond the Bronx or Brooklyn. My first supervisor at the Bergen Record, the late beloved Bob Sumner, for all his warmth and nurturing, would have tossed that headline across the newsroom and made me go stand in the corner for 15 minutes because Rick's Cafe wasn't mentioned anywhere in the story.
    When I look back, "Welcome now to Rick's Cafe" was not a bad headline. It transports the reader not only into an article about the movie but into the movie itself. And if, like me at age 17, the reader doesn't know what or where Rick's Cafe is, then he or she can ask, or now, some four decades later, Google it.
    Good God, I take it all back. Google Rick's Cafe and the first thing that pops up is some upscale restaurant in Jamaica, and "Casablanca" doesn't come up until the seventh entry.* But if there hadn't been a Humphrey Bogart, the place probably would be called "Jamaica Joe's."
Thanks for reading.
 
*This was in 2008. Google Rick's Cafe today and Casablanca doesn't even make the first page.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Longshot Larry and Lucky Hal

 
   One of the World War II veterans I interviewed spoke about what a character his mother was, and how she was so supportive of everything he did. When he made the football team in high school, she came to his games, and one time, when he scored a touchdown, she proudly told everyone within hearing distance in the stands that her son just hit a home run.
   I, too, had a mother who was very supportive. Her son wasn't an agate clerk in the sports department of the New York Post. He was the sports editor of the New York Post, never mind that in its pre-Rupert Murdoch heyday being the sports editor of the Post was only one or two steps removed from being king of New York.
   At the time, the Post had a prestigious horseracing section. With a bunch of charts and all, it was kind of a poor man's Racing Form. And you can't have a horseracing section without handicappers.
   The post had one professional handicapper, Jerry DeNonno, and it had a couple of amateurs who would send in their picks, and Mr. Agate Clerk, aka me, would arrange their three picks per race neatly in a box that appeared on one of the three or four racing pages. There was, however, one handicapper out of the five in the box, his name was Trackman, who may have at one time existed, but he didn't exist when I was there.
   Here's what you do, I was told. You take Jerry DeNonno's three selections and jumble them up, and that's Trackman. Sometimes you mix in a jumbled trio of one of the other handicapper's selections to throw off any conspiracy theorists who might latch onto the formula. It may not be in a league with Edward Snowden, but I often thought one day somebody is going to expose this racket, except that in the horseracing world those three jumbled selections had about as good a chance of winning as the professional handicappers' picks. Kind of like the stock market.
   The night sports editor at the time was Vic Ziegel, who was a legend among sportswriters. Vic died a couple of years ago of lung cancer, and he didn't smoke, but he used to cover boxing in the days when Madison Square Garden was one big cloud of cigar smoke during a match, and newsrooms weren't smoke free either. Vic's job was extremely stressful thanks to ever-earlier deadlines and ever-later games, but he found a way to handle the stress. However difficult a night it was, come about four or four-thirty in the morning Vic would stop everything, he'd lean back in his chair with, I guess it was the Racing Form since he knew how we handicapped our own paper, and he would pick a longshot at Aqueduct or Belmont, and there'd be a little box on the racing page, one day it would be "Longshot Larry" and the next day it would be "Lucky Hal." Most days Longshot Larry or Lucky Hal was actually Vic Ziegel.
   When Vic was off, sometimes Longshot Larry or Lucky Hal would be ... you guessed it. And my mother would always ask me for recommendations when one of her poker playing buddies was going to the track.
   At any rate, Longshot Larry and Lucky Hal went a long way toward alleviating the stress on poor Vic.
   There was a story Vic may or may not have told, I lost touch with him and only saw him once after I left the Post in 1978, but he was a great storyteller and I was there when this story happened, so I assumed he would add it to his repertoire, although it's possible he told it a couple of times and then it slipped into the recesses. Like during the great Newspaper Strike of 1988 when there were three "interim" newspapers and the strike lasted 78 days and the new Pope died suddenly and one of the interim papers ran a headline on the top of its front page that said "Pope dies -- see tomorrow's paper for details." And it seemed like everybody who worked for one of the interim newspapers was going to write a book about it and no one ever did.
   In this particular story, however, Longshot Larry made his selection for the night. An hour or two later the paper was finished. Vic probably went out and had some breakfast, then hopped on the subway and got to Aqueduct, or maybe it was Belmont, in time for the first race.
   Longshot Larry picked a horse named TV Rerun that day. I don't know which race it was in, but I'll wager that Vic plunked ten or twenty bucks on its nose. The bugle signaled that the race was about to begin, the starting gate was lifted, TV Rerun bolted from the gate and soon was in the middle of the pack. The horse was acquitting itself well and entered the stretch in second place, but didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning. Suddenly the jockey on the favorite horse raised his right hand, or maybe it was his left hand, to give his horse a gentle little thwack with the whip and, lo and behold, the whip fell out of his hand, the favorite switched gears from Express Train to Laid Back Surfer Dude, and TV Rerun passed him just before the wire, returning a handsome sum to all the Longshot Larry devotees who wagered two or four dollars on him.
   That night Vic came in to work in a very good mood and was telling the story to anyone who'd listen, and then he got down to the stressful work of the night.
   Around seven or eight in the morning the phone rang and it was Ike Gellis, the sports editor of the Post, calling, as he usually did, to see how things went during the night. Now Ike, too, liked to play the ponies, only whereas Vic bet ten or twenty dollars on a horse, Ike would bet several hundred, if not more. And there was Vic, a few feet from me, on the phone relating the story about TV rerun and the favorite's jockey dropping the whip when all of a sudden there was a prolonged silence, and Vic's face turned ashen.
   "What did he say?" someone asked.
   I could see Vic was trying to maintain his composure. Then he said that Ike, the sports editor, said, in what was probably a terse near whisper, "That was my whip the jockey dropped."
   Nothing more was said, but man, what a great story Vic had to tell, I thought. Whether he ever told it I don't know.
  
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Friday, August 2, 2013

High Anxiety

Boomer says "But why do you want to put plants here? It's my anti-puppy fortress!"

   A Facebook friend recently posted a picture of her cat named Boomer, which reminded me of a story.
   In my job at the New Britain Herald/Bristol Press, my fellow copy editors are mid to late twentysomethings, maybe fast approaching the big 3-0, which, considering I'm in my 63rd year on this planet, makes them less than half my age. However, by the time I'm eligible for Medicaid they'll be at least half if not more than half my age, by the time I'm bent over and walking with a cane they might be three-quarters of my age, and by the time they're selling beachfront property on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan they should be a couple of years older than me. Who said I was never good at math? I think I said that, but in my youth I could count units in a headline like nobody's business.
   Sometimes, sitting at my desk, I'll overhear a conversation among my younger colleagues about what might be called anxiety dreams. One of them will have had a dream, for instance, in which it's ten minutes past deadline and no one is answering the phone in the plate room, or the pdf of a page reveals white space where a story is supposed to be, nothing spectacular but enough to give the best of copy editors a severe case of agita.
   I used to have dreams like that, except that it was in the era of hot type. I would dream that it was seven in the morning -- the New York Post was an afternoon paper then, and the "wood," or the front page, had to go to the plate room around 7:15, so all the other pages had to be finished well before that -- and I would walk into the composing room and there would be a row of sports pages (I used to fill in as the night sports editor) which should have been filled with stories about the Yankees and Mets and the Giants and Jets and the etc. and the etc. and there the pages would be -- empty, hollowed out forms with less lead in them than a Bushmaster clip. Then I would wake up, not screaming, not pounding the bed, not on the floor, like many of the PTSD-afflicted World War II veterans I've interviewed, but confused at first, then terribly relieved when I realized it was a dream.
   The few months I filled in sporadically as the night sports editor were filled with the kind of anxiety that triggered such dreams. As the person in charge of the section, I will say I was fairly adept; I had a good handle on copy flow and the staff was very professional. For economic and competitive reasons, however, the deadlines kept getting earlier and earlier, and some things were simply beyond my control, such as when the Yankees or Mets had a night game on the West Coast which would require the sportswriter covering the team to get his copy in often moments after the game ended.
   The year was 1977. That was a year after Rupert Murdoch bought the Post. The New York Yankees were playing on the West Coast, I'm not even sure which team they were playing. The sportswriter covering the game was a fellow named Henry Hecht, with whom I'd clerked a few years before and then watched as he became one of the paper's better sportswriters and I became a copy editor.
   Henry lived by himself on Lafayette Street in Manhattan, which is a little north and east of Greenwich Village, maybe it's even included in the Village. And he had a cat.
   While the game on the West Coast was in the later innings, the Sports Department phone rang. One of my colleagues answered it and handed the receiver to me.
   "It's a woman with a foreign accent," my colleague said, "and she wants to talk to Henry."
   I took the phone and explained that Henry was out of town. She knew that already, because she was a neighbor of Henry's and had agreed to watch his cat. She proceeded to say, in a panicked voice with a foreign accent, that Henry's cat fell out the window and was dead.
   This was before the days of text messaging, when she simply could have texted Henry "yr ct fell out wndw," so she was trying to reach him on the telephone. On D-Day in World War II, as the troops were getting slaughtered on Omaha Beach, General Eisenhower had to make a choice: Call off the invasion or not call it off. He didn't call it off and the rest is history. The decision I had to make was not in the same league as that; nevertheless it was fraught with anxiety: Do I tell Henry his cat fell out the window and risk him having a meltdown, blowing deadline, and my ass gets called on the carpet? Or do I not tell Henry until after he filed his story, and risk having a sportswriter I considered my friend hate me for the rest of his life? What would I say, "Thanks for getting your story in on time, by the way your cat fell out the window"?
   Then the phone rang. It was Henry.
   I'm guessing it was the seventh-inning stretch. Before I could say anything, Henry wanted to know if, in addition to his game story, he could write a sidebar. Then he said:
   "Dave Kingman brought his dog Boomer to the ballpark. I think it would make a good human interest story."
   Oh ... my ... god.
   Well, sometimes you have to make a decision that can affect the rest of your life very quickly.
   "Henry," I said. "I have to tell you something."
   After I told him, there was silence. The game still had an inning or two to go. I don't remember whether Henry wrote the sidebar about Dave Kingman's dog Boomer, but he told me later that after I told him about the cat, he cried, then he wrote his game story. It was clean, professional, and filed ahead of deadline.
   Had I made the right decision? I think so. In the best of all possible worlds, I never would have had another anxiety dream, but in the newspaper business there's always another day and another deadline. One day at Murdoch's daily meeting my supervisor threw me under the bus over a blown deadline, and my career at the New York Post was over. Luckily, I was able to land a job at the New York Daily News, where I worked for the next ten years. But that's another story for another day.
 
- - -
  
A related story, from my former colleague Steve Bromberg

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The lighter side of genocide

I've always maintained that headline writers shouldn't make fun of things like world conflagrations and genocide, but I have to admit I got a kick out of this ad for fertilizer in which a lady says she should be arrested for crimes against pottedplantkind:

 
Let me add that, genocide aside, the phrase "crimes against pottedplantkind" embodies one of my favorite headline writing techniques, the combination of all or part of two words (or in this case three, more points to ya) to create a new word. Oh, excuse me, I think I hear somebody at the door.
 
Who's there?
 
"Derecho."
 
Derecho who?
 
"Derecho get recho while depooro get pooro"


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Miles to go before I get pulled over


You are now entering ... Aaron's blog


   I've been fired, I've quit, I've been downsized, restructured, laid off, yelled at, cursed, thanked, congratulated, transferred sideways so many times you'd think I was on a merry go round. In 46 years in the newspaper business since I landed a part time job as a copyboy at the New York Post when I was 17 years old and a freshman at the City College of New York, I've sharpened pencils, made coffee, distributed galley proofs, read upside down, written headlines, corrected grammar, saved countless reporters from getting their pants sued off, gotten one newspaper's pants sued off (they should have fought but it was cheaper to settle), hell, it's like preventing terrorism, only the ones that slip through the security measures get noticed. I've Hemingwayed a thousand run-on sentences, called hundreds of reporters in the middle of the night to tell them there's a hole in their story big enough to bounce a beachball through. Did I mention I've made up a verb or two along the way and mangled the English language in a thousand different headlines? There's one thing I've never done until this week ... retired.
   Make that semi-retired. That's the way I see it. Bad financial judgment over the years led me to put in for early Social Security at the age of 63 and for every buck I earn above a certain amount I have to pay a penalty, so I decided to cut back on my hours. I was sure the publisher of the newspaper I work for would take it hard, since I did everything I could the last two and a half years to make myself indispensible, but when I asked to cut back on my hours his eyes lit up. The paper isn't going to replace me, will no longer be saddled with the cost of my health insurance, and my colleagues will have to pick up the slack, so why shouldn't he be happy.
   He's happy. I'm happy. If a day or two of overtime gets thrown into the mix my colleagues will be happy. What's wrong with this picture? I'll tell you what's wrong. If I don't do something to head it off at the pass, my friend Victor is going to send me a comment saying "Congratulations on your retirement." And I'm going to have to correct him and say "Semi-retirement."
   The fact is, it's time to devote more time to my second career as the second coming of Studs Turkel. And to collect my thoughts on the fine art of writing headlines and finish that semi instructional, semi autobiographical book I always wanted to write under the title of this blog. Uh oh. I think I hear the dinner bell tolling. It's tolling for me. I toll you so.

   Toity.
  
  
 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

An audio sampler


   Friends, Romans, Presidents, lend me your rears ...
 

 
Ears! Ears! I said "Lend me your EARS!"
 
 
No! No! I meant the kind of ears you listen with!
 

Now that's what I'm talkin' about. I've created a new sampler CD containing tracks from several of my oral history audiobooks. The audiobooks are available in my eBay store.

Click on the links below to listen to the sampler in mp3 form.

Track 1 Introduction (Aaron Elson)

Track 2 Karnig Thomasian, POW of the Japanese, from "For You the War Is Over"

Track 3 Sam Cropanese, 712th Tank Battalion, from "The Tanker Tapes"

Track 4 Ed Boccafogli, 82nd Airborne Division, from "The D-Day Tapes"

Track 5 Vern Schmidt, 90th Infantry Division, from "Kill or Be Killed"

Track 6 Bob Rossi, 712th Tank Battalion, from "Once Upon a Tank in the Bulge"

Track 7 Bob Cash, 492nd Bomb Group, ex-POW, from "March Madness"

Track 8 Russell Loop, 712th Tank Battalion, from "More Tanker Tapes"


Track 10 George Collar, 445th Bomb Group, from "The Kassel Cassettes"

Track 11 Jerome Auman, from "Four Marines"

(c) copyright 2013 Aaron Elson




Saturday, May 11, 2013

Random acts of musing

   Earlier this month I went down to New York City to be a guest speaker in a fifth-grade class on alumni day at Hunter College Elementary School. HCES is housed in a complex that includes Hunter High School. I arrived early so as to avoid getting caught in rush hour traffic, and while I waited in the lobby a student entered the building with a copy of the New York Daily News.
   Here it is more than a week later and I still haven't a clue as to what the lead story was about, maybe somebody reading this will remember the headline and the story and can fill me in, but the headline kind of gave me a flashback both to a headline I've written about previously and to a discussion many years ago with my old friend (and current Facebook amiga) Joanne.
   The tabloid headline, which took up about 80 percent of the front page, was: "Dixie Heads" (all capitals, if I recollect correctly).
  As I mentioned, I had no idea what the story was about, and figured maybe I'd see something on the Internet later that would make me go "aha" but that was not to be. However, my immediate reaction to the headline was that the headline writer was making a play on the word "Dickheads," which is the word my dear friend Joanne all those many years ago used to refer to men who asked her for her phone number and then never called.
   If that were the case -- that is, if that indeed is what the headline was playing off of, it would be like a bookend to the headline "How the City Got Shafted" which I wrote about previously, and which signaled a change in editorial direction that allowed blatant euphemisms for outlawed words to be used in a tabloid head. Of course "dick" has more acceptable usages than "shafted," I mean Richard Nixon was often called Tricky Dick, and going way back a detective or a guard was called a dick, as in "The Bank Dick" (god bless you WC Fields), but there's no confusing the dick in a dickhead with a penis, if, indeed, that was the gutter in which the headline writer's mind resided.
   So that's two flashbacks for the price of one headline, not bad, eh?
   Then another headline this week triggered a flashback. This one was on ESPN.com. The flashback was to a headline that I refused to let a colleague write when I was filling in during a brief stint as the backup night sports editor at the doomed Daily News Tonight, or maybe it was the regular Daily News sports section, I forget. But the headline was about a sporting event, again, I don't even remember what kind of sporting event, maybe a boxing match or a baseball game, but it referred to the event as being similar to "World War 3."
   "You can't write that," I said.
   "Why not?" my temporary underling but most time equal said.
   "World War 3 is serious business," I said, or words to that effect. "Millions of people could get killed. This is just a sporting event."
   "It's hyperbole," my colleague said.
   "It's history," said, hitting the delete button. At least I wish I'd said that. But I overruled him anyway.
   So the flashback came a few days ago when I clicked on ESPN to see how the New York sports teams were doing, and the lead video on the home page was about how the Golden State Warriors were in the process of winning a playoff game, or maybe any game for that matter, in San Antonio for the first time in many moons (I don't think ESPN used the word moon).
   The headline said "Forget the Alamo."
   Whoa, Nellie. For any kid who grew up buying into the myth of Davey Crockett and his coonskin cap, a headline like that is anathema. Oh the sacrilege! How can anybody charged with writing headlines compare a basketball game to an epic event in American history. It would be like saying someone on a diet was fighting the Battle of the Bulge. Wait a second. I've done that. More than once. Nevertheless.
   At any rate, when I saw "Forget the Alamo," I had my flashback moment and moved on. But I'm sure I'll remember the Alamo long after I've forgotten the score of the game the headline referenced. In fact, I think the Spurs rallied to win the game anyway. No doubt inspired by someone in the second row holding up an iPad displaying the offensive headline.

Monday, April 29, 2013

WTF, How'd that happen? (My headline portfolio)

  
   Oops. On the left hand side of this blog you'll see a link that says "My Headline Portfolio." It's been there for more than a year now. The portfolio, such as it is, is ensconced in an album on my Facebook page, and when I checked the link today for the first time since whenever, I discovered it goes not to my headline album but to my general status page, and who knows where it goes since I altered my facebook settings so that only my friends can see my photos.
   So ... without further ado, now that I know how to ado it, following is a collection of headlines I wrote at the New York Daily News and in my early days at the Bergen Record:




















Saturday, April 27, 2013

OMG, there's more of this?

Although he wasn't the legendary Bigfoot, Gil Spencer was
the second best legendary editor I worked under.

See earlier posts:
 
 
   In 1984 Gil Spencer came to the Daily News as editor, with Jim Willse as his managing editor. Spencer had that old-time newspaper aura about him, and was probably second only to Paul Sann among the editors I've worked under, although I only had one face-to-face encounter with him and when he came to the Bergen Record to give a talk many years later he didn't remember who I was. C'est la vie.
   As for that encounter, I was working in the features department under a department head named Guna Bite, pronounced not like Bite Me, but with an accent aigue over the e, so her name was pronounced Bitee. Guna was of Latvian descent, tall, with relatively short blond hair.
   I can't say precisely why, but Guna had come over from the news copy desk to be head of the features copy desk, which was a promotion, but the job came with a lot of pressure, and after about a year it was more pressure than Guna could bear. So she went to Spencer and asked to be removed from the department head position and he removed her all right; he fired her.
   She was pretty broken up over that, and a couple of days later I knocked on the door of Spencer's office, he said come in, and I asked him if instead of firing her he couldn't simply reassign her to her former position on the news desk. I don't know if I had anything to do with it but that's what happened. I never said anything to anyone about having saved her job.
   A few months later I was approached by one of the managers and asked if I'd like to work on the suburban news copy desk. I said I'd think about it. The next day I was working on the suburban news copy desk. Unbeknownst to me, at the time, there was a young lady on the suburban news copy desk who previously had a reputation as being, well, maybe a little loose is the way to put it, but then she was involved in a serious auto accident and became a diehard feminist. She also either had filed or was about to file a sexual harassment charge against the head of the suburban copy desk, and the solution was to transfer her to the features department which meant sending me to the suburban copy desk, so it already was a fait accomplis when I was asked if I'd consider it.
   Not that I'm complaining. I loved working on the suburban copy desk, and later the main news copy desk.
   I'm going to backtrack a bit now, and begrudgingly admit that I may have been wrong about Spencer's managing editor, Jim Willse, who was hired at about the same time.
   I wrote a previous blog entry about the following incident so I'll keep it short. The Daily News had a company Christmas party shortly after the tandem was hired and of course they attended, or at least Willse was there.
   The News had recently published one of those screaming tabloid headlines about a gay bar called the Mine Shaft which apparently was owned by a city official and was granted tax-free status. The headline went "How the city got shafted," that may not have been the exact wording but the word "shaft" was there.
   Now euphemisms have always been one of my favorite headline writing tools, but the word "shaft" is a euphemism for fucked, no two ways about it, and this was the Daily News, which, although times have changed, at the time considered its quintessential reader to be a housewife in Queens.
   So at the Christmas party I approached Willse and asked him if he didn't think there was something wrong with using "Shafted" in a page one headline, or any other headline for that matter.
   No, he said, he thought that was a very good headline.
   I immediately formed a negative opinion of Willse, who did go on to be the editor of the Newark Star-Ledger and the paper even won a Pulitzer Prize during his tenure. So I may have been wrong about Willse; as for the headline, it nevertheless sucked.
  
(to be continued)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Editors shmeditors Part 3

This is Buddy Martin, the
first of many editors who
would have fired me if
he could.
  
   It all seems kind of a blur as I approach the age of 64 but some things pop out of the fog.
   Like the time the New York Post moved from its plant on West Street in lower Manhattan to the Journal American Building on the East Side of Manhattan. I had a little difficulty finding the new building, so after disembarking from the Number 6 train at the City Hall station, I hailed a cab and asked the driver if he knew where the Journal American Building was. The Post bought the building because the Journal American went out of business in 1966 (thank you, Wikipedia)  and the building had a better printing press than the Post building on West Street.
   "You mean the American Building," the cabbie said. God bless the quintessential New York cabbie, those, too, have gone the way of the World Journal Herald Telegraph Mirror Tribune Sun.
   It was the American building before it was combined with the Journal.
   I loved that building. I could drive down from the upper West Side, park below the East Side Drive for free in an area that must have been the scene of a dozen crimes in "Law and Order," bodies pulled from the river, burned out cars with bodies in the trunk flush up against a pillar holding up the East Side Drive, today it probably costs $24.95 for the first half hour to park there with a short walk south to the South Street Seaport or east to Chinatown. After I got out of work, say, at three or four in the morning I could walk down to the Fulton Fish Market which was thriving at that hour and buy a five pound box of fillets.
   I left that building a few years later to go to the Daily News, which had its own iconic building with an Art Deco lobby. In the middle of the lobby was a giant globe. One of my fellow copy editors in the sports department of the Daily News, Eddie Coyle, was a recovering alcoholic and currently addicted marathon runner who loved to tell the story of the time he came in to work inebriated, climbed on top of the globe in the middle of the lobby and began singing "I'm sitting on top of the world."
   Not long after I went to the Daily News the company launched an advertising campaign that went "Imagine how much fun it must be to work at the Daily News." Not as much fun, I imagine, as those copy editors putting out the Orange County Register from desks on the beach, as depicted on the covers of a thousand editions of Editor and Publisher, but it was fun for a while. That didn't last long, however.
   Newspapers across the country were thriving except in big cities. There was a death watch going on as the circulation of the Daily News declined and the circulation of the Post under Rupert Murdoch crept upward but the paper still bled cash and people were waiting, speculating, to see which paper would succumb first, while Newsday on Long Island was basking in the demise of the Long Island Press and hovering like a vulture to snap up the market share of the Daily News or the Post, whichever went under first.
   Neither of them did go under, and they even both survived the 78-day newspaper strike of 1978, which occurred in my first year at the Daily News.
   A few years later the Daily News, hoping to hasten, I surmise, the seemingly always  imminent demise of the Post, launched an afternoon edition called Daily News Tonight.
   That led to my second and last encounter with Bill Brink, the editor who interviewed me when I was hired.
   The Daily News Tonight was a disaster -- a high-quality disaster, mind you -- from the day it was launched. They hired a bunch of people and poured money into it, but the circulation wasn't there.
   At some point they hired a new sports editor named Buddy Martin -- I was still in the sports department at the time, and I'm not even sure who he replaced, although it must have been Dick Young -- I just found Young's obituary online, and it said he was sports editor of the Daily News until 1982 when he went to the Post, so that would have been when Buddy Martin was brought in from outside as the sports editor.
   When the Daily News Tonight was launched the News hired a deputy sports editor named John Clendenon. This Clendenon fellow was, well, he must have had some redeeming qualities.
   The Daily News Tonight lasted only a few months if I remember correct. When rumors were flying about its impending demise, with the attendant layoffs, Bill Brink made a tour of the newsroom, giving pep talks from department to department.
   After his pep talk in the sports department, he asked if there were any questions.
   I raised my hand.
   Yes?
   "Why is it that we're no longer allowed to use Chisox or Bosox in headlines?" I asked.
   "I didn't know you couldn't," Brink said.
   "Because those are cliches, and we don't use cliche headlines," chimed in Clendenon, who had outlawed their use. Such cliche headlines, in 120 point type, were practically the trademark of the Daily News back page. CHISOX TOP YANKS, YANKS BELT BOSOX, etc., etc.
   Just as an aside, one of my all-time favorite headlines was written by a crusty elderly sports copy editor named Lester Rose early in my tenure at the Daily News. It went: MILWAUKEE WISCS YANKS. Try writing a headline like that today!
   Ironically, Clendenon was right that Chisox and Bosox were cliches, he was only wrong to outlaw their use.
   The next day, or maybe a day or two after that, Clendenon was fired.
   He wasn't fired because I asked that question, or so I was assured, that was simply the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.
   Unbeknownst to me, when the News was looking for a sports editor to replace Dick Young, it was Clendenon who saw the listing, I imagine in Editor and Publisher, and told his buddy Buddy. In other words, Buddy owed his buddy bigtime, and when Buddy's buddy got canned, ostensibly because I laid that straw on that proverbial camel's back, I was about to discover that Buddy was no buddy of mine.
   It might have been the day after Clendenon was dismissed, it might have been a day and several hours, but I got called into Buddy's office, and he would have fired me were I not protected by the Newspaper Guild. God bless the Newspaper Guild. When he realized he couldn't fire me, he told me I could resign or be transferred to another department. I opted for the latter, and although the circumstances might be described as having been under duress, it was the best career move I ever made, at least in my newspaper career.
   I wound up on the features copy desk, thanks to my job protection under the union contract, and Buddy Martin himself wound up fired a few months later.
  
(to be continued)

  

Monday, April 22, 2013

And another one...and another one...

An Africanized honey bee thinks about who to kill next.
(See earlier post: Another One Bites the Dust)
  
  Over the next few centuries I imagine a couple of books will be written about Rupert Murdoch, but I doubt that either of them will mention a clipping that was posted on the bulletin board of the sports department of the New York Post in 1977. The clipping was from the San Antonio Express -- I don't imagine it was the original article but probably was a photocopy -- the Express was the first newspaper in America that Murdoch bought, and Murdoch had recently purchased the Post -- the headline from the San Antonio newspaper blared something to the effect, and I forget the exact wording, about killer bees making their way to America from South America.
   Everybody laughed, this is our new boss? I will say it took ten years or so, but since then Africanized honey bees have claimed their fair share of fatalities north of the border. Thwap! Whew, that was close. I don't know if that sucker was africanized or not, but I didn't want to find out.
   Killer bees aside, I witnessed another what now is probably considered at best a minuscule moment of Murdoch history when one morning in 1978 the "wood" was wheeled through the sports department on its way to the newsroom; "wood" was the term used for front page headlines that were too big to make on a linotype machine so they were engraved in wood, don't ask me, I don't know how the process worked, but this particular wood, in maybe 300 point type, the kind used for Pearl Harbor Bombed or Twin Towers Collapse, announced "Baby Born Without Mother." Wow. This new boss of ours is totally bonkers. Didn't we used to be a newspaper. I'm not quoting exactly, these were just some of the thoughts that were drifting through the sports department. What had happened was that someone had given Murdoch an advance copy of a book about cloning. This was 1978, mind you, maybe even 1977, Dolly the Sheep wasn't even a rung in the ladder of her father's DNA.
   Ironically, while it still hasn't happened and it doesn't justify Murdoch's mangling of journalistic ethics, cloning has come a long way since then.
   Now, back to all the editors and managing editors and executive editors I've worked for over the years. After Paul Sann retired from the New York Post, I have no idea who took his place, since I was blissfully ensconced on the night desk of the sports department and had practically nothing to do with the dayside doings at the Post. I looked it up on the Internet and apparently it was some guy named McKenzie. I'll leave it at that.
   Initially after Murdoch bought the post there was an exodus of talent, including Chuck Slater, I'm not quite sure what his title was but he was probably the night sports editor at the Post since he was my supervisor. After he left, I was awarded the privilege of filling in in the "slot" which was one of the most stressful jobs I've ever tackled; I won't at this point go into the reasons for this. I don't know the exact sequence or the dates, but Ike Gellis retired as the longtime sports editor and was replaced by a Murdoch stooge named Jerry Lisker, actually I kind of liked the guy, and Greg Gallo, the son of the legendary Daily News sports cartoonist Bill Gallo, was brought over from Murdoch's Star to be the assistant sports editor.
   About a year after the initial exodus, when I was training new sports copy editors to back me up in the "slot" and then seeing them promoted ahead of me, I began to wonder what was going on. Then one day Greg Gallo said to me that he wasn't supposed to tell me this, but at a news meeting one morning, Murdoch blew his stack because the sports department missed deadline, and somebody said to him that it was my fault. End of career. That day I called Chuck Slater and asked him if there were any openings at the Daily News. I don't know whether it was a week or two weeks later, but I left the Post and went to work on the sports copy desk at the Daily News.
   This time, however, I did have to go through the application and interview process.
   The person I interviewed with was Bill Brink. I looked him up online the other day and found his obituary from a few years ago and it noted that he was in the Army Air Corps in Italy during World War II. I was like damn, I wish I'd known that, but at the time I wasn't nearly as interested in the history of World War II as I since have become.
   The one thing I remember from the interview is that I told Brink that I loved writing headlines, and that I always admired the headline in the Daily News that said "Ford to City: Drop Dead."
   "I wrote that," he said.
   Damn, I thought, I really wasn't trying to butter the guy up, I had no idea. Anyway, I got the job.

(to be continued)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Another one bites the dust

   I arrived at work yesterday to find my managing editor outside having a cigarette. As I opened the door to enter the building's relatively small lobby -- somewhat proportionally re the size of the paper to the grand Art Deco lobby of the New York Daily News where I used to work -- he asked me if I'd heard the news, as if I even know how to open my company email from my home computer, heck, I've only been there two and a half years.
   No, I said. What news? I assumed immediately that the Turk -- as Norm Miller, a sportswriter at the Daily News many moons ago used to refer to the ax that fell on professional football squads at certain points in the pre-season; I imagine today the Turk would proverbially chop off Norm's proverbial head if he used that expression in a story since one doesn't want to give the impression anymore that Turkish people go around chopping off people's heads, that's not very politically correct, now, is it? Maybe the Taliban is visiting NFL training rooms these days. At any rate, just about the only news in the newsroom these days, other than another delay in going live with the new bells-and-whistles rich web site, is that somebody has been fired.
   "Jack's no longer here," the managing editor said. Jack K-----, the person to whom he referred, was the executive editor, which makes three executive editors who've come and gone since I was hired that seemingly short time ago. Well, not exactly come and gone, two came and three went, since the first one was within weeks of retiring when I was hired.
   There was a great deal of speculation in the newsroom yesterday but nothing concrete. I suppose if the publisher were listening, he would have picked up what Homeland Security calls a great deal of chatter. He did call a couple of my colleagues into his office to ask them what the mood of the newsroom was. He didn't call me in, but I'd have readily given him my opinion, which was that the executive editor was a nice guy, everybody liked him, but that he never quite got the chance to assert his authority. He tried a little too hard to be perceived as a "good guy" and to plug some of the newsroom's many holes; for instance he took cell phone pictures of the Christmas tree lighting ceremony across the street last year when no photographer was available, never mind that they were blurry and really lousy quality; he rewrote press releases and edited stories, but didn't edit them nearly as well as a copy editor might have edited them, if all the copy editors weren't so overworked and stressed out. And he loved to write weather stories.
   All of this got me to thinking about all the managing and executive editors -- mind you, I never quite understood the difference between the two, although I suppose in some table of organization there is one -- I've seen visited by the so-called Turk in the 46 or so years since I first sharpened two or three dozen No. 2 pencils a night, made coffee in an urn with flies on the bottom and was sent to buy cigarettes for Pete Hamill (two packs of Camels).
   There have been a lot, but none ever came close to the standard set by my first managing (executive?) editor, Paul Sann, whom I never had a conversation with -- he didn't interview me because I started at age 17 as a part-time copyboy on the midnight to 8 a.m. shift -- and I certainly wasn't recruited, but Paul Sann circled a headline on a galley proof and sent it to the sports editor, Ike Gellis, with the note "good headline," or maybe it was just "good head," or maybe even simply "good," and it was like somebody slapped a ball and chain to my ankle and wrapped the ball a few times around the base of the copy desk. Not that that was a bad thing, there were times in my alleged career that I loved being a copy editor, but the fact is that copy editors are the Rodney Dangerfields of the newspaper industry.
   In one of my earliest blog posts -- so early that it was in a roll your own iteration of the blog sprouting from one of my web sites and isn't included in this blog, so here's a link -- Aaron's early attempt at blogging -- I gave more of a description of the circumstances surrounding that circled headline, and I spoke of the friction between Sann and the Post's new owner, circa 1978, Rupert Murdoch, and I had a couple of the facts wrong, which I can thank Sann's son Howard for correcting. I didn't know it then, but I've worked under some good and some poor excuses for managing and executive editors but Sann set a standard that's been approached but never equaled.

(more)
 
(Wow, am I so old that I can remember when "more" was at the bottom of a page of copy? Excuse me while I catapult myself into the 21st century...)
 
(to be continued)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ripped From the Headlines

Elian Gonzalez is taken from his protectors so he can be returned to Cuba.

   One of the stops on the Yahoo carousel -- that series of news pictures that cross your computer screen, stopping barely long enough to hook you into reading the story before moving on to the next news story, so that you become conditioned to slamming your hand down on the keyboard like a contestant in a game show, but I digress -- there was a news story related in an odd sort of way to one of the main story lines in my new book "The Armored Fist."
   The story was about some drug addled couple who lost their two little boys to the wife's parents in a custody battle, funny the news media should use the word battle because it doesn't sound like much of a fight, the kids were simply taken away and placed with the grandparents instead of foster care. But anyway, this father with a couple of drug related convictions ties up his in-laws, kidnaps his own kids, and flees with his wife and the two little boys via boat to Cuba, which agrees to send the reprobates -- that term applies only to the parents, not the little boys, although they were included in the deal -- back to the United States.
   End of story. Not. I rarely use the word "lunkhead" but I feel obligated to apply it to the alleged journalist who compared this situation to that of little Elian Gonzalez, who survived a disastrous boat trip which claimed the life of his mother and wound up in Miami and in the center of a political firestorm.
   Now Elian's mother was not some drug addled good for nothing, all she wanted was freedom and a better life for herself, I guess she had a boyfriend too, and her son, and she headed toward America on an overcrowded, rickety boat with more leaks than the CIA, while the couple that fled to Cuba with their kids had a decent, uncrowded boat, even if the father didn't have both oars in the water. This the Yahoo correspondent called a "reverse Elian Gonzalez," like it was some kind of football play, although I suppose it does have a bit of legitimacy since purely in terms of the voyage it was like Elian's journey in reverse.
   By now, you are no doubt asking yoursef, what on earth does all this blabbering have to do with Aaron's new book, "The Armored Fist."
   Which brings me to the diary entry of the Rev. Edmund Randolph Laine of Stockbridge, Mass., for April 3, 1945.


   The diary entry begins with a thick black cross, which actually in this case is both a cross and a symbol referring to a footnote. The day begins cool and gray, with some sun in the afternoon. It was Easter Tuesday, and Reverend Laine notes that he is "not feeling too well." The diary entry ends with the footnote, or actually it was simply a late addition, underlined, "Eddie killed this day in action in Germany, at about 12 p.m. our time." I say it was a late addition because in the pre-Twitter era, it would be 13 days before a telegram arrived informing Reverend Laine that Lieutenant Edward L. Forrest was killed.
   When I first attended a reunion of the 712th Tank Battalion, in 1987, Ed Forrest was the only name from my father's stories that I remembered, which is why I took a special interest in his life.
   So wait, what about Cuba and Elian Gonzalez and the drug addled reprobate kidnapper of his own two kids, you might ask.
   For this you have to glance once again at the diary entry, and back up just a smidgin from the late addition. At 11 p.m., Reverend Laine listened to the news on the radio, which included commentary by Fred Vandeventer.
   I'll be damned. Forgive me while I digress again. It never occurred to me to look up Fred Vandeventer, but I just did, and according to imdb, Vandeventer was the "Mutual Broadcasting System radio newsman and columnist who originated the game "Twenty Questions" for radio and, later, television. Based on the "Animal, Vegetable or Mineral" parlor game, it was one of the first shows to transcend radio into the new medium of television, and was extremely popular. He was a "printer's devil" for his high school newspaper ..."
    So that's who Fred Vandeventer was, and that's who Reverend Laine was listening to on the radio at 11 p.m. on April 3, 1945. Now, back to Cuba.
    Right after listening to the news, Reverend Laine notes in his journal, immediately prior to the footnote, that he finished reading "When the French Were Here."
"When the French Were Here" was a book by historian and diplomat Stephen Bonsal about the role of the French in the American Revolution. It was the middle of 1781 and George Washington's proverbial credit cards were maxed out. His troops were like "What MREs again?" and ready to pack it in if they didn't get paid.
   Enter the "Ladies of Havana," who, according to Bonsal, responded to a plea from a French admiral with jewels and furs and cash worth about 1.2 million pounds, which financial analysts might tell you would be worth $28 million today. George Washington was overjoyed, the troops got paid, and the rest is history. American history.
   When Elian Gonzalez was unceremoniously returned to Cuba, the Latino press was all over it. I looked this up years ago when I first started researching the material in Reverend Laine's diary, and I've been unable to find it again, but a columnist in the Miami Herald wrote "...and this is how we pay them [the Ladies of Havana] back."
One of these days I'm going to transcribe more of Reverend Laine's diary, which is filled with cultural references of the day, often shortened due to a lack of space, like "Air mail letter from E. in p.m. mail. Walked around back lawn." Come to think of it, you might say he was born to tweet.

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Priceless. (Well, actually it's $17.69 at amazon)