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 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.