Thursday, April 13, 2017
We recently had our first spate of wet weather for the autumn season here in Andean Patagonia. Summers are typically dry, as are the early weeks of autumn. But then you start getting shifting winds and warmish wet weather rolling out of the northwest across the Andes from the Pacific or cold, bone-chilling rains blowing up “from down below”, as they say here, meaning out of the southeast, which is where a lot of the heaviest snows come from in the wintertime.
I keep my eye on the sky at this time of the year to make sure I get in plenty of dry firewood before the season changes completely. That usually happens in late May and June, when two or three weeks of heavy rain at a time are not uncommon, giving way to snow in the high country, which eventually falls lower and lower on the mountainsides until we, down here in the foothills, get our share of white stuff as well. This year, I was johnny-on-the-spot and already had over six and a half cords of excellent firewood cut hauled and stacked under cover by the end of March. In other words, I’m set for winter whenever and however it comes.
But I digress. What I was going to say was that, with the recent first rainstorms, we had abundant electrical activity. Anybody from my native west-central Ohio would say, “So what else is new?” But here, thunder is an oddity—something about the tall mountain peaks attracting opposing charges first and grounding out the lightning bolts at high altitudes, so that they seldom strike in the lowlands. I don’t know. I’m not a meteorologist, but that’s what they tell me. When I first moved down here to the mountains nearly a quarter-century ago, hearing thunder was even more rare than it is now (sometimes you’d go a few years without hearing even the most distant thunder). And that was something I missed from my Midwestern childhood. Because there was a point in my childhood when I grew fascinated with storms and, to my mother’s dismay, wanted to go out and play in them, to walk in them, to feel their power. But I wasn’t always that way—as you’ll soon see.
So anyway, the other day, which seemed like a perfectly nice day, if a little muggy and with a treacherous little gusty breeze kicking up, it suddenly started getting dark, with black clouds rolling in from the invisible Pacific, over on the other side of the cordillera. “It’s going to rain,” I thought. But thought no further, as I was sitting at my desk working and knew my firewood was all well-covered and tied down. Suddenly, however, a thunder clap that seemed to happen right above the house, shaking its timbers and setting every dog for miles around howling, scared the bejesus out of me. It was kind of like somebody rolling a howitzer up behind me and firing it with no warning. It’s natural. You almost literally jump out of your skin.
It was at that precise moment that a distant memory leaped to mind and started running in my head like an old movie that I’d filed away for future reference, only to have it “come onto the screen” accompanied by the exact same feelings and sensations of that far-off time and place. It was the precise moment at which I first became actively aware of thunder. I was, perhaps, three and a half or four years old. I know this because my little brother didn’t exist yet. It was just my sister Darla and me. We were sitting on the couch (which back then we called “the davenport”) in the living room of our house on Defiance Street in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Whitie, my dad, was working late and Darla and I were sitting on either side of Reba Mae, our mother. I don’t know what time it was, but it was already dark out. Reba Mae had invited us to sit there with her for the ostensible purpose of her reading us a story “so we wouldn’t be afraid of the storm.” But the truth was that she was reading to us to calm herself down because no one was displaying greater fear of the veritable symphony of lightning bolts and thunder claps outside than Reba Mae.
Her panic was, of course, infectious in children so small. There was a feeling that if we felt always safe and protected under our roof and with the adults in our lives, this thunder and lightning thing must be something against which our home, our fortress, had no special powers. If Reba Mae was quite clearly scared silly, invincible as we believed her to be, then this outside force must be something very major indeed.
So we hunkered close to her as the storm raged outside. I was so impressed by her fear, rather than by what she was reading, that, for this reason only, I recall exactly which stories she read us from the Childcraft Collection. They were both fables, one about a dog proudly carrying a prize bone in his mouth as he crosses a bridge over a brook, only to look down and see another dog just like him and carrying his very same bone in its mouth, and in response he barks, dropping the bone from his mouth into the brook, where it is lost forever. And the other one about a stork who offers a fox a drink from a long-necked jar into which his muzzle would never fit and how the fox repays the stork by offering him a drink from a flat shallow pan from which the stork’s long pointed beak could never extract a single drop.
But in my child’s interpretation, the image the dog sees in the brook is at night and reflected in a terrible lightning flash and the stork and the fox are only accidentally sheltering together in a cave in order to stay out of the storm and that’s why they end up at the mercy of each other’s irony. Because if it weren’t for their fear of the storm, they would simply have gone their separate ways and gotten a drink of water elsewhere. The stories stick in my mind because I hear them being read in my mother’s tense, brave but quaking voice and I can still feel my cheek pressed against her arm and the piece of her sleeve that I’m gripping in my hand.
Eventually, she gave up trying to deal with her fear and, in an exaggeratedly cheerful voice, she said, “Come on, kids! Let’s go to Max’s for an ice cream cone. We’ll take Grandma!”
Even though it was clearly bedtime, she bundled us into the car, drove us to her parents’ house on the other side of town, picked up her mother, and off we went to Max’s Dairy Bar for a custard ice cream cone which we ate in the stifling car with all the windows rolled up as the storm continued outside. And then it was back to Grandma’s, presumably until time to pick up Whitie from work. But by then, I couldn’t have cared less. Grandma Myrt spread a couple of her lovely handmade patchwork quilts on the rug in the front room for Darla and me and covered us with a light blanket. At last, I felt, we were safe. No bad voodoo was stronger than Grandma. She was a giant-slayer. I dozed off contented and safe.
It wasn’t until many years later that my mother explained to me how her irrational fear of storms stemmed from a childhood experience. A day when she and her little brother Kenny were on her pony, out on the land where he father was a tenant farmer, when a storm blow up suddenly and, in the interest of being the protective big sister, she could think of nothing better to do than to shelter under the only tree in a very large field. A bolt of lightning—with the deafening thunder that accompanied it—struck the tree and split it down the middle. Reba Mae and Kenny narrowly missed being killed.
Nowadays, her abnormally heightened terror of storms would probably be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder and therapy would be prescribed. But back then, if you were a tenant farmer’s daughter, you sucked it up and moved on. And you didn’t tell your father about it because he was likely to “give you a good lickin’” for being an idiot and standing under a tree in an electrical storm.
For a brief time, I was as frightened as Reba Mae was of thunder and lightning. As soon as the first great clap sounded, I would begin to tremble and start looking for a place to hide. Until, that is, I was home alone with Whitie once during a thunderstorm. He found me cowering behind the davenport and, in a rare moment of patience, he said, “What’s goin’ on, bud?”
I told him I was scared of the thunder. He invited me to come out and talk about it. He sat down and I climbed up on his lap. He told me there was nothing to be scared of. That thunder was nothing more than a noisy upstairs neighbor. It just so happened that we lived right under the kitchen in Heaven, and that every time I heard that rumbling sound, it was just the cooks pouring the potatoes out of their sacks onto the floor. That sound was just the spuds rolling around. Lots of them, because there were a lot of folks up there in heaven that needed feeding. Soon he had me laughing and saying, “There go them spuds again, Daddy!”
“Yeah,” he’d say. “Gonna have to go up there and tell those guys to hold it the hell down!”
After that, I could never again, as a child, hear thunder without thinking of big sacks of potatoes spilling across a wooden plank floor. In fact, I still can’t.
Monday, March 27, 2017
From the first time I read Robert Frost’s iconic poem, The Road Not Taken, when I was still a young boy, I was captivated by both its imagery and its message. From a very young age, though powerfully attracted to my own town and its surroundings, I yearned to travel. It was almost as if I had strong memories of being a wanderer in some former life, so fascinated was I by the idea of striking out in any direction and seeing what was over the next rise or around the next curve.
I did a lot of that already while I was growing up. First on my bicycle on which I explored every inch of Wapakoneta, my home town in Ohio, and then the surrounding countryside, from Fort Amanda to Owl Creek and from Glynwood to Grand Lake Saint Marys. And later, once I bought my own car at age sixteen, I began clocking more and more miles each month, not only in my job as a relief drummer for any jazz band that needed one, but also just for the heck of it, driving in my down-time between gigs and school to visit any Ohio town whose name struck my fancy: towns like Lebanon, Russia and Cairo, Washington Court House, North Star and Columbus Grove, ones with names eccentric enough to pique my interest, eventually racking up some two thousand to three thousand miles a month between work and recreational trips.
I was, as well, from my early childhood, an unrepentant non-conformist, one of those weird kids who have no interest in doing “what everybody else does” or in being “like everybody else is” or in echoing the interests, thoughts and trends of my own generation unless they just happened to coincide with my own. So the words and deeper meaning of that poem of Frost’s really resonated with me:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Nevertheless, there was a time, decades ago, when I used to feel there was something wrong with me as a traveler. I mean, I felt perhaps it had something to do with my rather natural tendency to procrastinate (another trait that, way back then, I took as a quirk, a malady, a bad habit, but which I now accept as “part of a process”). I wasn’t at all sure why I did it, but there seemed always to be something drawing me to dawdle, to get distracted along the road, to keep the “final destination” at bay, as if preferring the magic of setting forth and the surprises I encountered along the way to the reality of “arrival”.
|The dream of a natural born traveler: a car of one's own.|
I recall once a return drive from Wapakoneta to Miami to take a plane back to my home, at the time, in Buenos Aires. I’d spent close to a month with my family, and as usual, my younger brother Jim and I had renewed our close bond as we usually did, having a jog or a walk together each day, drinking coffee and engaging in long talks at the kitchen table, or spending beery late afternoons and evenings bellied up to local bars bending our elbows and each other’s ears. So when I got into my rented car in the driveway of our parents’ house in Ohio, after we’d given each other a hug, and I was about to head south for another year or two before I’d get back that way, he leaned down at the driver’s side window and said, “Hey, buddy, give me a call when you get wherever you stop tonight, okay?”
“Sure,” I said, and made a mental note to keep that promise.
A little over eight hours later, I called Jim from my hotel just south of Atlanta off of Interstate 75. I’d made the decision after seeing a roadside ad for a bar and steakhouse that looked inviting at this early evening hour and the directions at the bottom of the sign suggested that the place was located next to a major hotel. That cinched it—a bar and grill next door to a hotel with an indoor pool. I flicked on my turn signal and took the exit.
“So where ya at, bud?” my brother asked when I got him on the line. “I mean, you’re still on the road, right?”
“Just south of Atlanta, and, no, I’m not still on the road. I’m sitting on the bed in my hotel room in my swim trunks about to go have a dip before I go to supper.”
“Atlanta?” he cried. “Are you freakin’ kidding me?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, bewildered.
“I mean, is that all the further you got, you wimp? Last time I drove from Ohio to Florida, I drove from Lima to Ocala straight through in under thirteen hours! And you’re still in freakin’ Atlanta?”
“What’s the hurry?” I asked. “I have almost three days before my flight out of Miami.”
“I don’t know,” he said, “I mean, you could’ve stayed here a day longer, for instance. But even Dad drives to North Florida in a day!”
“Yes, and I wouldn’t want to meet up with him on the road after the first seven hours or so,” I said. “Look, let’s just compare for a second. I imagine to do a marathon drive like that you end up drinking gallons of coffee and fighting to stay awake...”
“Red Bull, actually...and it works!”
“...eating junk food on the road and feeling like crap, and then when you get there, wherever there is, you’re zonked out for the whole next day because you’re so exhausted from the drive, right?”
“Pretty much, but at least I get there fast!”
“I, on the other hand, have had a plenty long enough trip as it is for one day. But not long enough to wear me out. Now I’m going to do a few laps in the hotel pool. Then I’m going to dress in fresh clothes and walk across the parking lot to the bar and grill next door. I’m going to sit at the bar, order a beer and a nice steak, and strike up a conversation with the bartender and whoever else feels like telling me their story. And when I’m done drinking beer and chatting, I’m going to go back to my room, get a good night’s sleep, have another dip in the pool and a good breakfast in the morning and get back on the road at a reasonable hour. What part of that sounds worse than driving like a maniac through the night guzzling coffee and Red Bull to keep my eyes open?”
|On the lam in Europe in the early '70s|
Jim was silent for a couple of beats and then he said, “Know what, Big Bro? As usual, you’re right.”
That night I did exactly what I told him I was going to do and, in the process of eating a fine sirloin strip and wetting my whistle, met a part-time bartender who was working on a master’s in history and explained to me the intricacies of the vicarious Civil War that the South continued to contend with the North, and to a woman who was an environmental engineer and gave me a fascinating lesson on Florida’s natural aquifers and their vulnerability to human encroachment.
|Virginia on the road in Patagonia in the 1980s|
And “stops along the way” continue to be some of the most memorable stories in my repertoire. Like a lunch my wife, Virginia, and I shared as young newlyweds living in Europe, an impromptu picnic of wonderfully overcooked rotisserie chicken, floury shepherd’s loaf bread, ultra-dark espumante wine and deep red sangria oranges that we enjoyed while sitting on a park bench in a steep-trailed park overlooking the ancient city of Genoa, on a day that seemed to us like a piece of heaven. Or a few days when I played hooky from work on a trip to Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship and we took a bus from Santiago down to Viña del Mar and strolled on the beach and stayed a couple of nights in an old family hotel, lodged in a room overlooking the patio, where they brought us French bread, butter, jam and coffee for breakfast in bed and where dinner was served by the owner in a small dining room downstairs—a quiet corner where we could briefly forget the horror that was taking place in that country and across the Andes in dictatorial Argentina.
|A daunting tunnel carved and blasted in the limestone|
Then there was the time Virginia and I were driving south through the Patagonian desert between the Welsh-founded cities of Trelew and Puerto Madryn and saw a broad, well-graded gravel road stretching off toward the horizon on our left near the tiny settlement of Las Plumas. On a whim, Virginia said, “Let’s see where that goes.”
“Well, certainly not to Madryn,” I protested. “Madryn’s that way,” I said, pointing straight ahead.
“So what?” she insisted. “If we don’t like what we see, we can always turn around and come back.”
And so we took that road less traveled and began the twisting turning descent along an ever narrowing ribbon of gravel that eventually took us through a daunting one-lane tunnel carved and blasted out of sheer limestone that, on the other side, rewarded us for our daring with a view of a veritable Patagonian oasis, a shimmering green valley hollowed out by the marble green Chubut River where it flows swift and deep beneath the Dique Ameghino hydroelectric dam. From above, on the high desert where the road began, this was an invisible world. And down here, that coarse dry world above was just as invisible. From where we stood now, you would have thought you were in a mountain landscape, so high were the steep cliffs on all sides. But instead, it was a deep gorge sculpted by the river, with the clear china-blue sky arching high overhead, the water lined with willows and alamo poplars and with hundreds of flamingoes and black and white-necked swans riding the milky green, lime-laden surface as it rushed toward the sea a hundred and fifty kilometers further downstream.
|A place of peace and beauty|
There on the banks rose a small village, Villa Ameghino, where many of the couple hundred residents still had Welsh names—Reynolds, Jones, Williams or Davies—but where the lingua franca had long since become Spanish. Friendly people who were quick to chat and to welcome us to camp on the stony shore, people whose existence depended on jobs with the National Highway Department, or on exploitation of the kaolinite mines from nearby caves for use in the ceramics industry, or on the tiny shops and bakery that sold us our provisions while we were there.
Such was the peace and beauty of this place that for a few days, we forgot all about our “final destination” and camped there by the river to bask in the fantasy of a hidden paradise.
And like these experiences, there are countless others I could tell in which I’ve turned an unexpected layover, a chance encounter, or a stop to admire the scenery into a surprising and fulfilling event. The trick is never giving in to the human tendency to ask, “Are we there yet?” when the question that can give birth to a wealth of experiences is, “What sort of surprises and adventures will this journey hold?”
When I manage to push the pause button on the busy pace of an everyday working existence, I realize that life itself, in the final analysis, is one long—or not so long—journey. But there’s no verifiable way to know for sure why it starts where it starts or ends where it ends, where we came from or where we’re going. And nobody issues us with a roadmap when we start out. So it apparently isn’t about that. Life isn’t about “getting there”—which is, in the end, an ostensibly counterproductive option—but about all of the side-trips we make, all of the places and things we see, all of the observations we collect, all of the fellow travelers we meet and all of the stories we hear, tell and enact in between.
Life is about going or staying, and about the experiences that we absorb along our path. It’s almost surely more about choice than about destiny, no matter how conditioned we may be not to think so. But it is definitely about the main roads and the side-roads that we decide to take or not to take, and about how we deal with those choices once we’ve made them.
Monday, March 13, 2017
EXCERPT 9 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ — LEARNING THE ROPES
The following is a new excerpt from Chapter Four of the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled “Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir”, about my early days working for a newspaper in Buenos Aires.
The fact that, for the moment, I remained pretty much monolingual was to present me with an opportunity to take up a post of central importance to the newspaper’s operations: the international news desk, better known in the Herald as “the Night Desk”. After a brief period of watching me struggle to eke out the translations of a few cables a night, Editor Robert Cox asked me to move over to the international desk to replace someone who had left the paper recently, leaving the Night Desk editor without an assistant.
Traditionally at the Buenos Aires Herald, the person running the Night Desk was a veteran journalist with considerable influence over the daily’s editorial policy, since it was this department that selected, ranked and handled most of the material that entered each edition. Cox had held the post at one time. So had British journalist James Neilson (son of a Scottish father and Anglo-Argentine mother), who, when I entered the paper, was working as media chief for the American Chamber of Commerce in Argentina, but who would eventually return to the Herald as associate editor and, later, editor in chief. When Cox assigned me to the post of sub-editor on the Night Desk, however, the editor in charge was city editor Andrew Graham-Yooll’s brother-in-law, Nicolás Meyer.
Nicolás was clearly not a news-hound journalist in any sense. He had a working knowledge of international news and current events and adequate skills for layout and page design, but no real passion for news work, and especially not for local news. He was, rather, an intellectual, whose first love was cinema—classic cinema and art films more than blockbuster mainstream movies—with a particular bent for the kind of “foreign” (non-Hollywood) pictures created by European, Scandinavian and Japanese masters, though the Hollywood classics also formed part of his repertoire, as did the Golden Age masters of Hollywood comedy.
Oddly enough, however, for the kind of British Commonwealth community newspaper that the Herald tended to be when I first joined it, his whimsical organization of international news coverage tended to work, originating each night from a news schedule quickly written up between Meyer and cables chief Stuart Stirling just before we on the news desk started our night of work and the cables editor ended his—a daily schedule practically approved out of hand by Cox, mainly because he was too busy and overstretched to bother questioning it unless some major international news story was missing from it. Local news Nicolás left up to his brother-in-law.
Heading the Night Desk wasn’t a post that Andrew himself would have wanted to occupy. By that time, Graham-Yooll was, with the exception of Cox, the Herald’s most renowned journalist—even more so than Stuart Stirling who moonlighted (or “daylighted” as it were) as Buenos Aires correspondent for The Times of London. Andrew’s orientation was entirely local and at that time, he was the only authentic political beat reporter that the paper had. Despite being the paper’s news editor and, as such, often working into the wee hours of the morning, Andrew spent much of the daytime beating the streets of downtown Buenos Aires. He haunted the corridors of Congress, visited the offices of politicians and government officials, gathered information from anonymous sources and lobbyists, and lunched with, drank with and generally socialized with a multitude of representatives from the country’s more than twenty political parties and splinter groups.
Andrew as he would appear on the cover of his
refugee memoir a few years later.
Andrew had a personal style that wandered somewhere between relaxed and scruffy, a style which, truth be told, probably merely reflected the constant state of quasi-fatigue on the brink of which he lived much of the time, trying to keep up the hectic pace and unhealthy lifestyle that his daily routine demanded of him. Although barely thirty at the time, he looked older than his years. The mane of dark hair that hung over his collar and the wild tangle of beard that reached his chest were already tinged here and there with silver threads and gave him the Russian refugee air of a younger, stouter Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, although the thick anti-Solzhenitsyn mustache that flowed equally unhindered by scissors or clippers into the beard tended to be more reminiscent of the Castroite Cuban-style revolutionaries that the rightwing Iron Guard of the ruling Peronist movement hated and was already plotting to destroy. In those paranoid days of tit for tat violence between extreme left and extreme right in Argentina, Andrew’s appearance alone was enough to render him suspect in the eyes of the rightwing authorities who were rallying around the aging General Juan Domingo Perón. And his list of contacts would have been sufficient to condemn him to summary execution. Ironically enough, at the time, Andrew was serving as free-lance correspondent for London’s very conservative daily, The Telegraph, although he would later work for The Guardian, a daily much more in line with his political tendencies.
Only a small portion of the information that Andrew gathered in his reporting during the day made it into the local news section at night. And less still was shared directly with Cox. Despite his apparent friendship with the editor, with whom he had been working since 1966, Andrew appeared to harbor an underlying professional rivalry with Bob Cox. It seemed clear to me that Andrew held back considerable information for his own use, except when timing and newsworthiness were of the essence and made him willing to publish a story that was something of a scoop and that might not hold until the weekend. In general, however, Andrew depended in large measure for everyday news on local agency cables which he and his crew translated for the daily editions, saving his heavyweight reporting for his by-lined column, Politics & Labour, which came out on page three of the Sunday edition.
Although Bob frequently dropped by the paper on the weekends to work on stories that had remained pending from the previous week, it was his custom to finish both weekend editorial pages on Friday night and leave them with the Night Desk, just in case he decided to accompany his family to their weekend house in the country and give the Herald a miss. Andrew, for his part, often worked on his column until the wee hours of Saturday morning, long after Cox had gone home, so that the first glimpse the editor in chief got of Politics & Labour was only when he read it in the paper at his home on Sunday morning.
By the time I joined the Herald staff in 1974, Andrew’s column was the subject of not infrequent clashes between him and Bob. From what I could gather, Cox was less than pleased with what he saw as the often all too cozy relations that Graham-Yooll was weaving at both extremes of the political spectrum at a time when these “notorious others” on the political scene were suiting up and arming themselves to do battle for control of the government by any and all means necessary. A couple of decades later, the BBC would quote Andrew as saying, “It’s very hard to admit nowadays: I embraced murderers. They were my friends, and I’m not going to deny it. Yes, I am part of that past.”
This was an editorial slant that was radically different from Bob Cox’s own, which tended toward a rigid, if laborious, objectivity aimed at permitting the newspaper to be highly influential without being politically identifiable or compromised. If the paper had a political line, it was the line of human decency. What Cox was seeking was a carefully balanced vision of what was happening in Argentina. According to him, the Herald needed to be “a calm voice in the midst of the storm.” He seemed to fear that some of Graham-Yooll’s less than prudent stances could, on the one hand, bring us into too close a contact with the mad-dog right, or, on the other, cause the newspaper to be branded as radically leftist—something its own mostly conservative readers would never stand for, let alone the old-guard Peronist authorities, who might simply decide to accuse us of subversion and shut us down.
The editorial line that Cox sought to establish coincided much more clearly with the politics of James Neilson, although Bob was a much more liberal thinker than Jim was. I sometimes felt, however, that Neilson occasionally expressed Bob’s line more concisely than Cox himself did. That may sound strange, but it was a matter of personality. If Neilson had any doubts about how he saw events, stances, situations or sides of an issue, no one else ever knew about it. Bob, on the other hand, was too interested in objectivity to be boldly decisive. He agonized and tortured himself almost visibly in his nightly searches for the closest thing to truth and fairness that he could find. And in writing his editorials and op-eds, this almost blatant objectivity consistently embroiled him in the dichotomous choice between writing with his gut, exactly as he saw and felt the news, or writing with his intellect and creating editorials that could serve as lessons on how things should be, rather than merely reporting harsh realities and even harsher alternatives. His emotions played strongly into his vision. He was a stubborn, resilient man, but he expressed that stubbornness and resilience in an almost romantic, quixotic way. He wore his heart on his sleeve and that caused him to be easily disappointed, which in turn sparked his anger at anyone who let him down or lied to him—sometimes even when the culprit was someone he didn’t know personally, but about whom he had written as being a respectable person.
Neilson, for his part, seemed to live within a very hard shell. He came off as unapologetically egotistical and vain. As such, he demonstrated great certainty in what he wrote and how he wrote it. He also seemed to have no question about his right to express himself as he saw fit, since he was audaciously, almost aggressively sure of himself, of his superior intelligence, of the righteousness of his beliefs and of the unassailability of his ethics. You would never find him, for instance, asking himself who the devil he thought he was to say this or that about a subject—any subject—and less still when it came to topics on which he had acquired broad knowledge. Or at least you would never hear him questioning himself aloud, even if he might have struggled from time to time with the same kind of doubts that attack other writers as well during the creative process. But if he did, no sign of it ever reached the observer’s naked eye. In fact, he was the only editorial-writer I ever knew who could sit in front of a typewriter and bash out a thousand or so words of erudite commentary non-stop almost as fast as he could type, with no more than a couple of typos and seldom halting to ponder his stance.
Jim’s political line was clearly conservative, while Bob’s was openly liberal. But he was also clear about what it was he wanted to conserve and that was ground on which he and Bob could meet in harmony: English-style democracy, equality before the law, human and civil rights, the independence of the courts, the rule of law and, in general, civilized decency. His editorial comments were always hard-hitting and uncompromising. They expressed exactly what he wanted to say with unflagging conviction, even if, many times, in an ironic tone. His vision was black and white. Greys were conspicuous by their absence. In his world there was right and wrong, decent and indecent, no in-betweens. And he had inherited his staunchest Scottish ancestors' aversion to what he referred to as "bending to the boots." He saw no reason to be even vaguely amiable toward authoritarian usurpers, terrorists, dictators or any other murderers, even when it might serve the aim of eliciting respect for the rights of others.
I think an anecdote that demonstrates perfectly Neilson’s cocksure attitude and sardonic turn of phrase, not only in his writing but in person as well, is of when he and I attended a lunch together a number of years later. A story I reported on concerning mafia intrigue in Buenos Aires’s Asian community led me to cross paths with a South Korean diplomat, who, as it turned out, was an ardent fan of the Herald. He invited me to lunch with him one day at a luxury Chinese restaurant, and during dessert, he said he would really enjoy having lunch with me again sometime, but hoped the next time I would bring along Mr. Neilson. I expressed my doubts about any such meeting. Jim, I said, didn’t generally “do lunch”, and whenever he could avoid it, he tended not to go out at all, leaving that sort of thing to me and others.
The diplomat insisted, however, reminding me that, before he became a career diplomat, he and his wife had both been “journalists” and missed the opportunity to get together with “colleagues” and discuss current events, especially since, despite being assigned by Seoul to Argentina, neither of them spoke more than a few words of Spanish, so their interaction with the press corps was decidedly limited, mostly to American and British correspondents and now to me as well.
I said I’d see what I could do. But Jim was a hard sell so I wasn’t making any promises. I figured this would be enough to gracefully evade any commitment and that the diplomat would promptly forget about it.
But he didn’t. Shortly afterward, I received two engraved invitations, one for me and another for Neilson, requesting the pleasure of our company for lunch at the diplomat’s residence. Typical of his wry sense of humor, when I asked Neilson if, just this once, he’d mind accompanying me, he said, “Well, perhaps, Dan, just this once. But only if they serve beer with the meal. None of that bloody wine.”
When I called the Korean envoy and told him Jim’s condition for going, he laughed genuinely, but promised to make sure there would be a good supply of beer on hand for the occasion.
On our arrival at the diplomat’s luxurious apartment, the host rushed to welcome us at the door. He led us into the ample living room, bypassing a covey of Argentine journalists, who were sitting around a coffee-table over drink, chatting among themselves, and guided us to a remote corner of the room. Once we were seated, the diplomat immediately launched into an analysis of the world situation, calling on us to respond to his prompts.
|Jim Neilson many years after we first|
Typical of Jim, who was clearly more accustomed to talking through his typewriter than in person, he mostly limited himself to feigning interest in the envoy’s analysis, nodding and answering as laconically as possible, while puffing at his pipe and sipping from the glass of beer that he’d been served as soon as he sat down. It fell to me to field most of the actual conversation with our host and I was thus somewhat relieved when his wife arrived, a few minutes before we were invited to the lunch table in the dining room.
She made a sort of Loretta Young entrance, sweeping into the room in grand style, kissing the Argentine journalists on the cheek and trying out her painstakingly acquired Spanish words and phrases, before making her way across the room to our corner. The first imprudent words out of her mouth were, “So you’re the famous James Neilson,” to which Jim kept on puffing at his briar, but now with an acid little grin pulling at his lips. “My husband and I were journalists too, you know. I think it’s a wonderful career to start out in.”
Now the smile left Neilson’s lips and his eyes narrowed. He removed the stem of his pipe from his teeth and, eyes still hooded, asked the diplomat’s wife, “And just what does one ‘go on to’ from journalism?”
“Well,” said our hostess gesturing toward her envoy husband, “he and I became diplomats!” She said this with such emphasis as to imply, “Isn’t it obvious?”
Neilson took another drag on his pipe, softly tapped the bowl against the bottom of a heavy glass ashtray conveniently placed at his elbow and, narrowing his eyes once more at the diplomat’s wife, he said, “I’m not at all sure that’s a step upward.”
This phlegmatic statement struck the diplomat as hilarious and he laughed heartily. But our hostess was not amused and snubbed the rude duo from the Herald for the rest of the luncheon.
Monday, February 27, 2017
The following is an excerpt from Chapter Four of the autobiographical book I’m currently writing, entitled “Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir”, about my early days in Buenos Aires.
Robert Cox had led me to believe on my first night at the Herald that, for the moment, I would mostly be observing, learning the ropes, seeing how things were done, filling in gaps in the personnel roster, basically doing “one thing and another.” In all fairness, he did warn, however, that because the paper was chronically short-handed and run on a shoestring budget, I would frequently find myself on my own when, truth be told, I should be under the supervision of someone more experienced, and that, in those cases, I’d simply have to wing it and hope to hell I got it right.
But I never imagined that this would be so much the case when I came in for my second night on the job. Cox himself intercepted me at the swinging doors of the editiorial department. He was frantic. A couple of the staff had their night off and couldn’t be reached, and a couple of others had called in sick. I’d have to get to work right away, he said, and as fast as I could. He handed me a pile of local news agency cables in Spanish and said I needed to get to work translating them ASAP.
It had never occurred to me when I was badgering the editor to let me work in his paper that a significant part of the job of an English-language newspaper in a Spanish-speaking country would be translating the local news, but that reality became graphically clear to me right off the bat. Other than textbook translations reluctantly carried out in two years of Spanish classes back at Wapakoneta High School and during the two quarters of Spanish I had taken at Ohio State, I had never translated anything in my life. My Spanish skills were shaky to say the least. Despite a few months living in Buenos Aires, my Spanish was still decidedly Tarzanesque. Translating a single paragraph of news copy with the constant help of a bilingual dictionary took me ages, and I was to learn quickly just how little column space a translated paragraph could fill. I was in awe of veterans like local news editor Andrew Graham-Yooll, senior reporter Reginald “Toby” Rowland and cables editor Stuart Stirling, who could hammer out translations as fast as they could type. Needless to say, I felt totally inadequate. When I had struggled through my first fifteen-line brief, I took it to Graham-Yooll, as Cox had told me to, and timidly said, “Mr. Cox told me to bring you this as soon as I was finished translating it.”
Graham-Yooll looked up from his work and narrowed his eyes at me as if I were a panhandler who’d just asked him for the price of a pint, wheezed, muttered, “Thanks,” and laid the piece off to the side before returning to the developing story he had rolled into his typewriter. I went back to my hammered-to-death-give-it-to-the-new-guy typewriter in a far corner of the room and started struggling to understand a second cable in Spanish. But as I worked, I couldn’t help glancing over Graham-Yooll’s way every little bit to see when he was going to get to my translation. When he finally did, I stopped working and watched as he placed it on the desk in front of him, paused, took his long beard with one hand and stroked it, while retrieving a pencil from within the shaggy hair that hung over his ear with the other, and beginning to edit—slashing, marking out, circling, writing in, slashing, slashing, slashing, writing in, then writing instructions to the shop at the top of the page before laying the piece off to the side again.
When he was done, he leaned back far enough to open his middle desk drawer, rifled around in the pencil tray inside, took something out, then got up and walked over to my desk. I smiled. He didn’t. Instead, he leaned over my shoulder where I sat, and with his thick index finger, punched a series of aes, oes and ees on the blank page in the roll of my typewriter. Then he pointed at them as if to say, “What do you see?” What I saw was that the centers of the letters that should have been white were blacked out, which made it easy to mistake one letter for the other. I looked at the letters, then craned my neck backward to look at him and when I did, he held up a longish straight pin that he was pinching like a tiny sword between his thumb and forefinger up in front of my eyes and said, in his serene, asthmatic, Alfred Hitchcock voice, “I hereby present you with the Order of the Pin. Clean those out so we can tell which letter is which.”
As he turned to leave, I addressed the back of his head. “Um, how was the piece.”
“I’m sure it’ll get better,” he said, still walking and without turning toward me. And then he added, “It can’t get any worse.”
As I was starting my second translation, Bob Cox rushed out of his office and over to my desk again. “Dan, how are you doing?” he said in a tone that made it clear that this was a rhetorical question. “Um, I have something here I think you might be suited to,” he went on.
“Well,” I said, “I still have these to do,” and pointed to the little pile of agency cables on the corner of my desk.”
“Oh...yes, well, you can continue with those afterward. Right now, I need you to write an obituary. It’s for a lady who worked at the Missions to Seamen.”
“Missions to Seamen,” he said again, and then muttered under his breath, “Quite, you wouldn’t know about that, would you?” Being a bloody Yank and a Midwesterner to boot, he could have added, but, politely, didn’t. “It’s an Anglican organization,” he continued, “that has branches in ports all over the world.” He explained that these missions were usually run by Church of England chaplains with a few staff, and the rest of the people working for them were all volunteers.
It sounded to me like a sort of USO, without all of the singing and dancing. It had started in the nineteenth century when Britannia ruled the waves and there were British seafarers all around the globe. The organization’s mission was “to offer practical, emotional and spiritual support to seafarers through ship visits, drop-in centers and a range of welfare and emergency support services.” Since the Herald had started out as a maritime journal and still had strong ties to the shipping community, Cox had been asked to put something nice in the paper about this lady, Jenny, who had worked for the local Missions to Seamen drop-in center for something like forty years.
Rather hesitantly, Bob now handed me the press release he’d received and said, “This thing’s bloody awful but all of the basic information is there. Could you try and write something that sounds like we knew her? You know, a nice short article about what a nice person she was, how helpful to these sailors far from home, something warm and human.
“I’ll give it a shot,” I said.
“Cheers!” he answered and rushed back to his office, leaving me alone with Miss Jenny and a blank sheet of paper.
Thinking myself a consumate writer, I told myself this would be a piece of cake and quickly dashed off an obit that I thought would bring tears to the editor’s eyes. I zipped it out of the typewriter and strode briskly across the editorial bay to the editor’s office. Maybe I couldn’t translate for shit, I told myself, but I could write my ass off.
Cox’s door was open and he was sitting at his typewriter, hands poised to type, looking at some notes on his desk. When I knocked softly on the door-jamb, he looked up from his reading but his hands remained poised over the typewriter keys. The body language was not lost on me. It said, I hope you don’t plan to bother me for more than a couple of seconds.
“What is it, Dan?” he asked.
“Here’s the piece.”
“The obit...Jenny...Missions to Seamen?”
“Oh yes, cheers, Dan,” the editor said accepting the proffered sheet of paper and, for lack of any desk space in his cluttered office, laid it on a magazine on his knee, picking up a fountain pen from next to his typewriter and starting to edit in his scrawling hand.
Already by the second line, however, he was shaking his head and muttering, “Oh dear...Oh, bloody hell...Oh Christ!” And then he looked up at me and said, “Christ, Dan, you’ve made the poor woman sound like a tart! I mean... ‘providing aid, warmth and comfort to hundreds of sailors...Really?”
I could feel my face flush and my scalp prickle with embarrassment.
“Go back and rewrite the bloody thing, and try to stay away from language with dual meanings that can be misinterpreted.”
For the better part of an hour after that (an inordinate amount of time in a daily’s newsroom) I re-wrote and re-wrote the obituary until I figured it couldn’t be more perfect, then returned to the editor’s office. Cox was still at his typewriter, looking harassed, his hair in disarray from running his fingers through it. Standing apologetically in the doorway, I cleared my throat and he looked up.
“Ah yes, Dan again,” he said. “Let’s see,” and he held his hand out for the piece of paper I was holding.
I wanted to discuss the original version with him, offer my apology, tell him I knew I was better than that and had no idea what had gotten into me, but the editor’s body language and harried attitude invited no conversation. I stood in silence while he read, half expecting him to say something like, “Now this is a story!” But instead, he merely used his fountain pen to black out extraneous words, to draw lines and arrows changing word orders, to line out most of a paragraph entirely, and to write in a few words that he considered to be vital additions.
Then he penned in shop instructions and a headline at the top of the page, handed it back to me and said, “Drop it off at the Night Desk window, will you?”
And that was it. I had written my first professional news story and the die was cast.
Monday, February 13, 2017
By the time I started smoking openly at home, the habit had become, I fancied, an added mark of sophistication in the new life I was suddenly setting out for myself. During the summer before the winter in which I would turn sixteen, my high school band director did me the honor of asking me to give summer private percussion lessons to beginners and junior high kids who were in the band. I could use the band room at the high school, he said, and earn a little extra money.I was thrilled to say the least. But that wasn’t the end of the honors bestowed on me. The director also came to me during the following school year, and said that, if I wanted it, there was a part-time job for me at the top music store in the nearby city of Lima, Ohio, Monday and Friday evenings and Saturdays from nine to five, teaching whenever I had students and working as a sales clerk in between time. They’d let me have the use of a studio free of charge and the money from the lessons would be all mine. They would pay me about a dollar an hour (certainly not awful pay for a part-time high school kid employee in the mid-1960s) for the hours I accumulated on the sales floor, where I’d be expected to do some light maintenance and inventory as well.
I explained that while I’d love to say yes, it’d be another few months before I could get my driver’s license and even then, I’d have to see if my parents would lend me one of their cars to be able to commute the twelve or so miles that separated my home town of Wapakoneta from Lima. The director said not to worry, that he lived in Lima and on Monday and Friday evenings when the store was open until nine, he would take me, since he also taught there. Until I got my license, then, I’d only have to have my parents drive me home those two nights and take me in to work and pick me up on Saturdays.
Shaking my head, I said that my mother was too busy and I really doubted if I could talk Whitie (my dad) into coming to get me after he’d worked all day. But he insisted, saying it was a great opportunity that I shouldn’t miss. He was a regular customer at Whitie’s restaurant, the Teddy Bear, and evidently considered that would count for something in convincing my father, so he added, “And leave your dad to me.”
To my surprise, Whitie accepted the deal. Not only that, he had me take out a learner’s permit, and on the way home when he would pick me up after work, he would have me get behind the wheel of the big nine-passenger Olds 98 station wagon that he was driving at the time. Other than a certain penchant for road rage, Whitie was a more than competent driver and, surprisingly, since patience was not usually one of his virtues, also a serene and patient teacher.
I recall one late-fall Monday evening, when I already had numerous trips under my belt, driving home to Wapakoneta from Lima, via the old North Dixie Highway, with Whitie in the passenger’s seat. It was raining pretty hard and visibility was far less than optimum. By this time, however, Whitie was no longer watching my every move and we were relaxed enough to chat a little as I drove, on topics beyond the scope of the myriad instructions that he had given me in the beginning. At one point, Whitie was sitting sideways, turned toward me on the broad bench seat—there were no seatbelts back then—and having just made some point in our conversation, had paused to pluck the hot cigarette lighter out of the dashboard, and was just then lighting up a Pall Mall, when suddenly, on the left, I saw a pick-up truck pulling out of a roadside tavern parking lot onto the two-lane highway in front of me as if I weren’t there.
I hit the brakes and lay on the horn simultaneously, saw Whitie fall sideways, shoulder first, against the dashboard, felt the big Olds start to fishtail, let off the brake, saw the pick-up’s brake lights and knew he’d stopped mid-lane, dropped two wheels onto the berm and gunned the engine to pull out of the slide as I slipped ever so closely past the side of the truck, still blasting the horn, before easing back onto the road.
Back under control on the pavement, shaking from head to toe, I saw Whitie calmly push himself back up onto his seat. He then went ahead lighting his smoke and after a deep drag, he said, “See that’s good training. And you handled it well. Know what the lesson is?”
“Be on the lookout for drunk assholes?”
“Nope. It’s that you have to drive defensively. You can’t take for granted, ever, that the other guy will do what he’s supposed to. In fact, you have to figure he won’t, that every other driver on the road is a stupid jerk, and know at all times what you’re going to do if the other guy screws up. It doesn’t matter who’s right. You’ll be just as dead if you’re right and the guy who plows into you is wrong.”
Smoking, to a certain almost imperceptible extent, changed, somewhat, my usually semi-hostile relationship with Whitie. Our feelings about everything from politics and sports to those about work and culture, our views and preferences were almost diametrically opposed and I’d come to find that avoidance was the best way to stay out of troubled waters. So at this stage, we seldom talked. But like boxing—one of the few passions and surely the only sport we shared as avid fans—smoking became a point of shared neutrality between us.
It wasn’t as if my father was glad I smoked. On the contrary, he early on told me it was a mistake to have taken up the habit. Afterward, however, he no longer preached about it. And as I say, there was a sort of tacit bond between us as smokers. It wouldn’t seem like much to anyone seeing us from the outside, but I could feel it. Like when I’d come home from somewhere and find him sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a smoke and I’d serve myself a cup as well and sit there with him in brief, uncontroversial communion for the length of a cigarette or two.
A few weeks before my sixteenth birthday, and thus only days away from having my driver’s license, the band director said he had the solution for my travel problem. He had a car to sell me. A ’57 Dodge Royal that had belonged to his son, who was currently in the Army, serving a hitch in Vietnam. I said I was really grateful but didn’t have the money to pay for a car right now, since I was buying a new drum set in installments from the store where I worked. If he could, perhaps, wait a while...
“How much do you have to spare right now, Danny?” he asked.
“I don’t know...like maybe fifty bucks.”
“Done, fifty bucks and I’ll throw in tax and title fees.”
It was like a dream come true! I had a job as a musician. I was no longer being treated like a high school kid but as a responsible adult. And one of the old hands at work, a locally renowned organist in his sixties had just said, “Hey kid, my sax player and I are booked to play a four-hour gig at the Milano Club and our drummer just backed out. It’s a New Year’s Eve gig so it’ll pay fifty bucks for four hours. You free?”
Was I ever! My first pro jazz gig. I was in heaven. And now I had wheels! The very first day I had my license, the band director drove his son’s Dodge to school and had me drive him to work at the music store and then home. The car was now mine. Leaving his house, I flicked on the radio, dialed to a jazz station I knew and lit up a smoke. I felt like my whole life was changing and it was all good.
On the way home, I stopped off at a truck stop, ordered pie and coffee, put a quarter in the juke box and as Reg Owen’s rendition of Manhattan Spiritual started playing, I sat there with my coffee, pie and cigarettes feeling like a character from a movie about the Beat Generation. The menthol cigarette smoke and the strong black truck stop coffee felt like fluid happiness as they entered my gullet. It was a brand new world, and it was all mine. I was suddenly somebody.
To be continued...