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...