Monday, February 27, 2017
EXCERPT 8 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ — INITIATION
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.