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.”
Villa Ameghino
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


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.