This Just In
The babble from the American news media is that the new Pope is from Latin America and is a Jesuit, therefore this must be good for the poor and sorting out the scandals.
I am three years younger than the former Cardinal Bergoglio, in pretty good shape, and write four or five hours a day.
Having been around one conclave, and covered religion for four years, when I hear the expectations being projected from afar on the new Francis I, my first reaction is: I need a nap.
Photo of Appalachian bridge by Ken Murray; photo of couch by GV
Albino Luciani: Uomo di Popolo. Sardinian woman.
Take it from me, since I was around a Conclave, the Vaticanologists do not know what they’re talking about when they predict the new pope.
Better you should consult a Roman housekeeper from Sardinia, named Grazia. She will know.
I discovered this in August of 1978, when I was dispatched to Rome upon the death of Pope Paul VI. (The first thing I learned is that journalists in Rome do not refer to the popes by number but by their original family name; Montini had just passed, for example.)
Every expert was talking up the most famous candidates – Baggio, Maldini, Baresi, Del Piero. (Those are actually soccer names; I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. The point was, the favorites were all Italian.)
As soon as I got to Rome, the Times promptly went on strike. Our bureau chief departed for, I think, the beaches of Sardinia, lending his flat in the Piazza Navona to me and a colleague and our ladies. This gift included his Sardinian housekeeper, well under five feet tall, named Grazia. Her sister, also under five feet tall, was visiting. They wore black all the time.
Since I was the only one of our group who spoke any Italian, Grazia ran the household through me, but mostly she divulged her predictions for the upcoming conclave:
Signore Giorgio! Cardinale Luciani! Venezia! Famiglia Socialista! Uomo di Popolo!
I recited to her the names of all the Italian favorites. She wagged her index finger at me like a defender telling the referee not to give a yellow card.
Since I was on strike, my wife and I took a side trip to Vienna and Budapest. We came back when the conclave began. Grazia repeated her assertion that the Venetian cardinal would win.
Then one afternoon, while I was taking a blessed nap with the shades drawn, I could hear bells ringing all over Rome. I heard bustling in the hallway. Grazia and her sister, in their finest black, were heading off to church to pray for the new pope.
Grazia paused in the doorway and delivered her punch line:
Signore Giorgio! Cardinale Luciani! Venezia! Famiglia Socialista! Uomo di Popolo!
Albino Luciani lasted only a month. He was succeeded by a Polish prelate named Karol Jósef Wojtyla (whose name emerged from the first conclave; maybe I’ll tell that story in a day or two.)
If you want to know the identity of the next pope, ask a Sardinian under five feet tall. Or her sister.
This Cover Tended to Catch Attention
The thing I remember most about Naked Came the Stranger is that Mike McGrady and Harvey Aronson shared the profits. This is such stunning behavior that it needs to be put in a separate category from Mike’s (a) being a superb journalist and (b) coming up with a noted publishing hoax or scram or prank or whatever it was.
When he passed this week at 78, Mike was celebrated not only in respectful obits
in the Washington Post and New York Times but also in an editorial in the Times
. It said he should be most remembered as a columnist; Mike went to Vietnam for Newsday in 1967 and his point of view was stated in the title of his series, later a book: A Dove in Vietnam.
When Mike got back, having sniffed out the hypocrisy of that mad endeavor, he and his colleague Aronson came up with an idea for takeoff on all the bad sex novels that sold zillions of copies. Proposing a novel about infidelity in the suburbs, they invented the main character, a scorned wife on a mission, and they encouraged co-workers to write our own steamy chapters.
(I was in the sports department at Newsday until 1968. Like many ball players, I have fond memories of my first team – a great newspaper back in those days, built by the visionary publisher, Alicia Patterson. Miss P. Harvey Aronson -- who called himself H. Casey Aronson -- was mostly the manager of the Nightside Softball Team. In his spare time, he sometimes edited and wrote and nurtured young talent.)
A lot of us received printed memos in the office mail, inviting us to take part. (Kids, this was before there was such a thing as e-mails, or computers.) Some of us contributed our foolish little chapters and became co-authors for life.
McGrady and Aronson cobbled together our efforts and sent forth into this land a cover, lurid for its time, and words that might have been erotic if they had not been so hackneyed. But at least we were trying to be ridiculous. It was not an accident.
The results are well-known – a novel under the Nom de Smut of Penelope Ashe. We were all Penelope Ashe, whether our scribblings were accepted or blended into one chapter, or merely noted with grace by Mike and Harvey.
Some in the so-called reading public – even reviewers -- were fooled; some suspected nothing could be this bad unintentionally; some people actually bought the damn thing and read it. We went on the David Frost show with a naked model based on the figure on the cover. Ultimately, somebody made a porn movie with the same title, and Stan Isaacs rented a hansom cab to take a few of us to the, um, grand opening.
But the most astonishing part was that McGrady and Aronson divided the income into equal parts – one-twenty-fifth, as I recall. The occasional checks financed the odd trip to the city, or milk and diapers for growing families, or an after-hour round set up by Leo at the Midway bar and grill in Garden City. Mike and Harvey had the idea, they did most of the work, they publicized it, and yet they shared the booty. I used to ask them about their egalité, and they just shrugged. This was the right thing to do. Tell that to people who collaborate in show business or web ventures or high finance or politics or lottery partnerships. Fairness is not a given.
A word about my own miserable efforts. While working an occasional shift on dreaded rewrite on the overnight sports desk, I was waiting for night baseball games to end on the West Coast. Having taken typing in junior high school, I batted out a chapter in an hour. Then the Dodgers beat the Giants, or vice versa, and I finished my excursion into soft porn.
I'm still not sure if this is a good thing or not, but mine is the cleanest, most tasteful, chapter in the book. For the hapless schnook in my chapter I gave the name Morton Earbrow. I remembered that Casey Stengel once said Gil Hodges was so strong that he could “squeeze your earbrows off.” I wasn’t quite sure what an earbrow was, but it sounded like a word I could resurrect in my one-hour career as 1/25 novelist. (Oh, yes, a sample of my dreadful prose
-- intact, as I recall -- was cited in Mike’s Washington Post obit. Recognition at last.)
We all went our separate ways. Mike settled in western Washington State, and urged his pals to come visit. I wish I had, but I could never get further west than the pho emporiums on Aurora in Seattle. I’m left with fond memories of a colleague with talent and humor. And integrity.
Let's Remember Mike This Way
And this way.
Burt Lancaster as Moonlight Graham
A week ago I mentioned how I and another long-time colleague had forgotten separate articles
we had written many years earlier.
The other day, Ernie Accorsi
, most recently the general manager of the football Giants, told me how he had met Moonlight Graham – the legendary figure in Field of Dreams
– and then filed it away in a back drawer of his memory.
Accorsi and I have known each other since Novcmber of 1963 when we were kids just starting out. We met in the press box at a Packers-Colts game in Baltimore. He was fresh out of Wake Forest, was working for the Charlotte News, an afternoon paper, now defunct, and I was working for Newsday.
Reporters remember a zillion details like that. But Ernie forgot how in July of 1963 he interviewed an old baseball player, Dr. Archie Graham, who had played for the 1902 Charlotte Hornets. That team was so good that the entire league disbanded.
Graham later played right field for two innings for the New York Giants in 1905 but soon broke his leg, and never played another major-league game. He went on to become a physician in Minnesota.
In the summer of 1963, the 82-year-old doctor was visiting Charlotte, and Accorsi wrote a nice feature on him. Ernie’s proud mother in Hershey, Pa., had a mail subscription to the paper and placed his article in a scrapbook.
By 1989, Accorsi was an executive with the Cleveland Browns. Dick Stockton, the broadcaster and a friend, told him he had to go see a movie called Field of Dreams, which Accorsi did. But amidst all the mythology about an old minor-league legend named Moonlight Graham, returning to a corn-field ball park in Iowa, Accorsi never flashed that he had met an old ball player named Graham whose major-league dreams ended abruptly.
In 1993, Accorsi was home in Hershey, going through the scrapbook his mother had maintained, looking for something else. He saw the article and realized he had met the man who was portrayed by Burt Lancaster (in his last movie role) 30 years earlier.
“Of course, he wasn’t known as Moonlight when I met him,” Ernie says. He likes to think he would have remembered a nickname like that if it had come up.
Suddenly it all came back – how Archie Graham sat in the dugout near John McGraw, the manager of the Giants, for the rest of the 1905 season, while his leg healed. Accorsi had watched a movie he loved, and never felt the personal connection to the old player.
“It’s not about old age,” Accorsi told me the other day. He was middle-aged when he blanked on meeting an old player named Graham.
“I’ve seen 1,000 football games,” said Accorsi, who still considers himself a sports historian at heart. “I had seen other games before, but that game in Baltimore was the first pro game I had ever covered.”
We both recall, as if it were yesterday, how two young reporters, going solo for our papers, agreed to share locker-room quotes. He went to interview Don Shula of Baltimore and I went over to the Green Bay side.
“And that was how I missed my one chance to interview Vince Lombardi,” Ernie recalled, with his sharp reporter’s memory.
John Kifner's 1966 Reporting Lives On
It was comforting to read in Thursday’s Times that my colleague, John Kifner, did not remember
writing a story that was recreated in a current segment of Mad Men.
Kifner is 70; I am two years older. We’re not losing it, just yet.
Journalists have prodigious memories for names, faces, details, quotes. It’s what we do. I sometimes tell people that I remember exactly what was said, and stand by my version. It’s a professional skill, like picking up the spin of a curveball, or being able to write code. But we are not infallible.
A writer for Mad Men used quotes from an article by Kifner in 1966, which described protestors confronting an ad agency after high-paid jerks threw water balloons down on them.
It’s a great example of art borrowing from real life.
But Kifner,did not recall the story. He covered so many demonstrations, as a young reporter that they tend to blur, or vanish.
It can happen. Let me tell you about covering the 1993 World Series in Toronto, when I got a call in my hotel room from the Obituary desk at the Times.
Norman Vincent Peale had just died, and they were using my obit on the famous preacher and writer.
That’s nice, I said. But I never wrote one.
I had covered religion from 1976 through 1980, and could remember my two conversations with Archbishop Oscar Romero
of El Salvador in 1979, visits to the Lubavitcher center in Brooklyn, documenting the political rise of the evangelicals. But I insisted I never wrote a Peale obit.
Yes, you did, the editor said. You typed your name on the top of every page and we are in the process of transcribing it into the computer system.
They downloaded the advance obit to me, and I read it, and a few details sounded familiar. I had a vague memory of walking down Fifth Ave. and seeing the church on the west side of the street, and somehow I recalled benign weather. But other than that, the obit
does not revive any other memories of my research or writing.
I bet Kifner could recite the names of guides he trusted to get him through some hot spots in wars and riots all over the world. And why the outbursts happened. We go out there and report a zillion details, and decades later we remember many of them. Just not all.
What is cool is that a contemporary script writer sees a John Kifner article from 1966, and recognizes the urgency and the truth in it.
The Helicopter Was Lower Than This
The 40th anniversary of Buffalo Creek kicked up all kinds of flashbacks.
One of them was a glint of sunlight on a wire, stretched across the valley.
I did not see the glint; fortunately, the helicopter pilot did.
The official total of dead from the flash flood in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, on Feb. 26, 1972, was 125, but it almost became higher.
The helicopter episode came when somebody in authority offered The New York Times a place on an Army helicopter that was doing reconnaissance in the long narrow valley. As a reporter, you always accept these offers.
I had been in helicopters before, but they always had doors and stuff. This one, as I recall, had a chain or belt stretched across a portal. I was strapped into my seat, but my inner core had the sensation of dangling out.
It was eerie enough, trying to adjust to pickup trucks lying in creek beds, mobile homes stretched across roadways, lowlands flattened as if by a giant bulldozer, and knots of rescue workers, poking in the flotsam at every bend of the river. Not much was moving.
We were heading uphill, where the coal company had placed an earthen dam to catch all the water and junk from the mine.
Suddenly, I heard the pilot mutter something as he made an evasive veer, straight up, as I recall. We came to understand that he had spotted an electric or telephone line stretched across the valley.
Forty years later, I have no idea how close we came. All I remember is the mixture of gravity and fear in my stomach. Whenever I think of Buffalo Creek, that little episode comes to mind.
* * *
The pistol adventure happened a few days later, when the Times home office asked me to check for more earthen dams in the region. I caught up with Ken Murray from Tri-Cities, who remains one of the great photographers of Appalachia
Ken and I had met right after the mine blew up at Hyden, Ky., on Dec. 30, 1970. We both went to the first funeral -- the shot man who had been using outdoor explosives indoors, during weather when methane gas is at its most explosive.
We became a unit on subsequent assignments, with Ken contributing far more than this city boy ever could. This was when I learned to rely upon
all the great photographers I have worked with.
Ken and I drove around, looking for likely topography that might harbor an earthen dam. We were halfway up a hillside when the company guards caught up with us, clearly trespassing. I won’t say they were aiming their pistols at us, but they let us see the pistols.
Ken and I were well aware that in 1967, the Canadian filmmaker, Hugh O’Connor
, had been blown away after walking onto somebody’s property in rural Kentucky while making a documentary. My fellow journalists always told me that story – I think, to get a rise out of me, but they were surely doing me a favor, too.
(The only time I ever had a gun actually pointed at me was by a very nervous young trooper wielding a nasty-looking shotgun during a riot in Baton Rouge in that same era. The trooper told me to produce my identification and I talked him through the process of my rummaging around in my pockets, and was he all right with that? I still do that whenever an officer tells me to produce my wallet. Nothing like play-by-play to calm testy officers with weapons.)
Anyway, the coal guards interrogated us, until their boss arrived. As it happened , Ken and I knew the man from an earlier story we had done. He shook his head and said he was very disappointed in us.
Meanwhile, Ken whispered, “Let’s get down to the state road; that’s public property.” We started putting one foot after another, telling our story walking, until we reached the highway. I told the foreman I had made a terrible mistake and would never get lost like that again, and we drove off. Didn’t find any earthen dams that day. Just guessing they’re still up there, waiting for the next hundred-year-rain in a week or two.
After 40 years, the name still haunts me.
I think of people and homes and cars, scattered like toys, demolished by a capricious child.
The morning of Feb. 26, 1972, looked pretty much like coastal Japan during the tsunami of 2011, except this destruction was man-made.
The coal company had created an earthen dam near the top of the valley, to capture waste slag and water from the mine. Apparently, they never counted on a heavy rain.
They called it a "hundred-year rain." I would hear that phrase every few months, somewhere.
I was working in Kentucky as a national correspondent for The New York Times when I got the call. The dam had let loose near dawn on Saturday morning. By the time I drove across to West Virginia, the death toll was heading toward 125.
I went to a shelter at the local school and found a man who had been up on the hill tending to his garden when the dam broke, and he watched the wall of water sweep his family away.
This was my second coal disaster, after Hyden, Ky., on Dec. 30, 1970. My boss, the great reporter and editor, Gene Roberts, had prepared me for covering Appalachia by telling me that if you spoke quietly and carried yourself respectfully – not like the stereotype of the network broadcaster -- people would talk to you, because they needed to tell their story.
The man described watching his house tumble down Buffalo Creek, with his wife and children inside. He said they had no warning, despite the heavy rain on Friday.
They all knew the earthen dam was up on the hill. Perfectly safe, the coal companies said.
Then again, coal companies claimed coal dust was good for you. Could cure the common cold.
* * *
In my first hours in West Virginia, I got very lucky, in the journalistic sense.
This was before computers and the Internet and cell phones. I needed a landline to call my story to the office in New York, so I knocked on a door, and an old lady let me use her phone, and then she invited me to stay for supper.
After we said grace, she and her grown son casually mentioned that a friend of theirs had been up on the hill trying to shore up the earthen dam that morning. As the water exploded from the dam, their friend had suffered a nervous breakdown and was in the Appalachian Regional Hospital down in the valley.
Poor feller, they said.
That piece of information told me the coal company had known the dam was in trouble for hours before it blew. Yet the valley was not warned.
The next morning the sun was out, and I found a lawyer from the regional coal company. I indentified myself as a reporter from the Times, and casually asked about the relationship with the major energy company in New York.
He said the company still had to investigate the cause, and he added, “but we don’t deny it is potentially a great liability.”
When the story appeared in the Times the next day, the lawyer denied saying it, but I let them know I had very clear notes in my notepad. And to this day, I still have that notepad, sitting right here on my desk, and every notepad I have used since. You just never know.
* * *
With the 40th anniversary coming up, I got in touch with Ford Reid, who was a photographer for the Louisville Courier-Journal back then, and has remained my friend ever since. Ford was at Buffalo Creek for over a week. I asked him to jot down his impressions, and he described the narrow valley as looking like “pickup sticks.”
Ford described the scene at the high school: “Families huddled in corners with Red Cross blankets and perhaps a few things they had managed to grab before scurrying up the hillsides to avoid the wall of water."
Ford added: “Military search and rescue helicopters used the football field next to the school as a landing area. At the first sound of an incoming chopper, people would rush out of the building and toward the field, hoping that a missing relative or friend would step off the aircraft. When that happened, there were shrieks and tears of joy. But it didn’t happen often. Mostly there were just tears.”
* * *
We all went to funerals in the next days, hearing the plaintive wail of the mourners and the mountain church choirs, a sound that still cuts through me.
My original reporting that the company had a man on a ‘dozer up on the hill during that heavy rain held up, as survivors told their stories of not being warned.
In the years to come, the testimony of the survivors was used in three class-action suits that yielded a total of $19.3-million, according to the records. I do not know how that worked out for the 5,000 people displaced or killed by that flood. From what I see and hear, nothing much changes in Appalachia.
Nowadays, I hear people talk about the solution for the energy crisis. The industry and politicians like to use the phrase “clean coal.”
Aint no such thing.
* * *
For more about Buffalo Creek, I suggest:http://appalshop.org/channel/2010/buffalo-creek-excerpt.htmlhttp://www.wvculture.org/history/disasters/buffcreekgovreport.htmlhttp://wiki.colby.edu/display/es298b/Buffalo+Creek+Disaster-+WHAT
Funeral at Buffalo Creek, Photo by Ford Reid