Sunday, January 18, 2009


I recently received a very kind letter from my Aunt Naomi. She had been divorced from my Uncle Mort when I was in my early teens and I had not had any communication with her since. In her note, he remarked that she heard that I had become a writer, that I had always been a writer and had wanted to be one when she and my uncle gave me a thesaurus when I graduated junior high school.

At Porter Junior High we celebrated career dress-up day once a year. You'd come to school wearing the clothes that best reflected your highest aspirations. Mine had been to become Edward R. Murrow. I found a fedora, wrote the word "press" on a small index card, and wedged it into the hatband. I imagined myself trooping up the steps to the CBS studios on Manhattan, notepad in-hand, hurrying to beat the competition with my latest scoop.

By the end of my first year of college, I had already amassed a considerable portfolio of stories, culled from interviews with Katharine Ross, Ray Bradbury, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I had a press pass that let me into the great venues of Los Angeles, the Hollywood Bowl, the Cinerama Theatre (where I attended the opening of the film Woodstock), the Pantages, the Greek Theatre, the Ice House in Pasadena (where I'd brush elbows with emerging bands and comics), and the Shrine Auditorium. I had been to the opening of Hair, a concert of little-known Loggins and Messina, and covered anti-war marches along the Sunset Strip. By my senior year, I had transferred to San Jose State, where I amassed clips of anti-war riots, marches for Civil Rights, and the burial of a brand new Ford Pinto to wage an environmental protest. I was ready for great things.

Hardly a week following graduation I took a job with a small-town daily in Davis, a college community just west of Sacramento. We had an afternoon deadline, which meant I drove to work around 5:30 am, wrote six or seven news stories, then drove to Woodland, where a competitor paper was printed in the morning. I'd buy a copy, race back to my newsroom along Route 113, and re-write any stories that we might have missed.

My editor at The Enterprise was young, energetic, and a great mentor. But our publisher believed that the role of the paper was to echo the concerns of business and advertisers, which meant that everything I wrote passed through his heavy filter. He would re-write quotes or facts that cast the slightest aspersions on local businesses and their push for economic growth. Not an unusual role for a paper, but in a town exceptionally devoted to preserving the environment and stemming growth in the mid-1970s, it was the kiss of death. The mayor, Bob Black, had been arrested for laying his body across the railroad tracks in town through which munitions trains carried weapons westward to the Vietnam War. Now he led an effort to stem town expansion and spur the development of open space and parks.

I would cover a meeting where the council voted to stem growth, write the quotes accurately only to have them corrupted by my publisher. After a fashion, it was difficult to get anyone over at city hall to talk to me. But on the morning of September 15, 1975, I finally had my coup.

I drove to Sacramento to witness the arrival of President Gerald Ford at the state capitol. I wore my press pass in my coat pocket and carried a large format camera. Shortly after Ford arrived, I took positions with the press corps, and followed him and his secret service agents across the capitol grounds. Just outside the east entry, we passed a woman dressed in a hooded red robe.

It was Lynnette "Squeaky" Fromme, former member of the Mansion Family, who muttered something about the country going to pieces, pulled out a .45 Colt pistol and took aim. Two secret servicemen tackled her while the rest formed a wedge and spirited the President into the Capitol. I ran to a telephone and phoned in my story. We were an hour ahead of deadline and it would make the afternoon edition.

But my publisher, unsure of my ability to get facts strait, or with the right slant, decided to hold the story, awaiting confirmation of the assassination attempt by the wire services. He held it beyond deadline, and my account ran a day late.

Seventeen days later, I took my notebook with me to San Francisco. Ford was speaking at the St. Francis Hotel and I hoped to run into Megan Marshack, a college friend who was now covering the White House for AP Radio. As we waited for Ford outside the hotel we watched the secret service prepare Ford's limo. The moment the President emerged, Sarah Jane Moore was barely 40 feet away when she fired at shot at him. She was carrying a .45 automatic, 113 rounds of ammo, but the secret service got to her before she could fire a second shot. Again, my paper held my account until they could get a wire story. I had been an eyewitness to two assassination attempts and lost two scoops.

The summer of '76 I went to the Ford White House, courtesy of a press pass from Megan. As I sat in the press office, I saw a bunch of hard-drinking, bloated correspondents who awaited for "official" documents to come from the Press Secretary before heading to their typewriters and telephones. At that moment I knew that even at the apex of my career, I would be a fetch-it scribe for the interests of people in power.

It soured me. And four months later I walked into my office at my new daily paper in the Bay Area and pasted up a huge poster of Nelson Rockefeller. Under the portrait was a refrain from Daniel Webster about preserving the health of the union by breaking up large, corrupt interest groups. My editor, pissed, took it down. There was a clear rectangle now on a wall, a spot surrounded by bumper stickers, posters, press releases, and sports photos.

In the place where the poster had been, I pasted my resignation letter.


Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

Maybe you could save time and just write about the famous events in history that you were NOT connected to :-).

Gabby said...

Well, I did get to stand right next to you in the pit in front of the stage at a Springsteen concert. That's celebrity. I'm sorry I missed the Titanic sinking by a few years...

tangobaby said...

I have to say that Paul's comment is way too funny not to comment on. I was thinking more like you were a charming and interesting version of Zelig or Forrest Gump but that's not very accurate either.

However, you have had so many adventures in just one part of a lifetime that it's really hard to fathom at times!