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A Detached Life
never worried about politics while I was growing up; I don't remember politics or world affairs ever being discussed at home. I have read about those families who sat around the dinner table talking about the Great Books or the news of the day, but we were not one of them. My father was an engineer preoccupied with his work. My mother listened to the soaps and gossiped endlessly but harmlessly with her friends about her other friends. If she had any interests beyond her own life, she kept them well hidden from her only child. Nor was I the kind of kid who had a precocious interest in serious matters. My life revolved almost totally around sports and, once I reached the proper age, shooting pool and trying to get girls into the backseat of the car, an enterprise at which I was not notoriously successful.
The family came from New England. The Germonds were French Huguenots; according to family legend, my forebears sailed on whaling ships out of the Hudson River ports. My mother's family was Scottish. There were some Indians on my father's side, although he was a little uncomfortable about admitting it, even until the day he died at ninety-two. But I remember a picture of a great-grandmother who looked like a squaw in a Tom Mix western, and my father's mother, whom I met only two or three times as a small child, had straight black hair and prominent cheekbones often seen in Indians. But we were a family largely isolated from relatives. My father had a brother, but I have no memory of ever meeting Uncle Arthur. There was also a half sister, Aunt Edith, whom I met a few times but never came to know. We never saw my mother's brothers and sisters after her parents died while I was a youngster. There were several cousins on both sides with whom I played a few times as a child. Later I wouldn't have known them if I had met them on the street.
We were striving middle class. My father never went to college, a failure that weighed heavily on him for his entire life, but he had taken night courses to qualify as a mechanical engineer and later as an electrical engineer and as a specialist in heating and air-conditioning. Late in life, when he was living in Maine, he developed a special interest in the use of solar energy in cold climates, a topic on which he could deliver a forty-five-minute lecture at the drop of a question. He worked in housing for years, and the family fortunes seem to rise and fall with his different jobs. On more than one occasion I had the impression things went sour on the job because my mother didn't get along with the other company wives. At times we seemed to be scraping along, at others we had some household help, a cook perhaps and, for one glorious interlude in Trenton, a young live-in maid named Maria who came from somewhere in eastern Europe and cheerfully gave me introductory lessons in the mysteries of life that obsess twelve-year-old boys. When we were flush, my mother, who had grown up a Methodist, would suddenly become an Episcopalian. At one point she even had me confirmed, whatever that meant, at a very uptown Episcopal church in Trenton.
When I look back on those days from a distance of several decades, I am struck by how detached we were from family and the community around us. I wonder if growing up as a peripatetic outsider was one of the reasons I gravitated toward the newspaper business, where a healthy detachment is an essential quality of a reporter's success. I was born in Boston. We moved every two or three years--so often that I attended ten different schools in my elementary and secondary years. We lived in and around Boston until I was ten, then spent three years in Trenton before moving on to Mississippi and Louisiana, where I finished high school in Baton Rouge just as World War II was coming to an end. I was always the new kid in school, which sometimes intrigued the girls but seemed to require fistfights with the boys whose turf I was invading.
The South was particularly traumatic for a Yankee in those days. Southerners seemed remarkably defensive and prickly, quick to take offense. If you called someone a son of a bitch, he would take it literally as a judgment on his mother rather than as a passing comment. The result was often a fight and, on my end, a torn ear or a fat lip or both. The boys most admired were those known as battlers, but I never qualified. I spent one fall semester at Ocean Springs, Mississippi, High School, while my father was working for a company building prefabricated rafts for the Navy. We lived in a run-down resort hotel, which marked me as different. And my hard-soled shoes and hand-knitted sleeveless sweaters, a specialty of my mother's, confirmed that I was an alien presence, one with unhealthy designs on Dixie Ann Weider--to the severe discomfort of her brother and several classmates with similar designs on her who felt obliged to punch me out. I lived long enough in Baton Rouge, however, to get past those initial hostilities and to make some friendships that have endured in one or two cases for fifty years.
Race was a complicating factor for a Yankee moving into the South during World War II. I had gone to junior high school with a few colored kids, as they were called there, but never thought much about it one way or another. The most memorable encounter was with a Hispanic, a black-haired, golden-skinned kid the rest of us thought was some kind of Indian. We were taking boxing in physical education class and reached a point at which someone was going to have to fight the Indian kid, although we were all terrified because he looked so implacably tough. When our reluctance grew embarrassing, I finally volunteered, since I was the right size for the matchup. I was scared to death. I will never forget the relief I felt when tears welled in his eyes after I hit him on the nose with a left jab. He was, after all, just like me. A punch in the nose and the tears pop out.
There was not such easy epiphany involving blacks. In the South in those days there was no debate about race relations or equal rights of which I was aware. They were just the "niggers" who cooked our food, washed our clothes, cut our grass, and kept out of our way on the streets. Some of the sons of even the "best families" in Baton Rouge would spend an occasional Friday or Saturday night "nigger knocking"--driving through the black section of the city and setting upon black men at random. They didn't all do it, but the ones who did always seemed to resent my unwillingness to join them. I wish I could say I was making a statement of principle, but it would be more accurate to say I was just puzzled. One of the things I discovered as a reporter years later was that racial attitudes were remarkably and enduringly harsh in Louisiana, for reasons that were never clear to me.
At Baton Rouge High School during World War II, however, we never argued about race or, for that matter, anything else that might have been called public affairs. I was accepted enough to become a member, even an officer, of the leading high school fraternity. My athletic career, never promising, had been ended on the football field by a fractured shoulder that eventually required three operations over a year and a half and left me with a badly atrophied deltoid muscle in my left shoulder. But I was a good student and coeditor of both the high school newspaper and yearbook. I found it easy to make good enough grades to be in the top 10 percent of my class but not marked as a grind. I was particularly strong in mathematics, where I profited from the attentions of an extraordinary teacher, Judith Pillow. To my father's delight, I was good enough to be offered a scholarship to study math at Rice Institute in Houston. To my father's dismay, I turned it down and followed the conventional course of enrolling at Louisiana State University and becoming a Sigma Chi pledge. Although I was a good student, I still had no intellectual interests, and I wasn't caught up in college life. I had some vague notion I wanted to be a newspaperman, but I was essentially just going along with the crowd. When you finished high school, you took advantage of the free college education at LSU and then went on to get a job and pursue a "real life."
It wasn't an exciting prospect, and I was restless. I had missed fighting in the war but felt there must be something more adventurous than what I was doing, someplace to go where there weren't the same people every day. It was a restlessness I had felt all through my adolescence, a feeling that there was something more out there that was at least different and perhaps better. I spent the first half of my last two high school summers working and saving my money so I could spend the second month or so hitchhiking around the country--once just around the South, once to the west as far as New Mexico and Arizona. It was educational in its way. I met my first homosexuals, drivers who picked me up along the road. I met some women more worldly than my high school girlfriends. I drank a lot of beer and once spent a night in a small-town jail in Arizona while the police department determined that I was not responsible for a rape that had occurred a couple of days earlier.
I always went back to Baton Rouge, but I never thought of it as any more than the place we happened to be living. So in 1945, after a semester at LSU, I decided to join the Army, although I could have avoided the draft with a student deferment. My friend Buddy Souter had agreed to enlist with me after the recruiting sergeant assured us we could take basic training together. When the day came, however, Buddy couldn't bring himself to leave home and family, so I left alone for Camp Chaffee, Arkansas, and life in what was then called the Army Air Corps. It was a marvelous, transforming experience that made me a lifelong advocate of universal military training immediately after high school, not because of the military part but because it helps to just get thrown into the pond at that age.
Basic training was quite different from life at the Sigma Chi house in Baton Rouge. My fellow trainees at the San Antonio Air Cadet Center--known as Sack Field--were mostly unlettered country boys from the rural South and Southwest. There was a man named Mysinger from Oklahoma who believed the world was square because he had heard about "the four corners of the earth" and could not be persuaded otherwise by my diagrams of the solar system. "If it's round, where do we get the corners? Answer me that," he would insist. There was a hillbilly from east Tennessee who showed a sweet piety and asked me to write his letters to his girlfriend back home, always including a paragraph about how much he missed her performing fellatio on him after church every Sunday. He signed off the letters, "Yours in the service of God."
After basic training I was sent off to a school for finance clerks at Lowry Field in Denver, an obvious recognition of my superior intellect that permitted me to learn how to type and fill out the endless forms involved in paying the troops. Once I had mastered those skills, I was sent off to the Air Transport Command and spent a winter in Iceland, where it was perpetually dark and usually raining or snowing, then a spring and summer in Greenland, where it was light enough to read a book on fire watch at midnight. I worked for a finance officer who taught me the tricks of getting a little but important edge in the world of the military. Although I was only a corporal, I was designated to be the base auditor because we didn't have a qualified commissioned officer on the base. That duty gave me leverage I had never before enjoyed but quickly learned to exploit. When a particularly obnoxious first sergeant kept giving me extra duty on kitchen police (KP)--he didn't have much use for "college boys" playing soldier--I spilled ink on his name on the payroll so he had to wait for a supplemental roll ten days later, as the regulations required. When the KP continued, damned if the ink didn't spill again until old Russ got the idea. I was putting through his allotments to his wife and I was paying his insurance, but he wasn't getting any cash for his beer and cigarettes until the KP stopped. When pilots flew from Greenland to Gander, Newfoundland, or Goose Bay, Labrador, and spent a night in what were much more civilized surroundings than we enjoyed in Greenland, I had some discretion about how quickly to approve their per diem payments. After a while they learned the process moved faster if they brought back a steak or a couple of lobsters or maybe some fresh milk for the boys in the finance office. I had a part-time job on the side keeping the books for the officers' club, although I had no idea how to do it as the Army regulations required. So when a team from the inspector general arrived for an audit, I found that a case of Scotch did wonders in passing their inspection. My behavior wasn't something I would recommend to my children, but it made my stint in the Air Corps a lot more comfortable than it might have been.
Borderline criminal behavior was not the principal lesson of my military career, however. Despite spending the time under military discipline, I learned to make my own decisions without the guidance of my parents, which had been rarely offered anyway, and free from any pressure to conform to the standards of my friends in Baton Rouge. The result was that I came out of the service enjoying a kind of independence I could never have enjoyed without those eighteen months on my own. My parents had moved back to Boston, and I had no reason to return to Baton Rouge. So I decided to use my GI Bill at the University of Missouri, where I took one degree in journalism and another in history and enjoyed my new freedom. In those years immediately after the war, the MU campus in Columbia attracted hundreds of ex-GIs like me from the eastern seaboard cities simply because places were available if you could find your own housing. Although we spent our required share of time drinking beer at Collins Tavern, we were reasonably serious about our work and in my case and many others not impressed by some of the conventions that had seemed so important a few years earlier. I went to dinner at the Sigma Chi house as the first step in becoming a member but decided I didn't care about fraternities any longer. After all, I had the VFW Club, which had two pool tables and was one of only two places in town--the other was the American Legion--that served liquor by the drink. When the brothers at Sigma Chi tried to impress upon me how I ultimately might profit from the contacts I would make through fraternity life, I didn't believe it. I qualified for an English honors program but quit halfway through a semester when I discovered it required enduring a course in Roman architecture. When my academic adviser insisted I would regret passing up the honors degree in "later life," I didn't believe that either. When I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, I joined because I was sort of puffed up at the idea and thought it would please my parents--but I never bought a key. It was sort of like someone smoking pot and never inhaling.
That was the wonder of those two years in the Army Air Corps when I was eighteen and nineteen. For whatever reason I came out of the service as a thoroughgoing skeptic. I had already decided religion made no sense, and I had learned firsthand that the authority of the military, although it had to be accepted by a soldier, was hollow and mindless. Now I felt the same way about the university. I was obliged to meet its standards to get a degree and a job, but I didn't have to accept its conventional wisdom about what was necessary to get ahead. It was, of course, an attitude of mind that equipped me peculiarly for the newspaper business, although I don't recall ever reflecting on that point at the time. I wanted to be a reporter because I enjoyed writing and reporting seemed like a good way to make a living, not as much fun as playing baseball but the best option available for someone with a weak arm who couldn't run.
Despite my blasé attitude, I found some aspects of university life were rewarding. I took a two-semester course in Shakespeare taught by a leading scholar, Hardin Craig. I studied economics with Harry Gunnison Brown, one of the few Keynesians teaching in those days. And I took a course in dialectical materialism taught by Morris Eames, a class I was convinced was allowed because no one on the State Board of Regents had any idea dialectical materialism was another way of saying Marxism. I met a wonderful old man, an epic poet named John G. Neihardt, who taught a course in writing the critical essay and, more to the point, taught all his students what it was for a man to grow old totally comfortable with himself and what he had done with his life.
I supplemented my GI Bill benefits with various jobs, as a bartender at Collins, as an instructor teaching a lab section on statistical method in the department of psychology, as a graduate assistant teaching copyreading in the journalism school. At one point I graded papers for Donovan Rhynsburger, who taught courses in theater and ran the workshop theater at Missouri--a job worth mentioning only because it allowed me to overhear a fellow journalism student named George C. Scott read for his first role as an actor. As a student reporter I covered the football team, and this allowed me to moonlight by covering the games for International News Service, which paid me a penny a word for three hundred and fifty words at halftime and the same again after the game. Seven bucks was a fortune. You could take one of the rich girls from Stephens College up to the VFW and have enough, at a quarter a drink, to convince her you were sincere.
When I finished school in 1951 I was in an ideal position to get a good starting job in the newspaper business. I had made good grades, and because of my prior service I was exempt from the draft for the Korean War. So I took what was probably the worst job offered, as sports editor of the Jefferson City Post-Tribune, only thirty-five miles from the campus. It paid fifty dollars a week, and its prime virtue was that I could start even before graduation, which was important because my GI benefits had expired and I was broke. I also needed some cash to pay Nelson Royalty, the proprietor of Tut's Café, fifty dollars for meals I had eaten on the arm. His wife, the formidable Lena, was afraid I was going to skip town without paying and she was leaning hard on old Tut. But, as much as I loved sports, I found covering it and writing about it tedious. Whatever your pretensions as a writer, and mine were fairly extravagant, there are only so many ways you can report a baseball game.
After only three months, however, I was saved. I had fallen in love with a fellow student at Missouri, Barbara Wippler, who was working as a copy editor for The Monroe (Michigan) Evening News, a daily of just under twenty thousand circulation. When we became engaged the News offered me a reporting job rather than lose Barbara, and my career as the next Red Smith came to an end. I was suddenly out of the sandbox and doing grown-up work covering city hall and labor.
Working for The Evening News was an almost entirely misleading experience. The owner and publisher of the paper--JS Gray, no periods after the initials--belonged in a newspaper textbook. He was totally professional and so was his newspaper, not in the sense that it was a polished and sophisticated product but in the sense that it understood its place in the community. It was there to print the news, no more and no less. There was no boosterism, no political agenda, no favorites to be coddled. JS backed his reporters to the hilt. When a city commissioner who owned a department store threatened to withhold his advertising because of a story I was writing, JS told him the advertising would not be accepted until he apologized for the threat. When one of his regular golf partners refused to deal with me about a strike he had caused at a local plant, JS told him he would deal with me or no one.
One day I heard that someone was measuring the height of the masts of the small fishing boats that used a channel from the River Raisin into Lake Erie. The only inference could be that someone was planning to build a bridge on a tract of marshland that, I soon discovered, was mostly owned by the Detroit Edison Co., the huge utility that served most of eastern Michigan. This was particularly intriguing because Detroit Edison was involved in a long and contentious process of trying to get a license to build a nuclear power plant. But the company had never revealed where it intended to build. When I called Detroit Edison, I was promptly invited to lunch at the Detroit Club with Walker Cisler, the chairman of the company. For a twenty-four-year-old reporter on a small daily, this was pretty heady stuff. I had never been to a club like this one, all dark paneling and red leather. Nor, for that matter, had I met anyone as charming and personally forceful as Walker Cisler. The burden of his message was that I had stumbled into their plans and he wanted the story held up for a week or two so they could get their ducks in a row, which sounded like another way of saying until they could buy up the rest of the land at bargain prices. To refuse the request, Cisler said, would be "an unfriendly act." I drove the forty miles back to Monroe, head spinning, and reported the conversation to JS. He promptly called Cisler and told him we were "sometimes unintelligent but never unfriendly" at The Evening News and in any case were going to print the story, which we did the following day. The sky, it turned out, did not fall. It never does. That's one of the things you learn in the newspaper business.
JS Gray also taught me a lesson in restraint, although I was slow to learn it. At one point he suggested I write an occasional editorial on local issues. And being a twenty-four-year-old know-it-all, I quickly proposed several critiques of the obvious inadequacies of the city commission. But JS stayed my hand. The voters, he told me, get about the level of competence that they are willing to pay for, so we shouldn't be nipping at the heels of the commissioners about every little thing. I was skeptical, suspecting my publisher of timidity, until the day Roy Fisher, a member of the commission, bought the bus company. The city charter, I pointed out, prohibited any commissioner from holding office if he operated a business licensed by the city. Although the bus company had a franchise rather than a license, it was clear to me that the spirit of the charter was being violated and that Fisher was no longer eligible. JS agreed and told me to write a brief editorial making that point, which we printed that day. About three hours after the paper came out, Fisher called me to read a statement of resignation from the commission. When I asked why, he replied, "It was that editorial. I don't have any choice." The lesson to me was clear: If you don't nip at their heels, you retain some influence.
The two years in Monroe were a special experience, but it had always been understood that I would want to move on to a larger pond. That was the conventional route then for a beginner in the business--two or three years on a small paper learning the mechanics and, not incidentally, building your confidence as a reporter by covering a wide variety of stories under the pressure of tight deadlines. Covering city hall and labor in Monroe, I sometimes wrote five or six stories a day and was always obliged to confront those about whom I wrote the next day. The labor beat was a particular learning experience. I covered twenty-six strikes, most of them wildcat walkouts that required dealing with union leaders, most often from the United Auto Workers, who made up in aggressive toughness what they lacked in sophistication. Once you learned to deal with Carlos Gastambide, the business agent for the largest UAW local at the Monroe Auto Equipment Company, you would not likely be intimidated again by any source at any level, up to and including the White House.
The first job was a training experience. Then you moved on to a larger newspaper that would offer bigger stories to cover for more readers and the chance to compete against more experienced reporters. There are exceptions, reporters and editors who spend their entire careers on a small newspaper because they like living in a community where everyone knows everyone else or because they like the hunting and fishing or, sometimes, because they aren't good enough to move up. But I wasn't one of them. So after two years I quit. JS Gray gave me best wishes. Barbara and I packed our belongings into a two-wheel trailer and drove east.
From the Hardcover edition.