Elmore at 100

August 11, 2018 – Dad would have been 100 today.

It was not an age he expected to reach and when he died 20 years ago at 80, no other Jenks male in our line had lived so long. But by then he had been widowed for 15 years, had lost a limb to diabetic neuropathy, could barely move because of congestive heart failure and arthritis, and had been forced to give up his beloved pipe. Toward the end, I don’t think he welcomed each day with gladness.

newpapuaAlong with all my siblings and family, I miss him. That is, I miss him in a way. Now that I’m in my seventies, I look in the mirror and Elmore looks back. His hazel eyes squint quizzically at mine and some evenings, when I’m enjoying a slight libation of Jameson’s, it feels like I’m channeling him. He preferred Mount Vernon but I don’t think he’d scoff at more refined whiskey. The odd thing is, I didn’t even like whiskey until he died. Maybe I really am channeling him.

This may not be entirely metaphysical because Dad passed to me a host of genetic gifts, including heart disease and a tendency to diabetes. He also passed his mathematical and horticultural gifts along to my other siblings so none of us could say we were left out, and I was not the only one to get the diabetes DNA. All five of us channel him in different ways.

whichAfter I grew up, the main thing I had in common with Dad was the pipe. Sometimes we’d sit at a card table smoking our pipes and restricting our conversation to light topics because deep introspection made him uncomfortable. A few years before he died I transcribed his World War II diary and he enjoyed commenting on what he had written. He unraveled at least one wartime mystery he had never talked about before, a picture of him leaning on crutches with his right leg bandaged at the knee. When I was growing up he allowed me to think he had injured his knee in a training obstacle course, or by catching it in the webbing of a troop ship. Then one evening as the pipe smoke enveloped us in a mystical haze, I asked him again:

“How did you hurt your knee?”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” he said immediately. “I was on a train in Australia, getting ready to ship out to a new post. There was this woman who came to see me off [perhaps Mary Fletcher, an Army nurse frequently mentioned in his diary]. They wouldn’t let her on the train so she came up to the window where I was. I knelt down so I could get my head out the window, and the train suddenly lurched forward. I hurt my knee and it hasn’t been the same since.”

sledDad and my mother, also named Mary, married in 1941 just three weeks after Pearl Harbor and they were separated for three years while Dad served in Pacific theater. Millions in their generation looked for ways to assuage the loneliness of separation and when it was over they said little about it. Dad and Mom – who was 18 when they married so suddenly – are entitled to their discretion. But I have often wondered about the woman who came to the station to say her good-byes to Dad when he moved to another assignment.

Reading through Dad’s World War II diary again, I’m also reminded that the horror of war was a universal experience whether one was in combat, behind the lines, or back at home. Because so much of Dad resides in me, I find it impossible to imagine what he went through during the battle of Buna Gona, one of the bloodiest engagements of the war. Looking back, I have little doubt that he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome throughout his adult life. He drank too much. He smoked too much. He was often depressed. And he had difficulty expressing his deepest feelings, which was another trait he passed along to some of his children.

But as his loved ones celebrate his centennial, I find that my favorite memories are of the Elmore who could smile and express his affection to his children in so many ways. I, for one, will never forget his laughter when we were so small he could lie on his back on the living room rug and hoist us aloft with his stocking feet before summersaulting us into pillows behind him. Or the space helmets and rocket control boards he created in his cellar shop because we couldn’t afford to order the toys peddled on Captain Video’s television program. Or his patience in taking us swimming several times a week each summer to our favorite lake. Or his willingness to join us in winter sledding and games.

My favorite pictures of Dad are of his beautiful smile, whether playing with a small dog on a foreign beach so near to the terror of battle, or laughing at himself because his weight on a sled had immobilized it in the snow.

More than anything else on his 100th birthday, I celebrate his ability to smile through all the complexities and challenges and travails of his life. Sometimes it wasn’t easy for him. But when he could manage it, his smile lit up all our lives.

_____

See Elmore Jenks’ World War II diary here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Al Gore and the Collective Boomer Consciousness

 

timesupA

This cartoon, drawn circa 1970 amid the intensity of my college years,* captures what most of us Boomers knew back then:

We humans were suffocating the life out of God’s green earth. And not all Boomers were mired at Woodstock waiting for Al Gore to discover this inconvenient truth.

I’m a little surprised at the ferocious India ink detail of the cartoon, drawn decades before Photoshop made it easy to color inside the lines. Variations of shading had to be simulated with a tiny steel nib and the porous paper threatened to unleash inadvertent Rorschach blots where they were least desired. It must have taken hours to outline this drawing in blue pencil (favored by cartoonists because blue was invisible to the photo-offset camera) and ink it with brush and pen. I wonder what classes I was ignoring while focusing on my drawing pad?

Probably the cartoon was drawn in anticipation of the first Earthday, which was observed in nearby Philadelphia on April 22, 1970. The self-appointed master of ceremonies was Ira Einhorn, a bloviated, reeking hippy I had never heard of but quickly concluded was a horse’s ass when he repeatedly dissed the guest speaker, U.S. Senator Ed Muskie. Einhorn – infamous as “The Unicorn” – was later convicted of killing his girlfriend and, after escaping to Europe and Ireland for several years, was ultimately re-captured and is now spending the rest of his life in prison.

It’s too bad the first Earthday had such an ignominious sidebar but it did attract a large crowd and it was the first of many Earthdays to come. Today even the ripest Boomers (I am 72 next month and in the oldest vanguard of Boomerdom) still believe we humans are suffocating the life out of God’s green earth.

It’s dismaying, then, that the Boomer in the White House is betraying his generation by ignoring the near-unanimous conclusions of scientists that climate change is caused by human excesses.

The Boomer in the White House (hopefully the last of his ilk) is famous for his limited vocabulary and inability to read more than a page of double-spaced large-pica type, so perhaps his ignorance is not entirely his fault. Whether he can actually think his way through a scientific syllogism or not, his very presence in the Oval Office provides a license for his greedy minions to seek short-term profit over long-term clean air.  They have willfully tossed aside even modest restrictions on the emission of greenhouse gases or the exploitation of non-renewable resources on the grounds they prevent rich business persons from getting richer. Nearly a half-century after the first albertarnoldgorejrEarthday, the official policy of the U.S. Government is in full retreat from efforts to save the earth.

I think the moral of the story for the rest of us Boomers is this: we can’t let our age-mate Al Gore do all the teaching by himself.

Not all of us voted for Al when he was politically active, but we were pleased when he found a constructive avocation after he left public service. An Inconvenient Truth was probably the most amazing PowerPoint presentation in history, though some Boomers thought the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences betrayed its leftist slant when it awarded it an Oscar (which later led to the Nobel Peace Prize itself).

Be that as it may, Al tells the truth, however inconvenient it may be. And most every other scientist on the face of the overheated, storm-plagued, glacier-melting, ocean-rising earth agrees with him.

It’s time for those of us who organized the first Earthday to fall in full force behind him.

The cartoon I drew in 1970 is truer now than it was then. I just didn’t expect the specter of doom to arrive so soon.

*Drawn for The Spotlight, the student newspaper of Eastern Baptist College, now Eastern  University.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

TrumpAneutics

trumpcolor72

August 3, 2019 – My social media world is a fairly insulated community of flatulent former flower children, church nerds, and enlightened Boomers. Thus I might get the impression that everyone thinks Donald Trump is a lying, semi-literate narcissist with borderline personality disorder. Can I get an amen?

But on occasion I catch glimpses of the Trump base: old Air Force buddies who routinely retweet the Donald’s claims that objective reporting is fake news, or high school and college chums who insist he is a good Christian man who rescued us from dark Obamaness and is courageously protecting the country from Mexicans and Muslims.

WTF? As a church communicator and erstwhile newspaper reporter, I’ve often brushed against right-wing zealots and white supremacists paralyzed by fear that persons they regard as inferior or different – others – will take over their neighborhoods, jobs, and sex partners. As a newspaper reporter I’ve interviewed Nazis and quickly realized there is little point in having a dialogue with them. Their brains are held hostage by hatred. You could remind them that Jesus told them to love and welcome everybody but they won’t hear you.

Is this the same cast of mind that has taken over a third of our country? I no sooner ask that than I begin to hear the complaints of old (and former) friends that Trump supporters are good and decent people like everyone else and they just want America to be great again.

I could accept that but for the fact that so many Trump supporters justify their views by their religion, especially Christianity, and by an eccentric interpretation of scripture.

Again I ask, WTF? By that I mean, on What Tenet of Faith is based this fear and hatred of others? Where in scripture are government leaders given authority to separate refugee children from their parents and abuse them by locking them in cages? Where is the perpetual bearing of false witness prescribed as the basis for policy formation? Where is it okay to grab the vagina of another man’s wife, as if God said it was okay when King David did it? And here in the bible is it argued that taxes should be reduced for the rich and budgets balanced on the backs of the poor?

The current chaos makes me nostalgic for a simpler era of theological debate. When I was a student at Eastern Baptist College 1968-71, the school was a righteously Republican-leaning institution where good Christian living was deemed to be on a par with sound financial management.

I should say that I cast no aspersions by my reference to Republicans. Back then we still liked Ike and Nelson Rockefeller and Mark Hatfield leaned slightly to the left of the Kennedys. It would be decades before so many Republicans sold out to Trumpism, and even now some of my best friends are Republicans. (See my earlier meditation on good Republicans here.)

But in 1968, when it came to finance, we students took seriously whatever Jesus said on the matter. He didn’t say much, but what he did say was terrifying:

“Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

For business and economics students, this seemed like an unreasonably delayed return on investment.

“He’s kidding,” we’d tell ourselves, citing Elton Trueblood’s droll little book, The Humor of Christ.

“Jesus didn’t literally mean, ‘sell all you have,’” we’d argue. “Look, he also said it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24). That was clearly hyperbolic humor.

“But,” someone would interject, driving the point home, “With God all things are possible.”

That’s where the financial exegesis would conclude. Jesus said sell all you have but he was using humor to make a point and in the end God would throw open the gates of heaven to the rich.

Understandably, this is one of the few scriptures that conscientious Baptist students didn’t take literally. There were many students in 1969 who believed in a literal Adam and Eve, a real Ark, and the division of the Red Sea. Many looked past the obvious implications of David’s passion for Jonathan to see Leviticus 18:22 as a condemnation of gay relationships. But for the most part, Levitical law was ignored and no one worried that the injunction against touching the skin of a dead pig might be the death knell of Sunday football.

Looking back these many years, such exegetical discussions seem to belong to a simpler era when we believed most business and government leaders, regardless of their political slant, were essentially good, God-fearing folks. John D. Rockefeller Jr. never considered selling all he had and giving his money to the poor, although if he had he could have wiped out poverty in America. But he diminished his camel considerably with his philanthropy by building Riverside Church in Manhattan and financing many a church mission board and retirement program. Who knows that by the time John D. Jr. got to the gate of heaven his camel was tiny enough to squeeze through the keyhole without extraordinary assistance from God.

I’m not sure what John D. Jr.’s precise theology was but I presume his Baptist background led him often to the passage of Jesus’ conversation with the rich young ruler. That, and Rockefeller’s generous philanthropic impulses, suggests he well understood Jesus’ command to love God and to love all people. Just as we students slowly realized during our bible debates at Eastern Baptist College, the law of loving God and neighbor becomes the lens through which all other scripture must be seen. This relieves us (as the immortal President Bartlet pointed out) from following scriptural requirements to stone a farmer for planting different crops side by side or burning one’s mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads. If ancient scripture doesn’t measure up to God’s love or God’s requirement that we love our fellow human beings unconditionally, it should be abandoned to the Iron Age where it last made sense.

 

During my years at Eastern, many students used love-of-God-and-neighbor as a handy moral compass. My generation was famously active in the movements to end the Vietnam War, stop poverty, advance civil and human rights, sponsor refugees, seek more opportunities for physically and developmentally disabled persons, seek justice for prisoners, and protect the environment. All of these activities came under the heading of loving God and people, and lest their be any doubt Jesus made it even clearer:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35-40)

Looking back on these years of hippy hermeneutics, I sometimes wonder if our fervor took us too far or not far enough. We thought free and frequent lovemaking fit neatly into the guidelines of loving our neighbor providing no one gets hurt, which, in practice, is hard to avoid. And it was years before we Boomers understood that God’s love includes cisgender, transgender, LGBTQ, and all God’s children bar none. But we gradually came around because God makes it plain that love is love. Selah.

I am by no means a systematic theologian, but this construct of love of God and love of neighbor has been the foundation of my faith all my adult life.

It had also provided a context for my political views, and I’ve often cast my vote in accordance with which candidate appeared to me to have the greater understanding of Love to the least of these.

No candidate, of course, has been in perfect sync with Jesus, but who has? In 2008 and 2012 I was a member of an interfaith group that encouraged presidential candidates to take action to alleviate severe poverty in the U.S. But persons living in severe poverty have little political leverage, so the candidates – McCain, Romney, and Obama twice – chose to focus their attention on the struggling middle class rather than the suffocating poor. Even Hillary Clinton, in her sadly imperfect campaign, appeared insensitive to the needs of persons so poor they were literally dying.

But despite their imperfections, I never doubted that these politicians were good people and that their hearts and minds could be opened if they gave God a chance.

It is only since January 2017 have I sensed that Donald Trump and his people in power have vigorously rejected the entire premise of God’s relationship with God’s creatures and with God’s green earth. Instead of turning to the God of love for sustenance and direction, they have created a fetid quagmire of hate and distrust, a squalid bog in which the rich come first, middle class white people are promised their proper place, and those regarded as others – Muslims, Latinos, African Americans, LGBTQ people – are regarded as enemies. And anyone who says it’s happening is a purveyor of fake news.

This is not a godly government. And my prayer is that it will not survive beyond the 2020 elections.

Because I will be 72 next month. And I would like to believe I will live long enough to see the odious effects of Trumpaneutics finally cleansed from the land.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Harry and the Bombs of August

harryandthebomb72

The way Harry Truman saw it in August 1945, there was a sickening possibility that the Second World War would end in an unprecedented bloodbath.

The only alternative to a mutual massacre of American and Japanese troops, he believed, was the Atomic Bomb that his scientists told him was ready to use.

Months earlier, in land battles on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, U.S. forces suffered 75,000 casualties. On Iwo Jima, the president was informed, 21,000 Japanese troops fought fanatically to hold the island and 20,000 were killed.

Truman was also aware that Americans were getting harsh glimpses of the brutality of the Pacific war. In November 1942 through January 1943 the Allied losses in the battle of Buna-Gona in eastern Papua New Guinea were higher than that experienced at Guadalcanal. For the first time the American public was confronted with the images of dead American troops. My father’s personal account of that campaign can be read at www.bunadiary.com.

In July, as secret plans were underway for a U.S. invasion of Kyushu, the interception of Japanese messages indicated their military build-up on the island was four times larger than earlier estimates. In Truman’s estimation, the Japanese military government was prepared to fight on until every soldier was dead or wounded.

The atomic bomb, he said, was the only way to “end the agony of war.” On his orders on August 6, an American B-29 dropped a bomb on Hiroshima killing 80,000 people. The total swelled to 140,000 as people injured and suffering from radiation poisoning succumbed. An additional 80,000 died August 9 when a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.

Whether the numbers fell short of projected deaths in a theoretical invasion of Japan has been the subject of debate for 73 years.

When Truman went on the radio to announce the use of the bomb, many Americans regarded it as a hopeful sign the war was about to end. But even hopeful Americans were sobered by the number of people, including civilians, women and children, who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was immediately clear that the world had entered a dark and uncertain age.

Member churches of the Federal Council of Churches were appalled by the evils the new age had unleashed. Church spokespersons such as Presbyterian John Foster Dulles – known later for his policy of nuclear “brinksmanship” as President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State – urged a moratorium in further use of the bomb.

The Rev. Samuel McCrea Cavert, general secretary of the Federal Council, sent a telegram to the president on August 9, the day Nagasaki was bombed:

Honorable Harry S Truman,  President of the United States,  The White House

Many Christians deeply disturbed over use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities because of their necessarily indiscriminate destructive efforts and because their use sets extremely dangerous precedent for future of mankind. Bishop Oxnam president of the council and John Foster Dulles chairman of its Commission on a Just and Durable peace are preparing statement for probable release tomorrow urging that atomic bombs be regarded as trust for humanity and that Japanese nation be given genuine opportunity and time to verify facts about new bomb and to accept surrender terms. Respectfully urge that ample opportunity be given Japan to reconsider ultimatum before any further devastation by atomic bomb is visited upon her people.Federal Council of churches of Christ in America, Samuel McCrea Cavert, general secretary

Harry Truman, in office only five months, struggled with diplomatic language in his quick response. In a letter dated August 11, he wrote:

My dear Mr. Cavert:

I appreciated very much your telegram of August ninth.

Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them.

When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.

Sincerely yours,

Harry S. Truman

2augustbombsThe nuclear age had begun virtually over night, and Truman’s eleven successors made decisions that built, expanded or maintained the American nuclear arsenal. The political rationale from the very beginning was that the bomb was needed to end conflict or as a deterrent to conflict.

But to millions of church people, the potential for “indiscriminate destruction” of God’s creation became a daily nightmare and the focus of millions of sermons, statements and theological debates.

The churches began preaching that sermon of peace in August 1945, and 73 years later it continues.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When Kennedys Meet Out Yonder

kennedyconclave

August 1, 2018 – Senator Edward M. Kennedy died nine years ago this month. At the time I fantasized what it might have been like when Teddy crossed over. Would he have been greeted by his long-dead brothers? And what would the conversation have been like?

The fantasy unfolds:

Somewhere laughter erupted, as if someone had just told a joke.

It was raucous, frat house laughter, exploding loudly and then fading into Boston-accented commentaries on whatever the hell was so funny.

It was familiar laughter. Ted opened his eyes to see where it was coming from.

The mist in the room began to lift and Ted saw three shadowy figures. Two were over six feet tall and one was shorter, and their foreheads nearly touched as they leaned toward each other. One of them – Ted wasn’t sure which – was about to tell another joke.

“Huh,” Ted said.

The three straightened and turned to face him. “Huh, yourself,” said Jack, flashing his teeth. Joe and Bobby smiled, too. Ted blinked his eyes and stared at the three grinners.

“Where – what -?” Ted said. “Am I -?”

“What’s wrong, hot shot, don’t you read the Globe any more?” asked Joe, whose starched white Navy officer’s uniform glowed as if he was being transfigured.

Kennedy Dead at 77,” said Bobby, reading from a paper that suddenly materialized in his hands.

Liberal Lion of the Senate, symbol of family dynasty, succumbs to brain cancer,” Jack recited.

“Brain cancer,” Joe said. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

Ted began to catch on.

“I knew when the priest came and they took away my ice cream that it was getting close,” he said. “Am I -?”

“A ‘malignant glioma’ for God’s sake,” said Jack. “Christ, you always did do things the hard way.”

“Us, we never saw it coming,” said Joe. “A bomber explodes …”

“A couple bullets in Dallas,” said Jack.

“A .22 round to the head in Los Angeles,” Bobby shrugged.

“Couldn’t have been easier, old man,” Joe said. “But a ‘malignant glioma’? Jesus.”

Ted looked around but he couldn’t see clearly through the thick mist.

“Is this heaven? Where’s Dad?”

The three older brothers exchanged glances. Jack shifted his weight at an invisible podium, as if it was a press conference and he was searching for a misleading answer.

“This isn’t heaven,” Bobby said. “More like the narthex.”

“And we haven’t seen Dad,” said Joe.

“Remember, we all predeceased him,” added Jack. “But if he came through here, we didn’t see him.”

“Mother is up ahead of us,”clarified Bobby. “And Eunice and Jackie and John Jr. – all of them.”

“But we haven’t seen Dad,” repeated Joe.

“We don’t know about Dad,” said Jack.

Ted stared at his brothers, and they stared back at him.

“You all -” Ted started. “You all look good.”

Bobby snorted impatiently, the way he did when he read convoluted Justice Department memos.

“Of course,” he said. “So do you.”

A shimmering mirror appeared in front of Ted. He did look good. The gut was gone, the jawline was firm, the hair was dark brown.

“Damn,” he said.

“It’s a fringe benefit,” said Joe, stepping along side Ted to share the mirror. Joe examined his teeth and smoothed his hair with his palm.

Ted turned away from the mirror and extended his hands toward his brothers. “So what’s next?” he asked. “Why are you here?”

Jack placed his hands in the side pockets of his sports jacket. “We are here,” he said – the familiar starchy he-ah – “to honor you.”

“Welcome me to the other side?”

“More than that,” said Bobby.

“We’re here to pay our respects,” Jack said. “Dad had big ideas for all us boys, and you transcended us all.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. Joe was relieved of the burden early, but I was president and Bobby became a civil rights icon. But you went so much further.”

“So we’re here as your honor guard,” said Joe. “You were the greatest among us.”

Ted snorted. “Shit,” he said. “I could have used this respect when you were pummeling me in touch football.”

“You hadn’t earned it then,” said Bobby, frowning. “That was then,” said Joe. “This is now.”

“And, look, you weren’t perfect,” said Jack. “Chappaquiddick. Shit.”

Joe and Bobby shook their heads.

“No way you are Saint Teddy,” Jack said. “You’ll be reminded of that every day here in the Narthex. All four of us were horny bastards and we thought we were entitled.”

Joe stepped in front of Jack.

“Not me. I was Mom’s altar boy,” he said. “But Teddy, this is no canonization. It’s just us boys getting together to acknowledge who you are in the Kennedy firmament.”

“Firmament?” Ted asked

“Look,” Bobby said. And he began to sum it up in lawyerly fashion. “Because of you, this country has a fighting chance for universal health care,” Bobby said. “You were responsible for more legislation that became law than any of us: in civil rights, voting rights, education, labor justice, immigration reform. You pushed George W. Bush to implement ‘No Child Left Behind.'”

Jack added, “You pushed this country to oppose apartheid in South Africa. You pushed for peace in Northern Ireland. You forced the U.S. to stop sending arms to the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. You opposed this country’s entry into the Iraq War.” Jack looked down at his feet. “I wish you had pushed me a little harder to get out of Vietnam,” he said in a low whisper.

“But you were the man,” Joe said. “You may well be the Kennedy future generations will remember.”

“If they mention us at all,” Bobby said quietly, “Who knows? Maybe Joe and Jack and I will be remembered as Teddy’s brothers.”

Jack and Bobby and Joe exchanged dubious smirks.

“I can live with that,” Ted said.

The four were silent for a moment. Teddy cleared his throat. “What’s next?” he asked.

“Time to move on, old man,” Joe said.

“We’ll follow you,” said Jack. “Let’s go,” said Bobby. The three older brothers stepped aside and pointed the way to a shaft of light.

“What’s that”

The older brothers shrugged.

“Okay,” said Ted. “Let’s go, then.”

“Any last minute instructions before we go?” asked Joe, a bit sardonically.

Ted scratched his head and smoothed his dark brown hair.

“Yes,” he said, stepping forward. “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives …”

Ted stepped in front of his brothers and began walking toward the light.

“And the dreams shall never die.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Grandpa, What Was Print Media?

Mercury Building copy

July 29, 2018 – A few years ago my oldest grandson asked what I had done in the Air Force and his father told him I had used a typewriter. “What’s a typewriter?” he asked.

Now before my youngest grandson asks me what a newspaper was, I thought I’d better record some thoughts before I forget the answer.

Earlier this month the New York Daily News announced it was firing half of its newsroom staff, a draconian move by publisher tronc Inc. and only the latest development in the decline of daily newspapers around the country,

The decline has also affected my favorite local rag, the Pottstown Mercury, where I worked as a staff writer for three years in the early 1990s. Editor Evan Brandt’s recent post about the closing of a building that housed The Mercury is the latest rasp of the death rattle of small-town newspapers.

According to Brandt, The Mercury will continue to publish and staff will be asked to work from home or at the paper’s Exton, Pa., printing plant. But it’s not a good sign, and clouds of doom hang over all print media. Earlier this year New York Times CEO Mark Thompson estimated that the newsprint Times would disappear in ten years.

“We’ll decide that simply on the economics,” Thompson told Kellie Ell on CNBC’s web page. “There may come a point when the economics of [the print paper] no longer make sense for us.”

The tear I shed over this development is, I confess, slightly hypocritical because I already read the digital Times on my iPad. I also read the Merc on line because I live a hundred miles from the paper’s closest coin box.

I was a cops and politics reporter for the Merc from June 14, 1992 to June 21, 1995. It was an intense and generally enjoyable experience although, looking back, it was only a brief interlude in my 40-year career as a church communicator. The Merc’s editorial and advertising offices were on the second floor of the now redundant building. Even 25-years ago the building seemed old and reporters once filed an OSHA complaint that the stale air gave them headaches. There was no evidence that the air was bad but I suspect the real purpose of the complaint was to call attention to the fact that the publisher was hermetically sealed away from the reporters in a freshly painted air-conditioned office.

I was not party to the complaint. In fact, I found little to dislike about the Merc. Unlike church workers, who think their tasks are so godly they must take work home at night and on weekends, the Mercury didn’t like paying reporters overtime and refused to allow it. If I had to cover an evening school board meeting I’d come in at noon. If there was no evening meeting I’d come in at 10 a.m. and leave before 7. I’d interview sources, write two or three stories, and when I filed them with the editor my day was done.

On Tuesday nights, if my day was over by 7, I’d kick off my shoes and watch ABC’s NYPD Blue, a police procedural about a detective squad with a management style very much like the one in our newsroom. On television, Lieutenant Fancy would get a call about a crime occurring somewhere in Manhattan South; in the newsroom, Editor Walt Herring would get a call about an accident, robbery, fire, or other news event in the Pottstown coverage area. On television, Fancy would call out the names of two detectives and order them to the scene of the crime; in the newsroom, Herring would call out the names of a reporter and photographer and send them to the news event. On television, detectives Sipowicz and Simone would arrive at the scene where they would always find a place to park and use their fists or pistols to subdue the malefactors and haul them into justice; in the newsroom, the reporter and photographer would double park, take pictures, interview sources, and return perspiring to the newsroom to process the story for the next day’s edition.

I have to admit that I loved it. Sometimes the news we covered was not pleasant. The first story I covered for the paper was a fire that cost the lives of three young children. Photographer Kevin Hoffman and I were occasionally first to the scene of grisly automobile accidents where the smell of blood wafted with the odor of gasoline fumes. Sometimes a driver’s mangled body sat strapped akimbo in the seat until the coroner arrived to officially declare what first responders could already see. One January, Kevin and I covered the crash of a small two-engine commuter aircraft that failed to take off from the Limerick, Pa., airfield in a snow squall. The bodies of two young businessmen showing no signs of trauma were strapped in the back seats, but the body of the pilot had been torn apart by the impact. Limerick Police Chief Doug Weaver called me over to look. “Here’s something you don’t see every day,” he said, pointing to the pilot’s heart which was exposed on the outside of his chest cavity.

dayiwrote

Most other news events were more prosaic, including school board or township meetings or preliminary hearings in district court. Most meetings were too boring to make for interesting reading, and when something exciting did happen – as when a school superintendent called one of his board members a “little shit” – it had to be reported obliquely because the Mercury was a family newspaper. But I loved writing the stories, filing them, going home to bed, and – best of all – coming in the next day to see my byline on the front page. The very last story I wrote for the Mercury, was in June 1995, when two elderly men in a trailer park got into an argument and shot each other with .22 rifles. They were both bad shots and both lived, but I had to leave it to other reporters to do the folo. That month I was on my way to New York to join the staff of the World Council of Churches.

The Mercury continues to publish a print version and I hope it continues for many years. But the future of print journalism is not bright. After 579 years Gutenberg has been succeeded by Zuckerberg. A digital mirage on our smart phones is replacing the tactile comfort and smell of newsprint and ink.

Granted, reading a newspaper online is convenient (so long as your power source lasts) and news updates are instantaneous. Nor can I see myself patiently waiting for the bulky Times to be tossed on my front lawn when I want to read Charles Blow NOW.

When the final paper Times rolls off the press, I’ll miss it terribly. And now when I pick up my iPhone to read the instant headlines, I’ll try not to remind myself that my need for instant news gratification – and yours – was ultimately responsible for the end of print.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An Unplanned Conversation with Julian Bond

BondandKingAmong the decaying newsprint clippings I discovered in the attic this weekend was a February 20, 1970 issue of The Spotlight, the student newspaper of Eastern Baptist College.

Headlining the issue was an exclusive interview with Georgia legislator Julian Bond who, despite having just turned 30 that year, was a political superstar on campuses around the country. Bond was one of eleven African Americans elected to the Georgia House of Representatives after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 opened registration to Black voters, and – as noted in The Spotlight’s introduction – he became a national media figure at the Democratic Convention in 1968. He was a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and chair of the NAACP from 1998 to 2010 when he compared the GOP’s Tea Party movement as “the Taliban wing of the Republican Party.” Bond was 75 when he died in August 2015.

It was a cold night in January 1970 that the Spotlight staff gathered in its elegant office in Walton Hall to do some brain storming about the next edition. Top issues that year were the demonstrations of the Resistance Movement against the Vietnam War, and the (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign of Democratic upstart Norval Reece to unseat Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott. Editor Judson Childs had already interviewed Reece and staff members began suggesting names for other interviewees. I think it was Jane Thompson who said, “How about Julian Bond?”

We all admired Bond and thought that was an excellent idea.

“He’ll never do it,” someone said, but by then I was already on the old rotary phone in the office calling information for the number of the Georgia House. I was quickly connected with Bond’s office where an adolescent-sounding male said, “He’s not here, he’s on the floor,” meaning the floor of the house. Trying to make “Eastern Baptist College” sound as august as Bond’s alma mater Morehouse College, I left my name and number and asked if Mr. Bond would please call me for a brief telephone interview.

I put the phone down and the staff conversation turned to other matters. Within the hour, however, the phone rang and one of the women picked it up and her eyes widened.

“It’s Julian Bond!” she shouted, muffling the phone with her palm.“Who is going to talk to him?”

I reached for the phone just as I was handed the microphone of a barely functioning cassette recorder. I pressed the microphone against the mouthpiece and began talking.

We must have been on deadline because I remember staying up late to transcribe the interview, carefully omitting my nervous banter and futile efforts to make the serious Bond laugh. Once typed, I quickly measured the copy for layout, clipped a picture of Bond out of TIME magazine and dropped it in without a credit line. The interview – for whatever minor contribution it makes now to the history of small school journalism – is posted below before the actual newsprint deteriorates into meaningless yellow flakes.

JB172

JulianBondConc

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments