When Uncle Frank Jenks out-acted Raymond Massey

cantreadmylinesME TV (Memorable Entertainment Television) is one of several networks catering to Boomers by broadcasting reruns of 1950s and 1960s era TV programs we loved.

Sometimes I think it would be kinder if they left some shows to our fading memories. If Perry Mason or The Beverly Hillbillies were not as brilliant as we remember them, what does that say about us? That we were not as sophisticated about popular culture as we thought?

I tended to favor westerns when I was growing up. I still enjoy watching The Rifleman Chuck Connors brace his 44-40 Winchester into his hip and blaze away at an unseen target (this is the early sixties so we’re not supposed to see this as an erotic metaphor). I love listening to Richard Boone quote Shakespeare or Euripides as he outdraws the menacing bad guy and climbs on his horse to serenely ride away, a weekly scene on Have Gun, Will Travel. I can even get through the first twenty minutes of Gunsmoke without switching to CNN.

But my favorite western was Wagon Train. And it is Wagon Train that I wish METV had left unmolested on the shelf. Each rerun has been a painful disappointment.

The weekly show dramatized the adventures of a wagon train traveling from Missouri to California.  It featured Ward Bond (Bert the cop in It’s a Wonderful Life and Rev. Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton in The Searchers) as wagon master Major Seth Adams, and Robert Horton as scout Flint McCullough. Bond was one of those character actors who played his craggy self in hundreds of roles, and Horton was the show’s pretty face, so neither of them was called upon to actually act.

Each episode featured a guest star famous enough to give the show heft and attract viewers. Over the years they included Dan Duryea, George Gobel, Joan Blondell, Gloria DeHaven, Ernest Borgnine, Annette Funicello, and Charles Laughton. Few of them appeared to take their roles seriously, and Laughton – playing a mean-spirited British officer – seemed to be reprising his Captain Bligh pouts from Mutiny on the Bounty.

RayMasseyasMontezumaBut the distinguished actor who did the worst job was Raymond Massey, although it probably wasn’t his fault. Massey, who was nominated for an Oscar for his 1940 portrayal of Abe Lincoln in Illinois, was assigned the silliest role of his career: Montezuma IX, complete with an ornately feathered Aztec crown and a garish Aztec royal robe.

In Wagon Train’s sixth episode of its fourth season, the story line finds Flint McCullough leading a four-man party searching for the father of one of the riders. They encounter – inexplicably it would seem – an Aztec princess from a lost remnant of a tribe that has been extinct for 400 years. Princess Lia is played by Linda Lawson, the only member of the cast still alive, and the role requires little of her but to maintain a blank face and speak in etherial monotones. Since Lawson has continued acting for decades after this role, she must have been capable of a wider emotional range than was permitted by the script or by Wagon Train director Richard Whorf.

As the story progresses, Flint McCullough falls improbably in love with Princess Lia, despite her wooden demeanor and dazed expressions. Their love is star-crossed because Lia is to be sacrificed to an Aztec God, a fate she accepts with stoned stoicism. When Flint finds out about it, Robert Horton’s limited acting range is harshly exposed:

“You were born to live a full life, to know the love of a man, to bear his sons,” he pleads, flatly and unconvincingly. “Everything that I am and everything that I feel and believe demands that I stay here and fight for you.” But when Lia insists she must die “for the greatest good,” Flint needs little persuading to high-tail it out of there.

But the award for the most excruciating performance in the episode belongs to Massey, who must feel as ridiculous as he looks in his feathered crown and gilded frock. The only emotion he betrays is suppressed embarrassment, and when the role calls upon him to show anger he must be motivated by an urge to strangle his agent. Massey seems to be reading his lines from a cue card, and he sounds painfully aware of their inanity (“You and your party enter the gates of Tenochtitlan favored by the gods. We are honored by your presence and it is our heartfelt wish that happiness attend you each day you stay with us …”

In my opinion, the most stellar performance in the episode belongs to Frank Jenks, a busy but fairly obscure character actor of the 1940s and 1950s. METV viewers can catch Frank, a distant relative of mine, on reruns of Perry Mason, The Adventures of Superman, and various TV oaters, usually playing a bartender, a con man, or a petty hood. Curiously, his role in this episode of Wagon Train is utterly superfluous. I can only surmise that the director saw him as a Greek Chorus commenting on the action.

Uncle Frank plays a character named Carl “Dutch” Anders, described by Flint McCullough as a man “available for almost any job for almost any money.” But as the four-man party embarks on its search Frank is called upon to use his nasally voice to set the mood for the episode: “I’m sorry I took this job. I’ll swear I felt eyes on the back of my neck all afternoon.”

When Flint discovers Princess Lia of the Aztecs along the trail, Frank utters a necessary warning: “The Aztecs made human sacrifices didn’t they?”

Later, when the search party is led into the re-fabricated city of Tenochtitlan, Frank is called upon to exchange incredulous glances with his fellow actors as Massey’s Montezuma proclaims the interlopers as messengers of the gods. “We’re not messengers of the gods,” Frank complains undiplomatically. “We’re a searching party. We’re from a wagon train. Were on our way to California.”

Frank’s longest speech is a dialogue with Flint McCullough on the second day of their stay in Tenochtitlan:

“Someone washed my clothes while I was lulling in my marble bed. I never took a marble bath in in my life before.” He picks up a small artifact and tests its weight. “Solid gold, Take it from me those jewels aren’t glass. There’s a couple of pieces in my  room too. They’d make nice souvenirs don’t you think? What do you think? You haven’t said a word. The old man sure talks a lot of mumbo jumbo doesn’t he.”

Flint dissuades Frank’s character from grabbing souvenirs, and in a later scene Montezuma explains to the visitors that gold has little value in Tenochtitlan. “You mean a man  is poor if he has gold?” he exclaims to the emperor. “You sure out of touch with the world.” I suspect that was intended to be a profound insight, and Frank pulls it off with aplomb.

That’s the last time we see Frank in this ridiculous episode, which ends with Flint’s unconvincing melancholy over his lost love. More likely he dodged a bullet. At least he will not be spending the rest of his life with a catatonic woman in an emotionless trance.

This episode may well be the worst Wagon Train ever produced. But, for me and other Jenkses and Jenks relatives, it has some redeeming value.

This is the episode in which Frank Jenks acted circles around the great Raymond Massey.

It suggests to me that Frank could have gone much further than he did, if casting directors had given him half a chance. I can’t see him as Abe Lincoln in Illinois, exactly. But I can easily see Frank Jenks as Adam Trask, bringing James Dean to tears in East of Eden.

But regardless of Frank’s presence, was Wagon Train really as bad as all that?

I invite nostalgic boomers to judge for themselves:

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dick Gregory, October 12, 1932 – August 19, 2017

Dick_Gregory_2015
Dick Gregory was a lean, mean running machine in 1974 when he came to the first annual Communication Center at Green Lake, Wis.

The Center was a week-long seminar in interfaith communication planned by the American Baptist Division of Communication, then headed by Norman R. DePuy. The speakers who addressed the conference that week were stellar in their own rights, including editor Norman Cousins, pop-anthropologist Ashley Montague, George Gerbner, legendary chair of the communications department at the University of Pennsylvania, and NAACP head Benjamin Hooks.

All of these luminaries stayed in the Green Lake Center’s elegant but rickety Roger Williams Inn, where the ancient elevator doors clunked open with (in Montague’s words) “the thud of an atomic bomb.” Montague, an elegant Brit who was famous for occasional appearances on the Johnny Carson show, exposed his bony white knees between the hem of his yellow Bermuda shorts and black knee socks, and he was a pain in the neck to the Center organizers. He was an avowed Unitarian who hated the Roman Catholic Church and frowned condescendingly at the Protestant Christians who came to the Center, “The only time I hear Jesus Christ’s name in my church,” he proclaimed in his opening lecture, “is when the janitor falls down stairs.”

Cousins and Hooks, fortunately, were charming and accessible to all attenders. Gerbner cheerfully accepted the uneven surface of the Green Lake tennis courts, saying they were useful lessons for life: “You never know where the ball will bounce.”

But it was comedian and social activist Dick Gregory whose presence was remembered by most. In the summer of 1974, Dick was running from coast to coast to express his opposition to the Vietnam War. He agreed to come to Green Lake if the organizers would allow him to run when he wasn’t making speeches, and that’s how I remember him: brief glimpses of a skinny, sweating, bearded man running quickly through crowds, often accompanied by teen-ager Scott Waterston, the son of one of the Baptist organizers.

But Gregory never refused to stop and talk with people, and he was generous with his autographs. His humor was always present and occasionally cutting. One day the staff was meeting in the canteen, a small snack shop at the rear of the Roger Williams Inn, and Gregory walked in to ask for water. He had removed his running shoes, which created a dilemma for the young woman at the cash register. “I’m sorry,” she said with adolescent firmness, “you can’t come in here without shoes.”

“What?” Gregory said, stifling a smile.

“You can’t come in here without shoes.”

Gregory quickly surveyed the small crowd in the canteen and raised his voice. “JESUS wouldn’t be allowed in here,” he announced loudly. But he stepped outside obediently and slipped into his shoes.

Dick Gregory’s keynote address was brilliant and full of famous lines from his public appearances. “I was told, ‘We don’t serve colored people in here,’ and I said, ‘That’s okay, I don’t eat colored people.’” And, “These big white guys surrounded my table and said, whatever you do to that chicken, we goin’ to do you. So I kissed it.”

Not everything Gregory said was scientifically substantiated, including his assertion that feeding cows milk to human babies was the underlying cause of sudden infant death syndrome. But his social observations were usually insightful and always wise.

During the question and answer session following his evening speech, Dick asked for water and sipped from a cup while responding thoughtfully and humorously to each question. As the hour grew late, Division of Communication staffer Milt Ryder, who was presiding over the session, announced there would be time for one more question. The question came, Gregory answered it thoughtfully, and turned to Milt for the adjournment.

But before Milt could get to the microphone, Phil English, an African American pastor, stood to be recognized. Milt looked awkwardly from English to Gregory and back to English.

After a few seconds of enjoying the awkwardness, Gregory intervened.

“Don’t worry, Brother,” he told English. “No way these folks will dare tell you to sit down.”

There were other communications centers at Green Lake, and later gatherings in Mississauga, Ontario, and Valley Forge, Pa. None of them quite matched the power and eloquence of the first one in 1974.

Years later I  ran into Dick Gregory by chance, some time in the early nineties. He and I found ourselves on the same commuter plane, probably en route to Philadelphia. His beard was longer and almost white, but he was still lean and his eyes still studied his surroundings to search for irony. As we were shuffling off the plane, he noticed I had recognized him.

Twenty years earlier we had been in daily contact for a week at Green Lake, and he seemed to be studying my face. Perhaps, I thought, he might actually recognize me.

Whether he did or not, he smiled and nodded. “Hello, bro-ther,” he said.

I smiled back and grasped his hand.

That was the last I saw of Dick, but the impression I had of him during these fleeting encounters never dimmed.

He was a great and a good man, and he will be missed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Smoke Signals to Eleanor

19732277_10210159996176119_6473011920983640967_nThanks to daughter Lauren Jenks for uncovering this long-lost response from Eleanor Roosevelt, pasted 55 years ago in a book to keep it safe.

The topic was an interview I conducted with her through the mail. The elaborate adolescent signature to the right is my own.

“Smoke Signals” was the mimeographed student newspaper of Morrisville-Eaton Central School. We justified the columns (making them flush on the left and the right) by typing slash marks at the end of each column. The slash marks were counted by the typist so he or she would know how many spaces to add between words so the right-hand column would be even. It was crude, but I have an idea Mrs. Roosevelt didn’t mind.

The back story of the exchange with Mrs R. is here.

The older I get, the more incredulous I am that this towering figure of the 20th century took the time to sit down at her typewriter to craft such thoughtful answers. Did she ever let a letter go unanswered?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Governor Jenks and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Cloak

GovJenks1 copy

Even before Ancestry.com, my family was steeped in genealogical lore.

Grandpa Addison Jenks and his sister, Aunt Ava, spent their lives searching courthouse records for birth certificates, wills, and deeds that bore the Jenks name. Addison liked to do family research in graveyards, noting the birth and death dates of subterranean Jenkses. This creepy predilection led my mother, who was an Emerson, not a Jenks, to whisper, “The only people he cares about are dead.”

That was probably untrue, and when the Divine M* and I prowled the West End cemetery in Oneonta, N.Y., we immediately grasped the joys of tombstone prowling. One of our favorite graves is in that cemetery and I wrote about it here.

There are other macabre idiosyncrasies in the Oneonta cemetery. On at least two Jenks graves the birthdates are etched but death dates are blank. I theorize the practical decedent had purchased the stone as a hedge against inflation but died somewhere else. The Divine M theorizes they were vampires.

Addison was a farmer in South Side, Oneonta, and he ran the Oneonta Armory for most of the time I knew him. Both were reputable callings but I suspect he wanted to prove his ancestors were tinged with greatness. He traced the family name back to Wales and believed he could prove he was descended from a line of Welsh kings whose long names he could not pronounce because they contained no vowels.

He made a better case that an ancestor had “come over on the Mayflower” (her name was Elizabeth Tilley). He was happy about that, although, logically, if one’s ancestors have been procreating in America since the 17th century, the massive and infinitely snarled web of familial connections makes a distant Mayflower connection almost unavoidable.

I was 16 when Addison died, but I had shown a sufficient interest in his research that his papers eventually found their way to me. I quickly discovered the family has its share of heroes and anti-heroes.

One of Addison’s heroes was Major Lory Jenks,** a Revolutionary War veteran who moved the family from Rhode Island to Oneonta where he owned a popular pub. On the less heroic side, there was Jeremiah Jenks, a cousin of Addison’s father, George. Jeremiah was a blatant eugenist who wrote books explaining why non-white, non-European, non-Republican, and non-Jenks people were naturally inferior. I’d like to think Addison did not agree because he doesn’t mention Jeremiah in his research.

Most Jenkses in the United States trace their ancestry back to Joseph Jenks (1599 -1682), who – as Addison tirelessly reminded us – was awarded in 1646 the first patent in North America, for a new design for making scythes. In 1654 he also built the first fire engine in North America for use in Boston, and in 1647, in order to manufacture his scythes, he built the forge at the Saugus, Mass., iron works.  My family and I have often visited the Saugus restoration, now a national historic site. One hot summer I followed an exhausted guide around the site and decided it would be good to introduce myself by surname. Before I could approach him, he told the crowd, “There are thousands of Jenks descendants in the U.S. And some summers it seems like every goddamned one of them comes here.”

For me, the most interesting Jenks of yore was Joseph Jenks III (1656-1740), the first of the line to be born in North America. As governor of the Rhode Island colony, Governor Jenks presided over the first geo-political entity in the world founded for religious liberty. There’s no evidence Joseph knew Rhode Island’s spiritual founder, Roger Williams, or that he was a Baptist. But he was an early hero of church-state separation.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Governor Jenks was that he was six-feet, seven inches tall, and looked much taller because of the Charles II wig he plopped on his head.

According to family lore, Governor Jenks was concerned that his cloak of office, designed for much shorter men, exposed his skinny calves and made him look ridiculous. When the wig was added to his attire, he was undoubtedly right,

Grabbing his quill, he scrawled out an order for a six-foot, seven-inch cloak suitable to his office and sent it via tall ship to England where the best cloaks were made.

No one knows how long it took the ship to make its way to England, or how much time it stayed in England, or how long it took to sail back to Providence. The process probably took more than a year.

No one knows if Governor Jenks was a patient man, but he must have been delighted when a package finally arrived from the mother country. But – as nearly every Jenks knows – when he opened the package, it contained not a cloak, but a six-foot, seven-inch clock.

No one knows if Governor Jenks laughed, cried, or raged when he realized he should have written the order in easier-to-read block letters. But a Baptist friend who served in the Rhode Island legislature once assured me that a six-foot, seven-inch clock still stands in the capitol.

I must admit, I have always suspected that this droll story is apocryphal and told exclusively among Jenkses, the only people likely to find it interesting.

So I was amazed the other day when I was surfing the Internet and discovered an old newspaper clipping of a spirited piece of doggerel that told the same story in imaginative detail. I was unable to discover how old the clipping is, or who wrote it. But I’m delighted to have this little item which appears to document an old family legend

If nothing else, it is passable evidence that my ancestry might just as interesting as yours.

And I know Addison, who always wanted people to know how interesting we secretly were, would have been pleased to add it to his voluminous research.

I wish he had lived to see it.

doggerel

* The Divine M, of course, is my spouse, the Rev. Martha M. Cruz.

** Throughout history, Jenks has been spelled different ways. Grandpa Addison’s theory was that Jenks was adopted by patriotic supporters of the American Revolution, leaving the redundant letters to the loyalist Jenckes branch.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bobby Lee and the Great Statuary Purge

RELEEDeathMask

NOTE: This essay was written June 14, two months before President Trump’s vainglorious efforts to justify Neo-Nazi and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville on efforts to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Statues of Civil War generals and politicians are being removed throughout the U.S., often with as little ceremony as the demolition of Saddam Hussein’s effigy in Bagdad.

Saddam should have listened to Harry Truman before he ordered statues of himself. When Israel moved to erect a statue of Truman, the president vetoed the idea. “Never raise a statue to a living person,” he said. “You never know when you might have to take it down.”

Truman understood that one’s reputation ebbed and flowed with the capricious winds of history. This is particularly true of Confederate idols whose prominence in the Civil War has given way to the reality that they were brutal racists and slave owners. The statuary that was raised to them, in the South and elsewhere, commemorates their inhuman cruelty. Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, in one of the best political speeches in recent memory, said this:

It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots. These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

As statues of the terrorists are dragged away, some would make an exception for Robert E. Lee, the general whose surrender at Appomattox brought a merciful end to the carnage and who is popularly remembered as a decent human being.

But some historians argue that Lee was not a nice man and he deserves to be remembered for his shortsighted malice. Adam Serwer, writing in the current issue of Atlantic, wrote:

Lee’s cruelty as a slave master was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”

Dan McGlaughlin of National Review acknowledged Lee’s imperfections, but insisted a blanked condemnation of the man was “myopic.”

Lee was no hero; he fought for an unjust cause, and he lost. Unlike the Founding Fathers (even the slaveholders among them), he failed the basic test of history: leaving the world better and freer than he found it. And while he was not responsible for the South’s strategic failures, his lack of strategic vision places him below Grant, Sherman and Winfield Scott in any assessment of the war’s greatest generals. We should not be building new monuments to him, but if we fail to understand why the men of his day revered him, we are likelier to fail to understand who people revere today, and why. And tearing down statues of Lee today is less about understanding the past than it is a contest to divide the people of today’s America, and see who holds more power. That’s no better an attitude today than it was in Lee’s day.

McGlaughlin’s observation also requires an examination of many American heroes whose statuary populates tens of thousands of city parks and village greens. Many of them were slave-owning racists with a record of cruelty that challenges Lee’s.

George Washington was one of them.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning biography, Washington: A Life, Gene Chernow reminds us of some disturbing facts about the Father of Our Country that were never highlighted in high school texts. As a general and later as president, a large retinue of slaves dressed in uniforms bearing his family crest attended Washington. When the U.S. capital was temporarily lodged in Philadelphia, President Washington brought a large number of his slaves along to run his household. He circumvented a Pennsylvania law that automatically freed slaves who resided in the commonwealth for more than six months by returning them temporarily to Mount Vernon every five months.

Washington freed all his slaves in his will (effective upon the death of his wife Martha, which surrounded her with people who eagerly anticipated her passing). And few historians believe Washington’s enormous contributions to U.S. history should be lost in the reality that he was a slave-owning Southern aristocrat who acted like one.

There are other great figures of U.S. history who don’t deserve all the nice things high school texts say about them. President Jefferson had a slave mistress who carried several of his children. President Jackson’s relocation of Native American communities was genocidal and brutal. Even the Great Emancipator, President Lincoln, did not believe African Americans were his biological or intellectual equals.

In a seamier side of history, which may or may not call into question their political performance, Presidents Cleveland, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson were all purported to have extra marital affairs.

But given that much we think we know about American History is not true, including the assumed purity of the greats, the question remains what we should do about it.

Should we tear down their statues and nameplates?

Certainly the first to go should be those statues of Confederate functionaries in public squares that proclaim racism as vividly as if they were cross burning hooded Klansmen waving the Confederate battle flag.

As for statues of heroes like Washington and Jackson, they will remain. Even if all their edifices were removed, their absence would not cleanse our memories of their sordid slave-owning history.

But it is important to remember that side of our history if we are ever going to realize our democratic ideals. In truth, we were never a nation that favored life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Reaching that conclusion will require some personal discipline as we gaze in awe at slave-raping Jefferson in his monument and try to remember the good along with the bad.

But we must remember because it is the only way we can finally move toward the American ideal of freedom, justice, and equality. We must never forget the dark side of who we really were – and are. In the final analysis, perhaps the green corrosion and pigeon stains on the statues of our well-meaning but racist progenitors will keep those unpleasant truths before us,

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Subway Heroism

subwayMishaps on the New York subway are relatively rare, but when they happen they tend to shed light on the true nature of New Yorkers.

This month a middle-aged man fell onto the subway tracks in Manhattan and a ballet dancer leapt to his rescue.

This isolated act of heroism was sufficiently newsworthy that the New York Times assigned two reporters to cover it.

According to a story by Michael Cooper and Ashley Southhall, the dancer rescued the man “with a lift they do not teach in dance school.”

“At first I waited for somebody else to jump down there,” said Gray Davis, 31, a dancer with American Ballet Theater, in a telephone interview on Sunday. “People were screaming to get help. But nobody jumped down. So I jumped down.” Once on the tracks, at the 72nd Street Broadway-Seventh Avenue station, Mr. Davis said, he picked up the man, who was unconscious, and lifted him to the platform, where others pulled him up. Then, hearing a train in the distance and unsure which track it was on, he faced the next problem: getting back up on the platform himself. “I never realized how high it was,” he said. “Luckily, I’m a ballet dancer, so I swung my leg up.”

Despite the safety net provided by your fellow strap hangers, the joy of subway riding is not universal. My spouse, who rode the subterranean rails constantly when she was growing up in Manhattan, now shuns them. When she was a uniformed Catholic school girl commuting between home and St. Michael’s Academy (the number 7 at 90th Street/Elmhurst Avenue to 74th Street to the E train to 34th and 8th), she had her share of unpleasant encounters with unsavory male strangers.

I can understand her aversion, although I think she underestimates the power of massed Catholic school girls. When a couple dozen of them squeeze through the sliding doors like a pubescent pestilence, shrieking at each other, they can be very scary. I usually get off at the next station.

Many New Yorkers shrug off the griminess of subway riding, and politicians try to model how much fun it can be. Mayor Bill de Blasio, the Times reports, enjoys walking between cars as they hurtle and sway, something a country boy like me would never dare.

When I’m on a subway car, I try to stay in place, preferably sitting but, if forced to stand, grasping the pole with sweaty hands.

Recently I was on the Number 1 train careening toward the Bronx. The train screeched to a halt at a station and several passengers jostled each other to exit.

The last rider to exit was a young woman pushing a wheeled baby carrier. The baby slept soundly as the woman attempted to thrust the carrier out the door, but the plastic wheels got jammed between the car and the platform.

Panicked, she began rocking the carrier back and forth, but the wheels were firmly stuck. The door began to close and the baby opened his eyes.

The woman screamed. An obese woman sitting across the aisle slapped the head of the man dozing beside her. “Help that girl!” she roared. The man hesitated, but the woman pushed him roughly. He stood sleepily and began to make his way to the door. So did several other passengers, including me.

“Get on each side and lift the wheels,” another woman bellowed.

“You’re okay, Sweetie, the train won’t move with the door open,” a third woman yelled.

Four burly men had already pushed ahead of me to surround the woman and her baby. One stretched his foot onto the platform to make sure the door would not close. Two others grabbed the wheels and forcibly lifted them. They gently escorted the young woman out of the car onto the platform.

The passengers erupted in cheers and applause. The young woman turned to her rescuers and smiled through her tears.

“Thank you,” she mouthed. “Thank you so much!”

“God bless you, Sweetie,” the obese woman yelled.

“Take care of that little precious,” another shouted.

Some passengers were still applauding when the door finally slid shut, creating a rare moment of silence.

The obese woman took a breath. “How stupid can you be, taking a baby on the train like that?” she demanded, rhetorically.

“That mom’s too young to know better,” said someone else.

“If that’s how she takes care of a baby, she shouldn’t be a mother.” The train began to accelerate and other rude remarks were drowned out in the metallic roar. By the time the car arrived at the next station, the passengers were isolated strangers again.

Looking back on this little drama – which had a happy ending – it occurs to me that it was one of those New York stories that reveal their true nature.

When Garrison Keillor lived in New York, he said he was constantly defending the city to his fellow Minnesotans. Sure, he said, you could get mugged in New York. But more likely, New Yorkers would pull you aside to whisper some cautionary advice. “Don’t walk around with your wallet so visible in your pocket,” they’d warn him. “Someone could grab it.”

And before you could say thanks, you would hear your protector whispering behind your back: “Stupid idiot. He walks around so everyone can see his wallet.”

Minnesotans are very much like the rural New Yorkers I grew up with in the central part of the state. I know what goes through their heads.

Minnesotans who think you’re stupid would never say it in your hearing.

But they’d think it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Walt Herring and Big Truth

bleakmenHis biographers can’t find the actual quote, but theologian Karl Barth is credited with the advice to read the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today, he would advise us not to watch CNN unless we had the Olive Tree bible app open on our iPhones.

This two-fisted devotional approach has unusual power now that the President of the United States has condemned the purveyors of “fake news” as “enemies of the people.”

I wish my old editor, Walter L. Herring, was still alive. I wish it for a lot of reasons, but I’d be particularly interested to hear his take on Mr. Trump and Fox News. For Walt, the two greatest sins of journalism were to get facts wrong and to be intimidated by powerful politicians.

Walt was editor of the Pottstown Mercury in the early nineties. My tenure at the Mercury more or less corresponded with Walt’s, although he came to the paper at the height of a distinguished career in journalism and I joined the staff following a 20 year tenure as a Baptist editor that ended with the demise of The American Baptist magazine.

Walt was a 1965 graduate of West Catholic School for Boys in Philadelphia, but I never figured out if he was religious. He did not present himself as a godly man. When he died in October 2006, his obituary acknowledged that working for him could be terrifying. “His volcanic temper was legendary,” wrote Jack Croft, former managing editor of the paper. “He was known to berate reporters and editors in expletive-filled tirades when he felt that his standards weren’t being met or that less than maximum effort was being given.”

I witnessed those tirades often, sometimes several times a week, but I don’t recall being the object of one. The worst thing he ever said to me, and it was in resigned tones, is, “Your lead sucks.”

I was a year older than Walt but he was vastly senior to me in terms of newspaper experience. He knew about my church background, but he never asked about it. It neither impressed him nor did he hold it against me. He didn’t hold my age against me either, but he occasionally took advantage of it. When a fifties-era crooner came to Pottstown to open a department store, Walt assigned the feature to me because he knew I had heard of Julius La Rosa.

I used to describe Walt as one of the purest misanthropes I have ever known, mostly because I met so few people Walt liked. Certainly he would have been appalled by the mendacities of Donald Trump and the late Roger Ailes, who allowed right-wing partisan views to befog the truth on Fox News. Walt thought the truth was the best weapon journalists had.

Many people Walt loathed made the front page of the Mercury: politicians, mobsters and slum lords to name a few, and also people who committed abhorrent crimes: rapists, wife beaters, child molesters, and murderers. Walt hated them all, and not just the bad guys; he also hated the cops who didn’t work hard enough to bring them to justice and the defense attorneys who occasionally got the malefactors off. And God help the reporter who didn’t stay on the story until justice was done.

But I don’t want to leave the impression that I didn’t appreciate Walt, or that I’m offering him as an emblem of the often cynical profession of journalism. I look back on him as one of the best bosses I ever had. You never had to wait for an annual performance review to know how you stood. If Walt liked your story, he said so. If he thought you had mishandled a source, he said so. If your lead sucked, he said that, too.

And while it is true that Walt’s barometer of cynicism was abnormally high, he never gave up on the idea that life could be better for the working class majority who read the Mercury. Jack Croft, in Walt’s obituary, quoted co-workers: “Beneath the ‘tough guy’ front was a compassionate and generous man who mentored young writers and demanded that his newspapers speak for those whose voices were ignored.” Often that meant going after the employers, landlords, and entrepreneurs who made their fortunes at the expense of others, or the politicians who failed to provide promised services for borough residents. Most of those powerful people hated Walt as much as he hated them.

I didn’t always agree with Walt. I was one of the reporters who worked on a story about the dismissal of charges against a teenager accused of vehicular homicide. Three women on a morning walk had been killed when the young man’s car veered off the road. The youthful driver, sober and awake, said he had been distracted by a bee in the car, and the judge declared he was negligent, not a murderer. I agreed with the judge, but I can still see Walt Herring’s mouth gape in amazement. He was thinking about the dead women and their families. His comment, from which I delete two extraneous syllables for family reading, was, “Unbelievable.”

I think Pottstown is a better community because Walt was editor of the Mercury. And I think media moguls like Roger Ailes and Fox owner Rupert Murdoch have made the world a bleaker place.

Ailes is gone and Murdoch’s decision to remove other purveyors of bleakness like Bill O’Reilly may be signs he wants to make the world better. But he still has a kazillion jillion dollars in his bank account. He may begin to see that the world is a bleaker place because he was born, but the sheer volume of his wealth probably blinds him from realities most people have to live with. Just how the elderly Mr. Murdoch will spend the rest of his long life remains to be seen.

Walt, on the other hand, was taken from us far too soon. I do not doubt that in his own irascible, profane and hot-tempered way, he made his corner of the world a better place.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment