Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It was hot... Boy was it hot


Me 'n' old Skipper sat on a bench. It was hot.... Boy was it hot.
A long time ago I wrote the lead -- or something very similar –- on a newspaper column that helped launch a journalism revolution. It was a prime moment in the birth of the News Brothers.
Yeah, I know. Unfortunately the revolution – with its purpose to put out good newspapers, have fun and take pride in serving a community (because the pay was virtually nothing) – was pretty much squashed by the corporate mindset. What’s that mindset? Well, I guess to define what the corporate mindset is, you just drive to the Gulf of Mexico and look at the tar balls, the oil-reddened water, take a deep whiff of the burning oil and look at the dead pelicans and dolphins.
It is a world that is dominated by the likes of Shotgun Dick, that fat radio blowhard, big insurance, fruitless wars for oil and foreign countries who own the monetary system of the land of the free and the home of the brave. What’s happened to our country? Let’s get our pride back. Maybe find a more perfect union where generals don’t take their shots at the commander-in-chief in “Rolling Stone.” Heck, that magazine used to feature John Lennon and the Grateful Dead. Now it’s Miley, Joe Jonas, "Lost" and some four-star general puffing up his ego by back-stabbing the President of the United States of America. Talk about your corporate mentality. It’s in the Army now. As a reporter, of course I would have written that story if the general had the immense ego and lack of manners to tell it. What has happened to common courtesy? Is the Army going to be in charge? Well, if so, just remember the scene in "Dr. Strangelove" when Slim Pickens goes for his nuclear bomb rodeo ride.
Oh, the Big O is far from perfect, but he deserves to have his generals complain in the privacy of the Oval Office over glasses of Ovaltine and plates of oil-drenched Gulf shrimp.
Another story, another night. The News Brothers were the kinds who would have confronted their boss face-to-face. In fact, I had to on more than one occasion visit the publisher. And I survived, even earned extra respect. Back then it was OK to stand up to bosses to their faces. And they responded in kind: Face to face. Backs were for patting or for scratching. Elvis: What happened to our country?
Now the News Brothers story will be told one day soon. Not in this forum. Parts of the story are to be found on You Tube, where my co-conspirator Rob “Death” Dollar has several videos posted. Some of these are at the bottom of this page or at the THE NEWS BROTHERS page on Facebook.
The Skipper mentioned at the top of this little foray was an old salt, a stretcher of the truth, a man with a heart of gold, both a mentor to and a believer in the News Brothers. He was short of education and grace, gnarled with arthritis and simply brilliant. He told us stories of Al Capone, of Pearl Harbor, of carny sideshows and being on a ship that was shot out from beneath him in the North Atlantic.
True? Didn’t matter. I loved Skipper … whose real name was Okey Stepp. Old friends called him “Red,” for the hair he once had. We just treated him as one of us.
I thought of this today because my friend, Rob, sent me a note commenting on this 100-degreee weather. "It was HOT today. Boy was it HOT. And I wasn't even sitting on a bench," he wrote, an acknowledgement of that one special, very hot day when I went out to do a column about the effects of the horrid weather on Clarksville and made it only as far as the bench in front of the Royal York Hotel.
Back then, and we’re talking three decades back, the old hotel – once a luxury joint where movie stars stayed – was something Roger Miller might have been thinking about when he wrote that “rooms to rent 50 cents” line in “King of the Road.”
“Fireproof” read the neon sign on the hotel window. The rooms inside, even the perches that held the thin mattresses, were made of concrete and tile. It’s been refurbished to something resembling luxury in the decades since.
Back then, though it was a home for drifters, down-and-outers, lovable losers, no-account boozers, Skipper and the News Brothers.
Early in our association, Rob and I -- along with other News Brothers and several guys who since have died, others who have backed down and bent over to properly salute corporate journalism and some who just enjoyed a laugh and a smoke with their coffee -– would retreat to the coffee shop at the Royal York Hotel between editions of The Leaf-Chronicle newspaper in Clarksville.
We’d get to work at about 5 a.m., get the first edition done by about 9 or 9:30, go grab an endless cup of coffee from Raissa Gray, the proprietress of the joint and a true News Brothers enthusiast, and then go back to get the second edition and, for awhile, the third or “FINAL” out.
That was back when the newspaper was still aiming for 21,000 circulation. We made it up to 24,000 at the height of the News Brothers reign. Since we all left Clarksville –- I turned the lights out when I was the last News Brother to move on back in 1988 –- I have no idea how circulation has gone. Down, I would guess, like that of the rest of the industry.
I’m not sure. I like the folks up there and wish them well. After all, I spent almost 15 years bleeding for that newspaper in its pre-corporate incarnation. I’ll tell you, I’d rather read a News Brothers newspaper -- with its focus on terrified escaped monkeys, monster catfish, war-ravaged soldiers, civic corruption and hillbilly homicides than the USA Today Jr. that serves as Chamber of Commerce “local journalism” in cities around the nation. Not necessarily addressing Clarksville here, but the whole darned industry.
This isn’t the fault of the workers who do their best to hang onto jobs and work with honor, knowing that the bottom line guillotine soon could rise over their heads. Whack! One more unemployed head rolling out the door doesn't do much to solve the problem.
Oh yeah, we didn’t just have wild news stories back then. We had stories that touched the heart, including my own very real detailing of my friendship with the mother of a football player who was murdered and Rob’s story of a fellow dressed up like Santa Claus who was on his way to a Christmas Eve party when he noticed a house on fire.
Without a single “ho” –- hey stop it, I’m talking about the famous “ho-ho-ho” that Santa’s known for, not the angels of the night -- he ran into the house and rescued the occupant. And then, faster than you can say “Rudolph’s got a brand new bag,” Santa was off to the party.
Tell me you wouldn’t buy those newspapers?
Oh yeah, and to toot my own horn, I also wrote a column three days a week that told more stories of real people. The premise was that we all are more alike than different, that we share the same hopes, dreams and ambitions and fears, even if we weren't in the proper advertising demographic.
I would wander the streets and just start conversations. If it was Christmastime, perhaps I’d frame the story in holiday detail. Floods on the Cumberland? Go find a person who has lived there forever and who can tell of high waters past. World Series time? Find one of the former Negro Leagues stars who lived in the city. Enjoy lemonade and conversation. And share their stories with our readers.
Which brings me back to the very hot day when I wandered out the side of the Leaf-Chronicle building onto Third and walked the block down to the Royal York. I needed a column about the heat and I think I’d already visited the local ice company.
I saw Skipper in the lobby of the hotel. I can't remember all the details now. He probably was watching “Bonanza” reruns, I bought him a cup of coffee to go, and we went outside and sat on the bench. And we talked about the weather, the war, women, newspapers … I can’t remember now. I can’t find the column now that I’m still surrounded by piles of books and music and paraphernalia of my journalism career while contractors try to reclaim my downstairs space from the flood damage, little thanks to insurance companies or FEMA.
I told Rob tonight that if he has a copy of that column, I’d love to see it soon.
You see, today, since my car has been displaced from the garage by our furniture while the rec room, my office and the laundry room are being healed, I decided that it had been taking too much sun. It needed to be polished. It’s an old car and did not have one of those new-fangled laminated finishes. You actually have to wax it a few times a year.
So I took it to one of those self-wash joints, over in Melrose, and washed and rinsed it and then applied a light wax. It took about 45 minutes, and even though the work was in the shade, I sweated through my Butler Final Four T-shirt (a gift from “Flash” News Brother, a professor at that storied Cinderella university. He has short hair, but he’s a great guy with a swell wife I've known since she was in sixth-grade or so).
On the way back to my house, I swigged greedily from a Pepsi Maxx 20-ouncer and hoped that soon the air-conditioning would overcome the stifling heat in the 26-year-old car.
Yep, me and my old Saab, we rolled back to Crieve Hall. Boy was it hot.
When I came upstairs, there was the message from Rob, adapting the old Skipper lead to comment on the weather today up in his home state of Kentucky, where he serves as a secret agent and government head-counter, all the while maintaining his sense of wonder and humor. I often send him a note to ask “Why?” when things happen in life. Neither of us has the answer. "Why not?," I guess.
So this evening I’ve been thinking about that day on the bench with Skipper. It’s nasty out today and it looks like it’s going to be with us, as Jay-Z might say: “for a spell.”
I wrung the sweat from my Butler T-shirt, put on my Team Italia shirt (it is World Cup time, though I could care less about soccer) and I sat down at the keyboard.
Thanks to Rob, I had a great memory of an afternoon spent drinking coffee in the burning heat on a bench in downtown Clarksville.
Me 'n' old Skipper sat on a bench. It was hot.... Boy was it hot.

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