Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sharing wisdom with John Glenn and avoiding death at the hands of bloodthirsty Secret Service

John Glenn simply scratched his bald head and nodded approval. At least he didn’t want us to be gunned down like dogs on the tarmac.
The Secret Service agents gave me and my buddies menacing Lee Van Cleef stares, obviously patting for their holsters, thinking maybe this would be a good day to kill. Dead burnt bodies, veins in their teeth…. Oops, wrong story …. Not wanting to face down His Majesty’s Secret Service in a remake of The Good, the Bad and the Way Too Ugly – especially as we had no guns and too much guts -- I had to appeal directly to the gentler side of the First American to Orbit the Globe.
“Senator Glenn! Senator Glenn!” I said as we ran toward the gun-toting G-men, our hands in the air, showing we were not only unarmed but quite possibly impaired.
“Hey, I want to talk to these boys, let them through,” said Senator Astronaut Glenn, then a presidential candidate, who stopped to visit the News Brothers at the appropriately named Outlaw Field, the then-depressing little civilian airport in North Clarksville, not far from the mammoth air strips of Fort Campbell where Space Shuttles frequently stopped.
You didn’t know about that, did you?
While the world’s eyes were turned to the very public Space Shuttle flights, it is well documented by those of us who care about adventure that when they needed to take it easy, cool off a bit from the pressure of interplanetary exploration and killing of Russians and Libyans, the intergalactic pilots would nurse the big old ships onto the runway in the middle of the night. These were not your “TV missions.” These were secret. And deadly. And sometimes the pilots just needed to come down to rest before being hurled back toward space from the launch pad hidden way back in the woods of the post that’s the size of about three counties.
Those landings did spark a lot of talk of space invaders and little green men around the post, but those were generally laughed at as so much hillbilly hoo-hah.
Even Space Pilots get that wired/melancholy feeling, now called “the Sully Sullenberger Syndrome,” and they need a place to rest. So they drop in from outer space, land at top-secret places, particularly Fort Campbell and that little spit of land outside of Amsterdam , where hashish is legal, to refresh, perhaps grab some coffee at the Hilton or eat chocolate cake in a bag.
I’ll bet you thought all those guys stayed out there in space for a week or two at a time. Pure farce, staged by the various Presidents of the United States of America in order to pump up national pride so we’d pour more money into the space program and forget about things like feeding the poor and making sure the people in New Orleans have ample public health and safety facilities and even can read.
But those are side issues today. Sometime I’ll tell you about my time on the Challenger. That was before it crashed and everyone died in one of our saddest days. No joking about that day. I just was proud to have spent time on that ship.
But there is some lightness to be found in the time I spent with John Glenn. Yes, I know the senator and astronaut is loathed by those in the insurance and oil industries, the vile demons who follow the whims of Shotgun Dick and addled radio hosts who have hypnotized so many of America’s older and whiter men. Many of the hypnotized used to be in the Greatest Generation and they deserve acclaim for that. You’d have thought that sometime, while they were saving the world, they would have gotten some common sense and wouldn’t listen and follow, mindlessly, ignorance and hate. I mean, one, two , three, what were they were fighting for? Dump Hitler and his like. Hang Mussolini up by his privates (and his majors and colonels, too). Get rid of the Emperor. They saved the world. Now they let fat billionaires on painkillers tell them how to think? Sure. Why not? Better than figuring out stuff for themselves.
Of course, they may be right. I may be crazy. I’ll have to say that I, at times, have felt like the lunatic they were looking for with their implements of destruction, floods, speeding cars and other misfortune.
Anyway, back in the days when the News Brothers were in season, we spent time with our most famous astronaut.
Oh, as for News Brothers season, well it’s not over yet, as everyone seems to be gunning for us now, either running into us, not helping us find work (although I do appreciate the real friends who do try to help), flooding our houses, not paying out insurance and conspiring with Shotgun Dick to hope we rot in Misery & Bankruptcy (Steven King’s upcoming 600th novel, written in a day. It’s more than 900 pages, with plot hidden in gibberish. All work and no play, indeed, Stevie boy. Congrats for pulling off this literary prank for all these years, ol’ Cujo, my lad.)
You wouldn’t believe it, given the state of the media “culture” now, but there was a time when the “Don’t Back Down” mantra actually did work and flourish, mainly because our publisher, The Big Guy, was happy that we were producing prize-winning newspapers and raising circulation. I’m not sure if those figures were ever matched after the “new way of newspapering” (fewer pages, less local copy, fewer people to do the work) began its cancerous devour of the only profession I ever loved, my calling for as long as I can remember. As a result, my pal Rob Dollar and I, the News Brothers’ sad and weary “brains,” have been dispatched repeatedly on the road to eventual ruin. At least we keep our heads high and very seldom light our hair on fire or pass by a homeless guy without giving him whatever’s in our pockets. Some of them use to be newspapermen and women. The rest are victims of heartless oil demons and Mad Dog 20/20.
It was in the “don’t back down … give them real stories” era of journalism almost three decades ago that John Glenn came into my life. I was the associate editor of the newspaper in Clarksville and, among other things, I made sure the Sunday paper got on the street before Buford at the Camelot bought the last round for the collected cops, newsmen and Apache helicopter gunship pilots.
At the time the News Brothers were making a documentary about the making of a newspaper. Some of you who have seen that movie, Flapjacks: The Motion Picture, will vouch that aside from All the President’s Men, Deep Throat, Citizen Kane and Flashdance, it is the most important and true-to-life tale of journalism ever told.
It’s a pity that it was released in the heart of the era of trickle-down, trickle-down, trickle-down-down economics and ferocious hero-worship of my favorite childhood TV show host. He did for America what 20-Mule-Team Borax did for Death Valley Days. I’m not sure what that means, but I actually liked Ron Reagan. Not as a president, but he seemed like an amiable sort who ran America like a Talk Show. He was the Johnny Carson of the Oval Office. I was sorry when Ron died. But then in his final days, he and I didn’t have a lot of hearts-to-heart and every time we’d talk about the News Brothers, he’d roll his knuckles, like he had a fistful of marbles and mutter “Strawberries. Strawberries.” He did give me a bolo tie, though.
Similarly, The Big Guy, our publisher, while he knew the News Brothers would provide good newspapers, was so frightened by stories of escaped monkeys, serial killers, Santa-clad heroes and prostitutes with hearts of gold, that he often would stare at his office wall – which had the Flapjacks movie poster on it – and say “Rosebud. Rosebud.” Of course, he’d also count his bonuses when the bottom-line tallies came in. He’d call me to his office, thank me for a good story or tell me “I’m not sure I’d have done it that way,” and encourage me to continue this course, always adding “be careful out there, Flapjacks” while he jangled the change in his pockets.
But we’re talking about John Glenn here. As the anointed leader of the newspaper, I decided that a former astronaut and genuine American hero who was coming to Clarksville to stump for the presidential nomination -- that I think eventually went to George Stephanopoulos, W.J.Souza, George Costanza, Anthony Quinn .. . Heck, I can’t remember who that guy was, a Greek geek of some sort, as I recall, no match for the Gipper. Oh yeah. Dukakis…. Say it slowly. Speaking of which, do you ever giggle when Joe Buck pronounces Albert Pujols’ name?
Hold it. The Duke took his shot four years later. The astronaut lost his nomination bid to Wally "The Big Mon" Mondale. I still like to say "Dukakis" three times quickly.
Regardless, I dispatched top political writer Harold “The Stranger” Lynch, a straight-shooter (at least eventually) and a warm and dynamic human being with a mustache that covered half his face to the airport to interview John Glenn, the great American hero.
It was while talking over that story in the budget meeting – the name news organizations used to give to the meetings where we hashed out what ought to be covered and where it ought to be played. I think they still have them, but instead of editors, they are run by the advertising department and the folks from the demographics department from corporate headquarters in Bangladesh.
Anyway, the meeting was normal. I was the guy wearing my high school football jersey and ill-fitting jeans and shades. Top Saturday reporter Rob “Death” Dollar was there, as he had to go to the cop shop and then go out and cover all of the redneck murders and gut-shootings as well as the normal Saturday night soldier highway death out on Fort Campbell Boulevard.
Also in the meeting was Jerry “Chuckles” Manley, who has gone on to have quite a career in corporate journalism, though I love him dearly. He was the copy editor. I think John Staed, now some sort of corporate success story in South Carolina, also was present, but I’m sure he still regrets it to this day.
“So, John Glenn’s in town, what do you think we ought to do, other than send Harold out to cover it and Robert Smith go shoot a handshake picture?” I asked our News Brothers attorney, Court Agate (real name, by the way).
He was just a friend and eventually ended up defending the News Brothers in numerous legal fights against corporate America. Not a very good attorney, obviously, judging by my personal yardstick. I understand he eventually retired to pan gold in the Yukon and live on the flesh of polar bears (or likely vice versa).
Again, another story.
We decided, as you probably expect by now, to go see John Glenn. And get him in our movie about newspapering. Problem was, he was landing on a runway, behind a locked gate and was being escorted by Secret Service agents and also by the Queen City’s friendly coppers (Motto stenciled on their car doors: “Happiness is a Warm Gun”), who were there to escort the city’s mayor. By the way, that same mayor endorsed me to be his replacement, but we re-elected him instead. So who really had the most power?
Again, another story. Great man.
I can tell you already know what’s coming.
As noted above, we followed Harold in when the security cops tried to lock the gate to the runway behind him. And while Harold spun the ends of his mustache and smiled at our behavior, for he was a good and honorable man -- and I was his boss -- we approached the Secret Agents.
Harold by now was interviewing this great American hero and future failed presidential candidate. But we continued to press forward. It was as if in Sam Peckinpah slow motion. The gunsels patted their waistbands and armpits (they were fat and sweaty perhaps or maybe they were readying to gun us down). The Senator and American Hero stepped in their way and said he wanted to talk to us.
The gunmen tried to push him into his limo to take him to the campaign stop. They eyed me angrily as I stepped into the door opening, preventing the hero from being pushed by an agent into the back seat. As I leaned on the door, we all talked with John Glenn, told him how proud we were to meet him and explained that he was going to be in a movie about newspapering.
He laughed until he cried. I rubbed his bald head and wished him luck against The Big Mon or whoever it was who got the nomination, and he just smiled.
Then he hugged us. “Boys, this was one of the best treats. Usually when I get into a town, I don’t have this kind of airport welcome. I’m proud to be in your movie about newspapering.
“And, when I’m president, I want you to come visit me at the White House. We’ll have hot dogs and kraut in the Rose Garden.”
Of course he wasn’t elected. But we used to gather regularly, whenever he came to Clarksville for those secret shuttle missions. We’d go to the Poor Man’s Country Club, enjoy pickled eggs and pigs feet and do Jimmy Carter and Dick Nixon impressions….
Sometimes Ron Reagan would come along, which was OK, except for his annoying knock-knock jokes and obsession with bowel movements.

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