Thursday, November 18, 2010

Loving brothers-in-arms look back on old times, dead friends, dying newspapers and death of Chico the Monkey... and I miss my mom

“The press stinks, too: history on the run. That’s all you’re interested in,” he said, emerging from the shadows of his Korean compact in the subterranean garage.
“Things are past that,” I responded. “These are men with switchblade mentalities who run the world as if it were Dodge City.”
I told him that I was scared of these publishers and corporations. Life is short. Was it worth the price that journalism exacted? After all, aren’t newspapers dead, simply the refuse of a proud profession in which we apparently wasted our lives?
Then we laughed. In the old days, we would have tossed lighted cigarettes on the floor for punctuation after playing out our little scene from All the President’s Men. Of course no one really smokes those little cancer sticks any more, do they? No one blows carcinogens in your face to make a point in a dark garage.
We all smoked during the first half of the 35 or so years I spent enveloped in blue smoke clouds in newsrooms, cussing and laughing, riding the adrenaline rush of bodies found on deadline.
It was the business we had chosen, the only life I’d ever wanted to lead, at least partly because my mother had been a newswoman on Chicago’s South Side during WWII and encouraged my love of words. “Got tired of all the bodies,” she said. “Asked to be moved to society pages.”
I did, of course, enter the business hoping to bring down another corrupt president, like Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford did.
But they’ve come and gone and I haven’t succeeded.
Instead, I spent the decades meeting and spending time with the homeless to the hopeless, the honky-tonk heroes and, of course, making friends with guys like Cash, Kristofferson, Tom T., Earl Scruggs, Henry Aaron and Muhammad Ali, who can’t remember that any more. Glad I can, given the still-concussed brain I’m suffering since a T-boner sent my skull crashing into the driver’s side window July 4.
Had a hard time today remembering who played wide receiver before we got Randy Moss. Oh yeah, Kenny Britt. Kenny, may you stay forever young.
Speaking of Randy Moss, it was old age that had me down in the underground garage in the bowels of Nashville.
The big secret, the reason for the meeting was that 59 years today, there was a snowstorm in Pontiac, Mich. My mom and dad trudged from their apartment to nearby St. Joseph’s hospital where I was born at 7:30 a.m.
My mom used to call me every birthday at precisely that time. It didn’t matter if I had been out on the parched-eye express, embracing life’s sweet and warm as well as raw edges. I knew that on the morning of Nov. 18, I had to get home in time to pick up that phone.
“It was 18 years ago today, right at this time,” she’d say. Or 19. Or 29. Even 39. “You were a beautiful baby. You still are my beautiful baby.”
Whatever life’s circumstances, happy and bleak, for a couple decades – say from age 18-38 -- there was a good chance I’d been out all night, either as a newsman, a sports reporter, a columnist and always a robust embracer of life. And if I hadn’t been out all night, the chances are I didn’t sleep well. “No one .. but no one… drinks more coffee than the Caffeine Kid,” one of my good friends wrote in a newspaper column about my 40-cup a day habit.
I thought about him today too. Tony Durr. My friend, my editor. A dreamer and schemer. He told me he promoted me to his “special projects editor” so I’d do the work and he could play golf with StrawBilly Fields, now a respected civic leader in Nashville. Living is easy with eyes closed and a government job, but I love StrawBilly Fields forever.
They found Tony’s body in his Coast Guard barracks in Alaska after his newspaper dreams expired and apparently, given the nearby empty prescription bottle, so had his hopes.
But I loved Tony. Still do. And today, as names and lives of my 59 sometimes good years flashed through my mind, I thought about the most important one. My mom and her birthday phone calls. The last time she called to wish me “Happy Birthday” -- to repeat the tale of the blizzard and the labor, the beautiful boy, darling boy -- was 1998. She died a few months later.
I still miss that phone call. I expected the phone to ring today. Went out to the cemetery instead. That’s what I do on my birthday. Sit by the tombstone and talk to my mom. “It was 59 years ago today that you went out in the blizzard and walked to the hospital,” I said, after installing the poinsettias in the vases on the tombstone and brushing tree leaves and bird leavings away.
Told her I couldn’t stay long. Had a lot to do today. I could hear her, in my heart, telling me to “sit down and talk to me for a few minutes” during her last, many, bedridden years.
I did, and “spoke” to her of life’s choices and heavenly voices, but then I had to depart because a group of people were gathering for a tombstone unveiling two plots downhill. I wasn’t dressed appropriately in my cardinal and yellow Iowa State Cyclones T-shirt. Yep, a T-shirt on a day like this. It was cold. Boy was it cold. But again, the shirt was specifically chosen for this day. I didn’t want to wear my “No More Mr. Nice Guy” Alice Cooper shirt today, after all. Don’t want to make any false promises.
And besides that as birthdays are times to reflect, there were good and furiously lived years spent at ISU. Just ask my friend Jocko if you ever meet him. He’d probably remember. Maybe tell you about the two giant pink bunnies who stalked the campus in their tie-dyed long johns and rabbit ears. One had long, curly hair beneath his bunny ears. The other was nearly bald. Both were quite charming and, no doubt fetching to the ladies.
Getting a little far afield here in these birthday ramblings, so let’s get back to the underground garage. Two of my good friends – at least those who remain among the living … for Harold Lynch, Richard Worden, Tony Durr and other great newsmen I loved, smoked and drank with are long dead … met me on my birthday eve aka “yesterday.”
It was Rob “Death News Brother” Dollar with whom I played out the scene from All the President’s Men. We are always doing that. I don’t know if you caught our Jack Nicholson/Dennis Hopper rap about freedom in our last “movie” – our series of films date back to the Super 8 days and I hope will be played at my casket covered with dead flowers long in the future, when I figure out where I been.
If you didn’t catch that, look back on The News Brothers page and look for the Give (In)Sanity a Chance video. Here’s the Facebook link:!/video/video.php?v=1572748353219&oid=212057599823&comments
Anyway, you probably can guess which one of us got the George Hanson (Nicholson) part and which one played Billy (Hopper) in the classic scene from Easy Rider. “What the hell’s wrong with freedom, man? Freedom’s what it’s all about.” I still ask that question.
That little film was made a couple of weeks ago.
This week, on birthday eve, we weren’t meeting in the garage simply because I was turning 59 today. Nov. 18. Rob turned 54 Nov. 16. Jerry “Chuckles News Brother” Manley turned 59 Nov. 9.
Jerry was waiting for us upstairs from the garage, smiling in the downtown library lobby, after checking out a copy of a recorded book. When you get to be our age, it’s easier to listen than to read, I guess. Except you may be deaf or perhaps, in my case, really tired of listening.
There were no great truths discovered as we wandered the streets of Music City, wisecracking about windblown skirts and fat guys with guitars.
“Look at us, we’re another year older,” said Rob.
“Who’d have guessed that would ever happen?” I said.
Jerry shrugged and looked to the horizon, talking about rabbits. Nah, that was in Of Mice and Men. He actually talked about the times we’d shared, our friendship, life’s sometimes cruel direction that brought the three of us together on a cold and rainy day in Nashville.
There were times, we reckoned, that people didn’t think we’d make it this far.
After roaming along Lower Broadway, past the gangster-run bars and the souvenir joints, we found ourselves at Dunn Brothers Coffee, my new favorite downtown haunt.
There we talked about newspapers, as we all had spent our lives in that profession. Jerry still does.
And I freelance for newspapers still, among my other jobs. My days as a fulltime newspaperman ended more than three years ago, when I got a buyout just ahead of the layoffs.
So, yes, we talked about the glory days. And the gory days.
The murders of young people that changed all of our lives. We laughed at The Big Guy, our publisher long ago, who once called me to his office after I’d led the paper with the story of an escaped pet monkey. Chico, the monkey, had cops and deputies all occupied well into the night in the darkness at the edge of Clarksville.
“Deputies go bananas: Monkey at large” or some such read the headline the next day.
Rob had written the story about a Chico, the monkey. I was the editor and threw in as many primate puns as possible. Jerry, well, he was my copy desk chief and he played along too.
“Good story,” The Big Guy said when he called me into his office the Monday after that was published. “But I probably wouldn’t have done it quite that way. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that,” he said, standing up and jingling the change in his pocket.
So Rob, Jerry and I laughed about those days, about the top secrets we’d uncovered at Fort Campbell, about the adrenaline we all felt as young men chasing the good story, the fun story, wars, commission meetings, Little League championships, drunken soldier traffic fatalities and some still-unsolved murderous sex crimes.
Most of those types of stories aren’t found in newspapers these days, unless the mayor or the chamber are putting positive spins on them. Nowadays Chico could be just another missing pet.
Newspapers changed. But we haven’t. At least not much. My hair’s longer. And the weight has shifted some.
OK, so life sometimes has changed more than we would prefer. Nothing we can do about it.
Instead of grousing, we laughed as we wandered through downtown Nashville, talking about news stories past and reflecting on our fallen friends, the guys who grew up with us in the smoke-filled newsrooms. It was a “Hello sweetheart, get me rewrite!” kinda day. (That phrase screams from the framed poster in my office, two feet from where I'm writing this. It was a gift from Tony Durr 28 or 29 years ago.)
And we laughed at our own funeral plans that include Cadillac convertibles, cigarettes in holders, ashes and some of the world’s best scenery.
The smiles, as usual, lasted well after we climbed back into our cars and went back to the real world. I had a story to work on for one of my many fine employers.
Jerry had to get to the office.
Rob had a film to work on and a great-nephew to entertain.
It was a good birthday eve.
After Jerry left, Rob and i descended into the lower level of the underground garage.
We thought again about the reason we’d chosen journalism and where it has come and gone.
“Where we been?” We asked each other, with a shrug as we drove off, promising to get together soon, whenever one of us put a flag in a flower pot.
I smiled to sleep on my birthday eve.
But this morning was different.
I cleaned up the poinsettias and knocked back three or four double-mugs of coffee. The 59-year-old Caffeine Kid watched the clock and waited for 7:30 a.m.
The phone didn’t ring….

(By the way, Chico, the Monkey, was finally chased down and killed by a pack of dogs. I wrote his obituary. We ran it on the local news front, with the headline: “Chico, the Monkey, is dead.”)


  1. Beautiful, Tim. Made me miss my mom...and the way newspapers used to be.

    From a (still there) Tennessean cohort

  2. Ah, for the days of chasing real stories, smoky newsrooms and real newspapers, before corporations turned them into "information centers" and started "generating conversations."