Saturday, December 10, 2011

It's a damn wonderful life ... aka 'The Big Guy got run over by a reindeer and some wise guys from not afar '

As you know, old Flapjacks is working on a longer project that is sure to delight. But can't let this holiday season pass without revisiting one of my favorite damn Christmases ever.

“Have a Damn Nice Christmas.”

Makes you feel like breaking out the hot chocolate and singing about that Wenceslaus fellow feasting on Stephen or whatever.
That Damn Nice holiday sentiment nearly cost me my job back in the winter of 1982. Fortunately, I was able to make The Big Guy, our publisher blink. Perhaps the dollar signs I’d help him earn blinded him temporarily, long enough for me to back out his door, put on my yellow fedora and fire up a smoke.
Hell, for all I remember, and sometimes that isn’t much, The Big Guy maybe even smiled. At the very least he jangled the change in his pockets and nodded, blankly, thinking “How in the world can I get back to Carolina and out of this institution....” He was from that state populated by basketball and Biltmore and his prize, upon retirement, was to get back to the mountains and drool.
Call me naive or innocent (few do, you know), but I was surprised by the fuming anger of The Big Guy, as I didn’t understand what was so wrong with this sentimental greeting. I even sent one of the cards to my mom, and she didn’t object. She was willing always to have a Damn Nice Christmas right up til she died. I think she hung the card on the Christmas Tree. Still she had been a journalist, so I suppose she got it.
That greeting that was broadcast around Clarksville came during the heady early days of the fraternity of nicotine-stained journalists who came together with purpose and pride and along the way became known as the News Brothers. Blue-collar journalists, telling blue-collar stories to a blue-collar (and Army-drab-collar) town.
Most people liked it when we wished them a “Damn Nice Christmas” 28 years ago.
After all, wasn’t that the last line from It’s A Wonderful Life? Jimmy Stewart looks into the camera, eyes twinkle as the bell tinkles and says: “Attaboy, Clarence: Have a Damn Nice Christmas!” Listen closer next time, as that part of the line gets drowned out by all the joyous singing.
In the weeks and months leading up to delivering the holiday greeting to The Big Guy, our publisher, I’d been helping to guide what came to be prize-winning coverage involving the deaths of two beautiful and innocent young people. Of course, we weren’t looking for recognition. We just were looking for the truth. And justice. And, when the adrenaline and nicotine wore off, perhaps some sleep.
Kathy Jane Nishiyama and Rodney Wayne Long still stir nightmares in sections of my soul scarred and raw by their monstrous murders almost three decades ago. There still are the sweats on cold nights.
Children, really. Promise extinguished. Forever frozen as “mug shots” that ran daily on the front page with eerily parallel dispatches about the mysteries, searches, chases, savagery and mourning.
The newspaper wasn’t large in staff, but the staff was large in heart. We were pretty young ourselves, though our own innocence had been washed away by years of covering trailer-trash murders and gunfights involving prostitutes, transvestites, serial killers and soldiers. Our photographer would show us some of the not-ready for prime-time shots he got of bodies and bullet holes. Even I was shocked by one of a fatal wound right below a guy’s testicles. He not only bled out, but his once-proud – to him I’m sure -- private parts were making the photographic rounds of police departments and newsrooms.
Sure there was gallows humor. When you are making $150 a week and aswirl in bodies, sometimes you just had to laugh when you saw the photograph. Sorry. But it’s true.
The Kathy Jane and Rodney stories touched us and I’ll tell you much more about them some other time.
Suffice it to say that for the most part, we worked around the clock to tell those stories, to cover the deaths and the get to know the families of the teen-age victims and the killers. Some of the finest police coverage ever by my dear friend, Rob “Death” Dollar, with the occasional assist by me and by our vigilant Baptist wordsmith, the near-legendary Frank “Wuhm” White, a successful businessman and downtown roof owner. Another story. Another night. For this is Christmas.
Long-time copy desk pal Jerry “Chuckles” Manley, a semi-portly boy with a reddish beard, edited the copy with expertise and with at least one keen eye while Virginia Slims smoke made the other eye run. His sidekick, “Flash” – a fresh-from-school news virgin – aged every time he helped copy-edit those stories and write a headline about a body found or a gleeful, boasting killer.
My boss Tony Durr – whom I still love and miss a couple of decades after he died, alone and perhaps in mortal remorse, in a lonely Alaska Coast Guard barracks after washing out of journalism and a half-dozen marriages -- pranced around the newsroom, excited by the grisly coverage and his occasional assist and /or attempt at deflecting the slings and arrows of upper management .
Sure, great coverage of two murders that occurred at about the same time in the same Southern town. “Things like that aren’t supposed to happen here in Clarksville,” barked one police officer who enjoyed back-shooting dope-smugglers, pimps, throat-slicers, chicken thieves, father rapers and other everyday perpetrators and predators.
Sixteen-hour work days could be punctuated by cigarettes exploding in the newsroom. Yep, we booby-trapped the open packs on our desks with “loaded” cigarettes. There were those who never wanted to admit they smoked by buying their own. Wives would object if they openly indulged. So they bummed and as a result I loved watching them jerk around in their chairs, gasping when the smoke cleared, the frayed cigarette pursed between Lee Oswald lips.
Seems pretty juvenile, but then again, so does rubber vomit.
But this is a story about Christmas 1982 and the card. You remember the Christmas card, don’t you?
It actually seemed like a great idea, guaranteed to raise a smile, in the wake of all that had gone on in the news. And besides that, Rob and I were coming off the success of the movie we’d produced and directed, written, whatever the word might be, and even starred in ... along with “Flash” and “Chuckles” as co-stars and others who occasionally dropped in to take part. Half the town’s police force and firefighters and charitable organizations were involved to some extent. Even the mayor and the first American to circle the globe participated.
“Flapjacks: The Motion Picture” -- with its intricate plot revolving around news events, along with its slapstick and satire poking fun at journalism (we didn’t realize we were the last generation of practitioners of that profession at the time), law enforcement, pop culture and current events -- holds up to this day.
With all the pie-throwing, gun-slappping, confetti-flying, car-chasing and finger-flipping scenes, it also really is a portrait of my life at the time. I could have called it “Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine,” after the Doors album, because it came out of my head – and out of Rob’s – as we went along, coping with the disaster and death we’d been covering.
We’d meet for coffee at 7 a.m. on Saturdays with a “script” for the day’s shoot, film for a few hours, then wash the shaving cream from the pies or the sideshow elephants turds off our sneakers, go to the newsroom with a couple fresh packs of smokes and put out prize-winning newspapers well into the night and next morning.
OK, you may be wondering what this all has to do with a Christmas.
You see, the movie played until dawn in an abandoned theater in the city and raised a few hundred bucks that went to a homeless agency, the fire department’s Christmas toy drive and the Police Department’s children and widows’ fund.
Even the newspaper hierarchy was pleased by the movie that came a month before Christmas ... some young staffers, after all, had done this on their own time, made headlines in Clarksville and in the corporation for raising money for charity ... and at the same time won journalism awards.
Of course, with all this holiday cheer floating around, Rob and I decided the best thing a group of guys can do is put together a Christmas card to thank our friends and to express our belief in peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind .
It in turn would reappear the following December on our planned News Brothers calendar, again a fund-raising proposition. More on that too another day, as I’m sure you are anxious to get out and shop for some children who really don’t care what you give them, as long as they get something. See the loaded cigarettes or rubber vomit section above for last-minute ideas.
When we weren’t immersed in the most heinous of murders, driven to drink (and sometimes getting a ride home) by the human carnage we’d witnessed, we got further involved in charity.
We wore our shades to give blood and to visit dying children. . There even were plans under way for a News Brother Basketball Tournament, that we were going to host at one of the local high schools, again to raise money for charity.
There was nothing complex about the Christmas Card. We’d wear our News Brothers’ best – bits and pieces of the tuxedoes we’d worn in the days of the “Flapjacks” premiere.
Rob, Chuckles, Flash and I showed up in our finery. Our clerk, a pretty woman named Neesa, was good enough sport to show up to don the top half of a Santa costume and expose what were and likely still are damn nice legs.
Fresh from the photo shoot, Rob and I dashed to our favorite printer and ordered a few dozen postcard-sized copies of that picture, with the phrase “Have a Damn Nice Christmas” printed below the picture.
Delighted by the result, Rob, in his white top-hat and I in my yellow fedora immediately distributed these cards around town.
We started out in the old Royal York Hotel, a high-rise former swank joint that had degenerated into a flop for widows, widowers, lovable losers, liars and murderous drifters. Many of them were our closest friends. “I was so tough my spit would bounce,” one of my friends told me when I wished him a happy 83rd birthday. Again, another story.
We went up the elevator – it was one of those you drove yourself – and stopped at each floor, sliding a card beneath each door. “Gunsmoke” reruns blared from the TV sets in 90 percent of those rooms.
We then left a stack at the desk to be distributed in the lobby.
In the next hours, we wandered the streets of the city, handing them out, sliding them into the mail slots for county and city officials. It was sort of a Charlie Dickens scene we were creating in the cold, snowy Clarksville night.
We even saved one in case Chico the Monkey ever came back from the dead. I still have that one. Just in case. That too is another story and it actually took place later. I have told you about that tragedy before and likely will again, as Chico’s death haunts and delights me to this day.
Then, spreading Christmas cheer, we went to the newspaper complex, going from the press room to the advertising offices, to the camera room, to the job shop, sliding cards beneath doors and leaving them on desks.
The last one, and we didn’t hesitate, went beneath the office door of The Big Guy, our publisher.
“He’ll like this,” said Rob.
“Yeah,” I said. We didn’t really think he’d mind one way or another, as long as he could jangle the change in his pockets as loudly as possible.
Perhaps he was angry by the Chico coverage. Maybe it was my long interview with a drifter named W. Robert Cameron. I’d caught him while he was resting along a railroad siding, taking a breather from his mission of hitchhiking to Austria.
Maybe it was Rob’s steady stream of stories about death and destruction –”No more wreck stories” we were commanded after about the 24th traffic fatality involving a drunken soldier in six months. Not good for the Chamber image, I suppose, in hindsight. Especially at Christmastime.
“Tim, uhh, this is The Big Guy, uhhhh,” was the voice the next morning when I picked up the Flap phone, one of those blue plastic contraptions that I kept next to the Mr. Potato Head collection on my desk. “Could you come down here and see me.”
I still didn’t know what was going on. He didn’t sound angry. Just self-important.
“Uhh, Tim, uhh, could you close the door and, uhh, sit down.” I noticed he was jangling his change harder and faster. I wondered if I should offer him a loaded cigarette.
He held up the card. “This is wrong,” he said, sounding like a sinister Bobby Knight. “You do not put ‘Damn’ and ‘Christmas’ in the same sentence. You guys have gone too far. Do not give any more of these out.”
Once I explained that half the town had them, he stood up and walked across the room. He was jangling wildly. The rosewater scent of his hair spritz filled the tiny confines.
“Tim, uhh, you are a great newspaperman, uhh, but this is too much. Do you have any of them left?”
I nodded. “Sure. How many more do you want? And I can order more”
He stood there, in silence, nodded to the door and then said “don’t do this again.”
I looked at him and smiled.
“What?” he said, in a benign bark.
“Big Guy, Have a Damn Nice Christmas.”
He shook his head. “You too,” he muttered. “You too.”
I ambled back upstairs to the newsroom, where Rob greeted me. He put on his top-hat, fired up a Kool and we went for coffee.
A dozen hours later, about five blocks from the newspaper, a house caught fire. A guy dressed like Santa Claus, apparently en route to a party, stopped.
By the time Rob and the Fire Department got there, a soot-covered Santa Claus, with a handicapped woman slung over his shoulders, walked from the fiery house.
He handed her over to the rescuers and anonymously disappeared into the night.
I can’t remember if we ever identified the Good Samaritan with the jiggling belly and the soot-covered white beard. I’d like to say there were flying reindeer involved, but if so, they all vanished without a trace.
All I know is it was a great lead story on a holiday that should revolve around generosity, love and peace. As papers rolled off the press early the next morning, I carried one outside, onto Third Street, where a little snow was falling. Rob was standing out there, with our old friend, Skipper, the old carny and merchant marine who once served spaghetti to Al Capone. Rob had rousted him from his room at the old hotel. It was cold. Boy was it cold.
We shared nips of cheap brandy and wished each other a great holiday: “Have a Damn Nice Christmas.”
Skipper looked up as Tony, Jerry and Jim arrived. He handed them the bottle of cheap brandy.
Skipper, who wasn’t wearing his teeth, looked up to the sky and began singing “Silent Night” in his amazing Irish tenor.
With that beautiful voice echoing off the old buildings around us, I looked to Rob and the others and smiled. “God Bless us every one.”