One day in 1968, when I was bright green and eager, the city editor sent me to interview an old-timer who’d been a pilot during World War I. As I gathered up my notebook and pen, he took me aside and said, “Make sure you get a lot of stuff about all the dogfights he was in. That’s what’ll make the story.”
I found the old-timer in the public relations office at a local company that made airplane simulators. I guess they thought if I wrote about the old pilot, I’d have to mention them as well. The PR man went on and on about what a pioneer the old pilot had been in the early days of aviation. Fresh from college and imbued with the gravitas of my new position, I ignored him. I said to the old-timer, “What about all the dogfights you were in during the war?”
He shot a smile at the PR man.
“I was never in any dogfights,” he said. “I wasn’t a combat pilot.”
My heart sank, and simultaneously I felt a stab of fear. My city editor was a no-nonsense man whose abrupt style unsettled me. He certainly wasn’t going to like this. At the same time, I was disappointed because, like everyone else, the romantic idea of the Red Baron and Sopwith Camels and flying aces had captured my imagination. But I was to learn there’s an inherent drawback in allowing your imagination to be taken prisoner. It can’t go very far.
“I’ve been trying to tell you,” said the PR man with an edge in his voice, “that he is one of the pioneering greats. He was the first man to fly dozens of new aircraft models. It was very dangerous. They had to make sure they were sound before they went into mass production.”
Unhappily, it dawned on me.
“You mean he was just a test pilot?”
The old man chuckled and the PR man turned red.
“Just a test pilot?” he shouted. “Just a test pilot?!”
I went back to the paper and wrote a ponderous story about aviation progress over the years. Half-hearted questions get half-hearted answers. My editor was disappointed that there were no dogfight scenes. He grumbled something about untrustworthy PR men. My story was rightfully buried.
It took two or three years before the tapes in my head played back that conversation with the old pilot. I don’t remember what triggered it, but all at once it came over the headset one day: What an awesome job that must have been to fly planes no one had ever flown – planes that often didn’t work and crashed and killed their brave pilots. Those were the first incredibly exciting days of aviation. Can you imagine the nerve it must have required to be a test pilot then? That old man had been a one-of-a-kind treasure. But I’d dismissed him. I had listened but had not heard.
I’m not sure which was more painful – realizing I’d missed a rare opportunity to tell a splendid story or realizing that I’d been a presumptive idiot. For here is the thing: Presumption is very difficult for a reporter to avoid. In fact, two basic presumptions are hard-wired into the very essence of journalism. The first: Everyone has a story to tell. And the corollary: Not everyone is a storyteller. Thus, we cue the scribe. The danger is that one presumption leads to another, and they all end up at the most deadly presumption of all: Everyone has a story to tell and yours is about dogfights. If you don’t like it, write a letter to the editor.
I once had a colleague who actually worked that way. He got an idea into his head about someone, then without talking to the someone he sat down at his typewriter and wrote out a lead sentence nailing that idea to the wall. Then he went out to prove it. I’d like to say he didn’t last long, but he’s still out there writing stories based on information filtered through his presumptions.
For most of my journalistic life, I’ve tried to avoid the presumption swamp. But it’s a hard thing to do. Over time, I got better at listening for the stories people told, as opposed to the ones I thought they should have told. I pieced them together in the pages of newspapers and magazines – and sometimes even in song. Along the way I’ve kept notes and made lists of the things I haven’t seen or heard. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. I’m talking about those things that don’t immediately register because you’re looking too close and too hard at what seems to be the main event.
I’m thinking of the time when I spent a couple of days with a psychologist who used humor in his therapy sessions and taught humor therapy techniques to medical students. My presumption was this: I figured he’d be a fun guy, there would be lots of laughs, and it would make an amusing story. And during those two days, everything seemed to follow that script. I took extensive notes on what he said, what he wore, what he looked like, what other people said to him and what they wore and what they looked like, along with all the funny things said and acted out and implied. I was funneling everything through my presumption filter.
At the end of the two days I did something I’ve tried to do ever since blowing off the old pilot. A fail-safe system of sorts. I sat down and debriefed myself. I was looking for the things my peripheral vision camera and hidden mikes – both mounted in my subconscious – had picked up. I started free writing, just typing out the first things that came to mind about him. I found myself writing “sends a salmon steak back – overdone.” Then I wrote “is drained after presentation – not so bubbly.” Then “once wanted to be a cook.” And then “his mother was a terrible cook.” And then “when he gets stressed he comes down with a cold.”
I thought about it. He’d had a cold the entire two days I was with him. I kept going. “Messy car with a phone that doesn’t work, but one in glove compartment that does. Says ‘It’s a long story.’” And “the kind of guy who went to China on a tour and snuck away from his carefully monitored group to have a clandestine dinner in the off-limits apartment of the family of one of the guides.” And “says people don’t take humor seriously.”
There it was, the best quote of the entire two days, and I hadn’t even jotted it down. How do you not hear something like that? How do you miss an entire half of a person’s character?
When I stopped I had listed 26 idiosyncrasies, snatches of conversation, or little facts about this psychologist that I hadn’t noticed with my main eyeballs or heard with my main eardrums. Items that seemed to go to the core of who he really was and what he really wanted to do about it, and not who I thought he was and what I thought he wanted to do about it. It occurred to me that my funny shrink was more real than my presumption had given him credit for being. The real story of his humor in therapy, I realized, went way beyond one-liners.
That’s the thing about presumptions, though. They are always lurking, waiting for a chance to close a mind. Sometimes they are fostered by editors, but it’s the reporter who bears the responsibility for getting through the swamp.
The presumption trap was sprung on me early in my career, at the Binghamton Evening Press in Binghamton, N.Y. (Stern warning: there is no P in Binghamton.) Over five years in this small southern tier city of about 80,000, I grew from raw journalism grad to journeyman reporter. It was here that I fell under the hooves of my first mulish editor, Dick Smith, a man who held a black belt in presumption. Smitty was an assistant city editor and, though long dead now, he is ever-remembered for an off-handed comment he made one slow afternoon in the newsroom. A colleague and I stood near the city desk discussing our dreams of writing the Great American Novel. Smitty heard us and wandered over.
“I always wanted to write a novel too,” he said. “But then one day I woke up and realized I had nothing to say.”
I must have given him an odd look because he repeated it.
“Really. I have nothing to say!”
How, I wondered, could someone have nothing to say? At the time I had zillions of things to say, and I spent a good bit of time trying to say them all, often at the same time. Nothing to say? It depressed me, even scared me. To this day l look myself in the mirror each morning and ask: “Still got something on your mind? Do you still have a mind? How many fingers am I holding up?”
Smitty was 54 then, but looked 64. Those were the days when city rooms were filled with cigar and cigarette smoke. Smitty was a major contributor to the gray cloud that hung over the city desk like an omen. He’d worked for The Press all his life, but had trouble with alcohol somewhere in the past. He drank mostly tea. He’d had some major surgery that I never quite understood, but he would spontaneously lift his shirt to show his scars.
He was a man of average height and thinning brown hair, combed straight back. He walked slowly and wore hushpuppies and the kind of speckled sports coats that were sold in the days before they invented sports. He also carried the most evil-looking knife I’ve ever seen. He used it to cut his apples in the city room. I asked him about it once, and he uncharacteristically sprang to his feet for a demonstration. The knife had a crooked blade, like a partially curled index finger. Smitty held the knife in his right hand and dropped into a crouch. He swung the knife in my general direction, an upward thrust heading toward my crotch. I paled and jumped back. He laughed. It’s what the Italians used, he said cryptically. They called it a nut sticker.
Watching him spring to life like that only heightened my puzzlement. Springing and life were not part of his vocabulary. Rather, Smitty toiled each day under the constant, almost certain dread that he would be fired for screwing up. As I would find out, he went to excruciating pains to avoid screwing up, the pain often showing on his face as fear. You could see it when you approached the desk to ask him a question. His permanent scowl deepened and his shoulders hunched up as if something was about to fall on him. The scowl, though, would vanish the moment he realized you weren’t about to tell him the sky had fallen. In fact, whenever he just wanted to chat with me, he’d saunter over to my desk and preface his remarks with a refrain that bordered on self-parody: “Nooooooo crisis.”
Smitty lived with his aged mother who would call the city desk each Saturday night and ask in a creaking voice, “May I speak to Richard?” I longed to ask her if she thought it odd that her Richard was a man who didn’t like surprises but was in a business that thrived on them. I once looked up Smitty’s old clips in our library and found thick packets of stories he’d written, all of them solid and workmanlike. In among the clips was a letter Smitty had typed as a kind of memo to a future obit writer. What I remember is the light-hearted, jocular tone. And the closing line: “I am obviously, absolutely brilliant!” What could have happened to douse that spirit? I wondered if there hadn’t been a moment in his past when the flash of his brilliance might have blinded the wrong eye, and Smitty found himself being backed into some corner at the end of a nut sticker.
Whatever it was, Smitty had clearly run out of risks worth taking. Yet he so fascinated me that I started to keep notes on our conversations. In my 1969 file, when I was a cops reporter, I find this verbatim oration:
“Here’s the obit on that burned-up dame. Let me know in a few minutes if everything clears overnight. If there’ve been any grinding triple fatals or the mayor’s blown his head off or someone’s blown up the town. You know, that happens. We find out too late that about 20 people were killed, and we’re caught with no pictures. Oh, and one thing, don’t ever use the word gutted in a fire story. Cronk sees red at that word. He’s liable to tear out of that office through the walls. And check on that dizzy dame that got her arm broken off two weeks ago.”
I’ve worked for other crude and insensitive editors, but each of them tried to make up for it by being loud or colorful or ethically courageous when tough decisions were called for on deadline. Or maybe they were just loud. John Rogers, the late managing editor at The Denver Post, clapped me on the shoulder after hiring me some years later and bellowed, “If you don’t piss in the wastebasket your first day, you’ll do all right.” Smitty, however, was not only insensitive, he was furtive and soft-spoken and hyper-cautious about what went into the paper on his watch. Typical was what happened when I covered a bizarre fatal accident a few months after I started.
A small bulldozer clearing snow from a sidewalk over an old bridge across the Susquehanna River in downtown Binghamton had suddenly disappeared. The rusted underpinnings holding the sidewalk and bridge in place had given out, opening a hole just big enough to swallow the bulldozer. It tumbled down onto the icy shoreline of the river, killing its driver.
This happened on Ash Wednesday, a day when it was common to see Catholics proudly displaying on their foreheads the smudge of burnt palms. A priest had rubbed in the ash as a solemn reminder that we were created from such dust and, by the way, six weeks of Lent were officially on.
The bridge tragedy drew a small knot of onlookers, most of them, like myself, marked by a thumbprint of ash. Newspaper people, TV crews and a handful of public officials were allowed past the police lines for a closer look at the hole and the wreckage beneath. I performed my duty, scribbling notes with a pencil (I had learned quickly that ink freezes in February in New York). The mayor and a high official in the department of public works arrived. They took their turns peeping into the hole. I noticed that the mayor wore the black smudge on his forehead, but the DPW guy did not.
Standing at the edge of the hole, the DPW chief looked at the mayor’s forehead and said “Geez, I forgot, it’s Ash Wednesday.”
“Yeah,” said the mayor. “I got mine this morning.”
“Geez,” said the chief, “my wife is gonna kill me. Can I borrow some of your ashes?”
I suppose there are several ways one could lend ashes in that situation. Here is how they did it: The two men, cloaked in heavy overcoats, embraced each other. They stood inches from the hole in the bridge. In fact, from where I stood, the hole framed the bulldozer lying on its side on the riverbank below. The mayor and his chief brought their foreheads together and rubbed them vigorously back and forth. When they separated, each bore the sooty symbol of the faithful.
Back in the city room, I gave a blow-by-blow replay of this dance to Smitty. He paled and quickly warned, “You can’t put that in the story.” The story, he said, was what happened to the guy on the bulldozer. Nothing else mattered.
Bolstered by my recently acquired knowledge of existentialism and other hard to spell philosophies, I argued that the callous and undignified action of top city officials near the body of a city worker reflected significantly on who we were as a people, and who they were as leaders. I said it was life at its most absurd. I thought we ought to cover the absurd.
Smitty gave me the same deadly look he’d worn the first time he showed me his knife.
“Smitty,” I said. “Tell me this isn’t funny.”
His brief reply, delivered walking away from me, ended the conversation.
“Tell me the guy on the bulldozer isn’t dead.”
I stewed over it for awhile, until the day a few months later when a construction worker was sucked into the innards of a road-pulverizing machine and crushed to death. When I got to the scene, the dusty orange machine stood idle in the middle of the road. It had been preparing a typical neighborhood street for paving. I saw no trace of a body. A cop told me the dead man was still inside the machine and that a team was on its way to get him out. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew was off eating their lunch. While waiting for the coroner and extrication equipment, I sat down in the dirt on one side of the road, directly opposite the machine.
I started scribbling notes. When I looked up I saw two things from that low angle. Protruding from the undercarriage of the pulverizing machine was a pair of legs. They were clad in jeans and cowboy boots and were suspended about eight inches from the road surface. After a moment of shock, I turned my head slightly and my eyes found a black lunch pail on the opposite side of the road. It was visible through the dead man’s legs. On a hunch, I got up and went around to the other side. The name stenciled on the pail was that of the dead man.
A little shiver ran up my spine. I felt as if I had uncovered the biggest news story of the year. They’re eating their lunch without him! On the way back to the city room, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something connected this tragedy with the earlier bridge fatality. Some invisible, intangible lesson of life. Kierkegaard or Sartre would be proud of me. I wrote my story, risking a lead that captured that lone lunch box standing on the roadside. The lunch not eaten.
Smitty came over to me a few minutes later and said he’d taken the lunch pail out of the story.
“But Smitty,” I said. “It goes to the main point of the story. Life is totally unfair.”
“Do you have it in your notes? Someone saying it besides you?”
“No,” I said. “This just came to me. It’s an observation.”
He shook his head.
“Then we can’t use it.”
And so we didn’t.
For Smitty, I began to understand, saw one fatal accident as being the same as any other. That limited view applied also to town council stories, which were all the same. And soon, one story about anything was the same as one about anything else. Smitty’s presumption was unlike my city editor’s presumption about old pilots and dogfights. Smitty’s was hard-wired, and it said no one really has a story to tell so no one should bother too much trying to tell it.
Maybe that is why I still think of Smitty today. Self-inflicted presumption is the deadliest form of the disease. Perhaps more important, though, a man who says he has nothing to say always has something to say. If only someone would listen.
Patrick McGuire is a freelance journalist in Maryland. His 34 years as a journalist has included work for the Baltimore Sun and the Denver Post.