Birthday boys

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TODAY IS MY father’s birthday. Flag Day in the United States. That’s how I remember it.

I think about my father a lot even though I did not like him. In spite of that, we were very similar. About the only difference between us was that I like to travel. He loathed it.

Other than that, we were clones. That’s him in the photo, which was taken in an Atlanta farmers’ market in the late 1980s.

I never called him Dad or Father or anything like that. I called him Charles because that was his name. I don’t know why I did that. I never called my mother Mom or anything of that sort either. I called her Dee, a nickname.

My sister did call him Daddy.

Charles was a newspaper editor, as was I. He retired from full-time newspapering when he was just 49, having fallen into some money when his mother-in-law died.

He became a haiku poet, and became quite famous in the small world of haiku poetry. He died in 1991 of a heart attack at 75, just three years older than I will soon be.

He would have been 101 years old today.

He had his good points. He was a lifelong liberal of the classical variety, as am I.* One wonders what he would have thought of Donald Trump. Today is Trump’s birthday too. He’s 70.

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Florida beach, 1960. Charles on left, me in the middle.

(The bottom photo was sent to me about three years ago by the fellow on the right, John Zimmerman, a good boyhood friend who went on to fly tankers over Vietnam and later became an airline captain. He’s retired now.)

* Classic liberals are very different from today’s “progressive liberal”  collectivists of the Democrat Party.

Death of the muse

TURNING THE CALENDAR to a new year makes one gaze both forward and backward. Well, me at least. And at my advancing age, there’s far more behind than ahead.

When I retired my former website, The Zapata Tales, in 2011, it was because I had wearied of writing about “Life in Mexico.” What had begun in 2000 as an incredible adventure that I wanted to share had become mundane, everyday life.

Still love living here, but I’m used to it.

I wanted a fresh online slate. My main interest was writing short fiction. I had done a bit of that with The Tales, but I wanted it to be my primary focus — fiction.

And it was, for a good while. I wrote some pretty good stuff that I’m not modest about. Interestingly, I’ve never taken a writing class. And, though I spent 30 years in the newspaper business, I have never taken a journalism class either.

Something weird happened a year or so ago. My muse died, inexplicably. Here’s how my fiction previously came into being: It just landed on me, magically, more often than not at dawn while I was lying in the sack half asleep.

An idea!

Then I would write it as the sun rose over the mountains. Some of it was remarkably good, if I do say so myself. Reading it later, I would wonder, where did that come from?

My father was a writer, mostly poetry and even more mostly haiku. He would worry it to death, think on it, mull on it, spend lots of time on it. And it did come out good. Some is still available on Amazon. He died in 1991.

I never mulled much. It just flowed, surprising me.

But then it stopped. Why? I have no idea. Age? Possibly. I have noticed a general attitude change of late.

The Unseen Moon now focuses on two things, politics/culture and — yet again — my life in Mexico.

Well, enough of that. To welcome in the new year, here is one of my favorites, a blast from the past. It’s titled The Broken Staircase. Maybe this will kick-start my muse:

* * * *

The Broken Staircase

Five steps rotted and collapsed in the middle of the staircase, and that’s how it all began.

Alcott was upstairs. He never left his home again.

He decided to write a history of mankind. It would be thorough, but due to having no reference materials upstairs, it would be fiction by necessity, a history of mankind as it should have been, the perfect people. He liked the idea, and dedicated the rest of his life to writing fictitious history.

. . . which should not be confused with historical fiction. No, he wrote history hidden by a mask, creating a dream world, but really, after all, it was not so different from actual historical writing at times.

But first there was the matter of survival. For that he turned to his old friend Beaman whom he had known since boyhood.

Beaman lived nearby.

There was the question of food.

Beaman tossed up a rope, and that was how Alcott received his daily meals, a basket connected to the rope. Beaman’s wife, Aldyth, simply made a bit more than she and Beaman ate each day, and Beaman took the leftovers to Alcott.

We should mention that Alcott was married too. His wife was Godeleva, but Alcott had not loved — or even liked — Godeleva in many years.

As luck would have it, Godeleva was downstairs when the five steps rotted in the staircase. She noticed the problem even before Alcott. She smiled, walked into the downstairs bedroom, packed two bags, and headed to the beach.

. . . and never returned.

* * * *

Alcott was not a social man, so the upstairs isolation suited him, plus there was lots of time to invent fictional history.

Luckily, there was a bathroom on the second floor of Bockingfold and an antique typewriter.

Bockingfold was the name of the home, which had been in Alcott’s family for generations. Godeleva had always found it cold and dreary there.

About a year after the five steps rotted in the staircase, Alcott awoke one morning thinking of Godeleva whose body was as fine as her personality was foul. That afternoon, during their daily chat through the second-floor window, as warm stew was ascending, he asked Beaman for a woman.

Man does not live by stew alone, he said, or something like that. There was an obstacle. The rope was medium-weight, and the basket had been bought at a discount outlet that imported from India.

The woman, they concluded, must be lightweight and short, a wisp of a girl.

This was acceptable to Alcott, desirable even, because Godeleva, although quite beautiful, was big-boned. And Alcott was ready for new adventures.

Find a mini-version of womankind, Alcott said to Beaman, but she must be over 21 because Alcott wanted no problems with the police.

One week later, Beaman stood beneath the window with Vulpine, which means like a fox. She said she was 26. And she was quite small, a midget actually, which should not be confused with a dwarf. She was well-formed, firm and fine.

Her hair and full lips were flaming red.

She fit perfectly into the basket, holding the day’s stew in her lap. Alcott, with a bit of extra effort, hoisted both dishes to the window sill and inside the room to which Vulpine hopped effortlessly and looked up at him, smiling.

* * * *

Vulpine did not speak much about her past. There was something about a circus, a prison and horse rides through the mountains with a man named Smoke.

Alcott and Vulpine hit it off immediately. She liked the security, the daily stews, and he liked the look of her, the red lips, the hair blazing like a bonfire.

redhead1And that’s how it stayed. The years passed, and Alcott wrote. In time there were 35 volumes of fictional history. He grew old and gray and stooped.

But Vulpine never changed a bit.

She was like magic, and that was what he wanted.

No one ever repaired the staircase of Bockinfold, and when Alcott died one day, Vulpine kissed his cheek, shimmied down the rope like a child and walked off into a sunny winter afternoon, her hair lit like Christmas candles.

Newspaper days: Houston

Houston

I WORKED AT The Houston Chronicle for 15 years, the tail of my newspaper “career,” but I arrived there in a circular manner.

From New Orleans, I headed to the San Antonio Express-News, but I only stayed about four months. Loved the city. Hated the job or, more accurately, hated my boss. From the Express-News, I traveled to the Houston Post, but I resigned that job six months later.

The Post was the No. 2 paper in a two-paper town, and No. 2 papers were folding around the nation. I wanted a place to stay put, so I applied across town at the Houston Chronicle. I had a friend there who put in a good word for me. The news editor — and later assistant managing editor — who hired me was a big, ole, good-natured Mexican-American from Laredo who was also gay.

Fernando. More on him later.

At the time, the Houston Chronicle was one of the top 10 newspapers in America, circulation-wise. It’s not anymore because times have changed, and people have quit reading newspapers, which has made them more ignorant. It’s said we get our news online now, but I think that we’ve simply quit reading news. We do social media instead, which is gossip and chitchat.

Bodes very ill for America. But it bodes well for Mohammedans.

I decided to settle down. I got married to the woman I’d lived with for seven years. Her name is Julie. We bought a ranch house in the inner suburbs of town. The house cost just $86,000 and now it’s worth three times that. It was in my name when we divorced nine years later, and I gave it to my ex-wife after the divorce was final, a parting gift. How about that? She still lives there.

The Houston Chronicle newsroom is the size of a football field. The horseshoe copydesk, of course, was long gone, and we sat, side by side, at desks with computer terminals, editing stories, writing headlines, doing page designs, often in a rush, often with feet on the desk, especially mine.

The industry — and an industry it is — was changing rapidly. From being the male-dominated, liquor-bottle-in-desk-drawers, expletive-laced, bleary-eyed, fun, crackpot game of old, it became feminized, career-fixated and politically correct up the kazoo.

Fernando, the news editor who hired me, became assistant managing editor, the boss over all copydesk operations. He was a prince of political correctness and, amazingly, the only person I’ve ever known who readily admitted being politically correct. Ninety-nine percent of PC fanatics will give you a blank stare and deny ever having heard the term.

It’s like a Nazi seeing the swastika on his armband and saying, “What’s that about?”

PCAnything that sniffed of “offense” toward any “oppressed, victimized” group would bring immediate consequences. Even women in bathing suits on beaches vanished from our pages. Sexism!  This was not all Fernando’s doing.

Feminist zealots had contaminated the newsroom.

* * * *

WATERGATE

The sort of people in the business was changing. They were young careerists. To look at them, you might have thought you were in an insurance company’s office. My coworkers became tidy, bright-eyed and very ambitious. And you couldn’t walk in off the street and get hired. Degrees in journalism were de rigueur. Even higher levels of formal schooling was viewed very positively.

Watergate initiated much of this. What before was a traveling tinker trade became an honored and competitive calling. Bringing down a president can be very heady stuff.

Everybody wanted in. Journalism schools mushroomed after Nixon.

Youngsters did not just want in. They wanted to investigate! They wanted Pulitzers! And thus began the micro-examination of the private lives of public and wannabe public officials, something the internet made far easier than it used to be. Anyone who runs for high office today is out of his mind, in my opinion. You’ll be dragged through the dirt.

Except if you’re a member of an “oppressed” minority, which put you-know-who into the Oval Office.

* * * *

END OF THE LINE

The Houston Chronicle’s policy allowed early retirement if you’d reached age 55 and had been employed 15 years. I hit those two markers almost simultaneously in 1999. I had been divorced five years, and I was debt-free. I waved goodbye.

My newspaper days began at the tail of one fascinating, gluepot, highball era and terminated at the beginning of a new boring, careerist, internet world which I was very happy to leave.

My timing was perfect. The Chronicle’s circulation, like most big newspapers across America, has declined. The newsroom suffered lots of layoffs after I left. Friends found themselves out on the street. The paper’s now working hard on its website while, no doubt, praying at the same time.

* * * *

This is the third and final segment in a series called Newspaper Days. The two other engaging segments are San Juan and New Orleans.

(While my newspaper life was spent primarily at the The New Orleans States-Item, The Times-Picayune, The San Juan Star and the Houston Chronicle, I also spent brief moments — just months each — at the San Antonio Express-News, The Houston Post and the Florida Times-Union.)

* * * *

 (Note: Fernando, basically a great guy in spite of his being on the wrong side of the culture war, retired about the same moment that I did. He went on to become a playwright and was once interviewed on Fox News’ Glenn Beck show after the debut of Fernando’s play about Tammy Faye Bakker, a gay icon. When my wife and I visited Houston about a decade ago, the three of us had a nice coffee shop visit, conversing in Spanish. I was happy to see him.

(Fernando and I were Facebook amigos until my incessant railing against illegal immigration became too much for his open-borders, PC sensibilities, and he zapped me from his FB friend list. I’ve heard nothing from him in the years since, which saddens me. I sort of admire his rare willingness to admit his political correctness beliefs. That requires pelotas.)

* * * *

BONUS MATERIAL

From my file cabinet, I found press passes from the olden days. From top to bottom, New Orleans (1969), San Juan (early ’70s) and Houston (1984).

no id

Star

chronicle

 

Newspaper days: New Orleans

NewOrleans

I WAS FIRST a husband at age 22 and not long after that a father. In such a situation, you’ve got financial responsibilities. You need a job, and I was without one.

I became, in this order, a telephone company residential, pre-wire man; an insurance underwriter; an insurance salesman; a loan shark; and a repo man. I had no heart in any of those things, so I went back to college for a degree, driving Yellow Cabs on weekends.

After graduating at age 24 (UNO, History, 1969), my father, a former newspaper copy editor, convinced Walter Cowan, the managing editor of The New Orleans States-Item, an afternoon daily, that I’d be a good hire, so Cowan put me on at $115 a week to be a reporter.

I was about as good a reporter as I’d been a repo man. Basically, I don’t deal well with the public. After a few months, I requested a transfer to the copydesk where I edited stories and wrote headlines.

About two years earlier, before my father retired, I spent a few hours working with him on the copydesk in the original Times-Picayune building downtown, seeing if I had any knack for that sort of labor, and I did. Here’s how it looked in 1900. It had changed little by the mid-1960s.

oldie

When I got hired in 1969, the newspaper had just moved into a huge, new building about a mile away. Though the building was modern, our work was done the old way. We sat around a horseshoe desk with the headman in the middle handing out stories to be edited and headlines to be written.

We edited with pencils and connected the sheets of copy with paste applied with a brush from a paste pot. The sheets were then sent to the linotype operators downstairs via a conveyor belt.

typeAs the years passed, the techniques changed. We began typing headlines on old, manual typewriters. Then IBM Selectrics arrived. Then some technology appeared that could read paper copy electronically. That was the end of the conveyor belt to downstairs. Then computers appeared on our desks. This all took years.

The computers brought one major change: The ages-old horseshoe copydesk, a fixture at all major newspapers, and in movies, for a century or so, vanished from newsrooms everywhere. The physical proximity of the copy editors was no longer required. We could sit anywhere.

* * * *

But before that happened, we were elbow to elbow with our fellow copy editors, and they were quite a crew. Many were drunks. The work was considered less a profession, as it is today, than a trade. And getting hired, if you had any skill with words, was pretty easy, which explains why I was hired with no journalism training whatsoever. I’ve never taken a journalism course to this day.

My father had done the same work as I began to do, but he did it a generation earlier. In the 1930s, our occupation was full of transients who shifted from city to city on booze-fueled whims, and we were paid in cash at the end of each day. By my time, however, it was weekly paychecks.

I started on the New Orleans States-Item, the afternoon paper which shared a newsroom and printing presses with The Times-Picayune, the morning paper. On an afternoon paper, copy editors and some reporters go to work very early, usually 6 a.m. For a crew of boozers living in New Orleans where bars never close, this could be a challenge. We usually arrived just marginally sober.

* * * *

Itemizing the crazy cast of my coworkers would require too much space. I’ll tell you about just one, which was a tragedy. A man named Bob Drake.

Bob was a former Army captain who had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. His past was foggy, and he kept it that way. When he arrived at the States-Item, he had been divorced, was about 50 years old, with a receding hairline, and had recently married a woman in her mid-20s, I’d say.

Bob was starting a new life.

He had many odd characteristics. Bob was wound tighter than a spool of hardware wire, and he liked his highballs. One night at a party in his house, he taught me the “Bob Drake grip” on a highball glass that allegedly guaranteed it would not slip to the floor if one’s attention wandered.

Part of Bob’s starting over was the purchase of a home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. He was a family man at heart, traditional and somewhat staid. And then his young wife got pregnant. Months later, she had a baby, of course. And not long after that, she dropped the bomb.

She wanted out. She needed to “find herself.” And there was no convincing her otherwise.

Bob went to the tool shed in the back yard, locked the door, poured gasoline over himself, and lit a match. It was no “cry for help.” It was a blazing goodbye.

He was neither the first nor the last of my coworkers to commit suicide. But no one else did it so dramatically, with such flare.

A year later I ran into Bob’s young widow outside a supermarket. We exchanged pleasantries and smiled. Neither of us mentioned Bob. I never saw her again.

* * * *

I lived 18 years in New Orleans. I consider it my hometown even though I was born in Atlanta and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. But New Orleans left its mark on me far more than those other places. More bars, I guess. I arrived when I was 20, and I left when I was 39.

I met, married and divorced my first wife there, and I became a father. I then met and lived with the woman who would later, in Houston, become my second wife. I lived Uptown, just out of town in Jefferson Parish, and I lived in the French Quarter too.

Most of that time I worked on either the afternoon paper or the morning paper. Eventually, The States-Item failed, as have most afternoon papers in the United States. In the middle of those years, I inserted just under two years in San Juan, which was bookended on both sides by New Orleans and its newspapers. It was an interesting occupation to fall into by sheer, dumb luck.

Getting a fresh hair up my backside, I quit The Times-Picayune in 1980, and went to a community college, first studying electrical construction technology and then computer science.

But I was back in the newspaper business by 1984.

* * * *

(Next: Newspaper days: Houston)