The End of Days?

OK. Admittedly, the headline on this blog is over the top. But, lately, you could be forgiven for wondering if these are the end of days. Likely, they are not…in the usual sense of the phrase, that is. But, in the sense that this pandemic might…just might…be beginning to turn a corner, that the end of those days are nigh? Well, maybe. And maybe not.

The upside of maybe comes with glimmers of hope parts of the country are seeing in their desperate eagerness to return to some notion of normal. The “curve is flattening” over here, we are told. The rate of infection seems to be “plateauing” over there, we are told. The incidence of death, well, that’s another thing. The pace of fatal COVID-19 cases lags behind the millions worldwide who have become infected. The Grim Reaper is a follower in this pandemic, not a leader.

So, with apologies to Shakespeare, to open or not to open – that is the question now. A few governors and other governmental leaders, under pressure from people terrified about falling into financial ruin, are cracking open their closed states hoping to jump start their economic engines, hoping to get businesses up and running and people back to work. Many medical experts and countless others fear that what is being cracked open is a Pandora’s box. A rush to normalcy, they worry, only means falling head-long back into the maw of the coronavirus.

That ‘maybe not’ part also comes with an ominous new warning from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Robert Redfield tells the Washington Post that “there’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation will actually be more difficult” than the one we are currently going through. The reason, he says, is “we’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time.”

This virus is deadly and painfully difficult on several levels. First, there is the here and now; the pain, suffering, sorrow and the personal financial burdens that are growing exponentially every day. Those are nasty matters, real consequences that we must face at this moment. But we cannot afford to ignore what lies ahead. We do so at our peril.

It appears, however, that many business leaders, struggling mightily to maintain an equilibrium in this out-of-kilter time, apparently have their backs turned on danger down the road. The results of an exhaustive survey by the Institue for Public Relations (IPR) are both enlightening and worrisome.

The IPR, in partnership with Peppercomm, a communications and marketing agency, surveyed 403 communications executives and senior leaders to find out how effectively their companies are communicating and engaging the workforce during this pandemic. In the survey, 93 per cent of those communications executives say their companies are doing well with the response to COVID-19. More than half say they don’t plan to lay anyone off, but less than third have actually made that commitment. Generally, the respondents say they have experienced “positive outcomes on employee engagement, satisfaction, collaboration and trust.” But, “productivitity overall has declined.” That, perhaps, is not surprising since “more than three-quarters of employees are now working from home.”

The survey took a look at the “new normal” method of conducting business, which includes not only working from home but also increased physical distancing of employees, closing shared spaces, creating physical barriers, adding plexiglass shields, more contact-less meetings, instituting temperature checks, even banning handshakes. Only 10 per cent of the respondents have given any thought “to return-to-office preparations in the future.” Nearly three-quarters “had not discussed any changes to the physical work environment or were unsure if their organization was going to make any changes”.

These may not be the End of Days, but they are the beginning of a very long stretch of difficult and challenging time. We should all be prepared.

Hard Questions About the New Normal

ctmirror.org

We are all adding new words and phrases to our vocabularies in this time of the coronavirus. That word is one of them. Others are COVID-19, self-isolation, social distancing, flatten the curve and new normal. It is that last phrase which may have implications long after the pandemic has eased. Will this deadly virus permanently change the way we interact with each other? Or the way we conduct business? Or, ominously, the way we look at life and death?

Those are hard questions being considered on many levels even as the battle to defeat the virus rages. Talk is beginning to emerge in non-stop media coverage of COVID-19 that it could even spell the end of the common handshake. How might we greet each other from now on? Fist bumps? Elbow touches? Will we all adopt the traditional Native American greeting of simply a raised hand? Or, when all is said and done, will we forget how contagious handshakes can be and revert to the age-old habit of gripping right hands to say, It’s a pleasure to meet you?

In self-isolation, many of us are already learning new ways to communicate. Video conferencing has been a useful corporate tool for several years. But, all across the land, people who heretofore have looked at the digital age as some off-worldly creation are now becoming computer savvy. The neighborhood guys with whom I share restaurant coffee every Thursday morning now meet online, as do countless other friends and neighbors.

Rock bands and choral groups have figured out how to self-isolate and still rehearse or perform together online. Studies are underway to determine just how well businesses, big and small, are communicating, online or otherwise, in this so-called new normal.

For example, the communications firm Peppercomm (www.peppercomm.com) has partnered with the Institute for Public Relations (IPR) to study how the pandemic is impacting corporate infrastructure and business models. They surveyed 300 communications executives and senior business leaders to get a better understanding of how prepared businesses were for COVID-19 and how they are handling the impacts. According to the study, “83 per cent are ‘moderately’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about the potential impact of the virus on their companies, suggesting the virus and its effects are not going away anytime soon.”

Peppercom and IPR are continuing their study to take “a deep dive into employee communications and engagement” in this difficult period. The results of both studies might help determine whether the new normal will sustain once the virus pandemic is over. Will people who occupy the corner offices come to the conclusion that communicating remotely is really more cost effective while being equally productive? Will working from home become the standard business model? Self-isolation during this difficult time may be massively inconvenient, but it seems to be an operational “test lab” for the corporate world to determine how to best conduct business moving forward.

Moving forward means restarting the country at some point. While there currently is wide disagreement among government and medical leaders on when that restart should occur, nearly everyone agrees it will have to happen eventually. An article in the New York Times magazine focusing on moral choices in this crisis includes a headline asking, perhaps, the most sobering question of all – “Restarting America Means People Will Die. So When Do We Do It?”

The article features a transcript of five experts discussing that very serious matter in a video conference. As they pondered the impossibly difficult alternatives for restarting America, Peter Singer, Princeton University bioethics professor, offered a breath-taking observation. He was talking in the “context of the well-being of the community as a whole.” It’s a linguistic context that presupposes that the economy and, therefore, the future of the country is being severely damaged, perhaps irreparably.

“I think the assumption,” Singer said, “that we have to do everything to reduce the number of deaths is not really the right assumption.” He wonders about trading off loss of life against loss of quality of life. Singer acknowledges what many say is the stark reality. “We can’t really keep everything locked down until there won’t be anymore deaths.” He concludes the supposition thusly: “How do we assess the overall cost to everybody in terms of loss of quality of life, loss of well-being, as well as the fact that lives are being lost?”

Is this where Darwin comes in? Hard questions hardly begin to describe what lies before us.

Coping with Coronavirus

It seems odd that in the war against what the President calls the “invisible enemy,” the coronavirus, we – as a nation – are being asked to come together by staying apart. It is understandable, but peculiar nevertheless. From what is reported, that is what we are doing, coming together with recognition that we all are faced with a serious threat by this insidious foe. Most of us are convinced of that, at any rate.

Someone on Facebook suggested that “social distancing” is really not the proper term. “Physical distancing” is the more appropriate label, the Facebooker suggests. That makes sense. Physical distancing, self-isolation, limiting gatherings of no more than three, or ten, or whatever number you choose – those are physical acts. The “social” part is, actually, our coming together in cyberspace, online, in chat rooms, instant messaging, or video conferences by way of Facetime, Zoom, WebX or any other group conferencing app.

Online video get-togethers are not new, of course. Businesses, large and small, have been making use of them for years in our techno-savvy age. But video conferencing seems to have taken on new role as we battle the virus. Those of us who are old enough can remember the early telephone party-lines of our youth, when several people could talk to each other at once courtesy of Ma Bell. Of course, that was not always a convenient thing. Video conferencing is becoming a much more popular “party-line” as we remain apart together. Before the coronavirus became a thing, I met with a half dozen neighborhood guys for coffee at a local restaurant early every Thursday morning. Yes, we gossip. Retirement is good for that. But I digress. We now meet online, armed with a cup o’ joe from our own kitchens. It’s not quite the same, but it will do for now.

The point is, we all are doing what we always do – find ways to cope in times of distress. We are coping in countless different ways, from the homebound seamstresses to the company that makes underwear now producing protective face masks, to the thousands of retired medical professionals who have voluntarily gone back to work to care for the virus infected. They have literally jumped into the frontline trenches of this war. Some restaurants, whose business has been thunderstruck by the pandemic, still turn out meals for curbside service, or to provide sustance to children in need. In Chicago, a company called Closed Loop Farms has turned on a dime to meet the needs of people in these times. The company, which normally supplies the Windy City’s top rated restaurants with mircogreens, now runs what WLS-TV reports is “a virtual farmers market from its website.” They are delivering products to people who are self-isolating. The company’s founder tells WLS, “”It kind of represented an opportunity really just to be able to provide a useful service to people at a time that people are staying at home.”

Some have wondered if the rallying together as a nation is the same as it was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. It is a rally, to be sure. But there is a difference. After 9/11, we were united by outrage. We had been attacked by terrorists, a tangible entity that we could grasp and at whom we could vent anger and vengence. With the coronavirus, we are united more by fear. This enemy, is indeed, invisible, sneaky, pervasive and, so far, unrelenting. It is hard to become angry at a virus. Being afraid of it? That’s easy. That’s what most of us have in common now.

It is okay to be afraid. However, fear need not be what rules us now. Courage is. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, during one of his coronavirus briefings, quoted President Franklin Roosvelt who said, “Courage is not the the absense of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” Courage is more important. Coming together, even if it means staying apart, is more important.

The journalist and author, Maria Shriver, who is a colleague of mine from days gone by, writes a wonderfully thoughtful blog called Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper. She, too, has given serious thought to this perculiar time of our lives. Maria writes, “We each have our own fears and anxieties right now. We each have our own unknowns and uncertainties.” She has hers. Your have yours. I have mine. But Maria strikes just the right note. Age wise, she classifies herself, as do I, as one of “vulnerable ones” in the age of COVID-19. She says that means we are also among the “experienced ones.”

“I tell my kids,” Maria continues, “that most people my age have been through some stuff and seen some stuff. We have lived through enough hard times to be able to reassure them that there will be light at the end of this tunnel.” I like to think that light is the luminence of the collective courage we all have together.

The Birth of a Band

It all started with the rhythm of the beat. For me, anyway. All my life, when listening to music, I was attracted to what musicians call the bottom. The beat. The bass. It was the rhythm, not the ryhme, that got to me. Ask me the lyrics of a particular song? Unless it was something like White Christmas, or the Star Spangled Banner, forget about it. And the melody? Well, the melodies were fine and I could hear them inside my head. Some I could hum. Barely. But the beat? Oh yes, I could tell you the beat. I could feel it.

It was only when I entered fourth grade that I began to understand what I could feel. I learned how the beat was formed, or with apologies to Sonny and Cher, how the beat goes on. I learned what 4/4 time meant. Also, 3/4 time, 6/8 time and the others. It was in fourth grade that I started taking drum lessons. I remember my father making for me a drum practice pad. It consisted of three small blocks of wood, each maybe eight inches square, an inch thick and attached to form a triangle. The hypotanuse was tilted like a snare drum is often tilted and covered with a rubber pad. I can clearly see it. It was red.

Although I could instinctly feel the beat, it was on that rubber pad that I learned how to keep the beat. At first, it was harder than I thought. It took more coordination than I realized. I was introduced to very strange sounding terms like paradiddle and flamadiddle. I learned how drum rolls could be very loose or very tight. Soon, not only could I feel the beat, it was becoming clear how and why.

We had a small band in elementary school. We sounded like what you would expect ten and eleven year old kids just starting out with musical instruments to sound. But, let’s put it this way; we were earnest.

I mean, look at the smiles on those faces! In case you are curious, that’s me, fifth from the left holding the drumsticks standing next to the cub scout.

In junior high school, our band was a little bigger and a little better. One would hope! By then I had worked my way though snare drums and bass drums and was learning how to play timpani drums. Now we’re talking. These were drums that not only could carry a beat, they could produce different notes on a scale! One distinct memory comes to mind about those days. Our band was rehearsing for our annual spring concert. Parents attended, parents of classmates attended, teachers attended. This was a big deal. At the time, I was also a Boy Scout. A week before the concert, our scout troop went on a weekend campout. As young boys are prone to do, I was fooling around, pretending to be a pole vaulter using a long stick to lift myself into the air and fall back to the ground. On about the third launch, I landed wrong. Very wrong. I broke my right wrist. My timpani playing right wrist!

The injury itself was not that bad. It was a small break. But, it necessitated wearing a cast on my right arm from my hand to my elbow. Disaster! I was supposed to play a timpani solo in that spring concert. Oh, woe! Our band director said that some other band member would have to do it. No sir, I was determined. I will play it, cast and all. I would just make it work. I did and made it through the solo. The pain was tolerable. Maybe even more than tolerable. I think I had only one tear in my eye. Maybe two.

It was in high school that playing drums got really serious. Our band director, George Bell, was a genius. He was also a very tough task master. He expected perfection from all of us and was never shy about letting us know when we failed to measure up. We loved Mr. Bell. Ask most any band member today and they will tell you about the fond memories they have of the late George Bell. He taught us more than music. He taught us about honor, integrity and commitment. Under his direction, our high school band won several statewide awards. We were also invited to be the main halftime entertainment for the Thanksgiving Day, nationally televised football games between the Detroit Lions and the Chicago Bears. Twice! This is us in 1962.

By the time I became a senior in high school, I had been playing drums for nine years. You’d think that I was on to something, that maybe a career in music might be in the cards. You’d be wrong. It was traditional for graduating senior band members at our school to be featured in our final concert appearance on commencement day. When that concert was over, I put my drumsticks down and never picked them up again.

Don’t ask me why. I don’t have a good answer for you. I really enjoyed the experience, so why I turned my back on drums has always been something of a mystery to me. It never really occured to me to continue drumming in college. At any rate, my focus turned to other matters, especially a career in broadcasting,

That career came to a successful conclusion nearly five decades later when I retired from ABC News in 2012. In all that time, even without the drums, I never lost the feel of the beat. So, in retirement, I decided it was time to keep the beat again. But this time, it is the other half of the bottom, the bass. I traded my methaphoric microphone for a real bass guitar and started taking lessons.

As a drummer, it was never really necessary to learn theories of music. We drummers never really had to worry about chords or keys or harmonies. It was just the beat, man. But learning to play bass is a whole different ball game. Now, I had to learn strange things like the Circle of Fifths or the Cycle of Fourths. The cool thing about bass is that now I’m playing different notes while still keeping the beat. We bass players like to call that “the groove.” OK, maybe that’s a little borderline pretentious. But the point is, the bass and the beat are what create the bottom, the sound that fills voids that melodies and lyrics can’t reach.

As a result, after more than 55 years I am in a band again. Here we are…

Because we are all “of a certain age,” except for the young lady, we call ourselves 40 Years Too Late, which kind of says it all. I met Rob Liszt and John Melton, the two fellows on the right, during a jam session at the music shop where I had been taking lessons. These guys sounded great, but I thought they needed…well, you know…bottom. Graciously, they asked me to join them. After playing together for a few months, we added the very talented Crystal Estey, who has a voice like an angel. Then we added Ken Cherry, the fellow in the blue shirt, as our drummer…and voila, we have a band! Rob as lead singer and rhythm guitar, John on lead guitar, Crystal as vocalist and guitar, Ken as drummer and yours truly on bass. My, son Blair recently tweeted, “No one, but no one, rocks retirement like my Dad.” Maybe, but it is great fun.

I guess this trip down memory lane is a way to announce that 40 Years Too Late has booked its first two gigs, one at a local VFW post later this month and one at a local restaurant next month. The beat, indeed, does go on.

Why I Write

“Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” – Orson Scott Card – Novelist and Essayist

The story of a lovestruck Civil War general came at me out of the pages of a book like a well aimed missile. I wouldn’t have learned of the story had it not been for a chance meeting with a remarkable man. His name is Edwin Bearrs. Mr. Bearss is considered America’s premier battlefield historian, especially about the battlefields of the Civil War. He is the historian emeritus of the National Park Service. He is also a prolific writer being the author of 13 books.

I met Edwin on a ferry boat carrying visitors to Fort Sumter where I serve as a docent for the Park Service. It was because of that volunteer position that I had a delightful conversation with him, trying to soak in as much of his knowledge about the War Between the States as I could.

The next day I went out and bought one of his ‘baker’s dozen’ collection of books. It is called Fields of Honor. It is an exhaustingly detailed examination of 14 most significant battles of that war. The Battle of Gettysburg is one of them. It was in that chapter that I first learned of Major General John Fulton Reynolds. The General, a highly respected Union officer, was shot and killed during the first hours of that fight. It turns out, Reynolds had been having a secret love affair with a woman sixteen years his junior.

Fields of Honor is 448 pages long. Bearss devoted only about two paragraphs to the relationship between Reynolds and Catherine ‘Kate’ Hewitt. But his clean, crisp style of writing, to my mind, hinted at a much deeper saga about two lovers coming together in the throes of a most terrible war tearing a country apart. It was a story I saw and wanted to write.

Edwin’s book led me to other reference material about Reynolds, Kate Hewitt and the war, its politics, its misery, its frustrations. A book of my own began to form. I visualized a novel of historical-fiction, based on the true events involving Reynolds and Hewitt. The research took me to Gettysburg where I stood on the spot where General Reynolds was gunned down by a Confederate soldier. It took me to the religious center in Emmitsburg, Maryland where Kate became a nun. The story was practically writing itself.

The result is ‘The General & The Lady: A True Story of Civil Love and War,’ the first book I have had accepted for publication. (I self-published an earlier book called ‘Naked Ambition,’ a murder mystery aboard a cruise ship. It is available at Amazon.com, if you will pardon the little sales pitch.) The manuscript for The General & The Lady is undergoing the editorial review and book design phases at Page Publishing. We hope to have it ready for distribution by spring of 2020. You can read more about the story behind the story elsewhere on this website (jimhickey46.com)

Writing, it has been said, is a lonely task. Perhaps. But it is challenging, exhilarating and nerve wracking and pleasurable all at the same time. The beginning of this edition of the ‘On Cutting Edge’ quotes author Orson Scott Card. Another best selling writer, Wally Lamb, has also wise words about the art of writing. “If the book is true,” he said, “it will find an audience that is meant to read it.

The General & The Lady is a true story. I hope it finds its audience.

Mortality Redux – Jenny Ames

We who are connected to ABC News have all suffered a grievous loss. Those of us who knew, worked with and loved Jenny Ames certainly have. Those inside and outside ABC who did not know Jenny, or who are just learning about her now, have lost as well. Jenny has left an unparalleled legacy. She was our defender, protector, logistician, producer, coordinator, manager and den mother. She was very, very good at whatever job she tackled.

When I first arrived in Johannesburg in August of 1985 to begin a stint as ABC’s South Africa Correspondent and Bureau Chief, I phoned the bureau from Jan Smuts airport to inform them I was in-country and headed to a hotel for a little shut-eye after the 15 hour flight from Frankfurt. It seemed I had no sooner closed my eyes when the phone rang. It was Jenny on the other end of the line. She told me an important anti-apartheid story was breaking and that World News Tonight had called wanting us to file for that night’s broadcast. I asked her for directions to the bureau, but she told me to never mind. She had already dispatched someone to pick me up. He was on his way.

When I arrived at the bureau, I found it in full fledged “breaking story” mode. Jenny had already arranged for a free-lance editor who was busily logging video that had come in. She had the bureau’s film crew standing by under the correct assumption that I would need to record a stand-up to camera. She also had already booked satellite time through South Africa’s SABC-TV. When I walked in, she was on the phone getting details of the story from her “sources.” Together with Jenny and under her guidance this new South African Correspondent, on the ground in unfamiliar territory for barely a few hours, was able to file the first of what would become 45 straight nights on WNT. This would have been virtually impossible without Jenny Ames.

Jenny was always the eye in journalistic storms. Alway calm. Always clear-headed. When we were pressured by the South African government’s draconian foreign media laws, she was fierce in her defense of a free press. Her contacts both inside and outside the circles of government were legendary.

Jenny was a great believer in astrology. When our first granddaughter, Alexandra, was born nine years ago, Jenny prepared for her an exhaustive and detailed astrological profile, which predicted how her personality traits would develop. Today, that report fits Alex to a “T.”

Jenny was always supremely gracious. Many years after I had left South Africa, my wife and I returned for a visit. Our first order of business was to have dinner with Jenny, her husband, Barry and some other friends. It was a marvelous evening. It was the last time I saw Jenny Ames. I will miss her tremendously.

Mortality

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If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.           John F. Kennedy

It is a subject we all must face at some point in time. It is a condition that, as JFK implied, is common to everyone, eventually.  Mortality.  It has been on my mind recently. Not in any morbid sense of the word, but as a matter of fact. Perhaps all of us of a certain age do ponder the matter from time to time.

Going through my address book recently, I was somewhat startled by the number of contacts that no longer had living people attached them. Dave Barrett, a stellar anchor and reporter for both ABC and CBS News Radio is only the latest, as of this writing, to leave us and at the young age of 63. Of course, I realize that friends and colleagues pass away. But seeing the names, in black and white, of what seemed to be so many, and realizing that they were beyond contacting now, at least by traditional means, is unsettling.

Ruminating along these lines runs the risk of getting mired in age old and unanswerable questions. Do we really go around only once? Is there life after? What happens when? What is the soul, anyway? Perhaps a more fundamental question is, will anyone remember us? Not just tomorrow, next year or even five or ten years from now. What about in fifty or even a hundred years? Will our presence today be acknowledged a century from now? Does it matter?

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius had fairly blunt thoughts about all this. Your days are numbered,  he said. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it. 

OK, I can get onboard with that. Not so much, though, with the rather mournful musings of  a character in the novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” by author Anthony Marra.  There is something miraculous in the way the years wash away your evidence, first you, then your friends and family; then the descendants who remember your face, until you aren’t even a memory, you’re only carbon, no greater than your atoms, and time will divide them as well.

It seems that living, and surviving, on this rock is surely worth more than that. It would great solace to know that I was remembered by my granddaughters’ grand children, and their descendants well into the future. To that end, I have partnered with talented video producer Susan Pellegrini and her company, Synergy Productions, for what Susan calls the Life Legacy Films (LLF). For people who want to leave memories behind when the inevitable time comes, it is the chance to tell our stories. This is a link to the promo for my LLF, which is a work in progress: http://www.lifelegacyfilms.com.

Most of us want our lives to mean something. As President Kennedy said, we are mortal. We also want to be memorable

What’s In a Name: The Randy Scott Story

Once upon a time, I was known by a different name.  It was in the early 70’s. 1973, to be precise. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Late in 1972, I had rotated out of the Army.  In those days, you didn’t leave the Army, you didn’t quit the Army, you didn’t get out of the Army. You “rotated” out of the Army. I had known my rotation date for some time, so I had begun looking for a job in what soon would be my civilian life.

I naively thought finding employment would be a snap.  After all, I had been in the business of broadcasting for several years by then, having cut my teeth at a university campus radio station and having worked as a reporter/anchorman for three years at TV station in Kalamazoo, Michigan before I entered active duty.  In the Army, I was the Radio/TV Information Officer at Fort Benning’s Infantry School.

My routine duties included writing news releases about Fort Benning for dissemination to various radio and TV stations around the area. But two events occurred on “my watch” that took our responsibilities far beyond routine. In January, 1973 a national law ending the military draft went into effect. The draft was replaced by a bold, new concept called the All Volunteer Army. With the military’s penchant for acronyms, tLt Jim VOLARhe concept quickly became known as VOLAR.

Several months prior to the VOLAR launch date, our unit was tasked with producing radio programs explaining what this new, modern military was all about. We created a weekly radio program with the alliterative title of “The Voice of Volar.”  We sent copies of the programs to Armed Forces Radio and to many radio stations around the country.  It pleases me to say our unit won Armed Forces and Pentagon awards for our efforts.

The Pentagon also contracted with a civilian ad agency to film a number of high priced TV commercials about VOLAR at Fort Benning. The new slogan then was, “Today’s Army Wants to Join You!” I was ordered to be the “Action Officer” for that commercial campaign, which meant I was at the beck and call of the civilian producers and directors of the TV spots. If they needed tanks, I had to find tanks. If they needed military helicopters, I had to find them, too.  What ever they needed to film their commercials, squads of men, jeeps, big guns, ambulances, armored personnel carriers, a remote field in which to film, I had to procure them.

The job meant I had to contact very high ranking officers in the various units around Fort Benning, requesting their cooperation to supply whatever was needed. It was not something a lowly, young 2nd Lieutenant ever did. But this was a high priority project with orders coming down directly from the Pentagon and every career officer worth his salt knew what that meant. As I recall, Fort Benning’s Commanding General pressed home the point when he ordered his commanders to answer the phone when Lt. Hickey called. I admit, I took a little perverse pleasure in thinking with some shameless self-indulgence that for about a month, I was, perhaps, the most powerful 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army.  But, I never said that out loud. No way. What I did say when I contacted those high ranking officers was, “Yes, sir!” Please, sir!” Thank you, sir!” I said those things a lot!

The other big event that took us out of the realm of the routine was the court martial of Lieutenant William Calley, convicted of murdering twenty-two unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in what is known as the 1968 My Lai Massacre. The court martial took place at Fort Benning and it drew international press attention. Reporters from all over the world descended on Benning.  Officers in our unit were tasked with escorting correspondents around the base as they looked for sidebar stories during the trial. Some of these reporters were big names! They were on network TV every night! They were famous! By the end of the trial, they knew my name! I wanted to be them!

But, I digress.

With all this experience under my belt, I thought quite bluntly and with an unfortunate sense of vanity, who wouldn’t hire me? Well, no one. That’s who. After sending out resumé after resumé to TV stations all over the land, I got back several rejections or, somehow worse, no response at all. Finding a job was a lot harder than I had imagined. It was a rude awakening.

So it was that Al Fleming, the News Director at Channel 9 in Columbus, Georgia, came into the Information Office at Fort Benning one day. Since Benning is located in Columbus, we were a consistent source of local stories for Al and his Channel 9 newscasts. We were his “beat.” He greeted me that day with his usual, “Hey, Lieutenant, how ya doin’?” I told him, “Not well.” He wanted to know what was wrong. I told him, “I’m rotating out soon and I can’t find job.”

“Hell,” he said, “I’ll hire ya!”

“You will?”

“Sure! I know you. I know what you can do. You come work for me, kid!”

To this day, I credit Al Fleming with jump starting my career.

OK, but what about this different name business, I hear you asking? Well, it’s like this. A friend of mine was the program director at a Columbus rock and roll radio station. He called to say his weekend DJ had quit and, knowing I had done some radio broadcasting in college and in the Army, asked if I be interested in some part-time work. “It’s not much money,” he admitted. “Beer money, maybe. Or gas money. What ever.”

It sounded like fun, so I told him I would.  But there was a catch. I was now this serious-minded, fact-finding, truth-telling reporter called Jim Hickey on Channel 9 during the week. No way could I be a screaming rock-jock with the same name on the weekend. It’s all about credibility, don’t you know.

“That is not a problem,” my friend told me. The radio station had just purchased a new “jingle package” from a sound studio. Those are the musical station ID’s and intros that you hear on every radio station everywhere.  Each staff disc jockey got his own personal musical introduction as part of the package. To sweeten the deal, the sound studio threw in two extra names. They were Jim Walker and Randy Scott. “Who do you want to be?” my friend asked, “Jim Walker or Randy Scott?”

“I think I’d like to be Randy Scott,” I replied. So, from 6PM to midnight every Saturday and Sunday night for about a year, I became Randy Scott on WDAK Radio, The Big 540, in Columbus, Georgia. It was great fun. We played oldies. Remember, this was the early 70’s, so the oldies then would be really old today!

Randy Scott, along with fellow DJ Rick Hubbard, even managed to get a little bit of national attention thanks to the rock group, Tony Orlando and Dawn. 1973 was the year that group had its hit song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” The lyrics are based on a story about a man who wasn’t sure he’d be welcome coming home after being away for a long time.  Taking the thread of the story and linking it to the lyrics, Randy and Rick created a mini-radio play, with the two DJ’s voicing the parts. They played the whole production, including the song, on their shows and the phones lit up. Listeners wanted to hear it again. People wanted to know where they could buy it. Randy and Rick submitted their production to Programmers Digest, which was a monthly record album produced in Nashville highlighting developments in radio around the country at the time. “The Yellow Ribbon Story” was featured on the June, 1973 edition. Randy and Rick

Randy Scott and Jim Hickey never met. But one night, as Randy was taking record requests on the phone, a caller asked, “Hey, Randy. Do you know that reporter over at Channel 9, that Jim Hickey guy?”

“I’ve heard of him,” Randy replied. “But I don’t know him.”

“You don’t?” the caller asked. “Man, you sound just like him!”

“I do?” Randy asked innocently. “Huh! How about that?”

“You sure you don’t know him?” the caller persisted, suspiciously.

“No, I don’t.” Randy replied. “But I hear he is a hell of a nice guy. Now, what can I play for you?”

Band Camp

What did you do for your summer vacation? I went to Band Camp. Yes, I am 71 years old and I went to Band Camp.

In the spimages 3irit of the adage that “you should never stop learning,” I hung up my press credentials when I retired from ABC News and picked up a bass guitar. I’m one of those people who groove to the beat of music. I have always been able to hear the bottom, the bass, of just about any song. The lyrics? The words? Don’t ask me. I hardly ever pay attention to them, not to mention the melodies.

It’s the rhythm, not the rhyme, that gets to me. That’s why, I suppose, I played drums as a youngster for nine years from elementary through high school. Inexplicably, as a graduating senior I put my drumsticks down after playing in my final concert at commencement and never seriously picked them up again. Much later in life, I often wished I had.

When retirement came, I knew I’d have a lot of time on my hands. So, I turned to the bass. That’s right, with apologies to Meghan Trainor, “it’s all about that bass.” Indulging my fantasies of becoming some kind of over-aged rock star, my wife went out and bought for me an electric bass guitar and amplifier starter kit. What with You Tube and libraries full of self-help books, I figured teaching myself to play would be a snap. Well, let’s just say it was painful, and leave it at that.

So, now, I’m taking lessons at a little music shop not far from my neighborhood. The place is owned by a guy named Jesse who is a terrific guitar player. His philosophy for learning to play music is simple: Have Fun! Jesse seems most happy when he is sitting around jamming with a group of friends. That’s what he call his shop, “Jesse and Friends Music.”

Part of Jesse’s curriculum includes a summer camp for budding musicians during the month of July. It is five days of intense focus on music theory, composing and writing songs, but mostly learning to play music on electric guitars, bass guitars, acoustic guitars, even ukuleles. His target audience are kids, pre-teens, tweens and teenagers with dreams of becoming the next Springsteen or Swift or Sheeran or Grande. He maps out different weeks for kids of different age groups.

“What about adults?” he was asked. “You teach adults to play guitar, too. Right? Why not a band camp for them?” He’d never really thought of that. “Would you be interested?” he asked. “Sure,” came the reply. “A bunch of older folks jamming four or five hours day? Sounds like fun.”

Thus, a band camp opportunity for those of us of a certain age was born. But, trying to bring together a group of septuagenarians or others of similar decades is not as easy as you might think. It turns out I was alone in my age group having an interest in attending a summer camp.

Jesse was not to be deterred. He rounded up three of his more promising young  students and, I can only imagine, said to them something to the effect of, “How would you like to spend a week jamming with your grandfather?” Much to my surprise, they signed on. God love their adventuresome spirit. Either that, or they were just taking pity on one of their elders. Either way, good kids.

So, for five hours a day one recent Monday-through-Friday we bonded musically. My band mates are interesting kids. One is a rocket scientist. Literally.  He is a 19 year old college sophomore studying aerospace engineering,  He was our lead singer and plays a mean guitar. The boy knows his chords.

Another was a 16 year old ukulele genius who can make that instrument sing. Like many others of his generation today, he spent most of his time between sets with his nose buried in his smart phone. That’s OK. He stopped texting long enough to step up and sing one of the songs we played. It was a Metallica number. Let that not be lost on you. There I was, a guy with two granddaughters, covering a heavy metal band

Our third band member was a 14 year old  boy who shows very promising musical ability. He works hard. But he is almost painfully shy and sometimes attacked his guitar tentatively. I wanted to give him some grandfatherly advice along the lines of, “You’ve got to come out of your shell, boy. Kick it up a notch!” But I kept my counsel.

Every band has to have a name. We called ourselves “The Quazars.” I’m not sure why except, maybe, it sounds very techno in this technological age. At my age, there are some things beyond understanding, I suppose.

Our band leader was one of Jesse’s instructors who has knocked around the music scene for decades. He is a drummer who goes, appropriately, by the name of “Bongo.” You can’t make this stuff up. Bongo is closer to my age than the kids and he has played with some well known groups through the years. Sometimes I wish I could have been Bongo when I grew up.

Our diligent practice at Band Camp had its reward. Two road trips. Jesse and Bongo had arranged for “The Quazars” to play two outside gigs. One was at the local performing arts center. The other was at a popular nightclub/bar in the area. Don’t get me wrong. We had the venues, but we had no audiences, to speak of. The places were virtually empty. The point of the exercise was to get some experience about what it takes to pack up all the gear a band needs, hit the road, arrive at a venue, set up for the gig, play it, tear down and hit the road again.

We were supposed to play on the main stage to an empty theater in the performing arts center, the PAC. But upon our arrival the PAC manager informed us that was not going to happen.  A film company was shooting a movie on the premises and had taken over the stage. “No problem,” the PAC manager cheerily said, “You can set up and play right here in the lobby.”

That’s precisely what we did. In truth, the lobby is cavernous in size, almost like a theater itself. But, it wasn’t quite the same as a stage appearance. Our audience consisted of life-sized, cardboard cutouts of three professional wrestlers advertising an upcoming appearance of the WWF in the PAC’s arena. Bongo quickly turned the change of plan into a learning lesson, pointing out that a band can never know what may happen on the road and that band members always have to be flexible. Nice save, Bongo.

We did play the stage in the nightclub. It is called a “night” club for a reason and we played at noon. The place was open and only a handful of folks had wandered in for lunch. A few others were already sitting at the bar apparently getting a head start on their daily alcohol intake. But no one was there for the music, that’s for sure. Still, the spotlights were on,  the sound system worked well and we played the room. We even got a smattering of applause, the loudest of which came from our 16 year old’s mother who had come to watch.

Band Camp is over now and I’m glad I went. I learned things about music, the Circle of Fifths, the Cycle of Fourths and other cool stuff like that. I have three new young friends and I really wish them well in their musical journeys.  Now I will focus on playing with another group of like-minded musicians. We are all among Jesse’s “Friends” and are all taking lessons from him. We meet once a week to jam. I’m still the oldest in the group, but these guys are more my age. We call this group “MyGen,” as in My Generation. Now, that’s a band name that makes sense.

Language Lessons

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It appears the President’s current controversies have as much to do with language as with anything else. His alleged use of a crude profanity to describe some other countries during a  meeting about immigration is what sparked the present firestorm. The President says he never used the word in that meeting, but that only he talked “tough.” Claims that he did or did not utter the profanity by others present seem to be divided along party lines, which is another issue entirely.

It is the language he used trying to quell the controversy, however, that deserves closer examination. In one breath, the President says he is not a racist. Perhaps he believes that. But in another breath he tells reporters, “I’m the least racist person you will ever interview.” It is a phrase, “I’m the least racist person,” he has used several times on multiple occasions.

Does not the use of “the least racist person” suggest there is a modicum of racism in there somewhere? If I am the least likely person to speed while driving, that suggests I might  speed, but all the other motorists around me will probably put the pedal to the metal before I do. If I am the least likely employee to be late for work, that implies I could be late for work, but not as often as my co-workers.

Certainly, the President didn’t mean to imply that he, indeed, has racist tendencies. But his imprecise language does him in. How much clearer he would have been if he had something along the lines of “I deplore racism,” or “Racism has no place in this White House or in this country.” Being the “least likely” of anything leaves a lot of wiggle room and only provides more fodder for his critics.

In 1985, while covering South Africa and the apartheid battles, I heard Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu say, “We don’t want apartheid liberalized. We want it dismantled. You can’t improve something that is intrinsically evil.” You can’t get much more precise than that. Perhaps the President can take a language lesson from one of his predecessors, Ronald Reagan, who on the same subject said, “America—and that means all of us—opposes apartheid, a malevolent and archaic system totally alien to our ideals.” There is no wiggle room there.

Imprecise language among leaders causes problems, misunderstandings and confusion.  You may believe the President is a racist. You may believe he is not. But, his linguistic clumsiness does little to extinguish the firestorm.