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
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, the 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!”
“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 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?”
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 spirit 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.
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.
The spikey green fronds of the Palmetto trees clack together softly as they are nudged around by the gentle breeze. Palmettos, one of a multiple species of palm trees, are ubiquitous here in South Carolina. Around these parts, it is almost a sin not to have one, or two, somewhere on your property. After all, the Palmetto is the official tree of this deep south state, emblazoned on everything from license plates to key rings to jewelry to the state flag. Fourteen of them line the six-house cul-du-sac where I live, planted here by the developer of this planned community as if to hammer the point home; you are living in South Carolina now, son.
Sitting on my front porch in a Charleston Green rocking chair, which appears almost black, a morning cup of coffee in my hand, I study the Palmetto in front of me. By the way, the front porch is another southern custom. Almost every respectable home has one, many of them wrap-around. The cliché image of the Southern Gentleman rocking on his front porch, mint julep in hand, is really not all that exaggerated, except, maybe for the mint julep part. As a transplanted Yankee, I find myself thoroughly enjoying the hours I spend quietly rocking on the porch, reading or just surveying the neighborhood. The weather here is just about perfect for such an activity. I’m beginning to feel like a true Carolinian.
Anyway, about the Palmetto in front of me. Like most of the others, it stands ramrod straight, about forty feet tall. They can grow up to sixty-five feet in length. I was surprised to learn that that trees are not made of wood. They consist of a fibrous material that allows them, straight as they are, to bend and flex in the strong Carolina coastal winds that sometimes blow in off the ocean. Ironically, in this traditionally arch-conservative, historic slave state, that makes them a perfect metaphor for tolerance. If they bend, they won’t break.
About two-thirds the way up the tree, the skin or bark, if you will, of the tree peels away from the trunk like the peel of a banana. These pieces of “bark” stand out at angle making the appearance of the Palmetto trunk reminiscent of very large, very rough asparagus. Its green fronds, or leaflets, stand out from the top of the tree in the style of a punk-rock hairdo, all pointy and wild, extending in all directions. They are beautiful.
The Palmetto is extremely tolerant of salt air and sandy soil. That survival quality is part of the romantic history of the tree and why it has such an honored place in South Carolina culture. During the Revolutionary War, South Carolinians erected Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island just off the Charleston coast. They built the fort out of Palmetto trees. Their ability to withstand shock allowed the trees to absorb British cannonballs, or otherwise render them ineffective. Thus, the Palmetto is credited with causing a British naval attack on the island in June of 1776 to end in failure, thus saving Charleston from British occupation, at least temporarily. The Palmetto is considered a true war hero here in the Palmetto State.
“Autumn’s the mellow time.”
William Allingham – Irish Poet
Autumn is the “mellow” time, I suppose, because it is the time of nature’s dying. No, that’s wrong. It is the time when nature prepares for a long, winter’s, rejuvenating slumber. It is a time when spring, with its eternal hope making our hearts light, fades into long ago. It is a time when summer, with its lazy, hazy, crazy days, has closed the door.
It seems odd, in a way, to ascribe “mellow” to autumn. After all, it is a time when forests are ablaze with color. The reds, yellows, browns, purples, oranges, and even the greens are breathtaking. Traveling anywhere in the northern tier of states in September and October is a magical experience. Contrary to “dying,” autumn is a time when the trees become truly alive. Fall is when the trees reveal their true colors.
All that green between April and September? Well, begging your pardon, let’s call that Fake News. Scientists tell us that one of the four primary pigments that create the colors in leaves is chlorophyll, which is responsible for the green. In the spring and summer, chlorophyll is the heavy hitter and overwhelms the other pigments, which create all those beautiful colors we see in the fall. Thus, budding leaves turn green.
But, alas, chlorophyll is a sprinter, not a marathon runner. By September and October that pigment runs out of gas, fading in the long hours of summer sunlight. Furthermore, trees are smart. They know when winter is coming and when it is time to get ready for that long slumber. They, in effect, say to chlorophyll, “Sorry, pal, the party’s over” and block the flow of water and other nutrients to the stems of leaves. The green pigment can’t replenish and fades from the scene.
Here’s how the NOAA website describes what happens next. “The fading green allows a leaf’s true colors to emerge, producing the dazzling array of orange, yellow, red and purple pigments we refer to as fall foliage.”
Maybe that’s why fall feels mellow. That’s such a awesome process, happening year after year for eons and eons. It’s nature taking care of itself, on its own, without any meddling from the homo sapiens on this big blue ball of ours. Yeah, its awesome.
Let us not forget another phase in this circle of life. All those pigments in the kaleidoscope of fall foliage suffer the same fate as chlorophyll, only a little later. Without nutrients living organisms die. Eventually leaves, of all colors, in fall, fall. Maybe that’s another reason why autumn feels mellow. Death is never a jubilant event. Even the lyrics of the famous tune written by Billy Talent, “Fallen Leaves,” have a melancholy flavor to them:
“Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall”
But, let’s take heart. The leaves may be dead and dying, but not the trees. The trees, like bears, are soon to hibernate. Most of them, anyway. They’ll come back in the spring. They always do.
So, leaves on living trees fall when it is their time. But, what about non-living trees? Dare I say, Fake Trees? We have something of a tiny mystery around our house. The other night, my wife and I distinctly heard the rustling sound of falling leaves…inside the house. Upon investigating, we discovered the scene in the photo above. This is one of those silk plants. Not a real tree. Not a real plant. Not a living organism. Its an ornament, right? It has no chlorophyll, no nutrients, no circle of life to worry about. It’s a man-made object. So, why does it have falling leaves?
We like to believe it is a matter of empathy. Sympatico. There must be some mysterious, inexplicable, incomprehensible connection between this “tree” and its brethren outside our windows in the woods behind the house. Nature has it’s secrets.
At least it’s more fun to think that than to concede the thing is just old. Right?
Sharma has died.
That piece of sad news, posted by a long-time colleague, popped up on Facebook the other day. The odds are certain that you do not know who Sharma was, unless you are one of the many at ABC News who had the good fortune to work with and be guided by this kind, professional and resourceful man. As one former ABC News Correspondent posted, “Equal parts lovable and irascible, Sharma was our beloved friend, companion, and teacher.”
J.N. Sharma was one one of the unsung heroes without whom much of the overseas news you may have seen on World News Tonight or Good Morning America or other ABC News programs may never have made air. He was among the ranks of what are unceremoniously called “local hires” that help American companies conduct business in foreign lands. They are the interpreters, contact points, drivers, intelligence gatherers, arrangers, organizers, transcribers, protectors, adapters and a thousand other “ers.” They are The Fixers.
India was Sharma’s turf. It is a country of more than a billion souls and sometimes it seemed he knew everyone of them personally. He had an amazing array of contacts inside and outside the Indian government. An ABC Vice President called Sharma a “perfect team member.” He could get things done.
But that’s what The Fixers do; get things done. When news crews would vault into a country to cover this event or that story, it was The Fixers who met us at the airports, who made sure we had transportation, who helped us line up interviews, who arranged access to government officials, who knew the lay of the land and who, sometimes quite literally, saved our butts.
Kassam Kassam, he of the double name, was one of the drivers ABC News hired in Beirut during the 1980s. Kassam was also a creative Fixer. He knew how to survive in a time when Lebanon was being torn asunder by civil war, Syrian chicanery and Israeli incursions. He had an instinct that, on one particular day, kept us alive.
Kassam had driven my camera crew and me to Tripoli, Lebanon, north of Beirut. This was where two factions of the Palestinian Liberation Organization had been battling each other for power, as if matters in Lebanon then weren’t already messy enough. There had been a lull in the fighting that stretched into several hours. As the crew and I began to cross an open field on foot, one of the two sides decided that was a good time to lob an artillery round into the other side’s camp. Within seconds the quiet afternoon exploded into a cacophony of rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons fire, and more artillery rounds. We were caught in no-man’s land.
Kassam had parked his car, an old but powerful pea-green Mercedes, at the edge of a village about seventy-five yards from our position. The crew and I made a mad dash for the car, which Kassam had already started and was gunning the engine. As we dove inside and slammed the doors shut, Kassam hit the gas and we roared down the narrow, dirt street.
We had gone, perhaps, only about a quarter of a mile when Kassam slowed the car and stopped in the shadow of a small building at the side of the road. Artillery shells continued to explode all around us. My sound man, in the back seat, screamed at Kassam, “What the hell are you doing? Get us the hell out of here!” The screaming didn’t help my nerves, but I recall turning my head to Kassam and said, quietly, I think, “Yes, Kassam. What ARE you doing?”
Kassam merely lifted the index finger of his right hand, pointing it upward, and said simply, “Wait.” Within ten seconds there was a mighty explosion in the middle of the road, forty or fifty yards in front of the car. Dust, dirt and stones flew everywhere, right where we might have been had we not stopped. Kassam then looked at me, grinned and said, “Now, we go.” He slammed on the gas and we resumed our escape from the battle.
How Kassam instinctively knew how to judge our precarious situation at that moment, I’ll never know. But experiences like that are what taught most all of us who reported from strange and distant lands to put our cautious trust into hands of The Fixers. That trust came into play in the former Yugoslavia one day as a producer, crew and I drove into Kosovo where ethnic tensions involving Albanians, Serbians and others were reaching a boiling point.
We were stopped by armed soldiers at a roadblock just outside Kosovo. Our producer, who spoke fluent Serbo-Croatian, said something through the open car window to the young guard. I didn’t understand what was said, but could tell it was not good. The guard suddenly stiffened and adjusted his grip on his rifle. What’s more, Jovan, our driver-fixer, also stiffened and gripped the steering wheel hard. The guard said something back in an angry and aggressive tone. The producer snapped back just as aggressively. This was getting very bad. Jovan then relaxed just a little, casually leaned out the window and spoke quietly and carefully to the guard. There was a long, awkward silence as the unhappy guard looked at Jovan, then at the producer, then at me sitting in the back seat with a large lump in my throat. Then with a scowl, the guard backed up step or two and abruptly waved us through.
As we continued into town, I drew a deep breath and asked Jovan what that was all about. In the rear view mirror I could see his eyes flick over to the producer sitting in the front passenger seat, then look at me in the reflection. He said, “The guard was angry when your producer told him that he had no right to stop us because we are an American TV crew and that he had better let us through if he knew what was good for him.”
“What did you say to him?” I asked. Jovan told me he apologized for the rudeness and made up some story about our being nervous and new to the region and meant no harm. My trust in Jovan solidified at that moment and never wavered in the many weeks we worked together.
The trust was sometimes put to the test because we believed some Fixers were also on their own government payrolls. That was especially true during the Cold War when the Soviet Union and its bloc of countries for years faced off against the US and NATO in a potentially deadly game of nuclear chicken. We just assumed that The Fixers we worked with in Moscow, Warsaw, and other Soviet-bloc countries were reporting back to their superiors about the stories were were covering, with whom we were meeting, what we were saying and so forth. Still, we were all on friendly terms, shared dinners and vodka, and even met their families. It was all part of that Cold War Game.
When you work with someone in close quarters, day and night, meeting deadlines, sharing meals, making plans for weeks and months on end, you all become something of a family, no matter the political persuasions and pressures. Carlo, our fixer in Rome, was an accomplished harness racer at the horse tracks and could just as easily negotiate the sometimes maddening Italian bureaucracy. Jenny was not only our fixer in South Africa, she was also our bureau manager, keeping the books and watching the budget. Out of all these relationships come friendships that are forged for a lifetime.
A recent column in Scientific American magazine bemoaning the current state of “war on facts” in this country quotes an old friend of ours who knows a thing or two about the value of facts. Robert Wilson is a physicist who, in 1978, won the Nobel Prize in Physics along with his Bell Labs partner for their discovery of the background radiation left over from the Big Bang that gave birth to all of us.
Bob is an understated kind of guy. But to this layman, he is a scientific superstar with a wry sense of humor. Some years ago, Bob and his wife invited my wife and me to join them and some of his Bell Lab colleagues for dinner at their house. The conversation, as you would expect, turned to developments of new technologies. That opened the door for me to wax enthusiastically about fiber optics that our local cable TV company was installing down the street. Not knowing, of course, how fiber optics actually work, I prattled on and on about how cool this relatively new technology was and what it would mean for communication. As I droned on, I noticed bemused smiles from the geniuses around the table. Finally, I blurted out something like, “OK, what have I said?” To which Bob replied, “Oh nothing. It’s all right. Its just…that guy sitting next to you? He invented fiber optics.” Bob moves in rarified company.
He will speak to you about stars and planets and all things cosmos at any level you wish to converse…elementary school science, high school cosmology, college metaphysics, or Stephen Hawking brilliance. Your choice, without a hint of condescension. Bob is modest about his Nobel accomplishment, which did nothing short of proving the Big Bang Theory about the creation of the universe. He is quick to tell you the discovery came about somewhat by accident.
He and his lab partner, the radio-astronomer Arno Penzias, were attempting to measure the radiation of gas clouds between stars floating around the heavens. But they were frustrated by unusual or nonsensical readings they were getting from the lab’s radio antenna. At first they suspected, of all things, pigeon droppings were interfering with their work. After some exhaustive research, they discovered the noise was hardly so mundane. It was the cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMB, which scientists say is an echo of the massive cosmic explosion that created our universe nearly 14 billion years ago.
You would think that someone who had made such a momentous discovery would speak in highly technical terms about the “scientific method” in pursuing factual knowledge that would transform theory into certainty. Perhaps Bob has spoken that way. But in Scientific American, he is quoted as once telling Congress, “The pursuit of scientific truth only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture.”
That is science as poetry and a most elegant way to combat the war on facts.
The license plate the state of South Carolina issued to me looks very much like the one you see above. You may know that South Carolina is nick-named “The Palmetto State.” Thus, the palm tree in the middle of the plate is a representation of the Sabal Palmetto, the South Carolina State Tree. How it became so is worthy of historical note. Multiple websites indicate the tree was something of a hero during the Revolutionary War. This is how http://www.statesymbolsusa.org puts it, “The palmetto symbolizes the defeat of the British fleet at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. The fort was constructed of palmetto logs which were able to absorb the impact of cannon balls.”
The crescent symbol, which looks like a moon hovering above the palm tree, is not meant to be a moon at all. Historical research tells us it is meant to replicate the silver emblem worn on the caps of South Carolina troops during the war of independence. Cursory research does not appear to mention that the crescent is also coincidentally similar in design to a prominent Islamic symbol. But we shall not dwell on that.
What we do dwell on is a South Carolina state motto emblazoned on the license plate, “While I Breathe, I Hope.” That is a comforting sentiment. It implies that for as long as I am alive, there is hope. But hope for what? A peaceful world? A better life? Prosperity? Success? Surely all of that, and what is hope, anyway?
Launch a Google search with that question, “What is hope?” and you get about 1,110,000,000 results in 0.72 seconds. I was, well, hoping for simpler answers. Obviously, this is a big question. Hope can be very personal. There is religious hope where it means a trust in God. A lot of folks in the Windy City hope the Cubbies can do it again, win another World Series. A pimply-faced teenage boy hopes that red-haired girl will go out with him. Millions hope they will beat the one-in-a-gazillion odds and win that big lottery. Most of us hope our government leaders will just do right by us.
Hope is most often considered an optimistic belief. Not everyone sees it that way. The oft-quoted German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” That may be true for some, especially until last year for long suffering Chicago Cubs fans, but South Africa’s famed Archbishop Demond Tutu has a more edified way of looking at it. “Hope,” he said, “is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
If anyone has been able to see through terrible darkness, it is Bishop Tutu. He, along with many others, including Nelson Mandela, was at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, South Africa’s official policy of racial segregation. He bravely spoke out loudly and often against the racist white regime that ruled his county for so many years. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his efforts.
It was my honor and good fortune to get to know Archbishop Tutu well during my posting in South Africa for ABC News in the late 1980’s. He never, ever, lost that sense of hope that one day equality would come for all races in South Africa. While we interviewed Bishop Tutu several times for various stories we filed for ABC’s World News Tonight, or Good Morning American or Nightline, I also had the privilege to have a number of quiet talks with the Anglican cleric. One day we were having one of those talks, sitting in the living room of his Soweto home near Johannesburg. The main subject that day was Nelson Mandela. Negotiations to release the African National Congress Leader and eventual President of South Africa from nearly three decades in prison were underway and matters looked promising. Hope abounded throughout much of the land.
As we chatted, Bishop Tutu’s phone rang in another room. He got up to answer it and shortly I heard his voice rise in excitement. He spoke only a few minutes and the next thing I saw was this revered religious figure literally dancing into the living room, hands in the air, eyes bright, shouts of joy emanating from his throat. “It’s happening!” he shouted. “Nelson is coming home!” The phone call was the official notice. This was hope fulfilled in its greatest form.
The Archbishop continued to dance around the room. He suddenly stopped in front of me, reached down, grabbed my arms, pulled me out of the chair, and said ,”C’mon, celebrate with me!” The two of us then sort of skipped around the room, enjoying that light he had always seen through the darkness.
I think about Desmond Tutu, his ebullient optimism and his strength through hope often, especially in these troubling times we are experiencing. I just keep on breathing. And hoping.