April 17, 2014

Walking a mile in Ernie Pyle’s moccasins

Filed under: Commentary — Tags: , , , — Bob Patterson @ 6:44 pm

Listening to an old man in a tavern in Paris claim that, as a child, he had sat on Hemingway’s lap in the same bar and heard the world famous author tell interesting stories was an experience that epitomized our concept of what it’s like to be a columnist.  For a middle class kid the possibilities to travel the world, meet celebrities, see the iconic sights, and have fun doing it, seemed like a formidable challenge.  Our efforts to find a way to achieve that goal indicated that columnists were proxies for the middle class who were assigned to do those exact things and then write up a brief report on the experience for workers who craved a vicarious taste of the world outside their hometown.

A torn and tattered copy of Ernie Pyle’s “Brave Men” hinted that journalists, columnists, and war correspondents had a front row seat for some of the most dangerous facets of life in the fast lane.  April 18th has been selected by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists to be the annual day of celebration honoring the art and craft of column writing because it was on that date in 1945 that war correspondent Pyle was killed in action on the island of Ie Shima in the Pacific Theater in WWII.

The World’s Laziest Journalist tries to mark Columnists’ Day in a different way every year.  We’re not going to do a column that recaps what Ernie Pyle did and why he was honored every year because that would become too predictable.  It may seem a bit arrogant and presumptuous to make the annual National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ Day effort heavily autobiographical but this year it seemed that it was the best way to accurately tell the back story of why someone would want to become a columnist.

Some folks select a particularly exotic slice of contemporary living and specialize in a lifetime of examining something like auto racing for a specialized audience but for a kid in Scranton, Pa., embracing the “variety is the spice of life” philosophy, becoming a columnist seemed to be the best solution to the challenge.

Three of our heroes Hemingway, HST, and Jack Kerouac, wanted to be world famous writers.  They got what they wanted and it made them miserable.  (Two of the three were columnists.  Weren’t two, briefly, Berkeley residents?)  Berkeley writer Philip K. Dick wrote a book predicting that a world famous writer would live the life of a recluse in Colorado.  Nobody agrees with the World’s Laziest Journalist’s interpretation that “Man in the High Castle” was about Hunter S. Thompson’s career.

We think that B. Traven, Thomas Pynchon, and J. D. Salinger would endorse the idea that being an anonymous columnist living out his childhood dreams ain’t a bad way to go.

Young people at the Hostel in Fremantle who suggested that we should go to Kalgoorlie may have intended the suggestion as an elaborate practical joke because a good many travelers might not think it was worth the effort.  We had the last laugh because of our fascination with gold panning.  Travel writers are obliged to make the places they write about seem irresistible for every reader but a columnist can be brutally honest and say that if you don’t know who Fred C. Dobbs was and relish the prospect of a visit to the Prospectors’ Hall of Fame, then you better consider a different destination.

If a movie review columnist works for a corporate conglomerate that owns the TV network that broadcasts his verdict about a new flick also owns the film company that made the new release, then he might be required to announce it was a “must see” example for everyone to see.  It is rare that a movie is a valid example of the “one size fits all” philosophy.  So too, it is with travel destinations.

Being a columnist means that when the book by a teacher at Annapolis, John Beckman, titled “American Fun Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt” catches your attention in City Lights book store, there are two reasons for buying it:  1.  the fun of reading it and 2.  the chance to get an item for the next column.  Sometimes it seems that being a columnist means being an advanced scout for fun in all areas of culture.

What’s not to like about feeling a compulsion to discover esoteric topics such as snapshot collecting (See accompanying photo)  or finding out what “slack liners” do?  Being a columnist means taking a last nostalgic look at San Francisco’s art installation titled “Defenestration,” which is scheduled to be dismantled and the host building will be demolished.

Being required to go out and have fun is a great assignment.  It’s too bad that the contracting newspaper industry doesn’t offer J-school grads many prospects for snagging that plum assignment.  The odds of a newspaper writer getting subsidized to experience such antics are slim and none.

The old fellow in Harry’s New York Bar in Paris explained that the place had been owned by his father and he had inherited it.  He had spent many hours there as a kid when one of the regulars was a rookie writer named Hemingway.

If a columnist wanted to do a column about having a sarsaparilla at that place and others such as Hurley’s in New York City, Heinold’s in Oakland, and the Blue Fox in Tijuanna, then it might be a good idea to also visit Skimpy’s in Kalgoorlie.  Does the columnist reviewer Joe Sixpack ever get to go on assignment outside the Philadelphia area?

If a columnist writes for websites devoted to political punditry, then bits of arcane, esoteric information and obscure bits of history have to be strung together with items that have not saturated the mainstream media.

On the morning of Sunday April 13, 2014, while listening to KCBS radio for the nine a.m. network news we heard the In Depth program which delved into the topic of rents.  A guest casually mentioned that “we” want to revisit the question:  “Is Rent Control Unconstitutional?”  Since the US Supreme Court ruled on that earlier in the Obama era, we will have to check further into this story (and hope the NY Times assignment desk doesn’t read this column) before we do the fact checking and write our take on the topic.

When the Internet was in the formative stage, site owners and publishers were desperate to find “a unique voice” but as the corporatization of the web becomes ubiquitous, the trend is to prefer homogenized content providers.  (Think of Peggy Lee’s song “Is that all there is?”)  This week both Thom Hartmann and cartoonist Tom Tomorrow proclaimed that “we longer have a functioning democracy in America.”

If a political pundit working in the USA dares to suggest an unorthodox idea, he is immediately ostracized for being a conspiracy theory loon.  In a few short years, the political atmosphere in America has gone from JEB Bush being a pariah to the contention recently that JEB is the de facto frontrunner.  Is it a conspiracy theory for a columnist to irreverently ask: “Where is the ‘Democracy in action’ aspect of that transition?”?

With Democracy DOA and another war immanent we wonder on National Columnists’ Day, if we could have done something to avoid this mess.  Recently a comment was posted indicating that the World’s Laziest Journalist needs to put more work into the columns.  We know that if we took more time the end results would be greatly improved and with that in mind we’ll ask the site’ owner and publisher:  “Should we ask for a raise (to inspire the extra work) or should we adopt the philosophy of Frank Sinatra who, when told that the director of “Ocean’s 11” wanted to re-shoot a scene, responded by saying:  “That was good enough!”?

For the closing quote will use Hunter S. Thompson’s maxim:  “Buy the ticket; take the ride.”

Now the disk jockey will play Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je ne regretted rein,” Waylon Jenning’s “I may be used (but baby I ain’t used up),” and Dooley Wilson’s “As time goes by.”  We have to celebrate the day with an extra ration of A&W diet root beer.  Have a “specialize in having fun” type week.

April 17, 2013

Ernie Pyle or Herb Caen?

Filed under: Commentary — Tags: , , , — Bob Patterson @ 6:19 pm

San Francisco named a street for a famous local columnist

[Note: The annual task of writing something to be posted honoring National Columnists’ Day on April 18, which was the day that war correspondent/columnist Ernie Pyle was killed in action on the island of Ie Shima in the Pacific Theater of  WWII, is always a challenge because the intention is to keep the tone lighthearted and upbeat but this year, because it falls at a time when the national mood is very somber, we will, after a moment of silence, proceed with this year’s installment, for the same reasons that Boston will hold their marathon again next year.]

A hint of scandal for this year’s America’s Cup Races in the San Francisco Bay area will provide us with a chance to examine how two of our favorite columnists might take different approaches displaying their unique styles to the task of informing their readers of the looming potential for an economic blunder with dire implications for the taxpayers in the town Herb Caen dubbed “Baghdad by the Bay.”

While preparing to write this year’s installment of our annual National Columnists Day posting to mark the day which honors both war correspondent Ernie Pyle and the vocation of being a columnist, we decided to focus this year’s effort on legendary San Francisco scribe Herb Caen who served in the Army Air Force during WWII.

Pyle wrote from the point of view of the G. I. in the foxhole, while Caen, in his civilian phase, preferred to let his audience participate vicariously in his life as a flâneur, a boulevardier, and a bon vivant, who hung out with and traded gossip with “the swells.”  Caen’s first effort was published on July 5, 1938, and ended with his last column in 1997.

Obviously if both of them were still alive and churning out words, they would both take very different approaches to the growing grumbling about the Americas’ Cup races scheduled to be held later this year on San Francisco Bay.

The race’s lawyers seem to have outwitted the ones working for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and so the two parties signed a deal that, upon closer reading, will leave the citizens liable for a large financial shortfall.

We assume that Caen would look forward to rubbing elbows with the “swells” who will conduct the races and hold the accompanying “invitation only” parties and maybe he would also describe the spectacle as seen from a private airplane flying overhead.  Isn’t it logical to conclude that Pyle would side with the taxpayers who can only use binoculars to see some (three?) sailboats on the bay?

Caen’s pioneering approach to celebrity journalism made him a star in the ranks of columnists.  He coined the word “beatnik” and quite often his witty way with words won him a mention in the monthly “towards more picturesque speech” feature in the Readers’ Digest.

Caen was a staunch supporter of iconoclastic wit and provided a continuing source of publicity to Lenny Bruce for his pioneering efforts in the realm of “sick” humor.

In addition to honoring and remembering Ernie Pyle each year, the day is also intended to draw attention to the career of being a columnist, which in the Facebook era should make Pyle the Patron Saint of Facebook, since the mission statement for a columnist is essentially the same motivation for churning out the keystrokes for a Facebook page, i.e. tell the world what you are doing and thinking.  Ernie Pyle, Herb Caen, and Bill Mauldin all have a Facebook page.

Can a Facebook blurb make or break a restaurant?  Once, many moons ago, Caen wrote a blind item blurb about a restaurant that incurred his wrath.  After it was published, the owner of another restaurant that fit the vague description of the offending culprit, contacted Caen’s office and begged him to explain that their restaurant, which had suffered a consequent crippling of their usual business level, was not the one that folks should boycott.  He immediately cleared up the misperception.  Can a Facebook writer have that big of an impact on a community?

The fact that Caen’s style of quick verbal jabs was dubbed “thee dot journalism,” because he used the punctuation of three dots (called an ellipse) to separate items, preceded the Internet phenomenon of catering to an audience with an attention span that demanded items with the complexity level of a bumper sticker and that should endear him to the new generation that operates with a self imposed 130 word limit.  For example, isn’t just the fact that Anthony Grafton wrote a scholarly book, title “The Footnote a Curious History,” enough information for a great Herb Caen-ish column item?

A fellow who went AWAL from a military hospital, three weeks after the liberation, and went into Paris with a nurse who spoke French told us about going into a fine restaurant and ordering a “once in a lifetime” meal.  When the fellow asked for the bill, management considered it a matter of honor to refuse to let the sergeant pay for the meal.  We like to think that Ernie Pyle, if he heard about it, would have devoted a full column to that incident.  He would (we assume) have compared and contrasted the best that Paris had to offer with the famed K-ration that the GI’s often disparaged with very salty language.  (If the disk jockey is alert he will play “Moose Turd Pie” as part of the “outro” music at the end of this column.)  Herb Caen, who served in WWII, was a gourmet who savored fine meals and shared his enthusiasm with his readers.

Many Facebook entries include a snapshot of a meal.  Would young folks appreciate the subtlety if an Ernie Pyle wannabe posted a photo of a K-ration being served?

Once, according to an anecdote provided by one of Caen’s contemporary rivals in the realm of column writing, the two competitors for the right to the title of “Mr. San Francisco,” were out cavorting in some fog city bars after WWII.  They became a bit rowdy and a rookie policeman started to arrest them.  They simultaneously asked if the youngster knew who he was trying to arrest.  He didn’t know and didn’t care.  He led them down to the local station.  When the trio entered, the desk sergeant began to laugh boisterously and asked the newcomer:  “Do you know who you are trying to arrest?”  Case dismissed!

The San Francisco Chronicle would, when Caen was on vacation, run a box on the front page above the fold saying “Herb Caen is on vacation” to cut down on the number of complaints from people who would call and bitch about not being able to find that day’s installment of the column simply titled “Herb Caen.”

Once, back in the season when the Oakland Raiders won games when George Blanda would kick a last second field goal, a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune rushing a “starter” copy of the day’s publication, noticed that at the beginning of the lead story, the words indicated that the story was about the will a local celebrity had written “after” he died.  The ME had a “Stop the presses!” moment and the word was quickly changed to “after” and one of the typesetters was given a stern lecture about the rule that only editors could change copy.  The incident was quickly forgotten until the next week when the secret goof-up was prominently mentioned in Herb Caen’s column.

According to Barnaby Conrad, in his book “The World of Herb Caen,” the Frisco phenomenon produced enough columns of approximately 1,000 words (about three takes) that Caen’s lifetime total would verify this boast: “If laid end to end, his columns would stretch 5.6 miles from the Ferry Building to the Golden Gate Bridge.”

At the height of his popularity Ernie Pyle was read by approximately 3 million readers nationwide.

Facebook posters might note with extreme envy that in his prime, Caen received 45,000 letters a year.  Isn’t a fan letter better than a quick “like” click?

Herb Caen wrote:  “If I do go to heaven, I’m going to do what every San Franciscan does who goes to heaven. He looks around and says, It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.

Now the disk jockey will play the “Vertigo” soundtrack album, the “Moby Grape” album, and the Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealist Pillow” album.  We have to go reread Ernie Pyle’s very gruesome and lugubrious columns written on the Normandy Beach (as foud in the Random House book “Ernie’s War: the Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches” edited by David Nichols) immediately after the D-Day Invasion.  Have a “soldier on” type week.

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