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.

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