Friday, August 19, 2005

We were both reporters . . .but she wasn't invited


Monday, August 08, 2005

Her name was Leontine something. . .

I wish I could remember her name -- Leontine something. She tried to gain admittance to a White Citizens Council rally in the heat of the racial turmoil of the early 1960s. They wouldn't let her in. She didn't get rejected because she was a woman. She didn't want to join the White Citizens. She was a black woman. The White Citizens had another name for black people -- male, female, all black people. We called it the "n" word.

She wanted to get into the Pasadena Civic Auditorium that night for the same reason I did. We were both newspaper reporters.

I had met Leontine from previous assignments we had covered. She worked for The Sentinel, a weekly aimed at Los Angeles' black population. It had grown rapidly after World War II. She knew me because I had the recently picked for the "civil rights" beat on the Los Angeles Times.

Only one man seemed to know that we needed such a beat. "Paul," Managing Editor Frank McCulloch said, "we've done a pretty good job covering Mississippi and Alabama. But what have we done about our own back yard?"

He put out the prize. I grabbed it. Neither the blacks nor the whites were ready for it. Blacks weren't covered unless they committed a crime against a white person. One guy on the sheriff's beat used to say about murder in Watts, "No story in this one -- just a misdemeanor." Chuckle.

Outside the meeting at the Auditorium that night, pickets from C.O.R.E., a new group of civil rights activists, marched and chanted and taunted the rednecks moving inside. TV cameras churned. Flashbulbs popped.

Without a nod to the doorkeeper I walked in. Took a seat on the front row. I couldn't believe the Council's invasion of California would be productive. It might raise a ruckus outside worthy of a story.

Another reporter ran up the aisle to me. "Paul," he said, "a reporter from the Sentinel just tried to get in and they wouldn't let her past the door. She asked me to tell you."

OK. First, determine whether the report was accurate. I went outside and found Leontine. She told me she had gone to the door and was told she wasn't to go inside.

"They told me I didn't have an invitation."

I remembered that I had an invitation. It hadn't occurred to me to show it at the door. "I tell you what, Leontine. I'll go back in again and you come along right behind. We'll walk through."

She agreed. I walked through without a nod. She walked up. An arm dropped in front of her, blocking her way.

"I told you before," the gate keeper said, "YOU DON'T HAVE AN INVITATION."

"You just let Paul Weeks in . . . without an invitation."

"He HAS an invitation," the man said. He noticed I was watching.

"Do you intend to keep a reporter out because you didn't invite her? I didn't show you my invitation," I said.

"You have one," he said.

"I don't intend to use it," I said. "You let me in without it. If you won't let her in, it's going to be part of my story."

Stalemate. The gatekeeper called to a couple of other "members" to consult. They decided to let Leontine in -- with me, too.

All the rednecks turned around to gawk at us. I liked that. I walked her down the aisle, my eyes straight ahead, my hand on her elbow. There was a rustle in the crowd and some murmurs. Leontine looked away. I kept my cool.

The crowd was still coming in. I looked around and saw a familiar face or two. They probably were "white spies." There was another young white woman in the room that I didn't notice. But she told me about it later. I'll get back to her.

The meeting not begun when I got another message. The gate was not permitting radio or television press in. They'd heard about my getting the Sentinel reporter a seat. They probably weren't wanted because the White Citizens boys wanted to spare the audience from seeing their pictures on the tube or in the press the next day.

I returned outside, prepared for Chapter Two. Whether we got to enlarge the press attendance, I don't remember. Because, when I re-entered, I found they were once more booting out Leontine.

"She doesn't have an invitation," they began again.

"Do I need an invitation? I'm not using it," I said. "I'm here as a reporter, not as your guest."

I wasn't abandoning the story as I left. We had another reporter, Dave Felton, sitting somewhere inside.

I didn't know what to expect, returning to the office, fully intending to report the incidents. Frank Osborne, on the night city desk, was so tickled he decided to tell editor Nick Williams the next day.

I got called into Nick's office, not exactly expecting to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. As I remember it, he was silent at first. He was a gentle man and a good editor. He didn't like what I had done.

"It's not your job to take part in a story you're covering."

I guess I was enjoying the stroll down that aisle with all of the rednecks gawking at us, but maybe I was just exercising a little bit of what they call "investigative reporting" nowadays -- which, incidentally, that should be redundant, although, sad to say, it is not always looked upon that way.

I had remembered an incident that had preceded that earlier:

A young man was crying that he, a returning Marine veteran from war, was being unfairly treated by an attempt to take his property by governmental eminent domain for a projected museum in Hollywood. The press was presenting his side of the story. But there was one more angle:

Another reporter and I dug up information that the Marine had been dishonorably discharged from the Marines, and we wrote a story about that, too.

Humiliated, the young ex-Marine called a press conference to respond. I wasn't assigned to cover, but another L.A. Times reporter and photog got the job. As it was told to us later, the veteran called out as the press assembled:

"Anyone here from the L.A. Times?" A couple of hands went up.

"You're not wanted here. Get out."

Nobody moved. The rest of the media let it be known that if the L.A. Times was excluded, they would all go out with them. Everybody stayed.

Yes, we may fight each other like hell for a story, we news people. We use all sorts of angles to get there first, to go to press before anyone else. But when it comes to Freedom of the Press, you have to watch out for us, because we watch out for each other.

Forty years after the incident at the Pasadena Auditorium, I had lunch with a friend who was a retired executive from The Times. He told me I had been lucky I escaped being fired on that occasion. When managing editors changed, the successor took me off the beat, saying politely, that I'd been "working too hard."

Frustrated, I told them that Watts was "going to blow up one of these days and apparently I haven't been able to get that across in my coverage." No, I wasn't fired. I took another job in the War on Poverty with the government. And Watts blew up about six months after I'd been taken off the beat.

And by the way, the "white lady" I mentioned up there who had seen me walking down the aisle with the black reporter, was in the audience getting the lowdown for the Episcopalian Diocese for which she was working at the time?

She walked down the aisle with me in marriage 30 years later.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

La belle francais!

She's a tiny package of talents galore -- a femme petite -- if you will excuse my faulty French. She shouldn't. She's a teacher of French but speaks English perfectly but in a soft, throaty voice that belies its French origin.

The lady and I met -- yes, in the cybernetic presence of my own lovely bride -- on the Internet when it was new to me, almost a decade back.

She was a teenager, freed from the horrors of Nazi occupation as the allies swooped into the French capital. Among the heroes to the French was one of my own, newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle, who chronicled the tribulations of the GI Joes, not the generals and the admirals. So, 50 years later, I was combing the Internet for memoirs of those who shared my affection for Pyle and his work.

I had written of how I had just missed meeting Pyle at the rail depot in Albuquerque on a cold December day in 1944. I had driven my military jeep down to mail a package when I saw the train beginning to pull away. I was too late to shake his hand, but waved to him as the train left. He was on his way to the Pacific. He died on the battlefield on the isle of Ie Shima.

Newspaper friends had promised to invite me to the next party for Ernie, who had been home on leave. He'd been my role model long before he became a famous war correspondent, touring America's byways. He convinced me that I could write a story fit for publication on ANY human being I had talked with for an hour. He did it regularly.

So, yes, I met our French friend on the Internet, but not in person until a few months ago when spouse Barbara and I had the unique privilege of having a Parisienne show us her home town -- which has such marvels as the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coure, Musee d'Orsay,Arc d'Triomphe, the Moulin Rouge ad infinitum. The City of Lights. I hadn't seen it in 50 years.

Why am I blogging away today about her? She's got a notion to be a blogger herself. So, of course, she consulted an expert -- me -- who not only has just got his feet wet in the blog biz, but has plunged in so awkwardly that my survival in it is not yet assured. I told her where to inquire about it, and left her with her feet dangling in the shallows.

No, I won't divulge here who she is. She will speak for herself with aplomb, with command of the language, with her views of just about everything from the banks of the Seine. Barbara and I are eagerly looking forward to it.

And, by the way, any of you old bloggers who have any tips for beginners, send 'em along. I'll pass them on -- but pore over them myself first

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Ah, how sweet it is . . .

After all the turmoil, the hub-bub and the frustration in politics state, national and in the world, it is so nice to wake up in your own home town to find that the candidate who won the special election for the City Council overwhelmingly captured the seat she sought --cleanly, modestly and humble.

In years of focusing on the political scene since the days of FDR, it is especially sweet to find that the lady who knocked on your door in her first campaign less than a year ago had swum through the mud of politics-as-usual and emerged far above the heap of 10 candidates -- unscathed.

My being a veteran of covering the bitter election wars as a newspaper reporter, you can't imagine the glow you feel when you finally have the opportunity to take sides actively, post a "WE WANT MACKIN" sign on your front lawn, and join the cheering throng on election night, shouting, "WE WANT MACKIN!"

Shari Mackin is real, not a figment of imagination. Oceanside, California, isn't exactly a little town, with a seething population of 170,000.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

What Hath the Wright Brothers Wrought?

"Oh, how I like to go up in the air,
Up in the sky so blue,
I do think it's the most wonderful thing
Ever a child can do."

It is fun to look back on 80 years of leaving terra firma for adventures up in the skies, over the prairies, the mountains, the oceans. Even though many were for business, touring, for just "getting there,” it always gets a bookmark in my chronicles.

I probably flew in the first airplane I ever saw. Nineteen twenty-four. I was three. The family was returning from a family gathering in Williston in northwestern North Dakota. We had entered an Indian reservation near a little village named Parshall

The plane was coming down on the prairie when we spotted it. Our father, who never got over wanting to give new things the once-over, pulled over to where it had landed. It was a "barnstormer," flying an old World War I Jenny -- not so old at that, come to think of it, since the war had ended only six years earlier.

The pilot helped Mom, sister Lois and me climb into the forward (gunner's)seat, with one seat belt strapping us in --Mother in the middle.

He pointed to wires running from the cockpit to the wings and warned us to keep our hands off them or something bad might happen. Already I was scared and probably squeezed both arms in close. He should have told me to pull my hat down close over my ears. It was the first thing to go when we climbed into the sky.

Undoubtedly, most of what I "remember" is what I was told for years afterward, but no one can tell me I can't remember being lifted up in the air over anything a swing ever carried me up to.

Was the next ride in Admiral Byrd's Ford Tri-Motor that lifted me and some of my classmates up over the western mesa of Albuquerque in the early 1930s? He had flown it over the South Pole, so we felt it entirely safe to ride in it over the Rio Grande on a sunny morning.

Enraptured by now by flying -- and also becoming interested in girls -- I invited the lovely little Betty Jamison to go joy riding from the same west mesa airport in a little biplane flown by a local pilot. It was a disaster. I shouldn't have told Jim Toulouse about it. I thought he was a friend. He ratted on me and told my -- 'er, steady girl friend, Ruth Looney about it. Even though we parted 15 years ago after nearly a half century of marriage, I'm sure she will tell you about it today if you asked her.

Girls and airplanes go together. . .

Girls an airplanes seem to go together for me. At 16, I got a job as a reporter on the Albuquerque Journal. I learned that airlines frequently gave passes to newspaper reporters as a public relations gesture.

Wasn't I a reporter? Before I turned 17, I walked into the TWA office down at the new Hilton Hotel and said I wanted to fly to San Francisco at Christmas. Secret destination? A little cottage across the bay on Bond Street in Oakland -- the home of Muriel Cameron, who came into my life when we were juniors in high school.

She was the one who showed up in history class in a yellow suede jacket. I had driven Dad's Chevrolet on a date for the first time when I took her to the Junior Prom. But she moved back to El Paso and then to Oakland, and I remember singing to her, "Just the Way You Look Tonight."

But I was writing about flying -- not philandering -- wasn't I? Yes, TWA, with a twinkle in the agent's eye, gave me the pass. It was a one-stop flight, landing in Winslow. I should have changed flights, but didn't. They stopped and put me on the right one. Man, what an elegant gentleman I was, walking into Muriel's, wearing a fedora and gloves.

We romped across the bay by ferry boat, eating pastries on the way, and I being shown an ocean -- the Pacific -- for the first time in this North Dakota-born lad's life. We saw a car with a press card in its window on San Francisco's Market Street. We rode across the new Golden Gate Bridge to visit a cousin, Harold Neideffer, in Marin County. Muriel's mother was in love with me -- at least, I guess, she thought I was 'cute." I was never so sure her daughter felt the same way.

See how easy it is to get side-tracked when you're "flyin' high"? On the return flight on New Year's Eve, we looked below at one point and saw a few tiny lights below. "Las Vegas," the pilot said. It was a tiny spot on the desert then.

Utah, 26; University of New Mexico, 0. . .

The next memorable flight? The University of New Mexico Lobos were scheduled to play Utah in the Sun Bowl at El Paso on New Year's Day,1939. Mr. Pickrell, my kind old editor, played it big: He chartered an airplane to fly me home from El Paso in time to make the next morning's deadline. The Lobos had been licked 26 to 0.

The only hitch was that I had to get to El Paso under my own power -- my 1932 Model A Ford roadster. Gail Smith rode along so he could drive the car home. The three or four-day sojourn provided another situation where I stepped out on (Miss) Ruth Looney:

I took another date that I met in El Paso to the bullfights across the border in Juarez. To be a gentleman, I got seats on the shady side of the arena, where we nearly froze to death. And what did we see across the arena, basking in ether noonday sun? Miss Looney with her old boyfriend, Eddie Burgin.

The Model A was low on gas the next day when Gail drove me to the airport. He filled it up with aviation gas. That Model A took off like a jet airplane -- before jets had even been invented, as Gail said goodbye.

With the wartime draft blowing in my face, I returned to El Paso, this time as an enlistee in the Air Corps -- not at the controls, but in the backseat of the AT-11 bombardier trainer planes that flew the athletic teams to games across the county.

You see, Uncle Sam's call to arms was a call to me to sharpen my pencils inasmuch as I was assigned to the physical training office at Kirtland Field in Albuquerque -- as a sportswriter. Col. Frank Hackett wanted his base to have the best damn football team in the Corps, so he commission Coach Ted Shipkey from the University of New Mexico as a captain and his "physical training" officer --ergo, his football coach. Now every coach needs a p.r. man. Shipkey, having noted my skills as sports editor for the Albuquerque Journal -- and noting my high call-up number for the draft at the same time -- urged me to come aboard

Pilots get weary flying bombing runs. . .

How did this creep into my story about airplane flights? Simple. I was in the Air Corps, wasn't I? And doesn't any sportswriter confined to the rear cabin of a bombardier trainer airplane entitled to some extra hazard pay? Those pilots, with a weekend off from flying dreary bombing runs over targets in the New Mexico desert, enjoyed nothing more than flying the teams to games. They would buzz chicken coops, hop cattle fences on the Texas plains, dive on lonely farm houses in Kansas.

Once, after flying to Wichita for a baseball tournament, the pilot of our plane executed a barrel role to break up the monotony of the flight. That night, at a banquet given by the manufacturers of the AT-11, who happened to be in Wichita.
our pilot said to one of our hosts:

"What would happen if you did a barrel roll in one of those airplanes with a hundred pounds of baseball bats in the rear?" He didn't include the sports writer in his query.

"You couldn't do it," the AT-11 man said. "You'd break the tail right off the plane."

Another jaunt in an AT-11: A young warrant officer who piloted one of them, was a friend of my sister-in-law, Helen Parker. One of our planes was missing, and he was assigned to scout the flight path from Arizona to the home field. Anticipating no summons home and not eager to cut the flight short, he turned off his radio. We flew all across the countryside. No sightings.

"I gotta pee, Paul,” he said. What kind of talk is that by an officer to a private first-class? "You ever find an airplane?"

"Nope -- er', sir."

"You see? You just take this control stick and keep the nose pointed to the horizon, and you'll do ok."

Omigod. Sure he must be kidding. He disappeared into the back of the plane. I clinched the stick with both hands. I clenched my teeth firmly. I kept my eyes on the horizon.

"Thanks, Paul," he returned, casually zipping up his fly.

The flight droned on. I noticed a little Indian pueblo coming up.

"My brother and his wife teach school down there," I said.

"Shall we go down to see them?

Before I could utter a word, he pointed the nose of that AT-11 directly at the teacherage. We roared load. We quickly turned up the nose again. There was a hill on the other side, which I doubt if my pilot had taken into the equation before the dive.

No sooner had we emerged from the dive and leveled off, than the pilot turned on his radio again to approach for the landing. "Come on in," the tower said. "We couldn’t call you back. The missing plane was accounted for shortly after you left the field."

My stateside "combat" flaying didn't end there, although after a couple of years and the colonel's departure, I was transferred back to the pub info office, mostly to write combat returnee stories.

The pub info officer had a girl friend in Seattle. . .

The massive -- and awful ugly -- B-24 Liberator bombers were getting a bad press in contrast to the sleek flying Fortresses. The public information officer arranged to take a B-24 out for a weekend for me to write a feature story about what a wonderful plane it was. Destination: Seattle. I learned the p.r. officer had a girl friend there. I took an old GI photographer along.

He took gag shots of me holding my nose and posing with my hand on the ripcord of my parachute, ready to jump. Hardly the kind of publicity we were sent to get. We whiled away the dreary flight doing such foolish things. Seattle for us was about as dull. The p.r. officer obviously was having a better time. We went to see Spencer Tracy in, "The Bells of St. Mary's."

On the way home, our flying crew got just as playful. The pilot decided to give us an aerial tour of the Grand Canyon. He flew down into it. He tried to execute a 360-degree turn. He couldn't quite make it. He side-slipped the plane abruptly, dropping lower into the canyon, then jammed on the throttle to climb out again.

When we got back to base, we learned that a B-24 like ours had smashed into a mountain peak near Flagstaff, and it was believed to have been ours. It wasn't of course. But there's more to the story. Our plane was pulled off the flight line the next morning for complete engine change. They had been virtually burned out because the oil was not circulating properly.

My career in the Air Corps flew on. One day, I tried to hook a free ride to the
Coast to visit my brother Ken, then working in a shipyard in Long Beach. I ran into my other brother, Keith, a warrant officer seeking a flight in another direction.

suddenly, I needed a latrine. So did he. We couldn't go to the same one. He was an officer. I was a GI. Under the circumstances, I think I would have peed on him, had we found adjoining urinals.

The flight I got was with two officers flying a hot new B-26 from the East Coast for delivery to Lockheed in Burbank. Apparently, they weren't too familiar with the controls of the new plane. First, they couldn't find Lockheed. We flew all over L.A., but Lockheed was so well camouflaged to ward off the Japanese, that we had a hard time finding it. When we did, the pilot came in too slow, started to lose airspeed, gunned it, settled down so fast that he had to spin the airplane around at the end of the runway to keep from running off it.

I had to carry a parachute that I was forced to take with me. I carried it on buses and trolleys all the way to Long Beach and back home again. I never want to see a parachute again. Unless it is necessary, that is.

Commercial flying after the war was glorious. Piped-in Music. My fondest memory is flying cross-country, looking at the countryside below, and listening to the sonorous, "America, the Beautiful." THAT is my idea of patriotism. My beautiful country passing below in its majesty.

Once, the Daily News assigned a wonderful junket to me. I was to go to Oakland for the commissioning of a huge new airplane for the Navy, The four motored "Constitution.” It was to take the largest passenger list across the nation -- 100 news people. It was powered by new " jet-assisted" takeoff power to point the nose up in the air with a heavy load.

Climbing a rope to heaven. . .

We rolled down the runway at Moffett Field the next morning after a riotous night of celebration following the commissioning of the plane. It gained speed slowly. It kept rolling. We all kept straining to lift it off the runway, as if we could do it by sheer wrenching our own guts. Suddenly, shockingly, it pointed it nose up as if it was climbing a rope to heaven. And we flew to Washington, D.C., in 5 1/2 hours -- the most passengers in the shortest time.

Two days later, we returned west. The plane wouldn't lift its nose. We knew it would. But we weren't sure. We faced terrific headwinds. We had to land somewhere in Kansas to refuel. It took 17 1/2 hours for the return flight. I never heard of the Constitution again.

There was another highlight of that trip, however. I was riding in the tail, and we were about to fly over my old hometown of Albuquerque. The loudspeaker blared forth. "Paul Weeks. . .Paul Weeks . . . report forward to the flight commander."

I hadn't done anything, but sit with my nose to the window, as usual, while flying, and watching us eat up the miles across New Mexico.

Entering the forward cabin, I was greeted by the commander himself, Capt. Donald S. Chay, UNM, class of 1940. He'd seen my name on the passenger manifest and wanted to share our return to our old campus, maybe 20,000 feet below.

After graduating, he and a classmate, Tal Godding, were to report to Long Beach, California, to be signed up for flight training for the U.S. Navy. I was headed that way for a summer vacation that was to take me eventually to Oakland to visit an old girlfriend.

With a few days before beginning training, they hitched a ride with me up the coast in my 1935 Chevrolet. One of them rode in the rumble seat and was crudely awakened when I spun the car in a 360-degree turn to avoid a stop-sign runner along the road.

When we got to San Francisco, I learned that neither had flown before. So we bought ourselves a ride in a small plane to see the city from on high. Little more than a year after that, they were in combat in the Pacific, dodging Japanese Zeroes in the early days of the fighting over Malaysia, as I recall.

Both Tal and Don went on to careers in the Navy. When I checked with my UNM alumni book just now, I noted that both were deceased.

Junketing -- that is, getting a pass from the airline or their sponsor or flying on your newspaper's expense account -- is certainly preferred, but those glory days are about over.

'How many reporters have you got in Alaska. . .?'

When the mighty earth quake hit Alaska in 1964, the L.A. night city editor had me ready to go, but the managing editor, whom I dislike to this day (may he rest wherever old, nasty managing editors lay) said whatthehell, AP (the wire service) will cover it for us.

Early the next morning, The Washington Post, which shared a wire service with us then, asked the M.E. how many reporters he had by then in Alaska. Within an hour, I had purchased boots, long flannel underwear, wool socks, heavy jacket and was on a flight to Anchorage.

I remember the marquee of a theater having sunk down even with the curb. Some of us slipped down into it where the seats looked as if they were riding a roller coaster. An after-shock suddenly rocked our boat. We exited in haste.

Also, we dropped in on a bar, which also had sunk below street level. Drinks lay untouched on the bar -- and frozen solid, giving quick evidence of how much the bartender had watered his drinks.

The President sent his plane out with the Federal Emergency Management chief to view the damage and took a load of reporters up on one flight. We saw where a ship had been carried on the tsunami over the main street of a village and dropped it on the other side.

Several days later, I returned to Seattle on a military cargo plane. The door to the space near where I was sitting blew off on takeoff. It missed me. We continued our homeward flight.

Having never been to Alaska, I found myself up there three times in a row: a tour with the Coast Guard by plane that took us out to islands off the Aleutians and up and down the Coast. Later, with the War on Poverty, we inspected sites across Alaska as far at Point Barrow above the Arctic Circle. That will be a blog in itself one of these days when I get around to it.

The most interesting junket occurred in October 1954 -- just a couple of months before my newspaper, the original Daily News in L.A., bellied up. But I had a five-week tour on El Al Israel's charter flight for a planeload of Jewish people's return to their Holy Land. Oh, the stories I've retold many times from that trip.

I bought a rosary for my then Catholic mother-in-law from a Jewish merchant in the Vatican Square where the Pope came to the window to bless us all. I guess I'll save those fir another day too.

P.S. I got home in time to cash in my expense account before the management closed up shop

posted by Paul Weeks at 4:19 PM


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