Fall Back, Move Forward
We met in Columbia, Missouri. I was a senior, intent on a career as a well-known writer. He was in graduate school, trying to find a niche in political reporting.
That the University of Missouri — the “Harvard” of American Journalism Schools to this day — brought us together is no coincidence. I would say that in 1976, we two scribes in the post-Watergate era possessed both the grit and determination to make a difference.
Moker and I met through a mutual friend — he was John’s roomie; I was John’s TA in the J-School. Sparks didn’t fly that first time. I discovered that this kid from small-town Wisconsin sold his plasma for beer money. He learned that I was from the big city, but somehow couldn’t reconcile the fact that Dallas, Texas fell into that category. Oh, and I didn’t know the difference between Minnesota and his home turf. Upper Midwest? Where’s that?
We hung out a bit, and adapted a comfortable back-and-forth. We shared friends; but disliked quite a few of the other’s faves. He loved John Wayne, Johnny Cash and Elvis (ugh to all three from me!). I loved Broadway musicals and had just come off of a heady summer internship in the Big Apple (he hated NYC before he had ever visited, and disliked it even more after he’d been a few times). He could see himself returning to the Badger State and then moving on to the Nation’s Capital; I definitely envisioned taking a bigger bite of the Big Apple.
We bonded over helping to host Watergate coverage alum Dan Rather of CBS News during Mizzou’s annual Journalism Week in the spring. We both expected stories of past glories from the Big Man; what we noticed, though, is that Rather was a reserved gentleman, a demeanor that belies all of his prolific journalism accomplishments. It was difficult to match this quiet, almost shy guy with the reporter who risked his life to broadcast the world’s first hurricane coverage live during Carla in 1961 and the sharp network correspondent who had helped to take President Nixon down more than a few notches just a couple of years before he was honored by our faculty and peers at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
With the intoxication of youth, however, we knew we’d definitely have more stories to tell after a hard-fought career in the journalism trenches. But, as is all so typical of those just starting out, neither one of us really had the future on our radars. I, for one, didn’t see us staying together. He was a golfer, for God’s sake. When I was in high school, we totally wrecked the boys on the golf team, who found it fascinating to chase little white balls around a vast expanse of green for hours on end — while wearing collared shirts — not yet called Polos — and khakis. Where’s the sport in that? And remember, I saw New York in my future. He was aiming for DC. Anyone who knows about the vibes of those two American metropolises knows that they don’t really vibe at all. D.C., for all its recent millennial influence, is still pretty buttoned-up. “What do you do?” is more of an icebreaker on a first date than “Did you see the recent exhibit at the National Gallery of Art?” And New York, well, is New York.
Skip ahead a couple of years, and you can probably guess what happened. We did make it work. For one, Moker is so funny he should be arrested for causing more than one laugh riot. Of course, I was slayed often by his stupid jokes. The kid had “Dad Jokes” decades before becoming a dad. And he adored my lasagna — what can I say?
Neither one of us immediately won any Pulitzers. In fact, neither one of us ever did. He interned in D.C. and then was part of the Capitol Press Corps in Jefferson City, Missouri’s seat of government. I went home to Dallas (nope, no NYC for me) and got a pretty sweet gig as a travel writer. But it wasn’t much fun going to all those exotic places by myself.
I then unpacked my bags and became a copy editor, putting aside my travels for a turn on the desk. Because, as my Nana would say, I was “poor as a church mouse,” I also took gigs on the rewrite desk (I still can type 100+ words-per-minute on an IBM Selectric — quick, find me one and I’ll prove it to ya) and worked what Texans quaintly call “Friday Night Football,” meaning I was part of a pool of young folks who manned the phones at our newspaper on — you guessed it — Friday nights, taking high school football scores from stringers all over the state. And stats on passing, rushing, downs and what else all. This was years before “Friday Night Lights,” both the book, the film and the TV show, but solidified something I’d long known: We Texans do take our football more seriously than a dead armadillo at the side of the road — on Fridays, anyway, lights or no (some of these podunk little backwaters play their games in the afternoon after school — no lights, you see).
And I guess we fell in love. Actually, I’m certain we did. Moker gave up the “good life” — asking dodgy politicians pointed questions — to move to Northeast Texas. I think it was more than the chicken fried steak and the nachos, although he enjoyed those immensely, as well.
There wasn’t a place for a hotshot cub political reporter in the newsroom, so Moker worked the cop shop and general assignment. The cop shop is pretty much what it sounds like. He hung around the downtown precinct and spent more time than was probably healthy for him listening to the police scanner. He wrote about the occasional hit-and-run. He honed his reportorial chops on murders, particularly one off Lancaster Boulevard in Fort Worth. He adopted his City Editor Fred’s maxim — “one paragraph if they’re critical, two paragraphs if they’re dead.”
On that particular evening, Moker and the photographer showed up at a sketchy looking house that was all lit up on the inside. The guys got there just as the cops were interviewing a scruffy looking man covered in blood. While they waited their turn to gather info, our intrepid journos took a stroll around the residence.
M (staring into the dining room, sees a man sitting on the floor against a big table): “Hey, why don’t they interview that guy?”
P: (realizing that he was partnered with a crime-scene virgin): “Um, I think that’s the victim?”
Then there was the time Moker was looking through old police reports and came upon a write-up about a man and a bunny. Let me just say you haven’t lived until you’ve read a police report. “Law & Order,” this wasn’t.
And the time he rushed to the scene of a 4-alarm blaze in his only nice suit. Or maybe it was his only suit. Lesson learned. Several dry-cleanings never erased the overpowering stench of soggy, burned lumber.
Or the time he went to a reported fatality on the railroad tracks outside the city and wandered over on the other side of the yellow crime-scene tape. He couldn’t sleep for the next several nights.
After paying our dues, half of our dream came true. Moker and I finally got our journalistic groove on. After he’d covered the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo one too many times, and taken an assignment to hunker down in Wichita Falls, Texas for a week before our wedding while killer tornadoes blew through (58 confirmed dead in the path of 30+ tornadoes in the Red River Valley, including a whopper F4 that raked the small city bare) and on more than one occasion picked up the paper’s Managing Editor whenever even the hint of inclement weather was in the offing (“Get Nelson out here; he knows how to drive in this shit!”), my new Hubby got word of a gig covering Congress and presidential politics in D.C. He aced the interview, and I went along for the ride, ending up on a big-city newspaper copy desk, and then finding employment in politics, PR and, eventually, as a suburban high school newspaper/yearbook adviser and English teacher. That last gig was the most rewarding — and longest, at 23 years — vocational venture I ever undertaken.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t leave you with a little Daylight Savings Time parable from the news desk of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, circa 1979:
Moker, hanging around the desk in the absence of any notable crime that night, answered the phone. An older, frail-sounding granny was on the other end.
G: “Is this the night we change our clocks?”
M: “Yes, ma’am.”
G: “Which way do I move it?”
M: “You move it back one hour. Spring forward, fall back.”
G: “Say, I like that. Do I move my alarm back an hour, too?”
M: “Only if you want to get up an hour earlier.”
Those were the days, I reckon.
Just for giggles, I looked up Dan Rather’s rather substantial bio. Per Wikipedia: His daddy was a ditch-digger in Wharton, Texas, who moved the fam to Houston. Dan went to college at Sam Houston State in Huntsville. He was the editor of the school paper and worked in radio, calling junior high, high school and college football games (so we do have something in common, after all). He worked for the wires — both AP and UPI — and a few more radio stations, and as a play-by-play announcer for a minor-league baseball team called the Houston Buffs. Honing those golden pipes, I guess.
In a classic story of “small town boy makes big,” Rather then worked for a couple of local TV stations. Then Hurricane Carla hit Galveston. And two years later, Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK in Dallas, and Rather covered that. He ended up as one of the White House Correspondents for CBS, and helped to take down Nixon. The rest, as they say, is journalism history.
Moker and I were on the same track as Hurricane Dan after all. Just on a slightly different course.
Oh, and we did meet up with Mr. Rather once more — this time in Austin, where Moker snagged a pretty sweet award for his coverage of a munitions plant explosion in Cleburne, TX, which killed four people. I get that story confused with Moker’s F4 tornado coverage. Let’s just say that at this point in his career, he was pretty much on the Death and Destruction beat.
This time around, Mr. Rather was friendly, personable, even. Much more gregarious than he had been at the Mizzou J-School soiree a few years before. And after chatting with us a bit, he even had some advice for me.
“Never marry a reporter. All you’ll get is whisker burn and whisky breath.”
Oops, too late. I already had.