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              It was a blustery weekend in Muskrat Flats. The wind was conducting a symphony as the poplars bordering the vineyard...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Third Verse Same as the First

Fourteen years before I was born, a young man started working as a writer in the Sports Department at the Springfield Newspapers. Back then Springfield essentially had three publications They had the Morning Union and the afternoon edition the Daily News. On the weekends both forces would combine to produce the Sunday Republican.

This young man, Garry Brown, is my father. Fifty-eight years later and counting, he is still the consummate newspaper man working his beat, covering the Boston Red Sox and, pumping out three weekly columns and peppering the sports section with various local sports , such as the AHL team the Springfield Falcons, in the off season. Being out in public with him is like hanging out with a rock star. People are always smiling, waving and more often than not, throwing in their own two cents or tidbits for a future column. It is great to see someone you love and respect so revered.

Garry is a second generation newspaper man. I am very fortunate to have had the experience I did growing up. I attended many Red Sox games, including the ’75 playoff series between the Sox and the Oakland A’s, Boy, did I hate Rollie Fingers, but looking back 30 years the man embodied vintage baseball right down to the handlebar moustache. I saw Yaz knock many a homerun into the bleachers. I went to the opening games of the ’75 World Series against the Big Red Machine. To quote the fictitious baseball announcer, Chico Esquela, “Charlie Hustle, You bet!” Unfortunately for Pete Rose, he did bet, pre-empting his well deserved trip to Cooperstown.

Another memorable Fenway moment was watching Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson go at it on the field as the manager tried to pull a player he thought was not performing, properly. Pretty funny actions from a manager of a player who would end up with five World Series rings. And yes, I was at the ’78 division tie breaker when the Sox lost to the Yanks. Don’t even get me started about Bill Buckner or Grady Little’s brain fart in the 7th inning of the 2003 ALCS Series.

After reading the previous paragraphs some maybe envious of the gilded upbringing I experienced. Don’t take this the wrong way Dad, but the man is a workaholic. I hear rumors that he used to smoke cigarettes and as far as I can tell, he never took a drink of alcohol. Work is his supreme motivator and sweetest narcotic that can be acquired. Needless to say if I wanted to see him, on say a Saturday night when he was working the editor’s desk, I would have to go down to the newspaper building and hang out with him while he did his thing.

I loved the Newspaper. All of the characters he worked with both in the Sports department and the Composing room. You can imagine what kind of graffitti ends up on the bathroom walls with a building full of professional wordsmiths. A true delight to the twelve-year-old mind. Obviously, since I was there I was put to work. One of my first jobs was hanging the tapes. Along one wall of the sports department was a row of tele-type machines. One was from UPI the other was Associated Press the two main sources of news in those days. The time frame was the late 70s. These noisy oily monsters did nothing but spit out and endless stream of news items all day long. Occasionally they would go idle and stop printing, but soon enough you would hear an alarm bell ring, indicating that the machine was about to fire up and spit out some more breaking news. Each of the news stories was numbered. Another machine would tick out a ¾ inch wide strip of yellow tape with a corresponding number. These tapes, which contained thousands of punched holes, had to be categorized and hung in the proper location of a rack. As the stories came over the wire, they were scrutinized by the editor. He would decide if the text was newsworthy and destined for the next edition. If so, the corresponding tape was retrieved and rolled up with a little spring operated machine, which contained a four-pronged flywheel. The lengthy tape was attached to this flywheel and wound up. Guiding the tape onto the spinning flywheel taught me all about paper cuts.

Along winding up the tapes and securing them with a rubber band, I would also be helpful by emptying the waste containers which would collect the little yellow dots of paper that were punched out of the tapes, when they began to overflow. The next step was taking the edited text with parts to be changed or deleted clearly marked, and the tape and sending it into a vacumn transfer system which would dump the tubes into a bin in the composing room. There the tapes would be run through a computer, which would generate a film of the story text. This was later run through a machine which would wax the back of the film and page set up artists would slice and dice the stories with razor blades and paste them on a mock up of a newspaper page. This was a lot of work and it was fascinating.

When I was much younger and merely an observer, all the text was produced on line-o-type machines. Seven-foot tall hot smelly monstrosities that would spit out lines of text in the form of hot lead, one line at a time. And these had to be laid out on heavy duty carts. Proof reading these pages was a trick as you had to possess the ability to read upside down and backwards as a mirror image of the page was produced. The most colorful characters used to work in the composing room. The brighter ones starting making provisions for the future when the switch was made form hot text to cold text. They knew the next step in newspaper production was going to include desktop pagination programs, where the editors could cut and paste the pages themselves. A lot of character and composing room personnel were lost when computers began to dominate the journalism landscape.

The newsroom used to be a raucous place with the sights and sounds of typewriters, teletypes, desk reporters taking dictation from a reporter in the field. Phones were always ringing. Raven haired interns would be up front answering the phones and taking in the obituaries. Photographers would run in with stacks of 8x10 pictures they just produced, so they could be cropped to fit on the properly on the pages, and copy boys (me) would run them to the engraving room. Nowadays people don’t think twice about desktop publishing or digital photography.

Thirty years ago, any kind of publishing was a major process. I was involved in the junior high school newspaper as well as taking journalism classes when I was in high school and participated in the production of that paper for three years. Much to the dismay of my journalism instructor, I ended up doing some correspondent work for the newspaper. I started out covering professional wrestling events at the Springfield Civic Center. Nepotism aside, I guess I impressed the editor with my ability to get a reasonably written story in ON TIME, before the deadline. This led to covering the local NASCAR races at Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, MA, and Stafford and Thompson Speedways in Connecticut. I also ended up with a weekly column, a racing notebook. Since I was a correspondent, I was getting dicked financially. I was basically paid $10 per story, with no travel expenses or regard for the number of hours that were spent getting the story. So I supplemented my income by getting a job in a restaurant owned by two crazy Deadheads. I was hit by the culinary bug in a huge way. I had no idea that working in a restaurant could be so satisfying. I balanced the two jobs for a while.

In retrospect I regret my decision to leave the Newspaper. It seemed like it was my legacy. I don’t know if it had to do with planetary alignment, God’s Will or some unseen novelty creating machine, but the local NASCAR modified circuit was hit with tragedy after tragedy. One driver whom I knew, Corky Cookman, sailed his car into the crowd at one race. He wasn’t quite the same after that one and ended up getting killed at Thompson Speedway in the next season. Another driver I interviewed, Dave Furioni, from Agawam, MA, was making his big comeback. He was one of those people that I immediately connected with. A good guy with a good soul doing what he loved.

During race day we chatted and he told me how much he appreciated the story I had written about him. His heat came up and as the green flag came down the field took off for the first turn. As everyone slowed to negotiate the turn, you could hear his engine roaring as the stuck throttle launched his car into the first turn wall. He died on impact. I called the editor to find out what to do. “You are the man on the scene, you need to get the story.” There was a wake like atmosphere in the pits. I went to try to talk to anyone about what had happened, I saw one of his friends, a driver whom I had interviewed my times before. He took one look at me and turned away not wanting to have any part of it. More tragedy followed as the beloved many time national champion Richie Evans lost his life soon afterward at the Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.

I wish this scene took place when I was little older. I was a kid still in party mode. I didn’t need to be around death, and negativity, especially if it wasn’t paying much. I wanted to hang with my friends and see the Grateful Dead. I wish Dad had slapped me in the side of the head and said “Grow up and be a man, deal with it.” But that wasn’t his style. He supported my decision to quit working at the paper. I enrolled at Johnson Wales College and embarked on a career in culinary arts. It wasn’t until I hit my forties and my Mid-life crisis that Dad divulged the information that I was the best they had, covering Riverside. I never failed to make the early edition with the results of the Feature event written in a concise, fact filled and interesting style, three points the editor at the time perpetually failed to see or acknowledge. Being a recovering alcoholic perhaps he should have placed some principles before personalities. But he could never control the rumblings of nepotism being the only reason for my existence as a writer in that department. When I left, he sent out seasoned reporters with 15 years experience, who failed repeatedly to make the First Edition deadline.

Sorry, Dad, I don’t blame you for the path I chose, but that is a conversation we should have had the day after Dave Furoni got killed in that first heat as Aldo Cella looked on in horror after ceremonially dropping the green flag.

But the writing didn't end there. I still wrote. Devoting my writing time to more personal interests. There is a book in the works, and I write for the Drunk Stuntmen on a regular basis. And Now I am doing this.

Dad reads my stuff, online, I just wish It didn't make him and my Mom cry so much. The other day, he made a point to tell me, once again, that I was the best they ever had covering Riverside. He also noted that the blog titled We Gotta Get Back...To the Chicken Shack was worthy of publication as a column in any daily newspaper. It feels so good to hear him say that, especially after all of the heart ache and disappointment I have caused him in recent years, years where I should have been prospering and planning for the future. But all is not lost, I am alive and being creative. With his encouragement and the encouragement of others, perhaps I will get paid to write, one more time.

As far as the encouragement of others, I want to thank F. Alex Johnson for his support and critique during this renaissance I have experienced, through writing. You have been an inspiration to me and so many others. It was words and ideas which I read at "Fearless By Default" which prompted me to take a look at my past and realize that I have not been wasting my time, I just haven't written about it yet.

Coming up next....."In this Corner...From Parts Unknown" The tale of my first professional writing assignment.

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