Saturday, August 22, 2015

Time Was

                            Major Award
    Print journalism is seriously addicted to major awards.
    Which is how and why so many newspapers have a designated Contest Editor charged with tracking and entering various newspaper awards -- ranging from the Pulitzer Prize to the Good News Awards.

    It's been nearly a half-century since I won my first award.
    The first story I covered that day was about a black man buried alive while digging a sewer line. They were pulling his body  from the mud when i got there.
     He was still wearing work gloves. They were old and tattered, and his fingers stuck through in several placess. His eyes were open and filled with dirt. His dark skin was turning blue gray from death.
    I took several pictures of how it was with by 4-by-5 Speed Graphic press camera, warming my hands with the spent flash bulbs.
    This was my first job with a newspaper. It was a small daily in northern Ohio. my wife was pregnant with our first child and I was earning minimum wage covering barn fires, Washington's Birthday sidewalk sales and cigar-infested small town council meetings.
    Most of us shot our own black-and-white photos, souped the film and printed the pictures. Then we wrote our stories.
    The dead man was wearing a ragged Army field jacked and muddy work pants, the crotch wet from where he urinated in death.
    You could smell the odor that happens when some people die. The chatter of police radios merged with the song of distant birds.
     It was Spring. Easter was several weeks away, but the newspaper was already filling with ads.
     I got  the man's name and the rest of it from one of the cops.

     "Nigger never knew what hit him," the cop said.
     "It just happened,," the construction foreman said. "The ground's pretty tricky  after it thaws."
      I drove back to the office. It was too late for the afternoon Final, so I made several prints of the rescue workers lifting the dean man from the earth.
      I showed my photographs to the city editor.
      "One of them reminds me of a 15th century Italian painting of them lifting Jesus from the cross," I said.
      "That and a dime will buy you a cup of coffee at Virg Robert's Smoke Shop,": the city editor said.
      All this was in 1960 when coffee was only a dime.

      Then it was noon and I was eating the hamburger-and-fries special at the W.T. Grant lunch counter when the Society Editor came in and said the Portage County Sheriffs had found a found the body of a young girl who'd gone missing for months.
      The Society Editor was a fat woman with several large hairs on her chin. She wrote a lot about Job's Daughters, the Grange, and  local folks having visitors from the next county. 
       The girl's body had been discovered in by several high school kids from Ravenna who'd cut school to go fishing. The girl's bones were brownish gray like old driftwood, and scattered among fallen leaves.
        "Animals must of got into her," one of the deputies said.

        Her skull was off to one side with a hole in it. You could still see most of her brown hair. But time and the weather had turned it the color of old rope.
        There was no clothing with her bones.
        One of the  detectives figured she'd been stripped and murdered someplace else.
         I  took several shots of the men standing around under the trees. It was warmer now and easier to work the camera.

         "Don't look at me,"  I said. "Look at the bones."
           That night, I was watching Jackie Gleason when they called me at home. It was a sergeant on the second shift.  
            "We got a fatality in front of the Big Boy Restaurant," he said. "A salesman  from Akron drove into the back of a steel truck and decapitated himself."              
             Jackie was doing Ralph the bartender with Frankie Fountaine talking crazy like he usually does. 
             I called he newspaper office. Nobody answered.
             "Just don't go to the Stag Bar when you're done," my wife said.
            She was eight months pregnant, moody and big as a house.
             The steel truck had stopped before turning in the Big Boy. A bunch of steel rods on the back of the truck had decapitated the dead guy.
             "He never even hit the brakes," one of the Big Boy guys said. "Sounded like a bomb going off."
             The priest from St. Patrick's arrived.    
              I took a bunch of shots using using high speed Tri-X black-and-white film.
             "Anybody check his wallet?" I asked, looking for a name.

              ""Messed up as he is, we're gonna wait for the body guys," my sergeant friend said. "Might as well have some of pie and coffee at  Big Boys while we wait."
              I got home around midnight. My wife smelled my breath.
              "I only had a couple," I said. "To unwind."
               They named me Employee of the Month  for the three stories I wrote that day. Which got me a small trophy and a $10 gift certificate good for anything but beer, wine or cigarettes at Ferrara's Super Market.
               That was my first award. I've won a few more since. Most of the time it was the same: Bad things happened and I got a trophy for it.
               Oh yes.
               I wrote this years ago as a column for the Sun-Sentinel's Sunday magazine.
              Which pissed off Gene Cryer the newspaper's editor.
              Because I'd used the N word.
              But then Gene Cryer was how and why I stopped writing a column for the Sun-Sentinel.

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