May 1979 was a long time ago. More than 38 years ago, in fact. I was still in the Army, although I’d come back from Germany to finish the last 14 months of a four-year enlistment with duty at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I’d started off as a print journalist in the Army, writing an unfunny humor column and long feature stories, mainly because my interests veered away from the Five W’s and H of hard news (Who, what, when, where, why and, if possible, how) and more toward the illustrative anecdote and the quirky quote.
(Here, I’d like to disabuse the reader of the notion I haven’t progressed as a writer from the age of 20. Now, the anecdotes I use are not chosen for any higher purpose than because I want to write about them. There’s no illustrating going on behind the scenes. Instead, I’m like an artist who’d once shown the ability to create a picture reminiscent of, say, a bowl of fruit, but who now just loves to smear paint on a canvas, hoping something interesting will appear.)
After something terrible happened to me in November, 1978, and I was still stationed Germany, I discovered I couldn’t write non-fiction anymore, or at least couldn’t write with the verve and energy I’d shown before. Being a non-writing newspaper reporter didn’t seem like a winning proposition, so I got temporary duty cleaning out a just-past World-War-II-era military chapel. There, I pilfered a box of “combat New Testaments” with a message from President Roosevelt, a box I sold to a book dealer in Boston for a tidy sum five years later. But, as always, I digress.
I’d been a temporary chaplain’s assistant for six months when I got orders sending me to Leonard Wood, about a hundred miles south of St. Louis and in the Ozark Mountains. The base newspaper at Leonard Wood didn’t know they were getting a reporter who didn’t write anything but poetry and fiction, neither genre particularly useful in covering, say, the transition to power of a new base commander. I was lucky, though, to discover my first day there a tiny recording booth with an even smaller soldier inside it. Ernie was a short-timer, who had only 27 days left until discharge, and his job was to read five minutes of “news” about Fort Leonard Wood into a microphone attached to a reel-to-reel tape recorder. (I told you this was a long time ago.) I use the quotation marks around news because Ernie’s “show” (there I go again) was a matter of reading announcements like “The Fort Leonard Wood Chapter of Toastmasters International will have its regular Tuesday meeting tomorrow, Tuesday, at Godfather’s Pizza on Perimeter Road. That’s Tuesday at noon at Godfather’s for Toastmasters.” The information in each announcement was repeated at least twice, because Ernie’s “Fort Leonard Wood Today” was a morning drive-time staple of both the local AM radio stations, KJPW and KFBD. Folks somehow involved with the base couldn’t be expected to listen to every word, and needed to be alerted to each subject a couple times.
Ernie would spend his mornings shooting the breeze with his civilian supervisor, Ken Clayton, and constructing his script, which varied little each day, then tape the five-minute show twice, once for each station, and leave the base around 3 pm to drop off the tapes, careful to pick that morning’s used show, so the tape could be magnetically erased to be used the next day. All in all, Ernie had a pretty sweet gig, and I set about to inherit it.
Before I’d given up writing, I’d been nominated for some awards in Europe, which says as much about the paucity of writing ability in an all-volunteer peacetime army as it does about my gifts. Still, awards, even unawarded awards, look impressive on paper, and Jeff, the base newspaper editor, had nothing but paper to examine before I arrived. He was a gung-ho E-5 (a Spec Five, the pay equivalent of a sergeant) and I was an E-5 as well, although lacking any desire to read the base paper, much less transform it into an award winner. As a non-writing reporter, the equivalent of a broken-armed pitcher, I just wanted to play out my contract and move on with life. Ernie’s job, open in less than a month, seemed like a perfect pasture for me. Jeff, whose wife was a reporter as well, had different ideas. He tried to convince me we could do great things together. I said I preferred solitary mediocrity. He told me I could choose my beat. I said I’d never liked Kerouac, so I’d Lawrence Ferlingetti. He asked me what I was talking about. I told him all I wanted to do was radio, that I’d listened to radio since I was a kid, and that Ernie’s job was the perfect entrée into the field.
“Radio,” he said. “Radio’s dying. Why would you want to go into radio when you can be a newspaper reporter?”
(I told you this was a long time ago.)
“I like radio,” I said firmly, “because radio is what I like.”
Unable to respond to such iron-clad logic, Jeff released me from the newspaper, and I became, for my last 14 months in the Army, the voice of “Fort Leonard Wood Today.” Because Jeff had let me go, I did him a favor shortly before I was discharged, and managed to write one piece, submitted to Army Times and printed there. Somehow it was a feather in his cap to have my byline in the Army’s paper of record. I told you I could only write fiction, and that’s what this story was, really. It was an over-the-top glowing description of the college classes available on base—all by Drury College, which may be defunct now. In a classic bit of irony, I began the story with hyper-hyperbole: “Fort Leonard Wood, although lacking Socrates, Plato or a non-PX marketplace, is known locally as the ‘Athens of the Ozarks.’”
If I’d been on radio, I would have laughed out loud, but writing kept my face straight.