Sunday, February 19, 2017

‘Our Beautiful Tower’

On the morning of August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the observation deck of the University of Texas at Austin with a cache of weapons and started shooting.

Whitman’s killing spree, probably America’s first mass shooting, would leave 17 people dead and 31 others injured.

It was an incredible, shocking moment in this country’s history and it is the subject of Keith Maitland’s riveting documentary, Tower, which PBS broadcast last week.

“It was not something you’d expect from our beautiful tower,” one woman says about the incident years later.

I have to be honest--I sobbed so much during this film I must’ve gone through an entire box of tissues.

Using a combination of old news footage, current interviews, and rotoscope animation, Maitland tells the survivors’ shocking stories of what happened over the course of 96 horrific minutes.

There’s Alex Hernandez, who was shot off his bicycle as he delivered newspapers; and Allen Crum, a manager of the University Book Store Co-op, who offered to help the police stop the slaughter and who ended up on the observation deck with a rifle in his hands.

We hear from Claire Wilson, who was eight pregnant at the time, and who, along with her boyfriend, Thomas Eckman were shot as they left the UT student union.

Eckman was killed instantly as he tried to help Claire, who lay there bleeding in the near 100-degree heat in this suddenly formed No Man’s Land.

One woman tells the filmmakers that “on that day I knew I was a coward” because she didn’t put herself in harm’s way to help the wounded. Wanting to live is hardly cowardice, but this atrocity did spark some incredible displays of courage.

There’s an amazing woman named Rita Starpattern, who ran out to help Claire Wilson, got down on her stomach and kept the bleeding woman talking so she wouldn’t loss consciousness.

And there was John "Artly" Fox, just 17 years old at the time, who with a friend, ran out and helped carry Claire Wilson to safety.

The film includes news footage of Fox and his friend running with the wounded woman as his glasses slide off his face.

Body Count

And we hear from Ramiro "Ray" Martinez and Houston McCoy, two Austin cops who killed Whitman and ended the carnage.

I was 9 years old when the tower massacre happened and I have vague memories of the adults talking about it, including my dad, who spoke about “a fat guy who ran out to help people.”

Tower includes an on-the-scene interview with a heavyset fellow—and Vietnam vet—who rescued some of the victims. This man, with bloodstains clearly visible on his shirt, carried Thomas Eckman and he told the reporter that he knew Eckman was the dead the second he picked him up.

Toward the end of the film, the interviews shift from animation to modern day footage of the survivors, an incredible bit of editing that brings these people and their words brilliantly to life.

Claire Wilson lost her baby and even though the doctors said she could have children, she wasn’t able to conceive and eventually adopted a boy from Ethiopia.

And as much as she loves this child, now a grown man, she also talks about having a dream where she’s holding the baby she lost, who’s alive and well.

“And then I look away and when I look down he’s gone,” she says.

Rita Starpattern died in 1996; she was just 50 years old.

Houston McCoy died in 2012 and even late in life his cracked as he expressed regret for not running into the tower immediately upon his arrival and taking on the gunman himself.

Billy Speed, an Austin cop who was killed that day, and a lot of others would be alive, McCoy says.

“Woulda, coulda,” he adds, clearly still in pain.

In 2016, 50 years to the goddamn day of the tower shootings, the Campus Carry law went into effect, allowing licensed gun owners to carry concealed handguns at public universities in Texas.

One of those speaking out against this madness was Ray Martinez, who faced that psychopath.

“Let the police do the policing,” he said.

After the massacre, people expressed shock and outrage, of course, although back then they had no idea that mass shootings would become so frequent in America--Orlando, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Virginia Tech--that you would need an Excel spreadsheet to keep them straight in your mind.

It was a different time and this was not something you’d expect from our beautiful country.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Blast Site

We heard about the fire from the mailman who had stopped by the office that morning to make a delivery.

It was July 21, 1987 and a propane gas explosion had ripped through the block on 50th Street and 18th Avenue.

I was working for the Bay Ridge Home Reporter, a neighborhood weekly, and I was assigned to cover the blast. It was one of my first big stories.

The smoke from the explosion and resulting fire rose high over this Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. I had never seen so many fire engines, police cars, ambulances and news vans in my life.

I was just getting over a nasty summer cold, but I forgot about that as I joined a group of reporters who were penned in an impromptu press area that was formed by two police barriers.

All I could see was smoke and rubble. I broke out the paper’s Polaroid camera—yes, seriously--and began snapping pictures.

In a case of excruciatingly bad timing, I ran out of film just as a firefighter staggered away from the flames, tumbled on to a stretcher and put an oxygen mask to his face. He was wheeled away before I got a chance to load a fresh cartridge.

A police captain told us that four people had been killed when the explosion ripped through a plumbing supply store. One of the victims was some poor guy on his way to work who had walked by the store at the wrong time. Another victim was due to get married in the fall.

Eleven people had been injured as flying debris blew out windows and tore into people waiting at a nearby bus stop. Twelve cops and a dozen firefighters were also injured.

And at some point I was peering through the lens for another shot when the cops to decided to relocate the press zone.

Without saying a word to me they moved the barriers and suddenly I was unknowingly standing in No Man’s Land.

I felt someone tug on my shirt and a cop was saying, “get behind the barricade!”

Well, shit, I thought I was behind the barricade. I quickly got in line with the other reporters and I was fortunate enough to stand next to a veteran journalist from Newsday.

I watched him flag down a young Hasidic man from Hatzolah, a volunteer ambulance service, and pump him for details about the explosion.

Page One News

“Now, I want to make Hatzolah look good,” he said.

I was a little surprised by his bluntness as I had thought reporters were supposed to ask questions and not make deals. I was new to journalism but I soon learned that sometimes you’ve got to schmooze a little bit to get a story.

I interviewed a young EMT named Isaac and got some good color for my story. And then I raced back to the paper to write. The story was all over the local news broadcasts that night.

I went to the site the next day to for a follow-up and the block looked like a war zone. I interviewed two sanitation workers who had pulled people from the rubble and then I spoke with a fellow whom I would have to describe as your classic New York little old Jewish man.

He was telling me about what he had seen when one of us stepped off the sidewalk and onto to the street. Instantly this incredibly short cop came running over to us waving his arms.

“Get back on the sidewalk,” he yelled, as if we had knocked over a bank. “Get back on the sidewalk!”

We did as we were told and my companion waited until the police officer was out of earshot before he spoke.

“That’s a cop?” he asked. “That’s a midget!

We spoke for a little while longer and then I had to get back to the office.

“Is it okay if I ask your name?” I said rather awkwardly.

The old timer looked surprised.

“What am I, a gangster?” he said. “I shouldn’t give my name?”

I’m sorry to say I forgot that man’s name, but I still remember him.

It turned out the propane tanks were being kept in the store’s basement illegally and the owner received several summonses. I don’t know how the case was settled, but whatever happened, it didn’t make the victims any less dead.

A short time later I was sitting in a deli with some friends who wanted to know about the explosion, so I gave them my firsthand account. I have to say it felt pretty good being the center of attention.

I went on to cover many more disasters over the years, including a gas explosion that destroyed a church. I got accustomed to interviewing cops, firefighters, eyewitnesses and victims who had lost every single thing they owned.

Sometimes I tell myself I miss covering all the mayhem, but after years of business reporting, I think I’ll leave the ambulance chasing to somebody else.

But it sure was a hell of a ride.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Airport Run

I came bounding out of PS 102 one afternoon many years ago dying to tell my parents the great news.

This was kindergarten around 1962 and I had just made local history by proudly printing my name.

My mother and father were waiting for me in my dad’s car, and I climbed in the back seat, breathlessly reporting how I had spelled “R-O-B-E-R-T.”

And then I showed them the paper I was clutching as irrefutable evidence of this tremendous event.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” my mother said. “Now you just have to learn how to print ‘Lenihan.’”

I was confused. I had just reached the plateau by cranking out my first name, the only one I ever used. It’s not like I was writing checks or signing contracts. Why complicate things?

I eventually caught on that I would need the surname to get through life and a short time later I actually was writing checks and signing contracts. And it hasn’t stopped since.

But what I remember most about that day was seeing my parents waiting outside school for me. Of course I didn’t appreciate it at that time. I was young and I naturally thought Mom and Dad would always be waiting for me.

Twenty-five years later I was coming home from a three-week vacation in Europe. I’d had a great time seeing the sites in Paris, Rome, and Munich, but I’d grown weary of visiting yet another museum, yet another old church. And I missed my family.

We had no Internet or cell phones back then, so I only spoke with my parents a handful of times during the entire trip.

Cleared for Takeoff

I had booked charter flights in and out of JFK, which were cheaper, but not long on customer service. They were like flying cattle cars to be perfectly honest.

I flew out of Munich and expected a brief layover in Shannon Airport in Ireland, which was supposed to have a fantastic duty-free shop.

But we didn’t stop at Shannon. We kept on going, over the Atlantic and landed in Gander, Canada. It seemed like such a desolate, barren place and I wanted to leave as quickly as possible.

My Uncle Walter had been a bomber pilot in WWII, back when Gander was a refueling stop for transatlantic flights, and he later told me that he’d had some great times there before taking off for Europe. I’d found that hard difficult to believe given my brief experience with the place.

Gander would later become a crucial landing area on September 11, when dozens of planes were forced to land at Gander International.

The people from Gander and the surrounding towns stepped up and took in more than 6,600 passengers and airline crewmembers.

When we flew out of Gander I had no idea that the crap-ass airline I was traveling with hadn’t been keeping the people back at JFK informed about the plane’s progress, so I didn’t know that my parents were quite worried about me.

We reached New York an hour late and we shared a terminal with a plane that had just arrived from Kingston, Jamaica, which made it easy for me to find my parents as they kind of stuck out in the crowd.

It was lovely seeing them and it felt like I had been away for a long time. They were a little older now than they were back on that day in kindergarten, of course, but I couldn’t wait to tell them about my trip.

My parents are have been gone for years, and now I have to hire someone to pick me up from the airport whenever I fly. It makes me miss them even more and realize how lucky I was to have them.

And when I make my last trip in this life I hope their smiling faces will be the first things I see when I arrive.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Unbought and Unbossed

Shirley Chisholm, we need you now more than ever.

Forty-five years ago this month, an African-American woman from Brooklyn announced that she was running for President of the United States.

I have this faint memory of seeing Shirley Chisholm on the old Eyewitness News show calling upon her fellow Americans to join her in “an effort to reshape our society and regain control of our destiny as we go down the Chisholm Trail for 1972.”

Obviously she didn’t have a prayer of winning, but the fact that a minority woman had stepped forward and declared her candidacy for the highest office in the land was an incredible moment in this country’s history.

I had the distinct privileged of interviewing Shirley Chisholm sometime around 1990 when I was a reporter at the Pocono Record.

She was staying at one of the area resorts and I was lucky enough to be sent down there to speak with her. I’m from Brooklyn and I had grown up watching her on TV, so it was a thrill to meet her.

I reminded her of her presidential announcement and that line about going down the Chisholm Trail.

“You remember that?” She laughed. “You must’ve been so young.”

Yes, I was, but I never forgot that moment. This was a time when presidential candidates were Caucasian males and Caucasian males only. But Ms. Chisholm said she ran for the office "in spite of hopeless odds ... to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the
status quo."

Harsh Times

The Seventies was such a volatile time in America—the Vietnam War was raging on, there were riots on college campuses all over the country, and Richard Nixon was busy spying on his political enemies.

And Shirley Chisholm was in the middle of it all. I reminded her of a raucous Democratic State Committee meeting in the Catskills in 1970 when Ms. Chisholm demanded that the ticket have a black candidate.

“Get off the stage!” someone shouted.

“You come down and get me off!” Ms. Chisholm responded.

I told her that I had also seen this confrontation on TV, and I mentioned that no one had taken her up on her offer.
“No takers!” she said with a smile.

I was so happy to speak with her. She was strong, determined, and decent. Her early campaign slogan—and also the title of her autobiography--was “Unbought and Unbossed,” and that’s just what this country needs—back then and especially now.

“I have a firm belief in myself and unshakeable faith in God,” she told me.

She radiated this incredible energy and she bemoaned the apathy that gripped America at the time.

I can only imagine what she’d think about the current political situation where the president is a racist reality show star determined the undo the Constitution. I wonder what she would have to say about “alternative facts.”

Shirley Chisholm retired to Florida in 1991 and she died January 1, 2005. I’m so grateful I had a chance to meet her and I just wish we had more people like her who demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rainy Day Children

It was the first day of school, the rain was falling, and a little girl named Patricia was crying her eyes out.

That random recollection came floating through my mind the other day, possibly roused by a recent review of my Catholic school posts. Apparently I knocked it off a shelf in my memory and it just started playing.

Patricia was a classmate of mine, a scrawny, pale child who seemed to be getting into trouble throughout the entire first grade.

She pulled some stunt on me once—pushed my crayons to the floor or some such childhood version of a capital offense--and I decided that she was evil incarnate and could never be forgiven.

We had all heard she had been left back and would have to repeat the first grade, and yet there she was, sitting with the rest of us in our second year at Our Lady of Angels Catholic School.

And then the voices started.

One of the girls told the sister that Patricia had been left back and several other kids quickly joined the chorus.

“She’s not supposed to be here,” they all said.

Patricia looked around the room in terror as the accusations piled up around her.

I don’t honestly remember if I joined in with the others, but I was definitely with them in spirit; we had an intruder in our midst and she had to be exposed.

And that’s when Patricia started crying, louder and louder as the nun in charge escorted her out of the classroom.

This particular sister was surprisingly restrained upon learning of the child’s chicanery and spoke to her softly—as opposed to smacking the kid into a coma and throwing her under a speeding locomotive.

This Way Out

“Now, now,” she said to Patricia. “It’s already raining outside, we can’t have rain inside, too.”

She deserved it, I thought, she’s a liar and a cheater. I went home and told my parents about how bad Patricia had been caught and driven out of class on a rail.

But they didn’t react like I thought they would.

“The poor thing,” my mother said. “That’s terrible.”

Terrible? No, she had it coming. She didn’t belong in our class. And I still hadn’t forgotten about that crayon incident.
“Those kids should’ve kept quite,” my dad said.

I didn’t begin to understand their logic. Patricia was trying to crash the second grade; she deserved to be punished. Why were they so sympathetic to a blatant fraud?

But then my mom and dad had lived through the Depression and the Second World War, so they knew what real evil, real hardship looked like. And, as loving parents, they were angered and upset at the thought of any child suffering.

I was completely confused at the time, but I see now that my parents were right. We should’ve kept our mouths shut that day.

All Patricia had done was try to get ahead any way she could. If she were a Wall Street broker she’d be hailed as a genius and if she were a politician we’d put her in the fucking White House.

The school staff would’ve discovered her scam soon enough. It wasn’t necessary for us to play Hitler Youth.

Patricia’s breakdown rolled right off me that day like rain on stainless steel, but all these decades later I can hear her sobbing and it cuts right through my heart.

I never saw Patricia again and though it means absolutely nothing now, I’d just want to say that I’m sorry for what we did to you. I’m sorry you were humiliated like that.

And I hope you’ve had a happy life with plenty of joy, much love, and very few rainy days.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Future Tense

Imagine a world where the air is so foul that people are forced to live underground.

And imagine that America is a fascist state run like a corporation with a slew of vice-presidents.

In 1971 author Philip Wylie imagined such a world in a script for the NBC series The Name of the Game.

The show centered on a magazine publisher, an editor, and a crusading reporter, but this particular episode took a sharp turn into science fiction.

And what was the title of this show?

LA: 2017.”

Yes, exactly, the hideous world depicted in the program takes place…now.

I watched the show when it was first broadcast on January 15, 1971—46 flipping years ago today--and it floated back into my memory last week when I should’ve been doing something else.

I immediately began searching for some background on the show and I learned this episode was directed by a young man named Steven Spielberg, who I believe has been fairly successful in the movie business.

The story involves the magazine publisher, played by Gene Barry, who is driving home from a conference on ecology when he passes out behind the wheel and wakes up in the eponymous dystopia.

Prior to keeling over, Barry is dictating a memo to the president, warning that the threat to the environment is so serious “it could be the beginning of the end of the earth as we know it.”

And I Feel Fine...

For a detailed description of the show, you may want to take a look at John Kenneth Muir’s Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV.

My memory of the show is quite hazy, not surprising, I suppose, given all those years. I recall Gene Barry waking up in the polluted planet, a terrorist bombing, and not much else.

I also read a novelization of the script written by Wylie, but I remember even less about that.

While the program was ahead of its time in many ways, it does look somewhat creaky now, judging by what I on found on YouTube, like an excruciating scene with some aging hippies.

But it’s easy to look back and mock the past. The show did highlight the dangers of pollution, but clearly we didn’t get the message.

On Friday, a deranged “businessman” who claims climate change is a scam invented by the Chinese will be sworn in as the President of the United States.

All of a sudden being driven underground by polluted air doesn’t seem so farfetched.

There’s a scene in “LA 2017” where Gene Barry berates the vice president for maintaining a totalitarian state, but the VP asks why didn’t the wealthy publisher do something to prevent this twisted world from happening when he had the chance back in 1971.

Why, indeed.

I have very little hope for our environment, our economy, or our democracy as this new gang takes over the government.

Already there’s talk of shutting out reporters from the White House and the President-elect can’t seem to hold a press conference without a gang of goons cheering on his every move.

We’re heading into some very rough days, I fear, and we’re a lot closer to the end of the earth as we know it than we were way back in 1971.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Freeze and Thank You

I thought the library was supposed to be quiet.

I went to the Bay Ridge Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on Friday in search of some heat. Not in the form of racy novels, mind you, but real heat, as in the hot air that keeps you from freezing your ass off.

The heat in my building had gone belly up the night before and since I work from home, my office was getting chillier by the moment.

The repair guy got it running for a short time early Friday morning and I made the mistake of celebrating too soon, thus encouraging Fate, Karma, or whoever the hell controls the eternal thermostat to snort and shout “that’s what you think, skinhead!” before promptly shutting the boiler down again.

No problem, I told myself. I’ll just grab my laptop, skedaddle over to the neighborhood reading room and do my job on the fly.

Hell, I’ve written stories in airport terminals and hotel lobbies and conducted phone interviews in speeding taxies. The library is also where I developed my reading habit as a child, so this gig would be a bit of a homecoming.

Okay, well, it didn’t quite work out that way. First of all, the place was crowded and I had trouble getting a seat. Then there was a small army of toddlers running, screaming, and crying in all directions.

And on top of that there was a lady conducting an English conversation group for them what don’t know how to talk right.

But I accepted all that, particularly in light of that fact that I was feeling actual warmth. I knew I could handle the noise.

However the real problem was with my laptop, and more specifically…me. I had trouble getting into my company email account, which meant I couldn’t communicate with my editors or file my stories.

It’s the Latest, It’s the Greatest

You have signed out, the message on my screen read.

"No, shmuck, I didn’t sign out," I growled at the inanimate object.

True to form, my mind started churning out all these awful scenarios of missing deadline and getting in trouble. And then some little kid went completely over the wall and start screaming to hell and back.

This must’ve been the first time in my life that I ever wanted to be in an office.

I began cursing at my laptop, a habit I picked up from my Italian grandmother who used to tell the TV to shut up whenever it got on her nerves.

Finally I’d had enough. I was undoubtedly annoying people around me by adding to the noise level, so I slammed down the lid on my laptop and hightailed it back my igloo.

On the way home I grumbled about how unfair it all was and I reminded myself that the New Year wasn’t a week old yet and already I was giving the anger management resolution a hernia.

Anger really has become a habit with me and I could hear myself fuming about how awful everything was knowing full well that I really wasn’t as pissed as I sounded.

It was like I was playing a part rather than reacting with my true feelings.

My ongoing dread of technology is part of the problem, but only a small part. It’s this addiction to rage that I want to quell.

Anyway, I got to my apartment, kept on the sweater and the ski hat and got cranking on my stories.

The heat came back on at about 3:30pm and it stayed on this time, which is good as we had a snowstorm on Saturday and brutally freezing temperatures tonight.

And now I’m thinking of a homeless I see most mornings when I go to the gym who sleeps at the base of a street lamp at Broadway and Vesey Street.

He’s huddled under some rags with only a piece of cardboard separating him from the freezing concrete. I’m sure he’d be very happy to have a roof over his head, with or without the heat.

If I see him on Tuesday, I’ll be sure to say a prayer and put a dollar in his cup.