Proof

I’ve been dragging this story out for too long. The point is that if you think you’ll never get a good journalism job because you’ve never had a good journalism job, you’re wrong. In 1982, I’d had exactly two newspaper jobs, one for a dreary energy-management weekly trade paper,  and one for The Anchorage Times, a genuinely wretched daily in a pretty interesting place. When we left off, I had just broken camp on a solo camping trip in the Chugach Moutains outside Anchorage because I could see a huge snowstorm coming to bury me alive. I’d raced back to Anchorage and cooked a big paella for Barbara, a woman in whom I was interested, and her adorable three-year-old daughter, Julie. Barbara was doing the dishes as the October blizzard pounded the cheap little condo I was renting. Julie and I were playing horsey on the rug. Cue the telephone.  

“Is this Dan Baum?” said a gruff male voice that sounded fed up. My first thought was: cop. 

I said I was Dan Baum.

“Yeah, this is Mike Malloy at the Asian Wall Street Journal* in Hong Kong,” the gruff voice went on, “I guess I gotta give you a fuckin’ job. I can’t stand looking at these fuckin’ red envelopes every week.”**

No discernible talent, no desirable experience, and I’d just landed my dream job at a high-prestige paper in an exotic part of the world. All it took was a stack of purloined red envelopes and a willingness to be a persistent nuisance for about six months. 

So if you’re whining that you can’t get a job in journalism because you lack experience, stop that now and get to work. 

*now called The Wall Street Journal, Asia edition.

**We’re still in touch. He asks me to retell that story every time we meet and, chuckling, always asks, “Did I really say that?” 

 

Alaska for real

One weekend in October, I parked at the bottom of the Chugach Mountains, just outside Anchorage, threw on my pack, and started up. The Chugach are largely covered by tundra, which is spongy under the feet and which turns out to be not one plant but be a salad of many tiny interwoven plants, each turning a different color in the fall and thus turning the tundra into an infinite Persian carpet. I didn’t have to lug that barbell of a rifle because I’d ditched it for a single-action .44 Magnum revolver as long as my forearm that rode my hip effortlessly.

Topping a gentle false summit, I found two big brown hummocks on the far slope, about fifty feet away. Then I noticed they were moving. Grizzlies. A sow and a yearling, blithely nuzzling berries out of the tundra. I put my hand on the big revolver. It was instantly obvious that it would be effective only if I was firing it while already in a bear’s stomach. A gust of cold north wind hit me in the face; what saved my life that day was that the wind was coming from the bears to me instead of the other way around. I backed away.

An hour later I made a nice little campsite on a north-facing cliff overlooking Persian carpet stretched out to the north horizon. Though I could think about nothing but bears, and kept looking around as though guarding my pockets on a subway, a more immediate threat loomed.  A heavy lid of charcoal clouds sat atop the far horizon, but strangely, the swirls of yellow, red, and light blue in the tundra below were not thrown into dark shadow; they appeared to be turning white.

That was a snowstorm out there, and as I watched it I could see its straight front edge galloping across the valley toward me. Ten minutes away, max.

That storm may have saved my life earlier when it pushed scent from the bears to me instead of the other way around, but if I stayed put, it was going to cover me with wet snow and, all alone up here and ignorant of Alaska’s ways, I could find myself in real trouble. As fast as I could, I dismantled the tent, stuffed the sleeping bag, and started quick-timing down the mountains. By the time I reached my car, I was fighting a full-on blizzard. On the way home, I stopped at a supermarket and used its pay phone to call Barbara and invite her and Julie to dinner. It’s fun to share bad weather.

It became the heaviest winter storm I’d ever experienced, and it was only mid-October. The wind whistled through the leaky windows of my cheap apartment, and snow drifted so deeply against my front door that about thirty pounds of it tumbled comically onto my floor when I opened the door for Barbara and Julie.

Paella was the fancy thing I cooked in those days, and I’d made a huge one for the three of us. We ate, drank wine, and while Barbara washed dishes, Julia and I played horsey on the thin, stained carpet.

The phone rang. I answered it.

 

Think you have nothing to offer? 4

This is part four of a series. Parts 1-3 are below. I suggest reading this series from the start. 

Being a reporter for The Anchorage Times turned out to be the way an airline pilot once explained his profession to me — hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of sheer panic. Most of the work was dreary small-city stuff: a new ice cream shop opening, a speech by a visiting Danish dignitary, school board…. For a place supposedly as wild and wooly as Anchorage, Alaska, the reality was pretty tame.

The “seconds of sheer panic” that punctuated the boredom were more like days of genuine adventure. My editors insisted I accept an Arco-funded junket to the North Slope, to write a story about  what life aboard an Arctic offshore oil rig was like. (The Times was the oil-industry shill, remember. We wrote the stories Big Oil wanted us to write.) Life aboard an arctic rig was amazingly deluxe, with a heated swimming pool and both steak and lobster on the menu every night.) The best part of that trip was suiting up for the helicopter ride out to the rig. They put me in a gigantic red neoprene suit made me look and feel like a Teletubby but that they said would keep me afloat, warm, and visible in the ice-punctuated sea for a few hours in case the chopper had to ditch en route. Finally, I was having some fun as a reporter in Alaska. But I kept sending those red envelopes Hong Kong. Every Friday, into one went my stories of the week with the same note: “I remain eager to be a reporter on your staff should an opening occur.” As it turned out, I could have been stuffing those red envelopes with toilet paper for all it mattered.

 

Nothing to Offer a Paper? 3

This is Part Three of a series. Parts One and Two are immediately below. If you haven’t already, please read those first.

It’s a long flight from New York to Anchorage, and upon arrival at about midnight, I walked outside, blinking and squinting, into sunshine and birdsong. It was about May 1, and the days were eerily long in the way I remembered from my time in West Berlin (which is about as far north as Juneau. )

The Anchorage Times newsroom, when I reached it at nine the next morning, wasn’t much bigger than that of Energy User News but it was jammed with male and female reporters who seemed uncommonly friendly toward the new guy. I sat among them and answered questions: Where had I worked before? Why did I want to work  here? 

“Well,” I said, Alaska is inherently interesting, and you won that Pulitzer Prize. Let me see the story. It must be quite something.”

A queer silence descended. Finally, a slightly older reporter broke it. “That was the other paper,” he said. “You want the Anchorage Daily News.” 

I had applied to the wrong newspaper. And now, having invested the time and money to move here from New York, I was stuck with the fruit of my mistake. 

How to Get a Great Job With Nothing to Offer 2

This is part two of a series. Part One is immediately below. If you haven’t already, please read that one first.

I didn’t really expect ever to hear from The Asian Wall Street Journal. Surely, I thought, so prestigious a paper is receiving resumés and clips from genuine grown-up business reporters at big-city papers. Still, since I had access to that stack of  red envelopes, I put one in the mail to Hong Kong every Friday, stuffed with my stories from that week’s paper, along with a neatly typed letter to Mike Malloy saying that I remained eager to work for him whenever he had an opening.

In the meantime, I kept scattershooting resumes and clips to mid-sized dailies in the hopes of getting the kind of job that might make me a candidate for the kind of job that might make me a candidate for the kind of job that might make me a candidate for The Asian Wall Street Journal.

Newsroom folklore had it that the daily paper in Anchorage had won a Pulitzer Prize for a series about the Teamsters’ stranglehold on Alaska. I couldn’t google it, of course — this was 1981 — so I trundled off to the New York Public Library and sat reading bound volumes of the Anchorage Times, Alaska’s largest daily. I never found the series, but being a reporter in Alaska looked like a lot of fun: grizzly attacks! bush-plane crashes! volcanic eruptions! shipwrecks! corruption!

My father Sy, lives by a sensible rule: Ask for the order. It’s not enough to explain to a buyer the superiority of your product; at a certain point you need to say, “Can I put you down for fifty cases?” I sat at my Selectric and typed out a letter to the editor of the Anchorage Times that all but grabbed the man by the knot of his necktie. After the usual inflation of achievements and other bland throat-clearing, I made myself turn to the main course. “I would like very much to be a reporter for the Times and believe I’d do a good job,” I concluded. “May I please have a reporting position on your staff?”

I put the letter, a resumé, and some recent clips in the mail — along with my weekly red envelope to Hong Kong.

A week later rang the big black rotary phone on my desk, and a bemused-sounding man said, “You want to work here that bad, come on. We’re not going to move you or anything like that, but if you can get yourself up here to Anchorage, I’ll give you a reporter’s job on the business desk.” Bada-bing!

“I couldn’t possibly be there until morning,” I said. He laughed.

“See you whenever you arrive,” he said. “Don’t get killed getting here. That happened to us once; starting reporter hit a moose on the Al-Can Highway on his way up from the Lower 48.”

Oh man; this was going to be fun.

Whooping like a banshee, I bolted for the door, stopping briefly at the supply closet to grab another stack of red envelopes.

Think you have nothing to offer a paper?

You might think that, just out of college or having worked a non-journalism job for years, you have nothing to offer a newspaper as a reporter, but let me correct you on that. You might have no experience. You not even have any talent. But anybody, no matter how inexperienced and/or talentless, can summon a quality that editors like to see in reporters: relentlessness.

True story: I started my journalism career at the phytoplankton of newspapers — Energy User News, a weekly paper for commercial and industrial energy managers. Lower than this on the journalism prestige ladder it was not possible to go. I spent my days researching and writing about fluidized bed combustion boilers, high-efficiency heating-ventilation-and-airconditioning (HVAC) systems, and the like. I was earning $9,500 a year; even in 1981, a four-digit salary in New York City was comically low.

Newspapers occasionally ran help-wanted ads in the classifieds at the back of Editor and Publisher, the magazine of the newspaper industry,* and scouring those pages of fine print was a weekly ritual of mine. There, at the top of page 41 was this:

The Asian Wall Street Journal is always eager to hear from good reporters willing to relocate to Asia. Write to Mike Malloy, managing editor…. An address in Hong Kong followed.

I almost took an infarction. Gold strike! Hong Kong! The Wall Street Journal‘s farm team!  I’d recently finished John LeCarré’s The Honorable Schoolboy — my favorite of his many books — and my mind was full of southeast Asian intrigue. But even to think of going from a nothingburger of a paper like Energy User News to a Wall Street Journal paper was an act of almost criminal hubris. The path to the Journal led through small-town weeklies, perhaps, then to such a daily as, say, the Louisville Courier or the Anniston (Alabama) Star. But who knew? Maybe one day all of the Asian Wall Street Journal’s reporters would die in a cholera outbreak or a bus plunge, and they’d need hands. I dashed off a cover letter, calling Energy User News, “the premier monitor of the volatile energy markets,” gathered  a few recent “clips” (stories of mine clipped from the paper) and moseyed into the supply closet to steal an envelope. The first one I laid my hand on was red, and luckily, I used that one. 

 

 

*Can you imagine anything with a more pungent whiff of death than a magazine about the newspaper industry?

The Story that Made Me Fall in Love

Yesterday, I told you about falling in love with Margaret after reading an article she wrote for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Here’s that story: 

A strong wave, despair . . . tragedy at sea
Only survivor among 4 in shipwreck recalls 55 hours of panic, mistakes
Margaret L. Knox
 Staff Writer,
 Sunday 5/12/1985
TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. – A bag of food was lost in a clumsy toss toward the life raft, and a package of flares was swept away by a wave. The wreck of the Can Do, which left three men dead off the South Carolina coast last week, unfolded as a series of tragic events, according to the man who survived it.

It was to have been an eight-day snapper and grouper fishing cruise from the docks of Tybee Island to Murrells Inlet in South Carolina, said the survivor, second mate M. Gregg Palmer of Raleigh, N.C.
The four fishermen left Tybee Island on May 3. Early Sunday morning, deck hand Tommy Wood of Tybee Island awoke to find the stern of the 34- foot fishing boat flooded, the result of a “freak wave,” according to Palmer.
After that, everything went badly.
Within 55 hours, one man disappeared while swimming for help, another succumbed to dehydration and a third, surrendering to pain and despair, took off his life vest and slipped into the ocean.
It all happened under clear skies in 70-degree water. The 7-year-old Can Do, which previously had withstood hurricanes at sea, was rocked on the day of the tragedy by swells of only 4 to 8 feet.
Recalling the tragedy from his hospital bed in Charleston, S.C., last week, Palmer, 28, occasionally lapsed forgetfully into the present tense as he spoke of his dead shipmates. A novice fisherman with just a month of experience at sea, Palmer was still wondering, “Why me? Why did I survive?”
Doctors supplied some of the answers. Palmer was healthy and uninjured, and h is husky physique would have allowed him to lose 20 pounds of fat before the effort to endure the elements began to gnaw at his muscle tissue, they said. At 5-foot-9, he weighs 166 pounds, having lost 9 pounds while adrift.
The first mate, Robert Watson, 26, of Pensacola, Fla., who had lost his fishe rman father in a shipwreck, probably broke a hand and a foot while evacuating the vessel, Palmer said. Wood, 37, swallowed salt water when he fell into the ocean while trying to board the life raft.
Faith and will power also figured in Palmer’s survival formula. He had listened as two of his shipmates, babbling with hallucinations, fell into a death-hastening delirium.
“I kept catching myself at it toward the end,” said Palmer, who was rescued at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, wearing khakis and a rubber rain suit but no shirt. “I used a lot of prayer and a lot of desire to get back home.” While Wood’s family and Watson’s relatives in Pensacola were preparing for memorial services Saturday, Palmer was getting ready to leave the hospital and go straight to a meeting with his uncle, who is the Can Do’s owner and father of the lost captain, Stacey Chancey.
Al Chancey wanted to hear from Palmer every detail of the shipwreck. As Palmer has pieced it together, the chain of tragedy began about 4 a.m. Sunday when Wood awoke to find the stern deck flooded.
Within half an hour, the Can Do was swallowed by the Atlantic. In that

half hour, recalled Palmer, everything went wrong.
The crew bailed and pumped frantically while Chancey tried to send a distress call and discovered that the radio’s batteries were dead. By 4:20 a.m., they were abandoning the sinking ship.
In a panic, they threw the life raft overboard before equipping it.
Palmer will not say who tried to toss the bag of food and water aboard – only that he missed. “The raft was bouncing, the boat was bouncing. He was clumsy,” said Palmer.
Someone else laid the emergency kit of flares and flashlights on the ship’s deck, and a wave sucked it overboard.
After less than two hours in the six-man life raft, they sighted a sailboat and discovered their waterlogged air horn was useless, Palmer said. Their shouts were whipped away by the wind.
As the sailboat drew to within 300 feet, Chancey, over his mates’ protests, tried to swim for help, Palmer said. Despite wearing a life preserver and having a reputation as a strong swimmer, Chancey was swept away by a strong current and disappeared in the swells.
The rest of that Sunday, the three survivors sighted several boats but none close enough to hail until about 3 p.m.
Palmer is haunted by what happened then.
“If I had just jumped up two seconds earlier . . .,” he kept repeating. But they had failed to designate a watchman, and all three were dozing when a sport fishing boat motored past, even closer than the sailboat.
By that evening, Wood was complaining of impaired vision and hearing. “He’d look you dead in the eye, as serious as could be, and say, ‘Let’s go up to the bar. Let’s go get a drink.’ “
When a wave washed over him, Wood drank the salt water despite the others’ en treaties to spit it out.
Palmer and Watson piled life preservers on top of Wood and lay beside him all night, trying to keep him warm. But by dawn Monday, he was dead.
Watson gave up about 24 hours later. The pain of his broken bones was too much, he told Palmer, and, like Wood, Watson began talking as though he were ashore: “Let’s go to the store. Let’s catch a ride.”
Palmer said he begged the first mate to hang on just a little longer. But by then, both were despairing, believing they had been swept well out to sea, beyond the range of small craft.
Watson removed his life vest and crawled over the side.
Just an hour later, Palmer caught a ride. He was spotted by a Coast Guard airplane just 45 miles southeast of Charleston and picked up by a sport fishing boat. He had with him in the boat a bottle of dishwashing liquid, a tube of toothpaste and the waterlogged air horn.
end

Wouldn’t you drive out of your way to meet the woman who wrote that?