While at the controls of an F-16, Paul tried a maneuver called an Immelmann, a dive followed by a rapid climb: "The experience was so beyond words that I didn't even attempt to describe it seriously for my Citizen story."
I’d like to do a bit of personal “lookin’ back” today as I wind down almost four decades as an “accidental” reporter and sometimes editor – nearly 37 years of that with the Tucson Citizen.
Who knew that I’d be asked to pilot an F-16 fighter and the Goodyear blimp, herd longhorn cattle into the mountains and examine 300,000-year-old Neanderthal stone tools and electron microscope images of individual atoms?
Who knew I’d interview astronauts and Apache acorn gatherers, multimillionaires and vagrants, the world’s fastest man, the world’s best pool player and one of the world’s finest gun engravers, have a bull dedicated to me by a matador, chat with a man who had lunch with Wyatt Earp?
And the wonder of it all:
They paid me to do it.
A newspaper is a jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none paradise. You get to dabble in all manner of fascinating things without possessing a whit of expertise.
When the San Angelo (Texas) Standard-Times in my wife’s hometown hired me as a reporter in April 1968, I had gone there to respond to a classified ad for a supervisor for newspaper carriers – which I intended to be a summer job before returning to Purdue University in the fall.
I told the receptionist I was there to apply for “the job.” She asked, “Newsroom, advertising or production?” On a whim, I said, “Newsroom.” (I had taken one journalism course, I reasoned.)
I filled out the application, got the expected “we’ll call you” response – and was stunned when I actually DID get the call three days later. Six months later I was state editor, and a year and a half after that, I was in Tucson as a reporter.
Since that time, a lot of fun things have happened – and a few not so fun. During lapses of judgment, I accepted editing positions – assignments editor, state editor, magazine editor, assistant city editor. Result: anonymity and periods of chained-to-a-desk drudgery.
Other times, like any reporter, I’ve been sent out “unarmed” on nonstories and with no legitimate questions to ask: At the start of the war in Iraq I was dispatched to Sierra Vista to “gauge the mood of the community.” More recently, I was asked to interview returned Iraq war veterans – “So, what’s it like to be back working at a civilian job?”
But memory is kind, bad stuff fades, and good recollections endure. Veteran Citizen news editor Ted Craig liked to remind us whiners: “You get paid every two weeks, and you don’t have to lift nothin’ heavy.”
It isn’t always the big-ticket events or celebrity interviews that stick in one’s brain. Sometimes it’s the colorful asides.
I recall a rancher with a wry sense of humor responding to an out-of-state desert survival instructor who puzzled over the fact that he was wearing work shoes instead of cowboy boots.
“Well,” drawled the fourth-generation Arizona cattleman, “I don’t wear cowboy boots because I don’t want people to mistake me for a truck driver . . .”
The late Roy Drachman and I were chatting one pleasant afternoon in his office, and he commented, “You know, Paul, I may be the only person you know who once had lunch with Wyatt Earp.”
I figured there was a punchline coming and waited. No punchline; he was serious. Turns out Roy’s father, a downtown businessman, had been invited to have lunch with Billy Breakenridge, another denizen of wild and woolly Tombstone who had retired in Tucson, and Earp, who was visiting from California. Breakenridge had described him to Drachman as “kind of an unsavory sort, but interesting.” Roy was asked to join them.
“I just remember Earp being a tall, quiet, white-haired man,” said Drachman. “If I’d know he was going to become so famous, I’d have paid more attention . . .”
The F-16 ride, courtesy of the Air Force Thunderbirds in 1988, was a thrill beyond description, even for a one-time Air Force “back-ender” on C-130 aircraft.
As Capt. Bert Nelson throttled our takeoff, I found myself forced back into my seat, and then the strangest thing happened: The horizon abruptly rotated 90 degrees. We were going straight up.
When we went horizontal again, I still had my lunch, and we were headed to the playa area near Willcox. Capt. Nelson, in front of and somewhat below me in the cockpit, informed me we were at 18,000 feet and asked if I wanted to take control of the hurtling metallic missile that contained us to “see how it handles.”
I reached for the short stub of a control to my right and gave it a gentle twitch to the left.
We were yanked abruptly, and I could see the desert floor out the left side of the canopy. I sucked in my breath, and then VERY gently eased us back into a right-side-up attitude.
“Don’t worry,” reassured the oddly calm voice of Nelson in my headset. “There’s nothing you can do that I can’t get you out of.”
I progressed through increasingly daring, abrupt 90-degree banks, hanging upside down in the seat straps and marveling at the fact that the clear canopy had no visible (and reassuring) struts. There was no real sense that we were traveling at 500-plus mph.
Then I tried a few more maneuvers, ending with an Immelmann, a careening dive toward the desert floor ending with a climb that pulled (Nelson informed me) 6 Gs and inflated the lower extremities of my flight suit to keep the blood from rushing away from my brain.
The experience was so beyond words that I didn’t even attempt to describe it seriously for my Citizen story, instead copping out with an explanation of my own Air Force “record” of most sick bags in a single flight suit.
It was during my two-year stint with the San Angelo Standard-Times in Texas that I spent part of an afternoon with Willie Mosconi, many times the world’s champion pocket billiards player.
When I went with him for an “appearance” at a local billiards parlor after our interview, I asked him whether a trick shot he had performed (ostensibly shot by Paul Newman’s character, “Fast Eddie” Felton) in the movie “The Hustler” was real or a camera trick. He selected a cuestick “off the wall” and made the shot – first try.
Then he did an embellished version that had the cue ball do two swoops up the rail and a sizzling reverse back down it to pocket the ball in the corner pocket. First try. It was at that exact moment that I surrendered any dream of ever being a competent pool player.
The world’s fastest man of his era, Air Force Brig. Gen. Frank “Speedy Pete” Everest, retired in Tucson, discussed piloting the manned rockets in the Air Force’s “X-” series experimental aircraft during the 1950s, and matador Diego O’Bolger, now a Tucsonan, once dedicated a bull to my wife and me and Citizen photo editor P.K. Weis and his wife at the Nogales, Son., bullring.
In recent years, I’ve concentrated on writing about history, prehistory and archaeology and in doing so have come in contact with a wonderful assortment of scientists, scholars, historians and old-timers – most of whom I have pestered shamelessly and repeatedly, in person or in their writings, for background and facts:
Bernard L. “Bunny” Fontana, James Officer, C. Leland Sonnichsen, “Big Jim” Griffith, Tom Peterson, Roger Myers, Cele Peterson, Diana Hadley, William Doelle, Homer Thiel, Jonathan Mabry, Doug Gann, David Faust, Esther Tang, Dorothy Finley, Opha Probasco, Eileen Grade, Virgil Mercer, Lewis Bowman, Ben Traywick, Glenn Boyer, Fred McAninch, Lori Davisson, Ed Kisto, Roy Drachman, Steve Nash, Charlie and Norma Niblett, Sybil Needham, Lewis Hall, Bob Shelton, the wonderful and tireless folks at the Arizona Historical Society and the Arizona State Museum – and so many others that space won’t allow me to list.
A newsroom, for those unfamiliar with it, is a crossroads for an assortment of humanity – bright folks, contentious types, skewed and out-of-kilter individuals, drinkers and teetotalers, blasphemers and Bible-beaters, workaholics and layabouts, cranks, curmudgeons, an occasional fresh-faced optimist and a goodly number of the just out-and-out weird.
In other words, it’s a wonderful place to work – more so a couple of decades ago before Political Correctness blunted newspapers’ edge.
I’ve known, worked with, been friends with, learned from, borrowed and pilfered phrases from a number of talented people here over the years; they know who they are – or in growing numbers, were.
To them, and to readers who have taken the time to say kind things about my writing, I say, “Thank you.” It’s been a hoot.
(p.s. Though I won’t be at my Citizen “address” any longer, if you’d like to contact me, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 745-9119.)
Paul rounds up cattle at the Vera Earl Ranch outside Sonoita.