For no good reason: Charles Portis remembers when | Rock Candy

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

For no good reason: Charles Portis remembers when

Posted By on Wed, Mar 4, 2009 at 4:48 PM

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I was reminded, yesterday when I read that the UA Press is putting out an oral history of the Gazette in April, about this interview that Roy Reed, who edited the UA Press book, did with Charles Portis in 2001 about his days at the Gazette.

It's full of "Do you remember so and sos?" which only old school news geeks will enjoy. At least until the conversation moves to Portis' days at the International Herald Tribune and the so-and-sos are Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin. But there's also some great newsroom color. Stories about pranks, covering cock-fighting matches in Garland County and strange copy editors who were not the inspiration for Ray Midge.

It's definitely worth a read. But below I've picked out the best bits.

"I got out of the Marines in May of 1955 and went back to Hamburg. A friend of mine there, Billy Rodgers, had just gotten out of the Air Force, and he had a car. So we drove up to Fayetteville and enrolled for the summer semester at the university…You had to choose a major, so I put down journalism. I must have thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college — Not to offend the barbers. They probably provide a more useful service."

"[R]emember, we couldn’t use the word “story.” It smacked of fiction. Mr. Heiskell said the proper word for a news account was “article.” And we couldn’t use “evacuate” as of a building or a city being evacuated. He thought it might remind readers of a bodily function. I don’t know what softer word we used. There can’t be many synonyms for “evacuate.” And no photographs of snakes or other vermin, with those same sensitive readers in mind. And we spelled “Tokyo” with an “i” instead of a “y.” But I sort of liked those quirks." David Simon is definitely a J.N. Heiskell man.

"Tom came to us from the Washington Post. He was polite enough not to roll his eyes when I asked if he might be related to the other Thomas Wolfe. He said he wasn’t, but it must have been a tiresome question for him then. I wonder if it comes up at all now.

Speaking of the other Wolfe, I remember that an old brig rat from Phenix City, Alabama, gave me a copy of Look Homeward, Angel at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in 1954. An old corporal who had been promoted and busted a lot. More ribbons and hash marks than stripes. He said his girlfriend had read this entire book to him, and it wasn’t bad stuff to listen to. Do barmaids still do that? It must have taken weeks. She worked in a bar in Jacksonville. Or maybe she was the only one who ever did it. I had never heard of Thomas Wolfe. It was a revelation." The first Tom is Tom Wolfe, of course, who Portis worked with at the International Herald Tribune.

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