Monday, July 30

Remembering Tom Snyder (1936-2007)

Did I ever tell you about the time I was a guest on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show (or TOMorrow, as it apeared in the logo)?

Darn right I didn’t! One doesn’t speak of rope in the house of the hanged, and the only positive thing I can say about my guest shot on nationwide TV is that I didn’t faint or soil myself. More later.

First, some thoughts about Tom Snyder, who died yesterday at the age of 71 after battling leukemia. Tom was the greatest one-on-one communicator I ever worked with—the best I ever saw. Not just brilliant, not just forceful and dynamic, he was made for TV. He was bigger than life. He was boisterous. And unfortunately, most people today remember him only as a late-night talk show host. From 1973 (well before Nightline) until 1982, Tomorrow with Tom Snyder (more commonly known as The Tomorrow Show), followed Johnny Carson on NBC. Remember, for most of those years The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson ran ninety minutes. Then, at 1:00 a.m. (Eastern) Tom Snyder took over for an hour of topical, insightful, opinionated, controversial talk. TV hadn’t seen anything like it since Mike Wallace’s old Night Beat program from the 1950s. Most nights, one guest—tough but fair questions—real information being exchanged. Here’s a YouTube link to a nice retrospective introduced by Conan O’Brien.

Forget Rush: THAT was “Talent on Loan from God.”

But…BUT…if you only new Tom Snyder as a larger-than-life interviewer and host, I can make a case you missed his best work. How many remember Tom as an anchor? I think he engineered what a current cliché would call a “tipping point” in broadcast news. Before Tom Snyder, anchors had forceful, punchy deliveries: “Good EVE-ning, I’m DAY-vid BRINK-ley.” I’m convinced that a lot of it had to do with the technology. If you were David Brinkley, the camera was fifteen feet away and the microphone didn’t pick up your voice unless you pro-JECT-ed. Tom Snyder was among the first to understand that the camera was at arm’s length—or closer—and you could have a conversation with a single viewer.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw him: April, 1970. I had been out of college for less than year, and went to Los Angeles to visit my old college roommate. I had heard about this terrific anchor on KNBC-TV, so I made it a point to tune in, not knowing of the Apollo 13 disaster playing out in deep space.

And there he was…leaning forward across the desk…looking me in the eye. And he spoke, one-on-one, directly to me, when he said in this low voice, “Good-evening-I’m-Tom-Snyder…three-American-astronauts-are-fighting-for-their-lives-tonight-as-they-head-for-the-far-side-of-the-moon.”

And I thought, “Omigod, I want it ALL…tell me EVERYTHING and TELL ME NOW!”

Tom had done TV talk while at KYW in Philadelphia. NBC started Tomorrow while he was anchoring at KNBC—and moved it to New York when he anchored at WNBC. Also in the Big Apple, he anchored weekend network newscasts for NBC. How many of you remember that there was talk he would succeed John Chancellor as NBC Nightly News anchor when Chancellor retired in 1981? How serious was the talk? It caused a huge schism in the ranks at NBC between the old guard that had grown up in print and switched to broadcast (like Chancellor) and the new generation, children of TV who believed in the power of the moving picture.

In the end, Chancellor did everything in his power to scuttle Tom’s chances—and NBC’s top anchor job went to a young contemporary of Snyder’s (and his former KNBC colleague), Tom Brokaw.

Tom Snyder, odd man out, left NBC and jumped back to full-time anchoring at WABC in 1981. That’s where I worked with him.

But that’s not where I met him, and here are the embarrassing details.

Back in 1978 I was working at WDIV in Detroit. I had just returned from a trip to Boston as field producer on a series of reports on a huge gathering of automakers being held there. Remember, in those days the conventional wisdom was “If Detroit (the auto industry) sneezes, the American economy catches a cold.” An important meeting, worthy of big-time coverage, and News Four Detroit was there.

When I got back I found out that Snyder was bringing his late-night show to our studios for a couple of nights of interviews with the auto industry’s movers and shakers. Great! I was at loose ends for a couple of days. Even though it was a closed set, I figured I could find a way to hang around until the doors were sealed, hide in the shadows and watch the taping.

What I didn’t know was that Snyder and his New York crew—practical jokers all—were looking for someone for their constant game of “gotcha” and that my WDIV co-workers had fingered me as a prime suspect. What I didn’t know was that they were all under orders to keep me in the studio at all costs! So about a half-hour before taping I was slinking behind the set when a WDIV director came up to me and said he needed my help: “You’re 6'3", Snyder’s 6'4", we need someone to sit in his chair so we can light the set.”

OK by me (heh-heh-heh!). Always happy to be of service (heh-heh-heh!).

Just before show time I left the set and tried to blend in as best I could, hoping no one would spot me.

The theme rolled, and I figured I was home free! Not so fast!

“Good evening, we’re coming to you tonight from Detroit, a city like many industrial cities in this country, and from WDIV-TV, a television station like most others in this country, with ONE NOTABLE EXCEPTION. Tonight, for the first time in my career, I have a stand-in. I’d like you to meet my personal stunt double…” and he called me out onto the set, sat me down, mic'd me up and started asking questions about my assignment to Boston.

I wasn't nervous. Not me. Why, then, did I answer his first question in a Vienna-Boys’-Choir soprano voice, “Well, Tom…” Not nervous, just petrified. My high-pitched voice cracked glass, had cats howling in several midwestern states, and activated certain brands of electronic garage door openers! Afterwards I called my parents to tell them to look for their sonny-boy on TV, and DIDN’T TELL ANYONE ELSE! I taped the segment--and never watched it!

I don’t think I’ve told more than 25 people in the 25 years since! Would you? "Hey, want to see the night I lost 35 pounds in flop sweat in ten minutes?"

Fast forward to 1981: I’m at WABC and so, now, is Tom Snyder. Several of us, Tom included, are having drinks across Columbus Avenue at Chip’s Pub when somehow the topic of embarrassing moments comes up. A “friend” nods in my direction and says, “Yeah, but then there’s the night he appeared on the Tomorrow show.” And Snyder hits me with his laser beam stare out from under those bushy eyebrows. “I know every guest I ever interviewed, and I don’t remember you!”

I let him buy a round before I told him, and we had a laugh. I don't remember what he was drinking that night, so I can't say for sure of it was one of the "colortinis" he often talked about on the air.

Here’s a Tom Snyder/Roger Grimsby story. I’ve mentioned that Roger was the straw that stirred the Eyewitness News drink. Absolutely! Remember that third grade science experiment with metal shavings when you were a kid? The teacher puts iron filings on a plate, runs a magnet underneath, and all the particles line up? That was Roger Grimsby at Channel 7. When he walked into the newsroom the energy level in the place shifted and he became the center of attention.

Roger had long since given up the 11:00 by the time Snyder came on board to do only the 11:00. They knew each other. Still, there was lots of hallway buzz about how Grimsby would ride Snyder like a 17-year-old Shetland pony in a Coney Island petting zoo. Roger was famous for driving out potential rivals he thought were pompous gas-bags.

Snyder’s first day, he’s in early for the obligatory picture taking and promotion. Then he adjourns to his office. He’s not incommunicado—far from it—lots of people go in to shake his hand—he’s just not out wandering up and down the halls.

3:00 p.m., Grimsby shows up and goes into his office. Snyder follows him and shuts the door for a half-hour—obviously paying his respects.

Now Snyder was, as I’ve said, larger than life. He knew how to work a room. His voice (and his laugh) carried for blocks. But from that day forward whenever Grimsby was in the station Snyder was in his office, not out playing to the cheap seats. He came out if necessary, but only if necessary. At night, once Roger was gone, Snyder had free reign over the place. But he was sensitive enough (and smart enough) to know whose turf he was on.

Roseanne Scamardella
Tom Snyder
Bill Beutel
Roger Grimsby
Kaity Tong
Storm Field (weather)
Spencer Christian (sports)

When he started, the station put up bus stop posters all over town: Tom and the “Circle 7” logo with a bunch of adjectives. If I remember, words like: OPINIONATED, CONTROVERSIAL, HARD-HITTING, CHARISMATIC, PERSUASIVE, UNCOMPROMISING, BRASH, PROVOCATIVE.

A couple of weeks later I was at an Emmy luncheon. CBS anchor Dan Rather spoke, then took questions. The first one was, “Mr. Rather, do you think an anchor should be opinionated, controversial, hard-hitting, charismatic, persuasive, uncompromising, brash and provocative?"

And Dan Rather, bless him, said: “Well, down in Texas we got a
sayin’, ‘I ain’t got no dog in that fight.””

One last story. It’s said Tom Snyder had a monumental ego. He did. But it was leavened with a terrific sense of humor and a sense of self. No one could laugh at himself longer or harder than Tom Snyder. In an earlier post I referred to the night poor Mara
Wolinsky got caught on camera flipping the bird to a floor director who had been giving her confusing hand signals. She was suspended for a week.

NOT TWO WEEKS LATER, Tom Snyder did the same thing under the same circumstances and (what else?) had to face the same penalty. Fair is fair, right? A precedent had been set.

I rant into Tom during his suspension and found him with his middle finger wrapped in a huge
bandage, a hunk of gauze bigger than Hulk Hogan’s big toe. “God, Tom,” I said, “What did you do to your finger?”

“I got it caught on a camera.”

Tom left
WABC in 1985. He kicked around a bit after that. He didn't have to worry about money, so he could take on only projects that challenged him or tickled his fancy or triggered his insatiable curiosity. For a time he did a nationwide radio talk show. He did a talk show on CNBC. And for a time David Letterman was his boss. Letterman idolized Snyder, and through his company Worldwide Pants hired Tom to do the Late Late Show following his own CBS program. Tom signed off in 1995.

Grimsby is long gone now...and Bill Beutel. Just a month ago I wrote about the passing of Joel Siegel. Now Tom Snyder. The broadcast princes I had the great good fortune to work with are leaving us. Today's cookie-cutter anchors and their let's-see-what-the-research-says-and-THEN-we'll lead-with-Lindsay-Lohan-anyway managers are trying to read from the old playbooks. Cheap imitators? Hell, even well-funded imitators are just knock-offs of the originals. I'm looking for communicators and not seeing them. Are they out there?

Couric aired a radio tribute to Tom Snyder, calling him a "broadcasting pioneer." I don't think that's quite accurate. There were anchors before him--and talk show hosts--and interviewers. It's just that none brought the energy, the dedication, the intelligence, the life, the humor, the verve that he brought to broadcasting. No one ever did TV better than Tom Snyder. When he shut down his web site, without warning in August of 2005 he left a white screen and the words, "Colortini is gone. Thanks for the Memories."

No, Tom; thank you.

Thursday, July 26

Crime and (No) Punishment

The good bosses know when to let you off the hook: the good ones know that sometimes "gotcha" is enough.

In the early seventies I worked for KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. Call it a powerhouse, call it a juggernaut—whatever words you can come up with to describe dominance applied to KDKA. The station was then at the height of its powers, and it was owned by one of America's most powerful ownership groups, Westinghouse Broadcasting or "Group W" as it was then known.

Westinghouse was there at the beginning: heck, before the beginning. The "Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Corporation" made broadcasting history on November 20, 1920, when it signed on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh—to this day the first and oldest licensed commercial radio station in the United States.

Later Westinghouse Broadcasting operated a chain of network radio and TV affiliates all around the country—each dominant in its market: it built WBZ in Boston and bought stations that later became KDKA in Pittsburgh; KYW in Philadelphia; KPIX in San Francisco; WJZ in Baltimore; and a handful of others.

Westinghouse later bought CBS. CBS merged with Viacom. And today you can't tell a player without a scorecard.

But for a time Group W was THE player in top-thirty market local broadcasting and was either #1 or within striking distance in all but one or two of its markets.

Don't worry, I'm getting to my point.
One reason Group W was so successful was its strong management philosophy and its reputation for finding, training and quickly promoting young, aggressive managers. Westinghouse was a hothouse for the growing of tough, no-nonsense, by-the-book managers who walked, talked, breathed, ate, slept and worked (80 hours a week) the Westinghouse way.

They had rules—and the rules seldom changed because the rules always worked! So you didn't…break…the…rules. One of them: a coat and tie for every man, every shift, every day.

I ignored that rule once. ONCE!

I was "Weekend News Manager" in charge of weekend news operations. I was living on the top floor of an old mansion across the Monongahela River from downtown: some steel tycoon's turn-of-the-(20th)-century brick-and-turrets monument long since divided into ten or twelve apartments. Not quite a slum but convenient to work.

One Friday afternoon it started snowing. And it snowed, and snowed, and snowed. By Saturday morning (time to go to work) there were nine inches of the white stuff on the ground, and I had a mile-and-a-half hike through the drifts to get to work. I decided to be practical. I pulled on a pair of ratty jeans, a flannel work shirt, heavy boots, and in my old parka and stocking cap set out for the hike to KDKA.

I hadn't been there fifteen minutes, going over the wires, when I looked up and saw News Director Larry Manne standing in the doorway—in a coat and tie! There were waist-high snow drifts out there and he's not only in the station--early on a Saturday morning--he's in a coat and tie!

He looked at me. I looked at him. He looked at me. I could guess what was coming.

And then…and then…he walked slowly past my desk—stopped just over my right shoulder—bent down—and whispered into my ear, "I think you left your big blue ox double-parked downstairs." He went into his office to push some news director paperwork from the "In" box to the "Out" box and never said another word about it.

Good guy. Anyone know where Larry Manne is today?

Wednesday, July 25

Hank the Deuce

In broadcast news we don't have egos. It's just that we're absolutely convinced we're smarter, wittier, more poised, more savvy, more hip, more "with-it", brighter, more quick-witted, better informed, skillful, current, progressive, au courant, perceptive, well-versed, brainier, discerning, sagacious, resourceful, nimble, slick, observant, sensitive, perspicacious, cultivated, cagey, discerning, astute, spirited and intelligent than the mouth-breathing knuckle-dragging philistines we're forced to serve.

And the only people, in my (ahem) humble opinion who might be quicker are on the studio crew.

Those guys (and gals) are fast—and brutal.

This one goes back to the late seventies, to Detroit, to WDIV-TV, and it involves Henry Ford II, head of the Ford Motor Company founded by his grandfather Henry and later run by his father, Edsel.

I'm in the control room. Suddenly, breaking news! The bulletin arrives on the set and is handed to the anchor just as word is relayed to me in the control room. The anchor (identity hidden to protect the guilty) looks up, and says…"This just in to News Four Detroit…Henry Ford the Two has suffered a heart attack!"

And instantly, after less than a heartbeat, the audio man turns to me and says, "You know, he was in the Navy in World War Second."


Wish I could remember his name. He was good!

By the way, "Hank the Deuce" was pretty quick on his feet as well. He was arrested late one night (or was it early one morning?) for drunk driving with a woman—not his wife—in the car. He spent several hours in jail. When he was released, a small army of reporters and photographers was waiting for him. For Henry Ford, no bodyguards—no limo waiting to rush him to his mansion—no army of publicists. He walked straight down the jailhouse steps, right up to the microphones, held up a hand to signal for quiet, and said, "Boys, boys (in those days the Detroit press corps was 99% male), you know my motto: 'Never Complain, Never Explain.'" And while the Detroit media laughed, he got into his car and drove off.

Was Hank the Deuce the first to utter the "Never Complain" line? There are lots of other nominees. I prefer to think of it as his, though: it fit his lifestyle. By the way, the woman in the car? She later became the latest (and I think the last) "Mrs. Henry Ford II."

Sunday, July 22

An “Andrew” Anecdote

More thoughts as we get closer to the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew (August 24th).

The storm gave me my "big break" as a TV booth announcer.

We had our own: one of those BIG THUNDERING VOICE types. I'm sorry to say I've forgotten his name, but I can still hnear the voice. Not quite the caliber of the late, truly great Ernie Anderson (look him up on Wikipedia), but a voice I've heard since on national spots, which means you've heard him too.

The guy was a real pro: he wasn't limited to just those "DRAG...RACING...CAPITAL...OF...MID-AMERICA"-type spots. No, he also had a great change-of-pace voice. He could put a lilt in his voice to plug sitcoms, be somber to pitch news—the whole range.

And after Andrew he disappeared. He didn't call. We didn't know where he was. We didn't know IF he was (dead or alive?).

So the folks in the promotion department asked me to fill in while they figured out what to do next. I'm no basso profundo, but I did have an announcing class with Dick Estell (see "Fingernails on the Blackboard," 5/17). I know which end of the mic to talk into!

And it's not as if they had to go far to find me: I was still sleeping on the floor of my office, working 20 hours a day. I could certainly spend 10 minutes a day recording IDs and promos. So I did.

"This is WCIX-TV, Miami."

It lasted for about two weeks until the regular announcer showed up. He'd lost his house and spent the time trying to find housing for his family and get his life back on track. As a part-timer and an independent contractor we just weren't his first priority—and no one could blame him.

After my stint behind the mic was over, one of the news videotape editors came up to me and said, "Y'know, if you ever wanted to get out of news you could get a job as an easy-listening FM jock."

It's not quite the gift of total consciousness from the Dali Lama, but still, as Carl Spackler would say, "I got that goin' for me, which is nice."

Saturday, July 21

One Small Anniversary

I can't believe it! I missed it! Yesterday (7/20) marked the 38th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I wouldn't be writing this now if NPR hadn't mentioned it this morning. Imagine that: one of those "I'll remember this moment and where I am and what I'm doing for the rest of my life" events and it slipped my mind!

Not a round number, I guess. Kind of easy to forget. Not like a 25th, or a 40th. Wonder how we'll celebrate the 50th in 2019?

I marked July 20th, 1969 in the control room at WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In college I worked part-time for the radio side of WOOD. After college I went to work there full-time. Weeks later, I lucked into the producer's gig (read the "Man and Mentor" post).

I was 14 years old when President John F. Kennedy made his bold challenge:

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the earth."

Impossible, we all thought. And yet here we were, eight years later (and less than six years after Kennedy's assassination) watching Neil Armstrong take his "one small step" while it seemed the entire world held its breath.

It was the first time I produced a newscast that included coverage of a major news event. I remember it as if it was yesterday. Do you remember men walking on the Moon?

To refresh your memory--or to give you a sense of the event if you're young--here's a link to a nice compilation from "YouTube:"

I guess if you were raised on PCs and MTV and video games and iPhones and the Space Shuttle, you may think that first Moon landing was no big deal.

I guess. But I remember that night, in the control room, in the dark: all of us quiet, all of us captivated, and I remember thinking "My heart is still beating" and being a little amazed that it was.

Wednesday, July 18

After Andrew

It's hurricane season. Time for my thoughts to turn to Andrew and Al.

"Andrew" was a hurricane. "Al" is Al Sunshine, an old friend and co-worker (and yes, that is his real name!), a long-time, big-time, much-honored (and often-hyphenated) reporter at WCIX (now WFOR) in Miami. He has handled the "Shame on You" consumer problem-solving franchise for the station for more than 15 years. I was proud to be his news director for a time.

Come August 24th it will be 15 years since Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of South Florida. I don't want to compare "my hurricane was bigger than yours" stories with Katrina survivors—but mine was. Andrew was a more powerful storm—a “Category Five.” It was the breach of the levees that did such horrible damage in Katrina. We got the wind—and the rain—and the wind—and the storm surge—and the wind!

As I said, WFOR was WCIX back in those days—the CBS owned-and-operated station serving the Miami area. The station was hard-hit: satellite dishes blown away, part of the roof in GM Allen Shaklan's office blown off, cars damaged. The station transmitter tower collapsed and we were off the air until we could jury-rig an antenna on another station's stick. We were left without water and with only limited generator power for days.

As bad as it was, station employees had it worse. Many (yours truly included) lost their homes. Several, living without food and water and power, with no place to go, brought their families to the station to sleep in the air-conditioned studios.

CBS came to our rescue. The other O-and-Os sent loaner equipment, trucks and manpower to help us out. The staff of a bombed-out nearby restaurant was hired and food was catered 24/7 for weeks. Bottled water was brought in—and the empty jugs were hauled to a lagoon out back and filled so we'd have water to flush the toilets. We were prepared with hand pumps so we could refuel news vehicles at gas stations that had no electricity.

And CBS flew in teams of "expediters" to help board up homes—to get tarps to cover lost roofs—to set up generators for power—to locate contractors—to help find temporary housing (in at least one case to get an RV for one WCIX family to live in)—to work with insurance companies—to get us back on our feet.

I wound up staying at (of all places) the "Bonaventure Resort and Spa" on a golf course in a trendy part of Ft. Lauderdale for a couple of weeks. Thanks, CBS!

Think about it. In what felt like a "war zone" (military reservists called up to direct traffic, curfews, people guarding their homes with shotguns) CBS was able to find generators! And where do you come up with truckloads of bottled water when the nearest potable water is 30 or 40 miles away? Amazing!

Some time later, when life was approaching normalcy, a hot-shot CBS producer took our video, shot interviews with our people, added a John Mellencamp song and produced an in-house thank-you note that was sent to all CBS outposts around the world. Al Sunshine kept a copy and a while back provided me a dub.

I think every person interviewed is a WCIX employee. I appear a couple of times—most notably at the end (I always want the last word). I'm the big guy in the dark blue shirt. Al Sunshine appears a couple of times: first in a red windbreaker, looking shocked, standing in front of what's left of his home.

He sent me the video and warned me not to watch it unless I was prepared to shed a tear.

I watched it, and I did weep: not for me, not for my plight. That all ironed itself out. I wept remembering how many of us had our dreams swept away by Andrew. You can see it in their—in our—faces.

Was this fifteen years ago—or fifteen minutes ago?

I forget.

In the weeks ahead, as we get closer to the Andrew anniveresary, I'll write more about how dreams are lost--and found.

"Who am I to say

What needs to be done?

I'm just nobody,

Another lost one,

Caught between what's left

And what needs to be done...

Now more than ever."

Thursday, July 12

15 Minutes of…

Warhol said we were all going to get our 15 minutes of fame. I had 15 minutes—maybe a bit less—as an investigative reporter.

In the mid-70s I was news director for WEEK-TV in Peoria. You're heard of "one-horse towns?" Peoria had one helluva horse that drove everything: Caterpillar Inc. The huge heavy-equipment manufacturer touched every life in the area. It seemed that everyone and his brother (and his wife, and his kids, and his uncle, and his neighbor) worked for Caterpillar. And they made good money—great money. There was disposable income to spare. It seemed there were two cars and a pickup truck in every driveway (the truck had a trailer and the trailer had a boat)—every house had a new rec room—every backyard had a pool—every kid was going to college, all on Caterpillar paychecks. At least that's the way it seemed.

Best of all, the business seemed recession proof. If they're not buying bulldozers in Atlanta, the prevailing wisdom went, they're certainly ordering D-10s in Abu Dhabi or Australia. The Cat reputation was spotless, Cat equipment was matchless—the people of Peoria had worked hard and it had paid off: they were living the good life. Our founding fathers had a dream in 1776. When I arrived in Peoria 200 years later local residents were living it.

That's why I had trouble understanding the hints of labor unrest we were seeing in the mid-70s. United Auto Workers Union members, locked in contract negotiations with the company, did the traditional saber-rattling: they scheduled a strike authorization vote. Not a vote to actually go on strike, but a vote to authorize local union leaders to take the union out after giving the company a contractually specified notice.

But not everyone in the union was happy with the idea of walking the picket lines—of leaving behind their paychecks. As ND I always tried to take as many viewer calls as I could squeeze in, just to take the public's pulse. One night I spoke—at length—to a union dissident. He made an articulate case that some union leaders were trying to stampede the rank and file into a strike to solidify their strength. He said the authorization vote was a fait accompli, that union leaders were just going through the motions with the outcome already assured. Dissent, he said, was being stifled; and even if his voice could be heard, he was convinced his vote wouldn't be counted. He said the election was going to be rigged.

"In fact," he told me, "the election is such a farce that you could go in and vote."

"Aw, c'mon. This is serious stuff. You don't expect me to believe that I could vote?"

"Prove me wrong."

Right or wrong, I sensed a story.

On voting day, I sent a photographer to shoot routine footage of the outside of UAW headquarters for a routine union vote story. Nothing that would arouse any suspicion. But I told him to make sure he got footage of me when I went in to try to vote.

And that's what I did. No, I didn't go in wearing a suit and tie: I wore jeans, work boots and a work shirt. And I was determined that whatever happened I would not lie. If confronted I would freely admit I worked for Channel 25 and take my chances.

I wasn't challenged. No one asked to see my union card or any form of ID. The man sitting behind the desk said, "Here y'go, buddy" and handed me a ballot. I took it over to one of the nearby countertops and pretended to write on it. I folded it—put it in the ballot box—and ran the story that night, including a hidden-identity interview with my informant explaining why unsupervised voting was dangerous. When I called local union officials to explain the story and ask for reaction, they refused to comment.

Someone "commented" the next morning. I was living in a duplex with an attached garage. I got into my car that morning, used the remote to open the garage door, backed out and punched the button to close the door. That's when I saw it.

%$^& YOU

written on the door. I pulled the car back inside, closed the door, went inside the house and called the cops.

It wasn't until the officers arrived that I took a hard look at the message. I was surprised. No spray paint—the quick and easy way to deface property. No, someone had gone to the time and trouble to use strips of black electrical tape for the message. After a police photographer took pics of the door it took all of 45 seconds to simply peel the tape off. No harm done.

I remember telling the police sergeant at the scene that I thought it was downright neighborly of them (to this day who "they" were remains unclear) to go to the trouble of using tape. I explained that I had worked in Detroit—the Motor City—and that my impression was that if you crossed the union in Detroit, someone would carve %$^& YOU on your forehead with a penknife and drop you in the Rouge River. Chalk it up to Midwest values. I loved Peoria.

A footnote. In the coming years Japanese competition cut into Caterpillar's share of the world's heavy equipment market. Cat could no longer name its own price. Feeling the pinch, Cat executives held firm in labor negotiations. The union dug in its heels. In 1991 the union was on strike for six months. Then in 1994 unionized workers were on the picket lines for a year-and-a-half, until they offered to go back. The Detroit News ran a headline saying, "UAW Surrenders at Caterpillar." But the damage had already been done. The strike didn't send ripples through the local economy—it was a tsunami! Local businesses (restaurants, car dealers, clothing stores) went belly-up. No one was spending discretionary income because no one had discretionary income.

That hasn't been the end of it. There have been strikes and threats of strikes for years now. As best as I can tell from a distance of hundreds of miles and many years, Caterpillar remains a good place to work: but it once was a great place to work. I'm neither pro- nor anti-union. But I guess you could say I'm for labor peace.

One last word about my "vote." I'll give the local UAW leaders credit for honesty—maybe even a sense of humor. The next day, when it came time to report the vote totals, the union release listed yea-many-thousands for, so-many-hundreds against, and one "spoiled ballot." Good for them.

Wednesday, July 11


Unlike Antony, I have come both to bury investigative reporting—and to praise it.

I love it, but anymore too few stations do true investigative reporting, at least not by my definition.

To my way of thinking pure investigative reporting involves time, and talent, and resources—and risk. You’ve got to be willing to follow every winding path for day or weeks or months, to shoot hours of footage, and finally get to a point where you say—“Nope. Sorry. It’s not there. No story. Let’s move on.”

If you’re not willing to take a chance, if you’re only going for the sure thing, the story you know will turn, you’re not doing real investigative reporting. If you’re not rolling the dice, you’re not investigating.

You also have to have cojones. And even if you do, how about your station’s managers? How about the owners? Will they back you when some client comes calling and says your I-team is about to do him wrong?

That’s why we see so many teases like, “Could the dust-balls under your bed be poisoning your puppies?????!”

In the early 90s I was news director for WCIX-TV (now WFOR) the CBS O-and-O in Miami, and we had a kick-butt investigative team. After Hurricane Andrew in late 1992 reporter Susan Candiotti (who’s now with CNN) and her producer uncovered evidence that shoddy workmanship on local homes had led to far more destruction than was necessary. Specifically, Florida law required roof beams to be fastened with hand-driven nails, not by nail-guns. The guns are easier and faster—but there’s a chance that without the “feel” of a hammer in your hand, you won’t know if you’ve fastened wood to wood. We hired our own building inspector and uncovered a shocking number of instances where nail guns were obviously used. I remember several scenes of Susan and the inspector standing next to piles of roof beams torn apart by the hurricane’s winds—roof beams where you could plainly see that the nail guns had missed their mark.

This was a big story. In Andrew’s aftermath, everyone was looking for someone to blame. Well, maybe someone was to blame. We were prepared to name names and show evidence.

But what did Davy Crockett say? “Be always sure you’re right, then go ahead.” We weren’t cowards—we just wanted to be right! So we asked corporate to send us some libel specialists from New York.

What we got were three or four lawyers who were routinely assigned to 60 Minutes. Pros. Heavy hitters. These were men who crossed their "T"s with big, bold strokes. They did not dot their "I"s with hearts or smiley faces.

The bunch of us met in a station conference room with copies of proposed scripts and stacks of background material.

I opened it up. “Here’s what we know…”

And the lead lawyer said, “I don’t care what you KNOW, I only care what you can PROVE. If they come after us, that’s all that’s important.” Lesson learned.

We proved our case to them, then to the public. Cojones, my friends, cojones. How about your station?

Noun: cojones Usage: N. Amer
Fortitude and determination- backbone, grit, guts, moxie [N. Amer], sand, gumption

Sunday, July 8

The Other "Son of Sam"

One of the basic tenets of the “Tying My Shoes” belief system is that life swirls around you and all you can do is hang on and hope. OK, Hunter Thompson said it best: "Buy the ticket, take the ride." My first connection to a major news event came when I was seven years old, back in 1954. Let me tell you about the son of Sam.

No, not that “Son of Sam,” not David Berkowitz, the serial killer who terrorized New York City in the late 70s. No, I’m talking about Sam Reese Sheppard, the son of “Dr. Sam.”

Dr. Sam was, of course, Samuel Holmes Shepherd. In 1954 he was arrested, convicted and sent to prison for the brutal bludgeoning death of his wife—freed on appeal ten years later, re-tried and acquitted. I'm referring to his son, “young Sam,” as he was known, or “Chip.” And I'm referring to one of the most famous murder cases in American history and one of the darkest episodes in this history of American journalism.

I know Chip Sheppard. At least I did. Chip Sheppard and I were in the same class at Glenview School in Bay Village, Ohio. The summer after we finished first grade, on the morning of July 4, 1954, his pregnant mother, Marilyn Reese Sheppard, was clubbed to death in a bedroom of the family home on a high bluff overlooking Lake Erie. My purpose isn’t to shock you, but I’ve seen the autopsy photos and I now know why they sometimes say a victim had his or her skull “crushed.” It took someone in an insane rage to murder Marilyn Sheppard. She wasn’t sexually attacked, and nothing of value was missing from the house—although the doctor’s desk had been rifled through and his medical bag was found overturned.

You may already know something about the case. It was called “The Murder of the Century” (years after the Lindbergh kidnapping) and “The Trial of the Century” (years before O.J. Simpson).

“Dr. Sam,” a prominent local osteopath, said he had fallen asleep on a downstairs daybed after a July 4th-eve party with friends. He awoke, he said, in the middle of the night, when he heard his wife scream from their upstairs bedroom. Making his way up the darkened stairs, the doctor said he confronted an intruder and after a brief struggle was knocked unconscious. He awoke, he said, checked and found his wife dead and his son asleep and unharmed in his room, and went downstairs. That’s where, in the pre-dawn light, he saw the intruder, whom he described as a “bushy-haired man” heading out of the house and down a wooden staircase that led to the lake below. The two struggled again, Sam said, and he was knocked unconscious a second time, only to awaken at the water’s edge some time later.

When the residents of Bay Village awoke on the Fourth of July, 1954, they had no idea that their little town—our little town, my little town--was about to be swept up in a media firestorm unprecedented for that time.

Bay Village, then and now, is a small suburb of Cleveland, 15 miles due west of downtown. It’s a “bedroom community:” no industry, no businesses to speak of (except a small shopping center and a couple of convenience stores). Whatever housing boom Bay had came just before and just after World War II—to the point where most land was already built up by 1954 and the population has never climbed above its present 17,000. A handful of elementary schools feed one middle school and the high school (home of the “Rockets”). There’s a city hall/police station, a fire station, a library, and street after street of single-family homes on Osborn Road, Parkside Drive, Sutcliffe Drive, Wolf Road and the like. How’s this for a “fast fact:” in 2004 only 79 crimes were reported within the city, making it the safest in the United States with a population greater than 10,000!

In 1954, it took only one crime to change the face of my hometown forever and put us on the map. As memories fade, so does the connection between Bay Village and that horrible crime; but for many years all you had to do was say “Bay Village” and the response was instant: “Dr. Sam Sheppard!” Sort of like the choral response in church.

My Dad lost track of how many times he was asked “Do you know Sam Sheppard?" and "Did Sam do it?" in business meetings around the country.

The police department—two or three men, if memory serves—was completely overwhelmed by the Sheppard murder. They called in Cleveland police for help. What they got, in addition, was Louis B. Seltzer, Publisher of the Cleveland Press. “Louie” Seltzer, kingmaker, power broker, dispenser of favors and—as we found out—judge, jury and executioner. He painted himself as the protector of the common man, the voice of the little guy, and he quickly decided to paint Dr. Sam Sheppard into a corner.

In retrospect, I guess people should have seen it coming. Sam Sheppard made a convenient target for a crusading up-from-poverty newspaperman. He was prominent—he, his father and his brothers were the four doctors who owned and ran Bay View Osteopathic General Hospital, the only hospital in town. They were wealthy and privileged and looked it. They were osteopaths, at that time resented by much of the "medical establishment." Dr. Sam had a lot of money, standing in the community, drove a foreign sports car, water-skied behind his own boat, was a regular tennis player and an avid skier, and knew how to make a mean cocktail. He had it good. Louis Seltzer may have decided he had it too good.

The morning of the murder the doctor answered a first round of police questions, then was taken by one of his brothers to the family hospital (“whisked away” into “seclusion” according to the Cleveland Press) complaining of neck pain. The fact that he was hospitalized with a cracked vertebra didn't keep the Press from concluding that the injuries were phony and that he was being hidden and protected by his family.

When no “bushy-haired man” could be located, when little outside the murder room seemed to have been disturbed, suspicion turned on Sam Sheppard—and with it the full power of the mighty Cleveland Press and its crusading publisher Louis B. Seltzer.

A dozen-or-so years later, in a journalism class at Michigan State, we studied what happened next. How one newspaper stirred public sentiment—single-handedly assured that because of prejudicial pre-trial publicity Sheppard couldn’t get a fair trial—and railroaded him into prison. Cleveland's two other papers, the Cleveland News and the Plain Dealer were almost as strident. But the editorials in the Press demanded—and got— attention and action.

On July 20th, the Press ran a front-page editorial entitled, "Someone is Getting Away with Murder.”

The next day, the 21st, another front-page editorial: "Why No Inquest? Do It Now, Dr. Gerber." Hours later, Cuyahoga County Coroner Samuel Gerber called an inquest. It was held on live TV in the crowded gym of one of our elementary schools. And, by God, he looked guilty, testifying from behind dark glasses and in a neck brace (The implication in the Press was, Who does he think he is? The phony!)

Finally, on July 30th, just hours after an editorial asked “Why Isn't Sam Sheppard in Jail? Quit Stalling and Bring Him In," Sam Sheppard was arrested.

How hard is it to predict what happened next? Dr. Sam had already been convicted in the court of public opinion and would obviously be forced to prove his innocence if he wanted to go free.

The biggest American trial since the Lindbergh kidnapping started on October 28th and ended on December 21st with Dr. Samuel Holmes Sheppard convicted of second-degree murder (intentional but without premeditation) and sentenced to life in prison. The state hadn’t really provided evidence of his guilt—but neither had he provided evidence of his innocence. If you think our judicial system is skewed to protect the rich and famous (think, "Paris Hilton"), just read the Sam Sheppard "clips." The man went to prison for being a snotty rich kid.

Three weeks after the conviction his mother committed suicide. Eleven days after that his father died of cancer. Dr. Sam was permitted to attend the funerals—in handcuffs. Taking Kurt Vonnegut out of context, “So it goes.”

It took ten years behind bars before a hot-shot young attorney by the name of F. Lee Bailey got the conviction thrown out and Sam Sheppard was free. The appeals went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Justices’ ruling—that the original trial had been a “mockery of justice”—gave Sam Sheppard a new trial, noting that a "carnival atmosphere" had permeated the first trial, and that Judge Edward Blythin refused to sequester the jury, had not ordered the jurors to ignore and disregard media reports of the case, and on the very first day of the trial had said, "Well, he's guilty as hell. There's no question about it." The Supreme Court held that the original conviction was the result of a trial in which Samuel Holmes Sheppard was denied due process.

If it seemed as if Dr. Sam might now have at least a small chance of leading a somewhat normal life, it quickly became apparent that too much had happened to too many people for too long a time for a return to normalcy. Just three days after being freed Sheppard married a German woman, Ariane Tebbenjohanns, who had written him in prison. They moved into a lakefront home in Bay Village about a mile from his 1954 home. That marriage didn’t last. He tried to resume his medical career, but that didn’t work out. He capitalized on his notoriety with a stint as a professional wrestler under the ring name “The Killer,” teaming with partner George Strickland in matches around the country. By then he was an alcoholic, said to be downing two fifths of liquor a day. He died of liver failure on April 6, 1970, at the age of 46, just six months after marrying Strickland's 20-year-old daughter Colleen. He had had four years of "freedom."

Dr. Sam is gone—dead 37 years now!--but the tragedy continues to play out. The ripples continue to spread and to touch lives. 53 years later you can still start a pretty decent argument in pretty much any Cleveland bar along the lines of “did too”/”did not.”

I never saw Chip Sheppard again. He was sent to live with relatives, then off to military school. He has spent his adult life trying to clear his father’s name, with some limited success. He became convinced that the murder was carried out by a window washer named Richard Eberling, who was in the Sheppard home just two days before the killing. Years later it turned out that Eberling was an accomplished petty thief and had stolen one of Marilyn’s rings. In 1989, he was convicted of murdering an elderly Cuyahoga County woman he brefriended, Ethel May Durkin, and as executor of her will looting her estate. His possible involvement in the violent deaths of Durkin’s two sisters remains murky.

It turned out he had also been, for a brief time in 1954, a suspect in Marilyn’s murder. Sam Reese Sheppard remains convinced that Eberling was overlooked in the rush to pin the crime on his father.

For years, from behind bars, Richard Eberling played a cat-and-mouse game with Sheppard, with reporters and with law enforcement. He allegedly told a fellow prison inmate and a nurse that he was guilty in the Sheppard case. He wrote Chip Sheppard he knew what had happened in the home that night. Did he or didn’t he? Was he the murderer? A jury will never be asked to decide: Richard Eberling died in prison at the age of 68 on July 25, 1998. Case closed?

Not for Chip. In 1999 he brought a $3 million wrongful imprisonment suit against the State of Ohio. He hoped to clear his father's name once and for all. Chip and his attorney pointed the finger of blame at Eberling.

DNA testing of Richard Eberling's blood, to see if there was a match with traces of blood found at the murder scene, was inconclusive.

The defense countered that Dr. Sam was the most logical suspect, and presented expert testimony suggesting that Marilyn’s murder was a textbook domestic homicide; that the doctor, having an affair with a nurse at the family hospital and unhappy with the news of his wife’s pregnancy, killed her to get out of his marriage.

After ten weeks of trial, 76 witnesses, and hundreds of exhibits, the case went to the eight-person jury (remember, this was a civil trial not a criminal case). It took just three hours of deliberation for the jury to find that Sam Reese Sheppard had failed to prove that his father had been wrongfully imprisoned. The date was April 12, 2000. Later appeals have been denied.

The Associated Press reported the irony: Dr. Sam had been found “not innocent.”

In 2004, on the 50th anniversary of the crime, Sam Reese Sheppard issued a statement that said, in part,

“I hope that the memory of my loved ones and the historical lessons exhibited in this case will one day lead to reform of a judicial system that continues to operate in dishonor and disrepute.”

Sam and I are 60 now. He has a web site,

Of course, there’s more to the story.

You probably already know that many consider the Sheppard case to be the basis for the TV series (and movie) The Fugitive. Dr. Richard Kimball is wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife, but escapes to try to hunt down the real killer, a one-armed man. Dr. Sam accused a “bushy-haired” man. And, Of course, he never escaped from prison.

Others see echoes of the case in the Stephen King short story Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and the movie made form it. In The Shawshank Redemption a wealthy man wrongfully imprisoned for murdering his wife (and her lover) later learns that an inmate in another prison confessed to a fellow con that he had committed the crime.

Bay High football coach Jack Llewellyn told this story: Dr. Sam was the team physician. He and the coach were avid fishermen, and had made plans to go fishing the morning of the Fourth. As I remember his story, Coach said he was supposed to get up before dawn, check the wind, and if it was right drive over to the Sheppard home to go out in the Sheppard boat. The wind, he said, was wrong, so he went back to bed. If you believe his story unfavorable winds kept him from stumbling into the middle of the crime just as the doctor and the bushy-haired man were wrestling on the beach. If you believe his story. I'm not saying that Coach was a liar, just that he was a good story-teller.

The Sheppard home on Lake Road was torn down in the late 90s and replaced with another bigger, more expensive house. Lakeshore land in Bay is almost impossible to come by.

But I spent time in that house. You’ll never believe it, but I spent the tenth anniversary of the murder in the Sheppard house! By then it was the Hull home. The place sat vacant for several years (too many memories, too many gawkers) before the Hull family bought it, cheap. Grove Hull was my age. We were high school kids in 1964. I don’t know where the adults were that night, but several guys my age spent the night in the house, in the bedroom, telling ghost stories with the lights out! As dawn came up our plan was to head down to the beach, the time and place of Sam’s final struggle with the bushy-haired intruder. I was leading the way down the stairs from the bedroom when something hit me in the chest! TOTAL TERROR! Then we realized it was the Hull family dog—a big black lab I think he was. Anyway—a memorable anniversary. Today, a half-dozen TV crews would have wanted to be there to tape the "event." Then it was just some punk kids.

Bay View Hospital is gone, too, sort of. The building still stands, but now it’s the centerpiece of a fancy condominium development called Cashelmara. I found out later the place wasn’t designed to be a hospital. It was was built as the summer estate of industrialist Washington Lawrence, the president of the National Carbon Company, the forerunner of Union Carbide. When the last of his daughters died in 1948 it was purchased by the Sheppard family. The hospital closed in 1979.

The Cleveland Press and Louis B. Seltzer are both gone. Seltzer was editor of the paper from 1928 until 1966—38 years as the political godfather and champion of all things he thought good and decent in Cleveland. In 1956, well before he was rebuked by the U.S. Supreme Court for pressuring the cops and the courts into convicting Dr. Sam, Seltzer wrote his autobiography, The Years Were Good. Sure they were, if you were Louis Seltzer. Not so good for Sam Sheppard. The book, one of those Horatio Alger up-by-my-bootstraps stories, is available online. It includes an entire chapter in which Seltzer brags about how the public was served by the front-page editorials he personally wrote goading law enforcement into arresting Sam Sheppard. Mel Brooks had it right: "It's good to be the king."

Louis B. Seltzer died in April, 1980. By then the paper he loved was dying, too, a victim (like so many afternoon papers) of falling circulation. In 1960 the paper’s owner, the Scripps-Howard chain, bought the rival Cleveland News to merge the two, but the die was already cast. Despite being named one of America’s top ten newspapers by Time magazine in 1966 (as Seltzer was bowing out), the paper went down for the count in mid-1982. The Plain Dealer is now the city’s only daily.

Here’s a “Tying My Shoes” sidebar: I said Chip Sheppard and I were in the same first grade class at Glenview School (Mrs. Loomis’ class). So was Dewey Graham, the son of legendary Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham. The Graham family lived in Bay throughout Otto’s playing career. He came to class once. I thought he had hands the size of dinner plates—but hey, I was seven years old!. Don't know what happened to Dewey.

Who did it? Sam Reese Sheppard thinks Richard Eberling killed his mother. Many others, including F. Lee Bailey and a lot of Bay residents, are suspicious of Spencer and Esther Houk. “Spen” Houk was the part-time Mayor and ran the town meat market. He and his wife lived on Lake Road a few doors down from the Sheppard home. They were among the last to leave the Sheppard party the night before the murder, and Spen was the first person Dr. Sam called the morning of the Fourth.

In the 1966 re-trial Bailey introduced a lot of evidence about blood spatters in the murder bedroom. The arc of flying blood showed that the murderer had, in all likelihood, been left-handed. Sam Sheppard wasn’t. Esther Houk was. One theory suggests that Spencer Houk was having an affair with Marilyn, and that he returned to her after the party when his wife was asleep. That theory says Esther awoke, went to the Sheppard home, found the two together and in a fit of insane jealousy killed Marilyn. After that (here’s where this theory splits into multiple scenarios), she and Spencer convinced Sam to help cover up the murder. OR Sam came upstairs and was knocked out without ever identifying the two Houks (thus, the 6:00 a.m. call that morning). OR that Spencer committed the murder (although I don’t believe he was left-handed).

There are a lot of “ORs” here. There were later reports of a bushy-haired man seen hitch-hiking on Lake Road that night. Also a drifter with a violent criminal past was known to have been thirty miles away(!!!!).

OR…ORthere’s always Sam Sheppard. That he did it himself, OR that he wanted his wife dead and hired Eberling (or someone else) to do it. Many people still think he was behind the crime. My father (age 88) is one of them. Me? I just don't know.

One thing is certain: it’s all but impossible that anyone will ever be charged in Marilyn Sheppard’s death. You have to remember the case is now 53 years old. All the likely suspects died years ago.

You could make the argument that Sam Reese Sheppard also lost his life on July 4, 1953. It certainly was taken from him. For more than a half-century he has walked a path no one could have predicted and none of us would have wished for him: certainly not Sam and Marilyn, and none of his classmates at Glenview.

Answers are impossible to come by. I hope he finds peace. I wonder if that's possible.

Tuesday, July 3

Above the Clouds

I have two Fourth of July stories. One is 25 years old, the other 30.

For the first we head to the top of the World Trade Center in New York, operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Every year (at least back then) the Port Authority put on a bash for journalists on the Fourth. One year the decision was made to throw a floating cocktail party on one of the State Island ferryboats. Terrific Idea! You see, the fireworks in the harbor are shot off from several huge floating barges anchored offshore in the East River. Billed as the biggest Fourth of July fireworks in the country, the thought was that it would make quite a show from a boat circling underneath.

I wasn't there, you understand. But the best laid plans, etc. etc. etc. What could go awry? Well, if you're circling underneath you can only see the fireworks from one side of the boat. I'm told (again, I wasn't there) that what went awry was that everyone rushed from one side of the ferry to the other, making for a rocky ride!

In 1982, a different plan. Fireworks as seen from the observation deck at the World Trade Center—above the fireworks!

Anyone who ever spent time on top of the WTC knows how odd it was to see seaplanes taking off and landing in the river below you. So just imagine "the rockets red glare" as seen from above!

Come July 4th, that's just what we did—we imagined it. It was a rainy, foggy night and the towers were socked in: we couldn't see the ground, much less the fireworks. Hundreds of us made our way down in the elevators to street level and slogged as far as we could into Battery Park, where people had been staking out the best viewing sites since early morning. My friend and I got soaked, and didn't get much of a view, but we did see fireworks shot off around the Statue of Liberty.

On 9/11, my first thoughts were of overwhelming sadness mixed, I'll admit it, with a little fear. And then I thought, "They can't do that to my building!" Before we even had as clue as to who "they" were, I was calling the WTC twin towers "my building." Hadn't set foot in the Word Trade Center in over 15years, but it was my building in my town. Anyone else have the same thought?


My most memorable Fourth, however, was five years earlier: July 4th, 1977. You'd think it would be 1976, the nation's bicentennial, but no. In 1977 I really did see fireworks from above the clouds.

It was dusk, and I was returning to Peoria from a New York business trip on a flight from Chicago. I was absently staring out the window minutes after leaving O'Hare when I saw tiny little chrysanthemums of colored light far, far below: fireworks! And then I realized they were everywhere! Every little town and village was celebrating the Fourth, and there was a town every five miles, or six, or ten for as far as you could see from up on high. At any given moment I could see eight or nine towns outlined not by street lights or car headlights, but easily spotted because of the fireworks.

Each of those towns grew up as a center of commerce for the farmers in the surrounding area. Each had stores, and a consolidated high school, and a volunteer fire department, several churches and one or two doctors (known as "Doc" I'm sure). There was a Main Street in each one, and maybe an Elm Street. Some had a courthouse. This being Illinois, there might have been a statue of Lincoln in the square. With a little luck there was a municipal swimming pool. If not, there were ponds nearby and a bend in the river somewhere, and a tire swing hung by a rope from a tree branch.

And I pictured Mom and Dad in their folding chairs, the ones with the plastic webbing, sitting in the city park watching the fireworks. They were probably a little sunburned from spending the day cooking out in the backyard. The 5-year-old was there covering his ears against the boom-boom-boom. But who knew where the 12-year-old was. He and his best friend were running around somewhere. They were Tom and Huck, 1977-style.

I was flying south-west. If I had flown almost due north from O'Hare I'd have flown over Horicon, Wisconsin, home of my father's people. Dairy farmers, they were, emigrated from Germany before the turn of the last century. My brother has a picture of our grandfather, Carl, with the rest of the Horicon High football team taken in a snowy field in nineteen-ought-something. There are still dairy farmers in Horicon a hundred years later. The family farm is still there, although another family owns it. Anymore a lot of the locals work in the big John Deere plant in town—the one that makes lawn tractors and the like. Lots of German names still in the Horicon phone book.

They came here looking for a better life. My father's father's father found it, just like so many others. They cared enough about their new homeland that some of them went back overseas and died for it in "The War to End All Wars." Some are buried "over there," some here. Men my Dad's age went off to WWII. Men my age fought in Vietnam. Now young Americans are half a world away fighting and dying again.

A summer night in July, a little warm out, watching the fireworks with the kids running around waving sparklers, drinking fruit punch from a big jug. It's a good time to think of them all.

I remember my boyhood in a Cleveland suburb that hugs the edge of Lake Erie. I remember being a Cub Scout on July Fourth, when they would close down Route 6 for the morning so we could march in a big parade to the little graveyard on a bluff overlooking the lake. There were soldiers among the dead there: one or two of the headstones dating back to the Revolutionary War.

As scouts it was our job to solemnly place little flags at each of the soldiers' markers. There was a 21-gun salute. Back then World War II had been over for little more than a decade: the honor guard was made up of veterans still young enough to fit into their uniforms and to handle their rifles with ease. Then, when the only sound was the wind high in the trees, a bugler played Taps. A moment's pause—and another—and then from down on the beach far, far below, came an answering bugle calling Taps.

"Day is done, gone the sun: from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky. All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh."

I remember that day, when I was eight or nine, as if it were yesterday. When I think of it, and of the men in that little graveyard, it makes me sad.

When I think now of 9/11, I get sad, too. Sad more than angry.

Sean Hannity uses a Martina McBride song as his theme:

"Let freedom ring
"Let the white dove sing
"Let the whole world know that today is the day of a reckoning
"Let the weak be strong
"Let the right be wrong
"Roll the stone away
"Let the guilty pay
"It's Independence Day"

Now that makes me angry. "The day of reckoning?" "Let the right be wrong?" Is that what the "white dove" is singing about? I worry that around the world we're thought of as a powerful, vengeful, evil force, the "My Way or the Highway" of superpowers, the world's bully.

That's not who we are, is it? "Let the right be wrong?" What's that supposed to mean?

I know, I know, I'm sappy and simplistic. So be it. But when I think of New York, and Horicon, Wisconsin and Bay Village, Ohio I know we're a good nation, a good people. Do you think maybe we haven't done enough to show our goodness around the globe? From the "Sappy and Simplistic" desk here at News Central, it seems easy to be angry with politicians. Maybe if we showed the world fewer of our elected officials and more of our people in a city park waiting for the fireworks to start we might be better off. Maybe we should show what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature."

On September 12th the entire world was behind this country—every man, woman and child, with the exception of some fringe lunatics. We had a chance to go after Osama, and the world--the world--stood ready to help us. What has happened in the last six years? Maybe we haven't done enough to demonstrate our goodness, the purity of our purpose. I'm willing to sing "Let the guilty pay," but only if we're going after the guilty--instead of just going after the handy. Is our purpose pure?

I don't have answers, only questions. Hell, if I had answers I'd run for President; but it seems to me freedom should be the ultimate gift we offer the citizens of the world, not a club we beat them to death with.

You and yours have a happy and safe Fourth. Watch the kids when they're playing with sparklers: those things get white-hot. If you can, spend some time thinking about our country, and about who we are--how we got here--and where we're going.