Thursday, November 4, 2010

Walter Cronkite in a Can

It’s Walter Leland Cronkite’s birthday. The legendary CBS news anchor would have been 94 years old today.

Though we lost Walter last year I still think about him during my current newsless state. He goes back to the very beginning of my strong desire to want to know about what is going on in the world.

My Alaskan Daze
My father was an oil man, which led to our family moving to Anchorage, Alaska in 1966. In those days Alaska was only seven years removed from statehood and it remained a very isolated place. I felt in many ways as if we had landed in a foreign country. Happily everyone spoke English, but we were in a city that contained one-half the state's population and we had exactly one mall (called  by everyone “The Mall”), no McDonalds, and a large swath of vacant lots downtown where shops and bars had been swallowed up in the Great Earthquake two years earlier.

Kids cruised Northern Lights Boulevard on Saturday night as if it were 1955, honking their horns at DJ Ron Moore who broadcast the Top 40 countdown from “high atop the Bun Drive-In.” The records played on the radio were ones that had come out in the Lower 48 weeks ago. Strange, psychedelic things were starting to happen in places like San Francisco, but I hardly knew about them that first winter as I stomped back and forth to school in my canvas surplus Army snow boots .

Alaska was all about time delay. Alaskans took whatever news they could get when they could get it, then went on with their lives. We were resigned to the fact that Christmas specials (Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Bob Hope) were taped and mailed to our television stations which didn’t get around to airing them until January. Bizarre as it was, we watched Santa, elves, and reindeer long after our Christmas trees had been hauled to the dump. For an ear on the world we had radio, of course, which could give us news hourly, but for an eye we only had two TV channels.

Walter Enters the Picture
Until the early 1970s when a satellite was placed in orbit and a live broadcast signal was bounced off it and down to Alaska, the network evening news was treated as a luxury item. It was taped in Seattle, slapped in a canister, and rushed to the airport to be flown up aboard a commercial airliner. Fifteen hundred miles and four hours later, if everything went well, which often was not the case because of weather, my parents and I got ready for bed, turned on the TV in the bedroom and watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. It was 10 p.m. Alaska Standard Time and 2 a.m. in New York City where our journalist hero was likely sound asleep.

And at the Screen We Stared...
It was the sixties. Student radicals, Viet Cong in black pajamas, Civil Rights marchers with linked arms, transcendence from a guitar and a little dot of chemical on blotter paper, all this stood in amazing contrast to the Alaskan life. Once a week I could turn on my radio at night and listen to the Mukluk Telegraph show where the announcer read messages to people living in the remotest part of the Alaskan bush. It sounded like some kind of weird, seriously intoned poetry.

 “To Joe at Willow Lake, Ross will fly the Cub in on Tuesday with your pump and three-quarter inch eye bolts.”

“To Hattie at Ross Point, we’ll see you after break-up, hope you get that moose, we love you, the Schmidts.”

The main newspaper, which my brothers and I delivered winter evenings in total darkness and subzero weather, tended to echo the prevalent Alaskan provincialism The Anchorage Times was run by Bob Atwood who believed the purpose of his paper was to boost community spirit and encourage Alaskans to develop their vast natural resources, regulators and environmental nambie pambies be damned. Every day The Times had a banner front-page headline, being unfamiliar with the concept of reserving such prime page space for only important events such as the beginning or end of a war. I still remember my frustration with a front-page headline in World's-About-to-End font size. It was for a weekend event The Times sponsored.

Ann Chow Wins Spelling Bee

We did have as an alternative in the trouble makers at the Anchorage Daily News, our morning paper. The News was an impertinent bunch operating on a shoestring budget. They were real news people who had figured out that they were in the midst of one of the most exciting stories in America—all of us were witnesses to the development of a brand-new state from the ground up, including the mistakes, discoveries, and hubris and corruption attendant to such an undertaking. The News didn’t want to boost our spirits, it wanted to tell the truth. Eventually they would dodge death threats and win a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the graft system within the Teamsters Union during the North Slope oil boom.

[There's a great book about the above, the publication of which was overseen by a high school classmate of mine; her mother was Alaska's version of Ben Bradlee. See: Kay Fanning's Alaska Story.]

As good as The News’ intentions were they couldn’t afford to print many pages, and what news they had to offer was already more than a day old by the time it appeared on our front porch.  If I wanted to know what was going on in America with as little time lag as possible I had to rely on a guy with a moustache. Walter Cronkite.

Digging Walter
Walter wasn’t about being fashionable, though as the sixties progressed I thought I detected some sideburn enlargement. But what never changed was his take on the news. You could tell he loved it. His voice much more animated than the dead-pan Chet Huntley’s or David Brinkley’s. Those two, who anchored NBC’s top rated news half-hour, sounded so sober that they might have been serving communion in church. It wasn’t that Walter was excited per se, but you always knew from his voice, which was far from smooth (bumpily cadenced, one might say), that he was engaged.

At the same time, Walter was a stickler for objectivity. The story was never about him. This is why out of all the stories Walter brought to us from 1962-1981 people always mention his work on the day of the Kennedy assassination. The pause as he held on to his glasses and read the bulletin, with the lump in throat, and announced it was official, the President was dead. This was the exception. For a few seconds we saw Walter the man, standing ahead of Walter the reporter. And it felt right. This wasn’t just news. As anyone who lived through that day can tell you, it was like a body blow to every one of us. The closet thing since was how all of us felt on September 11, 2001.

PWE or The Post-Walter Era
Reflections like the above seem quaint in the age of the Internet and iPads and streaming video. Talking about people eagerly huddled around their black and white TV set sounds akin to cave people sitting around a fire. It’s hard to imagine. Today if something happens right on the other side of the world I can know about it within seconds by just flicking my fingers a few times. That’s good.

Or is it?

The funny thing is that when something comes to me easily, I don’t cherish it. It's like the Casanova who always has women trailing after him and respects and loves none of them. Or the child with so many toys that he keeps breaking them and shrugging his shoulders because he has plenty more. Or the woman with a closet full of dresses and you know the rest, she never has anything to wear. There seems to be a rigorous supply and demand pleasure principle that applies to our species. It dictates that I can be moved by and truly value only what is scarce and hard to access.

As momentous as some of the events of the sixties were I’m no longer sure that these early years of the 21st century are any less historically significant. What’s changed is the quantity and speed of the information. It’s easier to adopt a blasé whatever attitude toward it all when I don’t have to patiently wait for someone like Walter at 10 p.m. to tell me the news. The news has become so unlimited and synchronized with my own heartbeats that I worry that I’ve become jaded. I could live through the most amazing episodes and hardly even notice them.

I don’t think Walter would have liked that. The CBS network logo was an eye. Walter believed in shrugging off self absorption and the temptations of a narrow slitted viewpoint in order to have our eyes wide open. He wanted us to be awake to what we are doing to this planet and each other, good and bad, and I thank him for that. - V.W.


No comments:

Post a Comment