Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Human Interest

From brassy writers to fussy publishers, Florida journalism had it all

When I started at the Miami News in 1966, I remember that reporters typed their stories with two fingers on cheap paper. If they needed to move paragraphs around, they did so with scissors and glue. They impaled finished stories on metal spikes for a psychopathic editor who forbade talking until sunrise.

The few female reporters wrote for the "women's section." I remember only one reporter of color. Everybody seemed destined for lung cancer; occasionally a wastepaper basket burst into flame from hot ash.

I remember reporters who kept whisky bottles in desk drawers and editors who punched writers who whined one too many times about changes to their precious copy. All-night poker games erupted Fridays at midnight in the news library.

Sometimes, late at night, the paper's star reporter ambled majestically through the newsroom, on his arm a buxom dame said to be a stripper who went by the name Helen Bed. Or was it Elza Poppin? He drove an XKE convertible and was probably the most foul-mouthed reporter I've ever known.

I was barely 17. I wanted to be him. There could be no more romantic business than this.

At night, high school basketball coaches telephoned, and I'd jot down their scores and highlights. About 11 I'd start writing about the most interesting game.

The next day at lunch, I'd trot across the street from my high school, Miami Edison, and buy a paper from the machine near Mike's Diner. Hands shaking, I'd search for my byline in the back pages near the truss ads.

It was always a thrill if a sentence I had written actually made it into the paper. My editors called me "The Kid," which meant that I was green around the collar and wet behind the ears and prone to write prose full of cliches. By the time my editors were finished removing cliches and clunky sentences, not much was left of my own work.

That's how you learned back in those days. Editors weren't New Age college-educated softies afraid of damaging the rookie's self-esteem. They specialized in terrifying the new boy. If you couldn't deal with it, you went to college and studied something easier, like medicine. It was the school of hard knocks.

Editor, remove that cliche.

/ /

"Kid, get me rewrite!"

Yep, actually heard those words. Milt Sosin, ace reporter, would be on the phone near the site of a tragedy. He'd tell the legendary rewrite man, cigar-chomping William Tucker, what he had, and Tucker would weave the facts into a readable story.

Sosin had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. In Dallas in 1963, in a police station, he struck up a conversation with a fellow who seemed to know a lot about Dallas. A moment later, the man — Jack Ruby — shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

Sosin loved covering hurricanes. There's a famous photograph of Sosin calling in a story from a waterfront phone booth — which was in the process of being toppled by a wave.

He interviewed Castro and Churchill. Mobster Meyer Lansky called him "Milt." Once I asked Edna Buchanan, the Miami Herald's Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, if she liked the abrasive Sosin. She did — with reservations.

"One thing he used to do turned me off," said the hard-boiled Buchanan. "He liked to beat the police to the next of kin. Milt wanted to be the one to tell them that their loved one was dead. He thought he got the most honest emotions that way."

My specialties were high school sports and fishing. But I remember the first time I was needed to write headlines. "Don't make eye contact with him," warned a friend, knowing I was about to meet the paper's most notorious editor. I won't give Dave a last name because if he is still alive, he is likely to be armed.

Dave is the one who hated talking, eye contact, chuckling, whistling, whatever. Sitting at midnight to begin his shift, he carefully removed his ring and watch, and placed them on his right near a No. 2 pencil, sharpened perfectly, and a pica ruler. On his left, also neatly lined up, were his car keys, change and a pack of Camels.

That morning he had three headline-writing assistants, me included. As the shift wore on, he handed stories to the veterans for headlines and never made eye contact with me. I was afraid to speak up at first, but finally I whispered that I was ready for action. It was like I had thrown a drink in his face.

He jumped up, muttered something, fired a wire story at me and stomped away. I looked at the story and realized I didn't know exactly how to write a headline.

So I turned to the friendly looking copy editor to my right, a man named Art Grace, whom I had never met.

"Mr. Grace," I squeaked. "What do I do now?"

"Dchekd," he said.

"What?"

"DCHKED," he declared.

I was so ignorant, I didn't even know what a cleft palate was.

/ /

I arrived at the St. Petersburg Times to be the outdoors writer on Feb. 14, 1977. After more than a decade at the Miami News, where drinking, fighting and gambling formed the backbone of the newsroom culture, the Times felt a little like an insurance office.

Everybody but me wore a tie. There were lots of female reporters. There were at least two black writers. The managing editor was a Harvard grad. A couple of reporters actually had law degrees.

I felt lost for a while. But I finally started feeling at home the afternoon city editor Mike Foley jumped on top of a quivering reporter's desk. "You got the story!" he said. "Don't f--- it up!"

One day I was sure I smelled marijuana in a men's room.

Another day, looking out the window from my desk, I noticed a cantankerous old sports copy editor, Ralph Warner, below me on the street. Perhaps he was going to move his car and avoid a parking ticket. No, he opened the passenger door, grabbed a bottle of booze and took several satisfying gulps. A few minutes later I noticed him back on the desk writing headlines.

The Times boasted several excellent writers, including Dudley Clendinen, who later wrote for the New York Times, and Howell Raines, who became that paper's editor. But I want to tell you about Rick Abrams, whom I had met in college and worked with at the Miami News. At this time he was writing very good stories for the St. Petersburg Times.

First time I answered a phone and got an earful of shaving cream, I knew it was Rick. If I discovered a "kick me" sign on the seat of my pants I knew it was Rick. One time he put a small explosive in an editor's cigarette. It blew up in her face, and Rick barely escaped being fired.

/ /

Nelson Poynter, the legendary owner of the paper, was still alive. He was slightly built, probably only a few inches above 5 feet, and always wore a bow tie. He was polite to his underlings and opened doors for women.

The first time I wrote a story that mentioned a snake, I was rebuked by an editor:

"Mr. Poynter doesn't like reading about snakes. Anything about snakes fails the Rice Krispies test."

Mr. Poynter thought that civilized readers, eating civilized cereal breakfasts, might cancel their subscriptions should they read something about cold-blooded reptiles. Taking a chance, my editor published the snake story but played it below the fold.

Weeks later, I received a note from Mr. Poynter. Was I going to be fired?

"Dear Mr. Klinkenberg, My wife Marian and I just saw an amusing film. It's called Blazing Saddles …"

I was shocked. Mr. Poynter was the type of man who saw art films with subtitles, not vulgar Mel Brooks laughers.

"I was enamored by the scene in which the cowboys who dined on baked beans at dinner later sat at the campfire and discussed events of the day," the note went on. "Some of the cowboys were apparently flatulent."

I was surprised that Mr. Poynter even knew the word.

"I was wondering," the owner mused, "if such behavior actually occurs in Florida campgrounds?"

I showed the note to my editor. "I think Mr. Poynter wants you to write a story," the editor said. "You'd better do it." Nervous, I headed for Mr. Poynter's office for more direction.

I bumped into Rick Abrams, the office prankster, and mentioned the note.

He had never heard anything so funny. He had stolen Nelson Poynter's stationery and had been busy sending notes to other reporters in the office.

A few days later I bought dead shrimp at a tackle store. I found the right car in the parking lot and removed a hubcap. I don't think Abrams ever found out who booby-trapped his car.

/ /

So after 37 years, 7 months and 27 days at the Times, it's over. I've had a lot of fun. I've met wonderful people and visited beautiful places. Rick Abrams died from melanoma complications. Milt Sosin made it into his 90s. I don't know what happened to the crazy editor who prohibited talking. I would like to think he became a monk and took a vow of silence.

Mr. Poynter died in 1978. I'm grateful for the newspaper he left us.

Had I made it to his office that day so long ago, he would have been bewildered when I started talking about Blazing Saddles. But I would have told him straight.

"Yes, Mr. Poynter, campers in Florida like to sit at the campfire and fart."

     
   
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