You know the thing about praising the writing first, then coming down a bit gently on the trite, redundant, irrelevant parts, or more commonly, the parts that make no sense at all? I thought it was kind of a universal principle among editors, an accepted practice in order to avoid having their would-be writers run off to law school or someplace worse, although it’s hard to imagine a place worse than law school, except maybe hell.
It is done this way because it’s a well-known fact that people who think it will be fun or “a calling” to earn a living by writing words have egos more fragile than a sunny-side-up egg. The merest suggestion that the writer has composed something not quite as eloquent as a Shakespeare sonnet will send him off at a full gallop to the nearest gin mill, cursing that damn fool editor who wouldn’t know a good, maybe even great story, if it bit him in any of his many unspeakable parts.
Well, my boss at The Tampa Tribune, City Editor Dave Watson, he never got the word about any of this. We watched him out of the corners of our eyes as he handled the scrolls of paper we turned in, (we wrote on actual paper with manual typewriters in the old days). He’d mark it up with a number two pencil, wipe his face, shake his gray-haired head, then sort of slump over and sometimes grumble a few words to one of the assistant city editors, something like, “My God, where did these people come from?”
We hoped upon hope he’d find something, any little thing, worthwhile in the scrawl, praying he wouldn’t groan out loud in front of our peers in the crowded newsroom.
The marked up papers were not the worst of it. What hit me hardest was when he’d call me over, hardly look at me, shake the copy around in his rough, reddened hands and say, “Rossi, you see this paragraph down here, right around three quarters the way down the second page? It’s the fourteenth. The lead of your story is buried down there in the fourteenth paragraph.” Then he’d toss the copy in my direction, trying hard to keep from spitting, although there were times I was sure I felt a slight spray.
This meant that my writing wasn’t just pitiful, which would have been bad enough, but that I’d missed the main point of whatever I was supposed to be watchdogging, daring the corrupt public official to try to get something past me. So not only was I failure as a writer, but also a failed watchdog, a complete and utter failure, which meant it would be impossible to save me from the junk heap of aspiring writers who’d come and gone without so much as a wave goodbye.
Sure, Dave, I got it. We all got it.
We hated that man, but we loved him, too. We loved him for his crazy ways of dealing with us, his unerring passion for truth, and for getting it right, perfect, nothing less than perfect was good enough for Dave Watson.
For a while, I suppose until it became too ghastly for him, he taught a class in journalism at the University. The students were told on the first day how it would be.
“There’s something you folks need to know. You’re going to be writing news stories. If you turn in a story with a misspelling, the paper gets an F. If you misspell a person’s name, the paper gets a double F. If you get two double Fs, you flunk the course.”
Then he’d say, “You don’t need to check your calendar. I’ll make it easy for you. You have until the end of this week to drop this course. I’m guessing at our next meeting, we’ll have right around one third of you back. If it’s too hard to spell words and names correctly, especially names, you don’t want to be a journalist anyway.”
It wasn’t all bad. After a time and with his iron-fisted guidance, some of us improved.
One day I wrote a story about a kid who almost suffocated in a cave-in at a construction site. The kid had brought it on himself by being down in a tunnel where nobody was supposed to go, but that didn’t matter much. The story was how it felt, the sensation of the dirt falling on him, crushing his body under hundreds of pounds of sand and mud, and how he just had enough air between his nose and the cave-in to hang on until somebody figured out he was under there, swallowing dirt, the grit crawling down his throat and wedging in between his teeth. I didn’t realize the importance of it at the time, but there was quite a bit of showing what happened, describing it in details that could be detected by one of the five senses, not so much telling. Although it should have been obvious, I didn’t say whether the kid made it or not until the last paragraph.
Dave walked up to me at my desk, where I always waited for his hammer to fall, but this time he didn’t have the copy in his hands. He looked at me and said, “Rossi, that is what we call a gut-shot, gets you right in the gut. Good job.”
He wasn’t effusive, not what you’d call excited; more like this was what he expected of me all along. I thought I had been reborn as some new animal, a writer of gut-shot.
Dave asked me once to check out a tip he’d gotten from a homeless man. The man told him he’d been kept prisoner at a work camp somewhere in Central Florida.
Dave said, “They pay him for so many crates of oranges he picks, but then they take out the cost of food, booze and cigarettes they’d given him. So by the end of the week, the workers end up owing the labor camp money, so nobody’s allowed to leave until they work off the money owed, but they never do, see? That’s how they keep them prisoners.”
Dave didn’t exactly smile, but he had a look on his face that said he was sure the story was true. And it was juicy. All we had to do was find it, confirm what was going on, and put it out there. All we had to go on was the homeless man told Dave the name of the labor camp. But, he said, there were plenty of others that operated the same scam.
Now the fact about Florida that most people don’t know is that once you get a few miles inland from the coast, Florida is mostly a huge swamp dotted with farms. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of work camps where migrant workers show up during winter, (it hardly ever gets real cold in Florida), to pick oranges and grapefruit as well as strawberries, tomatoes, cabbage, corn, melons, even sugar cane. The owners of the farms put these people up in the most minimal housing that can be imagined, many without running water or toilets.
It did not surprise me that some poor man was the victim of an unscrupulous, criminal camp owner, getting rich on the backs of the poverty stricken few who work for next to nothing.
This was the kind of story that excited Dave: exposing corruption. This is what being a news reporter was really about. It was Dave’s passion, and he passed it on to all of us. It’s what made journalism such an attraction. It put us on the right side of right and wrong. It’s what made legends of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and George Orwell, all of whom championed truth-telling above all else.
So I packed a few clothes and underwear, socks and such, and headed out in the vast farmland of central Florida. It stretches for thousands of square miles.
This part of Florida is not friendly to strangers, especially those strangers who don’t exactly fit the mold. Here I was, a young, obviously English-speaking kid looking for work at a migrant camp. After a week of searching, it was obvious nobody was going to hire me. Dejected, I got back to Tampa and had to own up. I was worried that Dave would think I’d failed him. Of course I had.
“Sorry, Dave, I couldn’t find the camp he told you about or anybody who would hire me to pick fruit.”
He looked at me and nodded. “Oh, well, Rossi, you gave it a go. Maybe we’ll try it again some time.”
I worked for Dave for sixteen years, running down good tips and bad, getting slight praise for the best stories, no word on the rest.
One day news came that Dave died. We were all in shock. I could not believe it, and could not figure out how we would get along without him. Several people asked me if I was going to attend his funeral. At first I thought I had to, it was an obligation, wasn’t it? But then I found that I could not. I was too much of an emotional mess to show up to where hundreds of people were mourning the loss of a giant of a man, too much, too much. He would have killed me if he saw me cry.
This all happened about 50 years ago. I think of him to this day, wondering how many people’s lives he touched, but not gently, nothing like gently; and I’ll never stop trying for that gut shot.