Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Five Pulitzer Winners Walk Into A Bar In My Amazon Dream

I realized tonight I've known five Pulitzer Prize winners. They are described below, not in chronological order, but with attempted aspiring candor, wit and cleverness.

The first one I'd known had been a high school friend and a fellow member of the school choir, she as celebrated and accomplished pianist and accompanist. She won her Pulitzer in 2005 for Biography and Autobiography with a Willem de Kooning biography, co-authored with her husband. I took heart when she told me it had taken ten years to write it. She and I at the earliest had been fellow participants in, I think, a local 4th or 5th grade patriotic speech competition. She recited "I Am An American", and I recited "The Gettysburg Address". I believe she won the competition, despite my earnest gratifying Lincolnesque performance (if Lincoln had had the larynx of an elementary school boy). She was a most talented girl, which is a vastly understated compliment. She is an excellent person of highest integrity and is sweet, kind and charming.

The fourth Pulitzer winner I'd met, Lawrence 'Larry' Wright, I met in Austin because I knew his equally brilliant wife from a helpful but now somewhat embarrassing personal growth seminar called Insight II (I demur from describing the exhaustive energetic hysterics of its Limiting Characteristic Theater; that's all I have to say about that). Larry won his Pulitzer (Those words put together in that order!) in 2007 in General Nonfiction for the book The Looming Tower. He wrote for Texas Monthly at the time I met him in about 1988. I was impressed when meeting him even then, and his ego was not at all corrupted by his talent and his already gathering reputation for insightful well-crafted writing. Talent wins out sometimes. That Larry can write!

The third Pulitzer Prize winner is Ben Sargent, editorial cartoonist for the Austin American-Statesman when I worked there at the City Desk from about 1984 to 1987. He had won his Pulitzer in 1982. He was the lanky friendly bearded legend (way back before not-shaving was compulsory lemming behavior) padding around the newsroom as if he were merely mortal. Ben was quiet and unassuming and had a wicked and sharpened sense of diabolical humor that gave incisive hilarious hell to people who well-earned it. Luckily for him, Texas politicians even then were especially mock-worthy, as were the national 1980s Republicans, and the Pulitzer committee likely especially enjoyed Ben's fearless skewering of them and of their precious cherished right-wing delusions. I was city desk assistant and, among other celebrated duties like 'hand-populating' the template with temperatures from around the country and world and calling area funeral homes to gather the names and information about the most recently Hill Country deceased and writing their obituaries for the afternoon/evening edition of the daily paper, I also received and solicited public information and then conveyed it to reporters and editors and other staff including Ben, the gentle giant with a mighty set of drawing pens.

The third Pulitzer Prize winner, Raymond Bonner, won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize as part of a team of writers while on staff with The New York Times. He also won first prize in 1985 for 'Weakness and Deceit: U.S. Policy and El Salvador,'' in the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Awards program. Bonner was a NY Times reporter when I met him in 1982. I had called the NY Times Washington bureau office because my Austin neighbor's ex-Marine boyfriend had a hot story to tell and hopefully sell. Bonner and another NY Times reporter, Philip Taubman, Jr., son of a senior NYT editor, flew the next day from D.C. to Austin to secretly interview the ex-Marine, who had been one of the earliest pot smugglers across the Rio Grande into Texas and had contemporaneously in 1982 been a part of the CIA's then-secret operation to create a right-wing guerilla army (The Contras) in Honduras along the border with Nicaragua. He scouted landing zones for C-130 Hercules transport planes.

The two reporters and my scary new friend and I spent two days scouting isolated locations around and outside of Austin where the interviews were then conducted. I was taught to conceal my activities and not be followed. My friend's story was to be part of a larger story being written about other ex-military people also taking part in that covert operation. By that time, Bonner had already made journalistic history with a 1982 NY Times story that first exposed the weighted fist of oligarchic capitalist genocide and oppression in Central America at the hands of the American-trained, American-supplied, and American-denied El Salvadorean Army El Mozote Massacre in which 800 to 1200 fleeing civilian peasants including children were hunted and killed in the countryside in 1981 by that army’s Atlacatl Battalion, whose officers (and other members) had been trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia in Columbus. Bonner continued in the same journalistic vein with a lifetime of equally intense and historic other reporting elsewhere such as Rwanda, Bosnia and Indonesia.

Lastly, the second Pulitzer Prize winner I'd known was a journalism professor at Louisiana State University whose Advanced Typography class I signed up for and dropped in 1973 after coming to terms with the fact that I had no interest in typography whatsoever, advanced or primitive.  James Shoaf Featherston won his Pulitzer in 1953 as part of the reporting team for the Vicksburg Herald's coverage of a 1953 tornado in Vicksburg, Mississippi.   Much more famously, Featherston was the Dallas Times Herald reporter on November 22, 1963 who, immediately after John F. Kennedy was shot in his motorcade, secured a witness (Mary Moorman) for the police to interview and himself later testified before the Warren Commission.  Also, in the 1950s, Featherston covered Emmett Till's Mississippi murder trial for the Jackson Daily News.  It's remarkable his Pulitzer Prize was not given for either of those but for coverage of a tornado.  He probably assumed he'd peaked early until the Emmett Till trial and the events of November 22, 1963.  

The dream was that I win a Pulitzer. I've wanted one since I first learned what a Pulitzer is. So I majored in journalism in college, where I dated a woman last-named Pulitzer. She was a real prize, actually, but not THE prize, and I wasn't convinced I wanted to 'win' her, nor had she shown evidence she'd want to be 'won' by me.  Since then I've come to understand more fully that someone actually needs to write an especially outstanding cohesive series of articles or one really gigantic blockbuster of a news story to win a Pulitzer or a book.  There's always a catch.

Anyway, that's a Rubicon I super likely will never even locate let alone cross. However, having been exposed to actual Pulitzer winners will serve me well if my writing stars align well enough for me to essentially win what would be for me the journalistic lottery. I'll be able to name-drop as I awkwardly negotiate interviews, and perhaps I will have learned by osmosis how to behave accordingly. At least I've gotten close to the Pulitzer Mojo of the five Pulitzer winners I've known and met, good people all, and my life's been elevated and enhanced because of them.  I count that as a win. And finally, here's the Amazon part of the dream.

Coming as a Little League shortstop I made an unassisted triple play (without any help!) with the bases loaded, and of how in one game I made all three outs in the last inning of play. A true hero's journey.

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