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By John Dunning
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 John Dunning
All rights reserved.
WALKER THOUGHT OF HIMSELF as a hardened man. He had seen enough death in his time—riots, executions and later Vietnam—but now, coming suddenly upon death on a busy New Jersey street, he was shocked. On a dirt lot behind a shopping center, a circus tent was on fire. There wasn't anything to be done. If there were still people inside, they were goners, plain and simple. Still, he pulled the car to the curb and wrenched open the door, taking himself with long strides toward the burning canvas. The first of the fire trucks had arrived, but the tent already had crumbled in around its two main poles. It went up like a sheet of paper, reminding him of those old Hindenburg pictures with the people rushing out of the flames looking like ants scurrying away from something they couldn't quite understand. Rescue units came past; another large pumper came by in a shock wave of sirens. So much death, so much pain, and all in the few moments it took him to stop and cross the street.
It drew him until he could feel the heat on his face and arms. He was a kid again, covering his first fire, with a young man's fascination for the wailing siren. He had been around the world ten times over, had won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and still he was drawn by sirens and smoke.
The tent belonged to one of those tiny traveling circuses, the kind his dad had known when the world was younger—the kind of circus kids used to run away to join. They didn't have many like that these days. The big tent had held three thousand people, no more, and now many of them lay moaning and writhing on the brown grass at the fringe of the parking lot. Two firemen brushed past, and one of them thrust the head of a stretcher at Walker. "Here, buddy, take this." Walker gripped the poles and looked at the man on the other end. A sad face by nature, infinitely sadder now over the tiny burden he carried. Walker looked down and saw a small body covered by a sheet. A kid; five, maybe six years old. Some poor little kid, here with his dad to see the circus. Walker wasn't a crying man, but he wanted to cry for that kid. He looked up as the sad fireman, with a nod of the head, directed him out of the lot to a small circle of rescue vehicles. They laid the stretcher on the ground and almost immediately a coroner came and peeled back the sheet and worked over the kid for a few minutes. It was a little girl, Walker now saw, a lovely child with dark hair and pale, almost milky skin. Her face was unmarked: it was so often smoke or the feet of the mob that did the damage. Her hand hung limply over the edge of the stretcher, the fingers dangling in the mud. Her other hand was folded across her middle, clutching a tiny bear, the kind you win at the booths. The coroner tried to pry the bear loose, then gave up and covered the pale face with the sheet.
Walker picked up the loose hand and folded it across the stretcher. He stood over the little body, feeling helpless and very much alone.
Her face haunted him. Maybe it was a quirk of the trade, but Walker always thought in terms of story. If a thing moved him, he assumed it would move his readers as well. Sometimes you got rid of something by simply letting enough time go by, and sometimes writing about it was easier and faster.
He remembered a story the Des Moines Register had done some years before about a fatal car accident. Some reporter had reconstructed the lives of all those kids, right up to the moment when their cars came together in that crossroad. Helluva story. His kind of piece. Driving through the Jersey streets, he thought of the little girl in those terms. Interview some survivors, maybe take them through their day. Not many, just four or five. No, three. Three was perfect. Probably have to interview twenty just to get the ones he wanted. Start tomorrow with the little girl: her father, mother, whoever had brought her to the circus. Make a few calls, see if they would be willing to talk about it. People were funny that way. Sometimes, just when you thought they were about to clam up, something would come out that was so incredible, so great, that it lifted the piece and made it sail.
It all depended on how you asked the questions.
Such arrogance. Walker was on his way to a job interview, with no guarantee that there would even be a newspaper to write for tomorrow. But he would get the job. He always did.
He walked into the Tribune, and into chaos. A guard directed him to the newsroom, and the first person he saw as he opened the door was some gruff-looking bird right out of MacArthur and Hecht, sitting in the slot on city desk and passing copy to a kid. Jesus. It made him want to laugh, but it was an emotional laugh filled with nostalgia. The Tribune was in an old building less than an hour out of New York. It was big and cumbersome. The lights were bad and the floor creaked; the desks were wooden antiques and the typewriters were old Royals with all their insides showing. Walker had come in on the tail end of the fire story. People were breaking their asses to get from here to there. Hot copy flowed along the chain of command, and all of it seemed to be funneled through a single rewrite man named Woodford. Walker sat at an empty desk and watched Woodford work. He recognized at once the hustle of an old wire service man. Woodford had surely done time in some AP or UPI bureau in the middle of nowhere, some dead-end place where speed is what counts and you might rewrite fifty little stories in a single eight-hour day. Nobody wrote as fast as old wire service men. Across the room, a young lady called, "Frank, I've got another survivor on Two."
Woodford strapped on his headset and talked to the survivor. While he talked, his fingers kept pounding out finished copy, which was ripped from his machine and sent along the chain to the backshop. Walker looked at the clock. He knew the Tribune, an afternoon paper, would be a good forty minutes over deadline now, holding the page open for everything that could be fit in. Walker looked up the chain and saw, standing at the head of the room, a graying man who was probably the editor, Hiram Byrnes, reading each pink dupe as it passed across his desk. Occasionally Byrnes got up and asked somebody a question. The question traveled backward along the entire chain of command, and eventually reached a reporter in the field, who either answered it or hurried away to find another source.
Walker found himself thinking of other newspapers and other breaking stories, and of the dead who were always the unknown elements in those stories. And suddenly the chaos ended. Across town they might still be counting the bodies, but for Hiram Byrnes and his staff of Tribune wordsmiths, the day was done. The backshop could hold no longer; the paper was put to bed for another day. Byrnes had seen Walker come in. He motioned Walker back to his office, a private inner sanctum, carpeted, paneled and decorated with journalistic awards. They shook hands. Byrnes said he had read his stuff and liked it.
"We've been going crazy around here," Byrnes said. "Circus tent caught fire about an hour ago."
Walker didn't say anything. He didn't want to start out by being interviewed as witness to a breaking story. Who needed that?
"Well." Byrnes sat behind the desk and lit a cigar. "I want you to meet our city editor, Joe Kanin. He'll be in as soon as he gets the loose ends tied up. What do you think of our plant?"
"So far I like it fine."
But Byrnes was laughing. "Don't bite your tongue on my account. I bet I know the first thing you thought when you opened that door. Jesus God, The Front Page. Tell me the truth."
"The thought did cross my mind."
Byrnes was still laughing. "That's all going to change in another year. We'll be getting new furniture, and we're converting to cold type now. I can't wait to get those old Royals out of here."
Walker didn't tell him, but the idea saddened him. He liked the newsroom the way it was, and he had always loved The Front Page. The thought of steel filing cabinets and steel desks and computer terminals depressed him.
Byrnes launched into the interview, and it went about as expected. Byrnes talked mainly about the Tribune, as though the paper—not Walker—were the interviewee. In a sense, that was true enough. Walker hadn't exactly been looking for work when Hiram Byrnes called from out of the blue and asked him to come in. Managing editors never asked about him. They knew all they needed to know about Dalton Michael Walker. They knew he had won the Pulitzer at Newsday while still in his mid-twenties. If they knew about the dozen-odd newspaper jobs he had had since then, it didn't seem to bother them, because if the Prize wasn't enough, he had won the National Book Award five years later for an investigation of labor union corruption. The Book Award was for distinguished achievement in contemporary affairs, the Pulitzer for what was strictly a writer's piece, his sensitive penetration of a dying woman's emotions. A woman he thought he would never forget, a woman of rare beauty and courage, a woman he never thought about any more.
The Tribune seemed hot to get him, and he needed the job. It had been six months since he had worked anywhere, and the novel he had planned to write just hadn't worked out. Maybe he was only a reporter after all; maybe fiction was a step or two above him. So when Hiram Byrnes called, Dalton Walker jumped. The Tribune had been a smallish daily covering the mundane happenings of the Jersey outback, but last year it was absorbed into the Knapp newspaper chain, and now it had national pretensions. Knapp wanted to do in New Jersey what Newsday had done on Long Island: hard-hitting features of national interest that would go on the wire to Knapp's ten other papers around the country. Hiram Byrnes had been hired away from the Los Angeles Times to oversee the frantic growth that followed.
That much Walker knew about the Tribune.
Byrnes told him more. "People in this business get defensive about what they do. Sometimes it takes a load of dynamite to blast away those old ideas. You'll see who the problems are for yourself before long. When Knapp took over, they swept out some good people along with the bad and brought in some bad people along with the good. Some in fairly strategic positions. My job is to get them the hell out of the way and make this thing a newspaper. You're the first of my handpicked men. Walker, I'm telling you this because I want you here. I mean, I really want you here."
Walker just looked at him.
"I don't want you getting pissed off and quitting in the first ten minutes," Byrnes said. "I know how many places you've worked and why you quit each one. I can't tell you you won't have those frustrations here too. I wish I could. All I'm saying is, if things start to get to you, take it up with me before you jump ship. Don't feel that you were hired to win us a Pulitzer. I don't want you working under that kind of pressure. You're here to get good stuff in the paper, and that's all you're here to do. I want stuff that reads like a bastard, stuff that tears their goddamn hearts out."
Walker stared into a dark corner and saw a tiny white face there.
"Stuff we'll be proud to send down the wire to the chain," Byrnes said. "That's the only way I can make my case to old man Knapp when the chips are down."
"I hear you," Walker said.
"Great. The job's yours. It was yours before you ever walked in. Any questions?"
"Who do I answer to?"
"The city editor is Joe Kanin, but I've told them to leave you alone. I asked Kanin to help get your legs under you, funnel a few good stories your way till you get used to working in the city again." He picked up the telephone. "Margie, is Joe free yet?" A few moments later Kanin came in. He was a bald man of medium height and build. Walker sized him up at once as an enemy. Kanin's attitude was one Walker had seen before, a coldness that telegraphed trouble. All right, pal, you won the Prize, but I run the newsroom. Walker had bucked that tide before.
Kanin ushered him out into the newsroom. Walker waited at city desk while Kanin dispatched a reporter-photographer team to interview more survivors for the second-day fire story. When they had gone, Kanin stood off and gave him a dose of the icy eye. Walker gave it back to him.
"What do they call you?" Kanin said. "Do you want to be called Dalton?"
They made the rounds quickly. Kanin introduced him to everyone in the room, then gave him a desk in a far corner near a row of filing cabinets. It looked like a good place to be—out of the firing line, yet still in the newsroom. Close enough to pick up scuttlebutt, yet not so close that every assistant city editor with a two-headed dog would dump it on him. Byrnes could talk all day about leaving him alone, but Walker knew better.
He wasn't in the newsroom long before that judgment was partly confirmed. He had just settled into his desk when Kanin came over with his first assignment. He sat on the edge of Walker's desk, a scrap of paper in his hand. "Here's one that'll make a real reader. And it'll get you down into the city."
"I've been down in the city."
Kanin ignored him. "How much do you know about the Amish, Walker?"
"They're like Mennonites, aren't they?"
Kanin smiled crookedly. "Not quite. The Mennonites are less strict than the Amish. The Amish are religious fundamentalists, but they're also isolationists. They believe the old ways are better, in every facet of their lives. Their religion prohibits any kind of modern technology. Old World Amish can't have cars. They're mostly farmers, but they can't use tractors—nothing powered by fuel, nothing with rubber wheels. They can't have electricity in their homes. Dancing is prohibited, so is makeup. There is no interchange with other churches. What we have, in other words, is a horse-and-buggy society in the middle of the machine age. You follow me so far?"
Walker squinted. But he said, "I think so."
"Hiram said you like stories with natural conflict, so try this one for size. At Radio City Music Hall there's a girl dancing with the Rockettes who comes from an Old World Amish family. Maybe you don't see the story in that, but believe me, it's there. You have to understand about these people and how they raise their kids. Obedience to parents is like a commandment. To do what this girl has done would mean a total break from her family, excommunication from her church."
"Lots of kids break from their families."
"You haven't been listening to me, Walker. Amish kids aren't like other kids. They're raised in such isolation that they don't know how to cope with the real world. The parents won't even let them go to school beyond the eighth grade, for fear they'll be tempted by worldly pleasures. I want to know how this girl made the break. What kind of emotional hurdles she went through. How does she feel now? And how the hell did she learn to dance like that, after spending her first eighteen years milking cows and sewing quilts? You tell me, Walker, does that story have natural conflict?"
Walker had to admit that it did.
"It's got another element, as I'm sure you know," Kanin said. "Radio City is still glamour. It's a national showplace. All this talk about closing it down has brought it into the limelight again. People want to read about it. They're especially hungry for backstage stuff, because there's a feeling afoot that it won't be with us much longer. Combine the glamour, nostalgia and the girl with a Stone Age background and you'll have a feature that any editor in the country would use. Helluva piece." Kanin dropped a paper on Walker's desk. On it was a name, which he read upside down as Diana Yoder.
"What's the girl say?" Walker asked. "I can't imagine she'd want to be interviewed about this."
Again Kanin flashed that crooked smile. "If it were easy, I'd give it to one of the kids. See you later, Walker."
He watched Kanin walk away, then took up the paper and looked at the name. Diana Yoder. Amish girl. Rockette.
Excerpted from Deadline by John Dunning. Copyright © 1981 John Dunning. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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