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The rocky road to popularity: pride not only goeth before a fall, but in the craft of television news it also becomes an occupational hazard.


IN THE EARLY DAYS, before "On The Road" became a familiar part of the Evening News, nobody knew who we were. People would see us shooting film by the roadside and ask what was going on. Once, thinking we might somehow make a story of some farm kids flying kites in a field, we stopped and went to work, chasing those little boys and girls all over the place, Izzy lying on his back for a low angle, then jumping up and running after a kid and a kite; Larry running after him with his sound amplifier bouncing on his chest, the two of them connected by wires; Charlie Quinlan trotting along with a big silver refector; I scribbling in a notebook. What rural parent, glancing through the kitchen window, could be prepared for such a sight? A mother finally came out of the house across the road to inquire just exactly what we thought we were doing.

"Madam," I said, "you're not going to believe this, but we are preparing a story for the 'CBS Evening News' with Walter Cronkite."

Of course, she didn't believe it at first and tried to run us off. Izzy says in those days I started every new conversation, "Madam, you're not going to belive this ..."

Gradually, we became better known. People commenced smiling and waving at the "On The Road" bus. This had aheady effect on us. In the first place, as veterans of stories like civil rights demonstrations, we were accustomed to being unwelcome wherever we went. I had covered the Freedom Ries in Mississippi and Alabama and found that everybody, the Freedom Riders, the Klansmen, the cops and the local population, suspected or despised the press; Izzy, Larry and Charlie had lately been dodging brickbats during protest marches in Chicago. "On The Road" was different. Patrons of small-town taverns would hail us as celebrities come to town and buy us rounds of beers. The editors of country weeklies would feature the news of our passing on page one, with photographs of us posed beside the bus. People would ask for autographs, "for the kids,c they'd say. I signed bits of paper and restaurant menus and dollar bills. Once, a man asked me to sign the back of his T-shirt. A man asked me to sign the blade of his chain saw. The peaceful storis of "On The Road" were making us popular; even, we fancied, making us loved!

Local boosters made us welcome everywhere. "Gee," I said to Izzy one day in Oklahoma, "a couple of months ago they made me a Kentucky Colonel, last month they made me an Arkansas Traveler, and this month I was inducted into the Kiowa tribe."

Izzy assumed the solem expression of the rabbi at his Chicago synagogue. "My good man," he said to me sardonically, "you are slowly working your way up to Jew."

Occasionally, it got ridiculous. A producer and camera crew from Public Broadcasting traveled with us for a few days to make a documentary about "On The road." As we shot a story in Leland, Michigan, about the morning coffee klatch in the firehouse, the PBS crew tagged along. The Traverse City television station heard we were nearby, and a cameraman-reporter showed up to shoot a story about us. "Hey," said the PBS producer, "a local station shooting a story! That's part of our story!" So, while we shot our story, the Traverse City newsman shot us shooting our story, and the PBS crew shot a story about him shooting us shooting our story. I felt I was a character in some sort of Kafka nightmare. The morning coffee drinkers probably were glad to see us all leave town.

In time, people stopped being surprised when we showed up in their small towns. It came to seem almost as if they were expecting us.

We went to Sopchoppy, in the Florida panhandle, to look into a story about worm grunting. worm grunting is not practiced just everywher. Maybe I'd better explain it:

You go out into the woods and pound a hardwood stake into the ground, preferably using a heavy truck spring to do the pounding. Then, you rub the truck sping sensually, but with a certain pressure, across the top of the stake. This sets up a vibration in the ground which you can feel in the soles of your feet. Earthworms must find the vibration disagreeable, for to escape it, they wriggle to the surface; whereupon, you pick up the worms and go fishing.

I didn't believe this when I first heard about it, but it turns out that some people around Sopchoppy make a living at it, selling their worms by the canful to Mr. M. B. Hodges's bait store. It will not surprise you to learn that if you go worm grunting in the National Forest, you have to have a federal Worm Gathering Permit displayed in the window of your truck.

We parked the bus outside Mr. Hodges's store to inquire where we could find some worm grunting going on. An old man was sitting on a bench outside the store whittling--not carving anything, just making a pile of shavings the way old men do outside stores in the South. As I walked by, he looked up at me and said, in a soft, confidential drawl:

"I knew you guys would show up here sooner or later.c

It was as if he had been sitting there waiting for us.

We were careful not to display our wondrous new importance, but the truth is we were beginning to feel like big shots. Therefore, it was good for us that a few days later, down the road in Fort Myers, we stopped the bus on a residential street to consult the map, and a woman came out of her house smiling.

I smiled, and she smiled, and I opened the door to accept the usual congratulations for our stories about America, or perhaps to sign another autograph.

She said, "I think I'd like a couple of loaves of rye today, please."

She thought we were the bread truck.

In the course of the years, we have also been mistake for the library book van, and several times for the Red Cross Bloodmobile. (Izzy says the nest time we are mistake for the Blodmobile, he is going to say, "Just step to the rear of the bus and remove your garments, ma'am. The doctor will be with you in a moment.")

Such incidents have made us wear our fame a little more lightly. In one of the after-work seminars Ed Murrow used to conduct in Colbee's bar on 52nd Street back in New York, he said, "Just remember that even though you have a loud voice, even though your voice may reach 16 million people every time you speak, that doesn't make you any smarter than you were when your voie only reached the end of this bar." Those who work in the celebrity-making craft of television news ought to remember Murrow's ditum. Overweening pride is an occupational hazard.

Of course, sometimes there is an advantage to being recognied. The police chief of Nebraska City, Newbraska, paid us a visit as we were parking the bus on the main street to film the Arbor Day parade.

The Chief: "You shouldn't park here, you'll get in the parade's way."

I: "Well, we sure do need to, Chief."

The Chief: "Say, you're that 'On The Road' feller, aren't you? Well, h---, all right then, go ahead."

But in general, we try to slip into town quietly, do our work unobtrusively and make our getaway before the Rotary Club invites us to lunch or the mayor shows up with the key to the city. And we try to make sure the story we are working on ends up being about the subject of the story and never about ourselves.

With respect to my own appearance on camera, we have adopted the Tricycle Principle. We were somewhere in the Midwest, watching the local news on the television set in the bus before going out to supper. There was a feature about a children's tricycle race, cute little toddlers pedaling away and bumping into one another, an appealing story pretty well filmed and edited.

Izzy said, "You know what? Before this is over, the reporter is going to ride a tricycle."

"Oh, no!" I said. "That would ruin the whole thing."

Sure enough, the reporter signed off in close-up with a silly grin, the camera pulled back to show that he was perched on a tricycle, and he turned and pedaled clumsily away, making inane what had, until then, been charming. The anchor couple came on laughing to sign off the show.

The Tricycle Principle is simple: "When doing a tricycle story, don't ride a tricycle." The story is about children, dummy, not about you. Keep yourself out of it. Try to control your immodesty.

Even when some guy in a bar is buying you a beer.

Even when a smiling stranger comes up to you with a grease pen wanting you to autograph his chain saw.
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Title Annotation:excerpt from 'A Life on the Road'
Author:Kuralt, Charles
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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