The friend who could have launched the missile

History sat down next to me one day not long ago and told me how it almost started World War III.

History, in this case, is named Ron LeVene.  We grew up together, hung out together, and got into occasional trouble together in the small town of Sullivan, deep in the heart of the corn and beans country, the flat land of central Illinois.  We were the children of the Cold War, the kids who saw the “Duck and Cover” movies when they weren’t funny.

When we were four years old, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico (on my birthday) and a month later, two more detonations destroyed cities and ended a war. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called “father of the Atomic Bomb,” recalled, “We knew the world would not be the same.”  Oppenheimer said he thought of the Hindu Scripture from the Bhagavad-Gita, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one…I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

When we were in the second grade, the Soviet Union set off its first A-bomb.  In the fifth grade, the United States touched off the first hydrogen bomb. We were freshmen in high school when the Soviets exploded their first H-bomb.

We moved through our high school years with Hollywood giving our world post-atomic apocalypse films such as Godzilla, the story of a prehistoric beast awakened by atomic testing in the Pacific, and Them!, about giant ants created by atomic testing in the western desert, or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a giant dinosaur frozen in arctic hibernation released and revived by an atomic bomb above the Arctic Circle, and The Fiend Without a Face, an invisible creature that fed on nuclear radiation and ate human brains and spinal cords to help it reproduce.

They’re laughable today for their dialogue and animations but they scared the Hell out of a generation living in the post-Hiroshima decade, especially kids.

The year Ron and I graduated from high school, the movie based on Nevil Shute’s novel, On the Beach, hit the screens with a still-haunting message from its last scene, “There is still time..brother.” The year we reached voting age, we watched tensely as Soviet ships moved toward Cuba in the face of warnings by President Kennedy that they would be attacked if they did not turn around. And as our generation was finishing college or serving as young soldiers while Vietnam became a life-sucking quagmire, we watched Fail Safe, about American planes mistakenly sent to bomb Moscow and the awful decision a President makes to atone for that mistake, and Doctor Strangelove, the classic satire that was all too serious.

We did not know that our friend Ron was becoming part of the real world of atomic warfare.

And one day he would be caught in circumstances that almost made film fiction become cataclysmic fact.   Stay with us; you’ll see him tell his story in a little bit.

What few people realized during these years was that Presidents and the Pentagon were dealing with end-of-the-world-as-we-knew-it scenarios. Today, with inflammatory actions on the Korean Peninsula and instability in the White House, the military successors of Ron LeVene might be asking themselves what they might be called to do.

Eric Schlosser wrote in New Yorker magazine on the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Strangelove that President Eisenhower struggled with who should control our country’s nuclear weapons. Ultimate control rested with the President.  But if there was an emergency and the President could not be contacted, he decided, the Air Force could use nuclear rockets fired from jet interceptors to down Russian bombers on their way to attack this country—and a few commanders could use bigger nukes for direct attacks if time and circumstance did not allow for specific Presidential clearance.

Eisenhower feared there might be a real General Jack D. Ripper (of Dr. Srangelove fame) who could go rogue, but he knew a worse alternative would be to fail to respond to a Soviet attack on this country or an all-out Soviet invasion of Europe. So he delegated authority to the Joint Chiefs of Staff to act under extreme circumstances when the President was not available to make the ultimate decision.

A stunned John F. Kennedy learned of the arrangement shortly after taking office. He and his advisors decided to put coded electric locking devices on NATO’s nuclear weapons. The weapons could not be fired without the proper code used only with permission of the White House. But here at home, the Navy and the Air Force refused to put those switches on the weapons they controlled. “The Joint Chiefs thought that strict military discipline was the best safeguard against an unauthorized nuclear strike,” wrote Schlosser. “A two-man rule was instituted to make it more difficult for someone to use a nuclear weapon without permission.”  In those days, two people had to unlock the weapon. Each would have half of the code.

That was the situation on that day about forty years ago when Ron and his deputy, Lt. Bruce Olson, suddenly were faced with their greatest responsibility—and their greatest fear..

Ron retired from the Air Force a year or so later.  He lives in Florida now but came back to Illinois a few days ago for an interim mini-class reunion and we had him record the story of a guy from a small Illinois town who faced being part of an event that would have ended life as we knew it then and know it today.

We are old men now. And we pray that the young men and women of today, wherever they are in the world, who have the power at their fingertips that Ron and his deputy had live to become old people telling stories, too.

Journalism I

It’s not as if we haven’t been called names before. It’s not the first time that those in power wish reporters weren’t telling people what they’re really up to.  Or thinking about.

Criticisms or attacks from those who wish we weren’t so bothersome to them are not new nor will they ever go away. And what they say about us is sometimes not nearly so scathing as some of the things we say about ourselves.

We have accumulated through the years some of the noble things said about our profession and some of the criticisms leveled at it, internally and externally.  From time to time we will share them with you because we know that journalists have responsibilities and obligations of which they need at times to be reminded. We live in a world of kicks in the butt and occasional pats on the head and we are glad to toil in a nation that allows, if not encourages, both.  Here is a sample of the things said about those of us who do a job that is essential, regardless of whether you agree with what we say and write.

“Controversy? You can’t be any kind of reporter worthy of the name and avoid controversy completely. You can’t be a good reporter and not be fairly regularly involved in some kind of controversy. And I don’t think you can be a great reporter and avoid controversy very often, because one of the roles a good journalist plays is to tell the tough truths as well as the easy truths. And the tough truths will lead you to controversy, and even a search for the tough truths will cost you something. Please don’t make this play or read as any complaint, it’s trying to explain this goes with the territory if you’re a journalist of integrity. That if you start out a journalist or if you reach a point in journalism where you say, ‘Listen, I’m just not going not touch anything that could possibly be controversial,’ then you ought to get out.”

—Dan Rather, Staff, May 5, 2001

“If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.”

—Norman Mailer, The Snark Handbook

“I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust. I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism. I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.”

—Walter Williams, founder of the nation’s first School of Journalism at the University of Missouri (1908), The Journalist’s Creed (partial)

“Journalism is unlike any other craft. It most closely resembles show business. There’s an undeniable element of ego in journalism, and an equally undeniable element of self-sacrifice. Performers know the show must go on. Journalists know the paper has to come out on time.”

—Donald L. Ferguson, Opportunities in Journalism Careers

“It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles.”

—G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

“There is a line I would often share when I was a newspaper reporter talking to people who complained that we only reported ‘bad news.’ I would tell them: ‘It’s not news when a plane lands safely.’ And it’s not. ‘Everybody lived happily ever after’ is a great ending, but if they lived happily the whole time you wouldn’t bother reading.”

—Rick Polito, newhope360, January 20, 2016

 

“There is much to be said in favor of modern journalism.  By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”

—Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, 1891.

Citizens do not think through the meaning of a free press.  Too many regard it merely as a profitable privilege of publishers, instead of the right of all the people and the chief institution of representative government.  A free press is that privilege of citizenship which makes governmental dictatorship impossible.  When editors fight for the liberty to speak and write, they fight for the greatest of all human rights under government.  He is not thoughtful who cannot see that democracy cannot exist except through the maintenance of a channel through which information can flow freely from the center of government to all the people and through which praise and criticism can flow freely from the people to the center.

—American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1938

So the journalist, the reporter, flourishes in this climate of scorn and principle. And your correspondent cannot think of anything he would rather be doing with his life than living in that climate.

We’ll let you inside that climate from time to time in the future.

 

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Notes from the road—August, 2017

(Anywhere, Indiana)—When we fueled up in Terre Haute a few days ago, we paid ten cents more than we would have paid on June 30.   That’s because Indiana increased its fuel tax by ten cents a gallon on July 1.

It’s nice to see that the people of Indiana, a state many of us would consider pretty conservative, have increased their gas tax for their transportation system.  By a dime.  That’s more than Missourians have considered for more than half of the lifetime of today’s youngest voters.  Missouri has another committee that is going to talk about the issue.  Again.  It’s been only a few years since a special committee spent weeks talking about state transportation funding before failing to convince voters to support its idea.  We talk.  Indiana builds.

(Wakeeney, Kansas)—This shrinking Kansas farming community is four counties east of the Colorado border, a motel stop on Interstate 70 where the Motel 6 is a decent place for travelers headed home from Denver and its environs—or wanting to rest after the long miles from Missouri.

Your chronicler of the current scene had just finished his motel breakfast, was looking at the rack of promotional brochures for the deepest hand-dug well and the biggest ball of twine and other more impressive Kansas attractions (we LIKE Kansas, by the way) when we heard someone call our name.

Somebody knew us at the Motel 6 in Wakeeney, Kansas, for crying out loud!

It was Paul Woody, a young man who was a member of Governor Bob Holden’s staff and then was a policy and communications advisor for House Democrats. He’d left Jefferson City in 2005, gone to law school, run unsuccessfully for state rep a couple of times, and now is a lawyer in St. Charles.  He and his family were headed home from a visit to the mountains.

Wakeeney, Kansas!!!!

(Somewhere, Indiana)—We bought a couple of lottery tickets in Indiana.  Buying lottery tickets isn’t something we do every week.  We only buy them when the jackpots coincide with our level of greed. We wonder how many folks think their luck will change if they change the place they buy their tickets.

Hasn’t worked for us, either.

But we figured a major change of location such as Indiana was worth the, uh, gamble.  As we were boring out way across Illinois, the thought occurred that buying a winning ticket in Indiana would mean that we would pay a bunch of taxes there, not in Missouri.  We’d help support Indiana institutions and services, not ours.   We debated whether buying the ticket in Indiana was irresponsible, that as a Missourian we owed it to our home state to support ITS institutions and services.  But Guilt had quit hitchhiking by the time we reached Effingham.

And the good news, we guess, is that we have learned we won’t be paying millions of dollars in taxes in Indiana anyway.

(Somewhere, northern Illinois)—A reminder that sports is the toy department of life, and not as serious as we want to make them sometimes, comes in the story of Steve Bartman.

The Chicago Cubs have given a World Series champion’s ring to Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan. Not one of those things like the Cardinals are handing out to the first x-thousand fans coming through the gates now and then.  This is the real thing, so big he might have to use his left hand to raise his right hand for shaking purposes in social settings.

Who is this Bartman guy?   Just the one who might have cost the Cubs a National League pennant fourteen years ago, the then-young fellow who reached for a foul ball during the 2003 playoffs, leading to umpires ruling he had interfered with the right of a Cubs fielder to make a catch.  The Cubs after that lost the lead and their chance to play in the World Series.  Cubs fans—much as Cardinals fans still turn purple at the mention of Don Denkinger’s name—have never forgotten what he did.  He got death threats.  He became the object of long-term ridicule.

Now, the owners of the Cubs say it’s past time to forgive and forget. “While no gesture can fully lift the public burden he has endured for more than a decade, we felt it was important Steve knows he has been and continues to be fully embraced by this organization,” said a team statement.

Bartman released a statement in response saying he was “deeply moved and sincerely grateful” for the recognition.  “I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over,” he said.

And then he continued with thoughts that speak beyond the playing field: “I humbly receive the ring….as an important reminder for how we should treat each other in today’s society.  My hope is that we all can learn from my experience to view sports as entertainment and prevent harsh scapegoating, and to challenge the media and opportunistic profiteers to conduct business ethically by respecting personal privacy rights and not exploit any individual to advance their own self-interest or economic gain.”

The Cubs have done something classy for Steve Bartman.  Don Denkinger is 81 now, these thirty-two years after Cardinals fans started speaking his name in derision.

In both instances—Bartman and Denkinger—their actions are not what caused the Cubs or the Cardinals to lose.  The Cubs failed to make the plays to win their game.  The Cardinals disintegrated in the next game.  The Cubs have said it’s time to quit whining about a fan who wanted to catch a foul ball.  We wonder if the Cardinals and their reputedly best fans in baseball  will ever do something to say it’s time to quit ridiculing Don Denkinger.