When I was a traveling national correspondent, I often went somewhere new and spent 24 hours in one place to see and then write about what happened, the people who lived there and came and went.
Years later, I got to wondering where passenger planes went after I got off. So, I spent 24 hours on the same American Airlines jet, crossing the country several times with hundreds of passengers and chronicling the people and crews who came and went and why they all happened to briefly inhabit the same aluminum cocoon a short while. That was great fun — and not bad miles either.
Another such feature saw me spend 24 hours in a busy Holiday Inn in New Mexico on a summer day like this. I talked to the maids about what gets stolen most, to the caretaker about what gets broken most, and spent time behind the front desk as hundreds of tired travelers came and went.
Good lesson: The ones who sought a room at 5:58 pm were told none were available. The ones who came four minutes later got first choice of the non-guaranteed reservations, freed up after 6 pm.
One couple was from Toronto on an epic road trip to and from southern California. They were quite pleased. “We saw Disneyland,” the husband said, “the Pacific Ocean, and two secondary Hollywood movie stars.”
Fame is a big deal there, and, it turned out, in most other places as well. Recently, I wrote about some encounters I’ve had with fame. Readers responded in the Comments with their own fun tales of fame encountered.
This is a follow-up: When you’re a young, new newspaper reporter, they assign you to dumb stories because what matters is an editor being able to say everyone got assigned to something.
If something actually happens, the editor looks like a genius. If nothing happens, who cares? It’s only the kid who lost a day of his life doing worthless work.
On July 20th, 1969, I was dispatched to one of the terminals at New York’s Idlewild Airport, newly renamed for John F. Kennedy.
That was the night Neil Armstrong became the first man to step on the Moon. I was to get reactions from travelers watching the event live on a giant TV screen.
Space travel has long fascinated me. I got to witness the last Space Shuttle flight in person. I’ll write about that amazing experience someday.
My job that historic night was to interrupt viewers’ experience by asking them what they were thinking as they watched a fellow American’s first small step for mankind on another planet. As you might guess, unless you’re in Bidenfog, everyone was really impressed. Or else why be standing there among strangers? I got to see some of that moment too.
I phoned all my quotes into the paper’s Recording Room. I think one of them made it into someone else’s story.
One Saturday during the Vietnam War, I was assigned to stand on a Sixth Avenue street corner in New York all day with a clicker counting the actual number of war protesters marching by.
Crowd sizes were quite controversial at the time because anti-war marchers exaggerated the turnout, and police downplayed it. Similar to Trump rallies today. I fantasized about having a big story on a hot topic, so I gathered many quotes from marchers and scene details.
When the last straggler shuffled by, I called the editor. How many? he asked.
Marchers estimated 60,000. Police said about 48,000. My count was something like 37,738.
“OK,” the editor said, “Got it.”
“I have quotes too!”
“Nah, just the numbers.”
I didn’t get a story. But I did get a huge blister on my counter finger.
The Great One
I sometimes wondered about my frequent family absences as a foreign correspondent. At times I’d take one of our boys with me.
My son and I were standing at an Air Canada gate in Toronto, waiting to board a flight to Edmonton en route to a week-long dogsled expedition in what was then called Canada’s Northwest Territories.
I pointed out to him what looked like some professional athletes also in the gate area. “Yeh, Dad,” the eight-year-old said patiently, “It’s the Oilers, and there’s Wayne Gretzky.”
The hockey phenomenon was a god in Canada at the height of his amazing NHL Hall of Fame career, starting with the Edmonton Oilers.
The team boarded after us, and as he passed our seats, Gretzky said, “Hey.”
We were both pretty impressed with the acknowledgment from fame. Soon after, they were serving drinks, and I felt a hand on my arm. It was Gretzky. He had a color photo and Sharpie in his hand.
He looked at my son. “I didn’t know if you might want this photo,” he said, “And I can sign it if you like.”
The answer was a wide-eyed, “Yes!”
Gretzky began writing his name and signature when my son piped up. “I have a friend who really likes you too.”
“Well,” the athlete said, “we’ll have to take care of that, won’t we? Come with me.”
The little boy got up and followed his hero to the back of the plane.
There, he spent the rest of the evening flight chatting with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, and other members of that hockey dynasty that would soon win four Stanley Cup championships in five years.
The End of the Rainbow
Judy Garland died on my birthday in 1969. They found the iconic movie star’s body on the bathroom floor in a London hotel. Drugs.
As a youngster, I had watched the movies with the young Garland and Mickey Rooney. They’d be somewhere with friends, and someone would say, “Let’s do a show!”
And in a half-hour, a series of professional song and dance scenes would break out in a barn or somewhere with Garland and Rooney and their friends singing and dancing up a storm. Another MGM visual treat.
I wasn’t crazy about the “Wizard of Oz,” just her alone singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The young girl yearning in that sweet voice touched me. It still does.
A few days after Garland’s death, I was assigned to go back to Kennedy Airport. Her body was returning that night. Well, I told myself sarcastically, that should be big news.
It was after midnight when the TWA airliner pulled into the gate. They pushed a conveyor belt up to the baggage bay. Suitcases and garment bags began coming down the belt.
And then, in the midst of all that baggage, I saw it. A child’s coffin containing the famous movie star emerged from the plane’s belly. It was wrapped in burlap.
Baggage handlers lifted the box into a nearby hearse that drove off.
I called my overnight editor from a pay phone. In those days, you had to carry a pocketful of dimes on assignments. He just wanted confirmation she was back.
So, I was right. It was no big story. But the scene has inhabited my memory ever since. All those years of movies, the lights, all that fame and fortune. And the end of the rainbow was just a little wooden box wrapped in burlap.
Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true
This is the fourth in an occasional series of memories that RedState editors suggested I share. Here’s the first. And the second. And the third on a long-lived cat who ruled my childhood.
Feel free to share your relevant memories in the Comments below. I hope you enjoyed this and will pass it on to others. Follow me @AHMalcolm