The movie "Thirteen Days" has just come out. I remember those days.
On my 18th birthday, October 26, 1962, I thought the world would
end -- not just my world, the whole world. I was working at The
Washington Post in Washington, D.C., a few blocks from the White
House, even closer to the Russian Embassy. I was a freshman in college,
the first undergraduate (I was told) to be a copyboy there. I would
be there for only three months, on a co-op job that was part of the
schedule of my college, and only because the father of one of my classmates
was an editor in the newsroom.
I was more than casually interested in journalism and being a witness
to the history of my times. Just a few months before, I had been editor
of my high school newspaper. I liked a line of Oliver Wendell Holmes-"I
think that, as life is action and passion, it is required of a man
that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of
being judged not to have lived."
My heroes were dying. Albert Camus, the French writer, had been
killed in a car crash in 1960. Dag Hammarskjold, secretary-general
of the United Nations and author of Markings, was killed in an airplane
crash in 1961, trying to end the war in the Congo.
As a copyboy, I was a newsroom go-fer, I distributed mail to the
reporters and editors, I went on errands. Occasionally, I heard, a
copyboy would be allowed to write an obituary. On rotation with the
other older copyboys, I had a shift in the wireroom, a glass-enclosed
box where teletype machines clicked out news stories. It was noisy,
with a dozen machines tapping away, and every now and then a bell
would ring at one of the machines, signaling a story of special urgency.
I tried to read them all at once, following the lines of type as they
emerged. Sometimes there would be a message, signed "tuvm," which
meant "thank you very much." I loved it.
I felt connected to the racing pulse of the machines. Some of the
wire machines received dispatches from Washington Post correspondents.
One machine was for each of the news services, UPI, AP, Reuters. I
reloaded the paper when it ran out. I felt like I was in the gears
and heartbeat of history.
As I read the lines of type as they were printed, I would decide
which department should get the story. I tore off a length of paper
and either put it in a pile or walked it immediately to the desk of
a reporter or editor.
I got to attend one of President Kennedy's press conferences. One
day, as I was out bringing some film back for the photo editor, I
saw Edward Albee walking along the sidewalk. Several years earlier
I had acted in his play "The Zoo Story." I walked behind him for several
blocks. "Sometimes," he had written, "you have to go a long way out
of your way in order to come back a short distance correctly."
A few times, I went down to the area where the printing presses
were. They were the engines of the building. In a sense, we all worked
to feed them. They roared as they chewed the huge rolls of blank newsprint
into individual newspapers. That's where I first saw deaf people signing
to each other, from one end of the machines to the other.
The sports section had its own room behind the newsroom. We all
crowded in there to watch JFK's speech on their television set. The
nuclear missiles were aimed at us. I was in the eye of the storm.
I phoned home, to the suburbs of New York City. My mother said her
friends had been calling, advising her to go to a bomb shelter or
at least drive up to New England. The East Coast was scared.
At the elevator just outside the newsroom door, I heard one reporter
tell another, Dean Rusk is meeting with Gromyko. Russian ships were
moving toward Cuba. The U.S. had set up a blockade. U.S. ships would
intercept the Russians.
It was my turn for the late-night shift in the wire room. I was
told to call Phil Graham, the publisher of the Post, if World
War Three started. All the machines were ringing. I read each bulletin
as it started to come in. I had Phil Graham's home phone number. The
Russian ships turned. We--the world and Phil Graham and I--made it
through the night. World War Three had not started on my watch.
The next summer I was a sophomore on another co-op job, working
as a volunteer at the radio station of the Riverside Church in New
York City. Walking along a street in Harlem, I had seen and talked
to Malcolm X. I heard Phil Ochs sing. I went to a Town Hall forum
and listened to James Baldwin. One Sunday in August 1963 I saw the
front page of a newspaper. Phil Graham had killed himself.
A few weeks later, I went to the March on Washington. I walked
past the lectern on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and spoke to
Martin Luther King immediately after his speech and asked him what
he was going to do next. He said he was going to the White House to
talk to President Kennedy. A month later, I was in Birmingham, Alabama,
at the funeral of the four girls killed in the church bombing. King
was there too. I was still 18.