My 13 Days


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. 

January 2001