I am offering free for a limited time a download of my latest work, “Survival Manual: A Memoir of Near Death, Illness and Survival.” Available from “Smashwords.com,” It is about the rigors of a life in broadcasting as a journalist, a writer, producer, bureau chief, husband and father. Soon it will go back on sale at $2.99.
Note: I wrote this piece for The Digital Journalist in 2004. Now, almost 12 years later, with guns seemingly in control of our lives in America, I thought it worth repeating as we enter a new year. Though some references may seem dated, it is still one of my favorites.
Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a story about journalists in Iraq who are now carrying weapons. I will not go into the details of the piece. Though thorough, it was incomplete and far too benign. The excuse is that more journalists have died in Iraq than in other wars over a similar amount of time. At one time journalists had respect from friend and foe alike. Now they are fair game and under constant threat of harm. Nevertheless, carrying a weapon will not stop the killing of journalists nor their dying by accident, by ambush, or from long-range rockets.
I have been thinking about that article ever since I first read it, and I have a confession to make. First, a story. When I arrived in Saigon in 1966 to run the bureau for NBC News, two sage pieces of advice came my way from Jack Fern, the man I had come to succeed. At least at the time I thought his advice was sage. He suggested I carry a folded one hundred dollar bill inside my wallet. The bill had to be new, because the Vietnamese revered new money. In case the Viet Cong captured me, I might get lucky and bribe my way to safety. Not a bad idea, I thought, and to assure a better chance of getting free, I kept two new one hundred dollars in my wallet. I learned quickly how foolish a notion that was. If I got into trouble and needed money, I probably would not have had time to reach for it. Less important but more practical, with the rising black market, the money would have little real value, no matter how much all Vietnamese loved “green” get-away money. I did not ever think of it that way. If my life came down to needed or using money in a dicey situation, the hundred was truly peanuts. However, I kept the two bills neatly folded in my wallet through all my years overseas.
His other advice was stronger, and, in all ways, more frightening. He gave me a German automatic pistol, a Walther P-38, vintage World War II in beautiful condition. The barrel was long and narrow and had a beautiful blue-black sheen. Learn to shoot the weapon in case you need it, he warned. Did I carry the gun ever? Well, that answer comes in a minute. Mostly it stayed in the drawer of the night table in the bedroom of my fifth floor apartment at 104 Nguyen Hue, Saigon. It sat and waited, mostly forgotten. It did not rust because every now and then I ran a cue-tip dipped in light oil down the barrel. I never fired it. I never carried it. That is until the Tet Offensive in early 1968.
So, my confession. I actually carried that venerable weapon for a few days in February 1968. We were in the middle of the Tet Offensive. Saigon was burning.
The Viet Cong were everywhere. The streets surrounding our office were empty day The Viet Cong were everywhere. The streets surrounding our office were empty day and night. American MP’s patrolled the streets. We heard firing all the time. Quiet was rare. In battles throughout the country American troops were dying faster than flies in summer. We believed, as did American intelligence, that our neighborhood would be a target. The Saigon city hall was at one end of the street. The old Opera House, recently converted to the only elected legislature the previous year, was at the other end of the street. Across from the NBC bureau was the Rex BOQ and JUSPAO, the propaganda and information arm of the American government. Two major hotels, the Caravel and the Continental, were on opposite corners, down the block from my bureau. Many journalists, including those on my staff, lived in each, and CBS News had its bureau in the Caravel. It looked like the time had come to defend myself should the need arise. I went to my apartment one floor above the bureau, removed the gun from my bedside table, slipped in a clip, sighted it and just for a moment I did not recognize myself. I went back downstairs. Those in the office looked at me with surprise. I carried the gun in my waistband on my right side. It sagged. It did not feel comfortable. I then tried the gun in my right hand pocket, but the weight of the iron pulled the thin Chinos I wore almost from my waist. I tried the gun buried in the belt at the small of my back. That, too, did not work. I felt awkward. I knew everyone was watching me. Then someone laughed and said, “By the time you get to use that thing, you’ll either be dead or maybe you’d already put a bullet in your toe. Then what?” I wore the weapon for two days, feeling more foolish by the minute. I finally removed the clip, put it away, and forgot about the gun for the remainder of my stay in Vietnam.
My old friend, one of the best cameramen to ever carry an Auricon during the Vietnam War, had a simple theory about journalists and guns. Huynh said, “During combat, if ever I needed a gun, the Americans would have to be losing so badly that there would be many available on the ground. I would have my pick, but it would make no difference. By the time I got to use any weapon, it would be too late anyway. I would be dead.” When reporters carry a weapon, forget the argument of how the subject of your story looks at you when they see you armed. It changes how you cover news. Reporters never want to be part of the story. When you carry you have become a different person. A gun attached to you means you possess new and different powers, dangerous to yourself and others.
I know Iraq is different. I know times have changed and that journalists have become targets, but they should never think that by wearing a gun, they protect themselves from harm. Possessing a gun opens the possibility of your using it. In the hands of a professional, using a gun is often deadly. In the hands an amateur, a wannabe, the potential for a mistake is endless. In war or at any time when a journalist carries a gun he becomes a man with three arms or six fingers, unneeded appendages. It might be fashionable to accessorize with the latest in firearms, but it is wrong.
Invariably it will backfire before it front loads to success. As a journalist when carrying, do you believe you can go into a mob with a loaded gun and face the wrath of the angry crowd when it turns on you because you are no longer the person they thought you were? By carrying, you lose your status as a non- combatant. It is a signal you are fair game. Your day is over as a non-combatant. You become a fool. Fools do not survive in a war zone. If you carry a weapon, it increases the possibility you may use it. Innocents might get hurt and die. You might get hurt and die. Suddenly you are an offensive weapon. You have ruined lives, including yours. Be prepared to ask, “Was it worth it? Finally, readers should know why I have a strong prejudice against journalists carrying guns. Handling them is bad enough. During the Vietnam War, my late wife Josephine, then young and vital, suffered a serious wound to her head when an NBC News soundman accidentally discharged a North Vietnamese AK 47 he had been cleaning in the bureau. Fortunately, she survived to live a long and productive life as a wife and mother. She died this past summer after going into a coma and never recovering. The reason for her death stated on the Nassau county death certificate said simply the cause of her death was that gunshot wound she suffered in late 1967 at the hands of a man who made a stupid mistake. If you value life, do not do the same.
Hiatus by Ron Steinman
Effective immediately, I am pausing my slow blog. I am pushing the hold button. I am going on hiatus. Taking time off. Going on a leave of absence. Don’t know for how long. I’ll be back. Just don’t know when. To be determined.
Lacey’s Routine: Dog Story 2 by Ron Steinman
Recently my daughter Linda sent me a story from London she saw in the Daily Mail about photographer Amanda Jones and her project, “Dog Years: Faithful Friends and Now.”
Amanda Jones took photos of many dogs, some over a span of twenty years. The photos require close inspection to see the changes the dogs went through over their lives, all of differing lengths. The photos are often moving, enough so to bring tears to any dog lover’s eyes. Seeing those pictures made me reflect on my life with Lacey, my Shih Tzu who died more than a year and half ago at almost 18 and half years.
I am sure my memories are similar to what many of you have experienced. With that in mind here is a day in the life of Ron and Lacey.
I awoke early to walk her anytime between 7a and 8a after we first stumbled out of bed. When I got home from work then between 2p and 3p, I walked her again and then around 8p to end our night outside. After each walk I would wash her bowl with hot water. I then filled it with cold, fresh water. After she drank, and I wiped her face and told her to “stay,” she did. I used a paper towel to rub her face firmly, but gently. That way her face stayed clean and food did not always stick to her beard.
She usually did all her stuff during that first walk. If she did not, I rarely worried. She went when she had to. She hated walking in the rain. She usually wasted little time in all bad weather. She would wet and then turn quickly toward home, her short legs churning with purpose.
In the morning after her walk she had a snack. I always had a supply of Snausages, her favorite treat. I gave her three that I cut into thirds. I put them on the floor next to her water bowl. She had a small mouth and tiny teeth with which she chewed slowly. She rarely ate from a plate or bowl, unless it was dinner. I will have more about that in a coming post. She ate her snack right away. Sometimes she let me know she wanted more food by staring at me and vigorously tapping my foot with her right front paw. It was never an ordinary tap. It was more like a hard pounding. She wanted my attention and she got it. She did it by sending me a signal. Do not ignore me, she was saying. Take care of my needs. Seriously.
At night when I was home, I kept her water fresh. She hung out with me on the couch when I read or watched a show or sports on TV. If I went to the bedroom to work at the computer she followed me and patiently waited for me to put her on the bed. Sometimes if she tired of sitting with me, she headed to the bedroom ahead of me and stood near the door or in the room itself. Many nights I heard a small yip from her that said, come get me and put me on the bed. She was usually not very vocal unless she did not like a dog in her path. She had negative feelings about pugs and the big forty and fifty pounders whose heads were bigger than she. I had a feeling that Lacey was protecting me from possible injury by a big dog.
Generally, she slept through night, often next to me near my other set of pillows, but not always. In more than ten years in the apartment, she awakened me only once. At least that was the case before she aged badly over the last two years of her life. That last walk at night for her to wet was important because only then could she hold herself the rest of the night.
When I left in the morning and knew I would not return until after dark, I left a light on in the living room, the one by the big chair. She did not like being in dark alone, something I had never been able to understand.
The towels hanging on the stove are Lacey’s. I used them to dry her paws or her face and head after a rain. The towel on the fridge was a hand towel for people. But Lacey’s towels were special and always would be. Until a few months ago, I allowed them to stay hanging on the handle of the stove.
Then, there is this: When I was in the kitchen late at night and Lacey was on my bed in the bedroom, she would watch me from the corner of the bed until I turned of the kitchen light and headed into the bedroom. When I was back in the bedroom, she turned from the corner of the bed, settled into her regular spot near the second set of pillows, and went into a deep sleep. Though she has been gone for many months, there are still nights when I see her wide eyes staring at me until I go into the bedroom, settle in bed and either read or turn off the light and go to sleep.
Chipping Away by Ron Steinman
Recently The New York Times ran a horror story in of all places its business pages. Its effect made me scream, shudder and run for cover.
The story was about the many businesses that now track their employees in the workplace to make sure they are doing their job. They do it by using software in computers and smart phones that secretly track every move the employee makes at the start of the workday to its normal conclusion. So the employee thinks.
Fortunately, I control my workplace. I don’t have to worry about anyone tracking my performance in my office or during my private time away from work. But I am in the minority, the exception to this ugly change in American business.
All the science fiction and fantasy tropes are alive and well in the new America. A new technology is now king. According to those who track workers they say they want to make sure they are getting everything and more from you when you are on the job. However, many businesses continue to track their employees even after work nominally ends.
Big Brother has arrived. Brave New World is a reality. According to one perpetrator of this new shift in the workplace, “We tell people not to focus on the Big Bother aspect. This is all about efficiency.” Nonsense. Fulltime control in the guise of productivity is the new commercial divinity.
Long-range truckers are under surveillance to make sure goods arrive on time and there is no theft along the route. There are bathrooms in Japan that note everything that happens inside that seemingly private place. But this new mode of tracking workers bodes ill for the future of the American worker, especially off the job when he or she has what was once private time.
We insert microchips in our pets so we can track them if they run off or someone steals them. Not a bad idea, but these are animals, our pets. We control them and they have no say in how we treat them. Are people the next candidates for personal microchips? It’s not a big deal to create a chip and then slip it under the skin, preferably in the upper arm. The signal the chip would send would go to a central tracking station where it records every move the person makes in real time. If someone with a chip is not performing on, or, what is worse, off the job, fire him or her. The employer has the evidence and the power. Then send that person to a convenient Disable Station and remove the chip for that business. If the recently deactivated person has a new job insert a fresh chip. The pattern of control will last until the next job and the next chip. The individual loses his or her self and becomes a robot without a soul. That is the sad story of life in the modern world.
I know the once hard-fought rules of privacy hardly exist in today’s climate of overpowering social media. Little remains that we can still revere. But I still believe in privacy. I do not intend to let this die easily if I can help it. Sadly, though, for far too many the concept of privacy is almost dead. Many have no idea what that loss means. That is sad.
Tongue in Cheek by Ron Steinman
I am more than gratified with the overwhelming response to my recent blog post, “Catching Up.” To all who indulged, I know you did not regret what you experienced. To those who have not yet done so, there is always time to catch up. Blog posts never disappear. Thanks and stay well. R.S.
Catching Up by Ron Steinman
It is summer and blogs may not be on your mind. While you were sleeping, on vacation, bored, lazy or otherwise engaged to dive into the good stuff on my Notebooks blog at ronsteinman.wordpress.com, here are some recent posts of mine you may have missed. Take a minute, if you have one, imbibe, enjoy, love or hate. No matter. Thanks for your time. Twitter
The Curse of the Selfie
The Day the Printing Stopped
Saigon on Wheels
Campaigning: Day One
Because I do a slow blog on different subjects, I am aware that not all I write has wide appeal. But try a few of these. You might be pleasantly surprised.