Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why I Am Not In Awe Of The Rich And Famous

A friend from the 1960s tracked me down after all these years and in our email exchanges asked what I thought about Joe McCain.

Joe is Arizona Sen. John McCain's younger brother. He worked briefly for the two San Diego dailies in the late 1960s where my friend and I toiled.

Joe immediately established himself as a legend. Not as a reporter. As a prankster of which survivors of those days still fondly recall.

Joe is the literal definition of a Navy "brat." It was beneath his dignity as the son of a famous admiral and brother of the more famous prisoner of war in Vietnam that a lowly editor assign him the mundane task of providing the papers' readers with the vital statistics of birth, marriage and death notices.

Joe was fired for showing his disdain by sneaking into the day's list of divorces:

"Mouse, Mickey vs. Minnie."

Joe was quickly rehired and assigned as a general assignment reporter unfortunately under my domain as assistant city editor.

I honestly cannot recall whether he was any good as a reporter and writer. I do recall him returning about 30 minutes before deadline on a story I assigned.

Instead of briefing me what he had and starting writing, Joe walked over to another part of the newsroom and began regaling them with his nocturnal adventures of the past evening.

"Get your ass over here, McCain," I shouted. "We're on deadline." In those days, we could talk that way in newsrooms.

"You can't talk to me that way," Joe shot back.

"I just did," I said. "Do your damn job."

My friend Janet recalls another occasion. The two engaged in an argument and Joe pushed her into a trash can. She had to be restrained by others in the newsroom. 

"Had I caught his skinny ass, I would have dismembered him," she recalled.

I haven't followed Joe McCain's career since he left the San Diego newspapers. Here's one report I found on a quick Internet search:

In late October 2008, it was reported that Joe McCain called 911 emergency services in Virginia to complain about traffic. He was campaigning in the state for his brother at the time.

That is typical of Joe as I remember him.

Joe also defended his brother who claimed during the campaign he couldn't remember all of the homes he and his wife owned.

Joe immediately jumped to his brother's defense that he wasn't elitist and came from a "middle class" Navy family. True, but elitists also includes "privileged."

The reason I yelled at Joe in those bygone days was that I had no fear nor awe of what may be described by a once popular program as the "Rich and Famous."

I was one of them during those critical years growing up between the ages of 13 and 18.

My father somehow found the $2,000 tuition fee ($35,000 by 2006, the 50th anniversary of my class reunion) to send me to Webb, a boarding school, considered an elite school in California and an equal to those such as Choate on the East Coast attended by the Kennedys and other mucky mucks.

My classmates in the 1950s were from the day's rich and famous. From movie families such as Koster, Kahn and Astaire, to Firestone and Guggenheim, to San Francisco's most powerful with names that included Fleischakker, Sutro and Roos.

I assure you they put their pants on one leg at a time, just like me and the rest of us. At Webb, we were treated equally by the teachers we called masters.

Wealth meant nothing when it came to discipline and violating the honor code. Fred Astaire Jr. was kicked out of school for some infraction and although a few raised eyebrows, it was par for the course.

The Roos scion I learned was far from immortal. One morning he was found dead, naked and hanging from the ceiling with one of his belts. That was a learning experience from the mind of 15 year olds.

Snobbery based on family fortune was almost non-existent.  I was judged not as a son of a dirt farmer but how I performed in the classroom and athletic field.

The strange thing was that the bonds created in boarding school rarely extended beyond graduation except for a very few. When the class reunions of 25 and 50 years were held, I am told those attending were quite small in numbers.

After graduation, I returned to visit the campus once, weeks after I married, to show my bride.

I sought out one classmate of my fellow 1956 graduates. That was Dan Guggenheim who was a stock broker in Newport Beach where I was living at the time. Dave Firth, another classmate, visited me when I was a junior in college.

This is embarrassing for me. Erik Larsen, another classmate of mine for four years, contacted me and visited twice after our 50th school reunion was held. He was a day student, living at home in Claremont, and to this day cannot place him anywhere in my memory bank. Even a review of five school "El Espejo" annuals didn't help. Sorry, Erik. My mind works in mysterious fashion I can't always explain.

As a newspaper reporter, one meets the "rich and famous" routinely. And, with the foundation and background formulated in my high school days, I was never in awe or intimated by the powerful.

I interviewed Ronald Reagan once when he was California governor. Nice guy. He offered me those damn jujube candies on his desk where he preferred to talk about other actors he knew rather than the subject I came to interview.

And the number of officious bastards I tried to interview were endless. During the Vietnam War, a downed Navy pilot Dieter Dengler was captured by the enemy, escaped and air lifted to Naval Hospital in San Diego. I was sent to confirm his presence and interview the officer.

The Navy's PIO, a captain whose name I cannot recall, yelled at me for entering his office without permission.

"Get our of here before I throw your sorry ass in the brig," he shouted at me. "Don't you know who I am?"

I told him his name and rank didn't mean squat to me personally but could he confirm Lt. Dengler was in the hospital ward.

My photographer, a retired Navy combat photog, quickly grabbed me and nudged me out of the office.

The paper won that battle. Nolan Davis, the only black reporter on the staff, went to the hospital, donned the clothes of an orderly, grabbed a bucket and mop, and strolled the hallways until he found the pilot and asked him a few questions before someone on the ward got wise.

Ah, those were the good old days. But for me, the rich and famous are all the same. Some are good guys. Others are jerks.

And we all put our pants on one leg at a time.

Politico: Brother: Wives handle McCain finances (August 22, 2008)

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