Death of a Journalist

October 20, 2007 to January 4, 2008. In that span of time, not one article was posted on Missile Test. The previous three months leading up to that hiatus had been prolific ones in the life of the site. Seventeen articles posted from July 18 to October 20, an average of more than one a week. In 2006, my output for the site was dismal. Only sixteen articles. Using that as my guide, during the summer I made a decision to step up production, with the goal of posting a minimum of fifty-two articles a year. For me, that was an ambitious goal. In the life of the site, there had never been a year that maintained enough consistency to guarantee that many postings, but I had seemed to hit a stride in the last few months. Quality was as uneven as ever. After all, I am working without an editorial staff to slap me when I’m being foolish, but that’s neither here nor there.

The upswing in output for Missile Test mirrored an increase in the output of the other creative fields in my life. For three months, I was creating more art, and writing more than I would ever post on this site. Towards the end of October, work got in the way, as jobs do on occasion, and I would stare at Missile Test as the days ticked by, and there was no update. This bothered me, but the fire to contribute was not extinguished, just derailed by the demands of the man who pays the bills, that great tragedy that affects most lives, after all. On the seventeenth of November, however, real tragedy struck.

Not long after a lengthy conversation with my father, in which I wished him a happy fifty-ninth birthday, he died suddenly from ventricular fibrillation. I don’t feel I need to get into the intricacies of grief, nor do I need to use the old man as an excuse for laziness. But anyone who has been floored by such an event knows how easily the optional activities of life become derailed. Add to that a grueling twenty-six straight day stretch of work upon returning from bereavement leave, and Missile Test went untended. But the hell with that. If you’ll bear with me, let me tell you about my father.

Bruce Michael Larrick was born on November 17, 1948, in Canton, Ohio. He was the second son of a steelworker. He was a bright student, receiving consistent high marks throughout school. He once told me that he was shocked to find that when he began attending college, the strategies that had led to success in public school didn’t necessarily apply in the halls of higher learning. In short, his old man was pissed to see the first ‘B’ on his report card in as long as he could remember. What a contrast from my own education, I must say.

Back home in Canton for the summers, Bruce found work at Republic Steel to help cover his tuition and living expenses for the upcoming school year. He told me a story about Republic Steel.

That first summer, he had a shit job. Every new worker had shit jobs to start. He was part of a crew that was charged with cleaning out furnaces. Management had a rotating schedule of maintenance for these furnaces, and on his first day, Bruce was handed a sledgehammer and a pair of gloves, and assigned to a crew. They would crawl through a tiny door in the side of a furnace that had been shut down, lugging their hammers, and would spend the next fifteen minutes knocking soot from the inside of the furnace, and shoveling it out the door. Then they would sit outside for an hour while other crews continued the work, then back in Bruce’s crew went. They had such a generous distribution of work because the insides of the furnace were ungodly hot. One hundred and fifty degrees or more. It was just damned unsafe to subject those kids (it was all fresh-faced kids that had that duty) to any sort of length in that hellish heat.

After a few days of pounding on the inside of those furnaces, the area below the furnace, where there was real heat, was finally cool enough to have the crews climb down through the grating and shovel out all the soot from down below. And that was a typical week that first summer at the mill. In the furnace, under the furnace, losing pounds of water a day from the heat. Swinging a sledgehammer, hefting a shovel, over and over again, eight hours a day, five days a week. Oh, and I forgot to mention, all those crews worked the graveyard shift, ten at night to six in the morning.

Republic Steel in Canton had a hill that led up to the entrance. There was a booth there, and that was where workers would clock in and out. Across the street from the entrance was a bar, with a 24-hour liquor license. Bruce would finish up work at six, clock out, and head across the street to the bar. Inside were the defeated masses. No one wants to work at a steel mill. Men work there because it pays the bills. It puts food on the table. After twenty or thirty years, you retire and get a pension. No one talks about how few men manage to survive retirement longer than they worked in the mills. Those mills don’t just take twenty years of time from you when you’re young, they take it when you’re old, too.

In that bar, across the street from the entrance and the clock, were the defeated men, spending as much as they could allow themselves on boilermakers, a shot of whiskey dropped into a beer, downed quick. Maybe another, maybe two or three more, then home. There was Bruce one morning, tired as all hell, filthy, boilermaker in front of him, men with fifty years of creases on faces that were only thirty-five on either side of him, and he was reflecting on the disappointing year he’d had in college. Did he really need to persevere in school? He could move back to Canton, take a permanent job at the mill, settle down into real life, none of that thinking shit. But he looked around at the faces, saw the bleary go-go dancer giving five dollar blow jobs in the corner booth, saw his future, and decided college wasn’t so damned hard after all.

Bruce attended college at Bowling Green University from 1966 until 1970. Once he figured out what he was doing, he got the grades again. His major was journalism. His last year, he became editor of the school paper. He was also vehemently against the war in Vietnam. He had student deferments, but after he graduated, and began working at the Akron Beacon Journal as a cub reporter, his number was up, and he got drafted.

Bruce did not go to war. Like so many in his generation, to do so would have betrayed core values and principles. He didn’t flee to Canada, either. He had a long talk with his old man, a person he rarely saw things eye to eye with. I wish I were a fly on the wall during that conversation. I imagine the atmosphere was tense. Bruce loved his father, Russell, but saw him as one of the defeated he was working to leave behind in Canton. Russell probably looked at his son as someone unrecognizable, confused how he could have raised someone so rebellious, so disdainful of the core beliefs that he held. Russell was a member of that great generation we venerate so highly today. Were it not for a devastating car accident, Russell would have been a midshipman at Annapolis on the day Pearl Harbor was hit, soon on his way to war. Russell’s brand of patriotism was pure and he did not question leadership. The short letter calling his son to duty might as well have been composed by the hand of God. But that day, it was Russell that offered the sage advice that kept Bruce in the states.

“Don’t run. You’ll regret it.”

Bruce stayed, and gained conscientious objector status. No military duty, and no jail time, but he would have to serve two years of civil service. After some insider wrangling with help from journalistic colleagues, he spent his civil service working in the state governor’s press office instead of emptying bedpans at a psychiatric hospital. A year into his service, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Parisi v. Davidson. In that case, a soldier, Joseph Parisi, claiming he was a conscientious objector, contested the Army’s refusal to discharge him as unlawful imprisonment, even though he had been given noncombatant duties. The Supreme Court agreed. The decision in turn applied to those in civil service like my father, conscientious objectors pressed into service against their will, and Bruce walked out of his service with a year remaining, returning to the Beacon Journal.

Bruce became the Beacon’s environmental reporter. He filed stories from Three Mile Island, Love Canal, and Willow Island, West Virginia, where a scaffolding collapse during the construction of a cooling tower at a power plant resulted in 51 deaths. He saw the bodies on that assignment, mangled, and shook his head slowly back and forth as he remembered the carnage, during the only time he told me the story.

Eventually, Bruce moved away from reporting, becoming an editor, becoming a reporter again, an editor again, then leaving the business temporarily to pursue a master’s degree in political science. He felt such a degree would help him become a foreign correspondent at the Moscow office of Knight Ridder, which owned the Beacon, or some other news organization. No such assignment was to be, however, and he instead took a job teaching journalism at Kent State University in the early ’80’s. He wasn’t there long, only a few years. In 1986, Bruce landed a job at the Philadelphia Inquirer, a newspaper in the midst of its last great heyday before the internet began to change everything. He spent the rest of his life there, even through failing health.

His colleagues, whom I only briefly met after his death, used one phrase over and over again to describe Bruce. He was ‘the crusty old newsman’, keeping them all honest, keeping the product focused on journalism, in an atmosphere of extreme pressure in the newspaper industry. Crusty and old. What few seemed to remember was that his attitudes about journalistic ethics, his impatient outbursts at violations of the trust between public and the press had nothing to do with his age, and everything to do with his identity. Bruce was intractable about his life’s work. Bruce was a journalist.

Early on in the process that has so imperiled traditional news outlets, he was as confused as the rest of his colleagues as to the role the internet would play, and the fate of those who specialize in the printed word. But after years and years of conversations between the two of us, the crusty print journalist and the 21st century web developer, he began to understand that what print journalism was being confronted with was not its destruction, but its self-destruction. I believe that had he lived to witness the painful, yet ultimately successful transition that newspapers will need to make into becoming news organizations, serving all media, that ‘crusty old newsman’ would have been valuable in keeping the business rooted, a constant reminder that no matter what the future holds for journalism, it is ethics that will continue to ensure that it remains relevant. Above all, I believe it is those ethics, which he not only held dear, but couldn’t bring himself to violate, that he would wish to be remembered for.