Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Journalism memories: The disappearing man

Lyman Jones practically appeared out of thin air at the Sebastopol Times. He just showed up one day like a journalistic wizard. He was short, slender, middle-aged, and he wore half-frame glasses that he usually perched on the end of his nose. It took a couple of minutes for me to learn this man was extremely gifted. He was educated at Yale, and he served in a middle management position at the old Dallas Herald. He could comment off the cuff on Shakespeare, current pop culture, national and international politics, the arts, etc.

The friendship between Sebastopol Times owner Ernie Joyner and Lyman would seem strange to the many observers. Ernie was a radical conservative. Lyman was an Ivy League liberal who worked on the election campaign of progressive candidate Ralph Yarborough in Texas. But both men were tough-minded journalists, and they recognized the other's talents and commitment to their beliefs. Journalists who have been through the newspaper wars have a tendency to do that.

Lyman also was one heckuva great journalism professor, and he took me under his wing. He became the second reporter in the newsroom, and every day contained a little lesson. I will mention two of them. First, if you want to make a politician look like a fool, use his quotes. Second, learn the rules of the English language then be ready to violate those rules when needed. Some of the best writing comes from those who break the rules. I also remember one of his prime examples of good writing he relayed to me. A theater critic wanted to get across the idea that the lead actor in King Lear had a timid performance. His line: He played the king as if he expected the ace to follow.

Lyman's problem was that alcohol wasn't his good friend. I had to bail him out of the drunk tank one night. Alcohol also played a role in one of the most bizarre experiences I've had.

Lyman and I decided to go to a San Francisco Giants game at Candlestick Park. It was one of those rare Bay Area summer days with almost no wind, and we decided to go into the city after the game. We were in the Market Square area, and we decided to stop in for a drink at a bar. It was a clean place, and there were couples inside with a few folks seated on bar stools. We found two empty bar stools, sat down and ordered our drinks. The bartender was the typical amiable fellow. He and Lyman talked, and Lyman mentioned that he was a veteran who fought in World War II. He added that he was a prisoner of war of the Germans, and he said he saw atrocities on a regular basis. The bartender perked up and countered that a lot of his friends were brutalized by U.S. soldiers, and Lyman had no room to talk about German soldiers. The bartender walked away, and Lyman slapped my shoulder. "Let's get out of here," he said. "This guy is a damned Nazi."

We left our drinks and started to walk out of the bar. The bartender said something in German, and Lyman replied in impeccable German. I asked Lyman for a translation once we were out on the street. The bartender told him he hoped Lyman would break his arms and his legs. Lyman's answer was that he hoped the bartender's children and grandchildren would die young. "It's just the way Germans say I love you," Lyman said.

Lyman disappeared as quickly as he appeared. He didn't show up to work one day. Ernie and I did some sleuthing, and we traced him to the bus station in Santa Rosa. He bought a ticket for Sacramento, but the trail ended there. Lyman once boasted to me that he could disappear without leaving a trace. I think that was his plan. The only mentions I find of him are articles that appeared in a publication called the Texas Observer. I haven't been able to find any information on an obituary or other information source. The only thing I can do is be thankful is the short time we had to work together. Lyman was a great journalist who was saddled with personal demons. Both of those facts taught me a lot.

So ends my trilogy on the people who molded the early part of my career. I had two Pulitzer Prize winners, a tough Texan with a love of saying exactly what he wanted to say, and a Yale man with a storehouse of knowledge and a life with as many riddles as answers. I'd say that's a great way for a young guy to learn about the business.

(I apologize for the long delay in posting a blog entry. I have been writing and rewriting the first draft of a novel, and I tend to get very focused when I do that. I also wish I could find the picture I have of Lyman and me together on our common birthday from about 1976. I will post that if I find it in the many bins of old newspapers I have.)