Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Scandal

The final edition had hit the streets, and the newsroom at the News-Sentinel was down to night staff: The news editor, the wire service men in their own cubicles, a copy boy, me on the copy desk, editing teletype stories and wondering if the baby-sitter would get my note about dinner.
            Across the room, a phone rang. In a few minutes, Ralph Millett, the news editor, came toward me, looking all around, waving a piece of newsprint. “You need to go interview this girl in Lenoir City,” he said. “She’s Bobby Baker’s secretary, visiting her parents for Christmas.”
            “Me?” I asked. I wasn’t a reporter any more. “I don’t have anybody else to send,” he said. “Jack will drive you. Jack!” he called.
            “What’s this about?” I asked.
            “Scandal at a high level. Nobody has said a word so far.” Then looking at me under his bushy eyebrows, he said in the best Hollywood newspaper-movie fashion, “Get that story.”

            Early in 1963, Bobby Baker, a protégé of  Lyndon Johnson and a major power on Capitol Hill, had come under investigation by the Senate Rules Committee for allegations of bribery and arranging sexual favors in exchange for congressional votes and government contracts. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were involved peripherally in the investigation, as was Johnson himself, though the vice president’s name was dropped from the inquiry after John F. Kennedy’s assassination November 22, 1963.
            Carole Tyler, Tennessean and former Miss Loudon County, was Bobby Baker’s personal secretary and lived in a house owned by Baker in Washington.

            I had Jack stop at a drugstore on the 30-minute drive to Carole’s parents’ home. I bought holiday boxes, giftwrap and ribbon, made up several cheerful-looking packages, only hesitated a moment once we arrived at a modest-looking house in Lenoir City.
            Since I looked for all the world like a friend bearing gifts, when I asked for Carole at the door, a relative let me in. A pretty but tired-looking woman in a satin dressing gown came out  of a back room, accompanied by a little dog that immediately jumped on me.
            “Kukla!” the woman scolded.
            “Ah,” I said. “A Greek name. It means ‘doll,’ you know.”
            “Who are you, anyway?” the woman asked.
            “Carole?” I asked. She nodded.
            “I’m from the Knoxville paper.”
            “Oh, no. No, no.”
            “You don’t really have to say anything,” I said quickly. I put the fake presents down and showed her that I wasn’t carrying a note pad or pen. “We just wanted to see how you’re doing with all this.” She sank on to a sofa nearby and picked up the little dog.

            After a half hour or so, I went out with my empty Christmas boxes and got into the staff car. “No way to get a picture?” Jack asked. “No, I don’t think so,” I said. Jack drove fast while I wrote down everything I could remember that Carole had said.
            One thing she told me, wistfully, was how she had posed for repair work on the model for the 19-foot-tall statue of Freedom that stands atop the Capitol building. “So it will have my arms,” she said.

            Even though it wasn’t hard news, the story got lots of attention because of the seedy nature of the investigation and the way the principals had been so closed-mouthed about the whole thing. It was on the front page of the News-Sentinel with a picture of Carole in front of the Capitol (you could barely see that there was a statue atop the building.) The Associated Press picked it up and Newsweek mentioned it, along with my name. There was a bonus in my paycheck that week.
            The Journal, our rival newspaper, complained on its own front page that a spokesman denied Carole had given an interview. (We had gone through elaborate steps to hide the story until it was in print, since the two newspapers used the same technical crew.)
            “You were really there, right?” the news editor asked me. “Of course I was,” I said. And Jack, who had waited outside in the car, verified that he saw me go in the house and stay a half hour or so.

On the strength of the mention in Newsweek, I took the Greyhound to New York City and applied for a job on the Herald-Tribune. Managing Editor Murray Weiss had seen the story. He said I would be the Tribune’s first woman copy editor.
But the job never materialized. I moved to New York, but there was a newspaper strike, a hiring freeze, the Tribune was in trouble…and I took a much tamer writing job at one of the United Nations delegations, researching puff stories at the New York public library.
            In February of 1964, Carole Tyler was questioned at the Senate hearing. She took the Fifth on every question. Never said a word. In May, 1965, she was killed when a single-engine biplane in which she was a passenger crashed into five feet of water only 200 yards off the Maryland coast.

            I still feel guilty about manipulating my way into the woman’s house with my fake Christmas presents. It’s the sort of thing a paparazzo might do without a second thought, but I was (and am) mild-mannered and anxious not to offend. I can’t even imagine where the idea of the wrapped boxes came from. I think it was probably a matter of my being more afraid of the news editor than I was of tricking an unknown woman. A woman who died at 26 years of age. A woman whose arms are replicated on the statue of Freedom.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Cops and Nobles

British detective thrillers, whether in novels, films or on PBS Masterpiece Mystery, are sometimes mystifying to non-Brits in an odd way.

For starts, there are all those acronyms: CID, MI5 MI6, all the letters before the police officers’ names. Does everyone know that MI stands for military intelligence? Or that the CID is Crime Investigation Division? Or that the ranks of police officers ascend from PC or DC (police or detective constable) through DS (detective sergeant) to DCI (detective chief inspector)? Calling a DS a DC might cause offense.

If you are reading, as I am, Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley books, you have the additional problem of figuring out which Lord or Lady is up to whatever mischief, since sometimes the characters’ given names are used and at other times they are called by their titles. Lord Asherton, for instance, is DCI Lynley or simply Asherton, or Tommy to his friends.

Here is the cast of characters for Payment in Blood, the second of George's 19 Inspector Lynley books--very helpful when, on page 300 of some 430, you can't remember who Denton is (he's Lynley's servant.) Of course, you might prefer just to read the book or watch the video and assume that eventually everything will be understandable. But in the interest of de-mystifying some of the roles and titles, I give you the list of Cops and Nobles.

1. DCI Thomas Lynley, Eighth Earl of Asherton.
2. DC Barbara Havers, demoted from DS, Lynley’s partner. Lives with her parents.
3. Lady Helen Clyde, daughter of the Tenth Earl of Hesfield (ongoing love interest).
4. Simon Allcourt St. James, forensic scientist.
5. Deborah Cotter St. James, photographer, his wife, daughter of his valet.
6. Francesca Gerrard, widow, owner of mansion on Loch Achiemore, Scotland.
7. Philip, her late husband, buried on an island in the Loch.
8. Stuart Rintoul, Lord Stinhurst, “Midas of the Theater”, Francesca’s brother.
9. Marguerite, Countess of Stinhurst, his wife.
10. Alec Rintoul, deceased, their son, loved by No. 12.
11. Elizabeth Rintoul, their fortyish daughter.
12. Joy Sinclair, playwright (deceased), sister of No. 13, cousin of No. 19, former lover of No. 16.
13. Irene Sinclair, former actress, previously married to No. 16.
14. Joanna Ellacourt, famous actress, married to No. 15.
15. David Sydeham, her husband and manager.
16. Robert Gabriel, famous actor, formerly married to No. 13, now sleeping with No. 12 and many others.
17. Geoffrey Rintoul (deceased), brother of No. 8, grave discovered in odd place.
18. Jeremy Vinney, journalist, drama critic for the Times.
19. Rhys Davies-Jones, theatrical director, presently lover of No. 3. Prime suspect.
20. Gowan Kilbride, handyman at the mansion of No. 6.
21. Mary Agnes Campbell, maid at No. 6.
22. Hannah Darrow, deceased, subject of a book by No. 12.
23. John Darrow, publican, her husband.
24. Teddy Darrow, their son.

English police: Chief Superintendent Hiller; Superintendent Webberley, Lynley’s superior; DC Raymond Plater (Mildenhall); DC Winston Nkata.

Scottish police: DI Ian Macaskin of the Strathclyde CID; DC Kevin Lonan.

Military Intelligence: William Vassall, Sir Kenneth Willingate, Sir Andrew Higgins.

Servants: Denton, Lynley’s valet. Caroline Shepherd, Lady Helen’s maid. Cotter, valet to St. James (No. 4) and father of Deborah St. James (No. 5).

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Translator

It  could have been from a prequel to Star Trek, the earliest stages of the Universal Translator. It stood about four feet high, slightly askew on its post, and had buttons for selecting a dozen languages. It looked a little like the jukebox selectors in the booths of old diners. The bottom button was labeled “more languages.”
The Translator robot stood next to the reception desk at the local hospital where I went for some routine lab work a few days ago.
Photo from Big World Network
I always wanted to be a translator when I grew up. I came close a couple of times. At the English-language Athens News in Greece, we had to edit stories that were submitted in French or Greek. At that point, I could at least tell the difference (the Greek alphabet has different characters, duh.) At Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, a friend asked if I knew enough Greek to help him evaluate a stroke victim, to tell whether his speech was slurred. When I greeted the patient, he immediately said “Ta dontia mou. Pou einai ta dontia mou?” (By that time, my Greek was better.)
“He wants his teeth,” I told the medical student friend. “He asks where his teeth are.” “Is his speech slurred?” Harold asked. “Not at all,” I said, “but it will probably be better when he puts his teeth in.”
At the United Nations building, near the office where I worked, I sat in the galleries and watched the translators up in the glass-fronted booth instantly interpret whatever was being said on the floor in dozens of languages. In my hippie days, I chose the name “Talking Bridge,” again thinking about translating. And in a way, I think all my teaching and writing has been a matter of translating. Certainly I have discovered no new thing either in music or discourse, but sometimes just the way something is expressed can make the connection between the abstract and the useful.
I have made some pretty funny gaffes along the way. On a deadline in Salonica, I thought I was yelling “Hurry! Hurry!” when actually I was shouting “Rape! Rape!” I thought my maid’s name was Askimoula (Little Ugly One) when in fact it was Asimoula (Little Silver One.) I complimented her on her worms (skoulikia) when I meant to say something about her earrings (skoularikia.)
Anyone who has dealt with Google Translate or any of the other Internet translators knows the perils of word-by-word translations, which can be Byzantine at best and even dangerous at worst.
Here’s a recent example from Greek which was poetic but which made sense in the original: “Sometimes only lift his gaze and watched city people who swiftly sinking in darkness. Hasty and smelling nice, tired of crawling, others in small groups discussing. Had a weird atmosphere the city every dusk and asked her to hide and be quiet. Smelled glorious past and decadent nobility. A nostalgic permanently strolled through the narrow streets with the palm trees are swaying to sunburnt and parked outside the time and the wear and tear.”
California hospitals must provide a translator for patients who don’t speak English, and I was talked into translating for an elderly Greek stroke victim in the long-term care wing of the local hospital. My brief career as a translator is described in Caryatids, my book of short stories published by Amazon’s CreateSpace in January.
Obviously the local hospital wouldn’t be needing my services as a translator any more. But I thought about the first thing I had to translate for my little old lady.
“Ask her if she is in pain,” the nurse had instructed me.
Ehete pono pouthena?” I asked. Do you have pain anywhere?
The little lady answered with the Greek “No”, a sharp tip of the head backward and a tongue click (think “tsk”.)

I really doubt that the new mechanical translator robot could handle that one. Why, it didn't even have a head.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

An Intimate History

When the kids were grown, I decided to go back to school and finish the degree I’d started 25 years before. A college-level Biology class was being offered in town, and though I hadn’t taken many science classes before, I signed up.

 I never realized that studying Biology would be a religious experience. Nor that the idea of DNA was as difficult to comprehend as the sound of one hand clapping. I could barely get my mind around the idea before it would vanish—a disappearing revelation.

 Now I learn (through the New Yorker) that there’s more to the stuff our selves are made of than just the double helix. Things that happen to us are recorded on a cellular level, permanently, on those little ladder things that bridge the strands of DNA.

 They are called histones, and modifications to them can change the activity of the gene without affecting the sequence. They are epi-genetic, over-genes, and they are the way a cell can record experience.

All this is discussed in a book by Siddhartha Mukherjee to be released this month, The Gene: An Intimate History. Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia University’s medical school, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for The Emperor of All Maladies, a book about cancer.

So Epigenetics is the hot new field of study in the biological sciences, and what is already known raises some revolutionary questions as well as posing some evolutionary problems. One question is whether those cell memories can be inherited. This possibility seemed to be resolved back in the nineteenth century when Darwin’s theories pretty much got those of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (giraffes got those long necks by trying harder) laughed out of Science. Now the possibility—albeit remote-- is there again, since whatever happens to us is recorded on a cellular level. The cells multiply with this amended information, and our genes are of course passed on to the next generation.

Identical twins, such as Mukherjee’s mother and her sister, can become a great deal different from each other over time because of epigenetic information. A lot of things had been recorded in my histones between the 1950s in Tennessee and the 1970s in California. I was, as “The Music Man” had it, a sadder but wiser girl. So when we say “Oh, he’s a different person now,” we are speaking a scientific truth at a very fundamental level.

“Genes form the thread of the web (jaal) Hindu philosophers described as being,” Mukherjee writes. “The detritus that adheres to it transforms every web into a singular being. An organism’s individuality, then, is suspended between genome and epigenome. We call the miracle of this suspension ‘fate.’ We call our responses to it ‘choice.’ We call one such variant of one such organism a ‘self.’”

 That paragraph alone might well have earned the Pulitzer Prize.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Write On

              I think you should write your book.
            “But who would read it,” you ask?
            Well, you never know.
            I have been transcribing my old journals, intending to put them on a disc and leave them around somewhere. Partly I’m doing it because I want the shelf space all those diaries are using, and partly because I’m coming up to an 80th birthday and I can’t last forever.
            I found this entry for September 17, 1965: Letter from Henry Waters. “No one in the Waters family has written a book since Grandma Scott wrote Korno Siga in 1889. This is the story of Korno Siga, a mountain chief in the hills of Assam, where Great-Grandma Scott was a missionary. It had a very limited circulation!”
            On a whim, I Googled the title. After all, how many books could there be with that name? I found a book called Korno Siga, the Mountain Chief—Or Life in Assam. The author, however, was one Mrs. Mildred Marston, not Grandma Scott. I ordered the book anyway, and when it arrived, someone had written “pseud. Anna (Kay) Scott” under Mrs. Marston’s name.
            The book, a facsimile edition put out by something called “Forgotten Books”, was 200 pages describing the life of a lady physician, a medical missionary, in the mountains of India where the Biblical St. Thomas had met his end. Dealing with cholera, snakebite, addictions to various drugs, “Mrs. Marston” had also to teach sewing and cooking at the mission school. “Mr. Marston” had to deliver her three children, using tips from a midwifery book.
            One especially gripping scene had Mr. Marston walking into a group of vicious men who wore skeleton necklaces and brandished spears. He whipped out his violin—which he just happened to be carrying into the jungle—and played a hymn. The heathens—Grandma Scott’s word—fell to their knees, believing that the missionary was a god and that the violin was alive.
            There was lots of religion in the book, as one might expect, but also some surprising information on medicine, botany, Buddhism, and politics during the British rule some 50 years before Gandhi began actively working for Indian independence.
            So almost 150 years after Grandma Scott hand-wrote her account, on the wildest coincidence, it was reproduced and read by another grandma in Montara, California.
            My Aunt Ruth, who gave me my first diary when I was eleven or twelve, was very big on communicating. “Just write letters,” she told my mother. “If you can’t think of anything to say, say what you had for dinner.”
            I think it’s important. Say that you were here on this earth, and say who you were. It’s a bit like a message in a bottle. You never know who might find it and read it.

(My latest book, Caryatids, is available in Kindle and print editions through