My original headline read “Stuck in the Sock Drawer,” but I changed it because “Nixon” will score higher with the search engines.
Even that headline was a little misleading, because we’re not going to talk about my exact sock drawer, although there ARE a lot of weird things hiding in there, too.
Many years ago, my grandmother gave me a good wooden box that was probably supposed to hold jewelry. It’s been a catchall for heirlooms of no real value, something that became apparent when our house was burgled a few years ago.
The crooks made off with some of Wife Lila’s jewelry that was rich in sentimental value, but not worth much in dollars. The mopes didn’t even bother to root through my box.
Maybe they feared the curse of the pigskin purse, a souvenir my grandmother, Elsie Welch, brought back from Mexico (the country, not the county seat of Audrain County, MO, where the annual Miss Missouri pageant is held) when I was about two years old.
I never had much money as a kid, so the poor pig was always pretty skinny. Now, nearly seven decades later, he still hasn’t put on much weight.
Elvis Presley and President Nixon
Ollie Atkins, President Richard Nixon’s official photographer, was a speaker at a National Press Photographers Association conference I attended. To be honest, I thought Atkins was a pretty pedestrian photographer kept around for dull grip ‘n’ grin shots of dignitaries. His photos perfectly captured the wooden Richard Nixon.
One of his images, though, according to a 2012 story in The Guardian, is one of the most requested images in the National Archives and Records Administration, more popular even than the Bill of Rights or the Constitution of the United States. It’s the photo of Dick Nixon and Elvis Presley shaking hands after a secret meeting in the White House.
Presley wrote Nixon a six-page letter requesting a meeting with the president and suggesting he be made a “Federal Agent at Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The events leading up to and after the meeting are detailed in the documentation and photographs included at this link, which include Presley’s handwritten letter, memoranda from Nixon staff and aides, and the thank-you note from Nixon for the gifts (including a Colt 45 pistol and family photos) that Presley brought with him to the Oval Office.
From time to time during the conference, the moderator would draw numbers for door prizes. After Ollie’s presentation, he reached into the box and pulled out mine. Instead of some cool photo equipment, I was presented a pair of presidential cufflinks. That prize was especially ironic because, up until I picked Bill Hopkins to run my campaign for student body president of Central High School, I thought I might get to wear a set of cufflinks like these some day.
They have never been out of the box. When I scanned them tonight, I pulled the lining of the box out to see if anything cool, like the nuclear launch codes or something, was behind them. I am sad to report the bottom of the box was empty.
You can click on the photos to make them larger, but ignore all the white specks: I didn’t bother to dust the plush lining in the box.
Ollie must have sweetened the pot by tossing in a box of matches from Air Force One.
I beat the devil
While I was looking at the unused book of presidential matches, I thought of Kris Kristofferson’s song, To Beat the Devil, about a down-and-out guitar player. It contains the line, “I ain’t sayin’ I beat the devil, but I drank his beer for nothing. Then I stole his song.”
Well, I never got to be President, but I ended up with his cufflinks and his matches.
I was rummaging through a box and ran across two cartoons drawn by Scrawls, the Palm Beach Post’s editorial cartoonists in the ’70s.
Sam Rawls is his real name, but we all called him Scrawls. (People who REALLY know him call him Scooter, but I never achieved that level of closeness.)
He left The Post to go to our Big Sister paper in Atlanta, where he stuck around about seven years. I lost track of where he was, and was almost afraid to Google him because I was afraid the trail would lead to an obit.
Fortunately, there’s still some ink left in his pen.
Long before Jeff Foxworthy came along with his “You might be a redneck if…” shtick, Post columnist Steve Mitchell wrote a book How to Speak Southern, illustrated by Sam. It was followed by More How to Speak Southern, followed by a combination of the two marketed as The Complete How to Speak Southern. Click on the links to order a copy from Amazon and make both Sam and me a few pennies.
Sam has always cared about the environment. He’s been drawing cartoons to support the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island. Take a look at some of his artwork skewering developers. I’m sure he is more effective at getting the point across than a whole forest of position papers.
Getting back to the cartoons
When Sam was packing up his office to go to the Big Time, I walked in to seeing him ripping up scads of his old cartoons. “What in the world are you doing?” I cried in a horrified tone.
“They’ve already been published, and I don’t want them floating around where somebody will sell them, so I’m tearing them up.”
I managed to convince him to let me make off with these two Nixons from the Watergate era. One one he wrote a flattering message, “To Ken – The best button-pusher I know;” on the other, a more Scrawlsian “To Ken – if you sell it – make sure you get a good price.”
The story of the couch
Newspapers were a little less politically correct (and a lot more fun) in the old days. They were inhabited by misfits on their way up and on their way down, and characters were the rule instead of the exception.
The photo department had a small room we called the Wire Room. It was used for storage and housed the Associated Press wirephoto transmitter. At one time, before I was hired, it contained an old black couch with an indeterminate covering. It looked like leather, but it was probably some substance not occurring in nature.
Someone told me that a homeless hooker used to walk Dixie Highway in front of the paper, and the photographers, being tenderhearted, offered her the couch as a place to sleep. Management got wind of their largess and said the couch had to go. [Checking the definition of “largess,” I’m not sure that’s exactly the right word: “Something given to someone without expectation of a return,” but, like I said, that all happened before I got to West Palm Beach…]
The couch was exiled to Sam’s office where it was assumed nothing nefarious would ever go on, said my source.
Couch Version II
When I finally tracked Sam down this evening (he had been dodging torrential rain in Conyers, Georgia, where he lives), I had to ask him what happened to the couch. I thought I remembered management shipping it to him as a joke when he left.
“That was my couch. I bought it. I’ve never heard the hooker story.”
We were both appalled that someone made up that story to pull my leg. On the other hand, we agreed that it was too good a story to cut out. If I outlive Sam, it’ll go back to being the Hooker Couch.
What is your favorite cartoon?
As soon as I asked what Sam considered his favorite cartoon, I cringed, knowing how I feel when someone asks about my favorite photo. Sam came back with an answer that I’m liable to steal, “I hope it’s the one on my drawing board the day I die.”
Just for the record, I didn’t shoot any of these photos. They came from a box we called “Party Pix,” a collection of staff photos going back to the early or mid-60s. If you doubt my earlier statement about working with characters, you need to take a walk down memory lane with me and that box.
“KID!!!” bellowed the burned-out copy editor who had come to The Jackson Pioneer from The Kansas City Star. I was “KID!” until I was about 25, but in this case, I really WAS a kid. It was the summer of my junior year of high school.
He was editing my “exclusive” interview with Gary Rust, a Goldwater supporter and a delegate to the 1964 GOP National Convention.
My lead was “One week out of the year, once every four years, the nation is stricken by elephantiasis.”
“Kid,” he continued, in a quieter tone, “either you don’t know that elephantiasis is an African venereal disease that causes your nuts to swell up so big you have to carry them in a wheelbarrow, or you DO know and you are the most astute political writer for your age in the country.” After a pause, he said with a sly grin, “Either way, I’m not going to change it.”
I’ve been telling that tale for years, but, truth be told, I wasn’t absolutely, positively sure that it was true. HAD the story actually run?
When I came home this time, Brother Mark gave me a huge, wax-coated cardboard box that had once contained chicken pieces. In it was a stack of clips from the paying-my-dues days at The Jackson Pioneer, The Central High School Tiger, The Ohio University Post and a smattering of other things.
For better or worse, near the middle of the stack was my June 24, 1964, story as I had remembered it. (Like always, you can click on the photos to make them larger.)
How to get a newspaper job
Rust had gotten me the job in the first place. I was a Barry Goldwater fanatic; had worked on a political campaign a year or so before; Friend Shari’s grandmother was a big poobah in the Republican party, and The Pioneer was a Republican paper. The Pioneer’s publisher, John Hoffman III, had been injured in a car wreck that had killed his wife. Rust thought Hoffman could use some help, so he introduced us. [That’s Hoffman in a wheelchair covering a high school football game.]
Hoffman said, “We’re not making much money; we can only afford to pay you $75 or $100 every two weeks.”
Not completely understanding how this negotiating game was played, I promptly said, “I’m just getting started out. I’ll take $75.”
Wall to wall people
Rust described the convention as “wall to wall people.” Always a sucker for numbers, I shared that the event was linked to the world with 30 TV cameras, 325 teletypewriter lines, 264 radio circuits and over 3,000 telephones.
He said the convention was basically a “fight between the liberals and the conservatives of the Republican Party. By the end of the week everyone was trying to outdo the other in being a conservative. About 80% of those attending the powwow were behind Goldwater.”
Counting hand claps
I never watched one of those political events afterward without thinking about an observation he made. It was reported that immediately after Goldwater spoke, there was a brief silence before the applause.
“It wasn’t the type speech you clap or applaud. It was more an outline of his principles and philosophies, and it was a shame to have to applaud, but we were all politically-minded enough to know there was probably someone in the back of the room marking down ’26 hand claps for Nixon – hmmmm, only 22 hand claps for Goldwater…’”
Could have torn them up
Rust told the group, including candidates Jean Ann Bradshaw, Truman Farrow, Robert Hemperley and Harold Kuehle, that most of the Goldwater people there were “most generous and decent. At any time during the convention, they could have torn them (the Scranton people) up on any vote.”
Goldwater’s success came as a shock to many people. Rust said, “We found ourselves with a winner and we didn’t even know how to celebrate.”
I’ll tell you later about another paper in the stack: my story of covering Ronald Reagan stumping for Goldwater and how I got to meet the new Linotype operator.
I had expected this would be the year when I would do the definitive piece on what a small Ohio university town was like in the months leading up to the shootings and the days afterward. I wasn’t at Kent State, but in Athens, Ohio, the home of Ohio University.
At two in the morning, I was looking at 545 scanned negatives and a stack containing at least that many more. The best I can do for the 40th anniversary is to hit some of the high spots.
A nation near civil war
It’s hard to remember how torn apart this country was in the late 60s. The country was polarized by age divisions, by feelings about the Vietnam War, by economics and by race. Opportunistic politicians promoted those rifts for their own advantage.
Richard Nixon, while running for president in 1968, told the electorate that the country was torn by division: “America has suffered a fever of words, from inflated rhetoric that fans discontent into hatred; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another – until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.”
Peace march on Court Street
Athens religious leaders led a peaceful, non-violent march down the main drag in Athens on a beautiful October day in 1969. (My film sleeves are dated Oct. 16, 1969, but that might have represented when I processed the film, because Wikipedia says Moratorium Day was celebrated on Oct. 15.) The ministers and these children were at the head of the line.
The garage with the glowering man was on the parade route. I didn’t even notice that frame when I edited the film 41 years ago. Maybe I was so used to seeing that reaction that it didn’t register then like it does now.
Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam
Moratorium Day – a day to take off from work or classes and think about the war – was centered on the College Green in the heart of the campus and downtown Athens. It’s a beautiful setting with huge trees all around. The crowd ebbed and flowed throughout the day. It may have ranged from a few hundred to maybe a thousand at any one time.
There were a number of speakers, all forgettable. The thing that has haunted me since that day was a relay of volunteers reading the names of the servicemen killed in Vietnam. Every name was accompanied by a drumbeat on a drum with a smiling OU Bobcat mascot on its side.
If it takes about two seconds to read each name, you need about 24 hours to work your way through 50,000 names. The sound system wasn’t strong enough to carry the names much farther than the immediate area, but that drum beat was audible throughout most of downtown and the central area dorms.
Drumbeat marks the dead
Even if you couldn’t hear the names, you couldn’t escape the realization that every beat represented someone just about your age who was dead.
The Pounding Of The Drum The Pride And Disgrace
You Can Bury Your Dead But Don’t Leave A Trace
Hate Your Next-door Neighbor But Don’t Forget To Say Grace
ROTC: a stand-in for the war
Whether or not ROTC should be on campus was the surrogate issue for the debate over whether the university should be pro-war or anti-war. I attended small meetings and big meetings like this one for months. (I’m not sure if I noticed the guy in the front row with the turtle when I shot it.)
Photographers love action
Photographers gravitate to action. TV, in particular, has the slogan, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Demonstrators learned to play to that with marches, demonstrations, signs and street theater.
Unwittingly, they played right into the hands of the Nixon administration, which wanted something to demonize. Peter Davies, in The Truth about Kent State, wrote, “In less than two years the victors of that election  had become masterful exponents of inflated, angry, bombastic rhetoric and evinced little inclination to learn from the dissenting views of others.“
Nov. 15, 1969, half a million people participated in a March on Washington. Nixon, in what has to be a classic understatement said, “Now, I understand that there has been, and continues to be, opposition to the war in Vietnam on the campuses and also in the nation.” He continued, “As far as this kind of activity is concerned, we expect it, however under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by it.”
The war seemed to be winding down by the spring of 1970, and student activists were starting to shift their focus to more domestic issues. That changed when Nixon announced on Apr. 30, 1970, that he was going to have American forces invade Cambodia.
Reaction on campuses was swift and angry.
Dissenters should be treated as Nazis
Vice President Spiro Agnew, who later resigned in disgrace over petty bribery charges, escalated the rhetoric much as Nixon escalated the war. At a Republican fundraiser in Miami, Agnew recommended that campus dissenters be treated as if they were Nazis.
Students at Ohio University were stunned by the killings. One of the largest groups I can recall seeing turned out on the College Green to hear speakers and to be close to one another. The group wasn’t made up of your “usual suspect” campus radicals and protesters. Faculty members and Greeks were sitting side by side with long-haired hippies.
OU President Claude Sowle
Another mass meeting was held in the Convocation Center, usually used for basketball games. Speakers, including university president Claude Sowle, lined up for their turn to speak. What I find astounding looking at these pictures today is that President Sowle (standing, in jacket, with back to camera) was surrounded by thousands of students without any security present.
These are the same kinds of students Ohio Gov. James Rhodes characterized at a table-thumping law-and-order press conference in Kent on May 3 as “worse than the Brownshirts and the Communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America. We’re going to eradicate the problem, we’re not going to treat the symptoms.”
That speech was widely broadcast, including into the National Guard’s bivouac area on the Kent State campus, something that was thought to give tacit approval, if not encouragement, to the shootings that would happen the next day. Rhodes was two days away from a tight primary race and he was hoping to fire up his base.
Some of the campus religious leaders announced a one-day fast in honor of the Kent State victims. It would be broken by the taking of Communion on the College Green the next day.
After having attended a Lutheran school for eight years, I always associated Communion with golden chalices, fancy wafer, droning organ music and great formality.
There were so many students participating in THIS communion service that the ministers had to dispatch someone to a nearby store to pick up some cheap bottles of wine and some loaves of ordinary bread off the shelf.
I understand Communion now
I usually never participate in the events I cover, but I understood, for the first time, the real meaning of communion. It wasn’t about the religious trappings, it was about coming together with something bigger than yourself.
I got in line for a chunk of bread and a swig out of a shared bottle of wine. I was never so moved by a religious ceremony before, and I’ve never felt like taking Communion since. I don’t know if it was the place, the people or the circumstances, but something special happened that afternoon.
Days and nights blurred
Almost every day there was some kind of rally, march, demonstration or protest. Most of them were fairly benign. It was almost like no one wanted to push the envelope too far after what happened on May 4.
Alcohol, not revolutionary spirits
Even the night-time bonfires next to the War Memorial seemed fueled more by alcoholic spirits than the spirit of revolution. Ohio University has long celebrated The Rites of Spring where confrontations with local police were common when the first warm days chased the cold winter away.
The bars let out
When the bars let out on a nice spring night, it’s not uncommon for the students to take over the major intersection in town at Court and Union. On this night, there’s some political tension in the air, but there are no political signs and no organization. It’s a crowd, not a mob.
Officer reads the riot act
The officer in the center of the photo with the white hat uses a bull horn to tell the group to disperse. That’s commonly known as “reading the riot act.” It’s all part of the Rites of Spring ritual.
Streets clear, everyone goes home
Everyone pretty much stayed withing the Rules of Engagement and nothing unusual happened. Police and students all seemed on their best behavior.
Library taken over
At some point during the week, Chubb Library was occupied by the students. Some of the reporters and photographers decided that we would stay in the library during the brief siege. We figured the students would be less likely to trash the place if we were there to record it. We also assumed the police wouldn’t storm the building if we were there to photograph any head cracking. We were keeping both sides honest.
Movement is losing steam
There was one last half-hearted night of protest that involved a relatively small crowd that marched on the president’s home. I don’t recall much happening and the group started to disperse. Other newspaper folks and I had the feeling that this was about the last gasp. The movement was running out of steam. Even students get tired.
Herded back to College Green
Students started running back to the group saying that the Green was surrounded by police who were keeping them from leaving. To this day, I think this was a result of bad intelligence on the part of the police or bad planning.
I don’t think they realized that the energy was gone from the student movement and that it was about to collapse.
If they had allowed the students to disperse on their own, everyone would have gone home and it would have been over.
Bats n’ hats
To make matters worse, I discovered that police from all over the area had been brought in for reinforcements. These folks rarely had contact with students and were even more poorly trained than the Athens PD.
It wasn’t a good thing to see everyone decked out in full “bats ‘n hats” riot gear with gas masks. I don’t think I had ever seen Athens PD use gas before.
Like I described on my other blog, it wasn’t long before a cop I knew launched a tear gas grenade right toward me. It gave me great pleasure to give him a grin before I pulled on MY gas mask.
My tactical blunder
Friend and photographer Ed Pieratt shot me in my riot gear. I had to wear my glasses on the outside of the mask because I was blind without them. The old WWII mask kept the gas out, but the lenses fogged up so badly I couldn’t see WITH the mask or WITHOUT it. (By the next riot, I had a state of the art M16 mask courtesy of a policeman who “liberated” one for me. I had it fitted with prescription lenses and used it for another two decades.
I’m not happy with the photos from the night of the riot. For some reason, despite the fact that I specialized in shooting available light under lousy conditions, and despite that stuff I had shot by street lights earlier in the week looked good, I decided to bolt a flash on the camera.
Shooting flash draws attention to you – and can look like a muzzle flash from a gun – so you tend to shoot sparingly. It also makes for ugly pictures. Photographers shouldn’t think, they should shoot. Having that bleeping flash on the camera made me think, which caused me to miss photos I wish I’d had.
Ohio University shut down
It was over. By morning, President Sowle had made the decision to close the university until the summer session. Mayor Raymond Shepard and President Sowle decided jointly to request the Ohio National Guard.
Students leave town
With tear gas power still falling from the trees and the whole town suffering from red, itchy eyes from the night before, carloads of anxious parents descended on Athens to pick up their kids.
Kent State garnered all the attention
On the front page of The Messenger that detailed the closing of Ohio University is a story that has been dwarfed by Kent State: the killing of two students and the wounding of five at Jackson State University in Mississippi.
Does Agnew sound familiar?
Vice President Spiro Agnew said in April 1970, “One modest suggestion for the academic community: the next time a mob of students, waving their non-negotiable demands, starts pitching rocks at the Student Union – just imagine they are wearing brown shirts or white sheets and act accordingly.”
Shootings were “unwarranted”
The Scranton Commission concluded that the gunfire from the Ohio National Guard was “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
James Michener, in his book Kent State: What Happened and Why, wrote that “a depressing number” of the four hundred Kent State students interviewed “had been told by their parents that it might have been a good thing if they had been shot.”
Think of that the next time someone on the left or the right loses touch with reality. Words can sometimes ignite more than the political base.
[Editor’s note: I’m sure there are some “facts” that are wrong. Dates on the film sleeves could be the day the photos were taken or they could be the date the film was processed. After weeks of marches, rallies, meeting, speeches and songifying, days and events run together. Like so many things I’ve covered, I’m glad to have been a witness to history, but once was enough.]
Gallery of photos from Ohio University
Click on any image to make it larger, then click on the left or right side of the photo to move through the gallery.