Friday, October 9, 2009

Musings of a News Junkie by Chester Campbell

I'm a news junkie. I suppose it comes from my journalistic background. I read the morning paper, not completely, but at least the first section. All too frequently these days there isn't a lot beyond that. I also watch the network news at night (I'm a CBS fan since the days of Edward R. Murrow) and the ten o'clock local news. Sometimes I'll see the early evening news as well.

When I'm in the car alone, chances are I'll turn on WPLN, the local public radio affiliate, which plays classical music during the day. If it's in the afternoon, I'll listen to NPR's All Things Considered. At other times I'll go to WPLN's all-day news station.

My newspaper reading as a kid was mostly confined to the comics. I religiously followed Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie. Another favorite was Terry and the Pirates. I began to follow the news in high school and really got into it when the war started (that's World War II, of course). It was my own service in the Army Air Forces that led to my choice of journalism as a career. I had never considered it until a fellow Aviation Cadet who'd put in a year at Yale told me he'd study journalism if he had it to do over again.

I liked the idea. After getting my discharge, I enrolled at the University of Tennessee under the G.I. Bill. I intended to spend two years there, then transfer to a journalism school like Missouri or Wisconsin. But UT started a journalism school and I stayed put. My Class of 1949 was the first to complete the J-school curriculum. I had also taken a sophomore reporting course taught by an editor from The Knoxville Journal, which led to my being hired as a reporter during my junior year.

I spent four years at The Journal, covering most of the beats and doing general assignments, then took a year-and-a-half sabbatical thanks to the North Koreans and Fifth Air Force. I served as an intelligence officer at the headquarters in Seoul and got a ringside seat for the air war. I spent many a night in the Air Control Center listening through earphones as airmen with long sticks pushed symbols around a large map of Korea showing the location of all aircraft, friendly and enemy. Radar had come into its element.

Back in the states, wearing civvies, I moved home to Nashville and joined The Nashville Banner for a five-year stint. Among other things I became the first Education Reporter, attending a six-week seminar at Harvard. I didn't learn any Boston-speak, however. I loved feature stories and wrote about two adventures thanks to my Air Force background. I had remained in the Air National Guard and was intelliigence officer for the 118th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing at the Nashville airport.

In 1956 I got permission to fly a familiarization mission in a B-47 jet bomber at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, LA. This was a time when the Cold War was heating up, and the big jets were on alert to be loaded with nuclear weapons. Though they didn't talk about it, a section of the field called Bossier Base was obviously the weapons storage area. An alert siren sounded while I was there and large armored vehicles headed for the flight line. It really brought the Cold War home.

About a year later, I was one of the first reporters to fly on the new B-52, which had become (and still is) the Air Force's major heavy bomber. I flew a mission out of Carswell AFB at Austin, TX. Since I had a Top Secret clearance, I was allowed to sit in on the crew briefing. We took off in the afternoon, heading northwest to Denver. From there we continued west to Salt Lake City, turned north up to the Canadian border, and west again to the Pacific Coast. Turning south, we flew most of the length of the coastline and made a bomb run on Los Angeles. It was a target that electronically calculated our accuracy. Bullseye!

After that we flew southeastward back to Texas, landing at Austin around midnight. I asked the pilot what we'd have done if we couldn't land there. "We had enough fuel to get back to California," he said.

Leaving the newspaper, I freelanced articles for national magazines, then started one of my own called Nashville Magazine. Though I didn't deal in the daily news, we covered lots of goings-on around town at a more leisurely pace.

When I took up novel writing after retirement, my news and features background came in handy. I had used a lot of the same techniques I now employ in fiction--cogent quotes, colorful descriptions, a spare style that keeps the story moving. To paraphrase, you can take the old newshound out of the newsroom, but you can't take the newsroom out of the old newshound.


L. Diane Wolfe said...

That background is probably a BIG help to you now, Chester.

Chester Campbell said...

Right, Diane. Not only the writing style, but all the stories I covered are still lurking around in my head.

Michele Emrath said...

As the wife of a fomer Air Force officer, and as a TV News Producer myself, I am in awe of this post. Some might not see Nashville as a sexy spot from which to report the news, but it certainly saw its share of change in the years of which you speak. And the travels you've taken! Thanks for the insight into your past, Chester.
Michele Emrath

Mark Troy said...

That B-47 was a slick-looking plane. I'll bet it was a thrill to fly one. It's a symbol of the Cold War and SACS as much as anything.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Intriguing article, Chester. You've seen and experienced more than most writers, I'm sure.

I'm also a news junkie. I guess most of us former journalists are hooked on the news. I watch very little TV anymore but when I do, it's usually CNN.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a blogger, so I don't have an account, I apologize for posting anonymously.

I'm interested in your feelings about the recent format change at WPLN, Chester (or anyone else, for that matter) from Classical to mid-day news/talk.

Michele Emrath said...

Anonymous, you didn't ask for my opinion, but I say a loooooooong time coming! I worked at WPLN and have lived in Nashville, Phoenix, and now Raleigh, all with great NPR affiliate stations. Nashville's was by far the weakest in news. In most markets the NPR affiliate is known for wall-to-wall talk - BBC, Diane Rehm, The Story, All Things Considered, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, etc. I think all-classical is fabulous, especially if it can showcase some of the local talent coming out of the Schermerhorn. However, the listeners are also missing out on some great national programming that they're paying for with their tax dollars. Congrats to WPLN for bringing more radio news to Nashville!
Michele Emrath