HE’S BRESLIN AND YOU’RE NOT
By John Schulian
The Evening Sun didn’t have the biggest staff in the world, so a lot of us had to do double duty. For me, that frequently meant coming in at 6 or 7 in the morning to work re-write for the first edition before they turned me loose on the world. It was great experience because when I was under the gun, I had to force myself to write fast. You know, a news story 700 to 1,000 words long in 20 minutes or less, and you had to get the facts right from the reporters in the field who were calling them in.
Just as often, I’d be the one out on the street, hoping I’d be able to get back to the office in time to write the story myself. I’d get a call from an assistant city editor at 4:30 in the morning to get over to a rowhouse fire in West Baltimore that killed a couple of kids, and by the time I got there, I could hear their mother or grandmother screaming “My babies, my babies!” from two blocks away. Or it would be a shantytown fire in a speck on the map called Principio Furnace, with more dead babies. Or a bunch of volunteer firemen who drowned while trying to rescue somebody in a hellacious rainstorm. Or maybe just two motorcycle gangs that shot each other to pieces.
The story that still haunts me was about a town out in Western Maryland called Friendsville. Population 600 and six of its boys had been killed in Vietnam. I went out there to talk to the families of the first five casualties and wait for the body of the sixth to come home. I got a number for what I guess is best described as Friendsville’s general store, talked with the woman who ran it, and she wound up saying she’d have everybody ready to talk to me. And she did. If you want an example of small-town trust and graciousness, there it was. But the story was still a painful one to report because I knew I was opening old wounds for everybody I interviewed. The people I remember best were a couple my parents’ age, which is to say well into their 60s. They lived in a stone house on a dirt road outside town, just the two of them and the photos of the boy they’d lost in the war, their only child. All I could think of was how I could have been that dead boy instead, and my parents the ones stumbling around under the weight of their loss. Somehow I made it through the interview without crying, but as soon as I got in my car, I bawled like a baby-–for them, for my folks and me, for all the dead soldiers in that godforsaken war.
I wish I could tell you I turned Friendsville into a great story, but I didn’t. I didn’t have the chops yet. I wrote it in, I think, 1971, and I was still trying on styles for size, still pretending I was somebody different every time I sat down at the typewriter. When David Israel and Mike Lupica burst onto the scene a few years later, I was struck by how fully-formed they were as writers, and they were kids. To read them was to think they never suffered from self-doubt or indecision. Tony Kornheiser was that way, too, an absolute joy to read seemingly from Day One. I had days when I was good, I suppose, but mostly I was a work in progress.
Throughout my time at the Evening Sun, Jimmy Breslin was my greatest influence, just as he had been since the day before I went in the Army. I’d ordered his classic collection “The World of Jimmy Breslin” as soon as I’d returned from grad school, but it didn’t show up until 36 hours before I became Uncle Sam’s property. I sat down and read the book from cover to cover, swept away by Breslin’s great characters–Marvin the Torch, Fat Thomas, Sam Silverware–and touched in a deeper, more profound way by his column about the man who dug JFK’s grave. When I put the book down, I told myself that if I lived through whatever the Army had in store for me, I wanted to come home and write just the way Breslin did. And I tried mightily when I worked in Baltimore. Of course I wasn’t the only young buck who worshipped Breslin. You could see his influence on hot young newspaper writers everywhere, whether they were on the city desk or in sports: Lupica in New York, Israel in Washington, Bob Greene in Chicago. And the hell of it was, they were all better at imitating Breslin than I was.