Sunday, June 30, 2013

Newsroom Memories: Mr. Swayze

It's 3 p.m., and I'm entering the building that houses my hometown newspaper as I report for another day of work on the copy desk. It's the late 1970s, and I've been out of college for less than a year.

Also entering the building is a guy named George Swayze. He's a lot older than I am, medium height, white-haired, one of those crusty old news guys who, like almost all crusty old news guys of that era, is crusty only on the surface.

But George usually isn't crusty with me. He greets me warmly, as if I've worked at the paper as long as he has. His crustiness is mostly on display when he's on the phone with one of the "correspondents" who work for him.

George is the paper's "state news editor," responsible for the news that comes out of about 10 bureaus in the circulation area outside our home county, in addition to the output from "stringers" who operate out of their homes.

If you'd ever had to do George's job, you might not blame him for being crusty -- he's so busy going through the mail, sending photos out, putting "specs" on copy, keeping a record of each story and laying out pages, not to mention dealing with the correspondents, that he has no time to "edit" in the usual sense, no time to really think; he's basically pushing papers.

The only times that George is crusty toward me -- and then not much -- are when I come up to him with a story that has a problem. His usual solution, aside from cursing, is to cross out whatever it is I've pointed out.

The cursing is really directed at whichever correspondent wrote the story. The correspondents are a mixed bunch, and that's putting it politely. Some of them are really good and write well. Others know how to get the news but can't write their way out of a plastic sandwich bag, so I and my desk colleagues wind up not so much editing their stuff as decoding it.

And one or two of them are blitzed practically all the time and are practically worthless. One of them -- we'll call him Jake -- has almost no business reading a newspaper, much less writing for one.

At 5 p.m. the top editors get together for a news meeting to decide what's going on Page 1, what stories might be developing, etc. As state news editor, George Swayze attends this meeting.

After the meeting, Swayze disappears for two hours. Every day.

During this two-hour period, Jake -- his voice sodden and stutteringly slow – often calls and asks for G-G-G-George. He never manages to figure out that G-G-G-George disappears for two hours around this time every day. He always manages to talk the ear off of whoever is unlucky enough to pick up the phone.

That phone, by the way, is a rotary -- this is some years before everyone had push-buttons -- and the part of Swayze's phone that is directly below the part that you dial has became separated -- maybe just a millimeter or two -- from the rest of the phone. The phone still works, of course, and it's not hard to imagine that this slight disconnection is a direct result of George constantly slamming the receiver down in frustration.

After George gets back from his two-hour break, he and his best friend, George Carr, the night city editor, walk to the vending machine room to get coffee. You can set your watch by this. Almost 40 years later, I can still see them heading out.

George Swayze comes back, eventually finishes laying out his pages, and around 10 p.m. he hands things over to his assistant and leaves. For the night.

Wow, I think more than once, he has a cushy shift -- 3 to 10 with two hours off, yet. I don't resent this or mentally criticize him -- after all, I like the guy, and I just feel happy to be in the newsroom, working at the job I always wanted and which I know I was lucky to get.

George Carr works Sundays through Thursdays. George Swayze works Mondays through Fridays. On Fridays the two of them get together at a local watering hole during Swayze's break. One Friday night, after Swayze returns from his break, I eventually sense that something is, well, different.

On Friday nights it's my job to give one last look at the state news stories for the next day's paper, then put them in a box to my right. Usually, Swayze pounces on these stories, which have been typed on a teletype machine, then writes the first word of the headline on his log sheet and puts the story back in the box. I then take the story and put it on a pile to my left so one of our typists can retype it on paper that can be run through the composing room's scanner and set in type.

On this particular Friday night, I notice that I have placed several stories in Swayze's box, and they are still there. I look to my right and see that although Swayze appears to be looking down at his layout sheet with his head between his hands, he is actually asleep.

Which poses a dilemma: Do I try to awake him (I have no idea what he's like when he's roused) or just let him be (and risk blowing a deadline or two)?

Finally, one of the printers comes to my rescue by calling George from the composing room about some type that came out wrong.

"Oh!" George says semi-irritably. "Was I sleeping?"

One Christmas the entertainment reporter, who means well, leaves a plate of what are apparently homemade cookies on the copy desk.

George picks one of them up, takes a bite, then says, with perfect deadpan: "Do these things go good with food?"

And a friend of mine still remembers the time that Swayze and Carr went to a baseball game and, well, had a few. And they'd probably had a few before coming to the stadium.

After the game, Swayze couldn't find his car, so he and Carr decided to wait until all the other cars left the parking lot.

This left two cars: Carr's and Swayze's. But Swayze steadfastly denied that his car was really his car.

"Yes it is, George!" Carr said.

"No it isn't!"

"Look, George," Carr said, "just get in the car and put your keys in the ignition. If it starts, IT'S YOUR CAR!"

And I've also been told of the time Swayze, at an outdoor party, decided to do a little dance on a picnic table. I imagine he was quite graceful; in his younger years he played and taught tennis, and in the 1930s he was an Olympic speed skater.

But on this occasion, I’m told, he accidentally kicked a top editor's wife in the head.

It's now Labor Day, 1977. I've been at the paper almost a year, and because of the holiday, I'm supposed to work a later shift.

But I get a call telling me that I need to come in early; George's assistant is out sick, and I have to come in and relieve George, who has to go home and take care of his wife.

This is the first time I've ever heard anyone mention George's wife. Or that George even has a wife.

But I have no time to think about this because I have to scramble to get to work and scramble even more when I get there, because I've only done layout at the paper once before.

I eventually learn that George's wife has been ill for many years and is now an invalid.

I also learn that George's work shift isn't cushy at all.

Turns out he shows up around 10 a.m. each day and begins getting things started for the next day's editions.

At 1 p.m., he leaves for a couple of hours to go home and look after his wife, Dorothy. He returns at 3 p.m., then leaves again after the news meeting to look after her again. He then returns for the last leg of his "cushy" shift.

On Friday nights, his daughter comes to the house to look after Dorothy while George -- a "caregiver" before the term was widely known -- enjoys a bit of a respite with his best friend.

All along, I've had no clue from anyone -- including, of course, Swayze -- that this is the life he leads.

Five months later, Dorothy Swayze dies. I do some extra filling in for George during this time. It's no big deal -- since that Labor Day, I've become a lot more experienced at this sort of thing -- but when he gets back he makes it a point to cheerfully thank me for filling in for him and tells me what a great job I did. It is the only time I ever hear him make any reference to his wife.

Some months later, George himself becomes ill. It turns out that during all the time he was looking after Dorothy, he apparently wasn't looking after himself. His illness is more serious than he lets on, and soon he retires.

When I report to work on Labor Day 1979, George Carr, who is now my boss, tells me that George Swayze has died.

Even now I can't imagine how difficult a day this was for George Carr, but he was, after all, a World War II veteran who served on a recon team after the D-Day operation, and he once told me he was also among a group of soldiers who were brought to a newly liberated concentration camp because the CO wanted them to remember its horrors. Self-pity does not come easily to him, and I follow his lead as he stoically proceeds to get our section of the newspaper out.

Some years later, Carr himself retires to take care of his ailing wife, Jean.

I'll write more about George Carr at some point. For now, I can't help noting, and not for the first time, that although I haven't seen George Swayze for more than 30 years, and although I knew him for maybe three years at the most, I remember him more than I remember many others I worked with longer.

And I keep trying to remember to think about George Swayze whenever I think about complaining about anything.

1 comment:

Judy Berman said...

Excellent story, Mark. You set it up well ... and described a man worth remembering. I also thought differently about that "cushy" job Mr. Swayze had until you detailed what his life was like. Great tribute.