The first excerpt is one of the articles included in Part One of The Essential Ed Koterba. Part One of the book relates exclusively to personal and family life during the last eleven years of my father’s fifteen-year career, specifically 1950–61. This article was written in 1955 when I was only three years old. It was a time that my father was working for The Washington Post and Times-Herald while also moonlighting as a self-syndicated columnist under the byline “A Bit of Washington.” This self-syndicated article, entitled “The Babysitter,” is a humorous account of my father trying to meet a column deadline while babysitting me and five of my neighborhood friends.
The Babysitter (April 30, 1955)
I tell you, sometimes you take your life in your hands when you sit down to write a newspaper column. I was shot dead three times before I got any further than the dateline. But that’s just a minor angle. Three hours ago, I was edging toward the basement den in our peaceful suburban abode in Bethesda to grind out the column. The first lady of the house, attired easily in partying dress and party hat, was reaching for the front door. “Oh, incidentally,” she called out oh-so matter of factly. “I’m driving the girls in the neighborhood to the country club luncheon this afternoon. You’re babysitting.”
“Oboyoboyoboy!” yelped Eddie, our three-and-a-half-year-old, from down around my knees. He looked at me with the longing of a playful pup ready to spring into action.
“But the column . . . my deadline! . . . What?”
“I said,” she said, “that since all the girls will be gone they’re bringing their children over here.”
And they started to file through the front door—Rickie, Nancy, Robbie, Johnny, Ronnie. . . . None under three. None over five. And off went the ladies. I locked the den door behind me. “Absolute quiet, kids— play like human beings!” Pretty soon my feet got cold. No wonder, a river was moving under the door. “We’re flushing the dirt down the toilet, Daddy.” Those rascals had gotten into my bushel basket of peat moss.
I had barely reassembled the clogged commode when from across the yard came Ronnie’s nerve-cutting shriek: “Eddie’s daddy, Eddie’s daddy!!!???” I bounded outside. “What is it? Who’s maimed who?” “I just wanted to know,” cooed little Ronnie. “Are you big enough to punch my daddy in the nose?”
Before I got back, the others had poured in ahead of me through the den’s open door. “Can’t you kids play somewhere else?” “Nope,” piped Rickie. “We’re Davy Crockett, and you’re the prisoner, bang—bang—bang—bang! g-g.” I fell flat on my face three times to accommodate them. They were not satisfied. Whooped Rickie, “Let’s tie him to the chair with this clothesline.” “Oh, boy, we’re going to tie him to the chair!” chorused the others. Well, best thing is to ignore them. . . . A clean sheet of paper in the machine . . . retype the heading, now the dateline. Just ignore them. . . .
Suddenly from out front, Ronnie’s urgent, frantic cry: “Eddie’s daddy, come q-u-i-c-k!” He was in the street. I galloped out. “Eddie’s daddy, look, is this a bitin’ bug?” The neighbors must have thought I was crazy, running out there like that with a chair on my back. Well, by that time I was. . . .
The second excerpt is one of the articles included in Part Two of The Essential Ed Koterba. Part Two relates to my father’s country-wide and world-wide travels. In 1958, Hall Syndicate began syndicating my father’s columns and promoted him as the “new Ernie Pyle.” Ernie Pyle made a name for himself as a roving correspondent, most notably while visiting and writing about American soldiers during World War II. To promote the “new Ernie Pyle,” Hall Syndicate assigned my father to visit some of the military bases from the Pacific theater. The time period was obviously post World War II, but at the height of the Cold War. This article, entitled “The Quiet Heroes” recounts a tragic incident that occurred off Hickam Air Force Base.
The Quiet Heroes (November 4, 1958)
HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE—Heroes are quiet men. They speak softly. A few hours earlier, Capt. Harold Christiansen had been in the air at the controls of his F-100 jet fighter a thousand miles east of Hawaii— at the “point of no return.” Now he sat at a corner table of the club at Hickam. Christiansen, his thin face red and his brows white from the sun, looked older than his thirty years. He’s from New Brunswick, New Jersey. At his left were two other pilots who had been up there with him, Lt. Steve Huisenfelt of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Lt. Ed Turner of Turlock, California.
We picked up the dice to see who’d pay for the drinks. Now it was Christiansen’s turn. The dice scattered on the table with a splatter. The captain tilted his head in a sort of shrug. He lost the round. He bought the drinks. And then he just sat there, meditatively, slowly turning his glass in its little round puddle.
“Luck,” he said finally. “It’s mostly luck. . . .” The luck of a pilot’s lot, he meant. The fresh tragedy of those few hours ago was creased deeply in the furrows that made parenthesis marks around his firm lips.
Christiansen was the No. 4 man on the flight. In No. 3 position was Lt. Earl Pickett, who had joined them at Shaw Field, North Carolina. But Pickett was not at our table.
“If it weren’t for just one thing, all this wouldn’t have happened,” the captain said. It wasn’t only Pickett whose life that one stroke of bad luck had taken. There were three others . . . three whom none of us at the table knew.
“It was a chain reaction—just because of one thing. . . .”
The rest of the story I had to get from Huisenfelt and Turner. A hero speaks softly, if at all.
The four F-100s were moving serenely along at thirty-five thousand feet. The men all knew there was just enough fuel to make it to Hickam— if they stayed at this altitude where there was less air resistance. Suddenly, Pickett radioed that he was having trouble taking in gas from his right tip tank. His normal source was low, and his left tank was already empty. If only the plane could be refueled in the air. And by sheer coincidence, a refueling tanker had just landed at Hickam for repairs. The tanker, alerted, left Hickam at 1:37 p.m. to rendezvous with the faltering plane, but Pickett would have to come down to seventeen thousand feet to take on the gas. Once down there the denser altitude would tax a jet’s fuel supply, but there was no choice.
As Pickett peeled off to descend, he notified his buddies that his radio was going bad. Capt. Christiansen slipped his wing and went down with Pickett. He knew he couldn’t make it to Hickam at the lower altitude on the gas he had left. He was now committed, but his buddy would be needing help on that radio. Back at Hickam they had already received Pickett’s Mayday (distress signal). Now a second one came in—Christiansen’s. He, too, would have to have fuel. And this was just the beginning. In a few hours, four men would die.
Behind the scenes at Hickam, they were logging the drama of heroism and tragedy.
13:58 (1:58 p.m.)—The F-100 piloted by Lt. Earl M. Pickett is three hundred miles out of Hawaii. Fuel dangerously low. At his side is another F-100, piloted by Capt. Harold Christiansen, also low on fuel.
14:04—Two Marine helicopters, each with a crew of three, are on their way from the Marine base on Oahu.
14:13—The two faltering F-104s rendezvous with the refueling tanker at seventeen thousand feet.
14:20—Capt. Christiansen radios he must have fuel as soon as Pickett’s plane is refueled. And then the second stroke of ill fortune in this tense sequence . . . The tip of Pickett’s gas receiver breaks off before fuel can be siphoned in! The refueling was off. This was it. A C-54 rescue plane was in the area, orbiting, standing by. In addition to the helicopters from the Marine base, the Army dispatched a chopper. A destroyer was moving in, and the Coast Guard was rushing to the scene.
At 14:40, Christiansen heard Pickett’s radio for the last time.
“I’m going to bail out,” Pickett said, “while I still have enough engine thrust.”
The ejection looked perfect. His Mae West opened when he hit the water. The refueling of Christiansen’s plane was routine. He went on in to Hickam.
What Christiansen, and the other two pilots who made it, didn’t know until a few minutes before we sat down to the table at the club was that Pickett was picked up—dead—apparently from shock. And the helicopter crew who plucked the pilot’s limp form from the sea and deposited it gently on the deck of the waiting destroyer died, too.
The seas had become rough. Moments after putting down Pickett’s body, the helicopter exploded above the destroyer’s deck. The three men plunged into the water and disappeared. But heroic work still went on. The second Marine chopper stood by to search for the men, although the crew knew their gas supply would soon be gone. And when it was, they ditched. The men on the destroyer rescued them as the helicopter sank. Still another crew remained in action—the men on the C-54 rescue plane. Now, they turned their attention to the search for the bodies from the exploded chopper. They flew so low that seawater washed into their engines. It took a command order to bring them back to base. They came in on three engines.
The Marines, the Navy, the Air Force, the Army, and the Coast Guard—they were all in on it. In peace, as in war, the risks are great, and men die, and the headlines tell the story cold, and yet it is so human when you’re out here and see the men and talk to them and know their silent feelings. Capt. Christiansen, like the rest of the heroes in this tragic sequence, would say no more about it. “Better get some sleep,” he said, rising from the table. “Probably be flying again tomorrow.”
The third excerpt is one of the articles included in Part Three of The Essential Ed Koterba. The Part Three articles cover my father’s main “beat” (Washington, DC) as a Capitol Hill reporter and White House correspondent. In the article “Presidential Pressure,” my father relates a number of journalism bloopers during some of President Eisenhower’s press conferences, including a personal account of his own blooper.
Presidential Pressure (September 21, 1959)
President Eisenhower’s press conferences are among the most dignified rituals in American journalism. And yet maybe it’s high-tension jitters that does it—there is levity. Unplanned levity.
Of all the bloopers, the one that outshines them all occurred when a veteran newsman arose and called out politely, yet loudly, to the president: “Mr. Smith!” What gives this “spoonerism” almost legendary quality is that the utterer of this mistaken identification is one of Washington’s most learned and conscientious journalists, UPI White House correspondent Merriman Smith. What Smitty meant to do was address the president by title, then identify himself as “Smith,” as he has been doing all these years.
Then the other day another reporter, just in from two days of covering Chairman Nikita Khrushchev, bobbed up at the press conference and in solid, precise tones addressed Mr. Eisenhower as “Mr. Chairman!” Ike and the reporters played that one straight-faced, and the transcript corrected it to “Mr. President.”
It’s always a guessing game as to who will be “recognized,” as we say in the trade. Last year, a young lady representing a newspaper in Anchorage, Alaska, finally got the nod of recognition from Mr. Eisenhower. Her question: Would the president like to come to Alaska for the statehood celebration? She naturally expected a polite, “I’d like to, but” reply. Instead, the president smiled, thought a moment, then tossed a question back at the questioner. “What is the date?” asked he. The lady newshound, unprepared, paled, gulped, gasped, and said weakly, “Oh, dear.” Amid laughter—including the president’s—that ended the question.
But nobody laughs AT anybody at a press conference because next week they may well be the victim of news conference jitters. And at the last session, it happened to that certain person to whom everything happens sooner or later—me.
Toward the end of the meeting, three of us, side by side, vied for the president’s attention. At my right was Jerry terHorst of the Detroit News and on the left was Scotty Reston of the New York Times. The president pointed. All three of us gave him a “who—me?” look. Mr. Eisenhower then said, “I will take the man with glasses.” I’ve been wearing glasses for twenty- five years. Yet, instinctively, I turned to Reston. He wasn’t wearing glasses. I looked to terHorst and he, too, was without glasses. I said to myself, “He must mean me.” I reached up there, and sure enough, I was wearing glasses.
This unexpected turn so unhinged me that I blurted, “Thank you, Mr. President.” Under ordinary circumstances that remark would be a sign of courtesy. But here, it’s the traditional signal to bring the presidential press conference to a close!