Dec. 1, 2001:
Memo to the class:
Here I am in Hong Kong, along with the raggle-taggle gypsies.
Its about 5 in the morning, and in the darkness in front of
me I can see the bright lights of the freighters being unloaded in
the harbor and the glow in the water from the ferries and tugs going
here and there. Just now a ship is coming in from the South China
Sea. I can hear the noise of its diesels from where I sit, and from
the looks of the running lights, its immense. The weather is
cool and clear.
In this last letter to you, Id like to tell you about the fun
Ive had in journalism. For some of you -- all I hope -- it lies
out there. This is serious work we do, and theres a large public
purpose to it. Throughout our course, Ive rung that bell pretty
hard. But theres another side to it, and its a rush, utterly
Do you remember the movie Patton? Theres a scene
in North Africa in which he has his troops dug in to attack the Germans
as they come through a mountain pass. Patton is on high ground, watching
the enemy move into the trap. Soon many men on both sides will die.
Patton turns to his aide and says, God help me, but I love it.
I know just how he felt.
Many years ago, there was jazz musician named John Kirby. He had
a little band that played incredibly tight and swinging numbers, and
his singer was a lovely, slender woman named Maxine Sullivan. (I saw
her in New York a few years ago,and she was gray and still lovely.)
They were the first blacks to play in many of the fancy white hotels,
and one of their specialties was up-tempo versions of old folk melodies.
When I was in college, we listened to John Kirby records, and I can
still name the band members Billy Kyle, piano; Buster Bailey,
clarinet, Charlie Shavers trumpet
Maxine Sullivan sang a song
about the raggle-taggle gypsies. The song probably dates back to the
Renaissance, and its been an anthem for me. Here are a few lines:
What care I for my goosefeatherbed?
What care I for my money-o?
What care I for my new-wedded lord?
Ive gone with the raggle-taggle gypsies-o.
Wherever theres been a story, wherever I can see something
that Ill never see again, wherever there are people living on
a thin, frail line, there I hear the raggle-taggle gypsies calling
and I go. Long after midnight in Kansas City, the paper gone to press,
Id ride with the cops to see what they saw, because that was
a life I would never otherwise know. The dead teenage boy curled up
around a little sapling in a vacant lot, his face looking like he
was waiting for his mother, the long knife still in his side. The
9-year-old kid the cops found driving a stolen bread truck who answered,
when asked why he did it, to eat that bread, as if it
were the most normal thing in the world; and when the cops looked
around again he was gone, had run down to the basement garage and
was trying to steal a police car. I remember the black musicians
Local 627, which became my first national magazine story, where they
drew a chalk circle on the floor on Saturday afternoons and everybody
pitched in a couple of bucks which bought the whisky; and with musicians
dropping in and dropping out, theyd play Indiana
for a solid hour, while the older guys sat on the sidelines saying,
yes, yes, and remembering the days when Count Basie and Lester Young
came by to play.
I had to be there, in a way that watching anything on television
is never being there. It was more of a kick than I could ever describe
to stand in the chilly rain by a Latvian birch forest and watch the
All Soviet Union Go-Kart Championships, or walk through the Malaysian
jungle to write about a motorcycle grand prix and see the little kids,
peeping through the vines, wondering what all that noise and the smell
of Castrol was about. On the island of Quemoy, across the Formosa
Strait from China, the mainland artillery opened up every other day,
and I remember on a shelling day waiting for the C-46 from Taiwan
to pick me up and learning that it had broken down. In Vietnam, a
Norwegian sea captain and I drank beer on the top floor of the old
Caravelle Hotel and watched the fires on the outskirts of Saigon and
later at dinner in the hotels French restaurant I saw the fat
South Vietnamese generals come obscenely in with their gorgeous girl
friends in ao dais cut to the hip.
I havent mentioned an important story yet, but they all went
into my memory where they are as fresh and clean as the day I put
them there. Once, at a cocktail party in St. Louis, I met Martha Gellhorn,
the great war correspondent who had been Ernest Hemingways second
wife. Young man, she said to me, what do you do? I work for the newspaper,
I replied. She smiled and said, yes, that will be good for later.
She was right, of course: All of these things have no value to the
world, but I take them out of that memory box every now and then,
seeing with pleasure that the trinkets I laid down so long ago still
In time I came to see these trinkets for what they are, and understood
that there is a journalism that grown-ups do and that the most important
place for me to do it was in that intersection where the government
and the governed meets ---that wide place where in a democracy the
rubber of the policy meets the road where ordinary people move along
with their lives. I came to see that the greatest privilege and opportunity
of a journalist was to be able to use the potential and power of the
medium for a social purpose. You could say that I had trained all
my life to be an editor, for I had seen, in America and many other
places, how people struggled, often failing, to lead lives that gave
them some dignity and purpose. Perhaps we could help them, if only
by telling their stories.
But still, long after I became an editor, I would hear the gypsies
calling and I would go because I wanted to be there: in
a city destroyed by war in the old Yugoslavia; in a rubber Coast Guard
Zodiac raft, bouncing out toward Sombrero Key where a boat full of
Cuban refugees was on fire; in Pollie Turners living room, in
the ghetto of St.Louis, to talk and talk and learn what courage was
like and how faith was sustained.
So when my friend Ying Chan called from Hong Kong and said, get out
here right now, theres work to be done for young journalists
in China and Ill book you for a speech in Shantou on how the
press in America works and maybe can we cab raise some money, I said,
Yes, without even thinking. I wanted to be there.
Ill end this last letter by telling you about a friend named
Peter. He was a reporter, writing stories for the zone editions for
the Post-Dispatch, when I was given bigger fish to fry. Once, I ran
into him in Moscow. I was writing stories for the paper. Peter was
there with a peace group, which was going around the world, trying
to make it better.
In time, Peter became one of my editorial writers. He was the best
line editor I ever met. When I finished editing a story, it read like
my story. When Peter finished, it read like the writers story,
only better. He knew what writers were trying to do and he helped
them get there.
Then one day Peter suffered a terrible stroke. Its a miracle
that hes alive. He is paralyzed and has been immobilized in
beds for 20 years or so. Yet he watches television, works the Internet,
with a stylus attached to his hand. Its slow, heartbreaking
going. He managed to put out a newsletter that read with all the vim
and brightness of his editorials.
Not long ago, he wrote me saying he was giving up the newsletter.
He wasnt quitting. It was just time for something else. Heres
what he said:
Like the old dog at the firehouse, I still hear the bell and want
to go. I expect I'll keep on writing. Opeds? A column? Letters-To-The-Editor?
Maybe just letters?
And so that, my students, is how Ill leave you for now. Some
of us are old, some cannot even leave their beds. But we still hear
the bell and want to go. If you wish to feel sorry for someone, save
it for those who never hear the bell, who never go. My hope is that
the bell will sound for each of you and that you will hear it, always.
The light is gray now. You can see the mountains across the harbor
and the outlines of the freighters at anchor. In front of me, a little
gunboat is slowly patrolling for smugglers. The sea is calm and gray.
Its been wonderful writing to you.
Regards, Bill Woo