Mostly, I chased calamities. Sometimes (like one frightening night during the 1980 Miami riots) calamities chased me.
Floods, industrial disasters, sewage spills, toxic algae clogging the waterways, riptides sucking tourists out to sea, traffic fatalities, boat wrecks, train derailments, pit bull maulings, shark attacks, pythons slithering about the Everglades, construction accidents, coal mine disasters, collapsed bridges, airplane crashes, two space shuttle explosions, AIDS, Zika, the opioid epidemic, that forest fire in Yellowstone, that oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, that devastating earthquake in Haiti, those 132 million gallons of black coal slurry loosed by a failed earthen dam on hapless residents along West Virginia’s Buffalo Creek.
And all those hurricanes. In pursuit of the big story, I’ve spent stupendous amounts of the Miami Herald’s money trying to get in the way of coming storms. In 1985, I drove a rental car 1,400 miles chasing the meandering, looping, backtracking Hurricane Elena around the Gulf of Mexico. And I still managed to miss landfall. (The nice thing about pursuing impending natural disasters: Traffic was almost always headed in the opposite direction.)
After near five decades of writing about the disasters that can befall us humans, it’s a damn wonder I can summon the courage to get out of bed in the morning.
Of course, that career summary conveniently omits all those boring hours sitting on benumbed buttocks through less-than-scintillating city and county commission meetings, my reporter’s notebook in my lap, wondering — as some ill-informed gadfly delivered a stream-of-consciousness rant about zoning variances — whether the commissioners on the dais and I were sharing the same homicidal fantasies.
I’ve witnessed courtroom performances more dramatic than theater. I’ve written scores of small town sports stories (including a 1969 triple-overtime high school conference championship game that culminated in a riot and me cowering under the scorekeeper’s table).
My first byline, 49 years ago this month, appeared in the annual high school football preview issue of a daily newspaper in the Mississippi Delta, a gaggle of overwrought prose profiling a star defensive tackle for Higgins High School, the local black high school in those still-segregated days. He wore the number 00 and I emphasized this, “Larry Double-0 Soul Melton,” knowing the effect it would have on our decidedly unenlightened sports editor. (First rule of journalism: Never miss an opportunity to torture an editor.)
My early attempts at writing might have been unremarkable, but they were apparently more promising than my day job as an advertising salesman. “Well,” Joe Ellis, publisher of the Clarksdale Press-Register responded, when his city editor suggested allowing me to transfer over to the news side. “It’s not like he’s selling any ads.”
Thus, through incompetence, this career was born.
It has been one long adrenaline rush, covering mass murders, civil-rights marchers in Mississippi, riots in Miami, the prison uprising in Atlanta, drug wars in South Florida, the post-Mariel crime wave in Miami Beach, gang killings in Liberty City, Haitian refugees arriving in Florida on tattered wooden sailboats, sex offenders forced to live rough under the Julie Tuttle Causeway, political scandals every which way. I’ve described the charred skeletons of black churches during a spate of Ku Klux Klan arson attacks in North Mississippi hill country, circa 1970. I have a photo of me somewhere, posing in a West Virginia hillside bunker with striking coal miners, holding an Uzi. In 1983, I covered a conference at the Holiday Inn in Monroe, Louisiana, where law enforcement officers from across the South brought their unsolved murder files to match up with scores of confessions offered by serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. I wondered what the local chamber of commerce made of the motel marquee: “Welcome homicide task force.”
I’ve stood atop bales of seized cocaine on a Coast Guard cutter off the Florida coast. Been with a narcotics strike force in Tennessee as they raided marijuana fields. Ridden on the back of a fire truck, 30 miles on winding mountain roads, to a rooming house fire in rural West Virginia. Spent a couple weeks in Africa, writing about the confounding elements of the Angolan civil war.
I’ve covered KKK rallies in Stone Mountain, Georgia, farm-worker peonage in Florida, the nasty independent trucker strike of 1973. Wrote about 270 Mississippi school kids who were protesting their still-segregated schools in 1969 and were rounded up and tossed into the county jail like criminals. Apparently I had been paying enough attention to civil rights matters in the Mississippi Delta that I roused the interest of the infamous Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the state’s anti-integration investigative unit, which, I learned 20 years later, had included my name in its secret file of subversive race agitators.
I’ve covered the decline of king cotton in Mississippi, the slump of king coal in West Virginia, real estate busts in South Florida. Speaking of busts, in 1984, I was in Birmingham to chronicle the season opener in the fledgling United States Football League that brash new team owner Donald Trump promised would soon rival the NFL.
All this, really, is a just the long-winded way to say goodbye. This will be my last column.
I’ll miss it, the thrill of contributing to the big story in the big newspaper. And, since 1991, commenting on the issues roiling South Florida.
But still, I hold considerable nostalgia for Joe Ellis’ little daily in the Mississippi Delta, the intimacy between a small-town ($125 a week) reporter and his readers. Back when I knew all the players in town, cops, criminals, politicians, civic activists and town drunks (some of them a combination). And I probably knew their wives and children.
I miss the days when stories would just walk in off the street. Like the first day of hunting season, 1969, when a fellow walked through the front door of the Press Register, past the receptionist, right into the newsroom, leaving a trail of Mississippi muck splattering off his hunting boots. He stopped at my desk. I looked up from my antique Underwood upright typewriter to see a grinning old man holding a shotgun and two dead — though not very — wild turkeys by their feet.
“Thought you might want to take a picture of what I killed this morning,” he said. Was that mud or tobacco juice or blood dripping on my desk? But who was I to quibble when a major scoop walks through the front door? I said, “Let me grab my camera.”
Besides, he had a shotgun.