I went AWOL (Absent Without Official Leave) three times during my military service. It was no great drama like it might be in a movie. For example, once just after the Germans surrendered I got a pass to go to England for a week. My buddies and I enjoyed it so much we stayed for three weeks. The war was over and the Army wasn’t paying much attention so we figured no one would notice, and they didn’t. But it was a short “excursion” to Paris that impacted my writing career.
In Part 1 I talked about how a couple of buddies and I took a train to Paris using some forged three-day passes. Charlie and Bob went looking for a job at Special Services producing shows for the troops, but it didn’t work out. I decided to try for a job at the Army daily newspaper, Stars and Stripes, also located in Paris. The officer I spoke to there asked if I had done any “desk work”.
I had no idea what he meant but I said I had. He asked me “at what newspaper?” I named the Bronx Home News, a small paper in one of the five boroughs of New York City my family read. But I had never worked there.
The officer took me to where the paper was edited, which was when I learned what he meant by desk work. He was referring to editing articles and writing headlines, which was done as a group activity at the copy desk.
That desk was shaped like an arc and about six copy editors worked on the “rim” while the “slot man”, their chief, sat within the arc and flipped them stories to edit. They sat me down for a tryout and the slot man tossed over a few tiny stories.
I knew about editing and headline writing from working on school newspapers and, after the tiny stories, I got a long one. It was a report that the owner of Mumm’s Champagne had been ruled a Nazi Party activist by the Army’s Military Government, or MG, and thrown into prison.
Here’s what I came up with: CHAMPAGNE KING MUMM PUT ON ICE BY MG
The slot man thought it was terrific. A nice slangy line. “Good head, kid,” he said.
I looked round that table at the experienced editors, some from the copy desks of famous papers like the New York Herald –Tribune and the Detroit Free Press, and I made a decision. I had, by luck, shown I could write a lively head under pressure, but what if these experienced soldiers frowned at my work on the next story? So, in the immortal words of PT Barnum, I decided it was best to leave ‘em laughing.
With all the hubris a smart-aleck nineteen-year-old could muster, I told them I had to catch a train to my new unit. (I’d given them a taste, if they wanted more they could send for me.) Sure enough, having shown them I knew something about editing text and writing headlines, they promised once they heard from me with my new address that a transfer would be sent.
But the bean counters of this world sometimes like to keep a man down, and it turned out getting transferred to Stars and Stripes wasn’t quite that easy. Stay tuned for Part 3.