Episode 16, season 5 of AMC’s The Walking Dead: zombies swarming an abandoned car, fingers clawing at doors; faces, hideous with rot, plastered against the windshield, trying to get at Daryl and Aaron, trapped in the front seat. As I watched the TV, my mind flashed back to other faces, hideous not with rot but with rage, glaring down at me through a windshield, on an August night 51 years ago. It seems a dream now, those fists pounding on metal and glass, my photographer partner sitting next to me in the front seat, gripping the steering wheel of a car emblazoned with the name of the Bergen Evening Record, a respected northern New Jersey newspaper.
We were covering what was called a “race riot” back then. Straying behind police lines, we had been surrounded. We had no bodyguard, as many reporters do today in tough situations. My partner, a veteran newsman, put pedal to metal and the car shot forward, shedding bodies as it went. We were out of there and soon found the police barricades. A cop regarded us dubiously and asked, in effect, where the hell we had been.
“We got lost,” I replied.
It was my second close call that week, as riots erupted in some New Jersey cities, among several outbreaks that resembled the unrest in Baltimore this April, occurring across the country during summer of 1964. A night or so before I thanked my United States Marine Corps Reserve training for the reflex that sent me diving for cover when rifle rounds, fired from the darkened upper floor of a tenement, spattered on the ground around me. Reflecting now, I can empathize with NBC’s Brian Williams and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly about taking heat for fuzzy recollections of past adventures. Fast-paced and violent events get blurry, especially with the years. I am not sure where my car was surrounded. Paterson? Elizabeth? Long time passing.
Compared to what some war correspondents experience, covering riots is a cakewalk. Nevertheless, for me – the young me – the violence and chaos was a tonic. Although I smarted up about looking for trouble, I charted a career path as a journalist, author and naturalist that kept my life interesting, and at times exciting.
I have spent most of my life observing and writing about the people, places and things that interest me – mostly nature and wildlife conservation, as well as crime stories. At one time or another, I have sat at the kitchen with a Mafia don, penetrated the smuggler’s lair of Bangkok’s Dragon Lady, got plastered more than once with Andre the Giant, rubbed noses with an African Cape buffalo, and been the only human ever to be bitten by a coatimundi on 57th Street in Manhattan. Once, I whined about the impoverished state of freelance writing to a cousin who founded and sold companies for big bucks. “You make your living at what people want to do when they retire” he shot back. “You’re lucky.”
I was lucky enough, for example, to catch the final glory days of the big consumer magazines: Life and Look, male-oriented True and Argosy, Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. Before Argosy bit the dust, I sold one article there. My career path was influenced by brief acquaintance with Argosy editor, Milt Machlin, who “had more fun in his lifetime than any one person could expect,” wrote the New York Times when he passed in 2004.
Sporting a grand moustache, Machlin graduated from Brown and the Sorbonne, was a decorated veteran of the Pacific War, invented expressions including “the Bermuda Triangle” and “the Abominable Snowman,” boozed and brawled with Hemmingway and explored jungles haunted by headhunters.
I also experienced the end of newspaper journalism’s Golden Age in the Big Apple. Great newspapers – the New York Herald-Tribune, New York World-Telegram, New York Journal-American and New York Mirror were flourishing. But like doomed dinosaurs of the late Cretaceous, they blithely neared a great extinction. The Mirror in 1959 offered me my first newspaper job, a position now as extinct as The Mirror itself: copy boy. Back in the pre-PC era, a reporter or editor summoned me with a shout of “Boy!” when in need of something, more often than not pastrami on rye with Russian dressing from the sandwich shop across 45th Street.
I worked for Dan Parker, the 6-foot-4-inch sports editor described by Damon Runyon as “the most constantly brilliant of all sportswriters,” who was born and died in Waterbury, where I spent most of my youth. Aside from running lunches, most of my time involved stripping the paper that rolled off the clackety-clack wire service machines. I typically had to fight my way through reporters who ganged the racing wires to see if their bets came in. In a time when copy editors wore green eyeshades and city editors were crustier than fictitious Daily Planet boss Perry White, reporters were by and large a wild bunch.
When I got to the Record, I angled with editors to cover stories involving crime, gore and action, in which North Jersey abounded, long before the Sopranos were a glimmer in anyone’s eye. Luck came my way again in 1963 when Mafia soldier Joe Valachi ratted out Cosa Nostra before the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. At the time, Tommy Eboli, acting boss of the Genovese crime family, lived in a modest house in Bergen County, where my newspaper was based. My editor told me to go there and ask Eboli what he thought of Valachi’s testimony.
Italian born, Eboli had a reputation as hot tempered and violent. Word was he had notches aplenty on his gun.
I went to the house, rang the doorbell and Eboli opened it. No bodyguard, just him. I explained who I was and what I wanted. He replied that he had told network television news to get off his property but I could come in, since I was Italian. He sat down with me at a table in his kitchen, with two women he introduced as his wife and daughter. The atmosphere was familiar Italian; I could have been in the kitchen of my aunt or my grandparents. I questioned him on murders and corruption and he responded that Bobby Kennedy, as U.S. Attorney General, was out to get Italians. I’ll admit, for a moment he almost had me, given that during my boyhood Italians had to break through the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” that barred them from buying homes in a WASPY section of Waterbury.
The story ran front page with a banner headline, and it was not what Eboli wanted to read. “Get his reaction,” said my editor. This time, early in the morning, when the door of Eboli’s house opened, he was in his undershirt. He was not unpleasant. But he would not comment. That is, not without his lawyer present. Then, he promised, we could talk further.
Pulitzers danced in my head. The dance was over when my editor told me no dice; it would be, he said, old news. In 1972, when Eboli was ambushed and gunned down in Crown Heights, I’ll admit to a touch of sadness.
Fast-forward to 1975 and another encounter with a notorious crime figure, this time a female crime boss in Bangkok, Thailand. She led a ring that smuggled protected wildlife, in those days a big business, and today a multi-billion-dollar operation that finances organized crime, insurgencies and terrorists such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab. U.S. Customs Service agents who were tracking her activities called her the “Dragon Lady,” after the femme fatale pirate queen in the comic strip of the 1930s and 1940s, Terry and the Pirates.
She truly looked the part.
Posing as a buyer, I was tracking smuggling operations across Southeast Asia for an article in Audubon magazine. A contact in Thailand got me in to the Dragon Lady’s compound, its walls topped with concertina wire. Inside, sitting in a throne-like chair, was a gorgeous Asian woman, her slim figure encased in a high-necked black dress, slit almost to the hip. The hair that cascaded to her waist was as glossy black as the stiletto heels on her feet. On her right lay a huge Great Dane, collared with spikes. Her left hand scratched the belly of a leopard, chained by the neck to a foot of the chair. “Isn’t he beautiful?” she asked rhetorically. “If I live to get out of here and write this up,” I thought, “they’ll call me a liar.” Anyway, I got out after she had shown me a bunch of protected animals, and I wrote about it, although the editors watered down my male-biased description of the lady herself.
Writing about wildlife crime combines key interests of mine, so I have written about it for years. While reporting, I have been with law enforcement agencies as disparate as U.S. Customs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the South African Police and Kenya Wildlife Service.
In between Eboli and the Dragon Lady, I was appointed a Sloan-Rockefeller Advanced Science Writing Fellow at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. An editor’s post at a science magazine followed, and then a huge break. I became a curator in charge of publications and public relations at the New York Zoological Society (now Wildlife Conservation Society), based at the Bronx Zoo. It was a monumental turn of affairs. The first years of my life had been spent within walking distance of the zoo, and my grandfather took me there often, sparking my abiding interest in wildlife.
Not only did I get to work with animals at the zoo and the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, but also with a bevy of celebrities during promotions. Shortly before his death in a 1967 plane crash, I sat overlooking the zoo’s African Plains exhibit and chatted with “King of Soul” Otis Redding, who was appearing in “Murray the K in New York,” a production of D.J. Murray Kaufman. Down below, Murray’s barefoot karate dancers were whimpering about stepping in antelope poo, demanding someone clean up the grass.
Dick Cavett was the easiest guy in the world to accommodate. When I took him shark tagging with the New York Aquarium he brought along his wife, Carrie Nye, as well as Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet – and lunch for everyone. He featured the trip on his popular ABC-TV talk show, along with a dip in the aquarium pool with beluga whales. He never complained when the male whale grabbed his leg in its jaws. Far cry from the karate dancers.
I started a little television career of my own as a curator, hauling animals ranging from giant tortoises to bush babies, on to television shows. I landed a role as the Animal Man on Patchwork Family, a children’s show on WCBS-TV New York. There, I scored a first, so a medical report stated. A supposedly friendly coatimundi (looks like an elongated raccoon) chomped down on my thumb and sent me to the Roosevelt Hospital. A physician in my town of Killingworth later told my wife he had read about me in a publication citing the most unusual cases in New York City Emergency rooms. To date, I do not believe anyone else has been bitten by a coatimundi on 57th Street.
Other land and sea creatures have nailed me, but the biggest and baddest of all only rubbed noses with me. Literally. I was camped in a tent a few hundred yards away from a game lodge in Kenya. At night, zebras grazed nearby. I felt what I thought was one of them pushing on the wall of the tent next to my bed. Irritated, I poked it through the canvas until it left. The next night, after I threaded my way back from the lodge through the zebras, I noticed a form in the dark under the fly that overhung the side of the tent. “Damn zebra again,” I muttered.
I stuck my face into the darkness beneath the fly. My nose touched something big, flat, black and wet. My eyes stared into other eyes; eyes that belonged to a massive African buffalo, most dangerous of the Big Five game animals. I anticipated being stomped into pesto, but it seemed as shocked as me. Bidding the beast goodnight, I backed off, entered the tent and went to bed, deciding not to poke back when pushed.
As a freelance writer, I was a loner, without the resources and backup of a major news organization, even while on assignment. A freelancer can be very vulnerable, which is why so many of the journalists abducted in the Middle East, veterans as well as rookies, are freelance.
In 1992, I was on assignment in the war zone of Montenegro, in the former Yugoslavia. On a crisp, sunny day, in a national park, I talked with the president and prime minster as parliament declared Montenegro an “Ecological State,” a designation it still promotes. The day before, the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army had launched its campaign against Croatia. A few days before that, I had driven behind a convoy of Montenegrin troops headed to support the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army. They were besieging the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, and preparing to batter it with artillery, even though it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Talk about irony.
The next day, I bussed to Podgorica and checked in at a hotel, hoping to catch a flight back to Belgrade airport and head home the day after. I had no local currency left, little U.S., and the hotel would not cash my traveler’s checks. I had no way of knowing the war had heated up, but a sixth sense told me things were getting edgy. One day I had been chatting with Montenegro’s leaders. The next I was alone in a hotel dead broke, with just enough cash for a taxi to the airport. At midnight, I arranged for a ride to the airport at daybreak. Within an hour of getting my boarding pass, people were fighting to get in queue. The seats filled in minutes. After boarding, before takeoff, uniformed men deplaned an expensively dressed woman with two children, who had been behind me in line. She was crying.
When I wore a younger man’s clothes, my beard grew long and black. With shaven head, I was often mistaken for a Turk or Iranian. Before Khomeini booted the Shah, I was briefly based in Tehran while working on “the International Affairs Survey Project, Government of Iran.” My job was to write about all the good stuff His Imperial Majesty was doing, especially in health care and education. “Unless you open your mouth,” a government guy said to me, “you pass as one of us.” He was right. While walking down the street, a car full of mullahs began to berate me. They pegged me for a cleric who not wearing the mandatory turban, an abomination.
Many years later, while I was helping the World Wrestling Federation (then WWF, now WWE) develop magazines, I gave the Iranian wrestler Iron Sheik a ride to pick up his car. He looked down at the floor of the back seat and asked me how I got “it.” The “it” was a coin from Iran. I never figured out how it got there.
Say what you will about professional wrestling, but WWF Magazine prevented my deportation from Zimbabwe. I went there to write about elephant conservation. When I arrived on a Saturday, an officious young twit at the immigration desk said a letter from my editor was worthless. I needed credentials from the government press office. Get them first thing Monday or it’s out on the first available plane to anywhere, he said.
Nobody at the press office cared about my letter. However, I had brought along copies of WWF Magazine because I knew the WWF was popular in the country. My name as editor on the masthead did the trick. Work stopped and everyone demanded to meet me. I got my ID photo taken and a press pass in minutes.
Luck again. I hooked up with the WWF just before the first WrestleMania, when the sports-entertainment phenomenon created by Vince McMahon exploded onto the scene as a pop culture powerhouse. I traveled the arena circuit with wrestlers like the Sheik, Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Andre the Giant. One night, Andre and I were at a Tampa bar, before the rest of the crew arrived. Andre always bought the drinks. He needed to lie down on the floor to ease his constant back pain. The bartender was occupied washing glasses. For a goof, Andre allowed me to stand on his massive chest. When the bartender turned, he saw me there, arms raised in triumph, atop the downed Giant.
Too bad that was before the age of selfies.
Image Credits: Ed Ricciuti