Texas Poker: Double or Nothing
Sketches from “My Life in the Media” #5
Charlie Chaplin wrote in ‘My Autobiography’ that barely in his teens, he was hired as an errand boy in a vaudeville show. He kept the stage props for the dancing girls in working order; he also assisted them to change into their costumes. At the end of the first week, the boss man gave him two shillings.
Charlie was flabbergasted. He wrote, he never expected he could watch the dancing girls undress and then get paid for watching them too.
On my first job as a television news photographer, I felt like the young Charlie Chaplin. I imagined scores of people would love to have film cameras, lights and editing facilities at their disposal. In fact, many people invested their hard earned money to buy their own equipment and play ‘film maker’ over the weekends. What a stroke of fate, I reasoned, I was shooting film everyday and getting paid too!
My supervisors must have been amused by my enthusiasm at work. I became known as the ‘no problem kid’ in the newsroom. Any time a news assignment came in, I jumped at the opportunity to go out and shoot it. Once on location, I would size up the occasion like the unfolding of a theatrical play. I would shoot the event like a feature film with long shots, medium shots and close ups. The final edited version would unfold on screen like a dramatic film. To the audience at home, each incident in the news I shot and edited became an exciting story!
Covering a wide range of news brought me in close contact with the West Texas community, more than I ever would as a foreign student. I became quite knowledgeable about the irrigation system on the plains. I kept track of the price of the cotton and sunflower harvest. I reported on the cattle auctions in Amarillo. Out on a ranch near Abernathy, in the dark of the night, I filmed a cowboy performing a Cesarean section on a heifer to save the life of the calf and its mother. While the cowboy doubled as a surgeon, his teenage son held a rifle in his arms, keeping at bay the coyotes that circled nearby, sniffing the air for the scent of blood.
I became a part of the community not only because of my job but the circumstances of my life. I reconnected with several friends from my undergraduate years. Our ‘hippie’ generation was known for eccentrics and our small group had our fair share. Helen had left America as a protest against President Nixon’s Foreign policy. She had worked for Philips Petroleum in Amsterdam and studied management. She returned to America to work on Women’s Issues. David had transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design to study under the great landscape photographer, Ansel Adams. Like myself, he had returned and worked locally for the Lubbock Avalanche Journal as news photographer. Patricia Klous had left for LA and was cast in a prime time CBS sit-com, ‘Flying High’. Her visit with us was cause for many hearts to flutter.
Out of nowhere came an invitation to attend an 80+ party. Sid, our news director, thought the unusual event would make a nice soft feature story. Off I went in my Pinto to the middle of the mesquite country.
Under a gigantic oak, next to a sprawling old ranch house, was a long table, laid out with the finest foods. It was definitely the 80+ gang. Everybody around the table who had also contributed to the feast was at least eighty years old. I had not guessed that there would be so many chefs in that age bracket. When I asked my hosts about their background in the culinary arts, the party responded with chuckles. What they told me was ‘news’ to me.
With a twinkle in their eyes they told me they were all born before the turn of the twentieth century. They remembered their mothers as Victorian women who wore bonnets on their heads and skirts down to their ankles. They had brought the tradition of their European heritage with them to America. In this new land with wide open spaces, they cultivated kitchen gardens. The vegetables and herbs from the garden supplemented the beef that was raised on the ranch. As children, the members of the 80+ club tasted food at home that was fine European cuisine.
What happened to the fine food when I got to America, I wondered aloud?
“WW2,” they said, “WW2”.
And what was “WW2,” I wanted to know.
During the Second World War, their daughters left the ranches for the airplane and tank factories in Fort Worth, contributing to the war production effort. By the time the daughters came back to the ranch after the war, it was too late to teach them. They got married and moved away with their GI husbands. America was changing. The young married women did not want to be tied to their kitchens and the art of fine cooking was lost upon America at large. Instant soups from Campbell and gravy mixes from McCormick lined the shelves at the A&P. Howard Johnson offered a range of ice creams that could not be easily churned at home in the ice bucket.
A particularly refined lady pointed out to me that in the last decade, ‘fast food’ was being introduced all across America. She wanted to know, how could food be ‘fast’ or ‘slow’? Was anybody chasing the food, she asked, and the whole group joined her in laughter.
My pastime also centered on my interest in the media. As I had access to film equipment, Helen gathered a group of student actors and models. Late at night, they came over to the KLBK studios. We practiced filming scenes from ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘Death of a Salesman’. Instead of going on a formal date with Helen, she became an associate in these endeavors. Our reputation spread through the small community and soon we got our first break. Gingiss Tuxedos hired us to shoot a commercial.
For a skinny little boy from Calcutta, it seemed to me this opportunity was the door to the ‘Big Times’. I hired dancers and singers, costumes and make-up people. We booked several locations. After several evenings of intense rehearsals, I finally said, ‘Action’!
It was a thrill indeed. If there was an experience more than that first thrill, it was to see the commercial projected on a giant screen at South Plains Mall Cinemas. Yes, I was finally a film director!
I was surprised by my own meteoric rise in the world of media. True, I was a big fish in the little pond of West Texas. I marveled how easy it had been to go from sleeping on the sofa in Tapan’da’s living room to sitting at a cinema, watching my own work projected on the screen. It took some honest introspection to realize I had been vaulted up the ladder of success by the adverse situation in my life.
I confess, I did not know the road to Hollywood. With a little book knowledge under my belt, I had taken on a ‘labor’ job as a cameraman at a television station. People with college degrees in the US did not take up such low professional positions. They have their own route to Hollywood. Most get stuck in an assistant position to an established director and stay in that rut forever. The people who are hired as cameramen at local television stations do not have the academic knowledge to grow on the job. They become, as Bruce had told me earlier, alcoholic, divorced men, living in trailer parks at the edge of town. I was the freak who had been dealt a wining hand at poker, a balanced combination of knowledge and labor …… and I had won!
I ran into David at Broadway Drugs one afternoon. He had seen the Gingiss commercial at the mall and congratulated me on my success. I thanked him for his compliments and asked him how the Avalanche Journal was treating him.
He recoiled at my question and said softly, “I don’t want to make a living chasing police cars and ambulances, photographing people dying on the highway. I quit!” He turned around abruptly and left.
I was shocked. What was he talking about, I wondered?
There had been a particularly horrific traffic accident on the Clovis Highway the previous week that Bruce had filmed. I recalled there were multiple fatalities. It must have got to David, I reasoned. He was a person with a delicate disposition.
Coming to work on a Monday morning, I found a large envelope on my desk. It was from Columbia Pictures, Hollywood, California. The package contained glossy PR material for the upcoming release of a film called ‘The Buddy Holly Story’, starring Gary Busey. Buddy Holly was one of the earliest rock ‘n’ rollers and he was from Lubbock, Texas. As a tribute, I pinned the posters with his photos on the wall.
As Sid was walking by, he peeked into my office. “Would you like to interview Gary Busey?” he asked.
What in tarnation is he talking about, I wondered. I am the guy behind the camera; the reporters did the interviewing. “You have an interest in film. Why don’t you talk to the guy? It may be fun,” Sid added.
The PR junket from the studio for ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ was fun. Adding the film clips Columbia Pictures had sent us earlier to the interview we shot made an entertaining report. As more similar assignments followed, a new facet opened up in my life. Fridays at noon, I went on the air with The Hollywood Report. The studios sent tons of material upon request. They were getting the free publicity. What I got was something I never expected.
At lunch, I took Helen to a ‘Pop & Mom’ joint for a burger, fries and coke. At the end of the meal, the owner had the waitress tell me the lunch was on the house. I pleaded with him to take the money but he just smiled. What could I do? I left the waitress a five dollar tip. Helen pointed out that my personal life was becoming public!
Over time, I could tell that my shooting and editing style was evolving and becoming more lyrical and sophisticated. I was being able to bring greater depth to my reports. On a clear spring morning, I caught snippets of a police conversation on the CB scanner about an accident at the granary near Plainview. They did not have further details.
Racing through the short cuts of the county roads, I arrived at the scene before the police or the ambulance. While working on an air-conditioning system, a man had suffered a high voltage electric shock. He was unconscious and was being pulled out of the duct by his fellow workers.
The stillness in the factory was eerie. Through my camera viewfinder I watched the workers slide the fallen man on to a plank. Gently they lifted him up, high above their heads. I followed their movement from the side, recording a perfect ‘tracking’ shot that even in the Golden Days of Hollywood, they would have been proud of. There was pin drop silence, helping me record the sound of boots, trudging in unison as they walked towards the exit.
As they were bringing the man down, I noticed the tight wrists that gripped the plank and slowly zoomed in for the ‘symbolic shot’. I panned slightly for a close up of the intense face of a fellow worker as ‘reaction shot’, then tilted up to see the fallen man again. Somehow, the victim looked a little changed. He was pale. I moved my eye away from the viewfinder to see what was different.
The color had faded out of the man’s face. He looked ashen. While I was dreaming of the perfect Hollywood ‘tracking’ shot to my television news footage, the man I was photographing had died!
Numbed by the misfortune I had just witnessed, I put my camera away. I walked back to my car and sat down. My throat felt parched. I felt a tightening around my chest. I struggled to get enough air. I cannot recall a particular emotion as such that I can remember but tears rolled down my eyes. The victim, a young man, was not Bikash Roy, having a histrionic heart attack on screen. He would not walk out of Indrapuri studios to perform a similar dramatic scene in the next Bangla popular film. The victim was a young man, a working man, most likely a family man. That evening, a young woman will have to tell a child, “Daddy will not be home for dinner”. I packed my equipment into the trunk and I remember screaming, ‘What am I doing out here?’
I did not wait for the police, ambulance or the coroner’s black car to file my full report. As I drove back slowly along the back roads of Hutchinson County, there was no lightning across the skies or revelation from the Gods to show me how dear yet fragile life can be. David had quit his job because he did not want to chase police cars and ambulances. In my naivety, I had chosen to make a living, chasing a funeral hearse with my camera.
It did occur to me that I should quit my job. I was a film director in training but this job was definitely not what I had opted for. What would I write to my father if I quit a job we both had been excited about? KLBK TV had applied for my green card; the labor certification had been approved. If I left on a whim, I would create a bureaucratic mess that was not called for.
Dr. William Mackie, my graduate advisor, had told me that it was a delicate balance between the poet and the general that made a great film director. He admired Robert Frost and had read some of the poet’s works to me. As a child during WW2, like most Americans of that era, Dr. Mackie’s hero was the flamboyant General Douglas MacArthur. Frost never took up a gun; MacArthur did not take up the pen. The combination of the poet and the general in the same person was rare indeed. My friend David had laid down his camera when the flow of blood got too much for him. He was the poet at heart who had walked in the woods of New England. He had defined for himself ‘the path not taken’. I rode shotgun in my Pinto in the semi-arid plains of West Texas. MacArthur had done the same as a student at the Military Academy in San Antonio. Both David and I ‘had miles to go before we could sleep’, at peace with ourselves.
Helen sensed the change in me when we met again. I definitely needed to get away from the studio. We went to see, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Like millions of moviegoers around the world, we too looked in awe at the image of the colossal space station floating unfettered in the blackness of outer space. We drew comfort in the soft serenade of the Blue Danube Waltz on the sound track. Helen and I held each other’s hands, knowing the alienation of our own lives and feeling the need for each other.
The daily grind of work had become a routine that I handled easily. An occasional visit by a celebrity added luster to the quiet town. Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, the son of the Shah of Iran, joined the jet-training program at Reese Air Force Base. His presence inspired frequent parties by the upper crust of Lubbock society. The media was courted by the affluent to attend and report such parties on the evening news. I was not one to pass up on a dinner of champagne, steaks and lobsters.
Late one afternoon, Al Goforth the sportscaster asked me to take him to the country club to interview a well-known visiting golf pro. As we drove in my Pinto, Al asked why I was driving the circuitous route to the club. I was caught off guard as I always took that route.
When we arrived at the club. Al grew apprehensive. He asked me if I had been to the country club before. I replied confidently, I had come here umpteen times, shooting the golf footage that he had been using in the sports segment of the news.
Al burst out laughing. For over six months I had been coming to the wrong country club and filming the wrong people on the golf course and nobody knew any better. That is ‘golf’ for you. Says a lot about local news too!
The police rang me up one afternoon. “We got your son with us. Come and pick him up.”
I was at a loss for words but drove to the police station. Badshah sat meekly at the front desk by the officer’s side. Earlier in the afternoon, Badshah had snuck into the Junior High School building and it set off the burglar alarm. In Lubbock Texas, the police operated with common sense and guessed Badshah was a ‘special needs’ child. They held him for his own safety. Badshah was smart enough to know I was a television personality. Mentioning my name as his father gave him the leverage he needed with the police.
When I took Badshah back to Tapan’da and Boudi, they took his disappearance with calm. Boudi pointed out that it was I who had disappeared from their lives since I had a girl friend. Boudi promised to cook goat curry the following Sunday. Helen and I were a couple and we brought an apple pie to the dinner.
The proliferation of the current level of media is taken from granted by the young people. It is like a story from another planet when I tell my son, Raphael, there were only three networks on TV. With CNN buzzing constantly, it is a far cry to remember that we had an hour of local and national news every evening. News was mostly political. Some epic disasters were recorded and shown on TV, only as a follow-up to the event.
As Harley and I were driving along a country road one afternoon, he looked out of the window and said, “Holy Mackerel. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
I did not see anything to warrant such an extreme reaction.
“What’s got into you, Harley?”
He pointed at the sky. “Heck! Can’t you see? It’s coming at us from the southwest. That’s trouble all right.”
I looked at the sky. A funnel shaped string of a dark cloud was hanging down from the low cloud cover. I pulled off to the shoulder to examine what Harley had indicated. “Are you crazy?” Harley shouted at me. “Get back here ….. NOW.”
Unfazed by Harley’s warnings, I pointed the camera at the clouds. Out of the sudden stillness, the tornado came tearing down towards us. The wind picked up, dust and debris flew past us in a torrent. We jumped into the ditch by the road and lay still. Uprooted trees and large branches flew by us like play toys. And just as suddenly it had started, it was calm again.
Harley jumped up and started to dance around saying, “You crazy Indian. You crazy, crazy Indian. You will catch your death out here some day.”
I sent the video of the tornado to the CBS News in New York through our microwave link. Walter Cronkite featured the video in the news the following evening. I am humored to recall, my footage was the first time America saw a video of a tornado tearing through the countryside.
Polical news was never my forte but I jumped in when my former Business Law professor, Kent Hance ran for a seat in the 19th Congressional District. Whenever Professor Hance called for a news conference, I showed up with my camera. His opponent was a young oilman from the Midland Odessa area. Rather reluctantly, I showed up for the out-of-towner’s news conference.
I was the only member of the press at the briefing. We waited around. Neither of the other two stations showed up. The candidate himself was not very focused or organized. His younger brother, a tall lanky fellow called Jeb, and I struck up a lively conversation. Jeb boasted that their father would be the president of the United States some day. I laughed; I asked him what his father did for a living. Jeb replied that his father had been the ambassador to China and the Director of the CIA. I was not impressed.
The candidate made a brief, faltering statement. His young wife, a typical sorority girl called Laura, clapped. I did not have a pen handy and asked the candidate to spell out his name for the record. He leaned forward and slowly spelled out his name into the microphone, “G, E, O, R, G, E, W. B, U, S, H.”
I passed on the videotape to Sid. In the interest of fair reporting, we aired George W. Bush’s statement. Professor Hance beat the fellow from Midland Odessa and went on to serve in the House of Representatives in Washington DC.
That year, the CBS network created a very catchy national advertising campaign. People whistled the jingle as they walked by or rode up in elevators. I could not get the tune out of my head. Without a motive or premeditated plan of action, I took Helen out for a drive in the country.
In the late afternoon sun, I recorded some cowboys driving home the cattle on a ranch. Next weekend, I recorded some farm hands moving giant irrigation sprinklers across a cotton field. I added a few more rural images from West Texas and edited the footage.
The final 30 sec. version looked good to me. Even Bruce agreed the promo showed the viewer something about our way of life in West Texas. I sent the promo to New York.
In a couple of weeks, CBS Network wrote back that they would like to air my promo as part of their National campaign. They asked if I would like to come to Las Vegas to preview the ‘fall line-up’. I am not a gambler by nature but I may be right to assume everybody wants to see Las Vegas, at least once. I was no different, especially when the trip was paid for.
The casinos in Las Vegas offered free food to their guests. Still in my mid twenties, such a treat was attractive. I gorged myself. At the main conference, my promo was projected on the screen and I was recognized by CBS for my creativity. I had not anticipated the adulation that followed. CBS had a large budget for each of their 30-second spots. I had shot mine with a simple video camera. My promo carried the message of the American people with heart-felt sincerity and warmth.
Job offers followed from across the United States. I hardly knew how to present myself to prospective employers. Over the weekend, Helen and I drove up to Oklahoma City to meet with the News Director, Tom Kirby at KOCO TV. I liked what he projected about his vision of the news. I promised to get back to him.
Back in Lubbock, I was faced with a bigger problem. How am I going to tell Mr. Detournillion that I planned to quit KLBK TV for another job? Weak at my knees, I leaked the news to his secretary, Ada.
Days went by without a reaction. Then Mr. Detournillion called me in.
“How much is the son of a bitch paying you?” he growled, right off the bat.
I was aghast. I had negotiated a 50% raise for myself. I told Mr. Detournillion the truth.
Mr. Detournillion shouted at Ada. “Get me Jeff at KOCO.”
I paced the floor. Mr. Detournillion just went about calmly at his desk. When Jeff King the General Manager of KOCO TV came on the line, Mr. Detournillion shouted into the speakerphone, “You cheapskate, son of a bitch. You either double his salary or I am not sending you my boy.”
The conversation became cordial after that outburst. They talked about golf and hip replacement surgery. Ada waved out to me to leave the office. I tiptoed out.
As I walked by her desk, Ada got up and gave me a hug. “Don’t forget us when you are in Hollywood,” she said.
(Posted June 1, 2014)
The ... article ... by Satya Jeet was a delight to read. There is clearly a powerful poet in the heart of this professional photo-artist. I greatly enjoyed reading his well-written piece that is full of humor and charming anecdotes. My heartfelt congratulations."