Tuesday, July 21, 2009

And that's the way it is

There will never be another Walter Cronkite, and that says as much about our era as it does about his.

There will be no commemorative issue of People Magazine, no cover story in Rolling Stone, no week of endless speculation by pundits on news channels about his cause of death. And that is how he would have wanted it.

Mr. Cronkite died Friday at the age of 92, after an unparalleled career in journalism.

It is hard to remember in this age of Twitter and internet and 1000 channels of round-the-clock news yammering for our attention, that once, not so long ago, if you wanted to know what happened in the world today, you had to sit down at 7 p.m. EST for a half hour of news, presented by Walter Cronkite. No taping it and watching it later; no surfing the satellite receiver to take in a different regional feed; no CNN, no Headline News, no Newsworld. 7-7:30, or read the paper the next morning. Those were your options.

In our house, Walter Cronkite was God. Most nights my parents and I would eat our dinner off TV trays in front of the behemoth black and white television console with the fairly tiny screen. There was absolutely no talking during the news; if you had a story to tell about your day and it didn't squeeze into a commercial break, it would have to wait another 8 minutes to be finished in the next break. Walter came first.

Sitting in front of the TV, I learned about Vietnam and the space program. He was the person who told us when Martin Luther King was shot, and when President Kennedy died. It is an oft-repeated story in my family that pretty much the first thing I ever saw on TV was Walter Cronkite breaking into the live soap opera As the World Turns to announce President Kennedy had been shot. My mother adored President Kennedy - it was a simpler time, far easier to believe in the image, sheltered from the reality - and she learned her dream died while ironing the laundry, from the most trusted man in America. It was a short, sharp shock to everyone's system, and I was two months old, propped up on the couch pillows, facing the TV.

Walter Cronkite was an incredible reporter. Unlike contemporary anchors, he had no formal presentation training, having started in newspapers before TV had been invented, and while he became a polished presence on camera, he never lost his sincerity or his slightly rough edges. There was no doubting this was a man who had ink under his nails, and who had covered big stories from the ground up. He didn't start out that way, of course - he was a cub reporter in Houston while still in high school, and had a paper route delivering the Houston Post, sometimes with his articles inside. He moved on to announcing football games on local radio, before catching on as a regional reporter with UPI as a stringer. And then came World War II. Unlike the sanitized "embedded" reporting we are now subject to from the front, if we are allowed to see a snippet of what's happening at all, Cronkite rode along with Allied Troops in big events - the invasion of North Africa, the Battle of the Bulge - and every day events, like bombing runs over Germany. It wasn't safe, and he wasn't protected, but he was lucky, and every plane he was on came back to base. He rejected a job offer from Edward R. Murrow to stay with UPI and cover the Nuremberg war crimes trials, but finally accepted Murrow's offer 7 years later and made the move to CBS, and television in 1950.

During the 1960s through the mid-1970s, Cronkite anchored not just the evening news, but every blastoff of an Apollo mission. My father, who was born the summer Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, and was named Charles in his honour, was fascinated by the idea of men going into space, so every time a mission was set to launch, he would get me out of bed - those launches tended to happen around 5 in the morning - and we would watch the live broadcast from Cape Kennedy, Cronkite explaining what we were looking at. And then I would go back to bed for a couple of hours before I had to get up for school.

Those mornings with my dad and Walter also gave me a context and an appreciation of science, and the world beyond my suburban existence. They also indirectly got me interested in reading as a child, as my parents subscribed to National Geographic, which featured the space program heavily in every issue back then. There was a symbiotic correlation between the magazine and Mr. Cronkite in my tiny world back then, and I reveled in it.

I had the enormous good fortune to meet Walter Cronkite once, when I was about seven or eight. My father had been working in New York, as Canadian banks were starting to expand internationally in the 1960s, and my father was part of the Bank of Montreal's team setting up the U.S. head office. He would be gone weeks at a time, and sometimes, instead of flying him home to Montreal, the Bank would fly us to New York instead. On one of those trips, I can't remember where we were exactly, but I know we were getting into an elevator in Manhattan, and as the doors opened, there was Walter Cronkite, going our way. All three of us, my parents and I, were mesmerized to see this icon out of the tiny box in our living room and in the flesh. Evidently used to this sort of reaction, he very politely said hello and started the small talk. It came out that "I" was a big fan, and then he reached into his inside jacket pocket, pulled out a business card, signed it, and handed it to me.

In the four decades since then, I have moved several dozen times, back and forth across a vast country. Yet as I write this, I have that business card tucked into a corner of my computer screen. It says, simply, "Walter Cronkite - Correspondent" with the CBS News address and phone number. It isn't flashy or pretentious. It is the epitome of Walter Cronkite on a 1.5 x 3 inch piece of paper - clear, concise, solid, informative.

He believed a half hour newscast once a day wasn't enough time to truly inform viewers about all the complicated things going on in the world, and after he retired in 1981, he reportedly hated how newscasts were now stuffed full of soft features that told us nothing much about anything other than the reporter's vanity in front of the camera. We now live in world of a seemingly endless information and delivery options, but what are we really learning? Too much of what passes for news now is celebrity gossip, repeated ad nauseum between commentators who pass as reporters, or opinion based on nothing more than ignorance, fear or polling results. Television news, at least, has become a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Hardly a meaningful tribute to the remarkable legacy of a pioneering newsman.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Finally, you say!

Part of the joy of traveling is the way it takes you out of your every day routine and forces you to do something a bit different for the duration of the trip. Unfortunately, when you return, the routine does as well, until one day you look up from the pile of files on your desk and realize you've been back in Canada for five weeks and have not yet blogged a peep about your fabulous spring vacation in Europe.

So - here we go, part one of a multi-part saga.

This trip was mostly about visiting friends. The last time I was in Europe was three years ago, for Lindsey and Serge's wedding. Now I was off to visit them and their adorable toddler, Jules.

A few things had changed since the last time, other than acquiring progeny, most obviously the simple location - they were no longer living in Geneva, but were now in the countryside outside London, England. In "Harrt-fird-shuur" as the passport control officer kindly corrected me upon my arrival. I was soon to recognize that although the words look like English the way they're spelled out, it's a totally different language in the way they are pronounced.

Hertfordshire is what I like to think of as typically English, full of 500 year old houses, narrow rambling lanes with highway speed limits and blind corners, a cow (or sheep) in every field, and a pub on most every corner. The next village over has a train station with a relatively short commute into downtown London, making this a pretty sweet locale for a week's vacation, so long as I didn't have to drive.

We quickly settled into a domestic routine that usually began with Jules offering me a toy, sometimes at speed, as I lay sleeping on the world's most comfortable pullout couch in the living room. This was quickly followed by coffee and breakfast and chat, more coffee, more toys, a shower, and more chat.

It was an arduous week.

I can hear some of you questioning my ability to enjoy an entire week in the presence of a child. I offer you proof Jules is not like other children - he liked me back:

I have to say that if one could clone children, and be assured of their temperament, I would seriously consider raising a totlet like Jules, because he is almost never unhappy with anything, even while he is teething. He is the sweetest-natured child I have ever met. He is the mellow 60s surfer dude of children. Without the weed, of course.

He is also an intent little observer of the world - he can sit watching everyone for long stretches of time, and you can see the wheels turning. I am fairly sure he will grow up to be quite the handful, but not my handful. I just get to drop in at random intervals for a short visit and flit off again, which is probably best for everyone.

On our first day, we drove into a nearby village to play on the village green, which is also outfitted with a kickass gym set that Jules never tires of trying out:

This lovely space also included a large pond, with many birds just sitting at the edge of a well-traveled footpath. Here we've got a pair of Canada geese with 8 goslings, 3 mute swans, a pair of dozing mallards, and some exotic Euro-duck I haven't been able to identify yet (there will be an entire post later on about birds, mark your calendars).

Spring being the season of young creatures learning new skills, Jules also took this opportunity to try to get the hang of some stairs - he isn't looking too sure of himself:

A stroll around the village later, I was beginning to understand that a slower pace can be a good thing.

Next up: Linds and I do the culture thing in the Big Smoke, and we all drive up to Bath for the day.

UPDATE: The Euro-duck is actually a Eurasian Coot. Thanks Vicki!