A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
As usual after work, Arnie and some of his friends are whoopin' it up at a sprawling table that is “reserved” for them right next to the front window of a downtown bar in Washington.
Just before they start their nightly routine of debating politics and journalism, a man in the group proposes a contest: Create a tabloid headline good enough to challenge the New York Post’s all-time champ, “Headless Body in Topless Bar.”
Right up Arnie’s alley. He scribbles quickly on a napkin: “Dwarf Rapes Nun, Flees in UFO.”
All the others at the table surrender immediately. And Arnie likes that headline, too. So much that he later makes it the title of his book when he writes a novel about tabloid journalism.
Arnold B. Sawislak, like thousands laboring in the news service vineyards, was never famous even though newspapers worldwide published his reports and columns,. Most readers probably never noticed his byline, nor his affiliation with United Press International, known as UPI.
He didn’t care. Journalists working for the Associated Press or UPI either acknowledge anonymity or seek higher-profile careers.
But his co-workers and competitors knew him well, and many agreed that Sawislak was one of the finest journalists of his time — despite having to overcome, early in his career, a gruesome accident that nearly killed him.
They also realized that Arnie was so much more — honorable, gentle, soft-spoken, always willing to share his talent and his knowledge of politics with colleagues, be they raw rookies or grizzled pros.
Pay attention to Arnie any night when he's at Bassin’s, the watering hole for many people who worked with him, and learn more from him than at some fancy-schmancy journalism school. And no student loans.
Arnie understood everything politics. He could instantly sniff out a charlatan, or divine when political foes might reluctantly hold their noses and forge agreement for mutual benefit.
I lived for the day when I could outfox the old fox. It happened in 1974, when I told Arnie I'd be his reporting partner at a national governors conference in Seattle. “You are the expert, I’m the rookie,” I reassure him. “You’re in charge. Anything you want, I do.”
At one point, Arnie left the meeting hall to make a phone call to Washington and he missed a compelling 10-minute speech by a boyish southern governor.
“That guy was really good,” I say upon his return.. “Wouldn’t be surprised if he ran for president someday.” Arnie’s only response to his boss is a sarcastic grin that fairly shouts, “Sure, Rook.”
It takes more than two years to exact revenge: At 2:57 a.m. EST on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 1976, teletype machines ring 10-bell flashes in newsrooms around the world.
Jimmy Carter, the boyish southern governor whom Arnie had disdained in Seattle, is America’s new president. I walk to Arnie’s desk and interrupt the analysis he is crafting on deadline.
“Remember that day in Seattle?”
He doesn’t look up, yet his rueful smile is acknowledgement that I had bested the best political reporter I ever met.
Arnie was working in Wisconsin's capital, Madison, when he was transferred in 1957 to Washington and started as a regional reporter for Midwest newspapers. But his bosses soon had him climbing the newsroom ladder. The future looked rosy for him.
But on a spring day in 1966, Arnie stepped off a curb during the rush hour downtown and was struck by a car. He suffered grievous leg, neck and back injuries that worsened over the years.
Yet I never heard him complain for more than four decades -- as a reporter, columnist, senior editor, enterprise editor, chief political writer, and finally as news editor, when he was in charge of the entire daily report from Washington.
For most of that time, Arnie's most important role carried only the informal title … teacher.
His desk was one of a handful near the cramped office’s western wall, a bit removed from the bustling nerve center’s editing and rewriting desks. The separation provided a cone of relative calm for a handful of "Unipressers," like Arnie, who mostly wrote analyses and opinion columns -- dubbed “thumb-suckers” by semi-jealous colleagues chasing more mundane news.
Staffers, who christened that row “Poets’ Alley,” admired Arnie as if he were Keats, Byron and Shelley all rolled into one. Acolytes hovered and hopped about his desk like hungry sparrows, seeking advice and approbation.
But in the spring of 1992, fully 25 years after his accident, his doctors convinced him he had to make an enormous decision: Undergo dangerous neck surgery, or abandon hopes of even a semi-normal life.
The Sunday after his operation, my wife Jill and I visit Arnie in the George Washington University Hospital and find him chipper, sitting in a recliner by the window. The phone interrupts our conversation. Being close to the nightstand, I answer.
“Mr. Arnie, please,” comes a man’s voice I don’t recognize. I hand over the phone and a 10-minute filibuster ensues. Arnie cannot wedge in even a sentence. Afterwards, looking a bit dazed, he explains.
“That was a panhandler who ‘lives’ on the corner in front of my apartment. I pass him on the way to the Metro every morning, and for years I've been slipping him a dollar. Last year I came up with a plan. Instead of a daily transaction, I'd give him 30 bucks the first of every month. It worked fine — until this month.”
Jill and I burst out laughing. Somehow, Arnie’s personal bum has sleuthed him down at GW Hospital to demand his monthly “salary!” How typically Arnie!
But the laughter — and the smooth recovery — soon fade. The incision in Arnie’s neck becomes infected and spreads, paralyzing his upper body. Motionless in bed with a heavy, green metal halo constraining head and neck, poor Arnie distressingly resembles the Statue of Liberty.
I begin visiting every day after work, often bringing videotapes of the Baltimore Orioles game the previous night. Soon, though, even baseball cannot relieve his funk.
We drift into endless discussions of his future. Is life like this worth fighting for? Increasingly, his answers slide toward “No.”
“I live alone, how would I manage? I can never regain what I was. Physically or mentally.”
“Sit in the sunshine, listen to audio books, watch ballgames on TV, argue politics with your legions of friends,” I parry, despairing my losing battle. After two months of nightly visits, no words can pierce the dark mood suffocating my gentle friend.
One night I arrive bearing a Yankees-O’s video; his shouts begin when he hears my footsteps.
“Go away! Get out!”
I gently remonstrate. He cuts me off.
“Get out! Don’t come back! I never want to see you again!”
The tirade continues until, finally exhausted, he falls silent, eyes closed. I squeeze his hand.
“Goodbye, Arnie,” I whisper, leaning in. "I love you.”
I leave my telephone number at the nurses’ station. “Please phone if there is any change. I’ve never seen him this bad.”
The call I dread but expect comes about 5:30 next morning.
Cause of death … heart failure, the nurse says. We both know better.
Arnold B. Sawislak had willed himself to die. He was 64.
Arnie left a small chunk of money for a party in the ballroom of the National Press Club. Friends and admirers in his oft-disparate worlds of news and politics flocked to pay tribute.
When it comes my turn to take the mic and share a memory, I describe “Arnie and His Beggar.”
“But I’m in the hospital,” Arnie had protested to his persistent alms-seeker that sunny Sunday afternoon a few months earlier, just before his world collapsed. “Can’t you wait until I get home?”
“Just like a great scene from ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ” I tell the audience. “Nachem the Beggar is walking through Anatevka one day, crying ‘Alms for the poor, alms for the poor.’ ”
“ ‘Here, Nachem, here’s a kopek,’ ” Tevye offers.
“ ‘But last week you gave me two kopeks.’ ”
“ ‘I had a bad week,’ ” says Tevye.
“ ‘So just because you had a bad week, that means I should suffer?’ "
Arnie and Tevye. Gentle souls, momentarily bewildered by the world around them.
Ronald Cohen, a prize-winning journalist , was an executive at United Press International and Gannett News in Washington.