Friday, December 6, 2013

A brother gone too early

When I saw his obituary from the Riverside Press-Enterprise dated two and a half years ago, it took the wind right out of me. I was trying to track down a friend and former colleague to send him a video about my 60 Chevy I just finished, since he’d always been fond of the car.
George Rooney. He’d died at age 59 of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, in May 2011. WHAT!!??
Oh man…
George was one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with, or met for that matter. I’d lost contact with him for around 20 years. But he was a guy that had been there for me through some of the toughest formative years of my journalism career. Kind of an older, more experienced brother – four years older – who helped calm me down when I’d been ready to hit the panic button. Which in those times of feverish paranoia, and rampant fear and loathing, was fairly often. I often sought George’s advice through exasperated phone calls.
I was a young newspaper reporter looking for a full time job, my first one. I found one at the Palm Springs Desert Sun because of a short typed note George had sent to a Los Angeles Times reporter I worked with in the Times’ then-San Diego bureau. There, I was a lowly copy aide. The editor there told me straight up that the Times never hired copy aides as reporters, so I shouldn’t entertain any fantasies that that would happen. He didn’t tell me, however, that such things did happen when they were related to somebody with clout on the staff. I saw more than a few cases of no-qualifications- necessary nepotism in my year there.
But I really didn’t care, the Times culture was so full of itself and bloated with bored but talented writers out of favor with newsroom honchos. I was ready to bail from what was known as the “velvet coffin” after being there a year.
In his note, George told the Times reporter, David Smollar, whom he’d known from a few years earlier covering county government for a small San Diego paper, that he got the Sun’s city hall beat to “punch up” coverage. And, by the way, there was an opening for a police reporter there in Palm Springs, if he knew anybody that might want to apply.
George was mentioned more than once by reporters in the Times San Diego newsroom as a guy who always helped them by sharing info – which I'm thinking they were too lazy to get on their own -- when they needed it.
Smollar showed me the note, and I added the Desert Sun to the list of newspapers I was applying to.
The Sun was the first paper that offered me the full time reporting job I wanted, so I just took it. But it turned out to be, to this day, the gnarliest job I ever had, three years of slave labor, boiler room style. It was big time dues paying, and I struggled with hanging in there. George, the leader of the staff of six or so reporters, always helped me cope.
Covering the cops was no fun at all. The cops hated whomever covered them, feeling all reporters did was, at worst, make them look bad, or at best, waste their time. I was considered no exception. Their strategy: Do the minimum in cooperating with reporters.
Then there was our editor, a hopeless drunk, often showing up with greasy tangled hair, and wearing clothes that resembled pajamas. He finally got the boot only to be replaced by a guy who couldn’t edit, write, or spell, for that matter. The editor that replaced him actually knew what he was doing. But by then I was actively looking to jump out of the plane without a parachute. George eventually switched to covering courts and moved to the Palm Desert office. After four years of hard labor, he was hired by the much better paying Riverside Press-Enterprise.
George was a positive guy to work around. He didn’t get caught up in bitching like everybody else. He’d joke about the bubbling crap-fest we were swimming in, and giggle. It was his way of blowing off steam. But he was always a total pro, and I looked up to his breezy easygoing way of doing things. On the few times when he had a little time to kill he’d go to the microfiche viewing machine off in a corner of the newsroom and pull up ancient Desert Sun stories and photos for some light entertainment. One time he was giggling continuously at stuff he was pulling up, a parade of awful, hysterical stuff. Soon we were all gathered around roaring over his shoulder at the crudely purveyed news and photos of yore.
When he wasn’t in the main newsroom anymore, I missed him. So I’d call him at the Palm Desert office down valley and vent how shitty everything was at the main office. I did my job well enough. But wow, I hated it! I had no coping skills with adversity, and I was neck deep in it.
He never told me to shut up and deal with it, but I called him enough times that he had a right to. One call I remember I was about to lose it, telling George the list of stupid crazy crap I was wading through and that I couldn’t believe it.
“Just don’t think about it,” he told me.
That sounded good, so I tried it. Couldn’t do it. But still, he felt my pain, and tried to help.
He coped by joking, laughing. He was a good joke teller, often starting one with a very sincere face as if he were telling you a true story, as he got you to believe it. Then he’d hit the punch line. He coulda been an actor.
He’d do full sections of dialog from Monty Python movies, laughing as he did it with a British accent. And like me, he loved reciting the many barbs, wordplay and literary references of Firesign Theatre.
George was from Wisconsin, a real Midwesterner, tall and rangy, dark brown eyes and hair and, in those days, bangs and a scraggly beard. His dad was Irish, his mom Italian, but he looked all Italian. Married to his University of Wisconsin-Madison sweetheart, Sally, he was steadfastly loyal. He loved Badgers football and basketball, followed the Milwaukee Braves, then Brewers, had affection for the Chicago “Cubbies,” and of course, was a Green Bay Packers fan.
He never wore sunglasses for some reason, even in the glaring desert sunshine, telling me he couldn’t see as well with them. I think the real reason was he thought they were too flashy. He always had a handkerchief in his back pocket, which my father, also a Midwesterner, also did. The handkerchief, no sunglasses and several other things showed that George was definitely a no frills guy, Old School to the bone.
He believed in union labor and tried to help organize unionization of the poorly paid, overworked staff at the Sun. It didn’t happen, and he knew which management spy was taking notes at the organizing meetings. He made it clear who she was and that he was no fan of hers. He once pounded his desk with his fist, smiling and yelled, “Let’s shut ‘em down!” followed by a high-pitched laugh.
He was pretty irked when he found out the custodian who regularly cleaned the tiny Palm Desert bureau, an older guy, was let go. “He needs the work,” scoffed George. He knew even menial jobs were important to somebody. “It keeps you young,” he said.
He’d mock the publisher, a tall old white-haired overly tan, bulbous-nosed guy who wore white shoes, white belt and loose fitting casual golf clothes. The guy was rarely in the office, and part of the local good old boys hardy-har-har business establishment.
“He wouldn’t know a news story if it bit him on the nose,” George would say, laughing.
George brushed off pretension or phoniness. A guy on the staff played guitar and sang a horrible folk song at a party, and George hated it so much, he walked out. He thought the guy was a deluded buffoon to act like he could play and sing well.
I play guitar and after hearing him pooh-pooh the bad amateur, made sure I never brought out my guitar when he was around. (A few years later, when his son Tim was playing in a band, George told me he snuck in unnoticed to check it out. “They were pretty good!” he said, very proud.)
George was a good dad, better than most.
His father once chided him for changing his daughter’s diaper, he told me. His dad was really old school, and didn’t think that was among a father’s duties. But George shrugged him off.
He and Sally took parenting seriously. But he once joked having kids reminds you of your own “creeping fartism.” How could it not?
He'd curse sportswriters who took five paragraphs to get to the game score. He believed people, himself included, wanted to read the score up top, not as casual, buried information due to a lame attempt at a literary intro.
Color photographs were beginning to appear in newspapers back then to add appeal to readers. But George didn’t think they added anything. To him, the old school gray and white newspapers did the job just fine delivering news stories.
George drove a Mercury, or “the Merc” as he called it, and had an abiding faith in unpretentious American made cars. I think he’d owned more than one Merc in his time.
He loved the outdoors, hiked and fished. I remember going on hikes with him, Sally and seeing their then infant daughter Kristin’s little socked feet dangling from her seat on George’s backpack-style kid carrier.
One weekend, he and I drove in my 60 Chevy to hike and camp in the Golden Trout Wilderness area of the Southern Sierra Nevadas. I noticed George put a hatchet near his sleeping bag before nodding off. I figured he learned that in the Boy Scouts as something to ward off bears or other predators. I’d done my share of camping at that point, and it never occurred to me to have a hatchet at the ready. Kinda freaked me out.
After those years of working together, we kept in touch during occasional summers. Every time we met, without fail, George asked: “Still driving the Chevy?”
He lit up when I’d tell him I was.
That’s why when I recently finished the video on the Chevy, I knew he’d like it, even though it did have me singing and playing guitar on it. He loved the Chevy. 

So George, if you happen to be looking down on this, here’s a Chevy update. She’s still alive and well. Miss you, brother.

Mark Eric Larson has written two books of essays, "The NERVE...of Some People's Kids," and "Don't Force it, Get a Bigger Hammer. To read, visit: 

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