To Maine in search of life’s mission

Excepted from “Hearts in Suspension”, by Stephen King et. al.
University of Maine Press

The best thing about going to Newton High School in the mid 1960s was you could be in Harvard Square less than an hour after school let out — even faster if you had a car. Once there you could cruise into the Harvard Coop, pick a handful of LPs off the sampling shelf and disappear into one of the magic listening booths, where with headphones on you’d plop the black disc down onto the turntable and groove to Dylan, Baez, Rush, Monk, Mingus and Brubeck.

And the thing was, in Harvard Square back then, you not only could listen to them all afternoon, you might even bump into them on the street.

And the politics. Social media back then was by broadside. Every utility pole, every bus stop, most any brick wall, served as a message board. Notices of SNCC and CORE meetings were wedged into every space left by the proclamations of resistance to the war, resistance to the draft, and news of upcoming teach-ins, sit-ins, love-ins basically any kind of “in” you could think of.

We couldn’t get no satisfaction. It was always the season of the witch. And we all lived the subterranean homesick blues.

Back at Newton High School, officials tried to keep things a bit more staid, but one spring day in 1966, in an effort to keep us seniors up with the world we were about to step into, the school called us into an assembly to hear a presentation on the Vietnam war, given by Russell Johnson of the American Friends Service Committee. In that one hour I learned more about what was happening around the world in my name than I had in all the 17 years that had come before. Surely this madness had to stop.

So several months later, when I arrived on the campus of the University of Maine at Orono, I was confident that everyone on that campus would be educated, and informed, and surely opposed to the war in Vietnam.

Big mistake.

* * * *

They say that if you grow up with a piano in your house, you think everyone has a piano in their house. The same is true, it seems, about the colleges near where you grow up. Growing up in the ’60s in Newton, Mass., wedged between Boston, Cambridge and Wellesley, it seemed there were activist college students and faculty everywhere. Howard Zinn’s daughter was in our class. Tim Leary was sometimes seen sitting on the porch roof at his house watching the traffic go by, though when he started doing that no one really knew why. Anti-war, pro-choice Catholic priest Father Robert Drinan was already thinking about a run for Congress, a seat he eventually won in 1973 and held until Pope John Paul II forced him to give it up 1981. (I remember my very traditional Irish-Italian Catholic mother was relieved when she learned Drinan was forced to step down. Her elation left her on election day when Drinan was replaced by Barney Frank.)

UMaine, it turned out, did not have a lot of pianos.

I quickly learned that most students on campus knew little about what was going on in Vietnam, and most of those who did thought it was a good idea for all those soldiers who didn’t have a 2S student draft deferment to be the ones on the other side of the world fighting the Communists.

So finding peace on the UMaine campus took a while. Especially for a chemistry major in the College of Technology, who had to study a lot and didn’t get out much. (I had decided to major in chemistry because it was my favorite subject in high school. I had a great high school chemistry teacher, an MIT grad who raced sports cars on the weekend, and didn’t get all that upset when one day, as we were supposed to be dissolving a dime to see what it was made out of, my lab partner and I decided to use two nickels instead.)

The activist community at Orono was small, and the broadsides were not found on every pole and wall, but only on selected bulletin boards in places like the Memorial Union. But a few weeks after being on campus I saw a notice for a peace march. It was planned to start on campus, travel a portion of College Avenue, then head back onto campus. I couldn’t find where it was supposed to start, so I walked down past the hollow tree and waited on College Avenue, leaning against a phone pole.

Soon a small group of about 10 people, a few of them carrying signs, approached, walking slowly and silently along the sidewalk. Most of the cars going by on College Avenue ignored them. One driver gave them the finger. As they got closer, the leader, a tall gangly kid who reminded me of Buddy Holly, eyed me suspiciously. He maintained eye contact from the time he saw me to the time he walked by. As the group walked past, I spun off the pole and fell in step with them. We walked back onto campus and the march was over. Several said thanks for joining them and told me about their next meeting.

It was many years later when the Buddy Holly look-alike — Jim Tierney, who later in life would serve as Maine’s Attorney General — told me I had worried him as the group approached me that day. “I didn’t know whether you were just watching, were with us, or wanted to fight,” Jim said.

Back in high school, aside from Marching Band — where the skits during halftime often included a fan favorite of shooting the tuba player with a starter’s pistol (try doing that at a high school today) — my other activity was as a member of the varsity rifle team. We were pretty good, and could usually beat the other high school teams in the area, except for the all-girl team from Concord High School, who outshot us every time. We always figured there was something in the water in Concord that had helped people over the ages shoot straight.

UMaine has always had a good rifle team. And when I was there it actually had more New England and Yankee Conference championships than any other sports team. So on a whim one day I walked over to the ROTC office and walked onto the team. I probably was the only non-ROTC member of the team, and as the fall progressed my hair grew longer and I started wearing one of those little black and white peace buttons. One day I showed up for practice and the colonel-coach said, “Bright, you’re a damn good shot, but I don’t think you’re going to fit in here with the rest of team. You probably should find a different mission.”

So several weeks after I had walked on, I walked off, in search of a new mission

Aside from proficiency with firearms, the other shooting skill I pursued between classes was photography. My father had always enjoyed it as a hobby, and taught me both camera skills and darkroom technique. So when I arrived on campus I was packing a Mamiya/Sekor SLR and a pair of lenses. The camera became a part of my wardrobe. As the war raged on and more actions bubbled up, I found myself recording the action as much as being a part of it, documenting not only the signs and speakers, but the folk singers who always seemed to be part of any event. With my newfound friend, Roy Krantz, I began frequenting a little off-campus place plainly named The Coffee House. We made pictures of performers like Geoff Sullivan and Zoltan and Diane, and portraits of the patrons.

One day I stopped in at the office of The Maine Campus, the student newspaper, and asked if they needed a photographer. Editor Marcia Due said she didn’t right then, but would keep me in mind. She called a few weeks later and asked if I could go down to Brunswick to cover an anti-draft event. Turns out a draftee from a famous Maine family was going to publicly refuse induction into the Army. Marcia gave me a small press pass that looked like it had been made up in a high school printing class, a few rolls of Tri-X film, and hooked me up with a ride to Brunswick. Since draft inductions always happened at 0-dark-30 in the morning, we went down the night before and camped out on the couches and floor in the lounge at the top of the Bowdoin College student union. At 6 a.m. the next morning we were outside the federal building as the draftees began to come in. Since this was to be the first public induction refusal in Maine, and since it involved the heir of an historic Maine family, it was actually a pretty big deal.

The doors to the building were locked to keep out the protesting riff-raff, but I watched a TV crew walk up to the door and get let in.

“What the hell,” I thought, “she gave me this press pass, I might as well give it a try.” So I walked up to glass door and knocked. Inside the door, a soldier not much older than me shook his head. I pressed the card against the glass, he took a quick look at it, opened the door and let me in.

“Now THIS is pretty cool,” I thought to myself as the soldier said in a monotone, “Upstairs, second floor.”

Upstairs on the second floor I sat on a table outside of the room while we (me and the rest of the “Press,”) waited, figuring that any minute they’d march the young man out in handcuffs and haul him off. Occasionally the door would open and an inductee with a grim expression would come out and be escorted downstairs and onto a waiting bus. And every once in a while someone would exit with a smile and a spring in his step, belying whatever physical malady he had presented in order to convert his 1A draft status to a 4F.

After a while an officer stepped out of the door and said, “I have a statement: the gentleman you are inquiring about has been found not fit for service and has been released.”

We were told he had been taken out of the building by another route and would not be available for comment. Turns out that when one of the Army’s inspector/detectors asked, “Kid, have you ever been arrested?” the answer was affirmative, something to do with a roach in an ashtray during a traffic stop.

I didn’t come away from that trip with any prize-winning photos, but with something much better — my mission. A little while after I got back on campus, I transferred out of the College of Technology and into the College of Arts and Sciences, with a major in journalism.

Back then, ”journalism” meant newspapering; not broadcasting, not public relations, but hot-metal ’hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite,‘ who-what-where-when-why-and-how newspapering. And I loved it. It was before Watergate made reporting sexy, and we graduated just six to 10 majors a year. Our little department had two ex-newsmen professors, a department secretary, and one classroom. But it had a terrific laboratory — The Maine Campus student newspaper. Here we did real work, tracking down real stories all over campus, writing them up and publishing them every week.

The Journalism Department was located in Lord Hall, right next to the chemistry building, so I didn’t have to go far to change careers. It was the perfect location for a newspaper. We had a good-sized newsroom with a darkroom. The student government offices were in the basement. We shared the first floor with the University Police Department.

Lord Hall was one of the few academic buildings on campus that was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, not only because of the cops, politicians, and newspaper people, but because the two top floors of the building housed the music department, which was also open all night so students could get in practice time.

Because of that, there were probably more pianos in that building than any other place on campus.

In the spring of 1969 I found myself editor of the paper. We had a terrific crew, many of whom went on to distinguished careers at the Bangor Daily News, the Portland Press Herald, the Associated Press, and other Maine media. Since UMPD didn’t have a darkroom and we did, I traded a key to our darkroom for a physical plant parking pass, meaning reporters could borrow the pass, drive anywhere on campus and park anywhere they wanted to get their stories.

It was the late 1960s. Martin and Bobby had been shot, the Chicago Seven were on trial in Judge Julius Hoffman’s court for crimes against the ’68 Democratic National Convention, students had occupied the administrative offices at Columbia University, and trouble brewing at Kent State was foreshadowing what was to come.

Simply put, it was one hell of a time to be the editor of a college newspaper.

And it kept getting better

One day, as I sat at my desk, Steve King walked into my office and said, “I want to write a column.”

“Just two rules,” I said, as I picked up a copy of the paper and pointed to a spot on the OpEd page, “it has to be on my desk by noon Tuesday and it has to fit this space.”

And thus began a weekly dance between writer and editor.

For the first couple of weeks, about 11 a.m. on Tuesday, we would start to wonder whether Steve was going to show up. Around 11:30 he’d stroll into the office and stake out one of the manual typewriters scattered around the room. Foregoing the piles of copy paper (you used to call it arithmetic paper in elementary school, sheets of scrap newsprint cut into eight-and-half by 11-inch pieces) Steve would pull two sheets of white bond paper out of his notebook. He’d pop the first sheet into the typewriter and play that machine like it was one of the baby grands on the second floor. There was rhythm in his keystrokes. He’d eject the first sheet with a flourish, queue up the second and play an encore. But unlike Victor Borge, when he was done he was done. Period. (--30 --, as we said in the newspaper business back then.)

When the second sheet was out, he’d give his work a quick read, drop it on my desk, and say, “see you next week.” By then it was usually 11:55, and I’d finally be able to take a breath.

The typing was spotless, with no penciled-in corrections. And when finally set into type it would slide into its allotted space effortlessly.

After a couple of weeks of this, it all became routine. We never knew what he was going to write, but we always knew he’d write something. No fretting. Steve and his bond paper would be there.

But that all changed on May 19, 1969.

Several days earlier, on May 15, Students for a democratic Society (SdS) and some other organizations had participated in a peace march on campus. It was the day the ROTC cadets were being commissioned and the plan was to start the march from the steps of Fogler Library, march the length of the Mall and over to the football field where the commissioning ceremony was being held. The protesters would have signs and stand silently outside the fence to the field as the ROTC ceremony progressed.

The marchers had made it only as far as Stevens Hall when a mob of students moved into the group, pushing people down and taking their signs. Apparently some members of the basketball team had decided it was their job to protect the ROTC cadets from this ragtag band of anti-war pacifists who clearly were planning to attack those defenseless cadets. To my knowledge, nobody got hurt in this particular fray, but the march organizers decided it was best to keep it that way and ended the protest right in front of Little Hall. Meanwhile, down at the other end of the campus, the ROTC cadets got their commissions, none the wiser.

The march organizers decided the only way to combat this was to have a much larger march the next week, with a crowd big enough to withstand any pro-war protests. It was decided to have the march exactly one week later, on Thursday. They came to me and asked if I could get notice of the pending march in next week’s Campus paper.

The problem was, The Maine Campus, then a weekly publication, was printed Wednesday evening and not distributed on campus until Thursday. That meant there would no way to get the word out in advance about the new march before the march was about to start. (Remember, back then, Al Gore had not yet invented the Internet.) The only solution was to come out a day early, on Wednesday.

The Maine Campus was published in Belfast on the presses of The Republican Journal. Generally we came off the press right after Maine Times, a fact that worked well for us because Maine Times always had a spot color on its front, back, and middle two pages along with the standard black type on white paper. I had long worked out a deal with Maine Times publisher Peter Cox and the pressroom at the Journal to leave the color queued up for our press run, and thus we got the color for free, because there was no extra set-up cost. The only problem, of course, was we never got to pick the color. But every week, our sales manager, Brian Thayer, would call the Journal and find out what the color was going to be. He’d then run over to Gray’s Auto Sales on Park Street — one of our larger advertisers — and pick out a car of the same color, then convince Lance Gray that was the car to advertise that week. Lance loved the fact that his was one of the few ads with color and was happy to pay the premium Brian charged him.

Those of us at the helm of The Maine Campus may have been leftist sympathizers, but clearly we were Capitalists at heart.

But back to our story. I called Peter Cox and asked him if we could swap press runs with him for that week. He agreed, which meant we could have the papers back in Orono by mid afternoon Wednesday. But this meant all our deadlines had to be moved up by a day. I called Steve on Friday and told him his deadline for the next week was Monday at noon, not Tuesday. He grunted and hung up.

Monday morning, about 9 a.m. Steve came into the office. Forgoing his white bond paper, he grabbed at the stack of copy paper, found a typewriter and jammed the first piece of paper into it. He attacked the machine. Fingers flew, typewriter keys flew, curses flew. He ripped the piece of paper out the machine, crumbled it into a ball and tossed it over his shoulder. This activity went on for an hour or more until finally he had a piece that satisfied him. He flung it down on my desk, and — in words not fit for this academic publication — expressed his discontent in having had to do that and stormed out, leaving the newsroom floor littered with ripped up, balled up pieces of broken prose.

The paper got back to campus on time, the word got out, and the protest and march went off without disruption. Steve was with the group on the library steps for that event, listening to the speakers before the march began. He was sitting on the left hand side, about half way up, when a small, elderly woman approached, intent on getting up the stairs and into the library. Picking her way up the steps she confronted Steve, who, by the time he saw her coming, did not have time to stand and clear her path before she was directly in front of him.

With him sitting on a step and her standing on the step below, they were eye to eye.

“Get out of my way, you scuzzy Communist bastard,” she said to him.

Steve rose to his full six-foot height and, now looking steeply down at her, replied, “Ma’am, I’ll have you know I’m a scuzzy REPUBLICAN bastard,” then stepped aside and let her pass.

I put the incident of Steve’s frustrating day at the typewriter behind me when the next week he was back at his regular late Tuesday morning time, white bond paper in hand, and once again produced flawless copy. We never really talked about it after that, and it was not until years later, when, as a reporter for the Bangor Daily News (and Steve by now the most successful author of his time), I realized what had happened that day.

Steve was now turning out a book a year, sometimes more than a book a year. People wondered how he could be so prolific. Clearly he was carrying several books around in his head at the same time. There was a book in concept, another with a developing story line, another in character development, another in first mental draft, one — maybe more — ready to appear on paper or screen for editing, and one in final draft, ready to fly out in finished form as soon as he pushed his mental print button.

Clearly he had been working that way back in our college days as well — a human word processer before most people had ever heard of a word processer — and I had been guilty of stealing a day from him. The piece he so struggled to get out of his head on Monday would have flowed like maple sap in the spring had he had not lost that last 24 hours to keep to his routine. To this day I feel a little guilty about having put him through that back then.

But hey, we were fighting a war. Sacrifices had to be made.

It seemed not long after that march that all of a sudden it was 1970. The sixties were dead, having taken with them not only JFK, Martin, and Bobby, but tens of thousands of draftees. Earth Day was on the horizon. We advocated for the planet, then all packed up and sailed off in our own directions, into our own futures.

My ship came ashore just 10 miles downriver at the offices of the Bangor Daily News, where I spent the next 26 years as a reporter and editor. That was in the geological age old journalists refer to as BC — Before Computers. As did Steve in the early years, we pounded out our stories on manual typewriters, but using copy paper, not white bond.

Even after leaving UMaine, however, every once in a while Steve would creep back into my life.

One day, as I sat at my desk, Steve King called on the phone and said, “I want to use you in a book.”

“Fine by me,” I said, “I’m not copyrighted, have at it.” We both hung up and went back to work.

In 1979, Steve released “The Dead Zone,” in which one of the characters was David Bright, a reporter for the Bangor Daily News. The author’s note in the front of the book says, “All of the major characters are made up,” so clearly I’m not a major character in the book. In the inscription from Steve in my copy of the book he quips “we’ve signed Travolta to play you in the movie.” I was holding out for Dustin Hoffman, but it became a moot point when my character didn’t survive the screenplay. (Later made into a TV show, however, the David Bright character morphed into female BDN reporter Dana Bright.)

Bangor Daily News reporter David Bright appeared again in 1987, in “The Tommyknockers.” By that time, the BC era was over, everything was being done with computers, and I had moved from the newsroom to the computer services department, where I was in charge of many of the computers being used in the editorial, advertising and production departments. One of those computers was an Apple Macintosh-based system set up in the production department and used for producing advertising. One night, around 10 p.m., I wandered by that workstation and the operator asked me about how to get a particular feature of the software to work. I told him I didn’t know but would call the software developer and ask.

As it turned out, this software company was in Utah, so it being only 8 p.m. there, I thought I might catch someone at the help desk. I called and a woman answered the phone.

I said, “Hello, this is David Bright at the Bangor Daily News. We use your software and I have a question about one part of the program.”

There was silence for a second, than a terse, “just a moment,” followed by a rapid clicking of computer keys. The woman then came back on the line and, sounding as she was out of breath, said, “I’m sorry, it looks like your service agreement has expired, so I can’t help you, you’ll have to call back in the morning.” And she hung up.

So the next day I called back. The woman who answered that time had apparently been briefed on my previous call, took care of updating the service agreement and was happy to explain the feature to me. Then she said, “There’s someone else here who wants to talk to you.”

To the phone came the woman I had spoken to the night before.

“I want to apologize for being so curt with you,” she said.

“No problem,” I replied, “You explained the service agreement had lapsed.”

“It’s not that,” she said. “You see I’m one of the programmers here, and every other week it’s my turn to take the lone shift on the night help desk. Everyone else had left and I was all alone in the building. Most of the lights were off except the section where I was working. Now, some of the programmers can continue to write code while they wait for calls but I find that distracting, so I just read a book while waiting for the next call. I was reading “The Tommyknockers” and had just read your name when the phone rang. When you first told me who you were I thought it must have been one of my co-workers who knew I was reading that book and called in as a joke. But then I realized there was no way anyone could have known exactly where in the book I was reading when you called. I looked you up in our system and saw you were a real customer, but still, it spooked me. As soon as I hung up from you I called my husband and told him to come pick me up.”

* * * *

Aside from creeping out computer programmers in Utah, one of the other things Steve and I have always had in common is the Boston Red Sox. I don’t know how he got the bug, but I know I am genetically and historically predisposed to being a Red Sox fan. I was born in Boston, about a mile from Fenway Park, on April 20, 1948, 36 years to the day from the day the first Red Sox game was ever played at Fenway. April 20, 1948 was also the day after the Boston Marathon (won by a Canadian that year — Johnny Kelley came in fourth), and there was the traditional marathon-day game at Fenway (It was a double header that year, Boston lost both games to the Philadelphia Athletics.)

1948 was also the year the American National Red Cross began operating full-scale blood drives. In those days donors were paid for their blood, and it was not uncommon for people to donate a pint of blood, take the money, and later in the day trade it in for a bleacher ticket, a dog, and a pint of a different kind at Fenway.

As it turned out, I required a complete blood transfusion right after birth, and I am convinced to this day that I am carrying the blood of one of those bleacher bums. That, plus the fact that my mother was a Moxie-drinking, Ted Williams-loving, diehard Red Sox fan also likely had something to do with it. (The Red Sox, after all, HAD won a World Series during her lifetime —a when she was two months and 20 days old.)

Also, back then baseball players were just working class stiffs, living regular lives in regular neighborhoods. If I jumped over the backyard fence in my middle class West Newton neighborhood, I was in Sammy White’s back yard. Jimmy Piersall lived a couple of blocks over. I’d guess neither of them made any more money than did my father, who also commuted to Boston, but to an office where he worked as an insurance company underwriter. Our neighborhood was clearly part of Red Sox Nation.

However it was that we had become infected with RedSoxitis, there we were, Steve, me, and thousands of other UMaine students in 1967, watching the Red Sox play in their first World Series in our lifetime, only to lose to the Cardinals in seven games. The Curse continued.

But finally came 2004, and while many people can come up with many reasons for the Red Sox finally winning the World Series that year (I know John Kerry likes to take some of the credit), I credit Steve King and Stewart O’Nan, who somehow, of all the years to consider it, decided to follow the Sox all season and write a book about it. I don’t know how they knew — perhaps it was because it was destined to be the Cardinals again — but Steve and O’Nan ended up chronicling what, to my mind, are the greatest eight consecutive games in baseball history.

Down three games to nothing in the American League Championship Series, the Red Sox came back to win the next four games against the hated New York Yankees, then proceeded to sweep the Cardinals in four more games.

The victory did have its downside, however, when Emerson College journalism student Victoria Snelgrove died several days after being hit in the eye with a pepper-spray bullet fired by a police officer trying to break up a celebratory, but rowdy, crowd in Boston’s Kenmore Square after the win over New York. Her death brought sorrow, darkness and maybe a little fear into what otherwise was a joyful breaking of the curse. It left me with a sense of understanding that significant goals are often not only hard to accomplish, but that they sometimes come with unintended consequences. Certainly the Snelgrove family — and the police officer who in the course of his duties fired that unfortunate shot — understand that.

I think Steve and O’Nan may have sensed that, too, and recognized it by dedicating their book to her.

My personal Red Sox story that year also involves the dead.

Having left the Bangor Daily News in 1996, in 2004 I was working for a computer company in Nashua, New Hampshire. Like the company in Utah I had been involved with years before, we developed software for use in the newspaper and magazine industry.

Luckily, on October 27, 2004, I was not at a job site, but working out of the Nashua office. So after work that day I drove to the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne, Mass., where both my parents are buried together. Their plot is adjacent to one of the cemetery roads, so I was able to park right next to their grave, open the car window, crank up the radio, and let my parents hear the fourth game of the series. With the exception of one MP who pulled up, figured out what I was doing and then drove off, I was alone throughout the entire game, save, of course, for all the departed soldiers and spouses.

When the Red Sox won, I cracked open a bottle of Moxie, swigged half of it, then got out of the car and poured the rest of the bottle onto my parents’ gravestone. Several minutes later I started to hear the sounds of post-game reporting drifting through the air, and then I noticed an increasing number of headlights moving along the cemetery roads. Turns out, people from all around were coming to the cemetery — car windows down and radios on — to put Red Sox pennants, hats, miniature bats and other emblems of Red Sox Nation on the graves of parents and spouses, many of whom, unlike my mother, had never lived during a time of a Red Sox World Series win.

Within a half hour of the game’s end, that veterans’ cemetery had come back to life. Steve King would be happy about this, I thought.

One of the last times I saw Steve was at the Sea Dog Restaurant in Bangor as my wife, Jean Hay Bright, and I were grabbing lunch before an event featuring radio talk show host Randi Rhodes, whose syndicated show at the time ran on WZON, the Bangor radio station owned by Steve and Tabby King.

As we were being seated we had not noticed Steve at the next table, along with Randi Rhodes and some folks from the King’s radio station. But when Steve’s group was getting up to leave Steve and I noticed each other. As his group was walking out, Steve brought Randi over to our table.

“Randi,” he said, “This is David Bright. He was my first editor.”

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