50 years ago

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NYT Chicago68Soon after I logged onto my computer this morning, thoughts of two people I didn’t know in 1968 took me back to where I was 50 years ago this week.

George Wolkind, a onetime antiwar activist and one of my newer Facebook friends, posted a recollection of his experiences on the streets of Chicago during the week of the Democratic National Convention. And, near the top of my to-do list, was a reminder to work on another chapter of a book project for Frank Biondi, the prominent Delaware lawyer/lobbyist/power broker, who was a member of the Delaware delegation to that convention.

Wolkind experienced the violence in the streets first-hand. Biondi and his wife Anita caught glimpses on charter bus rides between their hotel and the convention site, the Chicago Amphitheater, on the west side of town, adjacent to the famed Stockyards and their overpowering aroma.

As for me, well, it was the last week of the introductory summer quarter to my master’s program in journalism at Northwestern University, and everyone in our class was assigned to cover a state delegation to the convention. I got New York, my home state, and I fortuitously connected in advance with Frank Lynn, a Fordham grad a dozen years ahead of me, who was the lead political reporter for Newsday, to arrange a briefing on the New York delegation. Lynn offered me not only a briefing, but the chance to work, for real money, as a copy boy (i.e., messenger/errand runner) for Newsday during the convention.

I didn’t get much sleep that week (for two nights — or, more accurately, mornings — it came on the floor of some Newsday reporters’ hotel rooms) and I have no recollection of how I wrote any copy for my grad school assignment or found a way to turn it in. This was long before the internet, and I didn’t have a typewriter to lug around.

I know I spent some of the daylight hours looking for New York delegates in the lobby of the hotel where they were staying, and the evenings were spent mostly in the bowels of the Amphitheater, where most of the media had their temporary newsrooms. A few times I had the chance to get onto the convention floor, trying to pass a message on to one of the Newsday reporters. (No cellphones then, either.) It was pretty heady stuff for a 21-year-old getting a first taste of real journalism on what was, for that week, the biggest news stage in the nation,

The episode that still stands out the most for me was a bit of kindness from a gruff, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, and the back story that added so much flavor. The reporter, Bob Greene, was added to the Newsday convention team at the last minute. When he flew into Chicago, there wasn’t a rental car to be found. But Greene, who built his reputation covering the criminal underworld, had a little black book, and inside were the phone numbers of some Chicago mob contacts. After a couple of phone calls, he had access to a garish large-finned Lincoln, which he promptly dubbed  “Yellow Bird.”

Two days into the convention, I mentioned that I was badly in need of a change of clothes and a couple of hours sleep on something other than a carpeted hotel floor. Greene hears my lament, says “take the Yellow Bird,” and tosses me the keys. Barely awake, never having driven in Chicago before, and just the right age for the helmeted, billy-club-wielding, tear-gas-throwing Chicago PD to be suspicious, I set out for my apartment in Evanston in a car with dubious registration. I think I got home around 6 a.m., but not after a near collision with a railroad underpass near the Chicago-Evanston border.

A long nap later, I was revved up and ready for the rest of the convention. The return drive in Yellow Bird was uneventful, but the adrenaline rush that carried me through the next two days, coupled with Greene’s kindness and the friendliness of the rest of the Newsday team, all but guaranteed that I would make a career in journalism — even if its start would be delayed for a couple of years by service in the Navy.

Fifty years later, the memories still burn brightly. In retrospect, the basement of the Amphitheater was probably the safest venue in Chicago that week, hardly as frightening as what George Wolkind endured in Grant Park and not as exhilarating as Frank Biondi’s dealmaking at one of the most contentious conventions in the Democratic Party’s history.

But I was there. It was a transformative week in my life, and I thank anyone who has gotten this far for caring enough to read about it.

 

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