Thursday, August 25, 2011

Brackman still impresses

Just acquired a copy of The Other Nuremberg by Arnold C. Brackman. I don't know why it took me so long to get the book, which was released back in the mid-1980s. I suppose I was a little spooked by the fact that the manuscript was completed during the time I was Arnold Brackman's journalism student at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. He died just after finishing it.

Mr. Brackman was a dynamic and passionate teacher. He was physically small but had a presence that commanded attention and respect. I recall his gray, carelessly combed hair, his bright blue eyes, and his crooked fingers, flattened at the ends, likely from years of "hammering" news stories out of manual typewriters. I recall his preference for Foster's lager (I scrupulously avoid the beverage, waiting for an appropriate moment) and for watching baseball but nothing else on television. And I remember a scarf-like thing, with small pockets in the ends, that he wore on cold winter days.

Mr. Brackman was "old school" in the classroom - he resisted technological advances and employed a bit of old-fashioned student-ridicule when it suited his purposes. He loudly accused careless students of "bloody libel." He seemed to especially enjoy getting Communications majors tongue-tied. But none of that never came across as mean-spirited (at least to me, as I majored in history, a field of which he approved).

It was a tremendous honor just to sit in his classroom. (I used to think, "What is a man like this doing teaching introductory journalism in Danbury, Connecticut?") Earning his notice was a special bonus that I experienced more than once.

After gauging the ability of his incoming Journalism I students on the first day of class, Mr. Brackman called me aside. It was entirely unexpected. I had no intention of pursuing journalism. I planned at the time to become an attorney, and I suspected that some journalism might be helpful. But Mr. Brackman had other plans. He ordered me - there is no more accurate way to phrase that - to report to the university newspaper office for assignment. He was going to make a newsman out of me. He also told me that he was going to set me up with a job at the local daily newspaper.

I was flattered, and I reported for my university newspaper assignment from then-Managing Editor Lisa Sforza. I never expected that Mr. Brackman actually intended to get me a job. I had recently started working at a neighborhood 7-Eleven to earn some spending cash. But, during a break in our second journalism session, he handed me a slip of paper with a name and telephone number on it. I had a job as a sports stringer at the Danbury News-Times, he told me, and I needed to call Sports Editor Paul Palazzo to find out when to report for work.

I really didn't know much about sports (the most athletic thing I had done to that point in my life was "captain" the high school chess team) and I admitted as much. "Well, this will be an excellent way for you to learn," he said. "I just took a job at a convenience store," I resisted. "Get out of it," he instructed.

Paul Palazzo, an earlier Brackman-disciple, graciously put up with me for a long time. I think I eventually got the hang of local sports. But, honestly, I disliked the News-Times (and still dislike it). What really excited me at that point was the WCSU's Echo newspaper, where I quickly became part of the decision-making process.

I held quite a few jobs during my years at the Echo - reporter, assistant editor, circulation manager, copy editor, columnist. After my first year there, Mr. Brackman recommended me for the Grolier Award for Excellence in Journalism - a set of Americana Encyclopedia that remains the centerpiece of my now-large book collection. I'm sure he also had a hand in squeezing me onto the Echo editorial board as an assistant editor and getting me the job as Echo columnist.

He wasn't around much after that. He suffered a heart attack in the summer. I learned about it shortly after it happened when I bumped into Lisa Sforza at the university. That fall, Mr. Brackman participated in Echo editorial board meetings via the telephone. I believe Lisa visited him a few times. (I was jealous of that.) He wrote me one very complimentary note on the columns I was writing - I probably still have it somewhere. Then he died in November 1983, a couple of weeks after my 20th birthday. He just died.

The loss was staggering. To this day, I have to fight back tears when I bump into some of my fellow Echoites. My feelings at the time were entirely selfish: It seemed so unfair. Mr. Brackman - he said in class that we should address him as "Mr. Brackman," and it has always been impossible for me to refer to him any other way - had been my guide, my mentor, my "godfather." He took me aside at a moment when I was wondering who and what I was, what was ahead for me, and he showed me the answers to my questions. He put me in touch with my abilities and set me on a path that would always challenge them.

I'm happy that I was able to earn his notice in those few small ways, though I know my story is far from unique. And I'm very happy that my name is linked with his by my receipt of the first-ever Arnold Brackman Memorial Scholarship for Journalism at WCSU. But it's never been enough. I felt that I needed to impress him - really impress him. I think that would have been a way to show him my appreciation for all he did for me - you know, knock his socks off with some achievement and credit him for making such an impact on me and making it all possible. I never had the opportunity. I never will have the opportunity.

And the very notion of becoming "impressive" is insignificant as a result.

Yet somehow, almost 28 years after his death, Mr. Brackman is still able to impress me. That, I suppose, defines the gulf between us, between our abilities and personalities. After a distinguished newspaper career, he authored some of the most interesting books ever written. I have been picking them up through the years. Reading them, studying them, listening to them to hear his voice through them. Being soothed and yet also tortured at those moments that his voice comes through most clearly.

A Delicate Arrangement has been my personal favorite. But The Last Emperor is truly an amazing work. I also have marveled at The Dream of Troy and The Search for the Gold of Tutankhamen. I've been wanting to get hold of The Luck of Nineveh, but haven't gotten around to it yet. I honestly don't know what caused me to search for a copy of The Other Nuremberg. I was aware of the book for some time. Perhaps I just became emotionally "ready" for it.

Upon my first glance at the back cover of the book, I was impressed with Arnold Brackman all over again. There was a black and white picture of Mr. Brackman, then probably in his early twenties, his hair dark and his clothing military in style, attending the Tokyo war crimes trials. I wondered how he happened to be photographed at such an event, when cameras should have been pointed at far more significant people. Then I noticed that he was sitting in the witness chair. Yes, the WITNESS CHAIR! The caption indicated that, as a kid reporter, Mr. Brackman got in some trouble with the chief trial judge. His news story about defense opening arguments was published just a bit earlier than the judge would have liked. That's why the war crimes trial cameras were pointed at him at that moment.

When I was in my early twenties, I was covering town carnivals and municipal budgets and snapping pictures of the occasional car fire. Mr. Brackman at the same stage of life was making headlines on the other side of the world! Now that I think of it, I might have been fortunate that he exited this life while I was still in school. What could I ever have done, what could I ever do to impress a man like that? Yet, it seems I should have had the chance.

No comments:

Post a Comment