"Two Deaths: One Then, One Now; On Losing a Father, A Newspaperman" by John Darnton
Journalism is not just a job. Any reporter who is good at what he does believes this on some level, no matter how he tries to wrap the sentiment in cynicism. I don't know how others came to that conviction, but in my case it was thrust upon me, accepted as part of family lore.
I was eleven months old when my father died in 1942, killed as a war correspondent for The New York Times by friendly fire in the Pacific. I have no memory of him; nor does my brother, Bob, who was two and a half years older and who stood at the door and watched him walk away, a towering figure in khaki uniform with a dashing moustache that stands out in all the photographs.
The story of how he died was raised, in our tight little circle of three, to the status of epic. A veteran of the Red Arrow A Division in World War I, he was too old at 45 to fight in World War II but volunteered to go as a correspondent.
In an advance landing craft, he was with a unit moving along the coast of New Guinea. In a pocket-sized notebook, he scrawled sights and sounds along the way, collecting color for his story (one bird had a cry that sounded as if it were rebuking him for overwriting and "wasting cable tolls"). Then a plane flew overhead, its markings unclear. "Jap or ours?" he scribbled. He continued taking notes as the plane passed over. Then it returned and dropped a bomb.
It exploded some distance away, but shrapnel struck and killed the skipper, Lieut. Bruce Fahnestock. My father grabbed the wheel. The plane circled, returned and dropped a second bomb, which sent a piece of metal straight into the back of his neck. Death, we were told at the time, was instantaneous. No one else was hurt.
Our mother never remarried. From time to time my brother and I would suggest a possible suitor, but she never followed up on our suggestions and I suspect we would have been disappointed if she had. Often the discussions of our father's death led to discussions of dictatorship and then of democracy and the imperative to defend it, always.
Often the talks would move on to journalism. A family recovers from death by giving it meaning, and in our family the article of faith was that he died as a newspaperman, seeking out the truth and giving voice to people fighting for their country half a world away. The talks were not always easy; even twenty five years later, my mother would still cry while rereading a letter he wrote to his older brother Tom, in which he talked of the need to defeat Hitler and Hirohito to make the world fit for his two sons.
My brother tried newspapering after college, but gave it up for his first love, history. Family tradition had picked me for an engineer. But I suppose it was preordained that when I graduated from college and married, my thoughts would turn to a job on a paper. On my first day, I was scared, but I learned to hide the fear and watch other newspaper people to see how they went about what they did.
Over time, a strange thing happened--my father became not less, but more, of a presence. A handful at The Times remembered him, though often with a vagueness I found exasperating. A retired city editor told us he had filmed him on a home movie; my brother and I sat stiffly on a couch and watched as the back of his head passed for one second across a grainy screen. An elderly woman who said she knew him well called me to set up a meeting; my wife and I traveled to a Victorian house overlooking the Hudson, and as she opened the door, she stared into my eyes and gasped: "Yes, Barney Darnton's son." I retrieved his clips from the paper's morgue and read his coverage of an election in California and his war reporting. Once he dodged fire by jumping into a trench, where he landed his knee "in the back of a private from Brooklyn."
These episodes were like visitations. The most profound happened in 1976, eight years after my mother died, in the weeks before I went off to cover wars in Africa. A package arrived from The Chicago Tribune. It contained his notebook, taken off his body by a colleague who left it in a filing cabinet where it turned up 34 years later. In it I read of the birds and of Lieutenant Fahnestock's death and saw the notation "Jap or ours?"-- a foreshadowing of the confusion that led to his death, since the plane that attacked his vessel turned out to be American after all.
The visitations tapered off for awhile, but resumed recently with several letters from unknown men, veterans mostly. We realized they were writing because they had reached a certain age and were putting their affairs in order. Some of them wrote at length of the Pacific and the war, an outpouring of names and memories and descriptions that were surprisingly vivid. Some of the letters were very matter-of-fact, others sad in an almost wistful way. Some unburdened themselves of long-buried secrets. One man, contradicting what we had been told earlier about the circumstances of my father's death, recalled how brave our father had been as he was being rowed to shore, lying wounded for hours.
I thought of these things as I learned of the death of another Times correspondent, Nathaniel Nash, who died along with Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown and more than thirty others in a plane crash in Croatia -- for Mr. Nash was the first Times correspondent since World War II to be killed while working on a story. I thought of how, no matter what, Mr. Nash will be a presence in the lives of his three children, who will hear of him for years to come from his friends and colleagues.
And I was pleased to read that he had said, speaking of the challenge of working at a newspaper, that "to thrive there you can't be cynical."
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File created: 4/15/02