The Roads I’ve Taken
A wahoo caught off Bermuda while fishing for the Outdoor Writers of America team in early ’60s.
Reflecting on 50 Years in Maryland
by Bill Burton
Two roads diverged in a wood
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made the difference.
Robert Frost: “The Road Not Taken”
In life, there are many roads, also many divergences, and one never knows where they might lead. We’re mere mortals who can only ponder what might have been had we taken that other road.
This I think of as I write: August 26 is Saturday, and on that date 50 years ago, I arrived in Baltimore to take over as outdoor editor of the Baltimore Sunpapers.
It was 1956, and in those good old days of journalism the number 30 with a dash in front and another in back signified the end of a story. When an editor got to the 30, it was a given that no more of that piece was to come. Finis.
Though I was 30, the occasion certainly was not the end, but nearer the beginning of my association with the calling I prefer to call reporting. Journalism is an uppity word; reporting is what journalism is all about.
There were many roads diverging in the woods before I finally arrived here. The roads I traveled were not infrequently the less traveled, and Robert Frost was right. As I look back, they have made the difference.
As a kid in the Great Depression, I learned any job that would feed, clothe and house you was something to grab and hold. There weren’t many around, especially in New England villages and textile mills. For anything better, you had only hopes of being in the right place at the right time.
I must have had a rabbit’s foot in my front pocket and a horseshoe in the hind pocket. My grades certainly didn’t qualify me for much; I was so close to the bottom that I prized the occasional C on my report card.
But the most invigorating aspect of life is all those roads ahead. Choose enough right ones, and you might end up not necessarily rich and powerful but satisfied. There can always be a road ahead to better things.
My Road to Reporting
Starting to grow the first of many beards to come while still in the Navy in 1945. Current beard has been on Burton’s mug 39 years.
I chose my first road at age 17 when I ran away from home with $8.50 in my pocket and all my belongings in an old black cardboard suitcase. I had read in the newspaper that my best high school friend, Henry Beckwith, had perished when his Navy plane went down over Ireland.
My father had refused to sign for me to join the Navy; Henry’s father hadn’t. So in thinking like a patriotic country boy, I decided to join the Royal Canadian Air Force to avenge his death. Parental consent wasn’t needed in Canada.
The second big decision came that very same day when, hitchhiking to Canada, I stopped at Aunt MiMi’s Vermont home to bid farewell. She insisted I stay, resume my senior high school year, then join up. MiMi was a convincing talker. I chose the right road and went to school for several months and, because I was already a Navy Seabee at graduation time, she picked up my diploma. That was normal procedure in wartime.
Less than two years later, I received an honorable medical discharge after serving in the Pacific, took advantage of the G.I. Bill and signed on at the University of California, Los Angeles. I was determined not to end up in a mill or on a farm. Seeing that history was the only school subject that ever interested me, I was hopeful of becoming a history teacher.
UCLA was bigger than any village I had seen as a boy. When I found the university with all the veterans coming back it was so overcrowded that professors taught via microphones to packed halls of students, I made another choice. I quit and headed east.
Burton’s farewell party as editor of the Bennington (Vermont) Banner in ’53 .
As a youngster I wanted to be a Royal Canadian Mountie in the wide-open spaces of Western Canada, but no chance of that. Navy doctors said my vocation would have to be sedentary (I’ve long outlived all of them), so I enrolled at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. Goddard was a leader in progressive education; its school year was divided into three months of classes, three months of travel, then three more months of classes and a three-month work period in which you took and held a job. I wanted to study advertising.
At Goddard, you could take one to five classes each semester; I picked three: literature, science and journalism, though my last English classes had been as a high school sophomore. I had switched to shop courses because of poor academic and attendance performance; whenever the fish were biting or the wildlife was around, I was out fishing and hunting. The second and third semesters, I took only journalism.
At the end of the first semester, again I had roads to choose. Though I started in advertising and sold ads in the college’s newspaper that also served the village of Plainfield, I was by chance off campus in the village when the huge lumber mill caught afire in early morning. I wrote the whole story and felt the thrill of reading my own words when I hawked the Plainfield News at five cents a copy that afternoon.
I was hooked. I took the right road: news, not advertising.
The Flip of a Coin
By the second semester, I was editor of the Plainfield News. I held that job again the third semester, when nearby Montpelier became the last state capital to have its own radio station. I was recommended as its news editor by a professor, and on December 7, 1947, I was broadcasting on WSKI under a Veterans Administration on-the-job program. College was behind me, save for some classes later at the University of Alaska.
For two years as I broadcast local news mixed in with Associated Press news that came over the teletype, I grew more interested in those who pounded out the big teletype stories. It was the written news that fascinated me; words on the radio were gone once spoken. The written word was forever.
Moreover, Steve Billings, city editor of the nearby Barre Times, told me that to be a successful newsman one must move on every year to gain experience under different editors. I applied at the Woonsocket Call in Rhode Island. Another road taken.
With the Woonsocket Call, I was a bureau reporter covering two towns where not much ever happened other than the night the pool room and the bowling alley burned down. My boss was among the last of the old-time, hard-nosed reporters; he drove me unmercifully in radio I had learned short sentences, also to spell phonetically, neither of which pleased him. I dreaded going to work each morning; Sundays were ruined because I knew I had to go to work the next morning.
One day I wrote several short pieces: on a snake seen on a warm March day, a rabies outbreak among foxes and how the warm spell ruined ice fishing. The bureau chief combined the three, putting the head “Outdoor Tales & Trails” atop it for my first outdoor column. The year was 1949.
When I saw the package in the Call that afternoon, I daydreamed of such a job. But my taskmaster was relentless, and eventually I chose to work as business manager of a two-newspaper chain, the Whitingsville and Uxbridge Times in Massachusetts. In six months I was offered a better sales job, and I took that road.
In sales, I made good money for nearly a year. But one late afternoon before heading home, I stopped in a bar for a refresher. It was across the street from the Providence Journal.
Reporters and editors heading home stopped in for a drink or two and talked shop. While listening, I realized how much I missed being in the center of news. I walked across the street, got a job at $50 a week far less than I was making on the road selling plumbing supplies and kitchens on the wholesale level. But I was back writing news.
I didn’t want to return to the wholesale office anyhow. Earlier that day in giving my sales pitch about the durability of our porcelain sinks, I threw a silver dollar into one on display and it chipped, badly. I lost a good sale, and knew I’d have to pay for the chipped sink.
So one might say the real turning point in my life came about by the flip of a coin.
Filming fishing reports in the ’80s for Burton’s television show, which aired 20 years on Baltimore’s WMAR Channel 2.
Providence was my first real city newspaper, but I was stuck in a small-town bureau when a call came to join the city staff of the Springfield Union, the leading paper in Western Massachusetts. Another road.
There, the city editor was Bill Hatch, in his mid 70s yet packed with nervous and physical energy and one of the last legitimate old-school newspapermen around. I learned much from him; his passion was news, his hobby, work and life was news. He practically ate news.
When howls of delight came from his desk, I’d look up and see him holding a bunch of pasted together copy sheets, maybe six feet long. Hatch liked long stories, and in those days news, not ads, ruled. The news got in, even if it meant a few more pages added to an edition.
I wrote a short piece of about 400 words on one of Hatch’s favorite subjects one day. “Jesus Christ, Burton,” he screamed across the newsroom, “If we had the second coming you’d write only a few paragraphs and spell his name wrong.”
I learned that to satisfy editors of that era it was best to milk every single word in my notes and add every adjective I could think of so the finished pages pasted together reached the floor. Without Hatch’s reading it, just checking the length, I’d hear “Good story. Are you sure you’ve covered it all?”
There was drama one night when a despondent man called to say he had just consumed a bottle of Pine Oil in a suicide attempt following an argument with his girlfriend. I wrote a note to a nearby reporter who got the call traced, and I kept the guy on the line until I heard police arrive at his door. The following Christmas Eve, he and his reconciled sweetie arrived in the city room to present me with a necktie with the Union’s masthead hand-painted on it.
Sometimes, when I was covering the police beat, the drama was different. The press station at headquarters was next to the interrogation room, and one with good ears could hear shouts, pleas and fisticuffs before a detective would come out and, while dusting his hands, say voluntary confession.
Everything was so different back then; the gurus in the accounting department allowed us only three cents a mile on our expense accounts.
I stayed at the Union long enough to get some seasoning, but the Green Mountains of Vermont pulled me as a magnet, and I was off to the Bennington Banner just in time to give part-time coverage to the first Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential campaign. I had been in Chicago when Ike was nominated; now I was to ride the Democrats’ whistle stop train through the Adirondacks with Stevenson.
I wrote my first regular outdoors columns as well as editorials at the Banner. One day, I wrote a story on how one of the biggest and prosperous businesses in Southern Vermont had pleaded poverty to get a big tax break and the publisher pulled the story. The company had influence.
I knew I had to quit. Journalism and journalists had to at that time maintain credibility. At the same time, a bigger nearby newspaper, the Transcript, just across the state line in North Adams, Massachusetts, paid me a compliment: Join us, we like your work, the telegram said, and I have always been a sucker for compliments. Still another road well taken.
North Adams was and remains a dreary and quiet mill town, but I had the police beat and the opportunity to continue writing an outdoors column. One Saturday a fellow named Petroff invited me to interview him on his recent trip to Alaska, which by Transcript standards was big news.
My wife was visiting her parents. When she returned two weeks later, the house and furniture were sold and we were heading to Alaska, me to the Anchorage Times to cover police and write an outdoor column. Petroff had made Alaska sound inviting enough that I took still another road. Another right road. I was too busy packing to write the Petroff story.
Alaska, Nebraska and East
Alaska was an outdoorsman’s dream, the hunting and fishing beyond one’s imagination. But in winter the days were short and frigid. Only the bars were open. Cabin fever threatened. Within a year I had to decide whether to be a bar hopper or get back to civilization, which Alaska wasn’t at the time.
Enjoying hunting and fishing wasn’t enough to keep me there. Nor were the occasional big stories like the trapper who confessed to me, then to Territorial Police, that out of jealousy he had killed his live-in girlfriend, cooked and fed her to his sled dogs, throwing what was left into a big lake near his cabin. He was later freed when he convinced a jury that he had confessed only because the long winter and cabin fever overwhelmed him; but True Detective magazine bought my story.
In the ’70s, at the peak of yellow perch populations, you couldn't find an empty spot at Wye Run in the spring when the spawning run was on.
When the publisher became disgruntled because I was involved in a move to unionize his paper, I decided to kiss goodbye the land of the Midnight Sun (and midday darkness). I headed down the Alaska Highway toward Plattsmouth, Nebraska, and the Plattsmouth Journal as managing editor.
The Journal, a semi-weekly on the Missouri River, was overshadowed by Omaha and the Omaha World Herald 18 miles north. Our correspondents in far-flung villages mailed hand-written news notes covering everything from covered-dish suppers to sick pigs. Don’t laugh. I got three calls once from readers who wanted to know how a hog reported sick was doing.
Nebraska was steaming hot, flat as a pancake and every step flushed a million grasshoppers. Trees were about as common as skyscrapers in Deale, there wasn’t a decent fishing hole within a day’s drive (in the Missouri, there were only carp and catfish) and the biggest story in my stay concerned a farmer who drank too many beers in town and on his drive home threw $100 bills from his pickup truck.
Other than watching corn grow and monitoring the radio for tornado warnings that advised residents to head for storm cellars or pits, my only other pastime was hosting the fellows in the back shop for beers after each edition went to press. Though in subsequent radio and TV days I had several different breweries for sponsors, I had no taste for suds. But to ensure those in the print shop didn’t quit to earn more money in Omaha, after the twice-weekly press run I’d host them at the Cass Bar for a few hours of the foam and expect them late the next morning.
To them, it was a night out, no complaints from their wives, seeing as the paper was buying (draft beer was 10 cents a glass). I had their loyalty.
Soon as my first daughter, Elizabeth, was born, I decided I’d rather be a copy boy anywhere else than an editor in scorched-earth Nebraska. While pondering where I might go tops on the list of possibilities was editor of the Wallingford Post in Connecticut one night while socializing with the pressroom gang I got a call at the Cass Bar from Paul Menton, sports editor of the Evening Sun, who was looking for a fishing and hunting editor.
How I got the job, I don’t know to this day, as I was down in the dumps and had had too much to drink. But three weeks later with wife and six-week-old Liz in the car and all we owned behind us in a U-Haul trailer, we headed east across the wide (and dirty) Missouri. Temperatures were 100 degrees, and rare were the cars with air conditioning.
When the Sun Shone
After dropping wife and daughter off in Rhode Island, I arrived in Baltimore with less than $35 in my pocket and a tight budget in mind until my first pay. But I promptly spent meal money for a couple of days when I saw a sign in a bar window promoting crab cakes. I figured they were like New England clam cakes, which sold for 35 cents a dozen.
I ordered a dozen and a beer, and the tab came to about five and a half bucks. The weather was steaming. There was no way crab cakes would last in the room with no air conditioner that I rented for $20 a week until I had time to locate an apartment.
Other than eating I had another concern. Everything was finalized with the Sun, but I had to pass a physical. A Plattsmouth doctor told me my blood pressure was exceptionally high, but I figured once out of the Nebraska desert I’d be in better shape.
The Sun’s company doctor, rather old and obviously forgetful, listened to my heart, looked me over, then asked me about my job. When I told him it was outdoors editor, we swapped fishing stories. When he said he’d take my blood pressure. I gambled.
“But you already have,” said I: “120 over 69.”
Oh, that’s right, he said, as he signed my physical form, and I was off to Paul Menton’s desk.
All I had to do was write six columns a week, go where I wanted within reason, all mileage and expenses paid; basically I was fishing and hunting for a living. Small wonder I stayed for 37 and a half years, leaving only when newspapers and journalism were making dramatic changes not for the better.
Trolleys still ran in Baltimore in 1956, a good meal in a good restaurant, including tip and a drink was less than $5; new cars sold for less than $2,000; the Evening Sun was a nickel; all boats were wood; bloodworms were 35 cents a dozen; the rockfish minimum size was 12 inches with no limit on catches; a charterboat on the Bay was $40 a day tops, at Ocean City, $100; the old Baltimore News Post would soon lose the circulation race big time to the Evening Sun.
Fishing for bass with President George H. W. Bush before lunch at the White House. He talked me out of retirement.
In 1956, Jim Crow was everywhere in Maryland; even at the socially conscious Sun, people of color used a paper cup to get water from the bubblers. They could get their meals at the cafeteria, but couldn’t eat in it. A Vermont Yankee, I was shocked.
Once I stopped in St. Michaels to buy shad roe, and the market owner wouldn’t take my money. When I asked why, he said You probably don’t remember; you took my picture once and it was the only one I can remember in the Sun of a black man in the sports section who wasn’t a baseball or football player.
Ted McKeldin was governor, a Republican who liked to fish and hunt; we soon became fast friends afield. One day when I met him for lunch and we parted ways, he asked his chauffeur, Corp. Ed Metee of the State Police, to drop me off at the Sun Building. As we arrived with the flags rippling on the front fenders, chairman of the board Gary Black and publisher William Schmick were walking down the steps. Metee was opening the door and there their new outdoors editor was hopping out of the governor’s limousine.
That was the beginning of a life-long friendship with Gary Black. We traveled together far and wide hunting, fishing and socializing, which proved invaluable when the bean counters were coming up with budgets for outdoor coverage.
As for expense accounts, that was quickly solved. I drove Sports Illustrated writer Mark Sullivan to southern West Virginia on a fishing trip we were covering; he chipped in $15 auto expenses. I included it on my expense sheet and deducted it from what was due me. The accounting department was stunned; they didn’t know how to enter it in the books.
That had never happened before; finally I was told to keep Sullivan’s contribution. I never had an expense sheet scrutinized thereafter. A method to my madness? You bet.
One of my first Bay fishing trips was with Ollie Conwell, who operated a popular tackle shop at Waysons Corner, and Capt. Jim Shupe out of Deale. A few days later, one of Jim’s parties took a state record for hardheads. By the next year, hardheads were absent from the Bay, didn’t return in fishable numbers until 20 years later.
Writing for the Sunpapers was a high visibility deal; a decade later, after I’d been on radio for some time, Sun-owned Channel 2 (WMAR-TV) suggested I grow a beard again for an outdoorsy look and do outdoor reports a few nights a week on the news and occasional documentaries. Twenty years later, when the ratings wars raged, young eager directors and producers took over. They didn’t understand why I couldn’t alert a cameraman when a fish strike was imminent so he could prepare to shoot.
Previously I had been taking my own footage on a hand-held, wind-up Bell & Howell, but TV was changing (as newspapers were soon to follow). Emphasis was on jazzing everything up; egos were bigger than any fish I ever caught (my biggest, a tuna at 840 pounds) and television was no fun anymore.
One day, a camera crew insisted I not take my old camera along. They had a new fangled $25,000 one. The cameraman, director, producer and grip (he who carried all the equipment) would handle everything. So there we were out on the Bay, hours of fishing and scenery in the can, and ready to start filming the actual catching.
Their fancy camera broke down. Mine was a two-hour run back in my car. I’d had enough. I never went back to the WMAR building again. I did my own show on cable for two years until the same phony approach to filming took over. Then I decided my radio outdoors network sponsored by National Boh would be enough to keep paying the kids’ college bills. Ever since, I have been on the tube only as an occasional guest.
TV was gone, but the beard stayed; wife Lois and three of my six kids have never seen me without it. Lois accuses me of having another girl’s name tattooed on my chin.
Still Walking Past Sunset
Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I have preferred straight news over news ruled by graphics and other fancy approaches. One day a features editor at the Evening Sun wouldn’t run a food column I wrote that readers had requested, on making deer bologna because of the sensitivity of readers.
Deer bologna insensitive? I not only ended my extra paying Evening Sun food column of 20 years, I took a rich buyout offered at the Sunpapers at the time. Journalism was no longer what it was, and I don’t like funerals.
Among my retirement gifts was an invitation to the White House from George H. W. Bush, whom I had met a decade earlier while fishing in Texas. But there was a hitch. Before the White House, I was to take him fishing. It was a deal, but one that almost wasn’t.
Picture this: I’m home, the phone rings and a man says Would you hold? The president wants to speak to you?
I asked what president and was informed the President of the United States.
Figuring it was a joke the voice sounded familiar I responded with a few words not fit for this paper, then hung up. The phone rang again, and I was talking to the senior George Bush.
During our fishing trip, he suggested I shouldn’t completely retire; I’d get old. Looking at him another former Navy man fit and trim I took his advice. The maze of roads took me first as professor of journalism at Anne Arundel County Community College, then here and to other publications where I still write regularly.
To those younger (and isn’t most everyone?), I can only advise that you keep walking through the woods, and when the roads diverge, choose carefully. One never knows where they can lead. Then never look back to wonder where that other road went.
Bill Burton began writing for Bay Weekly (then New Bay Times) the year he retired from the Evening Sun. It was 1993, and we were five issues old.