by RIP RENSE
March 10, 2004
The last Shag Hanson died the other day.
Shag Hanson, for the one or two (cough) readers
who have not yet ordered "The Last Byline,"
is one of the main characters in my fabulous novel.
Critics would call Shag the
hackneyed stereotyped grumpy old newspaperman, grown into anachronism---but enlightened
readers know better. They know that Shag was a noble soul; a man who lived by an internal
ethical compass, a bright sense of whimsy, abiding kindness of spirit. No wonder he drank
alone, and wrote poetry late at night, and said things like "The thing to remember
about condescension is that we are all descended from the same con."
Shag Hanson was based on several different
people I count myself privileged to have known. Nils Bernard "Pete" Petersen was
one, a "rim rat" (copy editor) at the Valley News when I was a copyboy
fetching his coffee. He was a person of great dignity, gentility, tobacco, and regular
trips to the American Legion Hall bar next door (as was the case with most of the copy
editors, save for one thrifty fellow who brought his bourbon in a thermos.)
Pete was winding out a long,
distinguished career as painlessly as possible, which was no easy feat, as he was haunted
by the ghost of his fine young son, killed years before in a car wreck shortly after
getting married. Pete only spoke of this once that I heard, when we were having a drink at
the Legion Hall. "I was lucky to have known him," Pete said, after pulling the
kid's photo out of a wallet.
Some of Shag's grace and heartbreak came from
this fine gentleman, who passed away many years ago.
Shag is also based somewhat on my old man, Art,
who wrote wry sports copy for the original L.A. Daily News, had a taste for Early
Times bourbon ("for when it's too late," as I'm fond of saying), and wrote
poetry. In my humble estimation, Art was nothing short of a great and undiscovered poet,
and I hope to rectify the "undiscovered" part sometime before reading and
thinking become licensed by the Department of Homeland Security.
Much of Shag was also inspired
by my friend and colleague, Don Branning, with whom I worked at the L.A.
Herald-Examiner. Like Shag, Don was gawky, bald, shaky, pipe-puffing, bespectacled,
hard-working, and doggedly principled, with a serpentine career covering many major
newspapers. Also like Shag, his figurative heart was a great as his literal heart was not.
Given a few weeks to find a new job, for
reasons that I can't fathom, Don promptly keeled over in the office with a heart attack,
more or less right in front of me. Paramedics told him he was fine, that it was just
anxiety, and to go home and rest. He went home and promptly rested in peace. I guess he
was about 64.
Which brings me to Carter Barber,
whose various qualities figure most in the make-up of Shag Hanson: from his love of the
sea and good music to his trademark refrain, "Carry on, man, carry on!" Carter
passed away last month at 81, which was especially impressive considering the amount of
booze that floated his boat, and the clouds of Marlboro that billowed his sails.
Carter put down his beer, rose to his feet, tied a silk scarf around his head. .
.and hoochie-koochied right along with her. One hoochie for every year.
The room clapped and stomped encouragement.
I met the man at the Valley News, back
around 1975, when I was a young reporter and he the distinguished business editor---and resident jazzbo/opera
buff. Our rapport derived largely from obsession with music; we shared notes on the
visiting New York City Opera, and he invited me to a few concerts in order to acquaint me
with "the good stuff," from the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut Big Band to a couple of
pianists he favored (Johnny Guarnieri was one, I recall.) I will forever be indebted to him, in particular, for Kid Ory's
"Creole Song," which he correctly pronounced "incomparable."
I can still see the 1970's-era
Carter clearly in mind: blue-and-white seersucker jacket, clunky horn-rims, wing-tips,
khaki slacks, a (usually loosened) tie, burning cigarette, twinkle in the eye, merry
smile. Or the maritime version I knew in the '80s, sitting aboard his little ketch,
The Musetta, pouring a Bud and, in the process, revealing a blurry,
faded tattoo from World War II on his upper arm.
Carter, with typewriter and "Press" bag, on his way to Normandy.
My father was on the same boat as Carter during the Normandy
Invasion. I'm attaching a picture that my father had labeled "Carter
Barber" on the back. Like Carter, my father never talked about the
war, but here's a little information for
They were on US Coast Guard # 16, part of "RESCUE FLOTILLA ONE"
Their boat went
in with the first wave on D-Day(American Sector) and was credited
with saving 126
Americans that first morning, the most of any boat.
I'm not sure exactly how we became friends, but
attribute it to Carter's good will, gregariousness, and care. It certainly wasn't my
doing, as I was a bit in awe of the guy. I recall being amazed at how he seemed to quickly strike up rapport with anyone
of any age;
his only prejudices being fraudulence and cruelty. To wit: when we occasionally had
a burger at the bowling alley near the Valley News, Carter treated the lady who
prepared his daily martini (chased with a Budweiser) like an artist. "Perfect,"
he would tell her, smiling and hoisting his drink, "Just absolutely perfect!"
And they'd gab away. He was equally solicitous of colleagues---those who deserved it, that
is, as he had nothing but contempt for authoritarians and poseurs---and he was courtly to
a fault. Sometimes comically so, as his longtime co-worker and friend, Geoff Kelly,
"Carter hated pomposity. I told
his son, Davis, about his penchant for lighting ladies' cigarettes and how at gatherings,
his old friend, Jack Cook, would deliberately set it up so that some young gal would make
a great show of getting out a cigarette, somehow snag Carter's eye and then watch as he
did a broken-field run to get to her, where the flame from the Zippo would flare as the
cigarette hit her lips. 'You're welcome, my dear,' would be his inevitable
rejoinder. And hey, perhaps one of them went home with him."
Probably so! Carter was a pixie and a sage. He
was a wit and a charmer, a philosopher and Renaissance Man. He was a man of books and
literature---a compulsive letter-writer and file-keeper---a great lover of women (notably
his one-time Pasadena Star-News co-Pulitzer nominee, Lucie Lowery), singer of
songs, teller of stories. He wasn't tall, but he had stature. When you think of him, you
think immediately of the phrase "hale fellow, well met," with maybe a Puccini
aria hovering in the background, or a Bach prelude, and you think of the best qualities
you'd want in a friend: camaraderie, good will, mingling of ideas. . .
Of course, it's true that ideas
didn't always mingle gracefully, notably as one grows older. He could be cantankerous and
dismissive, as everyone who knew him would confirm, and sometimes his decorum bordered on
paradox. For instance: one of the things he didn't like about my fabulous novel
is the frequency of earthy vernacular, yet I heard such words many a time from him through
the years---largely intended for a particular editor at the Valley News. (Then
there were the, oh, ribald short stories he penned under the name, Clarence
Lovely, and a fabled episode at the old L.A. Mirror-News in the late '50s, in
which Carter, upon hearing the the paper was folding, allegedly stood on top
of a particularly reviled editor's desk, unzipped his fly, and "saluted" in
the best tradition of Rover. Bravo.) And for all his
skepticism and disdain of hollow ritual, the man was peculiarly dedicated to attending
church---despite, as his pastor remembered during his memorial service, his dislike of
Well, I took a lot of notes at this simple
service in Pasadena a week ago, which had a bit too much churchianity for me, but
was redeemed by: an "adopted son" tearfully recalling the man's encouragement
and refrain of "carry on"; his son, Davis Barber, who teaches photojournalism at
Cal State Fullerton, paying tribute to his father's integrity and principle; and Carter's
exploits in the War, as recounted by a couple of members of the Coast Guard who came to
help one of their own ship out for the last time. . .
And by golly, it turns out
that the old boy was a bonafide hero! Blown up off the coast of Africa, he
floated semi-conscious in the sea, clinging to wreckage, for about eleven
hours. A few months later, at Normandy, his job as war correspondent
suddenly and terribly became one of saving lives, as he helped carry dozens
of wounded men to safety, earning the Bronze Star. Like so many veterans,
Carter never talked much of his time in the war. In all the years I knew
him, I only managed to get the information that he had been at Normandy, but
no details (until receiving the letter and photo shown here.)
Long after our newspaper paths parted, he
stayed in touch, dropping by the occasional poker game, and always typing letters (usually
on yellow paper)--- generous letters, letters full of good will and pertinent quotations
and concern. He was a better friend to me than I was to him, that's for sure, but then, it
was a tough proposition to match Carter for loyalty and bonhomie.
My favorite memory of him will
always be one afternoon in my tiny old apartment in Sherman Oaks, where I had thrown a
party---chiefly an excuse to hire the magnificent belly dancer, Marta Inda. I hadn't
expected Carter to show up, but he always took invitations seriously---this one,
especially, as it turned out to have been his 70th birthday. Thus the party found its
And as Marta twirled and her finger
cymbals chimed brightly, and her silk scarves drew odd geometry in the air, Carter put
down his beer, rose to his feet, tied a silk scarf around his head. . .and hoochie-koochied
right along with her. One hoochie for every year. The room clapped and stomped
Quite a scene, it was.
But back to my fabulous novel.
The optimism, the joie de vivre, the
cavalier dismissal of travail, the deep love of music, the passion for sailing, the
eschewing of the churlish, the heroism in World War II---these parts of Shag Hanson all
came from Carter Barber.
Shag, in fact, probably never would
have existed without him. As I wrote and rewrote the book through the years, and version
piled up on version (literally), Carter never so much as said, "Er, son, have you
considered taking up the piano?" Nope, there was nothing but steady-as-she-goes
support from this old salt. And when I actually finished an early, would-be Vonnegut-esque
version of the novel, why, he sat down and typed a thirty-page term paper about
it! It was stupendous! If only the book had done the critique justice!
What a guy to have done such a grand thing for
But this was Carter, serious to the bone, a
champion of, and advocate for, the best in everyone he met. For the rest of my life, I
will be among the lucky ones able to always hear in mind his warm, focused baritone
pronouncing his signature sign-off:
"Carry on, man, carry on!"
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