Kitty Thuermer (Mali 1977-79) recalls Sydney Schanberg, who passed away recently, and his friendship with her father when she was a child growing up in New Delhi.
Sydney Hillel Schanberg (January 17, 1934 – July 9, 2016) was an American journalist who was best known for his coverage of the war in Cambodia. He was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, two George Polk awards, two Overseas Press Club awards, and the Sigma Delta Chi prize for distinguished journalism. Schanberg was played by Sam Waterston in the 1984 film The Killing Fields based on the experiences of Schanberg and the Cambodian journalist Dith Pran in Cambodia. — JC
Kitty’s story . . .
In the New York Times‘ obit of Sydney Schanberg — whose Cambodia stories inspired “The Killing Fields” movie — there is little to smile about.
It describes him as tough and fearless, ready to pursue any story at any cost. Sure enough, back in 1970 while bureau chief in New Delhi, Shanberg got an invitation from my Pop to go pig sticking with the Indian Army — he leapt at the chance.
As I recall, the delicate matter of whether he could actually ride a horse was never brought up. We arrived at the dusty Army camp at Meerut — where the ancient sport of pig sticking would take place. The elements involved were horse, rider, spear — and wild boar. The army men were superb horsemen, some sporting dashing turbans, and they took off like Bengal Lancers, galloping through the bush in pursuit of their prey.
While Pop was not exactly of the Lancer caste, as a Fearless Ferengi he held his own and took off at a respectable canter, making sure to grip the upright spear with one hand while the bottom was wedged in a leather cup by his stirrup. After several forays, he returned to camp and told Sydney that now it was his turn.
I will never forget what happened next because I happened to have an excellent vantage point from atop an elephant, where we ladies were safely relegated — fueled by a picnic basket of samosas, sandwiches and tea.
Sydney was not burdened with a spear the first time out — Pop told him just to try out the horse. But he was no sooner given a leg up than the horse took off like a rocket. From atop the elephant, I saw a lone figure galloping further and further away in the dust, his elbows flapping fanatically, and then disappearing entirely as he leaned forward to cling to the horse’s neck for dear life. There ensued much shouting — from Sydney, from Pop, and from the army man who was dispatched to rescue him. The rescuer took off like lightening, and caught up with the runaway horse just in time. For as he galloped alongside and leaned over to catch the reins of Sydney’s horse, he was nearly blocked by Sydney’s body, which by this time had slid halfway off the steed and was hanging off the side like a human saddlebag.
That night, around the campfire, while the army men roasted a giant boar over a spit, Pop quietly helped Syd Shanberg nurse his wounded body and his pride over a couple of Kingfisher beers. But of course the story had legs and Pop would tease the newsman about it over the years.
And I got in the act myself some years later after I saw “The Killing Fields” in Michigan. I was very moved by the story and wrote Mr. Schanberg a fan letter. In it, I made the connection with our Delhi days, and couldn’t resist mentioning — tongue-in-cheek — that our family always remembered his equestrian prowess. I never expected to hear back from him, but got a nice handwritten note, saying among other things that “your memory is too kind.” No kidding, I thought.
Pop’s first love was always news reporting, and he and Mom, both former AP reporters, loved to entertain foreign correspondents in their overseas posts. When he was finally assigned back to Washington as CIA press spokesman, Pop had an unusual item displayed in his office.
“What’s that, Angus?” a reporter once asked.
“It’s a pig-sticking spear from India.”
“What’s it doing here?”
“I use it to spear nosy newsmen.”
Of which, it must be said, Sydney Schanberg was one of the best.
Kitty Thuermer (Mali 1977-79) was born in Bombay and has lived in Accra, Munich, New Delhi, Antananarivo, Bamako, Dar es Salaam & Zanzibar. She currently lives in Washington, D.C.