Reviewed by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)
I once asked Ron Arias (Peru 1963-64) what he did at People Magazine and he said, and I quote, “I cover the Third World.” I laughed, thinking he was being sarcastic, and he was, but Ron was also being serious. Thanks to his fluency in Spanish, his experience in the Peace Corps, his traveling and working in Latin America, plus his ability, his need, perhaps, to go everywhere and do anything to get a story, made him a minor celebrity in the complex and competitive conglomerate of Time/Life.
A few of Ron’s brushes with danger around the world are implied and hinted at in this collection of funny, insightful, touching and true stories entitled My Life as a Pencil, a chapbook recently published by Red Bird Chapbooks.
The book title comes from orders given by a Marine officer in Saudi Arabia in 1991 to Ron and a group of other journalists and photographers when he shouted out, “Pencils to the left, shooters to the right.”
Ron was a pencil. He has been a “pencil” most of his life. He worked, for example, with a daily Buenos Aires English-language newspaper before he joined the Peace Corps, and after Peru he spent 22 years in New York City with People.
In addition to magazine journalism, Ron has written or co-written five books. His first book, a novel, The Road to Tamazunchale (1975) was nominated for a National Book Award; then came Five Against the Sea, a true survival saga (1988); Healing from the Heart, with Dr. Mehmet Oz (1998); Moving Target: A Memoir of Pursuit (2002); and White’s Rules: Saving Our Youth, One Kid At A Time, with Paul D. White (2007).
His sixth book, Pencil, is a look back at his journalism days in eight essays published in a variety of publications. These essays are actually the stories behind the stories that appeared under his byline, in a variety of magazines, including People.
But before People, before Peru and the Peace Corps, before leaving his home in Southern California for Buenos Aires, there was Ron, then living with his dad who was in the Army and stationed in Germany, when Ron spent a summer hitchhiking around Europe, and arriving in Pamplona, Spain, for the running of the bulls, when on a side street of that famous city he meets Ernesto.
Ernesto is the title of Ron’s first essay in this collection and it sets the tone for the book. We see what this kid — Ron Arias — is like when he encountered Hemingway two years before the novelist took his own life in 1961.
Ron’s introduction to the famous writer was much the way Ron would operate as a journalist his whole life: his total lack of fear when confronting a personality or a dangerous situation. It went like this, Ron writes:
Now and then I overheard people talking about Hemingway, that they’d seen him the day before, that they’d be the first to spot him today. But the hunters couldn’t be that serious because after only about twenty minutes of wandering around, I saw a broad figure with a short white beard seated at one end of a long, wooden picnic table set out in front of a restaurant on the sunny side of the plaza. A billed cap shaded his face and he was seated with two man and a woman. From what I could see, he perfecty filled the image I had of him.
I approached, flier in hand, until I stood by the table in front of him. “Excuse me, Mr. Hemingway, could I get your autograph?”
He looked at me through tinted glasses. The others next to him kept talking but he was just staring, maybe annoyed that I intruded, or maybe he was sizing me up. I didn’t know. Did I have the wrong man?
Finally, he smiled. “Want some wine?”
I won’t tell you what happens next. Read the book.
In the course of his career, Ron keeps running into famous people. He took Hunter Thompson to hear a great sax player in the jazz scene of Buenos Aires. He went jogging with Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua. He also shares his stories about the “shooters” who accompanied him around the Third World on People Magazine assignments.
The turning point, however, for Ron’s journalistic career was not an encounter with the legendary or notorious, but came shortly after being hired by People for basically a desk job.
In those days (1985) People had reporters in the field doing the reporting and writers like Ron back in the US turning them into stories. Ron was at work on the 29th floor of the Time Life Building writing captions when he got an early morning surprise call from a senior editor he didn’t know telling him that there had been an earthquake in Mexico. The editor wanted Ron to fly down to Mexico City and bring back a story.
“I figured he called me because no one else spoke Spanish in the office.” By that afternoon Ron is on a flight to Mexico armed with his portable Olivetti.
Going to such a disaster was all new and frightening to Ron but he pushes forward into the tragedy and arrives at a complex of residential buildings and finds a structure which has, Ron writes, “Crashed face down like a bookcase might.”
Searching for someone who might have a story he could report, he finds a young woman, “her white mask dangling beneath her chin.”
“Do you live here?” he asks in Spanish.
She won’t answer. She gestures with a hand to wave him away.
He continues to ask questions.
“I asked about her family, but she remained silent.”
Then, thinking she might be married and a mother, he asked if she had any children. She nodded and help up one finger.
It turns out she has a boy and he is okay and he is with her husband.
Then Ron does something very human and not what a reporter would do. He writes in his essay:
I have a son too, I said. Then, reflexively and without thinking, I burst out with words that seemed to well up from a deep pool of repressed emotions. I used to have two sons but one died.
For the first time Samantha (the woman) turned her head and looked at me squarely. “How old was he?”
“My son is seven months old.”
“What was his name?”
“Jonat n.” She said, giving the name a Spanish pronunciation.
After a moment, I said, “That was also my son’s name, the one who died.” I explained in halting words that he’d been killed nine year ago while walking on a sidewalk with his mother. “A car turned a corner going too fast and hit him, hit my son.”
After that exchange — parent to parent — she would tell her story of why she was there at the earthquake, of how her mother and father and her siblings lived and were lost in the ruins, and Ron would write it for People. It was his first piece for the magazine.
When he returned to New York, he was, “Roundly congratulated” immediately promoted, and given a new office with a window to the world.
I stepped to the window and looked down at the traffic on Sixth Avenue. I thought of Samantha, of the rescue scene, of how my little run of stories about death and life had pushed me to the edge, pushed me to feel something sharp and deep, something I did my best to put into words. For a moment I almost felt smug that I’d pulled it off. Then suddenly all I could see and feel was my son Jonathan’s face with his sweet smile, followed by the usual kick of hurt.
Read this book about what it means to be a parent.
Read this book about what it means to be a journalist.
Read this book.