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ATTICA REVISITED
3/10/2010 11:19:05 AM    [ Flag as Inappropriate ]


Nelson Rockefeller was elected to four terms as Governor of New York State and served fifteen years before becoming Vice President of the United States in the Gerald Ford administration. He was, however, still governor when the Attica State Prison riots occurred in September 1971.

As a TV journalist in those days, I was assigned to cover Rockefeller’s appearance when he testified at the Wyoming County Courthouse in tiny Warsaw, NY about his role in squelching those riots.

“Where is Warsaw?” I asked our erstwhile news director.

“How the hell should I know?” was his erudite reply. “Down in the Southern Tier, I think, near Perry. Or Dansville. Or someplace. Grab a photographer and get back in time for processing so we got film for six o’clock.”

I wanted Leigh Smith, but he was on assignment; so I commandeered Charlie Planert, our chief cameraman; he was a licensed pilot who owned an airplane and could get us there and back by four-thirty.

“My plane’s in the shop,” Charlie said, “but I’ll call Ray Hyland and borrow one of his.” Ray Hyland owned a local airport, a flying school, and a fleet of small planes. “Shoot,” Hyland said, “come on out—-I’ll fly you guys down there myself! Got nuthin else to do!” (He was, at the time, about 107.)

Within the hour we were airborne, Charlie riding co-pilot, Ray in the left seat, and me scrunched in behind with the equipment—-while Planert and Hyland, to my horror, lit up their ubiquitous cigars. Although it was early May, it was cold, rainy and overcast; between the foggy mist outside and the cloud of smoke inside I could not make out either wingtip. I took out my Scripto pad I began to write my own obituary.

“You got any idea where Warsaw is?” I hollered, over the roar of the Cherokee’s single engine. “Yeah,” Hyland hollered back, “Poland!”

I don’t know how we found it, but a few minutes later Hyland said, “That must be it. Lookit all the police cars with the flashin’ red lights!”

Straining to make them out through the curtain of cigar smoke and scattered clouds, I saw amidst pellets of rain a dozen or more New York State Trooper cars lined up alongside a solitary landing strip. Once on the ground, a burly sergeant in a yellow slicker and plastic encased Stetson demanded to see our press credentials. “Can you give us a lift into town?” Charlie inquired. The sergeant chomped on his own cigar. “You kiddin’?”

Ray Hyland said, “I’ll stay here with the plane. One of them grease monkeys in the hanger’ll run you fellas into town. Tell ‘em I said it was okay and give ‘em a fin.” A few minutes later Charlie and I joined the madding crowd of reporters in the rain in front of the courthouse. “Can’t go in,” Peter Jennings from ABC told us. “Rocky’s coming out in a while to make a statement.”

“We gotta get closer,” Charlie said; “follow me.” At six feet seven and built like a Bills’ defensive end, he elbowed his way to the front, streaming cigar smoke and sucking me along in his wake. There must have been two hundred reporters and cameramen jostling and pushing near the steps; each seemed to look at me as if I emitted a peculiar odor. I glanced at the distaff scribe next to me, and I smiled pleasantly, recognizing her as one of TV’s brightest stars. “You got any extra batteries?” she snapped.

In those pre-historic times, before the advent of Electronic News Gathering tape cameras, all events were shot silent on film (we used a 16mm Bolex with three lenses built into a turret,) and I pushed a small cassette tape recorder toward my subject with which to snare separate sound-bites. After the film was processed and dried, the sound was “married” to the image, and voila! Sound on Film! Not exactly Hi-Tech, but it worked! Besides, it was all we had in those days.

“My recorder is dead,” the lady amplified. “Gimme your batteries.”

“No way! They’re all I got,” I lied, smugly fingering the fresh 8-pack of double A’s in my London Fog trench coat pocket.

She glared at me. “You idiot! You don’t know who I am, do you?”

“I know precisely who you are. You’re ****** ***** from ***.”

“That’s right, buddy!” she said. “And if you don’t give me your batteries, I’ll have your job!”

I belched forth a hearty laugh, and Charlie stopped fooling with the Bolex and looked at me. “Girl here says,” I told him, “she’ll have me fired if I don’t give her my batteries. What should I do?”

Charlie stared at her. “Whatever you do,” he said, making sure she heard him, “don’t tell her your name is Tom Decker.”

I never found out how ****** ***** solved her problem (if she ever did,) because when Rocky came out and talked to us, we were too busy dodging raindrops, keeping warm and recording history. By 3:15 PM we were back in Rochester; but flying back and choking under a blanket of cigar smoke in the rear of the small, bouncing Cherokee was an experience I never forgot. I knew exactly how Will Rogers, Wiley Post, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan, at some point, must have felt.


Copyright©2010 by Robert A. Mills


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