Rants & Essays
By Charles Kuralt
You'll think this is a whopper. I wouldn't believe it either
if I hadn't been there. My soundman, Tom Cosgrove, will swear it's the honest
We were deep in Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp in an outboard
motorboat run by an old man who was born and brought up on the fringes of the
swamp. We had left early in the morning, thinking we'd make pictures for an
hour or two, but we kept seeing more alligators, herons, egrets, ibises,
flowering water plants and thickets of cypress, each more beautiful and
mysterious than the one before.
By mid-afternoon it was boiling hot and muggy in a way that
only the south-Georgia swamp ever becomes. We were all sweaty and tired and,
above all, thirsty. The black swamp water looked too murky to drink. Anyway, it
wasn't water Cosgrove was thinking of.
Tom Cosgrove was devoted to the healing qualities of beer.
He finally said to nobody in particular, "What I would give for a beer right
Not one minute later we noticed sunlight glinting from
something in the shallow water. We slowed down and Cosgrove leaned over the
side, reached into the water and lifted out a six-pack of beer.
He extracted one from the plastic rings. He popped the top,
took several long, cold swallows and regarded the can thoughtfully.
"Could be a little colder," he said.
The rest of us just looked at one another. The old man who
was running the motor thought the beer must have fallen out of somebody else's
boat. Cosgrove's opinion was that it was a gift from the great spirit of the
swamp to him alone.
All I know is that this was an example of how a traveler
needs a carefree and optimistic spirit, curiosity about his surroundings,
powers of keen observation - and something more. Maybe it's dumb luck.
Then there was the time we were shooting a story
commemorating George Washington's arduous crossing of the Delaware in the
winter of '76. We went down to the riverbank where he had started the crossing
and found some boats tied up, boats not much different from the ones the
General had used to get his ragtag army over to Trenton - just the picture we
were hoping to find. But the day was bright, not wintry-looking enough. My
cameraman, Izzy Bleckman, said, "I wish it would snow."
A cloud passed over the sun. It started to snow. I made my
little speech to the camera with big snowflakes falling all around me. The snow
covered the boats; Izzy made his pictures. Just as we finished shooting, it
stopped snowing and didn't snow again for a week.
Back at the office, people used to ask me, "How do you FIND
"Well," I would say, "you have to work at it."
But all you really have to do is look out the window and
have a little luck.
Once, looking for stories on the back roads of Ohio, we
passed a farmhouse with a homemade banner stretched between two oak trees in
the front yard. The banner said in huge letters: "WELCOME HOME, ROGER!" We
drove for a mile or two. Somebody said, "Wonder who Roger is?"
We turned around, went back and knocked on the door.
Roger was a soldier on his way home from Vietnam. His family
wasn't sure what day he was going to arrive. Roger's mother was in the kitchen
baking his favorite chocolate cake. His wife was there with a baby son Roger
hadn't seen. We asked if they'd mind if we brought the camera into the house.
Roger's mother said it would be all right if we'd give her a minute to fix her
hair. We weren't there more than an hour. We never did see Roger.
At my desk in the bus as we rolled on that afternoon, I
wrote a simple story letting Roger represent all the GI's coming home to their
families from Vietnam. After Walter Cronkite put the story on the "Evening
News," there was so much viewer interest that Cronkite felt compelled to report
on the air a few nights later, "Oh, and by the way - Roger got home!"
Another time we decided to go to Cheyenne, Wyo., on
Independence Day. We took a dirt road that goes over the hills to Medicine Bow,
planning to make it to Cheyenne in time for supper.
But we never got to Cheyenne at all because we starting
noticing the wildflowers: patches of daisies and wild geraniums, stands of
mountain columbine at the bottoms of the hills and vast fields of Indian
paintbrush on the slopes. The farther we went along that road, the more
spectacular the wildflower show became. There were millions of flowers,
stretching to the horizon, a patchwork of brilliant white and blue and purple,
yellow, orange, and flaming red.
Finally Izzy said, "Do you suppose we ought to make some
We went to work. There wasn't much sound to record except
the whisper of the wind and the buzz of an occasional bee, so our soundman,
Larry Gianneschi, scouted ahead for new varieties. "Oh, man," he'd holler from
some hilltop far off the road, "come look at this one!" and Izzy and I would
trudge up there with the gear. Then: "There's a whole bunch of iris-looking
things by the creek!" and down the hill we'd plod. I suppose we walked 15 or 20
of the 80 miles to Medicine Bow that day in quest of little bits of beauty.
When the sun went down, we had two or three hours of vivid
pictures, dozens of memories of the wild splendor we had seen - and one
problem: how to describe it in words? I didn't even have names for most of the
Knowledge, a wise old city editor once advised me, consists
of knowing where to look it up. So were could I, in the wilds of Wyoming, find
a dependable authority on wildflowers?
I looked at the map: Medicine Bow, Rock River,
Laramie! Seat of the University of Wyoming, which should
have a department of botany. It was already after dark, and the next day was
the Fourth of July, when the university would be shut down; but we drove on to
Laramie and I went to bed certain that somewhere in the city a wildflower
expert was sleeping.
His name turned out to be Dennis Knight. He was in his yard
cooking hamburgers when up his driveway road the "On the Road" bus full of
"See, we have pictures of all these flowers," I said, "and
we don't know what they are. Could you look at the tape and identify them for
"When?" he said.
"Well - now," I said.
Dennis Knight, Ph.D., chairman of the department of botany
at the University of Wyoming, who thought he was having a day off with his
family, sighed a professional sigh.
"Sure," he said. "Have a beer."
He spent most of the rest of that day aboard the bus with us
while his cookout went on without him.
Knight's knowledge of flowers was encyclopedic. If I had
searched the world over, I could not have found anyone half so edifying on the
subject. I couldn't type fast enough to record all the interesting things he
I froze a frame on the tape monitor. "This one looks like a
violet," I said.
"Blue flax," he said. "LINUM LEWISIT. Named for Captain
Meriwether Lewis. He found it out here and carried a specimen back to President
Jefferson. The Indians used the stems to make fishing lines.
The next frame came up. "Daisy?" I guessed.
"Balsamroot," he said. "Bighorn sheep eat them in the
"Here," he continued. "What do you think this one is?"
"Buttercup?" I said.
"Bingo!" he said. "You got one!" Now he was warming up.
"Stonecrop. It's a SEDUM. Tough little thing. You think it's
dead and gone, then it rains and there it is again."
And "Sulphur flower. It's in the buckwheat family."
I went back to the motel and wrote a beautiful, informed
script about wildflowers. People who saw the story probably still think of me
as some kind of naturalist. I am not, but I met a man who let me steal his
Fourth of July and pick his brain of half a lifetime's knowledge. I think he
sort of enjoyed it, too.
What on earth led us to take the back road to Cheyenne? What
delivered Dennis Knight into our hands just when we had to find him?
I'd say the Almighty, if I didn't think he had better things
to do with his time than provide a wandering camera crew with fields of
wildflowers and scholars on demand.
Maybe it was dumb luck. Maybe.