Rants & Essays

Dumb Luck

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 truth.

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 now!"

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. Maybe.

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 these stories?"

"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 pictures?"

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 flowers.

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…

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 strangers.

"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 us?"

"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 knew.

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 spring."

"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.