Chapter One: IN THE BEGINNING
The offer was serious.
As I looked out to the pristine white sand beach from the thatched meeting house with no walls, the chief of this small village in Fiji told me I could choose any of the local girls and marry her and stay with my own hut in this little slice of paradise.
I must admit there have been times I've looked back at that moment in my twenties and questioned my choice, but there were so many adventures I would have missed in forty years as a radio correspondent: Visiting Cuba with the Pope, huddling with rebels during an uprising in the Philippines, covering half a dozen presidential campaigns, 15 Academy Awards shows and welcoming in the new millennium with the King of Tonga.
As a boy I always planned to be a lawyer. A Supreme Court Justice actually, but first things first. I was born on New York’s Long Island and spent my first five years there before my family moved to Los Angeles.
The move was actually because of me. Born with a whole range of birth defects similar to spina bifida, my parents were told I was unlikely to live past childhood. The lesson of never fully trusting doctors took hold early.
Pretty much everything below the waist was deformed in some way: my feet pointed the wrong direction, my knees didn't bend, internal organs were messed up, and lower vertebra were missing. Years later as I reported on abortion rights battles it would sometimes occur to me that if ultrasound tests had been used in the early 1950s there was no doubt a well-meaning doctor would have recommended terminating me.
Though I learned quickly to get around by pushing a chair or a wagon or anything else that was handy before learning to walk on crutches, my parents worried living in snow and ice in the winters would be too difficult for me. While it wasn't the only reason they decided to move to California, it was the main one.
They loaded up their rambler station wagon with three kids and a dog and headed west. My father had interviews lined up and joined an accounting firm soon after arriving in Los Angeles, where he would become a partner and stay the rest of his working life. Years later when I lived in New York and Washington and took up skiing there was some irony, but my parents loved California and hated the cold weather and were always happy they had moved.
They grew up in Brooklyn and met as teenagers. My father Milton was a natural athlete and my mother Carrie first noticed him on the basketball court. Though both were Jewish, neither would end up practicing the religion.
My mother’s Uncle Mickey Marcus was a hero in the creation of Israel. A West Point graduate and Army colonel, he helped organize and lead the new Israeli Army in 1948. His exploits were dramatized in the movie “Cast a Giant Shadow,” starring Kirk Douglas as Mickey, and while my mother tells me he was indeed larger than life, she complains the portrayal of her aunt by Angie Dickinson was completely wrong.
My mother was 18 when she married my father, who was 20 and already in the Army. Neither family was particularly thrilled with the idea and my mother traveled on her own to Alabama, where my dad was stationed at the time. Married by a Southern judge, my mother swore she could hear my father’s knees buckle when the judge, who took a liking to her, tried to give them something special and called his sister over to play some music and then declared them married “in Jesus’s name.”
My dad saw action in France as a medic in the infantry and like so many men of his generation never talked much about it later. He went to college on the GI bill and earned both a law degree and an accounting degree. He liked accounting more than law and spent his life as a CPA. He helped people run their businesses and file their taxes but never let them cheat, even a little.
My mother started college but it would be decades later when she would go back and finish; she then continued earning more degrees, ending up working as a marriage and family counselor. During the war she worked as a lab technician for the Army, drawing blood from prisoners of war at one point.
My older brother Michael was born when my dad was still overseas.
My memories of my first five years in New York are pretty foggy, glimpses really. I remember a fig tree in front of our house, I remember my mother was upset when I got the measles, and that I got a present that was hidden in the closet when my sister Lorri was born when I was three. I remember my first day at kindergarten.
Later in life when I spent time with my nephews and nieces I remember feeling a little sad to think that the wonderful experiences we had together when they were one and two and three years old might contribute to their lives in important ways, but like me when they got older they probably wouldn’t remember any of it.
I was always a busy and active kid and never let anything slow me down. Every parent wants to protect his or her child, not only from getting hurt but also from failure, disappointment, and frustration. My parents were no different. I know now how hard it must have been for them to watch me leap into tasks I shouldn’t have been able to do and figure it out as all kids do, by trial and error. For me that meant a lot of falling down and I am so grateful they let me.
My mother was chided at times by other parents for not rushing to pick up her handicapped child when I fell, not understanding the extraordinary gift she was giving me, the confidence to try new things and the knowledge that if I fell down it was up to me to figure out a way to get back up.
And so I ran and jumped and climbed and played baseball and football and wrestled and never let anyone else’s view of what I “should” be able to do hold me back. I loved the Slip’N Slide (a backyard toy that consists of a long “carpet” of plastic, made slippery from a stream of water from a garden hose) but I was dangerous because I’d run up to it and throw my crutches wildly to the side when I leaped on it. Soccer was scary too, since I hit the ball with the crutches and never played gently. I broke one crutch when I hit a basketball at full speed and lost one when a wave knocked me down at the beach.
But I’m sure my mom was dying inside when I started to skateboard. I would stand facing sideways and use both crutches on the same side to build up speed—and I was very fast. I remember people scattered when I would fly through Disneyland on my skateboard. I’m sure it was against their rules even then, but who was going to tell a little kid on crutches he had to walk?
Oddly one thing I never tried to do as a kid was go on an escalator. For some reason I was always hesitant about it and there was always an elevator or the stairs. So I never used one until I was 18 and in Moscow. I was on a tour with friends and we took a ride on Moscow’s subway. We went down an elevator but at the station we were exiting there was no elevator or stairs, only the longest escalator I’ve ever seen going up to the street. I could barely make out where it ended. I studied it for a minute or two, and then got on because there was no choice. It turned out to be easy. Now I always take the escalator because elevators are too slow.
It is not easy to know how much of what we are comes from our parents, but I always considered myself a good mix. From my mother came exuberance for life, a sense of adventure and joy, and a sense of optimism that rarely wavered. From my father came an important balance of caution and reserve, and an understanding of the importance of perseverance and hard work. Also from him I gained what every son most wants from his father: the knowledge that from the time we wore wacky headdresses in Indian Guides to the times I sent him tapes of my stories traveling with the president, he was always proud of me.
My first brush with journalism was not encouraging.
Several times as a small boy my picture or name would get into the paper in a story about one of the Christmas parties or other big events sponsored by what was then called the Crippled Children’s Society. (I never quite understood why “crippled” became a dirty word. It is descriptive and accurate. Then “handicapped,” another perfectly good word, fell into disrepute replaced by “disabled.” I sometimes hear “differently abled” or “physically challenged,” which make no sense since they describe everyone to one degree or another.)
At any rate, every time I was in the paper they got the story wrong: my name or age or what the event was. My first introduction to journalists certainly didn’t lead me to want to become one.
Plus, I couldn’t spell. I was awful. Before every spelling test in school I’d memorize all the words and get 100 percent, then forget them all the next day. Later, in essay tests I’d use my atrocious handwriting to hide my horrible spelling by blurring the letters I wasn’t sure of. Since I was an “A” student the teacher just assumed I spelled it right. At least until computers came along with spell check, writing was clearly not the profession for me.
I used to be smart but other factors played in to my graduating from Stanford at 19.
When I started first grade in California there was no such thing as mainstreaming. Kids with disabilities, whether physical or developmental, were segregated in special schools. The schools I went to were small and they often combined two grades in a single classroom. They were prepared for kids with seizures or who needed help getting to the bathroom but didn’t know quite what to do with a kid who learned all the material for both grades.
So they started skipping me ahead, one grade at a time.
Eventually they brought in a special teacher for the two “gifted students” they had. He would take Donald LeStrange and me for an hour or two a day. We would open the encyclopedia, and starting with “A,” just find things that interested us and we would learn about them. It was great fun.
There were also field trips. I remember one where we milked a goat, but the one where I played with a lion was much more exciting. I think I was eight.
The field trip was to a veterinary hospital out in the country. The rooms were organized in a circle around a central courtyard and our class was in one watching a cat get spayed. One whiff of the ether and I had to get out. Never the type to bother the teacher with such trivialities such as permission, I opened the sliding glass door to the courtyard outside and went exploring.
I found a lion cub.
He was tied with a chain and playing with a beach towel. I had a dog at home and I knew that game. So I picked up one end of the towel and started playing tug of war. We were having a great time when someone finally noticed I was missing and came looking for me. I didn’t understand why they were all so upset; the baby lion and I were just playing.
It's amazing to think back now, but there was no scandal; no one got fired or went to jail or sued anyone. But I have a feeling the next class took a different field trip.
I liked school and was good at it, though looking back at some old report cards my mother saved, I discovered a pattern. I always had top grades in academic subjects but on the “citizenship” side there was always a lower mark for “obedience.” I never did get good at that. Being slightly disrespectful of authority is a common trait among journalists and helps us do our job.
I was also a bit of a ham and liked the spotlight. Even at four and five I would organize my friends and put on shows. Acting was fun and I was often in school plays. So when a casting agent came to the summer day camp I attended looking for some handicapped kids for a TV show I got on the list.
Rancho del Valle was the Crippled Children’s Society’s center in the San Fernando Valley where I grew up. I loved the place; it was where I learned to swim. There was also a sheltered workshop there where disabled adults were brought every day to “work.” As I look back at the wonderful times I had at the day camp, as well as at Camp Paivika, the summer sleepover camp in the mountains and all the terrific people who worked and volunteered there, I am struck by the fact that I never remember at any of those places meeting a successful handicapped adult. One who had a real job and lived an independent life. When I began volunteering to teach disabled children to swim in Northern Virginia decades later, I like to think I was also doing some teaching by example.
The casting agent was from the “Lassie” TV show. Three other kids and I were chosen for an episode about handicapped kids taken out to the woods to plant trees with Lassie and the Ranger. (He was on for a few seasons after Timmy.)
I would be out of school a week making a TV show, get to meet Lassie, and they were going to pay me $300! I was a ten year old on top of the world.
My first shock was that there was more than one Lassie. There were lots of them, including one just for fight scenes. And there were a few “Laddie” puppies on the set, training to be future Lassies. Lassie didn’t like to play; she was all business. And she was a he! But they did have golf carts and sometimes let me drive one around the back lot.
Our teacher in the show was played by Bonita Granville, who had been a movie star before marrying Jack Wrather, who owned the production company that made “Lassie.” She didn’t do much acting at that point in her life but wanted to do this role. Years later we met when I was covering a Reagan fundraiser and reminisced about the show.
The episode was built around my character, a sad and angry little boy who always felt sorry for himself because he needed crutches to walk. Talk about playing against type. My big scene was after the little trees we planted burned in a fire and I had to cry as Lassie came over to console me. They told me to think of something sad and I thought about my own dog dying and the tears flowed.
Then of course came the happy ending when Lassie pulled me over to see new growth on my burnt tree and I finally got to smile. Hamlet it was not, but it almost changed the course of my life. The director and others were sure I had a real future as a child actor and I went to see an agent and had professional pictures taken (and have never looked that good since).
But my parents and I were in agreement that academic pursuits were a better future course. I got to hold the money in cash at the bank before putting it in my first savings account. There were lots of residual payments for reruns, the last when the show was sold to Japan. By the time I left for college at 16 I had $1,000, which was put to good use when I spent six months studying abroad.
The schools for disabled children were good but limited. I wouldn’t be able to take the kind of advanced courses I would need to get into a good college. My mother fought long and hard with the Los Angeles School District trying to convince them to let me into a regular school. Their greatest fear seemed to be that I would get hurt and they would get sued, but she finally succeeded and convinced the principal of Charles Evans Hughes Junior High School to take a chance and let me in.
And so in seventh grade at the age of 10 I entered a regular school for the first time. I then attended Taft High School and joined the debating team. I loved to argue and did well in debate, though I lost one debate in which my partner and I demolished the opposition. The judge said I was too sarcastic and I’m sure I was.
My classmates voted me “most serious” and I was terribly insulted. I thought I was hysterically funny but other people rarely see us as we see ourselves. Maybe I got funnier later.
In my senior year in high school I was called one day into the counselor’s office. There, I met a man from the California Department of Rehabilitation who told me the state would like to help me to be “rehabilitated,” so I could work someday and be independent. That seemed cool. He said they could pay for my tuition and books at any of the state colleges or universities. When I told him I had already gotten into Stanford, he said they could pay the equivalent of a state school’s tuition, and for my books. I said sure, since any little bit my parents could save would be welcome. I checked in once or twice at school and after I graduated met with a state counselor and explained what I was doing and what my plans were. He said they couldn’t do much to assist in getting me a job as a radio reporter but felt I was in good shape. The file was closed and I was declared officially rehabilitated.