In the turbulent spring of 1970, Richard Nixon had recently sent 50,000 troops into Cambodia, the U.S. Congress had just dumped the nomination of the bumbling G. Harold Carswell for a seat on the Supreme Court and I received my undergraduate journalism degree from that Berkeley of the Midwest, Oklahoma State University.
I was a finalist for an internship at The Washington Post that summer and drove to Will Rogers International Airport outside Oklahoma City for an interview with a Postman named Richard Harwood, a distinguished journalist who went on to become the paper’s first ombudsman. Harwood’s flight was running late so this fledgling reporter hit the airport bar for a couple of beers to kill time. Time fogs memory, but I don’t think mixed drinks were available even at the OKC airport then. Baptists.
We had managed to break the hotel’s plastic glasses, the soap dish and every other available container in the room and were drinking Chivas Regal out of the cap of the bottle.
I nursed a third beer, and to my wonder, heard my twenty-two-year-old Okie name being paged throughout the airport. I went to a white telephone and learned that Harwood had changed plans. I was to hop on a flight to New Orleans, travel and hotel accommodations to be paid by The Washington Post, and meet with him there.
This struck me as a very good thing, so I had another beer, picked up my tickets, boarded and nestled down in my free first-class seat, and as soon as we were airborne, ordered what I decided what would be a very suave Scotch and water. Free, of course to us traveling executives. And another. In the course of the hour-and-a-flight, I believe I downed four, to the chagrin of the semi-attractive flight attendant who seemed to get much better looking as we got closer to the fabled Crescent City.
We landed. I ambled to a taxi and checked in at the Post’s recommended hotel near the airport. I was informed at the front desk that Harwood’s flight from Houston was running late and I should hang around the hotel so they could page me when he landed. At this point logic, cold logic, dictated that I should go to the hotel bar, have another beverage and wait. It was a typical murky and dark airport tavern half full of travelers. Lots of fat Southern men in cheap suits going, “Haw, haw, haw,” and dumb bleached blondes.
I ordered a Hurricane in honor of New Orleans and looked around. There was no one in the bar even half my age except an albino-looking skinny guy wearing glasses sitting by himself. What the hell, I thought, and went over and introduced myself. I explained my business and discovered to my horror that Percy, or whatever his name was, was a student at Tulane, also a candidate for the Post internship and was also waiting for Mr. Harwood. He didn’t smoke and was drinking a 7-Up.
A deep and irrational dislike of Percy welled up in me and I ordered another Hurricane. He tried to chat me up, telling inane college journalism stories, and I played with my straw.
I think I had another drink, maybe a daiquiri, and Percy blathered on. Finally, we heard our names paged over the bar intercom. Harwood’s flight had arrived and we went to meet him in the hotel lobby.
Richard Harwood was like a little boy’s idea of a journalist. Gruff, tweedy suit, a Homburg hat with a feather in it. I guessed mid-40s, though at 22 everybody looked old. Very dashing, very continental, like 007 come to life. Stocky, average height, deeply tanned and pissed off. First thing out of his mouth was a rant that the student he interviewed at the University of Houston was “a racist asshole.” Then he introduced himself, shook hands with both of us, and announced … he needed … a drink.
The three of us wound up in the same bar and in almost exactly the same seats. The bartender gave me a shitty look because I had tipped cheap not expecting to be back, but he gave Percy an even shittier look because he didn’t tip at all. Harwood pounded a Scotch and water and then another and I did the same. Percy nursed another 7-Up. The rounds continued and Harwood asked about our intentions in journalism, a conversation of which I have no memory. I do recall about two hours later Harwood poking Percy in the chest and yelling at him that men who didn’t drink had no business in journalism, then sent him packing back to his Tulane frat house.
My next recollection is of Harwood and I in his hotel room hours later. We had managed to break the hotel’s plastic glasses, the soap dish and every other available container in the room and were drinking Chivas Regal out of the cap of the bottle. I was using the Chivas bottle as a microphone to interview Mr. Harwood about his journalism career while he lay on the floor in his underwear. I had drank 007 under the table.
At some point in the evening, I retired to my room and the next morning Mr. Harwood and I met for breakfast, and he was cordial, hungover and uncomfortable. We chatted about the future and other safe topics. “Our little secret” was unspoken but tacitly understood.
We shook hands again at the New Orleans airport, and Richard Harwood flew on to another round of internship interviews and I flew back to Oklahoma. Just beers this time, despite my first-class seat.
About ten days passed and I received a letter from The Washington Post. It informed me that I had not received the internship. Rumor has it that it went to some guy named Carl Bernstein.