Sunday, October 14, 2007

Avalon of the Mind

No, not the Avalon on Catalina Island. Although, you can see that on a clear day, as you stand atop Janss Steps and look out toward the sea.
Last night I dreamed I returned to UCLA.

In the dream, I scattered my sister's ashes, some in the memorial garden off Hilgard Avenue, and a good chunk alongside the Anthropology Department. To that extent, my dream replicated the reality of what I did in reality. Far from not thinking about my sister with some regularity, I was instead drawn back to that campus by another shadow of reminder of time and joys and good fortune--and of connectivity to something I have striven all my life to articulate.

During my undergraduate years, with no anticipation of graduate school, I had the good life of largely taking only the classes whose subjects interested me, refining those to the ones taught by instructors I had some reason to admire. A significant part of this good life was working on the daily newspaper, for which the work was pleasurable and the pay sufficient for the beer, books, and occasional forays on The Village Delicatessen and various jazz joints (notably The Haig at Wilshire and Kenmore, across the street from The Ambassador Hotel) required to keep body and soul functioning.

There was separate pay for desk editing, copy editing, night editing, proofreading, and sports night editing to keep life comfortable. The occasional weekly prize for best feature story, best outrageous pun headline, and best news story added to the amount of time I could hang out at The Haig without having to stiff the cocktail waitress.

One of my guilty pleasures was slipping bogus names into the staff box of The Daily Bruin, some onamatapoetic name or some embedded-pun name, or some double entendre that spoke to the internal battle all of my then age experience when giving up the more overt evidences of youth. T. Hee was one such favorite bogus name. Gunnar Bjorkstrup was another, and I seem to recall a Harry Ohm. That sort of thing--all carefully buried in eight-point type below the contents. Nothing anyone would notice, and certainly nothing that would keep The Daily Bruin from winning the awards it normally won nor, indeed, that would keep the editor-in-chief (can you imagine anything more self-serious than the editor-in-chief of a major college daily?) from running me off.

The guilty pleasure was the mere fact of seeing the bogus name appear in the staff box. By artful contrivance, I even turned in shorts, one- and two-hundred-word news briefs accurate in every way except for the author's name, T. Hee, on days whenI did not work the editorial desks. Accordingly, imagine my mixture of surprise and chagrin on one such day to scan the staff box to see if T. Hee had been "discovered" and discovered that while T. Hee continued, he had been joined by one O. Leo Leahy.

Who? I wondered, had invaded my territory.

Cut to the chase. A fellow staff member, Barry Tunick, was the progenitor of O. Leo Leahy. Tunick went on to a career that included the Sunday Crossword Puzzle in the Los Angeles Times. We were never beyond nodding acquaintances, exchanging a sentence or two at staff meetings, even appearing in the same classes on occasion. But for years, even after I'd moved from LA, the connection was through the puzzle and its lovely, quirky, punning clues, which challenge was the delight of my Sunday morning and which I anticipated all week.

It was not as though I knew him as that once again, through each puzzle, I felt that lovely, prickling awareness I felt when encountering O. Leo Leahy.

Comes now the news from another DB'er who'd gone on to journalistic heights. Tunick is at a stage IV. Chemo was a bust and so it is something called platelet procedure. Not a fun procedure, involving some pain and discomfort. Prognosis: eighteen percent chance of success. Many would say screw it, order the twenty-two ounce Chateaubriand and a Romanee-Conte or a large Tattingers, turn up the music and dance. Not Tunick. Let's go for it, he said. I'm rooting for him, and secured his email to send along a sense of what having that weekly puzzle in my life meant. Signed it O. Leo Leahy. I know where he's coming from, having in effect opted for the steak and burgundy instead of the chemo after my own close encounter of the III kind, just short of four years ago.

That explains, at least to me, why I dreamed of UCLA, which has a building named Kerckhoff Hall, named, no doubt, after some alum/benefactor, in which The Daily Bruin was maintained. My Avalon was not that room, rather that publication and the people who worked on it, persons who were linked by that place to reach out from it. Indeed, I met Swindell there and reviewed books from him during his tenure at the Inquirer in Philadelphia and the Star-Tribune in Fort Worth. Maybe never would have happened otherwise. Or Bob Kirsch at the LA Times. Or the misadventureous friendship with a former editor-in-chief, or--well, there you have it.

The last time I was there, having help scatter literal and figurative ashes of my past, I stood at the threshold of Avalon, which is to say Kerckhoff Hall; said What the hell, and mounted the steps. The new Daily Bruin offices would put the average weekly--even the one I contribute to here in SB--to rout. Sitting in a comfortable-looking office behind the editor-in-chief sign, a young man was seriously engaged in discussion with another equally serious reporter. Looking up, he saw me. "May I help you sir? he said.

Always with that sir, these days.

"Just looking in," I said. "I used to work here before there was this."

He stood and advanced on me. "You used to work here?"

When I nodded, he said, "Make yourself at home."

Avalon, revisited.

P.S. October 14, 12.25 PST--This just in from a DB'er:

Trudi Tunick phoned to say that Barry died in his sleep last night around 9 p.m.

The family was with him. He was a bit agitated while being moved around to change clothes, then quieted down. When Trudi tried to wake him at 9 to do a puzzle she couldn't rouse him.

I didn't think to ask about a service. I'll try to find out later and let you know.



Lori Witzel said...

Words fail me, or rather, I fail them, upon reading this.

Thank you for sharing O. Leo Leahy, and your recall of those many gifts. And condolences, from a stranger far away, for the Tunick family.

Anonymous said...

This was a most beautiful story and tribute. God bless you Barry and peace be with your family.

R.L. Bourges said...

Best to you.

lettuce said...

i'm so sorry Shelly.

Smiler said...

Sorry to read about your loss.

Ellen said...

I was Barry's proofreader. Thanks for posting this.