I’ve always been one to look for the deeper meaning of things, the true heart of an issue or the real drive of what it all means.
Once, when a relationship I was in was doomed, the girl wanted us to go to couples counseling. After speaking with the counselor for a while, he solemnly told me I tended to analyze things too much.
I paused, and then said, “What exactly do you mean by that?”
Maybe the desire for the answers was what led me into a career in print journalism. It may have helped me understand the 2014 elections and foreshadowed the writing on the wall of the 2016 presidential contest.
I’ve asked a lot of questions since then, my pen poised over my reporter’s notebook waiting for that enlightenment. Most of the time, I was disappointed.
I once interrupted former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Preacher Roe’s dinner in West Plains, Mo., to ask him about the famous home run Bobby Thomson hit for the New York Giants against the Dodgers in the 1951 National League playoffs. The homer prompted Giants’ radio announcer Russ Hodges to make his famous “Giants win the pennant, Giants win the pennant!” call.
I knew Roe was there and thought maybe he’d offer some behind-the-scenes insight into the iconic hit. Instead, pausing between chews, he merely said, “Thomson hit the ball so hard, if it didn’t clear the wall, it would have knocked it over.”
That was it. No strategy to pitch around Thomson, no tales of the emotions following the heartbreaking loss for Roe.
And once, I got to meet my musical hero, Joe Cocker. A friend of mine played trumpet with him during Cocker’s U.S. tour a few years earlier, and we were able to see him in Memphis. After bowing to him and acting like a giddy school girl, I told him I thought he covered songs better than the original artists, including the Beatles. In an attempt to experience a deep learning moment, I asked him if he realized how he provided the soundtrack to so many lives with his music.
He was humble, saying critics weren’t as kind, and then he summoned a memory.
“A man thanked me for ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On,’” Cocker told me, referring to one of his songs. “He came home one night, and his wife was in bed and was only wearing a hat.”
A boyish twinkle appeared in his eye. “He got laid,” he said.
It wasn’t really the deeper meaning of life I was seeking, but I forged on.
While the northeast Arkansas bureau correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for nearly 20 years, I asked tons of probing questions and looked for those deep meanings.
I may have found the deepest in the lobby of the Wyndham Riverfront in North Little Rock. I had come to Little Rock to help the paper cover the November elections in 2014. The paper put me up in the hotel for the night after a late evening of coverage. Tom Cotton, the Republican candidate, had just defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor in the U.S. Senate race.
I had covered Cotton’s campaign stops in northeast Arkansas during the election, but never actually spoke with him. He had a tendency to duck away from the media after his events.
I thought that night in the Wyndham, maybe I could find him after his victory.
It was nearing 1:30 a.m. The hotel was quiet, but lights shone from a large ballroom where Cotton had held his election watch. I neared the entrance, and then I saw it. The meaning of the election; the true symbol of what was to come.
Two boozy women wearing plastic Cotton hats at jaunty angles stumbled out of the room. They were holding half-inflated helium balloons and giggling as they collided into each other while they walked.
“Is Tom Cotton in there?,” I asked.
“Who?” one asked, and I gave up.
But I saw it. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote about seeing the true American dream in his novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, when he saw the desperation on the faces of those eating at a breakfast diner before trying to recoup their losses at Vegas’ casinos.
It may have not been as much an epiphany as Thompson’s, but I saw the meaning of that election. Two years later, Donald Trump threw his hat into the presidential ring and the circus began; the inebriated women may have been a good indication of things to come in the ensuing years.
I’ve been out of news for four years now, but I still search for those answers. There are times, though, I may not like what I discover.
Kenneth Heard was the Jonesboro bureau correspondent for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette from 1998 to 2017 and has more than 30 years of experience in journalism. Ken and his wife, Holly, live in Jonesboro.