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The Legacies of Two Writers

Posted on Saturday, March 30, 2019 at 2:29 PM

To be successful at writing, you may not always like doing it, but you need to love the doing of it.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Let me now praise two honest men, honorable men, writers who left their considerable mark and died recently. They deserve to be celebrated. I need to celebrate them for having had an impact on my life. With their lives and legacies, they leave potential imprints on you.

Russell Baker is the better known, a two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning author, journalist, and columnist whom colleague Neil Postman once described as "like some fourth-century citizen of Rome who is amused and intrigued by the Empire's collapse but who still cares enough to mock the stupidities that are hastening its end." Russell Baker died in January at 93. I did not know him personally, but I learned much from his work and his apparent personality.

Dayton Hyde, described in his obituary as "rancher-author," also was 93 when he passed away in December. He won his share of awards and recognitions, mostly for literature, nonfiction and fiction, done for young readers. He also will be remembered for establishing the 11,000-acre Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota, a noble undertaking that came to dominate his later decades. I knew Dayton very well and as a friend during years of shared conferences given by the Highlights Foundation. He was a big man, physically, in behavior, in enjoying life. I learned much from him and his outlook on the world around him: the beauties of nature, the wonders in animals, and the hope in our children.

These two gentlemen of great talent always reminded me of what I so firmly believe: that to be successful at writing, you need to love the doing of it. Liking to write I always considered ridiculous, a matter of lying to oneself. There's nothing to like about writing. It is hard and gritty and can become dreadfully boring, wouldn't you say? But if one loves the act, has the compulsion, the conviction, the drive, the need, the purpose, then the negatives float away amidst the energy lavished on the doing.

Russell Baker's Motivation

Russell Baker starts The Good Times, the second installment in his autobiography, with hints of what motivated him. The story is bathed in humor, but the truth emerges:

"My mother, dead now to this world but still roaming free in my mind, wakes me some mornings at daybreak. 'If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a quitter.' I have heard her say that all my life. Now, lying in bed, coming awake in the dark, I feel the fury of her energy fighting the good-for-nothing idler within me who wants to go back to sleep instead of tackling the brave new day.

"Silently I protest: I am not a child anymore. I have made something of myself. I am entitled to sleep late.

"'Russell, you've got no more gumption than a bump on a log. Don't you want to amount to something?'

"She has hounded me with these same battle cries since I was a boy in short pants back in the Depression."

Had he made something of himself by then? Well, Baker's accomplishments included White House correspondent for the New York Times and being chosen editorial page columnist for the paper, a significant honor not previously awarded to another staffer.

Of course, there were other factors, involving push and talent, to go along with his mother's powerful, if by then ghostly, presence. He had to love what he was doing. Everything I ever read by Russell Baker revealed love for his chosen profession.

A 1975 "Francs and Beans" column in the Times addressed the following:

"As chance would have it, the very evening Craig Claiborne ate his historic $4,000 dinner for two with 31 dishes and nine wines in Paris, a Lucullan repast for one was prepared and consumed by this correspondent, no slouch himself when it comes to titillating the palate.

"Mr. Claiborne won his meal in a television fund-raising auction and had it professionally prepared. Mine was created from spur-of-the-moment inspiration, necessitated when I discovered a note on the stove saying, 'Am eating out with Dor and Imogene -- make dinner for yourself.' It was from the person who regularly does the cooking at my house and, though disconcerted at first, I quickly rose to the challenge.

"The meal opened with a 1975 Diet Pepsi served in a disposable bottle. Although its bouquet was negligible, its distinct metallic aftertaste evoked memories of tincans one had licked experimentally in the first flush of childhood's curiosity." To "create the balance of tastes so cherished by the epicurean palate," he made himself a concoction of cracker, "half-inch layer of creamy-style peanut butter troweled" into it, and half a banana "crudely diced and pressed firmly into the peanut butter." Etc.

But in June 1968 he had written, "They Line the Tracks to Say Good-by." That's when Robert F. Kennedy's family brought him back to Washington for the last time by train, after his assassination:

"Drawn by two black electric locomotives of the Penn Central Railroad, the funeral train traveled the 226 miles from New York through an almost unbroken procession of station throngs, urban street crowds, and clusters of small-town mourners.

"In the rural stretches separating the great eastern cities, girls came to the railroad on horseback. Boys sat in the trees. In a desolate swampy section of New Jersey, a lone man knelt in prayer by the roadside. In the loneliest sections, family groups clustered around cars parked in the woods to hold up flags, to wave, or to salute."

The humorous, the sad: the words had to be written. Not just because it was a columnist's job to provide coverage but because they had to, needed to be written by their writer. By Russell Baker.

Dayton Hyde's Life and Legacy

Dayton Hyde lived what he wrote of. In his first book, Cranes in My Corral, published in 1971, he introduced us to Eeny, Meeny, Miney, and Moe, four sandhill cranes he raised on his ranch in Oregon: He writes:

"In all nature, there are few sights more spectacular than the dance of the sandhill cranes. It is a happy thing, a group thing, done at all seasons of the year but especially in the spring when the joy of living seems just too riotous to be contained. It can be part courtship and pairing, or a meaningless release of nervous tension. Quick as a blink, the dance begins when one bird bows, seizes a handy stick, and tosses it into the air. Then, as others join, the bird leaps high, flapping its wings, ducking, twirling, bowing, stabbing the air, and leaping high again. The action is so infectious that quickly the whole group shares in the lunacy."

Dayton goes on to explain that this dance is good enough to get him up without his wife nagging at him to do so and get the day's chores done. Well, yes, it did get him up, but actually to skip out of the house to see his yearned-for sandhill crane ceremony.

To capture that in words became Dayton's desire, not duty. He both wanted and needed to do it, to share a little miracle from nature. The big man was marvelous at recognizing the importance of small things that less caring and less perceptive writers couldn't or wouldn't notice.

Thirty-five years later, he would write All the Wild Horses: Preserving the Spirit and Beauty of the World's Wild Horses, and in a prefatory note to readers explain:

"I was in northern Nevada back in 1987 buying feeder cattle to stock my ranch in Oregon, when I passed a government wild-horse holding facility in Lovelock. The corrals were packed with unhappy mustangs standing in boredom -- gaunt ribbed, heads hanging in sleepy stupor, lips drooping, eyes half closed against swarms of flies. As a young cowboy in the 1930s, I grew up with wild horses in Oregon. I have loved them since my boyhood as they've given me great joy -- from the first young mustang I trained and rode out on the range, to the bands running free about me, adding their beauty to an already fabulous landscape.

"Now, seeing these captive wild horses, my old cowboy heart ached. For a moment, I thought I owed it to them to sneak up in the dead of night, open the gates, and let the horses run to freedom. But the horses had been gathered because of chronic drought and lack of food on their ranges. I knew setting these wild horses free again would accomplish nothing."

Dayton adds more autobiography, then says: "In minutes, I was on the telephone to my children in Oregon asking them to take over the ranch. I was leaving on an adventure that was to consume my life: bound and determined to set up a sanctuary for wild horses that would allow them to run wild and free."

He did so. And he has documented it with his own words, words that can stab or soothe because they have emerged from a heart and conscience that deeply cared about the subject. He loved to write because he loved what he wrote about. That is what one gets when one reads the byline: "by Dayton O. Hyde."

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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