Sunday, September 13, 1998

Death Of A Newsman: John Holliman

Amid all the other news that grabbed the television and newspaper headlines this weekend, you might have missed the story of the death of a newsman.
John Holliman died early Saturday morning in a car accident not far from his home in Georgia. My sympathies and best thoughts go to his son, Jay, and his wife, Diane. I can't let his death pass without sharing a few personal memories.

I got to know John about five years ago after he did a presentation at the Smithsonian about what it had been like to be in Baghdad on the night the allied air attack began during the Gulf War in January, 1991. He had a great sense of humor, and I was so taken with his storytelling that night that I approached him afterwards and invited him to come on my show to share some of those stories and more. He accepted right away, although it was several weeks before his CNN schedule allowed him the free time to spend the morning with me in the studio.

For John, this was a joyous return to Washington morning radio, where he had worked many years earlier as a newsman for WASH-FM (when it was owned by Metromedia and still had an actual news department). For me, it was an opportunity to get to know a man whose work I admired, and to listen to him describe the emotions and journalistic thrills of some of the events he had covered.

John's travel schedule prohibited him from making a return visit to my show for awhile, but we spoke on the phone every once in awhile. He shared with me the joy of having his new baby boy come into his life, and how much being a father meant to him. When my daughter was born the next year, he congratulated me and welcomed me to the great adventure of parenthood.

Although he was most famous as one of the three Boys In Baghdad (along with Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett), John reported thousands of stories in a career that included long stints at both the Associated Press and CNN. He won a Peabody Award in 1976. He was the first correspondent CNN hired for their Washington bureau and was part of their original on-air team when the network signed on in 1980. He covered the White House, weathered hurricanes, covered the Tianamen Square story in 1989, and for a long time had been the network's go-to guy on all space stories.

In fact, it was a space story that was the basis of John's last visit to my show, in the summer of 1997. He had moved to Atlanta by then, and was anchoring coverage of NASA's unmanned mission to Mars, which was beaming live television pictures back to Earth. I called him because I had seen many of his reports, and was again impressed with his ability to make the complexities of this scientific miracle seem so simple.

That's what made John Holliman so good at his job. He was able to tell the story. What more could you ask of a newsman?

During our discussion on the air, we talked about the possibility of a manned mission to Mars, and he said he thought it was possible in our lifetime. He talked about the delight of seeing his by-then-4-year-old son Jay accessing the Mars mission on the internet. Then, John reported -- for the first time anywhere -- that although it hadn't been announced publicly, "I've been hearing from people who I trust at NASA and him himself, who tell me that probably next summer we'll see John Glenn from the flight deck of the space shuttle." He was only off by a few months. Glenn's launch date is October 29th, and John was scheduled to co-anchor CNN's coverage of the mission with another TV space-aholic, Walter Cronkite.

I asked him if he wanted to go into space. Without hesitation, he said, "I'd love to go on the shuttle if they'd let me." Off the air, he surprised me by divulging that he had already had several discussions with some NASA big shots, and that the wheels were supposedly in motion to actually make it happen. That would have made John the first journalist in space.

Unfortunately, John never reached that goal, and we're all a little poorer for it. Had he been able to make the trip, he would have brought an everyman quality to the mission and shared the experience with us in a way that would have made each of us feel as if we were along for the ride.

John Holliman would have been able to take that amazing adventure and do what he did best -- tell it to us as one great story.

Sunday, September 06, 1998

Science Marches On

Labor Day is here, and Just Plain Harris returns from summer vacation! Our first class of the new school year is science.

Let's begin with the team of scientists from Canada, America, Britain, and Norway, who have been working in Oslo, Norway, exhuming the bodies of six miners from an Arctic cemetery. Why? Because these miners died of the deadly Spanish flu back in 1918, and the researchers believe that fragments of the flu virus may be frozen in the lungs and other organs of the miners. So they're going to dig these guys up, thaw them out, and try to isolate the virus.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the Spanish flu was the worst pandemic of this century, taking the lives of between 20 and 40 million people? Do we really want to thaw this virus out and give it a chance to kill again?

You say I'm overreacting. Then why is this crew supplied with eight tons of high-tech gear, including space suits with special breathing masks? Has no one seen the movie, "Outbreak," or read the book, "Hot Zone"? Don't we have enough diseases to conquer in our modern life that we don't need to dig one up from 70 years ago?

If they really want to experiment with diseases, I'd suggest stopping by the waiting area of any pharmacy, as I did recently. What a soothing thing it is to be told to have a seat while they fill your prescription, only to find yourself sitting with a dozen other sick people who have god-knows-what wrong with them. The only thing you can be really sure of is that half of them have something easily communicable.

That's why I spent the next 15 minutes strolling through the drugstore, glancing at the shelves, amazed at some of the real advances in over-the-counter medicine. Such as clear calamine lotion.

Remember when, as a kid, you got some poison ivy on you, and before you could even begin to scratch yourself silly, Mom would lather on several gallons of pink calamine lotion? This was particularly galling as a teenager, because there's nothing more appealing to the opposite sex than dried pink splotches all over your arms and legs -- splotches that virtually spell out "contagious!" And just in case the visual didn't disgust everyone, the lotion was nicely aromatic, too. Kinda like week-old cottage cheese. But now, thanks to years of lab work and thousands of development dollars, calamine lotion is clear and unscented (though for you nostalgia nuts, it's still available in the classic pink). So go ahead and roll around in some poison oak!

That's a nice advancement, and I applaud them. It's no cancer cure, but it's nice. Next, I want the new scientific geniuses to help in the area of dentistry. In particular, I'm hoping they can advance the oral business a little further away from its Marquis De Sade roots.

I have roots on the mind because I just had my first root canal done. Some aspects of dental technology have progressed enormously, like the new kind of cavity-filling amalgam that won't set off the x-ray machine at the airport. Plus, there are lasers and more powerful bonding agents, and I have no problem with any of those. Happy to have them, in fact.

Unfortunately, the basics of dentistry behind these newfangled gizmos have not changed. Dr. Oral is still in there poking, probing, and scraping with long, sharp implements. I still feel like Dustin Hoffman as I sit there looking up at Laurence Olivier, DDS. The light is still positioned so that no matter how your move your head, it's always glaring hypnotically in your eyes. And it's so reassuring to have the lead vest placed across your torso while they x-ray your head, which gets no protection at all. I notice that the dental personnel still depart the room for that little radioactive interval, leaving my brain free to absorb as much of that spectrum as possible.

But you haven't really lived the dental experience until you've had the pleasure of the use of the dental dam.

Until now, I had only heard the expression "dental dam" once before. I think it was late one night when I flicked past the show "LoveLine" on MTV, and they had a question (more explicit than I care to repeat) about safe sex for alternative lifestyles. Now, here I was in a completely asexual situation -- it better be -- having this rubber-and-metal device imposed on my teeth and gums.

In case you're not forming a good mental image here, just imagine someone with their jaw wired shut, then yanked open, and a mouse pad slapped over their gums. The dental assistant explained that this new torture apparatus was there so they could isolate the area where they were going to do the root canal while keeping the chemicals and other effluvia away from the rest of my mouth and throat. Okay, good idea, but isn't this the job that used to be performed by that hook-shaped saliva sucking thing? Oh, I got that, too.

Sounds like just the situation to put you at ease in the dental chair, doesn't it? Wait, don't answer yet! I also was given safety goggles to wear -- I think that was a precaution in case he had to do some light arc welding between my molars -- and several of those cotton cigarette butts they shove under your lips for whatever reason. Even if I had wanted to know, I couldn't ask any more questions because the damn dam prevented me from forming words other than "qznoolf" and "glphrmtnwphhht."

This is progress? Why is dentistry so far behind the "let's make it easy for the patient" curve? An opthomologist can take a laser and correct someone's nearsightedness in an hour on an out-patient basis. My friend Andrew can have his hernia repaired in the morning and still be back on his carphone to do more business deals before noontime. Cattle steroids can help Mark McGwire break Roger Maris' record. Why does it take three hours and two visits for a dentist to scrub my roots clean?

Now I understand why Grandpa liked having the ability to take his teeth out and put them in a glass every night. Believe me, the thought did cross my mind during the second session. Go ahead, rip them all out and make me a PoliGrip spokesman. Then, when they need work, I'll drop them off as if you ran a one-hour photo place, while I do some other errands. When you're done, I'll pick them up, slap them in, and be on my way. Then you can leave the dental dam to Monica.

I still think the stain on the dress is calamine lotion.