A trip back to Aggieland, and in time

When I wrote the column you see below about the Houston Rockets – one of “my teams,” at least back then – for The Battalion at Texas A&M 38 years ago, I was a sophomore with delusions of becoming a big-time sports writer. That spring semester in 1981, I started writing for our daily student newspaper, watching seniors like Richard C. Oliver and Jon Heidtke show the rest of us how it’s really done.

I saw some of my early attempts turn a dark shade of blue marker from being shredded in the next day’s Batt by professor C.J. “Skip” Leabo, who wasted no time telling me that every cliché I had used was a pitiful waste of good newsprint. I still remember, like it was this morning, when I wrote a story he finally liked, about an Aggie baseball series that spring against the Arkansas Razorbacks. “Now this is sports writing,” he wrote, sending me figuratively sprinting around the bases like I’d just hit a home run to win Game 7 of the World Series. After reading through this Rockets column today for the first time since, I’d have to say it’s a bit better than I remember writing at that nascent stage – although corny and amateurish. (Example: “Kareem and his cocky cronies” and “Moses and his mischievous misfits.”)

I recall struggling to come up with a standing name for my recurring columns and decided on “Off the Wall” for its double meaning – for a baseball lover like me, a reference to a ringing extra-base hit that slams off the outfield wall. And, in hopes that my columns would be offbeat, different – not that, as a green Aggie sports writer, I had a clue what that amounted to.

In April 1981, I wrote this column about the Houston Rockets for The Battalion at Texas A&M.

My dreams of becoming a sports writer everyone wanted to read never took shape, mostly because I left my first post-college job – four years at The Odessa American – burned out on sports writing after covering the likes of Permian High football, junior-college basketball and track, and minor-league baseball. I also realized that, as passionate as I was – as you’ve noticed, still am – about writing, I was too meticulous, too much of a perfectionist, too eager not to write standard wire-service game stories to make a career of it. It’s why covering Friday night football games was such a scramble for me to beat the deadline clock that always had me checking-checking-checking my watch as I wrote. (I missed my share of deadlines, the late Chris Magee, OA sports editor, would tell you if he were here – right, Randall Lightfoot?)

Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t decided to shift into editing mode when I left Odessa for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1987. I ponder whether I would’ve picked up writing speed with time, becoming one of those writers for whom the thoughts, words and creative turns of phrase spill out effortlessly – from the mind to the fingers to the keyboard to the screen to the newspaper that gets thrown in your yard (well, used to, anyway).

No, I’m pretty sure not. “That’s the way baseball go,” Ron Washington, the former Texas Rangers manager, used to say (and, I’m sure, still does). For me, that’s the way writing go. I. Labor. Over. Every. Word.

I’m pretty certain the piece you see here, written during the playoffs in April 1981 a few weeks after I turned 20, was my first sports column. Or maybe it was one I wrote about the Astros. Either way, I’m sure it took a couple of hours – heck, probably four – for me to write. Then again, I wasn’t facing a drop-dead deadline, since the paper didn’t hit campus racks until noon the next day.

When I covered Aggie football games between fall of ’81 and when I graduated in ’83, there was no big rush to get my stories written because the next paper didn’t come out till Monday. When I covered weekday basketball games, I could linger in the newsroom writing all night if I wanted to – I hope I never did – as long as the stories were ready by the time one of my colleagues or I staggered in around 5 in the morning to “lay out” (design), edit and write headlines for the sports pages in that day’s paper. Thankfully, even though the Batt newsroom had several IBM Selectric typewriters (remember those?), and even though we were *just* a student paper, it was cool to be part of the dawn of newspapers using computers to write and edit stories. The bulky, boxy VDTs we used – video display terminals, for you younger folks – were ECRM models (no idea what that stood for). Thank God we didn’t have to bang out all our stories on manual typewriters like in the old days. (Now, our Battalion days ARE the old days.)

I started writing this to tell you all where I’ll be Saturday, and somehow I got sidetracked by memories (hmm, is that a good thing or a bad thing when it comes to writing?). Memories of The Batt, the invaluable experience gained, the friendships made and the journalism foundation it gave us all, just do that. I’ll be driving 3 hours from Arlington back to Aggieland in College Station – and if Kay, who’s been sick all week, is feeling up to it, she’ll join me. We’ll get together with over 300 Aggie grads and current students to celebrate 125 years (!!) of The Battalion – still going strong in this ever-evolving digital world. It’ll be a chance to see (very) old friends, reminisce about memorable moments at The Batt, and hopefully even see and pay tribute to people like Bob Rogers, now 91 and the adviser who gave us countless nuggets of knowledge that helped us all become real journalists.

Oh, BTW: The Rockets, who made the playoffs as a sub-.500 team that spring of ’81, providing inspiration for that column, didn’t end up winning the NBA title. But they did get to the finals, where they pushed Larry Bird and the Celtics to six games. I can remember whooping for them as much as anyone in Moore Hall, my dorm on the north side of campus.

Guess I’d better stop now. The Batt gala, and a throng of Aggie journalists – from the Class of ’56 to the Class of 2019 and beyond – await.

Greetings, Tree of Nightmares

Straight outta one of your favorite horror movies.

For several months on my way to the South Cooper Y after driving my daughter Lindsay to school in Fort Worth, I’ve driven past this dead shell of a tree. It stands, beautifully spookily, in a large empty lot next to a shopping center across from Red Kane Park near the Arlington-Mansfield line. I’ve never seen a tree so sublimely haunting, branching out with its terror-inducing tendrils toward unsuspecting motorists. I’m quite sure I’m not the only person who’s driven by and stared, marveling at its sinister perfection.

I’ve been thinking I should stop, park, get a closer look and take some photos. So this morning after leaving the Y, I parked in the lot near the tree and walked about 75 yards to where it looms, even larger than it appears from the road. As I walked, I startled when a shape on the ground caught my eye – a dead and bloodied possum. When I looked up, I saw a turkey vulture just ahead, loitering on the ground (I probably interrupted his possum feast). Within moments, he flew up into the tree, joining a vulture buddy who was already there. All too perfect. I snapped a few shots, then noticed through my phone screen that a white sun had started peeking through the overcast sky. Even more perfect.

Glad I stopped by. See you next time, Tree of Nightmares.

A timeless photo gets a surreal update

All photos are timeless and beautiful. At least that’s the way I see them. And sometimes, with the right person pulling the creative levers, they can be “updated” into the present.

This cool image was shot almost two years ago by one of our incredible photojournalists, Tom Fox, in the studio at the old Dallas Morning News building on Young Street before we moved to the long-shuttered, grandly renovated central library on Commerce Street in late 2017. But the overarching background photo is a gratifying, true throwback in that the image of my birth parents Betty and Bob dates to the early 1940s in Huntington, West Virginia. I feel sure it was taken by Bob’s widowed mother Kathryn, with whom Betty and Bob lived after they married in 1939 until Kathryn died much too young at age 52 in 1945. When the photo was taken in front of their home across from the floodwall on 32nd Street in East Huntington, Bob and Betty weren’t parents yet – my oldest brother Crys came along in 1944, followed by brother Robin in 1947, sister Terry in 1954 and me in 1961.

Dallas Morning News multiplatform editor Frank Christlieb sits before a projection of an early 1940s photo of his birth parents, Betty and Bob Workman, both of whom he never met. The photo was taken in the newspaper’s photo studio on May 18, 2017. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)

When our editor and I were tweaking the narrative piece I wrote about Bob to trim and get it in shape for Father’s Day 2017 publication, it was also a time for gathering old photos, newspaper clippings and documents to add to the online and print presentations of the story. We recorded a video of me reflecting on what I’ve learned about Bob, accenting it with timeless old photos and snippets of the priceless recordings we have of Betty’s singing, Bob’s narration and his own attempt at singing. But we also did a photo shoot – Tom Fox’s great idea – in which he posed me with a couple of treasured photos projected as a backdrop. This was left on the cutting-room floor, as the one we chose to publish has me standing in front of a photo from about 1950 of Bob next to his cool set of wheels, a blue 1949 Nash Ambassador.

So I thought I’d share this, along with the link to the story about Bob for anyone who might not have seen it. (http://interactives.dallasnews.com/2017/fathers-day/) It’s pretty surreal to have the parents I never met faux-standing behind me in a moment from so long ago. That perfect image and many others I’ve been blessed to be given by my siblings will always be embedded in my conscience, just like those of the parents who raised me, Clark and Olga, from the happier times they shared before things went so sadly wrong.