Cue The Carrier


Whatever you thought of his politics, his weekly “On Language” column provided immense pleasure to many readers including the Cowboy.  Never retire indeed; his last column was two weeks ago.  He will be missed.

Thank you Bill Safire, and a hearty salute as well.  Cue the carrier.

A half-century ago this week, my late older brother Len who was an associate producer of the brand-new television show ”Today” — pressed his NBC bosses to unshackle the show from the studio. He had this idea of using the latest video technology to do ”remotes” — live pictures from scenes as far as a few miles away.

One remote was a tone poem about dawn over Manhattan seen from a beautiful bridge over the Hudson. But Len overslept that morning; unshaven, he threw a robe over his pajamas and hailed a cab, shouting ”Take me to the middle of the George Washington Bridge!” The cabbie took him to a police station instead; that nutty incident became TV legend, recounted in Paddy Chayefsky’s movie ”Network.”

At that time in 1952, I was a buck private in the U.S. Army, spending a couple of months in a Manhattan public information office between basic training and shipment overseas. My lieutenant thought it would reflect well on the Army if the new ”Today” show, to commemorate the Fourth of July, televised a medal presentation.

I pitched it to Lenny at NBC, who started to turn it down but then thought of a live remote: ”Could you do it on Bedloe’s Island? With the Statue of Liberty in the background?” I said sure. He told me to get a general to pin the medal on a war hero at 7 a.m., repeating it at 8 and again at the end of the show just before 9.

But the lieutenant pointed out that that couldn’t be done. When a medal was presented, that was it; you couldn’t take it back and present it again, even for TV. So we looked for a couple of other heroes scheduled to receive medals that month. He found them and two other generals eager to make the award, and we set up three ceremonies.

Trouble was, one of the recipients was to get the Distinguished Service Cross. The brass at Governors Island said that required an honor guard, and where that guard went, the First Army Band followed.

I told my brother we would need NBC to spring for a ferry to take a 30-man honor guard and a 40-piece band and three generals and their staffs from Governors Island to the Statue of Liberty’s island. Also, at the same ungodly hour of 5 a.m., we’d need another ferry to take the three medal recipients and the 20 or so members of their families from Manhattan’s South Ferry slip to rendezvous at the statue.

Lenny said Pat Weaver of NBC could afford the troop movement. In the predawn Fourth, the announcer Frank Blair, a flashlight in one hand and a mike in the other, was lining up the generals and the recipients in the dark. I was in the mobile unit’s control booth with the director, and Lenny was with Dave Garroway in the Manhattan studio.

As the ”Today” show began to televise the presentation of a Bronze Star, my lieutenant called. He put me on with a commander in the Navy’s public information office.

”I don’t want to horn in on an Army project,” said the commander, ”but I was watching this event on television and it so happens we have an Essex-class aircraft carrier in the Upper Bay at the moment.”

On another line, I called Lenny and asked, ”Can you use an aircraft carrier?” ”Sure,” he said. ”Tell the captain to run it past the Statue of Liberty as we come up to 8 o’clock. We’ll swing our cameras around to pick it up.”

It was then that I, a private not yet first class, in a Thurberian voice like thin ice breaking, gave the command never before given either in naval history or in the new world of mass communications: ”Cue the carrier.”

On their small screens, ”Today’s” viewers saw the hero step forward. The band played the anthem; the general awarded the medal; the honor guard fired off its rifles; the proud families wiped tears from their eyes; the director superimposed the waving American flag over the massive torch of Miss Liberty, then dissolved to the 27,000-ton ship steaming majestically by, sailors lined up on deck, saluting.

My brother and I were all choked up in the rush of patriotic fervor. It was a vivid lesson to everyone involved: Even when stage-managed to evoke an emotional response, coverage of a live event at the scene of its happening could take on a life of its own, surprising and stirring participants on both sides of the camera.

”This is some medium,” Lenny breathed, those 50 years ago.

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