Michael Kernan: The Features of a Born Storyteller

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 6, 2005; Page C01

My father always retained the sunny, remote placidity of a 10th child in a formal, urban Victorian family, remembered by his older sisters as a small, round-eyed boy swinging on the front gate in silent absorption or plugging snowballs at the iron deer on the lawn next door, hurling for hours with steady ferocity, wrists raw from the snow bangles on his mittens while his mother called him for supper and night turned the lawn into a blue pockmarked battlefield.

-- Michael Kernan, The Washington Post, Jan. 24, 1972

Reporter Michael Kernan, always on the path to a feature story, gets ready to fly off in a glider in 1982. (Margot Kernan)

Michael Kernan, who died Wednesday night at 78, wrote that kind of thing a lot and it still haunts those of us who have survived the industrial processing of modern education and media -- those of us who still sense the ancient music of the English language and the poignancy of the joys of life . . . that blue, pockmarked battlefield.

Mike was a feature man, a guy with a good touch for what was once called a human interest story. He was also a founding reporter for the Style section -- the first of its kind in the country -- in 1969. This was back when newspaper reporters might have half a novel in their desk drawers (next to the bottle) but were shy of using the words "writer" or "literature." Nevertheless, whether he covered the closing of the Louise Hand Laundry or profiled Woody Allen, that's what he was, and that's what he wrote.

He wrote a story in 1972 about his father, for instance. It was one of those stories that families retell to each other but outsiders never quite get it -- an encounter with a Russian monk in the February steppes of Upstate New York. But: "Hilarious as it seems to me, even after 30 years, I never can seem to put it across."

So he tries again in print, digressing through memories of the farm his father bought upstate after he lost re-election to the New York state Senate.

"His great gift as a politician had been an ability to converse instantly and easily with absolutely anyone: Bus conductors, scrofulous blind pencil sellers, jowly men with veined noses in city hall who disposed of me with a professional smile . . . " and all of whom, including Mike, he addressed with the words "Hey, Buster."

For a brief period in California, his father, in the course of walking their blind Skye terrier, acquired "a stable of bridge-playing dog lovers: retired courtesans, movie producers, tycoons recovering from heart attacks, deaf lady distance swimmers and petered-out womanizers . . . seamy-cheeked, sad-eyed wanderers who once had been loved too forgivingly."

Wondrous detail: deaf lady distance swimmers! Addressed, one presumes, with "Hey, Buster."

What happened to the story about the meeting with the monk? At that point, you didn't care anymore. Mike was a master of the feint, the red herring, the evocation so wistful it made you laugh.

None of that wins you famous prizes, of course, or a syndicated column advising presidents. Human interest guys never got that stuff. He lived for the English language, and in gratitude the English language lived for him in one of those prose styles that made you ask: Why can't everybody write that well?

"After our return from California, my father and I spent a lot of time on the porch listening to the Dodger games and smoking his oval cigarettes. This is how I still see him, arms regally resting on the arms of a rustling rattan chair, the everlasting cigarette between his fingers, his fedora well down over his high Celtic forehead as he stared out across the valley with that radio-listener gaze."

That gaze, that noisy chair.

Finally, Mike returns to the encounter with the monk. His family had decided to entertain themselves on a February Sunday by finding a Russian monastery said to be 20 miles away. Much confusion, much getting lost. And then, as the slush grew deeper and his mother was asking that they turn around, they saw a monk with vast beard and cross, striding toward them, looking nine feet tall.

"I waited for his mouth to open, wondering madly if actual sounds would come out, recognizable words though of course not in any language we would understand, or if, as seemed more likely, an unearthly gonging or the bray of a shofar or simply a cloud of silver flakes would issue from the blackness of that unbelievable, phantasmagoric jungle of hair."

His father leaned out of the window.

" 'Hey Buster,' he said.

"The rest of us froze in horror."

Of course, the monk offers directions. That's the end of the story.

"Well, there it is, and now that I see it in black and white it doesn't look so funny to me, either. Still, as I recall that lost Sunday afternoon, an afternoon that exists now only in the minds of myself and my sisters (unless the monk is alive somewhere, his beard white, his face sunken, his mind as gentle and clear as a summer day even though dimmed now and then by a succession of clouds driven on fierce stratospheric winds unfelt by the watcher). I can conjure up that antic encounter, and I suppose I must resign myself to the realization that it can never be transmitted to anybody else and that in a few more years it will have disappeared utterly, without trace, like a shout."

That was 33 years ago, and of course it still hasn't disappeared. It's right in front of you. People like reading, and remembering, the human interest guys.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company