A LIFE ON THE ROAD
By Charles Kuralt
Putnam. 253 pp. $19.95
AMERICA. It's a big country and someone's got to explore it. As A Life on the Road makes clear, armchair travelers should be grateful that for 33 years, their pioneer has been someone with the discipline, intelligence and compassion of Charles Kuralt.
Read this memoir and woes like the Hubble telescope, the S&L mess and our bankrupt government fade behind you like the white lines of a highway. This book is a welcome lift, an episodic discovery of the strengths and resourcefulness of people who achieved greatness in large and small ways.
If you aren't a regular viewer of Kuralt's television show, you may be unaware that his work is much more than the oddity story about pig auctioneers and string collectors. Here, for example, is his short history of America from Boston Harbor to California's Golden Gate, featuring 20 rivers. There also are segments on Kuralt's youthful globe-trotting, an Arctic expedition, warm portraits of his talented and unflappable crew, his Vietnam War reportage and a wonderfully sharp discourse about the agonies of today's airports.
The theme of achievement echoes throughout this engaging read. Some accomplishments are well-known, such as pianist Vladimir Horowitz's triumphant return to his Russian homeland. Others are obscure, such as the Geological Survey map naming part of an Alaska glacier after Don Sheldon, a fabled mountain pilot who helped Kuralt discover the beauty of the aurora borealis.
Although Kuralt is too modest to claim credit, his own life is important, as a reporter who devised a whole genre of journalism. He helped spawn a fascination with roadside America that one sees in newly issued books about diners, movie houses, gas stations, motels, rural artists and down-home restaurants.
His reports have given thousands of journalists the dream of exploring the back roads of America. He has many imitators (we Washingtonians have to suffer through a particularly low-rent knockoff in our own television market), but few who abide by his "Tricycle Principle," i.e. staying out of the story and avoiding the temptation to ride the tricycle when doing a tricycle story.
The lessons learned from his early days of writing radio copy are evident. His writing is spare, clear and forceful. The selection of detail is rigid; no meandering here. He was a first-rate reporter in Vietnam, Latin America. the Congo, on civil rights battles in the American South and in other news outposts. But Kuralt confesses he was never comfortable chasing the nightly broadcast leads.
Covering the stories in America's "fly-over" territory became the suit that fit him best. He offers a lovely description of how the urge to travel may have been genetic, as he first wandered his native North Carolina with his father, a field supervisor for the State Department of Public Welfare.
To dispel many romantic notions, Kuralt includes his deal with the devil: "In return for the freedom of the road, I was going to have to spend the rest of my life in a motor home." But after an uncomfortable first week when Kuralt and crew actually tried to live in the motor home, they starting seeking motels and inns, using the vehicle as an office and storage closet on wheels. In its travels, the CBS motor home has been mistaken for a bread truck, library book van and the Red Cross Bloodmobile. (The ever-present and annoying mechanical failures Kuralt details should make RV manufacturers blush with shame.) WORTH THE PRICE of the book is a both hilarious and useful primer on the perils of travel, as in "do not try to find a good restaurant in Kansas" and "never sleep on the side of the bed next to the telephone" (everyone else does, destroying the mattress on that side).
He also urges travelers to carry rubber sink stoppers (bad motel plumbing), a big safety pin (to pin room curtains that never meet), 100-watt bulbs and other essentials. Travelers are urged to stay off the interstates (boring), to ask for toast dry (or else face oozing grease) and to save all the quarters they get in change for newspaper boxes, toll booths and Coke machines: "The traveler setting out without a pocketful of quarters in America today is a soldier going into battle without ammo."
Greater than Kuralt's humor is the powerful, life-affirming spirit he discovers and captures. I don't want to meet the person who can read Kuralt's story of Nikita Zakaravich Aseyev without tears. Aseyev was an aged Russian dentist anxious for the world to know about the American soldiers who saved Russian lives in a German concentration camp by a clandestine food pipeline. Kuralt initially met with Aseyev just to placate the old soldier after he had forced his way into a Moscow hotel, demanding to talk to American broadcasters there to cover a summit. Moved by the power of Aseyev's experiences, Kuralt came to share the dentist's insistence that these Americans be identified and thanked. He includes as much of their stories as Aseyev could provide, searching out the former soldiers in New York and Texas.
A Life on the Road is uplifting; balm for the weary and care-worn. Did you know that you can take a water taxi to the public library in San Antonio? That you can rent an inner tube from restaurateurs on the Apple River in Wisconsin who pick you up after your float and drive you to a dinner of frog's legs?
Motel owners should forget about the Gideon Bibles and put a copy of this at bedside.
Margaret Engel is executive director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation.