Star Magazine

Darryl Levings: What I discovered about the pox and newspaper editors

It’s Dec. 7, the anniversary of two great blunders by the U.S. military establishment.

The first, of course, was the “day of infamy,” when we let the Japanese sneak in over our battleships and bombers, all lined up around Pearl Harbor as if in a shooting gallery.

The second is somewhat less known: the day I was inducted into the U.S. Air Force. The Pentagon has recovered from the first; the second … maybe.

I’ve related some of my adventures in uniform here before, my near starting of World War III, my almost involuntary desertion in the snowy Himalayas, the fish guts caper. I’d tell you more but for two reasons: the top-secret nature of my duties and my Irish Alzheimer’s — that’s when you forget everything but your grudges.

Oh yeah, the grudges. I remember Master Sgt. Dakota and his gang down at Lackland Air Force Base. Dakota caught me napping on some mail sacks and screamed that my security clearance was destroyed (it wasn’t) and so was my life (just one more ding).

I was terrified, but it wasn’t like I’d fallen asleep on guard duty.

Well, yes, I did fall asleep on guard duty, too, but luckily no Charlies were creeping through San Antonio for a rush at our wire, and I was not caught.

At the time, I was deep into “Catch-22,” which seemed a true-to-life tale of madness in the Air Corps. It was all other worldly.

One example: We had three sets of footwear: low quarters, high quarters and combat boots. All had to be kept in a condition in which you could use them as mirrors to shave with in good light. A lot of cotton balls gave their lives for those shines.

So it was considered great fun for Dakota’s underlings to roar into our barracks drunk, wake up the maggots and order them to toss all shoes and boots into a corner. Then they would jump and dance on all that gleaming black polish. We had to try to repair the shines before inspection the next day.

It was a clear case of: “The floggings will continue until morale improves.”

As everyone knows, I’m a sucker for the behind-the-scenes kind of history. Here’s something I discovered the other day.

Prostitution was so rampant in Kansas City that the spread of venereal disease in area encampments alarmed the War Department. In 1917, the U.S. attorney general demanded the city clean up its act. When nothing much happened, the Army threatened to post guards at Union Station’s doors to keep soldiers between trains from slipping out to find hookers.

Reminds me of John Wilkes, 1700s journalist and member of Parliament, responding to the Earl of Sandwich, who exclaimed: “Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox.”

To which Wilkes is said to have coolly retorted: “That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress.”

More on the pox (a different kind) and Kansas City’s supposed reputation comes from the Leavenworth Times and Conservative in November 1869, just part of the constant sniping between the river towns’ editors.

“The Kansas City papers deny that small-pox is decimating their thinly settled town; next they will deny that their city authorities paid the fare of a colored small pox pauper to this city last fall. It is a notorious fact that if every house in Kansas City containing small pox was placarded strangers would think it rather an unhealthy place, so all interested in the plague-ridden town keep an ominous silence. It is fortunate for them that dead men tell no tales.”

Speaking of editors, after 35 years doing the job, I just learned the root of the word.

It comes from the Latin, and refers to the fellow who put on the games in the coliseum. It might, but didn’t have to, be the Roman emperor. This well-to-do fellow would lead through the streets a procession called the “pompa,” from which some interesting words spring.

Editor. How appropriate. You sit down to work a piece of reporter’s sweated-over copy, his baby, his inspiration, and …

Let the bloodletting begin! Your story, plebian? Thumbs down! It dies on the spike!

We once had an editor here who had a big stamp made for stories he didn’t like. Copy would come back with “GOAT GAGGER” emblazoned on it.

He had another he would use, too, one from the days when bundles of newspapers were distributed to the countryside by rail.

So your would-be Pulitzer winner would be stamped: CAN BE THROWN FROM A MOVING TRAIN.

With him you usually knew where you stood. Like with a fabled editor from up north who would tear up and chew up a story he didn’t like — literally. Me, I never had the stomach for it.

Back when I was a tad more intense, however, I was known as the Samurai assistant city editor, after the John Belushi character on “Saturday Night Live.”

The great E.T. McClanahan once said of the editing process at The Star: “You feel like you’re being nibbled to death by ducks.”

To that I can only say, “Quack!”

To reach Darryl Levings, call 816-234-4689 or send email to