My transition from San Angelo to the San Antonio Express-News was seamless, partially because I was already familiar with the Harte-Hanks way of gathering and printing the news, and partially because I wasn’t terrified of Houston Harte Sr.
Strange as it may seem, old man Houston Harte took a shine to me after I pitched the big muddy sign on the hood of his Cadillac.
Executive editor Charlie Kilpatrick hired me after a short telephone conversation and a brief meeting. I was soon to learn that Kilpatrick was a frightened executive who bent and turned with the winds of company politics.
Kilpatrick knew I was coming in from the Harte-Hanks home base of San Angelo, and he was taking no chances.
I hadn’t been on the job a month when Harte Senior walked into the Express and News city room and yelled, “Where is the kid who worked for us in San Angelo?”
My desk was in the back of the city room next to the sports department. When I said “Here,” the old man hustled right back and took a seat on the side of my desk.
“Well,” he said. “How do you like it here?”
When I said I liked the new job, the millionaire publisher asked, “What do you think we need to do to make the paper better?”
“Stop running shinplasters,” I told him.
“Yes, sir, Shinplasters.”
I explained the shinplaster, a derogatory term I had picked up in the paper’s editorial department. Advertising copy that is disguised as news, I told Mr. Harte. He frowned and had me repeat the bit about shinplasters.
“I didn’t know we were doing that,” Houston Harte said. “We will stop it today.”
And stop it he did.
This had a profound effect on the entire editorial staff, all of them older and more experienced than me.
It is hard to believe that the executive editor of a daily newspaper in a metropolitan market would fear a cub reporter. But I honestly believed that Kilpatrick was afraid of me from that day forward and so long as the Harte’s owned the Express and News.
Dan Cook was the Evening News sports editor and columnist when I arrived. Cook was a great writing talent and the most popular sports writer in the city. Of Charlie Kilpatrick’s unctuous propensity to please his superiors, I heard Cook say: “If a chicken farmer bought the newspaper, Charlie would show up for work wearing a feather suit.”
Cook and I became friends and drinking companions, as did company artist Bob Dale. Front page columnist Paul Thompson, a recovered alcoholic, became my friend and mentor of sorts. I also worked with legendary photographer Bill Goodspeed. Goodspeed was nearing the end of his career when I arrived on the scene, but I had heard about his pigeon loft on the top floor of the newspaper building.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Goodspeed used homing pigeons to fly his football game film back to their newspaper home. The rival San Antonio Light and other Texas newspapers could not compete. Goodspeed would have film flown home, processed and ready for print before any other newspaper could even hit the streets.
I sold an article on Goodspeed to Editor and Publisher Magazine, a national trades publication.
I was the Express and News top general assignments reporter early in my career. a time when my third child and daughter Gena Gay Kindrick was born. She was delivered without complication in San Antonio’s downtown Baptist Hospital on October 20, 1963.
Most of the major story assignments were falling my way as I worked with three photographers, Goodspeed, Johnny Tarsikes, and Jose Barrera.
Tarsikes burned up a company Chevrolet as we raced to Austin. Infamous University of Texas Tower sniper Charles Joseph Whitman was picking pedestrians off like fish in a barrel.
Then came the disaster of nature that nobody could ever forget.
I had just returned home from a night of fishing on Canyon Lake when I got the call. The day was Tuesday, September, 19, 1967.
It was Ken Kennamer, city editor of the San Antonio Express and my immediate superior in the newspaper’s chain of command.
Unusual, I thought, to get a morning call from Kennamer. We both worked night shifts on the morning Express.
“Pack enough clothes to last several days,” Kennamer said. “Bring rain gear. Rubber boots if you have them. The storm is bearing down on Brownsville and that’s where you are going. You will be riding with Joe. Expense money will be waiting when you get to the office.”
Joe was Jose Barrera, one of the Express and News young photographers.The storm Kennamer referred to was Hurricane Beulah, one of the biggest and most deadly hurricanes to ever hit the Texas Gulf Coast.
I was a greenhorn reporter who had never heard of a category 5 hurricane. Photographer Joe Barrera was equally inexperienced. I met him at the Express and News city room and we were off to cover the hurricane which would pack 160 mile-per-hour winds, dump rain bombs that would total 25 inches, and kill a total of 58 people, 15 of them Texans.
I covered three major hurricanes while working at the Express and News–Carla, Celia, and Beulah. Big bad Beulah was the first and the most destructive. Weather experts, law enforcement officials, and first responders all agreed that Beulah probably packed more than a few tornadoes close to the huricane’s eye.
Joe Barrera and I started out in high spirits. Like a couple of kids embarking on some sort of Boy Scout adventure. We had never experienced wind that can turn your mouth wrongside out, or broken power lines spewing high voltage death in the dark. Who would ever believe that hurricane-force winds and heavy rain can somehow bring 6-foot rattlesnakes up out of their dens and onto city streets, writhing and buzzing their deadly song? And only those who have suffered a shotgun charge of buckshot could imagine the searing pain of rooftop pea gravel driven by the ungodly winds of a major hurricane.
Joe Barrera and I were babies heading for our baptism of fire in the Rio Grande Valley. Joe drove. I noticed the stream of cars coming our way. We seemed to be the only ones heading down into the Valley.
We reached Brownsville at dusk. It took us longer than we had anticipated to cover the 250 miles. We were told the Fort Brown Motel was the place to stay, but we found a no-vacancy sign on the entrance. Everything else in town was taken. Media people had filled the Fort Brown, including a reporter/photographer team from the Dallas Morning News, and award-winning San Antonio Light photographer Gilbert Barrera (no relation to our Joe Barrera).
Joe and I had about despaired of finding shelter when help appeared behind a badge. It was a Cameron County deputy sheriff who told us to head for the courthouse. There were no beds available, but the sandstone courthouse, which was built in 1912, was open for us and some others fortunate enough to run into the helpful deputy.
“There ain’t any building stronger or safer than a Texas courthouse,” said the deputy. “They will be standing when nothing else is.”
The deputy knew of which he spoke. Most of the Fort Brown Motel was wrecked by the storm, and there was little else left standing in the town. Only the majestic Cameron County Courthouse took the big wind hit with no damage done.
I will never forget the early morning hours of September 20, 1967. We knew Beulah was coming. The Coast Guard had radioed ahead. The air had a waxy feel and there was an eerie yellow hue to the sky. The Devil had to sit this one out. This morning belonged to the big bad bitch called Beulah. She roared across Boca Chica Pass with unrelenting fury. She screamed like a runaway freight train with no engineer. Power lines were snapping in the darkness, showering Brownsville with deadly white and blue ribbons of electricity. Great sheets of roofing metal were windmilling through the air like airborne guillotines, any one of them capable of removing a human head. This was hell on the Texas coast, and it would get worse long before the people of Brownsville would recover from Hurricane Beulah.
It was raining bathtubs when the photographer and I ventured out to view and photograph the aftermath. One big rattlesnake buzzed at our approach, and we saw several smaller ones as we made our way around live power lines that were snapping and popping. I learned later that intense rain water flooding their underground dens drove the snakes above ground and often onto downtown streets.
Our Express-News staff car was a white Chevy II, and we were preparing to drive out and survey the damage when San Antonio Light photographer Gil Barrera flagged us down. I knew Gil Barrera to be an award-winning photographer whose work had graced the cover of Life Magazine. Gil was the younger brother of ace criminal defense attorney and District Judge Roy Barrera. The younger Barrera had been staying in the Fort Brown Motel when a two-by-four timber was driven through the windshield of his San Antonio Light staff vehicle. He came down to Brownsville with a Light reporter, but the two of them had been separated in the storm. He asked if he could ride with us that morning and I said “hop in.”
In those days, the San Antonio Express and the San Antonio Light employees were spirited competitors and often bitter enemies. But my relationship with Gil Barrera had always been one of professional respect and admiration. With other editorial employees from both newspapers, we often drank beer together at the Melody Room Lounge on Avenue E, about a half block distance from both papers. And, privately we had lamented in the past that we did not work together for the same publication.
Our Express-News photographer Joe Barrera was quiet when Gil Barrera crawled into the backseat. I knew Joe was intimidated by the presence of the older and more accomplished photographer, but Gil’s naturally humble demeanor belied his genius with a camera. He wore horn-rimmed glasses that were seemingly always broken and patched together with scotch tape.
“I’ll just ride along and snap a few pictures when I’m not getting in anybody’s way,” he said. I knew that was bullshit. I was already feelig nervous.
Gil Barrera was carrying what we considered to be a little-bitty new-fangled 35 millimeter camera. He also had a ragged rain poncho he held wadded up in one hand. Joe shot a number of photographs as we worked our way through the wind wreckage which was Brownsville. He shot an upended car, downed power poles, wrecked store fronts, and other damage. Street signs were twisted like pretzels, further indication that tornadoes were probably in the mix.
Gil Barrera sat quietly in the back seat while we worked our way through Brownsville and out onto the highway leading to Port Lavaca. He had not said a word or taken a photograph. The rain was a solid sheet.
Then Gil Barrera spoker to Joe Barrera.
“Hey, Joe, would you mind letting me out here for a minute or two?”
Gil had the old poncho over his head when he crawled out of the car. He headed straight to a highway sign that had been bent down by the wind, almost level with the ground. I think it read Port Lavaca 20 Miles. Nothing different from many other similar signs in the same condition. We had been passing them all morning. They were barely visible through the curtain of water.
I suspected something might be happening that foretold nothing good for the Express and News.
Gil Barrera was my friend and competitor, but to be scooped by the San Antonio Light was a horrible fate to contemplate.
At this point, I was driving the car. Joe Barrera was shooting the Express News photos.
“Find out what Gil is doing out there by that sign,” I hollered at Joe. The rain was pouring.
“He’s shooting the sign,” Joe said.
“We have been passing signs like that all morning,” I yelled at Joe.”You better get over there.”
He seemed relaxed. Jovial.
Deep in my bowels I knew that the greatest news photographer in the country wasn’t taking pictures of a Port Lavaca road sign.
“Thanks,” Gil Barrera said. “I really appreciate you guys letting me ride along.”
Oh, shit. I thought it but said no more.
We found couriers to deliver storm film to the Express city room. Gil Barrera did also. We found out the next morning when issues of both papers hit the streets.
Joe Barrera had a hellacious photo of hurricane wreckage which appeared on the front page of the Express and News. I don’t even know what it was. But I will never forget the photograph that Gil Barrera killed us with.
Gil Barrera had one simple photo that said it all.
The photograph was six columns wide, engulfing the entire cover page of the San Antonio Light.
The photograph pictured a tiny chihuahua dog and a large rat. They were wet and bedraggled as they snuggled together, cheek-to-cheek and paw to foot, shivering and exchanging body warmth with all four eyes tightly shut.
I think the headline said Strange Bedfellows in the Eye of a Storm
I didn’t say anything about it to Joe Barrera. He was hurting enough. And I was part of it, too. Maybe I should have tackled Gil Barrera in the rain. It didn’t feel good. That’s for sure. But I later told Joe we had nothing to be ashamed of.
We got beat by the best in the business.