Veteran TV correspondent reminisces about life, destiny, and ice cream sundaes

How much of your long-ago childhood do you actually remember? Longtime CBS News correspondent Ed Rabel remembers his, and the memories aren’t all good. He shares with BoomerCafé the introduction to his recently published memoir, “Ed Rabel Reports: Lies, Wars and Other Misadventures.” The introduction is about Blood, Guts, and Ice Cream Sundaes.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” ~ George Santayana

The stench of blood filled my nostrils, and frantic screams pierced my ears. It was nothing new, and neither was the sight of my grandfather in a thick leather apron that protected him and made him look like a monster ready to torture someone with myriad knives and other gleaming artifacts sharpened to the hilt.

Veteran television network correspondent Ed Rabel today.

But the screaming came from a clawing cock. The blood spewed onto me and the ground, the cock’s talons flexing to try to force freedom as granddad’s gloved hands grasped, vice-like, the bird’s neck and, in a blink-of-an-eye,life was cast out as the flapping corpse soared into a steel barrel, where it thrashed and bled itself to death. Even as a lad of six, I knew I would remember this, retain it and ponder it for future use.

The dead chicken and its cage mates were thrown into scalding water to do the final trick. The steel barrel overflowed with the steaming, boiling water, thick with feathers that would fly right off for the picking. Grandpop gutted the headless fowl in front of me, and I watched the guts stream onto the bare earth on which I walked. My canvas shoes filled with blood that seeped out onto the floor even at bedtime. Redness blended into my cotton socks, which I took off when the sun went down and put right back on when the sun came up because Mom did not wash them. I will wear them into eternity.

A future of blood and guts awaited me in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, Memphis, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and many other horrifying places on the earth that see bloodbaths from time to time. But I didn’t know it, yet. Unbeknownst to me and buried now deeply in my subconscious, boyhood images of poverty and guilt were gluing themselves onto memory banks entitled “Non-ending.”

The memories never came unstuck, so I grew into adolescence and then into manhood bearing a burden that would not leave me alone. My child’s brain precisely captured sights and sounds that stick with me and flash back in perfect recall. My eye was a camera recording vividly every moment of everyday. Each of the perfectly stored moments was put on pause, to be replayed at will.

Rabel as newsman with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

I can see myself, barely pubescent but seeking work, as I walked into Dr. Johnson’s Drug Store over on the West Side of Charleston, West Virginia. A bell rang above the door, alerting soda jerks and pharmacists and other behind-the-counter laborers that a young Mr. Pineapple Face had arrived. A lack of good nutrition and the absence of a good upbringing caused me to walk slightly bent forward, my motion stymied by clumsiness. An aura of doubt surrounded me, something I did not perceive at the time, though everyone else must have. I remember feeling as though I competed with Abraham Lincoln, aiming for the ceiling, even though no stovepipe hat sat atop my head.

Nervously I glanced left and right to watch out for the bullies who might be there. Everyday bullies created a fear that consumed me. I couldn’t come out of a candy store without one of them getting into my face. My jaw was slightly out of joint because one of them had sucker-punched me outside Stonewall Jackson High School, also on the West Side. Nobody counted for anything over there on the West Side except those who lived on top of the hill. But I wasfrom the wrong hill, where my grandfather slaughtered chickens and candled eggs for sale by testing them against a bright light. I mopped the floor of the drugstore in my new job, a 13-year-old clasping proudly my new Social Security card xxx-xx-1045.

Rabel at the controls as a radio announcer during high school. Circa 1960.

A flashback mingles strong-smelling bleach from the mop with a malodorous, bloody grandpa who grimaced as the birds tried out their razor sharp talons on him. A close-up focuses on Grandpop’s yellow-stained false teeth protrudingbetween strained lips, which showed either a snarl or a smile. The memory continues: “You sure do look a lot like your grandpa,” a could-be father-in-law said. He bestowed the unflattering remark with a smarmy leer that reaffirmed the skinny boy should keep hands off the daughter. “Your grandpa buys chickens and eggs off of me,” he said, lumping me in with all the other ne’er-do-wells trying to get into June Ann’s panties.

I despaired over being lumped in. I emerged, but without June Ann. Mopping up was not my only duty at the drugstore. I jerked up milkshakes and sodas and vanilla cokes for thirsty folks who leafed through Superman and Batman and The Green Hornet, the characters perched on dark, stained shelves at eye level,their capes and masks beguiling the Saturday afternoon crowd. White marble-top tables hid shaky knees, touching skittishly, as the teenagers began the eternal tango that keeps the world alive.

I knew about sex, but I hid my knowledge. Forbidden fruit sat on those red cushioned bar stools that stood at attention to welcome the sundry guests. Behind the counter my hormones ran with a wild crowd—except there were no wild crowds. The currency of the day was pretense. I smiled my toothy grin at the forbidden and put my chocolate where it was supposed to be, in tall glassesfilled with ice creams, bubbles, whipped creams and a cherry. I served those flighty girls in bobby socks, saddle shoes and crinolines, as they jumped for joy even before Elvis gyrated into their lives.

The bell above the door rang, and a sheepish man walked in. Tiptoeing to the counter, he asked me conspiratorially to sell him a box of balloons. I knew perfectly well what they were and where they were kept hidden. I had even opened one of the packages and tried one of them on for size. One size does not fit all. They were under the counter, of course. Not out in the open on racks and in the movies and in public toilets and on the Internet and via texting and on Mom and Dad’s bed, and during a “nooner” and out in the open and in your face.

Everything about you-know-what was kept under the counter. The apertures in my wide eyes opened fully. So did my mouth. “Come on, boy,” the hangdog whispered. “Gimme some balloons. Come on.” Hormones, dread, excitement, anxiety, bashfulness—everything one can imagine—filled my gangly being as I wondered,

What am I going to do? And I did what any goofball would do at a time like this; I shouted at the top of my lungs, “Hey, Dr. Johnson! Do we have any balloons?”

There were no repercussions after that scene. No, the denouement of my drugstore career was something else. I see it yet, the incident that was my downfall. I peddled the drugstore bicycle through dark streets and up Magazine Hollow to deliver a prescription. I zoomed across pathways and alleyways and plowed through lanes that would be inundated one day with wet human bodies and drowned-out houses in the worst gully-washer Charleston ever experienced. Iclimbed hundreds of stairs to the shack. A fat old woman moaned on a couch just beneath a stark light bulb giving little light. My eye was in full record mode.

The man of the house stood in the doorway, holding out his hand to receive the delivery. “That will be $13.20, sir,” I said, my ears trying to ignore the sound of the woman’s moans.

“I thought Dr. Litton was gonna take care of that,” Doorman replied. A shriveled supplicant, I murmured, “Oh, okay,” and I handed the drugs to Shackman, who slammed the rickety door in my pallid face.

Dogs growled as I peddled back to Dr. Johnson’s Drug Store, wondering whether I have fulfilled my mission. Let’s see, what was it Dr. Johnson said? The question floated up to the front of my mind, then receded, coming over and over, the same thought ’til day’s end. And the answer was always the same. “No, boy, you messed up. You were supposed to get the money and if not, bring the medicine back here.” I had known that all along, of course. But even as a stripling I knew I shouldn’t leave anybody in the lurch. This I knew if I knew nothing else.

And for my good intentions I was fired. I thought of the shamefaced fellow who had asked for balloons, remembered him as he returned to his pocket the fifty-cent coin he had squirreled away to buy a three-pack of Trojans. I could see him slink out of the store empty-handed, letting the bell clang behind him. And I, the reluctant youngster, my counterfeit innocence intact, had gone on about my business in a dark corner someplace, giving it a go.

Whenever it happened—and it didn’t happen often for me, actually never until I was 18—it was in the back seat of a car or at the drive-in picture show. And usually in the dark. I learned early girls didn’t like to do it in daylight or in lamplight or even in moonlight. “Turn off the light,” she would say. “Uh, could we put some sheets over us?” the pouty maiden implored. “How about let’s get really drunk and then do it,” the horny girl pleaded. “Okay?” I finally figured it out, genius that I am.

The girls wanted plausible deniability. In the cool of the morning whenbras and panties were back in place concealing private parts no longer privatized, and sweaters and crinolines covering turgescence, and newly applied war paint enhancing the baby blues, she could say, “Uh, uh. Nope, that didn’t happen. Em, em, em, I didn’t pee in the snowdrift. Not nunna me. Snow White didn’t drift. Gotta go home now. Just take me home where it will be yesterday all over again.”

Rabel in Vietnam for CBS News, about 1970.

In hindsight, the man sees the duplicity as outlandishly charming. At the time, though, the boy, in mighty amazement, was left holding his wonderment in his hand. The boy could little guess that in a bit more than a decade’s time, the man would be far from the mountains and valleys of Charleston, West Virginia, living in a land of concrete canyons. Today, the camera is still rolling to make sure the boy doesn’t miss anything.

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