Tag Archives: NCEW

Time of My Life, Part 46: Serving as ‘country coordinator’

One always should know that there are individuals who know far more than you do, who know their way around bureaucratic mazes and who can be of invaluable help when you are assigned what looks like a monumental task.

So it was back in the fall of 1989 as I helped prepare for a lengthy overseas journey as part of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, a professional association to which I belonged.

NCEW would send teams abroad on factfinding missions. That year, NCEW chose to venture to Southeast Asia: to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Several of us on that delegation happened to be veterans of the Vietnam War, which made the journey even more special.

But then came this little wrinkle: NCEW wanted individuals to volunteer to serve as “country coordinators.” What is that? Well, it meant that we needed individuals to take the lead in establishing contacts with government officials in the host countries we would be touring. One NCEW member coordinated the Thailand leg, another did the same for Cambodia. Hey, no sweat, right? Not exactly.

I signed up to be a country coordinator for the Vietnam leg of that trip. Here’s the deal: The United States and Vietnam did not have official diplomatic relations; that didn’t happen until 1995. That meant the United States had no embassy in Vietnam. We had no official U.S.-Vietnam channel through which we could communicate.

That required yours truly to work with the Vietnamese mission at the United Nations. However, we were part of a huge network of experts who knew all the contacts we needed to make with the Vietnamese government.

I called on someone I knew only by reputation. His name was George Esper, who served as special correspondent during the Vietnam War. I read his bylined stories for years during the war. He was based in Boston at the time of our journey preparation. I called him at the AP bureau there.

Esper could not have been more accommodating, nicer and generous with his time and expertise.

He gave me the names of officials throughout Vietnam that we could arrange to meet while we traveled through the country. He offered me contact information at the Vietnamese U.N. mission, through which I would be working to finalize the details of our stay in that country.

Esper cautioned me about some of the roadblocks we might face, but also told me about how the Vietnamese would treat their American visitors.

Esper’s expertise was invaluable. I cherished the relationship I was able to build with him over the phone as we talked continually about our planning.

I regret that I never was able to shake this man’s hand. He died some years ago. However, the aid he offered and made our journey into a once-hostile — but gorgeous — land even more memorable.

Time of My Life, Part 14: The passport gets filled up

They used to urge us to “join the Army and see the world.” I saw part of the world back in the old days, but a career in print journalism allowed me to see a whole lot more of it.

For that I am grateful.

While working as editorial page editor for the Beaumont Enterprise and the Amarillo Globe-News in Texas, I belonged to a group called the National Conference of Editorial Writers. NCEW no longer exists as it did in its heyday, given the dramatically changing media world these days.

However, when it flourished, it enabled its members to embark on factfinding trips abroad. I was privileged to attend three of them.

I’ll share some of those memories.

In 1989, we embarked on a three-week journey to Southeast Asia. It began in San Francisco for a briefing from experts in the region. We flew off to Bangkok, Thailand. We visited with government officials and took in our share of sights to see.

Then we jetted off to Hanoi, Vietnam. The United States and Vietnam had not yet established diplomatic relations, so we had extra pressure to be on our best behavior while touring Hanoi. We later flew to Ho Chi Minh City (which the locals still refer to as “Saigon”). The differences between those two cities was remarkable in the extreme. Hanoi was dark, dingy and a bit foreboding; Saigon was, well, quite the opposite.

After touring Saigon, we boarded a plane for Phnom Penh, Cambodia. That leg of the trip produced some remarkable discovery for us. Vietnam had invaded Cambodia a decade earlier, occupied the country, and then revealed to the world the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia under the vicious rule of the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. We saw up close killing fields, torture chambers and talked to survivors of one of the 20th century’s most hideous examples of genocide.

We caravanned back to Saigon and spent Thanksgiving 1989 in a hotel dining room eating a meal prepared by our hosts to honor their American visitors and helping us celebrate our uniquely American holiday.

I will have more to say about one additional leg of that trip later. Spoiler alert: It involves a return to the place where I had served in the Army two decades earlier. That, dear reader, was a cathartic event!

A decade later, in 1997, I participated in an NCEW trip to Mexico City. It was a much shorter excursion, but it was eventful indeed.

We talked to officials about bilateral relations between the United States and Mexico. We watched the Folklorico Ballet, one of those colorful entertainment events I’ve ever seen.

We also had an audience at Los Pinos, the presidential mansion, with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. That was an event that, shall we say, taxed my ability to hold it together. I had consumed some water that I should not have consumed. I was getting sick, rapidly, while we awaited the president.

President Zedillo greeted us, welcomed us to a conference room and chatted with us individually. I told him my name and said I was from Amarillo, Texas. He was somehow smitten by the idea I came from Texas. He wanted to chat a little longer about life in Amarillo.

Meanwhile, I my body temperature was spiking as I fought to resist the oncoming sickness that would befall me later that day.

I got through it. Thankfully.

In 2004 I was able to return to Southeast Asia with another NCEW delegation. The mission on that journey was to discuss the HIV/AIDS crisis in Asia.

We attended the International Conference on AIDS in Bangkok, visited with American health officials there, became acquainted with medical professionals from Africa and Asia.

We returned to Cambodia, where I was struck by how far that country had come from my earlier visit in 1989. We talked to more professionals involved with HIV/AIDS prevention and control.

Then we jetted off to Delhi, India, where we learned of how India is grappling with the HIV/AIDS crisis. We took a day trip to Mumbai, where we sat on the floor of a house visiting with prostitutes who had become infected with the virus.

Yes, it was an eye-opener.

There were other overseas journeys I was able to take while working as journalist: to Greece, Cyprus and Taiwan. I wanted to highlight the NCEW ventures because of my association with a professional organization that helped me grow as a journalist.

I mention this because my career produced many “times of my life.” That I was able to see so much of the world while pursuing a craft I enjoyed fully has filled me with memories that will last a lifetime.

Time of My Life, Part 9: Shedding emotional baggage

I’ve blogged already about my membership in the National Conference of Editorial Writers, a professional group whose title is self-explanatory. NCEW sponsored overseas journeys for those of us who wrote or edited opinion commentary for a living.

A landmark journey occurred for me in the fall of 1989. It was my first extended overseas adventure that didn’t involve service in the U.S. military. That’s part of this brief chronicle of a chapter in a career that brought me great joy and excitement.

In 1989, NCEW put together a trip to Southeast Asia. I got permission from my bosses at the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise to go along. The trip would begin in Bangkok, Thailand; it would proceed to Hanoi, Vietnam; then to Phnom Penh, Cambodia; then back to Ho Chi Minh City (which the locals still refer to as “Saigon”). It was a fabulous sojourn to a part of the world some of us had seen up close two decades or so earlier while we served in the military.

We toured the Hanoi Hilton prison where U.S. prisoners of war were kept; we toured the killing fields of Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge committed horrific acts of genocide against their own people; we saw the lake in Hanoi where the late John McCain was captured in 1967; we met with dignitaries in all three countries; we saw the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, that was just beginning to recover from decades of war, misery and torture.

The official portion of the trip ended in Saigon. Some members of our party went on to Indonesia; others of us ended the official tour at that point. I sought to return to Da Nang, where I served for a time as a U.S. Army aircraft mechanic. I was stationed at a place called Marble Mountain, assigned to the 245th Surveillance Aircraft Company; we maintained a fleet of OV-1 Mohawks.

I wanted to return there. The travel agent who managed all this arranged it for me and two of my colleagues to fly from Saigon to Da Nang.

We arrived in Da Nang, checked into our hotel, caught our breath and then began touring the region.

We drove out to Marble Mountain, about 8 or so miles south of the city. We got out of our vehicle and began walking along the sandy stretch just north of Marble Mountain. I noticed a few remnants of aircraft hangars. I saw pierced-steel planking we used to taxi our aircraft that had been repurposed as fences for residents; they hung flower pots from the PSP.

Our guide, a young woman named Mai — a dedicated communist who also was delightfully efficient at her job — began explaining to me how the Vietnamese had swallowed our entire military presence there after we left the fight in 1973.

That’s when it hit me! Right in the gut! The war was over!

The shooting was occurring when I arrived 20 years earlier; it was still occurring when I left. The war had ended. At that point, I broke down. I sobbed like a baby. My friends who came to Da Nang with me backed away, as did Mai. They left me alone.

Then just as suddenly as it came, it stopped. I wiped the tears off my face. Took a huge breath — and realized I had just shed emotional baggage I had no idea I was carrying around.

So it went. A career in print journalism enabled me to experience a kind of catharsis I never saw coming.

How cool is that?

Time of My Life, Part 2: In the presence of greatness

I once belonged to an organization called the National Conference of Editorial Writers. The group occasionally sponsored remarkable overseas trips to members, editorial writers and editors such as yours truly.

In the summer of 2004, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the International Conference on HIV/AIDS in Bangkok, Thailand. It was my second trip to Southeast Asia with NCEW; the first one was in 1989, and I am likely to tell about that journey at another time.

This installment wants to focus on my being in the same room with one of history’s towering giants.

The AIDS conference focused on the disease that ravages so many millions of human beings. Our journey was aimed at studying the impact of the disease on Asia; in Thailand, Cambodia and India.

But there was a side story to cover as well. Tuberculosis is another killer, communicable disease that afflicted this great man: I refer to Nelson Mandela.

The former South African president came to Bangkok to tell attendees that TB needs the world’s attention, too.

Mandela staged a press availability in a room full of attendees, including our NCEW delegation. I stood about 30 feet from the microphone where Mandela would stand and speak.

He contracted TB during his imprisonment on Robben Island, where he was held prisoner for 27 years before his release in 1990. He had the temerity to protest against South Africa’s apartheid policies; the government threw him in the slammer because he demanded human rights for all of his country’s citizens, not just the white minority that ran everything.

By 2004, Mandela’s place in world history had been established. He stood as a giant among giants. To see this man in person was one of the thrills of my life as a working journalist.

I remember seeing him walk into the room and I was struck by something that was said about Robert Kennedy, which was that when RFK walked into a room, everyone else turned to black-and-white, while Bobby stood in magnificent color.

You could say the same thing about Nelson Mandela.

The great man told us about TB, his struggle to overcome it and urged the HIV/AIDS conference attendees to look for cures to TB. He took a couple of questions and then left.

We were instructed before Mandela came into the room to avoid flash photography, as he had developed acute sensitivity to bright lights during all those years he was kept in the dark on Robben Island. And, to no one’s surprise, some nimrods in the crowd took pictures with blinding flashes of light.

I didn’t get to speak to the great man. I don’t even know what in the name of star-struck wonder I would have said to him.

To be totally candid, just being able to see this man in the flesh was enough of a thrill to last my entire lifetime.

Happy Trails, Part 56

My full-time retirement is not yet a year old, but we’re building a bank of memories already about this new life we’ve begun.

Today, though, brings to mind a memory I left behind when my 37-year career in print journalism came to an end.

It occurred on Thanksgiving Day, 1989. I was far from home. I was traveling through Southeast Asia with about 20 other editorial page writers and editors. I have written about it before. Here is the blog item I posted in 2014 about that remarkable day:

A Thanksgiving to remember … in Vietnam

The post details the traveling we endured on that day. It was a bit harrowing. It produced none-too-pleasant “fantasies” about what might happen to us as we proceeded from Cambodia to Vietnam on that uniquely American holiday.

That particular journey was one of the more remarkable events in a career I left behind more than five years ago.

I built many wonderful relationships during more than three decades as a journalist. Indeed, the journey we took in 1989 through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam resulted in a friendship I forged with one fellow that I cherish to this day. Indeed, our wives have become dear friends, too. We watched each other’s children grow into adulthood.

As much as I miss those days and the fascinating sights I was able to see while pursuing the craft I enjoyed for so many years, I continue to look forward to more adventures in an entirely different context.

I give thanks for what I’ve been allowed to do for my professional life. I also give thanks for the relatively good health I enjoy that I trust will enable me to pursue what lies ahead.

Life is good, ladies and gents.

Thanksgiving brings back a special memory

hotel majestic

Most of my Thanksgiving celebrations have been of a fairly standard variety.

Turkey and all the sides. Fellowship with family. Lots of laughs. Sometimes even some pro football watching on TV.

But I’ve got a special Thanksgiving memory I’d like to share here.

It occurred in 1989. Twenty-six years ago I had the honor of attending — along with about 20 other journalists from all over the country — a three-week journey through Southeast Asia. Our trip took us — in order — Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and back to Vietnam. Our delegation represented the National Conference of Editorial Writers, which has been renamed and reorganized into the Association of Opinion Journalists.

It was a marvelous experience at many levels. Just going so far from home in itself was a treat. For several of us on that trip, it gave us a chance to return to Vietnam, where we had served during that terrible war and to see a country no longer shrouded by that conflict.

But along the way, we ventured to Cambodia. In 1989, the country was just beginning to recover from decades of war. Phnom Penh, the capital city, was in shambles. Vietnamese forces had just evacuated the country after liberating Cambodia from the heinous rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The city’s infrastructure was decimated.

We spent several days in Cambodia, laying eyes on a notorious killing field and seeing up close a former prison where the Khmer Rouge tortured and killed their countrymen.

But then the Cambodia portion of the trip ended. It happened to be Thanksgiving Day when we boarded our vans and headed east, back to Ho Chi Minh City (which the locals still refer to as Saigon).

We traveled all day along a terrible road. We crossed the rapidly flowing Mekong River aboard a “ferry” that in reality was little more than a glorified raft.

After a grueling day of travel back to Saigon, we settled into our hotel, the Majestic. Then we were informed by the hotel staff that they had prepared a special meal for us.

They wanted to make us feel a bit more “at home” by serving usĀ a Thanksgiving-style meal in the hotel’s main dining room.

We all sat down to dinner that evening and enjoyed a serving of what one of my dear friendsĀ refers to this day as “road kill duck”; we also enjoyed some fresh peas and mashed potatoes.

The meal was just OK.

What made it so very special, though, was the hospitality displayed by our Vietnamese hosts, who were delighted to treat us to a meal thatĀ enabled their American visitors commemorate a uniquely American holiday.

A day that began with some trepidation as we looked forward to a long, tiring and potentially harrowing trip back from a nation still bleeding from the wounds of war ended with warmth and good wishes — in a place so far from home.


Baltimore riots hit home in strange way

Strange as it might sound, the Baltimore riots are troubling to my wife and me in a way we didn’t quite anticipate.

We spent a week in that beautiful city in the summer of 1996.

We attended a meeting of editorial writers and columnists. I was a member of what was then known as the National Conference of Editorial Writers. I had the pleasure of attending several of those national conferences over the years: Lexington, Ky., Phoenix, Ottawa, Seattle, Kansas City, Mo., Providence, R.I. — and Baltimore.

Of all the places my wife and I attended together, Baltimore is the one city she said she’d visit again and again.


Now these riots have hit us harder than they would have had they occurred in virtually any other great American city.

The Inner Harbor with its row houses, the crab cakes, Fort McHenry and the general ambience of the city charmed us to no end.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — who also served as a Baltimore mayor — believes the city will recover from this dark chapter in its storied history. I do hope he’s right. I, too, believe the city will recover — eventually.

Two former visitors to that lovely city — my wife and I — are pulling hard for the city to reassemble itself and return to the charming place we remember.