The Character who Stepped from Real Life onto the Pages of a Novel
April 13, 2012
When I began developing the lead character for my thriller, Place of Skulls, I knew he should be a newspaperman, which gave him a license to carry curiosity, and a travel writer, which gave him an entre into any place in the world I needed for him to be. I was half way through the manuscript before I realized that – without really meaning to – I had patterned the character I called Andrews St. Aubin after Jerry Flemmons, a self-confessed maverick, curmudgeon, iconoclast, friend, mentor, and travel editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the best damn writer who ever threw an adjective against a noun and made it sing.
Flemmons didn’t walk to the beat of a different drummer. He bought the drum for half price and promptly threw it away. He never handed out business cards. “If you know me, you don’t need a card,” he said, “and if you don’t know me, it doesn’t matter.” And he never wore a tie.
Jerry Flemmons was offered an editor’s job at National Geographic, without doubt the most prestigious travel magazine in the country.
“I’m not an editor,” he said.
“You’ll be a fine one.”
“I’m a writer.”
“We’ll let you do some writing.”
“And I won’t wear a tie around the office.”
“A tie is required,” National Geographic said.
“Goodbye,” Flemmons said.
In one of Fort Worth’s most notorious, highly publicized, and celebrated murder trials, multi-millionaire businessman Cullen Davis went to court charged with the brutal murder of his socialite wife. Big news. Big headlines. Big ratings.
He invited Flemmons to lunch at his mansion. The table was stacked with wine bottles and prime rib. Cullen Davis was all business. “The press has been on me pretty good ,” he said.
“I have a proposition for you.”
“You’re a damn good writer,” he said. “I want to hire you to write a book that tells my side of the story. I’ll pay you a hundred grand.”
“Can’t do it,” Flemmons said.
Jerry Flemmons stood up, dropped his linen napkin in the chair, and said, “Because I think you’re guilty as hell.”
There are some writers who are born to be reporters. Not just great storytellers but great reporters. Jerry Flemmons was one of them. All he had to do was walk in, and a big story would find him. He never had to look for one.
He was a young reporter for the Star-Telegram on a November day in 1963, packed in a press bus, following President John F. Kennedy around Dallas, assigned to write a little filler sidebar about the parade through town.
He was just behind the lead car when the shots rang out. He suddenly found himself hanging on to his seat as the bus sped wildly down a Freeway with sirens screaming around him. Flemmons was huddled with the press corps inside Parkland Hospital before he learned that an assassin had struck and a President had been hit. That’s all anyone knew. And the nervous wait began.
Flemmons wandered away from the crowd as he usually did. He was standing alone at the far end of a hallway when a young intern emerged from the trauma room.
He walked up to Flemmons and asked, “Are you a reporter?”
“The President’s dead,” the intern said.
Flemmons hurried away to find a telephone. The Star-Telegram was on the streets with a special edition headlining President Kennedy’s death by the time the official announcement was made at an official press conference. He had scooped the Associated Press and New York Times. He had scooped network television.
Jerry Flemmons had taken a leave of absence from the newspaper and was working as the press secretary for Waggoner Carr when he ran for the Senate in Texas. It had been a slow day. No news. No meetings. No statements to release. Flemmons had just walked back into his office when he caught word on the radio that some rifleman had climbed to the top of The University of Texas Tower and was firing randomly into the crowd below. Some wounded. Some dead. The shooting had thrown the campus into panic and turmoil.
His old newsman instincts took over. Flemmons immediately hurried to the campus. He could hear the shots. He could see students crouching behind whatever cover they could find. He heard their screams. He saw their tears. He had managed to work his way through the confusion, sidestep the chaos, and reach the Tower when the shooting stopped.
An Austin policeman had climbed to the top, stepped onto the walkway, and, as he later told Flemmons, “Gave my heart to God, took a deep breath, turned the corner, and fired.” The sniper was dead where he fell.
An ambulance drove quickly to the front door of the tower, and two attendants began unloading their gear. Jerry Flemmons stepped out of the crowd, reached down, and picked up one end of the stretcher. No one asked him if he were a doctor, a lawman, or an official of any kind. And Flemmons didn’t say.
He was the only newsman, past or present, to enter the tower. The door locked behind him. He saw the dead in the library lobby. He saw the dead in the stairwell. He saw the dead in the elevator. He saw the dead in the research library. He quietly and mentally counted them all. Their faces would forever be etched in his mind.
And he helped bring down the lifeless body of Charles Whitman.
He was the only newsman, past or present, who knew the sniper’s identity. The door remained locked. Nobody came in. Nobody was going out. He had Whitman’s driver’s license in his hands.
Flemmons slipped away, found a telephone, and called the Associated Press. “Do you want some information on the sniper?” he asked softly.
“We’ve got our own man on the scene,” the AP editor snapped.
Flemmons shrugged and called his old city editor at the Star-Telegram.
A special edition of the newspaper was on the streets with the story of the sniper before anyone else in the press knew who he was or what had happened to him.
Flemmons was the only witness inside the inner sanctum and outside of law enforcement, and no one noticed. He was just the man at the end of the stretcher with blood spackled on his shirt. He heard the law officers go over the information they had gleaned. He interviewed the policeman who had taken Whitman down.
Then he eased to a corner out of the way, sat down at a typewriter, and wrote the first line of a story that would win newspaper awards all over the country: Charles Whitman lay in the shadow of his last afternoon.
My character in Place of Skulls was patterned after Jerry Flemmons. He just wasn’t as good. Flemmons was an American original.