I remember my father’s two-year transition into the world of respectability. He was promoted from beat-cop to detective. He quit smoking and drinking and bought some new suits. He did it for the family. We needed the money and he wanted to be at home when my brother and I were awake instead of out protecting the midnight streets while we slept. And, he did it to give my brother and I options. Options I never would have appreciated had not both Hunter S. Thompson and Peter Jennings died the same year I graduated college.
The two were as different as my degrees in journalism and creative writing, yet alike in their passion: the craft. Neither had formal journalism training, both blindly followed purpose. Both spoke well for their cultures and their voices should immortalize them.
As a kid, I never saw ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. Instead, my parents would turn the channel to Wheel of Fortune and then disappear into the kitchen to prepare dinner after the 6 o’clock local news. And, I wouldn’t have it any other way now because my dad was there to cook dinner. But before the days of cable reminders and Tivo you flipped from channel to channel only when you knew one show was over – for us, that flip came only after we’d heard the announcer say “with Peter Jennings.” And the switch from inactive reality into the game-show fantasy was just that easy. After my parents had come home from work and changed out of their business attire, Peter Jennings was still wearing his suit and just getting clocked-in.
And then, years later, there was Hunter Thompson, as protrayed by Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in khaki shorts, Hawaiian shorts and a tape-recorder duct-taped to his chest. That was the first year I took journalism seriously. After years of seeing news reporters in their ties and sports coat, here was this guy wearing shorts and driving a red convertible sports car across the country in pursuit of the story and the Great American Dream. Another option.
And I think about the options we are all left with. We live in a country where the rich go to college, the middle class go into student loan debt, and the unfortunate join the military. Exemptions do apply, but the deciding factor is opportunity. Those that have it, take advantage of it. Those that don’t, make it happen for themselves. And most do it for the same reasons my dad traded his police uniform for a suit and tie: family. Others like Hunter Thompson and Peter Jennings – a suspect subculture – take advantage of opportunities because destiny give them no other paths.
There are now more advocacy and interest groups than ever, and each speak louder when they can turn a celebrity into a poster-child for their own causes. Unfortunately, it is these groups that will fight to martyr those who have or will die as icons because of their contributions and/or vices. In the eyes of these groups, immortality can only come from one’s mortality. And in that, the vision gets lost.
Hunter will go and be publically remembered the way he lived – with a bang. From the top of the Gonzo cannon, his ashes will be blown out on to his Woody Creek Ranch. The invitees will see and hear Hunter’s final escapade; his following will remember him on that day.
But what of Peter Jennings, the person beneath the suit and tie that symbolizes so much of American culture? The journalist brothers and sisters said their tributes the days immediately following his death. Now, he’s become the angry voice and shaking finger of a nation-wide anti-wide smoking campaign blaiming the Marlboro Man for his untimely death. He was a victim, but he was also the voice we all needed to hear during 9-11. And on that day, when we turned to him for journalistic compassion and emotional support; when he needed a cigarette more than anyone has ever needed a cigarette in the history of the addiction, he sat there for 48 hours and told us to call our children.
On August 20th, when Hunter’s ashes are being blown out from atop the Gonzo tower, remember when you think about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that the angry midget yelling at Hunter (Depp) after leaving the Flamingo Lounge without paying for lunch will be toasting Hunter. The Hell’s Angels will be toasting Hunter alongside everyone at Rolling Stone as well all the friends and enemies Hunter made throughout his entire career of telling the story as he saw it and to hell with everyone else. But, Hunter could not have been so loud without Peter Jennings anchoring the other end of the spectrum. So, remember Peter as well. Both, I trust will enjoy the entire scene together smoking cigarettes and thankful that someone else has to cover the story. Me, I’ll drink to the good Doctor, smoke to the future of journalism, and thank my father for putting on the coat and tie so I could have the opportunity to be a part of that future.