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MIKE MASTERSON: Life lessons

Shades of gray

Throughout my 20s, I viewed the world in black or white. In my simple-minded perspective there existed right or wrong, good or bad, worthy, unworthy, selfish, greedy. There was no gray.

The logic even made sense at the time: Criminals are bad. Ministers are good. Alcohol is acceptable, marijuana is not. Those who prey on weaknesses of others are bad; their victims are good.

My writings as a journalist and editor reflected that philosophy. To acknowledge the existence of at least 50 shades of gray in most issues would have felt like I was selling out universal principles of positive and negative. I rationalized that even batteries have positive and negative polarities, water counters fire and night opposes day.

In my energized zeal as a fresh 28-year-old editor, I told reporters at the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record their new marching orders were to fearlessly report the white of "truth" wherever they found it, regardless of whose doorstep it crossed.

And did they ever. Those were the Walking Tall years, the 1973 film about crusading Sheriff Buford Pusser in McNairy County, Tenn., who had single-handedly (while carrying a big stick) taken on the evil gambling and prostitution kingpins there and somehow survived it.

He survived, that is, until one night en route from Selmer to his home 13 miles away in Adamsville, the Corvette he always drove like a racecar crashed headlong into a tree and burned.

The "based on a true story" film and a record about his exploits naturally reinforced my impressionable, extreme views. So much so that I actually had seven big sticks cut for each of my staffers, one of whom had been beaten for many things they'd been exposing. I inscribed each, "With self-protection while telling it like it is," and asked each reporter to keep them handy. Yeah, it was pretty hammy, all right. But I also didn't want the reporters becoming demoralized by threats or worse.

Then came pivotal 1976. After being chosen to receive an Alicia Patterson Fellowship, which provided funding to travel America for a year and write about the mood of its people, I made our first stop of the 20,000-mile odyssey in McNairy County.

I had to make pilgrimage to the heroic figure Hollywood had assured me was the embodiment of doing the right thing (white) in the face of formidable evil (black).

Within a day of visiting with the new sheriff, the local newspaper editor, townsfolk and Pusser's chief deputy during the heyday of his war against evil, a sinking feeling enveloped as I began realizing just how childlike my impression of the former sheriff and his "courage" promoted by Hollywood had been.

The revelations from various angles set mental dominoes falling about my other uninformed preconceptions from judging by extremes. I was initially crestfallen.

But this also was a life-altering lesson. Even then-Washington Post editor Benjamin Bradlee (a judge in the Patterson fellowship competition) had written after my selection to say how "wide and starry-eyed" I'd seemed as a contestant with such narrow horizons. "But you are interesting in that ... your horizons will be widened."

My emergence from naïvete indeed began in McNairy County. The true Buford Pusser, I was informed by many in town, was an alcoholic and a bully separated from his wife who'd died under mysterious conditions when they were together on a rural dirt road outside of town. And he never carried a big stick. Nor did he have a black deputy as depicted in the film. The newspaper editor told me Pusser had threatened his life after a critical editorial. What I continued to learn only got worse, not better.

The more I discovered, the deeper my spirits dropped, even as the chief deputy drove me to the tree the intoxicated sheriff had slammed headlong into the night he died in August 1974.

This won't mean anything to those who haven't seen the movie. Yet even today, when I Google the film the passage reads: "Based on the life of Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser whom almost single-handedly cleaned up his small town of crime and corruption, but at a personal cost of his family life and nearly his own life."

Since those two days in McNairy County, my views on most things have morphed into a continuum of shades between black and white. I've come to realize in the ensuing 42 years just how complex human beings and the foibles of this life we share truly are, depending on who's weighing truths and how much factual knowledge they have of another person or circumstance.

Admittedly, I sometimes wish I could return to the narrow horizons of limited understanding. It was just so darned much easier then to ignorantly categorize people and events, a lot like the comforts of denial. Then I pause to realize how one's hopeful growth pattern in acquiring experience throughout a lifetime is to accept this ever-fluctuating existence for what it is, rather than what we perceive, or want, it to be at any given moment.

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Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 02/11/2018

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