Memoirs, by nature, involve some preening narcissism, but Georgia author and journalist Robert Coram is quick to indemnify himself as very much a hangdog underachiever who lucks into a calling in Ink: The Years of Journalism Before the Days of Bloggers (Five Bridges Press).
The book is Coram’s second memoir. His first, which deserves a wider audience, is Gully Dirt: On Exposing the Klan, Raising a Hog, and Escaping the South. In it, Coram captures — with echoes of Harry Crews — the southwest Georgia town of Edison in the 1950s. In that repressive environment, under the boot heel of a tyrannical father, the young, bookish, humanistic Coram idolized Ralph McGill, the crusading columnist for the Atlanta Constitution.
Ink picks up where Gully Dirt leaves off, with the narrator as “a green and naive kid with an underdeveloped sense of responsibility; a redneck Southerner with a nonexistent worldview.”
Coram recounts his false starts with entertaining acerbity. He flunked out of college and then enlisted in the Air Force, where he pulled a few stints in the stockade before receiving an undesirable discharge. Then he became an attendant at Central State Hospital, which was at one time the world’s largest “asylum for lunatics and the insane,” as it was billed, where lobotomies were a common treatment for its 13,000 patients. Coram administered enemas, mopped up bodily fluids and assisted with electric shock therapy. He unwittingly let a “psychopathic” patient escape, bringing that job to an end.
At last he arrived in Atlanta and enrolled at Georgia State University, where he launched a literary magazine (extant today) and distinguished himself with his columns for the school paper.
They were precocious enough to catch the eye of a big-city editor.
“The things I can’t forget are so much stronger than the things I remember. And I can’t forget, will never forget, the headlong rush of emotions during my first visit to the newsroom of the Atlanta Journal,” he writes.
He lied on his application and wangled his way into an entry-level job there, and for his first story, he covered a whisky-still bust. Coram could not stop staring at his first real byline, and soon enough, he became the paper’s lead investigative journalist, heady with power.
“Many low-grade rascals inhabited public office in Georgia,” he writes. “As a rule, they were cunning rather than bright, avaricious rather than honest, and most them believe the purpose of their public office was to build a mini-kingdom.”
Coram lived to take them on. He had finally found the role that rewarded his mile-wide streak of cussedness, tangling with paunchy sheriffs and bringing down a mayor and an entire city council.
Trouble came soon enough, though, when Coram tried to organize a union — a move that did not endear him to the bosses in management, and they began looking for a pretext. When one of his stories ticked off the governor, they fired him.
Later, writing trade books for McGraw-Hill would lead Coram to some of his greatest adventures, including covering the war in Biafra, where he secured an interview with General Ojukwu to write about mass starvation.
“If bombs started falling, we were to jump into the nearest slit trench. More than two dozen pilots had been killed. It was one of the greatest relief operations in history,” he writes.
More derring-do followed. During an era when Miami Vice was setting the pastel tone for leisure wear, Coram managed to cultivate the right sources to cover cocaine and the crime and corruption it fueled. He disguised himself to pose as a drug smuggler — draping gold chains around his neck — and ended up on a cigarette boat, hiding out in the mangrove swamps of Bimini while the real smugglers fired real bullets at him.
“I was having the time of my life,” he writes.
Then-legendary Constitution editor Jim Minter assigned Coram to cover the war in El Salvador — an assignment that would finally land him at the newspaper of his hero, Ralph McGill. He lasted two years before his aggressive reporting tactics got him dismissed. At that point, he had now been fired by both the Journal and the Constitution.
“I had done something unique,” Coram notes.
Several books followed, acclaimed biographies of war heroes. Ironically, this once disgraced flyboy would later be regarded as the country’s top military biographer, though it was his halcyon time at newspapers that he remembers most fondly.
“I worked for the Atlanta newspapers when facts were sacred, when print journalism was at high tide and when Atlanta was becoming Atlanta and when America was in turmoil,” writes Coram. “I had the greatest title a young man could have: reporter.”