To those of us who were lucky enough to come under his influence, James Hampton Shumaker was without question the best writer, editor, teacher and mentor who ever lived. To him, writing for a newspaper was the highest calling and he surely helped give the profession a better name than it deserved. To him, good writing was the ultimate in human achievement and it didn't matter if it were printed in a small-town newspaper or in some prize-winning novel. He was far from perfect and maybe his many mistakes in life--his vulnerability--were part of his strength. On the surface, he was a complicated mass of contradictions. He was the classic tough guy with a heart of gold, the profane cynic who, underneath, is really a true believer. Every other word was a curse word, except in front of women, of course, when he reverted to the incurable gentleman that he was.
The bare facts of his life do not begin to explain the profound influence he had on hundreds of reporters who worked for him and students who studied under him at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communications. He was born in Winston-Salem Oct. 7, 1923. When he was two years old, the family moved to Durham, where his father became assistant manager of the Washington Duke Hotel. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 and became a radio operator on B-24 bombers. He used the G.I. Bill to go to school at UNC and Columbia University. He started working as a reporter for the Durham Morning Herald as a student. After a year at Columbia and three years with the Associated Press in Charlotte, he came back to the Herald as an editor in 1952. He became editor of The Chapel Hill Weekly in 1958 and although he had a rocky time of it with the newspaper's publisher, he was there--well, off and on--until he began teaching at UNC in 1972. The paper won more than 70 major awards under his editorship; the Columbia Journalism Review described it in 1968 as the best written newspaper in the state.
In 1993, I set a tape recorder on his desk in the J-school and asked him all the questions I'd always wanted to ask. Was it true he threw a typewriter into the presses at the Herald when they wouldn't stop to make corrections he wanted? The scene has since been immortalized by Jeff McNelly in his comic strip based on Shumaker. Winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, McNelly was just one among hundreds of us who were inspired by the man.
"Naw," Shumaker said in his office that day, the legend about the typewriter was all wrong. In fact, he threw it through an opening in an outer wall of the newsroom when some renovations kept taking forever. Although he was forced into almost daily compromises to keep his job and support his extensive family, there was something about the man that inspired a fierce uncompromising integrity in others. Nobody ever hated the pomposity and arrogance of academia as he did, and yet, he became one of the most beloved and effective professors ever to teach at UNC. Nobody ever seasoned the language with such profanity (Shumaker never used the word "God" except as a prefix for "damn"--and by the way, if such ugly language offends you, you might want to consider reading no further). And yet, in the end, when he died of cancer Dec. 19, 2000 at age 77, he was a devout member of the Mount Herman Baptist Church. He was laid to rest in a country churchyard after a Baptist choir had sung his favorite hymn: "Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound. That saved a wretch like me!"
The following is a transcript made from those 1993 tapes. Shumaker was incredibly difficult to interview because he loathed pretension above all else and thus hated talking about himself. His stories came out in bits and pieces. I have edited the transcripts so that the pieces fit together in a more readable fashion, but I have inserted nothing he did not actually say. I have eliminated my own comments and questions, except where I thought they were necessary to understand Shumaker's replies. What is missing from this transcript, of course, is Shumaker's wonderfully mellifluous Southern voice. He had a wicked sense of irony and said absolutely nothing straight. His uproarious full-body laughter followed almost every line recorded here. Oh, Lord, we're going to miss him.
Jim Shumaker: How'd I get into it? I was a newspaper carrier boy when I was 10, 11, 12 years old. You know they used to dump your papers on the corner. And the first thing I did as soon as I got to my bundle was sit down on top of my bundle and read the goddamn paper.
And when I got in high school I used to write a column for the school newspaper. Where I really started writing was in junior high school. That's where I took a real interest in writing. I had a couple of really fine teachers at Durham Junior High School. And they had people running for offices in junior high school, class offices; it was a helluva school. And I wrote speeches. For other people.
Perry Deane Young: You didn't want to run yourself?
Shumaker: No, hell no. I didn't want any part of that.
And then when I got in senior high school I was a columnist for the high school paper. Turned out some real shit, real shitty columns. But I had one really fine English teacher in senior high school who encouraged me as much as anybody.
I came here to UNC right after World War II. Women were putting out newspapers during the war. And as soon as the war was over, they fired all of them. Got rid of them. There was a damn ad, a classified ad in the Durham Herald. They were looking for reporters. So I went over there and applied. Russell Brantley was the damn city editor and he was the top man in the news room. They didn't have a managing editor. And he interviewed me. And he said, "You know where City Hall is?" And I said, "Yeah, hell yeah, I know where City Hall is. I grew up here." And he said, "Well, you're the City Hall reporter."
I guess I was a sophomore or junior at the university. And I made $25 a week. Isn't that wonderful? Didn't even cover my beer bill. This was a full-time job, not a part-time job. I was a frigging city hall reporter. A full-time job over there if you counted drinking and fucking around and all this, that and the other was 70-80 hours a week. You had to cover your beat--and everybody had to write at least one Sunday feature from off their beat. I was in school over here too.
Yeah. I didn't go to class but I was in it.
Tell me about Skipper Coffin, first dean of the journalism school. [In this sequence of questions I'm trying to get him to tell me who most "influenced" him in his career as a journalist. He was having none of that.]
He was a real throwback. He didn't give a shit about academic niceties.
What did he give a shit about?
Writing. If you could write you could do no wrong. But if you couldn't write, you couldn't do anything right.
What I'm talking about is shit like the accrediting committee came through here and he left word--you see, when the accrediting committee comes through here now we'll work on it for two years before they ever get here. Go through all this agony, these voluminous reports, every goddamn thing we've done; you know, how many times a day you take a shit. Everything. The accrediting committee came through here one time when Skipper was the dean. He left word, he said, "I'll be down at the Shack on Rosemary Street. If you have any questions, you can reach me there." No preparation.
Did they get accredited?
Hell, no, they didn't get accredited. He didn't give a shit about that sort of thing.
How did he teach?
Very loosely. I had an editorial writing class. I did not go to a single class, not the first one or the last one or anything in between in 10 weeks. We were on the quarter system. He sent word to me I owed him 10 editorials. We had to write an editorial a week. So, I sat down that night and wrote 10 editorials and tied them up in a little piece of cotton twine. Walked into his office the next morning. He was so fucking hung over he could hardly see. He had these pale bulging blue eyes. And he was asthmatic, he wheezed all the time. Always had a cigar in his mouth and cussed every breath. I dropped that shit on his desk and he sat there and he glared at it for what seemed like two or three minutes. And he finally said, "If I don't have to read these things, I'll give you an A." I picked 'em up and dropped them in the damn wastebasket and said, "I'll take the A," and marched out.
Okay, I have read that story before, but tell me what's the point of that story? I mean, is that a good teacher who would do that?
Well, he knew what I was doing.
He saw your writing in the paper.
He knew what I was doing and he made all kinds of allowances for G.I.s. Stu Sechrist told me this; Stu was teaching here then. He said, "Look, Stu, some of these guys have been out of combat only a few months." He said, "Look, these guys have caught enough shit. Don't give 'em any shit in this school."
But, at the same time, you're here to learn things.
You did. You wrote. He made you write all the time.
If you hadn't had that job, you would have had to write.
Yeah. I would have had to be in class.
As a person, what kind of things did he teach you--or was he that important to you?
Mainly, he did it by making you keep writing. And he made it clear that newspaper work was the only honorable employment that anybody could have as far as he was concerned.
We had another sequence over there, that was advertising, which was a sort of little stepchild. The big thing, though, was news, editorial, and that's what everybody was in. And they had writers as teachers, old newspapermen teaching. Didn't have a pure academic on the goddamn faculty that I can remember. It was a very small faculty anyway.
Coffin was a columnist at the same time for the Greensboro Daily News.
Was he a good writer?
Yeah, he was a good writer. He wasn't as good as we are, but what the fuck, he was pretty good. He claimed he had a bachelor's degree; I don't know whether he did or not. He was editor of the Raleigh Times when he gave up newspaper work and came over here to the journalism department--it wasn't a school then. He made quite a reputation for himself as editor of the Raleigh Times. A hell-raising editor. He came over here and was completely out of the mold, as far as the faculty was concerned. Drank all the time. There are all kinds of stories about him. He was down on Franklin Street about half crocked; he had an old Ford he was driving. He was trying to park that damn thing in front of the post office. Some goddamn cop was out there, kept giving him hand signals. He got out of the car, threw him the keys and said here, you park the fucking thing. That's the type character he was.
His wife, Miss Gertrude, she called the Shack the only place in Chapel Hill where Skipper could breathe. And you'd think so. He'd go down there and really hold forth. There was a weird collection of characters down there. Norman Cordon, who'd been a Metropolitan Opera star, a pretty regular drunk himself. One of the funniest things I ever saw down there was, Skipper was down there holding forth over in one corner. And Cordon got up while he was holding forth and took his hat and went all around the Shack collecting coins and finally he asked him, he said, "What the hell are you doing?" And he said I'm taking up your election fee.
And Skipper got up--and there was one woman in the Shack, she was sitting way back in the back--Skipper got up and marched to the door and put his arm in front of this woman and said everybody from here on down is a son of a bitch and turned around and marched out. That's the kind of character he was.
Who else was important in your life?
He wasn't that important in my life; I enjoyed him.
Were there people who had influence on you?
That ad had more influence than anything. That ad the Herald ran.
I spent four years, well, I didn't spend four years, three and a half years on this campus and I have never seen such an outpouring of bullshit anywhere in my life the way you did on a college campus. And I recognized that right off the bat. I was in this short story/creative writing class. Biggest fucking joke I've ever seen in my life. Phillips Russell taught it. What a crock of shit. Sandy Grady was--you know who Sandy Grady is? Well, he's a syndicated columnist with the Philadelphia News. He had been a reporter, sports writer for the Charlotte News, and then decided he wanted to come down here and get some education cause he didn't have any. So he came down here and he was in that goddamn short story writing class--and it was so fucking ridiculous that he quit school and went back to Charlotte.
Nobody gets an education in this shit.
Well, it teaches you some things.
The only thing I remember is what a farce it was.
If it was a farce, what should it have been?
Well, I don't know, I think all of it is about 85 to 90 percent bullshit.
All of what?
Higher education. You can get what you want to out of it. You get somebody who can tell you what to read, what to study, what to pay attention to, who can separate the diamonds from the manure for you and sort of lead you along the way. You know, I think the European system makes sense. You study on your own; you've got somebody you can go to for whatever you need, guidance. Then after a certain length of time, whenever you think you're ready, you go before what amounts to a board and they determine whether you're educated or not.
Most of the stuff that I took here though was pure shit.
What bothers you about it; I mean, you're not against learning.
No, I'm not against learning. I'm against all these fucking academic airs they put on.
When I left here--I didn't graduate I just left cause I wouldn't take a silly hygiene course. [In 1972, when he became an instructor in the journalism school, UNC President Bill Friday presented Shumaker with a B.A. and a bar of soap.] I still had a year left on my G.I. Bill. So I went to California and I was thinking of going to school out there, but I just farted around for about six months. And then I went up to Columbia and took a year of drinking and play-going and graduate studies. I actually did go to school at Columbia--took a novel seminar, creative writing courses, short story. I ran that out and I had to get a job and Walter Spearman got me a job with [The Associated Press] in South Carolina. The most unsatisfying work I've ever done in my life. Working for the AP in Columbia and Charlotte.
Because they had you sitting on the desk?
In Charlotte, I got out of the office one time in three years. I was the night editor in Charlotte and I got to go down to a Democratic Convention in Columbia; that's the only time I got out of the office.
How long did you last?
Three years. Left in absolute disgust; went back to the Durham Herald. Brantley brought me back as state editor. Then he left to go to work for Wake Forest and I suppose he was more responsible than anybody else for my becoming managing editor of the Herald.
I didn't have a career as such. I just sort of stumbled from one thing to another.
When you were covering city hall, are there stories that stand out in your memory?
Shit, no, I don't even remember what I did yesterday.
What about when you came back to the Herald as state editor?
I had a lot of fun. Guy named Bill Whitley and I were covering the legislature for the Durham Herald. And we did a helluva job for them. We were getting shit that nobody else over there was getting. That was in '53.
The veterans were getting ready to march on Raleigh, trying to demand a state bonus. And this committee that was trying to figure out how to handle this march, how to react to it, was holding a meeting over there. And the first thing they did was they kicked all the damned reporters out of the meeting. And all of them just left. And Bill Whitley and I just stood outside the door and there was a transom open over the door. And we stood outside the door and we could hear every goddamn word they said--and tell for the most part who was saying it. I wrote the story about this committee over there scheming how to deny the veterans a bonus without angering everybody in the state. This son-of-a-bitch chairman of the committee, a member of the House, got up on the floor of the House the next day waving the Durham Herald around, yelling about how we had flushed our journalism ethics down the commode and all this shit. And we did shit like that, which was a lot of fun.
We're the ones who really, well it was a whole bunch of people who busted open that whole legislative secrecy over there in '53. The appropriations committee used to meet entirely in secret all the time. Old Muley Bob Doughton was the co-chairman of the appropriations committee and he got up--the reporters got together on this before, we knew what was gonna happen. And old Muley Bob got up and announced, "All right, now gentlemen, we're going into executive session." And usually, previously, historically when they said that, all the damn reporters would get up and file out dutifully. He got up and announced and not a damn soul moved, nobody. He looked around and said, "Executive session" and banged his fucking gavel two or three times, "executive session." Nobody moved. And he adjourned the committee. And they started meeting then all over Raleigh, in hotel suites--with the reporters in hot pursuit. The damn News & Observer used to run a blank column on the front page, saying this is the news from the appropriations committee today. Great stuff. It was a lot of fun.
They finally changed the rules.
Maybe it's just nostalgia, but it seems to me there's no evidence the reporters are having a good time now, no evidence of the kind of human interest stories that we looked for. I think you went out there looking for an occasional bit of humor.
Well, we tried to have fun. They have professionalized newspaper work to a large extent. If you were making the kind of money we were making, nobody gave a shit if they got fired. What the hell are you losing if you get fired; and all the hell you had to do was go to the next town and get another job over there on a newspaper. It was no trick at all getting a job on a newspaper. We didn't take ourselves so damn seriously.
You'd never hear the word "career," 'cause I don't think anybody ever looked at what they were doing as a career as such. It's changed entirely today.
What year did you become editor of The Chapel Hill Weekly?
It was either '58 or '59.
The best thing that I ever ran on the old Chapel Hill Weekly--we went after Texas Gulf Sulphur and ran their asses out of Orange County. Well, they got in with these people over in Hillsborough who were looking to make a quick buck and we found out about it. They had this whole Johnson estate out here, which was several hundred acres; they'd gotten options on that. Fred Cates up in Hillsborough was working hand in glove with 'em cause he could see himself making a pile of money. The whole goddamn power structure in the county was behind Texas Gulf Sulphur. They couldn't hardly wait. Nobody else paid any attention to it. No other newspaper.
They had a helicopter going around with this goddamn thing dangling down. And what they were doing was this geological survey. They had mineral rights on eight or nine hundred acres between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough and they were going to do strip mining. Then they started doing their boring. And we got Virgil Mann of the geology department. And he'd go around behind everything they did and scrape up all this stuff they were drilling out of the ground and take it and test it and see what the hell they were looking for.
We sent Bill Scarborough up to Tennessee to where they'd done strip mining and it looked like a moonscape up there, really. This was copper up there. And there was a hint that they might have been going after copper in Orange County. The university finally came in on it when they realized if you fuck up Orange County, you also fuck up this university.
We dogged their asses for months. Every issue. And we had Virgil Mann telling all the horrors he had seen personally in Alaska and the Midwest and all over the United States. Just conjuring up these horrors. Real horrors. And editorials one after another, along with news stories and Virgil Mann's analyses. Shit, we would run the whole goddamn paper full of it; whatever space we needed; pages of letters, kept the populace stirred up. And they finally just said fuck it and hauled ass.
Bill Scarborough was a muckraker of the first order. He was sort of dangerous because you had to watch everything he did, every word he wrote. He was the first one that really uncovered drug use at Chapel Hill High School. Talk about having a community in an uproar--not about the drug use, but about the goddamn newspaper. We went out and talked with all the students about marijuana, about the use of marijuana at the high school. And oh, goddamn, we got a shit storm of complaints from all the people.
Then, we did a lot of stories about what do you call them, latchkey kids. Chapel Hill was full of them. Still is. You would be amazed at how many families in Chapel Hill, university families--he may go off on a certain project for fucking months and take his wife with him and leave the kids. Can you imagine that? And it happens all the time and nobody pays any attention to it any more. Shit, it's routine now; it's accepted and expected. And we stirred that little shit storm up.
What are some things you see wrong with newspapers today?
One thing that's wrong as I see it is this fucking obsession with design. I think it was $300,000 The News & Observer spent over two years redesigning the fucking newspaper. Go down and look at those newspapers in the reading room. Every one of them looks like USA Today. They're obsessed with that shit; why, I don't know. The only people that design impresses are other newspaper people. Readers, you know, if a paper is easy to read, they don't give a shit about design, they give a shit about what's in it. Unless it's something really radical, they're not even aware of it.
Another thing I see wrong--all the garbage they put in the newspaper. You go through any newspaper and count the column inches of hard news as compared to fluff and dog vomit, how-to pieces, you know, just real filler crap and you'd be amazed at the percentage, the fluff outnumbers the hard news.
I've heard that 85 percent of the American people get all of their news from television, so where's the place for a newspaper?
Well, they'll always be around. Shit, you know what they said in the '20s when radio came in, well, that's the end of newspapers. The late '30s, when television started they said well that's the end of newspapers. Forties when they started on cable and the '50s, they said, well, that's the end of newspapers. And now everybody's talking about the fucking information highway and fiber optics and all this shit and they say, well, that'll be the end of newspapers. It won't. They'll be around. You ain't ever seen a TV yet cover an ordinary wedding--or an ordinary funeral. They don't announce births, marriages, routine deaths and the like. The little community newspapers do. They, incidentally, are the healthiest newspapers in the country right now.
A key element in the legend of the late Jim Shumaker was his service in World War II. We whispered about it behind his back, but the truth was, we could never get the man himself to talk about it at all. I had a pet theory, from my own experience as a correspondent in Vietnam, that the people who'd seen the real horrors of war never wanted to talk about it afterward. The braggarts you heard in the veterans' clubs and bars never got near the danger. Shumaker shot down that bit of psychoanalyzing by saying, "My old man was in World War I and he never would talk about it. And I found out later he spent the whole goddamn war in Texas."
Shumaker's answer to my first question about his war experience was typically succinct, but, for once, he kept on talking about what really happened to him.
To what extent do you think your military experience affected your world view, how you view things?
I was just a kid; I was 19. And I spent--you know, when you're in the Army or the Air Force, you know what's going on right immediately around you and that's it. As far as worldview, I still hate Germans, but that's mainly 'cause I was in a German prison camp and saw those bastards close up--particularly the civilians, who are really dangerous. I never was worried about German soldiers or guards. But, you'd go through marshaling yards, you know, trains shipping you around here and there in box cars. The civilians were the ones who wanted to kill your ass.
And that was understandable. We were bombing the shit out of them every day and every night. This was the last year of the war. 1944. [Shumaker was flying as a radio operator on an Army Air Corps B-24 bomber operating out of Italy.]
We had bombed the Ploesti oilfields in Romania and we were on our way back to Italy. And we were over Albania; had already come down from altitude. And that's when we had a mid-air collision. Another goddamn 24 plowed into us. [Shumaker told our mutual friend, Dave Williamson, the pilots of the two planes were "hot-dogging" it, playing around wing to wing, when they smashed into each other.]
I got out of my plane and another guy got out of my plane but his 'chute didn't open. One guy got out of the other plane. Out of 20. Two out of 20. And I landed I guess about 100 yards from a goddamn German garrison. Two Germans there and 40 Ukrainian traitors. That was the garrison. Shit, I hit the ground and I rolled over once and looked up at about a half-dozen rifles. They had tracked us all the way down.
And then they started fartin' us around. They didn't really know what to do with us. They took us up to Tirana and put us in jail. The other guy, he landed up in the mountains and they hauled his ass down. They thought he was a partisan and they hauled his ass down right straight to the garrison. They took us up to Tirana and kept us up there for a while. They took us up there by truck, at night. The only time anybody would move was at night. They were scared shitless by then. They took us up to Tirana and there is where we got on a damn train. And from there we went down to the Greek border. Why we went down there, I don't know. And stayed down there a day or two and started back and then they took us to ... I guess it was Vienna. Anyhow, it was the central interrogations center. And then what they did was throw us in solitary; throw everybody in solitary and let you sit in there and sweat for 10 days or so.
And they got all these fucking little rules they don't tell you about. Sending messages on the pipes, tapping, that's against the rules. They'd come in and knock you around for that. And they had a window in the thing about head high, little higher than your head; you'd pull yourself up and look out the window; and that--they don't tell you any of this shit--and that's against the rules. They come in and knock you around there. If you sing, make any noise, don't eat all the food. They didn't feed you but once a day. If you didn't eat everything that was in that damn tin plate, they'd come in and knock you around.
After that, then they had the interrogation. Go in and the guy that interrogated me had just come over from the University of Wisconsin. He'd say "here's a pack of cigarettes, have a cigarette," pack of Luckies; some shit like that. And the first thing he asked me was, "Why do you fight the Fatherland?"
He knew more about our group and the goddamn mission I was on and everything else than I did. And we went through this little charade. Then after a few days, they'd make up a whole trainload of POW boxcars with at least 40 in each one. And they took us up to a little town called [I cannot make out the name of the town he's referring to on the tape], about 90 miles northeast of Berlin, right on the Polish border. And they put us in a prison camp there.
They were satisfied you didn't really know anything?
What in the hell were they gonna do? They're not gonna bomb our base down in Italy. This is the last year of the war, they didn't have shit. They were starving. The German people were starving.
But on that trip up from Austria ... that scared me worse than anything else in the war. And that was mainly the British at night and the Americans in the daytime. Well, these sons of bitches, you could hear 'em coming, these bombers, hear 'em coming a half-hour before they ever got there. And we'd be in a marshaling yard and those goddamn Germans would come by and lock all the doors and they'd haul ass.
And we're sitting there in the boxcars. In the freight yard. Goddamn. The British would come in at night ... and they'd bomb our asses at night. They really scared me bad. We could hear 'em hitting around us but for some reason they never hit a marshaling yard that we were in.
I was in one town that was actually bombed at night by the British. I don't know what the hell they were after, but we were in a city jail, we weren't in a freight yard.
Well, what the fuck kind of worldview do you develop, looking at shit like that?
Well, I'll tell you one thing: You cut away a lot of the bullshit ... you forget what matters out here.
Well, the only thing that matters there is staying alive.
One thing, you know, we were coming out of one town. And this was right after we had been liberated by the Russians. Crazy as hell; goddamn they were crazy. We were coming through this German town on the way out and there was a woman lying beside the road and her head obviously had been mashed off by the treads of the tank. And all she had was this pulp here and then the rest of her body lying by the side of the road. And they'd just glance at it and go right on, don't give it a thought.
No horror or nothing, doesn't even register on 'em, just look, how 'bout that.
But you remember.
Oh, I remember a lot of things. You don't look at it with the kind of horror; you get desensitized.
As far as developing any kind of worldview, I never have before, since or during.
I just think any kind of life-or-death thing, whether illness or whatever, it kind of sharpens you and clears your vision.
It could have. If it did I was not conscious of it; still not conscious of it. I don't think that way. I don't examine myself to the extent that you've obviously examined yourself.
We were right up on the Baltic Sea, the second prison camp I was in. They had to evacuate the first one because the Russians were advancing ... what the hell is it, famous German vacationland, summer vacation ... Barth, right on the Baltic sea, right outside of Barth.
We woke up one morning and all the goddamn guards were gone and we knew the Russians were coming. Everybody was digging slit trenches and painting stuff on top of the barracks, the huts we lived in, "POW POW." I don't know how the fuck they expected the Russians to know what "POW" meant. We sent a group out to meet them.
How many were in the camp?
The Russians came in; all of them it seemed like were drunk; they took tanks and ripped down all the barbed wire and the fencing and this, that and the other. Rounded up all the cattle in the damn area and had these huge bonfires going. And they were barbecuing. Everybody was drunk. And then some goddamn rumor started they were going to repatriate us by the Black Sea. Going to travel overland down to the Black Sea and get repatriated.
At best, that looked like a six-month trip. This guy in the room I was stayin' in, he said, "fuck that, let's go." I said okay. So we hauled ass. Went across the bay there. He had a gun; didn't have any ammunition for it. We went up and stuck it up against a damn German farmer's head. We got a carriage, a two-wheel carriage thing and a horse. We got almost to Rostock and the damn horse dropped dead. He was beatin' that fucking horse like crazy and the damn horse dropped dead.
And this Russian. We gave him all this "Amerikanzky" shit and told him we were looking for a car. The guy I was with somehow got through to him we wanted a car to get back to the American side.
Did you have any idea where the Americans were?
No, we didn't know where the hell they were. We knew where France was and that was where we were going.
This son of a bitch, this Russian. There was a German coming down the street in a car. And I guess he was a collaborator with the Russians, that's the only explanation for his having a car. The Russian stepped out and stopped him. "Get out," or whatever the hell. The guy got out. The Russian said there's your car. We got in and ZOOOOM. We were hauling ass down the Autobahn. And that's where we ran into the first Americans. "HALT!" Didn't shoot. "Halt." So we stopped. The first thing, they took the fucking car away from us.
They wanted to know who the hell we were. We didn't have uniforms. I didn't know about this until much later. We were in this camp in early December and they said "we're gonna give all of you hot showers." We'd never had a fucking hot shower; we didn't know what a hot shower was. All these G.I.s going through a hot shower; take your clothes off on one side and on the other side, they had nondescript clothing; it was completely nondescript. And we found out--what was that last big German push? The Battle of the Bulge. And they took all our uniforms and they put Germans in them--and that's how they got as far as they did--until the Americans realized these were Germans coming in--in American uniforms.
Anyway, we were going down the Autobahn and shit, the Americans didn't know what the fuck we were until they stopped us and we told them who the hell we were. We stayed with this infantry outfit for a couple of days and then we went on down to France. And I can't think of the name of that goddamn town. Where we were actually repatriated and then sent up to this port in northern France. Cherbourg. Camp Lucky Strike.
Eisenhower flew over from England and told us we didn't need to be ashamed of ourselves, that we didn't have to hang our heads in shame because we had surrendered to the Germans. And I thought, what the fuck is with this guy?
It was weird as hell. One guy standing next to me, he had one leg left and he was on crutches. A lot of them shot all to hell, lost eyes and arms, and here's Eisenhower. He flew in in one of these SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force] planes and got out on a platform up there. And told us we didn't have to be ashamed of ourselves. It had never occurred to me to be ashamed of myself. Goddamn.
This was really tragic. In that camp, we were among the first that got in there. And we had these guys that would come in there that were scarecrows and this that and the other. They didn't know anything about handling them. ... And that was sad. But it didn't give me a worldview or anything.