Our old newspaper pal Hoot, also known as Skippy Sanchez, went to Facebook on Sunday and linked to a Memorial Day post that ran in the Central Standard Times five years ago about our late mutual pal Jerry Clark. We thought it a well-written tribute to a bona fide American hero, and decided to take the day off in Clark’s honor and re-run it.
Today is Memorial Day, and we plan to charcoal some meat, drink a beer, and fly our Kansas flag from the porch. In keeping with our holiday custom, we will also spend the day missing Jerry Clark.
Clark, who was also known as Clyde Suckfinger and Chief Two Toes, was a good friend from way back in our newspaper days. When we broke into the newly computerized newspaper racket at 19-years-old as glorified copy boys he was an aging photographer who’d been shooting since the days of the massive accordion-lens cameras with the searchlight-sized flash bulbs, but we hit it off immediately. He liked that we had been born in Manila in the Philippines while our dad was paying off his AFROTC debts by flying single-engine planes and doing various other First Lieutenant chores, as he had his own connections to Manila and the Philippines, and he liked that we were the very last ever hired to work at the late Wichita Beacon where he had started his ink-stained career.
The twenty-something college grads from fancy journalism schools who then dominated the paper’s reporting ranks were often embarrassed to have him along on assignments, with his rumpled suits and conspicuously ugly shoes and the ties marked with holes from the chemicals that splattered around in the dark room, not to mention his ribald sense of humor and uncomfortable candor and unabashed Kansasness, so naturally we regarded him as the coolest cat in the newsroom. At every opportunity we’d hang out with him in the darkroom or the smoker’s lounge and swap jokes, the dirtier the better, and he’d tell us tales of the good old days when the reporters wore fedoras and shouted “get me rewrite” into candlestick phones and everything was in glorious black-and-white. Most of the stories were funny or risqué, and always infused with a necessary cynicism about the business he was in, but he’d still choke up occasionally at the recollection of a murder or other grisly crime scene he’d been sent to, or the sorry state of the slums he’d documented during the paper’s occasional urban crusades, or the tornado that wiped out the tiny town of Udall just south of Wichita.
The photographs Clark took of the aftermath of that tornado were reproduced in publications around the world and won him a nomination for the Pulitzer prize, but you had to get to know him for a while before he mentioned that, or anything else he’d done that was worth bragging about. Eventually we got to know him well enough to hear about his Great Depression boyhood in an Atchison orphanage, where all the kids rooted for the Detroit Tigers because the team was rough and ugly and all the respectable town kids with parents rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals, and how at the age of 16 he spent a year of more or less indentured servitude at a bakery in Hutchinson. When he turned 17 years old Clark was inducted into the Army and shipped off to the Pacific to fight a war against the Japanese, and after a while he even talked to us about that.
One sunny summer day we noticed that Clark was less than his usual ebullient self, and assumed it was because the young whippersnappers from out of town who were then running the paper had pulled him off the street and relegated him to darkroom duty, but he scoffed at the idea and explained it was the anniversary of the very worst day of his war. He told how a landing craft had stopped too short of the shore on one of the many islands he had been obliged to invade, and how he had gone charging out of the deployed door and immediately sinking into the depths of the ocean under the weight of his helmet and gun and backpack and heavy boots. He somehow managed to jettison all the gear and make it to the beach, but he arrived there in the middle of a pitched battle without a helmet or rifle or rations or boots, and spent the rest of the day crouched in a hand-dug hole as machine gun fire whizzed overhead and mortar shells landed close enough to toss sand on his back. He had relived the experience once a year ever since, he said, and assured us that nothing those young whippersnappers running the paper could do seemed quite so bad.
On another occasion he told how his regular assignment after a beach was taken was to leap into the enemy foxholes further inland and either shoot or knife whoever he found there to prevent them from placing magnetic bombs on the bottom of the tanks that would pass over. He was neither boastful nor ashamed about it, and he’d always add that pretty much every other able-bodied American male at the time also had some nasty chores to do in the war, and we had to agree with him that it was of greater importance the Axis powers didn’t win.
On most occasions he told more light-hearted war stories. He liked to tell about the time he saw a zoot-suited Cab Calloway and his swinging orchestra while on leave in southern California, or the time he was in the boxing ring with Joe Louis, who served as a referee for one of Clark’s bouts against fellow training camp lightweights while the heavyweight champ was on a morale-boosting tour, or the friend and fellow soldier who contracted what Clark thought a particularly amusing case of testicular elephantiasis from a Singapore prostitute. Like most combat veterans, our friend preferred to remember the good times and funny anecdotes.
We’ve forgotten how Jerry Clark came to be known as Clyde Suckfinger, although we vaguely recall that it couldn’t be recounted in such a respectable publication as this in any case, but we clearly remember how he came to be called Chief Two Toes. One day in the early ’90s Clark took ill and was taken to the local Veterans Administration hospital, where we found him lying in bed with both feet sticking out of the blanket. One foot had only the big toe and the pinkie toe, and when he caught us looking at it he explained with a shrug that the other digits had been blown off by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Battle of Manila. He gave us his full account of the famous fight, which is still troubling to recall and far too gory to recount here, but suffice to say that it ended with him spending two years in a Hawaiian hospital partially recovering from his numerous wounds.
Clark also told us that one of the men who occupied the next bed wasn’t so lucky, and when he died Clark inherited a camera, which he spent the rest of his time in the hospital learning how to use. When he was eventually shipped back to Kansas he got off the train in downtown Wichita, walked a few blocks down Douglas to the Beacon Building and managed to convince the photography editor that he could take good pictures and wouldn’t be intimidated by any of the gore that newspapers loved to cover back in the day. That’s how Jerry Clark came to be a newspaperman, and he so loved the job he always said that he counted himself lucky, no matter how bad things got.
He spent the last years of his newspaper career relegated to the dark room, and whenever the photography editor would rap on the door and demand to know what he was doing in there he’d always say “I’m doing the three and the five,” which we found out was an allusion to an old Army joke that absolutely cannot be repeated in such polite company as our dear readers, and the whippersnappers from out of state who ran the paper forced him into retirement earlier than he wanted. At his retirement party the Vietnam vet who was then the photography editor made sure everyone saw Clark’s Purple Heart and numerous other decorations, along with many of the excellent photographs he’d taken over the years, and even the most callow of the college-educated reporters who’d been embarrassed to have him along on assignment seemed to realize how shabbily he’d been treated.
We like to think he got some revenge during several years of a seemingly happy retirement, savoring the loving company of his longtime wife and taking pride in a son who had gone off to sea with the Navy, and indulging in a variety of hobbies that did not involve photography or newspapers or war. We are happy to say that every time we’d see him he was in high spirits and low-brow humor.
Those doctors in Hawaii never did get all of the Japanese shrapnel out of his legs, though, which is how we came to visit him in the VA hospital. The war was still trying to kill him, he said, and he was still determined that it wouldn’t. He died a few years later in a seizure-caused car accident, and the medical report suggested it had something to do with the lead in his bloodstream. The war wound up killing Jerry Clark, after all, even if he’s not counted in the official and horrific death toll, but we think it a testament to his toughness and stubbornness and Kansasness that it took more than 50 years. That it never stopped the hearty laughs he’d get from a dirty joke or the pride he took in his son’s military service or the compassion for his fellow man that somehow persisted in the loving and gentle soul of such a fierce and fearsome warrior is all the more remarkable.
Chief Two Toes would be annoyed with us for saying such flattering things about him, and insist that he was no different from any of those other hard-luck sons of bitches who had the misfortune to don a uniform in a time of global war, so we’ll also take time out today to remember all of his brothers and sisters in arms. There are still concerns about the care that America’s heroes are receiving from the VA, which used to send Clark two pairs of those famously ugly shoes each year, one of each with a cardboard box to take up the space where his middle toes used to be, so we’ll try to keep agitating about that through another year and another election cycle.
By all means enjoy some charcoaled meat and a beer today, and fly a flag from your front porch, if the weather permits, but come tomorrow be ready to insist we do better by the likes of Jerry Clark.
— Bud Norman