David Oats served as Trib editor for about half of its 33 years.
He has been my friend and a gifted, creative writer for many years more
than that. I received David’s thoughts below in reaction to my column
last week on the Blackout of 2003.
By: DAVID OATS
Reading your column this week brought back some very vivid Trib
and Ackerman memories from “disasters” gone-by.
Gary is correct in stating that the only missed Tribune
deadline in the paper’s history was due to a snowstorm in early 1978.
But at least I’m proud to say it wasn’t for want of trying. The blizzard
that hit the City was reminiscent of the famous ’69 storm that blanketed
and shut down Queens, and almost destroyed Mayor John Lindsay’s
political career when Manhattan streets were cleared but Queens remained
unplowed for days. (Only the 1969 Miracle Mets victory helped boost
Lindsay to an almost miracle-like re-election later that year.) I
remember enjoying the vast whiteout of ’69 - but the ’78 storm seemed as
big and presented an almost impossible task on deadline night. But a
hearty group of Trib staffers stayed until the paper was
done (with paste-up and “computers” that were “modern” to us but
dinosaurs by today’s standards.)
Received by e-mail:
The Blackout of 2003
The paper was completed – but there was one problem. Our printer (Joe
Wollf’s International Press in Long Island City) was so snowed-in they
could not get their doors or gates open. Hence, we had a paper – but no
printer. I wish we had saved the original “boards” of that edition – the
only one that never saw the light of ink! Unable to walk to my home on
Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, I remember staying at the Trib
office for almost two days, grateful to the “Good Food Store” across the
street on Kissena Boulevard, which was able to open. A crew of volunteer
photographers who braved the cold and snow provided the pix for the
Then there was the Blackout of 1977. Again, I had fond memories of New
York’s first great Blackout in November 1965. It was a frightenly
beautiful night for the City – full of the same grace-in-crisis spirit
we saw this year. But the ’77 Blackout was a very different story.
At the Tribune we were in a dual-mode. At that time we
were not only attempting to put the paper out, but much of the staff was
happily moonlighting on another task – getting the Trib’s
founder and publisher Gary Ackerman elected to public office. He was
running for the first time – for a now-discontinued position of
Councilman-at-Large. This was a major borough-wide elective post (later
ruled unconstitutional by the courts – another story). It was an
energetic, grassroots, exciting campaign in which the paper was very
much a vehicle.
Gary Ackerman, David Oats and Michael
Schenkler at a recent Tribune celebration.
After a day of work at the paper I went out with one of my
“reporter/campaign worker” for relaxation at Bacciagalup’s Restaurant on
Main Street in Flushing to
talk about the campaign and also the Trib’s coverage of
the Son of Sam case that was terrorizing Queens and the City in a time
later to be known as “The Summer of Sam.” At about 9:30 p.m. on that
July 13 night, the lights flickered in the restaurant, and then went
dark. As you recounted in your column, at first it’s all very local to
you – until Larry Reich and I went out the doors and saw it wasn’t
confined to Bacciagalup’s. All of Main Street – Flushing – was dark and
transistor radios were able to break the news that, once again, all of
New York – and beyond – was out.
remember it was only a few minutes before we also realized that this was
not going to be another placid New York night as in ’65. We watched as
within seconds, the plate glass windows of a fashionable men’s clothing
store on the corner of Main & Kissena were shattered and looters were
pulling everything from the store. Then, minutes later, the sounds of
shattered glass were heard at the large appliance store across the
street... and on and on.
Frustrated by not having any cameras with us we walked the darkened
streets back to the darkened Trib storefront where we
attempted to coordinate some kind of coverage of that dark night.
It was a very hot and humid night (no moonlight as in ’65) and the City
was already paralyzed in fear by the mysterious, bloody rampage of “the
Son of Sam.” In fact it’s said that many actually believed HE,
whoever he was, caused the blackout. In the end, the early scenes
we saw in Flushing were repeated – in huge scale – all around the tense
All the lights were not turned on until about 10:30 the NEXT night. But
there had been 3,400 arrests, 558 cops injured, 851 fires – $1 billion
dollars in damage. A nightmarish night that makes our most recent
Blackout of ’03 stand as a model of civic pride.
By the early light of the next morning (still without electricity) Gary,
myself and some other staffers were trying to make the best of our time
to come up with ways to get an original story out of this – and get Gary
in the news. In a flash, so to speak, it came. They were saying a
lightning bolt hit the big ConEd plant up in Westchester, causing the
blackout. Paul O’Dwyer, then the City Council president, doubted this
scenario and saw it as a big ConEd cop-out for other major failures. So
we decided to drive up to the plant upstate. Gary went to a local store
and, when everyone else was searching for batteries, flashlights, etc.,
he was looking for a kite!
The idea was to get into the facility and have Gary fly the kite, a la
Ben Franklin’s famed lightening experiment, and tell ConEd to “Go Fly A
Kite!” with their blackout excuse.
Needless to say some incredulous guards turned us away, but we got the
shot of Gary, the kite and the plant in the background and our
“Ackerman to ConEd: Go Fly A Kite” headline on the next Tribune
front page. To think, from this, future great newspapers and Congressmen
Fresh from our victorious journalistic-political coup upstate, we
returned late afternoon to a still powerless Queens. We decided to pick
up a few other reporter-campaign volunteers to ride around the borough
with Gary in his old red, white and blue van which was our rolling
campaign headquarters. We stopped to pick up one of our people at his
home in Fresh Meadows to join our boroughwide jaunt. Now this was a
quiet, residential, one-family home street on a day where everyone is
trapped at home and there are really no sounds or activity. Except for
the red, white and blue Acker-Van as we called it – blaring John Philip
Sousa march music from a loudspeaker on top and a huge car-top sign for
ACKERMAN AT LARGE.
As we pulled up, some young children playing in the street are
fascinated by the arrival of this blackout-day diversion. The circus had
come to town! Residents were looking out their windows at the unusual
scene as we waited to pick up our worker. Then, Gary decided it’s hot –
we ought to all be wearing the Ackerman t-shirts we had just made up. So
Gary got out of the van, and proceeded to take his shirt off to change
into the t-shirt.
The little kids stared in wonderment at this large man from the red,
white and blue truck – loudly blaring Sousa march music – apparently
undressing in the street. The bemused residents also watched from their
windows. In the middle of a blackout afternoon! And then, quite
unexpectedly, Gary raised his arms to put on the shirt – and his pants
Quickly pulling them back up, Gary smiled and waved at the kiddies and
neighbors, and we all piled back in the van which in music and signs
loudly proclaimed to anyone within seeing and hearing distance: ACKERMAN
Needless to say Gary lost that election. The position was later
abolished. But the fact that Gary was wearing an extra large pair of
boxer shorts that day may have saved the whole political and newspaper
history of Ackerman and the Trib from ending on that
blackout day with a case of public lewdness.
In fact Gary went on the next year to be elected to the State Senate
and, eventually, the hallowed halls of the U.S. Congress. And the
Trib went on to reach a ripe maturity.
As the old cliché goes: Only in America.
(I just wanted to share these stories on a hot post-blackout, post-Best
of Queens edition weekend. Hope you enjoyed them. Best to all - David)