Can You Hear Me, Walter?

Walter Cronkite and Miles O'Brien

Walter Cronkite and Miles O'Brien

I am pretty sure I am the only man on the planet who could ever accurately claim Walter Cronkite was his co-anchor. A nice honor to be sure, but I was thrust into this role because of some sad circumstances (see my previous post) and truth be told, it was a wild ride on a high-wire.

Through it all I learned many lessons of humility, diplomacy and perseverance through sheer panic.

Walter (as I eventually got the gumption to call him) and I spent a fair amount of time together in advance of John Glenn’s shuttle mission – mostly, we were talking to other members of the media. There were dozens of them and I mostly just listened in as if I was a “minder” or something. Every now and then, a reporter would take pity upon me and ask me a courtesy question to be polite. But I was most certainly not the reason they were there.

We also had a chance to spend some time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston watching the crew doing some training. Discovery Commander Curt Brown met us at one of the full-motion shuttle landing simulators in Building 5. Walter was helped into the left (commander’s) seat – Curt sat in the right seat – and I was in the back row – unable to see very much.

Walter was of course well known for his love of sailing – but he also had a keen fascination with aviation. He told me he has always had a knack for making machines do his bidding.

During World War Two, he and his colleagues appealed for months to be allowed to fly aboard B-17 “Flying Fortresses” on bombing runs over Europe.
After months of persistent pestering, the Air Force relented. But for the privilege, Cronkite and seven others endured weeks of training as gunners. Geneva Convention notwithstanding, these airborne reporters would have to earn their seat aiming at the enemy.

His first story after one of these sorties began with this lead paragraph: “I have just returned from an assignment to hell, a hell at 17,000 feet, a hell of bursting flak and screaming fighter planes, of burning Forts and hurtling bombs,” he wrote.

[Later on I would use this example as some “precedent” for allowing a journalist (me) to strap in for a space shuttle ride to the International Space Station.]

But on this day in October of 1998, the old war correspondent was not able to bring the simulated orbiter for a smooth landing. He had a tough time seeing through the Head Up Display – but handled the subsequent crash with great aplomb – and some self-deprecating humor. I just watched and grew more fond of him as I watched him handle the vicissitudes of age.

After the ride was over, it was time for a photo op. We clambered down the ladder of the simulator and stood with some of the technicians who keep those simulators running – as well as the man in charge – Charlie Spencer. I stood “house” left – and put on my best picture face. But just as the NASA photographer was about to squeeze off a frame, he took his camera away from his face, looked right at me – scrunched his brow like a disapproving middle school principal – and then waved his hand to the left – clearly motioning me to get out of his picture. I did – metaphorically coming down a few more ladder rungs than the others.

Even though his age slowed him down – and diminished his senses, Walter still had a lot of anchor swagger in him. He always arrived for our live segments in the bare nick of time – clearly a holdover from his salad days as the Managing Editor of the “The CBS Evening News”.

This didn’t bother me a bit because I knew he would likely be there – and I knew I could cover for him if not.

But on November 2, 1998, five days into the mission at precisely 4:40pm ET, we had our “window” for an interview with the Senator and the Commander as they orbited Earth. NASA in-flight interviews are brief (this one was ten minutes as I recall) and they start on time. When they say 4:40 – they mean 4:40:00 (on the balls in NASA parlance – referring to the zeros).

Couple that fact with the tricky audio set-up required to pull of one of these interviews off – and add in Walter’s difficulty hearing and you will understand why we asked his set producer Sandy Socolow to make sure Walter was on the set a little earlier than usual.

I sat down on our makeshift set inside JSC’s Building 9 sooner than I normally would and ran though some voice checks with the NASA Audio Control Room. Everything checked out fine. Except Walter was nowhere to be found.

Things got tenser as the time ticked away. CNN had been promoting this live interview as if it were the Second Coming and the folks in the control room were anxious it go off without a hitch.

But still no Walter.

Finally, with precious little time to spare, he made his way up the steps onto the scaffolding to the seat on my left. He plugged in his earpiece – and the audio techs began counting in his ear to insure he was able to hear OK. But he heard nothing.

Pots were opened, dials spun and tests repeated – nada.

Time was now slowing down for me – as our heavily touted special report drew near.

At this point, I got a chance to see how many technical people CNN had sent to Houston. They were all crawling on – beside – and under the desk – frantically plugging in new cables, replacing amplifiers and changing out earpiece chords.

“Testing…testing…can you hear, Walter”

Nothing.

At this point, my anxiety level was already pretty high – but then came the panic.

Walter turned to me and said: “whatever you do, do not include me in this segment if I cannot hear. Don’t mention that I am even here on the set. Just do the interview without me.”

Just as he finished that thought, the executive producer in the control room barked into my earpiece.

“Whatever you do, make sure you include Walter in this interview – we have been promoting it like crazy and he needs to be on camera – even if you have to relay the questions and answers.”

Panic. Sheer panic. Career-ending kinda panic. I am sure I was sweating as much Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw one of those newspaper montage scenes from a vintage movie – you know where the front page spins around, stops and reveals a series of banner headlines to keep the narrative going.

The headlines I saw read something like this “Young Cable Correspondent Humiliates National Icon”…”America’s Most Trusted Man Embarrassed by Rude Reporter”…”Space Cadet: Uncle Walter Dissed by TV Dolt.”

The vision passed with the ominous reminder from the control room to “bring Walter in no matter what.”

With less than thirty seconds to air, Walter still could not hear anything in his earpiece. He turned to me and reminded me not to introduce him – and then said he would tap me on my left forearm if the problem rectified itself.

The time came, the theme music played, the red light came on and I cowboyed up -deciding there was no way in hell I was going to do anything that Walter did not want to do. If it was my last day on the job, so be it.

So I started talking – filibustering really. I talked about the mission progress, the science Senator Glenn was conducting, his firs mission in space – even the amazing technology that made the interview possible in the first place.

Actually it is really hard to remember what I said since I could not hear myself think. The producer was screaming in my ear incessantly to “Bring in Walter!! Introduce Walter!!!! Where’s Walter???”

Just as I thought smoke might start billowing out of my ears, I began introducing John Glenn and Curt Brown. I began asking the first question – ready to do an interview wherein I would likely hear nothing else but angry producers in a control room. And then, it happened. One of the dozens of people at my feet…in the control room…at NASA…or maybe my guardian angel…put some audio…some sweet, wonderful, intelligible, live-from-space audio…into Walter Cronkite’s ear canal.

He gently tapped me on the arm…I refrained from giving him a hug and a kiss…and instead shifted gears from my question – to his introduction.

And so, Walter Cronkite interviewed John Glenn – as promised. Viewers knew the story – but not the backstory. And I probably lost a few years on this planet.