Kuralt crafts engaging memoir of life on the road

November 25, 1990|By CARL SESSIONS STEPP

A Life on the Road.

Charles Kuralt.

Putnam.

256 pages. $19.95. Dispatches from distant places hardly constitute a new genre of reporting, tracing back as they do at least to Homer. Even the "on the road" signature dates back a ways; Jack Kerouac had his version, and so did Bob Hope.

Why, then, has CBS' peripatetic Charles Kuralt come t personify so the on-the-road motif? And why, given all the imitators that he has inspired, does his brand of rec-vehicle reportage surpass the fluff and froth of others?

The answer, as this engaging book shows, may be simple: Mr Kuralt writes wonderfully. A poetic soul mate of Edward R. Murrow and, more recently, Charles Osgood, Mr. Kuralt crafts language that blends movingly and memorably with the vivid images of the camera.

Mr. Kuralt's gift, and it is a formidable one, is that what h observes on the road transcends the mundane. His is a `f journalism of the ordinary, in which carefully selected vignettes convey universal drama. They focus on moments that John Galsworthy called "significant trifles" and Hemingway labeled as small details, intimately preserved, which have the effect of indicating the whole."

Once, meandering through Ohio, Mr. Kuralt noticed a farmhous with a homemade banner proclaiming, "Welcome home, Roger." Mr. Kuralt stopped. Inside, a mother was baking chocolate cake; a wife and son were awaiting a soldier's homecoming from Vietnam. From these elements, Mr. Kuralt molded "a simple story letting Roger represent all the GIs coming home to their families." It typified his touch.

As this memoir makes clear, Mr. Kuralt was born to burn rubber "I come from wandering tribes," he writes. "No train leaves the station that I do not want to catch." He even nagged his parents into lying about his age so he could get a driver's license a few months early.

Before he was 24, he had won the Ernie Pyle award writing fo the Charlotte News and a job writing for Murrow on CBS Radio. He accepted on the spot an offer to join CBS Television when his prospective boss told him the job "would involve an awful lot of traveling."

Since then, he hardly has been home (a condition that underlie the one sad note of this book). Long before the formal on-the-road features began, Mr. Kuralt was a globe-trotter: huddling under fire in Africa and Vietnam, mixing it up with Che Guevara and Nikita Khrushchev, smuggling his copy out by taxicab from civil war-torn South America, snowmobiling toward

the North Pole with a Minnesota insurance salesman.

In 1967, he approached CBS executive Richard Salant with proposal: "Just let me wander for three months to see what I can find."

"OK," replied the sagacious Mr. Salant. "Keep the budget down."

Three months became infinity. From the first piece (on th beautiful leaves of New England) and the first year (47 stories from 23 states), Mr. Kuralt has enthralled viewers with mellow television for ungentle times. Whether he's commemorating Washington's crossing the Delaware or chronicling Vladimir Horowitz's emotional return to the Soviet Union after 60 years, he manages to touch universal chords that connect individual lives with the human condition.

Reading this memoir is like leaning back and listening to Mr Kuralt's chocolate tones as he recounts the stories behind the many stories he's seen. How has he done it over all these years? Characteristically modest and wise is his reply: "All you really have to do is look out the window."

Mr. Stepp teaches journalism at the University of Maryland and is senior editor of Washington Journalism Review.

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