Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Occult Hand and Other Oddities

For years, the prevailing image of a reporter has been that of a fast-talking guy nicknamed “Scoop” who has a press credential stuck in his Fedora, a cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth and a pint of Old Inspiration stuck in his back pocket.

The reality is something less colorful. Journalists for the most part are dedicated hard-working men and women who take their role as public watchdogs very seriously.

That does not, however, prevent them from having a whimsical, sometimes wicked sense of humor.

I offer in evidence a group called the Order of the Occult Hand, purveyors of an inside joke that at one time spread like wildfire through the pages of America’s newspapers.

According to a report on the Poynter website, the phrase was introduced by Joseph Flanders, a police reporter of the Charlotte News, who in the fall of 1965 reported on a millworker who was shot by his own family when he came back home late at night. He wrote: “It was as if an occult hand had reached down from above and moved the players like pawns upon some giant chessboard.”

Several of his colleagues, amused by this pungent prose, vowed to get the phrase into the paper as much as possible. Before they knew it, the Occult Hand had gripped the imagination of dozens of reporters:

The Los Angeles Times: "Then it was as if an occult hand had made a mystical sign..." and "It was as if an occult hand had passed over Nick Mancuso's face, momentarily transforming him into Tennessee Williams" and “It was as if an occult hand had substituted an alternate universe..."

The Boston Globe: “…it is as if Sabrina were saved by an occult hand, as she turned up safe and sound” and and "If a president of Harvard ever intervenes in something like a promotion or a course outline, it is well disguised, the work of an occult hand."

The Associated Press: “When he plays the blues, it is as if some occult hand is guiding his hand over the guitar, channeling the essence of the blues through Clapton" and “It is as if an occult hand placed Calvino in our country so we could appreciate our own eccentricities."

The Minneapolis Star Tribune: "It was as if an occult hand had reached down and given the nation's television critics a pinch on the tush."

The Bangkok Post: "Finally, as if by an occult hand, there it was out on the table.”

Clearly, this was no coincidence.

But at some point, many of those involved grew weary of the game. And so it was announced that the Order had chosen a new secret phrase at an annual editorial writers' convention and resumed a stealth operation.

I was witness to a similar sort of mischief when I first went to work at the Los Angeles Times. I was on the features copy desk which, among other duties, handled a lot of stories about the comings and goings of high society.

According to local lore, a reporter was reading a government job publication one day which included an opening for a “flange welder.” In a classic example of mass psychosis, her colleagues agreed that it sounded like an offbeat name. Someone seized the moment, and it started appearing in the Times society stories amid the endless lists of party guests.

But not as Flange Welder. That was too déclassé. He was now Phlange Welder IV.

Call it sophomoric humor or boredom or a protest against pandering to the privileged. Whatever the case, Mr. Welder soon was attending all the finest events and his international travels were reported in detail.

The man who didn’t exist was seen everywhere.

But that wasn’t the half of it. He was reported to be a guest conductor for a major symphony orchestra, named as principal baritone in an opera, listed as a founding patron of the Music Center and as a passenger on the final voyage of the Queen Mary. He even had a bylined story that appeared in the Times.

A Phlange Welder Foundation was founded which contributed money to the Times annual camp fund for underprivileged children.

According to one report, this went on for some 20 years. It ended when the Times publisher, Otis Chandler, threatened anyone perpetuating the myth of Phlange Welder with dismissal.

But not before Ted Sell, a distinguished reporter in the Times Washington bureau, filed an analytical and thoughtful story about the Vietnam war. The first letter of the first seven paragraphs spelled out “Phlange.”

Shortly afterwards, Mr. Welder disappeared. As though swept away by a sinister hand.

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