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Hither and Yon

‘People!’ — by Sol W. Sanders — a journalistic tapestry

By Donald Kirk, EastAsiaIntel.com
Correspondents by the time they reach a certain age may look back on an extraordinary range of people encountered in odd situations and settings. We all have stories to tell, uniquely our own, rich and varied, few more so than Sol Sanders, who spent years in capitals ranging from New Delhi to Bangkok to Tokyo and points in between and beyond.
Now, at 88, he’s put his experiences together in a book named “People!” all about the hundreds recalled from his childhood in a small town in western North Carolina to his present existence as a fulminating curmudgeon in Virginia.
In “a kind of stream of consciousness,” Sanders invokes ups and downs larded with personal opinions, vignettes and political commentary laced with trenchant criticism of names in the news and those who write the news.
I barely knew fellow WorldTribune columnist Sol, whom I met on the steps of the venerable Continental Hotel in Saigon during the Vietnam War, and I don’t think he remembered me when I reminded him a few months ago. He was at the time a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, then in its heyday as the “third” newsmagazine, competing with Time and Newsweek, serving up a special brand of reporting and editorials from a conservative viewpoint.
Imagine, then, my surprise on discovering that Sanders, having grown up in a Jewish family, the son of a store owner in a quintessentially southern Christian community, had been a socialist, a leftist crusader, in his flaming youth.
The book, however, isn’t about his transition from left to right but about the people he met on the way and remembers so well.
There was the “genuine Hillbilly” maid in the opening vignette, the “uncommunicative” Associated Press bureau chief in West Virginia who fired him unceremoniously by telephone after a complaint from a radio station.
There was the philosopher Sydney Hook, watching a demonstration of leftist nuts in Paris, and there was the son of a wealthy Vienna Jewish family whom Sanders got to know long after he’d avoided Nazi thugs and made it to New York.
There were characters who were strange for very different reasons ― the woman living in the fashionable Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C., murdered by the husband a few decades younger, the Saigon politico close to the assassinated U.S. protege Ngo Dinh Diem, the “revolutionary” Indian who tipped Sanders off to the plans of Jawaharlal Nehru, whom he criticizes for just about ruining India, to take over the Portuguese colony of Goa.
And so on, and on and on. The scenes and conversations tumble out of Sanders’ fertile memory in no particular order ― an account of the fire that destroyed his father’s original store, of dropping out of training for the U.S. merchant marine at the outbreak of World War II, of getting rejected by the army because of his flat feet and finally becoming an ambulance driver in Italy and India.
There are conversations with national leaders and ambassadors, senior officials and junior diplomats, whom Sanders was happy to ply with his own views and advice.
A special charm of this book is that it is totally disorganized. Sanders makes no attempt to collect all the tales of his childhood and upbringing in one section, then his experiences in the war, his college years as a journalism student at the University of Missouri, his beginnings as a journalist, job-hunting for ages before joining the old United Press in New York, moving on to career highs as an editor and bureau chief with Business Week and U.S. News & World Report.
A nettlesome critic might carp that all is out of sequence by both date and topic. It’s as though, at 88, Sanders suddenly had the urge to set it all down as filtered through the miasma of the years. Each brief chapter stands on its own, a story within the larger story of a colorful, successful, quixotic and checkered career.
Fine, Mr. Sanders, we understand, the scope of contacts, friendships, run-ins and encounters defies logic and categories, but what about Korea? How come, I asked in an email, you didn’t give us a scene from Seoul even though you could have flown right over from Tokyo?
“Actually I did get to Korea from time to time,” he emailed right back. “I was there immediately after the Student Revolt and overthrow of Syngman Rhee; almost caught it in a firefight in front of the house of his police chief….”
Oh, and Sanders interviewed Kim Dae-Jung “just after he was let out of the pokey, and saw him again in NYC during his exile.” Yes, he interviewed Kim Young-Sam too ― “which was hard because he was so lackluster.”
Sanders in his response to me, describes his book as “a first draft.” Let’s hope he does a second draft, cleaning up a few jumbled sentences, adding an index ― and remembering Korea.
Whatever he writes, it enhances our understanding of good guys and bad guys, heroes and wackos, woven into an ornate tapestry of U.S. and world history.
Donald Kirk over the decades has covered many of the same scenes and met some of the same people. He’s at kirkdon4343@gmail.com.
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