A new character for a new mystery series

Jerry Flemmons and I sitting by the side of the road that runs across the mountains of Haiti. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford
Jerry Flemmons and I sitting by the side of the road that runs across the mountains of Haiti. Photograph: J Gerald Crawford

I’M TOYING WITH THE IDEA of a new character and a new mystery series.

Write what you know, I’ve always been told. I know the newspaper business, so I guess my lead character should be a newspaperman. That gives  him a license to carry curiosity.

I spent a decade or two of writing travel, so I’ve decided to build the series around travel writer because that gives him him an entree into any place in the world I need for him to be.

I will no doubt pattern the character after Jerry Flemmons, a self-confessed maverick, curmudgeon, iconoclast, friend, mentor, and travel editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and the best damn writer who ever threw an adjective against a noun and made it sing.

Flemmons didn’t walk to the beat of a different drummer. He bought the drum for half price and promptly threw it away. He never handed out business cards. “If you know me, you don’t need a card,” he said, “and if you don’t know me, it doesn’t matter.”

And he never wore a tie.

Jerry Flemmons
Jerry Flemmons

Jerry Flemmons was offered an editor’s job at National Geographic, without doubt the most prestigious travel magazine in the country.

“I’m not an editor,” he said.

“You’ll be a fine one.”

“I’m a writer.”

“We’ll let you do some writing.”

“And I won’t wear a tie around the office.”

“A tie is required,” National Geographic said.

“Goodbye,” Flemmons said.

In one of Fort Worth’s most notorious, highly publicized, and celebrated murder trials, multi-millionaire businessman Cullen Davis went to court charged with the brutal murder of his socialite wife.

Big news.

Big headlines.

Big ratings.

He invited Flemmons to lunch at his mansion. The table was stacked with wine bottles and prime rib. Cullen Davis was all business. “The press has been out to get me ,” he said.

Flemmons nodded.

“I have a proposition for you.”

Flemmnons waited.

“You’re a damn good writer,” Davis said. “I want to hire you to write a book that tells my side of the story. I’ll pay you a hundred grand.”

“Can’t do it,” Flemmons said.

“Why not?”

Jerry Flemmons stood, dropped his linen napkin in the chair, and said, “Because I think you’re guilty as hell.”

There are some writers who are born to be reporters. Not just great storytellers but great reporters. Jerry Flemmons was one of them. All he had to do was walk in, and a big story would find him. He never had to look for one.

He was a young reporter for the Star-Telegram on a November day in 1963, packed in a press bus, following President John F. Kennedy around Dallas, assigned to write a little filler sidebar about the parade through town.

He was just behind the lead car when the shots rang out. He suddenly found himself hanging on to his seat as the bus sped wildly down a Freeway with sirens screaming around him. Flemmons was huddled with the press corps inside Parkland Hospital before he learned that an assassin had struck and a President had been hit. That’s all anyone knew. And the nervous wait began.

Flemmons wandered away from the crowd as he usually did. He was standing alone at the far end of a hallway when a young intern emerged from the trauma room.

He walked up to Flemmons and asked, “Are you a reporter?”

Flemmons nodded.

“The President’s dead,” the intern said.

Flemmons hurried away to find a telephone. The Star-Telegram was on the streets with a special edition headlining President Kennedy’s death by the time the official announcement was made at an official press conference.  He had scooped the Associated Press and New York Times. He had scooped network television.

Right place.

Right time.

Right gamble.

Jerry Flemmons had taken a leave of absence from the newspaper and was working as the press secretary for Waggoner Carr when he ran for the Senate in Texas. It had been a slow day. No news. No meetings. No statements to release. Flemmons had just walked back into his office when he caught word on the radio that some rifleman had climbed to the top of The University of Texas Tower and was firing randomly into the crowd below. Some wounded. Some dead. The shooting had thrown the campus into panic and turmoil.

His old newsman instincts took over. Flemmons immediately hurried to the campus. He could hear the shots. He could see students crouching behind whatever cover they could find. He heard their screams. He saw their tears. He had managed to work his way through the confusion, sidestep the chaos, and reach the Tower when the shooting stopped.

An Austin policeman had climbed to the top, stepped onto the walkway, and, as he later told Flemmons, “Gave my heart to God, took a deep breath, turned the corner, and fired.” The sniper was dead where he fell.

An ambulance drove quickly to the front door of the tower, and two attendants began unloading their gear. Jerry Flemmons stepped out of the crowd, reached down, and picked up one end of the stretcher. No one asked him if he were a doctor, a lawman, or an official of any kind. And Flemmons didn’t say.

He was the only newsman, past or present, to enter the tower. The door locked behind him. He saw the dead in the library lobby. He saw the dead in the stairwell. He saw the dead in the elevator. He saw the dead in the research library. He quietly and mentally counted them all. Their faces would forever be etched in his mind.

And he helped bring down the lifeless body of Charles Whitman.

He was the only newsman, past or present, who knew the sniper’s identity. The door remained locked. Nobody came in. Nobody was going out. He had Whitman’s driver’s license in his hands.

Flemmons slipped away, found a telephone, and called the Associated Press. “Do you want some information on the sniper?” he asked softly.

“We’ve got our own man on the scene,” the AP editor snapped.

Flemmons shrugged and called his old city editor at the Star-Telegram.

A special edition of the newspaper was on the streets with the story of the sniper before anyone else in the press knew who he was or what had happened to him.

Flemmons was the only witness inside the inner sanctum and outside of law enforcement, and no one noticed. He was just the man at the end of the stretcher with blood spackled on his shirt. He heard the law officers go over the information they had gleaned. He interviewed the policeman who had taken Whitman down.

Then he eased to a corner out of the way, sat down at a typewriter, and wrote the first line of a story that would win newspaper awards all over the country: Charles Whitman lay in the shadow of his last afternoon.

Right place.

Right time.

Right gamble.

My character in the new mystery series will not doubt be patterned after Jerry Flemmons.

He just won’t be as good.

Flemmons was an American original.

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  • Roger Summers

    No ties for him.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      The only true iconoclast i have ever known. For me, it was a single window of time, but we had some damn good writers. I would put you, Flemmons, Bunky, Schieffer, Dromgoole, and the boys – and girls – up against any newspaper reporters in the country.

      • Roger Summers

        Some of us are fortunate to have Jerry Flemmons stories. Here is one of mine:

        Jerry Flemmons and I made a weeklong trip through Mexico and spent a couple of days in San Miguel de Allende just before Christmas. Delightful time in and around the plaza. Before we left FW, bought cans of Vienna sausage and a box of saltine crackers so we would have enough for lunch each day. We stored our food out of sight behind the back seat. We would buy Cokes, pick a shady spot beside the road and have a lunchtime picnic. We put the car in a garage near the hotel in San Miguel de Allende. When we departed, we drove a while, bought Cokes, drove a little longer, found a nice picnic spot. Stopped. Reached behind the back seat and, alas, discovered that someone had helped themselves to our last can of Vienna sausage. So it was just Coke and crackers for lunch that day. Oh, well. Still had a great time.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          That’s a trip to remember. I would have loved to tag along.

      • Roger Summers

        A few years ago, a school teacher friend sent me a copy of something Jerry Flemmons wrote in grade school – the third grade, as I recall. Gives us a glimpse of Jerry Flemmons the young writer. I have it somewhere in my files. Keep thinking that someday I will locate it, read it again. Maybe even turn it into a VG blog.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          I do hope you find the copy, Roger. It would make a great blog.

  • Jerry Cabluck

    I think his first assignment was the Bryson to Breckenridge cattle drive…he wrote a daily progress report…Somewhere is a photo of him on a horse w.covered wagon in background. 62 I think…how do I know I was there..

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Jerry, you and Flemmons wound up in some strange places together, you with you $2,000 worth of cameras and Flemmons with his nineteen cent ballpoint pen.

  • It is good to have a live model or two for a new character. I have mine. They are composites, but occasionally, when I have to ask myself how the character would do or say something, I can mentally try it out. ‘He would never say that’ is a very useful construct to have available.

    Sounds like a fascinating guy – and new character.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Flemmons meant a lot to me, Alicia, as both a writer and a friend. Even now, when I’m stumped in the middle of a sentence, I think: “How would Flemmons write it?” I know, and then I write.

  • Darlene Jones

    New characters, new stories — have fun.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Nothing ever grows old under our feet, Darlene. Can’t get there, wherever there is, unless you keep running.

  • Kelly Marshall

    Write, write, write. I can’t wait for your new book.
    Kelly Marshall

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I wish it were finished, too, Kelly. Let me know what you are working on and when it will see the light of day.

      • Kelly Marshall

        Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die. I am on the last third of the book, but then there’s editing, the really hard part.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          I understand, Kelly. I race through a book when I’m writing it and drag through it during the editing phase.

  • Don Newbury

    Blackie Sherrod would have said of Flemmons that before God made him, He broke the mold. Another of his eccentricities that if violated, could lead to a black eye. He HATED for anyone to touch his hair.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      If I had hair like Blackie did, I wouldn’t want anyone to touch it either.

  • Kelly Marshall

    My characters often are composites. Hands, eyebrows, a certain way of walking,

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I sit in airports and build composites for characters. A lot of models, both good and bad, wander past when a flight is delayed.

      • Kelly Marshall

        Airports are perfect. Nobody is paying attention and you can watch them secretly for a long time. Sounds sinister

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