Friday, August 14, 2009

The Man With A Lion Heart

I was online studying some fetching photographs taken by a talented Englishman, a former policeman who loves spending time in Greece. And these details coalesced into a hook that dipped into my brain, bringing back a distinct image of someone I knew years ago.

At first glance, P.S. could have been a casting agent's idea of an Edwardian bank clerk in London, given the right clothes of course. But that demeanor was a disguise. Confoundingly, beneath the quiet, serious, bookish-seeming exterior beat the heart of a lion, an Alpha male of the highest order.

When I met him, P. was a foreign correspondent and I was an editor. We all worked insane hours. In the United States, overnight was often the busiest shift because of the time difference.

While most of Washington, D.C., slept, my colleagues and I powered through the night on adrenaline highs fueled by vats of coffee and bad food from a dive downstairs frequented by prostitutes, small-time criminals, the occasional beat cop and us.

I stumbled upon a website recently that revealed that P. is working for a U.N. group that feeds hungry children in Africa. But until then I had imagined him still in Beirut, where he was posted in the 1980s. That impossible place of civil war, bombs and assassinations, routine artillery shelling, warships offshore. Death and chaos. And P.S. was thoroughly, thrillingly alive there.

He was on a mission, to see and understand the madness. To write about it, share it with the world. To see it through to the end.

Western correspondents were being kidnapped and murdered. Still, P. roamed the divided city. He had a daft notion, or claimed he did, that being British protected him, that he wasn't an American, the main targets. Of being invincible.

He told surreal tales of driving through streets that war had made into tunnels of rubble, vehicles and debris flaming on both sides. To gather reports for dispatches, P. and a colleague made mad dashes through the hellish landscape in an old VW with the Doors' "The End" endlessly blaring from a tape. "This is the end, my beautiful friend."

He scared us back in D.C. We fretted and worried and insisted to our bosses that P. be pulled from Beirut, be forced to leave. We demanded, we lectured, bothered him with messages and telexes and pleaded with him on the telephone when we could get through to him. Those awful pictures of hostages being brutalized, we couldn't bear to think of P. being one of them.

He resisted. He argued. He wanted to stay. Beirut was his story.

Finally, his government ordered all citizens out of the country. We were relieved. P. spent some time in D.C. and then worked from Cyprus and other posts. Several years later I ran into him again at another news agency. He was a desk jockey (an editor), married, seemingly tamed. He looked exactly the same, but I barely recognized him. The old bristling energy scarcely contained behind a misleading fake facade of calm was no longer there.

I realized how wrong we had been to try to tamper with P.'s destiny. We were worried about ourselves, really. We didn't want to feel guilty or upset if something happened to P. Our concern was personal, and selfish.

And I learned another lesson from P. I finally understood not to judge a book by its cover, one of the oldest cliches in the history of social interaction. But P. was the living embodiment of that lesson.

He was a man of average size, bespectacled, with short hair neatly trimmed, always in a non-descript blazer and tie. And he carried himself with a quiet that kept an effective disguise over his inner truth. Because this was his real story: Beneath the deceptive veneer was the heart and soul of a being at home in jungles, both natural and man-made, that jar most of us to the bone to even think about.

I have not seen or spoken to P.S. in years. But it comforts me to know he is in Africa in close proximity to his own kind, the mighty hearts, lions left to follow their own natures, on savannahs roaming wild and free.


  1. A great piece of writing about a guy who seems very special. I feel honoured to have been mentioned in the same breath.

  2. I was going to tell you! And there are always reasons that even I don't understand at first. So of course you belong there.

  3. An awesome story - as per your usual. You have been living a fascinating life.

  4. My older family members were such wonderful porch story tellers, the best, Blognut. Most of them are gone now and I'm not down there anyway. So this is my way of keeping that going. Readers help, just showing up here. And when another writer, like you, comments, that's a double bonus!