Book review: A Life on the Road by Charles Kuralt

Title: A Life on the Road

Author: Charles Kuralt

Format: Hardback, Putnam

Published: 1990

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Some of us are old enough to remember when most people got their news from the evening news on one of the big 3 networks. We trusted anchors like Walter Cronkite to report the news of the day–wars, political scandals, natural disasters–with truth and gravitas. Charles Kuralt was a newsman of this era, but he was best known not for the big serious stories but for for finding the unique and fascinating people and stories hiding in small towns all across America. In A Life on the Road, Kuralt tells the story behind the stories, chronicling his career as a newsman in the glory days of TV news as well as some of the people and events he discovered on the back roads of America.

It’s fitting that I found this book serendipitously–specifically, on a dusty shelf at an estate sale in Phoenix–since Kuralt and crew relied on plenty of serendipity (he called it dumb luck) when searching out stories. In a time before cell phones and the Internet–heck, some of us didn’t even have a private phone line (raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember party lines)–Kuralt and crew would roll up to a farmhouse in a rickety old RV and ask to do a story about whatever interesting thing the family was involved in. No appointment, no string of emails explaining exactly what and where and how, in some cases no advance planning at all beyond, “Look, a story!” and off they would go, RV trundling down a country road toward the nearest local color.

The stories themselves were (and are still) interesting, but part of what made them so was the warmth and wit of Kuralt the storyteller. Those traits are evident in A Life on the Road. Kuralt blends his own story and that of his crew with the colorful characters he encountered. Here’s a sample:

We went to Sopchoppy, in the Florida panhandle, to look into a story about worm grunting. Worm grunting is not practiced just everywhere. Maybe I’d better explain it.

You go out into the woods and pound a hardwood stake into the ground, preferably using a heavy truck spring to do the pounding. Then, you rub the truck spring sensually, but with a certain pressure, across the top of the stake. This sets up a vibration in the ground which you can feel in the soles of your feet. Earthworms must find the vibration disagreeable, for to escape it, they wriggle to the surface; whereupon, you pick up the worms and go fishing.

I didn’t believe this when I first heard about it, but it turns out that some people around Sopchoppy make a living at it, selling their worms by the canful to Mr. M. B. Hodges’s bait store. It will not surprise you to learn that if you go worm grunting in the National Forest, you have to have a federal Worm Gathering Permit displayed in the window of your pickup truck. (p. 149)

If you’d like to see as well as read, some of Kuralt’s pieces are on YouTube–just search for charles kuralt on the road.. Here are a couple to get you started (unfortunately the one about worm grunting doesn’t seem to be available):

 

So if you get a chance, pick up a copy of Kuralt’s book and lose yourself in another time, a time when people still watched the same news–and some of them even made a living selling worms. Kuralt’s pieces may have seemed like fluff next to the tumultuous events of the late 1960s-1980s, but they are a reminder–then and now–that the United States is a rich tapestry of quirky places and resourceful, creative, diverse people. 4 out of 5 pages.

 

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Phyllis Vance
    Sep 02, 2017 @ 23:04:44

    Loved the book. It would be a good read a second time too. I just might have to do that. Thanks for reminding me.

    Reply

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