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Wednesday, January 25, 2006 | Tom Fear taught me to cuss. My childhood friend’s limited vocabulary contained most of the bad words and he simply made up definitions of lots of others. But I probably didn’t need Tom to teach me such words. Everybody in Sevastopol, Ind., cussed a lot when I was growing up there in the ’30s. I suspect it was the Depression. Even my mom used lots of words you aren’t going to see me repeat here.
I further expanded my lexicon when I joined the Navy in 1947. In the Navy of those days church attendance was mandatory and cussing seemed to be, too. Not now. The brass hats are trying to project a more genteel image, but I doubt it percolates down to the crews’ quarters.
After retiring I was a long time columnist for a civilian weekly that was dedicated to all things Navy. To stay in step with the notion of newer and gentler sailors the paper also affected a genteel façade. Once, an editor cut my mild expletive, “hell.”
I remonstrated that USS Harry Truman, then our newest nuclear powered aircraft carrier, would have to change its battle flag. Embossed on a bright red background were the words always associated with my favorite president: Give Them Hell. I asked the editor if they should change it to Give Them Heck, Harry?
I don’t envy any censor. There is a fine line dividing the acceptable from the unacceptable, and that line is constantly shifting. In the early 1950s, James Jones in writing “From Here to Eternity” finally put the most opprobrious word of them in the mouth of a tough sergeant. In the movie, Burt Lancaster, playing the old sarge, didn’t say it, but he did it in the Hawaiian surf with Deborah Kerr.
But, shifting lines or not, the Union-Tribune is still erring on the side of caution. On Jan. 16 a cartoon strip “Get Fuzzy” was replaced by a more innocuous strip. Not that the expunged strip was over the line by today’s standards. The strip has an irreverent cat, a dumb dog and their long-suffering owner. The offending strip had the cat complaining how a person had written a letter to an editor complaining about the words “butt” and “crap.”
That day’s strip was replaced by an older, more innocent one. Is there an irony that a comic strip poking fun at the use of those two words was apparently yanked because it used them?
I hope the paper isn’t going backwards. It has shown a couple flashes of top-notch journalism recently, the stories on the now-disgraced former U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham and National City Mayor Nick Inzunza are examples.
But the paper’s history has been tilted towards censoring stuff the editors think we can’t handle. Its overuse of the blue pencil once irked Art Buchwald so much the humorist and nationally syndicated columnist demanded to be omitted from the local paper. Last year James Goldsborough quit because the paper spiked one of his columns.
Any San Diegan of the early 1970s who relied on the local paper for all their news would have been surprised that the movie “Midnight Cowboy” won three Oscars plus loads of other awards. Mild by today’s standards that movie was given an “X” rating. The Union-Tribune would not touch X-rated movies. “Cowboy” was not reviewed or advertised in the paper. As far as the paper was concerned, the biggest entertainment news of the year didn’t exist.
In the mid-1950s Al Capp had his hero, Li’l Abner visiting Washington. The lovable hillbilly was shown staring at the White House. He said, “Ah sure would like to live there.” A fellow tourist who was obviously Adlai Stevenson said, “So would I.” At least the fellow looked like Adlai in the Los Angeles Times. The local paper put a beard and mustache on the fellow, completely disguising him for some reason.
Blotted out too was the derriere of Andy (not Al) Capp. Whenever the irreverent and often sodden Englishman napped on the couch bare-bottomed, the local paper covered his bareness with a pair of trousers.
Whatever happened to The New York Times idea of “All the news that’s fit to print”? Surely such news ought not be altered to omit the use of the word “butt” or the sight of one on a sleeping English cartoon character.
Keith Taylor is a retired Navy officer. He can be reached at