Reporter’s Notebook Fact into Fiction

A Morning News editor spins a hot story about going cold turkey.

Howard Swindle was sleeping off another one. The Morning News assistant city editor lay in the cab of his International Scout, in the alley behind Louie’s bar on Henderson, when suddenly his mental fog was pierced by a distant clangor Swindle beerily blinked open his eyes to see an enormous garbage truck lumbering toward him like a giant brown mantis, its steel prongs thrust forward as if the machine meant to impale him.

“I cannot tell you what it is like to be stirred from an alcoholic coma by that sound,” says Swindle. “It looked like some animal. I went home, showered, and never drank again.”

The date was Oct. 3, 1983. Howard Swindle, at 37, made journalistic history of a sort that morning by checking himself into a North Dallas alcoholic treatment facility-known generically to drunks as a jitter joint. At the time, news reporters and editors were famous for their drinking. Good reporters drank, and as long as the stories kept coming in, no one seemed to mind. (Today, it seems, everyone’s on one of the 12 steps.)

Bui for Howard Swindle, disaster was the seed of triumph: His decision to dry out helped end the standard newsroom practice of ignoring the effects of alcohol. Swindle’s admission also served as inspiration for his recent work of fiction. Jitter Joint, set to be published this month.

After bottoming out 15 years ago in a Dallas alley, the joumalist-turned-novel-ist is back at a career high once again treading the line between triumph and disaster: At the same time that he has been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Swindle is enjoying the $ 1 million Sylvester Stallone reportedly just paid him for the movie rights to his novel. In the dualistic world of Howard Swindle, defeat has always been occasioned by achievement.

IN THE PAST DECADE, THE DISTINCTION between the novel and memoir has blurred, as more and more writers publish accounts of their own childhoods. The trend is a function of our increasingly confessional culture: Writers who spent years making up stories for a living have turned to themselves as subject matter. Howard Swindle, though, has taken a different approach, creating fiction out of his all-too-real past.

Jitter Joint, the real story, begins with Swindle’s boyhood confrontations with his violent, alcoholic father, whom he loathed.

“I knew him all too damn well,” Swindle says of his father, who for a time practically raised his son in a bar. “The part in the book about Jeb Quinlin growing up in a lean-to built on the back of a beer joint in Houston was exactly the way 1 was brought up until I was 11.”

In one scene from the book. Swindle puts Quinlin-his doppelganger hero-through a harrowing episode Swindle endured as a child. Like the 10-year-old Swindle, Quinlin discovers his drunken father choking his mother on the kitchen floor and desperately leaps to rescue her.

“Jeb slammed him diagonally across the forehead with a half-empty bottle of Four Roses,” Swindle writes, “dousing both his father and mother in cheap whiskey and glass shards. The blow opened a gaping wound in his father’s head, and he fell unconscious into his own blood. Jeb had never seen that much blood, but he wasn’t remorseful.”

Clint Swindle died homeless, of cirrhosis and throat cancer, in 1968, four years after his son graduated from high school in tiny Hamilton, Tex., about 2’/; hours south of Dallas. Howard married his high school sweetheart, took a degree at the University of North Texas in Denton, and joined the Navy, where he served off the coast of Vietnam before returning to Texas in the early 1970s. That was when he took his first real journalism job as night city editor at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

For Swindle, the decision to enter journalism proved to be a fateful one. He had chosen an occupation in which drinking was expected. Journalists were a clubby bunch, with alcohol the best form of release from the pressures of work. Wherever he worked, drinking was all too easy.

By 1978, Swindle had moved from tiny Lubbock, landing a job as state desk reporter at the Dallas Morning News. Just as his professional career was picking up steam, his steady decline had begun.

In no time, the journalist was closing down bars with his night-side buddies from the paper, then going home to drink alone, often nearly till dawn. He quickly worked up to a three-six-pack-a-day habit, with an occasional detour into the hard stuff. As he continued drinking, the river of beer eroded away his marriage, his finances, and his self-respect.

CLOSE TO SEVEN QUARTS OF BEER EACH day, every day, is quite a load. But compared to the veteran swack hounds of local newsroom legend-prodigious tipplers such as the late, abundantly gifted Paul Crume, whose discourse on angels is reprinted each Christmas in the News-Swindle was a piker.

“To be honest,” recalls Billy Don Smith. Howard *s boss at the News, “I kind of thought he was overreacting. I grew up in the newspaper business when strange intellectual approaches and drinking were major factors. I can recall several people who really didn’t function very well unless they’d had a few, journalists so stoned that they couldn’t type. They had to dictate their stories while holding on to their desks. They were real alcoholics, and it didn’t seem to me that Howard qualified.”

Swindle’s newsroom colleagues generally agree. Jim Henderson, Dallas bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, worked with him at the Times-Herald in the 1970s, Although Henderson does remember one hot summer weekday afternoon when he found Swindle passed out in the back of his ’68 Mustang, “I don’t recall Howard being any worse a drinker than myself or anyone else,” he says.

“Howard was an introspective drinker,” adds Hugh Aynesworth of the Washington Times, who mentored Swindle at the Times-Herald. “He didn’t get belligerent like a lot of us do. I worked very closely with him, and I never knew he was drinking to excess.”

Excess, of course, was a relative term back then.

“Back then, everyone’s intake was hazy,” says Swindle. ” Every journalist I knew who was any good drank like crazy. At lunch. At dinner. They moved in coveys from one happy hour to another, eventually ending up at Joe Miller’s.”

By 1983, Swindle was mostly desk-bound with the high-stress-and low-action- responsibility each day of deploying the paper’s dozen or so Metro staff reporters to their various story assignments, from press conferences to plane crashes.

The drinking, he insists, never interfered with his job. In fact, the ability to consume prodigies of beer and still function unimpaired was a mark of pride and distinction among journalists of the day. What did haunt Swindle, however, was his developing fear thai the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.

“I loved drinking,” he says. “! loved the taste of beer. Then it became a love-hate thing. I began to weigh how different I was from the father I despised. I. just haled his guts. I wondered, ’What if I ever hit my wife?’ I didn’t think I could live with that. 1 would have become my father.”

So, in 1983, Swindle took the leap that would change the way the News handled its alcoholic reporters. To admit a drinking problem, he feared, was professional suicide. This was still the high-flying ’80s. years before being in recovery became chic. Moreover, new managers recently had arrived at the News, and Swindle, a holdover from the previous regime, feared the new guys would be unsympathetic.

“No one at the paper has ever done this before.” he reflected that first afternoon. “When 1 get out of here, I probably won’t have a job.”

But like so many other times in Swindle’slife,disaster held unforeseen benefits. News editor Burl Osborne, along with Ralph Langer and the rest of the recently installed senior editorial management at the paper, took an enlightened view of the journalist’s problem. Not only did Swindle keep his job, but the News sought to profit from his experience. Swindle came to serve as an informal counselor to fellow reporters and editors with similar snakes in their heads-“Jeez! Am I really a drunk?”-as well as a sort of ad hoc management consultant when a colleague’s drinking hit the crisis point.

’The fact that he’d put himself in therapy helped everyone understand it was doable,” says Langer. “I certainly appreciated his help on crisis cases.”

By 1986, Swindle had done more than just change the News’ approach to problem drinking; he’d also relumed to top form as a journalist. He was promoted to assistant managing editor in charge of investigative reporting, directing and editing all three of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stories since then. He had found that, staying sober, he had an abundance of free time.

“They tell you to change your playmates and your playground.” he explains. “Stay out of the beer joints, and don’t associate with known felons. So I had to go home. And now [hat I had lots of time I began to try to unscrew all the things that I screwed up.”

But there’s not much you can do with a broken life except examine it thoroughly. So Howard Swindle turned to book writing. Since 1983, he has published three volumes of nonfiction and now Jitter Joint, which he first conceived of two years ago. Drinking had wrecked his life, but not his journalistic instinct: Swindle took extensive notes of his experiences in rehab and squirreled away his official evaluations and medical reports.

The result is Quinlin, Swindle’s authentic second self, who shares with his creator several notable similarities: the exact same IQ (116); a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder traceable to the horrors of his boyhood days}: and “chronic high levels of tension and anxiety” noted by doctors in his Jitter Joint tile.

Howard Swindle’s doppleganger drunk is soon to be immortalized by the big screen. The movie, already being shot in Vancouver, will star Sylvester Stallone, along with Tom Berenger and Polly Walker, and may be in theaters by Christmas.

Yet for all Swindle has accomplished since that morning encounter with the garbage (ruck, a shadow has dogged him, too. “All recovering alcoholics aie motivated by guilt for the really horrible things we did under the influence,” he explains. “So when something phenomenally good happens to you, there’s this little voice that says, ’You know you don’t really deserve all that. There’s going to be a price.’”

For Howard Swindle, the price has been great, but so have the rewards. While he works his way to recovery from cancer-a struggle not so different from his battle with booze-Swindle is intent on establishing his corollary to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation: There may be no second acts in American lives, but how about two first acts? Faced once again with some unscheduled down time, Swindle is back at the word processor, inventing a new set of adventures for Jeb Quinlin. survivor.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.