Howard Chuan-Eoan discusses the dangers of war journalism over steak and vodka.
I arrived early at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, 15 minutes before our reservation. Until that moment, I had thought I had eaten at Sammy’s before. It has been around for nearly 40 years; I’ve lived in the city for 33. Somehow, I imagined our circles must have intersected in the course of the shared decades in the Venn diagram that is New York.
But I realized immediately upon getting to the address in the Lower East Side that I had only imagined being there—it’s rather unmistakable in its kitsch. There were the calligraphic horizontals in the word “Sammy” that scrolled above the entrance, thick with eaves that curled upward like Hebrew script but painted with a naïf abandon. And the snapshots of patrons at their tables that decorated the outside wall like a glossy, gaudy mosaic. Or the 8 x 11 sign and the little black plaque, both of which announced the same thing: the toilets are for customers only.
As I contemplated the semiotics of Sammy’s, my dining companion Nick McDonell showed up. Nick is the master of a difficult art, looking dapper and dissolute at the same time, affably in control yet seemingly on the verge of the outrageous (technical notes: sandy-blond hair strewn across his brow, gray blazer, unbuttoned sleeves of his dress shirt showing past the cuff). He had never been to Sammy’s either and seemed a little wary of a mutual friend’s suggestion that it was an experience not to be missed. I shrugged and we took the couple of steps below street-level, down into the Borscht belt zone and a night of stories within stories within stories.
Practically the first person we saw was Dani-Lu, the featured performer at Sammy’s that night. He was Nick’s antithesis: not dapper, a combination of two ovoids, the smaller of which had a partial skirt of Klingon hair, and was poised atop the more expansive globe which was wrapped in a lavender shirt just half-an-inch away from being a bad fit. Dani-Lu was not on the verge of the outrageous. He was way past that. “First prize is a trip to Gaza!” he bellowed as he spun dance music that was vaguely like something out of a traveling Eastern European circus. “Second prize is a trip to Libya.” I missed what the contest was but I assume winning would, in any case, be counterproductive.
So these are the Jews? You and you and the North Korean guy?
“How many of you here are Jewish?” he asked the 10 guests in the room scattered among four tables. One or two hands went up. I threw mine up as well. “So these are the Jews? You and you and the North Korean guy?” he said, indicating me. I feigned shock and said, “South.” A joke… a joke, I try to indicate by my expression (I’m Chinese-Filipino). But he ignored my attempt at audience participation, pattered on and played his records. Nick and I turned to the menu.
Pictures of Sammy’s Roumanian often have people dancing the hora and parading between the tables that leave plenty of room for maneuvering, unlike the tightly packed Chinese restaurants further down Chrystie Street. At Sammy’s the profit comes from the prices: upwards of $37 for the star of the menu, a tenderloin strip steak in three sizes (small, medium and large). It is tasty, garlicky and ungarnished. Eat it fast so you don’t look at the meat as it cools because the fat congeals pretty quickly into small white beads nestling in the grain of the beef. It is a vision that can turn you—and your arteries—to stone. I asked the waiter if they had anything green on the menu. He pointed at the wilted brown onions on top of the mashed potatoes to which he was adding liquid chicken fat. Schmaltz!
Nick and I screwed up our courage with two large shot glasses of vodka poured out of a bottle embedded in a block of ice. After that, I laughed in the face of cholesterol danger for the rest of the night.
I have associated Nick with danger from the very beginning. He first came to my attention in April 2003, when his father Terry McDonell, the editor of Sports Illustrated (and a magazine industry legend who had worked at Newsweek and ran Rolling Stone and Us and Outside) called my office at TIME. I was News Director there, and I oversaw our U.S. and overseas bureaus (S.I. and TIME are both part of Time Inc.). Terry said something seemed to be happening to the United Airlines flight from London to New York that Nick, then 19, was on. There was good reason to be worried: the war in Iraq had started just the month before; and it was not two years since UA jets were hijacked on 9/11. Could I find out what was going on?
The crew came on the PA and said the flight was under terrorist threat.
Our London bureau made the calls and reported back that the flight had diverted to Ireland almost immediately after taking off from Heathrow. Apparently, someone had found a malevolent note in a seatback pocket; the crew came on the PA and told the passengers that the flight was under terrorist threat and was headed for Dublin. As it turned out, nothing happened. The passengers, including Nick, would be OK.
Nick was a boy wonder. He had written the bestselling novel Twelve at the age of 17; eventually it was made into a movie. Two more novels came after. He interned at TIME for a couple of summers—in our Hong Kong office and at the 2004 Republican convention in New York City. In 2009, we sent him to Iraq where, among other things, he wrote a chilling dispatch from Mosul where at one point an insurgent grenade bounces perilously close to the military unit he had embedded with. As I edited the piece, my first thought was, “Oh my god, what is Terry going to say?”
At Sammy’s, Nick told me he was going back to Afghanistan. He’d just been there last year on assignment for TIME, writing what would become both a lengthy magazine story and an ebook that was the last project I edited before I retired. “Green on Blue” was a deep dive into the mysteries and motivations behind the killing of U.S. marines by an Afghan soldier. It was a dramatic incident but just one of several similar ones that spread mistrust among Americans for their Afghan allies. By no means a danger junkie like some reporters, he nevertheless had had his share of close calls in Afghanistan. Finding himself stranded in the Taliban-plagued town of Sangin in Helmand Province without the benefit of refuge in a U.S. military base, he and his translator Muhib Habibi joined up with a team of Afghan military and security officers and traveled with their convoy, which was shot up a number of times. I knew nothing of the twists and turns of his reporting until I received his story via email. As I edited it, I once again gasped, “What is Terry going to say?” I was not going to be the one who told him. All that mattered was that Nick was fine.
At Sammy’s, we chased the vodka and steak with beer and then headed a couple of blocks away to Freemans where the back bar is a creepy, yellow glowing altar of stuffed birds, fallen angels in glass cases. Over wine, Nick asked me what was the messiest, most complex and challenging thing I had ever had to do during the 13 years I was in charge of the care and feeding and safety of TIME’s correspondents. So I told him the story of Michael Weisskopf.
His life was saved by a medic who leaped into the Humvee to stop the bleeding.
Weisskopf had been one of our veteran political and investigative journalists in Washington D.C., but when the Iraq war started, he asked to join the revolving crew assigned to report the conflict. On Dec. 10, 2003, he and the war photographer Jim Nachtwey were in the rear of an open-back Humvee with two U.S. Marines. Their convoy was stuck in traffic and being harassed by kids who were tossing stones at them. But a particularly loud clunk sounded next to Weisskopf, who looked down to see a grenade. Automatically, he picked it up with his right-hand to toss out of the Humvee but as he grasped it, it blew up, and the explosion vaporized his hand. His life was saved by a medic in the car behind them; she leaped into the Humvee to stop the bleeding with a massive tourniquet. As for Weisskopf’s companions, Nachtwey and the Marines were wounded with shrapnel but would survive. If Michael’s hand had not taken the brunt of the explosion, they might have all died.
Michael was airlifted to the U.S. army’s medical center in Landstuhl, Germany, and I flew over to take him home via a giant military transport headed for Andrews Air Force base in Maryland. Eventually, he would be fitted with a prosthesis. But before that, Michael—the terminus of his right arm in a big bandaged bulb—played it brave in Landstuhl as I played part-time nursemaid, making sure his hospital gown was fully tied up before he dashed across the hospital floor to find his real nurses. He didn’t care about exposing himself to the four winds.
Still, at least one nurse suspected that Michael needed to be reminded that losing a hand wasn’t something that bravado alone could overcome and that certain psychological adjustments had to be made to be able to learn to live with new physical limitations. As she walked him down the hall for exercise (and I trailed behind), Michael talked about how he was more fortunate than the younger soldiers who had lost limbs; he’d lived his life and knew what it was all about, but they still had theirs ahead, with kids and families to deal with, unable, for example, to toss baseballs or footballs with their sons.
It is doubly crushing to know that this is happening all over again right now around the world.
So the nurse asked Michael if he had kids and how old they were; and she realized what was setting in from the look that came over his face. For Michael had a young son, young enough to want to play catch with his father. She quickly told him a story. A colleague of hers was treating a soldier who had lost both arms in an accident as he repaired a plane. The man was distraught. “Nurse, what am I going to do? I’m supposed to go home to be married. Where will I place the ring?” Without hesitation, the nurse looked at him and said, “You will hang it on a chain around your neck so it will be closer to your heart.” Michael looked at his own nurse and nodded his head, and the two silently finished their walk.
I could hear my voice breaking as I told the story to Nick at Freemans. Time had not diminished the depth of the experience. It was like the memory of emerging from the sea after being caught in a riptide, gasping and grateful and looking back at the waters that nearly took you forever, hearing them murmur lessons that will echo for the rest of your life. It is doubly crushing to know that this is happening all over again right now around the world with other correspondents and photographers, some older, some younger, some more experienced, some less, but all paying the same price for reporting on dangerous times.
We headed for Lucky Jack’s several blocks away for beer but the night had soaked up all our stories by then. We promised to get together again. Maybe with Terry so I can finally ask him what he said when his son told him about his close-calls. Maybe once again at Sammy’s. There are worse things than cholesterol.