Postcard from Clif
Clif Cormier shares the adventures of a two-career lifetime.
Published: Sunday, January 26, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 10:36 p.m.
A Postcard from Joseph
By Clif Cormier
(Vantage Press, 329 pages, $16.95)
Memoir of a career marine who saw action in World War II and Korea, then his reinvention as a newspaperman in the 1960s.
FYI: Authors on Sunday
"A Postcard from Joseph," published Jan. 10 by Vantage Press, is the story of Cormier's dual lives - first as a career marine who saw action in World War II and Korea, then his reinvention as a newspaperman in the 1960s.
As a former journalist, Cormier, 84, said he found it uncomfortable writing about himself, so he wrote the book in the third person, calling the protagonist Joseph, which is his middle name. Though it reads like fiction, it's really an autobiography.
Cormier also made a few other minor changes, including fictionalizing other characters' names and changing the name of his hometown. He says his friends and family will have no trouble recognizing the deceptions.
"A couple of friends of mine had written some very brief autobiographies that were more or less like diaries," Cormier says. "I got to thinking that I had a little bit more to tell. So I decided to start something of my own and figured if I didn't like the progress I was making, I would just abandon the whole thing."
Obviously, he didn't abandon it. In fact, the project grew in scope as he got into it.
Initially planning only to write about his early life as "a youth growing up during the Great Depression, who joined the marines to escape the bleak future of his poverty-stricken rural Louisiana town," Cormier was talked into chronicling his second calling as a journalist with The Gainesville Sun, where he worked from 1963-1985.
The book, with a cover that duplicates the image on a 1938 Marine Corps recruiting poster and the postcard recruiters gave Cormier to mail to his parents when he enlisted, should have significant appeal to veterans, particularly those of World War II. It's chock full of descriptive scenes of military life, both in peacetime and during the war.
Cormier, as many young men of his generation, viewed the war as an escape from the Depression, from the dim future of a small town with no jobs, and as a great adventure.
Though he doesn't romanticize war - his descriptions of battle are frank and realistic - he does bring it to life in a way not found in history books. It's his journalist side humanizing the story, drawing the reader in, and it works.
After 22 years in the marines, two wars and many travels, Cormier retired from the military in December, 1959 at the age of 40.
"I was too young to just sit around," he says. "I knew I had to start a second career."
Cormier wondered what he would do in the civilian world without a college education. He'd already gotten some college credits out of the way while in the service, and he reflected on advice given to him by his high school English teacher, who told him he should study journalism.
His wife Dorothy - in the book she's Cara - wanted to move to Florida to be close to her mother. He checked the brochures of Florida colleges and universities and decided on the University of Florida. Dorothy would return to teaching full-time while he was in school.
So it was that the 40-year-old freshman enrolled at UF in 1960.
After adjusting to being back in school two decades after leaving high school, Cormier began excelling at his classes, and often "set the curve" by making the highest score.
Shortly after graduation in 1963, he accepted a reporting job at The Gainesville Sun.
One of the people who talked him into including his newspaper days in the book was Jean Chance, who worked with him at The Sun from 1963-64. Chance, whose name was Jean Carver then, has been a professor at UF's College of Journalism and Communications since 1970. She later worked for several other Florida daily newspapers.
"It was a much smaller paper then, and we were an intimate group," Chance, says. "Because of the small pool of reporters, you never knew what you were going to cover. But we had a great time."
In Chapter 18 of the book, Cormier describes his first day on the job. He recalls approaching the old Sun building downtown and hearing, from the open windows, "the metallic clatter of brass letters in linotype machines trickling from type fonts through chutes on the way to be imprinted on hot lead sticks."
Cormier's new boss was executive editor Ed Johnson, who was 13 years his junior. Johnson showed him around the paper.
"As Joseph surveyed the newsroom, Johnson apologized for its unkempt appearance," Cormier writes. "The conditions were only temporary, he said assuredly. Grimy desktops were cluttered with typewriters, paste pots, and wicked steel spikes reporters used to impale duplicates and stories ripped from the AP teletype machines to be held as references."
Less than a year after Cormier joined The Sun as education reporter, Johnson asked him to become city editor. He kept his old beat as well.
"This is the kind of guy who teaches the boss how to do it," Johnson, 71, laughs. "The characteristic of working hard has always been part of his nature, and it translated well from his military career into the newsroom."
Chance echoes that sentiment. "Because Clif was older and had been in the military, he had a lot of leadership," Chance says. "He was also able to diffuse any volatile situations that arose."
Cormier's work was top-notch, Johnson says.
"He's such a good writer," Johnson, who retired from The Sun in 1986, says. "One thing about Clif's stuff I will always remember is the brilliant clarity. He always had the gift of focusing on what's important to the reader, not what's important to the person being covered. There was no clutter."
Cormier's second career, which would end up lasting about as long as his first, spanned three decades - the '60s, '70s and '80s. He was at The Sun during the height of the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Vietnam War, Watergate and beyond.
"I worked in journalism during some of the most interesting times in modern history," he says. "The Vietnam War turned the university upside down. I remember the barricades that the students put up in the middle of 13th Street and University Avenue. They'd light bonfires that had to be dispersed with fire hoses and state troopers."
"Clif was overseeing the changes in The Sun's coverage of what was going on in the country," Chance recalls. "It was a time of huge social changes, and it was the paper's job to reflect that."
As a former career soldier, Cormier naturally pondered the legitimacy of the Vietnam War.
"Joseph had mixed feelings about the war," he writes. "On the one hand, some of his former marine acquaintances were fighting in Vietnam. He hoped for a successful military conclusion of the conflict, but with the way it was being conducted, he sympathized with the youths who were being drafted and sent to die for a lost cause. It was obvious that the United States, with its reliability on aerial bombardment, would never root out the Viet Cong from the jungles."
Cormier says he was glad at the time he did not have a son.
"I don't think I would have been very happy to see him go into the service the way the war was being conducted," he says.
There were other challenges. Chance recalls an incident involving a popular UF political science professor who had been arrested more than once for driving under the influence of alcohol.
"President (J. Wayne) Reitz handed him an undated resignation," Chance remembers. "He told him that the next time he saw his name in the paper for a drunk driving charge, he would put that day's date on it. Well, that day came, and the professor called Clif on the phone begging him not to print it. He listened to him, but finally told him 'I have to do it, it's my job.' After he got off the phone, he told me it was a tough thing to do. He said the man was crying. But I remember admiring the way he handled the whole thing, in a human but professional way."
Cormier paid about $19,000 to have "A Postcard from Joseph" published. He doesn't expect to make a profit, but hopes to break even if possible. He said another motivating factor for writing the book was a reading of Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation."
"I knew I could never put words together as does the likes of Brokaw," he writes in the forward, "but in my lifetime, I had knocked about in some unusual places, acquiring a few interesting experiences along the way that might be of interest to readers."
Cormier plans to place the book in local stores. For now, it can be purchased online at Amazon.com or directly from Vantage Press by calling 1-800-882-3273.
"I admire him a lot," Johnson says of Cormier. "I hope he keeps writing and goes beyond his memoirs."
Even now, Cormier, a lanky man with an angular face and a focused gaze, retains the alertness of a marine and the inquisitive nature of a reporter. He and Dorothy still live in the comfortable ranch-style home he had built in 1973 on a peaceful tree-lined street in west Gainesville, and they travel extensively.
He also has a framed version of that influential marine recruitment poster hanging over his fireplace, across from his medals and ribbons from his military career. And he shows it proudly to anyone who visits, his eyes still twinkling with the youthful optimism of a great adventurer.
Douglas Jordan can be reached at 374-5036 or jordand@gville
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