Commentary: Michael Kelly, Stirring the Pot

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WASHINGTON, April 5 (UPI) — It’s been 10 or 12 years since I’d seen Michael Kelly, but news of his death in Iraq Friday brought 40 years ago to the here and now.

Mike died reporting the war from the front lines as editor-at-large of the Atlantic Monthly and a columnist for the Washington Post. His contribution to journalism, his talent for using the pen to stir the pot of ink, speaks for itself. But if you want to know why he was out front in a HUMVEE, read on.


He and I were buddies long ago, since we were about 3 or 4 years old. We were born two days apart in 1957 to young mothers living in the not-yet-trendy Capitol Hill. Mike was born on St. Patrick’s Day — how cool is that for an Irish Catholic — and I interrupted dessert two days later.

If you craned your neck right, you could see the U.S. Capitol from the corner of Mike’s block in Northeast, and I was down in the outback at 6th and G, in Southeast. Our mothers knew each other well, were civic activists of a sort and both had talent and energy to spare. My older sister and Mike’s older sister were contemporaries, so naturally Mike and I were part of what would now be called the same posse.

And we were trouble then in our childish ways.

I remember one day in kindergarten, when Mike and I were at the top of the jungle gym, standing and jumping up and down. Mrs. McGlaughlin, an intimidating presence we thought could glare Russian missiles back whence they came during the Cuban missile crisis, disapproved.

“You two get down here this instant!!” she bellowed. And so we did — we jumped.

Mike hit the ground on her right side, I on her left. We landed on our feet and bounced. Before we hit a second time, she had us by the ears. I forget the punishment. It wasn’t the first time we’d been in trouble together and wasn’t the last. We were poster children for the efforts to get kids to wear helmets and padding.

Mike’s birthday parties were huge events. Nobody was to spend more than 25 cents on gifts (remember, this was the 1960s) so nobody would be embarrassed; Nobody was rich back then, and some were less not-rich than others. But the parties were great.

One year, Mike’s mom made a train cake. She decorated a bunch of loaf cakes to look like an engine, cars and a caboose. Another year it was a battleship, which we ate after a tour of a destroyer at the Washington Navy Yard.

That day started warm and we went to school in short sleeves. By 3 p.m. a wet snow was falling. A bunch of us piled into my mother’s station wagon for the trip to the Navy Yard, but got in a fender bender (Washington drivers and snow) near the front gate. We sloshed our way through the Navy Yard to the destroyer, cold, and wet. But the party afterward was great.

Another time Mrs. Kelly — the Marguerite Kelly who writes the Family Almanac columns and books — was driving the school carpool that day. She was rather harried, as any young mother with a Rambler full of kids would be (Minivan? What’s a minivan? What’s soccer?). She had an egg that she meant to eat for breakfast on the way to school. She cracked it on the steering wheel. But it wasn’t hard-boiled. Mike’s father Tom is a newspaperman and a raconteur of Irish proportions. He had names for the entire posse. I was Willem Crabapple.

As we grew older, Mike and I would take Washington transit buses to and from school. Sometimes we’d stop off at the Capitol. There are tunnels all over the place and we would explore, ride back and forth on the little tram subways, and all kinds of things not allowed today. One time, on the Senate side, we were doing our best to run up the down escalator and got a scolding. It was a young Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who sent us on our way.

We traveled diverging yet parallel paths. In the late 1960s, my family joined the exodus to the Washington suburbs and I lost touch with many of my city friends. I’d run into Mike every now and again and we both had kept up our troublemaking ways. I was called in as a ringer for a Catholic school soccer team set to play a team from South Jersey. The other team showed up in big black cars along with large men in double-breasted suits. A game tie suited us just fine, thank you very much.

The next time I saw him was at the Tune Inn, a ragged saloon on Capitol Hill. We were both Jimmy Olsens at the bottom rung of the news-hound ladder. Mike was there, chilled malt beverage in hand with a brace of stewardesses (they weren’t called flight attendants yet). Later Mike would show up at an annual White House Correspondent’s dinner, the one during the Iran-Contra feeding frenzy with a tall blonde on his arm: Fawn Hall, Oliver North’s secretary, the one who hid documents in her underwear to sneak them out. Another coup.

I stayed mostly local in my reporting, at several small papers, but did break an occasional national story. Mike was breaking stories all the time. Through it all we’ve both been bullheaded, leaping-from-jungle-gym guys, running in different playgrounds. And running with scissors.

So that’s the Michael Kelly I know. Nothing he ever did surprised me. We’re both in his mother’s books on children. He’s in my thoughts.

”’Will Scheltema is a free-lance reporter based in Washington.”’

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.