Advanced Search
Charles Kuralt
Charles Kuralt
Charles Kuralt's America
ISBN: 0385485107
Charles Kuralt's America
Charles Kuralt talked about his book, "Charles Kuralt's America," published by Putnam Publishing Group. He reminisced about his favorite places in the U.S. He was formerly a host of "Sunday Morning" on CBS television and did "On the Road" segments from various parts of the U.S.
Charles Kuralt's America
Program Air Date: December 31, 1995

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Charles Kuralt, in your chapter on Vermont, you have this final sentence: "When you're looking down on Pomfret from the Cloudland Road and noticing all the ugliness that isn't there, anywhere to be seen, and when you think about what so much of the rest of America has become, preventing the future in this one small place doesn't seem like such a bad idea." What about the rest of America? How bad is it?
CHARLES KURALT: Well, Vermonters get teased a lot about trying to prevent the future. They started fighting mill boards back in the '30s and have finally won the battle. There aren't any in Vermont, as you know. It's true that a lot of beautiful places, including some of my favorites, are giving way to development. I hate it whenever they turn a beautiful ranch in Montana into little 20-acre ranchettes for people like me, Easterners, to come out and despoil the land. There are probably too many of us and that's the problem I was referring to. Vermont has somehow managed to keep its character.
LAMB: Where's this picture taken?
KURALT: That's the Pemaquid Point light on the coast of Maine just down east from Boothbay Harbor. A friend of mine, Bob Mitchell, who is a photographer, and I went over there without having any notion of shooting a jacket for a book. We just wanted to take some pictures on a pretty day. But that one he made of me turned out to be the cover of the book.
LAMB: What time of day was it taken?
KURALT: Now you're asking me to remember more than I can remember. I think it was midafternoon.
LAMB: And of all the pictures you could have used on the cover, why was this one chosen?
KURALT: I didn't make the choice. My editor, going through some of the photographs I had made -- I am an enthusiastic but not very able photographer -- saw that one and said, "Well, there's our book jacket."
LAMB: You say early in the book that 1994 may have been the happiest year of your life. How come?
KURALT: I had always had this notion that it would be great to take off and spend a year in America -- a perfect year choosing 12 favorite places and going there at just the right time of year to be there, and moreover, not going there to work, not going with a purpose or with a camera crew or with any promise of reward; just to have a long one-year vacation, a perfect year in America. And it worked out that way. Really, it was a dream for me and the best year I ever spent in this country, I think.
LAMB: Had you been to those places before?
KURALT: Oh, yes. They were all familiar to me. This will sound like bragging, but the truth is there's no place in America I haven't been. You know, thanks to Mother CBS and all those years of wandering "On the Road," my camera crew and I went to every corner of every state over and over again. And these 12 locations are the ones I thought might be most fun to revisit.
LAMB: Showing the audience the different months and the places that you went. If you had to pick one of these 12 that you would go back to quicker than others, is there one?
KURALT: Tough question. I'm in love with Montana and the mountain West. Something about those spaces and those good people has always made my heart beat faster. I've also been there when the windchill was 40 below and I know that Montana can get rough in the wintertime. But still, I suppose if backed against the wall, that would be my choice.
LAMB: Did anybody go with you to any of these places?
KURALT: No, I went utterly alone with no plan, no company, just a notebook in my hip pocket. And at the end of the day, I would sit down and see what was in the notebook. I've a lifelong habit of making notes, I did that and had great fun summing up the day on my little laptop computer after the sun had gone down and I had time to maybe sit by a fire somewhere and think. When it came time to write the book, almost all I had to do was go back and look at those nightly notes in which I'd also ask myself questions, things I should have learned that day if I had been a real reporter and didn't bother to.
LAMB: Did you spend the whole month in each place?
KURALT: Not really. You know, there's really no such thing as a perfect year. Life intervenes. My father grew ill a year ago and I spent some time going back to North Carolina, my home state, and helping take care of Papa before he died in the autumn. So because of that and the other distractions of life, I really didn't spend a month in each place, but I spent three or four weeks in almost all of them.
LAMB: Did you ever get lonely?
KURALT: No, I don't remember that I did. You know, this country is so full of interesting characters and they're so different, one from another. Vermonters are not a bit like Louisianans, it seems to me, that I think that the curiosity about people and hearing from one fellow, "Oh, my gosh, you, you musn't leave town without meeting this totem pole carver who works out here on the edge of town. He's a real craftsman and interesting fellow to talk to." I think that's what kept me going without being lonely. I had the company of a totem pole carver all the next day.
LAMB: You say early on in the book, "When I was younger, I thrived on the chatter and commotion of television. Suddenly I found I'd had enough of it. The desire for substance and reality came over me. Maybe sooner or later this craving hits everybody. It hit me hard."
KURALT: Well, television has changed a good deal, as we are all bound to admit in the years that I started out. I came to CBS News in the '50s, when journalism amounted to one little 15-minute black-and-white program, Douglas Edwards with the news each evening, and very little else. We were sometimes hard put to fill up those 15 minutes with the resources we had in those days. So I watched television progress from those primitive beginnings through a serious period, what I now think of as a golden age. I worked with Morrow and Eric Sevareid and Charles Collingwood, those giants to me. I'd have paid them to let me work in the same room with those great scholar/reporters. And then it seems to me, at least of the networks, things deteriorated. The syndicated trash journalism programs became popular and somehow or another I thought I had done about as much as I could do in this new medium. I don't mean that I don't watch a lot of journalism on television. I mean, in those days, there was also no C-SPAN, there was no CNN, there was no MacNeil-Lehrer -- sorry -- Lehrer. And many worthwhile things that people have a choice to see today just weren't there, so it's not that I think television journalism has all gone downhill, it's just that I'd had enough of it.
LAMB: You know, most of the book is written about places and flowers and food and people, but not that they're not people, but politicians did pop up periodically in this book. And I found it interesting. I just jotted down a bunch of the names, everybody from Andy Jackson to Robert E. Lee, Calvin Coolidge to Woodrow Wilson, Jesse Helms, L. Mendle Rivers, Abe Lincoln and John C. Calhoun. How often did you find politics as you traveled? How often did they talk about it in each town?
KURALT: I think they talked about politics in Washington and in the state capitals. I never brought the subject up and it didn't come up. Since everybody else in television news is covering politicians, I've always made it a point of honor not to cover them and not to talk about politics with folks. I must say, of the 150 or so people I write about in the book, I don't think I know the politics of any of them. We just didn't talk about that subject. They may have strong political opinions, but I was talking about them as,you know, as a saddlemaker or a chef or a orchestra conductor.
LAMB: You said that most people never find a burning purpose in life. Did you?
KURALT: I suppose I was lucky in that way. I think I had the best job imaginable in journalism. For 20 or 25 years, CBS News didn't even know where I was, you know. They would let me just wander at will and occasionally send in stories, all of which I found myself. I never had an assignment. And that became a purpose. I still have somewhere at home several big cardboard boxes full of story ideas from the '70s and '80s that I never got around doing. I guess just showing up, spending a day or two with somebody interesting became a purpose in itself.
LAMB: Why do you think others haven't had that pleasure?
KURALT: Well, I don't know, if I think television has grown too fast. These were always slow stories. They took time to develop. And frequently in the old days, even when they were on the evening news, they would run five or six or, in one case, even seven minutes. Well, as you know, seven minutes is one-third of almost one-third of an evening newscast. But things move so quickly in television now that they started cutting those stories down to two or three minutes and frequently they couldn't be told. I don't think there's much of a market for that kind of wandering, slow, nonsensational journalism about people whose names you would not expect to hear on TV in the first place. They were always people nobody'd never heard of, except me.
LAMB: Your last chapter is all about New York, and you say that nobody lives in New York. What do they do in New York?
KURALT: It's true. This occurred to me some years ago. New York would be an impossible city to live in, just as everybody in Iowa suspects. "How do you possibly live in a place like that?" they say. And pondering that question, I decided nobody does live in the whole city. Each person lives in his own neighborhood. My neighborhood is bounded by Hudson Street and Greenwich Avenue and West 12th Street, that's down in Greenwich Village and I know numbers of my neighbors, many people in my block, and I know almost nobody else in the entire city. We live in small towns, is what we do, and they're small towns just like those in Iowa, except there are not corn fields at the town limits. There are other small towns. There is, in my memory, a kindly liquor store owner who used to cash my checks when, in the days before ATM machines became common and an Irish delicatessen owner who'd take my packages when I was away from home. They are small towns, those neighborhoods, with all the small-town virtues.
LAMB: You name the restaurant you go to a lot and The Beatrice Inn, the Italian restaurant in the basement at West 12th Street. Are you afraid that you just ruined a nice, quiet place for yourself?
KURALT: I doubt that The Beatrice will ever become trendy. It's distinctly a neighborhood restaurant. What makes it a neighborhood restaurant is, among other things, that you don't have to make a reservation and you don't have to wear a tie. You just show up and they find a table for you. It's the kind of comforting center of the community that, come to think of it, every small town has a place where people gather and become friends over the years and shoot the breeze, and it's a institution I couldn't do without. For one thing, they give me the illusion that I never pay for dinner there because they run a tab and the bill only gets paid once a month.
LAMB: You mentioned that William Mangold, who for 35 years was the quiet man in the corner, put out the best magazine in the country, The New Yorker, under the great editors Ross & Shawn. Then you say, "God, how Bill Mangold must hate the magazine The New Yorker has become." Why?
KURALT: Well, The New Yorker has changed a good deal. I don't think it's a thoroughly ruined magazine or anything like that, but what I had in mind was Mr. Mangold's old-fashioned tweedy Yale gentlemanliness and his appreciation of the kind of writing he had edited by E.B. White and James Thurber and that crowd, compared to the flashier writing and some of the vulgar language that has not just crept into magazines like The New Yorker but now, seems to me, to overwhelm them.
LAMB: What's this picture?
KURALT: Oh, that's the professor and the stripper. They're two of my favorite people and two of my favorite people in the book. The man with the beret is the late chairman of the art history department at Columbia University and the beautiful young woman is his daughter, who is a stripper in Los Angeles. He died last year during the time that I was writing the book and his daughter came home. Just as I had been going home to take care of my ill father, she came home to take care of hers. And I went over to the house and made that photograph, which is a photograph that pleases me because those two loved each other so much. Allison Davis is a fine pianist, a marvelous guitarist. She's studying to be a family counselor, but what she really loves is taking her clothes off in public.
LAMB: Where did you learn how to write?
KURALT: Oh, gosh. I don't know if I know how. I think writing is derivative. I think it comes from reading, and I was a -- what they call a voracious reader when I was a little boy. I read every book in the house, and luckily they were adventurous books, many of them, that would appeal to a child -- Kipling and Richard Halliburton, all those sets of books that were fashionable back in the '30s. I read my way right through them and never never did stop enjoying sitting down with a good book.

I can hear the rhythms of writers I admire when I sit down to write. Sometimes I could even tell you which writer's rhythms I'm hearing, whether it's Red Smith today or John Steinbeck or Eric Sevareid and some other writer whose work I have admired. I can't and don't and of course, do not mean to be trying to put myself in that kind of company as a writer, but I do think that that's how young writers learn, is from growing very enthusiastic about something they're reading. When I was in high school, I went into the school library and somehow picked up a book of radio plays. Some of our younger viewers will not know what I'm talking about when I say radio plays, but there used to be marvelous drama on the radio. And the best of it was written by Norman Corwin, who is still with us, still teaching at the University of Southern California and, I'm happy to say, has become a friend of mine. And I read those plays, the language, and it just sent an electric chill down my spine. I thought, "Oh, if ever I could write like that, then I would be happy in life." Well, I never did learn to write like that, but I think all writing comes from initially, from an enthusiasm about writing.

LAMB: Where do you write?
KURALT: Most anywhere. I'm a slow thinker and a slow writer. As I said, I wrote this book on kitchen tables and beside the fire in rented houses in each of these 12 places or under an inadequate-they're always inadequate-light bulb in a motel room someplace. Writing the notes amounted to writing the book. I have, since leaving CBS, I knew that I didn't want to hang around the house all day, so I have rented a writing room on top of a building in 57th Street in New York and fixed it up to look -- I think rather successfully -- fixed it up to look like a seedy, failing, small gentlemen's club. I mean, there's lots of mahogany cabinets and shelves and and an old 18th century desk with a leather top on it just the sort of room I've always imagined would be a wonderful place in which to work, and it's turned out that way. Somehow or another, it makes me feel like a writer, and I guess that's half the battle.
LAMB: Is there a time of day that you write best?
KURALT: I'm afraid I write best, my editor might say I only write under dire deadline threats. I find it hard to actually get going without a figurative guillotine hanging over my head. Toward the end of finishing this book, which was many weeks late, I wrote from dawn until until midnight just because I had to. I find that having to finish really helps.
LAMB: And what do you write on?
KURALT: I write on a computer now. I was a little late coming to the word processor. I have an old typewriter. It must weigh 50 pounds. It's a Swedish job called a Facet, and the clatter and clack of that machine used to confirm for me that I really was getting some work done. I needed the noise. But then I was persuaded by someone that rewriting and revising is much easier on a word processor, and so I went out and bought an old Toshiba -- used Toshiba laptop, the kind you had to plug in. And it did after I learned to use it, and learned the mysterious commands that were needed back then, it did change my view of how one should really proceed.
LAMB: You have a dedication here to "Catherine, with love." Who's Catherine?
KURALT: Catherine is a little bit of a mystery. Some friends, thinking that she must be a secret lover, have sidled up to me and asked me that question. "Hey, who's Catherine?" Catherine is my well-loved sister who, with her family, lives on Bainbridge Island out in Washington. And she and I became very close during this year because we mainly, along with my brother Wallace, were responsible for taking care of our dying father. And something about a brother and a sister who have lived, as people do these days, far apart from one another for many years, coming together again at a moment like that endeared her to me all over again. And I knew that when time came to dedicate the book, it was my angelic, and I say the word without the slightest bit of irony, my angelic and beautiful sister I wanted to dedicate the book to.
LAMB: Where's your brother Wallace?
KURALT: My brother Wallace is a bookseller in North Carolina. Thank heavens he is. I hope he has displays of this book in his window. He lives in Chapel Hill. He managed to never to leave Chapel Hill. We all, after being graduated from school there, tried to figure out a way to stay. My brother managed to do it and opened what is now a chain of -- amounts to a small chain of book shops around North and South Carolina.
LAMB: The picture on the back of the book -- where was that taken?
KURALT: That was Savan -- no, that was Charleston. That was one afternoon in Charleston. I was posing by those beautiful houses down on the South Battery that people who have been to Charleston will remember for their antebellum charm. And the photographer I was with made that closeup. And, once again, the editor chose it to use on the jacket, leaving out the reason for being there, the antebellum houses.
LAMB: In that chapter on Charleston, you talk about race and the attitudes still exists there among the people. What are they?
KURALT: Well, Charleston's attitude toward race has changed a good deal. Things change a little slower in Charleston than they do elsewhere in the country, heaven knows. In some ways, that society is pickled, preserved in amber. If you don't belong to one of those families that arrived around the beginning of the 18th century, then you really don't count among some folks in Charleston. But I grew up in the South and it's hard for young people to understand this, too, but attitudes have changed so much and so much for the better. I went to segregated public schools. And when I went to the University of North Carolina, that school did not admit black high school graduates from our state.

That seems impossible to imagine. It just, it just seems the other day to me. But when I hear that no progress has been made in race in America, I think back to those days and to how much we owe to brave people who had nothing to do with Washington, by the way. A woman who would not move to the back of the bus. Some college students in my home state have said, "No, we just think we'll sit here at the soda fountain counter until we can be served a Coke like everybody else," and how they changed this country for the better and forever. I am not one of those who's unimpressed by the progress we have made and even Charleston has made in race relations. Charleston has a black police chief, for heaven sakes -- black Jewish police chief, if anybody cares.

LAMB: Who...
KURALT: Who is one of the most...
LAMB: ...skates.
KURALT: Yes, that's right. Sometimes he rides a horse, sometimes he rides roller skates, but he's always on the scene and he is respected by white folks and black folks alike.
LAMB: Reuben Greenberg. What's the story of L. Mendle Rivers, who you say is a former friend, and Judge Waring?
KURALT: Whatees Waring, back when I was a young newspaper reporter in North Carolina, was the judge who ruled that the all-white Democratic primary in South Carolina was unconstitutional, that the whites could not run the Democratic Party as a white club to which blacks were not admitted. And a very brave decision from a very unusual source because Judge Waring was one of those old, aristocratic white Southerners. But as he said, by being a judge, he gradually became judicious and made that ruling, and later, before the US Supreme Court decided the same thing, also ruled that school segregation was inherently unfair and unconstitutional.

Well, for that, he was ridden out of town back in the '50s. I knew him during his exile in New York, where he had to live because he could no longer live in Charleston among his old friends. And Mendle Rivers was one of those who stood up on the floor of the House and denounced him in very brutal terms for what now seems just a common-sense decision.

LAMB: Narcissus "Charles Kuralt." What is it?
KURALT: It's a flower, of course. It's a daffodil. This was a little embarrassing to write about, but I found myself becoming narcissistic in this case. A friend of mine in Virginia -- Gloucester, Virginia, who is a daffodil breeder, developed a -- sort of by accident -- a daffodil he thought was very beautiful, a new thing under the sun. And for the first time in his long career as a daffodil breeder, he named the bulb and he named it for me because I had just announced that I was leaving CBS and starting a new life, and he sent me a couple of the bulbs. There were two of the only three that existed at the time. And I planted them and held my breath and finally watched them bloom last April and was so impressed. Narcissus, you know, was a boy who was so much in love with his own reflection in a pool of water that he became legend, and something like that happened to me. I was so charmed by this flower named for myself that I couldn't resist writing a chapter about it.
LAMB: When people come up to you in public and they talk about your books, what's the thing that they most often say about them?
KURALT: Gosh, I don't know, Brian. They say they enjoy them. They say nobody else is writing stories like this. And I suppose that's more or less true because most people are writing about important things, and these subjects are determinedly and intentionally about unimportant things. Things you wouldn't expect to find on page one of the newspaper. I think people maybe get a sense of reading about their neighbors because these are, I think there's nobody in there that they might not know. Certainlyno one is inaccessible to a traveler through America.
LAMB: Of all the characters you met and you described some in more detail than others, which one did you most enjoy kicking your feet back and taking notes and listening? I mean, there was one particular guy, I know, out on the ranch you said that doesn't talk at all hardly.
KURALT: Yeah. Cowboys are supposed to be tall, silent types, aren't they? Delmer Rowe is not very tall, but he might be the choice. He's someone I've known many years. And because it was a drought year and because they finished the haying on the ranch early, he had a day or two to sit down and talk to me about cowboying, one of the last of the really romantic figures of American life, someone who can repair a fence or round up a herd of cattle efficiently or do your branding for you and get it done before dark. I loved my days with him.
LAMB: Where was it?
KURALT: That was on a ranch down on the Big Hole River in Montana, where --which Delmer doesn't own the ranch, mind you, he just works there, but the place would have collapsed many years ago without him. He is the essential person, the ranch foreman, I guess you'd call him.
LAMB: What's the point of day that you enjoy the most? -- from what time do you get up, and what do you do when you get up, and what do you read or watch or what time do you go to bed? I mean, one of the things we do learn about you in here is you like food.
KURALT: Well, you can tell that by my shape.
LAMB: I mean, there are recipes if folks want recipes or anything for shrimp and other things.
KURALT: Well, yeah, there are. In New Orleans, of course, food is what people talk about more than anything else. It's a food oriented society. And the great cooking of the city -- good as it is in the restaurants -- probably takes place back in the kitchens because everybody in New Orleans thinks of himself as a chef. And some of them are, in fact, very good chefs. The recipe is, however, that of a truly great Italian chef. There may be other recipes, but that is the one I couldn't resist including because I've tried it and it turns out to be scampi to die for.

What's my day like? Well, I'm become an early riser. I like to be out and about early in the morning. I found that on this trip I didn't wear a tie and sometimes I didn't bathe and shave before I wandered out into the city, saving that duty until later in the day. I'd just get up and go out and see what was going on as the sun was coming up. If you have no responsibilities and no reason to make yourself presentable, as I didn't in this year, I wasn't going to be on television later in the morning, that was a great pleasure for me.

And it paid off, too. Something about a community is different very early. I think of New Orleans, those early morning walks down to the Cafe du Mange for coffee and beignets while the sun was coming up and the breeze freshening over the levee on the Mississippi River. And some of the characters at that hour are people who have been up all night and are coming for a cup of coffee before bed. And some are people like me, just getting their day started. There is something to be said for being out while people -- while the shopkeepers are still hosing down the sidewalks and the shutters of the windows overhead are just being opened by people waking up, looking out to see what kind of day it's going to be. There's something about the -- I don't -- it's hard to describe -- something about the character of the city reveals itself at 6 in the morning. Everybody knows what New Orleans is like at 11:00 at night.

LAMB: So what else do you like to do in the day? What about your -- do you still watch television anymore?
KURALT: You know, I don't very much. I see you a good deal because of my habit of sitting on the edge of the bed at night and just looking through the channels to see what might be interesting on there. A lot of this trip was spent in places where you can't get television, believe it or not, out in the Big Hole country. I guess you can get it if you have one of those huge dishes in your side yard, but at the place where I was staying, I didn't have. Or up in Alaska, at Glacier Bay, they just got telephones in the last couple of years, and they don't have any...
LAMB: So did you...
KURALT: ...TV. So escaping television is practically unheard of in America, but somehow I managed to do it a good deal.
LAMB: Did you read much?
KURALT: No, on this trip, I didn't. I was so drunk with the joy of going out and talking to people and spending time with them and remembering things that had happened in these places before that I always took a few books that I'd meant to read. There's an obscure story by Anthony Trollope in a paperback that I found in my suitcase just day before yesterday. I started out with that a year ago and I don't think I ever opened it.
LAMB: You -- in Vermont, you talk about a fellow by the name of Steve Warner, who was a -- I guess he did pottery. And you -- the exchanges. The -- it says that, `Steve and I talked. People who had come in to watch him work asked me to pose for pictures. Naturally, this baffled Steve. "Who are you?" he asked once. "I used to work in television," I said. "Oh," he said, "sorry. I never got into television."' How often did you have people recognize you and how often did you find people like Steve that had never, ever seen you?
KURALT: Well, there are more who recognize me, and if you -- as you know, if you've been on television for a long time, people know who you are, or if they don't know who you are, they know they've seen you somewhere. I had a good deal of, "Don't I know you?" "Didn't we meet at the International Harvester convention in Cleveland a year or two ago?" I am of that level of celebrity where -- I guess, where people know they've seen me somewhere.
LAMB: What's your attitude toward dealing with people?
KURALT: With that minor celebrity, you mean?
LAMB: Yes. I mean, what, in your own mind, what do you say or how do you treat folks?
KURALT: I enjoy that. I know some people don't, but I always sort of get a kick out of it and very often it leads to interesting conversations, leads to elements of the story once you get to shooting the breeze with people. I suppose that I'm -- and I don't know -- I'm not very introspective. I can't really judge this, but I do enjoy -- I hardly ever resent chance encounters because they're often so interesting.
LAMB: Which book is this?
KURALT: You mean in numbers?
LAMB: In numbers. Yes.
KURALT: Gosh, I haven't counted. I guess it's about number six. I was signing books at a book shop in Virginia and a man came up with a book called "To the Top of the World." It was a record of a polar expedition, an attempt to reach the North Pole by a bunch of madmen from Minnesota back in 1967. That was my first book. I didn't think a copy of it existed. I have only one copy and his was in a good deal better shape than mine, but I was glad to sign that book. And I told him he had a rare volume there because I don't think that book ever sold more than 6,000 or 7,000 copies.
LAMB: What was the -- do you remember what the last day was that you wrote this book, "Charles Kuralt's America"? I mean, when did you finish it?
KURALT: Gosh, I don't remember. I finished it, as I told you, very late. It was probably mid-summer sometime, July. As I look it over now, I see that it's not quite finished yet. I left out a lot of things. I just forgot some stuff that I meant to put in there, and I wish I had a chance to rewrite it. Maybe that's the way all authors feel.
LAMB: Give us an example of something you wanted to get in here you didn't.
KURALT: Well, in the case of New Orleans, for example, the chapter was growing a little long and I guess I consciously left it out, but I really wanted to tell some of the old, gaudy political stories of the days when I was there in the '50s and early '60s covering the governorship, the gaudy governorship of Earl Long and the political races of those days and the early segregation fights in the public schools in New Orleans. The New Orleans is surely our unique American city and even the politics are unique. And those are stories that I love to tell over a beer somewhere and just didn't get around to telling in the book.
LAMB: On what day did the doctor tell you that you needed an operation?
KURALT: Well, I went to Montana when the book was finished but before it had been published, thinking that after this year-long vacation, I owed myself a vacation, and I went to Montana to go fly-fishing for trout. And the high altitude there always gets me for a day or two, but this time I couldn't get over it. I was short of breath and found it irritating and knew something was wrong. So when I got home I had some chest pains that didn't feel right. So I went in and for the usual examinations and found that I had one coronary artery that was pretty well blocked, and my doctor, who happens to be a cardiologist, recommended a bypass, which turned, I think while they've got your heart stopped and your breastbone cut in half and all of these violent things they've done to your chest, they figure, "Well, here's some other arteries that could use a little help, too," so it turned out to be a quadruple bypass. My friends and acquaintances who have had the same operation assured me that it was like being hit by a truck, but they also assured me that within a few weeks I'd begin to feel better than I'd felt in years, and that part of the prediction is just now beginning to come true, I'm happy to say. The "hit by a truck" part lasted quite a while.
LAMB: What day did you have the operation?
KURALT: The 2nd of October.
LAMB: What was the biggest surprise of the operation?
KURALT: Waking up and finding out that I was still alive, because I had made the mistake -- typical reporter's mistake of reading in detail what was about to happen, and it just didn't seem logical to me that one could live through that. But, of course, nearly everybody lives through it and goes on to a more comfortable life.
LAMB: Did you have any thoughts before the operation that you missed anything and, "Oh, oh I wished I'd have done this"?
KURALT: Oh, sure. Oh, my goodness. Yes.
LAMB: I mean, like, what's left? is what...
KURALT: Oh, yes. I had in mind a book to write, and I thought, "I should have got started on that thing because heaven knows I may not wake up from it." I mean, these are all cowardly thoughts that are probably common to everybody who is about to undergo serious surgery. And I don't remember the first three days in the hospital. Three days after those three I was out of the hospital and on my way to recovery. So I suppose this is the point in which anyone who's just had lifesaving surgery should remark that they really do miracles these days in those operating rooms.
LAMB: What is that book that you thought you should have written by now? What is it? And are you going to write it?
KURALT: Well, it's one that is -- I'm happy to say is going to take years. The year 2003 is the bicentennial of the greatest American trip -- I'm a fan of American trips, as you know -- the one that Lewis and Clark made from St. Louis, up the Missouri, and across the Rockies to the Pacific, through terra incognita -- I mean, a land that no person, not even the Indians, knew in its entirety. And I want to write something about the Lewis and Clark expedition. As the bicentennial approaches, far better qualified people than I are going to be writing about it, historians of every stripe. I think those two guys deserve a Homer. I wish I had Homer's command of the language because what they need is an epic poem, something that schoolchildren will memorize in decades to come, maybe centuries to come. And it is my probably ridiculous ambition to write something poetic about that trip, something long and truthful, because the truth is breathtaking. What those two and their small company of Tennessee and Kentucky woodsmen were able to do in discovering the vast part of the unknown continent.
LAMB: What has all this being on the road done to your family over the years?
KURALT: Well...
LAMB: And what kind of a family do you have?
KURALT: Well, I have two grown daughters, I have two brilliant and handsome grandsons who live with their mother and their family in Chicago. I had another daughter who works in an ad agency in New York and she's the one I see least, of course, because she lives in the same city I do and she's busy all the time, but whom I dearly love, and a long-suffering wife who really doesn't think of herself that way. She has not minded these long absences, I think. We are not very social people, as we don't go to parties or give them, and I think she's amused by my amusement at the wonderful things that have happened wandering around the country.
LAMB: Where did you meet her? It is Peetie?
KURALT: That's Peetie. At CBS back in the '50s. I had been married when I was very young once before and we were married in, I guess, the early '60s. I shouldn't have said, "I guess." I should know for certain what year it was.
LAMB: You talk about the Puritan work ethic and you say that you have it. What is that? And is -- and do we have too much of it in the country?
KURALT: I met a fellow in Key West, which is undoubtedly our most laid-back American community, Clyde Hensley. Clyde says human beings were not made to labor from dawn until dusk. Human beings were just made to hang out. There's Clyde. And I learned a good deal about how to how one really should live while I was in Key West and much of it from Clyde. Human beings were just intended to be on this Earth to enjoy themselves a bit. It's a philosophy you don't hear much in this intense, work-oriented society of ours. But to the extent that one can survive without working from dawn to dusk, I've about decided Clyde is right.
LAMB: What would you recommend to someone who reads your book and says, 'Boy, that sounds like fun. I want to do that'? I mean, what goes wrong and what would you recommend they do if they want to do something like this?
KURALT: Well, if they're able, just do it. I mean, the great shock to me was that the paychecks stopped coming. I mean, back on the Charlotte news in 1955 when I first started work, there was a weekly paycheck, and on to CBS. And they never stopped coming for 40 years. And suddenly they stopped and I was paying for everything myself, including the phone calls and the postage.
LAMB: Do you have any idea what the year cost?
KURALT: No, I haven't, but...
LAMB: Would you ballpark it? Would it be $100,000?
KURALT: Oh, no, no. No, not that much. No, I lived fairly well, if I do say so myself. I went to good restaurants and once in a while treated myself to a stay at a good hotel and all that. I read somewhere, maybe it's a cliché, that nobody just before dying ever said, "Gosh, I wish I had spent more time in the office," and that's the way I feel. I'm awfully glad that I made this trip. You were asking about going into surgery. I did have that satisfaction of looking back and saying, "Well, you always wanted to make this idealized trip to your ideal country. At least you did that, pal."
LAMB: Charles Kuralt, this is the book, "Charles Kuralt's America." And we thank you.

Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1995. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.