Saturday, January 20, 2007

Armistead Maupin - The News and Courier

Originally posted at on Wednesday, January 20, 2007.

Every once in a while, I'll hear from a reader who doesn't dispute a headline or take issue with a story. One of those came this week from Nancy who wanted me to reassure her that author Armistead Maupin did indeed work at The News and Courier some years ago. She had a steak dinner riding on the answer. She won.

Maupin, a native of North Carolina, came to The News and Courier in 1971 after serving as a Naval officer in Vietnam. He left here for San Francisco where he launched his career as an author. The rest is easy enough to read about on-line.

But as I thumbed through his old newspaper file, I came upon one column he wrote that was so delightful that I am going to include it here. I hope you enjoy it!

Last U.S. Sailor To Leave Cambodia Tells How With Soapsuds


THE LAST AMERICAN sailor to withdraw from Cambodia was naked.
To be perfectly honest, that wasn't the way he had planned to do it.
He'd planned to leave like John Wayne, grim-eyed and granite-jawed, in tattered fatigues and muddy jungle boots. He left, instead, in nothing more than a coat of soap suds.

This is the way it happened:

IN LATE JUNE, 1970, I was stationed on a little Navy boat moored in the Mekong River at President Nixon's 21.7-mile limit in Cambodia. The craft, with a crew of 13, was the last remnant of a "Brown Water" armada that had steamed up the river May 9 to chase communists out of the town of Neak Luong and thereby open Highway 1 between Phnom Penh and Saigon.Life, since that time, had been sluggish and uneventful. Excitement consisted of impromptu swim meets, the weekly arrival of the ice boat, and occasional treks into the village to swap C-rats for souvenir flags and sarongs. During our stay, we fired a total of three shots, all of them at George, a mascot dog which had suffered a seizure and was drowning in the river. The killing of George constituted our only massacre, our only grief. Then, one day, a radio message changed our lives inexorably. The command post down the river in Vietnam told us that our 50-foot, Marine green, shoebox-shaped "tango boat" was to become the last American Naval vessel to withdraw from Cambodia. Not many days later, on the eve of the President's withdrawal deadline, ABC correspondent Steve Bell boarded the boat and offered to make us "heroes on the 6 o'clock news".

WE ACCEPTED without hesitation because Mr. Bell had not overestimated the limits of our idealism. (He bribed us with two cases of beer.) We sensed, too, a kind of tragic grandeur about posing for what amounted to the first televised retreat in the history of warfare. To capture that grandeur, we "withdrew" from Cambodia twice. That is, we pulled away from the river bank twice, so that Mr. Bell and his cameraman could get the proper photographic perspective on our war-torn vessel.

As the cameras whirred, a dozen crew members pranced Patton-like about the deck, sporting remarkably well-laundered camoulflaged fatigues and festooned with grenades, jungle knives and enemy weapons. An hour before, they had been wearing nothing but chopped-off trousers.

One man could not participate in this stirring saga of the sea. Duty required him to remain below deck in the sweltering innards of the boat, manning the radio watch.

That was me, of course, and I was mad.

Imagine the frustration! My one, clear shot at glory had been crushed by the mundane demands of the Watch Bill. I fumed shamelessly. But not for long.We had been under way for less than half-an-hour when the boat in front of us -- the one bearing the television team and a public affairs officer from Delta headquarters -- radioed that she had taken a B-40 rocket over the bow. To complicate matters, the public affairs officer had been wounded by a sniper bullet which had passed, somewhat unceremoniously, through a beer can in his right hand. He received, someone later remarked, only minor schlitznel wounds.

OUR BOAT, less than a kilometer way, went to General Quarters, which involved little more than becoming officially nervous. There was nothing else we could do. In the heat of that moment, the idea came to me. It was so idiotically simple, so solidly foolproof, I marveled it had not occurred to me before. My chance for glory had not passed. I could yet become the "last American sailor to withdraw from Cambodia."

The last American sailor to withdraw from Cambodia would be the man who was standing on the fantail when the boat crossed the border into Vietnam.

I did a little jig around the radio, then settled down to map my strategy. The border was an hour away, plainly marked by a flagpole flying the Vietnamese colors. I would get off watch in 30 minutes, leaving plenty of time to position myself. The enemy had stopped shooting. The only problem was how to stand on the fantail for any length of time without attracting attention. I didn't relish getting caught in the act of self-glorification. The solution was to take a shower. There was a hose back aft, fed by water pumped directly from the river. At night, when sea snakes and treacherous currents made swimming impossible, it had served as our shower. Soon, it would serve a far nobler purpose. Ever so subtly, when the appointed time came, I took off my clothes and strolled back to the fantail. I turned on the water, soaped down, and sang a sea ditty, deliriously confident of victory. The flagpole was less than two minutes away! Then something catastrophic happened.

THE COMMANDER, the ranking officer on the boat, appeared out of nowhere and walked aft of me. He dawdled around the stern, and I knew with sickening certitude that he was trying to take my title from me. And he knew that I knew. And I knew that he knew that I knew. It was not a time for indecision.

Steeling myself for battle, I discarded the soap and strode purposefully to the anchor winch, a metal structure extending over the wake of the boat. Passing the commander, I proffered a crisp salute. In lieu of returning the pleasantry, he made an impolite remark about my ancestry. Undaunted, I mounted the winch cantlievering my naked body over the churning white water. My grip on the oily metal was perilously unsure. The commander, who by this time, had totally reverted to his native tongue (Anglo-Saxon), grabbed a nearby line and commenced to lower himself off the stern. He was not giving up easily. In fact, he seemed to be gaining on me.
I inched out further on the slippery steel, as bits of my life began to flash before my eyes. For one chilling moment, I thought I had lost my grip. I wondered, stoically, how the Red Cross would phrase the letter to my family. Then, as the flagpole slid abeam, I arched my back and flung my left leg in the direction of Cambodia, looking, for all the world, like a figurehead installed by a drunken shipfitter. The commander, tasting defeat, uttered a single monosyllabic and unprintable word. The rest, of course, is history.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Searching for Tony

Backstory for "The Night Listener"

From ABC News

Who is Anthony Godby Johnson? To many, he was a 14-year-old author with a heart-rending story: he was dying of advanced syphilis, AIDs, had his leg amputated, and had suffered 54 broken bones -- both at the hands of his biological parents, and others. The story that first aired on "20/20" in July 2006 now has fascinating new developments.

For more than a decade, Tony Johnson's story sparked the interest of a publishing company, a movie studio, and even this network. But was it a true tale? Does the boy even exist? Or, as some believe, was it all a hoax?

The story that captivated millions of readers and viewers across the country began in Union City, New Jersey. Tony lived, the story goes, in Union City with Vicki Johnson, a social worker who had adopted him.

She'd saved him from a harrowing life in New York City where he'd been abused and forced into prostitution by his biological parents.

The story was first told in Tony's inspirational autobiography, "A Rock and a Hard Place," an astonishingly impressive work for a 14-year-old. Published in 1993, the book had six paperback printings.

Eventually, the heartbreaking story attracted the eye of movie-makers. Ron Bernstein, an agent at the well-known talent agency International Creative Management, Inc., sold Tony's book to HBO.

"I said to HBO, 'don't do your usual cheap deal with me. This kid is dying! You gotta do it for the kid,'" said Bernstein. "[It] made people feel good about themselves. It was, 'I don't care how bad my life is, there's somebody whose life is much worse and they're not beaten down.'"

Bernstein says he was among those charmed over the phone by the boy. Tony spent hours talking with friends and supporters, including San Francisco writer Armistead Maupin.

"He would call just out of the blue and start talking to me," said Maupin.

Maupin says it didn't strike him as odd that he was developing a phone friendship with a 14-year-old boy.

"It struck me as wonderful. He was saying 'I love you' in the way that a kid says it to a parent or an adult that's really close to them," said Maupin. "It's a level of intimacy that was quite extraordinary, maybe even stronger because it was on the phone -- just a voice in the night talking to you who seems to understand you, to respect you, to need you."

Tony's increasingly dramatic story was part of a 1997 ABC special titled "About Us: The Dignity of Children." Hosted by Oprah Winfrey, the Emmy-nominated special about the resilience of children was watched by millions. Tony himself was played by an actor, but his own voice narrated his story.

Bernstein described Tony's voice as "very strangely androgynous."

Tony says in the show, "I was bought for an hour, sometimes two, or maybe for a whole night."

It was a story that easily sparked deep feelings and sympathy in people.

According to Maupin, Tony was on the phone, connecting with many people on a regular basis, including an ex-nun and a rabbi. Maupin says the rabbi came from Israel to see Tony and was turned away at the door.

Maupin says that each time he tried to arrange to meet Tony in person, Tony's adoptive mother Vicki would say the boy's fragile health prohibited visitors. Maupin had to settle for pictures of the boy, sent out by Tony and Vicki.

Bernstein says Vicki told him that Tony was nearing "death's door." "[He] was so fragile that he couldn't see anybody because their germs could kill him."

One of the first people to suggest a hoax was Terry Anderson, Armistead Maupin's former business partner and former boyfriend. "I've not met Tony Johnson, because there is no Tony Johnson to meet," said Anderson. Anderson also suggested a shocking possibility: the voice they'd all been speaking with sounded oddly feminine because, maybe, Tony's mother was playing both roles.

"For six years, my brain was divided down the middle," Maupin said. "There were days when I would talk to Tony and think, 'this is clearly a boy, why would I ever doubt this?' and other days when I would think, it's her [Vicki]."

But in those six years, Maupin says he never asked the crucial question: are you a fake?

"How do you do that? Do you say, 'excuse me, are you fake, are you really a 40-year-old woman?'", asked Maupin. He says if he had questioned Tony over the phone, he would have been doing the one thing that he says you're never supposed to do: doubt the story of an abused child.

Maupin turned his agonizing personal debate about the suffering boy into a novel, "The Night Listener."

One day, ICM agent Ron Bernstein received "The Night Listener" in the mail. Until then, he says he had not known that Maupin had a phone friendship with Tony. "I read it because Armistead is a client. I was so stunned. I called Armistead and I said, 'Are you sitting? I was the agent for that kid. I sold his book to HBO. I cannot believe you had the same experience that I did.'" Bernstein said he and Maupin talked for an hour, both aghast.

Bernstein admits he never questioned if anybody was lying. "I was talking to two voices, Tony and Vicki." But Bernstein says he began to have his own doubts when the $125,000 deal to turn Tony's book into an HBO movie collapsed because Vicki said Tony was too sick to let anyone from HBO meet him.

As time went on, Bernstein took note that a boy on the brink of death kept hanging on for years with a bushel of ailments.

Maupin agrees that he found the number of ailments a bit unbelievable, too. "It did get more and more melodramatic, and as it did, my doubts grew."

But if Tony doesn't exist, then who wrote "A Rock and a Hard Place"? Could it have been Vicki Johnson? Either the mastermind behind a huge hoax, or the embattled guardian of a sick boy's privacy -- depending on whom you believe -- Ms. Johnson graduated from a Union City high school in 1975. Her real name is Joanne Victoria Fraginals.

Years after Tony's book was published, she moved to Illinois and married a child psychologist, Marc Zackheim.

The Zackheims declined to speak with "20/20." But faxes sent last summer by Dr. Zackheim insisted that Tony's story was true and had already been proven. He accused Maupin of spreading lies for commercial gain.

And a few days ago, Vicki Johnson's lawyer sent ABC a new, 140-page response to our story. It included signed affidavits by the Zackheims and three other people swearing to have met Tony. However, none of these people would discuss Tony with us directly. Also, the lawyer asserted that medical and adoption records for Tony exist, but will not be provided to ABC because they are "privileged and confidential." Further, the response contends that claims that Tony does not exist are an attempt to promote the movie version of Armistead Maupin's novel, "The Night Listener." "The Night Listener" was released by Miramax, a sister company of ABC, Inc. Just yesterday, Ms. Johnson's attorney accused ABC News of "bias and disregard for the truth."

ABC received other letters in support of Tony in July, some from people also claiming to have met him. One letter said, "Tony exists" and "is a beautiful and deep soul."

Jack Godby, who wrote the introduction to Tony's book, told "20/20" he still keeps in touch with Tony by email and by phone, although he admits that after all these years, he's never met Tony in person.

Bernstein's response to the people who still believe in Tony? "There are still people that believe in the tooth fairy." What's most interesting, Bernstein says, is not that Vicki may or may not have been Tony, but that people wanted to believe that Tony exists.

The movie version of Maupin's "The Night Listener" was released in August and comes out on DVD this week. Robin Williams plays the character Maupin based on himself. Williams says he's known Maupin for 30 years. "He became obsessed with the idea of finding out who is this person."

Maupin added, "It was very difficult for me. I didn't stop thinking about it. I didn't stop speculating over it. I didn't have any proof, so all I could do was turn to fiction."

Maupin says the movie is a fictional reflection of the complicated emotions he felt after bonding with Tony and Vicki on the phone and never being allowed to meet the boy.

"I think maybe Tony was her [Vicki's] imaginary friend. He was certainly mine," said Maupin with a laugh.

When "20/20" first broadcast this story in July, a haunting question remained. If Tony never existed, then who is the boy in the photographs people received? Like Maupin, Terry Anderson struggled to conjure the true identity of that boy -- a boy they only knew as Tony. "Somebody out there in the world knows who that is," says Anderson.

Of the many millions of people who saw the original "20/20" broadcast and the special web link which asked, "Do you know this boy?," exactly three people came forward to tell ABC the real name of the boy featured in the photos.

His name is Steve Tarabokija, not Anthony Godby Johnson. And he is not a writer suffering from life-threatening maladies, but is instead a very healthy traffic engineer from New Jersey.

As one can imagine, Steve was surprised when he received a call from an ABC News producer telling him the details of the story. "It was shocking. It took a couple of days just to sink in," he told "20/20."

So how did childhood photos of Steve Tarabokija come to be misappropriated, allegedly by Vicki Johnson? One viewer who came forward to identify "Tony" as Steve was Cary Riecken. She was watching at home the night of the original "20/20" broadcast.

"I said, I know this child! This is Steve!," tells Riecken. Steve, along with Riecken's son, Hassan, were classmates together at the Sacred Heart grade school in North Bergen, New Jersey. The school has since closed. As it turns out, Vicki Johnson was Steve and Hassan's fourth grade teacher. It may have been that Vicki used the photos of her young pupil in order to put a necessary face on a story that so many people believed.

Recalling her memories of Vicki, Cary Riecken explained, "She loved taking pictures of the children all the time. Her role as a teacher was not just as a teacher. She was like a friend to them." Steve's memories are similar. "She was a very nice teacher, one of the nicest that I've had." Nice or not, Steve's mother Lisa is not amused. What would she say to the alleged hoaxer, Vicki Johnson? "How dare you use my son's pictures? How dare you?," she told "20/20." Ms. Johnson's lawyer did not respond to "20/20's" questions about Steve's photos.