BY GREG MARKLEY
I was a copyboy at the Providence Journal-Bulletin in Rhode Island from 1978 to 1981. Every December, quirky editors invited employees to participate in the “ghoul pool.” That was a competition to see who could predict the closest day to when the state had 100 traffic fatalities in that year. In the three years I worked there, ending when I went into the Army, 100 traffic fatalities were confirmed by the fall. (A Rhode Island transportation survey showed in 2022 that 67 traffic fatalities were recorded in 2021, so things are getting safer.)
In 1981, a soft-spoken sportswriter won for the third straight year. As usual, photos of him as a devil flooded the newsroom. But he won a lot of money for his accuracy. The “ghoul pool” was one method of people referring to death in an off-handed, casual way.
“You might know the film Deadpool, starring Ryan Reynolds, but you might not know that dead pool betting is a real thing,” according to Odds Ninja on the web. “The concept is to place a bet on which celebrity will be the next to kick the bucket. Tasteless? Bad karma? Or just plain fun? Dead Pool grew popular in motorsports where viewers would place bets on racers who might not make it.”
Another angle on death was shown when Thurman Munson, a star New York Yankees baseball catcher, was killed while practicing landings in his aircraft at Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio. He was 32 years old. I was still working at the Journal-Bulletin when that happened.
The tragedy was made worse by careless layout people. What happened: The front page had a side window that had the weather, lottery results, etc. The Munson story was below a headline that said, “Good Morning.” So it looked like the paper’s staff thought it was a “good” morning when they heard about the NY Yankees slugger’s demise over the skies. Tacky and disrespectful, that headline was circulated widely by other newspapers as an example of a terrible layout.
The two passengers that were being hosted by Munson both survived the accident, which occurred when the plane hit a tree stump and burst into flames. Flight instructor Dave Hall received burns on his arms and hands, and Munson’s friend Jerry Anderson received burns on his face, arm and neck.
“Munson, however, was in a more precarious position,” noted Tom Livingston of newsnet5.com, in August 2012. “Unable to move due to what was originally thought to be the wrecked fuselage of the plane pinning him against his seat, Munson was trapped. Munson died of asphyxiation due to the inhalation of superheated air and toxic substances. Later it was revealed that Munson had suffered a cervical fracture on impact which resulted in paralysis.”
Much like the “ghoul pool” of the newspaper where I was a copyboy in the late 1970s, print and broadcast media members do often try to predict the outcomes of elections. These journalists decide either after the actual trial or at the break when waiting for a verdict. The newsmen pay close attention to whether the prosecutors or the defense lawyers made the most sense in their arguments and presented the most believable evidence.
According to prominent Texas law firm Varghese Summersett, “Some predictors of a jury verdict believe short deliberations mean jurors have found the defendant guilty, while longer deliberations mean they are leaning towards acquittal. Despite these theories, trying to protect the length of jury deliberations is generally a futile effort.”
Another perverse delight for journalists or anybody a little off their rocker is to predict when a famous person, who is in death throes, will die. For instance, in late 1979 and early 1980, President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia was in and out of hospitals. So we were trying to divine from God, tea leaves and who knows what else when Tito would die.
Tito left this mortal coil in May 1980. Page designers and editors do not enjoy the long goodbye of a celebrity or leader because they will have to update their story with every development. When a political leader dies, a monsoon of photos of the person’s career quickly arrives across the wires and web.
When I was 14, my friend David and I went to the movie theater. We got there early since we were anxious to see a James Bond 007 movie, “Diamonds Are Forever.” We said, but not strongly enough to be heard by other movie-goers, “Hurry up and die, girl.” That was from “Love Story.” We wanted to see Sean Connery, not Ryan O’Neal. Just eight years later, I would be following the number of traffic deaths to do well in the “ghoul pool.” But the sportswriter Art beat all of us out. What was his secret?
Greg Markley moved to Lee County in 1996. He has a master’s in education from AUM and a master’s in history from Auburn University. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.
An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to The Observer since 2011. He writes on politics, education and books. firstname.lastname@example.org.