1977: The Summer Of Sam
Fear, A Blackout & A Campaign
A Personal Perspective
By David Oats
The Trib taps into “Son of Sam” hysteria.
The summer of 1977, 30 years ago, had some memorable moments both for the city and here at the Trib. David Berkowitz held a city paralyzed in fear, as the police seemed unable to solve the “Son Of Sam” murders in Forest Hills or to find any leads on who the murderer might have been.
This past year Queens went through a blackout that brought back some vivid memories of the total citywide outage of 1977 that happened during the “Summer of Sam.” I had fond memories of New York’s first great Blackout in November 1965. It was a frighteningly beautiful night for the city – full of the same grace in crisis spirit we saw in 2003 and again last year.
But the 1977 Blackout was a very different story. At the Tribune we were in a dual-mode. At that time we were not only attempting to put the paper out, but also much of the staff was happily moonlighting on another task – getting the Trib’s founder and publisher Gary Ackerman elected to public office. He was running for the first time – for a now-discontinued position of Councilman-at-Large. This was a major, boroughwide elective post (later ruled unconstitutional by the courts – another story). It was an energetic, grassroots, exciting campaign in which the paper was very much a vehicle.
After a day of work at the paper I went out with one of my reporters/campaign workers for relaxation at Bacciagulup’s Restaurant on Main Street in Flushing to talk about the campaign and also the Trib’s coverage of the Son of Sam case that was terrorizing Queens and the city in a time later to be known as “The Summer of Sam.”
At about 9:30 p.m. on that July 13th night, the lights flickered in the restaurant, and then went dark. As any newspaper pro knows, “at first it’s all very local to you” – until Larry Reich and I went out the doors and saw it wasn’t confined to Bacciagulup’s. All of Main Street was dark and transistor radios were able to break the news that, once again, all of New York – and beyond – was out.
I remember it was only a few minutes before we also realized that this was not going to be another placid New York night as in 1965. We watched as within seconds, the plate glass windows of a fashionable men’s clothing store on the corner of Main & Kissena were shattered and looters were pulling everything from the store. Then, minutes later, the sounds of shattered glass were heard at the large appliance store across the street. And on, and on. Frustrated by not having any cameras with us we walked the darkened streets back to the blackened Trib storefront where we attempted to coordinate some kind of coverage of that dark night.
It was a very hot and humid night (no moonlight as in ‘65) and the city was already paralyzed in fear by the mysterious, bloody rampage of the Son of Sam. In fact it’s said that many actually believed he, whoever he was, caused the blackout. In the end the early scenes we saw in Flushing were repeated – in huge scale – all around the tense city. All the lights were not turned on until about 10:30 the next night. But there had been 3,400 arrests, 558 cops injured, 851 fires and $1 billion dollars in damage. A nightmarish night that makes our most recent two-day blackout of ‘03 stand as a model of civic pride.
The Trib coverage continues despite a lack of power.
But in the early light of the next morning (still without electricity) Gary, myself and some other staffers were trying to make the best of our time to come up with ways to get an original story out of this – and get Gary in the news. In a flash, so to speak, it came. They were saying a lightning bolt hit the big Con Ed plant up in Westchester, causing the blackout. Paul O’Dwyer, then the City Council President, doubted this scenario and saw it as a big Con Ed cop-out for other major failures. So we decided to drive to the plant upstate. Gary went to a local store and, when everyone else was searching for batteries, flashlights, etc., he was looking for a kite.
The idea was to get into the facility and have Gary fly the kite, á la Ben Franklin’s famed lightning experiment, and tell Con Ed to “go Fly a Kite!” with their blackout excuse.
Needless to say some incredulous guards turned us away, but we got the shot of Gary, the kite and the plant in the background and our “Ackerman to Con Ed: Go Fly A Kite” headline on the next Tribune front page. To think, from this, future great newspapers and Congressmen are born.
Fresh from our victorious journalistic-political coup upstate, we returned late afternoon to a still powerless Queens. We decided to pick up a few other reporter-campaign volunteers to ride around the borough with Gary in his old red, white and blue van which was our rolling campaign headquarters. We stopped to pick up one of our people at his home in Fresh Meadows to join our boroughwide jaunt.
Now this was a quiet, residential, one-family home street on a day where everyone is trapped at home and there is really no sound or activity. Except for the red, white and blue “Acker-Van,” as we called it – blaring John Philip Sousa marching music from a loudspeaker on top and a huge car-top sign for ACKERMAN AT LARGE.
As we pull up, some young children playing in the street are fascinated by the arrival of this blackout day diversion. The circus had come to town! Residents were looking out their windows at the unusual scene as we waited to pick up our worker. Then, Gary decides it’s hot – we ought to all be wearing the Ackerman t-shirts we had just made up. So Gary gets out of the van, and proceeds to take his shirt off to change into the t-shirt.
The little kids stared in wonderment at this large man from the red, white and blue truck – loudly blaring Sousa marching music – apparently undressing in the street. The bemused residents are also watching from their windows. In the middle of a blackout afternoon! And then, quite unexpectedly, Gary raises his arms to put on the shirt – and his pants fall down!
Quickly pulling them back up, Gary smiles and waves at the kiddies and neighbors, and we all pile back in the van which in music and signs loudly proclaims to anyone within seeing and hearing distance. – ACKERMAN AT LARGE!
Needless to say, Gary lost that election. The position was later abolished. But the fact that Gary was wearing an extra large pair of boxer shorts that day, may have saved the whole political and newspaper history of Ackerman and the Trib from ending on that blackout day with a case of public lewdness. In fact, Gary went on the next year to become elected to the State Senate and, eventually, the hallowed halls of the U.S. Congress. And the Trib went on to reach a ripe maturity.
As the old cliché goes – Only in America.