CHARLES Kuralt was a real reporter once. He covered Los Angeles, Latin America, Vietnam.
He thought he'd like to wander around America writing some feature stories instead. His boss said ``no.'' He waited. A new boss said, ``Give it a try. Three months.''
That was 18 years ago, and Charles Kuralt, in his own words, ``has not had an assignment from that day to this.''
``My [CBS] bosses, preoccupied with coverage of politics, wars, and calamities, don't even know where I am,'' he says. ``They don't care where I am.''
Mr. Kuralt might be called an antidote for politics, wars, and calamities. He writes the stories that make you lift your head from your supper soup, regain your wits after a barrage of stories on ICBMs, budget deficits, and abortion legislation -- and more often than not, smile. A turkey trot in Cuero, Texas; worm grunting in Sopchoppy, Fla.; a bubble-gum connoisseur in Oakland, Calif. -- all are stories from the Kuralt grab bag.
For those who don't know (and there are fewer of those than one might think), Kuralt is somewhere on the back roads of America in a 28-foot motor home with a soundman and a cameraman. They are searching out stories completely devoid of ``relevance'' and ``significance,'' such as the way a bird dog collects cockleburs during the fall hunting season or a singing mailman in Magoffin, Ky., or the first parking meter in Lookingglass, Ore.
Since the world speeded up, Kuralt is going slow for the rest of us, then telling us about it -- at his peak about 50 times a year in three-minute segments on the nightly ``CBS Evening News.'' He says that, relying on intuition for his ideas, along with letters from viewers, he travels only the back roads, taking time to meet people and listen to yarns.
Kuralt recently had to leave the back roads and hit the main roads because a new compilation of his stories in book form, ``On the Road with Charles Kuralt'' (Putnam, $16.95), surprised everyone, including him, by hitting the New York Times best-seller list. Critics liked the book, as well, except for the fact that the stories, written for visual accompaniment, don't come off as well in a book as they do on TV.
But surprised and delighted at the book's success, Kuralt has made the rounds of newspaper columnists and talk shows. It has been a chance to display his own gift for gab and the affable presence that has gentled hundreds of down-home folk and made them feel comfortable enough to tell their stories in front of a rolling camera.
``They're not important at all,'' he says of his stories from his corner office here at CBS headquarters on West 47th Street. He undercuts the inquiring reporter who wants to know what all this ``insignificance'' adds up to. ``They're just a bunch of yarns, nothing more.''
Some yarns! There's the story on Gordon Bushnell, who, after waiting 25 years for Minnesota to build a road from Duluth, Minn., to Fargo, N.D., took a shovel and wheelbarrow and began to build it himself. ``When we met him, he had worked on it for more than 20 years, winter and summer,'' says Kuralt. ``He had finished nine miles. He had 191 to go.''
There's the story of Francis Johnson, who began saving twine years ago and now has a single ball the size of a small house. ``Let this be a warning to compulsive string savers,'' Kuralt says. ``This is where it all can lead.'' And there's the story of Robert P. McCullough, who bought London Bridge and began moving it to Lake Havasu City, Ariz., piece by piece.
But if many of Kuralt's stories are testaments to quirky individuality, just as many are testimonials to the American spirit. Though he wanders far from the mainstream of human events, he manages to uncover the universal in the particular, often speaking to everyman by telling about one man.
The most moving story he ever filmed, he says, was the 50th wedding anniversary of Mississippians Gloria and Norman Chandler, whose nine children came home for the occasion. All nine had grown up in a one-room cabin with nothing to wear and nothing to eat. After making ends meet by digging potatoes, picking cotton, pulling corn and stripping millet, all nine are now college graduates. ``[Cameraman] Izzy's eyes were so filled with tears he could barely run the camera,'' Kuralt recalls.
Whether Kuralt is oblivious to the significance of his own work or just displaying a characteristic modesty, there are hosts of his colleagues who disagree with his self-assessment. ``Charles Kuralt is as good a journalist as we have and maybe the best,'' says columnist Tom Wicker of the New York Times.
``To go on the road with Charles Kuralt is to go with humor, understanding, and affection to see and hear and feel America,'' says PBS news broadcaster Jim Lehrer. ``It's good for the soul.''
``[He] casts just about the easiest, knowingest glance into little-known corners of our land,'' says author Studs Terkel. ``Through his sense of knowing, we discover how infinite is the diversity of our people.''
Although Kuralt stays on the road five days a week, he keeps one foot in the ``real world'' by returning to New York City each weekend to host CBS's ``Sunday Morning.'' The crew of three (which includes cameraman Izzy Bleckman and soundman Larry Gianneschi Jr.) leaves the van in whatever state it happens to be and returns to it the following Monday.
In New York, Kuralt has also anchored the ``CBS Morning News'' and a couple of evening newsmagazines, but he says, ``It never worked out. People take one look at me on their television sets and know I'm not an anchor man.''
After methodically combing every region of every state more than once over nearly two decades, Kuralt voices his observations on how America has changed in all those years. He is highly optimistic.
``I think America's a fairer and more humane place than it was 18 years ago,'' he says. Asked to list some areas of change, he quickly ticks off the environment, the women's movement, civil rights, consumerism, the end of the Vietnam war, and opposition to nuclear weapons.
``When we started in 1967, it was the year before Martin Luther King was killed, and everything was in chaos, and cities were burning. It seems to me, especially as a Southerner myself [born and raised in Wilmington, N.C.], that the country has come a long way, in a blink of an eye, historically, toward geniune racial justice. We are not there yet, of course, but you can't help but notice the profound changes, especially in the South.''
Perhaps the greatest gains have been made in environmental awareness, he says. ``We didn't know the meaning of the word ecology. Now every third-grader is a little environmentalist familiar with the idea that the earth is a spaceship with a limited supply of fuel, food, and water and a growing passenger list. They believe in not paving every meadow or polluting every river.''
Americans are far better versed on the issues, he says, even in outlying districts. ``There's no such thing as a hick anymore. If you ask him how the corn is doing, he'll answer with some smart remark he got out of an Art Buchwald column or something like that.'' The proliferation of magazines and television is the culprit. ``There are little tiny, remote towns that have more cable channels than we have in New York. People can sit and watch the Congress in C-SPAN.''
Kuralt's keenly developed eyes from the back roads tell him it ``still doesn't matter much what administration is in Washington. When town meetings in Vermont start discussing the issue, you know that pretty soon it really will become more of a public demand that we do something as a nation.''
There's one thing that really gets his goat: ``The observation that America is becoming homogenized is a superficial one, made by people that go too fast.'' He says there's still a vast difference between a North and South Dakotan accent, and that people in Oklahoma are far different from those in Kansas; New Hampshire people from those in Maine. ``More than speech, it's attitude.''
``If you go get off the major highways and go slowly and do pause and force yourself to go into this caf'e for lunch instead of taking the easy way out and stopping at the McDonald's drive-in counter, you really do meet people and see the diversity,'' he says.
And it is about the mosaic of America that Kuralt makes what is his most poignant observation of all: ``America is so rich and varied that anything you say about it is true,'' he says. ``It is true that if you work hard enough, you can make it. And it's also not true.''
One more thing. If Charles Kuralt goes to cover something and some other reporter or cameraman is there, he avoids the story as a media event. ``If I happen upon a real news story out there on the road,'' he says, ``I call some real reporter to come cover it.''