Monthly Archives: July 2010

Another Tale from A Reporter’s (and Editor’s) Notebook

Now Playing: Let’s Stay Together, by the great Al Green. “Let’s – let’s stay together, loving you whether, times are good or bad or happy or sad.”

I mentioned once to a friend on Facebook that I’ve lived a weird and wonderful life (and hopefully still have a lot left in me). Sometimes it seems like it’s out of a song.

This tale, as many of the previous ones have, stems from my days in Jacksonville, working for The Daily News. The newspaper, and being a reporter/editor, really has little to do with the main part of the story, other than explaining why I lived there in the first place.

Not that I didn’t love Jacksonville. That’s right. It was a great place to cut your teeth on newspaper work. Because Camp Lejeune was there, there was more to the city than most many Eastern North Carolina towns. And what there was was pretty straightforward (as opposed to Wilmington, which I never really embraced – it just seemed kinda snooty to me). Jacksonville wasn’t perfect, and it knew it, but it was fun.

Shortly after I started at The Daily News, I got the story of a lifetime, covering the court-martial of Pfc. Robert Garwood, a Marine from Indiana who got captured by the North Vietnamese and was accused of turning against his fellow servicemen. Did he? That’s a good question. I heard a lot of the testimony before being moved into an editor’s position at the paper, and I was never 100% sure about him, one way or another. I knew it was a lot to expect of an uneducated and unsophisticated 19-year-old to remain perfectly loyal in that situation. Anyway, I met a lot of good reporters from around the state at the court-martial, and I held my own with them. Sometimes more than that. Another aside: One of the reasons I’ve always looked at CNN skeptically came after being around some of their folks then.

There was always something interesting going on in J-ville because of the base and beach. There was never a serious hurricane during the time I was there, but there was a different kind of storm – Desert Storm, the first Gulf War. That was the simple one – I still remember the night the first bombers struck Baghdad. I found out when I got home from coaching my youth basketball team’s practice that week.

Once the ground war started, we did our best covering the home front, and I think we did a pretty solid job at it. On the day it ended, I had perhaps my finest moment as a journalist. I wrote, if I say so myself, a damn good headline to cap off the war: Victory, By George. (It had come to me in the shower that day, not unlike a modern-day Archimedes.)

Anyway, near the end of our time in Jacksonville, Karen and I moved into an apartment complex near the paper. Which brings me to the point of this tale.

Our immediate neighbors were a young enlisted Marine, Leon, and his wife, Nydia. (Like Lydia, only with an N.) They were from California. We didn’t see a lot of Leon – he was busy training a lot of the time. But we became friends with Nydia, and with their animals, a dog named Woofer and a cat named Meowser. And I swear I’m not making that up, nor am I inventing what comes next.

One day we were talking with Nydia, who’d moved to North Carolina in a hurry when Leon got assigned to Lejeune. She was trying to decide what kind of work she wanted to do. She’d graduated high school and started college but had to quit when she moved. We suggested a few things and some folks we knew who could possibly help her. Then, as adults often do, we got around to asking her what kind of work she was interested in.

“I really want to be a hairdresser,” Nydia offered. “That’s what I was studying in school when I had to leave.”

I almost choked, and I couldn’t look at Karen because I knew if I did we’d both break out laughing.

We’d moved in next to a Beauty School Dropout.

Like I said, my life is like a song – sometimes one from a musical. (And don’t think that’s the only one. There’s a West Side Story story dying to be told one of these days.)

We left J-ville not too long after that. We never did know what Nydia decided to do, or whether she ever passed shampoo. I sure hope she found something that she liked doing.

As for Karen and I, we ended up in Gastonia – the poster city for Weird and (sometimes) Wonderful. But again, that’s a story – or two or three – for another day. But I’ll give you a hint – there’s lettuce in it, even though we were past our salad days.

Shalom. Going to the beach next week and not sure how often I’ll post, if at all.

“Beauty school dropout,
No graduation day for you.
Beauty school dropout,
Missed your midterms and flunked shampoo!”



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The Spice of Life, or Penzeys for Your Thoughts

Now Playing: Breakdown, by Tom Petty. “It’s all right if you love me. It’s all right if you don’t. I’m not afraid of you running away, honey, I get the feeling you won’t.” My all-time favorite Tom Petty song, and it ain’t even close.

We sometimes get spices from a mail-order company in Wisconsin named Penzeys. We got started with them because they had all kinds of Indian spices, but they also have different cinnamons and blends and other stuff.

Plus they have a wonderful magazine/catalogue. It’s chock full of little mini-stories and recipes and tidbits among all the listings and wonderful descriptions of the products. Check out this description of it’s Ceylon Cinnamon – complex and fragrant, with a citrus overtone and a rich buff color. Hey, I’m in.

But with its most recent catalog, I found another reason to love this company.

It has to do with its latest spice, Arizona Dreaming.

When I first saw the photo on the cover, my immediate thought was, “Who’d be dreaming of Arizona?” The state’s new immigration law suggests all the innate snootiness and meanness of a gated community. “Hey, over there. Get out, you don’t belong here.”

“What were they thinking?” Plenty, as it turns out. Inside the catalog, on the first righthand page, is a most eloquent letter from company owner Bill Penzey. Who, as it turns out, abhors the new law and the bigotry it feeds.

“Are we really going to leave unchecked the companies whose reckless pursuit of billions have so damaged our economy and our environment, and instead let our frustrations be redirected at the people who have spent their lives doing our unwanted jobs for dollars an hour? In our need to restore our sense of self-control, are we actually going to reward politicians who are not working to bring us together, but instead are forsaking American’s beautiful 234-year history of diversity? These are decent people’s lives, real loving families where children will be separated from parents, where grandparents will be separated from grandchildren for what possible gain.”

Prompted by his 6-year-old daughter, he’s seeking to bring people together by spreading happy feelings. Again, I’ll let his eloquence speak: “Each day in the kitchens of he homes across Arizona, we know for a fact there are millions of acts of kindness, and these acts revolve around the flavors of Mexico more than influences from anywhere else.” Arizona Dreaming, he says, is a blend of “flavors that originally came from south of the border, but are now a part of who we all are, combined in a way the people of Arizona love to use them.”

This is a business owner here, folks, who is risking alienating the customers he needs to take a stand for his beliefs and plead for tolerance. I can’t tell you how much I respect the guy.

And I can’t wait to try Arizona Dreaming, while dreaming that we all can look past racial, cultural and other differences to become that “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” that we used to pledge allegiance to in school.

And throw in some of that Ceylon Cinnamon, too. I’m all about being buff.


“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”
_ John F. Kennedy

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End Users Rule or End Users’ Rule?

Now Playing: Hello Again, by The Cars. “You might have forgot the journey ends. You tied your knots, and you made your friends. You left the scene without a trace, One hand on the ground, one hand in space.”

A couple of interesting experiences yesterday, one in person – or at least, over the phone – and one watching my new favorite TV show. Both concerned end users, and how products can and should be tailored to them.

First, the phoner. It came during a job interview. Won’t mention the job or the company, but it involves some writing for the Internet. Most of my writing has been for magazines, newspapers, etc., so I was explaining how those talents might translate. During the course of the interview, I talked about the Economic Development Guide, published by my former employer, Business North Carolina magazine. Last year we revamped content and circulation of the EDG. The key element, and what was of interest to the interviewer, was how we went about it.

I explained to him that I had contacts at the state’s Economic Development Partnerships who gave me the names of site-selection professionals they worked with. Those site-selection professions are, I believe, the end-users of the EDG, so I made some cold calls and asked what they thought should be in the guide and who they thought should get it. From their input, we put together a strategy to concentrate on case studies of businesses who had relocated or expanded in North Carolina, focusing on the challenges they faced and how recruiters overcame them. The site-selection folks said that would be interesting to other companies thinking about making a move. We also decided to partner with Site Selection magazine, the Bible of economic developers, on distribution.

The interviewer was impressed that I used establish contacts to solicit cold-call prospects and get to the ultimate end-users of the magazine to give them what they wanted. I felt great about that, of course. End users rule.

That feeling lasted until about 10 p.m., when I watched Work of Art, the Bravo series about competing artists. It has become my new favorite show, not because I know so much about art as because I don’t. I love seeing these folks and their creative processes, which makes me think about my own.

Which brings me back to end users.

During the course of last night’s show, some of the artists got sidetracked by trying to figure out what others – judges and the public – wanted their art to be. Guest judge Will Cotton chastised them, roughly like this: “Art shouldn’t be about the end user; it should be about you, and how you perceive/interpret the subject.”

End Users’ Rule? Wow! Talk about turning my beliefs upside down in seven hours.

Or not. There probably is a place for both approaches. True art should be uncompromising. I wrote here once that sometimes I write for others and sometimes I write for myself. Truth is, I always write these blog entries for myself. They work best when there’s just something bursting to come out. Whether it’s the lesson of joy in small things, such as convenience-store food on holidays, or outrage at bigger things such as finding a moral oil company or a politician in the Carolinas who doesn’t act like a dimwit at least part of the time.

Professionally, you can’t just set out to end all the users’ wants. There is, for one, always the client. Who ultimately makes the final decision on your work. And the clients’ customers. Who have to be pleased, too.

But you can’t just give people what they want: You have to give them what they need (to paraphrase Bob Dylan). Even if they sometimes  don’t know they need it.

There’s an art to that, too.

A coda: Got shot down on the job interview. But gained a better understanding of myself. And of what the box is. And why I want to stay outside it. As far as I’m concerned, I won this one by losing.

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More Tales From a Reporter’s (and Editor’s) Notebook and Another Holiday Meal from the Convenience Store

Now Playing: The Reaper, by Blue Oyster Cult. “All our times have come, Here but now they’re gone, Seasons don’t fear the reaper, Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain..we can be like they are. Come on baby…don’t fear the reaper.”

This one was inspired by my friend Barry Bridges, who works at the Gaston Gazette and commented on Facebook yesterday that he’d never learned his lesson about eating convenience store hot dogs. To me, there’s no lesson to learn. Only a memory of a Christmas gone by …

I had a helluvalotta fun working at newspapers. Except for the holidays. Someone, usually three or four of us in the newsroom, always had to work the day before and the day of and the day after. Everyone was called in for holiday duty at some point.

This particular Christmas day, my friend and boss Elliott and I were taking our turns, along with a handful of others in sports and the composing and press rooms.

It didn’t work too badly for me. I was single at the time. My Mom and Dad always did the gift exchange on Christmas Eve. When I was growing up, we’d eat a big meal, then wait for my pokey sister to finish eating (We eventually started telling her to start about a half hour before the rest of us) before settling down in the living room to open presents. The next day Santa would come with a box of fruit, candy and nuts and a few more gifts. Then we’d hit the car and drive over to my grandmother’s (my dad’s mom), whom I was never too fond of. It meant we never got to play with Santa stuff until we got back, which was usually longer than I wanted it to be.

Anyway, Santa had long since stopped coming by this particular Christmas. I’d given and gotten my gifts the night before, and after a quick bite, had packed the car up for the trip back to Jacksonville. If I remember correctly, it had snowed that particular week and there was still some on the ground, if not the roads.

Elliott hadn’t had as far to come, just from Pikeville (near Goldsboro), but we started splitting up the duties and getting on with the business of putting out a newspaper. I always enjoyed that part of it. And that day-after-Christmas paper wasn’t too big of a struggle anyway. The folks who weren’t working had done a bunch of advance pages and we just had to finish up.

Problem was, we got hungry, and neither of us had brought anything to eat. Neither of us had been home for a couple of days, either, so the chances of something being available in a hurry weren’t great.

So we decided to look to see if anything was open.

Bad idea. We were, of course, in the South. Even if anything normally had been open Christmas Day, there was snow on the ground, so it would never would have been open. We finally decided to stop at a Scotchman near the paper to see if there was anything edible on the shelves.

But we got lucky. There was a hot dog machine in the convenience store. And rolling around on the cooker was a hot dog and a sausage dog, which meant we’d eat that night. Except we dropped them on the floor. In Jacksonville. In a store. On a day when the ground was wet.

We ate  them anyway, along with some chips and a soda. And you know what? They were delicious, ’cause they were what we had. Nothing says, Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men like a convenience store dog.

Now for Another Holiday Meal from the Convenience Store:

Several years later, I was back at a convenience store on a holiday, this time a Seven-Eleven in my hometown of South Boston, Va. OK, my actual hometown was Cluster Springs, but SoBo was the nearest “big” city.

It was Thanksgiving 1992, and it was the second time I’d taken Karen to South Boston, though we’d been living together for several weeks. The first time we went, my Mom insisted we stay in separate rooms. It was a lot for her to digest, so we played along.

But I wasn’t ready to play this time.

We got there just in time for Thanksgiving lunch, with my mom and sister and brother and their families. The amount of food was, as always unbelievable, yet, as always, my Mom worried that she hadn’t cooked butterbeans. We ate and talked and ate some more before retiring to the den for football. After awhile, my Mom suggested we bring our bags in and told us which rooms to use.

I didn’t blink an eye. “Mom,” I said, “I know you’re not comfortable with us sleeping in the same room here, but we want to be together. We’re going to town to stay in a hotel. We’ll come back by tomorrow and see you before we leave town.” She protested and even relented on the sleeping arrangements.

But to me, it really wasn’t even about that. (OK, it was about that, but there was a larger issue.) Although I was the youngest of her children, I was ready to stop being the baby. By this time, I was around my mom so infrequently that I usually let her have her way. And I really did respect her. But this time I put my foot down.

Karen and I got a hotel room that night, and we felt good about it. Except (against the odds, after all the lunch we’d eaten) we got hungry. And tried in vain to find something to eat. Finally, we found the Seven-Eleven along U.S. 58 going toward Danville. With luck, it was open. They had some of those sandwiches in plastic bags. And chips. And soda.

That was our second Thanksgiving feast of the day. And we enjoyed it.

After that, there was never any question about where we’d stay or whether we’d be together. The next Thanksgiving day weekend, we got married.

But that’s a tale for another time.

“Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.”
_ Dave Barry

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Scenes from the DMV

Now Playing: Seems Like a Long Time, by Rod Stewart. “War time is only the other side of peace time, But if you’ve ever seen how wars are won, You know what it’s like to wish peace would come, And don’t it seem like a long, Seem like a long time, seem like a long, long time.”

Of course Rod probably didn’t spend many mornings in the DMV. Or he’d know what a long time really seems like.

We tried to warn Austin about the DMV. But I’m not sure he was ready for the experience. Here’s part of what happened:

We got there about 8:15 or so, and walked up to the desk behind only two people. Cake, I thought. The wait won’t be bad. Wrong. As the clerk was waiting on the woman in front of us, a New Jersey-ite who needed a North Carolina license, I peeked into the waiting room. SRO city.

Austin found a metal chair, I sat on the floor beside him. (He wasn’t being rude, I preferred the floor, or standing, to an extended stay in a metal chair). We had ticket B316. They were on B303. Which seemed pretty good. Except that in between all the B-tickets, they waited on lots of C, D, F and A tickets. Especially A tickets.

Sitting across from us were a brunette and blonde, noticeable mainly because they talked continuously. Especially the brunette. Especially the brunette (emphasis intentional). They must have talked for about an hour until the blonde’s ticket was called. I think she was an A.

Good, I thought. A little peace. But then this guy, who looked to be about 40 or so, struck up a conversation with her. He was wearing an orange alligator shirt, khaki shorts and cordovan loafers with no socks. No kidding. He looked like a ’70s-era fratty bagger. The kind I hated at Carolina. Anyway, he gets Bruney going again, and she doesn’t come up for air. Finally, he asks her to save his seat while he goes to the car to get his iPad. Which he doesn’t even turn on. Or open. He just carried it with him. But then a teenage punk took the seat between them. More on him later.

Sitting beside Austin, a seat over, was this mom who managed to take up more than her share of seats with all the crap she’d brought to the office (and keep in mind, seats were at a premium). Her own daughter had to sit across the room from her. In addition, she got up  four times, climbing over Austin each time, to go to the bathroom, her car and to the trashcan. Why the trashcan? Because first she did her bills. Then she made a handwritten spreadsheet of them. Then she cleaned out her purse. Then she cleaned out a bag she’d brought along. (And to be fair, she offered to clear one of the chairs she’d taken so I could sit beside Austin. I couldn’t accept, the space was too tight and I can’t stand having things close in on me.) More on her later, too.

At one point when Bruney was talking, a woman came in with her husband and daughter. The woman clutched a towel to her face the whole time. I’m not sure if she was worried about getting germs or spreading them. But I didn’t feel too comfortable about it.

In front of us was a woman, whose dangly wide gold bands nearly covered the tattoos on her wrist. Nearly. She had a voice like a trucker. Except raspier. She was there with her two daughters, one with a nose piercing and the other with one of those WWJD bracelets. She kept telling them, “I mowed the grass and now I have green feet.” At least four times.

Then there was the couple that came in. They were very pale, wearing jeans. He had one of those curly oily perms. They were quiet, seemed nice enough, but he’d obviously forgotten something he needed. No problem, they had plenty of time for a friend to bring it. About 10 minutes later, the friend showed up. With rolled up jeans and bare feet.

Back to the punk, about 18 or 19, sitting between Bruney and the fratty-bagger. His first words were to ask his brother, “Can you go get me some dip?” And he wasn’t talking Helluva Good french onion, either. Then he started talking to Bruney and the fratty-bagger about why he was there. Turns out he’d just gotten a ticket for driving without having his license with him. He explained he was innocent. They night before he’d gotten the ticket he’d been pulled by a state trooper. At 2:30 or 3 in the morning. The trooper searched his car. And kicked his wallet out of it during the search. The next day, he’d stopped to check on a friend who’d had an accident and the cop there asked to see his license. Which he, of course, didn’t have since he didn’t have his wallet. Bruney and the fratty-bagger quit talking then.

We finally got called back. That’s when we ran into the crazy mom with all the trash. Turns out we hadn’t even seen crazy yet. Her daughter, who seemed fairly normal, passed the various tests. The examiner, who looked like Arwen, the janitor on The Suite Life of Zach and Cody, only shorter, brought her to the station where they took photos for the licenses. Crazy Mom was just getting started. She took out a camera, too. She wanted a photo of the examiner and Normal Daughter, who took this a lot better than I would have. Arwen went along with it as well.

Which meant that the most normal person we encountered during our more-than-three-hour ordeal was Jersey Woman. Who was just pissed to be there.

If that ain’t normal, I don’t know what is.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” _ Carl Sagan

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Time for Change, or Good Times, Bad Times Part 2

Now Playing: Yesterday Girl, by The Smithereens, a very underrated band. “I never think about the future, I just live for today. And if you want an easy answer, I’ve got nothing to say.”

Another time travel discussion. A few weeks ago, in Part 1, I discussed my lifelong obsession with time travel, as portrayed in popular media.

My first experience with the notion of time travel was in comic books, where it was governed by an indisputable rule. The past can’t be changed. Ever.

So that brings me to television. To my knowledge, there have been two major time-travel shows. (And I’m discounting the Terminator series here – I’ll address it with the movies in a later blog). I loved The Time Tunnel, in which two scientists are caught in a time machine that propels them into the past and future. It sticks with the basic tenet that history can’t be changed. So even though they were aboard the Titanic, they couldn’t change its fate, and so on.

Quantum Leap took a bit different path. I liked the show, because I like Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, but they messed a bit with my time-travel stance. Sam (Backula’s character) put things right during his travels, meaning he did change history. Usually, they were small changes designed to help individuals. But in at least one episode, he made a big change in history. It allowed Jackie Kennedy to survive the assassination of her husband. That’s a bit iffy to me.

But my all-time favorite television time-travel episode was the classic Star Trek “City on the Edge of Forever.”

Here’s what happened: Dr. McCoy accidentally injects himself with a megadose of a wonder drug that causes him to become extremely paranoid – I know, it was a pretty short trip. Anyway, he escapes Enterprise security (as almost everyone does) and beams himself down to a planet at the center of a time disturbance. Kirk, Spock and a bunch of others transport down, find him but then watch as he breaks away and jumps through a time portal.

They’re horrified enough at that, and then they discover that he has changed the past to the point where the Enterprise no longer exists, leaving them stuck on this desolate planet.

As you might guess, Kirk and Spock find a way to travel through the portal, too, where they hope to stop McCoy from changing the past.

They find, in perhaps the most ironic piece of casting ever on television, Joan Collins running a 1930s soup kitchen in New York City. (And I must say that she’s actually fantastic in the part of Edith Keeler.) Anyway, she turns out to be a focal point in history. She’s due to die in a few days in a traffic accident in the original timeline. If she doesn’t, she goes on to be the key figure in a peace movement that delays the U.S. entry into World War II, which allows the Nazis to develop the A-bomb first and take over the world. (This is a pretty big leap of faith. No one could have stopped the U.S. from declaring war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.)

And did I mention that, while Kirk and Spock discover all this, that the Captain falls in love with her. Not much of a surprise. He’s a pretty big horndog and pretty much fell in love with every guest star. Or they fell in love with him, only to be discarded after he’d solved that week’s crisis. (Which is a better fate than marrying a Cartwright. Certain death warrant there.)

Anyway, McCoy shows up, meets Edith Keeler and, with her help, gets over his paranoia (at least for that episode) and eventually runs into Kirk and Spock. She starts crossing the street to find out how in the heck they know one another – without noticing the big truck barreling down on her.

With a history-be-damned outlook, Kirk starts to save her, but is warned off by Spock. The chastened Kirk then stops McCoy from saving her.

And poof, history is preserved. Everybody lives happily ever after. Except Edith Keeler.

But at least for a bit, history is changed. Which is kind of distressing.

Or is it?

Edith wouldn’t have been crossing that street if the three Trekkers hadn’t come back in time. So there’d have been nothing to save her from. So the Nazis would have won the war. Since she died in the original timeline, it was only because the Trekkers came back in the first place.

Which means history wasn’t ever changed in the episode. It was only preserved. As I said in the earlier entry, “The past is for observing, learning from, but it can never be changed.” (How cool is it to quote yourself? As long as you don’t misquote yourself, that is.)

See how fascinating time travel is.

“Our heirs … will explore space and time to degrees we cannot currently fathom. They will create new melodies in the music of time. There are infinite melodies to be explore.” _ author Clifford Pickover


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More Tales From a Reporter’s (and Editor’s) Notebook

Now Playing: Learning to Fly, by Tom Petty. “Well, the good ol’ days may not return, And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn. I’m learning to fly but I ain’t got wings. Coming down is the hardest thing.”

As I’ve said before, I love newspapers. I spent more than 20 years working at them. I quit because I didn’t like the money or hours and being away so much from the family. But there’s nothing like the camaraderie of a newsroom. A few entries ago, I told the story of Tim Tate (not his real name) and part of our adventures in massage parlors, namely Dial-A-Message.

Which brings us to today’s tales.

John Wharton was a cops and courts reporter for the Daily News in Jacksonville. He was about 6-1, with unruly hair that he kept short on the sides and back but let grow on top. He loved doing cop rounds and the cops mostly liked him. They tipped him off quite a few times. His father was a pretty successful lawyer, which meant that John, like many of us in journalism, was the black sheep – or at least underachiever – of the family.

Also, like many journalists, he couldn’t spell. Not a lick. In fact, Elliott Potter, my friend and the editor of the paper, and I made John wear a sign around his neck with the world separate on it. That’s after changing it from seperate dozens of times.

There was one other thing. John stuttered. A lot. And, of course, it got worse when he’d get excited about things.

So we all got together and worked with John, encouraged him and kept him from getting upset, right? Not exactly. We teased the crap out of him. Cruel, yes, but it was the 800-pound gorilla of being around John. By teasing him, we were showing him we accepted him. And we had a lot of fun, too. (On a serious note, we all loved John, and had anyone seriously tried to hurt him by making fun of him, there would have been more than one person all over him.)

Anyway, one afternoon when we were not particularly on a hard deadline, we did what newsrooms do. No, we didn’t work to get ahead, we wasted time by thinking up a practical joke to play on John. This was back in the day of corded phones that you could take apart. So we took John’s phone apart and removed the piece that transmitted his voice. Then we put it back together and no one could tell the difference.

So it was a matter of waiting from John to get in the office and then for him to make or get a call. John came in after checking the warrants and incidents reports at the cop shop and – as usual – had some questions about what he’d seen. He didn’t notice that we all were looking as he grabbed the phone.

He’d called the chief of detectives at the sheriff’s department on his private line, so he didn’t have to go through the switchboard. But when Doug answered, he couldn’t hear anything on the other end. Despite John talking louder and louder and getting more and more excited. Finally he noticed us cracking up and knew he’d been had (we called the chief of detectives and let him know what we’d done – he was a good guy and had a better-than-you’d-expect sense of humor). John laughed too when he realized what we’d done. We fixed the phone and went on about our work. Except the daily grind seemed much less of a grind that day.

But practical jokes weren’t the only thing that made newsrooms special.

Because of the way the ones I worked in were put together, they were a very public workplace. It was hard not to hear everyone else’s business. Add to that the fact that I, like many Southerners, tend to talk a bit loud on the phone.

When I left the newsroom, I went to Gastonia, a larger paper with a larger newsroom. But again, not too much privacy.

This would have happened back in about 1993 or ’94. I should explain that at that time, newspapers were pretty much the Google of a community. Want info for your kid’s science report, call the newspaper. Want the history of some community event, call the paper. And on and on.

One day, I got one of these calls. I can’t even remember what the caller wanted, but I remember she was adamant that the newspaper ought to know the answer. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I just don’t have that information,” I told her after repeated pleas. “Would anyone else there know?” she asked. I paused, then cut off any further discussion, to the horror of my colleagues, who’d been listening.

“Ma’am, I’m the smartest person here, and if I don’t know, nobody does.”

Which caused at least two people, Julia and Skip, to just about swallow their tongues.

But it got her off the phone, gave us all a laugh and created a legacy for me.

One of many.

“Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.” _ E.B. White


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