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