Of Dinosaurs and Fishing Worms
I’ve been thinking about dinosaurs.
I’m one, right down to the big sharp teeth and long spiky tail. And my friend Mike Trimble is right there beside me waiting to become a lump of coal.
I was a newspaper reporter longer than I would prefer to admit having been alive. And I and my way of doing business are pretty much extinct. Journalism as I knew it when I started at the Denton Record-Chronicle is tottering along supported by flashy new methods that don’t have a thing to do with informing the public.
Now I never worked with anyone who wore a press card in his hatband or kept a pint of bourbon in his desk drawer. But for years after I started, the newsroom air was thick with curses and smoke, and nobody took a 15-minute break. Ever.
An Associated Press machine ticked away by the copy desk and spit out the news on long strips of paper. Occasionally it chimed one or two bells, and the news editor would check to see what was going on to excite the machine. If it ever chimed more than four times the entire newsroom jumped up and rushed over to find out what major national catastrophe the machine was regurgitating.
Huge rumbling presses occupied the back half of the building and in front you could literally feel them start to line newspapers off the roller with the ink still damp. When you handled the paper back then, your fingers got smudged. That’s where my fellow dinosaur, former opinion page editor Mike Trimble, got the term “inky wretch” that he sometimes threw into his national prize winning editorials.
Lord, how I loved all that!
The newsroom was in a much smaller area in that same building on East Hickory Street, but at first the eastern half contained the Russell Newman pantie factory. When it closed, we expanded into part of their area, producing news stories instead of underwear.
Weldon Burgoon sold saddles and western wear across the street. Still does I guess. Jimmy Normile sold auto parts next door to him, and I used to love to sit on a bench seat from a junked car in front and watch traffic go by with Jimmy. Lawyers hung out there and sometimes cops, and I got some of my best news tips at Barneys. There hadn’t been a Barney there for years, even back then, but Jimmy left the name to save money on buying a new sign. Recently the city condemned his building, and I think they plan to put a fern bar there.
Back in the newsroom, all our desks were pushed up together in two or three long lines. There were no secrets among newsies. We used electric typewriters and threw our copy in a basket on the news desk for the slot man to hand out to copyeditors.
The ambiance was punctuated with quips and shouts and curses. Nobody took offense. We’re all so much more civil now. Nobody curses much and if they did they probably would be filed on for some non-politically-correct infraction.
A small intimate theater shares the DRC building now – a much tonier neighbor, I suppose. The garage door store further up the street has been replaced by loft apartments, and restaurants are all around. A California-style taco joint has replaced the feed store. There’s even a wine and cigar bar across the street.
Inside, everyone works in cubicles and the news creeps in silently through the copy editor’s computers. The big press is gone. The news goes silently back out through those computers to a press in Plano.
I used to bang heads with Lafayette Newland over page layout in the backshop. He always had a chaw of tobacco in his mouth. I’d just keep arguing until his mouth filled with juice and threatened to drown him, and then he’d throw up his hands and head for the back door to spit. It was a crude way to win, but effective.
I once met a confidential source at a sporting goods store/soda fountain on the square. He was late. The clerks were suspicious about why I was hanging around the ammunition aisle. Finally I bought five jelly-worm fishing lures to stave them off. The story from that source helped get a corrupt politician out of office. I kept the lures for years but they finally melted to the bottom of my top desk drawer and I threw them away.
Later I met my sources in a coffee shop but it’s gone now too.
But I realize, thinking back, that no matter whether I got my tips along with car parts or fishing lures or café mocha, it was still the news. No matter whether I pecked it out on a typewriter or a computer that corrected my typos; no matter if they someday turn Barneys into a fern bar and the DRC into a venue for ballet – there’s still the news, people. There’s still the story.
Trimble and I, dinosaurs that we are, fell from grace at the DRC. He was fired for standing his ground in an ethical impasse and I couldn’t bear it there without him. That grit we had, the wit, the nose forever sniffing out the story, doesn’t seem welcome within those walls anymore. He and I meet once a week for lunch, and we hash over the old times and the old stories, like the time he wouldn’t let me use the term “plumber’s crack” in a column. And the time the school superintendent picketed the office wearing a sandwich board. And the time my car fell through a bridge while I was covering a flood.
Everyone believes their times were the good old days. Everyone remembers high-jinks and triumphs and where they were when the twin towers went down.
The news is still the news, but it seems more sterile now. The stories seem to be all happy tales, careful not to make anybody mad.
Someone else pounds out editorials and police reports in the old pantie factory now. Someone else has the bylines and the deadlines and the eternally ringing phones.
As for Trimble and I, we’re OK.