Commercials are not the only junk food in the speech market – indeed, when compared to shallow news reporting, vacuous television shows, or political doublespeak, commercials are not even the most harmful to mental health. ~ Rodney A. Smolla
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (or at least 250 miles or so from my present location), a boy grows up in the odd land of small-town newspapers. Referred to not all that affectionately by his friends as the Weekly Rag, the townspeople nonetheless gathered around the front office of the newspaper each Wednesday afternoon or evening to get their first glimpse of that week’s edition. Located on the west side of the town square, the office was a regular hotbed of local gossip. As though there was nothing better to do (and perhaps there wasn’t), people stopped their day and drove downtown for a copy of the newspaper. I remember people hanging around in the front office, out on the sidewalk, and in their cars. Waiting.
You’d have thought something important had actually happened.
At the time, Quanah, Texas was a town of around 5,000 people. By the time I moved to Austin around 1972, I was amazed to find the student population of The University of Texas alone was eight times greater than the town where I grew up. Suddenly, Quanah seemed an even smaller town. The idea that the newspaper might have anything in it these people didn’t already know was a little ludicrous.
And yet, there they stood – waiting.
Sometimes the waiting was patient, other times a little indignant – especially the later it got in the day with no newspaper. Any number of things can go wrong when you’re putting out a newspaper. Presses break down, last-minute changes cause a needed rearrangement of type or a rewrite to make more space, the Linotype machine’s melting pot might not heat up quickly enough to stamp out the needed lines of type for a story or could jam as any of thousands of moving parts slipped out of alignment. While we later moved to offset printing, my life in the newspaper office began when metal type was placed by hand to form the words needed for each column of a story – a little like Gutenberg, I think. All of the large type for grocery ads and such were assembled from racks of individual lead letters of varying sizes. It was a labor-intensive process.
And, for all that labor, people didn’t stand around waiting to read about the latest world crisis, the results of a state or national election, or the winner of the Miss America Pageant. No, they had three fuzzy television stations for that. They had the daily Wichita Falls Times Record for that. This was a weekly paper. Most any world news contained therein would likely already be old news. But what you didn’t get from television or the Times Record was the important stuff – the who, what, when, where, and why of the goings-on of a small town.
How was the wheat crop looking? (Come on, kids, Dad would say. I need a picture of some wheat. Yeah, kneel together over there in that wheat. Okay, got the shot for the front page!) Were they really going to build a ninety-two-mile pipeline to bring water from Greenbelt Lake to the northwest to replace water from local gypsum wells? Was the Rotary Club still meeting Wednesday’s at noon? Could just anyone show up for the screening of Billy Graham’s latest movie, The Restless Ones, at First Baptist Church? Who turned over farmer Jones’ outhouse on Halloween night this year?
Let’s face it, reality TV would have died of boredom in Quanah, Texas. Now, I’m not saying that would be a bad thing. Anything that could kill off reality TV would be A-ok in my book. No, this was real reality – not trumped up, screaming in your face for fifteen minutes of fame, fake reality. These were real people living real lives with real problems. Boring? Yes, probably. Real? Yes, definitely.
It’s hard on a kid growing up in a town where most people know who you are. It’s not that a lot of them knew my name, you understand. No, what they knew was whose kid I was. I was referred to as Little Ed on too many occasions. What they knew was that I was the newspaper editor’s second son, so knew where to call if they thought they’d caught me doing something wrong. Now, you’ll realize I’m not admitting to doing anything wrong. No, I have a fifth amendment right to help me out there. Besides, I feel certain that anything anyone ever thought I might have done wrong was merely a misunderstanding on their part of what actually happened.
I’m pretty sure I never ended up in the pages of the Quanah Tribune Chief in the police blotter section. I came close at least once but, you know, there are advantages to being the son of the newspaper editor, too.
I’m not certain when I started working at the newspaper, but I know it was early. By the time I was a teenager, I worked there regularly. I was there on Wednesday’s after school, naturally, to help collate the sections of the paper. In fact, it was the only thing that would excuse my being at Wednesday night prayer meeting. At some point, my job became cleaning up the office. After getting my driver’s license at age fourteen, I did a lot of the paper deliveries to various newsstands – the convenience stores, grocery stores, and restaurants.
For all the jokes about the newspaper, it happened to be one of the things that brought people together in a small town. Death notices were printed at the newspaper office and I often delivered them to the businesses downtown. Being a weekly newspaper, deaths couldn’t wait for Wednesday. People needed to know the day and time of the funeral. The why of the death could wait for Wednesday, the who, what, where, and when needed to be answered on a more timely basis. I didn’t mind delivering these notices until one day when I was returning the balance of the notices to the funeral home. I was probably ten or so. No one seemed to be around as I walked in. I called out but received no answer. Cautiously, I walked further into the building. As I walked through another door I came face-to-face with, well, some dead guy in a coffin. After that, I simply left the notices on a table just inside the door and beat a hasty retreat.
My father was a tireless promoter. Sure, promoting town events brought in advertising revenue and was part of his job but it also promoted a sense of community. What better way to bring people together than a good ol’ hootenanny? Or perhaps a fiesta on the courthouse square? A lot of the goods for the fiesta had come back from Mexico with us as we returned from one of our family vacations. There was a church on every other street corner in Quanah, but someone dancing a jig at the courthouse – well, that’s entertainment!
When the water pipeline from Greenbelt Lake was complete, Dad’s idea was to bottle water with a few chunks of gypsum at the bottom. Equipment was borrowed from a bottling company and we went to work creating souvenirs of the bad old hard water days. I believe it was marketed as Real Quanah Gyp Water. Besides, this gave another excuse to have a celebration of the town square. On more than one occasion, Dad and I pantomimed some musical numbers from one of Stan Freberg’s comedy albums. Being small, my part was that of the drummer with the deep voice. It was really quite funny and I was always really quite terrified. For all the clowning I do, I’m really quite the introvert. But, it felt like one of the few things my father and I did together by that time, so I think I enjoyed it for that reason despite the fear.
Like many kids, I began experimenting with smoking by the age of twelve. I mentioned the Linotype machine before. There was an open flame under the pot that melted the lead used for forming the type slugs. We called it Pig Iron. One evening I was alone at the newspaper office, sweeping the back. Our big trash barrels were often cardboard drums discarded at the gypsum mill outside of town. Since no one was there, I decided to have myself a little smoke. I tore off a bit of paper, lit it from the flame under the lead pot, then lit my cigarette. With a flick of my wrist, I extinguished the piece of paper and threw it into one of the big barrels. Well, I thought I’d extinguished the paper. Instead, I’d just thrown burning paper into a barrel full of paper. By the time I realized what had happened, the barrel was ablaze.
My first bright idea was to smother the flames by turning the barrel upside down. Might have worked, too, if that had sealed off the oxygen. As it was, I’d just loosened up more of the paper and added fuel to the fire. I finally managed to beat out the flames, then ran to the back of the building to open the large overhead doors and let the smoke out. Just across the alley, there was a garage apartment. The nosy so-and-so living there was hanging out the second-story window and called out to me that he had already called the fire department. I suppose, however, the charred marks on the concrete floors might have given me away even without a visit from the firetruck.
You’d think that might have ended my career as a smoker. You’d be wrong. After all, I looked hip, slick, and cool with a cigarette in my hand. They said so on television all the time – right up until January 1, 1971 when cigarette advertising was banned on television. After that little blaze at the newspaper office, my mother and father sat me down in the den at home. They told me if I was going to smoke, I needed to do it right there. They’d put an ashtray in the den for me. While I know this was designed to shame me into quitting, it was a fairly transparent bluff. Had I actually lit up in the house, I’m pretty sure all hell would have let loose. But, hey, they had to try.
Despite the fact that I was pretty generally known in town, I also felt invisible. Or, perhaps, I simply wanted to be invisible. In any case, my invisibility probably had a lot to do with my becoming a class clown. When you’re afraid of being teased again, the easiest way around it is to call attention to yourself in an effort to control the teasing. My brother had already become kind of loud and in-your-face, so I think I wanted to be the opposite. I wanted to be the good one. I don’t think I succeeded all that well.
Invisibility, however, didn’t seem to stop me from taking part in a great number of things. I may have wanted to be invisible but that didn’t mean I didn’t also want to be the center of attention. My sophomore year of high school, I believe, saw me writing and staging an apocalyptic one-act play called The Sacrifice, about the world after a nuclear war. Yeah, I was quite the life of the party even then.
Still, when you feel invisible yourself, I think you begin to notice there are other invisible people out there, too. While I may have fought the urge for many years, there was a part of me that wanted desperately to be able to help other disaffected people.
Looking back, I know there were plenty of people in that little town who didn’t quite fit – according to majority opinion. We are all taught subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of isms as we grow up. It may not be intentional on the part of parents or community. On the other hand, it can be quite deliberate, resulting in continuing tragedies. Racism, sexism, egoism, legalism, materialism, nihilism, perfectionism, privatism, ad nauseam. Too many isms are aimed, one way or another, at exclusion. Too often, we forget that reaching out a hand to another to lift them up harms us in no way. On the contrary, we all become stronger in the effort.
When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, then asked his own question.
“ ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.’ ”
How many invisible people have you passed today? Comfortable in our isms, we tend to ignore the who, what, where, when, and why of the invisible ones around us. Nothing much changes until we are willing to wake up and say to ourselves, “Oh, that is my neighbor and I hadn’t even noticed it.”
As Horton (who heard a Who) said:
“Because, after all,
A person’s a person, no matter how small.”