Wednesday, March 2, 2011

One-hundred years of servitude

Long ago I had the pleasure (and pain) of working for The Hanford Sentinel during its centennial. The publisher of the daily, smack in the center of California's San Joaquin Valley, decided to celebrate by running an 11-section commemorative edition of the paper. Ten of the sections would recap each decade of The Sentinel, with a wrap-around section.

Each reporter and mid-level editor was assigned two decades to research and write about. Lacking the guidance of a resident geezer to recap the last century into a handy digest, we resigned ourselves to thumbing through every page of every edition The Sentinel published that decade. I had the '30s and '50s.

For months and months, after our regular workday, we would fetch bound editions of The Sentinel and sit long into the night, thumbing the editions in search of stories that represented the era, and especially for stories we could update.

It was torturous, but it had its benefits:
1. My wife Nancy was a reporter with me, and we could spend the evenings sharing the misery.
2. Another reporter, Jim Graham, turned me on to Tom Waits and let me listen to his "Rain Dogs" tape in his Sony Walkman over and over. And over. "Downtown Train" is seared into my soul.
3. I got to read the comic strip "Gasoline Alley" every day for two decades. It's one of the few comics (maybe the first) that worked in what we now call "real time," because the characters grow up, age, die and do all the things human counterparts do. I was sad to say goodbye at the end of the 1930s, and ecstatic to get reacquainted in the 1950s, like a dusty yellowed reunion, trying to figure out what had transpired in the intervening decade. I was soooooo tempted to sneak 1940s editions to stay with the strip, but I would never have gotten my work done if I had. (Though not a big fan of comics continuing beyond the creator's death or retirement — this just in: Charles Schulz is dead! — I'm glad "Gasoline Alley" continues under current artist Jim Scancarelli because of the characters' realistic development.)
4. I did some interesting stories, including an interview with a Hanford man, at the time a city park maintenance supervisor, who was a prisoner of war during the Korean War, and who told me tales he had not even told his wife, such has how Chinese soldiers dragged him by broken legs through the snow.

In the end, though, the staff was bone weary of the project once done, without much energy or enthusiasm to celebrate our achievement. I made up this medal, loosely patterned after the Croix de Candlestick (an ancient award given to San Francisco Giants fans who stuck through extra innings of Candlestick Park night games), and gave it to fellow reporters, out of sight of the publisher.


  1. I love going through the microfilm of old newspapers but after more than half an hour I start to get seasick from the spinning images.

  2. Microfilm/microfiche would be really tough (and that's a big part of what you do), because it's anathema to how one likes to read. Though tedious, going through the bound editions became a comfortable habit. The paper was a broadsheet back then, each page the size of a mainsail (two other staffers had to help turn it, which made the process especially tiresome), and the comics ran very large.