Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How to succeed in journalism without really trying

Celebrating my departure — and mourning my wife's — from The Hanford Sentinel 25 years ago, the editor in chief told my wife over beers that I was a lazy son of a bitch.

Rarely did I get in the picture, as when Gary Feinstein shot me looking over a
dairy veterinarian's shoulder. He has cut a hole in the side of a Holstein cow
and is reaching in with his plastic-wrapped arms to untwist her stomachs,
a not uncommon malady among cud chewers. I wish I knew
the doc's name;  he was calm and friendly and suffered this fool gladly.
No news, this — from a boss paid to know news.

I plead guilty, with aggravating circumstances. You say lazy — I say inclined to expend copious amounts of energy to avoid undesirable work. Such as whittling down that last sentence.

Of course, most reporters looked lazy alongside my wife. Hesitant to hire her at first for fear of nepotism, The Sentinel regretted letting her go — I had a new job in Sacramento — for the sheer breadth of news she wrote, and her plainspoken coverage of county politics.

I wanted to be like her. Since high school, I knew — knew passionately — that I wanted to be a newspaper reporter, and did little else but train to become one. Until I became one, when I changed my mind. Ten years later, my body finally followed.

I like writing. It's the reporting I never got hang of. I wasn't much for amassing facts, and committed many sins of omission. I caused more than one post-election correction when I missed a precinct or an entire city's voting results. I got sick calling up families about their newly departed. Farm prices and policy, the subject for which I had been hired (not because I pretended expertise but because no one else pretended interest), mired me in a great big incomprehensible manure, and I was no match. 

Maybe I'd have enjoyed myself at a rewrite desk, had I landed at a paper large enough to have one.

Instead I became the master of day-in-the-life stories. They got me out of the office, which was mutually beneficial — they gave me something different to talk about back home at dinner, for one thing — and let me spend long periods just getting to know people and what they did. I was a gossamer Charles Kuralt, so long away on assignment that I was writing the stories in my head while I lived them.

The day with the veterinarian, chronicled above, was a short stint compared to others I did; I think Gary the photographer met up with us for just part of the visit, for the bovine outpatient procedure, but then took off to meet some deadlines. I stuck around for most of the veterinarian's day.

One of my first stories at the Hanford paper came from an interview with a dairy couple, who gave me directions to their place, just outside of town. I turned the wrong way first thing and followed the unbending road an hour west — "out of town," I decided, must be the loosest of loose terms around these parts — before I finally became convinced of my fallibility.

Though deeply embarrassed for being two hours late and having established my reputation as a bumbling reporter, I was not sad. I had seen some country I mightn't have otherwise, and I got to marvel at the intransigent planning of central San Joaquin Valley roads that would not bend unless forced by river or ditch. Two hours lost in a day but preserved in my memory, for no other reason than to entertain myself.

Civil War re-enactors once staged a battle at a county park near Hanford, and I stayed all day to watch each skirmish and immerse myself in the punctilious devotion with which Civil War aficionados immerse themselves. One soldier died over and over in battle, and he became my lead (or lede, the opening paragraph, as reporters sometimes spell it). Plus, I got to use the word "watchfires," a bonus.

I once spent 12 hours with a dairy family, starting at 4 a.m. in western Kings County when son No. 2 began moving the family's Holsteins toward the barn for the first milking, continuing through a table-busting breakfast, paperwork with son No. 1, artificial insemination, a second milking, an overview of the Dairy Princess competition with Only Daughter, feeding the herd and fixing equipment.

I simply time-stamped each section and offered the insider's view of a typical day at the dairy. It was for a special section celebrating June as dairy month, I had a lot of space to fill, and I had never seen a story that simply described what went on in a dairy.

When I discovered a tree-fruit grower who also owned his own sprint car racing team — and built the cars himself — I spent as many days with him as he could stand. Sprint cars are snug little high-powered buggies topped with gigantic airfoils and shod with two larger tires on one side to better circle the dirt track, and they're a huge deal in Hanford.

The day-in-the-life story I wrote about him started at his nectarine ranch and ended late at night at the Kings County sprint track, where his driver flipped the team car high into the air in a collision on a far turn, and the owner ran across the infield like a wild man, tools falling out of pockets as he flew.

Writing for The Sentinel finally gave me a chance to scratch the itch for one desolate intersection of two lonely highways that has fascinated me since childhood. Year after year, on our way to some High Sierra camping trip or another, we passed the intersection of highways 33 and 41 with its lonely café and junklot.

I thought it might even have been the inspiration for Rebel Corner in John Steinbeck's "The Wayward Bus," until a bemused Steinbeck expert talked me down.

Thermos ™©® full of coffee, I drove out there before dawn one day and just sat and listened and asked and watched and photographed. I met the owners of the café and their few regulars. The concentration of fast-food restaurants and gas stations on Interstate 5 10 miles northeast had long since immobilized this corner of the world, but some remained faithful.

The fenced-in curio lot across the street, which sold brass giraffes and sunglasses and dishwasher-sized flower pots, was owned by the umpteenth person by the time I wandered by to write it all down. Everyone at that intersection seemed to be holding onto something, to keep from being blown away by the constant wind.

Eventually they all did blow away. A new, bigger café and store and gas station stands empty now where that wheezy little café had been, and the curio lot left no trace.

I won a feature writing first-place award from the California Newspaper Publishers Association for that bit of laziness.

Get me rewrite.

No comments:

Post a Comment