Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Great moment in journalism

• or, Are You Sure This is How Bob Woodward Got His Start?

•• or, How I Almost Kinda Sorta Died Two Miles from My Home for the Sake of My Wannabe Career 

Dry hot summer days trigger a memory of when I interned at my hometown newspaper during college. I learned all too quickly how hometown newspapers operate.

Mine, like most I'm sure, had struck a Faustian bargain with the town's auto dealerships, dearest among the newspaper's advertisers.

Our bargain was this: Each week a different dealership got a feature story, usually touting one of its latest models, though on rare occasion a paean to a dealership's remodel or a new salesman. After seven weeks I completed the cycle of dealerships and got halfway through the second round before heading back to school.

Who else but the rookie reporter snags such a juicy beat?

Each week I went out to the designated dealership, where the owner or the floor boss would have a slick press package from the car maker for the featured model. Fattening the full-color folder would be full-color and black-and-white photos of the car — regal on a rain-slicked mountain road, the ocean heaving in the background, you know the type. I'd give those to a photographer to set up for publication.

News releases and fact sheets — engine size, fuel economy, number of froozits, high-tensile fargle-bargle, rack and pinion feather, whatever — padded the press kit.

My job was to get the package, get a quote and transform all the corporate whosy-whatsit into a story back at the office.

"It's a great car, good for going to the office or cruising out of town with the family," the owner/floor boss might say, by way of a quote. Or, "We at Chad Furger Chevrolet©® are proud to deliver the new Foogle™®. The best just got better™!" Or, "Can't you find a good quote somewhere in this stuff and just put our name on it?"

Can I ask some questions first?


Can I take the car for a test drive?


Can I see it?

"Look, I don't have time. That'll be in the Friday paper, right? Next to our ad?"


Having tossed my dignity into the desk drawer with the chewing gum and rubber cement, I wrote in cheery terms about cars I couldn't drive in car-speak™®© terminology I didn't know and couldn't have cared less about.

So it went, until the one day the guy at the Saab®™ dealership said he'd take me for a ride.

Yeah, it sounds as ominous as I meant it.

I think the guy was the owner's son. The Saab®™ dealership was downtown, walking distance from the newspaper, in an small old building meant for something else, certainly not for showcasing cars, not like the newer expansive dealerships on the fringes of town.

The owner's son was in a mood, like he'd received a "Dear John" letter, which should have alerted me. All I heard, though, was that he'd take me for a ride.

Finally, a chance to report firsthand how a new car performs! Unfettered from the chains of public relations doublespeak!

Owner's son took the car on H Street, the main drag, and up the hill out of town. He headed toward Harris Grade, which separates the Lompoc and Santa Maria valleys, where Agnes, the ghost of our childhood nightmares, roams.

Past the intersection of Harris Grade Road and Burton Mesa Boulevard, owner's son picked up speed as the road rose and wound to the rise. I was just noting how close we were to my parents' home, when owner's son said:

"Watch what this can do."

We were going about 70 mph by then, 25 mph above the limit, when owner's son veered off the road onto the wide sloped sandy shoulder. He never took his foot off the gas.

It was like riding in a cement mixer, the rocks and branches and trash roaring and scraping and banging against the undercarriage as we hurtled along, the view outside a beige fog.

Owner's son was telling me above the noise that Saab™® was built to withstand such maneuvers — and I have to admit, for all the commotion we did seem to be riding smoothly toward our deaths — though his laughter like a worn starter motor indicated he didn't seem to care whether the car pulled safely back onto the road.

He might have said between laughs that even if we did wreck, a Saab™® is designed to save us. He might have used the phrase "crumple zones." He might have told me Saab©® made fighter jets, for whatever reason.

Just as smoothly as the car left the road, though, it found it again, and owner's son made a u-turn at a dirt road instead of ascending serpentine Harris Grade, and dropped me back off at the dealership.

It was a short uneasy walk back to the newspaper, for which I was grateful.

If I wrote anything about the misadventure at all, it was brief and circumspect, something perhaps about being able to handle the occasional need to drive a Saab™© onto the shoulder. Owner's son probably knew I couldn't report on this toady's wild ride.

I think of that time every time I see a Saab™®.

Fargle bargle.