I’ll share with you what the editor once told me, right after I tell you a little about the best job I ever had.
The job was in Hanover and there wasn’t much fanfare and sometimes you found yourself working at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Actually, it involved all kinds of rough hours, and brought plenty of frustrations and telephone arguments. You got called lots of names, none fit for print.
This job was enough to make you so mad some days, you had to keep an old baseball on your desk as a makeshift stress-reliever. Some nights it caused you to wake at 3 a.m., to offer up a hurried prayer to some witching-hour god of grammar and spelling that please – please – it has to really be Laughman. Not Lauchman. Doesn’t it? Please. God.
You smiled a lot here.
And some days you cried.
And I don’t know today how to squeeze almost four fading years with The Evening Sun into a blog post. But the time has come—the time for me to go.
So if you like, I’ll try.
The photo intern was none too pleased.
It was a few days before Christmas, and her family was flying in for the holiday. But she’d be in Glen Rock with a reporter, wandering the streets. Looking among hundreds for a soldier returning home from Iraq. Or, depending on your point of view, a needle in a yuletide haystack.
“It’ll be fun,” I said.
She had the grace to smile.
But it was a tough assignment.
Zipped and buttoned into layers of winter clothing, we followed the Glen Rock carolers out to the frozen streets, walking into a local tradition that was new to both of us. There was no particular plan to meet up with the soldier’s family. There was no cell service.
No one else was working.
At some point – by a house on a hill with a plastic snowman – we stopped long enough to look at a watch.
Long story short, we found that soldier, sometime around 1 a.m. Maybe you read about it, after you opened your presents. Or maybe not. It was Christmas, after all.
What I remember most about that night – more than the search; more than the goodbye to that photographer around 3 a.m.; more than writing alone in the newsroom– is the ride back from Glen Rock. We stopped for coffee at the Rutter’s on York Street.
I think I had the sense to buy, or at least to offer. It had been my story, after all.
Either way, I can’t walk into that Hanover store, not even in the middle of summer, without thinking of a soldier who made it home in time to go caroling.
“Merry Christmas, Clare,” I said that night.
“Merry Christmas to you,” she grinned.
There are so many more.
Want holiday memories? More special local spots?
There’s the dogwood at the corner of Grant Drive and George Street. Brett and I sat in its owner’s home two years ago, long enough for Dick Krummeck to explain why he swaddled it each year in a blanket of warm white Christmas lights.
Community, he said.
I wrote about that. And as I recall, I caught an editor wiping a tear as he went through my draft.
A few days later I got a phone call. Mr. Krummeck, 77, was gone.
The tradition carried on, though. So did the stories.
Just down the street from the Wish Tree is the home of Abbey Rhodes.
Once upon a time in Hanover that brown-haired girl started a charity “Teddy Bear Toss” to benefit pediatric cancer patients. Before going off to college she raised awareness and thousands of dollars for the cause. She gathered and helped distribute more than 6,000 stuffed animals to sick kids just looking for something to hold onto.
And she introduced me to MacKenzie Stuck.
They don’t pay you enough in this job to ease through a familiar front door and tiptoe across the foyer, to nod to a mother and slide up a chair beside a daybed that’s been brought down to the living room. To hold the hand of that sick child, and touch her wisp of hair as the linen curtains flutter.
They don’t pay you to write the story of the little girl who stole your heart. They couldn’t.
Not when she dies at 13 years old.
No, you’re the one who has to see her big smile. The stuffed animals on the daybed.
You write all that on your own, for another reason — because you have no choice.
And because maybe you can.
Years later, you thank God for the opportunity. But you still smell the coffee from the kitchen that morning, and you see the curtains move. And you hear sounds from happier days.
Her rolled-up jeans, whispering across the tile floor.
There are others. More stories, and stories about stories.
On and on.
There was that first feature—sheep-shearing with the frightened-looking photo intern. There was ghost-hunting with Shane, too, in those early days, another 3 a.m. special.
Remember the breaking news – crashes and fires and rattling down back roads chasing smoke at the tree line. News editor: Listen new guy, just look for the man in the white hat and ask him what the hell happened. Go.
Remember the municipalities – budgets and banter; a simmering fight over a barbecue cooker in East Berlin; the death of a young councilman who once shook my hand in Hanover, and welcomed me to the beat.
Remember this advice: “The story is always – always – bigger than the reporter.”
That’s from the memoir of New York Times reporter Dan Barry.
In my favorite passage, Barry speaks of a summer night when he was roused by a call from the editor. Something’s happened, says the voice on the line, and with some petulance the reporter drives off in search of what’s likely nothing.
It’s actually TWA Flight 800, down in the ocean. It’s 230 people dead.
The reporter tells of tracking the story. That led him to a man, Michael O’Reilly, who hustled out in his boat to help. In the end, O’Reilly could only retrieve three bodies and deliver them to the Coast Guard.
The reporter spoke with the man later at his kitchen table, where he was handed a still-wet luggage tag.
There, days after his tantrum, was epiphany.
“The rush of feeling, I finally decided, was a sense of humbling privilege, granted to me by this sapped man before me, this Michael O’Reilly. He had just been to that ring of hell, and now he needed to be alone with his family and his thoughts. But he knew instinctively that something larger than Michael O’Reilly had taken place, and that was why he granted me his time. He understood my role in the societal compact perhaps better than I did. I was a conduit through which experience is shared, through which the acrid smell of burning jet fuel is inhaled, and the sight of a child, borne on the water, asleep in death, is seen. I lived these things and now so have you, he was saying; tell others.
“I tucked the luggage tag from Bordeaux inside my notebook, and I told Michael O’Reilly that I would take care of it.”
I’ll keep that all in the front of my mind, as I move off to another post. As of next week, I’ll no longer be working at The Evening Sun. I‘ll be across the county, covering York city for the York Daily Record.
No need to worry. Left behind is a corps of young, talented reporters who help to put out a small local newspaper I’d hold up against the best out there, and editors who know and care about the area.
Left behind, too, are 1,001 other old stories I could tell– that I’d love to tell one more time.
Like this one, from 2008.
I had moved to Hanover, and made a habit of reading the local newspaper especially on Sunday. That’s when I found the editor’s column.
On that day, Marc Charisse spoke of going home:
“I read my mother her favorite poems Good Friday morning: Edward Lear’s ‘The Pobble Who Has No Toes’ and Lewis Carroll’s nonsense masterpieces, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ and ‘The Hunting of the Snark.’
“The steady whoosh of the oxygen machine just outside her bedroom punctuated the natural meter of the silly verses. …
“I’m glad to be able to tell them (readers) my mother died at home, in her bed, as she wanted, surrounded by those she loved.
“For all its sadness, it was for me a moment of uplift, as good a death, I thought, as any of us can hope for.”
Fumbling around the kitchen, I gathered my clips that same day. I sent them to my local newspaper: attention editor.
And then I was sitting in his office.
Four years later, there are new clips in my kitchen. Stories all of which I would change at least a little, if I could. Paragraphs or sentences or just a word — there in the last line — to flesh out the meaning more.
It can’t be done.
There are always new ones to chase and worry over, and those old newspapers fade every time to black and white, forgotten.
All you can really take, I guess, is a box full of dog-eared notebooks.
You pack away the hours spent in living rooms, talking about soldiers or Christmas trees or teddy bears. The silent moments at the bedside of a little girl.
I was forever in search of the best possible story ending.
Turns out, it was there at the beginning.
It was that first day in the editor’s office.
Put your heart behind the words on the page, he said. Care about the people in this community, and they will care about what you write.
It was a gift.