By Michael Raffety
Journalists generally are somewhat on the shy side. Having a notebook and a pen gives us an excuse to talk to total strangers and ask them to tell their life’s story. I learned to take notes and quotes in Amador County when I was sent to downtown Jackson to accost people on the street and ask them the question of the week. I was just glad as a rookie that I didn’t have to come up with the question, too.
Then I became editor and had to put opinions out there on behalf of the paper. Some of the editorial headlines that stick in my memory include “Parking python” about efforts by the city and a real estate developer to try to deprive us and other lease holders in the parking garage to give up our spaces in favor of musical chairs.
Just because I read it was a good thing for an editor to write a column I also began writing a weekly column. Again, writing about myself, my experiences was, once again, pushing beyond my natural reticence. I kept that column up for about five years and then stopped because it became a time factor as the demand for writing editorials increased with the frequency of publication.
I started up the column again after we dropped some columnists, but this time I have only written it biweekly.
Columnists, after writing for enough years start thinking about doing a compendium of their columns.
One such compendium that I enjoyed and previously reviewed was the E. Kirsten Peters’ book called “Planet Rock Doc.” She can really make a wide range of scientific topics interesting even though they are outside her field of geology.
Recently I have received two other collections of columns by editors.
A slim volume of columns of historical stories about names and places in the Mother Lode has been published by the son of the late Bill Shepard, who wrote his columns while editor of the Daily Democrat in Woodland. His column ran in the Daily D from Jan. 24, 1963, to July 30, 1964. That was considerably before I had my first newspaper job as a staff photographer at the Daily Democrat. In fact, Shepard’s tenure as editor appeared to end about the same time I graduated from high school. He went on to publish California Camper, the Green Mountain Gazette and then California Horse Review, which he sold. He then was editor of the Paint Horse Journal.
Only 107 pages long, this collection of columns features some subjects many of our readers may be familiar with and some many may not. Shepard, according to an intro by his son, Greg, did a lot of his research firsthand by Jeeping and camping throughout the foothills and Sierra with his family, gathering stories along the way. Some of the stories are illustrated by fictional characters based on some factual event or place but most are historical.
My favorite story out of Shepard’s compendium, called California Cornerstone, is about the express delivery services. There were a number of them that charged exorbitant prices for delivering mail and then charged a percentage for delivering gold dust. The one we most recognize is the combination of Henry Wells and William G. Fargo, who combined into Wells Fargo. But how many know there was a winter express service of dog sleds between Quincy and La Porte in Plumas County in the 1850s through 1865? The team of Newfoundlands and St. Bernards was replaced eventually by horses wearing horse snowshoes, which Shepard saw on display in a bar in La Porte.
The paperback book is available for $14.95 from Stark House Press, 1315 H St., Eureka 95501.
The second compendium is by Slim Randles, who told me he was sports editor here in the 1970s, a time when the Mountain Democrat rarely printed bylines on stories, let alone named sub-editors in the paper. Randles regularly sends us his columns, of which we have run a few in the past. He now lives in New Mexico. Like Shepard, his book is named after his column, Home Country. The subtitle is Drama, Dreams and Laughter from America’s Heartland.
The book won an award this year from the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards.
Randles has an easy-going style that usually makes its point through dialogue between a cast of characters from the Mule Barn truck stop coffee shop, the local paper called the Valley Weekly Miracle, the Gates of Heaven Chinese restaurant, the local livestock auction, the Read Me Now bookstore and the swimming hole on Lewis Creek.
But most of all it’s good-natured ribbing of Randles’ “world-dilemma think tank” of Doc and Bert and Dud. The columnnistic stories are short, close to one page each in the 192-page paperback.
Because they’re so short, I’m going to reprint one of my favorites verbatim:
“The newspapers began disappearing about two weeks ago. Disappearing like smoke in a high wind. The paper boy swore he delivered all of them, same as usual. Same as his older brother had before him. Said he was able to ‘porch’ quite a few, too.
“But the papers kept disappearing, and it wasn’t long before gab sessions were taking place in beauty parlors and barber shops and the coffee shops regarding our local crime spree.
“Theft hasn’t really been a problem here, you see, usually something that starts out looking like theft turns out to be something pretty innocent that just happened to be complicated by a lack of communication.
“Oh, we’re not completely free of theft, of course. Like last summer, when someone took Bert’s new sprinkler off his hose in broad daylight in the front yard. For several days Bert drove around looking at patterns our sprinklers had, trying to locate his own. It was no use. He finally reported to us down at the Mule Barn truck stop’s philosophy counter and world dilemma think tank that this sticky-fingered act of legerdemain was stacking up to be the work of a grab-it-and-git drive-by bandit from out of town.
“That’s why, when copies of the Valley Weekly Miracle began disappearing from our front lawns and even the sanctity of our front porches, we knew something had to be done. Several volunteers from the Mule Barn agreed to rise early and watch to see if their papers vanished and who did it.
“This Neighborhood Watch exercise worked. Blackie was caught in the act and his crime spree ended before very many papers vanished.
“Then Blackie was taken home and his owner was informed that this was one Labrador retriever who had retrieved his last paper without paying for a subscription. Piles of newspapers were found in Blackie’s house and behind the swing set.
“The community was given a guarantee that on delivery mornings, Blackie would remain on the chain until everyone had their paper and coffee.
“Crime cannot be allowed to continue. Especially when everyone needs to read the paper to see how much the editor dared to print.”
Randles can really spin a story well. There’s a reason the column is picked up by 265 papers in 44 states, with more than 2.2 million readers. He has been writing the column seven years and this book represents the first five years.
The Albuquerque resident concludes the book by noting that he is only 69 1/2 years old, “so give me some time to practice, OK?.”
I’d say he is pretty well practiced.