Surprise! (1979)

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A chipmunk feasts on bird seed on North Hero Island, Vermont, March 27, 2023. By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

( Retrospective) 9 April 1979

We had a winter storm today! Just lovely, as today was also my first day covering a regular beat for the Journal-Opinion. In Fairlee, VT, 20 miles up a slick Rte. 5. Whoopee. But was fairly (uh) amusing. I got the chance to try out the homely Fairlee diner and to get to know the town clerk and selectmen, even if not much at all happened (the lead of my story was the administration of a Free Bed Fund — Jeez!).

Later, I continued up to Bradford, where I wrote out the story and talked with Pat Hammond, Tom and Robert. Surprise! Tom put me on Fairlee selectmen, Fairlee schools, Bradford Village and Bradford Town, and Oxbow School District meetings, for about a dozen meetings a month. Not bad for a rookie! I am, in short, pleased.

Even though I didn’t return home until about 2:00 AM and then only by way of Lebanon because I couldn’t get up King Hill, I made it out to be a good day. So what if $10 an article comes to about $2 an hour tonight? At least it’s a start.

Journal, Volume II
9 April 1979

That journal entry was written by a 23-year-old cub reporter some 44 years ago. How old am I today? I’ll let you do the math; it’s not one of most writers’ strong points.

Back then I would have been expected to know my addition and subtraction in order to put the dates into context. We didn’t have calculators on our computers or tablets or phones. I carried a newfangled pocket calculator that added, subtracted, multiplied, divided, and found percentages. That’s about all I’ve ever needed to do as a reporter or editor ever since.

As an editor with um … 40-something years of experience, I can nitpick about all the things I got wrong in this entry: Journal Opinion should be italicized but not hyphenated, spell out Vermont, spell out Route, a.m. not AM, and so on. But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll advise beginning journalists not to knock their assignments, however insignificant they may seem. Four decades later, I don’t remember the specifics of the Free Bed Fund. In fact, I had to look up its meaning:

Free Bed Fund means any gift of money, stock, bonds, financial instruments or other property made by any donor for the purpose of establishing a fund to provide medical care to patients at the hospital.

Granted, it wasn’t (or shouldn’t have been) front-page material. Today it’s the sort of thing most newspapers wouldn’t cover with a reporter. But the town forming (or approving) a fund to cover the medical costs of residents who can’t pay their hospital bills is nevertheless important news.

A good reporter would realize that this was the kind of “good news” that readers want to see. It’s heart-warming, and it’s “news you can use.” A better way to handle the story would have been after it was set up and someone had used it. Then a feature story could have led with that person’s story (even if anonymous) and shown how others might benefit.

Jeez! indeed. I had a lot to learn.

But I was off to a good start: Stopping at the diner and meeting the locals and the officials is not only polite, it makes things easier when you start covering a beat and asking questions.

One thought on “Surprise! (1979)

  1. Lovely. Geo says, “It sounds good to me. Once upon a time, I had one of those calculators, too. Only as I was advancing in my career I soon enough traded that one in for a scientific calculator, which has trigometric functions.” Stupid me, I made the dreadful mistake of asking him what trigonometry actually is, having only made it through geometry. Then my audio brain kicked in while Geo is talking about “finding the heighth of a drill point on a one-inch drill, complete with illustrations for me, “…and you want to tap the hole, and it calls for 3//8ths pitch….blah blah, for that, bit with 118 degrees or some other angle, blah blah, and the call out is for thread to a depth of blah blah 5/8ths of an inch have to allow for a lead chamfer on the tap…blah blah (and suddenly I am going cross-eyed while he talks on about a “split point” drilling metal bit to sharpen it you need a drill pointing machine because you won’t get a nice point otherwise…but in my head I see Danny Kaye singing, “The Sum of a Hypotenuse.” and then I am thinking of all the legal ramifications Mr. Kaye would get fired for attempting those maneuvers at a school today while Geo is talking about the right angle of the drill bit. Small wonder why kids hate school and children are illiterate in BOTH math and reading nowadays…and that is what thinking in pictures is like…and poor Howard will know I did not proof read this honest response. I never even got to tell him I started my first job not so far from this time, at I believe $1.60 an hour…

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