Budding Writer, 1979: I stood my ground

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About this series: I revisited my journals from my first year as a freelance writer and found they told a story of their own. In this series I get the rare opportunity to give myself, and other writers, career advice with nearly 50 years of hindsight. Enjoy!

A local journalist often confronts obstacles to getting the story: reluctant sources, arbitrary executive sessions, closed doors.

Today we have Freedom of Information laws to help protect the public’s right to know. Back then, it all depended on the reporter’s assertiveness, which I did not have in abundance.

On June 13, 1979, the Oxbow School Board, which ran the union school district, met at an unusual venue: the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, or CRREL, in Hanover, New Hampshire, about 25 miles from the school.

I covered all school board meetings as a matter of routine. So it came as a surprise when a CRREL representative asked me to leave.

A decent day, all-round. Particularly decent since I earned $100 (only got paid $90) this week. Ahhh …

The day started out with an excursion to CRREL to cover a presentation to the Oxbow board. I was requested (politely) to not cover it by a CRREL spokesman but I stood my ground and apparently was backed up by [the school superintendent] and (maybe) [the town attorney]. Anyway, it made me feel professional — and a responsible journalist.

… I paid 90 cents a gallon for gas, and drove to Oxbow to cover an awards ceremony. [The superintendent] thanked me for acting as I did at CRREL. (I think he would have been cooler had he seen today’s JO and lead article on Oxbow.)

Today I drafted a letter to Jud Hale (Yankee) proposing an objective insider’s view of the real Dartmouth story, as opposed to the sensationalism of this month’s Esquire article. I’ll probably rewrite it and send it. Come to think of it, I think I’ll draft a query letter to Dinan at the Alumni Mag, too …

Journal, Volume II
13 June 1979

Why? It was nothing top secret. According to my clips, CRREL had a new piece of equipment: a heat-sensitive infrared camera to test for thermal leaks. They received a request from the school district for advice on Oxbow High School’s leaky roof.

The reason for secrecy seems to be that CRREL didn’t want to come across as a consulting firm open to the public. I offered to explain that in the story. That way everyone won: I got a good story, Oxbow got its testing, and CRREL made its point about this being a unique circumstance where they could test their unit.

I knew Judson D. Hale, the longtime editor of Yankee and The Old Farmer’s Almanac, was a Dartmouth alumnus. Either he or the editor of the alumni magazine would be interested in a rebuttal to the Esquire piece bashing the college for male chauvinism.

The problem was: How do you rebut the truth?

Sunset lingers over Plattsburgh, New York, from Lake Champlain ferry, on June 2, 2023. By Howard Fielding. Offered under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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