Tuesday, September 16, 2014

In the newsroom: memoir 20

Though just a newsroom aide at the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune ($5/hour), I was thrilled it involved writing: weather reports, wedding and anniversary blubs and -- most fascinating of all -- obituaries. By 8 a.m. the funeral homes would call with the death notices and I would then try to shape the nicest stories out of the grimmest details. Sometimes I phoned family members to learn more about their loved one so that the obit could have a little warmth.
    Since the T-T was an afternoon paper, my deadline was 10 a.m.
    With the phone cradled on my shoulder, I wrote in a spiral notebook then typed. After observing the reporters, I weaned myself away from this middle step, soon able to imitate them by typing while on the phone. I loved the ding of the return bar and the clickity-swooosh when you pulled paper out of the inked roller. Final step, walking it over to the editor's in-basket.
    It might sound macabre, but I loved writing these short stories, as I called them.
    I got permission to visit local Funeral Homes. Having never attended a memorial or even known anyone who died, I was curious what went on there. Also, I wanted to meet the voices behind the morning calls. These solemn men in dark suits oozed compassion and were gracious about giving a tour. My footsteps were silent on the plush carpet as I crept near an open casket. I touched the pale hand that lay across the chest. Cold as marble. Okay. So now I knew. Obits usually led by name, age, and date-of-death, but I tried to begin with a fun tidbit. From my clippings:  
Emil J. Johnson, a Swedish immigrant who narrowly missed sinking with the Titanic, has died at the age of 91. When the 22-year old discovered another ship was to throw an Easter party, he changed tickets at the last minute ...
      An elder reporter, Betty, aka "The Battle Ax," confronted me one day at my desk. Her angry voice carried through the newsroom as typewriters fell silent and heads turned our way.
     "WHO told you to write obituaries that way?" she demanded.
     I was still new and innocent about her reputation for demoralizing writers. "It just seems more interesting this way," I told her.
     Five seconds is a long time when all eyes are on you. Finally Betty said, "Oh." As she turned to storm through the newsroom, heads whipped down and the cacophony resumed. Later one of the reporters, Ann Fairbanks, said, "Way to go, Kristi. We were scared you wouldn't be able to stand up to her."

From BLUE SKIES: ONE AUTHOR'S JOURNEY, to be published this Fall.

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