By Keith Huffman
Her voice was grave.
It was critical – absolutely vital – that I listen closely the first time. She didn’t have long to explain. Soon they’d come and take the telephone away from her. Now was the time to be serious.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied into the office phone, wondering with whom I was speaking. She hadn’t given her name. Instead, she’d instantly insisted that what she had to report was urgent.
She was being held captive. At a local nursing home. And the villain behind this horrendous misdeed was none other than her very own son.
“I knew he’d been plotting against me this whole time,” she said, her voice growing angrier and louder. Now she wanted to submit a letter to the editor of the weekly newspaper where I worked. She wanted to expose this infringement on her freedom and put a stop to her son, once and for all.
“He’s not gonna get away with this,” she vowed. “He’s gotten way too big for his britches.”
She then demanded that I write down her letter to the editor as she dictated it. Of course, I would know not to include all the “ummms” and “uhhhs” as she spoke, she assured me.
I was the only one in the office. But I was 99.9 percent certain I was right when I told her that she’d have to write the letter herself, sign it, and mail it in. Letter dictations over the phone could not be accepted.
She didn’t like hearing this, deeming it a ridiculous policy. Doesn’t the newspaper quote folks all the time?
“A letter’s different,” I said. “I’m sorry. I have to do as I’m told, ma’am.”
Angry muttering. The sudden sound of a dial button. Then, she spoke once more before hanging up.
“Fine. I’ll write and sign the letter.”
Sometime afterward, my editor returned to the office. I told him about the phone call, and he knew exactly who’d called. He was a friend of her family. “She’s having a little trouble taking to her new living arrangement,” he said.
To my knowledge, that letter was never received nor published. Of course, working for a weekly newspaper for a tight-knit community routinely resulted with my editor and me being yanked into family dramas on a regular basis. It was all part of working for the community’s old “rag.”
Sometimes folks called to ask if a relative was going to have their mugshot featured in the next issue’s arrest reports, a section I always dubbed the “Sheriff’s Weekly Roundup.” But it certainly wasn’t uncommon for folks to plead for their relatives to not be listed among others in the roundup. Most times, fretful mothers made these requests.
“I know he should act better. Much, much better. But he says he’s right with the Lord now. He says he repented last night and now he’s saved! But having that picture in the paper won’t do him no good. And it’s embarrassing for us, too.”
He that is without sin cast the first stone.
Top-notch professionalism and politeness were especially emphasized during these occasions. After giving callers or visitors time to unload their thoughts on the matter, my editor or myself would explain that the sheriff’s department sends the lineup. We always printed what they sent, and any concerns over anyone listed in the lineup would have to be taken up with them.
The sheriff’s department was our source. We were reporting the information they gave us. Usually, this explanation was all that was needed. Folks would communicate their understanding, sometimes plead a little more, then leave it be. Occasionally, some would threaten to unsubscribe.
But the Sheriff’s Weekly Roundup always made its appearance, unabridged.
But not all drama and local happenings required the disentangling from awkward moments. There were many, many memorable times that revealed the highlights of our community.
There was the time I got to ride along with a famous community celebrity. Nobody knew her name, but they all knew her special title. And folks of all ages would hurry to catch up with her the moment they heard her ride, all of them psychologically conditioned to its jolly melody.
Catch her if you can: The Ice Cream Lady!
There also was the devoted grandmother who traveled from her little country home, clear across the Atlantic Ocean, to Uruguay. All so she could spend a little visit with her grandchildren and their missionary parents.
Others shared about times spent overseas as well. I shook hands with multiple veterans of various generations, who reflected on their experiences during times of war. In serving their country, these brave soldiers also served the community they cherished.
Their community, in turn, cherished them.
Another example of bravery included a humble lady with a consoling smile, who endured the effects of diabetes and used her experience to encourage others to embrace healthy lifestyles. I’ll also never forget those strong folks whose spiritual strengths helped guide them through the horrors of addiction. Grateful for their freedom, they continue to use their testimonies to help free others.
All because they want the best for others, as did many of those representing the local government, nonprofits, churches and schools, who addressed matters ranging from routine fundraisers to providing emergency aid after natural disasters.
Many memorable people. Many, many kind hearts.
Working for a weekly rag will teach you a lot about a community. Naturally, no community is perfect, nor is its rag that soaks up all the news. A lot of things need some good tweakin’.
But this I’ll guarantee: You will find people who embrace a genuine love for the special place called “home.”
You can quote me on that.
Keith Huffman lives in Opelika. He can be reached at email@example.com.