Saturday, May 11, 2013

#665: Wyoming will be your new home....

After taking 10 years of the Air Force's BS as a public affairs specialist & base-newspaper guy, I jumped at the chance to Get Out & put-up with some Real World BS -- & took a job as managing editor of possibly the world's smallest daily newspaper: The Northern Wyoming Daily News in Worland.
I thought I could handle it -- I could work hard, I could handle stress, & I was charming & modest enough to win over anybody.
But I didn't really know what stress was. In Wyoming, I found out.
There was an immediate culture shock. In September 1992 we moved from the San Francisco Bay area (home of the world's smallest Air Force base) to the geographical Middle Of Nowhere -- a charming, quiet little farm town surrounded by rolling hills & mountains, about two hours southeast of Yellowstone National Park. But there were no natural wonders in Worland -- just miles of empty countryside, cattle farms & sugar-beet fields & hop fields & oil derricks. & the area's "local time" was somewhere around 1956.
We found a comfy old mid-'50s house with plenty of space for me, the wife & the two kids, with a huge basement "music room," & a heater good enough to keep us warm even when it was -40 outside. & it was only two blocks from the school.
I dived into editing the paper, which proved to be a bigger challenge than I thought. Turned out the editor's job was to layout more than half the paper, slap in stories off the Associated Press wire, proofread all the local news, & write when/IF there was time. As a result, I didn't write much. So I wasn't very happy.
Plus I kept running into longtime local residents who wondered -- & who asked very directly -- if The New Kid was going to be able to "fix" the paper: cut down on the misspellings & get the facts right & stop treating local law-enforcement with kid gloves & tell people what's REALLY going on....
That was the first part of my education. My REAL education didn't start until two years later, when I gave up editing & volunteered to write full-time. Then I was MUCH happier. & even busier & more stressed-out.
I learned lots of things. I learned that the Air Force had no IDEA what stress & overwork was. I learned that local residents had a WAY better idea of what national political policies were going do to them than I did -- because they lived with the impacts on their bottom-line every single day. When local farmers & ranchers were alarmed about NAFTA & claimed that it was going to export millions of U.S. jobs overseas & ruin them financially, I laughed at first. But they were absolutely right.
After that I kept my head down & wrote my ass off. I hardly ever talked politics with folks -- because even if I disagreed with them politically (or thought I did), most of my neighbors were really great people, absolutely salt of the earth: hard-working, dedicated, devoted to their families & their community. Just because I couldn't see their small-town Republican outlooks reflected in national Republican policies didn't mean we had to argue.
Besides, I didn't have TIME for that. Even in a town as small as Worland (4,500 people), there was always something going on -- car wrecks & house fires, & school board meetings & city council meetings & county commissioners' sessions. High school graduations, sports events, community events to publicize & then photograph.
In my "down" time I found lots of funny stuff to write about -- the computer glitch that delivered three-dozen Thanksgiving turkeys to a local woman's door (she donated them to the local senior center); the old couple who replaced their dying front lawn with multi-colored old carpets after giving up trying to grow grass (this caused car wrecks in front of their house); the town council that called a pot-bellied pig to a meeting in a debate about the town's livestock ordinance; how a packet of Holly Sugar got a five-second close-up in an episode of THE X-FILES (there was a Holly Sugar plant in town, & the investigation into how their product got on the show was worthy of an episode all by itself).
There were also plusses I never saw coming. Local politics could be a grind, but I got to interview the Governor, U.S. Senators & Representatives -- names that made the national news regularly. & most of 'em were great people, way easier to talk with than I ever expected. The biggest shock of all came when I got a standing ovation at the Worland GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner my last year there -- the idea that all these staunch local Republicans could give me (then a hard-core Democrat, I thought) a standing-O just put me on the floor. To me it said I'd kept my balance & done a solid job & not disappointed my readers.
I also got my musical horizons expanded in Wyoming: I became a bit of a country music fan, grabbing great albums by Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Pam Tillis, Carlene Carter, Wynonna, Travis Tritt, Dwight Yoakam, & more. Wyoming was also where I first heard Rush's great "Time Stand Still." & where I FINALLY decided that maybe Led Zeppelin had some talent, after repeated playings of "The Battle of Evermore" & "When the Levee Breaks" & *GASP* "Stairway to Heaven"....
It wasn't all fun&games. People froze to death during the bitter-cold winters. People got hit by trains. One beloved local pastor died tragically during a hunting trip. One guy shot a friend by accident during another hunting trip. One local highschool sports star raped & murdered a woman & then dumped her body in the river. One woman & her hideous parents ended up in court in an incest case that made 60 MINUTES. One local guy walked into a bar, shot three people execution-style, then took the $126 in the cash register. It was never clear if the money was to pay for his child-support or to fix the engine in his truck.
After the last of these -- & the death-sentence trial that ate-up my every waking moment for a month -- my Publisher told me that he couldn't afford to give me any vacation time, & that he couldn't afford to hire anyone else to help me report the news.
So, after six years in Wyoming, I started looking for a new job. My wife & kids had been all over the state, to Yellowstone, & up into Montana -- but I never got there, because I was almost always working.
After a couple months of sending out resumes, I got a phonecall from a small weekly newspaper on the Washington coast. The area was beautiful, & the paper looked like it could use some help -- I'd be writing full-time again. So I gave my Publisher 3 DAYS NOTICE, & left for Washington at the very end of May 1998.
My Publisher warned me that as weird & stressful as the Daily News had been, the new paper I was heading to might be even weirder, even more stressful -- with even fewer people to do the work. I told him I couldn't see how that was POSSIBLE.
But he was absolutely right....

No comments: