Generally Speaking: On the job training


Everything I know about writing and journalism I learned in kindergarten — kind of. It was quite unorthodox. 

When I was a little girl growing up in Indianola, my mother wrote for The Enterprise Tocsin.

She was also a string reporter for several newspapers, among them the Delta Democrat Times, The Clarion Ledger, and The Commercial Appeal.

Of course, there were no computers – the thought of anything as amazing as e-mail would have been a tale of science fiction.

String reporters were critical to a regional newspaper because time sensitive communication depended on the U.S. Postal System and the telephone!

At least several times a week, Mama would dash into the house about 5 p.m., steno pad in hand and with laser focus commence typing on her Smith Corona manual typewriter.

She immediately became totally oblivious to anything happening around her. Call it healthy neglect, but the rest of our family was pretty much on our own between the hours of five and eight p.m. When I was really small, I distinctly recall riding my tricycle up and down the hall and right through the living room without my mother’s notice. Had I been a little more creative, I could have gotten into a lot of mischief.

The family dinner hour? Forget that. My daddy managed to locate the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes most nights. I was in college before I knew that cereal was something other families ate for breakfast.

At about 7:15 Mama would have one of us telephone the post office. Indianola still had the old “Number Please” switchboard system; so, we waited for the operator to ring up Mr. Leroy Smithhart, the local postmaster. His family must not have had a dinner hour either.

The mail trucks departed Indianola at 7:30 every evening, but at least once a week, my mother asked him to hold them a few extra minutes so that she could get her story in. Marie Hemphill was a very proper Southern lady, and I never figured out where she learned to drive like a Nascar pro. That is exactly what she did through the dark streets of the city from 405 Heathman Avenue to the post office. She would stop the car on Catchings Street beside the boxwood hedge, hand me a brown envelope bearing the word RUSH in thick red caps. That envelope held her typed story and a roll of film. (She always took her own photos). I would scoot across the hedge and hand it to the truck driver, and he would place it on the dashboard of the mail truck. Someone from the newspaper would be waiting for it on the other end. The Hemphill family could exhale for the first time in hours.

Looking back I see how wacky our “normal” was. But we were so proud of  Mama. My daddy would almost meet the paper boy in the front yard the next morning when her story appeared on the front page of the second section where the big papers used to put human interest stories.

Those kinds of stories have been lost in the present era of sensation and shock. 

I tell people all the time that even though I have always been a closet writer, I honestly think my PTSD from those frantic evenings of crazed dashes to the post office at bedtime kept me from thinking I might like journalism. It was too scary! Driving fast in the dark and eating soggy cereal for dinner for the rest of my life did not interest me at all when I was 18 and headed to college.

I laugh about it now. I do recall that my daddy was my mother’s biggest cheerleader, and he never once complained about dinner. He did, however, contribute to the negative way I viewed newspaper work. His fledgling car dealership had one “demonstrator,” which is a nice way of saying he had one actual new car on the lot. Customers would drive it, then look at a pamphlet of available options and colors and wait six weeks for the delivery of a custom car. In those glory days of the Delta, in the years the cotton crop was good, farmers traded cars almost every year. And they traded at home with my daddy or one of the other local dealers.

We lived and died by the cotton crop!

Other than that prized fine demonstrator, Daddy had to guard the better trade-ins that he could easily sell. It was from the inventory on about the third row of the used car lot that he chose the cars my mother got to drive all over the Delta. And it was not unheard of for us to break down, knock on a stranger’s door, ask to use a telephone and call The Central Buick Company to send help.

Another tidbit — I always rode shotgun on the front seat without a seat belt, of course. Seatbelts had not been invented, and when they were my sweet daddy thought the whole idea was a Ralph Nader liberal conspiracy.

Due to the fact that my mother’s journalistic career was dependent on driving all over in marginally operative cars, I did not develop a lofty opinion of newspaper writing.

I realize now, however, I absorbed much from the time I spent with my mother and her career and also from my daddy’s car business. When my mother could not take me somewhere I would spend the afternoon with my daddy at the car dealership. I was around adults a lot and I did a great deal of eavesdropping on their conversations.

With my mother I learned to listen for the story inside the story.  When I was with my daddy, I heard him talk the most random topics in the world. I could tell, however, that he listened intently to his customers. And then, bingo! He sold a car. I couldn’t figure out how any of that applied to me, but I knew innately that one day it would all make sense.

So often in the story of our lives, in retrospect, we find that some of the things that did not seem important at all were the most important things that shaped the path we traveled later.

One of my favorite preachers once told me to pay attention because God wastes nothing in our lives. Truer words were never spoken.



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