An email arrived yesterday from a lady who reads this blog: “Why don’t you write a column about writing columns to get yourself back into the swing?” – a meritorious idea indeed. That email, plus some good words from a friend in Gardnerville, pointed me toward a reunion with the laptop that I was yesterday going to give away.
I tried it – after writing columns for about 40 years, 31 with the Gazoo at the invitation of of Rollan Melton – I find that writing about how it’s done is akin to thinking about driving a car with a clutch – gas off, clutch in, shift the lever, clutch out, gas pedal up – you’ll grind a gear every time if you think about it and don’t just DO it! So I’m going to grind a few gears right now – let’s write a column, best to start by putting your brain out of gear…
For openers, the doctors stole a rule from columnists: “First do no harm.” I’ve been counseled, and occasionally asked, to raise hell about something or someone or some restaurant’s service or some politician’s mindless ramblings (the rule of “no politics” probably contributed to my longevity!). And no; not gonna happen – this column has never been a bully pulpit. Guidance, possibly; but never “avoid this place like the plague” after a bum meal.. I’ve written, “We said ‘Grace’ after our meal” and let the chips fall where they may with readers.
If you’ve seen a name here, it’s after I contacted and gained permission to use that name. I was told that by a San Francisco Chronicle columnist who passed away in 1997 whose name I don’t have permission to use. And occasionally I’m told, “Here’s an item, but don’t use my name…” My response to that has been “OK” if I trust them, “But if I get bounced for it, your name comes out.” And occasionally if it’s iffy enough I just say no, thanks. Not being a true reporter, I can do as I will in that regard.
I should mention in that regard that the Christmas poems, which I’ve done a dozen of with upwards of 140 names in each, that that rule about gaining permission is suspended. If your name rhymes with someone else’s, like “Arrizabalaga” or “Parkenfarker,” I’ll probably roll the dice and use it. I’ve caught hell a few times over names, like the time I mentioned Esther and Lester Westergard and his brother Chester. “Please don’t do that again,” I heard from the whole family. OK.
The most popular columns over the years? One was clearly of Eugene’s restaurant, a link from 1950s Reno to an element of metropolitan style. The 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olynpics. Downtown “Walks.” Old schools and the teachers who taught in them. And of my “Faded Menus” accounts – from Vario’s and the Liberty Belle to Henry’s Corner and Landrum’s and all falling in between. Anything to do with the Mapes Hotel, including accounts of The Misfits movie. Anything to do with Harrah’s Club and Mr. Harrah, now cloaked in a Non-Disclosure Agreement with its late former employees and the few surviving NDA signatories – like yours truly – who still honor the contract 41 years following his passing. I’ll explore that in a column soon.
Some things I jokingly don’t write about (actually I do sometimes!): architects, irrigation ditches, churches and railroads. Many popular architects had their plans “stamped off” by another mentor and don’t show as the architect-of-record. Irrigation ditches’ records exist, sort of, in Italian and thus are hard to research. Church records are kept marginally by Suzy until Suzy dies, and is replaced by Tilly, who didn’t like Suzy in the first place, and changed all the records to match Tilly’s also-marginal recollection and then along comes Breckenridge, uses Tilly’s records and gets fed his column by those who know, or think they know, what really happened. And railroads have sets and subsets of files, most of which vary, and I gave up on them when ace SP historians Richard C. Datin and Dale Darney passed away.
I later added LaVere Redfield to that list, and loved the book about him written by my friend Jack Harpster. Better Jack than I.
An element of journalism I’ve become constantly in awe of, took place during World War II when I was a pre-schooler: the press’ ability to suppress wartime intelligence. Try finding out about the ordnance depot just north of Washoe General Hospital (Renown), or Reno (Stead) Air Force Base, or for that matter even 1960s Rocketdyne north of Reno. No text accounts, if I’m lucky a slim handful of bootlegged pictures. The writers and editors really knew what they were doing back then.
I’ve tried to give some “under the radar” folks their fifteen minutes of fame: Mr. Minetto, who had no first name, our janitor at Mary S. Doten Elementary School. Dozens of old schoolteachers who will never get a school named for them. Friends. The chef at Harolds Club, no apostrophe, when I was asked by a reader for the recipe for Harolds Club’s famous banana cream pie cake. That one ended backfired on me; I found him through his daughter, who spoke his Italian. “Dad says unless you’re making ten restaurant sheet cakes and need that much of the mix the club bought by the gallon, go buy a Betty Crocker mix – dad says it’s as good as ours ever was.” Honesty is a byword of this column.
Some stories don’t need to be told. I hear twice a year about the guy who shot up a fleabag motel west of town and got dead after ruining a bunch of Rembrandts in the 1970s. “You should do a column about it…!” Or I should write of the (husband, wife, cleaning lady, plumber) who found the two, four, six kids shot dead by the husband, wife, cleaning lady, plumber in the fancy home on Nixon, Dartmouth, Arlington, California, or Gordon Avenue in the late 1950s or early ‘60s. Or the scion of the uranium king and his buddies that had the mother of all fistfights in Wingfield Park and killed a kid, or the doctor who drowned his wife in a fashionable house in northwest Reno in the 1960s. Or a few others that keep coming up. The motel stunt was 1966 and they were Modiglianis from Wilbur May’s ranch, not Rembrandts; there were three children shot by their mother in 1958; no child died in Idlewild Park not Wingfield Park, (but some notable families were involved); I lived half a block from the doctor who broke his wife’s neck, not drowned her, in 1954. I have more info about them all than that in the morgues of the Gazette or the Journal, most written out in column format, but the common thread to all is that some family remains in Reno for each incident (and a dozen others), or in the case of the three children shot by their mother who then died by her own hand, the home where it happened, which is in truth on none of those streets I named, is occupied and the occupants don’t need to read about that aspect of their residence.
Those will never see the light of day in the Ol’ Reno Guy column. The Galaxy crash and Pacific Air Lines story appeared only after discussion with surviving family members……..
How long are columns? I always shoot for a thousand words, but usually fudge it up to 1,200 by the time I’m finished (get this: I’m looking at my word counter now and am at 1,171!) Columnists develop a “sixth sense” for space. This one is longer due to its content. How long does it take to write? I might have one written in my head driving between Vallejo and Truckee then sit down and type it. Yes, I did in earlier days my columns on a Brother typewriter, and have to end with a tale from the past, of an old lady reader from San Rafael who would monthly send me a couple pages typed on vellum paper with a relic typewriter with a fabric ribbon. I responded on vellum paper with my Underwood Standard using a fabric ribbon, and she thought I was the greatest thing since night baseball ‘til she passed away in 1999. Her family let me know of that on, you guessed it, vellum paper typed with a fabric ribbon. Still got that letter….
So, there are 1,311 words about the column – I’ll end it with “God bless America” for old time’s sake, and thank my friend Mike Fischer for getting me off my ass to write another column. More will follow – you can thank or blame Mike for that!