Second of three parts.
After four years on the night copy desk, Laurie Hertzel was gently shoved into reporting, covering the Iron Range on the regional desk. She barely knew how to drive, she had never reported before, and she was terribly shy, so of course her debut assignment was much more of an ordeal than it should have been.
The staff cars lived in the garage under our building and were allegedly maintained by a crabby garageman named Frank. We called him Frahnk. He had names for some of us too; he called Bob Ashenmacher “Batman,” which was apt; Bob was always running late and used to rush into the garage in great haste, his raincoat flapping like a cape, hop into the reportermobile, and peel out into the alley like a—well, like a bat out of hell. It was clear that Frahnk had no respect for him, or for any of us. We didn’t have a lot of respect for Frahnk, either; the staff cars were chronically low on gas, usually full of cigarette butts and food wrappers, and often had wires and odd bits of metal poking out of the seats, which ripped the stockings of any woman foolish enough to wear stockings to work. (One reporter tried to expense a new pair after her legs were gouged by a car seat, but her claim was denied.) Even though Frahnk was there ostensibly to maintain the cars, no maintenance was ever done on them by him or his predecessor, as far as we could tell. One January, Jacqui Banaszynski drove all the way to Canada in a car with no heat.
Parking in that garage was an endless source of terror to me. I was still new at this driving business—until just a year or two before, I had ridden my bike everywhere, even to the Laundromat, with my dirty clothes stuffed into two red pannier bags—and I was not at all confident maneuvering in and out of tiny spaces in an underground cavern that had support beams every ten feet, no room to turn around, and Frahnk watching balefully from his chair by the door. You could tell from his expression that he was just waiting for you to hit something. Sometimes he would watch with something like contempt as I backed up and pulled out and backed up again, and he would finally say, “I’ll park it for you,” and I would leap out in relief, the engine still running, grab my notebook, and flee to the newsroom.
The staff cars said Duluth News-Tribune & Herald, stenciled in big white letters on the doors in the same font as our flag. This charmed me for about a week—Look at me driving around! I work for the press!—until it became apparent that being incognito was a much more efficient way to do business. We had one unmarked car, and it was much in demand. All of the cars were American-made, to ensure no trouble when we went up to the Iron Range, where jobs were being lost by the hundreds to foreign steel. The cars were equipped with two-way radios, so you could communicate with the newsroom while on the road. It was very Star Trek—the radio was a bulky beige box that was mounted on the console next to the automatic shift; you had to depress a key on the walkie-talkie to speak, and then release it to hear the response. One morning someone accidentally depressed the key with her leg when she was adjusting the car seat. The transmit key remained depressed for her hour-long drive to Biwabik, and so her voice was beamed into the newsroom, singing, singing, singing along with the radio as she zipped up Highway 53. It was a cheerful sound, and it lifted our spirits for the whole afternoon.
Regional editor John Krebs usually spent his afternoons perusing the weekly papers from the Iron Range and northern Wisconsin. Every so often, he would clip out a story and lumber over to my desk and tell me to go report and write my own version.
When I went on the road, I always had at least two assignments, to make the best use of time and gasoline, usually one newsy story and one feature. Good stories, stupid stories, stories about people who made crafts in their senior citizen apartments, stories about women who raised llamas, stories about kids with sad untreatable diseases, or Native American women who braided rugs to sell, or artists who lived in the middle of nowhere, stories about the Last Cobbler of Barnum, or the last appliance repair shop, or the last mom-and-pop resort, or the last we’ll-pump-it-for-you gas station—for a stretch of about three years I specialized in what I called End of an Era stories. Eras were ending left and right, and I wrote about them all. I also got the newsy stories—taconite plants shutting down, unemployment rising, people moving away, strikes at the mines, school districts consolidating. And every now and then, a plane crash, a tornado, a flood, a fire, a murder.
My first out-of-the-office reporting assignment was a story about how new security cameras had been installed in the hallways of Proctor High School. I was teamed up with a photographer named John Rott who was the epitome of calm, and I would not have made it through that assignment without him. He was one of the most laid-back people I’ve ever worked with. I don’t know if he picked up on my nervousness—maybe he thought I always trembled and my voice always rose to little more than a squeak. In any case, he didn’t say anything about it. He just drove us to Proctor, went into the interview with me, lounged quietly in his chair, and whenever I was struck dumb by nervousness, which was frequently, he filled in the gap by asking some basic question that should have occurred to me.
I asked the principal everything I could think of, and then Rott and I went out into the hall and talked to students. No one seemed very concerned about the cameras; no one seemed to view them as any kind of civil liberties infringement. There wasn’t very much crime or trouble in the halls of Proctor High School anyway. Rott took some pictures, and then we drove back to the office. I spent the afternoon poring over my notes, calling the principal back to ask things I should have asked earlier, and quietly panicking at my desk. Finally I got up and walked over to Krebs. “I can’t think of anything else to ask anybody,” I said.
He looked up at me, his round face amused. “Then I’d say it’s time for you to write your story,” he said. Ah. Oh yeah. Write. I slunk back to my desk and booted up my computer. Write.
Excerpted from “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist,” University of Minnesota Press.