It’s been over ten years since I was fortunate enough to have been a composition editor for a small Texas daily. I have a thousand stories I could tell you about my adventures in Central Texas. I’d prefer not to, as many strange and terrible things befell me in that dark place. I could tell you about the good things I took away from it, but where would be the fun in that. So, while the stories I have to tell you about my time as a composition editor for a small Texas daily aren’t exactly strange and terrible, they aren’t exactly good memories either.
First, let me explain what a composition editor (or at least my version of it) does for the periodical he serves. I worked for a small daily newspaper – though I am unable to find record of it, I believe we were the smallest daily in circulation in Texas at the time – and for six days out of the week, one other composition editor and myself built the contents of the daily. My specific duty was to fluff the middle, meaning that front page and the sports section were off-limits, leaving in my sole control the opinion, lifestyle, local and world news sections. At least, I think we had those sections. It was a long time ago. It was left up to me to peruse the Associated Press wire and obtain wholesome stories that would befit a small Texas daily. Starting at the end of 2002 I was privileged to be the man that brought quality news to the loyal readership of the area in question.
The wire, at that time, was a treasure trove of spectacular happenings that today’s news makes look like a Sunday School Southern Maid Donut Jamboree.
One of the first stories I remember pulling over covered the formation of the Department of Homeland Security. It started a daily ritual of finding the most left-leaning yet right-apologetic pieces I could find. Lots of moderate bullshit that left a bad taste in my mouth – but not near what foulness you’d find in other locals. I thought Bush was a gold mine, but Jesus … if it had been Trump back then. The Editor-in-Chief usually had final say in most big news stories, and especially if he decided to pull them onto the front page. However, since that genuinely nice old man was more concerned with his own stories looking good on the front page, he usually gave anything beyond it a pass. And that’s where I had the opportunity to push just a little of my own agenda.
Not long after the start of 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas. My superior told me that morning that he had driven all over Central Texas looking for debris to photograph for the paper, but at press time, I was left with stealing pics from another local paper, with due credit given, of course. I remember the story I was tasked to run was more about the debris and the people scrambling to claim some than the lives lost. It was a brief but chilly lesson.
Months later, the Iraq War began. The Human Genome was completed to 99.99% accuracy. Mars made its closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years. NO SERIOUSLY, this is when that actually happened, look it up. I remember running that story because I had a telescope at my disposal and actually saw Mars for the first time, icecaps and all. Gregory Peck, Bob Hope, Johnny and June Carter Cash, Katharine Hepburn, Barry White, Gregory Hines, Charles Bronson, and Art Carney and many, many others died that year – which is pretty interesting because when you look at all the people that died in 2003 compared to say 2016, it’s not as if the deceased were of any less caliber or any less noticeable frequency – but 2016 was the year that social media declared that everyone was dying and cursed the year for it.
And there’s the big difference between being a composition editor in 2005 and being something similar in 2017 – news, true or fake, is a virus. It spreads from page to page. We share it, spread it around, leave traces of it on all our devices. Like modern medical science gone horribly wrong, what was once something that a skilled hand would take from secure and trusted sources and administer to the public in controlled and safe snippets is suddenly obtainable either over-the-counter or on the street corner, depending on which type of news you prefer.
I admit, I do get a bit of a buzz from the hyped-up, conspiracy theory, I-just-cooked-this-shit-up-in-a-bathtub-in-my-granddaddy’s-abandoned-hoarder-house brand of news that comes from the orifices of people like Alex Jones, but I prefer the brand name stuff in the end. Reddit.
Which brings me to my first aside: Reddit. I’ve only been visiting Reddit for about a year. I don’t want you to see my subscriptions, but I’ll tell you I have two logins, and each have very different content. I don’t have time to explain Reddit to you if you don’t know of it. Look it up.
I used to be a straight subscription browser. I never deviated from the hottest posts from my chosen subs. And then there was r/all, and things escalated quickly. Now, my Reddit day begins with r/all, moves to r/worldnews, then to r/news, then usually to … well, modesty forbids me.
I can’t stand Twitter. I scroll quickly through Facebook to see what people are pulling from Reddit. I can lurk on Reddit, but Facebook and Twitter feel like I’m either stalking or being assaulted.
Anyway, try some r/popping sometime.
Back to 2005. The first six-party talks occur to discuss how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. I remember being really disappointed and terrified by the thought of a country like North Korea having nuclear weapons. I also remember my editor laughing about it. I remember lots of people saying it would never happen. I remember convincing myself that there is no way we’d allow something so stupid to happen.
And here we are, one Kim falls, another takes his place and they now have nuclear weapons. Yay Earth! Good job!
Aside #2: Have you ever read The United States Strategic Bombing Survey’s The Effects of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki from 1946? I have. I have read a physical copy of it that I obtained from sources close to myself. You won’t have this source, but you can just read it here. Maps aren’t in the PDF, but here’s a shot of the copy I have access to, plus one of the maps.
In 1946, they didn’t have all the information on the long term effects of these bombings, but even so, this is the conclusion from the report:
Our national policy has consistently had as one of its basic principles the maintenance of peace. Based on our ideals of justice and of peaceful development of our resources, this disinterested policy has been reinforced by our clear lack of anything to gain from war–even in victory. No more forceful arguments for peace than the sight of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have ever been devised. As the developer and exploiter of this ominous weapon, our nation has a responsibility, which no American should shirk, to lead in establishing and implementing the international guarantees and controls which will prevent its future use.
Why do we find it so easy to dismiss the fact that the dropping of Atomic Bombs on these two cities in Japan is one of the most heinous acts of war in history? It’s easily dismissed, I suppose, when those two acts helped end one of the worst wars of our brief existence. It should have ended all wars. It should have woken us up to the fact that our idiocy and ego had gained us the trigger to our own destruction.
And look where we were in 2005. Twelve years later, and we haven’t learned much or accomplished anything. North Korea has nukes. We’re still effectively at war. Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.
We don’t learn.
It reminds me of a tale I once read. I feel nervous about telling you where I read it, times being what they are.
Let me explain.
You might or might not be familiar with a controversial film released by Disney called Song of the South. It’s based on stories by Joel Chandler Harris, derived from classic African and Native American folktales. You know, Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, Uncle Remus and the like. I saw the last theatrical release of this film in 1986, and I couldn’t tell you why it was considered racist then, but I do understand the controversy now. Back then, it was just a Disney movie with anthropomorphic rabbits, foxes, bears, etc. It was a Disney movie, I was a kid.
Some time after I left that newspaper and turned my life around, I took a little trip to Archer City and visited Larry McMurtry’s Booked Up – a massive collection of used books taking up several buildings off the town square.
After hours in sweltering heat, I came away with one single book:
The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus
Why did I grab it? I don’t know. It seemed like something I might not find again. I’m a completionist, and here was the COMPLETE Uncle Remus.
I felt guilty about it, and for the socially prescribed reasons. It sat in my book queue for a decade before it finally came up in my random draw that I do.
Forget the stereotypical dialogue, which you can’t really say isn’t a good attempt by Harris to capture the feel of the spoken word as it was relayed to him–the tales gathered therein are folklore, akin to Aesop’s Fables, that instructed and entertained, and that share similarities across many cultures from the American South, to Native American Tribes, to Africa, to ancient India. The tales focus on the hero-prankster Br’er Rabbit, who lies, cheats, tricks, and outright murders just as many peaceful woodland creatures as you can imagine.
There’s the familiar tarbaby tale, which was part of the Disney film. There’s a version of the tortoise and the hare race that many of us know from Bugs Bunny and the like.
Then there’s the one about how Br’er Rabbit trapped Br’er Wolf in a box and poured boiling water on him until he died. Fair play, right? I mean ole Wolfie would have eaten Br’er Rabbit eventually.
What about the time Br’er Rabbit tricked and then trapped Br’er Wolf in a hollow tree and burned him alive.
Like I said earlier, We Don’t Learn. Just like the woodland creatures that continue to associate with Br’er Rabbit after he steals their food, sets them against each other, AND MURDERS THEM. We don’t learn. It reminds me of a story.
Once upon a time, Br’er Rabbit tricked and killed Br’er Fox, cut off his head, and then tried to feed it to Br’er Fox’s wife and children.
I shit you not.
It’s morbid AF.
Sweet dreams children.