The mayor interrupts the city council meeting to say hello when I walk in. I like that. It makes me feel like Dan Rather's co-anchor.
I pull my stomach in as I glide over to my colleagues in the press box. The three of us slouch in folding chairs in the corner of the room, a guy from the local weekly, my opposite number at the rival radio station, and me. They know I've just left five kiddies and a husband at home eating burgers. I waft in on a breeze of Avon over bacon and onions.My eyes glaze over as I peruse this week's agenda. Water and sewer, drink and stink. The council will argue over one hook-up for 20 minutes.
The newspaper guy shifts in his chair and parks his foot on the empty seat in front of him. The other newslady uncrosses her knees, crosses her ankles and doodles in the corner of her agenda. I count the number of cowboy boots in the room. It'll do no good to yearn for some juicy news. Last week's meeting should have kept the entire press box satisfied for a month.
I had thought it would be boring last week, too. The agenda couldn't have sounded more dead, especially one item, Mildred Jenner: problem at the cemetery. Little did we know that Mildred would be famous nationwide the day after last week's meeting.
You see, Mildred had a little business at the cemetery. Worms. Early mornings and late evenings Mildred would stake her electric rods into the moist, loamy soil at the local graveyard. When the slimy night crawlers squirmed to the surface, she would kneel down on the lush grass between the tombstones and gather them up. Like gathering Easter eggs, she said.
Mildred needed 6,000 dozen worms to keep her fishing bait business going every season. The cemetery with its untrampled grass had been her most fruitful ground.
Poor Mildred knew she was in trouble last week. Otherwise, why would city fathers list her as a "problem at the cemetery?" Alas and alack! Someone had seen Mildred harvesting her crops and had become incensed. Was worm gathering reverent?
A tearful but resolute Mildred had gazed squarely into the eyes of every council member last week and professed her reverence. A hundred people on her petition said her worm-gathering would not bother their dead relatives. Were the complainants afraid she would shock some body? After all, wasn't she performing some valuable maintenance service?
The city fathers thought not. If so much as one person complained . . . lawsuits . . . liability insurance . . . Mildred, the worm lady, would have to move her business elsewhere.
But Mildred wouldn't be without her day in the sun. The press had smelled a story. My rival colleague beat me to the wire, and before any of us could say night crawler, Salt Lake TV news crews were here to film Mildred and her crop. She was even mentioned on Paul Harvey's show.
We couldn't expect another like that for another 10 years.
The ancient air conditioner in the council chamber called us back to the present and the wrap-up of water and sewer. Hey, wait a minute! This next item might rate a line on tomorrow's newscast. The owner of a local pet shop was requesting the council change an ordinance forbidding the sale of exotic animals. After last week's worms, I could envision a boa constrictor slithering down Main Street in the Fourth of July Parade.
No, the guy wants to sell cougar cubs. He also has orders for a bear cub, two ferrets, five skunks and 79 raccoons.
A couple of council members scratch their heads. They can't understand why someone would buy a $2,000 cat to prowl around in a locked cage. The council members say they will think it over. From experience, I know this means they will direct the city administrator to see if he can find a graceful way to say "Not on your life, buddy." After all, the pet shop owner is a businessman, and tax revenues are down. But the mayor doesn't want raccoons in his corn patch.
TV movies frequently portray city councils as groups of blustering idiots always set on frustrating the righteous projects of heroines. With the worm episode last week, even the state media made these schoolteachers and car salesmen out to be a bunch of bozos. Although I admit to an occasional burst of editorial indignation over some of their actions, I recognize this council as basically a sincere bunch. We've been together every Tuesday evening for two years. If I focused on their weaknesses, they would dry up faster than an August rain, as would my city news.
Besides that we all went through my last pregnancy together.
Fancying myself a modern woman, I do not believe a reporter should fade off the airwaves when she becomes `enciente.'
Hence, I went along with the council when they met in special session at the site of the new swimming pool. I was in my ninth month by then, but the swimming pool construction was the hot story. Was the council going to discipline the contractor for shoddy concrete work?
I waddled around the site to look at the cement seams. I squatted with rest of them to inspect the joints in the deck. They arose to move on. I didn't. I was stuck there with my belly between my knees. If I moved I would roll over backward.
When it became apparent I was no longer with the group, they turned around. Did they laugh? Did they look askance? Bless them, two esteemed council members grasped me firmly, one under each arm like a crane and hauled me upright.
Being a reporter in a small town is more than covering meetings. We had a murder last year, the first in a decade. Every so often the cops pick up somebody for selling dope. But most of the time there are not hot stories, and the podunk reporter works harder than her big city counterpart just finding something to write.
I don't go out on a regular beat but cover everything, working with a cassette tape recorder and a Tinker Toy mike.
Sometimes I make mistakes. Like the time the torch runner passed through Podunk on his way to the Olympics in Los Angeles. The station wanted something live. No problem, I said. The phone booth in front of the movie theater would be perfect.
Unfortunately, the phone booth was enclosed on three sides with metal plates. Two small glass panels on either side of the phone itself allowed the only straight-on view to the street. The receiver was wired to a cord stretching 2 feet at the most.
I dialed the station number when I could see the Olympic torch bearer approaching three blocks away. The whole town had turned out for the sight, backing their pickups onto the street, sitting on the curbs, standing three deep on the sidewalks and even perching on the tops of downtown buildings. They were clapping and whistling for all they were worth.
I stepped out of the phone booth, holding the phone with one hand, stretching my arm and the cord as far as possible to catch a glimpse. From the distance, the runner was short and stocky, very muscular with cropped black hair. Stepping back into the viewless booth, I reported the crowd's enthusiasm, the fervor, the patriotism, live! My description built rhythmically with each imagined pace. I couldn't have generated more drama for the president himself. Here he came! Here he came! Here he caaa . . . me . . . Horror of horrors! When I could finally actually see the torch runner through that narrow pane of phone booth glass, my mistake was very apparent. There was no doubt about it. The Olympic torch bearer was a SHE!
The news beacon of Podunk . . . outcued.
* Jill Elliss, former Duchesne County bureau chief of KVEL-FM93, is a publication specialist for the Utah Farm Bureau Federation.