I haven't been given many assignments by Small Town Newspaper lately, but over the weekend, I got a good one. South of here, there is an old train depot that was a stop for soldier trains during World War II. A Salvation Army Canteen staffed with volunteer women was there to give soldiers sandwiches and coffee, and the place was nicknamed Dreamsville. You can read more about it here. I love the way the volunteer is eying the soldier in this photo—"Why, hello. Cookie, my dear? Some chewing gum, perhaps?"
Every year, the Depot hosts an appreciation event for veterans of all wars, and it starts with a "ticker tape" parade down Main Street. My assignment was to go to the parade and talk to veterans to get their stories, so I showed up early in the morning on Saturday to catch them while they were lining up. Most of them were escorted in classic convertibles, and it took time to match them with their drivers.
Usually when I cover an event like this with the job of "talk to people and get their stories," I stand in the middle and take stock of the crowd. If I do a 360 and pay attention to what's going on around me, I can usually spot people who look interesting, people who might have a story to tell. Really, everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone can articulate it, and you have to do some sorting before you approach people. For example, while I was scoping out the crowd, an elderly man came up to me and started singing to me, "You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away..." and I helped him finish the last line, "Know when to run." He smiled and shuffled off, and I knew then I did not want to interview him about his war history. I had an idea he wouldn't make much sense.
I found two elderly men who were a lot of fun, though. They were both in their 80s and had fought in World War II. They were very articulate and remembered details clearly—one man has seven bronze stars and fought in North Africa under the command of Gen. Patton, and the other was a gunner with the Fighting Tigers. I found two Vietnam veterans who rode in on motorcycles, and they told me about how they were treated when they returned to the States after the war, and they had a good sense of humor now from a distance. And then I found two boys in their early 20s who just returned from a year in Iraq where they served with an MP company. After I spoke to each of these men, I sat on the curb and watched the parade go by. The veterans were the focus, so there were no floats or clowns or people tossing candy into the crowd. Instead, the crowd threw tiny bits of paper at the veterans to simulate ticker tape. It didn't quite work, but the symbolism was clear.
I wrote the article, submitted it and read it back to myself on the front page the next day. Job done.
What happened next was a new experience for me, but I understand it happens to every journalist with a byline. Some guy looked up my name in the phonebook and called my house on Sunday afternoon. Husband and I were busy hanging curtains for most of the afternoon, but I stopped what I was doing to hear the man out.
He started with a question—he asked if one of the men I interviewed in the article was a "little colored man." I flinched but calmly replied that he was not but was an elderly Italian man instead. He just wondered because he rode in one of the featured convertibles as a Vietnam veteran, and a "little colored man" was in the front seat. He just wondered. Then he told me his own story about what happened when he returned to the States after the war. It was interesting—he was flown home because he was injured, and when he was released from the hospital, staff told him not to walk out in public in his uniform. Vets were being hit with rocks and trash and being shouted at and called names. His story was in line with what I had heard from the men on motorcycles the day before, and I was willing to sit and listen to him as he spoke to me.
But then the conversation turned, and this guy started in on a rant about how this country is falling to pieces, and it's apparently all Obama's fault. After all, just 23 days after he was voted into office, he sent millions of dollars of aid to the Palestinians. "People need to know about this!" he barked as if it was some sort of secret and as if no other American president or the congress that approves such acts has ever given aid to Palestinians before.
Before he could say another asinine word, I told him I appreciated his call, and I'd be happy to talk to him about the parade, but I was not interested in discussing politics with him. Plus, I was in the middle of something AT MY HOME, I emphasized to remind him he had sort of invaded my private space, like he was standing too close to me or something.
He snapped back, "Have a nice day," and hung up on me. For the love of God, man! You call me and interrupt my curtain hanging on a Sunday afternoon and expect me to listen you blabber on and on about how you can't get a word with the local representative to the House, and you brag about how you were once thrown out of his office and how you believe this and that, and you're irritated when I politely excuse you? You're dismissed.
Those wonderful and gracious veterans I spoke to in the parade line-up wouldn't have called me at home, I'm pretty sure. They certainly wouldn't have called to chew my ear off with their political jibberish. Still, I enjoyed the parade and the assignment. And I was honored to spend time with the polite veterans—every single one of them called me "ma'am."