over time, my beat changed from the Iron Range to public schools to county government. but through it all, i spent every monday working night ga (general assignment). i liked it, because it extended my weekend by several hours--i didn't have to be at work on mondays until about 2 p.m.
and i also liked it because with general assignment there was always something going on, and it was always something different--maybe i had to make a few calls to fill out a story that a daysider had written, or maybe i had to cover a night meeting, or maybe there was a fire or a blizzard or a flood. once i interviewed a long-distance trucker whose semi was swept off highway 61 by a mudslide; he and his truck just rode the mudslide down the hill, like a surfboard, he said.
i remember driving to grand marais many times to cover endless meetings about the impending closure of the Birch Grove Elementary School up in Tofte. most of cook county is public land, and the few residents are scattered over a large area. the county could no longer afford to keep two elementary schools open, but closing birch grove meant the kids at the south end of the county would have to ride the school bus for more than an hour twice a day.
i liked covering these meetings; it was an interesting story, and you could easily see all sides--the financial conundrum, as well as the human toll. i carried a portable computer with me (much bigger and heavier than the laptop i'm typing this on now) and efficiently wrote my story right there in the school after the meeting had ended. the computer had a long patch cord with couplers on one end, which i attached to the earpiece and mouthpiece of a telephone in order to transmit my story to the office. sometimes you could borrow the superintendent's phone, but i always brought a few quarters with me, in case i had to use the pay phone.
it was cumbersome, but it worked.
and then there was nothing more to do except drive home, an hour and a half down Highway 61 in the black night through little marais and beaver bay and silver bay and castle danger, on down to duluth, listening to a radio station from the U.P. that beamed clearly across Lake Superior. there were deer everywhere, and you had to be careful; on one of those trips back i counted more than 80 along the side of the road.
part of the night GA job also involved doing the checks--calling all the sheriff's departments and cop shops and state patrol dispatchers between duluth and international falls, and from grand rapids all the way east to Upper Michigan, looking for news.
usually they'd just say, "nothin' going on," but every once in a while you'd get a good story. the best ones usually came out of wisconsin; i'm not sure why.
one time they told me about a guy who was in the hospital, recovering from a bear attack. black bears rarely attack people, but this guy had a pig farm, and he told me the squealing piglets sound a lot like baby bears. he was tending his piglets when a bear came roaring out of the woods and attacked, clawing the man and shredding his jeans--and his legs. the man's dog, which was chained to the side of the barn, went nuts. he broke free of his chain and chased the bear off. the story went out on the wires, and the guy's dog became a finalist for the Ken-L-Ration dog of the year. (it might even have won; i can't remember. but i think the dog's name was Bandit.)
my favorite story from wisconsin, though, was a crime story. a widow heard someone in her house late one night, so she tiptoed to the top of the stairs and peered over the railing and saw a man ransacking her house.
she tiptoed back into her bedroom and picked up the first thing she saw--the large plastic crucifix that she kept on the bed of her late husband. crucifix in hand, she tiptoed down the stairs, crept up behind the burglar, and started whaling him on the head with it. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! she kept hitting him. she told me that the plastic splintered, but the metal body of christ remained whole.
the burglar ran outside, where the cops found him bleeding in a snowbank.
i worked hard at the story, making it as entertaining as i could. but the copy desk outshone me with their perfect headline: WOMAN DELIVERS BURGLAR A RIGHT CROSS.
inspired by Sandy's comment, i remembered another story....one time i was filling in as the city editor, and one of our young and, well, innocent reporters turned in a story about Dorothy Molter, a woman who lived alone up in the BWCA. she was known as the "root beer lady," because she brewed root beer and sold it to people who were up there canoeing.
anyway, the reporter's lede was this: "Dorothy Molter spends her time hiking in the woods, brewing root beer, and whacking off bears."
i said, janet, you can't say that.
why not? she asked.
because of what 'whacking off' means, i said.
she had no idea what i was referring to. she expained that dorothy molter often had to chase bears away from her cabin by whacking at them with a stick.
you still can't say it, i said, and i explained what 'whacking off' meant.
she drew herself up, offended. you're the only one who would ever think that! she said.
i changed her lede anyway.
a note on the photos: the top photo is from a wonderful spring day that i spent following around a farm veterinarian for a "day in the life of" story. i watched him castrate calves, perform surgery on a cow, tend an ailing rabbit, and lop the tails off a bunch of lambs. such fun. the coveralls were his; he warned me that it was smelly work, and it most definitely was.
the second photo is highway 61, courtesy of google.