— Charles Spurgeon
British Baptist clergyman
In small towns, everybody knows everybody; this means everybody knows everybody else’s business.
This was the case in the late ’60s in the tiny villa of Collierville which back in those days was still a little town. It has grown over the decades. So have my memories, and most are pleasant.
One is the summer of journalism, a time in the lives of two 12-year-old, rising seventh-graders who aspired to be writers. So they launched rival newspapers. By agreement, the three-page publications offered readers a Front Page, an Editorial Page and a Sports Page.
My junior-high buddy, Ned, and I kept it simple. We hand-printed our stories. We sketched a few images while also clipping relevant black-and-white photographs from the Memphis Commercial Appeal to accompany our stories. We created fictitious names for our products. As mentioned last week, mine was The Trans-Global. I can’t remember Ned’s.
We were good friends — in and outside our little newsrooms, which basically were our respective bedroom desks — but we were opposites. Ned was tall for junior high, easily a head taller than I. He was smart as a whip, a talented writer, a basketball player, relatively quiet and as creative as a Hollywood filmmaker.
But the guy was bullheaded. And this led to our test of wills and the inevitable collision between our newspapers.
Over the summer we canvassed our circulation areas the best that wannabe junior highers could do. He covered the town’s east side, I the west. Our territories were loosely defined by a few north-south streets, some of which doglegged their way through town.
The season’s lead stories ranged from Mr. Wilson’s whopper-of-a-catfish that he landed from a local pond, to Mrs. Wright’s daughter raising funds for a cause with a bicycle marathon, to a women’s club landscaping somebody’s front yard, to a recent high school graduate enlisting in the U.S. Marines, to Ol’ Man Smith’s car breaking down in the middle of traffic, to a big oak tree that fell across some power lines knocking out the power of several neighborhoods, and more.
Obviously, it was a busy summer filled with some hard news. But none could match the controversy of the dead squirrel. It was the first time our newspapers — and our respective sense of ethics — clashed.
Early one muggy morning, an aging Mr. Carter — a retiree who Ned’s paper reported to be “over 90” — slowly sauntered out his front door to fetch the morning Commercial Appeal, only to find the lifeless corpse of a grey squirrel on his porch. As mentioned, in small towns news spreads quickly. It reached my newsroom the next day; Ned’s got the same scoop the night before when he heard some other kids talking about it.
In seventh-grade newspapering, this was big news. This was the breaking scoop for which young Woodwards and Bernsteins years later would have demanded their editors stop the presses.
The Trans-Global and Ned’s paper did not face such decisions. Our deadlines were two and three weeks apart. Yet news was news. And the fight was on to get it first, to get it right and to present it fairly to our dozen or so readers for whom we made copies of each edition.
Never mind that our first tussle came over circulation areas. Mr. Carter’s house sat on the corner of one of the street doglegs on the west side of the imaginary line. By rights, the dead squirrel story clearly belonged to The Trans-Global.
Ned’s paper saw it differently.
“It’s a toss-up,” he told me later. “We never declared ‘sides’ of streets ... just streets. I say that means any news coming off a border street is up for grabs by both newspapers.”
I differed. I felt the west side of the street belonged to The Trans-Global. The east side was his. Resolution to our plight never came. So both publications aggressively pursued the story of Mr. Carter’s dead squirrel.
Ned’s conversation with those kids the night after the squirrel was found led to some juicy details. But it sounded like second- and third-hand information to me. Ned called it news tips. But I doubted his sources. I knew the kids. So did he.
As I recall, one kid told Ned he “... jes knew fer a fact” that some other kids who lived down Mr. Carter’s street found the furry body on the curb and after dark put it on the old man’s porch as a prank. Ned conceded he couldn’t be sure, but it was catchy, albeit sensational, material. I agreed it added some drama, but it couldn’t be proven.
By agreement, we interviewed Mr. Carter together at the scene of the alleged crime ... his front porch. Mr. Carter was a kind old man. A widower who lived alone, he still enjoyed good conversation. He laughed at our questions and offered his homespun analysis, “I figger that pore ol’ squirrel got runned over in the road and some alley cat drug him up to my porch last night and had dinner.”
The theory sure fit the alleged crime. The body was in pretty sad shape, whether from a car tire or a cat or both. We couldn’t be sure and our tiny operations had no budgets for forensics. Nobody filed a report nor was the FBI notified. Mr. Carter just scooped up the remains with a shovel and tossed them into a backyard trash can.
After promising Mr. Carter copies of our newspapers, we lit out to our newsrooms and filed (that’s newspaper lingo for “wrote”) our stories. The presses rolled a few days later.
Ned’s publication quoted Mr. Carter’s assessment, but included the anonymous tips that blamed neighborhood kids. He didn’t identify them by name, but reported they lived on the same street.
The Trans-Global wasn’t so brazen. We gave Mr. Carter’s version as well, but elected not to mention the rumor about the kids. I even asked Dad. After all, he was The Trans-Global publisher in that he paid for making the copies at the library. He said if I didn’t have proof, I shouldn’t print it especially with the sources being anonymous. I agreed.
Later, Ned and I exchanged copies of our newspapers, as was the summer’s tradition.
After a game of one-on-one backyard basketball at his house (Ned won it 10-0), and over cold Cokes, we argued over matters of newspaper quality, writing talents and journalism ethics. He had his points. I had mine.
“You’re the biggest kid in town,” I told him. “But you’re not the only kid. And you’re not the only newspaper.”
The argument escalated and bled into the next basketball game. Ned won again, 10-2.
In seventh-grade basketball, size mattered — but not in a pair of 12-year-olds’ newspapers.
Those were the final editions of our summer. Our friendship endured the heat — both in and outside our newsrooms — and school resumed.
We were, at last, in junior high.