No longer Incognito

by Al Pastor

Another variant strain of sports bully is in the news. He found a susceptible victim, as they often will. I hope the no longer Incognito gets what’s coming to him.

There were many skirmishes, and even a few hasty retreats. But I can’t remember anyone tormenting me particularly in 45-years of organized sports. My own rookie initiation into the newspaper game, however, was spirited and playful and, at my expense, a source of team morale.

Profoundly technophobic, I would turn away from the early, enormous, green computer screen to answer the phone (often a ruse). The pranks only happened on deadline. I would turn back to find the screen blank. Only after the pleasure of watching me bellow and gnash would the perpetrator (usually the gifted, alcoholic city editor) appear and, without a glance or word, hit the button scrolling my story back into view. I learned, paid closer attention, and laughed. A newsroom was not all that different from a locker room.

Several years later, having left the paper, I once casually unplugged the computer belonging to the motor sports writer from the Detroit News. An absolutely idiotic thing to do, it was also in the midst of a deadline. Just after the Michigan 500, he was hard at work on his game story. There was one socket and half a dozen cords plugged into it from several sides. I yanked the wrong one.

“Oops,” he said. I was mortified. This was in the days of an early, seminal portable laptop, the Radio Shack TSR-80 or 100, I can’t remember. It’s probably in the Smithsonian. It barely had a screen, but you could drop it, perhaps from great heights, and it still fired up. To my intense relief, the writer merely put the plug back in the socket. The stream of copy and results magically reappeared.

Back at the paper, there was another trick. The more experienced, more observant staff made a point of directing my way the more obviously aggrieved members of the general public. It took a special type to come to the newspaper to badger or complain in person rather than over the phone, or, as often as not, prolonging already agonizing late night school board, city council, or, even, library board meetings.

The subscribers were led to the back of the building that served as the newsroom. There they waited along a wall of chairs for me to return, if I was out on a story. I learned it was better to spend as much time as possible “out on a story,” even if it meant just sitting with the photographer in a booth at the pizzeria nearby reading the day’s freshly-printed edition (we were an afternoon daily, one of the last of the breed).

He was a man with an air of desperation. It was obvious. It being deadline, I raced in but was intercepted. Pages of single-spaced hand-written notes were in his hand, as if he were about to give a talk. It was a matter of urgency, but he’d politely waited. I soon realized I’d again been had. There was no escape. Ask a small town reporter. Two of the most dreaded words are “concerned citizen,” bested only by “concerned parent.” I sat down and he dug in to the papers, lined sheets of notebook paper covered with large sprawling ink script.

It was about the Boy Scouts. He’d chronicled instances of alleged negligence, pedophilia, tragic canoe trip and hiking accidents. He wasn’t from our town. The stop was part of a personal crusade. There were no short-cuts. He jumped around detailing one incident after another. I tried taking some cursory notes but it was pointless. The stories were as disjointed as he was anguished. His emotions got the best of him. I could see the city editor enjoying himself as things got more uncomfortable.

The man handed me his notes. He wanted me to write about the problems, to investigate, to follow up. I wish I could remember but there may very well have been a personal element to his motivation, a lost child. I took the information, took his number, but my mind was elsewhere. There was a deadline. His story was the kind that could take months or years to pursue, and it wasn’t local. Another story was in my head waiting to be written, reworked, submitted, paired with a photo and, with luck, selected, approved, printed and read. It might’ve been the big paint store fire. I wrote about it nearly every day for a week.

I had no love for the Boy Scouts. I didn’t doubt the man’s sincerity, his motivation, or even his documentation, but there was little I felt I could do. I took the notes, tried to decipher them when I had time. They were a mess. I think I wrote it up, about him and his quest for answers and justice, but I couldn’t verify each charge. The story was too big, if, as it turned out, entirely accurate.

As it happened, I’d had a football coach with a record of pedophilia activity. I didn’t find this out until years later. He was a teacher, too, for fourth grade. We didn’t get along, which was in hindsight obviously a good thing. There was something about him. He kept trying to lead weekend ski trips. The parents knew about him, and the one trip I remember there must’ve been eight or 10 fathers along to make sure nothing happened. The school hired him knowing there had been problems at other schools. He needed a new chance. Another sort of bully who naturally, as they always seem to, gravitate to those most susceptible.

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