Publishing small-town newspapers on the Pacific Northwest coast and in Arizona was a lot of fun, and I like to think that sometimes my publications made a difference in the communities they served. I gained a reputation for stepping on toes, and that was all right with me because sometimes those toes really needed to be stepped on! I expected occasional repercussions, and I got them. Threats to kick my butt, to burn down my business or my house, and even death threats now and then. It only got physical a few times, which explains why I can hardly breathe through my nose and have almost no sense of smell.
But something I never expected in the small town newspaper business was the number of celebrities I would get to meet and interview.
They ranged from country and western bands and singers, including Crystal Gayle, Tanya Tucker, Don Williams, the Bellamy Brothers, Confederate Railroad, Tom T. Hall, and Michael Martin Murphy, with whom I exchanged Christmas cards for several years. And not only country acts, but also B.J. Thomas, James Taylor, one of the many incarnations of Herman’s Hermits, and Engelbert Humperdinck.
Musicians weren’t the only people I got to meet and interview. There were quite a few state and national political candidates, including two who were running for president. And occasionally someone from television or the big screen would wander into town and agree to give me some time. They included James Garner and Sally Field. One of the nicest men I ever met was Chuck Norris, who was nothing at all like the tough guy action figure that we assume he would be. He was humble, polite, and a lot of fun to hang out with for an afternoon.
Another Chuck who it was a thrill to meet was one of my own heroes, General Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier, way back in 1947, and a fighter pilot who shot down five German aircraft in a single mission during World War II.
This happened when I was running my newspaper in the White Mountains of Arizona. General Yeager liked to fish on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation, adjacent to our community, and he became good friends with the head of the Apache Fish and Game Department. That gentleman’s wife worked at the high school in Pinetop-Lakeside, and she invited the general to come and talk to the senior class. I was surprised that he agreed to do it and even more surprised when they contacted me and the other local newspaper to attend the event and speak with General Yeager afterward.
Believe it or not, the other newspaper didn’t send anybody! When they were contacted, they asked who Chuck Yeager was, and when they were told, the response was “that’s ancient history.” That left me in the enviable position of being the only media person there.
General Yeager spent an hour with the students, telling them about some of his adventures and reminding them that if a poor boy from small-town West Virginia could make it like he did, even the sky was not the limit for them. He was a nice man, friendly and outgoing, and afterward, he opened the session for questions and answers.
I had an assistant with me on that visit. Not because I needed one, but because he insisted on tagging along. He was our local postmaster, who was also an accomplished hot air balloon pilot. I can’t tell you how many times I woke up early on a Sunday morning to the sound of Bill hovering over my house in his balloon, getting my German shepherd all riled up and barking its head off. It’s probably just a coincidence that I have a small-town postmaster who is a balloon pilot in Big Lake Lynching, the second book in the series.
Anyway, back to the general. As he was answering questions from the students, my friend, the postmaster, raised his hand and said, “General, if you have the time, I’d be honored to take you for a flight in my hot air balloon.” General Yeager, who still held a commission in the Air National Guard, looked at him with a twinkle in his eyes and said, “I flew here in an F-15, son. Balloons are for weenies.”
I don’t think the kids got the joke, but I laughed so hard I almost dropped my camera. While he still wouldn’t fly in Bill’s balloon, after the event at the school was over, the general autographed my copy of his autobiography, and we had lunch. I found him to be a lot of fun to talk with, and not at all impressed with himself or his many accomplishments. But that’s how real heroes are, right?
Today is your last chance to enter our Free Drawing for an autographed copy of Crazy Days In Big Lake. This is the fourth book in the series and one of the leftover books with the original cover, but the story is the same. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing, please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn this evening.
Thought For The Day – Don’t be afraid to be open-minded. Your brain isn’t going to fall out.
Chuck Yeager! Great story!!
I’m reading The Right Stuff and they certainly don’t make men like those test pilots any more. I’ve had the book for a long time and figured it would be a hard read. I was wrong. Great book.