THE ANTIQUE COLUMNIST
Every journalist worth his/her ink has literary aspirations. Just ask Mark Twain, or the Wisconsin State Journal’s George Hesselberg, or me. George and I—and Mark, I guess, were of the opinion that some of our work deserved more than a one-day shelf life and so in one way or another we got into the book business, Mr. Twain with a bit more success.
So the other day I was stumbling around in a St. Vinnys and saw a book entitled, “Paint Me Green and Call Me Fern.” by George Hesselberg. I bought it, of course—99 cents, though I think I also bought it back in 1991 when it was first published, and had also previously read most of George’s columns when they appeared in the Journal.
So I have this book, showing a jaunty George on the cover and filled with the kind of wonderful columns that people love because it is them—in all of their love, despair and absurdity. At one point when George was cranking them out, I was with another newspaper and was drafted by a State Journal editor to speak briefly and name the best writer on the State Journal staff. I picked George, of course, not only because he was the best but he was doing the kind of work that I had done most of my professional life and I knew how he worked at communicating the heart of the matter and how he had to enjoy doing it as much as people enjoyed reading it. I think the kind of work George and I did was valuable to newspapers in maintaining a friendly—even warm relationship with readers, but as the money counters took newspaper decisions away from the editors that kind of thinking did not prevail. The State Journal’s Doug Moe was a more recent victim. We are not talking “this is what I think“ columns or “me me” columns, though all columnists find it necessary to delve into their own lives on occasion. I was honored to have won the Scripps-Howard Ernie Pyle award way back in 1973, and one of the things cited in a publicity ad was a “delight in life,” and “respect for ordinary human endeavors.” That kind of thing can do serious inflationary damage to a writer’s ego, but it also accurately describes the kind of thing George and Doug and I did, not consciously, just kind of writing on automatic pilot. (Michael Perry does some of what we are talking about here by coming at it in reverse—books first and then column writing, but I see his columns tainted by his prior literary success, and of course I am envious of that.)
My St. Vinny’s score with George’s book brought to mind a similar experience of several months ago when I meandered into an antique store and there in a front display case was a copy of “Ship The Kids On Ahead,” a collection of my Wisconsin State Journal columns from the 1960’s. The book was wrapped in plastic, tied up with a ribbon and marked $25!
Putting these two things together, I would tell George that he has only to live/wait long enough to assume “antique” status before he can move from the 99 cent bracket into the big money of $25.
I have not gone back to that antique store to see what might have happened to my book and I am not going to. I am happy with remembering the “$25” particularly since my grandson Paul has seen fit to republish—on the internet “Ship the Kids On Ahead,” among other work, and nothing is ever going to sell in the stratospheric price range of $25. Think more like 99 cents if we are lucky, Paul says, and he keeps saying we are not in this for the money but to have a little fun with a grandpa-grandson project and to give people a chance to enjoy some things their parents—grandparents, enjoyed, some verities that never seem to change all that much from one generation to the next.
So, Google any one of us on Amazon books. We’re all there: Doug, George and me, old newspaper hacks trying to act like authors, me much older than Doug or 99-cent-George, of course, antique, in fact. $25! I still can’t believe it.