Friday the 13th: Daily Punctilio style

I started reading the “Series of Unfortunate Events” books way back before they were cool, long ago and far away during my third grader hipster years. At the time, I appreciated them for their lofty humor, a satirical quality that I couldn’t quite grasp or articulate but still loved to read.

The infamous Daily Punctilio, hot off the press!

I finally finished the 13th book, and I enjoyed the series on an entirely different level during this reread. I enjoyed the books as an English major certainly; I was finally able to grasp all the subtle allusions Lemony Snicket slips into his narration and I caught on to his many tropes and how he takes literary norms and flips them on their head.

But I also appreciated these books as a journalist. In case you’re unfamiliar with the series (and as Lemony regularly reminds us readers, we would all be better off if the books never existed), there’s a recurring character by the name of Geraldine Julienne. She’s the Star Reporter for The Daily Punctilio, the city’s completely immoral and libelous, yet somehow respected, newspaper. She writes her first lie about the Baudelaire orphans in the seventh book, the Vile Village, triggering the children’s exile from society by falsely accusing them of murder.

Here’s a copy of this week’s newspaper. I made a little edit in the photograph in honor of the holiday….

She comes back book after book, writing falsehood after falsehood, endangering the subjects of her stories while roping her readers in with her scandalous, crazed headlines: DOCTOR TELLS HISTORY OF KNIFE; HEIMLICH HOSPITAL ALMOST FORGETS PAPER WORK; MURDER ATTEMPTS TO MURDER MURDERER; COUNT OLAF THINKS UP IDEA FOR LION SHOW; EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH COUNT OLAF, WHO IS NOT COUNT OMAR, WHO IS DEAD.FREAKS PUSHED INTO LION PIT.

Lemony gives his reader a caricatured version of society. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that society as a whole, adult society to be more specific, is the main antagonist of the series. Every grown-up figure or person of power whom the Baudeliaires encounter is either evil or ignorant, and together, these individuals form a corruptible, crazed mob. The media is an overarching representative for these people; The Daily Punctilio voices their selfish opinions and sways the people time and time again into believing falsehoods, even when the truth is right before their eyes.

So sure, Lemony puts the press in a pretty miserable light in his books. But I like how the series highlights the power of the written word. Journalists have the influence to make change and insight anything from a meek letter to the editor to a riotous, orphan-murdering mob.

Geraldine is one of the series’ most infuriatingly dimwitted characters (and trust me, these books are rife with idiot adults), but she’s also a solid warning against the power of the press when it’s in the wrong hands.

So happy Friday the 13th everyone! I hope you have a Very Frightful Day, and remember, the world is quiet here.

Advertisements

Independence Day on the Chester River

I’m assigned plenty of busy work as part of my duties as the “lowly intern” as one of my coworkers likes to jokingly call me. My favorite of these sometimes mundane but necessary and intern-worthy assignments is compiling each week’s early files.

This newspaper dates back to pre-Civil War times, and we take full advantage of our history here in Chestertown. Each week, the newspaper runs clippings from old issues, dating from as far back as 150 years. So every Friday, I scour the towering bookshelves lining the hallway to the back room, pulling out enormous collections of yellowed newspapers. I start with the earliest, 1862, then work my way up, from 150 year ago to 75 years ago (the 100 year-old issues are in fragile enough condition that we can’t even open their book) to 50 to 25 to 10 years ago.

I’m particularly fond of browsing through the 1937 issues, both because of my personal fascination with the time period and the fascinating department store and film ads.

But as a belated Independence Day blog post, I’m focusing on the July 5, 1862 issue today. A few things to note about Civil War issues of this local newspaper: They are laden with quips toward the Confederacy:

A GOOD JOKE: The Richmond Examiner states that, as a result of the late battles, Confederate stocks rose from 93 to 97 cents–payable in Confederate note currency ! It would have been the same thing had they advanced to 197, for both are equally worthless, and a cart load of them would not command a dollar in hard money nowhere in the world outside of rebeldom!

– July 5, 1862

They insert non-political (and oftentimes racist, unfortunately) jokes randomly between news stories:

“Can you give me bills for a ten dollar gold piece?” asked a very pretty young lady of a young man named William, who was tending store.

“No, I cannot,” was the reply.

“Can you oblige me with a single Bill?” she asked.

“Well yes, I guess so–you see they call me Bill, and I’m single, and am entirely at your service.”

– July 5, 1862

And they are beautifully written. Even the most mundane of articles, like regular updates on the wheat crop, are composed in a delicate, almost poetic style. It’s a dramatic contrast to the clear, concise news writing journalists are trained in today. It makes the articles especially entertaining to read.

Some of the most eloquent write-ups are the obituaries. Today, I came across a death notice for a Civil War veteran, born and raised on the Chester River, and also an alumni of our very own Washington College. The first was published soon after his death:

Departed this life, in Memphis, Tenn., the first week in May last, Mr. BENJAMIN C. VICKERS, aged 26 years, and fourth son of George Vickers, Esq., of Chestertown.

The death of Mr. V. was caused by a wound received at the battle of Shiloh, in the first week in April. The deceased with in the battle of Belmont and escaped unhurt.  He was formerly in a large grocery house in this city, an displayed much talent and tact at his calling.

He was educated at Washington College, possessed considerable talent, was intelligent, quick in his perceptions, and of indomitable perseverance. No obstacle was too great for him to surmount. He was courteous, kind, and of noble and generous impulse. He was an affectionate and dutiful son, kind brother and a true friend. His ear was every open to hear, and hand ever ready to relieve, where distress or charity presented their claims. Had he lived, he would have become prominent and successful in his vocation.

Although he lingered and suffered in a land of strangers, yet there the heart of sympathy was found, and the soft hand of friends to smooth his dying pillow. It is said he died in “hope of glorious resurrection.” His parents and relatives have sustained a heavy loss, and a sad bereavement, but may they be consoled “though he cannot come to them, they can go to him.” May he rest in peace, and although the affectionate hand of a mother may not be able to plant the flower at his grave, yet the consolation is, that he rests in peace, where he the cannon’s roar and the din of battle are not heard, and that in the morning of resurrection he shall rise, clothed in white, and in a new body be caught up to dwell forever with the Lord.

The second article went into a bit more detail about his last days:
From the Baltimore American of the 24th.

THE LATE BENJAMIN C. VICKERS. – We have already announced the decease of Mr. Benjamin C. Vickers, son of Gen. George Vickers, of this place, but were unable, at the time, to give any particulars respecting it. We have now the circumstances attending his death, which may prove interesting to a large and sorrowing circle of friends.

Mr. Vickers was at the battle of Shiloh, and seemed to have a presentiment that he would fall in that battle, for in his pocket was found a paper with his name and company written upon it, as also a request that if he fell in battle his father should be informed of it. He was wounded by a minie ball in the thigh near the joint, which broke the bone, and in its course upwards lacerated the integuments and muscles, and when extracted was found flattened to the size of a quarter dollar.

This was on the sixth of April. He was taken to Memphis, to the house of a relative of a friend, where he had every care and attention, and where he died on the third of May, in the twenty-sixth year of his age. Two weeks previous to his disease, and when it because apparent that his wound would prove fatal, he was married to Miss Houston, of Tennessee, niece of Gen. Sam. Houston, of Texas, to whom he was engaged previous to entering the army, and who devoted herself to him with that spirit and tenderness which belongs only to woman.
During his whole illness he was perfectly calm and resigned, and expressed the utmost confidence that he had made his peace with God. A few days before his death he partook of the Communion, and after having sent his remembrances to each of his family, and expressing a great desire to see his mother, and that his father sho9uld be informed that he was not afraid to die, he passed away calmly and peacefully, and almost without a struggle.

And thus passed away our young friend, whose death thus early was triumphant: By his noble and generous qualities he appears to have attracted a large circle of friends in his new home, who manifested a deep interest in his condition and contributed largely to his comforts him his sickness by their attention and sympathies; and as a soldier, his chivalrous bearing at the battle of Shiloh won for him the tribute due to a brave and gallant man; but all this is nau8ght compared to the ever-lasting source of consolation which should bear up his immediate family in their unexpected calamity. Amid the gloom and despondency surrounding them, they have a balm for the wounded sp9irit which must be ever present – their son “died without fear, and in the blessed hope of a joyful resurrection.”

My college is working on a veteran recognition project right now, the first official memorandum we’ve ever offered for the men and women who gave their service, and sometimes lives, to their country. I actually wrote an article on the endeavor last semester, so it was just my luck to run across an article on a Civil War alumni, and only two days after the Fourth of July at that.

I read and reread those two articles for about 15 minutes this morning, imagining what this Benjamin Vickers, who studied, laughed, drank, and learned on the very same campus where I live now, may have been like. It was a harsh reminder for me of the realism of war. Americans have become accustomed to seeing battle and bloodshed as a distant blip on their radar, yet another tragedy to litter news stations and papers. But in the 19th century, war was personal. George Vickers was a real father whose young son was lost to war, and his sorrow and pain were just as heavy as any mourning parents’ today.

This discovery was also a rejuvenating moment for me. As a journalist, I have a part to play in history, too. If it hadn’t been for the anonymous reporter who talked to this young man’s family, or the printer who placed all the individual stamps into the letterpress, Benjamin would be lost to history. If it hadn’t been for them, the 150th anniversary of his death would be forgotten, his name never forwarded to the Washington College alumni office to be listed on their veterans memorial website.

So I’m proud of many things today. I’m proud to be a Washington College student, earning a liberal arts education along the same paths and in the same buildings that once hosted hundreds of brave men and women who went on to serve their country. I’m proud to be a journalist, someone who can immortalize pain, triumph, and sacrifice, so stories can be found and retold again some day. And I’m proud to be an American.

So happy Fourth of July, readers, and let’s remember those who deserve it.

Reporting for the Birds

It’s my first day as a Chestertown reporter, and I’m already dealing with pest problems. I can only hope that when I move in to my more permanent work room tomorrow morning, it won’t be splattered with bird droppings.

I really can’t complain. Sure, the office that will serve as my writing nook for the summer was invaded by birds yesterday, but here’s the more important part: It’s going to be MY OFFICE. Starting tomorrow, I’ll feel less like an intern and more like a true reporter, with my very own space to make phone call after phone call after phone call.

The Kent County News building is snuggled in a row of small businesses on High Street. As you can see, Chestertown downtown is more of a quaint attraction area than it is the cultural nucleus for a bustling metropolis.

If there’s one thing I learned from my internship with the Herald-Mail last summer, it’s that real-world journalism (that is, working for a publication that isn’t affiliated somehow with a school, and one that ideally pays you under the impression that your paycheck is meant to sustain you and not just serve as spare coffee change) means a lot of sitting around waiting for people to return your calls. I’d estimate that more than half of my 40 hours a week were spent spinning around in my chair and leaving messages with government officials who seemed to be in a constant slew of meetings. As one County Commissioner told me when she finally answered week’s worth of messages I’d left at on her home, office, and cell numbers, “I’ll give you one thing: You’re persistent.”

Luckily, I have a bit more privacy with my Chestertown residency than I did in Hagerstown, so I can leave my awkward “Please call me back” pleas without the nagging worry that some veteran reporter is snickering at my unprofessionalism in the cubicle directly to my left.

The Herald-Mail newsroom was laid out in a stereotypical, daily mail way, with row after row of bland cubicles hosting row after row of frantic reporters and editors. In the constant buzz of police scanners, reporter jargon, and phone call transfers, making phone calls felt like trying to find an inch of space to talk in the middle of a sweaty rave concert; I tried to make my interviews as private as possible, but there was no way to shelter conversations completely from the other newsroom noises.

Here, I have my own little area to breathe. At the Herald, I was shoved into whatever corner cubicle was empty at the time, so I migrated around the newsroom on a weekly basis depending on who was on vacation at the time.

The Kent County News is a far more intimate and inviting, albeit creaky and old, space to work. It’s a narrow, tall two-story building crammed between a drug store and bank in the quaint, usually quiet, downtown of Chestertown. Not only are there actual doors separating reporters and editors from each other, but I’ve been assigned my own little office for these next eight-ish weeks.

As my luck would have it, I’ve been temporarily displaced. While my permanent office space is being debirded, I’m borrowing an absent reporter’s computer.

Even with the impermanence of my current situation, I feel much more comfortable here than I did in Hagerstown. It’s probably partly because I’m more confident in my ability to hold my own at a real-life reporter’s desk, but I think it’s also the warmth and hominess that comes with working for a newspaper that’s been the center of a small town since before the Civil War.

My current assignment about a 75-year-old man who plans to use his million-dollar lottery win on a new police scanner might not sound like an award-winning, controversial news story, but it’s the next record of Eastern Shore living to follow thousands of weekly articles. I’m the most recent in the line of innumerable writers whose bylines have been printed in the name of the Kent County News. The soft wooden desk on which I’m taking notes hasn’t been a part of the newspaper since the 1800s, but I’m sure there have been some incredible and moving small-town pieces that were recorded on its surface before me.

I’m anxious to hear back from “Mr. Lucky” the lottery winner, not because the story is going to immortalize me as a nationally recognized journalist, but because it will immortalize a worthy subject within the pages of a worthy newspaper.

Being a small-town journalist isn’t always the most adrenaline-pumping lines of work, particularly on muggy days like today that involve more thumb-twiddling than investigative reporting. But even though I’ve only been a member of the Kent County News team for a morning, I know one thing: I’m going to like it here.

*Note: As soon as my iPhone realizes that yes, there it DOES have a SIM card and decides to reconnect with the real world again, I’ll be uploading photos of my new summer place of work. So stay tuned!