The Wonderful Room
The Making of a Texas Newspaperman
By Bryan Woolley
Wings Press Copyright © 2010 Bryan Woolley
All rights reserved.
One spring afternoon in 1953, my sophomore year at Fort Davis High School, I fell into a quarrel with my algebra teacher. She was handing back homework papers she had graded. She didn't give me one. I asked why.
"You didn't turn it in," she said.
"Yes I did."
"No you didn't."
"Yes I did."
"Are you calling me a liar?" she asked.
"If you're saying I didn't turn in my homework, you're a liar," I said.
The teacher grabbed my wrist and led me to the office of George Roy Moore, the school superintendent. As we entered, she burst into loud sobs.
"What on earth ...?" Mr. Moore asked.
The teacher — a young woman not long out of college -- blubbered incoherently. One sentence, however, rang through like a gong: "He called me a liar."
Mr. Moore asked no questions. He told the teacher to return to her classroom. She departed, snuffing.
To me, Mr. Moore said, "Shut the door." Then he said, "Empty your back pockets and bend over the desk."
I remember the contents. My right rear jeans pocket held my wallet and a white handkerchief, used. The left held a black pocket comb and a folded copy of Glory to Goldy, the school play we were practicing. I situated myself as Mr. Moore had instructed. He took of his belt, doubled it, and whacked my backside with it exactly 20 times. "All right," he said. When I turned around, Mr. Moore was putting on his belt. Now tears glistened in his eyes, too.
His family and mine had been friends for generations. We were not-too-distant kin. Mr. Moore had gone to school with my mother. My grandmother had been his sixth-grade teacher. Now she was a member of the faculty he led.
I didn't mind the whipping much. Tough I had turned in the algebra homework, I had been wrong to call the teacher a liar in front of her class. Whippings were a common punishment for schoolboys in those days. Among a boy's buddies, a whipping was even a badge of honor, evidence of badass toughness.
But Mr. Moore's tears made me ashamed. I knew they were for my mother and my grandmother, not for me.
"There's no point in your going back to class," he said. "Sit down. Let's talk."
I eased my tingling backside into the hard wooden chair beside his desk. Mr. Moore was a quiet man with calm blue eyes and prematurely gray hair, respected by everyone. He rested his elbows on the edge of the desk and laced his fingers together in here's-the-church-and-here's-the-steeple fashion. The blue eyes gazed at me for a long time. I remember the slow tick of the pendulum clock on the office wall. Finally, he said, "You're a smart boy, Bryan."
I silently agreed. In those days, I believed myself a lot smarter than I was, a self-delusion that experience eventually would correct.
"What are you going to do with your life?"
"After you finish school. What are you going to do with your life? Have you thought about it?"
I hadn't. Not for an instant, unless you count my childhood yearning to be a cowboy like my Great Uncle Bryan. "No, sir."
"Why don't you be a writer?" Mr. Moore said. "I have a friend who became a writer for Newsweek. I've always envied him. You have the talent."
He talked for the rest of the period.
After the passage of 55 years, I still consider that conversation one of the three or four most important in my life. I wonder where I would be now and what I would be doing if that algebra teacher hadn't lost my homework and dragged me to Mr. Moore's office.
I took his advice seriously. Themes and essays had always been favorite parts of my English and history classes. Now I wrote them as I thought Robert Louis Stevenson or Mark Twain might have done. I won an honorable mention medal in an essay contest sponsored by The El Paso Herald-Post about soil conservation, a subject about which I knew nothing. I entered the essay competition in the district University Interscholastic League meet. I won third place. (In my junior and senior years, I would win first place at both district and regional. As a junior I also won second place at the state meet in Austin.)
About a year after my whipping, Mr. Moore approached me in the school corridor between classes and told me to come to his office immediately. My heart beat a little faster. I thought I had done nothing wrong, but I expected punishment. Why else the summons?
He offered me the same hard chair and sat down behind his desk. An envelope lay on the green blotter. He gave it to me. "Read this," he said.
It was a letter from Ted Raynor, editor of regional news for The El Paso Times. Mr. Raynor wanted a stringer correspondent for Fort Davis. He wondered if Mr. Moore might recommend an appropriate person.
In those days, stringer correspondents were the way city newspapers got news from the little towns in their circulation areas. Typically, a town's stringer would be the editor of the local weekly newspaper (Fort Davis had none) or some other citizen in a position to know what was happening in the place.
The stringer didn't have to be a writer. He could just gather the facts of an event, call the Times and dictate them to whatever reporter wasn't busy at the moment, and the reporter would organize them into a news story of the appropriate length.
At the end of each month, Mr. Raynor measured the number of column inches of news that the correspondent had contributed during the month. This was the correspondent's "string." If he had a slow month and produced only 20 inches of news, that month's string was 20 inches. In a good month, his string might be 60 inches or more, especially if he covered one of the larger towns in Mr. Raynor's territory, such as Carlsbad, N.M. or Pecos, Texas.
For each inch of his monthly string, the correspondent was paid 15 cents. For each photograph he provided, he received $2. If he provided 30 column inches of news and two photographs, for example, the Times sent him a check for $8.50. (The minimum wage then was 75 cents an hour.)
Of course, I knew none of this at the time.
"Would you like to do that?" Mr. Moore asked.
"Yes, sir," I said.
"Fine. I'll write to Mr. Raynor."
In a few days I received a letter from Mr. Raynor, offering me the job. The letter said I would be a "correspondent," a word that decorated my imagination with images of trench coats and fedoras and mysterious meetings in the rain. Mr. Raynor enclosed a printed sheet in which the newspaper told its stringers what kind of information they were expected to submit: Who, what, when, where, why, how, etc.
Under separate cover, Mr. Raynor sent about a dozen large yellow envelopes. The address of The El Paso Times was printed on them, and in big red letters: RUSH: NEWS DISPATCH. In my mind I pictured an excited editor (Mr. Raynor, probably), waving one of these envelopes and shouting: "A dispatch from Woolley! Stop the presses!"
In them I was to send Mr. Raynor news stories that weren't urgent enough to require a long-distance phone call, plus any accompanying photographs I might offer.
I brought home an old Underwood typewriter from my mother's office at the courthouse (she was the county clerk) and set it on the library table in my bedroom. I placed packets of typing paper and carbon paper on one side of it and the stack of Mr. Raynor's envelopes on the other. The Fort Davis Bureau of The El Paso Times was open for business.
But business was slow. In Fort Davis, a village of maybe 800 people in the isolation of the Far West Texas mountains, news was a rare occurrence. The "Fort Davis News" columns in The Alpine Avalanche and The Big Bend Sentinel, our neighboring towns? weeklies, were brief accounts of children's birthday parties, meetings of the Study Club and Sunday motor trips of Fort Davis citizens to Valentine and Balmorhea to visit relatives.
I wrote a vivid account of a chicken-house fire and our volunteer fire department's quelling of it and mailed it to Mr. Raynor. He didn't print it, so I was paid nothing. Ben Bloys, a member of a prominent local family, died and I rushed a fulsome obituary to the Times. Mr. Raynor slashed it to three column inches, but he ran it.
It was hidden among the back pages with the other obits. My name wasn't on it. It earned me only 45 cents. But those black words on that fragrant newsprint were mine and they were published. Thousands of people in West Texas and southern New Mexico could read them. I clipped the obit, read it over and over and over, and pasted it in a new scrapbook. Under the clip I wrote: "My first newspaper story." Next day, I took it to the courthouse to show to Barry Scobee.
Mr. Scobee was about 70 years old. In his youth he had been a lumberjack and a merchant seaman and a soldier. In the 1920s, he was a reporter for The San Antonio Express, but came to Fort Davis for a vacation, fell in love with the place and stayed. "After Fort Davis, all that's left is heaven," he used to say. Since he didn't know how to drive, he walked or hitched rides. In his brown fedora and brown cardigan and red bowtie he was a familiar and beloved sight about town. He was slightly deaf, but too vain to wear a hearing aid.
He was the Jeff Davis County justice of the peace and coroner. His office was up the stairs from my mother's. His job didn't require much of his time, so he wrote short stories and novelettes for Ranch Romances, Masked Rider Western, Trilling Western and the other pulp magazines that made our drugstore newsstand such a gallery of blazing six-shooters every month. The pulps paid Mr. Scobee two cents a word for this work.
He also was the town historian. He had published Old Fort Davis, a history of the frontier Army post on the edge of town. And he was the stringer correspondent for The San Angelo Standard-Times and my newspaper's rival, The El Paso Herald-Post.
Mr. Scobee never had much money. "I never saw a coffin with saddlebags," he used to say. He was the happiest man I've ever known. Mr. Scobee welcomed me into his office. His roll-top desk and swivel chair were almost lost among wooden file cabinets, cardboard boxes, and piles of old newspapers and magazines containing his work. The narcotic aroma of musty paper permeated the gloomy air. Birdsong flowed through the open window from the trees on the courthouse lawn.
To me, Mr. Scobee always had been an elder of the town, a man who had lived a long time in the mysterious adult world that I was trying to enter. Now, suddenly, I saw him in a new way. He was what I wanted to be: a writer. He became my friend and mentor and a sort of surrogate father, even though he was older than my grandmother.
He praised my obituary, but agreed that Fort Davis didn't provide much news of interest to city newspapers, aside from the scores of our high school's six-man football games and the occasional murder trial. "Features," he said. "You have to write features."
He explained: "A feature is a story about something — a person, an event, a place — that isn't news. It gets into the paper not because it's important, but only because it's interesting and people will want to read it."
He rummaged through a couple of his own scrapbooks, showing me feature stories he had written over the years. They occupied far more newspaper space than the real news stories and nearly always had photographs with them. Sending variant versions of them to his newspapers in San Angelo and El Paso, whose readership didn't overlap, Mr. Scobee was building a couple of nice strings every month. During the next year, he would go through his stories with me and show me how he did them and why they worked. He read mine, and made many suggestions.
One day I received a letter from Mr. Raynor. It said he was planning a Sunday series in the Times about the courthouses of West Texas and southern New Mexico. Please give him a feature story about Jeff Davis County?s, he said.
Mr. Scobee's files were full of the lore I needed: Fort Davis had been the seat of a huge county called Presidio, but when the railroad was built through Marfa, the larger town stole the courthouse. Then the Fort Davis people seceded from Presidio County and formed Jeff Davis County. There were tales of ranchers and cowboys, Texas Rangers, sheriffs and outlaws, soldiers, Indians, a famous jailbreak. Mr. Scobee even had good photographs of the present courthouse, built in 1910, and the adobe structure it had replaced, built in 1880.
I ran to the drugstore every Sunday to search the Times for my story. Week after week, Mr. Raynor was celebrating some other county: Lea, Dona Ana, Lincoln, Culberson, Hudspeth, Brewster. Where O where was Jef Davis?
Then on Sunday Oct. 17, 1954, I opened the Times, and there was, spread across the top of almost an entire inside page, this headline: "Ft. Davis Has Been County Seat Of Two Counties." And below it, the most beautiful words I have, even to this day, ever seen in print: "By Bryan Woolley."
Mr. Scobee was as proud of my first byline as I. He carried a clipping in his pocket and showed it to anyone who would look.
I ransacked his mind and files for subjects for more features. He and I roamed the old fort and old cemeteries together. I drove, of course. He climbed Dolores Mountain with me, an amazing feat for a man of his age. We sat in his office and talked for hours.
I wrote about a still-living old soldier who had served at the fort in the 1880s. I wrote about Uncle Billy Kingston, who as a child had met George Scarborough, the man who shot John Selman, who shot John Wesley Hardin. My story about the 60 wedding anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Jessie Merrill, pioneer ranchers, made Page One, with picture, another proud Sunday for Mr. Scobee and me.
In his capacity as coroner, Mr. Scobee also introduced me to death.
One morning I rode in the backseat of the county's only police car, bouncing over a narrow, rocky road. In the front seat, Sheriff Tom Gray and Mr. Scobee were talking as though it was a normal day, but I was speechless. I had never seen a corpse. We were headed toward a ranch headquarters where a cowboy had shot and killed an illegal Mexican national who had broken into the house.
I remember the dead man's black hair, full of dust and moving slightly in the breeze.
The Times ran a few paragraphs, but no byline. In those days, a reporter's name didn't appear on every story he wrote. A byline was a gift from the editor for a job he considered well done. During my time as a stringer, my byline appeared only on a few feature stories.
In the spring of 1955, two years after my conversation with Mr. Moore, I was to graduate from Fort Davis High. As the eldest child of five, supported by two women on small salaries, I would thenceforth be on my own, loose in the world.
I wanted to go to college, but would have to find a job to do it. I drove to El Paso and introduced myself to Mr. Raynor, who introduced me to Bill Latham, the managing editor. I urged Mr. Latham to hire me. I would be a copyboy, anything. He said he had no job to offer. I drove home, deeply sad for all the 200 miles, fearful for my future.
A week later, a letter arrived from Ed Engledow, the Times city editor. I hadn't met him. I had never heard his name.
His letter read: "Mr. Latham has gone into the hospital for a hernia operation. In his absence, I'm acting managing editor. If you can get back here before he returns, I'll give you a job."
I packed my suitcase.
THE WONDERFUL ROOM
The room into which I stepped on that June afternoon in 1955, a couple of months shy of my 18th birthday, was everything my imagination wanted it to be. There were six rows of reporters? desks with typewriters on them, arranged two to a row. At several desks, reporters already were writing, their neckties loosened, one even wearing a fedora, cigarettes dangling from their lips, smoke curling blue into the fluorescent lights. The heady aromas of ink and newsprint and coffee mingled with the cigarette smoke. Typewriters and Teletype machines chattered, telephones rang, reporters and editors laughed and shouted at each other. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Wonderful Room by Bryan Woolley. Copyright © 2010 Bryan Woolley. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
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