“It takes nerves of steel to be a newspaper reporter.” Mr. Lambert said.
It didn’t seem like it took nerves of steel to talk Mrs. Delaney’s cat out of the old maple tree on Pidgeon Street; but that was my first assignment for The Picayune Press .
My senior high English teacher, Olivia Gardener, informed Mr. Lambert that I would make a good candidate to fill the junior reporter job when Buddy Richards left for college. Mr. Lambert was a real horn-dog, and Olivia was a real looker, so I got the job. Just for the summer. Of course sometimes you wish for summers that never end.
My first bit of reporting was not glamorous or inspiring. It began with the line; Augusta Delaney’s cat, Whiskey, was plucked from a tree today, by the hands of the new junior reporter Todd Golder. Accompanied by a photograph of Whiskey, clutching my shoulders, and I grimacing in pain. My mom still has that photo. Thinks it’s cute.
That was how my career began. Whiskey made the papers more than once in his lifetime, the last time was in memoriam. He got hit by a school bus full of kindergarteners, while chasing a classy calico across Hines Street. Mrs. Delaney was heart broken. Whiskey had been a gift from her deceased husband.
My career grew more bizarre and disturbing as time went on. I still remember the day Mr. Lambert called me into his office. The day I stood up to him. By doing that, I opened a door. I didn’t know it then, but I do now.
I entered his office, and sat in a wooden chair he kept for reporters, because it was uncomfortable. The blinds on the window between his office and the press room brushed my neck. I felt a dead fly fall down my back. Mr. Lambert was in his chair, smoking a cigar the size of my wrist. He spun the chair around to face me.
“Close the door kid.” He said through a cloud of heavy smoke.
I pushed the door shut, sat down once again.
“Go out to Arnie Spevak’s, and get the scoop on how the births are coming along. Take Smith with you.” Mr. Lambert growled around the enormous cigar, ash falling onto his busy desk, a stale donut absorbing the smoky fallout.
Arnie Spevak owned a cow, Delilah, who was giving birth in a big way. There was a betting pool on whether she was birthing two or three calves. Lambert had money on three calves, and had me driving to Spevak’s farm to update him on Delilah’s condition every time the wind shifted, or so it seemed. Junior reporter seemed to be Mr. Lambert’s term for gopher, I hadn’t been given a scoop since I began working on the paper. That was a month previous.
I weighed up Mr. Lambert’s request, and almost went willingly to do the paltry deed of being nursemaid to the birth of a cow. But something made me confront him, I was there to learn how to be a reporter, not to be an attendant to Mr. Lambert.
“Mr. Lambert, can I be honest with you?” I asked in a concerned tone.
“I really want to cover an important story. Something with meat to it. If you know what I mean.”
“Sure kid. Sure you do. They all do. Every reporter that wants to make a name for himself wants a story with meat to it. Even you kid. I understand. You feel you’re being used to further my financial gain. Trust me kid. You’ll get your story. Stories seem to have a way of falling into your lap after awhile.” He paused. A cloud of smoke swelled from his mouth. “I like your spunk kid. You been doing a good job. Don’t think it goes unnoticed. Something you’ll find on the street, one hand washes another. Remember that kid , and remember, it takes nerves of steel to be a newspaper reporter. ” Another puff of smoke escaped. “Do me a favor kid, cover this for me, then we can talk about a scoop.”
I agreed, and left Mr. Lambert in his smoky office. I found Smith, the staff photographer, hitting on Nancy Reyes, our gossip columnist. He was miffed that I was dragging him off to “the farm,” as he lovingly dubbed it. I’m sure he would have rather kept hitting on Nancy Reyes, but Mr. Lambert signed the checks, and Smith couldn’t argue with that.
When Smith and I arrived, Burt the veterinarian, was arm deep in Delilah. He grinned, knowing we had been sentinels for Mr. Lambert all week. “Today is the day fellas.”
Burt was right, Smith and I pulled up milk pails and sat awaiting the big event. Smith lit a cigarette, and the vet made him smoke it outside the barn. Smith walked out muttering, “it’s only a cow…”
Twenty minutes later things were heating up. Burt began to coax Delilah in a soothing voice, I took notes, it wasn’t ‘oh baby,’ or anything like that. He just made her feel at ease. I suppose if I was arm deep in a pregnant cow I would probably coax also.
A short while later a calf was flopping in a pile of placenta, Smith was snapping photographs and I was writing the exact time of birth, average description of the calf, and the look on Arnie Spevak’s face as another addition to his farm was brought into the world. Burt reached into Delilah once again, and after more coaxing, and caressing, another calf emerged. Smith snapped enough flash to blind all attending. Smith used film, faster than the scene was unfolding. I told Smith, “save a shot,” but he ignored me. I was only a junior reporter.
Burt reached into Delilah once more, fishing around in the pregnant cow, and after some wrestling with his unseen hands, a third head appeared. And something really amazing – a fourth head connected to the neck of the third head. Smith clicked the shutter button to find he was out of film. I heard him curse, as I pulled my camera phone out and took a photo of the two headed calf. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A two headed calf. “Does that mean Delilah had triplets, or quadruplets?” I asked Burt and Arnie. They came to the consensus that it depended on if the extra head was fully functional. They wouldn’t know right away. So the bet was on standby. I called Mr. Lambert, and told him what had happened. He congratulated me on my first scoop. Guess I never gave it a thought. It was my first real story, a story with meat to it, and it made front page – with the photo. Smith got over it, congratulated me.
Since then I have been reporting full time for The Picayune Press . I’ve witnessed stories I wish I could forget; house fires consuming lives, children brought back in coffins from foreign wars, so much death over twenty years. Murders, rapes, theft, corruption, suicides, the meat of the story . And I wish for days of a cow giving birth, or a cat in a tree, being the most serious story to cover. The days of my first summer, as junior reporter.