I would not trade being raised in these mountains for anything. The era of my upbringing was a time when the land was still largely unfettered and easy to explore, the people bound by decades of history.
But as I was to learn later in life, that upbringing was not entirely free of pitfalls.
You see, in many ways folks were closer to life back in those days, when it was not uncommon for a mountaineer to hit the door and spend most of the day outdoors interacting with the forces of nature.
Maybe because of that element, while folks were closer to life, they were also closer to death. It was not uncommon for a son or daughter of these hills to have known someone who died in a logging accident, or farm accident, or claimed by the multitude of diseases we’ve largely put back in the box thanks to modern vaccines.
On top of that, I grew up around a generation that, if not headed to or returning to Southeast Asia, had become all-too-familiar with the grinder of war through Korea or WWII. Daddy never served overseas, but he was a mechanic stationed at a naval aviation training base in Florida. He never talked too much about that, but did let on once later in life that while he was there, 32 – maybe 36, it wasn’t a number he was all that eager to closely track – people lost their lives in training accidents.
And beyond that, the closeness to nature and death was a given. People had to eat, and instead of going to a grocery store, that food was in the pasture or henhouse, and farm-to-table it was a lot more personal than looking at an expiration date on a shrink-wrapped package.
The folks I grew up around were not a squeamish lot. If you hunted or fished or had a farm you were familiar with death as part of life.
Some of that rubbed off on me.
And it bit me in the rear a few years back in a very-nearly career-ending episode.
So, I’m working the Sunday night rotation to put out the Monday morning paper, and there’s little news and absolutely zero art for the front page. I searched through the news wires, growing increasingly desperate, when ah: There it was.
Across several time zones, in Honolulu, an elephant performing with Circus International became enraged and critically trampled her groomer before killing her trainer and breaking free. Police chased the animal through the city streets, firing dozens of rounds before bringing the animal down.
The photos were, I thought, the closest thing I’d ever see to Godzilla loose on the streets of an American city.
I picked one for the front page.
Meanwhile, over in our printing plant, another native hillbilly, a friend of mine not long out of the U.S. Marines, was setting up the page for printing. I can only imagine the thought process where he must’ve looked over at the red ink and decided he’d do me a favor and get the colors to pop a bit so readers could better figure out what was going on in that picture.
There was a time around here when in your youth you would hunt, and every now and then that hunt would come to a logical and messy end.
There was a time when that sort of activity was just as natural a part of life here as could be.
Not sure when that time was over, but it was evidently over before publication of that particular edition.
About 100 calls came into the newsroom, and eventually several dozen letters. Some of the politer ones suggested I be flogged.
Well, a couple of weeks dragged on, and the commotion finally died down. I’m driving home from work when I topped a hill and found myself looking up at a large billboard advertising the paper.
That front page was on it.
The corporate marketing folks upstream had apparently managed not to read our little publication for the entirety of two weeks, it would appear.
And off to the races the whole affair went once again.
I’ve had a lot of nicknames over the years.
“The Elephant Man” was probably my least favorite.
And I still won’t respond to a marketing survey to this day.
Jim Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.