Sometime in 1992, shortly after taking up my career as a journalist, I started reading back issues of the newspaper in Franklin where I worked.
The newspapers were in bound editions stacked neatly, year upon year, under a counter in a hallway. When not writing stories or attending to the various humdrum duties that fall to a community news reporter, I would select one of the oversized black-covered books, lay it flat on the counter and flip through pages grown brittle from age.
The editor, walking to or from his office, would invariably bark at me at least once each reading session to return the oversized books to their correct slots. He enjoyed affecting the crusty exterior of the cynical newsman. In my naïveté, I obliged him by buying his act.
Scrutinizing those yellowed pages, I did not find the Appalachia of “The Foxfire Book,” no “ye olde mountain life” of guzzling ice-cold spring water, munching cornpone bread and puffing on a corncob pipe. Eliot Wigginton, the Georgia school teacher whose students assembled the Foxfire stories, was arrested for pedophilia during my first impressionable months as a reporter.
I soon noticed no matter the decade, the banner stories focused on murders, floods and droughts; people who were killed in car accidents; planes crashing; mines collapsing; political gamesmanship; elections won and lost.
In other words, what we report on today.
Sometimes, I think the reason for my staying in a region where I had no intention of staying is directly traceable to my rummaging through those old newspapers.
There grew in me a sense of present and past folded together into a single continuum. I’ve grown fond of conflicts and complications, developed through firsthand reportage, personal history and remembered reading.
In the Cowee community of Macon County, a boy arrested for murder in 1956 claimed to have mistaken his father for a groundhog. He shot his father dead with one bullet through the man’s head. I’ve read those news articles hundreds of times. I’ve written that story, if not hundreds of times, then too many times in a series of failed attempts to transform reality into fiction.
“A stoic 17-year-old Cowee youth Tuesday was bound over to Superior Court on a charge of murdering his father with a .22 rifle on a mountainside above their home,” says the first paragraph of the first article written about the event.
“The boy, who says he shot his father accidentally, thinking he was a groundhog, appeared unmoved during the proceedings and the parade of witnesses. He spoke out only once. This was an exchange with Sheriff J. Harry Thomas over the location of a poplar stump near the scene of the shooting – a point which apparently has little, or nothing, to do with the case.”
How can I improve upon that? Facts seem more compelling than fiction.
Driving through Cowee, I contemplate how only six decades ago this picturesque valley was the site of the then-notorious, extensively reported shooting. Just as easily, I could mosey over to Caney Fork and mull over a 1946 shooting death of a cab driver.
A Jackson County man, returned from war after active combat as a paratrooper and suffering a related “nervous condition,” was charged with murder for firing a bullet through a cab’s front seat and into the driver’s back. Shortly before, he’d shot and killed his pet dog, all the while raving about gunning down the sheriff, deputies and police officers. The veteran had fueled himself on copious amounts of liquor and, after running dry, turned to drinking rubbing alcohol.
“He was known as a good boy in the local community prior to his entering the Army,” a judge noted before sentencing the shooter to life in prison. The court subsequently declared the convict mentally deranged.
Whether and when to draw from such source material involves a complex series of decisions.
The challenge is to avoid allowing stories, or maybe in fact to allow them, to become more – or is it less? – about exhumations than creation.
Quintin Ellison is editor of The Sylva Herald.