First off, let me confess to my geezerhood.

I have been in the reporting business long enough to remember the days when news, particularly on television, was different from gossip.

Hard as it is to believe, there was a time when the shenanigans of the rich and stoned were pretty much relegated to the gossip columns in newspapers or, if they did something approaching real interest, like getting beheaded in a car accident or getting drafted into the army.

Most of us have been embarrassed by the trend to put anything to do with the rich & shallow on the front page…heck, ANYWHERE in the front section. Britney Spears and her adventures in motherhood, rehab, and efforts to destroy the lingerie industry by showing off the fact that she doesn’t wear any (at least, not while there are photographers around,) was bad enough.

But this whole business with Paris Hilton has taken the cake. You know all the arguments, which basically boil down to “so what?”

We have all had to write (or announce) our share of dopey stories foisted on us by some ubereditor who confuses twitter with journalism. Mostly we grumble, grind our dentures, and go ahead and do it. Principles are one thing, but there is always the desire to keep one’s job.

Enter Mika Emilie Leonia Brzezinski, 39, co-host of MSNBC’s morning program “Morning Joe,” which airs weekdays from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., Eastern time.

Last Tuesday morning, she realized that the Goon in Charge had given her a script in which the lead story was yet another froth-and-titillation segment on everybody’s favorite heiress.

The story following that was one about Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana breaking from President Bush on the Iraq war.

You may remember Iraq. More than 3,500 Americans dead, God knows how many maimed and wounded, and probably tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians dead and wounded. Hardly anybody ever mentions them.

Brzezinski, being, you should excuse the expression, a real journalist, had the novel idea that a story linked to a war where actual people were actually dying might be more important that the Paris Hilton silliness, refused to read the story.

Better yet, she attempted to burn the story’s script on air but was prevented from lighting it by a co-host. She finally tore the script up, walked over to a newsroom shredder, and turned the thing into confetti.

OK, I’ll accept the possibility that the whole thing might have been a publicity gambit for Brzezinski, but I am not so convinced. She is the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski United States National Security Advisor under President Jimmy Carter. I think she probably has a pretty well-honed idea of what might and might not be a story that matters.

In any case, I watched the YouTube clip of the newscast’s salient points. I couldn’t stop smiling.

I hope she keeps her job. Hell, I hope they put her in charge.


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All in all, I’d say my experiences in church have not been entirely positive. I blame this on the denomination in which I was raised.

I will not name it, but in a South famous for its Hellfire and Damnation types, in the land that bred Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robinson and other members of the “Grab’em by the Liver and Make’em Sweat” School of Theology, I managed to be born into a congregation devoted to boredom.

In my church, there was no joy. During the services, we did not sing the old hymns that everybody knows, but rather some of the newer, complex pieces. It was like singing an instruction manual.

In my church, as in others, Hell was something to be avoided, like a bad neighborhood or tacky friends. Pastor Zack painted for us a sort of pastel damnation, where lackluster demons meandered around pestering the unlucky souls who had stumbled into the place.

Now, the fire-and-brimstone tent revivals were something else again.

I remember one in particular. The preacher was a stocky, sweating man with the shoulders of a professional wrestler and the eyes of a cherub who has imbibed too much Tabasco sauce.

This preacher didn’t fool around with any suburban, split-level, air-conditioned Hell. No Sir. This man’s Hell was a wicked place, turbo-charged with fire and brimstone, cranked wide open with sin and misery, patrolled by lean, mean demons who loved their work.

In the locust-laden nights you could almost feel the hot gusts of the flames in the summer breezes blowing in off the fields, almost hear the earth crack with the shrieks of the damned.

Now THERE was a Hell one could believe in.

One left those tent meetings feeling small, contemptible and unworthy. A preacher like that could strip you of all your false pride and make you look again at the desolation you had made of your life. The feeling sometimes lasted for hours, and left you feeling purged somehow, as though coming just that close to those flames had burned away a row or two of spiritual weeds.

Years later, in Mississippi, I was able to take part in what became a religious experience for a large number of people. It was an accident and, predictably enough, nobody thanked me for it.

That summer, I had rented the attic of the house next to my apartment to use as a studio. I had a chair and easel and a few odds and ends up there; nothing fancy.

The house was owned by a local architect named Phil, who regularly bought old houses and restored them. In this case, he had leased the bottom floor to a group of strange long-haired youths who wore tie-dyed shirts and prayed at the top of their lungs. They worked on the house for Phil, and in return they could live there and hold their prayer meetings, as long as they didn’t frighten the animals or invite complaints involving the police.

One weekend, the little impromptu church had a guest. He was a preacher, well-known in their denomination, they said. A friend in the local police department said the guy was a thief and a swindler, but the kids were convinced that the guy could all but walk on water.

That Sunday I sat in my studio working for several hours. After awhile, the rooms below filled with all manner of people come to hear the Rev. Pointer speak; Jesus freaks, good country folk come in from the blank spots on the map in battered old pickups, a few of the boys who more typically hung out in front of the wine & beer shop just down the street beside the Chinese grocery.

The Rev. Pointer didn’t speak. He bellowed. He shrieked. He damned. He exhorted, fumed and ridiculed. He made an awful lot of noise. So much so that I gave up trying to paint and stood, stretched, and walked across the attic in my heavy boots and clumped down the stairs and out the back door.

As it turned out, Phil and his girlfriend were downstairs, having been invited to the services by his tenants. Phil was Italian, from an old-fashioned Catholic family, and was terrified.

“There were people having fits,” he said later, sweating, “They were talking in tongues, just like you read in the books, and they rolled around on the floor.”

I tried to explain to him the mysteries of the charismatic movement, but he stopped me.

“You should have seen the preacher’s face,” he went on, breathless. “He had been going on and on about the sins of the congregation. He raised his hand up and pointed toward Heaven, and also toward your room upstairs.”

Oh-oh, I thought.

“He said, real loud: ‘Lord, if I’m lyin’ to these folks, I wish you’d send down a sign,'” Phil said, beginning to laugh. “That’s when you decided to come clumping down the stairs in those clodhoppers of yours. That preacher’s jaw dropped almost to the floor. For a second there, I thought he was going to say: ‘Wait! I was only kidding!'”

I have no idea if my clattering exit from the space above the flock had any lasting effect. I know that the Rev. Mr. Pointer never returned to the little congregation on Central Street. I also know that the kids who lived in the house eyed me suspiciously from then on, as though there might be more to me than met the eye.

But, who knows? Maybe some doubter had his faith uplifted and nailed into place by the wooden hammering of my boots up there toward Heaven. They do say, after all, that the Lord works in mysterious ways.

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Note: This column is based in part on a story I wrote for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.

On the shoulder of I-81 near Harrisburg, Pa., Nancy Statler spotted the foreleg of a deer. She stopped her old red Blazer, pulled on a pair of sky-blue rubber gloves, and tossed the deer-bit into the trailer. Finding a skimpy break in the riot of cars and big rigs, dashed out to a furry smear in the travel lane. She bent, peeled it away from the asphalt, and flopped the Bambi pancake over into the trailer, causing a flurry of stink and disturbed flies.

By this time, I’m starting to get used to the smell, but her foray into the Russian Roulette of I-81’s river of truck traffic almost stopped my heart.

It’s all in a day’s work for Statler, and she loves the gig.

“I love this job. Out driving the the countryside most of the day.

Nobody hassles me. I’m my own boss.”

Statler is married, and a grandmother 15 times over. She gets up at 3 a.m. Before heading out to pick up deer, she runs a paper route, then a school bus route, and then heads out for six to eight hours a day looking for smashed deer.

By 8:30 on the morning of May 8, she already had two deer in her home-made trailer. Two hours later, the count was eight and a fraction deer and one slightly queasy reporter.

She was on her way to pick up two more. Deer, not reporters.

The first deer we stopped to get had been hurled about a dozen feet off the road along the Interstate. She stopped, and I got out, figuring if I’m going to be along for the ride, I can be useful. I asked if I could help her. Forty years ago I had a job picking up roadkill for a city garbage department. I figured the smell wouldn’t bother me.Nancy at the office
“Do I look like I need help?” Nancy said. Clearly, she did not. She grabbed the doe by the back feet and dragged it up the slope, up the trailer ramp, and tucked the corpse cozily against its two new trailermates.

I snapped a couple of photos. And the gentle spring breeze shifted from off my left shoulder to off the top of the trailer.

I discovered that 40 years is too long. All of my olfactory calluses were long gone. I didn’t lose my breakfast, because I had been smart enough not to eat breakfast that morning. But it definitely gave me a case of flutters that remained with me for the rest of the morning.

The Interstate and other highways in the area give Nancy plenty to do. Tuesday and Wednesday of the previous week, she drove a total of 334 miles and picked up 16 deer, 11 in Cumberland County and five in neighboring Adams. In Nov. of 2006, she picked up a total of 126 deer.

Some days, not often, there are no deer called in. She drives about 38,000 miles per year.

She smokes, and when she feels it’s time for a break, she snacks from a number of prepackaged pastries lined up on the dash of her Blazer.

Nancy is self-employed, one of 48 contractors who bid out their services to the state highway department for the removal of dead deer.

She wouldn’t say how much she gets per deer, since it’s a competitive bidding process. Evidently, people are lining up to do the work. Who knew? Anyway, the highway department told me that the contractors picked up 10,000 deer last year, part of the state total of 30,000 to 36,000 dead deer picked up by people like Nancy, PennDOT county maintenance crews, and by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The average cost to the state for contractors like Nancy is a little more than $46 per deer, though the price varies a good bit through the state because the costs of things like disposal at licensed landfills can range from $25 to nearly $90 per deer. Those costs, along with vehicles, fuel, maintenance, and insurance, all come out of the contractor’s pockets.

I’ve heard people gripe about paying to have dead deer removed from the roadsides. Let nature take care of them, they say.

Right.

Nature did not have a lot to do with the deer being there. In nature, anything that killed the deer would eat most of it, and scavengers pilfer the leftovers.

If the cars and truck that hit the deer would eat them, we wouldn’t have much off a problem. Until we can find a way to power vehicles with venison, there is not much of an option. Nancy said there are plenty of good reasons for getting the deer off the road, shoulder, and right-of-way.

Nobody wants to look at rotting carcasses, and there are a lot of those every year as deer/vehicle collisions continue to rise. Likewise, a dead deer will put out a lot of bad smell before it decomposes entirely, a process that can take weeks. And you don’t even want to think about what happens when a PennDOT mower runs over a rotting 150-pound deer.

Yeah, I know. I TOLD you not to think about it.

Nancy said that the number of deer and their size varies from season to season. In hunting season and during the rutting season, there are more bucks. This time of year, most of the road kills are does that have come down from the high country to give birth to fawns.

She has a winch if she comes across a deer too heavy for her to lift.

She’s needed it just twice in the last two months. One buck weighed at least 180 pounds. She once found a 9-point buck. She said people ask if she keeps such trophies.

“Nope. He went to the landfill, just like the others. I wouldn’t want to do it, and if I did, I could lose my contract,” she said.

During hunting season, she said, about 60 percent of the bucks she picks up have been beheaded for their antlers. “That’s pretty sad,” she said.

Yes, she still likes to eat venison. No, she doesn’t take road-kill home. For one thing, she wouldn’t get paid for it, and for another, the deer she picks up have been dead for the most part for at least 24 hours, sometimes longer. A LOT longer. The smell takes some getting used to.

“The smell doesn’t bother me too much unless it’s 100-plus degrees and the deer has been torn up real bad and out there for a few days. That gets pretty raunchy.”