The lilac sprig I clutched in my right hand had long since lost most of its spring-fresh scent. Three days earlier, as I began driving from Wisconsin to Georgia, I’d cut it from a lush lilac bush that shaded the graves of my parents. I never knew them. They died in a car accident a quarter century ago when I was an infant. Annie, my father’s younger sister, raised me. We were like sisters. Now, she’s buried next to them -- and that lilac bush.
Every few miles, I’d take another deep whiff so that spring in Wisconsin would stay with me – and in me – as I drove farther and farther into the Deep South. I’d never been to that part of the country before, so I had all kinds of preconceived notions of what life would be like living “down there.” After a long heart-to-heart with my friend and mentor, Lionel Stone, publisher of the Pine Bluff Standard, we agreed it was time for me to leave my reporting job at his paper and spread my wings.
Through Lionel’s contacts, I landed a job as a cops and courts reporter at the Columbia Sun-Gazette -- a daily paper in west central Georgia about a hundred miles southwest of Atlanta and just across the river from Alabama. Lionel told me the paper had a reputation for scrappy investigative journalism that led to Pulitzer Prizes for reporters who then went on to prestigious publications like the New York Times where Lionel recently retired as the paper’s National Editor.
“It’ll be a good place for you to park for awhile, kid, until you’re ready to go on to the big time,” Lionel had said to me a couple weeks earlier when I was weighing the paper’s offer. Lionel won his Pulitzer in the early 1970s when he was the White House Correspondent for the Times during Nixon’s presidency.
About nine-thirty on this Saturday night, I was cruising down I-185 closing in on Columbia, but still in the boonies and having a heck of a time staying awake. I’d had so much caffeine that I was facing the law of diminishing returns – it seemed like the more coffee I drank, the sleepier I got. To entertain myself, I kept hitting the scan button on my radio to see what kind of nonsense could be strung together by the brief bursts of audio snippets. One particularly amusing string sounded like this:
“Governor Gannon’s presidential campaign got a boost today when he won the endorsement of -- [fffftttt] -- JAY-zuss. Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Lord for your -- [fffftttt] -- Dodge Charger. It comes fully-equipped with -- [fffftttt] -- your own personal banker. That’s right. I’m here to ask -- [fffftttt] -- are you SAVED by the blood of the LAMB?”
After awhile, that got boring, so I called Lionel because I can always count on him to keep my mind energized. We’d been yakking for a few minutes when my bladder began competing for my attention.
“Lionel, if I don’t stop this car right now, I’m gonna wet my pants.”
“You should’ve worn a diaper, Lark,” he chuckled.
“What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you remember the story about the former astronaut who drove cross-country wearing a diaper?”
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