At a recent Paul Smith's College graduation ("recent" meaning 10 to 15 years ago), I was in the back of the gym, standing next to a stringer from the Press Republican. He was recording the subtleties of that momentous occasion; I was taking pictures for the yearbook.
Things proceeded apace and before I knew it, the commencement speaker had started his address. A short time into it he quoted American classic author Henry David Thoreau.
The stringer scribbled the quote word-for-word and when he was done, he looked at me.
"You know where that came from?" he said.
"I do," I said. "It's from 'Walden,' the second chapter, which is called 'Where I Lived and What I Lived For.'"
The guy's eyes widened. He was obviously impressed with my encyclopedic knowledge. He need not have been.
I knew the source of that quote because it came from the only chapter of "Walden" I ever read. And I suspect it's the only one the commencement speaker -?and everyone else who quotes "Walden" - ever read, either.
I read it (and read it repeatedly) only because it was in every college English anthology I ever saw. Sadly, I not only read it a lot, but before I came to my senses, I actually made my students read it, too. It's a tribute to either my students' gentility or passivity that no attempts on my life were ever made (at least none I found out about).
When I said Thoreau was a classic author, I meant it according to Mark Twain's definition of a classic, which is a book that people praise but don't read. And in Thoreau's case, there's good reason not to read him - his prose runs the gamut from the merely turgid to utterly unintelligible. Granted, he was a bright boychik and a Harvard grad to boot. He was also constitutionally unable to write a simple declarative sentence, a unified paragraph or any other nicety that makes reading a love, rather than a labor of it.
No news is the best news
But his deficiencies as a prose writer aside, ole H.D. had some fine ideas. This is why he's the darling of all the Eco-Freaks and the Green Mafia. It's also why he's so widely quoted ... while so rarely read.
One of his great shticks was about the news. In essence, he said that while people are obsessed with it, it's all meaningless; that while it might be sensational, it's rarely significant. And ain't that the truth?
I mean, look at the swill we're inundated with that's classified as "news:" murders, abductions, fires, explosions, lunatics in Louisiana, poisonings in Pennsylvania; bullies all the hell over the place. And what possible reactions can we have? One is to shut down, become inured to it, and not give a tiddly-doo about anyone else's misery. The other is to keep letting it rock us, so we end up twitching ouch-bags of hypersensitivity and paranoia.
I doubt anything can or will be done about it, but years ago in My Home Town, we had a great balm against news of that ilk. It was Bill McLaughlin's front-page frolics.
McLaughlin wrote for the Enterprise for at least 40 years. He wrote both columns and news, took photographs and was an excellent cartoonist. He was also a beloved town institution.
He wrote a lot of humorous stuff, and like any humorist, when he wanted, he could write serious stuff as well. But while people may have appreciated his serious writing, it wasn't what they adored him for.
What endeared Bill McLaughlin to the town was his wild put-ons and hoaxes. I remember a spaceship that crashed by Donnelly's Corners, leaving a little alien survivor. Then there was the Half-Man, Half-Deer, as well as gold discovered on Mount Pisgah.
But what was weirdest - and most delightful?- was that Jim Loeb and Roger Tubby, the editor and publisher of the
Enterprise, let him spin his yarns on Page One, which in every other paper in creation is reserved for The God's Honest Truth.
One of his tales took bad taste to a whole new dimension - both literally and figuratively. This story, like my last week's, was told to me by Howard Riley.
No reservations about the reservoir
A man in town told several people he was going to go into the woods and do himself in. He added he'd be so far into the bush, no one would ever find him. Then he disappeared.
I've no idea of the particulars of that situation. Did people not take him seriously? Did he not tell the right people? Did he actually tell no one, and I only heard about it long afterwards? Regardless, the fact is one day he was here in town and the next he was gone.
Today our village water supply is in a 1-million-gallon cistern atop Mount Pisgah. But back then, it was in reservoirs. There were a bunch of them and essentially they looked like huge swimming pools, with a fountain in the middle of each to aerate the water.
A steel fence surrounded the reservoir and it had no trespassing signs on it. But in those simpler, more innocent times, no one thought about security -?at least not seriously. So while it was obvious this was our water supply and we weren't allowed anywhere near it, there was nothing to prevent anyone from sneaking in whenever they wanted.
Today, the ADE's news is mostly routine stuff - the school board did this, the Boy Scouts did that, the Brothers of the Bush did nothing.
It was no different in McLaughlin's heyday, which perhaps was why he felt compelled to spice it up. So when he got word the village had to do routine maintenance on the reservoir which included draining one of the pools, he saw his opportunityand he took it.
Now I'll give you the essential elements of his story and you see if you can figure out what appeared on page one, under Bill McLaughlin's byline:
A man threatens suicide.
The man then disappears.
A year after he disappears, the village drains a reservoir pool.
When they drain the pool, guess what they find?
Howard said the Enterprise phone was ringing off the hook, with people freaking out over what they'd been drinking in their water for the previous year (or more exactly, who they'd been drinking).
Then the fuss died down as fast as it'd peaked. And why wouldn't it? It was, after all, just another Bill McLaughlin put-on, something the townspeople were not only used to but that they reveled in as well.
Ultimately, the metaphor to explain how folks felt about Bill McLaughlin's rascality in print is he was a man who could get away with murder.
And in this particular case, he was a man who could get away with suicide -?and a soggy, septic suicide at that.