Prairie Lights: Clip file inflicts stab wounds from past


A newspaper clipping from 1979, with a photo of your correspondent as a young man. Also, “The Stack” wasn’t a sandwich or some obscure sexual reference. It was the smokestack on the Anaconda smelter.

It’s a good thing I kept a clip file of everything I wrote in my newspaper career.

If I hadn’t cut out every story and pasted it into a spiral notebook, I never would have remembered that the Sons of Norway, Ryvingen Lodge 136, had planned to meet at the home of Burton Colwell, at Spring Hill west of Anaconda, on the first Sunday of August 1979.


Your correspondent today

Nor would I remember having written a story on Edward “Sport” Podobnik, who reminisced on the two glorious years he spent as a whiskey-maker and bootlegger during Prohibition. And he was proud of his whiskey, by God.

“It was like velvet going down the throat and then when it hit bottom, it kicked,” he told me, and then I told the world, or least the readers of the Montana Standard in Butte.

I was working that summer of 1979 as an intern in the Anaconda bureau of the Standard. Working in the bureau meant that I got to cover a little bit of everything. I reported on plans to save Anaconda’s historic street lights, covered a building collapse, spent a week writing about big forest fires west of town and wrote about “Crazy Joe” Maciag.

Crazy Joe had already swum 292 miles down the Yellowstone River, which earned him a berth in the Guinness Book of World Records (I’m assuming I cross-checked that claim) and that summer he was hoping to swim the length of Flathead Lake, 28 miles.

He figured that would get him back in the record books, since the English Channel at its narrowest was only 22 miles wide. The oddest detail I reported was that Joe planned to slather his body “with a creamy, ivory-colored grease” donated by the Butte, Anaconda & Pacific Railway.

Joe didn’t make it, but I didn’t get to report that, there being no travel budget for interns. I think the Missoulian was there, though.

I was looking for something else when I got distracted by this stroll through the glued-down memories of my first real job in the newspaper biz. I feel sorry for people working for newspapers these days. No one is going tell them how they ought to be clipping and saving their stories in a notebook.

Even if some dinosaur were to give them that advice, they couldn’t possibly see the reason for it. Hell, their stuff’s on the Internet! It isn’t going anywhere. Good luck with that. Maybe an FBI forensics investigator will be able to pull that story you wrote this morning out of the bowels of the Web in 30 years, but I doubt it.

I’m in the same boat myself, now. Last Best News, if you haven’t noticed, is strictly online, and I harbor no illusions that all this work I’ve been doing for the past two years is being truly preserved anywhere.

And even if all the stuff I wrote back in 1979 was available somewhere, I wouldn’t know how to begin looking for some gems, especially the unsigned little pieces that were so much a part of my job. Looking at the first notebook from 1979, I see that I must have spent a few days getting trained in Butte, because the very first clipping I have, dated June 26 and consisting of six sentences, reports on crimes reported to the Butte-Silver Bow cops.

I detailed three crimes in those six sentences, which I consider a marvel of economical writing. Of course, if one of the “crimes” you’re reporting on is that a fellow had the rear license plate on his 1969 Oldsmobile stolen in the Butte Plaza parking lot, there’s not a whole lot you can say. But still.

The first story I wrote after actually arriving in Anaconda had this riveting first sentence: “U.S. Sen. John Melcher, D-Mont., Monday praised a project to heat parts of Warm Springs State Hospital with a geothermal well, and called on state and federal officials to take action to develop alternative energy forms.”

Just dazzling, eh? Eh? Oh, I’m sorry, you must have fallen asleep.

But that’s why you save these sorts of things. The hope is not to preserve nuggets of timeless prose but to remind oneself that oneself has learned a little something in 36 goddamned years.

This notebook also reminds me that 36 years ago I had a beard, or something very like one, and fairly large tortoise-shell glasses. I know because my editors found reason to run that damned mug of mine three times during my two-month internship.

At least the mugshot of me was taken by a professional newspaper photographer. The photographs I took, and which the editors in fits of insanity decided to print in the Standard, were almost uniformly wretched, including a photo of a guy walking his pet raccoon, in which it was almost possible to tell that it was a raccoon.

The guy walking the raccoon, by the way, looked like he might have been drinking some of Sport Podobnik’s moonshine.

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