From the miscellaneous drawer

by Anne Swenson

If you’re a long time subscriber and reader you may be aware that I’ve always loved expressing myself by writing.
The Echo has given me THE LOVE OF A LIFETIME.
The way most newspapers are run these days is with an eye to the bottom line. Newspaper decisions are based on that limiting fact.
From the first I denied being able to cope with the public side of the newspaper. That was alright, the editor Bob Cary said he’d take care of it, be the spokesperson for the paper. His two days a week on the job were his commitment.
Our commitment to each other was that we would stay with the Echo as long as we were having fun.
In the early days of my ownership of the Ely Echo - in the transition between the dominate male owner and myself - we lost some staff members. One woman who had been with the paper for its first five years became emotionally sick with the change. She finally confessed that she had never worked for a woman and although she liked me when we were co-workers on the paper, she had to quit now that I was her employer.
Bob said if we were ever to have a reunion of all the former Echo staff members from the its beginning in 1972 we’d have to rent an auditorium, or was it a football field he said.
Football. That’s the sport where males run back and forth over stripes and then put their ball down between an H thing and everybody cheers. I know all about sports. The first sportswriters, Bob told me, were not employed by newspapers, but by the owners of the team who then submitted the stories for publicity. It was only after newspapers discovered there was a readership for the stories that they hired their own writers.
Small newspapers like ours relied on high school students to submit stories for pay. We’ve had some good ones and some who were dismissed before they were even published because they lacked basic language skills like spelling and grammar.
But that isn’t the story I meant to tell here. I started out to tell you about the boat.
Our area is a tourism-based one with the woods and the waters as its biggest lure. City folk, however, for all they claim to revel in the woods and water like to have variety in their vacation stays. The newspaper decided therefore to sponsor a summer festival focused around Juhannus, the Finnish version of mid-summer’s June 21.
None of us were Finnish nor had we ever seen such a celebration, but there were people around to describe this folk event. It centers around music, dancing and native crafts, preferably alongside water. The City of Ely has a charming, hardly-used park on the shores of Shagawa Lake - Semers Park. Donated by a long ago resident, the land slopes steadily down to a sand beach and off to one side are two islands which are part of the park and reached by a footbridge.
Enlisting the help of the local Lions Club, we had them lay a bonfire in an abandoned steel U.S. Forest Service boat. Concerned about getting it to start afire once they had crossed the bay towing this steel boat, the men soaked the wood in gasoline. Riding in the tow boat were two Echo staff members ( one a Lions member and the other a photographer) and two more Lions Club members.
We promised the public a surprise at dusk. Dusk that night came sooner than it normally does at that time of year when our darkness hours shorten to about six.
A storm was moving in from the north and huge black thunderheads arose from behind the opposite shore. Then as the crowd threatened to head for cover Das Boat appeared from behind the fartherest island, the flames of its bonfire already leaping skyward.
No one had considered the intensity of the fire set upon that cold water. Had a body been upon it the Vikings would have been proud to have it consumed with such an intensity in the pyre. The idea was to anchor it safely in the cove with two anchors to keep it in place. That done the tow boat headed for shore just as the full force of the storm swept into the bay.
“What the hell is that?” a policeman asked one of the Echo staff members who had landed safely. “It appears to be a bonfire,” he said.
We didn’t have a burning permit. We tried to get one but the people in change of burning permits were not the same people in charge of the waters and so neither issued one.
With the force of the winds driven by the storm Das Boat’s anchors were of little use. The boat dragged the anchors toward shore until they became entangled with the ropes around the swimming area and there the boat lodged as we headed for cover.
An hour or so later four of us returned to stand on the shore and contemplate our situation. The boat’s contents were still burning though mostly just the embers. It had to be moved before day break we knew.
Neels, the German student living with my family that year, volunteered to swim for it. There was no insurance which would cover such an act by him so that was out. I might be a strong enough swimmer but that day I had sprained my ankle and could barely walk.
Dave, a tall quiet man in his thirties, said, “Well, I guess I’ll do it.”
And with that he dropped his pants to the ground, uncovering his readiness: he had changed to swimming trunks. He swam out with a knife in his teeth and cut loose the anchors.
Towing it was harder than we had imagined. It was still hot and the logistics of motion and distance were hard even on Dave. We doused what was left of the fire after it was on shore and then hid it for pick-up the following morning.
Nobody remembered to get any pictures of the event.
THE BACK STORY - 2/18/94 Miles died.
I don’t know if I ever told you how I got into the newspaper business. Funny, I was talking about it to a fellow just the other night.
It was opportunity. Getting into the business. Miles, the man who had started the newspaper five years prior, was seeing it all go down the tubes. His wife had arthritis so bad she had signed up to be a guinea pig for testing.
That summer doctors had operated on her spine at the base of her neck. She got a staph infection in the wound and it wouldn’t heal. That and the worry of the business failing, losing money, put Miles in the intensive care ward with his heart giving out.
What a bastard he was. He would storm up and down the office, smoking cigars, ranting and raving. He was an alcoholic who attended AA and was always trying to get the rest of the staff to go with him. He tried to convince each of us about our drinking problems. Far as I know, though, none of us ever went with him to the meetings
I used to go out to dinner with him on the night we put the paper to bed. Everybody else headed home, but, like Miles, my adrenaline was still pumping and I needed a cool down.
Ever been on stage? Well, it was something like that. You know, after the performance, when you’ve got to know how you were perceived, what you missed.
But with newspapers, especially weekly newspapers, you don’t get that immediate feedback. There’s the delays of printing and delivery. By the time people are talking to you about your “performance,” your words, you’re already focused on other words, other stories.
Well, I didn’t mean to get off the subject.
Funny thing is, Miles’ heart didn’t give out. He recovered enough to get in his old black Chevy truck and head off out west for a while. Sort of disappeared.
He called me up the night before he left and said, “I’m taking off; I gotta get outta here.”
“But who’s gonna run the paper,” I asked.
“Guess it’ll have to be you,” he said. “You can do it.”
“Miles, this is different. I don’t even own the paper. What’ll I say to people?”
“Say anything you want. I’ll see you when I get back. Maybe you’ll want to own the paper by then.”
He wasn’t far from wrong, you know. He’d been trying to get the staff to buy it as a cooperative venture, but when we all got together to talk about it, some of the folks just couldn’t see it and wanted it investigated and talked about. The paper was too damn fragile for that. Another month and it would be down the tubes with Miles’ neglect. He just didn’t care anymore, and neither were the customers beginning to care.
So I plunked down my money and bought it on contract for deed. Had a lawyer look it over, of course, but something just made me want to do it.
The biggest drawback I had seen was that I’m so horribly shy in situations like this. You may not think so, but I am. I have to work to be able to face people, and in confrontations I couldn’t hold my own.
It finally worked out that Bob agreed to be the front man. He’s the editor after all, and he’s used to being in the public eye. And he’s quick with words and processing his thoughts. Not me.
That first year there was a lot of attention drawn to the paper and me and we worked out a scheme to deal with it: Bob and Sam wrote speeches for me and I rehearsed them until they sounded like my words. Some were pretty impressive. Quoted all over the place because it was a hot year politically what with the national attention on what was to be the Wilderness Act of ‘78. Bob’s words when I spoke; Sam’s when I wrote. Nobody knew.
Eighteen years later, Bob called to say that Miles died in Almagordo, New Mexico. Probably the nicest thing he’s ever done for his family, Bob says.
I’m thinking back to the last summer though. Getting to town late and heading toward the office side door when there coming toward me is Miles. I don’t think he even recognizes me, sort of like pretending that maybe I won’t recognize him. He’s big as life. It’s a hot day and he’s wearing a plaid shirt, suspenders and blue jeans. He’s lost some weight from the way I remembered him, but he looks almost the same as the day I met him 20 years ago.
“Whatcha doing here?” I ask.
“Do I get a hug?” he asks as I oblige. “I was beginning to think I wasn’t welcome here. I went into the office and nobody took much notice of me. Mostly new people in there. Everybody’s forgotten old Miles.”
“What did you come for?” I ask. I push open the side door and motion for him to follow.
His eyes adjust to the darkened mailroom. “Lots of memories here,” he says.
We continue through to the front of the office, stopping along the way to introduce the present day staff.
They don’t seem much interested. We stand in the lobby area and talk about his family. He asks about people he knew in his fighting newspaperman days.
I shake my head. It’s so long ago. Most of the windmills he jousted at are now gone.
Today, so is he.

…TO BE CONTINUED next week