Saturday, March 14, 2015

Uninformed vs. Misinformed

Many moons ago, I spent a couple of decades as an ambitious computer programmer and manager, in Minneapolis and Los Angeles. Married for 5 years, then divorced. By my 40s, I was burned out. I quit the full-time corporate grind and became a programmer for hire (hourly rates, short-term contracts).

Eventually, I escaped the big city for a less stressful life in the boondocks. After living in the Arizona desert for 6 years, I moved to the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas, where I wrote 4 novels (on my bucket list), then moved to Memphis to do a Y2K computer contract for 10 months and moved back to northern Arkansas where I bought a secluded place on a dirt road (4 miles from a small town) and worked on the 2000 Census.

With no computer programming jobs available in Redneck Heaven, I managed to get a part-time gig teaching computer courses at a local college (2001-2006) and writing a column for a local weekly newspaper (2001-2007).

The newspaper was located in Salem, Arkansas (population 1,400), the county seat of Fulton County. It was part of a group of publications headquartered in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and my column also appeared in several other newspapers in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.

In February of 2001, I started at the newspaper, working in the office, breaking in. It was my understanding that I was to be part-time (about 15 hours per week), working primarily on putting the paper together on the computer.

After only a couple of weeks on the job, I asked the editor-in-chief on a Friday afternoon if I could write an article for the paper.

She was a crusty old newspaper warhorse and gruffly told me to go have an interview with an air conditioner. It was early spring. Obviously, she wanted me to write a piece about how everyone should do some maintenance on their air conditioner prior to seasonal usage.

However, being the rebel I am, I took a different approach. That weekend, I cranked out a short piece and turned it in to the editor on Monday morning.

* * *


One of the news editors suggested I interview an air conditioner. After all, summer was right around the corner and it was assumed readers would want to know the general feelings of their outdoor cooling equipment.

I had always been under the impression appliances were incapable of speech but I could be wrong. Rather than question the wisdom of the editor, I decided to go along with it.

So I sat on my deck the following Saturday afternoon, gazing at my air conditioner, trying to figure out a way to communicate with it.

Finally, I walked right up to it and introduced myself.

I wasn’t too surprised at the silence that followed. Then I felt a little embarrassed. After all I had lived there for two years.  Surely it knew who I was by now.

“So how’s it going?” I said, as if I was expecting an answer.

Again, the air conditioner didn’t respond.

However, my dog wandered over for a closer look. She seemed a bit perplexed that I would be talking to the big green box sitting on a slab of concrete next to our abode.

“Ya ready for another summer?” I asked the big green box.

Again no response.

I wanted to ask it if it had a name but was certain I wouldn’t get an answer. For some strange reason, I wanted to call it Frosty. Then I noticed it already had a name engraved on its side that read "Intertherm" -- a proper name for a hunk of cooling equipment.

I wondered if Intertherm was looking forward to summer and being in use on a daily basis.

Suddenly, my dog tilted her head to the right, as if the big green box had communicated with her.

I quickly realized Intertherm was indeed looking forward to heavy usage, after all that’s what machines do.  They delight in running smoothly and helping those who created them.

Without uttering another word, I thanked the air conditioner for its fine service and assured it, in my mind, that I would take proper care of it.

My dog gave me an understanding look, then ran off to regain her sanity by chasing a squirrel.

I have no idea if I actually communicated with my air conditioner but it could’ve been possible. If nothing else, it left me in a good mood. Intertherm seemed to be in a good mood too. I even caught a glimpse of a smile as I walked away.

I spent the rest of the afternoon talking to my toaster, mostly about sports.

So now that summer is around the corner, have a chat with your air conditioner.

But don’t call it Frosty.

* * *

The piece was a hit. It seemed easy and natural, so I started having notions of doing some regular writing.

The following week, the newspaper got a call that there was an accident at the local airport. The person who was breaking me in told me to follow her in my vehicle to the airport (small-town runway, about 4 small hangers).

When we got back to the office, I decided to write a piece about my experience -- it was to become my 2nd newspaper column -- prompting me to write another one for the following week, and every week thereafter for the next 7 years.

* * *


Last week, an ultra-light aircraft attempted to land at the local airport when a gust of wind forced it into a row of pine trees adjacent to the runway.

The incident was reported immediately by an eyewitness whereupon a mad dash was made to the Salem Airport by various concerns.

Within minutes, the scene was inundated with rescue vehicles, including medical emergency vans, ambulances, fire trucks, city police cars, county sheriff units and other civilian volunteer vehicles; all parked precisely as required for the circumstance.

The aircraft was perched sideways in a tree with the cockpit over twenty feet in the air. Two people were trapped inside.

Immediately, foam was sprayed to prevent fuel from igniting as firefighters set up a ladder to reach the stranded victims; one of whom was seriously injured.

About a minute later, an NAEC truck showed up, backed into position and lifted its “cherry-picker” buckets, occupied by two rescuers, up to the cockpit area.  Another similar truck arrived a few seconds later, backed in and two men maneuvered their buckets above the stricken aircraft where they secured the wing and cockpit to prevent slippage.

Soon, the female victim was removed from the wreckage and helped to the ground. She was a bit shaken up but seemed otherwise okay.

It took a great deal of effort to remove the male victim who had multiple injuries, including a broken leg. Rescuers ripped off tree branches and pried away at bent metal to make an opening. After about twenty minutes of struggle, they managed to free him.

The injured man was strapped to a stretcher and attended to by members of an emergency medical team until a helicopter showed up about ten minutes later and took him away.

Everyone at the scene performed magnificently. There was a sense of urgency but no panic. The primary rescue teams went about their business as if they had done it a hundred times before.

Even most of the bystanders seemed eager to help but realized they’d only be in the way. In a world full of division and cynicism, it’s nice to know there are those who will be there when you’re in heap of trouble.

Clearly, if you are going to park your airplane in a tree you couldn’t pick a better spot than Salem, Arkansas. Except, of course, in the nearest tree to a hospital emergency room.

Before the incident, the ultra-light aircraft looked like a tricycle with a small motor and flimsy wings.  Now it looks like a twisted bundle of trash or a modern art masterpiece, depending on your point of view.

* * *

Nevertheless, I was still forced quit the job a few weeks later. It was a bit sad because I had the urge to keep writing and it was a wonderful opportunity, but I was not cut out to rush out the building to report on local nonsense.

However, as I was leaving the building for the last time, the publisher met me at the back door and we made an arrangement whereby I would keep writing columns, for a fixed price per column, from home and e-mail them in.

Thus, I wrote a weekly column for the newspaper for 7 years straight, never missing an issue, winning multiple awards for my humor columns (of the previous year) from the Arkansas Press Association.

  • First Place Humor Column -- 2003
  • Second Place Humor Column -- 2004
  • First Place Humor Column -- 2006
  • First Place Humor Column -- 2007

I also won awards for pieces in other categories.

In the summer of 2007, the editor refused to publish the following column submission, which she deemed to be offensive to the citizens of Fulton County. I replaced it with another piece and life went on, never missing a weekly column until I walked away a couple of months later.

Since I am no longer employed by the newspaper, I present the forbidden item here. I seriously doubt if many will be offended by it -- if so, I suggest switching to decaf or perhaps some psychological therapy.

* * *


Arkansas has many towns with descriptive names such as Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Hot Springs, Eureka Springs, Mountain View, Mountain Home, Lake Village, Lake City, Pleasant Plains, Walnut Ridge, Black Rock and so on. The names are indicative of a prominent feature of the surrounding area.

Sharp County has its share of such places.

  • Ash Flat – A flat area containing lots of ashes

  • Cave City – A cave within an area populated by cave people

  • Evening Shade – A town with lots of shade trees blocking the late afternoon sun

  • Hidden Valley – A community in a hard-to-find valley

  • Cherokee Village – A village established along the Cherokee Nation Trail of Tears with simple street names like Tonganoxie, Pottawattamie, Monongahela and Choctawhatchee

  • Ozark Acres – Acreage in the Ozark Mountains, or close to the Ozark Mountains, depending on whether you’re a seller or a buyer

Izard County also has many towns with descriptive names.

  • Violet Hill – A hill with violets

  • Calico Rock – An area of rock formations that are calico in appearance, predominantly white with dark patches

  • Horseshoe Bend – A community along a river that makes a curve in the shape of a horseshoe where lots of retired horseshoe players reside

  • Mt Pleasant – A high knob giving off pleasant vibes

  • Pleasant Valley – A hole in the ground giving off pleasant vibes

  • Lone Star – A spot reserved for Arkansas’ lone movie star, Billy Bob Thornton, when he gets expelled from show business

With the exception of Mammoth Spring, Fulton County has no such descriptive names. Mammoth Spring is a community built alongside a large spring of water oozing out of the ground. At first, they were going to call it Big Ooze, but that was soon scrapped because the high school didn’t want their sport’s teams to be known as the Big Oozers and the Lady Big Oozers. Apparently, it had something to do with teen-age angst. After a few more suggestions, like Large Leak, Wondrous Waterspout, Giant Gusher, and Stupendous Seepage, they settled on Mammoth Spring.

Legend has it that Fulton County wanted to be descriptive with their other township names too, but didn’t want to spend much money on paint for their town signs. The citizens of Fulton County are very practical and frugal, otherwise known as cheap. So they held a secret meeting and potluck dinner on the banks of the South Fork River, where they decided to give each town an acronym that would best describe it -- short, yet descriptive, names.

An acronym is a word formed from the initial letter of each part of the compound term.

For example, USA in an acronym for the United States of America, FBI is an acronym for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and SOS is an acronym for Something On a Shingle.

Some of the Fulton County acronyms are:

  • SALEM – Site All Law Enforcers Meet

  • VIOLA – Very Interesting Odd Little Area

  • AGNOS – Another Good Neighborhood Outside of Salem

  • GEPP – Gently Elevated Peculiar Place

  • CAMP – Concentrated Area of Municipal Parking

  • MOKO – Mostly Old Knobby Oaks

  • HEART – Hilly Earth Area of Removed Trees

  • UNION – Uninhibited Neighbors Inhabit Outhouses Nightly

  • BYRON – Back Yonder Right Over Nearby

I live in Fulton County in the township of Fairview. It seems like the perfect place for someone like me.

  • FAIRVIEW – For Annoying Individuals Requiring Very Intense Evaluation Weekly

In fact, I’m so annoying I may actually be mayor by default.

"Cities force growth, and make men talkative and entertaining, but they make them artificial." Ralph Waldo Emerson

* * *

When I first started writing the newspaper columns, I tried to do mostly humor items and won several annual awards for humor columns through the Arkansas Press Association. However, my attempts at humor initially offended some of the readers. The newspaper even received a few threats of subscription cancellations if I wasn't immediately removed from uttering my gibberish in print.

Yes, I can be a smartass at times -- it's my way of dealing with the insanity of the world.

Thus, I wrote the following newspaper column, published in May of 2001, as a response to those who wanted me tarred and feathered, and expelled from the human race.

* * *


Recently, I noticed a couple of letters to the editor written by people who expressed their intolerance for what they perceived to be my lack of tolerance.

I’ve tried real hard to inject some humor into my columns. Obviously, I’ve failed.

I was born in Arkansas. Six months later, my parents moved to Ohio. I decided to tag along.  At age three, I found myself living in Wisconsin. Fourth and fifth grade were in Kansas and sixth grade through college in Minnesota. I also lived in Miami for a year, two years in Atlanta, twelve years in Los Angeles, six years in Arizona, about a year in Memphis, another ten years in Arkansas, plus several other places in between. All in all, I’ve lived at 52 different addresses in 12 different states.

When I wrote the line “…keep those pesky northerners from moving down here and spoiling the scenery” I was not speaking of a breed of folks of whom I disapprove. I’m just as much northerner as anything else.

I love this area and hope I never have to move again. My point was that I didn’t want to see a whole lot of people moving here and ruining the place. Scenery, by the way, is what was here before people came along and built roads, houses and strip malls.

In retrospect, I should’ve said Texans instead of northerners. Nobody wants a bunch of Texans moving into their area. They are loud and obnoxious; all hat and no cattle.

NOTE: The above comments about Texans were meant to be humorous. I even have friends from Texas. Of course, they’re loud and obnoxious but they all can’t possibly be that way.

I don’t mind criticism. When you go through life as a wisecracker, you expect to take some flak.

What bothers me is that a newspaper subscriber would threaten to cut off their subscription simply because they didn’t appreciate one tiny column in the lower left-hand corner of an inside page. Would you throw your TV set away just because you came across a program that offended you?

If you dislike like my column, simply don’t read it. To ignore the rest of the paper is ridiculous and to demand that your subscription be terminated is an insult to all the outstanding people who work very hard to put the paper together. Don’t punish them just because you think I’m a jerk. After all, there are lots of jerks out there that need a voice too.

In order to avoid future mishaps, I’m considering placing a warning at the beginning of my columns. Some under consideration are as follows:

WARNING: The following was written by a person who is attempting to be humorous – read at your own risk

WARNING: If you don’t understand or appreciate the following sense of humor, feel free to place it at the bottom of your bird cage or bury it in your garden – it’s biodegradable

WARNING: There may be references to the author’s ex-wife that seem derogatory – in reality, the author’s ex-wife considers them to be funny and enjoys reading them

WARNING: The author of the following is often considered to be a moronic jerk – if you find it amusing, you may also be a moronic jerk

We all don’t have the same sense of humor. Believe it or not, some people actually find my columns amusing. Many of them even appear to be normal.

Censoring me will get you nowhere. The world is full of wisecracking jerks standing in line to take my place. Your best alternative is to just lighten up. Who knows, you might even enjoy it.

 “I can win an argument on any topic, against any opponent. People know this, and steer clear of me at parties. Often, as a sign of their great respect, they don't even invite me.” Dave Barry

* * *
Thus, I wrote a weekly column for the newspaper for 7 years straight, never missing an issue, winning multiple awards, until we got new management with rocks for brains and a "my way or the highway" attitude.

I chose the highway.

But I continued to write blogs & books -- apparently, I'm a writer after all.

Quote for the Day -- “If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed -- If you read the newspaper, you're misinformed.” Mark Twain


Bret Burquest is the author of 10 books. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a couple of dogs and where the hardest part about writing is coming up with the first word.




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