Back in September, USA Today (circ. 1,400,000), in its equivalent of the man-on-the-street interview, asked citizens at random, “Do we need a federal death penalty for drug-related murders?” That same week, the Adair County ‘News-Statesman (circ. 3,800; advertising slogan: “The only newspaper in the world that covers Adair County”) asked its man-on-the-street question: “What do you think about this cool weather we’re having?” By journalistic standards, these two questions would suggest that a large mass-circulation newspaper is better than a small local newspaper at addressing issues of major significance. But from a less rigid perspective the questions reveal something else: there are places in America where the end of a hot spell just naturally qualifies as “current events.” (By the same token, there are places in America where some events are rather less current than the weather. When asked by The News-Statesman, “What is Yom Kippur?” one Adair Counhan responded pointblank, “I never heard of it.” Said another,’ “I think it has something to do with sweet potatoes.”)
The county seat of Adair County is Columbia, home of both The News-Statesman and my parents, who see to it that I never miss an issue. The main thing to know about Columbia is that it is a town of small farms and family businesses located in south-central Kentucky. The first thing to know about. The News-Statesman is that it was for years called the Daily Statesman—this despite the fact that the paper had always been published, at most, four times a week—and is still referred to as simply the Statesman because the new name never quite took. And the best way to learn something about both the town and its newspaper is to read the Statesman’s coverage of the annual Bell Pepper Festival, Columbia’s biggest event of the year.
Never having been in Columbia during Festival week, I read about the proceedings the way some people read about Mardi Gras in New Orleans—imagination working overtime, full of desire to experience it all firsthand: the tractor judging, the baby show, the crowning of the Bell Pepper Queen, the grand parade, and, as the Statesman puts it, “the contest with which the Festival wouldn’t be the same without,” the Prize Pepper competition itself.
As if that weren’t enough, there is also the Ugly Man contest, which is easily the most philosophically complex event of the whole Bell Pepper Festival. Because Ugly Man entrants are judged by the absolute standard of “pure ugly” and because not only a winner but a runner-up is chosen, the contest raises an interesting question. Is it better to “win” and be celebrated as the ugliest man in the county, or to “lose” and not be celebrated as the ugliest man in the county? On the other hand, the contest is voluntary, it raises money for charity, and everyone seems to have a good time; so maybe philosophical questions are just for wet blankets.
During the 50 weeks of the year when it is not reporting on the Bell Pepper Festival, the Statesman is pretty much like any other newspaper in format—a blend of “major” stories, local news, editorials, sports coverage, and women’s features. But a glance through Statesman back issues reveals that the mix is always more distinctive, more arresting, than anything to be found in a major metropolitan daily. For instance, there is the story about an Adair County fix-it man that ran under the curious headline GLEN GOFER WILL REPAIR ANYTHING THAT RUNS. There is a medical series with eye-catching titles like SENILITY—MYTH OR MADNESS? and THE GOLDEN PERIOD OF WHIPLASH INJURIES. There is enough reporting on the seeding, setting, suckering, topping, curing, and stripping of tobacco to satisfy a community of tobacco farmers and confound everyone else. (Bell peppers or no bell peppers, Adair County’s main crop, its money crop, is hurley tobacco.) And there are articles that seem best left unread by non-farming, non-Adair Countians: ANIMAL WASTE TOUR TO BE HELD FRIDAY, AUGUST 8.
Finally, there are the read-between-the-lines articles, the ones that reveal more than they appear to. Like the one about a fund-raiser for the church founded by Elbert Hadley. What is interesting here is not the event being noted but the mere mention of the church, a church that was established by Mr. Hadley in direct response to his former denomination’s demand that he either pursue legitimate ministerial ordination or stop his weekend preaching. In naming his new church, Mr. Hadley acted with both boldness and pragmatism. He named it Hadley’s Church—a move that instantly turned Mr. Hadley into Reverend Hadley and pretty much settled the entire issue, at least as far as Reverend Hadley was concerned.
Moving on to the Statesman’s sports section can be something of a jolt. Sports is a large but erratic section of the Statesman and a rather forlorn part of the paper during football season, when the Adair County Indians seem eternally to be “looking for their first win of the season.” But things pick up considerably with the start of basketball, a sport Adair Countians take very seriously. Indeed, they take it so seriously that the Statesman’s publisher, in his regular column “Free Speech,” recently concluded that the American defeat by the Soviet Union in Olympic basketball was a result of “the erosion of traditional American values” brought on by “liberal courts [taking] the Pledge of Allegiance and Lord’s Prayer out of our public school system.” (Sports Illustrated attributed the Americans’ loss to an ineffective offense and a misconceived defense—a suspect assessment, since Sports Illustrated obviously looks on basketball as some kind of game.)
The Statesman’s news and sports coverage is always, at the very least, thought-provoking. But it is invariably the Ladies’ Corner, my favorite section of the paper, that I turn to first. You can find just about anything in the Ladies’ Corner, and usually you can find it all at once. New uses for empty egg cartons are offered up between the biblical plan of salvation and dessert recipes that always seem to call for three cups of marshmallows. Tips on growing healthier roses are followed by the information that the glue on a postage stamp contains one-tenth of a calorie. It’s in the Ladies Corner that you can find out what to do when drawers stick or the lawn mower stalls in wet grass. It’s here that you can learn how to reheat leftover popcorn, remove grease stains from work clothes, make bell pepper jelly, and get into Heaven. Try finding that in The New York Times.
And on really special days, you can find a Ladies’ Corner bonus—the Poet’s Corner. The poetry in the Poet’s Corner is, literally, unforgettable. In spite of my best efforts, I quote from memory:
Prom Night, Prom Night, eighty-five,
Will everyone come home alive?
Will many leave once the prom commences
And yield to the lustful part of their senses . . .
And on it goes, as merciless in its warning to prom-bound Adair County youth as some ancient mountain ballad. Have fun, kids.
Occasionally an Adair Countian makes news that is too big to be contained in the Statesman. Such is the case of Oconal Tucker, whose story made it all the way to a Byron Crawford column in The Louisville Courier-Journal. It seems that Mr. Tucker, tired of “laying on the ground and getting so stiff! couldn’t hardly get up,” decided to “build me something I can flop back on.” That something was a hammock fashioned from a rollaway bed, which Mr. Tucker suspended from log chains “between a young water maple and a box elder” right in his front yard. So pleased was Mr. Tucker with this arrangement that he topped it off with a canopy roof (“complete with gutter and downspout”), then outfitted the place with “a television, fan, overhead radio, water hose, and rearview mirror,” as well as an insulated cooler. (Having personally seen Mr. Tucker’s rest area, I think it is somehow relevant to note that a large bullwhip also resides among his conveniences.)
When Mr. Tucker is not “asleep or fishing,” he lies in his hammock, watching television and enjoying a cold drink. And when Mr. Tucker tires of TV, he entertains himself by “spraying passing dogs with the garden hose” at his side. Mr. Tucker says that all would be perfection were it not for the irritants of honking car horns and lowflying birds. What this story proves (beyond the lesson that even the simple need to flop back can inspire the can-do spirit) is, I think, the same thing the Adair County News-Statesman proves with every issue: small events can make interesting news. At the very least, they can make for memorable news. My only recollection of the responses of my fellow citizens to USA Today‘s question about the death penalty for drug-related murders is that some were for it and some were against it. But I remember precisely Ores Ferguson’s perfectly reasoned reply to the Statesman’s question about “this cool weather we’re having.” “I like it very much,” said Mr. Ferguson, “because I don’t get so hot or sweat so much.” No doubt Oconal Tucker, if he is awake, would agree.
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