For 25 years, I’ve been a reporter on a midsized daily newspaper. For a few years, my beat was a nearby town, a small place that was rapidly making the transition from farm town to suburb.
It was a good beat. It was a 26-mile round trip from the newspaper office. There was no interstate way to get there, and the drive out and back was scenic. I covered their every-other-week town council meetings, and I liked the job. On my way out of the city, I’d buy a cup of $1 convenience store coffee, light a cigar and drive between blooming meadows or frozen stubble corn. The meetings started at 6 p.m. and usually ended around 10 p.m., so I did a lot of my driving in the dark.
It was a little, two-story brick town hall, with the meeting room on the second floor. Out in the hallway, the walls were lined with locally produced wooden plaques listing the names of those from the town who’d died in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. On the wall of the meeting room was a picture of long-ago sharpshooter Annie Oakley, who once passed through with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It was autographed, and she was holding a long rifle.
The town council did town council business. I sat in a plastic chair and took notes. In the winter, the black New England country night exerted tremendous pressure on the brightly lit, little bubble of a meeting room. It always gave me the feeling of being in a farmhouse, far from the road.
The council voted for or against new stop signs, gave out (or declined) new liquor licenses, saw to snowplowing, gave the occasional award to a local kid’s baseball team, sometimes fought about money and always gave a permit for the town’s Fourth of July parade, which always included tractors, livestock and little girls from dancing schools.
During some of the time I was there, one town council member never recited the Pledge of Allegiance, on religious grounds. He was an older man, a medical doctor and a veteran. I don’t specify the location of the town, his name or his religion, because I don’t think any of them matter, not really.
Other than not rising for the Pledge, he was very like the other four people on council. In campaign season, he had his picture on those small signs people have out in their yards. He spoke when it was his turn to speak and voted when it was time to vote.
And one night, during a contentious meeting, one of the professional meeting attendees in the audience said to him, as an insult, “You don’t even stand for the Pledge!”
There was an older woman in the crowd, a woman whose people had lived in town for many generations.
“Some of my family fought in the Revolutionary War,” she said. “They didn’t want to salute ANYTHING!”
What I learned on that beat was that, if an assignment is a 26-mile round trip from the paper, on winding two-lane roads, and you want to pick a cigar for the trip, then get the Double Corona size. If you don’t drive too fast, and you shouldn’t, you can smoke the first half on the way out and the second half on the way back. Everything else about the beat just required me to listen, but I had to figure the cigar part out for myself.