500,000 word checkup

When I walked into the Mason County News office I really didn’t expect much. For three years I had been trying to talk the editor into letting me write a column for the paper, but he wasn’t interested. I wasn’t even asking for any money, I just wanted to write a column. That didn’t make any difference. There was no room at the inn. But the newspaper had recently changed hands, and I figured I’d give the new editor my spiel and see if he would bite. I didn’t know the guy, but since the worst he could do was say no, I had nothing to lose. The editor was standing in the middle of the office when I walked in. I introduced myself and told him I wanted to write a weekly outdoor humor column for the paper. I said I could spell and punctuate, and could generally be called upon to construct a coherent sentence. Plus, I could put my columns on computer disks and bring them in, so no one would have to retype them. It was much easier than I thought it would be. The editor said, ‘OK. How’s 10 bucks a week sound’ I allowed that sounded fine and left. I was so happy to finally get a ‘yes’ that it was an hour or so before I started to wonder if I would be earning 10 bucks a week, or paying it. As it turns out, I was earning it’sometimes at the rate of 25 cents an hour. I had been writing a column every couple of months for Texas Wildlife magazine, but having to come up with something to say every week was a different story. Being a newspaper columnist is similar to being a wide receiver in the NFL or a plumber. Everyone thinks they can do your job, but it’s harder than it appears. That first column ran in September 1997, and it was a big hit. I got lots of compliments on it, although most of them came from my mom. If I had known I would still be writing a weekly column 10 years later, I wouldn’t have used up all my material the first year. Before long I managed to talk some other editors into running the column, and I figured it was only a matter of time before I was in every paper in Texas. That was my goal, anyway, and it’s going pretty good. I’m still in the Mason paper, plus Brady, Eden and Junction. I should be able to cover Texas in about another 120 years. The pay has stayed pretty much the same, 10 dollars a week per paper, which is probably more than I’m worth, and considering the time it takes me to write some of the columns and taking inflation into account, I’m still often making about 25 cents an hour. And I learned early on that research is boring and time consuming, so I rarely do any of it. It’s easier to make stuff up and, let’s face it, one statistic is just as good as another. When I was in junior high my English teacher gave me an automatic F on any paper in which I started a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’ So now, in every column I write, I always do it. And I get paid for it. But there are other benefits to being a newspaper columnist. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of really nice folks from all over Texas and the U.S., through writers’ organizations and just in the course of working on columns. I get to deduct the cost of fox urine on my income tax. I get to try out new guns and cartridges and other outdoor stuff. And I get to park in handicap parking spaces. As long as I don’t get caught. All that is great, but the real payoff from writing a column every week for 10 years has been intangible. It’s not something you can hold in your hand, or take to the bank or eat. It’s sort of like virtue being its own reward and bigamy being its own punishment. When someone tells me they enjoyed something I wrote, I realize that, even at 25 cents an hour, it’s worth it. I would probably write the column for free, but don’t tell my editors that. I’d hate for them to get any ideas. Of course, plenty of people complain about stuff I’ve written, too. Some of them take offense at some truth they don’t like, some of them get irritated at facts I make up, and some of them just like to complain. That’s OK, since sometimes I write stuff that isn’t technically right. There are those who unreasonably insist on their facts being correct. The fun readers, however, are those who never figure out that this is a humor column. One fellow wrote in to complain when I claimed to have shot down the Red Baron during Desert Storm’but his complaint was that I could not have done that since I am not a pilot. One said that, despite what I’d written, there is no road to the top of Mt. Everest. With watchdogs like these, keeping a firm grip on the jugular of American journalism, the future of humor is secure. Anyway, since I wouldn’t still be here without my readers, I want to say thank you. I didn’t write over half a million words in 520 columns over the past 10 years for awards, benefits or 25 cents an hour. I wrote them to try to give you a smile once a week, and maybe lighten things up a little. I wrote them because life is too short and too serious, too much of the time. I wrote them because, as Mark Twain once said, ‘Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.’ If I’ve brought a sunny spirit to a few readers, the past 10 years have not been wasted. Plus there’s that parking thing’ ‘Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist who did not make up that Mark Twain quote. Write to him at P.O. Box 1600, Mason, Tex. 76856 or jeep@verizon.net.

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