Universe, could you lay off Winters for a while? We’re not used to all this stress.
Yes, it’s been another rough week in Winters, and it’s equally rough for me to tiptoe around the reasons without upsetting anyone. There are times to upset people, and this isn’t one of them. In a nutshell, we lost a cherished community member in a very tragic way, with shockwaves of anger and pain rippling outwards still.
I’m not only saddened by the tragedy itself, but also experiencing the fallout of having to report on it accurately, with as much gentleness as journalistic integrity will allow. In a town this size, that’s a fine razor’s edge to walk, and it leaves a bloody mess.
The problem with Winters, if you can call it a problem, is that we’re not accustomed to bad news. We’re the cute little gal at the prom that everyone has a crush on, and makes the boys swoon with a bat of her eyelashes. The worst crisis we’ve ever experienced is a broken fingernail.
Until last year. Nov. 18, to be exact. We had a brutal murder in our town, right on the doorstep where I work. Murder-suicides aside, it had been 100 years since anyone was killed in cold blood on a downtown Winters street. Winters was the safest place on earth.
That single incident was trauma enough for a town in which the biggest upset in recent memory was whether or not to allow a Burger King to locate here. Burger King’s arrival was the Apocalypse, if you will recall, even more traumatic than the prior shock and horror, when we got a real stoplight with three colors on it to replace the old flashing one. That old light was serenaded by the high school choir, TV news crews showed up to document it, and it was the lead story on the front page.
Those were the days.
The demarcation line of our collective innocence is Nov. 18, 2013. That day threw open a Pandora’s Box of sadness. A beloved teacher unexpectedly died. Two workers were killed at a construction accident. We narrowly missed being consumed by a massive wildfire, thanks to excellent firefighters and the blessing of a south wind. Having just wiped our brow from that close call, we lost our retired fire chief last weekend, in the most shocking of ways.
What gives, Universe? Isn’t this piling on? Give it a rest. Throw us a McDonald’s or traffic circles or something we’re more accustomed to wringing our hands over. Go pick on some other “sleepy little town.”
“Sleepy little town.” Oh, how I used to despise that description of Winters. So trite and lazy. Winters isn’t sleepy. It’s Shangri-la, with a Mayberry twist. Sleepy? Trust me, our eyes are wide open now. In horror.
Besides the sheer novelty of bad news in Winters, the other common denominator is that I have to report it. Writing is relatively easy. It’s interviewing people who don’t want to be interviewed and resent being contacted, inserting yourself where you’re unwanted, withstanding a torrent of criticism and unsolicited commentary for weeks on end — that’s the part that sucks. In a town this size, no dinner at a restaurant, no trip to the grocery store or stop to fill the gas tank comes without questions, commentary and “advice” about what I should or shouldn’t have written.
Because Winters is so inexperienced with bad news, people tend to fuse me with the stories. I become the story and, ergo, the thing they fear or hate. That goes for columns too. I love a verbal fistfight on occasion, but I’m not really into being feared or hated. If I were, I’d have gone into politics. There are people to this day who despise me over something I wrote decades ago. Raise your hand if “street pizza” or “bollards” still raises your hackles. But yet, you’re still reading … hating me every minute. Such a strange endeavor, this writing gig.
One day, in a flash of inspiration, I asked The Enterprise editor if she’d print a column that said nothing but “Puppies are cute and flowers are pretty” over and over and over … a column that makes you feel good but is devoid of any meaningful content. It’s performance art. In print. She said “no.” I still think it’d be brilliant, even if I’d be the only one who gets it.
Here we are, with another tragedy to report. A new and improved tragedy, in fact, like all the others since, and including, Nov. 18. The current one generated a whirlpool of fallout that’s too long and complicated to explain here, and would only re-traumatize grieving, upset family members. Buy me a beer sometime and I’ll explain it in private. Here’s a sidebar: The glaring typo on the front page to this story has a very convoluted history. It’s not the result of mere carelessness or incompetence. (Yet, my inbox will be filled with email from folks laughing and pointing, and reveling in my idiocy.)
Although people believe that my efforts to report truthfully are evidence of my sinister nature, my real motivation is simply to keep the record of Winters history accurate. The Express is the only ongoing record of Winters history. If I get it wrong, I get it wrong for history. Call me a freak, but that matters to me. And to the person who, 100 years from now, tries to find out what happened here.
We’ll close with some irony. Every year, the California Newspaper Publishers Association runs a “Better Newspapers Contest,” our industry’s Academy Awards. In this year’s General Excellence category (the most coveted award), the Express was severely downgraded. The criticism? “You’re only being a cheerleader for your community, not reporting hard news.”
This year’s contest time frame ended just before Nov. 18, 2013. When we really didn’t have any hard news. I miss those days. Even if we didn’t win any awards.
— Email Debra DeAngelo at [email protected]; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.ipinionsyndicate.com