By Scott Sullivan
I was a child of the ‘burbs. Backyard patios, bug zappers, crabgrass … Who knew one of my Penasee Globe roles would be agriculture editor?
Paul, who’d proceeded me at that Wayland newspaper, could write. The son of Moline’s librarian knew sports, then and soon to be my main gigs, politics, local farming and reported on police pot-growing flyovers, one of which ended his Penasee tenure and created a gap suitably amorphous.
Right off I wrote about a Hopkins school board member who’d home-schooled her kids and wanted her values taught in public schools too. She’d grown up in fields where recycling was not a novelty but necessity — eat, excrete, create. I could relate, so I ended my interview with a scene of crops growing upright through freshly-spread manure, which caused a ruckus that got the Penasee mentioned in the big-city Grand Rapids Press, which publishers Ron and Nila saw as plum.
For the next spring’s Gun Laker magazine Nila said, “Why not jump out an airplane?” I called Skydive Hastings to set up a plunge from a strip airport near Barry County’s only city/capitol, where I’d interviewed a year earlier at the once-Republican now-Hastings Banner. J-Ad’s printing press drove the business.
After I’d stopped at a downtown bookstore to tell its owner the writing I liked to do, she’d mentioned her friends Ron and Nila had a weekly 15 miles west in Wayland. It was on my way back to Muskegon, so still wearing my only suit I popped in unannounced their office, hand-wrote a résumé and handed it to the receptionist, leaving also a Fruitport Area News (and interim job) story I’d written leading:
“I’ve been to Climax, I’ve been to Hell, I thought I’d been everywhere in Michigan. But Sunday was the first time I’ve been to a party for a horse.”
It was as true as any story can be. Ranch owners feted their prizewinning thoroughbred inviting friends for champagne, nibbles and an ice sculpture fun to photograph as sun melted it. Now a year later I’d been hired and Nila said jump out an airplane.
Knowing my parents’ hardware store friend had lost a daughter skydiving, I chose not to inform I’d be doing this till later. The view from 10,000 feet jumping out a plane door with a ripcord in hand, hope the chute above opened properly and just southwest Michigan’s spread below nearing pumped adrenaline into my story ending:
… its squared base to assure my parents, who followed my words, I really had landed squarely.
As Ag Editor I morphed from Suburban to Existential Cowboy. I rode longhorns with a rancher whose herd I’d seen. He, his wife and I downed beers then hopped on steers who weighed ¾ ton, stood 6 feet at the shoulders and 10-foot-wide sharp horns to steady them horizontally, if not me.
More in a bovine vein was the Swiss-bred Simmental who lammed from his pen and foraged near Dorr till tranquilized by a well-aimed dart. “Paid big bucks for a bull,” the farmer lamented, “and wound up with stringy hamburger.”
Emus were nasty, ostrich-like birds whose eggs might have market value, some farmers speculated. Didn’t pan out either. Alpacas I liked better. The elk herd by Orangeville sprouted racks like I’d never seen. O-ville was east of Gun Lake where property values plummeted, meth labs blew often and anti government prophets flourished. A Penasee scavenger hunt stop there was scrapped after Ron got shot at.
Ron plunked his police scanner on my desk and deemed me new Master of Disaster. Crackly voices, code calls, locations. Some weren’t worth racing to beat fire trucks and ambulances; nothing vivid to shoot. Fires, car or airplane crashes, pet macaws loose in trees with men in helmets on ladders reaching for them? Maybe. Spring was grassfire season; who’d throw out the first match? A blaze nearing 20 Hopkins Propane pink-and-white tanks sequenced near the freeway? Told Ron I’d come back with close-ups.
“Buffalo herd loose near Gun Lake” put me with pursuers in a field with no fence between us. Through a lens not long enough I closed up the beasts’ agitation, red eyes, heft and horns. I erred on aggression’s side.
Mary and I started dating. Her Dad, a jazz-loving editor from Detroit to Grand Rapids she described as ebullient, was dying at home with her Mom, nurse Therese, of cancer. So was my brother Steve, 35, across the lake in Wisconsin. I’d talked with her Dad, who Mary and her four siblings called “Eddie Spaghetti,” enough to sense stories untold were hanging.
Steve, who’d married a Milwaukee heart surgeon’s daughter, worked for Arthur Andersen Accounting. He had skyscraper offices in Chicago, then Milwaukee with a basketball hoop to fire paper wads at and sign saying “Don’t let the bastards get you.” He and Karen had a redheaded son Kevin, 6. and daughter Annie, 4, when cure took him as he knew it would.
I read at his wake and was there as soon-to-be son-in-law when Ed went after. I was bedside before his body was picked up, as when Mom died of cancer nine years later.
What I’d not done was go to a “New Ways to See” photo lecture in Muskegon, as writing its name in a preview had launched me shooting until my eyes bled. Shots of unoccupied bodies were already old for me.
To be continued
By Scott Sullivan