The Outstater

September 27, 2021

Journalism and the Lost Art of the Quirky

OTHER THAN SOLID INFORMATION on which to base viewpoints and life strategies, the thing I miss most in my morning reading is quirkiness. There’s no time for those little stories that remind us how heroic — and how ridiculous —  is the human race.

Yes, I have examples. 

There was the item in the microfilm archive of a man passing through town in the 1850s on his way to California. He was herding 1,000 or so turkeys on foot. And there was the woman who carved a full-sized Harley-Davidson motorcycle with moving parts out of granite.

There is the philharmonic conductor arrested for taking a shotgun to the flock of Merganser ducks that had defecated on his riverside dinner party. And the courageous music reviewer who lost his job for describing a Gustav Mahler composition as sounding like “a fire in a large zoo.”

A master of this school of journalism was Jim Fisher, an old friend and the oft-quoted “man at the next desk” for much of my newspaper career. Seriousness was foreign to Fisher’s makeup. The job was supposed to be fun, he insisted, and at $95 a week why else would you do it? Jim chewed tobacco because it was cheaper than smoking.

Dropping out of Princeton to join the Marines, Fisher made a journalism career scouting the Midlands for the ultimate quirky story. He was good enough to be given a regular feature slot on the MacNeil/Lehrer Report at PBS. He won an Emmy there, chaw and all

Fisher was on the scene for the famous Yellville, Ark., turkey drop that later became an episode for “WKRP in Cincinnati.” In a Thanksgiving promotional stunt, a local service club unwittingly tossed a couple of dozen turkeys (the flightless domesticated kind) from an airplane onto a crowded shopping mall. 

In the television version, the segment ends with the always clueless station manager Arthur Carlson saying, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

It is said that Fisher could wander into a town the size of a teacup and find a man who repaired lutes. He can show you a city ordinance that outlaws “quacking” and give you an account of when Chetopa, Kansas, declared war on the 7th Calvary. 

Fisher interviewed a man-wife herpetology team that had spent three decades using radio trackers trying to prove Box turtles never range farther than a mile from their hatching . . . until one blew up their hypothesis by inexplicably heading in a beeline for Florida. They named him Sinbad. 

Jim famously covered the “funeral” of Mrs. Gladys Rogers, a southern Missouri woman, in dry ice, who for an hour and a half before a crowd of 200 was the subject of an attempted resurrection. Fisher’s eye for detail included the observation that the frozen Mrs. Rogers was resting in a chest-type freezer (with legs), not the portable kind that sat directly on the floor. “The family felt that style of appliance was more decorous,” wrote Fisher.

And there was the corn farmer during Jimmy Carter’s oil crises who had meticulously kept books proving he made more money farming with a mule.

Fisher can find on a map the site of a pioneer Mennonite settlement on the Great Plains in the 1860s that was hit by two tornadoes from different directions on successive days even before the wagons could be unloaded. The tenacious Mennonites didn’t leave, they just built underground.

Fisher knows the reason that “deputy coroner” was such a coveted title during the Depression (you got to keep the wedding rings). He can tell you how they breed Roller Pigeons to fall in a seizure but recover just before they hit ground (most of the time). He can introduce you to a suburban couple who built an airplane in their basement.

This could go on considerably longer but I refer you to “The Best of Jim Fisher,” his anthology. You will be lucky to find a copy. Fisher’s style of journalism is out of fashion, not that he gives a damn.

You should care, though. We need quirkiness in our lives. Editors today are the most serious of men and women, all focused on saving the world from those who think differently than themselves. 

Fisher threw water on that. His clip file documents that we’re all in this together, that man is not perfectible in this world, that life has risks and takes unexpected turns, that there is wisdom in failure, that endurance leads to character and character to hope, that government not only can’t fix everything it rarely knows what’s wrong.

Jim has retired. I miss talking with him. — tcl



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