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Wednesday, 23 November 2011 14:34

The mad, mad world of Scroto Baggins

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Newspaper people are a special breed. As a type, these are individuals who tend toward the eccentric and are decidedly off-kilter; perhaps, dare I say it, are even slightly mad. They are ill suited for employment anywhere except at newspapers, or perhaps in a pinch, on a prison work crew.

Take The Smoky Mountain News gang in Waynesville. Now this is an odd bunch. The Smoky Mountain News people are odder even than Peggy, a woman I remember with great fondness from my years at The Franklin Press. Peggy had a take-no-prisoners outlook on life.

Peggy worked in layout for The Franklin Press. These were pre-computer days when newspapers were physically laid out by a now antique method known as “cut and paste.”

This was my first on-staff newspaper job. I wrote feature articles part-time and held a newly created position at the newspaper, optimistically dubbed “Quality Control,” to work out my remaining 20 hours a week.

Ken Hudgins, the publisher of The Franklin Press, was quite the wordsmith and something of a perfectionist. Ken’s manners were so gentle and kind it was difficult to recognize that he was a man ruled by a deep inner need for facts to be correct and words to be used properly. That’s a difficult need to have in the newspaper business, and one that resulted in this wonderful man suffering excruciating pain when our inevitably flawed, twice-a-week newspaper published.

I believe Ken dreamt of publishing the perfect newspaper. Just once, The Franklin Press would roll off the printing press and land on his desk free of blemishes. This dream newspaper would be absent embarrassing typos and factual errors, and no one would call and complain (or even worse, write a letter we were subsequently forced to print) about “pubic” instead of “public” meetings, or how we’d misidentified their loathsome children — again — in photo captions.

Ken searched high, low and in vain for an employee who would join him in this noble quest to create the perfect publication. Unable to find an actual individual, he instead settled on creating this new position of “Quality Control.” I suspect Ken hoped that by simply designating someone Quality Control they might rise to the grand title and fulfill his expectations.

Quality Control would equate to never printing corrections or letters critical of the paper, because nothing henceforth ever would be wrong. Ken, I believe, was convinced that Quality Control was the answer to life’s many woes.

Why I was hired as Quality Control I can’t imagine. My qualifications consisted of six months freelancing and of a couple decades of sleeping soundly through elementary, high school and university-level grammar courses.

My duties, Ken explained chippily during those first days when his glasses gleamed pink in color, were to place a pica stick across pages to ensure headlines were perfectly straight; and, when I spotted a misspelled word in an article, to use an X-Acto knife to cut out the offending letters and replace said letters with the correct ones.

It must have been evident early on that I was ill suited for a job so meticulous and grinding in nature. Ken endured six months or so of my ineptitude before, saddened but resigned, he moved me fulltime to writing. Ken eliminated Quality Control altogether, in sheer frustration, I suspect, at my total inability to come anywhere near his vision of what that person (something along the lines of the famous fact checkers with The New Yorker magazine) would do for The Franklin Press.

But, I mustn’t wander. Back to Peggy, who helped in layout. Peggy, I remember, became incensed at the editor. I’ve forgotten now the exact cause, but I’m fairly certain that Scott was being a smart aleck, as Scott — may he rest in peace — so often was.

Peggy was a woman of few words, so on this day when her temper quickened, she didn’t think twice — she twirled about and threw her layout knife straight toward Scott. I remember his eyes growing large and round as he looked at the knife, now stuck quivering into the wood of the layout table perhaps an inch at most from his leg, and mere inches from some even more tender parts that I am sincerely convinced Peggy was aiming for.

But I wander within a digression. We were chatting about The Smoky Mountain News crew, which in their latest demonstration of eccentricity, last week pooled pennies together to buy a rat-like thing for the office. This is a hamster, or a gerbil, or something equally small that my cats would enjoy killing.

This rat, or gerbil or hamster or whatever, has been christened Scroto Baggins. It resides in a cage in the Waynesville office. Except for 20 minutes or so at a time, when Amanda the bookkeeper or Margaret the graphic designer places Scroto into a clear plastic round thing, and he runs about in it, rolling this ball onto one’s feet and over computer cords, and generally making a nuisance of himself or herself while Lila, who is supposed to be selling advertising to help support my writing habit, squeals how cute he or she is.

(No one’s quite sure of the little creature’s sexual identity, hence the gender bending. This confusion, frankly, isn’t that unusual in the newspaper business, either.)

Is it any wonder that the newspaper you hold in your hands is flawed and imperfect? In what other industry besides news, pray tell me, could this happen? Office rats aren’t found in doctors’ offices, restaurants or in finer retail stores; at least not rats that are loved on and named.

Picture this: Here we poor writers are, trying to create Great Literature for the masses while being attacked by a rat named Scroto. It’s enough to send one scurrying in search of Quality Control.

Or, short of that, a good rat trap.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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