Stories flow, bizarre tales told

The pandemic has severely cut down my friends’ use of daily coffee hour as an excuse to get together and fib about our adventure-packed lives or to hold the floor after admitting, “I probably told you guys this story already….” and repeat it once again. None of that mattered, as long as we kept the stories flowing, B.S. or otherwise.

I also miss the B.S. of pre-pandemic luncheons of my working days in Minneapolis. Especially memorable was our luncheon group that met five days a week at the iconic Little Wagon, a saloon one block from City Hall, from the Star Tribune and various PR agencies whose employees scarfed down giant burgers or batterfried walleye and washed them down with giant martinis named “Gin Bombs” before retiring to alcohol treatment centers and the like.

Our regular table consisted of several Tribune editors and reporters, an occasional lawyer from the nearby grain exchange, a criminal prosecuting attorney and two speech writers for Northwest Bell (does that date me?), a group destined to compete for control of the floor.

As our waitress Annabelle struggled with our fussy orders (“I’ll have the sardine sandwich, but I want it with extra onions and no mustard”), we began a short conversation about the latest catastrophe in the Middle East, which quickly depressed the old-timers at the table who began to talk about some of the baggy-pants journalists of the past, some of whom had very little gray matter and some of whom probably had too much for their own good. The stories were worth listening to, either way.

One of the photographers told of a St. Paul colleague who was sent to the Twin Cities airport to shoot a picture of the Dionne quintuplets’ arrival in the Minneapolis Airport back in 1940. “They came out of the plane one by one,” recalled Art, “And John [not his real name] photographed each of them separately. One, two, three, four … After the last kid appeared on the exit ladder, John turned to the Trib reporter and said, ‘By God, there are FIVE of them!”

“Yeah,” added an elderly columnist. “John was also the guy who was assigned to take a group picture of the mayor and other city officials who met on the City Hall steps to greet the arrival of Queen Marie of Romania, pretty snazzy event for the time. John lined them up, with the Queen in the middle and then said, “Hey, lady could you move your rump closer to the Mayor?”

An aged city editor told of an ancient night copy editor who hadn’t been out of the building except to sleep for about 40 years. He edited a piece of Associated Press copy about a kidnapping in Florida in which the kidnappers asked that the ransom money be floated to them in a rubber container in the river that flowed through town. The AP story read thusly: “When the money was dropped into the river a man in a wetsuit emerged from beneath the surface of the river, snared the package and was immediately arrested by the police.”

The next morning, a story appeared in the Tribune with one syllable missing: “A man in a suit emerged from beneath the surface….” When asked by his superior why the old guy had left out the word “wet,” the old man replied “Any damned fool would know that if the kidnapper was in the river his suit would be WET.”

A Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, our table’s only celebrity, told of a crafty old reporter who was famous for scooping the other four dailies in town. “We had a report of a fire in a room of the Andrews Hotel. We raced down to Hennepin and got there first. It wasn’t much to shoot, only a smoldering mattress in one room. No people, just an alley cat. The old reporter told me to get a shot of the cat. That done, the old rascal asked the hotel manager who owned the cat. The manager shrugged and the reporter replied, ‘Gee, my grandson loves cats. Could I take it home?’ As he raced down Fourth Street to process the picture for the front page, the old guy threw the cat out of the speeding car, hissing and screeching as it went. I was appalled, but his reply was, ‘Tomorrow morning no other paper in town is going to have a front-page photo of a cat in a burning hotel room!’” The stories got wilder and wilder as the luncheon progressed. What was so impressive was that all these stories were true. How could anyone make up such bizarre stuff?

The most bizarre and the truest came from the late Robert T. Smith, a columnist who was once the youngest city editor in the nation. As a young boss he told of sending a jaded old crime reporter, Paul Presbry, to check out a wire story about some goings on in a place called Plainfield, Wis. (This was back in the day when the Tribune covered Wisconsin news.) What was up turned out to be a fellow named Ed Gein, the psychopathic grave robber who upholstered his furniture in human skin and probably supped on the flesh that the skin had encased. It was later determined by psychologists that Gein suffered from a mental quirk they named “Proboscaphilia,” the love of dead noses.

When Paul Presbry got to Plainfield, he called in.

“What’s up?” asked Smith.

“Smitty,” replied Presbry, “I think we’ve got something here that BORDERS on the BIZARRE.”

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

October 27, 2021