I've been a newspaperman since 1964, when, at the tender age of 21, I was given the difficult mission of interviewing showgirls at Lake Tahoe for the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
Strangely enough, after that baptism of fire, I stuck with newspapers for the next 150 years or so, attempting to commit journalism on several occasions. And for all that time, I thought a column celebrating American life would be a fun thing to have in the local paper.
I was telling my dad one day what a nice thing it would be for small papers to have a column that was fun, non-controversial and free.
At this point, you might as well know that he and I shared genes and chromosomes, but not political beliefs.
Pop said a column such as I described was impossible for the simple fact that no one - no one - could write a non-controversial column.
Well, that did it. There were flags all over the field, campers. The gauntlet had been slapped across my journalistic face and I decided to prove him wrong. The column would have to be short.
I decided 350 words, give or take, would allow me to spell most of the words right and still express a thought. Home Country, also, is fiction. But it is fiction based on people we both know.
Making it fiction gives a guy a lot more room to have fun. The biggest problem came when I tried to figure out how to get paid for it. Throughout journalistic history, syndicated columnists have been paid so much a month by each paper for the right to print the column. So if you get three bucks apiece each week from a thousand papers, hey, the beer's on you, Jack. But that's not what I wanted to do because 1. that's how everyone else has always done it, and I'm just a little bit stubborn, and 2. I have yet to meet a small-town newspaper editor who wanted to pay three bucks for anything.
So I came up with the idea of having a sponsored column. Provide it free to the paper, with the stipulation that they print a little bold-faced tag line at the end, saying something like Brought to you by Joe's Hardware. Get paid by Joe, see? The problem was finding Joe. Some editors weren't happy with this plan at first. It was the old question of "We've never done it that way before."
I reminded the editors how we used to use prepared fillers back when I was on the desk. Some outfits sent out free sheets of fillers to papers everywhere. One of the biggest filler producers was the American Pie Filling Institute. Ask any editor with gray hair. When a story came up short by an inch or so, and we needed something to fill that hole so the ads wouldn't slam into each other, we'd look through the filler pages and pick one out that fit and plug it in.
That's why you'd sometimes see, right after the story about the Anderson kid getting a mumbledy-peg scholarship, something like this: "George Washington was the first President of the United States, according to the American Pie Filling Institute."
I figured if editors didn't mind plugging pie filling, they probably wouldn't complain about Joe's Hardware, either. And they didn't. It is more than seven years now since I set out to prove Pop wrong, and it has been fun.
Even Pop was amazed that I could write a non-controversial column. The readers enjoy the characters in the column and have come to know and laugh at Doc and Steve and Marvin and Annette and all the others. So have I.
As of January 2012, Home Country is printed weekly in 235 papers nationwide with a readership of just under two million. And it grows a bit each month. Are the columns more along the lines of "our lives the way they ought to be"?
Sure. Most of the time. Why? Because I like it that way. So, will I be able to write Home Country more gooder in the future? Of course. I'm only 69 1/2 years old, so give me some time to practice, OK?
Home Country is a weekly syndicated newspaper column written by outdoors journalist and humorist Slim Randles. Want to say "Howdy" to Slim? Contact Slim Randles at firstname.lastname@example.org.