One of my first assignments was to write the copy for the Horse Special. What??? March was horse month in Aiken. It was the last month before the horses went north (to New York) and south (to Florida) for the racing season. The first weekend was flat races, the second weekend was trotters and pacers and the third weekend was steeplechase. So at the beginning of March, the paper put out a special Horse edition. I had told the editor that I was a morning person. That's all he needed to know. (Most professional horse stuff goes on pre-dawn to noon).
Didn't seem to matter that I had never met a horse. I'd never even seen one in person (in horse?)*. The editor gave me a list of stories he wanted and off I went. My first interview was with a trainer who turned out to be my horse savior. He was an older guy and very classy. I fell on my sword immediately and admitted I knew nothing. On the spot he created and enrolled me in his special College of Horses.
He introduced me to everyone I needed and was always on hand and willing to answer any and all questions. He gave me ideas and open doors and made that years Horse Special The Best One Ever - editor's words, not mine! It was a great way to start.
I covered city hall, the crime beat, the school board. Once I needed a photographer for a story and the regular guy was out for the day and the editor shoved a camera in my hands and said 'give it your best shot'. So I did. And my shot was good. Later I got the photographer to show me how and to teach me how to develop the film I had shot. That was really fun - stinky but fun.
My parents moved from Aiken to a small town in western North Carolina after about a year. And one time driving back from there house one weekend, on a Sunday night, I saw a KKK rally. The real deal. White hoods around a fire in the middle of a field. It was the most amazing and creepy and scary thing I'd ever seen. I parked the car and got my camera and recorded the event. I wrote the story in my head all the way back to Aiken.
The next morning, I developed the film and took the pictures and the story into the editor. I was a bundle of outrage.I was just filled to the brim with anger and protest. The editor took the pictures and story and told me he'd call me back in when he had read it. I steamed. I stomped. And then he called me back into his office and sat me down.
"This is a good story and these pictures are great. But, I'm going to leave it up to you whether or not we print them in the paper."
He went on to explain that our readers at the time - 1973-ish - were pretty much split. About half of them would see a story about a local KKK and be as outraged as he and I were. The other half of them would see a story about a local KKK and would call us to see how/where they could sign up.
"Do you want to give them that publicity?"
We did not run the story and I cherish the lesson.
To Be Continued
*Edited two days later when I remembered this was not true. In Winston-Salem, for several years, Daddy took us to the Coliseum to see the rodeo. They had real horses :)
Also the Winston-Salem Coliseum was the only place I ever saw water fountains labeled 'colored' and 'white'.