Seventy-seven-year-old Janie Kidwell's first airplane ride, from Bowie to Richmond and back, was an event missed by all the major metropolitan media. Also overlooked was 9-year-old Michael Price's deposit in his savings account of the $30.50, all in uncounted pennies, he had earned from chores or collected from his father's pocket change.
Fortunately, Wynona L. Skinner was on top of both stories and duly reported them in her column in the Enquirer-Gazette, a 9,500-circulation weekly newspaper published in Upper Marlboro.
Her vantage point is the country crossroads of Croom, five miles south of the Prince George's County seat, a hamlet best described by Skinner herself: "Croom is a beautiful community, but it is real," she has written. "It is where people live, where they have their successes and failures. It is where babies are born and grow up. It has young, middle-aged and old people. Residents are remembered here, even long after they have died."
For 22 years, Skinner has written weekly of the area "In and Around Croom," as her column is called, and especially of the section from Charles Branch, a Patuxent River tributary, to the Conrail tracks that pass her house on Croom Station Road.
"Conrail sprayed its right-of-way with herbicide," she wrote a few Junes ago, with just a hint of disapproval. "Everything hit by the spray is dead. However, just out of range, on a fertile and moist spot of ground is growing a huge Jack-in-the-Pulpit, luxuriantly green and healthy."
Amid routine reports of church suppers and bazaars, of family visits, vacations, births, baptisms, weddings, anniversaries and deaths, Skinner writes, often poetically and with a sharp eye for detail, about nature and the seasons. At the same time, she addresses larger themes of life and death, time and tradition, grief and joy, continuity and change.
"She has a lot of wisdom up here," said Elsie Bryan, a longtime friend and sometime source, gesturing to her brain.
Wynona Skinner is the sage of Croom, dispensing common sense from her dining room table, where her typewriter sits amid the creative clutter. She writes short, straight-forward sentences, with few fancy words. Her columns are letters from home. She has written more than 1,000 of them. The rewards aren't monetary. She gets two bucks apiece.
"These girls are just stringers," explained Andrew J. Wyvill, her neighbor and half-owner of the newspaper, in which classifieds advertise horseshoeing and dead animal removal services, along with "hay rake, hay baler, corn picker and other farm machinery."
Most of the paper's readers are older residents of the rural corners of the county. Some, retired former residents mainly, subscribe from as far away as Arizona, California and Florida.
"Country people like to hear country things," said Ruth Goldsmith, a faithful reader who lives on a farm a few miles south of Croom along the Patuxent River. "She describes what's going on in the country, about how so and so cleared the manure out of his barn, what's happening in nature, what's in bloom. Country chitchat."
Skinner's readers learn a lot about the countryside around Croom. They learn about tobacco stripping and corn planting, about the beavers and turtles in Charles Branch and about the people who inhabit the loamy land.
They also learn a lot about Skinner, 69, a large woman with snow-white hair who "took the census" in 1960 and the crop report five years later. Her daughter Louise, a transportation economist with the Federal Highway Administration, and son Alan, a member of the uniformed Secret Service, and his family make frequent appearances in her columns. So did her husband Snider until his death in 1981, which Skinner also reported, after reminding readers to change their clocks for Eastern Standard Time.
"Mr. Skinner was sick and he died," she wrote. "He was not afraid to die, but he wanted to live as long as possible. I do not plan to be a weeping, helpless widow. He made possible for me a good life. He encouraged me to use the strengths that I have. Our children and grandchildren are a source of strength, also, and of love. We will carry on . . . "
"The wild roses are blooming in the wetlands," Skinner reported in the same column. "I think they are blooming late this year. We are promised a cooler than usual summer. If this is so, it may affect crop production."
Wynona Skinner grew up on a farm in East Texas. Her father, a barber, commuted to work by horse until cars came along. Her mother taught school. At 16, she graduated from high school in 1930, in the midst of the Depression.
"I always thought next year would be better, but there weren't many choices for me," she said. She went to college for three months but ran out of money. She worked as a legal secretary "for experience" because the lawyers who hired her "weren't making any money either."
In 1935, she got an office job with the Civilian Conservation Corps, then got "riffed" in 1940. That was when she came to Washington, to work for the Civil Service Commission.
The town was booming and, like many single women, she lived in a "guest home." It was in this city that she married Snider Skinner, who would wind up with a rewarding government career as an agrarian economist.
They lived in Tennessee from 1946 until 1955, when they settled in Croom, where she continues to raise pick-your-own peas on 3 1/2 acres with her son's help. "I did what all the women did after the war," she said. "I stayed home and had babies. I liked it, but I wanted to go back to work."
Eventually, Skinner returned to college, to American University, where she earned a degree in journalism in 1966. "I had to write, I just had to," she said. But as a middle-aged woman who hadn't worked outside the home in years, she couldn't get a job. "It's a shame the way women are held back," she said.
So she wound up as a $2-a-column stringer.
"I'm glad I live in a state that ratified the Equal Rights Amendment," she wrote, almost offhandedly, in one column. Not given to political pronouncements, she nonetheless has her causes, born of her own experience. Women's equality is one. Education, long beyond her means, is another.
Everything, it seems, is grist for her column, even a common cold.
"I have been sick," she reported one winter. "I used three boxes of facial tissues. I had time to reflect on when we did not have disposable facial tissues, and we had to use cloth handkerchiefs. I remember the first Kleenex tissues I ever saw. It was in the 1930s. My sister had responded to an ad in the Ladies Home Journal and sent for a sample . . .
"How did we ever get along without them? It wasn't easy. They were popular, immediately. We stood in line during World War II for the privilege of buying a box when a store got in a new supply. We stood in line for lots of necessities then. I have sympathy for the people in Poland who have to stand in line these days. We did not have severe shortages as are reported now in Poland."