In taking year-end stock of professional achievements, it was a humbling experience to find that what emerged as my shining hour was getting a new storm door for Mrs. Paske to replace the one smashed by a hurled Washington Post.
Baltimore Sun columnist Pat Furgurson, much wiser than the ombudsman, was quick to write that I'd rue the day I came to Anne Paske's rescue. There were a few requests by opportunists for storm-door replacements. But then came an outpouring of heart-breaking letters and phone calls from irate subscribers who, in genuine amazement, asked what Mrs. Paske was complaining about -- a cracked storm door was a small price to pay for having The Post delivered every day right smack on one's doorstep.
In writing a column, you strive to touch a raw nerve, a hidden topic of genuine concern to the vast silent readership. This effort usually meets with little success until you bang out a throwaway column on a dull day, and then, whammy, you've done it: home delivery, I discovered in 1987, is a far more sensitive and controversial subject than the Middle East, gun control, abortion and the federal deficit, particularly to those we glibly refer to as senior citizens. Most subscribers, I've learned, would like to have their morning paper fall across the threshold when they open the front door. That will be the morning.
The bottom line is that the business of getting a newspaper to the ultimate consumer in his lair is the most labor-intensive use of the unskilled short of stoop labor at harvest time. It is a sad note that, in a high-tech world, newspapers must still be delivered pretty much as they were at the turn of the century, though with far less delicacy.
There is no solution in sight, either, the way there might be for another aspect of newspaper publishing that vies with home delivery for top gripe -- ink rub-off. There is no fury to match that of a reader who has just put down the paper, having immersed himself in the woes of the world, to discover he has his own problems -- that he can no longer wear his clothes to the office and that the newly upholstered, white sofa looks like a police blotter. Black Monday or Black Tuesday may conjure up economic despair to investors, but it means a dry-cleaning bill to Post readers.
Next to the home-delivery and ink-rub-off complainants are the grammarians, who seem less concerned with the employment of the language to communicate information than with pure and proper application of this occult science. (Am I going to get mail!) Improper use of a hyphen drives some to distraction. "Who," "whom" and "which" could be expunged from English with no complaint from me. "Flounder" and "founder," "consul" and "counsel," are, readers constantly inform, not interchangeable.
Hardly a day goes by that a headline writer does not use a noun as a verb. This arouses a slumbering grammarian quicker than a bee sting. Why do the print media evoke such strong feelings? One wonders whether a TV anchorperson draws so much wrath from viewers with a split infinitive or a dangling participle -- or by ending a news report about a dozen men trapped in a mine shaft with an ingratiating smile.
What still astonishes me is the anguish aroused when The Post spells "employe" with a single "e" at the end. Reader reaction to this at times reaches the level of an eating frenzy -- and from perfectly sane and stable people. Once in 1987, I made an issue of this spelling in the newsroom, siding with the rebellious readers. You've heard of the historic courage of newspaper editors in frontier days who defied the local gunslingers by writing editorials damning law and order? Well, that kind of intestinal fortitude was equaled by Post editor Bob Webb, who stepped out of the ranks and allowed that he alone was responsible for this grievous infraction. He confessed to putting together the current Post stylebook a decade ago. He said it was simply a matter of simplicity. One "e," he points out, is unarguably shorter than two.
"I still have the original marked-up copy that was submitted to all editors for their criticism and suggestions," he said. "Nowhere in all that material do I find an objection to 'employe.' "
Unlike those wrestling with the problems of home delivery and ink rub-off, Mr. Webb has an ingenious solution: "Let's go back to the double "ee," he says.