Improbable as it seems, yet another issue of The Medicine Bow Post has hit the streets. Here in the nation's second windiest town there's been no shortage of news lately.
More radium has been traced in the water supply. The airport fence is in bad shape because Fisher's cows have been rubbing themselves against it. The bills for soap to wash the town's only garbage truck: $139. Two of Lena Clark's 18 cats have been hospitalized. The mayor has abolished the Animal Control Committee for bickering with the dog catcher. The committee, you'll remember, was formed after dog day when a reporter from the National Enquirer showed up to watch police open fire on unleashed pets.
For more than five years, the Bow Post's editor and publisher, David L. Roberts, and a part-time staff have been presenting the latest in Medicine Bow, a town of 953 people, untold dogs, dirt streets and trailers huddled on the treeless plains of southeastern Wyoming. With a headlines machine that's vulnerable to lightning, a bank account that flirts with the red, the Bow Post picks its way from Thursday to Thursday with about as much momentum as a dead cow. Yet somehow the paper manages to appear each week on the shelves of DJ's Stop-N-Go, King's Grocery Store and S&G Conoco, offering a sprightly portrait of small town life for 20 cents a copy.
Five years in Medicine Bow, however, takes a toll. Lately, the Bow Post editor has found himself reaching for inspiration and coming up with columns such as the one about his teeth in the April 29 issue. At 28, David Roberts was burned out.
In five years he had taken one four-day vacation, in Cody, Wyo., during which time his brother Phil changed the paper from a tabloid to a broadsheet. He had endured winters in Medicine Bow where the snow blows so blindingly sometimes that cowboys in the saddle can't see their horses' ears. Last summer an antelope poacher who lived above the paper's office fled town, leaving a side of spoiling meat stashed in the walls upstairs. For weeks the publisher thought a cat had died somewhere in his physical plant.
Roberts has had five years suffering through news droughts, obliged to raise issues at Town Council meetings so he could have something to write. Five years of taking pictures of Blackie Chace beside the first locally grown watermelon and Ted Cronberg playing the saw at the Methodist Church. And worse: untold hours spent trying to edit Muttonhead's Corner, a column written in the voice of a dog.
So Roberts proposed an exchange. He would take my job for two weeks and I would take his. If he could figure out what I do, he was welcome to try it. And if he really wanted to hand the helm of his newspaper over to a complete stranger who might as easily run it into the ground in two weeks as not, then I was game.
Medicine Bow is known mainly for the wind that funnels in from the basin of the Red Desert at an average daily speed of 15 mph. Only the wind in Guadalupe Pass, Tex., blows harder. Medicine Bow wind shows up in the police blotter as the town's top vandal, specializing in broken windows. A piece of locally popular doggerel posted in the town hall claims the wind can skin an unripened plum. People like to say that babies are born at a tilt. Last summer, gales spun the top off the anomometer and frolicked with the portable toilets at the weather station where the world's most powerful wind turbine is under construction.
Medicine Bow does not look much different than in the late 19th century when writer Owen Wister stopped in and pronounced it a "forsaken hole" and a "wretched husk of squalor" in his literary landmark, "The Virginian." Despite his unflattering assessment, Medicine Bow has embraced Wister as a patron saint. The oldest building in town is the three-story Virginian Hotel, named after the novel. The shoulder patches on the four-man police department depict the shoot out between the hero and the villain of the western, and are embroidered with the book's most famous line: "When you call me that, smile."
The main drag through town is Hwy. 30, which the paper dubbed "the forgotten highway." It stretches a half mile past a video arcade and motel, the Dipin Donut Shoppee, the Diplodocus Bar, and pools of standing water that form after rainstorms. Trail's End, the town's cemetery, lies on the far side of the Union Pacific railroad tracks that parallel the highway. Every 15 minutes or so freight trains run through town, drowning out conversation.
Medicine Bow supplied water and coal for the railroad and served as a shipping point for sheep and cattle ranchers. Grazing land ranges for miles over high plains of grass, greasewood and sage, south to the ramparts of the Snowy Range and north to the arid Shirley Mountains.
The old train depot is boarded up now. The last big cattle shipment by rail in 1962 is a photograph on the hotel menu. There is no doctor, lawyer, movie house, clothing store or stoplight in Medicine Bow. Listing deprivations is one of a visitor's bleak pleasures. About the only form of entertainment in town, other than riding a horse into a bar, is Home Box Office television. "We can never get more than three people to come to Chamber of Commerce meetings," said Bill Kvenild, president of the Medicine Bow State Bank. "They're all at home watching 'R' movies."
Yet viewed from the perspective of, say, a sheep herder who ventures to town from his lonely post, the "forsaken hole" seems a companionable place, shaded by cottonwoods with a cinderblock town hall, six churches, three bars, a library and a newspaper.
You have but to ask for the newspaper office to be told where it is as well as the make and color of the publisher's car--a tan Nova full of back issues of the Bow Post. I found David Roberts in his office a few days before he was scheduled to go to Washington, a black-haired, sandy-voiced Wyoming native. He looked to be skinnier than the Medicine Bow phone book (which has six pages) and he seemed determined to wear frayed, checked shirts, sleeveless sweaters and windbreakers no matter how hot outside.
David was 23, a graduate of the University of Arizona who couldn't find a job, when he decided to start the first paper published in Medicine Bow in more than half a century. Coal and uranium mines in the area were supposed to boom. The banks in Wyoming thought he was joking. He had to go to his parents' bank in Nebraska to get a $7,000 start-up loan. Last year the Bow Post, with a circulation of 900, grossed almost $60,000; he pays hourly salaries to his part-timers and takes $500 a month salary for himself, when the money is there. He was able to afford a trip to Washington thanks largely to an unexpected $1,200 bonanza of legal advertising from the Wyoming insurance department.
As a practitioner of what he calls "community journalism," David is living proof that the profession is a way of life. He sleeps in his office, a basement apartment in a complex that also houses his parents, Les and LaVerne, who keep the Bow Post books and empty the garbage. David stores back issues in his closet under sneakers and Perry Como records. The kitchen serves as a darkroom; the refrigerator is stocked with film and orange pop. The editor scrambles out of bed when the fire whistle sounds in the middle of the night. His mail brings appetizing charts of traffic data from the highway department and letters from a woman named Daisy who wants to know more about a giant crack spreading latitudinally across North America.
"This is my life," David said, gesturing at his cramped and cluttered office. "This broken machinery and pages that aren't done and pictures that have to be developed . . . . " A strangely objective note in his voice made him sound like a guide leading a tour group through ancient Greece. We drove around Medicine Bow, bouncing over potholes and discussing the failure of his crusade for paved streets. David ticked off the families on Maple Street: the Reeds, Baumhovers, Boyers, McJiltons, Petersons and Soltmans. It takes only four numbers to dial your neighbor on the telephone in Medicine Bow. Strangers are conspicuous. A street map is tacked on the wall at the town hall with every citizen's name penciled in.
After introducing the Bow Post's staff, David showed me a new masthead in which I was listed as Guest Editor. The staff planning Vol. 5 issues 39 and 40 included Cathy Kilty, the ad saleswoman; Les and LaVerne, who in addition to their regular duty took over the circulation and ran the paleolithic addressograph; and panic-prone Barbara Weiser, who has worked for the Bow Post since its third week as society editor, grammarian, ad designer, all-purpose employe and who has never been able to spell the name "George." A new typist, JoDee Dennis, was filling in for the old typist who was having a baby.
The paper's editorial mainstay while the boss was away was the news editor and only reporter, Doug Mellgren, a 28-year-old journalist who has worked for several Wyoming weeklies and who allowed that the three biggest interviews of his life were with Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger and Vincent Price.
And so we were off, on a work schedule governed by the laws of weekly journalism in which frenzy and chaos rise steadily through the week, cresting on Tuesday with oaths, hand-wringing and much emotional combing through the garbage can for crucial pieces of lost copy, such as the announcement of Pat Cronberg's son's engagement. I still don't know what happened to that one. Many visitors dropped in,not realizing the mood of urgency that gripped the office as deadline loomed; some walked out with scraps of waxy paper on their feet. Perhaps the Cronbergs' good news is stuck to someone's shoe.
TV transmission to Medicine Bow was knocked out recently by a ground squirrel and it doesn't take much more to stop the Bow Post.
The first week, the paper's less-than-implacable march to the post office boxes and store shelves was nearly thwarted by a typing bottleneck when, near deadline, the town clerk sent over 11 pages of demoralizingly dull council minutes, which included an itemized list of 52 bills.
In a yeoman effort, Doug authored the entire front page, delivered the third in a series of articles on unemployment, snapped, developed, printed and laid out a page of photographs, wrote another "Tied up in Knots" column and dashed off an editorial chastising the town officials for secretiveness.
It was Doug who articulated one of weekly journalism's cardinal rules. I was showing him what I thought were rather deft ways he could make the latest installment of his series more concise. "Sometimes you don't want to be too concise," he said, looking at me patiently. "We have to fill up the paper."
William Allen White once said in 1911 that running a small town weekly newspaper is "a royal American privilege." Anyone who works at the Bow Post would agree. One treasured privilege was that of driving 160 miles to a printer in Torrington with publisher Carl Berger of the neighboring Hanna Herald, who enjoys a little four-wheel drift through the turns of a mountain canyon.
Privileged or not, the editor of a small-town paper holds a difficult position, being both an observer and a participant, a critic and a booster. The Bow Post attacks the Town Council for off-the-record meetings on one hand, and on the other plays a key part in publicizing the annual summer rite of rabbit races and whiskey drinking called Bow Days. The paper has taken stands in favor of handgun control in a county where fences are posted with signs that say, "No Trespassing--Survivors Will be Prosecuted;" it has excoriated big corporations in a region dominated by energy companies. The Bow Post, which has won the Wyoming Press Association cup for editorial leadership, is fortunate that the few advertisers it has have not tried to throw their weight around. Poor Carl Berger has to drive to Medicine Bow to get his car washed because he wrote a story which that accurately pointed out that the gas station with Hanna's only car wash also had the highest gas prices in town.
The Bow Post has survived my brief reign. Clorox was misspelled (in my column) and duly corrected. A few Cradle Calls hailing newborns may have been misplaced, but the Jehovah's Witnesses were well served, for I spent the better part of an hour crawling on the floor in search of the "news note" announcing their next meeting.
David Roberts returned from Washington with a raft of Smithsonian catalogues, two souvenir rulers and new ideas, which he planned to harness immediately in Vol. 5 No. 41 of the Medicine Bow Post. "I think I can last for another year," he said, and that means new quips for the Bow Dog, new thoughts for Phyllis Ophical, fresh insights for his columns, "From the Bow Booth" and "The Post Age."
But over the horizon lie issues 42 and 43 and 44 and the line of Thursdays stretches infinitely into the future, a sight that can dispirit even the happiest editor exercising his royal American privilege. In an issue of the Bow Post a few years ago, David Roberts published a board game he dreamed up called The Medicine Bow Post Game. It was laid out like Monopoly, and players were supposed to throw dice and move tokens around the board of spaces filled with brief descriptions of the vicissitudes of the newspaper life in Medicine Bow: "Town Council goes into executive session, Boo! Hiss! Every player loses 20 points!" "Screaming at the machines won't make them work. You lose 15 points!" "A big story! And you were there! Give yourself 20 points!"
Roberts played the game only once and discovered a fundamental problem: "It never ends," he said.