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My old friend David Stevens reminded me recently of a story I wrote about 20 years ago when I was a reporter at the Amarillo Globe-News.
It was the best job I ever had — because I worked for David, and because we cherry-picked the best stories each day from among the 85 towns of the Texas Panhandle. You can’t make up Ralph Erdmann, the pathologist who faked autopsies for years and said whatever the prosecution wanted at trial to get the conviction. Or Stanley Marsh, the millionaire wastrel who created the Cadillac Ranch and other works of outdoor guerrilla art in and around Amarillo and who has come to an ignoble end after suffering a debilitating stroke and being charged with paying underage boys for sex. Or the corrupt district attorneys who had a taste for drugs and for the drug-seizure slush funds at their disposal.
The story I’m thinking of is nothing so serious as all that. Just the opposite, in fact. It was a throwaway weather story, an attempt to illustrate a particularly windy day in February when the tumbleweeds, dead after three months of winter, snapped and took off by the thousands across the plains.
David was my editor and asked me to do a story from the perspective of a tumbleweed. So I grabbed my camera and took off south from Amarillo to find some. I got about thirty miles before I spotted my prey — dozens of them bouncing across the highway toward the town of Happy. I turned off to follow them, parked my car downtown and got out to take pictures.
I walked the one-square-block downtown for about five minutes, snapping photos. There wasn’t another soul outdoors; not a car moved. I saw a GMC Jimmy parked on the street in front of the bank, with a tumbleweed stuck under the wheel. I realized that was the image, and the ending, I needed for my story and I took several photos from the middle of the street.
I heard footsteps behind me and turned to see a policeman in a light-brown uniform walking toward me, his aviator sunglasses cinched down tight and an unhappy look on his face, in clear violation of Happy’s motto (“the town without a frown“).
He was about 5-8 and skinny, and asked me what I was doing. I was a little embarrassed to explain the stupid story I was writing for the newspaper, but I did, and I thought that would be the end of it. He didn’t believe me. “Why are you taking pictures of the bank,” officer Barney Fife asked me, and I looked to see if he even had a gun. He did.
“I’m not taking pictures of the bank,” I said. “I’m taking pictures of the tumbleweed stuck under that car.”
He gathered himself to his full height. “You need to get back in your car and leave.”
“You’re kidding, right?” I asked.
He sniffed. “You have anything that proves you work at the Globe-News?”
I didn’t have any business cards. The Globe-News was way too cheap for that. So I showed him my Texas DPS press card. He asked for my boss’s name and phone number, so I told him. He wrote them down and said, “Wait here. And no more pictures,” then walked back across the street to the city office to make the phone call.
While I waited I took more pictures, and when he came back out, he was irritated.
“I told you no more pictures,” he said. “I need you to get in your car and leave.”
I chuckled and shook my head, walked back to my car and drove to the newsroom to turn in my film and write my story. David said he had in fact talked to the cop and confirmed my idiotic story. I guess officer Fife didn’t like some nosy newspaper reporter coming into his town and stirring up tumbleweed trouble.
Working for David meant always putting your nose where public officials thought it didn’t belong. He had my back when sheriffs, lawyers, criminals, school board members, mayors, etc., called to complain because, of course, David had put me up to most of it. He can’t resist a good story.
About a month ago, he wrote a recommendation letter for me, and that’s how he reminded me of the tumbleweed story. Here’s part of what he wrote:
“When I think about Sonny Bohanan’s creative writing ability, I think about
“That goes back to 1991 when Sonny was a rookie general assignments reporter on
my regional news staff at the Amarillo Globe-News.
“Sonny wrote dozens of weather stories – mostly about tornadoes, ice storms and
heat waves – but the most memorable was his day-in-the-life account of Tommy
Don Tumbleweed, one tragic example of what can happen when wind gusts hit 50-75
mph in the Texas Panhandle.
“Tommy Don broke free from a rural fenceline that day and headed toward his
dreams of the city, but his adventure ended in the grill of a GMC Jimmy.
“I knew Sonny had taken the assignment seriously when I received a phone call
from the police officer assigned to Happy, Texas, who wanted to know if I had
instructed a reporter to follow a tumbleweed around town.”
Thank you, David, for assigning me to follow a tumbleweed around, even though it nearly got me thrown in jail. It wasn’t the first time, or the last. Those was the days, my friend.