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MailTribune.com
  • The wordsmith never forgets the Prisoner of Weeds

  • Each year when Labor Day comes around, offering a long, satisfying sigh to the approaching summer's end, I am always reminded of that classic World War II movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
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  • Each year when Labor Day comes around, offering a long, satisfying sigh to the approaching summer's end, I am always reminded of that classic World War II movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
    You may recall the evil Col. Saito's ad nauseam admonition to his POW charges, "Be happy in your work." The movie cleverly captures the rich irony as the misguided madness to work turns into full-blown lunacy, thanks to the brilliant acting of Sir Alec Guinness and crew.
    Yet I am still relatively happy in my work after nearly 40 odd years on the front lines.
    I still enjoy getting up in the morning with the sun to see what the new day will offer. The fact the day sometimes offers up a surprise is always a bonus. And meeting new people or jawing with old acquaintances is always invigorating.
    In what some jaded journalistic friends would describe as naive denial, I even harbor the belief the Fourth Estate can still make a difference. But I accept that difference is largely on a microbial scale as our profession becomes more watered down.
    Some would quibble that journalism is not hard labor. It is true we are not really working stiffs. We don't work up a sweat, don't trudge home each night with dirt under our nails, don't collapse from physical exhaustion when the day is done.
    But I would argue our work is more than merely chatting-up people, taking a couple of notes, and writing the first rough draft of history.
    There are long mental grinds with plenty of deadline stress tossed in. There are nights when we head home mentally spent, totally brain dead.
    Yes, a few wags would snidely observe we likely arrived at the office in that mental state, the ungrateful curs.
    For all our warts, I like to think journalism provides a service that ultimately contributes to society. Call it an imperfect product that helps guide democracy along the way.
    Earlier in life, I tried my hand at other work.
    My first job in memory was pulling weeds in the family garden as a young urchin. It was unpaid toil in the hot sun, not unlike the sweaty labor of POWs on the aforementioned bridge.
    Actually, I always considered myself a POW at the time — a prisoner of weeds.
    Later as a preteenager, I periodically milked cows for the neighbors when they took a few days off to escape the farm. It was invariably a knock-down, drag-out contest of boy against bovine.
    Yep, an udder challenge every time, pun intended.
    Another job was helping a neighborhood drunk cut cedar bolts for what we called the arrow factory. The factory was basically a building housing a machine that cut the bolts into arrows.
    The job had its perks. We would venture off into the mountains in search of a suitable tree. If the drunk was off the wagon, he would cut it down, buck it up and split it into bolts that resembled short fence posts. My job was helping lug the bolts to the truck.
    If the drunk wasn't off the wagon, he would get his pickup stuck and we would spend the day digging it out. Either way, I got paid a buck a day.
    I jumped at the chance to buck hay for $1.25 an hour while in high school. The pay wasn't bad back in the day, and the ranch food served during lunch was both delicious and bountiful.
    It was also while in high school that I worked for a buck-and-a-quarter an hour as a printer's devil at the Illinois Valley News, a weekly in Cave Junction. It was interesting work, one made all the more fascinating by Editor Bob Grant, a likeable curmudgeon.
    But the most interesting, physically taxing job was working in the logging woods as a choker setter, and later as a chaser on the landing. My co-workers were mad-dog characters and the work challenging. It was a rewarding experience, even at $3.10 an hour.
    After an uneventful hitch in the Marine Corps in which my hourly pay was immeasurable, I was eager to use the GI Bill to earn a degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. That was before the Ducks had a real football team, incidentally.
    As a journalist on more than a dozen papers from Anchorage to the Bay Area, I've met countless fascinating people over the years, from the president of the United States to homeless folks.
    And I am most happy in my work when they remind me of Maj. Clipton, the camp doctor in the River Kwai, who has the last words in the movie.
    "Madness! Madness!" he concludes.
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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