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A sign of the Times; or, rather, the Tidings

Sherlock Holmes would have called it "The Case of the Wandering Sign."

And the great gumshoe, who spoke volumes through the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle, would scan the evidence and solve it before breakfast.

But the famous sleuth would have been wrong: I was not guilty.

It all began when I was shuffling into the office one morning about two weeks ago. Poking out of the Dumpster enclosure behind our downtown building was an old board about eight feet long and a foot high. Etched beautifully on one side were the words, "The Daily Tidings."

Thanks to years of investigative reporting and a finely-honed, Sherlockian mind, I was able to deduce it was an old sign that once graced the Ashland Daily Tidings building.

Most readers know the Tidings and the Mail Tribune came under one owner a few years back. It was in all the papers. OK, two.

Although the Ashland staff has moved out of the building it occupied for more than 40 years, the paper's focus continues to be on the community's bellybutton.

I figured Jimmy Culp, our man in charge of keeping things shipshape at the MT, was tossing out the old sign. So I called him and told him I'd like to have it as a keepsake from the town where my father was born in 1906.

A cheerful fellow with an infectious smile, Jimmy said I would have first dibs if the decision was made to throw the old sign away. It was placed near the Dumpster because it was really the only place to store it, he explained.

"You'll be first on my list," he said.

When I came back from lunch that day, I noticed the sign was gone. I assumed an executive decision had been made to move it. But no sooner had I sat down at my desk than my phone rang.

"Hey, Paul, did you happen to pick up that sign?" Jimmy asked. "It seems to be gone."

One of the reasons my criminal lifestyle didn't go beyond journalism is that I have pangs of guilt, even those rare times when I am completely innocent.

And I am guiltless in this case. Scout's honor. But beads of sweat were already breaking out on my forehead.

"Uh, uh, no, not me," I told Jimmy. "Uh, it wasn't there when I got back from lunch. Honest. I thought you had moved it or something. I didn't take it."

I could almost feel the handcuffs tightening around my wrists just before being led away to be shot at sunrise.

After all, Mr. Holmes would have noted that my pickup truck with a canopy was parked nearby, that I had both motive and opportunity.

"Elementary, my dear Watson," he would snidely tell his sidekick before lighting that foul pipe.

Jimmy politely suggested the purloined sign may turn up. Still, I felt miserably guilty, although I did not take it. Scout's honor.

Fast forward to Thursday. MT librarian Pam Sieg was heading out to lunch when she saw a man walking up to the Dumpster and carrying an old board. He nonchalantly set the board down and walked off, she reported.

You guessed it. It was the missing Daily Tidings sign.

Because I had told her about the whole sad episode, Pam came back into the office to tell me it had been returned.

She suggested I call Jimmy. Remembering what a mess I had made of it when I talked to Jimmy last time, I asked her to plead my case.

She called Jimmy, who met her downstairs at the Dumpster. That prince of men told her to tell me the sign was mine if I still wanted it.

"I'll guard it until Paul gets down here," he said.

What's more, Jimmy carried it to my pickup truck, where it was secured.

The way I figure it, the borrower took it because he didn't want to see it thrown away. He later decided it was a bit too weathered to be a worthy trophy for the den.

But you may be right. It very well could have been a case of borrower's remorse.

Richard Sept, a retired MT editorial page editor and former editor of the Tidings, says the sign was on the Ashland building when he arrived in 1977. It was likely made for the building when it was built a decade or so earlier, he said.

Meanwhile, for the last few years, I've been eyeing those shiny metal Mail Tribune signs on our building here. One would sure be a nice companion conversation piece for my newly acquired Daily Tidings sign.

If one turns up missing, I'm telling you now I did not take it. Honest.

But I am already harassed by doubts.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.