And Ray Charles is singing her name like rain on my window. I want to release her but I can’t begin to know how. So, I say Ray, let me forget about Georgia because she’ll never love me like I know love s’posed to be… Each night I pray I forget about Georgia. -Lukas Nelson
This song happened to play when I was working on a story one night, and I was so struck by the lyrics and his toying with known devices that it worked to inspire some of my own.
The story partially inspired by my own newsroom stories, partly by a book I’d read recently about mass layoffs at The Washington Post at about the same time my own news career came to a grinding halt. The Post story, like my own, is tinged with irony. You see, just days before they fired half their staff one day because ads and subscriptions had fallen to an all time low, the newspaper did something it never had before: Namely, win six Pulitzer Prizes in a single year.
Only the illustrious New York Times had ever matched that feat up to then, and even then, they’d only managed it once. But days after they make newspaper history as one of the very best newspapers in the nation, they let half their people go.
My own tale was nearly as biting, for days after I was let go from my last news job, I received in the mail my final national award for a successfully executed PR campaign that played a big part in pulling off in what turned out to be a decade-long battle with then-Gov. Rick Perry over private property rights in Texas. In that particular case, a deceptively worded state constitutional amendment, had it been approved, would have nullified all the work we’d done up to then to strength the property owner’s leverage in cases of eminent domain seizures in the state.
The U.S. Supreme Court had recently ruled, back when, that seizures could occur based on monetary reasons. In effect, if you could prove to governmental entity that you could, in fact, make a substantial amount more than the property’s current use, which in turn would benefit their tax coffers, they could in fact seize your property and give it to the other fellow. That’s a damn scary notion, particularly for farmers and ranchers, whose property is often taxed far less than any business enterprise usually is. Most anyone could walk up and prove a more profitable use of the land. So long at the ax exemptions were lifted, the land automatically earns more for the tax entity. After all, a “substantial amount” is a fairly loose term, subject to a widely ranging pool of interpretations.
Sadly, what was already occurring was that business didn’t even waste time talking to the landowner. They were headed directly to the tax entity, prepared to brag about how they could make more money with the property than farmer ever would, and then collecting their seized property for pennies on the dollar. It was a win-win for everybody involved.
Unless you were the farmer. Then life pretty much sucked.
The very first story I wrote for that paper came from right here in Victoria, involving a cotton farmer by the name of Brian, whose son had just been born back when. He was in a battle deluxe with the city and a garbage company, whose massive landfill wanted to turn his prestine cotton patch into dump, literally.
Most days, when deals are struck behind closed doors, nobody’s allowed to say much. Confidentiality clauses and what-not. I know a deal was reached in that case, but that’s about it. I was never privy to the details. I do know this though, losing that chunk of land under the deal that was on the table, prior to that story running, would have ended his farmer operations. That’s what Brian told me back when, anyhow. But he’s definitely still farming. In fact, that infant boy I only caught glimpses of when I came down for that story, then, was driving the picker at harvest time, a proud daddy posted of his boy on Facebook. So things must have worked out, apparently.
That ballot election though was primed to ruin it all, though. So we killed it. And we killed it good. Did a better job of doing so than anyone else in the country, apparently. That’s what the award said, anyway. My placard was given to me about a month later, when I came back to town from my construction job, 100 miles away.
I tossed it in a box in the back of the closet with the rest, and there they lived for nearly five years, until one day, not long before I returned to school, I decided one day to hang them up. And, a full five years after that debacle at the state house, the legislation we’d been backing–a bill I actually helped write–finally became law, using the precise language I’d written, word for word. I couldn’t believe it.
Anyhow, this story I was writing, had a reporter character in it, not unlike myself, and a friend he looks up to, both of whom perform one of those unknown tasks that most folks probably never even think of at a large newspaper, especially someplace like the Post, way over there on the East Coast. Namely, they watch the news wires until the wee hours, to make sure that the story someone turned in at 5 p.m. and went home hasn’t been disproven by the time 5 p.m. rolls around in, let’s say, Hawaii, for instance.
Now nine times out of 10, not a damn thing happens then, especially if the reporter did his homework. But I have a story on that. Back when I went to work at my first daily, way out West Texas way, a tornado happened to touch down the night before I reported to that massive office building for my first day. It was massive to me, anyway, compared to anyplace else i’d worked previously.
That tornado I mentioned? It all but eliminated Oklahoma City. Parts of anyway. Pretty damn big parts, in fact. And as the crow flew, it wasn’t all that far away from where we were, relatively speaking.
And it was the relatively part that mattered most, a very irrate editor scereamed at us all, my first day on the job, for Oklahoma City was apparently home to hellova lot of local townspeople’s kinfolk, and guess who didn’t have shit in the paper about it the next morning? I had nothing to do with that fact, but got much as reamed as much as everyone else that first day. I could tell already: This place was gonna be a peach…
So my story unfolds, and as I’m writing it one of our characters decides to bid on an old school building, based largely on a place I’ve seen most of my life, not far from the funeral home in Hallettsville. Even as a kid, I thought it looked an awful lot like the Alamo. And our character in the story can’t get over that fact, tells our would-be-bidder as much right to his face, about time he starts getting on his last nerve.
Then Lukas Nelson sang a song about Georgia, a lot like his dad’s but world’s apart. And thus, my story, “Forget the Alamo,” was born. Mine even has added beauty of toying with that fateful “remember the Alamo” battle cry sounded at the San Jacinto field of victory.
As it turns out, I got word Friday that my story had released that very day, in the latest edition of The Ocotillo Review, put out by Austin’s literary nonprofit, the Kallisto Gaia Press, founded by Tony Burnett. I haven’t gotten my copy yet, but they were having a release party for it that very day at some bookstore I never heard of (The Malvern?).
That’ll change soon, I’m sure. I’m supposed to be there in a couple weeks from today to give a reading.
That ought to be a hoot! Let’s just say I tend to stretch the boundaries of what they dub literary most days, anyway. This particular story, though, practically gives literary the bird. Two-handed…