I’ve been waiting half a century to write this column.
I planned to write it, then Cowboy State Daily Publisher Bill Sniffin beat me to the punch, writing last week about our columnist pals in Wyoming who have been writing for around 50 years, folks like Bill himself, and my old Casper Star-Tribune compadres Joan Barron and Sally Ann Shurmur.
“Hey, wait a minute!” I said when I read Bill’s column. “I’m in that club, too!”
It was on a ship, the S.S. Universe Campus, somewhere between Los Angeles and Honolulu, in the first week of September in 1971, that I wrote my first newspaper column. I was a student in a wonderful program called World Campus Afloat, and I figured it was the perfect time to try new things, like writing for the ship-board daily newspaper, The Helm.
I don’t remember what that first column was about. But on that ship, they showed movies every night. I think I watched “Citizen Kane” a dozen times, and everyone enjoyed “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” A column I wrote about an actual trip to Outlaw Cave up near Kaycee – allegedly an actual haunt of old Butch – was well-read. It was on that trip around the world, writing every day we were at sea, that I fell in love with newspapers.
In Laramie, where I landed my first newspaper job, I was too busy writing news to write columns. But I did write one about my oldest friend, who in the early 1970s came up with the concept of the automatic kitty litter box. It had two levels, a home-made conveyor belt, a motor scrounged from a discarded washing machine, and a drawer to catch kitty’s leavings.
It worked great, except for two problems. It set up a thick cloud of dust. And it was so loud the cat wouldn’t get within 10 feet of it. Still makes me laugh.
When I worked in Casper, I covered a murder trial in Sheridan. I noticed that the look on the face of a parent of the homicide victim was strikingly like the look of the mother of a defendant in a murder case down in Rawlins, which I also covered. The shell-shocked, agonized look of the parents of a victim and a perpetrator were the same, and clearly asked, “What happened to my child?”
In Craig, Colorado, I wrote a column in 1986 about the birth of our daughter Alison (I called her Blanche in my columns), reporting that a dose of Demerol caused the arrival of our daughter to progress “like the German blitzkrieg into Poland.” They used that column for a while in Colorado to let prospective dads know what they were in for.
One of my favorite columns involved the time in Illinois when I looked out the window of our house and saw a guy walking his yappy little dog on my lawn. The dog left clear, solid evidence that he had visited.
Well, if ever there was “column material,” that was it. In my next column, I noted this curious event, referring to the dog’s leavings as “small caliber.”
At the time, I had a Labrador Retriever that one vet told me was “the biggest Lab I ever saw.” I wrote that it was my intention to respond to the owner of the little dog in kind, and while the term “shock and awe” would come along years later, my dog Woody would be delivering the mother of all responses, reminiscent of the 16-inch guns of the Battleship Missouri.
In 1996, Time Magazine wrote a feature before Father’s Day about being your kid’s best friend. My father had about four months left to live, and I wrote a column saying that he and I were never best friends. But he built boats and cabins with me and my brothers, headed the building committee when our church burned down, taught me and every one of my friends to water ski, was a gifted carpenter and gardener, continued his work day as a civil engineer at his desk at home every weeknight until Johnny Carson came on, and served a couple terms on our local village board.
He wasn’t my best friend, I wrote, but he was the best example I could have had on how to be a dad.
When my mom wheeled him into the dining room at the assisted living place where they lived the Saturday that column appeared, my dad got a round of applause. That Sunday, the Presbyterian minister in town read that column for his sermon.
I figure there have been at least 2,600 Dave Simpson columns over the last 50 years, about the deaths of beloved Labrador Retrievers, scraps over local issues like property taxes and bringing a federal prison to town, and every other topic you can think of. I’ve never had a week go by that there wasn’t something worth 700 words in a column.
It occurs to me that at age 70, with 50 years of newspaper columns in my saddle bag, it might be a good time to call it quits.
These days, column writing is the only activity that doesn’t make my joints sore.
And I’m having way too much fun.