Sunday November 18, 2012

RICHMOND

In the 60-some years this column has been running, there has been some feedback, quite a bit of it negative. There have been anonymous phone calls and anonymous letters and complaints to management at various levels. But this has always been a newspaper that backed its writers when it was sure of his or her rightness after facts were checked and responsibility weighed.

Some of the anonymous letters were threatening not only in tone but in fact.

"When we take over," they would read, "you’re going to be one of the first ones we take down." Some of them were racial, some religious and some just weird.

After I received my first death threat, I went down to see the then-editor, the late Lawrence K. Miller, and showed it to him. He read it slowly and carefully, correcting its grammar and spelling mistakes with his usual red pencil as he went along. Then he casually laid it down on his desk.

"Harmless," he said, unfolding the paper he had been reading prior to my entrance. "It’s probably some guy you pass every day on the street. He wouldn’t dare do anything."

"But this is a death threat," I earnestly said. "Shouldn’t I show it to the police?" He casually reached down and pulled out the bottom drawer on the right side of his desk. It was crammed with crushed up paper that turned out to be threat letters to Miller himself.

"Probably there is one in there written by the guy who wrote the one to you," he said, and went back to his paper.


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I stood there until I realized that I had been dismissed, retrieved my letter and went back to my desk on the second floor. I kept it until I received another one from somebody else and from then on they were all read and put in the waste basket immediately.

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I learned to listen patiently when I received a phone call denouncing me for some opinion or other. When the diatribe eased up, I would ask the name of the caller and 99 per cent of the time he or she would hang up. Once in a while there was one willing to give a name and I would then emulate a ploy used by Garry Moore, one of the early talk show hosts.

"You may be right," I would say, and then the conversation would become a bit more cordial and end on a neutral note. I still receive letters occasionally but most people with a view today either send e-mails or make remarks on Twitter or Facebook. If the entries are controversial or blastfully outrageous with intermingled obscenities, they are always unsigned. The Internet has provided the cowardly among the general public an opportunity to vent without responsibility. This is somewhat shameful but too often the bad outweighs the good in almost everything.

What brought these memories to my mind was a call I received just before the presidential election from a genial sounding man from down county who said that after years of disagreeing with me, he had finally found something to praise. What had delighted him was a small, innocuous item in a recent column that involved ROMEO (Retired Old Men Who Eat Out). He had a crew like that in his town and they were a "fun bunch."

Then he turned to politics, discussing President Barack Obama as the "Muslim in the White House" and predicted that if Obama had four more years as president we would all be laboring under socialism. I tried for a bit to refute his arguments but his answer to everything, and I mean everything, was "Read your Bible" in a most helpful tone of voice. The discussion ended peaceably but nothing was changed between us.

I will not be joining his group for a coffee session nor will I be reading the Bible for other than literary purposes. But it would have been kind of fun to be a fly on the wall as the group drank their bitter coffee dregs two days after the election.

We have come a long way since slavery but we’re still a colorful bunch. It says so in the Bible.

Milton Bass is a regular Eagle
contributor.