There was a reunion of Arkansas Gazette employees last Saturday night, nearly 25 years to the day the Old Gray Lady was shut down, its assets sold by the Gannett Corp. to its competitor the Arkansas Democrat. There was a DVD of news coverage Oct. 18, 1991, the day the Democrat pulled the plug so the Gazette would not be allowed to publish a final edition, as if it were never a separate, very different paper from the winners of the newspaper war. The DVD also included video shot the final day in the newsroom, with booze, speeches, laughter, tears. Since that was sort of a downer (especially considering what 25 years will do to your neck, waist and hairline), reunion organizer Ernie Dumas, editorialist for the real Gazette and now the Arkansas Times, wisely tucked the television and DVD player out of the main line of traffic. Instead of mourning, Dumas delivered several funny stories, including one about a stringer named David Pryor.
Pryor, who'd been turned down for a job at the Gazette by managing editor A.R. Nelson, strung for the paper instead, first from Camden and later from Fayetteville, where he was in law school and the legislature at the same time. The UA had invited psychotherapist Albert Ellis, author of "Sex and the Single Man," to campus to speak, and Pryor covered the packed event for the Gazette.
Pryor called in his story to Dumas on the state desk, with this lede: "Any man who has not had sex by the time he is 30 is in for a lifetime of mental health problems."
"Do you have to put my byline on that?" Pryor asked Dumas. "Gazette Press Services" appeared instead.
That was a good thing, since "all hell broke loose," Dumas said, when the story ran the next day on page one. Gov. Orval Faubus condemned it and the president of the university apologized for the speech.
After he earned his law degree, Pryor went on to serve three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, two terms as governor of Arkansas and three terms in the U.S. Senate. Had Dumas not taken care of Pryor, he told the reunion crowd, it would have changed the course of Arkansas history.
Coming back from seeing the sausage made up at the State Capitol the other day, The Observer stopped by the Arkansas Fallen Firefighter's Memorial, which stands just west of the domed ediface. It's a handsome thing, all shining brass, stone and trickling water, cast figures standing majestically in their gear, seemingly ready to spring to the rescue or rush through flames, surrounded by black granite tablets inscribed with names and dates. It's a quiet place, and the morning was pretty, so we lingered there for a minute, among the names of the dead.
As you know if you've watched this space awhile, The Observer's favorite writer is Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt was a hell of a guy, the only celebrity whose death Yours Truly ever cried over other than Fred Rogers. Kurt was one of those people who figured out that life is so full of heartbreak and mystery that it's either laugh or cry. He preferred to laugh.
In his 1959 novel, "The Sirens of Titan" — not his best, but a humdinger — one character tells another: "I can think of no more stirring symbol of man's humanity to man than a fire engine." The Observer never fails to recall that line when we hear a siren. Like a lot of Vonnegut, it's a line that says more than, by all rights, it should be able to in 17 little words. At the risk of being that boor who corners you at parties and explains all the jokes: A fire engine exists, in every nut, bolt and screw, for no other reason than to convey its passengers as quickly as possible to a place where they might risk their very lives for the lives and property of strangers, helping them force their way through fire and smoke. If there is any greater symbol of selfless love, The Observer can't name it. And so we took a moment to stand there before the memorial, in a cool and shady place, and say one of our faithless prayers for the fallen.