"What happens," said Edward J. Dunn, the last of the great American city editors, "is news, but who did it is journalism."
It was my privilege to know Eddie Dunn and to hear his precepts. But before him, I cut my journalistic teeth as reporter for the hebdomadal Record at Brunswick, which has since become the daily Times Record and is, I think, Maine's best newspaper.
I was chief-in-charge of the items that told what Mr. and Mrs. Local Everybody did on the weekend. That was more than 75 wordy years ago. Now, with sentimental fidelity, I will sometimes call their 800 number with a news tip, or send them an odd dissertation on an abstract subject to keep them on their high level.
For instance, I called them last April to tell the news desk that Robert Armstrong had planted his green peas on the 16th. In Eddie Dunn's newsroom that would have been the story of the day, and I was happy that the Times Record man seemed to agree. "I like that!" he said. So I was sad when the next issue skipped the item entirely and Robert's famous achievement never gained fame.
What had happened at the Times Record? I don't know, but alone with my thoughts, I pondered the ways this great story might have been played. A story is valuable, Eddie said, according as it relates to people. The perfect paper would print the name of everybody in the circulation area every issue. It can't, so next best is to average out and come as close as possible.
Patriot's Day is the 19th of April, the anniversary of the shot heard round the world and besides being a holiday in Maine and Massachusetts it is the traditional occasion for planting a row of green peas so they'll be ready on July 4th for the traditional feast of fresh garden peas and salmon. You stick all that in a paper bag and shake it, and you'll have the front page holiday story for just about everybody and anybody! That is, an item that Bob Armstrong got his peas in three days too soon.
How come Robert planted his peas early? Is the frost out of the ground sooner than usual? Will we have a hot summer? Will Bob's peas mature sooner and give him a crop on July 1? Did anybody else plant peas, too?
Eddie would have had a cameraman on the way. What kind of peas did Bob plant low bush or telephone? Does he stake or use wire? Manure or phosphate? When the peas sprout, will Bob call the paper so we can get a progress report? Interview a fish market official about Pacific salmon, which aren't salmon. Ask a game warden about Atlantic salmon, which can be caught in only one of the United States Maine..
Why not rerun the Patriot's Day story of Billy Goff, who didn't like the way the Redcoats bullied Bostonians and took his gun and went down to shape things up? He told a militia officer at the Concord bridge, "I ain't with no company, I'm Billy Goff from down Maine, and I'm fighting alone!"
We might even drag in Paul Revere, whose ride started things that day, and tell how he commanded the artillery at the Battle of the Bagaduce and how the English whupped him. When you come right down to it, a good reporter can make a planting of peas last right into October. And you still haven't covered Bob Armstrong, who did it!
Bob's father was a gentleman and a scholar who came as an early summercater to the Maine seacoast and distinguished himself as a collector of millstones.
A granite millstone, after constant grinding of grain, loses its luster and must be replaced. An old one is weighty and hard to handle, and is best discarded just about where it is. So after a few hundred years, any grist mill was surrounded by cast-off millstones of no value. Father Armstrong picked them up and set them about as ornamental objects in a manner that astonished and amused the natives. This identified the Armstrong family as suitable members and they have been accepted as townspeople ever since.
Robert is a good gardener and since boyhood has planted peas, as has everybody else, on Patriot's Day. For years he arrived seasonably from Massachusetts to do so, but in retirement he is year-round and starts from scratch like a native.
He is venturesome enough to flaunt tradition if the ground has thawed ahead of time. Once his excellent garden starts to produce, you can see him each summer day trotting about town with a basket, trying to give away zucchini squash. Tourists who pause at the post office to mail home greeting cards will find their back seats full of zucchini. Robert is a generous man when it comes zucchini time.
The Armstrongs have four children, several grandchildren, other folks, favored friends, college mates, and odd nodding chums who attend family functions and are available on July 4 for green peas. Shall they come this year on July 1? What about sparklers?
Well, my dear old journalistic alma mater simply missed the chance, and the best news story of the year didn't get printed, and how time does fly! It may well be many a year before Patriot's Day comes so early again!
One time Edward J. Dunn said, "If the day ever comes that there's absolutely no news to print, I'll just run the names in the phone book. Everybody in town will look to see if he got left out. Bear that in mind, gentlemen."