Way back in the 1980s, when Madonna was new and Lady Gaga was only a noise you made in the privacy of your own bathroom, I was the editor of a weekly newspaper.
It was a turbulent time in my life; at 23 I had aspirations of big-time journalism but was hampered by things like having to write on an electric typewriter and supervising an editorial staff of two, which included myself. The job was enlivened by the fact that I was presiding over the sole publication of the town where I was reared, and by spending much of a summer covering a grisly murder trial, the defendant in which was a member of my high-school graduating class.
None of that has anything to do, however, with the fact that during this year, 1986, I consumed fried squirrel.
One of the things I miss desperately about being a reporter is all the interesting and unexpected things you get to do. In no particular order, among other duties both savory and unsavory, I’ve —
• Interviewed and photographed Cheryl Ladd
• Toured a dairy farm
• Covered a wedding between two carnival workers, on a Tilt-a-Whirl
• Profiled an all-senior citizen jazz band
• Interviewed a World War I veteran
• Written about a pet cemetery
Any one of these items would make an interesting blog post, and of course each made an interesting story published in an actual newspaper. Since my foray into television, I’ve also profiled a llama farm, the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, and ostrich burgers, as well as written scripts on subjects ranging from Melungeons to a Kentucky Derby winner.
Of course, along the way, you attend a lot of meetings of planning and zoning commissions, city councils, school boards, and just plain boreds. You wait outside in the hall during a lot of executive sessions, and you go to bed after four-hour meetings that end at midnight, and then get to work by 7 a.m. to write three stories based on that meeting for publication that afternoon.
But you also get to eat fried squirrel.
Rodents aren’t the only thing I consumed in the name of rural journalism; I once was the delighted recipient of a pound of home-churned butter. The lady who churned it had served as a “correspondent” for a neighboring town’s weekly for — oh, I don’t remember now — maybe 50 years, and I was profiling her and her little homey column. For those of you not raised in rural areas, local papers often published news from little communities about who’s visiting who, births and deaths, and other ordinary occurrences. It’s a throwback to a simpler time, when such goings-on were actually news.
The reason the butter was memorable (in addition to it was incredibly delicious on toasted homemade wheat bread) was that I was able to gaze upon the actual cow who produced the milk that made the butter, as I sat on the front porch interviewing the gracious correspondent. Her husband also plowed using draft horses, an incredible sight to see.
As was the plate of squirrel.
The squirrel actually was tied, metaphorically speaking, to the World War I veteran, whom I heard about from a representative of the local VFW (or Veterans of Foreign Wars) Post. The local post provided a watering hole for veterans, and did good works, too, like getting a WWI vet a hearing aid he couldn’t afford. They thought I might want to “write up” the donation, which I did — but I was much more interested in meeting him. This event is now more than 20 years ago, but even in the 1980s it was still far, far removed from a conflict that ended when women didn’t even have the vote. Hells yes, I wanted to interview him!
Which I did, and duly published the story of our meeting, which mainly was conducted via writing the questions on my pad, since he was stone deaf and hadn’t yet received the hearing aid. Yet he recited, from memory, in German, a poem he learned after the war, where he spent a few years doing something with German industry.
And then, I was invited to the VFW Post to dine on squirrel.
It was, as I have mentioned, fried, so I can report it was delicious — inasmuch as anything batter-dipped and deep-fried is. It also, as I always report when relaying this tale, tasted like nuts. I absolutely am not making that up. Nuts. Yes, indeed, fried squirrel tastes like nuts.
That’s just the sort of education rural journalism will provide, along with murder trials, meeting movie stars, politicians — and other celebrities, like butter-producing cows grazing in the pasture off the front porch, and Great War vets who will recite poetry for a rapt audience of one, in a tiny town in rural Kentucky.