I’m in my 30th year of journalism, which, roughly speaking, is way too long. But I have produced more than 8,000 stories, 7,253 of which had to include the subject’s age or the year they graduated high school, sometimes both.
A tenet of community newspapers is to keep things local, and nothing’s more local than knowing what year someone you’re writing about graduated from a school the reader also probably attended.
When I was in the town of Orrick recently I did a double take when a person I interviewed told me his name was Hawk, just Hawk.
“It’s what people know me by,” he said.
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The general accepted journalism practice is to use real names, first and last.
I could’ve gone with Hawk and readers would’ve thought it was a perfectly fine for a biker in a sleeveless leather vest.
But years of practice kicked in and I asked him for his last name. If he’d told me it was Swoops, as in “Hawk Swoops,” I would’ve kept a straight face and spelled it back to make sure I had it right.
It turned out his last name was Fitzgerald. I assumed Hawk wasn’t his given name, but I wasn’t about to pry further in the name of newspaper correctness. Where would I be if I’d asked and he’d said “Edmund?”
There’s a fairly predictable pattern to what I do, but some stories still surprise me. This is one.
Hawk and his associate, a person with keys and a chain or two hanging from his belt, told Orrick’s mayor they had a donation for tornado victims in this town of 800.
We waited around for them, chatting about health insurance and growing old until the men arrived.
Hawk was part of a motorcycle group, so I’d anticipated a cortege of Harleys rumbling up in full glory for a photo. Instead, they’d traveled from the city in a mid-size sedan so non-descript I didn’t even notice the make.
We stood on the sidewalk and Hawk started talking — and talking and talking, mostly about a friend from Orrick. It seemed he’d ridden with Joe “Puddy” Loyd, who’d been killed in an accident in January. The mayor knew Puddy and his mother well.
She knows just about everyone in town, and probably half the dogs and cats.
Hawk said he’d heard about the tornado damage and wanted to do something in Puddy’s honor to help the victims. He and Paul McCormack, both active in a motorcycle rights organization called Freedom of Road Riders, raised money at an auction at a bar in Liberty called Sneaky Pete’s.
Hawk had sewn several patches on the back of his vest, one memorializing his friend Puddy, who’d also ridden with the chapter. He said Puddy taught him much about motorcycles and life, and had something valuable to say about almost everything.
He was a special person, Puddy said, one he’d carry with him forever.
When people say that, they’re often speaking figuratively. But Hawk was being literal, too. Puddy had been cremated and Hawk wore some of his ashes in a leather pouch around his neck. Hawk wore it often.
Hawk and Paul eventually presented an envelope with cash and gift cards totaling well over $300, plus an apology.
“It’s not as much as we’d hoped,” Hawk said.
“We were hoping to do more,” said Paul, also embarrassed.
In the nick of time, a memory helped Hawk regain the meaning of what they’d done. It was a saying of his late friend that did the trick.
“As Puddy always said, nickels and dimes add up,” he said.
You can write to freelance columnist David Knopf at firstname.lastname@example.org.