Tall tales were a big part of the morning coffee breaks at the Ames Daily Tribune back a half century ago.
Coffee break was an all-staff production. Pressman Charlie Case was the man in charge of making the coffee; one of the girls in the front office was delegated with the task of picking up pastries (except when someone brought cake in observance of their birthday); and bookkeeper Erma Erickson would collect a dime or two when the coffee fund needed a little help.
We employees would gather at Charlie’s unofficial office at 9 a.m. each morning, pour a cup of coffee, grab a goodie and separate into our own little groups.
Our group most often was made up of the younger employees – also considered "the newcomers". Our actual jobs varied from Linotype operator to page composer to ad sales to reporter. Back in those days newspapering was a labor intensive operation and job turnover was a big part of the mix.
The particular morning that comes to mind was a Monday in the spring during the rainy season. We were all young men who shared a mutual bond: fishing. As each of us took our turn bragging about our weekend adventures the stories seem to grow. Don Smith, our new sports editor and a Chicago native, had recently graduated from Iowa State. Although Don had spent much of his time over the past four years with the demands of education he had still found time to scratch the fishing itch.
Don stood quietly listening to each story until Wally Martin, the newest-hire, took his turn. Wally – who, at most, weighed 110 pounds – described boating a 35-pound catfish while checking fishing poles set along the banks of the Des Moines River near Boone. He told how they had set the lines just before a rain and caught several big catfish as the river rose during the night.
The normally quiet sports editor exploded. "There isn’t a fish in all of Iowa that big," Smith exclaimed. He turned to Farm Editor Dan Garcia, another serious angler and out-of-stater, and they both chuckled as they walked away.
The rest of that Monday Wally was constantly harassed by either Smith or Garcia as they walked by his Linotype. Wally never said much but during the short time I had known him I was convinced he was not about to take all that ribbing without striking back.
Early the next morning as I was working on the comic page, a scream echoed through the entire building. It came from the newsroom. In a matter of seconds everyone had rushed upstairs to see what had happened. There was Don Smith staring at his desk. On the desk, placed on a day old Tribune, was the head of a 35-pound flathead catfish. The head was huge because a great portion of the weight of a flathead is its head.
It took Don awhile to gather the fortitude to wrap the head in the newspaper and haul it to the alley and place it in the trash. I imagine the walk through the back shop and past Wally was probably his biggest deterrent.
I’m not sure how many years Don remained on as sports editor, but he never questioned Wally’s fish tales again.
(Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He lives near Cambridge.)