The memorial tree.

Of course I heard from Dispatchers, past and present, with Ned stories. Most said, How could you forget the tree incident? I didn’t forget the tree incident. I was there. Believe me, it’s burned into my memory, as it was that of everyone else who saw the aftermath. A brief synopsis, then my defense:

The paper has an annual off-site staff meeting called the Clinic. It’s a long-standing tradition, part year-in-review, part year-to-come, part wild card. It was the same year after year: Everyone left work at 3 p.m. and drove out to the Wigwam, the publishers’ corporate-retreat facility way out on the east side. (The Wigwam is another story, another day.) You sat through an hour or two of dull speeches, although sometimes they weren’t dull. There was a certain freedom to the program, which was left up to that year’s chairman, who had been named as the last formal event of the previous year’s Clinic. The program was always something of a surprise. One year the film critic was chairman, and he brought in Jean Shepherd, whom he’d met while up in Cleveland covering the filming of "A Christmas Story" earlier in the year. The first year I was at the paper, the national president of the AP gave a talk so soporific I could barely keep my eyes open, and was mystified by the giggling from the younger staff members seated nearby, but that, too, is another story (short version: pot-laced brownies).

After the speechmaking, cocktail hour started, and that was the real purpose of the Clinic — to get loaded on the company and commence the sort of behavior you couldn’t do in the newsroom. The bartenders poured as though liquor was perishable and they’d be fined for every bottle they let spoil. The card tables were uncovered; poker games ensued. Then dinner. Then more drinking, until around 11. Then maybe more drinking at a nearby Holiday Inn.

(Another ironclad Clinic tradition: Never, ever call in sick the next day, unless you were hospitalized. Which nearly happened to Ned, that year.)

I already told you Ned was a drunk, so you already know the story. Trying to get out of the parking lot, he mistook a sidewalk for a driveway and got stuck between two trees. Let’s let Borden pick up the story from here:

A security guard ran over and tried to help Ned, urging him to gun the engine and pull back. Ned did. No avail. Then, the guard suggested he floor it in forward. Ned did. The car became wedged even more tightly between the trees.

By now, word was spreading back into the Wigwam and a crowd came out to watch as Ned produced copious amounts of tire smoke but was unable to dislodge the Pontiac. Eventually, he clambered out and away, abandoning the forlorn vehicle. The guard was terrified he would get into trouble, but one of my fondest memories of the evening is watching (the publisher and the editor) doubled over with laughter at the site of the marooned car.

Naturally, the photographers came running and shot about 1,000 rolls of film. The car was so tightly lodged that one of the trees had to be removed. But there was, of course, a silver lining. Ned was presented with a T-shirt on which the photo of his mangled auto between the trees appeared.

It really was a magnificent fuck-up. The car was stuck as tight as a tick, up on two wheels, and it did, indeed, cost one tree its life to get the thing free. I recall one other detail: The publisher asking, "Where’s Ned?" and the guard saying, "He’s in the Wigwam, sir. He’s … lying down."

I didn’t mention that story because it’s only funny if you were there, and if you weren’t, it’s just another drunken-newspaperman story, and there are far better ones than that. My feelings about alcohol and the newspaper business have…evolved over the years, and I no longer see this sort of incident as proof of character or a colorful personality or heroism or anything else. Let’s face it, if he’d gotten out the driveway and killed somebody on the way home, no one would be remembering that night fondly. Booze is as strongly linked to our business as it is to many others, and I’m sorry that publishers are so worried about liability now that the bar has long since closed — the Clinic is now a dry event, no surprise there. A true moderate, I prefer the happy medium, with oiled conversation and without cars stuck between trees.

My point: I’m sure Ned’s family had some other stories to tell. My friend Deb, child of an alcoholic, dropped out of her book club the month they read "Charming Billy." "I don’t want to read a book about a drunk," she said. "I’ve had enough of that."

Here’s a much better Ned story, from Kirk: he was standing in newsroom when some young babe walked through. "there goes a winsome lass," he said. a few seconds later, a somewhat homelier young woman strolled past. "winsome, lose some," he said.

Happy Easter to you all. And our sympathies go out to NN.C reader Ashley’s wife Hana, who is Czechoslovakian, and must suffer the ritual of being beaten with a stick by the man in her life. It’s to ensure her fertility; she must give him an egg in return. Having given him a child in the last year, I don’t think she owes him anything on that score, especially if he comes after her with a hockey stick, as he claimed to do last year. Hana, if you read this, I suggest you leave it raw and aim for his face.

The rest of you, enjoy your holiday and think of me in the once-again-chilly Midwest (grrr…), eating barbecued turkey and deviled eggs.

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