“Let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories about the deaths of kings …”
– King Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2.
CLARKSDALE — As I have noted in this space from time to time, newspaper people tend to have a great many acquaintances but only a handful – and not a heaping one, at that – of very close friends.
And there are reasons for that, not least among them, is that the chance always exists that people, for deed or lack of it are going to end up on the front page of your newspaper in a less than flattering light, either by story you wrote or by decision you made to publish it, or in the case of smaller papers like mine, both.
So, if you are going to be in this crazy news business for very long, so should you be careful about picking your friends. Since they are not apt to be a big lot, they better be a choice one.
I lost one of those and this town lost a good man who, in what was but the tradition of his family, had served it well for a great many years when Richard Webster, by no means a small man who nonetheless was much of his life referred to as “little Richard,” died in an Oxford hospital Saturday afternoon. Never the beneficiary of wonderful joints, he had suffered from various onsets of poor health in recent years, and I guess it just finally got the best of him. Wish I could have been there to give him one last hard time, as had become our wont late in life.
Richard Webster, the subject of many a news story I penned while working at what was then the excellent daily newspaper here, was nonetheless a friend of mine for going on 50 years. In fact, he and his family were dang near family to me and mine, and in a number of ways acted more like family to us than real kin folks did.
Richard’s daddy, the “big Richard,” whose presence in town created the need for “little Richard’s” unfortunate appellation, was pretty close to being the only father my wife ever knew and the Webster clan and my wife and her mother were pretty much raised as one big extended family that cared for and looked after one another.
When Richard and my Phyllis headed off to college (in the pre-Ray days), Richard bought them a car to go back and forth to Delta State. Bought them a car, mind you, one they shared.
Richard got himself elected mayor of this fair city a time or two (I like to think with the help of some very quietly astute political advice) and for much of the duration of his terms as such, I was the primary city government reporter, never an easy job but one made considerably more manageable by one of the few rules of his office, this one allowing as how “if Ray calls or comes by, I may be busy, but not too busy.”
The point of all this, of course, is that Richard Webster was the subject of a lot of newspaper stories, the source for a few others of some significance, and my friend at the same time and never, never once in all the years that was the case was there a single thing that brought those not often covalent roles into conflict. Never once did I have cause to question, much less regret the relationship we shared.
And that, I guess brings me to the one mutual experience which was likely most apt to come to Richard’s mind or mine at a third party’s mention of the other’s name – the 1978 ice storm, which until the 1994 event, was the most devastating in anybody living’s memory.
The atmospheric conditions for such a thing have to be just right and they were on the winter night when rainfall hit the right atmospheric temperature for just the right amount of time and the surface temperature was sufficiently cold for ice to first fall upon, then cover literally everything – and I mean everything – not the least of which were power lines.
The whole town was out of power. If you did not have a generator, you did not have electricity.
But, one of those places that did was the (then) civil defense operations center in the (then) police station and so it was there that Richard and I ended up spending a great deal of time, for what seemed like days on end.
Sleep became a valuable commodity and one night when Richard and I sought to grab a nap on respective folding tables, I asked him if his was equipped with heavy duty springs, to which without missing a beat, he replied, “You know, you are a mighty light in the (expletive) fellow to have such a big mouth.” But he said it with a grin, a grin that in the case of Richard, was always as wide as Wyoming.
The next day some fool started a rumor that there existed a “mayor’s list” by which his friends got their power restored quicker than anybody else, a charge that was ridiculous and one which I summarily dismissed in the paper.
But it became a running joke between us for the rest of Richard’s days and I can’t remember a subsequent conversation in which one of us failed to resurrect it or when in so doing did not elicit a hearty chuckle.
I wish I could hear that chuckle just one more time, Mayor. But you find yourself a corrugated cloud up there and just kick back and take it easy for a while now. You hear?