I've never laughed harder

Spelling names correctly was the biggest challenge of the most demanding job I've ever had. It also resulted in the funniest half of a phone conversation I've ever heard.

My first full-time job at a newspaper was covering high-school sports at The Seattle Times. It was probably the most demanding a job I’ve ever had in media, and the most difficult of this most demanding job was spelling the names right. This sounds fairly simple until you realize that most of the times I was getting the player’s name from a roster or a coach or the parent who was assigned the task of keeping score from the game so it could be called into the newspaper.

There are so many opportunities for error. Is it Sean or Shaun? Brittany, Britney or Brittainee. There was usually no way to double check this, either, because even if there was a roster listed online or you had one on file, that wasn’t going to be any more accurate than the person who provided the information.

One workaround was to create a master file of confirmed spellings. These would be names whose spelling became a subject of dispute and we had ironed it out by direct consultation with the source: either the player or parent. Extreme cases required physical proof. There was a piece of paper torn from a spiral notebook that was taped to the filing cabinet next to Jim Reding, the preps editor. It spelled out the name of a basketball player and Oregon State recruit from Franklin High School: Jimmie Haywood. There was a signature at the bottom from Jimmie Haywood to confirm the spelling for Craig Smith, the reporter and my co-worker whose Sideline Smitty columns remain some of my favorite things I’ve ever read.

There was one dispute, however, that could not be resolved through consultation. It was the particularly sad case of a cross-country runner from a Metro school I won’t name. The parents of this runner were alternately calling in regarding whether the athlete’s last name should be hyphenated or not. We received adamant, angry complaints when the hyphenated version of published. We got an adamant, angry complaint when it ran with only the father’s last name. The situation came to a head after the runner participate in the state meet.

Sideline Smitty went to the high school and spoke directly to the kid, asking specifically how this runner wanted the name published. He then included a mention of the runner in the paper that week, mentioning the participation at an upcoming meet in Oregon that would bring together top cross-country runners in the Northwest.

The following week, I was in the office at the my desk, which was near Smitty’s desk. To be honest, proximity doesn’t really matter. Smitty’s voice is an absolute foghorn that will carry across any room. I heard only his end of the conversation.

“Yeah, I understand, but we just wrote a note about that and cross-country season is over.”

(Listening)

“OK, but we’ve done our best to sort that out, and the fact is that last meet I wrote about isn’t even something we’d normally cover.”

(Listening)

“I know. A great kid. But cross-country season is over.”

(Listening)

“Look, I’ll be honest. That sounds like it’s the world’s ugliest divorce up there. Those parents are throwing knives at each other.”

(Pause)

“I wouldn’t have said that if I knew you were the mother.”

At this point I erupt in laughter. Cackling, unrestrained, face-turning-red laughter. I step up and walk away from this corner of the room because I know she’s going to hear my laughter and that’s only going to make it worse, but oh my God this is the funniest thing that I’ve ever heard and the chagrin I feel for Smitty having just stepped directly into this beartrap is incapable of tempering just how hiliarious this is.

Now I want to make it clear how much I love Craig. He has the absolute best heart. One of my absolute favorite moments from my wedding reception in 2008 involved Craig and his wife, Julie. We’d hired the jazz band from Roosevelt High School and they were playing a number and our MC — the incomparable Lori Matsukawa — had asked all the married couples onto the floor. Over the course of the song, the couple gets winnowed based on length of marriage. If you’ve been married one year … five years … 10 years until Craig and Julie and my in-laws, Wendy and Janning Chan, were the last two couples on the floor. Craig and Julie had been married for something like 35 or 36 years, just a tick longer than my in-laws. Craig was handed a bottle of champagne and someone snapped a picture of his reaction as he’s holding the champagne bottle by the neck in one hand and holding up the index finger with his other hand: He was No. 1! I looked for the photo this morning, and unfortunately I couldn’t find it. I’ll keep searching.

When I saw Craig’s phone conversation with the knife-throwing mother had ended, I returned to that corner of the office and looked tentatively at Craig to measure his reaction.

“She shouldn’t have lied and said she was a friend of the family,” Smitty said.

You know, he had a point. Here’s a collection of my work from this week:

Tuesday, Oct. 18 | The Dang Apostrophe

It’s strange watching those members of the Seattle media who were devoted zealots of Wilson now try and position themselves at the front of parade celebrating his decline.

Wednesday, Oct. 19 | The Dang Apostrophe

The 'transparency' that has followed Russell Wilson's departure has been illuminating in some ways, but it also makes me wonder about media motivations, including my own.

Wednesday, Oct. 19 | With Christian Caple

As for Russell Wilson, well, it appears things are getting sticky. There are reports that Subway has removed the Dangerwich from its online menu known as The Vault. The media is now keeping track of the frequency with which he ends his press conference by saying, “Go Broncos, let’s ride!”

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