Column: Two stories you'll never hear from himApril 9, 2014
BY SCOTT SAALMAN
There’s a fine line between subject matter that is fair usage and that which is exploitative.
Recently, I discussed this with a journalism colleague whose insight I value. I was uneasy about an essay I had written, worried that maybe I had crossed the line, that maybe it wasn’t my right to write about what I had written about for public consumption.
“Did you have an agreement with the source that you wouldn’t write about it?” he asked.
I did not.
“Your concern is funny when you think about it,” he said. “Aren’t you always exploiting something when you write a column? I would think all humor columnists do this, or there wouldn’t be much to write about that was funny.”
Good point. But there’s still that integrity thing to deal with. Fair usage to me means writing only about things I personally experience. When mom lost her bathing suit top on a beach in the Seventies (by Seventies, I mean the decade, not when she was in her 70s … thank god), it was fair usage, because I was there and shared in her embarrassment. I witnessed it. I wrote about it. True, I wrote the story at her expense, but hey, it’s my life, too!
On the other hand, I would be guilty of exploitation if I wrote about embarrassing things that happened to family when I wasn’t a witness. I would never do such a thing. Hearsay puts integrity at risk. Without integrity, I would be nothing.
For example, I have refrained from sharing a certain story about Grandma G, who was a drinker. (I am exonerated from accusations of exploiting my grandma’s propensity for drink, since, as a child, I earned a quarter each time I fetched a beer for her and slid it into her koozie (can holder). It was my life, too; hence, fair usage. Had I saved all those quarters, I likely wouldn’t need to work today.) Anyway, back to the story of Grandma G, as told by my uncle since I wasn’t there to experience it. One night, he gave her a new beer to replace her empty. Unfortunately, he gave her a bottle, not a can. The koozie was not designed to hold a bottle, though she tried making it fit, achieving the same futile result as if intent on forcing a square peg into a round hole. Eyeing the bottle closely, she formulated a solution: she poured beer from the bottle; but, alas, despite less liquid content, the bottle still didn’t fit. Even when she chugged the bottle dry, it didn’t. I never claimed to come from a long line of Einsteins.
Here’s another example of how I have refrained from exploiting my family.
My aunt told me about riding with my brother on one of his trash routes back when he had his own sanitation business. His trash truck, with SAALMAN SANITATION advertised on it, was basically a rolling cage, looking like something African poachers might load an endangered gorilla into. While traversing a rural Kentucky road, my brother had an urgent need for a public restroom. Approaching a roadside church, my aunt advised, “Try the door. A lot of times they leave them unlocked out in the sticks.” The door was locked. I imagine my brother was walking rather weirdly at that point. My aunt pointed to a building by the church and said, “I think that’s the parish hall, try it.” The door was unlocked. My brother went inside. Several minutes later, my aunt saw my brother run from the house. Behind him, a man wearing a wife beater T-shirt and boxer shorts was waving his arms wildly and hollering behind the glass door. It was not a parish hall. It was a private home. They sped away—well, if you can call it speeding since the bulky trash truck, at best, might achieve 40 mph. It was akin to using a cement mixer truck as a getaway car.
Clearly, there was plenty of time for the irate homeowner to see the SAALMAN SANITATION sign. A DNA sample would not be necessary. I wonder if he was in the shower when my brother flushed, causing the shower’s water to become very hot. It didn’t register in my brother’s mind that he was actually in someone’s house, even when he saw two kids sitting on the living room floor watching TV. He had other things to worry about. Not only was nature calling, but nature already had its foot through the door crack — if you know what I mean.
The good news was my brother successfully took care of his business. Never mind breaking a home invasion law in the process.
I can empathize with him. Once, while engaged in a similar gastroenterological emergency, I got creative with a buddy’s shed, my tube socks and a Walmart sack. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Those two-handled-bags are ideal for such occasions. Never leave home without a Walmart sack.
So there you have it, how I maintain an ethical balance between subject matter that is fair usage and that which is exploitative. I will never write a column about the two aforementioned events, for I was not part of them. I am a man of strict journalistic standards. I am nothing without integrity.
Scott Saalman and the Will Read and Sing For Food players will have a public benefit show for Crisis Connection, at 6 p.m. on April 27 at Forest Park High School. Admission: suggested $10 minimum donation at the door; $5 for students.
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