Jason Davis: Strange tales from the newsroom

Jan. 27, 2014 @ 12:59 AM

The life of a journalist is never dull. There's rarely a day that goes by that doesn't hold at least one "Did that really just happen?" moment.

Some of the situations are scary, others are undeniably odd. Some are just downright funny.

I thought that this week I'd share some of my favorite go-to stories with you.

The first happened in my first few months in the business. Working as a 17-year-old "cub reporter" with the LaFollette Press in my hometown, I was assigned obituaries, community news and crime blotter — all of the jobs nobody else wanted. I was also tasked with answering the phone anytime it rang after 5 p.m., when our front office staff went home.

I'll never forget answering the phone at about 7:15 one night and hearing the impassioned plea of a county jail inmate. For close to 15 minutes he rattled on about the inequities of the jail's food service program. But, unlike most calls "from the inside" he wasn't asking for an in-depth expose or an editorial against the unkind treatment he and his fellow inmates were receiving. He didn't even proclaim his innocence. Instead, his request was simple: Would I order him a pizza and have it delivered? He swore he'd pay me back when he got out.

I was so amused by the ultimate request, I'd probably have done it — had a pizza not cost roughly three hours of my weekly take-home pay.

Another of the vivid memories from my early reporting days was when a visitor came to see me one afternoon.

It was very unusual for me to have a visitor. I was a peon at the paper, a newbie on the lowest rung of the editorial ladder. Plus, I was only 17, half of my friends didn't even drive.

When I got the page to come to the front office to see my visitor, I was suprised. When I walked around the corner and saw who was waiting, I was shocked.

A classmate from school — a beautiful, popular girl at least five steps above me on the social scale — was awaiting.

As I greeted her, she beckoned me to follow her outside.

My heart leapt. As I trailed her, I already had visions of our unborn children and my destiny as a member of the "it" crowd. After all, I'd seen the alluring gleam in her eyes. I knew what time it was.

As it turned out, like me, she was also working an after-school job. And it just so happened, her boss — a prominent local accountant — had been popped for domestic assault. She'd been sent down, with her pretty smile, seductive eyes and a crisp $20 bill, to convince me to keep her employer's name out of the arrest report.

My delusions of grandeur quickly dashed, I decided to stand firm on my budding journalistic integrity.

"Tell your boss we don't keep anyone's name out of the paper," I told her, walking away "And he's cheap, too."

While my confidence was bruised, I felt a little redemption by getting the last word. It may have been the first and only time I had been witty, especially when faced by an attractive member of the opposite sex.

After college I got back into the business and met a whole new cast of characters and enjoyed a whole new set of situations.

The first paper I worked for was the Volunteer Times, an upstart in the same town I'd previously worked in.

Being the "alternative" paper, we often got visits from people that had worn out their welcome with the other paper — the conspiracy theorists, the serial political candidates that never won and, to put it bluntly, the kooks.

One day I was the only person in the newsroom and a slightly agitated front office attendant called back over the intercom seeking some assistance.

A man in the office, about 70 years old, who hadn't seen a bath or comb in months, was refusing to leave until he talked to a reporter.

Never one to back away from talking to someone, I asked how I could help him.

The man told me he wanted someone to write his story. And what a story it was.

Looking back, the man was obviously mentally unstable. I probably should have called the sheriff's office the moment he left, but I myself was only 23 and still a little naive.

"I was executed by the state of Florida in 1981," he began. "And I am Jesus Christ's brother."

Obviously something was wrong with this dude.

The man went on to tell me how he'd risen from the dead and walked from Florida to Tennessee. He certainly smelled as if he'd been in decaying for a few decades, but I doubted his story. Still, the details continued.

He'd been arrested several times, never for anything he'd actually done, mind you. He also kept his hand in his pocket, holding some kind of object. At some point I began feeling genuinely uncomfortable and decided I should try to get him to leave as politely as possible. It was near closing time, and I assured him I'd listen to all he had to say if he returned the following day.

After some hemming and hawing, he agreed. I never saw him again.

While I haven't had anything quite that unusual here in Sevier County, there have been a few doozies.

Just a few months ago, for instance, we received a manila envelope from the post office containing a book manuscript — around 200 pages — written entirely in German. We translated a paragraph or two using an Internet translation service, and it was nothing of real interest, especially to a newspaper in Sevierville, Tenn. What I found most odd, however, was that the parcel was mailed 14 years ago. Talk about snail mail.

There was also the day I emerged from my house to find my tires flattened, which was probably a result of some sporting event I'd reported that someone felt slighted their team or didn't have the correct point total for their budding superstar.

I've had a few other strange encounters and situations arise here in Sevier County, but it's too soon to discuss most, because however entertaining, it's just too soon. And my current set of tires is too new.