By T.W. Burger
Quite a few years ago a fellow charged into the newsroom all steamed over a report we had run in the paper concerning his arrest for driving under the influence, or DUI. He was angry because we’d run his name in the paper the five other times he’d been arrested for the same offense.
He said we were ruining his reputation.
I sure hope so.
The story, and I swear it’s true, points one sad fact other than the obvious one. People do not know the difference between news and public relations, or PR, as we call it in the trade.
What the boozy fellow in the newsroom demanded was PR. What he got was news.
A lot of people are confused by what PR is. A simple parable might clear the air.
When I was in high school, I had a weekend job as an ambulance attendant for a service operated by a local funeral home. As I said, it was a long time ago.
One night, we received a call to one of the livelier night spots on the rougher side of town.
There we picked up a man named Roger. He was a mason, not the kind with the funny hats, but the kind with bricks and mortar. He had arms as thick as my legs, about two cases of beer singing loudly in his brain, and nine knife wounds in various parts of his topography.
He did not look well.
The guy who lost the fight looked worse, being deceased.
We strapped the unconscious Roger onto the gurney, locked it into the back of the lumbering Cadillac M&M ambulance/hearse combination car, and took off with me sitting in the jump seat in case Roger needed anything. Personally, I thought he looked like the only thing he was going to need was Last Rites. I was wrong.
A quick note: This was in the days before EMTs. I was an attendant. I had no training whatsoever. I got the job because I was sturdy enough to drag people out of wrecked cars and keep rowdy patients from raising too much hell in the back of the ambulance. I was more of a bouncer than an EMT.
For those of you who have missed this sort of experience, a person who loses consciousness during a fight, especially while drunk or under the influence of certain freelance pharmaceuticals, will often awaken some time later with the mistaken assumption he is still in the fray.
Nobody had ever told me this. Roger provided me with a free demonstration.
The first punch hit me as we roared into the outskirts of town, red lights flashing, sirens howling their banshee wail.
The second bounced my head off the wall and things got kind of vague for a while. I remember seeing the face of Rick the Driver in the rearview mirror, laughing. Did I mention I didn’t like Rick?
Anyway, there was Roger, drunk, tied up, full of holes, and still beating me to a pulp. It was not one of my better moments.
Two things occurred to me in quick succession. One, I had never (well, almost never) hit anyone in a serious way before, certainly never in the head parts, and, Two, I was going to have to learn to do just that very quickly.
I reached up and hit the switch, dousing the overhead lights.
I swung, wildly. Quite accidentally, my fist caught Roger right behind the jaw. His behavior improved remarkably.
After depositing the tranquil mason at the hospital, I was sitting on a low wall trying to make my poor battered head stop swimming.
Rick, still chortling like some character out of Hee Haw, asked me why I had turned out the light. I explained that driving through the middle of town in an ambulance owned by a funeral home, with the attendant pummeling the patient would not seem to project the sort of image we were interested in presenting to the public.
"Oh," said Rick. "Yeah.”
So, you see, what Roger and I had between us was news. What the public got was PR.
A few months later, somebody tapped me on the shoulder while I was window shopping. It was Roger. I thought I was going to die, right there in front of Wuxtry Used Comix.
Roger apologized for giving me such a bad time that night. As cooly as possible, I told him not to worry, it could happen to anyone.
And that, I suppose, is PR, too.
T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.
He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.
He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”