— Walt Whitman
Looking up to find Lifestyles Editor William Wright and Assistant Sports Editor Joe Cannon standing in the doorway to my office, I realized immediately they were up to no good.
It’s not such an easy snare to find mischievousness on William’s face. He’s a quiet and always polite sort. He smiles a lot, but it’s one of those smiles you trust.
But with Joe ... well, we’ve been close friends since the early ’80s. When it comes to tomfoolery, or in this case joefoolery or rickfoolery, the sky’s the limit. No holds barred. We can say or do just about anything around each other without fear of hurt feelings or violent retribution.
It’s just what friends do, especially those who have shared the trenches of newspaper work off and on for maybe too many years.
So on this day when I found Joe blocking the door, I suspected foul intent. History will document I was right. And seeing William at his side triggered further confusion, yet personal interest. You see, these two never hang out.
I mean, let’s get real. One writes mostly family-oriented features and an inspiring personal column with a modern perspective on the scriptures; and, he sits in the same office where folks bring engagement announcements and wedding narratives. The other barks foul when the wrong team scores and spends his best literary days degrading bad referees, mourning the last day of football and analyzing which Major League Baseball parks sell the best hot dogs.
In TV Land, I would call them “The Odd Couple.” Yet, here they were. All smiles. Noticeably proud. Thinking back on a once popular soap opera, I realized these were the days of our lives. And my stomach turned.
And so did Joe’s smile.
“... Better luck next year, Rick!” Joe roared in a volume that shook the building’s front doors.
There it was.
He’d gone and done it ... again. Just like last year.
But this time he brought along a sidekick. Tonto ... er, William ... concealed a slow grin with one hand. Poor William didn’t know whether to break out in laughter at the silliness of the moment or stand behind Joe should a book or a tape dispenser or a stapler come flying off my desk in their direction.
Truly, it was one of those “... you had to be there” moments.
Yes, for the second year running, “Cannon’s Corner” — the colorful sports column written by Joe Cannon — had been voted “Best of Bradley County,” thereby making Joe the area’s best newspaper columnist as gauged by Reader’s Choice 2014.
William, author of “Wright Way” and who was the inaugural Reader’s Choice winner for column writing in 2012, finished as this year’s runner-up.
“So what happened to you?” readers of this column might be asking. “How’d you do?”
Well, in 2012, I won ... zilch.
In 2013, I won even less.
And in 2014? Let’s just say “zilch” would be looking pretty good right about now.
In troubled times like these, we could all take the higher ground. But it wouldn’t be as much fun; hence, the reason for Joe’s intimidating and uninvited — but always welcomed — visit to my office door.
Delivered in the lighthearted tone by which it was intended, his was a familiar verse. It was pretty much word-for-word from 2013.
“Rick, you write your column every week ... week after week after week,” Joe reminded me, his smile hidden behind that long, white beard. “I write mine ... what, maybe four or five times a year? Yet ... I win this?”
As the pair of tiny horns slowly emerge from either side of his forehead, he displays the 8x10 paper certificate declaring him to be repeat champion in the world of column writing as voted by the people of Cleveland and Bradley County via Reader’s Choice 2014. His hands proudly cradled the sheepskin like a flag, unfolded before me as a means to validate his victory. It was his badge of honor, his claim to fame, his chance to exercise all privileges on this opening day of Braggin’ Rights 2014.
Foregoing the justifiable frown, I instead burst out in laughter. This was Joe in his finest hour. It was not for me to doubt the legitimacy of his win nor to question the reasoning of his legion of fans who had again bestowed upon him this writer’s crown.
“Hail, oh mighty king, thy great and powerful Oz!” I should have meekly offered. But I didn’t because I was still laughing at the spectacle.
By this time William had fled the scene. A man of his humanitarian passion wanted no part of such grandstanding, even when its delivery was good-natured and received as a welcome break from the daily pressures of a newsroom. Although William had playfully abandoned the people’s-choice, award-winning columnist, Joe held his ground as a solo act.
“So let me see, I’ve won this now ... twice, is it?” my friend asked.
“I think so,” I conceded, feeling compelled to rise from my chair and to bow in homage to the victor. Yet, I resisted.
“And you’ve won ...,” Joe added, his eyes scanning the ceiling, “... what is it, none?”
“As always, your words speak truth and with great wisdom, your heinous,” I acknowledged.
Looking about the office, I considered throwing something ... coffee cup (a waste of good caffeine), a notepad (still in use), a tissue box (needed to wipe away the tears of joy for my friend’s success) or, maybe just a pen. So I settled for a paper clip. It landed harmlessly at Joe’s feet.
Still enjoying the spirited banter with the colleague with whom I’ve shared countless pizza lunches and Saturday night shifts, I told him it was going to be a long, long year.
“And this is just opening day,” Joe warned.
Those of us left with envying the exuberance of the victors, and who now must wallow yet another year amid the ruins of defeat, are forbidden from asking the obvious like, “Why?” Rather, we may seek only, “How?”
For William, a man of faith, simple ways and humility, the answer is simple: Divine intervention.
As for Joe, well, remember ... we go way back. So I asked him, “What’s your secret? Why do people love you so?”
He smirked. It was a knowing smirk I had appreciated many times before.
“Look at me,” my dear friend bellowed. “Folks don’t want to get on the wrong side of Santa Claus!”
Touche, Joe. Touche.
Kudos and congrats to Joe and to William, and to all the Joes and Williams of this world, who make it a little bit better place to live ... not just because of the printed word, but because of the big hearts that give their words a deeper meaning.
And yes Joe, next year awaits. Be warned.