I used to ramble. I rambled hard and long and fast. Like nobody’s business. No. I don’t mean I played around on my wife. I wrote little patchwork pieces called Ramblers for the Sanford Herald, which was a throwback afternoon paper with a sweet southern nature. These Ramblers detailed the many small comings and goings and doings of neighbors and friends in Lee County about 45 minutes from the wild heathens and college kids in Chapel Hill where my wife, then girlfriend, attended classes.
The definition of a Rambler was something that was not news in its broadest sense, but was something you would tell over a neighbor’s fence in the morning. It was a little juicy piece of something going on that would start his day off right. The sighting of an exotic bird in a backyard could be a Rambler. A recent trip to distant and urban locales like Raleigh or Asheville could qualify. A football scholarship awarded to a son. Perfect Rambler. These Ramblers ran down the left side of the front page of the paper and were way more important than anything that came off the wire that day about the president or a war in some obscure nation no one had ever visited. They were at least equally important to the local stories we wrote about school board meetings, arrests and other standard small-town drama.
These Ramblers were akin to someone’s Facebook status before Facebook existed. They could be a little banal and odd, a little like the way you sometimes puzzle over someone’s early Facebook posting that seems superfluous. “Got up. Ate breakfast. Blueberry muffins. Off to work.” Standards could run low sometimes, but this would not even have made it into a Ramble unless the Heimlich maneuver had to be applied to someone choking on a blueberry muffin. In that case, it would be an instant classic Rambler.
In the morning, Tim Preston and Jerry Lankford would take a cigarette break on the steps outside the office hoping to rejuvenate themselves to write more Ramblers. The Rambler hotline would ring. I, a non-smoker, took the call. When they returned, I told them I had my quota of Ramblers for the day and two to spare. One of the editors, RV, was walking around the desks and asking for Ramblers like a preacher on Sunday asking for collection. The top editor Cornelia Olive gave a stern look. She was the mother we all loved and feared and respected and died to please. ‘Now boys, you know you need to have your Ramblers in by 11 a.m.”
Tim and Jerry looked at each other. They were running low on Ramblers, high on nicotine and had no idea who to call for more. Random people in the phone book? It had been tried before with limited success. “I will give you ten dollars for one of your Ramblers, goddamit!” Tim would say to me if he was running low on Ramblers of a morning. “That’s ridiculous. Five is plenty,” I would respond and send it over with a smile.
If people were calling in with Ramblers right and left and we were nearing our Rambler quota for the morning, Jerry would be tapping hard at his keyboard. “Oh, we are Rambling something fierce now,” he would say. I would agree, picturing us Ramblers collectively as a rushing freight train moving hard towards Tennessee on an ancient track. Tim would be over at his keyboard pounding Ramblers into it without mercy. I believe the Herald had to issue special reinforced keyboards to him to withstand the force he applied. But I never asked.
My lovely wife Robyn, who now has a prestigious job at Digital First Media in New York City where we live, was an intern one summer at the Sanford Herald. She got to write obits and Ramblers the way we all did when we started. I remember her coming up to me and asking me to define a Rambler. “It’s like this,” I said. I gave her a lengthy explanation. She looked at me with a question mark on her face. “And that goes on the front page of the paper every morning?” she asked. “Ayuh,” I said. “Sure does. Now time is short. Best git to Ramblin’.”
I cannot imagine Ramblers on the front page of the New York Times. I suppose the society pages were once Ramblers of a different sort. Who attended what gala? Who was there? What were they wearing? All questions that once burned to be answered.
I find I need Ramblers in a bad way lately, little notes from the South I’ve left behind. They are in short supply and hot demand in New York City. Meaningful messages from the South that keep me going in the hard and cold North. A bear is eating all the trash in your neighborhood. Tell me more. You saw a deer in your backyard standing and just thinking about life. By the time you got back with a shotgun, he was gone. I’m all about it. Miss Harvest Moon just passed by on a float in the town’s Fall Parade dressed mostly in colorful leaves but in a very tasteful way. I’d like to know more. How many leaves do you think her ensemble was composed of and what were their colors? Ramble on!