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Five Years as a columnist for the Mountain Eagle

As I drummed my fingers, trying to think of a topic to write about this week, I realized that January Rick Toon2011 begins my fifth year as a columnist for the Daily Mountain Eagle. Time has wings.

It’s interesting how I landed the job. I’d been writing for a long time, but wanted to move up to the next level. 

I called for an appointment with the managing editor at the Eagle and told him I was interested in writing a column for the paper. 

I’m guessing it wasn’t the first time he’d been asked, because he shifted uncomfortably in his seat before he spoke. 

“Well, a lot of people want to write a regular column for the paper, but they usually only last a few weeks before they start missing deadlines,” he explained. “Next thing you know, they’ve moved on to something new and we have an empty slot to fill in the paper.” 

But when I explained that I’d been writing a daily blog (web-log on the Internet) for well over a year and that I had more than 50 columns already written, he straightened in his seat.

I took the manila folder from my lap which contained 10 or so of my best columns, and handed it to him. He flipped through my work nodding his head agreeably. After a few more pleasantries, he promised to read the stories, and told me he’d be in touch. 

At that moment, it would have been easy to think — oh well, I tried, but I smell a rejection.

As a songwriter, I knew all about rejections. In fact, Jilda and I could have wall-papered a room with all the rejection letters we’d received through the years from publishing houses in Nashville and New York.

But as I drove out of the parking lot on that frosty January afternoon, I had a gut feeling I would not get rejected this time.

As it turns out, I got a call the next day from the Eagle confirming I had the gig, and I haven’t missed a deadline since, though I’ve been close a time or two. (You may remember the column I wrote a while back about “Nothing.”)

When I meet new people they always ask what my column is about. “It’s about me and my strange and wonderful journey through life,” I say. They often scrunch up their foreheads and say — huh?

I used to worry that people reading my columns wouldn’t like my words. I guess I thought my situation was unique and that no one would identify with my stories.

I grew up in the small coal mining community of West Pratt in Sloss Hollow, and we didn’t have a lot. But as it turns out, the most common comment I get is, “I feel like you are writing about my life!”

I was part of a much larger community without realizing it.

By far the most popular topics I’ve written about have been about growing up as a kid in Sloss. My email inbox filled up after the story about “The Peddler,” and the one about my uncle Marvin Lee Ferguson, who died too young at Pearl Harbor.

I also found out that people seem to enjoy the columns where I encounter misfortune — like when I whacked myself on the nose with the handle of my wheelbarrow. 

That’s OK because when my nose stopped throbbing, I thought it was pretty funny, too.

I also had a woman tell me that she cried when she read the story about our mama hen Flossy who sacrificed her life when a hawk attacked her baby chicks. 

Writing has become a permanent part of my life and it’s a part that I enjoy. My book Remembering Big continues to sell and I have a new book that I plan to release later in 2011. I now write for newspapers in Birmingham, Mountain Brook and Mobile. People from around the world read my blog each day.

I’m turning my daydream into reality thanks to the Mountain Eagle and my friends here in Walker County.


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