- Cullman, Alabama

April 20, 2014

SOUTHERN STYLE: The life and times of a freelance writer

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— Just to clarify, I’m not there…I’m here. We have had a lot of laughs over the years because of people coming into The Cullman Times to speak to me about something. That’s easily understood because my byline is on my column, as well as the Dining page and various Life articles, in Cullman Magazine and many other publications. But, I’m not there, I’m here, at home, probably in a tattered old bathrobe, just writing away…

I do go out for on-location interviews from time to time, but for the most part, I talk to people on the phone, or via the Internet, Facebook or even snail mail occasionally, just because I lose from two hours or more every time I need to come in to do face-to-face interviews.

With a busy daily paper, such as The Cullman Times, it is hard to conceive the massive amounts of information that comes across each desk, each day. We get requests for stories, reports on events (both upcoming and recently past) school news, historical information, awards ceremonies, civic organizations’ news, church happenings, agricultural articles and interesting bits and pieces of all kinds of news, and we didn’t even touch on sports, which is in a whole separate category unto itself!

And it’s wonderful! Don’t for a minute think I’m complaining or that every paper doesn’t appreciate the helpful calls and insightful comments they get. This paper, and others like it, are the lifeblood of communities like Cullman, Hanceville, Holly Pond and other places in and around the county. This is where local news is gathered, reported, filed and dispensed, all with a smile along the way. You might get your world news on the Internet or TV now, but you sure won’t find out when they have baby chickens ready down at the co-op on CNN.

So, it is understandable why people think I’m sitting at a desk in the back office. Lots of times the staff in the front office are accused of hiding me. When they tell people that I don’t work there, well, people insist that I do, because here is my name, right here, on the Life page.

But I’m really not hiding from you ... I’m just not there.

I’ve come to love Cullman as a second home. I learned to navigate the city by its multiple church spires. As time went by I often met people for interviews inside those beautiful churches and have come to know them well, the people and the churches, all unique and wonderful in their own way.

I’ve come to know Jerri and Bob Keefe at Berkeley Bob’s Coffee House because I’ve sat and heard some wonderful stories there, and met some people who are near and dear to my heart in that eclectic front room, with the smell of Bob’s aromatic coffee beans wafting through the air.

I’ve sat down to a plate of Annette Harris’s wonderful roast beef sandwiches and talked to her about her booming business and her bicycle club. And of course, her new grandson, Harris, who is the light of her life.

I’ve spoken for hours to farmers and walked their fields with them, watching their expressions change when they spoke of hard winters, bountiful falls and of seeing everything they had blow away in a horrendous tornado. Then I’ve watched them start all over again, as if it were just another day — now that’s stamina if I’ve ever seen it.

Once I was traveling down a back road near Battleground to do an interview about an Alabama Treasure Forest, something I’d never heard of. As I was driving along, passing pastures newly green with spring growth, I convinced myself I was having a flashback to the ’60s. Surely I did not just see a buffalo? And seconds later, I surely did not really see a herd of them? And then an elk? Must be my glasses …but then, there on the opposite side of the road stood a white deer. I almost stopped the car and turned around, because I figured that I was either entering the Twilight Zone, or I had only minutes to get to a hospital before having an aneurism or something. But no …when I arrived at the Treasure Forest, the people there just laughed at me and said that sure enough, there were buffalo, deer, elk and many other wild game just down the road. I can tell you, I felt immensely relieved!

The Treasure Forest was another surprise, with the most wonderful perfume drifting across a little hollow. It was coming from the cottonwoods, which the lady said were actually called Colonials, with long purple, grape cluster-like drooping bracts of flowers that could fill a perfume factory.  

I’ve been privileged to meet children who were brave beyond belief, and people who fight every day just to live a normal life.

I’ve held the hands of widows who needed to tell the story of how bravely their husbands fought in whatever war was taking place when they were just kids, fresh out of high school and believing that they were invincible.

I’ve seen the grown children of the men who lived to tell about those wars in awe as they heard fathers speak about atrocities they’d never dreamed their parents had experienced.

I’ve loved bringing you the success stories of some of Cullman’s most beloved citizens. Those people who shaped Cullman and made it a place for future generations to be proud of.

But I don’t work there; I work wherever the stories take me. Once, on a tight deadline for another paper, I spoke to a man about to receive a lifetime achievement award for his service to our country. I knew that he was ill at the time, but he didn’t want to talk about that, so we just talked on the phone for hours and hours. Since I was home in Moulton, and he was about to leave for Oklahoma the next day, we only had that one night to get all of the information compiled in time for me to write it up and meet my deadline. So we talked into the wee hours…

It turned out that he had retired as a full-bird colonel in the Air Force. That was impressive enough, but as his story unfolded, I discovered that he had done two tours in Vietnam. On the first day when he arrived, he was put into a helicopter as the co-pilot, before he even unpacked. That ’copter was hit by some artillery of some sort, so they headed back to base. Again, he was riding shotgun when the pilot was wounded. Back to base they went, where he was assigned as the pilot of the next helicopter to lift off. He was nineteen and had been in the jungle for less than 12 hours…

But it didn’t stop there. Eventually he was made commander of everything in the air over Vietnam.

After coming home from the last deployment, he was sent to Texas to help with a little project that NASA had going on. My jaw dropped when he calmly related that he was the man who chose every astronaut, with the exception of the first five.

His name was Joe Thurman, and by 3 a.m., I felt as if I’d known him and his wife all of my life. The story was done in two parts because it was very involved. He left before he got to read it, but when he returned it was waiting for him on his desk.

He lived another week. I never spoke to him again but his widow called to invite me to the funeral. She said that reliving those highlights of his life had been good for him, that the award was just the icing on the cake, and that he would have wanted me to be there.

I’ll never get over not having met him face-to-face, but such is the life of a freelance writer. And I wouldn’t trade my job for any other in the world.

All of you have made me see life from so many different prospectives. Thank you for sharing your tragedies and your triumphs with me to that I can share it with our readers.

Just remember, though, I’m not there …I’m either at home on the phone, on the road, or typing up the next story for you.