My Favorite Mistake
When the experts talk about writing tight, this is not what they mean.
By omitting a single letter, I once accused a bride of wearing a necklace of pears to her wedding. I learned to spell “millennium” only because I first misspelled it in very large type. When I edited a story about foot-and-mouth disease, I somehow wrote a headline about “foot-in-mouth disease.” As errors go, that one at least seemed appropriate.
Everybody messes up, but when you’re a journalist and you mess up, thousands of people see it. Happily, most of the mistakes I made in my long newspaper career had a short shelf life. I lucked out with my unintentionally fruity description of bridal jewelry — an editor caught the mistake before publication and inserted the missing “L.” My “millenium” and “foot-in-mouth” headlines were embarrassing, but they faded from memory with the next day’s edition of the paper.
One of my screw-ups, however, remains fresh more than 30 years later. That’s because I want it to; I tell the story a lot. But I’ve never written it down until now.
Small-town society ‘news’
My first job out of college was as a reporter at a small newspaper in Lake Oswego, Oregon, just south of Portland. I’d wanted to be a reporter since I was 14, so going to work at the Review was a thrill. It didn’t matter that as the new kid, I got stuck with tasks that nobody else wanted. One of them was the wedding stories.
These were a vestigial leftover of the days when the paper covered a lot of society doings, which were a big deal in a wealthy area like Lake Oswego. When I arrived at the Review, the people in charge were trying to cut back on this “news” coverage, but they still had a ways to go.
Thus the wedding articles. After a couple got married, someone — usually the mother of the bride — came to the newspaper office and filled out a longhand form with all the details, and I turned that into a story.
The wedding form covered all the bases, and as I remember, there were approximately 178 bases. Besides the basic who and where, there were places to describe the bride’s attire (including pearls and other accessories, obviously), her flowers, how many people attended, the honeymoon destination, and on and on. I dutifully typed up all of this and made it look like news, even though I didn’t know tulle from organza, and what in god’s name was a bodice anyway?
The form also included a place to describe the dress worn by the mother of the bride, and that was where I went so, so wrong.
The mother of all mistakes
During my watch, the daughter of a local bank president got married. A few days after the happy event, Mrs. Bank President came in and filled out the form.
Everything was fine until she described what she had worn on her daughter’s big day. It was a light lavender dress, which I could read clearly enough, except for one thing. When she crossed the “T” in “light,” she really crossed it. She crossed it with the flair of Zorro slashing his initial into some evildoer’s shirt. She crossed it with such gusto that she also crossed every other letter in the word.
Including the “L,” which meant that instead of “light,” I saw another word entirely.
When I wrote that Mrs. Bank President had worn a tight lavender dress to her daughter’s wedding, I didn’t give it a second thought. You might think I didn’t give it a first thought either, but you’d be wrong. What went through my head was this: “I guess it was snug in the sleeves.” It's hard to believe, but snugness in other places didn’t occur to me.
It occurred to plenty of other people after we ran the story, though. Mrs. Bank President was gracious enough not to kick up a fuss, but one of her friends called the paper and gave my boss about seven kinds of hell.
I was shielded from any serious fallout, and my career suffered no consequences. Like everyone else, I’d simply screwed up, and like journalists everywhere, I’d done it in public.
A lasting legacy
I left Oregon a dozen years ago, I left journalism a few years after that, and although we in the Review’s newsroom were a pretty tight bunch, I lost touch long ago with everyone from those days. A few weeks ago, though, an envelope arrived at my work, and the return address made me grin.
It was from one of my Lake Oswego friends, a guy named Kevin who had found me on social media. Our former boss was retiring, and Kevin wanted to let me know. He enclosed a picture of all of us from back in the day (my fashion-forward ensemble included blazer, tie and Converse All Stars), along with a typed note that said my name had come up during the retirement party.
There was also a card. It bore a handwritten note, which I had no trouble reading: “Forgot to mention that everyone had a good laugh about the ‘tight lavender dress’ story.”
The years we spent together, the nonsense we endured, the beer we drank, and this is what they remember?
#writing #journalism #weddings #news @ellowrites