Carp Surprise: The Ladies of Society Receive a Fishy Story

In Restless Native by Chris Wohlwendleave a COMMENT

The “Society” section of the Knoxville Journal was produced by three women, all of whom were “of” the milieu. Their work domain was a separate office, befitting their status and, probably, to shield them from the raucous activity of the newsroom.

The three finished their workday at 5 p.m., just when the rest of the newsroom was beginning its deadline runs. The lights of their office would be turned off, the door shut, the office a quiet refuge in a noisy, profane world.

So it was the place of choice for those who needed peace and quiet—to make a personal phone call, to sleep off a nasty hangover, to pass out from a long, whiskey-fueled day.

It was also clean and neat, something that most of the newsroom was not. The Society ladies kept their desks clear of everything except a telephone and in-and-out baskets. A person in need of rest had only to carefully move a couple of items to have space for an aching head.

During my tenure at the Journal, more than once a rim-rat (as copy-desk denizens were known) who had gone missing would be found asleep in Society.

The department was womaned by two long-time employees and a third, younger helper. The third person would be someone just out of Smith or Vassar or Sweet Briar, needing work experience until a suitable husband-to-be was snared.

Sometimes the third person, still impressionable, would be drawn to the newsroom antics and would linger at the desk of one of the reporters, entranced by a lurid tale of crime from a police reporter, or an unprintable story of moral degeneracy from the political realm. The latter might even involve someone widely known in her circle.

Most of the rim-rats, gracious though they might be to the Society ladies in person, made fun of them when it was time to proof-read their pages.

One night, as a weekly feature involving a recipe sent in by a reader was being proofed, a theory was born: The Society ladies did not pay attention to the recipes. A plot was concocted. What if a bogus recipe, a recipe for an outrageous dish, was mailed in—would Society recognize it as a prank?

To test our theory, Carp Surprise was created. Carp is a bottom-feeding fish that is seldom eaten, but, for our experiment, we imagined it stuffed with a spinach mixture spiced with nutmeg and sweetened with just a touch of sorghum. There were other ingredients in the stuffing as well, ingredients selected to make an unpalatable fish even more sickening. Suitably stuffed, the fish would then be baked to a golden hue.

A reader was invented, given a bogus Sequoyah Hills address, and the recipe was typed up and mailed to the Journal, attention of the Reader’s Recipes editor.

The Society ladies, ignorant of bottom-feeders in general, had, within a couple of weeks, edited our Carp Surprise entry, headlined it, and sent it to the composing room to be set into type. (The printers charged with handling the copy had been tipped off to our plot.) Our theory was proved. Now, if our concoction could just make the newspaper.

But it was not to be. Unfortunately, the managing editor, by sheer chance, happened to see the page proof. A former outdoors editor and a longtime fisherman, he immediately detected the odor of a rat—a rim-rat.

There was a quick phone call to the Society editor. Our creation was tossed.

The Society office was the breeding ground for other late-night pranks, too. Initiation tradition for new reporters involved a phony obituary or phony story. An outrageous obituary might be called in to the neophyte from one of the phones in Society. Such efforts were not intended for publication—the victim would be laughed at and his notes thrown away.

One of the more memorable involved a Hawkins County farmer whose named survivors included Furry, his pet squirrel. In another, a sports clerk was given information on a McMinn County football game that involved a touchdown that was worth only one point “because it was from the one-yard line.”

And the office refuge had other uses, too, especially after midnight when girlfriends would visit. A dark room, a door that closed—to employ that hoary Society-section cliche, a good time was had by all. But that’s another column.

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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