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Holiday mail received by The Chronicle this year included an envelope addressed to “Dave Askins, Newspaper Man.”
I knew who had sent it without looking at the Virginia return address. It was from a guy nicknamed “Huck.”
Inside was a bonus – Huck’s holiday letter. It was a two-pager. The second page featured a paragraph that drew my gaze in that way your own name will when rendered in print: “So I Googled all Ann Arbor newspapers and emailed the first one for help – three hours later Mr. Dave Askins of The Ann Arbor Chronicle …”
Long story short: Richard Huckeby – “Huck The Elder” – and his lovely bride Rita were traveling across the country in early December, and were hoping to visit their friend Tom Stockton in Ann Arbor. But they were having trouble connecting via email or phone, which they’d used reliably in the past to communicate with him.
Otherwise put, Huck was looking for Tom. And Huck had asked a newspaper man for help.
The play on names, Huck and Tom, occurred to me only much later. For younger readers who are growing up MySpacing, LiveJournaling, Facebooking, Plurking, and Twittering, but not reading any of the works in the canon of American literature: A man using the name Mark Twain wrote a novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which featured as main characters Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Twain’s Huck and Tom were two boys. The Huck and Tom of this vignette are both past 80 years old.
Included in the themes of “Huckleberry Finn” are boats on the Mississippi River. For example, it was not accidental that the wrecked steamboat found by the heroes is named the “Sir Walter Scott.” But it’s not my purpose to chart a course into literary waters. It’s simply to point out there’s also a steamboat connection to the Ann Arbor meetup of Tom and Huck.
That steamboat connection is this: Once upon a time, Tom Stockton built a steamboat. From scratch. When I spoke with Stockton on the phone last week, he allowed that he’d started with an early 1900s vintage steel lifeboat. But the engine and boiler he did build himself. [Local photographer Phyllis Valentine has posted some nice photos of the Arbor Queen on her Flickr account, including some close-ups of the steam engine and boiler.] Huck described in a later email to me how he and Rita had taken a ride in the boat:
A few years back when we came in the summer, he hauled his steam launch down to Lake Geddes, and my spouse steered whilst he tended the boiler and I videotaped.
Huck also revealed that he himself had a steam engineering background, having built a couple of narrow gauge steam tourist railroads in Colorado.
But when Huck first emailed me, I did not know anything about Tom Stockton, his steamboat or any of his other engines. All I knew about Tom was that Huck was trying to find him. From Huck’s email [emphasis added]:
… about a week or so ago he stopped responding to emails, and does not answer phone calls.
We have called all the hospitals in the area, have tried unsuccessfully to find a relative in the Ann Arbor area by phone, have checked the obituaries. …
Do you have a suggestion as to how we might be able to learn of his situation? We are in Rockford, Ill, and are heading east this AM. If Tom is alive, we want to come see him; if he has passed on without our permission, we will pedal on east, but very sadly.
Please forgive us for bothering you, but we thought a newspaper man would know what other avenues of inquiry we might pursue (we have internet access and cell phone as we travel).
This is not the kind of inquiry I am excited to receive. It sounded like all the likely avenues had already been pursued. And I did not like my chances of achieving success. And success could mean having sad news to report. But I tried the phone number in the book. No answer for me, either. I contemplated heading out to knock on his door, based on the address I’d found in the phone book. Calling law enforcement seemed overly dramatic and intrusive. I was nigh on giving up.
But there was something about the query that struck a chord with me. Some of what resonated was this part: “… if he has passed on without our permission, we will pedal on east, but very sadly.” That’s just damn good writing. But what cinched it for me was the “newspaper man” reference. I wanted to live up to that label.
So I did what a modern newspaper man does. I used my @a2chronicle Twitter account to Twitter out a query: “I would feel remiss for not at least giving it a shot: Anybody know Thomas R. Stockton?” And a few minutes later, @juliewbee Twittered back that yes, she’d grown up down the road from him.
Some readers may recognize that Twitter handle as Julie Weatherbee, one of the stewards for the now-defunct but still beloved Arbor Update website. Weatherbee’s sister, it turns out, still keeps in touch with Stockton’s daughter. And in no time flat, Stockton was located – he had temporary quarters at Glacier Hills rehab. He was back home when I phoned him last week.
So I passed along to Huck and Rita the Glacier Hills contact information, and they were able to chart their course back east through Ann Arbor for a three-hour visit with Tom. Mission accomplished for a newspaper man.
I’ll grant you that Huck and Tom’s visit are not a perfect match for the government and civic affairs material that has become the core of The Chronicle’s coverage. But I will make a place in my newspaper man’s day for guys like Huck and Tom when I can. It’s a part of being sociable. And that’s just part of the editor’s job, as A.J. Munson saw it back in 1899:
He should be of a sociable disposition. In smaller towns any business is helped by the sociability of the proprietor. Particularly is this true of that of the country editor. The sociable and society doings of a town come closer to the people than anything else, and the local newspaper should reflect them in its columns. ["Making a Country Newspaper," p. 13]
So here’s to 2011 – may it include its fair share of Hucks and Toms.