Let me ask ya’ll this: Say you are a plumber. Would you remember a screw up going back three decades? I’m not talking about the time you parked your butt on a bathroom sink and caused the whole thing to come crashing down and water to pour out like the Banzai Pipeline.
You know, a screw up much more subtle – one that perhaps only you know of but nonetheless nags on you for more than half a lifetime.
I’ve got one, and after all these years I’m not even sure it was a screw up. But if I had to wager, I would bet the Walton family’s considerable fortune that it indeed was.
Video the other day of those New York City bar owners pouring bottles of Russian vodka into the streets of Manhattan in a protest against Russia’s crackdown on the gay community brought back what I’ve come to call my Stolichnaya Syndrome.
Rewind to Sept. 1, 1983 – a slow news day in the Florida tourist town of New Smyrna Beach. As a news editor, you look at a slow news day the same way Willie Nelson looks at an empty pack of rolling papers.
However, the international news front was having a tumultuous day: The Soviets had shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 after it veered into prohibited Soviet airspace en route from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seoul. All 269 people aboard perished.
My newsroom phone rings. Calling is Trader Mo, owner of the beachside watering hole Trader Mo’s. “Damn, Russians,” Trader Mo says, “I’m busting up every case of Stoli I’ve got.”
Considering my shortage of options, I decided a little jingoism and lots of liquor could liven up this snooze of a news day.
With my camera and notepad I crossed the North Causeway. Just as promised, Trader Mo had Stolichnaya cases lined up on the sidewalk outside his bar. Wearing sun glasses and clad in flip-flops, baggy shorts and a tank top emblazoned with an American flag, Trader went to work smashing the bottles.
I dutifully took the pictures and listened to him curse the Red Fellows that had got him so agitated. Perhaps had I seen behind Trader’s shades, I would have noticed his lying eyes.
Next day, there was Trader spread across the front of my News & Observer, looking like a poor man’s Bob Roop (for non-wrestling fans, that’s the infamous 1970s era “All-American Back Jumper” who always wore Greco-Roman wrestling garb emblazoned with stars and stripes).
Just as Mr. Roop was famous for preying on the unsuspecting, a guy doesn’t pick up the name “Trader” without being known for some trick-a-ration.
But at no point did I ask him for a swig of what he was slinging up against the wall. If I had, the whole charade may have been over. I’m betting I would have tasted H2-O and been on my way back to the mainland.
The newspaper wouldn’t have looked half as interesting the next day. But just two weeks shy of 30 years later, I winced watching those New York bar owners pouring out their Stoli.
I’ll live on with the syndrome of my own making.
But in the interest of saving my New York City media brethren from the same fate, I suggest heeding the Gipper: Trust but verify.