Newspapers boast their own bands of Merry Pranksters

With apologies to Mark Twain, reports of the demise of the Rogue Valley Friendship Club are greatly exaggerated.

The club, a group of women who have been around for 23 years, raising some $85,000 for charitable causes, is doing just fine, thank you — despite having asked me to speak at their June meeting on Thursday, the first full day of summer. A fun and lively bunch, they were interested in hearing about any funny anecdotes or humorous events behind the scenes concerning the newspaper world that I could share.

Funny they should ask.

Having worked on more than a dozen papers from Anchorage to the Bay Area, I started chuckling over memories of hi-jinks in the Fourth Estate that I hadn't thought of in years.

It is true that journalists are generally your basic, average nerds with insatiable curiosity. And we often focus on issues that, while important, make most people's eyes glaze over.

But, when we are not on the job, the journalistic jokesters invariably go to work.

In fact, right here at the Trib, there was that time ... uh, probably shouldn't mention that, what with jobs being scarce and all.

Or that incident in Anchorage when ... no, that lawsuit was never quite resolved.

And down in the east Bay Area, there was the incident ... hmmmmm, I suppose that could have bent one or two laws.

In this situation, I was a little unsure of the statute of limitations with slander in the form of speech or libel on the printed page. So I began slicing and dicing to remove content that would invite a lawsuit or threats of bodily harm.

The only unsavory items I mentioned pertained to food consumed in Alaska and Vietnam. That would be muk tuk — fermented whale blubber — in the Far North and a stew in Danang containing what were likely an animal's reproductive parts.

No, I did not eschew the stew or upchuck the muk tuk. But the stomach did churn a mite.

There may have been mention of a couple of anecdotes Thursday that could raise a few eyebrows. My defense will be that I was misquoted.

But I believe I'm on safe ground to relate in print two incidents I reported to the club. Both involved friends who never met a practical joke they didn't want to try.

Norbert vonder Graben was a photographer at the Valley Times in Pleasanton, Calif., where I began working in 1990. He was an excellent shooter who took his work very seriously.

And he was a hoot to be around — a prankster of the first magnitude. When he wasn't on assignment, he was always on the prowl for a victim. You had to keep on your toes around him.

Norbert was one of four photogs — in newspaper speak — on the staff. Another was a fellow we'll call Fred, who was somewhat of a snoop. Fred routinely checked out other folks' mail in the darkroom. You could call him a nosey newsy.

When Norbert was traveling on the East Coast, he sent a postcard to himself back at the paper. He knew that Fred could not help himself.

The message on the post card went something like this, "Dear Dad, Thanks for letting me come home this summer. Three years at boarding school has really helped me mature. I promise to be good this time. Your loving son, Toby."

You should know that Norbert had never been married, never had a son. Toby did not exist.

But Fred figured he had stumbled upon a dark secret in Norbert's life. Naturally, being a kindly busybody, he wanted to help Norbert out.

When Norbert returned, he was greeted by a banner reading, "Welcome home, Toby." Fred had arranged a homecoming party for the nonexistent Toby.

Norbert chortled for years. Fred was not amused and eventually moved on to another paper.

Later, whenever I traveled to places such as Ireland and Vietnam, I sent postcards to Norbert from his nonexistent boy, Toby. Hey, it's a terrible thing to let a good joke die young.

Then there was Bob Dale at the Anchorage Times. Bob, who hailed from Texas, was a newspaper artist who decided he wanted to work in Alaska before he retired. He was about 70 when he arrived.

He may have seemed like a refined Southern gentleman with his white hair and soft drawl. But, like Norbert, he was a trickster at heart. One time he borrowed a fellow employee's car to run an errand. While out, he couldn't help himself: He made a copy of the car keys.

For the next couple of months, Bob would go out to the parking lot every few days after the Good Samaritan arrived for work and move his car a few spaces. Sometimes, for a bit of variety, he would simply turn the car around.

All of this was obviously a little unsettling to the poor guy who owned the car. He began to suspect he was losing his mind. He became a little jittery, a little jumpy.

But he also began to suspect an outside source and eventually nabbed Bob in the act. His relief upon discovering he wasn't going nuts probably saved the culprit from a sound thrashing.

As for the other anecdotes, I told my friends at the club I would report back to them in 20 years.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at

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