My youngest granddaughter, age 7, and one of her pals came to visit the other day, and while the older folks chatted, the two of them rummaged through shelves of knickknacks in a back room.
My granddaughter soon emerged, making the delighted announcement that she had just found a horse cut in half.
What the two of them came across was one of my prized trophies from my days as a full-time newspaper columnist, back in the good old days, before online venting and savaging, when readers who had something to say wrote letters that they signed, or, in this case, sent packages in plain, brown wrapping.
What arrived was the small statuette of the south end of a horse. This was my first “Horse’s Ass Award.”
I received it after writing a column, in August 1993, complaining about the old Bess Eaton Donuts Co. coffee cups being printed with Scripture on them. Louis A. Gencarelli Sr. ran the Westerly-based company then. I said Gencarelli had every right to embrace his beliefs, but his coffee was for public consumption, and why make something as intimate and personal as one’s faith a public spectacle?
Columnists earn their keep, and this is a biased accounting, by enlightening, entertaining and, because they write opinion, provoking.
By the time the Bess Eaton column ran, I had provoked plenty of dissent, but still had a job. The package was awaiting me on my desk when I arrived at work that day. Joe Wojtas, the veteran Stonington reporter, sat at the adjacent desk in the newsroom, and he insisted that he be allowed to remove himself to the far corner of the newsroom before I opened the package.
It is worth noting that among other “gifts” sent to me after that column was a check for $1 so I might buy my coffee somewhere else. Those were the days.
Gencarelli’s practice of his faith was not the only time I was taken to task for questioning religious practice.
In February 1985, a rabbi, who happened to be a Hasidic Jew and an Orthodox Jew, came into the newsroom and a female reporter greeted him by extending her hand. The rabbi declined to shake it. He later explained that any contact between a man and a woman who was not his wife was considered immodest behavior.
So, not averse to displaying my ignorance, I wrote a piece about what I deemed the secondary role of women in Orthodox Judaism and other faiths, including Catholicism.
And the letters rained down.
“Only an ignoramus would rush to hug the Queen of England at a reception and feel affronted when she demurred,” wrote an Orthodox Jewish woman in New London. “Or offer a Muslim pork and call him intolerant for refusing it.”
From another Orthodox Jewish woman in New London: “For a man with a Jewish surname, he (me) apparently received his religious education by sitting through Barbra Streisand’s ‘Yentl.’”
However, no column of mine unleashed a monsoon of condemnatory letters comparable to the one published in September 1985, after Hurricane Gloria ransacked the region. It was titled “High on the Hurricane Hit List.”
After making sure there were no deaths attributed to the hurricane, I drew up a list of places and things I wished Gloria had dispatched, among them condos along the Mystic River and everything with a “No Parking” sign in front of it at Groton Long Point. But No. 1 on the list was the Town of Waterford.
Waterford, fat with tax wealth from the Millstone nuclear plants then, was, to me, a poor neighbor to a New London struggling with social service loads and grand list woes, and devoid of a community recreation center since its YMCA closed a decade before. I thought Waterford, with its money and space, should be doing more, at least building something akin to a Y rather than malls.
“This is the undoubtedly the sickest article I have read in any newspaper anywhere,” wrote a Pawcatuck reader.
A reader from Quaker Hill wrote: “Such a shame that Gloria came and went and left standing the only ‘thing’ I had on my hurricane hit list — Steven Slosberg.”
Another furious Waterford resident wrote: “… Mr. Slosberg actually advocates … that my home and all other homes in Waterford as well as our local businesses, schools, public buildings, etc., should have been destroyed by Hurricane Gloria. … I am absolutely appalled.”
The late John Gardner, venerable curator, scholar and small boat craftsman who kept century-old boat-building skills alive at Mystic Seaport, got it: “We are being buried alive with junk we neither want nor need,” he wrote. “Too many high-priced condos, too many over-grown shopping malls, too many hotels, motels, encroaching developments and what-have-yous being built with borrowed money flooding into American banks from abroad, chasing the over-valued American dollar.”
Later in the hit-list column, I revised the blanket Waterford wipeout by saying the Waterford Library, Harkness State Park and Seaside should be spared. The director of the library wrote in to say thanks, but the library would stick with the rest of the town.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.