Online Edition                                              Natchez, Mississippi                                   

The Rinaldi Report

       by Peter Rinaldi


The Christmas mailbox

            Mabel and Howard Smith of Franklin County gave birth to a healthy baby boy on Christmas Eve, 1951. They named their only child, Howard Jr., but everyone in the family called him “Beau.” He was simply one of the prettiest, cutest babies anybody ever saw. The Smiths live just off Hwy. 33, down one of those dirt roads in a little white frame house. Howard worked cutting timber and Mabel stayed home taking care of little Beau.

            As Beau grew, he became an avid reader. He would look at the picture books and pronounce words, asking for his mother’s approval each time he got a word right. His mother would smile and say, “You’re my smart boy!” And Beau would beam with pride. His dad would spending evenings reading the newspaper to his son, telling him truths about the world, why it’s important to be hard-working and good to your neighbors.

            When Beau was just shy of his sixth birthday, he said, “Momma, I want to send a letter to Santa and put it at the mailbox.” So Beau and his Mom sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a short letter. The boy asked for a baseball glove for himself, a work shirt for his dad, and a sweater for his mom. Mabel put the letter in a white envelope and wrote on the front, “To Santa – North Pole.”

            Beau and his Mom walked out to the roadside and the pipe iron mailbox to send off the letter. The boy cried, “Momma, Santa won’t see it in the mailbox. Put it on the outside between the box and the red flag.” So Mabel did as her son requested, and they walked back to the house, talking about what they could do to surprise Dad on Christmas.

            Mabel shared the story of the ‘letter to Santa’ with the aunts, uncles, and cousins at the Christmas dinner table.

            When Beau was almost 19, he and his mom sat at the kitchen table and remembered the time when they wrote the letter and placed it on the side of the mailbox instead of in it. They both laughed. But it was a somber Christmas that year for the Smiths, as Beau had just enlisted and was scheduled to enter the army the first week in January. “It’s my duty. Whether I end up in Vietnam or not, I’ve got to do what’s right,” Beau said quietly. He could have gone to college, gotten a deferment, but chose to serve his country instead. And both his parents were worried.

            It was early in September 1971; a rocket attack hit just north of Saigon. Beau was sitting on the edge of his jeep, talking with a buddy. In a second, it was over. Beau was killed. There wasn’t much to send home to bury, according to his platoon sergeant.

            After Beau’s death, the family never seemed right again. Howard Sr. began drinking and was injured on the job. Mabel suffered from a deep depression over the loss of her son and her husband’s problems. Eventually, the couple moved away from Franklin County and the little frame house fell into disrepair. No one ever lived there again. The dad died of a heart attack in Dallas in 1980. Mabel died in nursing home in 1992.

            If you ride down Hwy. 33 and look off that dirt road where the Smiths lived, you’ll still see the mailbox standing. The house is pretty much gone. But that old rusty mailbox is still there. And ever year on Christmas Eve, you can see a fresh, white envelope stuck between the red flag and the mailbox itself. Neighbors aren’t sure who tucks the envelope there, but figure it could be a relative or someone close to the family who knows the story.

            If you happen to see that person this Christmas Eve, please stop and thank him for remembering the Smith Family and Beau, even though so many years have gone by. The family has passed on, but there are still more than a few folks around who remember them, the good times they had, and the love they shared.

            This short story originally appeared in Miss-Lou Magazine in 1996.


Are the media doing their job?

            This is a good question to ask. News coverage is important to the community. And if you look at the track record of some of the local media, that record is not too impressive.

            While Miss-Lou Magazine and The Natchez Sun strive to cover the new and interpret the news, sometimes we fall short. Our emphasis has been on editorial interpretation, since our papers are printed once monthly. Our reputation for hard-hitting editorials and incisive commentary is deserved. However, we don’t do an adequate job on researching and covering local news. The pressure of just generating and producing ads takes up so much staff time (and my time), that news sometimes gets short shift. Bottom line: our papers are ad vehicles with some wing-ding editorials once in a while. We put out thousands more papers than the other publications, but we’re still not covering news to the degree it deserves.

            We’re doing a better job than radio and TV in the area. Despite having seven local radio stations, radio news is abysmal or non-existent. There is not one radio station among seven that has an editorial voice of any kind. Radio is simply music and spots and that’s about it. Television, including cable and regular broadcast, provides public service announcements. PSAs are important, but they’re not news and don’t discuss issues. Since most of the TV stations are outside of the region, the Natchez area is not really a priority. So Jackson and Monroe TV air stories about our murders, balloon races and Pilgrimage.

            The Concordia Sentinel probably has the best news coverage in the area. It writes about almost everything in Concordia. But few people outside of Concordia read it. (And quite a few in Concordia don’t buy a copy or subscribe.) That’s unfortunate, because the Hanna legacy is one of a paper that spends a lot of money making sure local news is adequately covered. The editorial page of the Sentinel is weak. There are a lot of pressing issues in the parish that don’t get discussed editorially, including the overspending of Vidalia city government and its outrageous number of city employees. That spending has led the mayor and aldermen to whack local residents with electric bills that are twice what the people in Natchez pay. The Concordia schools spend more per pupil than many systems. And the product they produce is poor at best. Concordia public education is well-funded. But taxpayers and the kids are being cheated. These are issues worth writing about.

            The Natchez Democrat remains the flagship of media in the area because it publishes seven issues a week. Despite its status, consumers have voted their disapproval with fewer subscriptions. At one time, the paper had more than 15,000 subscribers. The last time I looked, it had around 8,000. Obviously, readers are not enthralled with the product. A daily newspaper should be the friend of the taxpayer and a watchdog on the politicians. I recently received an email. The reader said, “The Democrat never saw a tax increase it didn’t like.” Is that an overstatement or truth? In balance, The Democrat has done a very good job on its website, reporting news and community comments to read for free. That’s a bargain and a value. Kevin Cooper, the publisher, is committed to covering local news. And coverage of local news has increased significantly during his tenure. But reaching fewer and fewer people as the years go means you have less of an impact.

            This commentary finds fault with all the media, including us. But the consequence of poor reporting and weak editorial commentary is clear. The politicians will lie, steal and cheat more, misusing the media for re-election purposes. There will be more wrongdoing in local government because there is little fear of exposure. The public interest is not well served as the readers really don’t know what’s going on in their own towns. When you talk about community progress, that progress should include reporting that’s accurate, truthful and incisive. And the editorials should back the concerns of the folks, the taxpayers, and the everyday people.

            I’m not throwing bricks are our competitors, simply stating to you what seem to be some rather obvious local reporting conditions. The media get a “needs to improve” on their report cards.

             For the newspapers, our job is not about making money. It’s about making money so you can do the job. And the job is reporting and editorializing.  The phrase goes, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The saying could be, “The pen is the sword and the shield.” Miss-Lou Magazine and The Natchez Sun should be knight protector of the common man, sword and shield in hand. That’s a bit ideal and overblown, but that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do.





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