THIS IS THE STORY OF A FAILURE
By Mabel Abbott
Tacoma Times June 30, 1916.
War correspondents, when the exigencies of war withhold their messages from the impatient world and the much more impatient editor, write picturesque stories of how they failed —and get away with it.
No war correspondent was ever more absolutely muffled, silenced, bottled up, than I was when I tried to get the news from the great event on Yelm prairie to The Times yesterday afternoon.
The great event was the opening of the initial unit of the Yelm Irrigation Project, which brings the waters of the Nisqually river to 6,000 acres of prairie land which much need the same.
The farmers own the project themselves, from the intake four miles from La Grande to the little laterals which carry the water out on the fields.
There are 14 miles of ditch, 9,000 feet of flume, and a siphon to carry the water under the railroad. It has cost them five years and a half of hard work, and $100,000, and they believe it will make Yelm and its neighborhood rich agricultural district.
Naturally, they are pleased about it.
So they invited everybody to come and see it; and pretty nearly everybody did come. A thousand people gathered at Rice’s Grove, near Yelm, for the exercises.
Tacoma sent seven machines filled with members of the Commercial club and the Real Estate Men’s association, under the direction of A. E. Grafton, in the morning, and five more from the Rotary club in the afternoon.
There were delegations from Olympia and Centralia; the villages of Yelm, Roy and McKenna and the whole surrounding neighborhood were depopulated.
Depopulated is not a strong enough word; they were abandoned. That was the trouble, so far as the war correspondent was concerned.
This story should have been in yesterday’s Times. That it wasn’t, is a proof of how much the irrigation project means to Yelm.
Yelm was so busy celebrating the biggest event in its history, that it forgot to keep its telephone lines open.
I was in P. F. Sloan’s little Reo, which was the pacemaker for the morning procession of machines from Tacoma over the blue and yellow prairies. We reached Yelm about 10 o’clock and were to start at once for a tour of the ditches.
A reporter’s only excuse for existence Is to get the story into the paper.
If it is impossible, you have to do it anyway.
If you are killed, you must get the story in before yon die.
So, —”Where can I get a telephone about noon?” I asked a prominent citizen of Yelm, who was dispatching the stream of automobiles down the road.
“Oh, there are plenty of ’em around. There’s one in the big white house right near the grove,” he replied reassuringly. “You’ll be at the grove by noon, and you can telephone from right there.”
We fell into place in line. It was a pleasant tour. The earth at the sides of the ditches had hardly settled yet; the boards of the flumes were yellow with newness; the crowd got out every little while and swarmed around the points of interest; the governor of the state and other dignified gentlemen looked at the water with interest and at the farmers and
townspeople of Yelm with respect; and the farmers looked at each other with the happy wonder of those who see dreams come true.
Most significant of all were the salesmen who slipped quietly around through the crowd — salesmen for hay rakes, for silos, for plows, for all the things which everybody believes Yelm farmers are going to want in increasing numbers from now on.
It was a genuinely great occasion. I glowed with satisfaction as the time drew near for me to put the story of it on the telephone.
In fact, I was so anxious to do so that It was not yet noon when, as we passed a farmhouse to which a telephone wire was connected, I decided not to wait to reach the big white house near the grove.
Mr. Sloan pulled up the Reo and I went in, welcomed heartily by the entire family, which stood in the yard waving at the passing autos.
“You have to get Central first,” directed the farmer’s wife. Two shorts and a long.”
I gave two shorts and a long, and waited. Then I gave two more shorts and a long. Then I did it again.
“I bet you the operator’s gone to the picnic!” observed the farmer’s wife. “I never thought of this.”
And in that instant, I knew I was a war correspondent and would have to fight to get my message out.
Mr. Sloan grasped the situation.
“Where do you want to try next?” he demanded, turning the Reo on its heels. “The big white farmhouse near the grove,” I said. And we went.
It didn’t take long, but It was longer than I liked. It was almost noon.
There was an ominously deserted look about the big white house as we drew near. The family had gone to the picnic.
“There’s another house over there, with a telephone wire,” cried Mr. Sloan, who had been reconnoitering. That family, too, had gone to the picnic.
I ran back to the Reo, looking at my watch as 1 ran. It was just noon.
“Where now?” asked Mr. Sloan.
I found It hard to answer, for we both knew that at just about that moment the crowd at the grove was beginning on the cold chicken. But a war correspondent has to ask others to share hardships occasionally. “Could you take me to Yelm?” I said.
“‘Sure,” said Mr. Sloan.
There are, I hope, no speed limits in the Yelm neighborhood. Anyway, we didn’t ask.
Yelm has several buildings standing in two rows. The Reo skidded up to the first of these and I rushed into the open door. It was a hotel.
“The telephone,” I gasped. The waitress looked mildly surprised.
“WE AIN’T GOT NONE,” SHE SAID. “THERE’S ONE NEXT DOOR, BUT IT’S LOCKED UP. YOU CANT GIT NO TELEPHONE TODAY. EVERYBODY’S GONE TO THE PICNIC.”
In the next two minutes I had verified her words. I tried every door on that main street, and one or two that were not on it.
My story had by this time reached an importance in my own eyes, equal to the story of the capture of Villa. I simply had to get it in. It was outrageous, incredible, impossible, that I could not get a telephone. Yet it was true.
Suddenly, I spied the red-painted depot on the other side of the railroad track. Telegraph! I ran for it. And just before I reached the track, a freight engine, dragging a string of cars as long as the irrigating ditch, intervened.
I waited. I don’t know how I did it, but I did. And when it had passed, like a slow nightmare. I reached the station.
THERE WAS NOBODY THERE.
• • •
The exercises at the grove were fine.
P. J. Martin, president of the irrigation project, explained that it is of equal Importance to all lands in Southwestern Washington of similar character, and that they hoped to make Yelm the Petaluma of the Northwest.
Gov. Lister praised the project and spoke of good roads.
Peter Goven, of Sequim, and C. J. Lord of Olympia, also spoke.
But I didn’t hear much they said. I was wondering if somebody else had found a way to get the story out of Yelm.