Darrell Ehrlick: Hints to Heloise

2014-01-05T00:00:00Z 2014-03-21T10:34:20Z Darrell Ehrlick: Hints to HeloiseDARRELL EHRLICK dehrlick@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Dear Heloise:

Next time you suggest any other use for the American flag besides flying it, can you please list your home telephone number, email address and put a disclaimer on it absolving any editor (or newspaper staff member) of liability for your ideas?

Happy holidays, Darrell E., in Billings.

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Well folks, this record may not mean much to you, but for me it's a new personal best. This is the seventh newspaper I've gotten the opportunity to serve and it only took 72 days for one reader to be left speechless by me.

Actually, that's not quite true. 

This one particular reader mustered the focus to call me "appalling" and "despicable." Then, when he admitted he couldn't find anymore words to say to someone with as few scruples as I apparently have, he announced he was bidding, "Goodbye," and hanging up. 

Click.

The cause for the call? "Hints from Heloise," the popular syndicated columnist we run daily that extols the virtues of everything from coupons to vinegar.

The caller's complaint found its way to my phone like many calls — when staff members don't quite know just what to do or what to say, I am the default spokesperson for all things Gazette.

He wondered, "How we could encourage people to commit felony? Doesn't anybody down here at The Gazette read the column? Does anyone here know you shouldn't cut up a flag?"

Here's the original offending blurb from Heloise's column on Dec. 20:

"Dear Heloise: I am writing to tell you about Stars for Our Troops. Flags are sent to Stars for Our Troops from all over the country.

"The canton (blue) area is removed and washed, and then the stars are cut out and placed in a small pouch with a note to let our military know that they are not forgotten.

"These stars are placed in care packages going to our military who are serving. Stars are given with thank-you cards to our veterans in veterans hospitals, nursing homes, etc.

— Susan Wells, organizer, Stars for Our Troops

Editors and reporters get a lot of complaints about all kinds of items in the paper — from a dropped letter in a headline to a paper showing up in the bushes instead on the front porch. And yet, this is the first time anyone has complained about the darling of domesticity, Heloise.

I'll admit: She's not one of my "must reads." In fact, I know of at least two readers who shall not be named, but who make Heloise a kind of sport — you know, see what wacky idea she'll come up with next to get a wine stain out of a carpet. 

But back to the reader's point (beyond me being appalling) — cutting up the flag would seem to violate the rules of flag etiquette. His claim that Heloise was encouraging readers to do something illegal seems to be half true.

Federal law outlines what is commonly referred to as "flag rules" in Title 4, Chapter 1. These serve as rules more than law because Congress can't regulate flag behavior, as witnessed by all kinds of flag demonstrations, including the distasteful practice of flag burning in protest.

The Gazette reader admitted that Heloise's suggestion was attempting to do something patriotic, but it could certainly be construed as desecration. 

The reader persisted and asked, "Well, what do you think?"

"I guess I am more worried about the flag being plastered all over trinkets and clothing. I find flag napkins, which I've seen during the Fourth of July, more troubling than Heloise's suggestion," I replied.

"But sir, those are just representations and likenesses of a flag," he said.

We were having two separate conversations on the same telephone line, obviously. 

I offered — as I often do — to provide space in the letters-to-the-editor section. He said he'd rather have an apology from me in that space. 

After he hung up, I continued to think about the call — the first time anyone has said much to me about this popular, long-running column. That conversation is, in one very important respect, not uncommon. 

Newspapers cram a lot of material (we call it "content") onto the pages. Some of it is devoured. Some of it is ignored. Trying to please more than 100,000 people daily is a task that varies day by day.

Thankfully, it's not every day that someone finds you despicable or appalling, although some of my closest friends might agree.

The more time that passes after that one Heloise column call, the more I am actually thankful for those calls that remind me: People pore over The Gazette, carefully weighing it word by word, item by item. 

It's when the phone stops ringing that I should get concerned.

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