Back when I was in junior or senior high school or so, my favorite part of the morning paper’s front page was at the bottom in the middle. It was a daily humor column titled Assignment: Memphis.
The column was written by long-time newspaperman Lydel Sims who was fascinated with language and life’s idiosyncrasies. He went to work for Memphis’ Commercial Appeal in 1947 and was charged with “laughing at things that make the rest of us scream.”
Something of a prodigy, the Shreveport-born Sims graduated from high school at age 14 and from college at 18. Sims worked at newspapers in Nashville and Jackson, TN before moving to Memphis to work at the Associated Press local bureau. It was there that he wrote a feature about the family cat that came to the attention of the Commercial Appeal editor who offered him a position writing Assignment: Memphis.
He never worked anyplace else except that, as a practicing grammarian, Sims taught classes for years at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes) and at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). As a requisite for any writer, Sims was a voracious reader who was said to read anywhere from two to six books a week.
As for the challenge of coming up with a funny column every day, Sims implemented Sims’ Law: “as the day grows later, my standards grow lower. Things that didn’t look at all good to me at 9 a.m., look wonderful at 11 a.m.”
He wrote on wonderful topics such as “Brainwashing Removes the Worry” and “Clothes Encounter of the Worst Kind.” He wrote about language, the Southern condition, urban legends, human legends – and a hands-on investigation into the theory that a mule will not bray if its tail is tied down (results inconclusive).
Today, he would be a blogger. His writing, curiosity and tongue-in-cheek observations should be textbook lessons to all of us scribes. I encourage you to take a look at his book, Assignment: Memphis, available at Amazon.
Admittedly, one of my early reasons for reading Lydel Sims was the correspondence that ensued in his column with my creative mother. I don’t know who started it or how it began, but Mother – and I believe Sims joined in -- created nearly full-length fairy tale knock-offs that they called Furry Staries.
The trick, you see, is to rewrite a well-known story by using “sound-alike” words. Showing you an example is better. “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut” is Little Red Riding Hood. Try this one: “Garden Rocks Inner Tree Boars.” Give up? Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I don’t recall which Furry Stary it came from, but a phrase popped up that my mother used for years. Instead of telling me to “get up early,” Furry Stary language told me to “get a pearly.”
I gave a little thought to attempting to write a small Furry Stary for you, but I quickly gave up. My mother must have had extraordinary patience. But she was rewarded. Lydel Sims printed her work and gave it high praise.
I scoured the internet and bought Sims’ book, a collection of his columns, hoping to find one of the “staries,” but no luck. And mother didn’t keep or has lost her copies. What a shame to lose such charming pieces of whimsy.