Billy Davis Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 17, 2011

Official’s remarks compound awful situation at lake

“Nobody wants you to be here,” Sheriff Otis Griffin informed me Monday afternoon at Sardis Lake, where I was watching sheriff’s deputies and park rangers remove an oak tree from a crushed camper trailer.

“And I don’t want to be here,” I assured the sheriff, thinking he was joking. “I can promise you that.”

 There was a body inside the crumpled trailer, later identified as 74-year-old Evelyn Brower of Alabama.

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If you witnessed that scene, you wouldn’t want to be there either. Your stomach would surely twist into a knot, like mine did, to see the crushed roof of the Jayco camper; to watch the Stihl chainsaws eat into tree limbs as big as a man; to know that a life was snatched away at that very spot. 

Add a camera and a reporter’s notebook, and you would really stand out from the first responders hard at work, even the ones just watching; you may feel out of place, like you don’t belong.

But of course I belonged there because I represent The Panolian, which represents its readers, so I had to be there.

It’s my job, I told myself on the way to the lake. I gotta go. I gotta go.

Tuesday’s edition of The Panolian had been put to bed so I was set to order a pizza and go home with a hand-tossed pepperoni. My son Jackson was recovering from a bug, and his mother was recovering from taking care of him, and both of them would appreciate the pizza, with extra toppings.

Then word came of a downed tree at the Sardis Lake campgrounds, and two people killed, so off I went. 

 The irony of Sheriff Griffin’s admonishment was that he had helped me get to the campground by telling a park ranger to let me through a roadblock. So when I arrived on the scene, I looked under all the hooded yellow raincoats until I found the sheriff to thank him.

That’s when Sheriff Griffin informed me that I wasn’t wanted. And he wasn’t finished. “Whenever your name comes up, nobody likes to hear it,” he told me matter-of-factly.

The sheriff went on to explain how word had spread that I was coming to the scene, and everybody there was disappointed at the news. He said nobody — not one person — was pleased to hear Billy Davis was coming, he said.

“What does that say about a person when nobody wants him around?” the sheriff asked me, summarizing his lecture.

“I don’t know, Sheriff,” I managed to say, “but I sleep good at night. I have a clear conscience.”

I admit it was a weak comeback. That’s because his everybody-hates-to-see-you sermon was working its intended magic, like a thousand poisoned darts aimed at my heart and my mind. 

I was teetering, like a prizefighter looking for his corner, when the sheriff delivered the coup de grace. “Criminals sleep good at night, too,” he told me.

The knot in my stomach had tightened to the point that I was sick, and by the time I left the sheriff’s side I was walking the campground in a daze of doubt. 

The sheriff probably didn’t know, when I walked away, that I had willingly endured his admonishment. That’s because not only was it my job to be at the campground, it was also my job to listen to his criticism.

In this business I shake off praise like a shaggy wet dog, because praise waters a weed called pride. But I listen to every critique because there is no other way to improve your skills and right your wrongs.

It all depends on a person’s motivation, of course. But at first you must listen to the criticism — whatever the motivation behind it — then mull it over in your mind. 

That’s why the sheriff’s words affected me so quickly. I stepped away from him convinced that the men with badges — who I know by their first names, who went to school with me, who attend church with me, who have my respect for the thankless jobs they do — might really, deep down, hate my guts.

Then I had some time to mull it over. I got home with the pizza, laid in bed all night with a sick little boy, and when I woke up the next morning, the daze of doubt had lifted.

The problem isn’t with me, I thought the next morning. The stories I write reflect what people say and what they do. It’s a job I try to do well, and try to do fairly.

Feel free to criticize my performance any time, because that’s part of my job and I make mistakes. Feel free to talk to my bosses  if you feel you’ve been treated unfairly.

But don’t mistake an unflattering front-page story as a criticism; it’s just a reflection.