The prompt for the Chatham Writers Group today was to select three words you recently had to look up in a dictionary and use them in a story. There are six words in my story that required a definition check, one that my wife said was fitting for me, the others I had seen in Civil War non-fiction books. Two of the words were used by William Howard Russell, a reporter for The Times of London, when he was covering the opening scenes of the American Civil War. I had fun writing this story, and I resorted to using the character of the young Manchester Press & Journal reporter to tell the story. Oh, and it takes place in Pittsburgh. My story takes place in 1970.

Pittsburgh’s long departed Three Rivers Stadium. ”Dahn tahn” in the background, and the junction of the Allegheny & Monongahela Rivers to create the Ohio River.


I stood at the window gazing wistfully at the rise of Three Rivers Stadium over the roof tops of the homes and businesses on Pittsburgh’s North Shore.  The stadium was framed nicely by the taller downtown buildings behind it and the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers flowing to its right.  I was entering my third year at the Manchester Press & Journal, moving up from reporting on crazy bird races and bizarre industrial accidents, to crime stories involving severed body parts & missing people.  But I was still seeking the elusive sports writer job.  I longed to be sitting in the press box of yonder stadium with my binoculars, scorecard and notepad summarizing the exploits of the Steelers and Pirates.  I was startled from my reverie by the long blast of a foghorn, actually jumping about 6 inches straight up, spilling my coffee and dropping my jelly donut.  The foghorn was my boss spouting, “I’ve been looking for you!” Disgustedly surveying my calamity, he continued, “Damn you’re jumpy, clean that mess up and come to my office, there’s a story I need you to cover.”

“Good idea to wear black pants, if you’re gonna spill coffee on yourself every time anybody talks to you,” said my boss as I entered his office.  Motioning with a cigar for me to sit, he described the assignment.  A guy named Solomon Wigfall, from the hinterlands of the county, was seeking to unseat the incumbent U.S. representative for our district. He was giving a speech at the Point Park Hilton in two days and I was to summarize his appearance in 1,000 words or less.  I did some research on Wigfall in preparation for my assignment.  Highly polarizing and controversial, his platform seemed to consist largely of grievances.  Wigfall’s campaign issued a press release indicating his speech was going to focus on economic development in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and the Bloomfield and Polish Hill neighborhoods. 

Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill Neighborhood
Pittsburgh’s Little Italy, the Bloomfield neighborhood.
Pittsburgh Hilton, now a Wyndham Hotel

Sitting in the press pool at the Hilton, I found Wigfall’s speech to be a mix of contemptible statements, sprinkled with unintended humor.  The members of the public in attendance hated it.  Twenty minutes after Wigfall finished, I was back at the Press & Journal, pounding my Smith-Corona to get the story to my boss before close of business.  Walking into his office, I stretched to drop it in his in-box, but he yanked it from my hand.

“Sit”, he barked.  Then he proceeded to read it aloud while I slouched in the chair.

“A large crowd of community organizers, members of the city government, business owners and residents from all three neighborhoods referenced in Wigfall’s press release had gathered at the Hilton to hear the candidate speak.  The attendees were greatly concerned about Wigfall’s economic development plans.  The master of ceremonies struggled to get the crowd excited about the candidate, but there was no applause, no shouting, just a low unsettling murmur, like the rumble of a lion getting ready to pounce.  The Emcee closed by telling the crowd that they were about to hear the speech of their life, candidate Wigfall was a master of the English language, as evidenced by his being nationally recognized as a crossword puzzle champion. With that Wigfall strode confidently, nay arrogantly, onto the stage.  It would be an understatement to describe his display as astonishing.  Looking rather unremarkable in all of his press photos and prior appearances, Wigfall now resembled a younger version of Colonel Sanders – the white 3 piece suit, but the goatee and waxed handle bar moustaches jet black, his hair slicked back and hanging below his collar.  He was a throwback to the 19th century.”

 “Handlebar is one word,” said my boss, then he resumed reading aloud.

“Although he fancied himself a cruciverbalist, the farrago of words Solomon Wigfall belched during the course of his speech demonstrated his inability to use them in their proper context.  He maundered through leveling the Hill District to turn it into a shopping mall to rival that in suburban Monroeville – this drew shouts of anger from the residents of that community, notably from one August Wilson, who introduced himself as a playwright, looking to present his community to the world.  Undeterred by the outburst, Wigfall moved on to his plans for the Polish Hill and Bloomfield neighborhoods.  He claimed it was time to move these neighborhoods to more traditional, mainstream American communities.  Doing away with such businesses as pierogi pubs and ethnic Italian restaurants would create an atmosphere more appealing to people like him, people from more “humongous” neighborhoods, businesses and restaurants that served steak and meatloaf – true American delicacies. Wigfall would resort to dogberryism through much of the speech I was able to hear – saying humongous when he meant to say homogeneous.”

“You know what he meant,” said my boss, “take this dogberry stuff out and just use homogeneous.  But it is funny.”  He continued to read.

“The crowd erupted.  The audience shouted blackguard, spalpeen, scoundrel, and other epithets which I am not allowed to write in this column.  The uproar made it almost impossible to hear the rest of Wigfall’s speech.  But, like a Lake Superior icebreaker, he plowed on through to its completion.  The only indication his speech ended was when he raised both hands to the sky, lowered them and strode offstage with the same arrogance that accompanied his appearance.  Booing, hissing, attendees calling Wigfall “caitiff”, “varmint” and “louse” reverberated through the hall.  I tried to buttonhole Wigfall for his thoughts about the reaction to his speech, but his handlers would not let me, or any other members of the press near him.  I watched him in his white suit strut down the hall and push on the door marked “Pull” three times before he realized his error.  He seemed to deflate a bit, pulled on the door and was gone from sight.”

His reading completed my boss said, “Wigfall is from a town of less than 1,500 people, yet he espouses the desires of the few far outweigh those of the many.  Some of your words are anachronistic, but they are suitable in this case.  Wigfall is a crackpot, but he does have his supporters. Take out that stuff about the push or pull door too.”

Waving me out of his office his parting words were “You have five minutes to get it to the printers.” I sprinted to the shop.

Wigfall Campaign Portrait


Cruciverbalist:  someone good at crossword puzzles.

Farrago: confused mixture

Maunder: talk in a rambling manner

Dogberry: another word for malaprop, based on Shakespeare character in Much Ado About Nothing.

Spalpeen: rascal

Caitiff: scoundrel

Ernie Stricsek

Chatham Writers Group


2 thoughts on “Wordsmithy

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