14 years of Hammer 

The story behind the column

It was around 14 years ago this week that Harrison Ullmann, who was then the editor of NUVO, asked me to come into his cubicle at the paper’s old office in Broad Ripple. After kissing my butt for a few moments, as he so charmingly did from time to time in between infuriated scoldings, he told me he had an idea.

He wanted me to have my own column in NUVO as a counterpart to his, “The State of Indiana,” which was a 1,500-word weekly dissertation on subjects both large and small. He held court, as only he could, on whatever subjects sprung to his mind that week.

I was both humbled and frightened. I’d been at the paper only a few months, was just a few years out of college and didn’t know what I could contribute in a weekly format. I wasn’t as wise as he was, most certainly, and I wasn’t as far-out wacky as some of our other writers at the time.

But when Ullmann told you to do something, you damned well had better do it, so I agreed. My first column was written while stricken with a horrible flu bug and was a condemnation both of our poor health care system and of the green mucus I was expelling from my throat.

Fourteen years and 700-odd columns later — a lifetime, really, especially for someone who doubted he’d make it to 30 — I’m still doing the column and still agonizing each week on what to write about.

I enter the 15th year of the column with the same excitement and passion with which I started it in 1993. Deb Paul of the Monthly and Dan Carpenter of The Star are the only other two local columnists I can think of who were writing a recurring column back then and are still doing it now. I thank them for the many ideas I have stolen from them over the years.

Mr. Ullmann passed away in April 2000, a loss I felt deeply at the time and still do today. I don’t think I have ever matched him in terms of wisdom and incisiveness, but his influence still lingers on me today.

He didn’t really believe in rules, so he never limited my selection of topics or asked me to change my opinion, even when it conflicted violently with his. In fact, in these 14 years, I can’t remember a single time where a column of mine was pulled because of controversial content, something that speaks volumes about the freedom NUVO gives its writers.

Maybe a few of them should have been pulled because they sucked, but they weren’t, and I’ve had to take the heat for them, which is as it should be.

I’ve almost never missed a week, no matter what else was going on in my life. Two days after my mother passed away, I was writing a column about her life, my eyes filling with tears as I typed. I balanced a computer on my lap in the hospital in 2004, writing about how groovy morphine was and how surprisingly hot nurses were.

Even after NUVO laid me off from my full-time job last year and I began frantically searching for work, a quest that so far has been as successful as O.J. Simpson’s search to find the true killers of his wife, I’ve been allowed to keep writing the column, something for which I’ve been grateful. I’ll keep writing it until they tell me not to anymore.

Not only do I desperately need the money, and I do, I still am excited at the thought of entering a few thousand lives every week for a few minutes, whether it’s to make them laugh, shake their fists in rage at President Bush or to give them a guide to the best cheap beer.

I’ve gotten hundreds if not thousands of notes from readers over the years, some of it favorable, much of it not. I’ve tried not to take the letters of praise too seriously and tried not to let the condemnatory ones get to me.

I’m neither as good as my biggest admirers think nor as idiotic as my biggest critic. I’m just a guy — a regular unemployed guy, at that — who is lucky enough to be able to spout off his big mouth every week in print.

This newspaper could find any number of people to do a column that’s better than mine — in fact, with Mr. Ullmann and now David Hoppe, they have. But I could never find a forum quite as wonderful as this in which to express myself.

To Kevin McKinney, Jim Poyser and the staff of NUVO, I give my heartfelt thanks. To my family and friends, love and gratitude.

But I am the most grateful to you, the readers of this great newspaper, for giving me a few minutes of your time every week. I hope I haven’t let you down and I pledge to keep trying my best. Thanks again. 

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