Don Stahl, a former FBI agent, was elected sheriff of Mecklenburg County in 1966, a few months after I graduated college and went to work full-time for The Charlotte News. I got to know him because he was on my beat. I covered the Sheriff’s Department along with county government and the courts.
Stahl was a good one –I liked him– which is not to say I didn’t ding him or his department from time to time. But the hard feelings didn’t last. He knew how to take a punch and he knew how to throw one, too.
One day, after I wrote something bad about the high sheriff and then went by his office to see him, he told me I was going to have to watch myself, I was going to have to be careful.
Sheriff Stahl told me, words to this effect:
“In my jail upstairs there are some good looking women who would do anything I asked them to do. I might asked one of them to be nice to you. For the rest of your life, Stith, if a pretty woman flirts with you you’re going to have to ask yourself, ‘Is this one working for Sheriff Stahl?'”
He was joking, I think.
But when I told my wife, Donna, what the high sheriff had said she took an immediate and everlasting liking to him.
The woman opened her front door and got right to the point, “Why are you looking at my house?”
I had just put a plug of Apple chewing tobacco in my mouth because I hadn’t intended to try to interview her until later. When I chewed Apple I had to spit, so I didn’t chew it indoors.
But I knew from the tone in her voice it was now or never — she was an older black woman; I was a young white guy.
So I introduced myself, told her I was a reporter for The Charlotte News, told her what I was working on, and asked if could I come in and talk to her. She said yes, but reluctantly it seemed to me.
I was investigating a federally funded neighborhood improvement program. I knew that some inspection reports had been falsified, causing the government to pay contractors for work they had not done, and I was gathering more evidence.
I sat on the sofa in her living room and asked about the work that had been done on her house, but I was getting nowhere. She gave me one word answers and seemed uncomfortable with me being there. I was pretty uncomfortable myself –I was about to spill tobacco juice down the front of my white shirt.
I had to spit.
Indoors I chewed Red Man. If I had to, I could swallow Red Man tobacco juice, especially if I had some coffee to dilute it. But not Apple. No way. Gradually I began tilting my head back, trying to keep my mouth parallel to the floor so tobacco juice wouldn’t run out either corner of my mouth when I was talking. But you can only do that for so long. When your mouth is full the juice has to go somewhere.
Finally I told her: “I’m sorry, ma’am. I’ve got to go spit out this tobacco.”
“Why, law, reach under that sofa and get my spit can,” she said.
I did. What a relief.
“Have you ever tried Days Work? she asked, pulling out her brand.
“No, ma’am,” I said.
“Would you like to?”
And she handed me some, and a knife, and I cut myself a plug and put in my mouth.
After that I could do no wrong.
“Come on back here and let me show you the mess they left in my bathroom,” she told me.
NOTE: I chewed for about 10 years, I guess, until I heard a story that rattled my cage. I quit that day — right then. I posted a story about that, called “You did WHAT?,” on Dec. 9, 2016.