When I was a sophomore in high school I joined the school newspaper. My English teacher, who was the faculty advisor, thought it would be a good fit for me. The newspaper was a popular extracurricular activity, and I waited a good part of the school year for my first feature assignment. Writing captions for the sports photos wasn’t exactly thrilling, though it taught me about being succinct. (Coincidentally, when I first joined FAA Aviation News magazine as a reporter, my first assignment was writing captions for the photos and illustrations for each article.)
Then, six weeks or so before school ended, we had a new student transfer in. Her father was a State Department employee, and she and her family had been living in Greece in April 1967 when a Greek military junta staged a coup. Apparently, she and her family had had a bit of an adventure escaping. So, the editor said, “You’ve been bugging me to give you a story. Go interview her.”
Yes, the stuff movies are made of–lowly caption writer makes good with her first feature article. Well, it kinda happened that way.
Truth was, I had no clue what I was doing. I was the only person on the paper who hadn’t taken the Journalism elective because you had to be a junior or senior to take it. I did, however, read two newspapers at home every day–The Washington Post and the now defunct Evening Star. The high school library had issues of the New York Times and the Boston Globe, usually only a few days old, and I’d spend my free time reading them. I just decided to imitate how reporters wrote stories in those papers.
I sat down with my classmate, as nervous as I was, I think, and somehow we managed to do an interview. I spent hours and hours writing and rewriting, tweaking and revising–and remember this was in the day of the manual typewriter. My family got tired of hearing the clack, clack, click of the keys.
Yet, I didn’t think I’d done enough to be worthy of a front-page story. I figured the editor–a senior who tried to emulate editors he’d seen in movies, except he couldn’t smoke or drink in school–would cut it to a few inches and hide it on an inside page somewhere. With a feigned nonchalance, I’d decided I wasn’t even going to look at the paper when it came out, but that didn’t last very long.
There it was, on the front page, above the fold–newspaper folks will get that–with my byline and everything. To illustrate it, the editor had taken the student’s picture and somehow gotten a wire photo of a menacing Greek Army tank. Well, I thought, I’ll get some shred of respect in this place at last. I should have remembered this was high school. The subject of my interview had people clustering around her and her locker between classes, and I was still the girl who belonged to the science club and had her nose in a book.
I continued to write features for the high school and, later, college newspapers. I tried to get summer jobs at our local newspaper, The Fauquier Democrat, to no avail–I wasn’t majoring in journalism. Though the Democrat editor deemed my clippings “good,” he didn’t even have time or money for a caption writer. So much for that dream.
After an abortive attempt at teaching and a stint as a copy editor for the safety publications of a consortium of aviation insurance companies, I became a reporter on a government aviation safety magazine. I worked on and off for the magazine for almost half my time as a government employee. Once I “passed” the caption writing test, I interviewed some of the most interesting people in aviation at the time, as well as individuals of general historical interest, like Chuck Yeager and Jackie Cochran. I went on to become the magazine’s editor, only doing the occasional feature and a regular opinion piece.
The dream of working on a local newspaper I had long since put behind me. I retired as soon as I was able to concentrate on writing fiction. For two years that’s been my focus–classes to hone my craft, attending writer conferences, submitting stories to magazines while I worked on my novel. Then, out of the blue came an opportunity to write occasional features for the Staunton News Leader, my new hometown’s paper.
When my first article came out yesterday in the Living@Home section of the paper, I was as nervous as I had been decades before, and there it was. First page of the section. Above the fold. With a byline. I was a kid again, remembering the first time I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.