Getting Lost Has Its Joys
I've made more than a few wrong turns in life, but the times I've been truly lost are actually pretty rare. Part of the reason, I'm sure, is that I've always had this uncanny knack -- or simple rube's luck -- of taking the wrong road and discovering something nice, something I might otherwise have missed.
This happened again last Friday afternoon on the heels of a long drive up the East Coast to see my college girl daughter and her boyfriend in Vermont. After a day of doing battle with heavy rain and urban traffic, it was a pleasure to turn off the Thruway north of Albany and suddenly find myself more or less alone beneath clearing skies, entering a beautiful valley of small farms and country roads.
I was pretty sure I was on the right road to Burlington. But only pretty sure. Even though it's basically impossible to get lost these days owing to GPS systems and the mobile phones, the allure of striking out across the countryside toward the greening hills of the Vermont border, following a winding state road I recalled more or less from distant memory, consulting no map or pausing to ask directions, was too much for me to resist.
My objective was a 6 p.m. supper date in Burlington with my daughter, Maggie, and her boyfriend Rye, a young fellow about to graduate into one of the toughest job markets in decades. I hoped to get to know Rye better and perhaps offer whatever helpful insights I might yield from my own direct experience in this department. The year I dropped out of graduate school in 1976 to work at my hometown newspaper, after all, America was mired in the deepest recession since the end of World War II. And there were even fears of a swine flu epidemic.
As I set off toward Vermont behind a late school bus, passing through small asphalt junctions that resembled Norman Rockwell illustrations, I tried to remember if folks back then seemed as spooked as the current broadcast media would have you believe Americans are today.
During a brief coffee break in New Jersey, for instance, I watched the head of the World Health Organization on CNN describe the latest outbreak of swine flu as a "major concern for all of humanity." Moments later, ramping up the panic element by a factor of 10, CNN's Rick Sanchez excitedly added, "It doesn't get any bigger than this, folks. Tens of millions could die."
I love Rick Sanchez. He's like watching a hormonal game show host pretend to be Walter Cronkite. On the proven theory that fear and panic sell, he and his colleagues at CNN and every other cable news outfit have been bleating the demise of just about everything -- the American auto industry, Western capitalism, the global economy, ethics in government, even the American newspaper industry.
Reports of the American newspaper's demise, in fact, are greatly exaggerated -- but that's another discussion for another country road. Suffice it to say that the day we have no more newspapers, this nation's democracy will be in grave peril and CNN and its ilk will be reduced to doing their broadcasts with talking sock puppets and beauty pageant queens. (Oops, sorry. They already have them.)
On this suddenly sunny Friday afternoon in the North Country, cruising along old country roads I felt sure would eventually lead me from Lake George to the lower end of Lake Champlain, passing red barns and freshly tilled fields, boys on bikes and American flags fluttering in the breeze, I couldn't help but remember the year I got spit out of college and went to work in the countryside around Greensboro.
Though it was the Bicentennial year, American society was possibly even more fractured and "lost" than it is now, searching for a way back from the major hangovers of Vietnam and Watergate, Nixon's resignation, soaring energy costs, the effects of a major oil embargo, growing Islamic fundamentalism, and a curious economic term called "stagflation" (a combination of stagnation and inflation), which meant record unemployment, declining home values, and soaring interest rates. Economists have labeled the 1970s, in fact, the most economically troubled decade since the Great Depression.
To be honest, I was feeling a little "lost" too, which explains why I went on to graduate school with not a lot of natural enthusiasm -- wishing I could somehow follow my dad's footsteps into the newspaper business.
When a veteran reporter retired from the old Greensboro Record, a salty old editor named Juanita Weekley tracked me down to invite me in for a job interview. I'd been the paper's summer intern for two summers. I was thrilled to have a shot at a cub reporter's job.
"Don't get too excited," Juanita growled at me in her inimitable plainspoken way. "There's only one newspaper job opening in North Carolina this year -- and you probably won't get it. There's a recession going on and the competition is off the charts. Besides, you're exactly the wrong race and sex."
This was the high summer of affirmative action. Three of the applicants were minority candidates with master's degrees from places like Columbia, Chapel Hill and Missouri. Another was a scholar from China. All were female. One had recently had a big photographic exhibition in Chicago.
"So why the &%#@* should I hire a nice white hometown kid who probably just wants to go drink beer and play golf," Weekley demanded to know, staring at me like a bug under God's thumb.
"Because I'll work harder than anybody else," I brazenly told her. "And I really want this job."
Juanita Weekley shook her graying red head doubtfully. She thought about it a minute more, grumbling about her passionate commitment to affirmative action. Finally she opened a desk drawer and took out a small bottle of Ancient Age whiskey and a couple of Dixie cups. She poured a couple of knuckles in each cup and pushed one across her cluttered desk. I'd been 21 and legal for about two weeks.
"Here's the deal, sport," she said evenly, leaning forward to make her point. "I'm going to risk the wrath of my boss and offer you this job. But if you don't turn out to be the best &%#@ hire I ever made, by God, I'll personally hunt you down and cut off your -- "
And here she named a certain part of the male anatomy that usually comes in pairs.
"Yes, ma'am," I said, and swallowed my whiskey in one gulp, trying not to cough.
With that, she handed me the keys to a day-glo yellow and orange AMC Pacer and instructed me to find "interesting human interest stories" among the rural communities around the Gate City.
In many ways, it was the most enjoyable job I ever had. I routinely took wrong turns but bumbled into characters who had something interesting or surprising to say. I wrote about a hay farmer who sang Italian arias to his milk cows, a woman who'd memorized the entire Bible, a dude who hand-carved the Last Supper out of a cypress tree. I interviewed small-town choirmasters and hog callers, attended homecoming suppers and tent revivals.
Subjects and strangers alike were fascinated by my staff car, which looked either like a half-deflated beach ball or a radioactive tennis ball, someone pointed out. "When you get finished with that car," the farmer out in Stanly County told me, "I'd like to have it for my cows. It looks like a glowing uterus."
Off for Atlanta
After a year at The News & Record, these stories landed me a job at the nation's oldest Sunday magazine in Atlanta. Juanita Weekley was the first to wish me good luck -- sternly advising me not to &%$#@ up. The editor there gave me a desk and said it had once belonged to Margaret Mitchell. I thought he was joking. Mitchell got her start on the same magazine.
In those faraway days of that troubled avocado-colored decade, there were only three TV networks, and that somehow seemed plenty. There was time to reflect on the news, time to take unknown roads just to see what was down them. Each network had its own newscast. I was a Cronkite man. Not long after I went to work in my radioactive tennis ball, Gerald Ford announced that swine flu had come to America. He appeared on TV receiving a vaccination and urged us all to get one. Congress promptly voted to inoculate every American, projecting one million deaths might occur.
Only 25 people actually died -- only one from the swine flu. The rest died, it was determined, from complications of the inoculation.
Walter Cronkite sharply scolded the national media for overreacting and needlessly scaring the public, distracting them from the real issues of the day, warning of an approaching day when broadcast news and entertainment might blend in the interest of corporate profits. He called it "infotainment," fearing this would trivialize news and undermine the standards of journalism.
I think of Uncle Walter every time I see the "Breaking News" of a live car chase from a Santa Monica freeway, another wife-beater banging along the road to nowhere.
No Swine Flu
Somewhere west of Vermont and east of a handsome grange hall where an elderly beagle was catching a nap on the late sun-washed steps, I realized I was genuinely lost. A man in overalls was raking out his spring garden. So I pulled over, walked over, leaned on his yard fence, and wondered how I might find the right road to Burlington.
He told me, scratching his ear. I'd made only one wrong turn and driven in a large circle, it turned out, though a very appealing one. I'd seen five horses standing in a perfect line watching the early sunset and a man liming out a ball field with two kids. One of the kids waved. In the next village over the hill, I almost stopped and bought a used Chevy pickup parked by the side of the road. "$600 Firm," a handmade sign on the windshield read. "Includes Wood." The truck bed was loaded with about two cords of seasoned hardwood. I was sorely tempted, brother.
I asked the man in his garden if he was perhaps in a panic over swine flu, another big bank bailout, or possibly the implications of Miss California same-sex flap. He didn't look particularly panicky, but you never really know about people in a garden, especially where major concerns for all humanity are concerned.
"Not really," he said. "I'm just hoping we don't have another heavy frost. You're never safe until Memorial Day." He'd just planted beets and hoped to get a jump on early field peas.
That evening, I dined with my daughter and her delightful boyfriend at a great Vietnamese restaurant and talked about a lot of things, including her plan to spend all of next year living in a small town in Umbria and his plan to try to find a job in what some are calling the toughest job market since the mid-1970s.
"What would you like to do?" I asked Rye.
"Anything that's fun and interesting and will let me learn more about the world," he replied. "All I want is a chance to do something interesting."
It was the right answer. I told him not to worry. A road would appear.
"Just go down that road and see where it leads you," I said. "You can't really get lost. That's part of the fun."
Before we went off to see a terrific new movie about the newspaper business called "State of Play" -- which beautifully illustrates why newspapers will probably survive despite Rick Sanchez and company -- I told them about Juanita Weekley and my first job after college. A decade ago, I explained to them, I went back to Greensboro just to say thanks to my first editor. By then she was retired, not long from death.
"Was she glad to see you?" wondered my daughter.
"I think so," I said. "She poured me another whiskey in a real glass this time -- and told me she was glad she didn't have to cut off a part of my anatomy that usually comes in pairs."
Jim Dodson, The Pilot's Sunday essayist, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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