Birds Let Loose Into Darkness
This Mother’s Day I would like to thank the mother of my journalism career, a classy lady, Juanita Weekly.
As I think back on it, I’d all but given up hope for a job at my hometown newspaper the warm May afternoon I was summoned to see Miss Weekly, the managing editor of the Greensboro Record, the largest afternoon newspaper in the state.
I’d been out of college for six months, a delayed graduation owing to an unfortunately timed bout of mononucleosis, working for my dad part time in advertising sales and attending graduate school at UNCG in creative writing, neatly revising my dream from being the next Woodward or Bernstein to that of becoming a college writing professor. Five years before this — at the start of May my senior year in high school — I’d hatched a crazy plan to postpone college and take off for Paris and ideally snag a job as a stringer for the International Herald Tribune, hoping to make myself the new Ernest Hemingway. I’d just won the city’s annual short story writing award.
Funny how life has other plans.
It was 1976, the year of the Bicentennial everything, and a deepening recession meant no major newspapers in the state were hiring full-time starting reporters — even the one where I’d worked as the wire boy and summer intern for three consecutive years, writing my rear end off in hopes of catching somebody’s attention.
“Well,” Juanita said, sitting back in her creaky wooden desk chair, “here’s the deal, Sport. Turns out I’ve been told we can hire one reporter this year. I’ve already got a stack of applicants a foot tall.”
She leaned forward and touched an impressive pile of letters and clippings.
“You’re a promising young writer,” she said. “But unfortunately for you, I’ve been told I have to hire either a female or minority reporter or maybe one that’s both.”
Juanita Weekly was classic old school, a big-boned redhead with a whiskey laugh, your classic newspaper lifer. She could be as tough as a $2 steak, and this was the teeth of affirmative-action hiring in the newspaper business.
“My question to you is this: Why should I hire you — a skinny white-bread kid from the prosperous west side of town — when I’ve got an amazing pile of well-qualified gals to choose from, including two black candidates who’ve just earned their master’s in journalism from Carolina and Columbia University, respectively?”
Quite honestly, I didn’t have a good answer for this: even wondered why she’d bothered to invite me in for a chat, given the apparent long odds against being hired.
So I said the first thing that came to my mind. Oh, sweet arrogance of youth. But I felt I had nothing to lose.
“Well, to begin with,” I said, “I’ll work harder than anyone you may hire, and I can basically write circles around anyone — including someone with a master’s in journalism.”
I remember the look she gave me. Think of Lou Grant in drag. An unnerving silence ensued as she stared and thought. Finally, she lit a cigarette and got up and walked over to her office door, calmly shut it, and walked back to her chair. I remember how it creaked as she sat back down and leaned toward me over her desk.
She took a drag and released the smoke slowly through both nostrils.
“OK,” she said quietly. “Here’s my decision. Ken Bowden [the paper’s delightful personnel director] will probably have my head. But I’m going to take a chance on you.”
I swallowed dryly. “Thank you,” I managed.
“Don’t thank me. Just work your skinny ass off.”
‘Seal Our Deal’
Before I could assure her I would, she opened her desk drawer and took out a scary looking letter opener that looked like a small Bowie knife.
“Here’s the deal,” she added, leveling it at me. “If you aren’t the best damn writer in this building and make me look like a genius before I retire in a year or two, I’m personally going to make you regret it. That understood?”
I swallowed again, though I don’t recall having any spit left.
“OK,” she said, “let’s seal our deal.”
To my astonishment, she opened a lower desk drawer and took out a bottle of Ancient Age and poured a tiny bit into a Dixie Cup, handing it to me. She gave herself an actual grown-up portion and we drank. At least it was already after normal working hours.
“OK,” she said. “You report tomorrow at 6 a.m. in the women’s section. I’ll let Martha Long know.”
“The women’s section?” I asked. Martha Long was the paper’s legendary society editor.
“That’s right,” she said. “You’re going to write features for the women’s section for the first three months. Martha’s probably going to despise your guts, but she’s retiring soon, too. Think of it as a blow for men’s liberation. After that we’ll turn it into a full-time features department.”
She put the booze back in her drawer, crumpled her Dixie Cup and smiled at me.
“Now get the hell out of my office before I change my mind.”
Not long ago, I told my son Jack this story and he laughed as if I’d made it up.
“I can’t imagine that kind of thing happening today,” he said.
I agreed but assured him every word was true — though I may be off about the booze. Knowing Juanita, she may have just poured herself a finger of booze and merely let me sniff the bottle. Why waste the good stuff on a punk kid?
Two decades later, when I returned to Greensboro to promote my first book, I dropped in to see the magnificent woman who gave me a chance at a writing life just to say thank you. We’d corresponded over the years that took me on to Atlanta and then a blossoming career and family life in New England, but I hadn’t actually laid eyes on Juanita since the day she retired.
I took her flowers and a bottle of Ancient Age. She was so touched and glad to see me she cried, and I cried a little too. We passed a delightful hour catching up. Juanita Weekly was dying of cancer, still as tender and tough as they come.
Renew the Cycle
Funny how life repeats certain themes. Like birds that return to the same nest every springtime, ready to renew the cycle of life.
Aptly enough, I now have two of my own children entering one of the worst job markets in half a century.
My daughter, Maggie, graduated from the University of Vermont last May, worked at a posh inn for a while, then a month or so ago chopped off her hair a la Audrey Hepburn and moved to New York City hoping to find some kind of job in writing. She’s a promising young writer with a poet’s sensibility — well ahead of where her old man was at her age, I must tell you. Moreover, she has a dazzling combination of her Southern grandmother’s easy charm and beauty and her Scottish grandmum’s brains.
Later this month, my son Jack is scheduled to finish up at Elon and plans to follow his sister to Gotham City, hoping to find some kind of starter job in film or public radio or TV.
Jack is basically a self-taught documentary filmmaker, a talented kid who has already made a pair of beautiful and impressive short films on Sri Lanka’s endangered ecosystem and a pioneering health organization in India. Where he gets his nimble filmmaking skills is anyone’s guess — but he’s miles ahead of where his old man was, once upon a time.
Their mom and I couldn’t be prouder of these two Maine babies for chasing their big-city dreams. Generally speaking, we’ve resisted the temptation to give them a lot of work advice, though I have admittedly pointed out to them both that they may never see the thing — or person — coming that changes their lives.
As I write this, slightly over a fortnight ago, Maggie landed a very fine job at a major communications firm, and recently moved into a new apartment between Riverside Church and Morningside Park, a beautful neighborhood hard by the campus of Columbia University. To say her mom and I are relieved is probably an understatement. But neither of us is particularly surprised.
Son Jack is up next, and God knows what adventures lie ahead for him. He’s got the wanderlust of his grandfathers and the narrative voice and eye of a very fine filmmaker.
Perhaps you have a graduate heading for a brave new world this May, too. Their world and yours is suddenly going to change. Doors will open and unexpected people will appear. Suddenly a larger life will begin to take shape. “Our children,” wrote my favorite writer, James Salter, “are the birds we let loose into darkness.”
It’s an image I love and keep close to my heart. Our children will fly away, build nests, create new life, renew the cycle. That’s simply nature’s way, the way of the world. The way of the wise heart, too.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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