A Lot Has Changed in My 15 Years at The Pilot
It was Brent Hackney who caused all the trouble. After I wrote a letter to the editor, he brought me to The Pilot with an offer I couldn’t refuse: write columns on (as he put it) “any damn thing you want.” No pay, but free reign — so of course I took him up on it. That’s what’s the matter with me.
I dispensed wisdom and learning free of charge for a couple of years. Then — 15 years ago this month — Brent talked our publisher, David Woronoff, into hiring me full time, originally to tinker with the new IBM computers and later to put the paper online as Web editor. Sometime later — after they figured out I came (like Brent) from Robbins and lived in Carthage — the job changed from tech-nerd to staff writer.
Fifteen years. The 15th of this month, in 1997, was my first full-time day at The Pilot.
Lots of things happened, as lots of things do. Brent left us, alas. So did our old press, and now our new press has gone as well, leaving us members of the press without one.
Back in 1997, in those first days, an old schoolmate from Southern Pines High School hand-built every issue of The Pilot page by page. Charlie Weatherspoon wax-pasted every story and photo and ad on big sheets of paper to be photographed and images optically “burned” on thin aluminum sheets for printing. Ink would stick to the image, not the metal.
I used to call Charlie our “editor-in-fact” because “Spoon” would trim copy that didn’t fit. He put things where they fit. Obituaries might show up anywhere in the paper, and so would accounts of birthday parties, trials and car wrecks. Too bad if your best line was in the last paragraph. If it didn’t fit, too bad for it. Your pet phrase would get the Charlie chop. Alas, he left us last week, too. So it goes.
We are zooming into a cross-connected tablet world where everybody with a cellphone — which is pretty much everybody — is a journalist. We don’t “read all about it” — we “tweet” a bit of it. News can go up from anywhere, anytime. We can — literally — phone it in. Some call printed papers “dead tree” editions. The Web is “where it’s at,” they think. That confidence in current machinery reminds me of a bit of advice we all got back in high school.
Mine was Southern Pines High, class of ’57. They told us — with utter assurance — that if we really wanted a skill that would guarantee jobs for life, we should become typewriter repairmen.
A typewriter was a sort of keyboard machine where keys operated levers that pressed metal images of letters against an inked ribbon onto a sheet of paper threaded about a roller. It had a bell that rang every time you hurled the carriage over to roll up another line.
They don’t have them anymore. In those days The Pilot was also printed from metal type and plates Charlie etched in acid baths in the back corner of the building. That gave way to our old offset press that stood where editorial desks now live — then to a new one that could print color in what used to be the A&P. All gone now. Sic transit gloria machinae.
Oh, I’d been a writer a long time — just didn’t count it somehow. At State, I wrote sci-fi radio plays, got to be president of the Writing Club, invited John W. Campbell to come for a week as Writer-in-Residence. He founded and edited Astounding Science Fiction and introduced lots of now-famous writers, people like A.E. Van Vogt, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov — and, of course, L. Ron Hubbard, who gave up inventing tales to invent a religion.
In Hollywood, I joined the Writers Guild so I could write bits for “WKRP in Cincinnati” and “Sliders,” but never thought I’d be doing it full time and loving it so. You see what can happen when you write one little letter to the editor? Watch out.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or jfchappell @gmail.com.
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