Sunday, September 20, 2015

Once Upon A Time - On First Jobs, Leaving Home and Writing for Work

My first job out of college was as a reporter for the Northern Virginia Daily, a small, family-owned newspaper with big ambitions. It covered five counties of the Shenandoah Valley and had several little bureaus throughout Virginia.

It paid pretty well for a first job and we got all the overtime we wanted. Most of the reporters and designers were about my age, and I was 22 at the time. We were mostly all young, on first jobs and were transplants to the area. Which meant that we often spent our evenings and weekends hanging out together because, well, we were all we really had.

I made a lot friends there that I still have to this day.

My pal Andy, who was the only person I knew in Virginia when I arrived. We had worked together at the Ball State Daily News. (I felt very Holden Caulfield in my red cap with the earflaps.)

Where I Lived

The weather when I first arrived in the summer of 1998 seemed extreme. It was either ungodly hot or violently stormy. On breaks from designing newspaper pages — I spent the first few months at the Northern Virginia Daily designing (it was a small ship; I reported during the day, designed pages at night) — I would sit outside the office in Strasburg on the little porch at the side of the building and inhale big lungfuls of the pine trees that separated the newspaper's office from the neighbor's house. It smelled clean and fresh and outdoorsy.

I remember it mostly always being nighttime, because that's when newspaper pages get designed —  between 4 pm. and 2 am.

I lived on Jackson Street above the Title Division in Front Royal, Virginia. My coverage area wasn't Front Royal, but I wanted to live there because it was one of the "bigger" cities of our coverage area with 13,000 people, which was still the smallest town I'd ever lived in.

My mom and dad at the Main Street gazebo in Front Royal, Virginia. Summer 1997.  

My apartment was rumored to have been a former dentist's office, the dentist being the late husband of my elderly landlady. I believed this to be true, as there was a large florescent light recessed into my living room ceiling. I never turned it on because the light from it was so hideous.

Across the street was a small church, painted white with green trim. Every Sunday the African American congregation of the church came together dressed to the hilt — the women in large Sunday hats, the men in suits and ties — and congregated in the squat, concrete block building. It looked like it had been transported in time from 1950.

On Sunday mornings I'd hear the choir singing. There were some weekend revivals when I felt a wave of forgiveness flash over my apartment. 

The little church that was a block from my apartment, still painted white and green.

An Education 

My bedroom in the apartment above the Title Division. I had taken the Matisse "print" hanging on the wall from a book I had.

Virginia was an odd place to me. Remember, I lived on Jackson Street, which intersected with Stonewall Street just a few blocks east. The locals called me a Yankee because I am from Indiana.

In addition to covering town councils, court, education, police and fire, I spent a fair amount of my professional hours covering battlefield associations. The Shenandoah Valley is pocked with Civil War battlefields, and every lawn where a Confederate soldier stood and every tree with a bullet hole or round still in it was ferociously protected from development.

I sat in many a Battlefield Preservation Commission meeting and listened to folks passionately discuss why things should or should not be built on old battlefields.

That little paper with its wide-ranging coverage, dedicated editors and passion for journalism was great training. I learned to be resourceful and to make friends with the retired old timers of the valley. I found secretaries to be excellent allies and endlessly resourceful, and I relished giving the people I wrote about their 15 minutes of fame.

I filed my first Freedom of Information Act requests, and I racked up plenty of billable hours with the newspaper's attorney figuring out how we could get information from government agencies who didn't want to give it us.

My desk at the Northern Virginia Daily. 

The Northern Virginia Daily was small, with about 15,000 circulation at the time, but it took journalism and it's role in the community very seriously. There were no scared cows, advertisers or otherwise.

By the time I left I could easily file three stories in a day, and write most of them within 30 minutes or so. This led me to where I am today — the world's fastest typist.

I spent most of my free time, which wasn't much usually — it turns out the reason they paid overtime was because we worked so much it — hanging out with my colleagues, polishing my resume, drinking beer on weekends and having dinner at the Main Street Mill, a little restaurant and bar up the street from my apartment. I ate many a dinner in that little place, and I loved it.

On workdays and too many evenings when I needed something quick, I ordered a turkey sub from the Italian pizza joint in the strip mall up the street from my apartment. I called in the same order every time and felt sheepish going in there because I ate there so much.

Sometimes I'd call in a slice of pizza instead of my usual, just so they wouldn't know it was "me." 

Northern Virginia

My new friends and I spent weekends exploring the Caverns of the area, visiting monuments in DC, which is just 60 miles away, and climbing up Woodstock Tower to see the Seven Bends of the Shenandoah River. (It seems like we climbed up an electric tower to see the vantage, but that can't be right.) When people came to visit me I took them to the vistas on the Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park.

Some of the seven bends of the Shenandoah River.

The tower to see the bends. It does sort of look like a transmission tower.

On the drive to work each day I was surrounded by mountains. On one side, the Blue Ridge, on the other, the Ridge and Valley Appalachians. They were old, worn down mountains, covered in trees. The Blue Ridge to the east and the Ridge and Valley Appalachians to the west.

Driving in to Front Royal off of Route 66 you go across a long bridge that spans a meadow, and it seems to me now there was always round hay bales dotting the horizon. It also always seems to me now that the sun was always setting on them, but that's probably because I always got home in the evening when the sun was setting when I switched from design to full-time reporting.

I think if I were driving over that bridge today I could find my way to Jackson Street again. (Turn left at the first major light in town.) But then again, I don't know if it's true anymore that I could find my old apartment. The routes and streets that once connected in my mind and created the map of the place is mostly gone. The circuits don't connect anymore. I'd probably have to look at a map to find that old apartment/former dentist's office on Jackson Street above the Title Division, but maybe not. Maybe it would all reconnect if I was driving those streets again. 

Friends For Life

Four years after I left Virginia word got around that I was having chemo and radiation. I received cards and care packages and phone calls from many of those people, and they knew me barely for a year, four years earlier. I was long gone from Virginia by then, but I still heard from most all of them.

Over fifteen years later and I am Facebook friends with most of the folks I knew from back then, and I still consider them all good friends. I check in with them on social media and see that their kids are growing up to look just like them, and occasionally one of them will post a comment to remind me of an event or memory we all shared.

All such good memories.

Me then, along with my first editor (on the left), and a fellow reporter.

Everywhere But Back

It was a great little place for a first job, but it was a long way from home. I moved to Virginia right after graduating from college, and I had lived in Indiana all my life.

Toward the end of my time in Virginia, I spent a lot of energy trying to get out of there and a lot of time worrying where I would land next. After a year and two months, I got a job at another newspaper, this time in Ohio.

I've been to Paris, to London, to Spain... down the Eastern Seaboard and back across to California and up to Seattle. I've driven countless times back home to Indiana from Cincinnati, but I've yet to go back to that little town where I first lived completely on my own.

Thanks to Google street view, I can revisit all these old places. The meadow with the hay bales is still there coming into town, though some vinyl houses have sprung up on the outskirts. The pizza place is there still in the strip mall, and still painted white and green is the church where I'd hear the singing choir drift into my bedroom window on warm Sunday mornings.

My old brick apartment building is still there but it looks like the Title Division has been replaced by a Sheriff's Office. I don't imagine they allow apartments for rent above there anymore.

The squat little brick building where I lived, continuing to bake in the sun.

It's funny that Google captured my old apartment in full sun, baking the brick and concrete, because that is exactly how I remember it.