Iwas kind of born into the business because my father was a newspaper man, and, actually, my brother was a news editor of CBS Evening News in New York when Walter Cronkite was there.
So, he went up the ladder pretty far, but I really didn't have any aspirations other than trying to make a living. When the college tuition ran out I did the only thing I could think of, which was to ask around about a newspaper job. The nearest one that had an opening for reporters was a little paper in Worcester, Mass. They were hiring anybody who could, you know, stay upright and alert for eight hours a day at the time; journalism wasn't as competitive back in the day.
So, they were happy to hire me, and it was a good choice for me because it's the first thing I ever did that I was pretty much successful at. I mean that was good. I was suited for the business. I had writing skills, and now I think a very important factor in it all is that I grew up in a kind of working class neighborhood, so I knew how to talk to normal people. And I think that's an important attribute. Unless you've got your eyes on covering politics at a high level or business at a high level, where you're going to be in rarefied air. I was lucky to be comfortable talking to people from all walks of life, so that worked for me, and so I got a job as a reporter before I knew how to type. I had to learn to type on the job. We knew we didn't have computers back then, you wrote your papers by hand, so I didn't know the first thing about it and I picked it up quick. Although I never learned to type properly, like lot of newspaper people.
I had two offers from the Montreal Gazette, which was an English language paper in Montreal, and the other was from Washington [D.C], and it was March, so I went up to Montreal, and I almost froze. Then I went down to D.C. and the daffodils were blooming, people were riding around in convertibles, and I thought this looks like a little more sensible. So, I wound up coming to the [Washington] Star as a copy editor and that was good.
Then they moved me to the national desk and they bumped me up to principal assistant national editor. I was in main news until 1970 or thereabouts when I left The Star. I never really had an interest in Washington in politics. It seems like if you were young and reasonably smart they put you in politics and politics to me was really quite a mystery. I didn't know what to do because I was getting asked to do all the things you would want to do if you wanted to make a mark in journalism. But I really didn't feel comfortable at all. So, I ended up quitting at The Star just because I was sort of thinking, well I don't want to end up like this.
So, I quit. I played some music, and I was a motorcycle messenger. And then the money ran out, and the only other paper in town was the [Washington] Post. I went over there and did some part-time, fill-in work on the copy desk, the national desk and the sports desk. By great good fortune a job came up on the sports copy desk, and I needed the work so I took it, thinking I would work there for a little while and move back into the news, but the sports stuff really intrigued me. I enjoyed it. It was more fun, it was less pressure and it was more artistic. You had a lot more artistic freedom. You could make jokes and have fun and not run afoul of lawyers and have everything read by top editors who were concerned about liable ‘blah blah blah.’ It was just fun. It was free. There's a lot more freedom.
George [Solomon] started me on a writing thing, gave me this job covering the outdoors, and then you know that was really nice because I not only didn't have to put on nice clothes, I didn't even have to go in the office. I wasn't expected to go in the office. If I was in the office, people would say ‘what the hell is he doing here.’ So that all worked for me, and I ended up being a sportswriter.
When my father was at the Associated Press he had a friend, who was sort of a top sportswriter in New York, and he came out to the house one time when I was a kid, and I just remember that image for him and I always thought what a great guy what a wonderful life -- he goes around to sporting events and gets to say whatever he wants.
I always liked boats. When I was a kid I lived down near the harbor, and when I was 10 years old I got my first little rowboat. I liked going out and catching clams and catching the little blue fish in the bay there. But I wasn't hiking; I wasn’t camping and I wasn't sailing. I didn't do any of those things. I always like being outdoors, but to be a full-time outdoors person, there's some basic stuff you have to know, like clothing and weather, and how to stay warm. It's just simple stuff, but if you don't grow up with it and not knowing it could kill you. Part of the fun of doing that column is I was learning stuff right alongside the people that were reading me. If I learned something, I passed it along, and I think that was refreshing to readers who are more used to reading experts who act like you're an idiot if you don't know. It's simple stuff, so, it was a good for me to enter that whole field with really no previous experience, and I think that's true in journalism as a whole: the less you know the more affinity you have for people you're writing for who don't know that much either.
Dave Kindred, a great columnist at The Post for many years, said you know when you go into a place you don't really know anything, just describe what you see, and I think that's really good advice. I took that to heart because there were a lot of instances, particularly during a couple of years when I was covering baseball, boxing and so forth, I was really in way over my head. I think the tendency in those circumstances is to try to make up for your deficiency with bull, sounding like you know more than you do.
If you don't know anything just write what you see, and I think that I got a lot out of that in the outdoors because the places it took me were invariably interesting. Everybody doesn't get to see sun rise over the bars in the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland or get to climb Old Rag Mountain in a snow storm, and if you're in those circumstances and you just keep your eyes open and try to write that descriptive way about what you see, you bring people in. And you do that as well by trying to get inside the heads of the people you're talking to just to figure out what makes them tick because we're all unique and interesting in that regard. It's not about what kind of boots I wore to climb Old Rag. It's about what I saw when I got there. It's not about what kind of fly rod I was using when I went fishing for salmon on the Southwest Miramichi in Quebec. It's what the place looks like and what the salmon look like when they smack your fly -- what the feelings are you have wading in a fast running river. That's what you remember. I had a lot of people come to me over the years and say, ‘I never went fishing and hunting in my life, but I always read your column,’ and I think that's why, because I explained to them what it felt like and what the experience was like without bludgeoning them with tactics and details and strategy. Newspapering and really all good journalism is simplifying without dumbing it down.