I was lucky to land in a job I could handle with some competency. And one I like. Writing for newspapers.
It was a job I largely backed into. I didn’t write for the student newspaper in high school. I didn’t write for the student newspaper in college. Not as an undergraduate.
I studied political science. In 1972, I got my degree and thought: Time to apply for political science work. The want ads, however, were not encouraging. I never saw: Political scientist wanted. Degree in political science required. B-average preferred. Sociology majors need not apply.
My degree, I figured, would open the door to a comfy desk job. I would move papers around. I didn’t have a preference. Any papers would do. The job would come with some risks, of course. Carpal tunnel syndrome. Paper cuts.
I never found that job. Instead, I answered a want ad for groundskeeper at Madison School District in Phoenix. I don’t recall if I wore a tie to the job interview. Probably not.
I think I told them, growing up, I mowed the lawn most Saturdays. I was hired on the spot. Mowing the playground? I could do that. Back and forth, back and forth on a John Deere riding mower. Not a desk, but sitting down just the same.
I was handed a rake instead.
The city was redoing a street next to one of the schools. After digging up the old road, the city was left with a big pile of dirt. The school grounds-crew chief got a good deal on it. He wasn’t one to pass up free dirt.
He had it dumped on the infield of the school’s softball field. Our job was to rake out the chunks of asphalt that came with it. The dirt was very asphalt-rich. We might have missed a few pieces.
I lasted three months. I was fired before I could quit.
Years later, my daughter went to that same school. I should have advised her: Life’s full of bad hops, especially at shortstop.
I then got a job as a grip. My then brother-in-law, Alex, was a film director. Mostly commercials. A friend of his directed short subjects for the U.S. Information Agency. These were snippets of American life, to be shown in foreign lands.
My brother-in-law must have told him: Get a grip! That was me.
Anyway, I moved some stuff around. Boxes of equipment, that sort of thing. I wasn’t fired. But the shooting lasted little longer than a week, if that. One segment lasted two days. It featured the late heart surgeon Ted Diethrich. Each day, Diethrich performed a heart bypass surgery. It was a new thing at the time, in the early ‘70s.
Now it’s pretty routine. I think I’ll settle for a colonoscopy.
With few job prospects, I doubled down on political science. I entered a master’s program at ASU. I was surrounded by smart, conscientious grad students. Many of them went on to get their doctorates.
Stephen Mumme was one of them. He told me his father was a minister. And that he had lived in Eloy. I didn’t know anything about Eloy, at the time. Now I know it has a history rich in agriculture. And is home to Pinal County’s first pot dispensary.
I learned Stephen’s late father, Jim Mumme, was a well-respected and well-liked pastor. Everybody knew him.
Steve went on to get his doctorate at the University of Arizona. He’s a professor at Colorado State. He was always professorial. He’d sit back, draw on his pipe and discuss politics at a level I could almost grasp.
I was not one of the smart, conscientious students. A professorship was not in my future.
Mumme, it happened, was a Vietnam veteran. The closest I got to military service was a semester of ROTC my freshman year at ASU. We marched around a field one hour a week. I wasn’t very good at it. I got two demerits.
Bill McClellan was another Vietnam veteran. I met him my junior or senior year at ASU. He had written for Stars and Stripes. He could tell a great story. By the time I entered graduate school, Bill was editor of the State Press, the ASU student paper.
He made journalism seem like fun. And he wasn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers. If something needed calling out, he’d call it out. He wrote with a wry sense of humor. His irony was usually spot on.
In the 1980s, Bill became a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
He’s since retired, but still writes a weekly column.
The Riverfront Times, a St. Louis weekly, once described Bill this way: “He was frequently mischievous, but never malicious.”
Anyway, hanging around Bill, I thought: Maybe I could do that.
So I embarked on a second graduate degree. This one in journalism at UA.
It was a good move. As a reporter, I’ve talked to people from all walks. From governors to an orchard worker running for president. I spoke to the orchard worker in the 1980s. He ran on a platform of somehow doing away with political parties. George Washington, he said, warned about the dangers of “faction.”
Just like Washington, the orchard worker was ahead of his time.
And so I found a career that had all the right elements. Job satisfaction. A desk. And no rakes.