A cub in California

Fifty years ago, I started my first job as a newspaper reporter. It had been my goal since I left New York in January 1968.

I’d been looking for work throughout my first eight months in San Francisco. I was 21 years old. My new wife, Anita, was pregnant.

I pick up the story in this excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files:

I spent the summer driving farther and farther from San Francisco, stopping at every newspaper office, dropping off resumes, filling out applications and sitting for interviews.

In August, the city editor of the Livermore Herald & News, Barry Schrader, called and offered me a $110 a week reporter’s job. “I’ll give you a try,” he said.

Anita quit her job. I packed up the Mustang. We drove over the Bay Bridge, forty miles east on the freeway, and moved into a little one-bedroom apartment with a patio.

Livermore was a sleepy town in a valley of ranchland and vineyards – the Wente family started their winery in 1883.

The town’s major employer was the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory – it was later renamed the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to remove the scary R-word – where, behind a security fence, Cold Warriors designed bigger and better nukes.

Livermore - Lab

The physicists and their wives drove around in Karmann Ghias and Volvos. The ranchers sometimes came to town on horseback. It was an interesting clash of cultures, which made for lively discussions at city council and school board meetings. The town’s elders had to satisfy the competing interests of those who wanted better schools and libraries for their kids and those who wanted to roll back the clock, especially on the weekend of the annual rodeo.

I was one of the two reporters on the city desk. The other, Ron Iscoff, a few years older, read my first clumsy attempts at newspaper writing and tried to wise me up to the inverted pyramid and AP style.

Iscoff
Ron Iscoff 

But I had my own style – I started most stories with a quote, which I believed was a literary approach – and an agenda, to be the voice for alienated youth and others on the fringe.

I began a story on teenage runaways with Lennon/McCartney lyrics from She’s Leaving Home. Poignant stuff. Heavy message.

My role as the paper’s resident young radical was tolerated, partly because I seemed like an average young man with a wife and baby on the way, got haircuts occasionally, and wore a shirt and tie to work.

I thought I was being subversive when I wrote about hippies and blacks. But the editors had the big knife, changing the word black to Negro and writing headlines that conformed to the paper’s conservative Republican editorials.

After covering a speech to the local GOP club and writing a solid story, I imagined the headline to be: Racist Uncle Tom a Republican toady. The front-page headline read: Negro GOP Leader Raps Welfare.

Still, I hadn’t been fired or judged a fraud, and even got a compliment or two from the bosses. The city editor liked when I used “the eleventh hour” cliché in a lead.

Pleasanton plane crash
Me, right, interviewing searchers for a small plane that crashed in the hills of Pleasanton, just west of Livermore. PHOTO: Ron Iscoff

 

Iscoff seemed to be the only one who knew I was faking it and kept trying to get me to turn out leads worthy of the AP wire. But, when I tried to write straight, it just came out lame: After a 30-year reign as king of Livermore’s morticians, Leo Callahan has turned in his embalming fluid for a two iron. This was the lead of my story on the town’s undertaker, who was retiring and planned to play more golf. I took a picture of him – reporters took their own pictures with one of the paper’s twin-lens Yashica box cameras – wearing his Perry Como cardigan and posing with his two iron.

* * *

For the first time in all these years, Ron Iscoff and I have been in touch recently. We’ve exchanged emails, talked on the phone, reminisced, caught up on our life stories. It’s been nice.

The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism is available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

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