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The Career of a Journalist
NEAR the end of my schoolboy days I wrote an essay on the life of George Washington-cherry tree included. The teacher singled it out for praise, remarking:
“The style of this is just like a good newspaper story. Willie, you'll be a journalist some day, if you keep on.”
My heart swelled with pride as the other pupils regarded me with envy and admiration. They, simple children that they were, never guessed that for weeks I had been preparing for that essay by reading newspapers. Nor could they know that their teacher was gifted with prophecy, any more than the teacher herself knew it, and that among them lived, moved, and had his being, one who was destined to view all the heights of journalism. Thus reasoning, I could forgive them all for seeming to forget in a few days that I had written that essay.
But I never forgot my own destiny. My ambition to become a journalist—an ambition until then hazy and indefinite—now became fixed and certain. My earlier hopes and aims all faded into insignificance. At different times I had longed to be a trapeze actor, a street-car driver, a jailor, a drum-major, and President of the United States. But now I knew that life would never hold any charm for me unless I could become a journalist.
I felt that as a journalist I would have larger opportunities to deliver a heaven-born message to the world than in any other human occupation. For, with the birth of my ambition, came the belief that I had such a message. I was not sure just what the message was, but it would uplift and guide the human race in some manner. Possibly it would cause a righteous war, as the journalistic writings of John and Samuel Adams and other patriots had helped to bring on the American Revolution. I was sure, at least, that the message was heaven-born, and that I was the inspired genius who would deliver it through the columns of newspapers.
All this was near the close of the nineteenth century-in the years from 1890 to 1895, to be exact, and in Kansas City, Missouri. In that city I had lived since infancy. And that city was destined to be the scene of my earliest efforts in journalism.
I read newspapers in my waking hours, and dreamed newspapers throughout the night. I lost interest in everything else. I lurked near the four temples of journalism which the city afforded—in the day time, near the offices of the two afternoon papers; in the evenings, near those of the two morning dailies. I hungered for the sight of an editor or a reporter. In my eyes all reporters were heroes, all editors demi-gods. Every bit of fiction I had read about newspaper workers—and I had read all I could get hold of-confirmed me in this belief. The editorials in the newspapers themselves at times seemed to admit as much.
I didn't dare approach anyone I saw entering or leaving these temples, and ask: “Sir, are you a reporter?” No, that would have been almost sacrilege. But I could stand near enough to the entrances to look into the faces of all who went in or out. And I was happy in the thought that I could tell, by a sort of affinity, the editors and reporters from the ordinary human beings.
I frequented fires and public meetings to observe journalists at work. When possible, I hovered near enough to see them actually taking notes. I saw with wonder and admiration with what easy self-possession they buttonholed famous speakers after an address, and how coolly they chatted with the chief of the fire department while conflagrations raged.
I began to talk in newspaper phrases. One day, my mother asked me if I was still troubled with stomach-ache, as I had been for several days past.
“The situation is practically unchanged," I responded, in the most approved third-person, journalistic style. “The chances for improvement, however, are believed to be good. There are no surface indications to the contrary, so far as can be learned.”
She looked at me strangely. That evening a physician called and examined me. He prescribed some white powders. I afterward learned that he was to have returned with a specialist if I had shown certain symptoms; but these didn't develop.
I had once read that Andrew Jackson, to steady his nerves during a duel, clinched a bullet between his teeth. Soon after my nineteenth birthday, in 1895, I got two bullets and put them in my mouth, one on each side. Then I went to the Kansas City Times office. I entered the presence of the godlike city editor himself. I asked for a position as a reporter.
“Have you had any experience ?” he asked.
“Yes," I replied, clinching my bullets. (I had once written an article for a school monthly.)
To my surprise, he didn't ask when or where. He simply looked me over, and said he would try me in the suburbs.
I staggered from the office, drunk with joy. The next day, with a well-sharpened pencil, and a pad of paper placed in my overcoat pocket so that one end showed, I started forth upon my journalistic career. I returned to the office that night and produced a quarter of a column of such interesting public intelligence as the following:
"William Johnson, of Ossawatomie, Kas., is visiting at the home of his brother-in-law, Jacob Jones, of Armourdale.
"The six-months old child of Mr. and Mrs. J. Hanby Simpson, of Argentine, is recovering from the croup."
I finished my task at eleven o'clock. Four hours remained until press time. These I spent in feverish anticipation. I went into several all-night restaurants and ordered sandwiches, at which I only nibbled, and cups of coffee that I didn't drink. I patrolled the almost deserted streets, telling the