A sixth decade of bylines
I majored in history, not math, so I'm having a hard time figuring this out. But here it is: I'm nowhere close to 60 years old, yet 2010 marks the sixth separate decade my byline has appeared in the Westport News.
I snuck in under the gun, I guess. In the spring of 1969, as a sophomore at Staples High School, I started covering high school sports. That spring, I wrote about baseball and tennis. The next fall, I added soccer and football; then came basketball and wrestling.
At the risk of sounding like Gramps babbling about the Depression, here's what I was paid: $2 an article. I wrote each one at night -- on my way-cool electric typewriter -- and in the morning took a pre-school detour to drop them off at the paper's Brooks Corner front door. That office -- with its plate-glass view of the inner workings of a real-live newspaper -- is now occupied by Brooks Brothers. (A complete coincidence: Brooks Corner was named for the Westport News' founder, B.V. Brooks.)
The News was then just a few years old. It began as an upstart competitor to the well-established and very staid Town Crier. The News found a cause célèbre in the fight to save Cockenoe Island from Northeast Utility, which planned to turn the rocky outpost off Compo Beach into -- I am not making this up -- a nuclear power plant.
The News -- and most (though not all) -- of the town prevailed. Four decades later, Long Island Sound is not super-heated -- and the Westport News is still here.
I had a weekly newspaper column in high school, too. It was called "Up at Staples," and I never ran out of ideas. The high school was tossed by a turbulent time. Politically, there were anti-war protests, and fights over busing Bridgeport students to Westport. Socially, Staples was riven with cliques: jocks, hippies, greasers and goody-goodies, to name four. It was the era of sex, drugs and rock `n' roll, with controversial principal Jim Calkins doing his best to steer 2,100 students through uncharted seas.
It was a columnist's candy store, and though I cringe to read some of those old pieces, they gave me a great education in column-writing. Because columns were tougher to write than sports stories -- and because my photo appeared next to my byline -- I got a 50 percent raise, to $3 apiece.
The summer before senior year, I worked at the Westport News. The sports editor -- an elderly man named Phil "Scoop" Schuyler, who'd retired after a long career in journalism (he also invented the singing telegram) -- taught me how to write, write quickly, and write journalistically. I had no idea whether he was part of a dying breed or just quirky, but every writer is supposed to have some mentor he could never quite figure out.
That job beat my other one: wearing knee-high blue socks and flipping burgers at Chubby Lane's. It was nice to be making my own money, because gas was inching up to 29 cents a gallon.
The week after high school graduation, my friend Bob Powers and I left for a cross-country jaunt in a van we bought for $1,000. Along the way, I mailed a few "On the Road" columns to the Westport News. They were even more cringe-worthy than what I'd written at Staples. In one, I slammed St. Louis for its Midwestern parochialism. The reaction was fierce -- and justified. I learned three important lessons: Don't be snide just for the sake of a few good lines. Realize that readers come from many different backgrounds (half of Westport, it seemed, had St. Louis roots). And when a stupid piece appears, it's good to be half a continent away.
My second job after college was back at the Westport News. The sports editor quit, and at 23 years old I got the job. It was a relatively powerful position, as far as local news went -- I could make junior high sports seem important, or relegate a sailing regatta to a lone paragraph -- and I made my share of youthful mistakes. I particularly loved acquiring a new skill -- layout -- and relished the opportunity to design good-looking, graphically appealing pages. Once again, I was in the right place at the right time. Computers had not yet invaded news offices -- despite their many advantages, page-making software has taken away every bit of layout creativity that ever existed.
I became a columnist again, writing about sports. This one was called "The Fifth Quarter," which makes me an ancestor -- many times removed -- of current sports editor Eliot Schickler, and his "Man in the Stands."
After three years, however, I found myself profoundly bored. How many sports stories could I write, edit and lay out? I left the News -- presumably forever -- and embarked on a freelance writing career that I continue today.
But the call of the column was strong. In 1986 editor Lise Connell and I spoke about writing a weekly piece for the paper. The details are lost to time -- who approached who first, and which of us came up with the "Woog's World" title, for example -- but I do remember my very first piece. It profiled Dan Kennedy, a Westporter working as Sgt. Slaughter's chauffeur, driving the wrestling star around the country in a camouflage limo.
Both Lise Connell and Dan Kennedy have since died. It's been years since Sgt. Slaughter was a force in the wrestling world. But "Woog's World" endures. Friday after Friday, through editor after editor, for 23 years it's appeared on the op-ed page of the Westport News.
That's less than half of the six separate decades that my byline has appeared in these pages. I still can't figure out how someone as young as I can rack up such a long record of newspaper work.
But hey: I'm a writer, not a mathematician. If I knew numbers, I'd be making a million on Wall Street.