Out of the Woods / "The food chain"
Published 1:02 am, Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Of all the comments made by this year's Staples High School graduates, one in particular stood out as a touch of teenage wisdom worth remembering as this year's seniors move on to college and then "real life" after that.
The observation published in this newspaper and attributed to senior Abbie Beckoff, is as follows: "We waited our whole life for this [graduation]. It's a relief. But now we're at the bottom of the food chain again." Indeed, as I look back on my own high school graduation, I probably had the same thought about becoming a freshman at Dartmouth College -- I would soon learn that I would be starting at the bottom again.
It was a rude awakening for my classmates and me in the fall of 1947 because we were the first freshmen to enter Dartmouth directly from high school in many years, Most of the upperclassmen had served in World War II and were four years older. They let us know it.
They roused us out of our dormitories the first night we arrived and treated us like a bunch of raw recruits -- which we were -- marching us in a column of twos around the campus in our pajamas in the middle of the night to the steady orders of "hut, two, three four." They asserted their seniority with cockiness and discipline they had learned in the service during the war.
I admit I was disoriented and shocked beyond belief. I had had no idea when that envelope arrived in the mail full of "Welcome to Dartmouth" messages the previous spring that I soon would be going off to "boot camp" to be faced with para-military training nobody had told me about.
I was, for sure, at the bottom of the food chain -- and in more ways than one. Freshmen were required to eat meals together in a separate dining hall and, so it seemed at the time, were served the leftovers from the upperclassmen the day before. Standing in line, holding a tray, moving along smartly as various servers (fellow classmates) assigned to "KP" slopped different food on our trays without caring where it landed, The college was all-male at that time--the first co-ed class would not gradate until 1976--so as a lowly peon in the Class of 1951we were treated rather shabbily. We were required to wear little green (Dartmouth's color) beanies at all times on campus, and ordered to step out of the way into the street whenever upper classmen came our way on the narrow sidewalks on campus.
It was humiliating at times. But, in retrospect there was a silver lining for me: when I was drafted into the Army five years later after college and graduate school; I realized that my year as a college freshman had prepared me a little for the stiff 24--7 military routine I was to face as a buck private in the Army. Nonetheless I found myself clearly at the bottom of the food chain again in the fall of 1952 when I put on khakis and was called by my rank rather than my name on the challenging training facility of the Corps of Engineers in the out-of-reach grounds of Fort Belvoir, Va. Here, the food was twice as bad and I felt twice as small as I did at college.
I was assigned to the Public Information Office to write press releases for publication in the nearby Washington, D.C., newspaper about the Corps of Engineers and the commanding general, in particular. I was told that was my mission and that I better succeed, surrounded as I was by high staff officers like colonels and majors and captains.
Once again, I was low man on the military totem pole but I was determined to succeed.
I did, to some extent, well enough to earn two stripes. Moreover, at the time, I thought writing press releases and having them published in big-time daily newspapers would contribute to my journalism experience.
Turns out it did not. When I was discharged in 1954 I could not buy a job on a daily newspaper. Hard-bitten, cynical old chain-smoking newspaper editors all told me the same thing: Get some newspaper experience. I was caught in a vicious cycle, I thought at the time.
Finally my dad knew somebody in nearby Mount Vernon, N.Y., who knew the editor of the Mount Vernon Daily Argus, Jim Woodworth. He said he needed someone to do all the "chores" that none of the rest of the staff wanted to do: cover fires, police arrests, funerals, church sermons and write obituaries. He hired me. Once again I was starting out the bottom of the food chain.
Six months later I applied (for the second time) for a job as a reported on The Washington Post and, as a result of my newly-acquired "experience." I was hired to cover the police beat at night from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. including week end nights. There I was, finally, a real reporter, but once again at the lowest level. But I loved it. I recall thinking: "Wow, a job on a major national newspaper and they are actually paying me $50 a week, too."
And so it has gone in the decades since. Starting at the bottom of another newspaper in New York, then on to a corporation where I stated working as a low-level manager, retiring after 24 years, doing a stint as editor of this newspaper, and then honored by being select to write the history of this town by the Westport Historical Society.
I have left the food chain behind after all these years, but I still feel that with every writing assignment I get it is like starting at the bottom of the ladder. One has to prove oneself over and over again in my profession. I imagine it is the same in others.
If there is one piece of advice I would pass on to this year's high school graduates it is this: climb all the ladders you have to in order to succeed. And define "success" as doing the best you can at what you do.