It was a Friday night on campus and I was putting out the student newspaper.
It was a rule that if you couldn't get a date on Friday, you had to put out the newspaper.
I put out the newspaper every Friday for four years.
It was Dad's Day Weekend or Homecoming or some other geezer event. A lot of alumni were back on campus, dragging their kids around, telling them all the good times they used to have.
The guy showed up at the doorway of the newsroom about 8 p.m. He was around 40, and he had his 10-year-old son with him.
He poked his head in the door a couple of times before taking a tentative step inside.
I got up from the rim and went over to him.
Can I help you? I said.
"Uh," he said. "I used to go here, see, and I used to work on the paper and I was just wondering, I suppose there's no way . . ."
The bound volumes, I said. You want to see the bound volumes.
We had all the old newspapers bound up in these wonderful hard-backed volumes. They went back nearly a hundred years.
We never looked at them, of course. What did we need with the past? We had the future. And each year the volumes took up more space and kept getting moved deeper and deeper into the bowels of the building.
Come on, I told the guy. We'll find your year.
He took his son by the hand and we all went back to the bound volumes, which were in a tiny room near the photo lab.
The volumes were tall and stretched row upon row, the years stamped in black on their bindings, marching backward in time.
The guy searched for his year, took down a volume, found it surprisingly heavy, and laid it down with a thump on the table.
He flipped through the pages carefully, reverently, and then he stopped. He had found his name, his byline.
He reached out his hand -- is it my imagination now that makes me think it trembled just a little? -- and touched his name on the page.
For a moment, he did not speak. And then he turned to his son and said quietly: "Joey, do you see? Do you see daddy's name?"
Joey looked at the paper and then looked at his father. "Can we go now?" he said.
And at that moment I knew I would someday be that geezer. I would, in my 40s, come back to school, seek out the bound volumes and -- be humiliated.
Flash forward to the present, 20 years from that Friday night.
The University of Illinois Alumni Association calls. Would I come back to campus and make a speech in the Assembly Hall?
Yes, of course, be honored to and all that.
And maybe I would also speak to a journalism class or two?
Yeah, sure, I can tell them all the mistakes I made so they can go out and repeat them.
L And, naturally, I would want to visit the student newspaper?
Uh, well, yeah, gee, I guess.
It was impossible not to go back and visit the place I spent four years working, the place I got my first column, the place I learned everything important about journalism, including to cherish it as a profession.
But I knew waiting for me there, lurking for me there, would be the bound volumes.
Last week, I spent part of two days on campus. It went well. It was fun. I talked to a journalism class and learned the students wanted to know how to get jobs.
I talked to the newspaper staff and learned all about political correctness, a topic of enormous seriousness on college campuses.
And then, of course, I searched through the bound volumes.
I found my last year, I opened it up and found my column and looked at my column picture.
My hand did not tremble. The heavens did not open. Because, as I looked at myself 20 years ago, I realized I still visualize myself that way now.
This is nonsense, of course. I had a lot more hair then, for one thing. But no matter what face we see in the shaving or makeup mirror each morning, we all retain a mental image of ourselves that may be totally at odds with reality.
And I realized that my first column picture is my mental image. I even remember when it was taken:
A photographer snapped my picture as I was standing covering an anti-war rally. I had a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other. I was taking notes.
I was doing then what I do now. So maybe time has not passed at all. Maybe, like a fly caught in amber, I had not really aged!
After I talked to the students, I left the paper feeling good. I passed a T-shirt shop. In the window was a black T-shirt with a white peace symbol on it. And the words: "Back By Popular Demand."
I went inside. Do you sell a lot of those? I asked.
"Well," the salesperson said, "like sort of."
Like sort of?
"Well, like to old people," she said. "Like to people your age."