A Life Under the Dateline

June 06, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

PHILLIPSBURG, NEW JERSEY — Phillipsburg, New Jersey. I think of myself as a free man who has lived many places, done many things, never worked for any man or company for more than five years and have been out there on my own without a regular paycheck for the past 15 years. So it came as a bit of a rude shock to be reminded that I have now been a newspaperman for 30 years.

I came out to this Delaware River town of 18,000 people when John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon were running against each other for president. I was a class-of-1960 engineer, slide rule at my hip, signed on by Ingersoll-Rand, then the largest employer in the area. Within a year, I was the first editor of the Phillipsburg Free Press, a newspaper that existed only in the heads of a half-dozen of us. I was back last Friday for a dinner celebrating the paper's 30 years of weekly publication.

Ingersoll-Rand gave me a battery of psychological tests to figure out where I might be most useful in the design and manufacture of pumps and compressors. ''Your test results indicate you are suited for only one occupation,'' said the man who gave the tests. ''Novelist. But there is no need for novelists here.''

Soon enough there was no need for me, either. I was one of the last of the slide-rule, vacuum-tube, steam-table engineers. The laser and the microchip were developed in the early 1960s and Texas Instruments was selling everything I knew for less than $50. Like tens of thousands of other engineers, I was replaced by a pocket calculator. We were the forerunners of legions of industrial craftsmen who had to learn to keep learning to keep working.

I knew even less about newspapers than I did about transistors and such, but I was as unhappy with Ingersoll-Rand as the company should have been with me. When I said I was quitting to run the paper -- I had been moonlighting anonymously at the Free Press -- the guys who complained all day about Ingersoll-Rand were shocked, asking a question I still can't answer: ''What about your pension?''

Pension? I was 23 years old. With a man named Bill Blackton, who had been a newspaper advertising salesman, and $500 and a closed movie theater no one else wanted, we started printing with samples of paper and ink from suppliers overly impressed by our letterhead. We kept going by making just enough money each week from advertising and circulation to keep the creditors and the sheriff from the door.

My first story was a big anniversary parade of the Volunteer Fire Department of a nearby town called Alpha, after the cement. I ran up and down the line of march, writing down the names of every band and unit -- a totally useless exercise.

I learned my trade on the job: It is looking and talking, reading and thinking, trying to get close to the truth and meaning at the center of public events while they are still going on and writing my version of reality well enough for other people to understand and use that information to enrich their own lives.

That's what I did then. It's what I try to do now. I hope I do it fairly and well. Certainly I love doing it and have learned a few truths for myself over these 30 years. The greatest thing I believe is that here the people rule, and it is a big mistake to ignore something I learned when I was an engineer: For every force there is an equal and opposite reaction.

I have no patience for scenarios -- America in decline is the latest one -- based on the expectation that 250 million Americans will roll over and play dead. We are not like that, and we are free to do what serves our own individual purposes. The greatest stories of my professional lifetime came from the bottom up, usually accompanied by snickering in newspapers and the halls of political and economic power. The four most important of those risings of free people were civil rights, begun by brave kids at segregated lunch counters, feminism, the political ascension of conservative Christians and environmentalism.

And the greatest danger, I came to conclude, in Phillipsburg and every place else, is government lying. What the people know and when they know it is the engine of American democracy. Information that is wrong or late is like sugar in the gas tank of that engine.

As amazed as I am that 30 years have passed since I was a 23-year-old editor typing all night on my mother's old portable and that I am now the age Bill Blackton was when we shook hands the first time, it was a thrill to be back. It's not the paper I ran, but then I've changed, too. My hair is now the same color as Mr. Blackton's.

I moved on from Phillipsburg after three years because I cared much more about writing than business, going first to the Newark Evening News and then to the New York Herald Tribune. The big time. Well, the Trib is gone and so is the Newark News, but the Free Press is still there, and I felt proud to have had something to do with that.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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