Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 7 Aug 2003 08:03:40 -0400

California Dreamland


As that summer began 40 years ago, I had no idea how much it would mean to me. I wasn't thinking ahead then as a 20-year-old, halfway through Drake University without yet declaring a major other than running.

My only reason for going to California was to bum around as a runner for a few months. The only place I knew to go on my first trip to that state was Los Altos. This San Francisco suburb was home to Track & Field News, the magazine that fed my fantasies each month.

I dreamed about making T&FN's pages as a runner. I didn't dream about ever working there.

I'd written to Bert Nelson, the publisher, asking if he knew of anyone with rooms to rent. He had handed the note to Tom Oakley, his business manager. I indirectly owe him my writing life.

Tom shared his house with a shifting cast of runners. To free up a rentable room, he slept in the garage.

It wasn't a remodeled garage but one with the smell of gasoline in the air, grease spots on the floor and tools hanging on the walls. All Tom had done was evict his cars and replace them with minimal furniture.

He wrote me, "I don't have any rooms available in the house right now, but there's space in the garage with me. The rent is $35 a month." Sounded good to me.

My second day in town, Tom said as he headed off to work, "Would you like to see the Track & Field News office?" What better way to start my stay here than a guided tour of my favorite magazine's home?

The office was an unmarked storefront. We entered through the back door, into the shipping room.

Tom gave me a quick glimpse of the "front office." Staffers I knew from bylines, publisher Bert Nelson and editor Dick Drake, stood to shake hands but had no time for chitchat.

"Well, that's it, the whole operation," said Tom. "What are your plans for the rest of the day?"

I told him maybe I'd walk back home. This was many miles from the office, and I wasn't sure how to get there.

"I can drive you there at noon," he said. "Until then maybe I can find something for you to do here."

He showed me a customized typewriter. "Here's where we type our subscription cards," he explained. "They go into the slot on top."

He told me to type a few to see how it went. His warning: "You can't make any mistakes because there's no way to correct them."

I inserted a card and tried typing. Oops! Another yielded the same result, then again and again.

Tom watched over my shoulder. Finally he said as I messed up the fifth card in a row, "This isn't working out."

He thought about what to do with me next, then said, "Do you know much about track?" Hearing that I "memorize your magazine each month" was good enough.

"Dick Drake is always swamped with work," he said. "Let me go up there and ask if he needs any help today."

I waited in the back room as voices too low to understand discussed my prospects. Tom returned to say, "Dick wants to talk to you."

DICK DRAKE, only two years older than I, had signed on as the editor that spring. He was still learning the job -- learning mostly that it was more than one person could do.

The harried, fretful editor (I was to learn this was a chronic condition for him) pointed to a desk made from a door. "See that pile of newspapers. It keeps growing. Can you go through the sports sections, cutting out anything even remotely connected to our sport?"

This done, he asked, "Can you type?" Apparently this hadn't come up in his talk with Tom Oakley. "Yes, fairly well," I told him.

"We have stories that need typing," said Dick. "You can use the typewriter over there."

He didn't say that mistakes weren't allowed but did tell me, "I'll proofread the material, and then you'll correct it. You will do the same with my stories."

My typing improved with practice, and I had lots of that. Dick kept asking me back, until by summer's end I worked fulltime plus overtime.

It wasn't glamorous work. I had no bylines; in fact, wrote no stories of my own.

That didn't matter. I'd arrived in dreamland.

When the time came to leave, Dick asked, "Can you stay on as our permanent editorial assistant?" I almost stayed, but wasn't ready to leave family and school just yet.

I returned to Iowa changed by this accidental job. Now I had a direction. I still didn't sign on for the full journalism program at Drake but designed an unofficial major of my own in this field.

I took the courses that would help me most -- reporting, editing and publication design/production. I became the student newspaper's track and cross-country writer.

I graduated with a nondescript liberal-arts degree and only one marketable skill, as a journalist. It opened the door at the Des Moines Register for a year of on-the-job training as a sports copy-editor.

This was the only real job I've ever had. All that followed seemed like indulging in the hobbies of running and writing about it.

Again, Dick Drake made this happen. He called me at the newspaper with the best sales pitch he could have given on a late-winter Iowa night: "How would you like to come to California?" His editorial assistant had been drafted, and Dick needed a replacement right away.

"I'll take it," I said without hearing anything about pay or working conditions. I was back going back to dreamland to stay -- first at Track & Field News, then in various roles at Runner's World.

This all started 40 summers ago because I traveled from Drake, the university, to Drake, the editor. It started because the student couldn't type perfectly and because the editor was overworked.

My only regret, reflecting on this good life now, is that I can't thank Dick Drake for opening it up to me. He died of AIDS 15 years ago.

(Next issue: How the summer of 1963 meant at least as much to my running as to my writing.)


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