I was climbing toward the sky when I saw The Scarf.
The Scarf and I were online buddies two years ago. I watched the Scarf go out west, drawn by a basketball odyssey. The Scarf wanted me to go with him. I couldn’t. Work got in the way. But not for The Scarf.
The Scarf had to go because The Scarf wanted to watch our school battle for a national championship — and a national championship had never even been whispered from our lips since John Roche slipped on No. 11 and hit the hardwood.
It was all so … new. I mean, I’m from South Carolina, the land of Woulda Coulda Why Didn’t We Stay in the ACC.
This happens to other schools. Not ours.
So, The Scarf went, and I watched it all. I saw The Scarf in an arena and on an escalator, I saw The Scarf behind the bench, and I heard about The Scarf driving all night to and from Phoenix to Dallas – a 1,100-mile round trip — to see both the Lady Gamecocks and the Gamecocks play.
It was all to witness history — and get a little crazy. The Scarf wanted to see the Lady Gamecocks and Gamecocks go after a national basketball crown within days of one another.
The Gamecocks got oh so close. The Lady Gamecocks made us proud. The Scarf saw every minute.
Or Jeff did.
On Facebook, Jeff became our modern-day Odysseus with the Cheshire grin. He armed himself with The Scarf everywhere he went with the two Final Fours and stretched it out wide for everyone to see so they could read the last three words of a century-old tune, our university’s alma mater:
Forever To Thee.
Jeff wrote about it. You’ll find it here. But of course, he would write about it.
He’s no stranger to a keyboard. But none of us sitting near the sky were strangers to a keyboard.
We were all journalists who found one another more than three decades ago at the University of South Carolina, and we came together because of our shared pursuit for nouns and verbs, story and truth.
We came together once again the first Saturday after Christmas in section Row 541 of Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium. We wanted to see our Gamecocks play some team from Virginia.
That’s where I saw The Scarf again – as well as Bob and Jeff, Donna, Betsy and Andrew. My wife Katherine and I joined them on Row 14 for an afternoon of watching football.
But football really wasn’t the draw. They were. We all had worked elbow to elbow, cheek to jowl 33 years ago when journalism was our go-to career.
And we were us.
We hadn’t been this conversation close in nearly three decades, and as I sat watching the University of South Carolina play horrible football – and it was horrible – I didn’t care. I thought where our friendships first took root and blossomed.
It was in a dungeon.
Our dungeon was as long and narrow as a bowling-alley lane. It had no windows, a low ceiling and two rows of computers that today could pass for an exhibit at any museum.
That was the newsroom of the Carolina Reporter, the practicum newspaper for seniors majoring in journalism at the University of South Carolina.
The Carolina Reporter still exists. It’s got a sharp website, involves seniors majoring in broadcasting as well as us print refugees. Check it out. It’s got a real 21st century feel.
But in the fall of 1985, when the internet was something out of “The Jetsons,” what we had was a dungeon.
It sat beneath the Frank McGuire Arena, down a short sloping hall in the Carolina Coliseum in Columbia, South Carolina. Thirty-three years ago, I lived there five days a week from the day’s first light to way past sunset.
I joined a crowd of earnest twenty-somethings, all drawn by the love of story — or the chance to be next Woodward and Bernstein. That’s where I joined Bob and Donna, Andrew, Betsy and Jeff.
We knew what we were doing. Well, kinda.
We all had been through internships and chased stories for The Gamecock, USC’s student newspaper. Plus, we all had been through reporting with Pat McNeely and copy-editing hell with Dr. Henry Price.
We had taken shorthand, and a few of us – me included – had to take a typing class to bone up on our keyboard skills. I still remember those speed drills we did pounding away on typewriters as big as a tank.
It’s no wonder I broke so many keyboards in my daily journalism career. But I digress. Back to the Carolina Reporter.
It was different. Way different.
It was journalism boot camp, steered by a Massachusetts ex-pat and a Parrothead named Bill.
We reported stories, wrote stories, wrote columns, edited columns, edited stories, took photos, developed photos in the dark room — remember those? — and laid out stories with an exacto knife and glue.
That was our hub; South Carolina was our professional playground.
We walked – and drove – everywhere.
We walked the halls of the General Assembly just up the street, near the ginormous statue of Confederate general Wade Hampton, and tried to pigeon-hole politicians to grab some comment about something.
We also walked into homeless shelters, police stations, fire stations, and neighborhoods with pad and pen in hand. We wielded our Carolina Reporter press card like a sword and shield.
We drove to every corner of Columbia. We even drove to Myrtle Beach to cover a hurricane that never happened because we went everywhere to find stories.
Then, we went back to our dungeon of a classroom.
We went back to make more follow-up phone calls, sweat the details, stare at a blinking screen and bang out something kinda coherent on a computer akin to driving a Ford Model T.
One cold fall morning way before sunrise, Bob and I went to a homeless shelter to get homeless people’s take on their world.
From what I remember, we were a bit scared over what we’d run into. We were simply two sons of the middle-class South unaccustomed to talking to the poor and destitute. Bob and I went there incognito. We didn’t shave for days so we could pose as homeless ourselves to blend in.
How stupid was that, right?
Anyway, about 30 minutes later, as we sat eating breakfast and talking to folks around us, we realized how stupid going in cloaked was. We pulled out our reporter steno pads and began asking questions. We asked questions for at least an hour or so, and Bob and I left breathless, adrenalin-rich over what we just did.
Back at the dungeon, I remember our professor, Glenn Surrette, the Massachusetts ex-pat, had an idea. He told us we should go to the Governor’s Mansion and use the details we saw to show the difference between the rich and the poor of South Carolina.
We said no.
Today, I would’ve said, “Hell, yes!”
That one story reminds me how far I have grown from those days in the dungeon. But it also shows me how bonds can form and solidify during the most formative years of your life when you’re pushing yourself into what you perceive as the scary unknown.
Back then, I was simply a wide-eyed senior from Charleston, S.C., a sergeant major’s son, who felt trepidatious about asking questions with a pen and pad in hand.
A journalist? Not quite yet.
I was no Pete Hamill or Molly Ivins. I was just a USC student living down an alley, between two old houses on campus in an apartment across from Gambrell Hall. It had this funky zig-zag staircase, and it had a name:
The Bird Nest.
I had a big poster of a bald-headed Australian singer on my wall, a big stereo on the first floor between a trio of couches and a funk-loving, George Clinton-playing roommate known as “The Brass Ant,” his DJ handle on the Awesome Alternative.
That was the tagline the campus radio station, WUSC (90.5 FM). I’ll always remember that spot on the left side of the dial.
Back then, I viewed any REM album as an epiphany, a Trek 10-speed as my campus taxi and a gritty spot 10 minutes away as my place to be on any weekend night.
I’d walk across the railroad tracks, down a hill, pass Andy’s and go around a concrete corner to discover a door where none of us undergrads minding standing in line.
Or Group Therapy.
Whatever you called it, it was a sweet place to drink swill, stay for hours and toss a music request to the mustached bartender spinning vinyl on two turntables behind the taps.
Close to sunrise, you’d walk home.
Always wicked fun.
The dungeon … was not.
But it was our workshop, a place where we embraced pixels and ink. Like a blacksmith who uses heat to shape steel, we relied on that narrow alley of a room to shape us into the journalist we all hoped to become.
It was sink or swim, with professors Jack Hillwig, Bill Rogers and Glenn Surrette working to keep you above water. You felt anxious, even fearful. Those feelings enveloped you. But you were surrounded by classmates, helping you at every step with every story.
Ask any Carolina Reporter alum about their semester of immersing themselves in all things journalism, and they’ll exhale and tell some story laced with expletives and laughs.
You cry, you lose sleep, you lose track of days, and you live on fast food, pizza, Diet Coke and coffee. Meanwhile, your own fear clings to you like a second skin. For some of us, it was the first time in our lives in which we stared in the mirror and asked ourselves, “Do I really want to do this?”
The photo you see below was taken at the end of our academic ordeal. That’s why we’re smiling. We … were done.
I got this photo from Donna a few days back. I have the same photo, but it’s photo-copy black. In my photo, we all look like zombies out of “The Walking Dead.” We’re all ink blots. In Donna’s photo, we look like us. Donna identifies us all in her caption.
She called us “survivors.” We were.
In “My Losing Season,” Pat Conroy wrote about interviewing his former teammates and mining for meaning their long-ago hoop dreams at The Citadel. In his book, which came out in 2002, there is this sweet line about the passage of time.
“Why do they not teach you that time is a fingersnap and an eyeblink, and that you should not allow a moment to pass you by without taking joyous, ecstatic note of it, not wasting a single moment of its swift, breakneck circuit?”
I definitely felt that five days after Christmas in section 541.
We were six survivors from the Carolina Reporter, and we bounced from seat to seat, catching up, sharing stories, taking selfies and hollering at the horror of our game.
And as I played musical chairs, I heard something. It threw me at first. But the more I heard it, the more I time-traveled back to those days – and nights – in our journalistic dungeon where the round clock on the wall didn’t really exist.
All of us, I bet, run across things that make our senses jump. For me, it’s the smell of a Lowcountry marsh, the sight of a Shakedown Street at dusk or the slow moan of a harmonica before a screen door slams and Mary’s dress waves.
Well, on that balmy Saturday afternoon, I heard it once again.
During all those anxious times laboring over copy, wondering what the hell we were doing – and if we were doing it right — Donna would laugh over the many inane comments she heard.
And there were soooooo many inane comments.
That was our undergrad life. Someone would say something, and Donna would just break out in giggles.
Still does. Her two daughters even give her grief about it.
That’s what I heard along Row 14.
It all came back. We were back.
We all hadn’t been together since Bob. Jeff and I helped toss Andrew Miller into the pool one Saturday night nearly 29 years ago.
Andrew tied the marital knot with a cute copy editor at the Post & Courier we all knew as Betsy Huggins.
That day, she became Betsy Miller.
Betsy and Andrew met at the J School. We all met at J School. But our baptism by fire underneath the Frank McGuire Arena forged us together.
From there, we were all catapulted into our careers.
I went from Greenville, S.C., to Boston and back south to Andrew’s hometown — Greensboro, N.C. On the second day of 1990, I began at the News & Record. I saw it one of the best papers of its size in the country.
I got there with the help of one of our friends in the dungeon. That was Ann Alexander. She was an editor at the N&R at the time. But in college, I knew her as Ann Farmer. I met her first when she was the editor at The Gamecock, a journalist from Virginia with the rapier wit.
She could crumble you in an instant.
That’s her in the photo to the right. She’s with Jeff, and Jeff is doing … er … well … something.
Anyway, I worked at the N&R for nearly a quarter century. I met my wife there, we started a family, I set down roots and I made Andrew’s hometown my hometown — and he made my hometown his.
All with a little help of the dungeon.
Crazy how all that happened.
Talk about serendipity.
Or something. It was definitely a God thing.
Today, all six of us are immersed in the third quarter of our lives and living that prescient line from an old Al Stewart song about how the years run too short and the days too fast.
We’ve all become parents, raised kids, watched them grow up and seen them head out the door to college and toward careers. We’ve dealt with aging parents, ailing parents and parents who have passed from this plain, and we’ve learned firsthand the difference between happiness and heartache.
And sometimes, that difference can be sliver-thin.
But on that first Saturday after Christmas, that all seemed an ocean away. Journalism originally drew us together. But what was odd was this: Journalism only anchors one of us today.
Bob is now a middle-school teacher, Jeff is in sales, and Donna is a product manager at a technology company. I’m a higher-education scribe, and Betsi is an example of what is wrong with newspapers today.
After 32 years at the Charleston Post & Courier, rising up through the ranks of design and into the upper reaches of newspaper management — and mentoring journalists all along the way — she took a buyout and left the paper in October. Betsy was offered a lesser-paying job in another department, away from the newsroom, the spot where her passion flourished. Betsy said no.
All that institutional memory and experience. Out the door.
Still ticks me off. Always will. Saw it in Greensboro, heard about it in Charleston, and it’s happening everywhere I look in every town, every city with a newspaper — buyouts and layoffs meant to minimize expenses in order to maximize profits when profit is hard to come by.
Public service be damned. The need to fully cover a city be damned. The need to speak truth to power, tell a poignant story found nowhere else and move people to move — or at least appreciate their corner of the world for what it is and what it could be.
All that be damned. Bastards, those bean counters are.
Andrew, her husband, is the lone journalist among us. He’s a longtime sports reporter at the Post & Courier, a near legend in the Lowcountry, my old stomping grounds.
Andrew chased quotes and scores there for nearly 30 years. He was doing that Saturday. He was writing a sidebar to the Gamecocks’ game. Then, he showed up in Row 14.
“I told our beat writer that my friends who hadn’t been all together since my wedding had come to the game,” Andrew told us, “And he said, ’What are you doing here?”
Or something like that.
We stayed in Section 541 to the bitter end — and it was ugly. We didn’t care. We went to Jeff’s house later that night and to a hotel the next morning off a highway exit I’ve already forgotten.
But I haven’t forgotten what Andrew said. It was over breakfast before we all journeyed back home.
“Let’s not wait another 29 years to get together,” he told us.
We won’t. Can’t. Do the math. But when it comes to age, I like to think like Clint Eastwood. He’s 88, and a writer asked him recently how he maintains his vitality, professionally and personally.
“There’s an old saying I heard from a friend of mine,” Eastwood told him, grinning. “He’ll say, ‘Because I never let the old man in.’”
Never let the old man in. I’ll subscribe to that.
But I’ll also subscribe to what I found a few days ago from Quaker author Parker Palmer. It’s from his latest book, “”On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old.”
“The junk I really need to jettison in my old age is psychological junk—such as longtime convictions about what gives my life meaning that no longer serve me well. For example, who will I be when I can no longer do the work that has been a primary source of identity for me for the past half century?
“I won’t know the answer until I get there. But on my way to that day, I’ve found a question that’s already brought me a new sense of meaning. I no longer ask, “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?” Instead I ask, “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?”
Oh, I have an answer. Donna’s laugh is one. Seeing The Scarf again is another. But that’s just for starters.
It’s also a few words, too. With the six of us singing, arm and arm way out of key.
Just ask Jeff.
We hail thee, Carolina, and sing thy high praise;
With loyal devotion, remembering the days,
When proudly we sought thee, thy children to be;
Here’s a health, Carolina, forever to thee!
Months in a dungeon will do that.