Jewish World Review Nov. 22, 2004 / 9 Kislev, 5765

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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A rare and true comfort | It was the worst of times, the best of times. There were four of us, two young, married couples, absolutely dedicated to the calling of journalism and working at a weekly newspaper in the relative boondocks of South Alabama.

They were editors. We were reporters. At a weekly paper the distinction is fine.

We were all young and poor by most measures. We had rental homes and cheap cars. My former husband and I used, for a while, an Igloo cooler instead of a refrigerator and shelves held up by cinder blocks. There was an emergency appendectomy with no health insurance.

Mostly we were all rich. We had thick hair and small waistlines. We could eat fried chicken every day at the Tally-Ho and not suffer. It was no great chore to stay up all night, or to make the long drive to Pensacola Beach for the day.

We lived in a place where wild wisteria draped the trees in the springtime, and where the only traffic jam was at the liquor store on the county line on Friday nights.

The movie "All the President's Men" came to the screen that year. The four of us went to see it together, believing in our hearts that we, too, could topple dishonest governments, slay sleazy dragons with fountain pens.

The route to toppling governments is a circuitous one.

The newspaper plant hummed with the commerce and complications of rural life. The sheriff might stop by to get one of us to photograph the busting up of a moonshine still. The mother of a child beauty queen would waddle in with her tarted-up daughter and trophy taller than she. A hunter would pose in the parking lot with a snake he had killed in the line of duty.

We took pictures of the first cotton boll to bloom and described with precision the Juliet sleeves of a wedding gown. We covered fiddlers' conventions and planning commissions, town-hall squabbles and football games.

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We learned to appreciate the necessity of accuracy. There's nobody more formidable than a country correspondent whose hand-scrawled copy has been misread and inaccurately transposed. Unless it's the bride whose seeded-pearl bodice you forgot.

If "Bob and Norah Martin motored to Evergreen on Thursday," you had better type the same. If the bride wore her silk white, you'd better get it right.

We might not have toppled a government every day, but we did slay our share of dragons.

It was the year of our country's bicentennial, and the threat of swine flu. We all watched together as a peanut farmer from Georgia won in our state, then won the South, to win the presidency.

All four of us remained in print journalism in one fashion or another. Nobody went back to school for a law degree, or took a cushy PR job with a great retirement plan. We are still newspaper people, for better or worse.

Our paths diverged, but home base still looks the same. We are all higher-mileage now, but easily can find our way back to that early and common enthusiasm, laugh at the memories and appreciate them, too.

You might have guessed. I saw my old friends the other day. They have children roughly the age we all were then, idealistic and unafraid, embracing the future the way only the young can.

We stayed up too late talking about the good old days, something only old people are supposed to do.

I was tired when they left, tempted to nap away the afternoon.

But I was happy as well. Some things you know and believe don't change with time or the prevailing political wind. Some things never really change, and that's a true and rare comfort.

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© 2004, Rheta Grimsley Johnson Distributed by King Features Syndicate