Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do and saw it through without exemption
I planned each charted course, each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this, I did it my way
Paul Anka wrote those verses in his classic, My Way, for Frank Sinatra after having dinner with the legend, who told him: “I’m quitting the business. I’m sick of it. I’m getting the hell out.”
Anka went back to New York and pulled out a 1867 French pop song, Comme d’habituda (As Usual), that he had acquired rights to, and went to work:
At one o’clock in the morning, I sat down at an old IBM electric typewriter and said, “If Frank were writing this, what would he say?” And I started, metaphorically, “And now the end is near.” I read a lot of periodicals, and I noticed everything was “my this” and “my that.” We were in the “me generation” and Frank became the guy for me to use to say that. I used words I would never use: “I ate it up and spit it out.” But that’s the way he talked. I used to be around steam rooms with the Rat Pack guys – they liked to talk like Mob guys, even though they would have been scared of their own shadows.
The song spent 75 weeks in the top UK 40 singles chart — a record that remains.
That song, My Way, stuck in my mind this morning as I woke up in a reflective mood, something that happens when one is 70.
I think back over seven decades.
It was sixty years ago when I decided what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I had sold my first photograph and story to a newspaper — The Farmville Herald in Prince Edward County. I liked knowing what was happening in my community, even if I didn’t like that Farmville and Prince Edward County were overtly racist areas that closed its public schools to avoid integration.
Even so, leaving Farmville brought mixed emotions. I had a paper route there, a spot on the Little League team and we had a movie theater where I could go on Saturdays to watch serials and films.
Floyd County, our next home, meant a farmhouse a dozen miles from the closet town and hills too steep for riding a bicycle. We didn’t have indoor plumbing for the first few years or a reasonable TV signal.
It did have a weekly newspaper where owner/editor Pete Hallman looked at my clips and hired me. The office and the Hallman home became my home away from home as I dreamed about escaping and heading out into the “real world.”
Ruth Hallman, Pete’s wife and my English and journalism teacher, helped by discovering that I could give up study halls for two years of school, attend summer school for one and skip a year of high school to graduate a year early.
So I finished my sophomore year in the spring of 1964 and began classes that fall as a senior — going from the class of 66 to the one for 65.
Skipping things became a habit. When I went to work for The Roanoke Times in 1965, I began college as a freshman at the University of Virginia’s Roanoke campus, which the university allowed me to do as a scholarship student with the understanding that I would transfer to the Charlottesville campus after my sophomore year.
But I was having too much fun as the Times’ youngest full-time reporter and I decided to skip my last two years of college. UVa allowed me to skip a year without hurting my scholarship but it ended when I decided to skip the second year.
By the time I accepted a new reporting job with The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois, in 1969, I gave up all intentions to finish college. Often, over the 50 years that followed, I have wondered if I made a mistake skipping those final years.
Education, however, never came up again in job interviews and more challenging and better paying jobs that followed. Ironically, while serving as acting city editor during my time at The Telegraphy, I had to turn down a job for a good candidate because he did not have a college degree. By then, the paper required a degree to get a reporting job.
I followed the rules. I was wrong.
I should have done it my way.