My already-inflated teenaged ego got a boost in 1965 when I became a full-time newspaper reporter for The Roanoke Times at age 17. It was a badge of honor I enjoyed.
Same in 1969, when I joined The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois just a couple of months past my 21st birthday. I was the youngest member of the staff. An interim appointment as city editor before age 25. No big deal, I said.
However, I was still a kid with the failing of a youngster and a mental capacity that could be described as “developing.” When I became a Congressional Chief of Staff before age 35, my colleagues called me a “youngster.”
That, the cliche says, was then. This is now. Somewhere along the line, I went for being “the kid” to become the oldest guy in the room.
Today, I am age 73, have a “frozen” left shoulder that limits my arm movements, a torn rotator cuff in my right one that would require surgery to repair if I was still a younger man. Right now, the orthopedist at Carilion Clinic, who examined the MRI and put the arm through a series of motion and strength tests, says it can be considered “normal wear and tear for someone your age.”
Doctors these days end most sentences with me after examinations with “for your age.” In 2012, after a motorcycle crash with a steer on dark U.S. 221 between Cave Spring and the bottom of Bent Mountain, the Carilion doctor who led the team that brought me back for the brink of death shook his head at our first meeting after I came out of a coma three weeks later.
“Riding a motorcycle is dangerous enough,” he said, “but doing so at your age is suicidal.”
I was 64 when that accident occurred. He predicted I would be hospitalized for at least five months. On Christmas Eve 2012, one month and 15 days after admission, I walked, gingerly, to my wife’s car for the ride home.
His final written report on my accident and recovery was summed up in the final sentence: “Patient is a walking miracle.”
Yes, I can still walk, but there is a serious limp, and the metal in my body from multiple surgeries over the years sets off metal detectors far and wide. I take 400 milligrams of Tramadol, an opiate pain medication, and 3900 milligrams of Tylenol 8-hour arthritis pain pills every day.
The meds don’t kill the pain but they do dull it enough to function. My knees pop loudly enough when walking that those who hear it stop and say “is that coming from you?”
No, I’m not the youngster anymore. But I still trape up and down the sidelines of football games to photograph sports pictures for The Floyd Press and other publications. Same for volleyball and the upcoming Spring sports. I move more slowly but, somehow, I seem to get the photos of touchdown pass catches and key plays.
Walking back to the car after a game can be slow and painful. Sometimes, I collapse into bed. Other times, I fall asleep at the computer working on the photos for the paper and web sites.
Even so, at 0500 each day, I wake up without the need of an alarm clock, climb out of bed and swallow enough pills to let my legs and other parts of my sore body function. Sometimes, soaking in the hot tub helps. Then, I manage to get through each day as often as the oldest kid on the block.
When it comes to the photojournalsm profession I love and have practiced for more than 55 years, I’m still a kid who loves to play with his toys — the cameras that provide the photos my tired eyes compose through viewfinders.
Even now, I feel like the 17-year-old kid on his first daily newspaper job in Roanoke, doing what I love and love doing so.
Satchel Paige once said that age if simply a case of “mind over matter.”
“If I don’t mind, it don’t matter,” he said.
Damn right, Satchel. Good words to live by.