Ed McMahon could have been standing behind me with a giant check. I wouldnt have cared. At last I was getting the shot I had always hoped for. But all was not well. Instead of saying, "Yes, yes, God-oh-God-oh yes Jesus, YES," like any sane man in my position would, I asked, "Are you sure you know what you are doing?" I began listing my faults beginning with congenital laziness and ending with a distinct lack of experience as a journalist. I told him in no uncertain terms that I didnt understand the rules, or know a reverse pyramid from a hole in the ground.
Thats why I want you over here, he said. If Id wanted a reporter I would have hired a reporter. But I really like what you do and I want you to do that for us full time. But my terror was greater than my ambition and more doubts were expressed.
Hey, if you dont want it thats okay, he said shrugging, But I believe in you. And that was good enough for me. And that was Dennis. His abundant confidence in others was always greater than the small reserve he kept for his own personal uses. It was the kind of confidence that is so complete that any betrayal would be worse than drowning of someone elses kittens. He never wanted by-the-numbers cookie-cutter reporting. He wanted to nurture voices that were independent and distinct. He wanted writing that nourished people.
Almost a week after beginning my new career Dennis was on the intercom fairly shouting, Davis, get your butt in my office. I didnt think I had been around long enough to screw anything up, but nonetheless slunk into the room riddled with reasonless guilt. I still dont know exactly what inspired him to call me in that day, though I am glad he did. And I hope he wont mind the small betrayal of his trust that is necessary to relay the story.
Dont ever tell Ken Neill [our publisher] that I told you this because he hates it, Dennis began. Kens biggest criticism of Flyer writers is that they walk around this building like they think they are the Marines."
He went on to explain that while he felt the sense of pride, purpose, and independence that created this illusion was ultimately a good thing he had spoken to the staff and asked them all to tone things down a bit: to at least make some attempt to work and play well with others.
But not you Davis, he said, I want you to be a Marine. No, a SEAL. Dont let anybody tell you there is only one way to do something. Dont take anybodys crap and dont feel like you have to answer to anybody but me. Now get out there and have fun. With his words bravado melted into something like real courage, and the sense of inadequacy that is part and parcel of being low man on the totem pole vanished. As a one-time college football player Ive had more than my share of pep talks, but none more effective.
This wasnt any empty, adrenaline building Go-team. It was a gift, and one of the best Ive ever received. It was genuine trust. It was what every man dreams of: the ability to simply be exactly who you are to the fullest degree imaginable.
So Dennis, today I spill one on the ground for you my fallen comrade, my friend and benefactor. If there are alt-weeklys on the other side perhaps well work together again some day. I can almost hear your voice now saying: Sheesh Davis, thanks to me you got to spend a whole lifetime as a writer and you still dont know how to use a comma. Useless. Utterly useless. Dont change a thing.