Forcing the Dream Part I

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I always saw this ad in my head:

The New York Times seeks a smart, fast and ambitious reporter to cover the (pick your war) from our (pick your bureau). The reporter will join an energetic four-person team covering this and other conflicts in the region. This is a high-profile position, as the world is watching to see if this conflict spreads and involves other nations and regions. The reporter will be expected to consistently break wire-moving news and to write insightful features on important developments as well as to report on human rights violations and the lives of citizens caught up in the conflict.

By the time I graduated from journalism school the dream was dead.

The New York Times and Washington Post effectively disassembled their world-wide bureaus during my last two years as a student at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.

I used to walk into the study room on the ground floor of Allen Hall in hopes of finding a note posted to the bulletin board announcing internships in places like Moscow, Mexico City or Madrid, but I never did.

By the end of my junior year, I was looking at spending the summer interning at a local weekly paper covering city council and the county fair. My wife was watching my dream die right in front of her eyes, and it was a conversation we had about how we loved to travel together so much that got me thinking about E-mailing some editors at English-language newspapers around the world.

I sent a dozen notes out to newspapers like the St. Petersburg Times, the Prague Post, the Kyiv Post and some papers in China and the Middle East. Within a few weeks I’d heard back from no less than half that dozen.

My favorite reply came from the Kyiv Post in Ukraine.

“You want to come work at this newspaper for free for the summer? I think you’re crazy, but I’d be crazy not to take you up on it. Come on over.”

My dad graciously gave me some of his air miles to purchase a ticket, and I left my wife and two young boys on their own to pursue this journalism dream that didn’t have a raft to float on.

Two days later I was sitting at a desk hastily cleared of old Kyiv Post publications and calling a government source about damages from a huge set of thunderstorms that pounded the region just after my arrival.

Within a week I was working on a story about the 2,000-strong Palestinian community settled right in the heart of the city. I spent time with them in their homes at their Mosques and the Christian services they attended with their Ukrainian wives on Sundays. I wrote my first front-page feature story on a part of Kyiv culture that not even the local dailies would touch.

By the end of the summer, the Orange Revolution was more than just an idea, it had fomented into a huge political wheel rolling toward a November showdown in Kyiv. I wrote about some of the earliest effects like student riots at the U.S. Embassy, even interviewing U.S. Sen. John McCain when he visited the city with a large contingent of U.S. politicians.

I spent many nights at the famous political hangout known as The Baraban (the drum) just off the city’s main thoroughfare. The politics were hot, and reporters recited poetry and defended their latest articles. Some talked of going into hiding after reporting on the country’s four ruling oligarchs, while I soaked it all up like a sponge.

I was as green as you could be in journalism. Not even worthy of being a cub reporter at the time. But the editor, a sharp New Yorker of Ukrainian background, liked my ambition and my sense for good feature stories about culture, people and places.

The closest war-like experience was the explosion of a pipe bomb in a market in the neighborhood I was staying in during my last week in city. And I survived a long hitch-hiking trip across the country on my last weekend there. 

It wasn’t war-time reporting, but it was electric, and I was absolutely sure of what I wanted to do the rest of my life.

With my wife’s encouragement, ideas and blessings, I had forced the dream, even if briefly, and I got a taste for it that is as strong and salty on my tongue today as it was the day I left Kyiv seven years ago.


4 thoughts on “Forcing the Dream Part I”

  1. Finding the electricity in a story is the storyteller’s art. I interviewed a woman who was trying to start a local library. I listened long enough and well enough to hear how she assisted Jonas Salk with the polio vaccines. The stories behind the stories are often the best. The explosions and violent deaths aren’t quite the same but the stories can be just as engaging, and a little less life threatening. Something your loved ones might appreciate more than you do.

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