The state of one’s mind at age 74

Thinking back over the years on my birthday.
Doug Thompson Filming at The Floyd Country Store

“Old age,” legendary pitcher Satchel Paige once said, “is a case of mind over matter. If I don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

In my teens, I lived with the expectation that I would die before age 30. My father, an Electricians’ Mate on the USS Missouri battleship in World War II, survived the war and came home to marry the woman he met at the Navy Yard in Norfolk and produced a son, who didn’t know the dad who died in an industrial accident at a plant on the Tampa Bay in Florida in 1948. That son — me — was nine months old.

Dad’s brothers all died young, before age 30. My paternal grandmother buried all of her children long before she died in the 1990s as she approached age 100. As one of her grandchildren, I lived as hard as I could as a young man who believed life would be short.

I graduated from high school a year early because I gave up study halls for three years to get enough credits to finish my sophomore year and enter the next term as a senior. That allowed me to become the youngest full-time reporter ever at The Roanoke Times at age 17. I was in a hurry to pack in as much life as I could.

At age 21, I moved to Alton, Illinois, to become a reporter and photographer for The Telegraph in that city on the Metro East side of the St. Louis Metropolitan Area. Eight years later, I had been the city editor, then assistant executive editor in charge of the weekend edition of the paper, and had a twice-a-week opinion column that allowed me to often attack many habits and traditions of what I felt were out-of-date.

Logo for the column in The Telegraph in Alton, Illinois in the 1970s

At age 28, I turned down a job at another paper in another state because I was having too much fun in Alton and I didn’t feel like I had much time left since age 30 was approaching. That feeling of impending doom kept me living on the edge, and my grandfather used to say that “if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.”

Then Dec. 17, 1977, arrived, and I was still alive. Jinx broken. I had survived two serious crashes that should have killed me — a head-on collision with a rock wall that destroyed my Mustang Shelby GT-500 in the late 60s and a helicopter crash that killed others while I survived, four years later.

Passing age 30, still living, should have slowed me down, but it didn’t. My recklessness bordered on insanity: Driving at 90 miles-per-hour with the top down on my Triumph TR-6 in subfreezing temperatures at 2 in the morning over the Clark Bridge from Missouri to Illinois with a scantily-clad date. Somehow, we didn’t get caught. We’re still friends who exchange emails from time to time and laugh about such stunts.

Other stunts were even more dangerous, more stupid, and over the top. I worked hard, partied harder, and lived way too far over the edge.

Getting married in 1979, shortly before we moved to Washington, settled me down a little, but I still drank too much and partied harder than I should until June 6, 1994, when an intervention arranged by friends and wife Amy left me waking up in a strange hotel room in another city that I never remembered going to. That led me to attend my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and, as this is written, I have not had a drink of any alcohol for 27 years, 6 months, and 11 days.

As a career newspaperman and photojournalist, I have been lucky to have been at the right place at the right time over the years, from meeting and writing about a 16-year-old Roanoke high school girl who suffered the tragedy of an illegal abortion that left her without the ability to have children in the future, to street racers on Williamson Road in the Star City, to a violent heroin ring in Metro East St. Louis or a Secretary of State who hid more than $800,000 in cash stuffed in shoeboxes in his rented hotel suite in Springfield, Illinois.

I covered the 9/11 terror attacks on the Pentagon, Desert Storm in Iraq, the beginnings of the war in Afghanistan, and other hot spots in the world. As a staff member of the House of Representatives Science & Technology, I worked on the investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and the first release of information by Russia about the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

A photo I shot of an Israeli soldier who guards the prayer wall of the Old City of Jerusalem as a young man prays. It was, I felt, a contrast between the religious beliefs of that nation and the terror that always threatens them.

After photographing the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2002, Amy asked me to slow down and not accept an assignment to embed with a military unit for the return to Iraq in 2003, That, among other things, led to our decision to leave our Washington-area home of 23 years and move to Floyd County, where I hoped to take pictures of landscapes and ignore the politics and wars that dominated media life in the Nation’s Capitol.

But Wanda Combs, then editor of The Floyd Press, asked me to shoot a football game in 2004 and that led to a string of assignments to photograph other sports like basketball, volleyball, softball, soccer, track, and others.

Those assignments led to getting the nod to cover Circuit Court and the Board of Supervisors for the Press, which was the paper I worked on full-time in high school.

Covering high school state championship tournament in 201l3.

The life we thought we would leave behind in Washington, found us. A phone call from a Washington editor in the wee hours of the morning on April 16, 2007, had me grabbing my cameras and heading for Virginia Tech to provide early coverage of the man who killed 32 and himself and injured 127 others.

Assignments come in for photos and videos for CNN, MSBC and other outlets come in during election seasons and for other events. In 2009, I uncovered the sordid story of British-born Paul Allen (not the one of Microsoft fame), who conned the county board of supervisors and the economic development committee to spend money to support a “data center” in the county’s commerce park.

Allen, the investigation showed, had pulled similar cons on the Radford Arsenal and other communities and governments around the nation. A series of articles in The Floyd Press and Blue Ridge Muse showed Allen lied about projects he promised but never delivered, and the county pulled the plug on his scam.

Even with the revelations, the chairman of the economic development committee claimed he would “still listen” to any other proposals from Allen. He never got the chance. Allen went to prison for his part in a kiting scheme at a Tennessee Bank that was part of his operation.

Am I that good? Of course not. I have been a horrid asshole for too many years. I’ve disappointed too many people and not lived up to their expectations. I also made some boneheaded mistakes in my career. I have tried to apologize and make amends for each of them. One was wasting my time as a political operative during our first five years in Washington. We went there to learn a bit more about how the government did or did not work but, instead, I became part of the problem.

But, I’ve been a very lucky man who has, as previously noted, been at the right place at the right time. I returned to journalism to follow the thoughts of legendary Chicago newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne, who wrote that it “is the role of a newspaperman to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Although I worked for the Republicans for several years, I never joined their party. I am not a Republican. I am not a Democrat. I’m an American and there is a difference.

On the other hand, I am no longer a young man expecting to die by age 30. Today, I turn 74. Yes, old age is a state of mind and, on some days, I mind it a hell of a lot. Mostly, though, I just ignore it.

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