I clashed with my editor when I was a high school sports writer at a suburban newspaper chain in St. Louis. 

Dennis was a peaceable man in his 50s who seemed to have resigned himself to this life of high school athletes and coaches and sports seasons. To deadlines and strange hours and low pay. He’d also resigned himself to the world’s politics and economics, The Man, and all systems he viewed as unchangeable-so-why-bother.

I was a young man of my late 20s who was not long out of the Army and just past graduate school. My engine was revving with impatience, unresolved anger and confidence. And school loan debt. Not to mention what I saw as a need to recover time and wages lost, compared to my peers who began their careers right out of college, due to my time spent in the Army and graduate school.

One night, Dennis and I argued through/around our adjoining office wall. It was a space once given to medical patients and since turned into a newspaper office. A maze of walls and doorways and cabinets carving up an uninspiring interior. Fluorescent-filled with little natural light. 

I did something I’d never done before and haven’t since, even when working elsewhere with the worst of bosses in the years that followed. I raised my volume and lobbed an F-bomb.

The other young sportswriter I shared the office with was standing in a position at that moment from which he could view each of us through our separate doorways. He would later tell me how my bomb had visibly shaken Dennis, that peaceable man.

One night years after I’d moved on from that newspaper and from newspapers in general, I was at home when Dennis called me on the phone. It was an accident. He’d meant to call whatever new, young reporter he was currently escorting through this career way station. He’d used an old phone list and reached me instead.

We had a pleasant conversation. Not long or short. Not rushed. No animosity. 

In the years that followed my times with Dennis (he’d hired me twice), I’d thought about what he did for me as a writer: He allowed me to be me. Even when I was likely making a fool of myself with our readership. 

At that brash age, I wrote for myself and confidently pushed it onto the page. I didn’t care if the suburban-slash-rural audience thought it pretentious that I threw in a French phrase, spelled horribly wrong, as it turns out. 

Or that I played with vocabulary, printing somewhat obscure words just to amuse myself with finding uses for them. 

Or that I once included “hearty” and “hardy” in the same paragraph, to highlight their sameness and separateness. Again, my amusement with language. 

Or that I once wrote a lead for a high school hockey game that included seven one-word sentences to illustrate the whiplash scoring between the two teams.

Dennis not only allowed creative phrasing and storytelling in our work, he urged it. He knew that we needed to be compelling writers or no one would care to read. As obvious as that might sound, it felt like a rare quality in an editor. At least at such a medium-rung of newspapering. It was meaningful to me. It was something I needed. And yet somehow we butted horns.

There were years after that accidental phone call when I thought we’d run into each other somewhere. Maybe at a restaurant or a Cardinals baseball game. I’d grown. I’d tempered myself. A little, anyway. I’d traded in some of the fire for humility. I wanted to thank Dennis face to face, a compliment that he no doubt would have deflected. Yet one he deserved and I wanted him to hear.

As the years slid by, and not having run into him anywhere by chance, I decided to look him up online. Maybe I’d just send him an email. Instead of a current email address, I found an obituary. He was 61. 

I kept digging. Seeking confirmation, understanding. Somewhere I found the cause. Throat cancer. I thought of the stories he used to tell of his earlier newspapering days, in which it was common to smoke at his desk, he said. And to stash cans of warm beer in a drawer for those late nights of writing to deadline.

I still think of Dennis, and not infrequently, these many years later. The abrasion of our time together felt unnecessary, whyever it was. I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t think he did either. It felt like a simple misunderstanding that swelled beyond reason. Two men of words who didn’t use them well enough to speak with each other.

Je le regrette, mais c’est la vie je suppose.

The Editor is #Two in the weekly memoir series, Among Other Things. What’s it about? Read Introducing ‘Among Other Things,’ A Weekly Memoir Series.