"Jim? It's Julian."
"Hey. Merry Christmas, etc. etc."
"Yeah, you too. Listen, you got a minute? I got a story idea for you."
Julian Farnsworth is managing editor of the Columbus Record, the newspaper for which I had worked for the past two decades and counting.
The counting, however, was ending very soon. As of next week -- January 2 of the coming year -- the Record would cease to be. We had always been Columbus, Ohio's second newspaper in terms of circulation. However, those of us who had grown up with the Record had always thought that in quality, we were number one.
Well, evidently we had been wrong. Columbus, a thriving, growing city -- now the largest city in the state -- was about to become a one-paper town. It was the way of the world. Newspapers were being crushed by competition from television and the Internet.
I was now -- and until January 2 would be -- the Record's Washington bureau chief. I'd held that relatively prestigious job for the past seven years. So, OK, I was "chief" of a staff of three people. It wasn't exactly ABC News. But it was a great job, and I had loved it and thrived on it for nearly a decade since moving from Columbus. And, unlike many of my colleagues on the staff back in Ohio, I was going to land on my feet when we got our walking papers the following week. At forty, I was reasonably well-known in the business, and I had been snapped up by an online news magazine. I would be staying in the Nation's Capital, getting a hefty twenty-five-percent pay raise, and enjoying greater freedom to write what interested me than I had ever before experienced.
That didn't keep me from regretting the demise of my first and only civilian employer, the beloved Columbus Record.
"Still coming up with story ideas, Jules? With the paper ready to go to sleep and never wake up in just a few more days?"
"It's for the final edition, on the second," Julian said. "You remember the first story you ever did for the Record?"
"It was an obituary," I said. "I think I did four or five my first day."
"Yeah, yeah. But I mean your first actual feature assignment. Do you remember it? ... I do!"
"New Year's baby story," I said. "Jeez, Jules, that was twenty-one years ago this week!"
"Yep. You were still a part-timer. Just starting back to college after your army hitch."
"I'm amazed that you remember all that."
"Why wouldn't I? I hired you, didn't I? You'd been home from your army hitch for, what? Something like a week, am I right? You were starting back to college for the winter quarter at Ohio State right after the first of the year. And you were looking for work as a writer. Part-time work."
"What better than a morning paper?"
"Hell, you did six hours a day, and eight on Saturday. Damned near to being a full-timer, really. Thirty-eight-hour week!"
"I needed all the hours I could get, the way the Record paid its rookie writers."
"I remember all that stuff because I was the one who took a chance on you, and it paid off. I've always been proud of myself about that. About spotting talent. You were good, Jimbo! You were the best reporter I ever hired."
"God, this must be an awful assignment you're cooking up for me, the way you're laying it on so thick!"
"Not awful. Not at all. It's just an accident of geography, and I'll admit it's a little out of your usual political line."
"For the final edition? What do you want? Nostalgia? The thoughts of an Old China Hand on the paper's last day?"
"Naw. We're going to have plenty of that from some of the really old guys and gals on the staff right here in Columbus. Hell, Jimmy, you're just a kid. For most of us here, this is it -- early, or sometimes not-so-early, retirement. Forced retirement."
"So OK, lay it on me."
"New Year's baby story, way back in 1987."
"Yeah? What about it?"
"That kid you wrote the story about is twenty-one years old on the first of January."
"Happens in the best families."
"She's older now than you were when you wrote the story!"
"Not by much."
"We decided that twenty-one is still the age of adulthood in most people's minds. Could have done the eighteen-year-old baby, I guess, but we're old-fashioned around here. Twenty-one it is. Anyway, we did a little spadework, some where-are-they-now research about the eighteen-year New Year's baby and the twenty-one-year baby, and your kid looks like the better prospect."
"For what, exactly?"
"For a follow-up story. Nostalgia, like you said. Only, when we looked the girl up, it turns out her family moved away a few years after she was born. She's not in Columbus anymore. She's right there on your doorstep in our nation's capital."
"And you want me to interview her and ask her how it feels to be twenty-one years old? Don't you think I'm a little bit overqualified for that kind of feature, Jules?"
"Hey, it's kind of a nice little circle, isn't it? I mean, you're here in Columbus for the start of her life, and right at the start of your career as a newsman, and now you're interviewing her for a story that'll shut down your old paper forever. And she's entering adulthood at that very same time. It's got the makings of a good little feature, Jimmy."
Only Julian Farnsworth had ever called me "Jimmy." These days, I was Mr. Dignity for the Columbus Record -- James Stallworth. My last name sounded a little, on first blush, like the word "stalwart," and that's what I had tried to be. It had been more than a decade since the paper had asked me to do a lightweight feature story on something as inconsequential as some New Year's baby's twenty-first birthday.
Well, these were interesting times. It wasn't as if I was too busy to do the story. Knowing your paper's about to fold kind of reduces the workload of weighty stories you're trying to turn out for next week's editions.
Anyway, it could have been worse. It could be the kid's bat mitzvah I'd been asked to cover.
So I got the girl's name and address from Julian and told him I'd get in touch with her and see what we could cook up. I had something like four days in which to arrange an interview, get with this young woman, take a few pictures of Miss 1987, get some fluffy details about her Life So Far, and scribble out a little feature for the Columbus Record's final offering to the people of Ohio.
Her name was Georgia Hamilton. According to the information passed to me by Julian, her family had moved to Pittsburgh after leaving Columbus. Her parents, for all I knew, still lived there. But Georgia was right here in D.C., a student at George Washington University. Julian didn't have details beyond that, but he did have a telephone number where I supposedly could make contact with her and attempt to set up an appointment.
And so Jim Stallworth, political correspondent for a moribund newspaper, was going to see Georgia Hamilton again, after twenty years and three-hundred-sixty-odd days of the time the Record's photographer had snapped her picture (in her mother's arms) in the maternity ward of Riverside Methodist Hospital in the wee small hours after midnight on January 1, 1987.
I wonder if she'd remember me?