It was, quite simply, the most wonderful place for a boy to grow up. I went to work there in 1960, shortly after my 16th birthday, I left shortly after my 21st -- a reporter.
My rites of passage were spent on the dictation bank -- an institution in which aspiring copy boys and copy girls were lined up along a row of typewriters and desks to compete through the grungiest of reportorial hoops -- writing obits, rewriting handouts from trade associations, poking homicide detectives and hospital attendants in the ribs. . .
Two of the most famous obits by Star dictationists were of people of never lived: One (which mysteriously appeared only in The Post -- and of which more later) was about a vaudevilliam ventriloquist who played eight instruments and simultaneously cranked up his dummy at command performances for presidents. . . Another was about the designer of an underwater city in the Washington Channel.
The Post had the polish (Tom Wolfe covering fires) . . . and the circulation; The Star had grit, lore, character, love.
We practiced pack journalism, which is to say that we ran together -- to lunch at Harrigan's as soon as the third-edition deadline had passed, to parties every Saturday night after the Sunday paper had been put to bed, to Embassy Row freeloads for food better than our $60-per-week paychecks could afford.
The title dictationist came from the principal function of the job: typing verbatim the phoned-in stories, subbed grafs, inserts and private messages ("O'Leary -- you owe me $15 from the Match Game") of reporters laboring in the field. Many of them were great reporters.
Some were tougher than others on dictationists. . . Bill Hines dictated so fast he terrified many beginners. As insurance against a sit-down strike, the management took to awarding $25 savings bonds for excellence in taking his dictation from Canaveral during the first space shots. . .
I still have the copy of the dictation I took from Dave Broder in Dallas: My hands were shaking so badly that I misspelled Parkland Hospotol in the lead. Even this followed Star tradition; Fifi Gorska, as anyone who had been a dictationist knew, had typed the historic lead about the explosion of the first Adam Bomb.
If there was a father figure in our universe it was Sid Epstein, a study in monogrammed shirts and perfectly clipped nails, a city editor with knowledge of Washington's streets that came from growing up in them and working the desk at The Times-Herald. The Star was very much a local paper; this was the area of coverage where we still clobbered The Post, and Epstein did not take lightly to the notion of losing the edge.
But fair was fair. On the occasion of the death of the ventriloquist, Epstein sat crossly at his desk, his face flushed, one wing-tipped cordovan tapping at the floor, his right index finger rolling a pencil up and down the obit page of The Post spread out in front of him.
Finally, after it seemed that the pencil had traveled miles up and down the page, Epstein picked the paper up between his thumb and his perfect index fingernail, and carried it intuitively, arm outstretched, toward the dictation bank, as if it were a dead fish. "Never again," he whispered, dropping the paper into the trash can. "And keep it to yourselves."