It was October, 1967, and a scared kid whose name you can find directly above was spending his first night as a police reporter for The Washington Post.
A rookie among veterans, the kid was haltingly trying to interview a police sergeant in Rockville about a car crash. Suddenly, the newsroom got noisy.
"What's happenin', Bill?"
"Where you been, Bill?"
I thought he was the office bookie.
After all, columnists don't wear suspenders and old gray hats. Columnists don't start work at dinnertime and end it at dawn, with a cigar for breakfast. Columnists don't spend an hour writing about some guy who works the soda fountain at Peoples Drug Store when the president has just finished addressing the nation.
But Bill Gold did. Since January, 1947, he has kept this space alive with a sharp eye and a deft touch. Never one to forget a name or face, Bill never forgot that there's a city out there, either. He was The Washington Post Monument.
In 1948, some unsuspecting soul in The Post's public relations office asked Bill to write a biographical sketch. "Nothing ever happened to me," Bill began."This is a complete waste of time."
But that was as much of an exaggeration as The District Line wasn't.
Bill Gold raised more than a million dollars for one of the worthiest charities I know -- Children's Hospital.
Bill Gold did more to preserve and protect our language than any three English professors. While he hasn't snatched "hopefully" from the jaws of a horrible death at the beginnings of sentences, it isn't for lack of trying.
Bill Gold was a journalistic mentor supreme. It would have been easy to have tucked that cigar further into his face and to have marched past the scared kid calling the Rockville cop. Bill Gold not only stopped; he gave the kid the "good" phone number at Rockville headquarters, the one the talkative lieutenant answered, not the monosyllabic sergeant.
And the guy was flat-out funny.
When he wrote about his wife, he never settled for "Bernice" or "Mrs. Gold." She was "the married woman I live with."
Ask him to lend you a quarter, and Bill would always refuse the same way -- by lending you a dollar. The reasoning: you'd never remember the quarter, but you stood a chance of remembering the dollar.
Old colleagues still swap tales of Bill's meticulous habits -- and his volatile temper should one of the habits be honored in the breach.
Bob Asher, now an editorial writer here, started out as a copyboy. One of his earliest duties was to place a copy of the Star on Bill's chair each afternoon -- and then to push chair and paper under Bill's desk, just so.
One day -- Asher swears he does not know how -- a large human shoeprint appeared smack in the middle of the front page of Bill's Star. Twenty years have passed, but Asher says that if he closes his eyes, he can still hear Gold bellowing.
My own favorite memory is the classic Goldian goodbye. The cigar would puff. The bundle of mail would be rolled up under his arm. And over the shoulder would come a friendly wave good night.
Bill Gold is not gone from the pages of The Post. He will write when the spirit moves him, and he will continue to counsel the writers and editors who try to make this community make sense. Meanwhile, it's inconceivable that Bill would pass an accident on the Beltway and not wrap up the whole story, right down to the investigating officer's M-for-Mary middle initial.
But like a quarterback's jersey, The District Line has been retired. In its place comes a new column title, and a new columnist, but an enduring promise:
To make this a hometown column for all Washingtonians, brewed with equal quantities of warmth, wit and wisdom. To make this not my column, but our column -- the place to sound out gripes, theories, jokes, anecdotes, whatever. If something's on your mind, my friend, don't be afraid to deposit it in mine. Please write or phone. Subject to change without notice, I'm unboreable.
And Bill Gold is irreplaceable. I won't try. I couldn't succeed.
I can only share this nugget of a confession. I have written this column over Bill's protest."Please don't," he said, when I asked if I could write about his District Line career. "If they hated me while I was writing it, they'll hate me after I'm retired."
What Bill forgot, of course, was that a few of us loved him. Just a few hundred or thousand or so.