My first choice of profession was the military, but a bum hip and bad eyesight slammed the door on that dream not long after I graduated college. After about two years of wandering from Washington, D.C., to the North Atlantic on a schooner to Seattle, Washington, working as a door-to door canvasser ( Hi, I m John the Tree-Hugger, would you like to support the environment? ), I wound up coming to Costa Rica because that s where my parents were.
So there I was in San José at the start of 1994, having moved back in with my parents as an adult. Anyone who s read any of Gail Sheehy s self-help books would understand that dynamic.
I started freelancing at the TT in February 94, writing travel and hotel stories. One of my favorites was getting the chance to go scuba diving with Bill Beard at the Ocotal Resort. At the end of that day I was sitting in the hotel s hot tub, looking out at the sunset, barely believing I was getting paid to do this.
By July, I was working full-time on the police beat. My first big story was when two crooked OIJ cops murdered their drug dealer accomplice, cut off his head and hands, and threw the rest of his body down a ravine along the Braulio Carillo Highway. The whole town was abuzz about it.
I turned my story in on Wednesday evening, and Thursday morning sat down with John McPhaul, who in the next hour or so taught me more about writing tightly than I d ever learned before or since. I sat there and watched him chop my story into bits, with the end product being much shorter and better. I still use those lessons today.
But the point of no return, the point where I knew I was hooked on journalism, was on a Thursday morning in October or November 94, when someone came in and said that there was a fire at the Hospital Mexico. Even from the office you could see the large smoke plume. I went out to the hospital; talked to the police, firefighters and administrators, and when I returned to the office, Carol the managing editor told me I had a hour and 400 words.
So I m sitting there, banging out the story, and at some point while writing I stop and realize: I love this!
I loved the process of observing and listening and writing down what I saw and heard as quickly and accurately as possible.
I loved the deadline pressure.
I loved the banter at the weekly Thursday afternoon story meetings as the next week s coverage was discussed.
I loved the shocked look on Dery s face when, during one meeting, someone suggested spraying the office with insecticide to kill the ants that walked along the windowsill in her office. Harm an animal? Uh-uh. I loved hanging out with the rest of the TT writing staff after the story meetings, drinking cheap beer at a dumpy bar down the street.
Because of that, even while I attended graduate school in California, I still freelanced for the local newspaper. And for the past nine-plus years I ve been living and working just outside of Washington, D.C., covering defense and national security issues for a newsletter company with a panoramic view of the Pentagon, Capitol and Washington Monument. I ve been able to question U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as well as powerful Capitol Hill committee chairmen and CEOs of major multibillion-dollar corporations.
And to think that I owe it all to a spunky English-language weekly newspaper in Central America.
So thanks to Dery and Don Richard (R.I.P.) and John and Patty and 1994 TT staffers Gabriela and Peter and Brian for teaching a cub reporter the ropes.
(John Liang is now managing editor of InsideDefense.com, the online component of the Inside the Pentagon family of newsletters.)