Former editor enjoys reunion with Stripes newspaper staff

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By Phyllis McLaughlin

Sometimes, with the right group of people, it doesn’t matter how much time passes from the last time you were together.

That’s the way it was for me the weekend of June 23-24, when my best friend and I took a road trip to a tiny town in the Catskills of upstate New York to reunite with some of my co-workers from the past.

As it is, I see Pam, who lives in a Cleveland suburb, maybe once or twice a year at best. Last year, I don’t think we were able to manage a visit at all. But whether its on the phone, online or in person, we always pick up where we left off, like we were never apart.

And so it was during a reunion of folks I worked with at the headquarters of Pacific Stars and Stripes in Tokyo, all the way back in 1999. Though I only worked there about 10 months, these people quickly became like family. That’s what happens when you are alone in new city, particularly in a country where you can’t understand the language – written or spoken.

It was in Japan where I discovered what it’s like to be totally illiterate. When I first got there, the conversations of the Japanese people around me were, more or less, background noise. I had no idea what anyone was saying, but I came to love listening to it. It has a rhythm that makes it almost melodic.

Our job at Stripes – there were 16 of us when I joined the staff – was to produce a daily tabloid-sized newspaper that generally was 36 pages. I was on the copy desk, which, using the AP and other newswires, generated the U.S. and world news pages. Most of us worked on that side.

Local news, which consisted of stories and photos submitted by reporters and staff photographers stationed at U.S. military bases all over the Pacific Rim – Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, etc. – was handled by the Pacific desk, a.k.a. the PAC desk. Tim Flack and Matt Twomey were the lead editors on that side, and usually had one or two others on hand to help edit copy.

Our days started about 6 a.m. – earlier for the Page 1 editor, who was in charge of perusing the wire and assigning stories to each page of the paper. Deadline was 2 p.m. to have everything sent – digitally – to the various plants where the paper was printed and distributed to the bases.

Most of us lived in Hardy Barracks, across the parking lot from the Stripes office building. It was a massive six-story building, and each of us Stripers had our own little apartment – two adjoining rooms with a bathroom in between – on the fifth and sixth floors. That was only a problem when the elevator went out. Once, it was down for repairs for several weeks. We got a lot of exercise then.

Because we were all, more or less, in the same boat, we often went out to eat together. Tim and Matt, who, as far as I’m concerned speak fluent Japanese, always ordered. In Japan, most foods are served a la carte, so you order lots of different things from the menu and everyone shares. I loved that, because you could try all sorts of different foods instead of just getting one dish at each meal. And in Tokyo, along with the ever-present sushi and noodle dishes, you could get the Japanese version of just about any type of food – Mexican, American, Middle-Eastern, Thai, Chinese, Korean, Italian, French – you name it. It was awesome.

When we were serious about our nights out, we would end up at one of the local karaoke bars. Unlike those in America, where you basically get up on stage to perform, groups would rent private rooms and operate their own karaoke machines. At the time, it cost the equivalent of $10 per hour per person, but beer and mixed drinks were free and served in pitchers. We adhered to the Japanese custom of filling everyone else’s glasses before our own when pouring, so I truly never had a clue how much I actually drank on a given night.

Ah, those were the days.

Eventually, all of the copy desk work for both the Pacific and Europe editions was moved back to the U.S. to the Central Office, located on the third floor of the National Press Building at the corner of 14th and F streets in Washington, D.C. – just about two blocks away from the White House. (I worked there for over a year, after leaving Tokyo.)
For me, all of this now is a decade in the past – my years at Stripes were 1999 to 2001.

Most of the people I knew in Japan also have left the paper, which is funded by the Department of Defense but is mostly civilian-run. Were it not for Facebook, we all would have lost contact completely, as we went our separate ways.

For example, my friend Kendra Helmer (she’s who I wanted to be when I grew up) is a world traveler. She eventually became a reporter for Stripes and was assigned to bases in Italy and other great locations. She found her calling as a photographer and now works for US Aid, documenting that group’s work in Haiti and elsewhere.

Tim, who eventually married the Japanese woman he was dating when I met them, has moved his wife and three daughters (karma has a great sense of humor) to Grand Forks, N.D., where he is in charge of public affairs for the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Matt, who was an expatriate living in Tokyo and not on base with us other staffers, eventually moved back the the states and is now living in New York City, where he is a documentary filmmaker.

Through Facebook, we had this great idea to hold a reunion. I’ll admit, I never really thought it would happen. But, Matt offered to host it at his parents’ summer home – in the vast country of upstate New York and complete with cabins, a small lake and plenty of room for tents. By March, it was a “go” and we all started making our plans.
For me, the drive was about 800 miles, one way. But Tim won the prize for coming the farthest, driving with his family all the way from North Dakota.

Kendra and her boyfriend, Pete, drove up from D.C. Other Stripers whom I’d never met, but had worked with, including former Okinawa reporter David Allen, also came from Indiana, upstate New York and Tennessee. All in all, there were seven former Stripers and nine friends and family members who stayed the weekend.

Like our time in Japan, there was plenty of great food, thanks to Matt and his girlfriend Allison, who bought all the groceries and cooked each meal for the group. And, of course, there was plenty of beer. A karaoke machine was the only thing lacking, but I don’t think anyone was really disappointed.

Our days were spent sitting under a tent at picnic tables or in the barn talking about the old days. Some of us were getting to know each other, in person, for the first time. Our evenings were spent reminiscing around a huge campfire, where Tim’s girls, Leah, Nina and Emma, made s’mores. The ears of one of our former bosses (who shall remain nameless here), likely, were burnt to a crisp by the end of the weekend, but for the most part, we shared fond memories of good times and stressful times.

The weather was simply beautiful, and everyone – even the non-Stripers – felt at home. It was a wonderful trip, and I’m so glad we were able to get together and talk about the “old days.”

Jason Carter, a military photographer for Stripes, retired last month at the ripe old age of 44 and has bought property in Tennessee, between Nashville and Memphis. As we said our goodbyes on Sunday morning, he promised everyone that next year, he’ll host the reunion. We all had such a good time, we’re hoping to make it an annual event – and with luck, we’ll get more of our former colleagues to join us.

I hope we do. Because life is too short not to spend time with some of the best people you could hope to ever have worked with.

Phyllis McLaughlin, former Editor of The Trimble Banner, is a staff writer for Landmark Community Newspapers working out of The News-Democrat office in Carrollton.