By Frederick Kempe
Nikh Mohammed barks the orders, repeating one of the few English words he knows, which, in his lexicon and depending on context, can have such meanings as "Stop!" "Sit!" or "Go to bed!"
This time, it means "Hide!" and that consists of squatting under thin brown blankets intended to make us look like rocks, while two Soviet helicopter gunships growl overhead.
The time is the autumn of 1984, and the Afghan guerrillas are battling against the Soviets for the independence of their country. It is a turning point for the Soviet empire, for new weaponry is helping the Afghans to turn the tide in a conflict that will ultimately bring Moscow's retreat.
Inadequate as it seems, the camouflage fools the choppers, so the freedom fighters live on to fight another day. And I move on, after a five-week odyssey with them, to cover other stories. It's all in the course of writing what Washington Post Publisher Philip Graham once called "the first rough draft of history," which is the journalism profession at its best.
I still can't believe employers paid me for this sort of educational "tourism" through the historic sites of the past two decades: in Poland, for the Solidarity trade union revolution; in Russia, for the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and then all of his historic summits with Ronald Reagan; in Panama, for the U.S. invasion and unseating of the dictator, Manuel Noriega; in Germany, for unification; in Siberia, for the unwinding of the Soviet empire.
The mountains of the Hindu Kush may seem a long way from Utah's Wasatch Range, yet my upbringing in Utah and my education at the University of Utah followed by graduate school at Columbia University in New York prepared me well for such adventures.
Growing up in Utah's optimistic surroundings provides solid ground for a career in which excessive cynicism always threatens to poison one's copy. One can best report the world if one views it with an open and adventurous mind. It is necessary to be critical as a reporter; sources stand ready to mislead and manipulate. But the great reporters are the ones who combine healthy skepticism with a continued sense of wonder and hope.
I was lucky enough to have parents, both of them immigrants from Germany, who were curious and broadly read. It is difficult for the best instructor to undo a poor education at home, and it is impossible for the worst teachers to undermine a good upbringing.
My father was largely self-educated, a supermarket baker whose mind was so searching that the pastor at his funeral compared him to working-class philosopher Eric Hoffer. My mother was a second-grade teacher for most of her life, and she championed creative writing programs for the young even as she taught her own four children tolerance and generosity of spirit.
She showered attention on the most troubled of her students: the immigrant child struggling with English, the distraught child buffeted by the storms of family breakups. After she retired, she enrolled at the U and was working on a doctorate in German literature when she died at age 69. Learning, for her, was life.
It was because of such extraordinary parents that my family started a scholarship in their name for older U studentsthe Johanna S. and Fritz G. Kempe Memorial Scholarship.
The U provided a fine education, and the Daily Chronicle and Salt Lake Tribune offered plenty of on-the-job training. But it was the influence of a few professors that was perhaps most lasting. What was it about Milton Hollstein BA'48 at the Mass Com-munication Department that so inspired me? Was it his enthusiasm for journalism, his experience of the world, his profound intellect, his quiet sense of humor, his demanding teaching, or his belief in my ability?
It was all of the above. The lesson is that a single professor can have far-reaching impact on individuals and, through them, on the world. Yet I probably never would have found my way to him if not for a teacher at Skyline High School, Clarann Jacobs, who first recognized my talent and then nurtured it.
As editor and associate publisher of The Wall Street Journal Europe, I'm now leading coverage for another bit of history: the impact of globalization, the introduction of a new currency that will rival the dollar, and the extension of Western institutions to the former Soviet bloc east.
Yet it's not such a difficult task. My parents and educators globalized me long before globalization. But beyond that, they gave me a solid set of values that travels with me everywhere. I'm often asked by would-be journalists what they should study to make them reporters. As I look through the CVs of those who are our best and brightest, I see little to guide me: one worked in construction before moving to Poland as a freelancer; another had an advanced degree in history from Princeton; another a master's from Johns Hopkins; and one dropped out of Northwestern.
What unifies them is their curiosity, their integrity, their restless minds, their concise writing, and their devotion to one of the world's more noble professions. Oh, yes, there is one other thing: somewhere along the line I'm sure there was a teacher who provided knowledge and inspiration.
Frederick Kempe is an award-winning journalist and author.