The Observer came into the office on Tuesday morning, not quite bright-eyed or bushy tailed thanks to Daylight Savings Time jetlag, to find our colleague Benji Hardy conked out asleep in yet another colleague's office, Benji having pulled an all-nighter to bring you, Dear Reader, this week's cover story. Benji has been pitching a no-hitter in recent weeks, not a false or unsupported note to be found, on this train wreck of a story about Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork), in which a state legislator known for his Bible-beating ways unloaded his adopted daughters on a near-stranger when the going got tough — as things often do with kids who wind up in the foster system, raked as they tend to be by not only the troubles that landed them in foster care in the first place, but also by the terrible fear that no one will ever want them; that no one will ever stay. Do we have to say that one of the girls later wound up getting raped by that near-stranger, who is now a long-term guest of one of Arkansas's finer Ironbar Hotels? You probably already know that bit of this sordid tale, but do we have to say it? Please don't make us say it again. It leaves the bitterness of secret and terrible agonies in our mouth. It makes us lose another microscopic diamond chip of our faith in the idea that all things spin in the direction of goodness and love instead of chaos and despair, and The Observer's supply of faith was already perilously low.
As terrible as the tale is, it's been inspiring for an old fart, our all-nighters mostly behind us, to see Benji doing a mule's work, upholding the great traditions of this profession we love. He has spent weeks now doing the backstroke in the septic tank, diving down through some of the ugliest stuff imaginable in order to get at the truth, and to try and make sure this kind of thing never happens again. We've been there, friend. Too old and cynical for that now mostly, but we've been there, and so we know how hard it can be. Not physically hard — not shoveling gravel hard or hauling hay hard. Not working on the road crew in August hard. But mentally hard. Heart hard. Hard as in checking and rechecking and re-rechecking every line, name spelling, punctuation mark and fact, then checking them again. Hard as in: By the time you lay down your head at night, you feel like your heart and brain has been wrung out like a kitchen sponge, eyes thrumming like a taut wire, the worry of having gotten something wrong following you down and down, even into the crevasse of sleep. And here is the prayer you say before sleep then, Dear Reader: The Journalist's Prayer, Ecclesiastes 12:14: "God shall bring every work into judgment, every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil."
Here's the weirdest part of it, though. As hard as that can be to do this job well, once you've done it awhile, you start to crave it, especially if you're eventually able to see the needle squeak even one bare degree in the direction of progress when all is said and done. You know that scene at the end of "Rocky II" where Rocky has had his face beaten to steak tartare, but hoists the championship belt and says: "Yo, Adrian! I did it!"? Yeah. That. That's it exactly.
So if you see Benji Hardy out there on the streets of Little Rock in the next few weeks, give him a pat on the back (though not, please, while he's riding his bicycle in traffic). Hell, do that for any journalist whose work has moved you, because Lord knows there are plenty of hardworking reporters in this town who could use it. But do The Observer a favor in the short term and extend the hand of backslapping to Benji. Tell him what a good job he's done. Tell him it wasn't just bird-cage liner to you. Tell him it mattered. Imagine him curled up asleep on unpadded carpet the color of a dirt-dobber's nest, heart wrung out like a sponge, even the float-a-pistol newsroom coffee not keeping him upright anymore. Tell him: Yo, Benjamin. You did it.