I thought, “I’ll bet I could give Cracker Jacks to everybody in school.” That huge Cracker Jack box must have had me drooling at the thought of crawling through it to get at the prize and a mighty huge prize it would have been, a baseball glove, a Lincoln Logs set, or maybe even a bicycle. It was probably a newspaper or magazine article about the plant on Chicago’s southwest side, but it might have been a trip somewhere with my father that introduced me to that giant box and the dreams it conjured.
On the rare occasions, I bought a box of Cracker Jacks when I became an adult (your guess is as good as mine about when that might have been), had to have been because I wanted the taste of the sweetened popcorn and peanuts, not because I wanted the prize inside the box. By that time the prizes had become practically worthless, little more than pieces of cardboard with a picture on them. When I was a kid we wanted the Cracker Jacks as much for the popcorn candy as for the prize inside the box, usually miniature trinkets such as tiny cars, guns, horses or dogs. My favorite was a little pocket knife that didn’t cut much, but it was fun to imagine pulling it out of my boot (also imaginary because I didn’t wear boots) so I could surprise the bad guys.
“Mrs. Threadgoode pulled something out of the Cracker Jack box and all of a sudden her eyes lit up. “Oh Evelyn, look! Here’s my prize. It’s a little miniature chicken… just what I like!” and she held it out for her friend to see.” ― Fannie Flagg, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
I also treasured the peanuts. I developed ways to better enjoy my favorite sweets. I twisted Oreo cookies apart and ate the cream filling first, then let the chocolate cookies melt in my mouth one at a time. I peeled the chocolate top off a Hostess cupcake, then licked out the cream filling before eating the cake followed by small bites of the saved-for-later chocolate frosting. I carefully peeled off the thickest part of the chocolate coating of most candy bars to enjoy after I’d eaten the rest of the bar. Whenever my mother made a pie I ate the filling first, then enjoyed the crust. When she made a cake I ate the cake first, carefully removing it from the frosting.
After digging out the prize inside the Cracker Jack box I at the popcorn, but separated the peanuts and set them aside. I’d eat them after I’d melted each piece of popcorn in my mouth. I remember trying to dissolve the popcorn coating while leaving the popcorn itself intact. That never worked. All I ever had left were the shell or pericarp of the kernel, those little bits that get caught in your throat or between your teeth. I also never sucked the coating off the peanuts. The coating was just sweet and the peanuts were just peanuts, but together they were marvelous.
Cracker Jack was sold to the Borden Company in 1963 and the plant at 66th and Cicero was closed in 1986. The plant was eventually torn down. A TGI Fridays and a Courtyard Marriott now sit at that location. I wonder what happened to that giant Cracker Jack box, scrap metal probably.
“The More You Eat The More You Want” – Cracker Jacks Slogan
A couple of years ago I opened a box of Cracker Jacks. They tasted about the same, but there weren’t many peanuts and I didn’t set them aside. About the middle of the box, I found the prize. I was expecting a bit of trivia or a little paper puzzle I could fold. It was a puzzle of sorts, a digital computer code, which I threw away. I’m told needed an app to redeem the code, but it still wouldn’t lead to much of a prize.
Writing this has me thinking about that special flavor, but I’m not going to run out to get a bag of Cracker Jacks (yes, they’re now packaged in bags). I’m pretty sure I’ll be disappointed. They’ll still taste about the same, maybe there’ll be fewer peanuts to set aside and the prize won’t be worth bothering with, so maybe I should just pop some corn and make my own.
If you do buy some Cracker Jacks, here’s a little trick you might try. Next time you make caramel corn, just before you stir the popcorn and sticky stuff together toss in a bag’s worth of Cracker Jack’s. I don’t know how it will taste. I’ve never tried it myself, but it sounds like a good idea.
“There’s a sucker born every minute.” – Unknown (although often attributed to P.T. Barnum)
Off and on for twenty years, I worked in broadcasting, most often as an announcer or news person, often writing and producing commercials, occasionally as a sports announcer, and for a short while I was a radio station manager.
At my second job, in LaSalle, Illinois my boss ‘had a talk’ with me, which is short for ‘you’re in trouble.’ In short, he said, cut out the bullshit.
This is what I’d done.
The first time I introduced the Elvis Presley song, “Suspicious Minds” with this story.
“Next up, Elvis. It’s a little-known fact that Elvis has been secretly carrying on a torrid romance with Phyllis Diller. True. True! Just last week they were spotted sneaking into a Motel 6, and a couple days ago he was seen pushing a cart in a grocery store while she was picking out artichokes and a watermelon. I’ll bet they were getting some bananas and peanut butter, too. Somebody told me likes banana and peanut butter sandwiches because it’s like an aphrodisiac for him. I also heard people became suspicious about their romance when he was seen holding a picture of Phyllis while he recorded this song.”
“The greatest fools are ofttimes more clever than the men who laugh at them.” ―George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords
The second was something I thought was extremely funny that I put together on the spur of the moment. I worked a Saturday morning shift. The newsperson was a guy named Randy. He didn’t show up for work, which meant I had to throw together a newscast. About ten minutes after I finished the news he called saying he was sick. He’d gotten up, dressed, and was all set for work, but didn’t feel well and vomited just as he was about to leave. He didn’t call in sick because he thought he might feel better after he’d gotten it out of his system, but now he was running a fever.
Most people think putting together a radio show, especially a music show is about the easiest thing in the world to do. The announcer just talks a little, reads the weather, and plays the music. There’s a lot more that goes into it, though. The recordings often must fit within specific time frames, so commercials can be played at certain times, so newscasts, sportscasts, weather reports, and other features can start exactly on time. There’s also the music itself. The beats and tempo of the music must be blended. Ideally, two songs played back-to-back will sound like one song. Also, there are patterns a station will often follow, such as a top of the charts song following a newscast at the top of the hour, a newer song at the bottom of the hour, oldies after weather forecasts and so on. The patterns will vary from one station to another.
That morning in addition to doing that I had to put together the ten-minute news, sports, and weather report at the top of each hour and a shorter ‘headline report’ at the bottom of the hour. Normally, I would have called the News Director and he would have come in, but he was on vacation somewhere in Wisconsin.
Usually, when someone was out we said little more than that we were working in their place. That morning I decided to do something a little different.
First, I committed what is considered a sin in radio. I let a record run out. That means when the record ended there was silence, nothing more than the tick-tick, tick-tick sound a record makes when the music’s over, but the record is still spinning on the turntable.
After about 30 seconds of that, I turned on the microphone and took a big, noticeable breath, as if I was out of breath. “Sorry about that, but I heard someone pounding on the door. We keep this place locked up on the weekends. Anyway, it sounded pretty urgent, so I decided to check. There was nobody there when I opened the door. A black car was speeding away and there was this box on the step. It’s addressed to the station, care of the news director and me. Since Joe’s on vacation, I’m going to open it.”
I played a couple commercials, read the weather, introduced the next song and played a couple records and some more commercials. About 20 minutes passed before I did what I thought was a rather breathless sounding headline newscast followed by a station promo. Then I turned on the mic again and tried to sound a bit afraid and confused. I said, “Oh God, oh God. You won’t believe this. I don’t believe it. Oh, God. There are two things in this box, a letter and a plastic bag with what looks like a bloody ear in it! Hold on, I think I’m going to be sick” Then I played a record did a weather forecast and played another record.
Next time I turned on the mic I said, “The question is, should I call the police about this. This is what the letter says, “We are holding Randy Orton hostage. Here’s his ear to prove it. We want two things before we let him go. First, a million dollars in small bills. Second, the station’s promise that you won’t play any more Beatles songs. We will contact you again later today. You must not call the police, or we will kill him.”
“Oops,” I said, “Guess that, not calling the police stuff also means not blabbing this to everybody in LaSalle-Peru. Hope he’s still alive.” Then I played the Beatles, ‘Let It Be’ followed by “A Day in the Life.”
After a couple commercials, I turned on the mic and said, “Good news. Good news. Randy escaped. He just called from the police station. Apparently, the kidnappers were listening to the radio and were about to kill Randy, but when I played that first Beatles song they shot the radio. That’s when Randy made a dash for it. He’d managed to work himself free of the ropes, got out of the door and right into the arms of a policeman who’d heard the gunshots. The kidnappers are in custody. Randy said he’s too shook up to make it into work today, but he’ll be here Monday, so give him a call then to let him know how happy you are he’s safe and alive.”
There was a tiny bit of truth to that whole story. Randy did call me. Essentially he said, “What the hell’s wrong with you telling people I was kidnapped and got my ear chopped off. Our phone’s been ringing off the hook with people wanting to know about it.”
What surprised me with both of those stories was that people believed them.
“Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And hain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” ― Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
After telling the Elvis story a grocery store cashier who knew me said, “Phillis Diller, really?” I started to tell her I’d made that up, but before I could she said, “I’ve always liked her, but there’s something really wrong with her if she’s leaving her husband for that Elvis Presley.”
One of the salesmen at the station told me a couple of his customers told him they couldn’t believe Elvis would cheat on somebody like Priscilla to go after Phillis Diller.
When my boss talked to me he said they’d taken at least two dozen phone calls from people wanting to know if the Elvis – Phillis Diller thing was true.
I thought it was obvious the thing was a joke after all Phillis Diller was happily married and was close to 20 years older than Elvis.
As for the Randy Orton story, that almost got me fired. I thought it was funny and obviously not true. I was wrong about the obvious part, maybe the funny part, too. It might have been obvious for me, but for the people who listened to the radio station, it was a bit like Orson Welles War of the Worlds, Halloween broadcast.
Now, when I listen to the President spout obvious lies and when he makes up facts and when he stretches the truth, I know why an incredible number of people believe him. First, he is, after all, the President and would the President lie? Second, he mixes just enough fact (Elvis did like peanut butter and banana sandwiches and Randy was not at work that day) to lend a touch of credibility to whatever he says. Third, people are gullible, they will believe anything that sounds reasonable to them.
“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
So I’m walking across the parking lot past Wal-Mart, on my way home from Trader Joe’s when I hear a beep… beep… beep, beep, beep… beep, beep… At first, I’m thinking it’s a car alarm.
Some kids in the apartment complex next to mine used to have fun running through the lot slamming their fists against or shaking cars to trigger the car alarm. So, every now and then, about 9 at night there would be 5 – 10 car alarms going off. That went on for 3 or 4 months but hasn’t happened in a couple years now.
Anyway, that’s an aside, just a writer’s not-especially-clever way of letting you know he’s quite familiar with the various sounds car alarms make. There was a pattern to it just as there is a pattern to the sound a car alarm makes. The sound I was listening to was not a car alarm. It was not totally irritating. In fact, it was almost pleasant.
So I detoured a little bit to try to see what was making the noise. If it was what I thought it was, then I was pretty sure I had something I could write about. Since I’m writing you probably realize the cause of the noise was what I thought it might be.
Parked about ten cars deep in front of Wal-Mart was a blue minivan. It was parked in the shade. Three kids were inside. One, about three years old, was strapped into a car seat. The other two, about six and eight, were in the front seat. They were pounding on the car. The older of the two was beating out a tune on the horn. The younger was keeping time on the dashboard.
While I was watching a dark-haired woman in her 30’s appeared, almost running toward the car, which means she probably wanted to run, but she couldn’t because she was moderately overweight and she was carrying some bags in each hand.
I did not hang around to watch the kids get scolded because that’s what would have happened to my brothers and me.
Every Saturday morning my mother went shopping, always stopping at the grocery store, usually the drug store, and sometimes a clothing or hardware store. My father usually drove and waited in the car with us. That changed when my mother learned how to drive. I always went along, but my dad stayed home with the baby and usually the one who had previously been my little brother.
Watching over two boys while shopping was not terribly difficult. I think her primary control tactic was to give us each the opportunity to pick out our favorite cookie and our favorite cereal. If we were not good (did not cry, throw a tantrum, or something like that), then we got to see our choices put in the cabinets at home.
When my father started working on Saturday’s there was another change. Once there were two of us holding onto the basket she lost control. I blame it on the baby. He did not understand the importance of being rewarded with a favorite cookie or cereal. He wanted to be rewarded with his favorite everything. While she was dealing with him we became impatient and would wander off in search of our favorites so we could be there waiting when our mother showed up. We thought we were doing her a favor, saving her some time. We had no idea she would get upset when she finished with the baby only to find that we were no longer within sight. Two Saturdays of that were more than enough for her.
Even after she left us in the car with strict orders not to open any door, she was not finished adjusting her Saturday morning routine. She must have used some promise or threat to keep us from leaving the car because I remember listening to the baby screaming because he’d dropped one of his toys out the window, but we were all too terrified of what would happen to us if we jumped out of the car to get it. That’s when I was given permission to get out of the car, but I had to stay within the lines of the parking space.
My déjà vu incident happened before that. It was on the second Saturday of what I would have called grocery shopping exile if at age 9 I’d been able to think along such lines. The three of us were all in the front seat. Car seats existed, but they were mostly used to give a child a better view out a window. Seats to protect a child hadn’t been invented yet, so there was no legal reason to strap a three-year-old into a car seat. There was also no such thing as seat belts.
It was chilly outside, so we weren’t cold, but it didn’t take long for us to get bored. She’d been in there a long time. It felt like a couple hours or more. That’s when I discovered the car horn. First, I hit it a couple times to see if she’d come running out. Of course, I thought she’d be able to hear it and would interrupt her shopping to come out and see what was the problem with her three darling boys. All three of us sat or stood there watching the store entrance. After a few minutes passed and we didn’t see her, I tried again, more insistent this time, hitting the horn about four times. That didn’t work either, so I went to work on the horn, hitting it, again and again, creating a music of my own while my brothers pounded on the windows and dashboard.
We were having such a great time we never saw the dark-haired woman in her late 20’s hurrying toward the car as fast as she could, which means she probably wanted to run, but couldn’t because she was pushing a cart loaded with groceries.
Unfortunately that time I had to stay around to listen to the scolding.
It sounded like an explosion and felt a little like one too and it hurt.
It’s something I’d never done before.
I walked into a sliding screen door once and into a sliding door twice, but never to the point where I hurt myself.
There’s a video currently going viral on the Internet of Philadelphia Eagles fan slamming into a subway support pole. I did something like that once years ago. I was rushing to get out of a bar to catch up with some friends who had already left. I’d stayed behind a moment to talk with another friend. Just as I got to the door a woman and her boyfriend entered. I shifted my shoulder and leaned to my left, deftly avoiding bumping into the woman who, I noticed as I slid past, was quite attractive. Maybe that’s what I did wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t have looked at her. Probably, I should have looked just at the space between us that led to the doorway, because instead of neatly slipping out the entrance my shoulder slammed into the door frame and my knees buckled as I almost fell to the ground. I was athletic enough at that time to easily regain my balance and continue as if nothing had happened.
The next morning there was a large, purplish bruise on my shoulder which was sore enough to make me wish I had bumped into her for two reasons. First, it’s unlikely she would have left as much pain and as much of a bruise as the door frame had, although there probably would have been a problem with her boyfriend who was a bit bigger and maybe a little more muscular than me… maybe a lot more muscular. He could have left me in more pain and more bruised than the door frame had. Second, there was the memory of how pretty she was, and you never know where these things like that could lead.
I was happy no one had their cell phone pointed at me because I think I was hurt a bit more than the Eagles fan. He slammed into the pole with his shoulder. I slammed into the one I hit with my face. I was returning from a walk to the grocery store. After crossing the street, I pulled out my iPhone, planning to call someone.
I’ve often seen people walking down the street, heads bent, eyes staring at their cell phone screen, oblivious to the world around them. I’ve thought how stupid they looked and how dangerous their activity was. After all, they could bump into someone or walk out into the street into the path of a car, or into the side of a building, or into a street sign or light pole.
Usually, when I take out my cell phone I first look around, checking my surroundings, or I stop and step away from whatever traffic might be moving along my path. That’s not what I did, though. I continued walking as I pushed the button to get Siri’s attention. The line of light appeared at the bottom of the screen. The words, “What can I help you with rose to the top of the screen. I started to say, “Siri call…” and looked up as I spoke, just in time to see this….
After the explosion, after stepping away from the pole, I continued on my way. Anyone passing by would have heard me saying, “Dumbass! What a stupid dumbass!” Gingerly I touched my nose. It was bloody. My phone was still in my hand. I should have used it to see how my face looked or to take a picture. Instead, I made my phone call.
When I got home I checked myself out in the mirror. There was a line of blood down my nose to my mustache. I washed it away, dried it, and applied a band-aid. I didn’t notice the scratches on my glasses or that the tip of my nose was a bit swollen. This is what I looked like… not great, but certainly not at all like someone who’d stepped into an explosion. Also, it hurts more than my shoulder did those many years ago.
Many of my friends go to car races often. A couple of them could be considered big fans of the sport. I’m a pretty big fan of baseball, football, hockey, basketball, and even golf. I bowl in a league at least once a week. I even pay some attention to soccer and tennis, but other than the Indy 500, I have little interest in car racing. Even when my youngest brother told me he was going to quit the sport it was news to me that he was even racing and if you ask, I’ll have to tell you I have no idea what kind of cars he was racing or what kind of racing he was doing or even if he ever won a race.
In my entire life, I’ve been to only two car races. When I was eight years old my father took my little brother, Richard (the oldest of my three brothers), and me to a stock car race. At first, it was exciting, being in a place I’d never been before, in the middle of a huge crowd, watching something I might have seen before, but only on television.
The stands were only partly filled when we arrived. Cars were scattered around the place, mostly on the area inside the track, but none of them were racing.
“When are the races going to start,” I asked.
“In a little bit,” my father said. “You’ll know when.”
I didn’t really know when, but gradually the stands filled, and the dull roar of the crowd grew. I could see a few cars moving into place on the track. The people around me started standing so that I was able to see less and less of what was going on.
“Did the race start yet, Daddy?” Richard asked.
“It’s will, in just a minute.” my dad said.
You could tell something was about to happen because the crowd got terribly quiet and the gunning of an engine here and there below us became almost frighteningly noticeable. Whether it was the waving of a flag or the sound of a gun I don’t remember, but suddenly the engines roared, and the crowd came to life. My dad had lifted my little brother onto his shoulders. Richie was up there pointing, saying babbling away, but I couldn’t hear any of it. Everyone was still standing. they were bending, stretching up on their toes, trying to see the cars as they started moving around the track. Being not much more than 40 inches tall that was about all I could see – legs, rear ends, and the back of heads. The track announcer was describing what was going on, but since I was new to the sport, it didn’t mean much to me. I got a glimpse of a couple cars moving, but it wasn’t until the cars were going around the second or third time that the people around me started sitting down and I was finally able to see the cars flying around the track. They looked like toy race cars because I couldn’t see the drivers until they reached the curve and I was able to see their heads bouncing around behind the windshield.
I was trying to figure out which car was winning when the crowd suddenly screamed and groaned. My dad pointed to the two cars that had crashed on the turn farthest away from us. Then another car crashed into them and a piece of metal slid across the track. The cars slowed, and the crowd cheered as all three drivers jumped out of their cars. About a dozen men surrounded the three cars to cautiously push them off the track. Then the race started again. Considering I was eight years old and had no idea who was racing or what was at stake, it didn’t take long before it got boring. They just kept going around and around that track. I had no idea who was first, second, third, or last. Every now and then the track announcer would describe a car or call out a number I could look for and that helped, but mostly he used the names of the drivers to tell which car was in the lead and which car was trying to pass another. I tried to follow the action, but it was too much for me to understand.
If it wasn’t for the crashes I might have fallen asleep. I didn’t want to see any of the drivers got hurt, but there was something exciting about seeing two cars slam into each other. Sometimes metal went flying or a tire rolled across the track, but that’s not what made the crash exciting. It was the suddenness of it, followed by the tension as we waited to see the driver jump out of the car and wave to the crowd or give the thumbs up before either running over to the medical tent or helping the crew get his car off the track.
I have a couple friends who are big NASCAR fans and see a race or two every year. When they talk about the most recent race they saw in person or on TV, I sometimes think of that eight-year-old watching that stock car race. I had no idea where it was. I’d always thought of it as just a race track, but when I read this article I remembered the huge columns I’d noticed behind us. I hadn’t thought about those columns till now. After all, when people talk about a race I remember seeing the cars going around the track and sometimes crashing. I’ve seen quite a few Bears games at Soldier Field. The first time I saw the Bears play there I remember the place seemed familiar to me, but I wrote that off as anything other than having watched so many Bears games on TV. Now, I think it might have been because I’d been there before, but people usually think of Soldier Field as the home of the Bears, not a place for stock car races.
As I sit here typing this I can see the cars going by below and over my left shoulder as I look at the size of the crowd there are those massive columns that for an eight-year-old were there, and noticeable, but insignificant. All in all, it’s a good memory because I don’t remember anyone winning, nor do I remember ever leaving. In a sense, I will always be there in the middle of a roaring crowd watching a stock car race at Soldier Field.
Memoirs take very different forms, follow a variety of paths and themes, and tell a multitude of stories. Usually, they involved the past being brought to the present. Sometimes, however, that past is not very far away and they tell the beginning of a memory. In other words, the memory is within days, hours, minutes, or moments of when it occurred. Today I’ve been watching what will someday be expressed as a “Remember when…”
Remember when all those houses burned in that terrible fire in 2017, probably the worst fire ever in Ventura, CA.
Last night about nine o’clock the lights flickered. A couple minutes later they flickered again. Then they went out, the computer screen in front of me turned black, the printer clunked, the room went dark and quiet. Perhaps I should have turned the computer, the printer, and the lights off to avoid that shock that happens to the computer, the printer, and me when the power returns. I didn’t. I sat cursing for a moment and waited. Often when the power goes down it returns a minute or two later. It didn’t. So, I stumbled around, heading for one of the places I keep a flashlight. Just as I got there the lights, computer and printer went back on. I returned to the computer. I’d barely sat down when the lights went back out. Damn, I thought.
During the past couple months, there have been a number of power outages here. Three of them were scheduled, starting between 8 and 9 at night on a predetermined day and lasting until somewhere between 2 and 5 in the morning. Not terrible. Not curse-worthy. Irritating.
Three other power outages were not scheduled. They might have been related to the scheduled outages, but last night it didn’t matter. I had no idea what was going on so it was easiest to blame Southern California Edison (SCE) and use words like terrible or worst or incompetent. After the power went out for the fourth and final time last night I used my cell phone to post this on Facebook.
#SCE has to be about the worst electric company in the country. In the past month, we have had ten power outages: three of them scheduled, seven of them unplanned, and four of those have happened tonight. Here’s a picture of the way my world looks right now!
That was about nine-thirty. Not more than a half hour later a friend called asking if I’d heard about the fires in Santa Paula that were “spreading all over the place” including toward Ventura. She said people near her (much closer to Santa Paula than I was) were evacuating. Although she wasn’t going anywhere she’d packed a bag in case the fire got too close. There are many streets between the house where I live and the usual paths a wildfire might travel so I didn’t think it was necessary to either evacuate or pack a bag. However, this news of fires had me thinking they might be related to the power outage. So, again I opened Facebook on my iPhone and posted this…
****** Apparently the problem may not one with SCE. There appear to be two problems in the area: strong winds and the fires. Either one of them could have caused the electrical outage we are experiencing right now.
When my morning iPhone alarm called me at 6:30, the power was still off. I got up anyway, headed to the kitchen, checked to make sure the stove still worked (it did with the help of a match), and pulled some stuff for breakfast from the refrigerator. Back in the bedroom, I dressed, the stepped into the bathroom to washed my face, drag a comb across my head, brushed my teeth, and take my meds. A minute or so later I was looking out the window at the orange sky in the distance and the microwave beeped as my alarm radio clicked, and the night lights went on. After turning on the computer (I don’t have a TV), I found the L.A. CBS TV news site and clicked their red button that says, “Watch and Listen Live.” The reporters were talking about the Thomas fire, a fire that had spread a distance of 20 miles from Santa Paula to Ventura in a few hours. Then they talked about the 200,000 people in Ventura who were without power.
Opening Facebook I posted again…
***** Looks like I misspoke. When you don’t have power you don’t know how bad it is. More than 200,000 other people were without power. Considering that, SCE did an excellent job getting the power back online for more than 180,000 of us within 10 hours.
I have a second iPhone morning alarm that goes off 45 minutes after the first (if I’m going to snooze, nine minutes is not enough). Turning off the alarm I noticed a text from the friend who’d called me the night before…
First, it might have taken more than a couple hours to go from a very controllable but unknown fire to 30,000 acres but within 4 – 6 hours it had spread from Santa Paula to within a few blocks of downtown Ventura. Second, I should carefully proofread my texts because there’s a sentence where I said, “All of Santa Paula, some of Ojai and your area of Ventura are threatened.” Third, I didn’t know how far into Ventura the fire had gone. Fourth, after having seen the power pop off and back on several times, ten hours ago and knowing the fires were still burning in places where there could have been lines bringing electricity into Ventura, I wasn’t too confident the power would remain on. In fact, as I type this I’m afraid the power could go off at any second. When it went off last night I was writing a date-specific blog post. I’m not sure what to do with the post now, but it’s scheduled for December 4th, 2018.
I continued sending texts to her throughout the day to keep her updated.
iPhone’s mistranslated what I said in the first text above. I’d said, “Where you live is not in an evacuation area yet.” Iphone’s ears must have been clogged because it heard, “Where you live is not vacuolation aria yet.” I should consider myself lucky the phone didn’t re-correct my ‘correction’ to something like, ‘ejaculation area yet.’
Even though a couple hours had passed, I still didn’t know the fire had long ago moved deep into Ventura and far beyond Ventura High School. There were stories about fires burning in Santa Paula and along Foothill Road about a half mile into Ventura, but nothing yet about fires deep into the city. The TV report at the time said 150+ buildings had burned, but what I was watching showed at least 10 structures burning so I put 150 and 10 together. That, of course, equaled 200.
Since I was keeping my friend up to date it seemed only fair I should do the same for my Facebook friends and family…
The power is back on. The wind is still blowing things around on the patio. The fire is a couple miles from the area of Ventura where I used to live, but about five miles from where I am.
It was almost 9:30 and I was just beginning to realize how terrible a disaster this was. As a famous reporter uttered back in 1937 as he watched a similar, yet very different disaster unfold…
“It’s burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it’s… [unintelligible] its flames… Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it… it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity!” — Herbert Morrison, Transcription of WLS radio broadcast describing the Hindenburg disaster.
Arroyo Verde Park is one of the larger parks in Ventura. It’s at the bottom of a small valley. A couple great hiking trails go around the park on the hillsides and at the top there are houses. Some of those houses
were about to catch fire. The fire department’s goal was to keep the fire on the north side of Foothill Drive. The fire knew nothing about that plan. First, it jumped the road to grab a single house about a quarter-mile from Arroyo Verde. Then, apparently liking what it had done, it jumped across Foothill again about at the entrance to Arroyo Verde Park and burned six more houses on the east side of Foothill.
The 126 is Highway 126 between Ventura, Santa Paula, Fillmore, and Castaic. When I started watching the CBS coverage of the Thomas fire another small fire, the Creek Fire, was also being mentioned. It appeared to be the major concern of both the L.A. ABC and NBC stations, perhaps because it was closer to Los Angeles in Sylmar, CA, 70 miles from Ventura. A small fire, 200 acres, it seemed very controllable. However, the Santa Ana winds rarely let any Southern California fire be controllable. That 200-acre fire quickly grew into a 1,000-acre fire, but unlike Ventura’s Thomas fire spreading west, the Creek Fire was spreading south. It would eventually damage more than 50 homes and a horse ranch in four different communities over a distance of 11 miles. The I5 was closed because of the Creek Fire and another fire near Hwy 126, the Rye fire, newly formed and less than 200 acres in Castaic.
Every half hour or so there was a news story about 3 – 6 more houses being destroyed in Ventura. To me the fire seemed to be marching closer to a house on Poli St. where I once lived (Poli is the name of Foothill when the street makes a slight turn in Ventura). Again, I did not know the fire had sent a scouting party into Ventura late the night before. I realized my mistake about the fire after seeing two things on CBS. First there was a shot from a helicopter that scanned the hillsides above Ventura. The shot began at the Ventura Botanical Gardens which cover the hillsides above the San Buenaventura Mission in downtown Ventura and I noticed some black near the Gardens. However, because it hadn’t been mentioned I thought it was just a stray brush fire. Then I was able to put one and one together when a reporter told the Hawaiian Village story, a 53 unit apartment building that caught fire about midnight and burned to the ground well before sunrise.
It turned out the firefighters hadn’t quite contained the fire to just that complex. All those houses you see around it went untouched, but out of the picture are a couple houses that got touched. One of the houses belonged to a friend of my daughter. During the years I’ve lived in Ventura, I’d often noticed Hawaiian Village, it could be seen from the ocean, and I thought it would be a great place to live especially because of its ocean views and proximity to downtown.
Just before Thanksgiving, there were a number of major fires in Central California, in and around Napa Valley. 42 people died because of those fires. While the destruction caused by today’s fires is considerable, the bodily harm caused is small. A firefighter was injured this morning and released in the afternoon, a few people were injured in car accidents while fleeing the fires, and a few people were treated for burns – none of them considered serious, but no one has died.
Meanwhile, the Thomas fire had grown to more than 50,000 acres, the Creek Fire to more than 11,000, the Rye fire to more than 5,000, and now there was a new fire, the 100 acre Little Mountain fire near San Bernardino. When I sent that text one of the CBS reporters mentioned five fires, but the Santa Paula and Ventura fires were two legs of the Thomas fire that started near Thomas Aquinas College, about six miles north of Santa Paula in Ojai. The first direction the fire took was south before it took a left turn when it reached Santa Paula. At that time with the fire heading both south and west, it could have gone in any direction, including toward the subdivision where my friend lives.
I’ve run a few chores since I began writing this so a few hours have passed and it’s getting dark. The helicopters that joined the fight about 3 pm are back on the ground and the firefighters are getting a little rest because the flames have subsided. Still, there are many small uncontained fires still burning between Santa Paula and Ventura. The embers left from the burned brush, trees, and buildings are in many cases, still smoldering. The hills north of Ventura are still on fire.
And this is what you are likely to see looking toward Ventura from the Pacific Ocean.
So, as this day of the worst fire I’ve ever been close to comes to a close I’m reflecting on some of what’s happened. I’ve heard many sad stories today.
The family expecting a New Year’s baby who lived in a house for two days before it burned to the ground.
The Green Bay Packers fan who may have moved here just two months ago, because he and his family lived in their brand new house just two months before the fire took it down.
The woman who saw news reports of her neighborhood and saw that while three of her neighbors’ houses sadly caught fire and burned for a few hours but hers was untouched. So, she headed home only to see her house in flames when she got there.
The Santa Clause who showed up at one of the evacuation centers in Ventura at the County Fairgrounds to entertain the 400 evacuees and children there.
I feel very sorry for those who lost so much. I found myself crying for them more than once. While I may not know any of the people whose homes burned today, I’ve followed their stories. It has been a terribly sad day for my daughter who was good friends with six of the people who lost their homes.
A terrible day is, of course, relative. Seven years ago I was in a hospital bed after having almost died during a 12-hour operation that was supposed to have taken three or four hours. It didn’t go well for either the doctor or for me. As miserable as I felt laying there wondering what was wrong with my eye, feeling pain on the left side of my face, and waiting for the nurse to come in to change my I.V.; I watched the news coverage of a disastrous earthquake in Haiti that left 230,000 people dead and millions homeless. People were digging through the rubble of what had been their homes. They had little to eat. It was winter and they had little heat. Their drinking water was diseased. I knew no matter how bad I felt, there was no way I would want to trade places with any of them.
This was not the worst day for fires in California. I’ve already mentioned the fires in Central California that burned more than 5,000 homes. There was also the 2007 fire season, That’s when I received my baptism in the real disasters of California.Before I moved here from the Midwest people asked if I was worried about earthquakes and tsunamis. However, earthquakes have been a minor concern. I’ve felt three 4.5 earthquakes in the time I’ve been here, but in 2007 there were 20 major fires in California. On one day in Southern California, there were 17 separate major fires burning. One Sunday morning, I got a call from a friend who said she was packing because one of those fires was burning across the street from where she was living in Moorpark, CA. Two days later I watched from my workplace in Simi Valley as the flames of one of those fires raced across the mountains on the south side of the town. The next morning as I walked my dogs I marveled at the glow of another fire that was burning the same hills in Ventura that were burned today but with much less damage back then. Later I wiped about a quarter inch of ash from all those fires off my car. It was faintly reminiscent of the snow I used to scrape off my car during the winter back in the Midwest. 203 people were injured in those fires of 2007, 17 others died. About a million people had to evacuate their homes and thousands of them saw their homes destroyed.
Nevertheless any day someone loses the place they live, is a sad day. While it’s good they are still alive and the place and things they lost may in some way be replaceable, they are still lost. They were pictures, mementos, toys, and other things that were important enough just to have; to hang on a wall; to place on a table, desk, or shelf; to put in a container, box, or drawer. They are the things we attach our lives to and represent some bit, some part, some moment of our life. When they are taken away find ourselves unattached like boats in a storm, floating aimlessly across a body of water until somehow we scrabble back to shore where we can start over again, aware of our loss, but also know we have survived and can begin again.
This is about the way the John Hancock building looked the first time I saw it, although I first saw it while driving into Chicago on the Kennedy Expressway in June 1968 – shortly after my discharge from the Army.
Later that day I looked at it from the sidewalk across the street from 875 North Michigan Avenue. It was still just a shell and there wasn’t much to see, but It was the first time I got a dizzy feeling while leaning back and looking up the side of the building, trying to see its top floors.
My first two years of high school were just a couple blocks from where the Hancock Building would be. My first year of college was at Loyola University, also a couple blocks away. During that year I often had lunch on the lawn in front of the Chicago Water Tower, which is across the street and a block south of the Hancock Building, but at that time there was little worth noting that was in the space the Hancock would eventually fill. I remember the Chicago Water Works Building across the street from the Water Tower, but everything else was just day-to-day life: people, traffic, stores, and buildings moving or not moving around me while I laughed with my friends and enjoyed my sandwich and piece of fruit or cookies oblivious to everything that wasn’t important to my little world.
Now that I am much older I often wish I had paid more attention to my surroundings. Whenever I visit Chicago now I notice changes, new buildings, new shops and, although I recognize the change I usually cannot remember what it changed from. That’s the way it is with the Hancock. I often walked along Michigan Avenue past 875 North Michigan Avenue sometimes looking at whatever filled that space at the time. I’ve tried to remember what was there, but all I can remember is the general feel of Michigan Avenue with its traffic – cars, taxis, and buses – going by, making noise, and kicking up dust.
That’s one of the things about memory if you didn’t pay attention to something when it was nearby the only thing you might remember years later is the dust
Just heard a story about a couple sinkholes not too far from where I live that opened up overnight. One of them in a road I’ve driven on a few times, Foothill Road near Hwy 154 in Santa Barbara. Now, I’m thinking about the first time I thought about sinkholes.
So now, I’m picturing holes with cars and houses in them and remembering the first time I ever heard about sinkholes.
I was about nine. The radio newsman was talking about a sinkhole in Florida that swallowed a house and he was making no sense to me. After all, the holes in the sinks I was most familiar with were pretty small, I’d dropped a toothpaste cap into the hole in the bathroom sink once, but even the kind of house people used for their model trains would be too big to get swallowed by a bathroom sink hole or even the hole in a kitchen sink. You’d have to break it up into little pieces to wash it into such a tiny hole, but a regular, full-sized house, even a tiny one like the one next door would never fit into the kind of sink holes I was familiar with.
So the next thing I wondered was what kind of sinks they had in Florida. I knew some people had swimming pools in their back yards, but would a swimming pool have a hole big enough to swallow a house and if it did, did people in Florida have sinks the size of swimming pools?
My mind was spinning trying to come to terms with this. For a moment I was pretty sure I didn’t ever want to go to Florida. Usually, my mom had the answers to things like this, but not this time.
“Mom, could a sink hole swallow a house?” I asked.
She thought a moment, probably wondering why I was asking a question that for an adult, had an obvious answer. “I suppose they could, but not very often.”
On the one hand, that was a relief. It didn’t happen very often, so I’d probably safe on a trip to Florida. On the other hand, that didn’t explain how it could happen in the first place, but it wasn’t an impossibility as far as she was concerned. Since I wouldn’t be seeing any of my teachers for a while, there was only one thing left to do.
I headed over to the library and to the encyclopedias. Of course, I found the answer, but it took a little while to understand the relationship between a big hole in the ground and the hole at the bottom of a sink.
Now, I’m sitting here, amused by my childish innocence and perception of the world around me.
My cousin was jogging alongside me. I had to pedal slower to keep pace with him. He was ten years old, I was eleven. We hadn’t been friends very long. I’d known him when I was three, so I hadn’t really known him. Then my family moved to Illinois, a little town outside Chicago. Time passed. We saw each other again when we were old enough to remember the visit.
Every year for the first five years after we moved to Illinois my father took the family back east to visit relatives. We always visited my mom’s family and someone from my dad’s family: one of his aunt’s one year, his mother another, another aunt, then when I was eight after a few days in New York he took us to Massachusettes to visit his sister and I got to see my Johnson cousins again. Not that I’d ever missed seeing them, but until then I hardly knew they existed.
I don’t remember what we did. My uncle had a target behind his house and he invited me to shoot an arrow at it. I have no idea where the thing went, but it didn’t hit the target. He helped me pull the string back, told me to look down the arrow at the target and when I could see a straight line from my eye, down the arrow, and to the target, I should let it go. My cousins told me I was really lucky because he never let them touch his bow and arrows, much less shoot them.
We all slept in a room on the second floor overlooking the street. I loved watching the cars go by in the street below. All I could see from my bedroom window at home was the mobile home across the way.
Less than two years later my cousins and I were roommates again. By then my family had moved into a house. My brother and I had an upstairs room overlooking the street, but the house was at the end of a dead-end street, so there wasn’t much to see. Four of us shared one small room. We were small, though, and it was fun, so the room didn’t feel crowded.
So my cousin, Kenny, and I were becoming friends. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but without warning, he ran faster. In an instant, he was ten steps ahead of me. I was pushing hard on the pedals to catch up. He looked back at me, stumbled and fell. I pushed back hard on the pedals to stop. I couldn’t swerve because there was a ditch on the left and a busy street on the right. I think he’d run ahead because there was a bridge where the road crossed a creek. The space at the edge of the road narrowed to about two feet. Normally, I would have been able to stop in time, but this time my foot slipped off the pedal and as I fought to gain control the bike rolled over my cousin!
Somehow I managed to keep from falling over. Somehow he wasn’t hurt, at least not much from the bicycle. He was a little scraped up from falling on the gravel, but he jumped up and started screaming at me as if I’d run him over on purpose. Before I could say anything he stomped home, taking the shortcut I couldn’t take, through the yards.
It was two days before he talked to me again. We were watching TV and he started laughing. Then he said, “You should have seen the look on your face after you ran me over. You looked so scared, I thought you were afraid your bike was broke. I got so mad at you, ’cause I was the one who was hurt, not your stupid bike.”
“I did think you were hurt!”
“I know, but I think I was in shock or something and I was mad at you for running me over and not even falling down. Next time you run me over you better fall down, even if you don’t have to.”
“My cousins moved out a few weeks after that. The trips out east stopped about that time and were replaced by trips to visit the Johnson’s. Ken and I stayed friends until we were in our twenties. Then we both moved further away and grew apart. Still, whenever I see two kids, one on a bicycle, the other running alongside or on a skateboard I remember the feeling of bouncing on my bicycle over my cousin.
There have been about ten dogs in my life that have been important to me, but none more important than three Shelties, Rappahonack (our first Sheltie, my daughter’s dog), Lujack and Gleason (two Shelties I got at the same time).
Gleason was the spunkiest of the three, a funny dog, who I named after the comedian, Jackie Gleason and a little town in Wisconsin where I found a hot-dog stand that served Chicago style hot dogs. Gleason was four years old when I adopted him from Wisconsin Sheltie Rescue. I’d originally gone there to see another sheltie named Hunter when a dog named Mickey stopped by to sniff me. His tail was bent sharply to the right, which made him look a bit different, but I thought he was beautiful. I think I fell in love with him when he laid down and fell asleep at my feet while I talked with Lisa, the Wisconsin Sheltie Rescue director.
Lisa and I were talking about the logistics of my adoption of Hunter who was playing with another dog, but I was looking at Mickey at my feet.
“Any chance I could adopt two dogs?” I asked.
Lisa smiled and I thought she was going to laugh at that idea, but she smiled because she liked people who liked Shelties and she liked the idea that I wanted two of them.
“Sure,” she said, “but Hunter might be enough dog for you to handle.”
“That’s alright, but I’d like to take both Hunter and Mickey.
A week later, the first week of December, Hunter became a part of my family and I renamed him Lujack after Larry Lujack, my favorite Chicago radio announcer. Three weeks later, two days after Christmas, Mickey joined us and I renamed him Gleason.
Nine months later I moved to California and took both dogs with me in the car. The trip was uneventful but whenever we stopped at a motel Gleason always inspected the room carefully, then sat at the door wagging his tail as if to say, it was nice of you to take us here, now let’s go home.
I’m always appalled when I hear that someone got rid of their dog because they were moving. I’ve lived in six different places in California and I’ve always managed to find places that would take dogs. Four of the places have been apartments, two have been houses. Often a homeowner that says he will not take a dog will agree to it once he meets you and finds out about the dog. Also, an apartment complexes rules are often not hard and fast, designed mostly to keep out dangerous dogs. If a person loves the dog, the person will find a way to keep the dog. The people who do not, don’t really love the dog and probably shouldn’t have gotten a dog in the first place.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how I believe Gleason and Lujack saved my life. Less than four months after I left the hospital I became even more convinced of that when Gleason got sick. He started coughing. First a few little coughs here and there, as if he had something caught in his throat. Then as the coughing increased he started wheezing. It got to be worse and worse. Within a week it became obvious a veterinarian was needed. When I brought him in I thought it was Bronchitis. I was hoping it would be something less severe. It was not. The vet ruled out Bronchitis almost immediately. Based on the blood tests he did, he thought it was probably a virus.
I was sent home with some prescriptions to fill and the hope that in 10 days Gleason would be over this and would be about as good as a 12 year old dog could be. One of the medications was a liquid that Gleason abhorred. I had to force it into his throat, but he would cough and spit out as much of it as he could. Two other medications, both pills had to be hidden in something such as a piece of bread or a soft treat; otherwise he would spit it out.
During this time he either refused to continue on our walk after he had relieved himself, or he refused to go out at all.
A week after seeing the vet he stopped eating. I had been crying off and on while this was going on, but when he refused to eat I knew it was probably over. I sat down and cried for more than an hour. Then I called the vet and made an appointment for that afternoon. Since our regular vet was off that day we saw a different doctor. She thought there was a chance he might survive, but I would have to get him to eat, she would run some tests and the treatment would probably have to be very aggressive. She took some more blood samples and gave me some other medications to give instead of what Gleason had been taking. An appointment was set to take some lung tissue samples in five days.
I managed to get Gleason to eat at least that day and each of the next four days, but each meal was different. Once he had eaten something he would not eat it again. On the fifth day he refused to eat anything.
I took him to the vet, but when I went to pick him up I noticed I missed a call on my cell phone. It was the vet she said they weren’t able to take the sample and that I should get Gleason. When I arrived she told me that he went into shock when she put the needle in to anesthetize him and that she was afraid she was going to lose him. Because of that it was too dangerous to try to get the lung tissue sample.
She gave me a new prescription for a steroid. The Vet said they had just given him one and if anything was going to help him the steroid would. I took him home and he rallied that night, jumping up onto the bed and for a moment I thought there was hope, but a few hours later he was wheezing terribly. He went into the living room for some reason, but when he returned he stumbled and walked into a wall. I knew his time had come so I eased him to the floor, and petted and talked to him for the next 20 minutes until he died.
I was heartbroken, but I was also very happy I could be there for him just as he had been there for me only a few months before. It was as if he stayed around to help get me through the roughest stretch of my life, that his reason for being here was complete.
I know Lujack missed Gleason and was lonely and confused for quite awhile after Gleason died. There were times when he seemed to be looking for Gleason or waiting for him, but in addition to me still being here it is also good for Lujack that I no longer have a job because he has a companion most of the day.
The day after Gleason died I put together a little video of him that I posted on the Internet. I play it every now and then. What surprises me is that Lujack has always barked at the sound of another dog barking whether the barking is coming from outside or from the TV, radio, or computer, but he never barks when I play Gleason’s video even though Gleason is barking through most of the video. I think he recognizes the bark as the bark of a friend.
Since then Lujack and I have moved. Again we live in a studio apartment with a fenced in yard, but this time Molly and her husband Eric live in the house across the patio from us. Lujack and I spend much of the day in the house or out in the yard and our nights in the studio. Now, in addition to me Lujack has two more people to play with and a fenced in yard.
Every day when we go out for our morning walk I thank the good Lord for sending me two Shelties to help make every day both more fun and even more worth living no matter what that day brings.
This blooper video brought back memories of terror, embarrassment, and laughter. Having worked off and on for more than 20 years in broadcasting, mostly as a radio announcer and newsperson, I’m well aware of how embarrassingly funny a blooper can be, especially when an audience gets to enjoy them.
Watching this video you might wonder how these people could possibly mess up a simple six-word phrase not once, but about a dozen times. What, are these people idiots? Nope… but this sort of thing even happens to professionals, that’s why we enjoy blooper outtakes so much. It happens because when a person is not talking in a way they would normally be talking or because they are concerned about something other than the words they are saying, such as the way they look, the way they are pronouncing the word, or the way they are saying a word or phrase.
I lost my first radio announcing job (at WBYS in Canton, IL) because of a blooper, not mine, even though I did make a few that could have gotten me fired had they either been recorded or heard by anyone in management. I mispronounced names or people, places, and things. I stumbled over various words and phrases. Once I thought I’d turned off my mike, but hadn’t and treated the audience to my side of a phone conversation while a record was playing. A couple times I said s**t on the air. Another time, knowing my microphone was off, but not realizing the phone line was not, I called a listener an a**h**e on the air. Perhaps the worst was when I misread the word duck.
magnetic tape cartridges (Carts)
At that time commercials were recorded on tape cartridges similar plastic 8-track tape cartridges that in radio jargon were called, Carts. We put a Cart into a recorder, read or produced our commercial, and put a label on the Cart to identify it. If we made a mistake we removed the Cart from the recorder, put in a new one and started over. We continued this process until we had a broadcast worthy commercial.
One of my jobs was to erase the Carts. In the production room, the small studio where commercials, promos, and other pre-recorded announcements were made, there were three cardboard boxes where all the mistakes were dumped. I had to run each cart over a magnetic eraser and put the Carts back in the rack according to size ( 30, 60, or 90 second or 2, 3, 5, 10, or 30 minutes long). It was a boring, tedious job.
One day, after I’d been doing it for a few months I noticed that one of the newsmen had ‘dirtied’ more than 50 Carts. I thought it would be funny if I acknowledged his accomplishment, so I printed a small banner announcing the winner of the “Who Dirtied the Most Carts Contest.” Everyone thought it was funny, including the newsman so I decided to continue it, even giving myself the award a couple times. Giving the award made the task of cleaning the Carts even more tedious
magnetic tape bulk eraser
because it added a couple steps to the process. Instead of just removing the label, erasing the cart, and putting the cleaned cart back into one of the racks I now had to first listen to the Cart, then put a tick mark next to the culprit’s name before I erased it.
When I was fired a couple months after starting the “Who Dirtied the Most Carts” contest, I was told I had not been getting the job done. Two for instances were given: I rarely wrote more than three news stories and usually, only two every night, whereas the person who’d been doing the job previously always turned in at least three. Second, I spent about twice as much time as my predecessor cleaning the Carts. Both accusations were true. In my defense, I was a one-finger typist, and I was too young to know that my joke was funny once or twice, but not every day.
The truth is the real reason I was fired was not because I didn’t write enough news or because I spent too much time completing a monotonous task, but because three days before I was fired I gave the award to the radio station owner. Maybe that was a mistake. Apparently, he didn’t have as much of a sense of humor as I thought he did.
I entered two memoirs in the Ventura Writer’s Club Memoir Contest. One, Baker, took the second place prize. This one, The Wart, did not win any prize. In a way, I’m glad it didn’t. As it is, it isn’t a true memoir, because I made up what happened after I was sent out of the room. I don’t remember if I was punished, or reprimanded, or sent to the Rector’s office. As I look back on it now, I imagine I was reprimanded because I’m sure I would have remembered seeing the rector or receiving a punishment. It also seems my parents would have been called, and I believe I would have remembered that, too. Below is “The Wart” as it was entered in the contest. Next week I’ll publish the story as it should have been written.
Quigley Seminary Students
We are supposed to be quiet. That’s the rule, even when the teacher is late. Asking a roomful of 30 fourteen-year-old boys to be quiet is like asking a worm not to squirm. The whispers have changed from “Where is he” to such things as, “Did you see that home run yesterday?”
“Because he’s late the first thing Father Thomas is going to do when he comes in is fiddle around with his briefcase. Then he’ll take out his books and some papers and his chalk. He always brings his own chalk.”
“I know that.”
Since this was a Roman Catholic Seminary, all the teachers were priests and even though Father Thomas was strict, he was one of the nicest teachers.
“Then he’ll stop and look at us,” Glanville continued. “He won’t say anything.”
“I know, he’s taking roll and he never says anything unless someone’s absent.”
“Well, look at his nose when he’s taking roll, that’s when you’ll see it. Sometimes it looks like a big fly has landed on his nose, but it’s a big, black wart right on the tip.”
“He doesn’t have a wart.”
“Yes he does. You’ve just never seen it before because you’ve never really looked at him. We never really look at anyone. What was your dad wearing when he left for work?”
“I don’t know. I was asleep.”
“Okay, in the lunch room today, somebody had a big, brown smudge on her cheek. Who was it?”
That had to be one of the women in the serving line. We had meatloaf, corn, potatoes and gravy, and jello. “The one serving the meatloaf?”
“The mashed potatoes?”
Quigley Preparatory Seminary, Chicago
“No, it was the cashier. You should have looked right at her when you paid for your lunch, but you didn’t. That’s because we usually don’t look right at people. We look at their eyes or their lips or their clothes, but we don’t look at them. We don’t see their whole face. That’s why you’ve never seen the wart on Father Thomas’s nose.”
“He doesn’t have a wart.”
“Yes, he does. When he takes roll today, look right at his nose and you’ll see a big, black wart. It’s so big and so ugly you’ll laugh. It’s funny. You’ll see. You can’t help but laugh. He looks so silly with that big wart right there on the tip of his nose. It’s like he can’t see anything else it’s so big. It’s the funniest…”
The door flew open. Father Thomas rushed in. “Sorry I’m late he said.”
I tried to look at his nose, but he was looking down, opening the bottom drawer of his desk. He set his briefcase there, took out his books, took out some paper, took out a couple pieces of chalk and put them in the rack on the chalkboard.
All this time I’d been trying to see the tip of his nose, but his face remained looking down. It didn’t look like there was a wart on his nose, but I couldn’t be sure.
He set his briefcase against the side of the desk, pushed the drawer closed with his foot and took a piece of paper off the top of his desk.
As Father Thomas turned to look at us, Ron Glanville whispered in my ear. “You can’t help but laugh when you see the wart on his nose.
There wasn’t a wart on his nose, but I imagined one and I imagined him looking cross-eyed at it and it was funny, terribly, terribly funny, and I laughed loud and hard.
“Mr. Michael, may I ask what is so funny?” Father Thomas asked.
I tried to say, nothing, but couldn’t stop laughing.
“Mr. Jones, step out into the hall, please.”
I was in big trouble. Stepping into the hall it almost always meant detention or a trip to the Rector’s office. That stopped my laughing for a moment.
In the hallway I tried working out what I would say. I couldn’t tell him the truth. That would sound stupid. I decided to tell him I’d remembered a funny joke, but couldn’t remember what it was.
Finally, he came out to the hall, “Mr. Jones…“ He said, looking into my eyes.
“Yes?” That was all I could say because when I looked at him all I could see was a big black wart. I didn’t see his face or his eyes or his smile… just a wart and again I was laughing.
“Someone,” he said, speaking slowly and deliberately, “Someone told you the wart story, right?”
That surprised the laughter right out of me. He knew. How could he know?
“Mr. Glanville I expect. His brother was doing the laughing last year and it was the brother of someone else a few years before that. Where was it this time, my forehead or maybe my one of my lips?”
“It was your nose.”
“On the tip?”
I nodded my head, yes.
“Same as last time.”
As he was talking I was looking at his nose. Whatever I thought was so funny wasn’t funny anymore. I pictured a wart on his nose, but there was nothing funny about it. In fact, it seemed a bit stupid.
“I’ll have to give you detention, you know. You disrupted the class, so it will be two detentions. Is there any reason why you can’t be there tonight?
I would have to call home and take a later train, but there was no real reason. I’d probably get grounded when I got home. It didn’t seem fair. Nothing would have happened if Father Thomas had been on time. And Glanville was cruel. He should have told me about what happened to his brother instead of playing the same mean trick on me.
As if he was reading my mind, Father Thomas said, “And don’t worry; Mr. Glanville will be joining you. Return to your seat. If there’s another outburst or if I hear any noise at all from you, you’ll find yourself walking to the Rector’s office.”
While Glanville was out in the hallway with Father Thomas just about everyone was whispering to me, “What happened.” I wasn’t going to get caught talking to anyone, so I just opened my book and tried to read about the war of 1812.
When Ron Glanville returned he looked angry. I expected him to punch me, but he didn’t. It was at least two weeks before he spoke to me again. It was just before class started. He whispered, “Do you ever see the wart on his nose?”
I turned around and whispered, “All the time,” and we both laughed.
After I dropped out of Western Illinois University I volunteered for awhile at the St. Joseph Catholic Worker House, a homeless shelter in Davenport, Iowa. We served breakfast, lunch, and dinner to as many as 50 people and offered shelter to about 20 of them every night.
One night the Director, Margaret, hung up the phone, and said, “That was the Moline police. They want us to pick up Baker*.”
“What’s the problem?” asked Bob, one of the volunteers.
“Found him sleeping on a park bench,” Margaret said.
Bob, Tom and I – the three male volunteers drove over to get Baker. Bob was happy to have me along in case Baker was passed out. Baker was quite a big man and it might take more than two people to wrestle him into the car if he was passed out.
As it turned out Baker was not unconscious, maybe a little drunk, maybe not. When the Moline police found him he said he lived at the Catholic Worker and asked if they could give him a ride there. The police were familiar with the Catholic Worker house. It was on their list of homeless shelters to call so they called us.
We walked Baker to the car. He sat in the back seat, with me.
”Baker what were you doing all the way over here,” I asked, just trying to make conversation. Usually, the men who stayed at the shelter never strayed too far, rarely more than a mile away.
“Personal business,” Baker said as Bob started the car.
“You okay back there, Baker?” Bob asked as Baker fidgeted in the seat apparently trying to get comfortable.
“Oh yes, fine, jes fine,” Baker said.
Actually, he looked like something in his back pocket was bothering him and he was reaching around trying to straighten out whatever it was.
“Did you walk or take a bus over here?
“Walked,” Baker said.
“Well, I can understand… “
I was about to comment about the four miles between where we were and where we were going when Baker waved his hand in front of my face and a switchblade knife snapped open.
To say that scared me was an understatement.
“You know…” he said in a very hushed voice. “You know, I could kill you, real quiet like.”
The car was moving now. Bob and Tom were talking; unaware of what was happening in the back seat.
“You know, Baker,” Bob said, turning his head a little toward the back, “Margaret’s going to check, make sure you’re not drunk.”
“I know,” Baker said, not sounding like someone with a switchblade who’d been talking about killing me.
“And if you’re not sobered up by the time we get back, you can’t stay.”
“I ain’t drunk, so you can keep goin’.”
“Sounds good,” Bob said. Awhile ago Bob told me he empathized with most of the guys who stayed there because it was just a matter of luck he wasn’t one of them.
When Tom and Bob resumed their conversation, Baker turned back to me. “What you gonna do if I stick you with this?” he said softly.
“Not much I could do. Outside I could jump away, but here, there’s no place to go. So, I think you’d have me dead before I could do much of anything.”
“You ain’t afraid?”
“I don’t know,” I said as calmly as I could while I was thinking: Afraid? I’m terrified. I’m sitting here shaking, wanting to scream, but he might kill me if I do. I can hardly breathe.
Long before, when I was in the army I learned how to have a poker face. Unless I was extremely happy, meaning I had an unbeatable hand……. the other players couldn’t tell if I was bluffing or if I wasn’t. They almost never knew by looking at my face if I thought my cards were good or not, so I won more often than I lost.
What Baker was looking at was my poker face. It automatically locked into place whenever I was in a difficult, poker-like situation. I didn’t look like I was afraid.
“You don’t know? Damn, you ain’t afraid.”
Maybe I wasn’t afraid. The knife scared me, that’s true, but this wasn’t making any sense to me. There was no reason for Baker to be doing this. Although he and I weren’t friends, we also weren’t enemies. In the food line, where we’d had the most contact, I served him just like everyone else, even giving him extra food when he asked.
We’d talked a couple times and I knew a little about him. Originally from Nashville, he’d lived in Chicago for awhile so we had talked a little about the city, the L-trains, and the Chicago sports teams. I thought he was an intelligent, gentle man who didn’t belong in a place like this, that he was here more because he was Black than any other reason and that didn’t seem like enough reason to be threatening me.
“You know I could kill the three of you and take this here car to Mexico. Never been to Mexico, but I’d get by.”
“You speak any Spanish?”
“See Senyoour,” he said and laughed, “gimme some tacos.”
“What are you planning to do when you get there? Eventually, you’ll need some money.”
“Well, I got this blade. I’ll get what I need.”
“You’re talking crazy, Baker. Maybe you should learn some Spanish first. You’re smart enough you could learn in a few months, then you could go and you wouldn’t have to be killing people.”
“Man, you be nasty. You sposed to be beggin’ for your life, squealin’ Baker don’t kill me and Baker put that knife away. You sposed to be cryin’ and screamin’ but you talkin’ ‘bout learnin’ Spanish. Man, you takin’ the fun outta this.”
As we turned the corner onto 5th Street, just a few blocks from the Catholic Worker Baker said, “You know, Robb, I like you. You okay. Then he folded the switchblade and put it back in his pocket.
I breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Baker, you are a mean, mean man.”
“Yeah, maybe so. Had you goin’ a little there, didn’t I?”
“More than a little,” I said.
“Yeah, to tell you the truth, I was petrified.”
Baker stared at me as if either he wanted to remember my face or there was something wrong with me.
“Now you the one bein’ mean,” he said.
Bob parked the car and we went into the house. Margaret met us at the door.
“How’re you feeling Baker,” she said. This was how she determined if someone was drunk or not, a short conversation was all she needed.
“These guys treat you alright?”
“Jes fine,” he said, winking at me. “Me and Robb here, we had a nice conversation about Mexico.”
“Mexico,” I heard Margaret saying as I walked away. “Have you ever been to Mexico, Baker?”
I climbed the stairs up to my room and eventually managed to fall asleep. In the morning I saw Baker sitting around with the other guys waiting for breakfast. He smiled at me and I nodded back. I never told anyone about his knife and never talked about that night in the back seat until now. There was no need to talk about it. Baker was killed a few weeks later crossing a busy street in Moline.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your eyes,” the eye doctor said, “I think it’s in your head.”
“What,” I thought, “is he trying to tell me I’m imagining it or that I’m crazy?”
“There is no problem with your eyes,” he continued. “You have 20-20 vision. I think you have a brain tumor.” I was suddenly both shocked and very frightened. I didn’t know much about brain tumors, but I thought they were terrible things and people often died because of them. The ophthalmologist must have seen the look on my face because he tried to ease my thoughts. “This type of tumor is somewhat common and, depending on how large it is, fairly easily treatable. We need to set you up with an MRI.”
A couple months before I noticed I was having trouble reading. With just my left eye the pages were very blurry; with my right they were a little blurry. A few weeks later I saw my doctor, thinking I had cataracts.
“I don’t see any sign of cataracts,” he said handing me a referral note. “You’d better see your eye doctor.”
Once the possibility of cataracts had been ruled out, I wasn’t too concerned. Instead, I thought it was probably just time for new glasses. I still hadn’t made the appointment about six weeks later when I read a little magazine article that listed a number of eye problem symptoms, one of which was blurry vision. It said, if you have any of these call your eye doctor immediately, you could be going blind. That really scared me.
I called the ophthalmologist immediately and was told there was an opening in five weeks. Usually, I would have just said okay, but I was so worried that I asked if there was anything earlier available. It was Dec 30th. She said, “We have tomorrow at 2:00 pm available.” I took it. It was the doctor’s last appointment of the year and the beginning of a ten day trip to the operating table for me.
I had the MRI on January 4th. It confirmed that there was a tumor on my Pituitary gland. However, it was a very large tumor, necessitating surgery almost immediately. The surgery was scheduled for Friday, January 8th.
The neurosurgeon told me that if I had ignored the tumor I would probably be blind and possibly dead within two months. As it was he cautioned me that there was a slight possibility I would suddenly go blind before the operation, in which case he would operate immediately.
During the 10 days between diagnosis and operation I saw five more doctors. Four said this was a fairly common operation and two said I wouldn’t die from it. The neurosurgeon, however, twice told me there was a possibility I could die on the operating table. Nonetheless, because four doctors indicated it was a relatively common operation and two said it wouldn’t kill me I went into the operation not especially concerned. As it turned out, I should have been.
My only real concern going into the operation was my two Shetland Sheepdogs, two male Shelties: Gleason and Lujack. I loved them both immensely and because I had been forced to retire eight months before, they were the only real reason I got out of bed every day.
Without them I could have gotten out of bed anytime, but they needed to be walked and fed every day. If I wasn’t out of bed by about 7 am, they would bark at me, nudge me, and literally walk all over me until I got up. Usually, whenever I slept that late I couldn’t help but get out of bed laughing at their antics.
Both dogs are from Wisconsin Sheltie Rescue operated by Lisa Martin in Chilton, Wisconsin. I’d been in contact with Lisa for about six months before I went there to look at a dog to adopt.
When I went to the shelter it was primarily to see one dog, a 1 ½ year old sable named Hunter. Lisa told me he was a bit “rough” because most of his life had been spent at the end of an 8’ chain attached to a dog house. A vet tech brought him in when the family that owned him decided they didn’t want him anymore.
While I was there I was shown another Sheltie, a 4 ½ year old tri-color named Mickey. I don’t know what it was about him, but I fell in love with him immediately. Perhaps it was the way he wiggled when I reached down to pet him. Perhaps it was the way he laid down at my feet while the other dogs continued to play.
I couldn’t decide which dog I wanted. Mickey was a little smaller, but Hunter was a little younger. Because, I had just lost my first Sheltie (who was actually my daughter’s dog until she went off to college) after only seven years, I wanted a younger dog.
I asked Lisa if there was any chance that I could have both dogs. I was very happy when she said, “Sure.” I don’t know which one I would have taken if she told me I could take only one, because I actually wanted both dogs equally, but for different reasons. Lujack because he was younger, Gleason because he just seemed to be more cuddly.
I immediately changed the names of both dogs. Hunter became Lujack, named after my favorite radio announcer when I was growing up in Chicago. Mickey became Gleason, named after a small town in Wisconsin that we went out of our way to pass through because there was a little hot-dog stand there that had fantastic Chicago style hot-dogs.
I have been so happy Lisa let me take both Shelties because they have been so much fun but in slightly different ways. Awhile after bringing the dogs home I described them to my daughter. This is roughly what I said, “Gleason is more playful, while Lujack loves to run. Gleason loves to have fun, while Lujack loves to show me how smart and athletic he is. Gleason is like the good, little boy, honor student, while Lujack is the imp who wants to see how much he can get away with. Gleason loves to ride in the car so he can bark at anything that moves and some things that don’t. Lujack is terrified of anything having to do with cars.”
The day I brought Lujack home from Wisconsin Sheltie Rescue he sat in the front passenger seat, shaking the entire way. When I stopped at a pet store on the way home to pick up something for him, he almost got away from me. I parked and got out of the car. Before I closed the door he bolted. I managed to grab him by the tail and pull him back into the car; otherwise I have no idea where he’d be now. It was just three weeks before Christmas and the traffic on the street in front of the pet store was particularly heavy on a Saturday afternoon. When I got back in the car I was especially careful to make sure there was no space for him to squeeze past me.
Gleason joined his buddy, Lujack, on the weekend after Christmas. The ride from the rescue to our home in Tomahawk was a very quiet one, much different from the ride I was treated to the next time Gleason rode in the car. While Lujack sat strapped in on one side of the back seat, terrified and shaking, Gleason sat on the other barking at the sheer excitement of the car ride then at every car, truck, motorcycle, bicycle, person, dog, and moving tree and bush that we passed.
This first trip with the dogs together in the car gave Lujack the opportunity to display one his special skills. Two little girls about 3 – 5 years old came over to the car with their mother to admire the dogs. While one of them was looking at Lujack, she suddenly exclaimed, “He winked at me. He winked at me!” A few days later I noticed that sometimes Lujack would close just his left eye, winking at anyone who happened to be looking at him when he did it.
About five car trips later, Lujack, while still afraid to be in the car, apparently took his cue from Gleason and learned that barking at moving objects while riding in a car brought with it some amount of fun. A few months down the road, those two Shelties were going to have the time of their lives.
A couple months after getting the dogs, Lujack showed me that his original name, Hunter, might have been an appropriate one for him. The three of us were walking through a tree farm where the snow was about six inches deep. Lujack suddenly stuck his nose into the snow. When he pulled it out a squealing mouse was dangling by its tail from Lujack’s mouth. Startled, I pulled on the leash, yanking him backwards which caused him to drop the mouse. The mouse, still squealing scurried back into the snow.
Gleason, however, proved that his new name was at least as appropriate as his old name had been. A couple days after I brought him home I was petting and scratching him. Lujack noticed what was going on and nosed his way in, scooting Gleason out of the way. Gleason left the room, but returned a moment later with a toy which he dropped at my feet. I picked it up and tossed it out into the hallway. Both dogs ran after it and a moment later, Gleason returned with it and again dropped it at my feet. Again I tossed it into the hallway. This time Lujack returned with it, but since he didn’t know how to play the game he just sat down, chewing on the toy. Gleason then returned to the place he had been nudged away from a few minutes before and was again getting petted and scratched.
Shortly after the dogs joined my family I made a momentous decision. It was something I had been thinking about for more than three years. I wanted to move to California, but hadn’t been able to find a job there. A little more than a week after bringing Gleason home while sitting on the shoulder of the highway after sliding sideways for about 100 feet I decided I’d had enough of the snow and ice. I was going to go be living in California before the next winter started.
My brother had a friend who owned some properties in California and agreed to let me rent a studio apartment in Long Beach. The following September I shipped most of my belongings there, then loaded up my car with my computer and a few other things, put Lujack and Gleason in the back seat, their stuff in the front seat and left.
We didn’t live in the studio very long and it hasn’t been easy finding places to rent that would accept two dogs that weighed more than 25 pounds, but I’ve managed it. It was touch and go a few times in our new state. At the end of our first year we were almost forced to return to Wisconsin when the apartment complex we’d moved to from the studio increased our rent 20% claiming we had been paying a “special” rate for first year residents.
A couple days before I was due to either sign a new lease or give my notice I found a complex within my price range that would allow me to have two dogs. It turned out to be a wonderful place. If I hadn’t found it I would have turned in my notice and returned to Wisconsin. There was no way I would ever give up either of my dogs. They are my companions, my friends, my children. As far as I’m concerned anyone who gives up a pet for any reason other than perhaps danger to a newborn, shouldn’t have taken in the animal in the first place.
When I got took Lujack and Gleason from Wisconsin Sheltie Rescue, I promised both of them that wherever my home was it would also be their home and that I would take care of them for the rest of their lives. That was seven years ago, but my promise to them was almost broken back in January of this year, 2010.
One of my sisters flew in from Chicago to be with me during the operation and my recovery. I have three sisters and three brothers, all living in the Chicago area. My daughter Molly and ex-wife Sharron were also there with me. I’m still very good friends with my ex.
The waiting room seemed very cold and I realized I was more worried than I thought I’d be. I’d had three operations before, one of them quite severe, when my gall bladder, which had been described as “very enlarged”, was removed. It turned out to be almost too large. After that operation the surgeon told me he was fortunate to have been able to remove it merely by increasing the size of the incision. I was thinking about that and the fact that the words, “very large” were used to describe my tumor.
At 8:30, a half hour late, I was called into pre-op. While the surgical staff got me ready for the operation I thought of my Shelties sitting at home alone not having any idea what was about to happen to me. I wondered how much they might miss me during the five days I was supposed to be in the hospital.
Eventually I was rolled into the operating room, which was very cold and lifted onto the operating table. It also was very cold. A couple minutes later the neurosurgeon came in, asked me a couple questions. The last thing I remember was that he was telling a joke, but I fell asleep before he got to the punch line. For all I know it might have been the last funny thing he said that day.
Four hours after the operation began the surgeon left the operating room and found my daughter, Molly; sister, Rory; and ex-wife, Sharron. He looked very distressed. It was much later than they expected to see him. The operation was supposed to have taken about 90 minutes.
He explained that the procedure was not going well at all. He’d made two attempts to remove the tumor and both attempts failed. Each attempt resulted in bleeding and a large loss of blood. So much so that at one point my blood pressure dropped dangerously low and he thought he was going to lose me.
It may have been the closest I have ever come to dying.
The surgeon explained that he was going to bring me back to consciousness and tell me I had two options. He could either try again to remove the tumor through my nose, which had already failed twice and was fraught with danger or he could drill a hole through the top of my skull and attempt to remove it that way. Although, he thought there was a greater likelihood of success, it was also loaded with danger. It could leave me blind, paralyzed or dead.
He told them I should be conscious in about an hour.
As soon as he left my sister, daughter and her mother got on their cell phones and called everyone they knew who could pray for me. That included family, friends, the members of a number of churches and hundreds of people on Facebook. I don’t know how many people were praying for me, but it made a big difference.
Three hours later the neurosurgeon again walked out of the operating room to see Molly, Rory, and Sharron. This time he looked so grim that Sharron was sure he was going to tell them I had not survived.
Actually, the reason for his depressing look was because the operation had not gone anywhere near as well as he had hoped. He had good news, though. He was able to remove a significant portion of the tumor, enough so that he wouldn’t have to go through the top of my head and that I would survive in reasonably good condition.
When he left the operating room earlier in the day his team x-rayed my head again. When he returned he compared the new x-ray with the MRI. He saw something he hadn’t been able to see before and realized that if he moved his instruments over just one centimeter he could avoid the problem that was causing me to bleed whenever he cut into the tumor.
I think it was all the prayers that were being said for me that helped him find that one centimeter.
However, I think the biggest reason I am here writing this is because of Lujack and Gleason. I’d made a promise to them. I’m a reasonably religious person who believes in an afterlife. I know that if I had died I would have gone to Heaven. I also know I would have been the saddest soul there, not so much because I would have been dead as because my promise to my two Shelties would have been broken. Someone I was once talking to told me that she believed we do not choose our dogs, our dogs choose us, that if we pay attention there are things our dogs can teach us and, in fact, are on this earth to teach us. I don’t know what Lujack and Gleason are here to teach me. Perhaps as you read this story, you will realize what it is. So far, for me it is that love and friendship no matter who is doing the loving, no matter who the friend might be, is very important.
I did not come out of the ordeal unscathed. My left eye and the left side of my face suffered nerve damage. The pupil of my left eye is now stuck in the inner corner of my eye. There will be another operation to fix the eye so that it always looks straight ahead. Some of the tumor was left behind. I underwent a procedure called Gamma Knife that should at least keep the tumor from again growing inside my head, but it may have to be monitored the rest of my life.
All in all, that is good news because I am still here and I would rather be here than being sad in heaven because my promise to Lujack and Gleason had been broken.
Sometimes I think I’m a scratched record, repeating the same lyrics again and again. However, I was a teacher for a few years and learned that not every student understood something the first time I explained it. Often I had to repeat and rephrase, using different images and examples. So, if you’ve heard these before, realize they are for the rest of the class.
Five Memoir Writing Tips
Focus and Narrow Down – These two don’t come in any particular order. Pick the seven most significant moments or events of your life. For instance they might be your first day of school, HS graduation, College graduation, first job, marriage, birth of first child, promotion to management, retirement. Next take each event and list 3 – 5 memories associated with it. Each of these doesn’t have to be exact. First day of school could lead to memories that happened before school started or memories that happened after it. The purpose is to give you a point to focus on. For instance: first day of school – my teacher, learning to read, on the playground. Next take those people, places, things, events, memories and see if they lead to other memories. As you’re doing this some of those memories are going to jump out at you. You might feel the need to start writing them immediately. Instead, circle or highlight those memories and continue the exercise. You want to continue for at least an hour or until you feel like you’ve listed all your memories or until you are simply tired of doing this. Either way, you can always return to it. The next step will be to list or focus on all the memories you’ve circled or highlighted. These will be your true focus points. These will be the memoir essays you’ll want to write first, or they will be the starting point for your memoir.
Don’t Begin at the Beginning. Instead start with the most important or most exciting event of your life, the one memory you would want retold at a party commemorating your legacy or the memory you feel best defines your life. Your memoir or additional memoir essays will grow from this. This suggestion is more important for a memoir than an essay or collection of essays, but it is a good place to start.
The Details – When writing your second or third draft try to bring in the details. Perhaps there are flowers nearby or you’re in a restaurant. Look at your surroundings. What do you hear, smell, taste, touch, or see that adds to the moment?
More Than You – While a memoir is about you, it isn’t just about you. It includes the people, places, history, and so on that surround you and your story. It’s the back story and in some cases the future story that adds to your memory.
Step Outside – Don’t gloss over the embarrassing, the painful, the frightening moments. Try to step outside them and write about them as if you were an observer who is able to see every gory detail. Your readers will understand. They have had similar moments and will be happy to know they aren’t the only one.
I love to watch Gene Kelly dance. He’s so smooth, so confident on his feet. When I saw this video I was totally amazed, especially considering my own experiences on roller skates. How could anybody tap dance (at the 2:18 mark) on four little wheels?
My father met my mother at a roller rink, so I was excited about a date with Beth, a girl I’d just met. She and I were talking and she asked if I liked to roller skate.
“I’ve been on roller skates just once in my life when I was about twelve. Fell off them, slammed my shoulder into the sidewalk. Hurt so bad I never dared get on them again.”
“Too bad,” she said puckering her lips in a way that seemed to say she was sorry I got hurt, but that I wasn’t the kind of guy she could be interested in.
“I take it you skate a lot.”
“A couple times every week, maybe more.”
“Do you think maybe you could teach me to skate?”
“That would be fun,” she said and the smile on my face told me it was worth the taking a chance
“Maybe tomorrow?” I asked.
“About six,” she said nodding her head. “We could get something to eat, then I’ll teach you how to skate.”
I thought because we were going to go roller skating for our first date it had to be a sign from the universe that this girl was the one I’d been waiting for. I thought I was in love.
When I picked her up the next day I thought she looked more beautiful than she ever had before. Of course, I’d think that. Doesn’t every guy who thinks he’s in love think the girl is always more beautiful than she was the day before?
Since it was a Saturday night, the restaurant was crowded and the skating rink was crowded. At least the food was good and we talked. I think we could have spent the rest of our date at the restaurant, but she loved to skate and wanted me to like it, too. If I’d known what was going to happen, I’d have tried to talk her into having a desert and use that to keep us away from the skating rink.
When we got there I was immediately intimidated because there were so many people there, going around and around, obviously knowing what they were doing. Most of them were skating in a counter-clockwise circle. Some were skating backwards. Some were doing spins and twirls. Others seemed to be dancing to the music. I thought if I was lucky I might be dancing with Beth before the night was over. As I laced up my rented skates I thought I might see someone who looked like he didn’t know what he was doing. I didn’t want to be the only one. A few people wobbled here and there and some looked a little unsure of themselves, but no one looked like they were in the midst of a disaster. I would soon to be the only one.
I carefully shuffled out onto the rink, holding onto anything that seemed to be solid – mostly the benches and walls. Beth held my arm and guided me toward the middle of the rink. I don’t think I’d been out there more than twenty seconds before my skates moved faster than I did and I crashed. Beth helped me up and I fell again and again and again. Every time I managed to shuffle a few feet she tried to encourage me by telling me I was doing really well.
After I fell for the eighth or ninth time she said, “Wait here.” as she skated away she turned back toward me and said, “I’ll be right back,”
The ice was old. My hands and knees were wet and I was starting to shiver. I decided I was going to get up on my feet and try to move a little on my own. I thought she’d be very proud of me if she returned to find me back on my feet. That as my plan. I probably fell another half dozen times before I managed to get back on my feet. I stood there with both hands on my knees.
Maybe I was up about ten seconds before I thought I might try to move. It was a good thought, but I never got a chance to act on it because someone slammed into me, knocking me to the ground. I was face down on the ice. Someone was standing over me, laughing. “Here let me help you,” the laughing voice said. Someone grabbed my arm and started pulling me up. I could see it was a boy, about eleven or twelve.
“Thank you,” I said, but just as I managed to get one foot under me he shoved me, spinning me away. Again I was on my face. Again he was laughing. I tried to get up again, maneuvering myself into a half sitting, half lying down position when he skated around me and shoved me again.
That was it. I was finished. It was bad enough not being able to stay on my feet, but I was not going to be embarrassed by a ten-year-old kid. As I crawled toward the wall he pushed me again. Then skated off. I think he saw Beth returning. She was carrying some kind of support thing.
“Here,” she said, “This should help.”
“Thanks, but I’m done. I’m not going to skate anymore. I’ll just sit there and watch,” I said pointing to the small cafeteria I was slide crawling toward.
I told her about the kid. She wanted me to point him out so she could ask the management to tell him to leave, but I’d never gotten a look at much more than his feet and in roller skates, they all looked about alike. She thought it might be good for me to rest a little before I tried again. I rested, but I never tried again. It was embarrassing enough to be falling every minute or so, but to have a ten-year-old kid relish in my embarrassment was too much for me.
Beth and I dated for almost a year and she still skated a couple times every week. Sometimes I watched. She was really quite good, but I never put roller skates on my feet again. That’s probably too bad. I like to dance. Maybe I could have gotten good enough to tap dance, a little.
For me, a Catholic boy with fervent Catholic parents and 13 years of Catholic schooling, one of the coolest things I saw when I was about nine years old was the inside of a Jewish classmate’s house.
I wish I remembered his name, but I knew him for barely a year. His parents enrolled him in a Catholic school because they didn’t trust what might happen to him at a public school and the nearest Jewish elementary school was about 20 miles away in the city. When the teacher, a nun, introduced him the first day of school she told us he was Jewish and that even though he wasn’t Catholic he was special because Jesus was Jewish. Therefore we had to treat him better than we would treat any of our other classmates. He was also special because he didn’t have to go to mass in the morning if he didn’t want to go, and he usually didn’t. He also got to leave the classroom during catechism (religion) class.
He didn’t hold his privileges over us, though, and we liked him for that.
The inside of his house was ordinary. It smelled a little different than my house, but it smelled okay. Everything else was similar to what I’d seen in other houses. There was nothing special about the furniture. The TV was average. He had toys and games like the rest of us. The really cool thing was these little boxes that were hanging outside every room. He said there was a rolled up piece of parchment with Jewish writing on it inside each one. They had a funny name that sounded to me like, mess zoos up.
It saw them as a secret message system right in plain sight. You could write a secret message and hide it inside the box with the piece parchment. My friend said he couldn’t put anything else inside the case, but that’s what I would do with it.
I wished I was Jewish. Then my brothers and I could have those little boxes hanging on our doorways and we could leave secret messages for each other. For a nine year old that possibility was exciting.
When I got home I asked my mother if we could hang little boxes on our doorways like the Jewish people did.
“Why would you want to do that?” she asked.
“So that we could put prayers inside them.”
“What kind of prayers?”
“I don’t know… maybe prayers asking God to take care of our house… or maybe just an Our Father.”
“Don’t you have the Our Father memorized?”
“Yes, but wouldn’t it be cool having it in a little box on each doorway?”
“Right. That’s what the Jewish people do.”
“We’re not Jewish. When you get older and have your own house you can be Jewish and hang the little boxes on your doors, but for now, maybe you should just say a rosary.”
“But, mom… Jesus was Jewish you know.”
“I know, but he changed things. I don’t remember reading anywhere that he said anything about hanging little boxes on doors.”
I could see I wasn’t getting anywhere with her so I decided to do it myself, then she’d see how cool it was. I rummaged through the house looking for little boxes. I found what I needed in the bathroom, two toothpaste boxes and a roll-on deodorant box. I tacked a box on the doorframe of my bedroom and each of my brother’s bedrooms. Then I tried to explain what we could do with them.
My brother’s didn’t understand.
“Why do we need a box? We can just slide the message under the door,” Richie said.
“Yeah and what’s to stop Roxanne from opening the boxes and taking the messages out?” Ronnie said.
“We’ll give Roxanne a secret message box, too,” I said. “You guys don’t understand. These aren’t secret message boxes. These are prayer boxes.”
“Yeah, we put a prayer like the Our Father In the box.”
“That’s not a secret message.”
“No, we put the prayer in there and tell everybody it’s a prayer box so they’ll leave it alone. Then we can use it for secret messages.”
“I don’t want a stupid toothpaste box on my door,” Richie said.
“It’s not a toothpaste box,” I said. “It’s a prayer box.”
“It looks like a toothpaste box,” Richie said and he tore it down. Then Ronnie pulled his off, too.
“This is a really cool idea,” I said. “You gotta at least try it.”
“I’ve got a better idea,” Richie said. He went into his room, then dropped an old shoe outside his door. “Hide your secret messages in there. Nobody’s gonna check for a secret message there.”
Copying his brother, Ronnie got one of his old shoes and dropped it outside his door.
“The boxes are better,” I said.
“You keep your box, but my shoe’s better,” Richie said.
I figured that was about the best I could do for now, but it was the end of my secret message system. The next day when I got home from school, the toothpaste box was gone from my door. Mom said it made the house look trashy. My brother’s shoes were back in their closets.
I thought the next time I had a secret message for them I’d slide it under their doors. Then they’d want to put the prayer boxes back up. I never had a secret message for them, at least not one I had to write on a piece of paper. Still, I’m thinking I might buy these Mezuzah scroll boxes, hang them on my doorways and leave some secret messages for myself. My family is learning to humor the old man.
The past few weeks I’ve been talking about writing a personal essay or memoir essay. Memoirs that are usually short — at least 500 words, less than 15,000. For some people writing a personal essay is a prelude, a warm-up to writing a full-blown memoir… in other words a book. While you can try to get your memoir essay published or you can enter it into a memoir writing contest, the greatest value in writing one is either therapeutic – a way to heal, understand, or solve an issue you have with yourself.
I know people who write such essays to give as gifts – birthday or Christmas – or something to leave their friends or family when they die. Other people write them in order to begin a dialogue with someone –‘This is the way I see it, what do you think?’ However their greatest value is as practice: practice writing the memoir and sometimes they lead to a bigger, longer memoir.
The biggest mistake people make when writing them is that they try to tell the entire story. They begin with a little memory and wander from that memory into telling about everything that happened to them, everything they did, thought, felt, or saw when they were children, in high school, in college, during their 10 or 20 or 50 years of work or career.
The 750 or 1,500 word memoir they started with grows into a 200,000 word treatise. They get lost, burn out and quit. They get discouraged or even worse they write something that goes from somewhere to nowhere and is in the end a tedious tale.
Set a goal when you begin: 750, 1,000, 2,500 words. You will be less likely to let your memoir get too big if you keep in mind that you want it to be small. The first draft of some of my memoir essays have gone past 5,000 words, one even went to a little more than 12,000. I learn a lot when I start cutting them up. Sometimes I learn what my next memoir is going to be. Sometimes I learn that the story I began telling was not the story I really wanted to tell. Mostly I learn what is important and what is not to the story I’m telling and how to heartlessly remove anything that may be part of another story, but is not necessary to the memoir I am writing.
I almost always begin with a goal of 1,000 words. Sometimes just rewriting the story, beginning at a different place, changing my voice or tone, or beginning with dialogue rather than narrative or a description of something such as a smell or a sound can help me focus on the story I want to tell and help me cut or ignore anything that is extraneous. Other times I just cut bits and pieces, paragraphs and scenes until I’ve condensed the memory to its essential elements. Then I rewrite it again.
Something else that helps is to read it out loud. When I read out loud I find everything from sentences that are clumsy to entire paragraphs that can be reduced to a sentence or even cut entirely. I also find better ways to word something or that my dialogue is wrong or that I’ve repeated myself or that a certain word is irritating for one reason or another.
So, that’s it for this week: set a word goal, make a major change when writing your second draft, and read what you’ve written out loud.
A couple weeks ago took part in a panel discussion about memoir writing. A big concern of the audience had to do with being honest and naming names. I think the answers we gave were adequate, but I’ve been thinking about them off and on ever since.
First be as honest as you can even if what you write makes you cringe either because of what you did, said, or thought or because of something someone else did or said. Don’t sugarcoat it. Also don’t say things you never said or write about things you did, that you didn’t really do. That’s for fiction, not memoir.
I believe most of us have found ourselves going over the things we should have said or should have done. Hours after a confrontation we think of the clever turn of phrase we should have used rather than the one we used. In your memoir write the one you used, not the one you think you should have used. Don’t paint yourself to be better, wittier, and cleverer than you actually are. There’s a good chance your reader will recognize your fabrication and will think you’re actually a terrific bore or a twit.
The beauty of a memoir is in its humanity showing the truth for what it is or was in a very down to earth way.
As for using the names of the people involved in your memoir, there are times when using the actual name will not be a concern and there are other times when it might be better if you did not use their real name. I have a simple rule that I use: If the person is dead and most of what I have to say about him/her is good, I don’t worry about it, otherwise I use a fictitious name. If the person is alive I ask them if it’s okay for me to name them. If they say no or if I don’t ask their permission, I use a fictitious name. The real name of the person is rarely as important as the story I want to tell. Fictitious names are indicated with an asterisk in this way: * (name changed to protect).
Write your first draft exactly as it happened, using all real names and places.You (like most writers) already battle with enough resistance and procrastination when trying to write; don’t make it worse by censoring yourself. The best way to write a first draft is to remove all censorship and pour it out onto the page. Save the editing and decision making for a later draft.
Wait until you’re ready to sit down to your second draft (or third or fourth) to decide what you’re going to do about the name issue.After completing the first draft or two, you might have more clarity on the pros and cons of using real names.
Before publishing your memoir, get feedback from others and, if necessary, consult an attorney. We’re often far too close to our own writing (and our own story) to see it clearly. Hire an editor or enlist a trusted friend (trusted to be kind, but also to tell the truth) and ask her how she thinks you’ve portrayed a particular character. You might be surprised. Perhaps you think you’ve written Uncle Saul as a complete ogre, while your editor or friend finds him endearing. Regardless of how you have portrayed the people in your memoir, if you use real names, or if the characters are otherwise recognizable, you may need to get signed permissions.
If Uncle Saul really does come off as a complete putz, you probably will want to change his name, and you may even need to alter recognizable traits or story elements. This is where an attorney well-versed in publishing could come in handy. If you have the good fortune to have sold your book to a publishing house, their legal department will take care of that part, vetting the manuscript before it goes to press.
Even if you paint a character in a glowing light, it’s not a bad idea to have a conversation with him before publication, and be willing to show him the scenes in which he appears.
Whatever feedback or advice you get, in the end you’re the one who has to live with the decision and its consequences. Remember, too, that you have the option to use some real names and some pseudonyms. You can explain that choice in a disclaimer at the beginning of your book. The disclaimer language goes something like this:
The stories in this book reflect the author’s recollection of events. Some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted. Dialogue has been re-created from memory.
Every Monday I’ll be adding a memoir related post to this blog.
Last week I began by telling some of what I’ve learned about writing the memoir or personal essay and left you with some techniques to help you choose a story from your life to write about. My goal is to eventually write a book length memoir. It seems to me that many people who write such a memoir have a pretty good idea of the story they want to tell. I’m not one of those people. However, I know I have many good stories to tell so I’ve been learning both about writing a book length memoir as well as short personal essays.
Hopefully, you’ve picked out (or you soon will choose) a bit of your life, a little story to tell and maybe you’ve written the first draft, maybe you’re not sure where to begin. First don’t try to tell all the backstory, start at the place you would start telling the story if you just walked into the office, or just sat down for coffee with your best friend, or if you were on the sofa with one of your children.
You do not need to tell about everything that caused you to be wherever you were or everything that happened to you earlier that day or everything that happened in your life before the moment or event or thing happened that you’re writing about.
Here are some usual writing guidelines that are not necessary for memoirists to follow.
Forget about grammar. You don’t want to forget about it entirely, but right now don’t worry about whether you should be using a comma or period or semi colon. Don’t worry about punctuation, capitalization, parts of speech, or if you’ve used the same word or words too often. Write everything as it comes to mind. Then in a later draft you can edit it or find or hire someone to help edit it. You’ve got a story to tell, so tell it.
If something bad has happened, if you’ve made a mistake, misjudged something, said or done something you regret, don’t gloss over it. Readers, no matter who they are, will find your struggles and failures, the obstacles you’ve overcome much more interesting and will appreciate you and what you’ve written more because they will more easily relate to something that in some way or another has happened to them.
Try to address these five concerns or questions:
What do I remember? This may seem obvious, but you don’t want to digress, stick to this memory. If you’re going to digress, then perhaps there’s a different memory you want to write about.
What do I see? As you stand in your memory, take a look around. Who or what do you see? Is it a sunny or rainy day? Do you hear or smell anything?
What do I think about this or what am I thinking?
What am I feeling? In a sense this is the most important concern of all. Everything else in your memory ties into this, because this is usually where the story is.
What else is important? Is there a detail that isn’t a part of the memory, but is important to understanding it?
As you’re writing try to keep these five things in mind. When you rewrite watch for places where one of those five questions comes into play. Next Monday I’ve got some more techniques I’ve found useful in writing some of my memoir essays that I’ll tell you about.
Also, I’ve added a store where I’ve collected links to some of the better books I’ve found about Memoir writing. The link to it is at the top of the page and here, too.
Memoir writing takes guts. It’s revealing and personal – sometimes even painful to put on the page. Some people know exactly what they want to write about when they start. Most of us live such interesting lives that we often think to ourselves, Should I write a memoir? Memoir writing can be a cathartic way to tell your story—whether it’s funny, fascinating or just heart-wrenching. All over the Internet you can find examples of memoirs, memoir essays, even six-word memoirs (that’s a challenge). But before focusing too much on examples of a memoir, I’d like to start with the memoir essay or personal essay, a sort of personal short story.
Writing the first draft of a memoir essay is actually rather easy. You do it just about every day, sometimes a number of times in a day. You get to work and the first thing you say is: “I came this close to an accident this morning!” Then you tell all about the harrowing experience you had. Or maybe you meet a friend at the grocery story. You’re looking at the tomatoes and start telling your friend about the delicious tomato stew you made for the in-laws a couple weeks ago. Or maybe the in-laws are visiting and you tell them about the cute thing the two year old did while playing with the neighbor’s kids.
the truth is there is no such thing as a dull person, a dull life
Those are all memoir essays. You could write the story and you would have a suitable memoir story, maybe not an essay that would be publishable, maybe not a story many people would want to read, but it would be a start. It might not even be the best memoir essay you have available. We all have hundreds, thousands of stories. Maybe you think your stories are boring, but the truth is there is no such thing as a dull person, a dull life. Any dullness resides in the telling of the story, not in the person. Your journey has been much different than mine, but there are many aspects of your journey that have been similar, that I can relate to. That’s what I want to hear, a different story that I can connect with.
Here are a few techniques to get your started:
Make a list.
The easiest place to start is with the stories you’ve told in the past. The funny stories, the sad stories, the poignant stories. Get a pad of paper or open your word processing program and start jotting down any random memories that come to mind. Don’t write the whole story, just a headline or a sentence or two to describe it. Each memory is likely to trigger another memory. Don’t worry about whether anyone would want to hear about it or not. Don’ worry about whether telling it will embarrass anyone. Right now you’re the only one who is going to see this list. You should have at least 50. You might want to stop when you get to 50. Or you might want to continue. It doesn’t matter, because there will be one or two or maybe a few of these memories you’ll want to write about. At least one of your memories is going to be jumping off that page.
Write a few paragraphs as if you’re telling the memory to your spouse or a good friend or to your kids. Once you start writing it you won’t be able to stop. There’s a good chance you’ll find, like I did, that it’s so much fun, you’ll want to write more than one.
If you’ve got some old photo albums or boxes of photos open it up and start telling the stories behind or the stories that go with the pictures.
And another technique: open Google or Bing maps or Mapquest. Find the towns or neighborhoods that have meaning for you (where you were born, grew up, went to school, your first apartment, house, etc.) and tell the stories that go along with the various streets, locations, buildings, etc.
That’s it for now. Next we’ll talk about ways to turn that first draft into something better. Our goal is to have a finished product that at the least can be a nice gift for someone. I have a friend who a few years ago gave every member of her family a parchment scroll with a favorite memory, a moment, a story they shared.
Of course we’d like to go the next step and have something publishable.
So we’re walking down the street. It’s a beautiful day in San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital city. Leah is eating ice cream from a cup. I’m eating a two scoop ice cream cone.
A taxi pulls up alongside us. I can see a woman in the back seat furiously rolling down the window. She leans out and asks, “You’re American’s aren’t you?” She sounds agitated, maybe afraid. I’m thinking maybe she thinks she’s in danger, or maybe she needs emergency medical care. I’m also wondering why she thinks we’re Americans rather than British or German.
“Yes, we’re from the U.S.” we both say.
Satisfied that she guessed right she asks, “Do you speak Spanish?”
I nod toward Leah , “She does.” She’s the Peace Corp volunteer. I’m just a visitor, not exactly a tourist, because I didn’t come to El Salvador to see the country, although it is quite beautiful.
Today, we are visiting the city. Leah works in the campo, in the countryside with the farmers, helping them improve their business skills. Once every couple weeks she takes a bus into the city to check in at Peace Corp headquarters and to visit some of her friends. I’ve been there a month, will eventually find a job in the capital teaching English to Salvadorans and will stay there almost ten months.
“What’s do you need?” Leah asks the woman.
Instead of the tale of terrible pain or anguish, maybe the dire need of a doctor, that I’m expecting, I hear one that is more American, more that of a tourist.
“It’s almost six o’clock,” the woman moans, “and I was told I had to get there before six. It’s the place where they sell the towels. I keep trying to tell this idiot, but he just keeps saying, “No habla englise.’ But, I know he speaks English.”
“If he says he doesn’t speak English,” Leah says, “That’s probably because he doesn’t speak English. What makes you think he speaks English?”
“Well everybody at the hotel speaks English and they all speak Spanish too.”
Leah takes a deep breath. I can tell she’s frustrated with this woman and might say something insulting to her.
The taxi driver looks nervous. He seems to be hoping we will take the irritating thing in the back seat away, but the woman shows no sign of getting out of the taxi and prattles on. “The woman in the gift shop told me in very plain English that I could find a better selection of towels at the Mercada de something or other. But this stupid idiot keeps taking me to grocery stores. Are all the taxi drivers here morons?”
Leah clenches her teeth and says, “You’re here in a country where the National language is Spanish and you expect everybody to speak English, but you don’t speak any Spanish at all, is that it?”
The woman shakes her head, no. “I had a book, but I lost it someplace?”
“And you didn’t bother to write down the name of the market?”
“No, I thought he’d know where it was. All I know is that it’s out doors and somebody there sells beautiful towels.”
“I know where you want to go,” Leah says, looking up at the sky.
“Please tell him… and tell him to hurry.”
Leah turns to the driver, says a few sentences in Spanish, then turns back to the woman and says, “I don’t know if you’ll get there before six, it’s pretty far away, but he said he’ll do his best. Good luck.”
Watching them drive away, I turn to Leah . She has a big smile on her face.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“Turistas de los estados unidos, they give us such a bad name,” She says. “There’s a market about ten blocks from here where they sell towels, clothing, lots of cloth. I told him to take her there.”
“And what’s funny about that? Is the stuff cheap or made in the U.S. or what?”
“I told the driver that since she was such a bitch he should drive as fast as he could but to take the long way around and to try to get there when they were packing everything up.”
“She deserved it. I’d love to be there when he drops her off. She’s going to go crazy.”
It’s only ten blocks away, we head in that direction, but half way there we decide we have better things to do.
Fourteen years old, History report. The teacher had made an all but impossible demand: typed.
I didn’t know how to type. Most of the kids in my eighth grade class didn’t know how to type. For a couple of them there wasn’t even a typewriter in the house. A few of my classmates had a parent or older sibling who could type, but not me, so the task was mine.
Required: three sources, I had five.
Required: ten footnotes, I had twelve.
Required: 8 – 10 pages, my handwritten report totaled 2,415 words. That translated to nine pages of typewriting.
Required: follow the teachers hand-out for the report structure: Title, footnotes, bibliography, etc.
Required: Double spaced, with one inch margins all around, check.
I was running out of time. The report was due the next day. I’d put a lot of work into it. I’d read the two books, Encyclopedia entry, and two magazine articles about Alfred Emanuel “Al” Smith, Governor of New York and 1928 Democratic presidential candidate.
Copious notes: six double sided pages worth, handwritten.
The report was finished a week before, but other homework, studying for tests, and playground baseball had taken up most of my free time.
After dinner a little after 6 p.m. I dragged the typewriter, an old Underwood out of the closet, cleared everything off the little desk in my room. Hefted the typewriter on to it, set my report on one side and a small stack of blank paper on the other.
Suggestion: make sure you have a bottle of white out. White Out was new to me and proved to be a learning experience.
The typewriter was also a learning experience. It took me awhile to figure out how to line up the paper so the lines of type ran across the page mostly parallel to the top and bottom.
Since I just had to copy my paper I figured I’d get it done in a couple hours at the most. I did not figure in any extra time for my one finger typing, nor my lack of familiarity with the location of all the letters and numbers, nor my lack of familiarity with White-Out, nor how difficult it would be to follow the teacher’s report guidelines. Just putting the footnote on the right page proved to be daunting. It would have been easy if she had been kind enough to allow us to list all our footnotes on a single page in the same way we listed our bibliography on a single page, but this was preparation for high school where we might have to write a report with the footnotes on the page where they were indicated.
Required: no more than 12 corrections per page.
Required: no hyphenated words.
With the first piece of paper ready, I consulted the guide, carefully typed the title page. Somehow I managed to get through it with no mistakes. It was not lined up exactly in the middle, a little closer to the top, but it was close enough.
Next page: a mistake just three letters into the first second word, Smith. I hit the letter ‘u.’ I tried to brush the White-Out between under the typewriter ribbon, but got it on the ribbon so that when I typed the ‘I’ it was mostly white.
I learned I had to roll the paper up, apply the White Out and roll the paper back down. Since it was an old typewriter, I found that I had to pull the paper up when I was turning the roller to make sure the paper actually moved up the distance it was supposed to move with each click of the roller. I did not do that the first time, so that when I typed the ‘i’ it was a half line too high.
Toss the first page and start over again.
My next attempt got tossed just seven lines in because of the 12 mistakes rule, same with the next three attempts. It was now, 7:30. The worst thing about using White Out was that I had to let it dry otherwise whatever I typed was grossly distorted or simply smeared.
The sixth attempt was perfect, except that I forgot to leave room for the footnote.
Toss the page and start over again.
I trudged along, letter by letter, mistake by mistake, footnote by footnote, page by page.
By midnight I had four pages finished and about a half bottle of White Out left.
I was quite proud of myself when both pages five and six took just one try, one sheet of paper each, even though there were 11 blotches of White Out on page four and a dozen on page five. The sixth page did not go well at all. It had three footnotes on it the first three times I typed it, but by the time I finished it the third footnote was moved to the second line of the seventh page. It was at this point that I realized my nine page report had become a ten page report. Footnotes hadn’t figured into my initial page estimate.
When I was writing the first draft I cut a few paragraphs that totaled almost 400 words because they were more about New York than about Al Smith. However, I probably would have left them if I wasn’t worried my classmates might think I was trying to impress the teacher by going the full ten pages. I wasted some time rereading the rest of my report, trying to find something to cut, but there wasn’t anything I thought my report could do without. I decided to risk whatever my classmates might think.
Just before 5 a.m. I started typing the last page. It turned out to be the worst page of all. Twice I got to the last line, and made my thirteenth mistake. Once I made the same mistake three times. At six o’clock my mom came into the room and asked if I’d been up all night. My hands were shaking. I could hardly keep my eyes open. I was I the middle of the last paragraph with nine mistakes, when my mom opened the door.
“Have you been up all night?” she asked.
“Yes, but I’m almost finished.”
“What’s taken so long?” she asked.
“It’s hard to type and I keep making mistakes.”
“It doesn’t have to be perfect, does it?”
“Well I get only twelve mistakes per page. More than that and I have to throw it away.”
“How much do you have left?”
“Just this,” I said, pointing to the last paragraph.
“Okay, type that, then go to bed. I’ll wake you in an hour.”
“But what if I make too many mistakes? I have to finish this page.”
“There comes a point, Bobby, when you have to say, that’s the best I can do and even if you think it could be better, you finish it. You could spend the rest of the day trying to make that perfect, but sometimes perfect is only the best you can do.”
So, I typed the rest of the report, typed the final footnote, made seven more mistakes. I put a paper clip on the report, and slipped it into the pocket of a folder. Three minutes later I was sound asleep.
Rather than make me wait for the bus, mom let me sleep an extra half hour, rushed me through my wake up routine, had a bowl of cereal waiting for me, and drove me to school. The bell rang just as I was walking into the school. If I stopped moving I probably would have fallen asleep. I’d never stayed up all night before, but I was ecstatic. I finished the report. Sure there were too many mistakes on the last page, but the rest were okay, so I didn’t think I’d lose too many points for that.
As I ran over in my mind everything about my report I startled myself, the Bibliography. I forgot the bibliography.
That’s what I told the teacher: “I forgot the bibliography. The page is still on my desk at home. Could I bring it in tomorrow?” I didn’t mention anything about not having typed it up.
She studied my face a moment, decided I wasn’t lying and said, “On my desk, first thing.”
was more difficult than I thought it would be and took more than two hours, but it was on the teacher’s desk when the bell rang.
Good job: that was the first line she’d written under the A- grade. I was surprised. I would have been happy with a C.
Good job: Your report is good. Your writing is very good. Good use of sources. Well thought out.
Goof job: None of my typing errors were marked, just a couple misspellings, some grammatical mistakes and one mistake on the bibliography.
I learned a lot about writing reports, about footnotes and bibliographies. The most important thing I learned was that there are degrees of perfection and that in the end perfection was the best I could do, whatever that was, whatever it is.
I’ve been told many times that to be successful at anything hard work is much more important than luck. Sometimes though, luck is much more important. For instance, quite awhile ago there was a girl in my neighborhood who would be playing baseball, basketball, and football with the boys if she was born 12 years ago, rather than back when I was a kid. I’ve forgotten her name mostly because even though she was my age, she went to a different school and I only knew her for a few weeks. I’ll call her Susie.
Susie was quite pretty: blonde, blue eyes, some freckles, but she was tough and I imagine most of the boys who knew her well were afraid of her. I hardly knew her at all, but I was afraid of her.
One 5th grade day during recess, when I got out to the playground I walked into this conversation between some of my classmates.
“You’re kidding! She didn’t really?”
“She did. She did. Sheconkedhim right on the head.”
“Jimmy, naw? Nobodyconks Jimmy and gets away with it.”
“I told you she did. Susie walked right up to him, saidsomethin‘ to him, I don’t know what, then hauled right off and smacked ‘im in the mouth. Flattened ‘im right there in front of everybody. Then she just turns and walks away. Jimmy‘s layin’ there in the dirt,tryin‘ to hide his mouth, butwe can see there’s bloodcomin‘ from it.”
“And he didn’t donothin‘?”
“Nothin‘ at all. What’s he gonna do? She’s a girl.”
Jimmy Wilton, was a tough, spunky guy. If somebody pushed or hit him, he’d push or hit back… and he was strong. He was one of the leaders of my elementary school class, mostly because he was funny and brash. You wanted Jimmy to like you, and if you were honest with him, he usually did. If you didn’t bother him, he didn’t bother you. You didn’t want to get on his bad side, though.
Susieon the other handwas a bully. From the little I knew about her she was mean and nasty. She’d hit or kick or spit on just about anybody for getting too close to her. She also knew and used every dirty word any of us knew and a few some of us only imagined we knew.
Jimmy never said what happened between them, but it was said that after that he did his best to avoid her. If she was walking down the street toward him, he crossed to the other side.
During the summer between fifth and sixth grades we moved into a new neighborhood. As it turned out, it was Susie’s neighborhood. Until we moved I had no idea who she was. There was the Jimmy story and other stories I’d heard about her, but if I saw her I wouldn’t have guessed. She didn’t look at all like the girl I’d pictured in my mind… a muscular, ragged, scowling beast.
The house was brand new; no grass in the yard, no shrubbery, no trees, just dirt… so much dirt that there was ahill of it, twelve feet high. It was left there from the basement excavations of our house and the house behind ours. It was a great place to live as far as my brothers and I were concerned. Not only was the yard a place where we didn’t have to worry about digging up the grass, much less cutting it, but that pile of dirt was its own playground. With it in our yard we didn’t need the playground across the street.
At first the hill was a challenge to climb because the dirt was still fresh and loose. It didn’t take us long to pack the dirt thanks to the daily pounding it took from our feet.
We’d been there a couple weeks when one of us noticed a small indentation in the side of the hill and started digging at it, making a small hole. We saw the beginnings of a cave, a secret hideaway, an underground clubhouse. We went to work with our mom’s garden tools and a small bucket, hauling dirt. It took us most of a Saturday, but by the end of the day there was a cave big enough for the three of us. I found a piece of plywood and nailed a rope handle to it so we could pull it behind us tocover the entrance. It was our secret hideout.
There wasn’t much to be secret about. I barely remember what we did or what we talked about while we sat in there. It was just fun to sit in the cool darknessand giggle at each other. I’m sure there was talk of bears and bugs. Could a bear sneak in at night? What about worms, ants, and spiders creeping in? A flashlight was our only light and I remember spending a lot of time shining it on the walls watching for crawling things.
A few days after we finished our cave, I met Susie. My brother, Richie, and I were sitting inside when someone started knocking on the plywood door.
“Who’s there?” I shouted, thinking it might be mom.
“It’s Susie, can I come in?”
“Susie, who?” I didn’t know anyone named Susie, so I thought she might be one of Richie’s friends.
“You know, from down the street.”
I pointed the flashlight at Richie. He was shaking his head no.
“No, you can’t come in,” I shouted, “this is for boys only.”
“You better let me come in,” she screamed.
I thought, who does she think she is? This is our yard and our hill and our cave. We don’t have to let anybody in.
“No this is ours, go away,” I shouted.
“Yeah, go away,” Richie echoed.
Suddenly the plywood door flew away from the entrance. A pretty, tiny, blonde haired, little girl stood there. When she told us what she thought of us in the way she did, all the stories I’d heard about Susie rushed across my memory and I knew who she was. Too late I saw Richie sticking his tongue out at h er. She punched him in the shoulder, knocking him back into the cave. He started crying. She said something nasty about crybabies. I grabbed Richie’s hand and we ran into the house. From there we watched Susie jumping up and down on top of the hill till our cave collapsed. As she walked down the hill she turned, saw us watching her, shouted something vulgar, and walked away.
Now, I was positive I’d met the girl who punched Jimmy and that the stories about her were probably true.
About a half hour after she left, when we thought it was safe to go out we inspected the damage. The cave no longer existed. It was replaced by a large crater in the top of the hill. I got a small shovel to re-dig the cave, but the dirt was too loose. I’d dig a few inches into the hill, but the dirt quickly filled the new hole. Meanwhile, Richie dragged the piece of plywood to the top, got in the crater, and pulled the board over himself.
“Look, Bobby,” I heard his muffled voice saying, “I’ve got my own cave.” Then he pushed some dirt aside, making an opening, and slithered out. We looked inside. It wasn’t much of a cave, about 12 inches deep and three feet across, but it was a start. Again we set to work, digging and digging. The first thing we noticed was that we needed a bigger piece of plywood. Whenever we tried to enlarge the cave, the walls slid in and the plywood sank.
There were still a few houses being built so it didn’t take long to find a suitable piece of wood. Now we had a large piece for the roof and the other piece for our door. We figured a wooden roof was the perfect thing to keep Susie from destroying our secret hideout again, especially since we piled dirt on top of the plywood to disguise it. Being the experienced cave builders that we were the new cave was finished before dinner. It as an even better cave than the old one, sturdier and roomier. Also, we hadn’t thought of this when we started, but the entrance was now facing away from the road so unless someone, meaning Susie, came looking they would never see the new cave in the hill.
About that time another family moved in down the street and I met my new best friend, Jack. I introduced him to the cave, which he thought was great.
We’d been inside barely a half hour when dirt started tumbling inside. Dust was filling the air. Someone was jumping on the roof. I heard the board cracking. Jack and I scurried outside. Susie was and one of her friends were jumping with as much force as they could muster.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “You can join our club, just don’t break the board.” She said something to me my parents would never let me repeat, kicked me in the leg, and said to her friend, “let’s get out of here.” I stood there, rubbing my leg as I watched her walk off.
“Who was that?” Jack asked.
“Susie. I don’t know the other girl.”
“Which one was Susie?”
“The one who kicked me.”
“Is she in our class?”
We’d already talked about school. Jack would be going to my school and since we were the same age, we would be classmates.
“Nope, but just about everybody knows her.”
Jack was a baseball fanatic. I wasn’t, so he started teaching me about baseball and how to play. We spent a lot of time across the street playing catch. It wasn’t long before Jack heard about a daily game at our school’s playground. Our first day there, Jack talked the other kids into letting me play. I wasn’t very good and they knew it, but I now that I had a friend who liked the game, I paid attention and tried hard.
End of the Cave:
On our way home that first afternoon at the school playground, we were so deep in a conversation about the game I didn’t notice what happened to the cave until I was across the street from my house.
Not only had the cave been destroyed, it wasgone.
This time it wasn’t Susie.
The entire hill was gone. While we played baseball the hill was loaded into a dump truck and hauled away. Now our back yard looked like the rest of the yard. That weekend my dad bought some grass and bushes, seeded the lawn and planted the bushes. A month later there was no sign there had ever been a cave in my backyard.
As for Susie, I never saw her again. Apparently her family moved away. It’s funny but I thought she was cute, pretty. She showed up at the time in my life when I was starting to notice girls as more than people who weren’t boys. She was the first girl I ever really noticed. Evenas she was cursing at me and kicking me Iwas noticing the freckles across her nose and deciding I liked them. If Susie had been just a little bit nicer, I might have found myself searching for her and might have ended up like Jimmy Wilton. Then again, while I was rubbing my leg and watching her walk away I realizedshe was not a girl after my own heart.
I didn’t know what it was she was after when she crushed my cave, but it seems she was launching the first attack I’d ever seen for women’s rights. Who knows, maybe she planted the seed that told me women are equal to men, and often more than equal.
When I was in fourth grade an uncle asked me if I liked baseball.
“Yeah, sure,” I said in order to end the conversation right there. The day would come when I could tell him about my big catch, but at that time, I had nothing to talk about.
The fact was I didn’t like baseball at all. I was terrible at it. I couldn’t catch. I couldn’t hit and I didn’t care. I knew there were two teams in Chicago, because my classmates talked about them all the time, but ask me to name a single player and I’d be guessing.
There were 19 boys in my class, which meant unless somebody was absent, one boy had to sit in the bleachers and watch. That boy was always me. I savored the days when I didn’t have to play. Rather than sit in the bleachers watching, I walked around the playground looking at things: a footprint left in dried mud, a butterfly (which I would track about as far as it would let me), a Dandelion with an ant carefully working its way across the flower, a dust devil (which I would try to step into so I could feel the bits of dust spinning around me), a window with a spider and web on one side and the remains of a dead spider on the other.
On those days when I knew I would have to play I had attention problems in my classes and I felt sick all morning. I’d never say anything because I didn’t want to be sent home. My mother was working. I didn’t want her to take time off just because I didn’t want to play baseball.
Finally, it was the last full day of the school year. It was going be a good day. One boy was absent, so I wouldn’t have to play. I tallied my stats for the year: Sixteen games (give or take a game or two), one hit, no catches, lots of errors. It didn’t matter anymore. My fourth grade baseball career was about to come to an end. With a little luck one of the guys in my class would move away during the summer or better yet, another fifth grade boy would move into town and there would not be a fifth grade baseball career to worry about.
Getting close to lunch time I was thinking about flowers. I knew where all the flowering weeds were around the playground, so I was planning to check on some of them.
Needless to say, that wasn’t going to happen.
“Hey, sissie,” Someone shouted as I headed across the playground. I recognized the voice. It was one of my classmates, one who always called me ‘sissie.’ I ignored him and continued toward the basketball court. It was my plan to look at some little blue flowers at one end of the cement slab..
“Hey, sissie, Jenkins went home sick. You have to play.”
“No, no, no,” I thought. “He’s got to be kidding, playing some kind of joke on me.”
When I realized he wasn’t kidding, I started doing what I always did in that situation, I prayed. I didn’t pray for a hit Not that it was asking too much of God. I simply didn’t see any reason to bother God with such a little problem. Having a ball hit toward me in right field. Now, that was a problem, a very please-God-help-me-and-don’t-let-them-hit-the-ball-to-me kind of problem. Most of the guys weren’t bothered much when I struck out, most likely because they struck out plenty of times, too. What bothered them was that when I finally tracked down a ball hit my way, even though I threw it as hard as I could toward the infield, it often didn’t go anywhere. A good throw of mine would land about 20 feet away.
So I trudged over to the ball field. My team batted first. We got two runs. I was going to hit in the next inning, but first I had to get through a half inning in right field. One ball was hit in my direction, but lucky for me, the first baseman caught it before it got close.
When it was my turn at the plate I surprised everybody. The ball hit the bat and trickled passed the second baseman into right field. “Not bad,” I thought, “two hits in seventeen games.” Our games rarely lasted more than three innings. By the time we got to that third inning my team still led by two runs.
In their half of the third, the other team got two hits. With runners on first and third and two outs their best player, their team captain came to the plate. Out in right field, I wasn’t paying much attention to him. Instead, I was watching the playground monitors. One of them was walking toward the doorway to ring the bell, calling everyone back to school, ending the lunch hour.
In an instant these things happened:
Instinctively I started walking toward the school.
My classmates started screaming my name.
Someone was yelling “Catch it! Catch it!
I spun back toward the commotion.
The baseball zipped past my face and slammed into my chest, knocking the wind out of me and knocking me to the ground.
The school bell started ringing, but the playground seemed strangely quiet. Something seemed very wrong.
I lay on the ground gasping for air. My chest hurt.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the center-fielder running toward me.
As I sat up something rolled off my chest into my lap. I grabbed it before it hit the ground.
“He’s got it!” the center-fielder screamed. “He caught the ball.”
It was the first time all year a team I’d been on won the game and it couldn’t have come at a better time, the very last game of fourth grade.
That summer my wish came true, a new boy, a fifth grader moved into town, right down the street from me. He was baseball crazy. All he wanted to do was play baseball, so that’s about all we did and I got pretty good at it, good enough that when it came time for the first lunch hour of fifth grade I was looking forward to heading out to the ball field.