The Prize Winning Essay…Finally!

Some time ago, before The Lion’s recent brush with mortality, Grumpy Lion held a contest in which the winner would get to see an essay on the subject of his choice, written by The Lion. After much discussion among the staff (The Lion) the winner was Parenthetical Billy, or () as he is known among the cognoscenti. Herewith, without further delay, is the fruit of his suggestion, as it were. Probably a little overripe.

PB’s suggestion: How about a personal history post: what (or whom) do you consider the single most important influence upon your life, or (to put it more bluntly) who do your credit (or blame) for who you are now?

The simple answer?

Me. I give myself both credit and blame. I made the choices. At times I wasn’t strong enough or smart enough to resist forces pushing me one way or the other, but in the end, I chose the directions and the details. Always.

But credit and blame aren’t clear-cut without context, and context can perhaps clarify the muddy mess I’ve lived. In a society that prizes career and career growth, money, and familial stability, I’ve given myself none. Forty or so jobs with varying periods of unemployment separating them hardly amounts to a career. Locksmith, headwaiter, legal administrator, secretary, prison guard, office temp, bookstore clerk, newspaper reporter, short order cook. Now there’s context! Like a rolling cipher, I’ve gathered neither moss nor pension nor gold watch. And that I have any income at all now is due to the bite of a lowly tick, netting me a disability check every month. That I’m not living in a cardboard box on the street is solely due to my mother putting up with my grumpy ways and providing me with an apartment in her house.

All in all, I have not lived the American dream. I do not stand proudly astride the American landscape on my own two feet, supporting a loving wife and loving children, driving an SUV through clotted highways to a brilliant career every day, in debt up to my neck, and wishing I had taken the Mafia guys up on their offer.

That’s the context. The question is how did I get here, and who bent the river that is my life? Not an easy question, except perhaps for those who live Reader’s Digest lives, where heroes apparently come with identification tags and scripts, and change lives as if they were gods.

Not that I haven’t tried to find heroes. Early on it was scientists, a worship that led to a first prize in the school science fair. Then it was writers, the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds of confused youth. For a little while it was politicians, but the great unnamed They killed the best of them, and the rest killed too many strangers, too far away, for false causes, for blind ideology, for greed and ambition. After that there weren’t any heroes. Anti-heroes perhaps, people who just slogged it out everyday, day after day, putting food on the table, keeping the banks off their backs, doing the best they could with their kids. Working people, suffering the slings and arrows and contempt of the people they made rich.

But to tell the truth I couldn’t do what they do. I tried, but except for one job in my whole life, I couldn’t stand the daily grind, the monotony, the essential uselessness of the tasks. It’s not that the work was useless in context of society, it’s not that the work didn’t keep the wheels of the economy going, it’s not that sometimes it wasn’t useful to identifiable individuals. But most of it just bored the crap out of me. Jobs are interesting in the beginning. New things to learn, new people to meet, adjustments to make. But eventually that’s all done, and the monotony sets in and soon enough pervades an entire life. And some jobs are dead on arrival. I worked an assembly line putting together fluorescent lighting fixtures for a day and half once. Went to lunch the second day and never went back. Didn’t even bother to collect a check.

I even sought spiritual heroes, but they were either ridiculous, like the Christians, or volubly vague, like the Eastern religions and their gurus. I found it was not only entirely possible, but normal, to have a conversation with one of these guru-like people  and walk away having absolutely no clue about what they said or what I said. As for the Christian sects, the overall impression, the consistent impression, that they left was of dysfunctional people waiting to die to get into cloud cuckoo land while trying to implement cloud cuckoo land rules on earth. The only religion that seemed and seems reasonable is Buddhism, the godless variety, but I suspect I’m too damn cantankerous and impatient to get into it.

So, there have been no heroes. But influences? Some.

The root influence was my father. He died in 1997. I went to the wake for a little while, but not the funeral. I haven’t visited his grave. I have yet to shed a tear or feel a moment’s sadness. I’ve worked hard at not being him.

Three newspapermen probably influenced me more than anyone else. One was a managing editor, one was a reporter, and one was a photographer. They worked in the Falmouth office of what was then the Cape Cod Standard Times, in the late Fifties and early Sixties.

The editor was Bill Steele. He smoked cigarettes in a cigarette holder and tethered his eyeglasses with a cord around his neck. He was jaunty, he was smart, he taught me to write news, and he died of a massive heart attack when he was thirty-nine.

The reporter was Paul Anderson, a tall, gangling man, in his twenties then, I think. He walked as if he were loping in slow motion, and didn’t want to be as tall as he was, and kept his hair cut close. He was quiet and calm, he was patient with the excitable new cub reporter, and he taught me the ropes of getting a story. He’s retired now, and works part-time at the local supermarket bagging groceries. We still say hello and chat a little.

The photographer was Bob Elphick. Back then newspapermen used the big cameras with the big flash gun, Graflex Speed Graphics, the kind seen in movies of the Forties and Fifties, with the four by five film holder that held two pieces of film, one in front, one in the back, and you had to pull it out and flip it around to reverse them if you wanted a second shot. Bob taught me all about those cameras, taught me how to work the darkroom, how to develop film and make prints, how to take an interesting picture. He was a nice guy, easy to work with, patient and encouraging. I think he moved on at some point, but I don’t know where. Someplace in New York comes to mind.

They came into my life, or I into theirs, in 1959, when my high school guidance counselor called me in and asked if I wanted to work as a stringer for the Times. I was a decent writer for someone my age, at least in terms of high school essays and term papers. It sounded exciting, it sounded adult, and I said okay.

Bill Steele was friendly and encouraging. My beat was to be the high school, pretty much anything to do with the students except for sports and administration, with occasional exceptions. It was interesting, it was exciting, and for as long as I did news the work stayed that way. And I was good enough at it that Bill hired me as a full time staff writer during the summers. I covered regular news, a general beat, and five days a week I pounded out the news on a big black manual Royal typewriter to beat an eleven a.m. deadline. Some days I got to sit at the clattering teletype machines and send stories to the main office in Hyannis. My writing improved and I began to understand something of the world. There was no better way to learn to write.

One day I wrote a business story, about six column inches, not too complex, something about Burroughs office machines, I think. Bill called me into his office, pointed to the story, and said it was perfect, it was real news writing, and showed me why it worked. I was sixteen years old, and, damn, I felt good.

I reported all the way through high school, then left for college, flunked out, came back and worked in the main office in Hyannis for about a year, covering two Cape towns on my own, went off to college again, and never worked in the business again. But writing the news was the best job I ever had, and if I hadn’t been too young to really appreciate that, I’d still be doing it. Most of the choices I made in the rest of my life, jobs, people, places, weren’t very good or very smart. On a bad day I could tell myself it’s all been downhill since those days, and on a good day I can say it’s been okay, it’s had its ups and downs and could have been better, but what the hell, I’m not dead yet.

No one else has touched my life the way those three guys did. When you read a clear, strong sentence here, you’re seeing back almost fifty years to what they taught me about writing. Writing is the best part of my life, and I don’t do enough of it. Writing matters, whether it’s a well-phrased spew on a blog, a crime novel, a short story, or a letter to the editor. Writing gets closer to what I am, to what my life means, to what my life is, than anything else. And if nothing else, my writing always has at least a slight touch of Steele in it.


8 Responses

  1. I stopped by earlier and shied away from commenting. I thought some more and since I’m more than willing to comment here other times and be of the opposition I thought I could come now and be equally honest. I found this interesting and well written. Pretty deep. I felt some parts,related to others and all in all clicked away thinking a number of things. Hoping you have more good days than bad…I2TF


  2. fray –

    Thanks. Your honesty is always appreciated.


  3. Ric: Wonderful. Always fascinating to hear who someone thinks has affected his or her life and why. It also always amazes me how beneficial a word of praise can be from someone who matters.

    As to the rest of your life, this may be of interest (or not, but i’m gonna type it anyway). One of the stranger parts of my job is a living history character. Working at a railroad site, I chose to play a hobo. Its great. I get to wear comfortable clothing, smoke cigars, play guitar, and BS with people as if it is 1930-something.

    As part of the conclusion of the program, I quote a guy named Ben Reitmann (sp?): “Some people call us tramps or bums, but were not. A tramps dreams and wanders, a bum drinks and wanders, but hobos, hobos work and wander.” I like that definition. It applies to a lot of people.

    Some of us today are content with a smooth career. I would like to spend the rest of my life as an interpreter. Others (and I know many who fit this) are modern hobos. Not that they ride trains, but that some people need newness rather than routine. People who are intelligent, smart, well-read and well-rounded, but just will not (or cannot) stay with one job for more than a few years are, to me, modern hobos.

    Having a chaotic work history just means that in a different time, you might have been a career hobo and boomer.

    Again, wonderful writing. Thank you.


  4. () –

    I like the perspective. And I always liked trains. Maybe there’s a new career in the offing… 🙂


  5. Ric, BTW, what happened with the book? You left me hanging….


  6. I thought I sent you the final chapters, no?


  7. You pulled the book after a few chapters, so I was left dangling. I think I’d have to start from the beginning! Did you send it to publishers or what?


  8. I’m thinking about putting it online again, maybe at grumpytiger. Haven’t decided yet.


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