I follow this simple rule when I write a scene involving food: I want my reader to be hungry when they’ve finished reading my description.
David Westheimer, the author of Von Ryan’s Express and My Sweet Charlie, who I had the good fortune to befriend when he was at the end of his writing career and I was at the beginning of mine, had a rule also. He told me if he came to a scene in a novel he was reading where a family sat down to eat a meal and the author didn’t describe what they were eating he shut the book and didn’t pick it up again.
Because the description of food is the one of the best ways to define culture, tradition, and one of the most pleasurable of the five senses. And I encourage my writing students to not forget that in their stories and scripts.
In the 1960 movie It Started in Naples there’s a scene where Clark Gable attempts to teach a young Italian boy how to put together and eat a hamburger.
Gable plays a stuffy American lawyer who flies to Italy to settle the affairs of his estranged brother who’d died, leaving behind a young son – the hamburger initiate – and a widow. The widow happens to be young, beautiful, overly opinionated, and impulsive. She also happens to be played by Sophia Loren.
Now if you can’t predict your way through all of that to a happy ending, you’re no great shakes as a predictor.
It’s a good flick, but the best scene is that hamburger lesson.
The Italian kid watches carefully as Gable delicately places all the components on the bun, explaining the philosophy behind his method as he goes. When the masterpiece is completed the boy, obviously not knowing how to pick it up, timidly slips his hand under it from behind like he might gently lift up a kitten. Gable shakes his head and shows him how to grasp it firmly with both hands.
“You have to approach a burger with assurance,” he tells him, “or else you’ll end up with a shirt full of mustard.”
I don’t know about you, but there are certain scenes in certain films that make me hungry. When Clint Eastwood takes the first bite of a big slice of lemon meringue pie in Million Dollar Baby it’s all bets off in the diet department. And if I happen upon It Started in Naples while channel surfing I drop anchor and wait for that one scene. Which means, of course, that I’ll end up eating a fully loaded burger soon afterwards.
Because I’m a hamburger fan. And I’ve been approaching them with assurance, as Mr. Gable suggested, for a long time now.
Up in Oakwood, the East Texas hamlet of my knobby-kneed, crew-cut youth, I had the good fortune to eat my hamburgers at Laurene Dixon’s café. I’ve told you before that memory is sometimes a liar, and that old café more than likely wasn’t as big as I remember it, or the ceilings as high. But I’m certain that I’m right about the hand-dipped ice cream counter and the reach-in cooler full of icy cold Dr. Peppers and Grapettes. I’m just as sure of the lunch special that my family had nearly every Sunday after church: a slice of roast beef or fried steak, a generous dollop of mashed potatoes and another of green beans or English peas, and a splotch of canned fruit salad in the exact center.
I’m also certain of Laurene herself. She was smallish, wiry, usually laughing, and almost always talking. She passed away while I was in basic training out in California, and when I learned of it I felt pretty empty for a few days, during which she moved around, in my thinking, through her café talking to everyone, and holding her own with the men who came in every morning full of bluster and blarney for their coffee.
I remember her hamburgers as well as I do her.
They were famous thereabouts. The meat carried the residual hints of everything that had been fried on the big griddle before it, like hashbrowns, bacon, sausage, and grilled onions. There was just enough limp lettuce to scarcely cover the patty, a sliver of dill pickle, and thin slabs of tomato and onion. Laurene was of the opinion that it wasn’t intended to be a salad, but a hamburger.
What set it completely apart from any other burger I’ve ever had was the bread. Not that it was in any way special; it was just an ordinary bun, probably from the Butternut Bakery in Palestine. But it was pressed so hard with a spatula on the greasy griddle that it became golden and moist, the edges toasted dark and crinkly. The whole sandwich was so infused with grease that the wax paper it was served in was stained with splotches.
My cardiologist wouldn’t have approved of it, but I’ve never had a better burger.
Neither did Clark Gable, unless he at some point wandered into Oakwood.
[Some of this first appeared in a newspaper column many hamburgers ago]
[Today marks the 80th anniversary of the New London school disaster. The following article was first published five years ago.]
One day back when I was a knobby keened lad, I sat in the front passenger seat of the school car watching the East Texas piney woods drift by. The school car was an old army staff car that was provided to my dad by the Oakwood school district, where he’d been the superintendent for a good many years. We were on our way to Longview or Kilgore – I forget which – to the army surplus store where school officials used to purchase things for their campuses. He had probably bought the school car there.
It might have been a pretty spring day, or in broiling summer, or downright cold. I don’t know if it was raining or cloudy or sunny; it was a very long time ago and I don’t remember the particulars. But I can absolutely assure you that we drove by a tall granite monument that sat smack in the middle of the highway and I asked him what it was there for.
My father was a man of few words. And he used very few that day. He kept staring straight ahead and told me a school blew up there.
Even at the age of seven or eight or whatever I was I realized that that wasn’t something you hear every day. So I prompted him for more information. Which I didn’t get. I asked my mother about it that evening and she told me we’d been driving through New London. Then she told me about how, years before, natural gas had collected under the school there and it exploded just before the bell rang to release students to go home. Hundreds had died, she told me, but she didn’t know exactly how many. I asked her how the gas got under the school. She didn’t know that either. I asked her why Daddy hadn’t told me about it when I’d asked him. She thought a moment about that one. Then she said he’d gone there that day, after the explosion, to do what he could to help. He’d tell me about it some day, she said.
But he never did.
That’s how the seed got planted. I learned a bit more about New London later on. Like how the school, along with just about everybody else in that little town, had tapped into a pipeline to get free “green” gas that oil companies flared off as a useless byproduct at their rigs. And how quickly after the disaster it was mandated that a warning scent be introduced into all natural gas.
But whatever my dad saw or did that day and night in New London went to the grave with him.
It wasn’t until I decided, several years ago, to research the event in detail that I realized that he wasn’t the only person to close ranks and keep their silence. The aftermath of what occurred at 3:17 PM on Thursday, April 18th, 1937 was so horrible that many, especially parents of children who perished in the disaster, who had to deal with it couldn’t or wouldn’t ever speak of it again. It is still, so many decades later, the worst school disaster in the history of the United States.
The prospect of researching and describing such unspeakable carnage and heartache made me shy away from doing a book about New London for a long while. What finally convinced me to take it on was the fact that, ironically, so very few people outside of deep East Texas knew that it ever happened at all.
I was smart enough to realize that I wasn’t smart enough to do the book alone, so I recruited my friend and fellow teacher Logan Kibodeaux as my research associate. Then I got in touch with the official keepers of the flame, so to speak: the staff of volunteers who run the London Museum. Our first visit there, a stone’s throw from the site of the explosion, convinced Logan and me that we had an important story to tell.
Then, after more than a year of wading through documents and interviewing the survivors we could locate and reading transcripts and tromping through graveyards, the idea that took root in the school car with my father finally became a book, My Boys and Girls Are in There: The 1937 New London School Explosion, published by Texas A&M University Press.
It’s always a good feeling, and a relief, when a book I’ve done finally gets published. But I felt a particularly heavy responsibility with this one, providing a voice finally for so many, including my father, who couldn’t tell the story of that long ago afternoon.
Sometime or another I wandered into an antique store and admired a placard. You know the kind, with a brief phrase painted in bold letters on a faded plank and made to look old.
They used to be trendy. Everybody seemed to have them, every room proclaiming snippets of comfort, advice, wit and wisdom. They got so popular they sort of lost their uniqueness, like those giant brass stars on houses and the graceful wire reindeer yard ornaments at Christmastime that were impressive the first time you saw them but not so much so the thousand and first.
What drew me to this particular sign wasn’t just the fact that it was attractive, which it was, but the message itself. It said, in fat letters, “Work hard and be nice.” Simply that. It reminded me of “Keep calm and carry on”, a British quote that pops up regularly on posters and tee-shirts.
I thought to myself – and said to my wife – that it would be wonderful if more people would work hard and be nice. Not wanting to forget the phrase, I took out my cell phone and snapped a picture.
I mulled over the simple little mantra during the next few days. Then I decided to do something I do very rarely. So rarely, in fact, that I told myself not to do it at all because I would probably screw it up.
I should have listened.
I posted the photo on Facebook. Now you’re thinking I violated some sort of copyright or privacy rule and am even now involved in a lawsuit or maybe even twiddling my thumbs down at the jailhouse. Neither is the case, and I hope you’re not disappointed. I did have enough sense to ask the owner for permission.
Where I made my mistake was in not facing the fact that I am somewhat inept at doing anything involving Facebook. I’m a very, very bad friend of a good many people, many of whom I don’t even know (when I took my first plunge into social media I befriended everybody who asked me). And I don’t check my page as often as I should, so some people who expect me to complement their grandchildren or their casserole recipe probably feel snubbed.
But I liked the little message on that sign so much that I wanted to share it, believing that if more people would just work harder and be nicer the world would be a better place, and believing that even I could attach a photograph to a comment box.
I still believe the first part.
The problem was that not all of the picture made the transition. Probably there are some options that I overlooked having to do with size, or borders, or maybe pixels (I have no idea what pixels are). Anyway, the first four words showed up nicely, but the last one, all by itself at the bottom, got snipped off. So what all my friends, whoever they are, actually saw on my posting was “Work hard and be.”
Still, I received an abundance of little thumbs-up, indicating that lots of people liked it. So either those people were just being polite or they bought into a philosophy I hadn’t intended to espouse.
I considered posting a correction explaining what happened, but figured I’d best leave well enough alone. Mark Twain’s advice came quickly to mind: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”
In retrospect, the abbreviated wording makes a good point in its own right, sort like Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” and the army’s “Be all you can be.” And that wording that I fouled up might have been just what some folks needed to hear. Who knows?
Phrases and quotes, even when translated correctly, sometimes have different effects on different people, oftentimes not conveying what the author or speaker intended. Here’s an example.
Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS reporter, told the story of walking through the ruins of a section of London with his wife the morning after a particularly bad barrage of German bombs during WWII. Mrs. Morrow looked at a single word painted over the doorway of a pub and was so moved by its message for people who had lost their homes and perhaps members of their families that she started crying. The sign said “Courage.”
Murrow couldn’t bring himself to tell her that “Courage” was a brand of beer.
Anyway, work hard and be nice. Or work hard and be. Take your pick
When “Star Trek” first showed up on our big Zenith black and white console TV up in Oakwood my parents didn’t think it had much chance of catching on.
It definitely caught on with me. But that was along about the time that I was entering high school, trading in my crew cut for enough hair to be parted, and in the market for more adventurous television fare than “The Donna Reed Show” and “The Beverly Hillbillies”. So when Captain Kirk opened that first episode of “Star Trek” by promising to “boldly go where no man has gone before” he was definitely talking to me.
And when he flicked open his little communication device and ordered Scotty to beam him up I told my folks that it would be groovy – I would certainly have said “groovy”, it being one of the essential words of that era – to have a phone like that.
The look they gave me said that having a telephone that small and wireless was about as likely to happen as the beaming up. Remember, this was 1966. The one phone in our house was a heavy dial model tethered to the wall in our utility room and was the color of a pale avocado, the unfortunate hue of many an appliance back then.
If my parents, both long gone, could see the cell phone that I take for granted today they would consider it the magical handiwork of wizards.
After nearly being rear-ended or run off the highway several times by other drivers yakking on cell phones and texting I’m not at all sure anymore that the little device Captain Kirk used was such a great idea. But I still ooh and ahh a bit at every new gizmo that comes along.
The first actual cordless mobile telephone I ever saw was about the size of a loaf of bread. Then they quickly got smaller and cheaper. It’s funny – and happily ironic – that new doodads, unlike other commodities, usually get cheaper as they get smaller and better.
Here’s a case in point. The first handheld calculator I ever laid eyes on was in a post exchange at my army base in Germany in 1973. It was made by Texas Instruments, had exactly four functions – add, subtract, divide, and multiply – and it would have set me back a large chunk of my entire monthly pay check to purchase it. It was, in fact, so expensive that it was displayed in a locked glass case, like a diamond necklace at Tiffany’s.
Years later I was given a calculator exactly like that one as a gift for opening a checking account in a bank.
Then there was my first video player-recorder. It was called a Betamax and was as large as a small suitcase. The VHS that replaced it was about half the size and the cost, and the disc player I have now is a slim unit that can be easily held in one hand. Of course my wife Karen and I never use it because, since buying it, we’ve gotten a magic little box from the outfit that provides our hundreds of channels that lets us record things to watch and rent movies without driving anywhere to do it.
Technology marched on, and in no time at all there were flat screen televisions, universal remote controls, computers, laptop computers, hand held computers, wrist watch computers, thermometers without mercury, GPS devices to lead us directly to our destinations, and cars that will parallel park themselves when we get there.
I constantly remind my writing students to pay close attention to details when spinning a yarn set in the past, even the recent past, lest they have a microwave oven pop up in a story before that handy device was invented. And when their story is set in the future, it’s fun to see what magical things they predict.
Who knows what will be next?
But, whatever it is, I’ll likely gawk at it like the little 1920’s farm boy in the old joke who sees his first elevator on a trip with his family to a hotel in town. After his mother had climbed the stairs to their room he and his father watched a plump, frowning, middle-aged lady push a button that caused a door to slide open. She stepped in, the door closed, and a little arrow over the door moved from one to five. A few minutes later the arrow moved back to one. The door slid open, and an absolutely gorgeous, smiling, slim young lady stepped out.
Father and son were at a complete loss for words for a long moment. Then the little boy broke the silence.
“Daddy,” he whispered, “what just happened?”
His father rubbed his chin and thought a bit.
“I don’t rightly know, son,” he said. “But go get your mother.”
[This trip down technology memory lane first appeared as a newspaper column in 2011]