The end of a very pleasant journey


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This August 2nd will mark the 45th anniversary of my raising my right hand and taking the oath that delivered me into the United States Army.  Which means if I’d chosen to make the service my career I could have retired.  Twice.

If I’d stayed in the employ of Uncle Sam I don’t know that I’d have climbed very far up the ranks.  I mustered out after my two year hitch (I was a draftee) at pretty much the same pay grade as when I’d taken that oath.

Though I never considered making it my career the army was a good thing for me.  I made lifelong friends there, served in a beautiful part of the world – Bavaria, in southern Germany – and took full advantage of the GI Bill when I went to college and a VA loan when I bought a house.

It was after I reentered civilian life that I found the career that would prove to be my life’s work.  At college I became smitten with literature, with the people who wrote it, and specifically with how they manipulated words to the best advantage.  I fully intended to get my advanced degrees and spend my life as a university professor. I even cut a deal with the dean of the English Department at Sam Houston State whereby I would take graduate classes at night, teach freshman English during the day, and finally, after getting a doctorate, apply for a position there.  Then, the way I had it figured, I’d settle into a comfy office on that pretty campus and spend whole decades lecturing about great writers and their work. That was the plan.

But you know the old proverb:  If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

My father suggested that I, just as a sort of fallback insurance policy, get my state certificate to teach in public schools, which involved a semester of practice teaching.  At the end of that semester I was offered a job at that school for the next year, and I couldn’t pass up the enormous annual salary (a little over eight thousand in 1977).

The rest, as they say, is history.

Would I have made a good professor?  I like to think so.  I might have even made a good career soldier.  Who knows?

What I do know is that the career I’ve had as a public school teacher has been enormously rewarding and – with the exception of having to place entirely too much importance and waste too much instructional time on a single politically generated statewide test – it’s been enjoyable. I’ve always considered myself lucky that I never suffered through Sundays dreading going back to work on Mondays.  And I think I’m even luckier to have taught so many good students (and my fair share of bad ones), some of whom might actually have benefitted from the fact that I was there.

I’ve always encouraged those kids to spend their lives trying to make a positive difference in the world. And I still believe good teachers do just that.

I made some mistakes, and I have some regrets regarding how I handled some things, especially when I was young and didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.   And I’ve done a good bit of grumbling in the teacher’s lounge about that state test, about lazy students, and about sundry other things.

But, overall, I wouldn’t trade my career for any other.

I’ll retire this Friday after 40 years as a public school teacher, 35 of them in one high school.  It’s a little overwhelming to think of the countless memories I’ll have of the thousands students and hundreds of colleagues and the events in that building that I will step out of for the last time in a few days.  And being there for so long has provided a unique perspective.

A couple of years ago a girl raised her hand when she should have been reading her assignment and informed me she didn’t like “Beowulf”.

“Neither did your mother,” I told her.  “But she managed to take a stab at it anyway.”

I doubt I would have been given the opportunity to use such a fine line if I’d spent my career in the army.


A story for Mother’s Day


I missed being born on Mother’s Day by about six hours.  I’ve always been a little slow, so my tardy entrance shouldn’t come as any surprise.

Immediately upon my arrival, my parents dubbed me Ronald, for no good reason that my mother, who chose that handle, could ever come up with.  Her own name was Quinda.  It’s a beautiful name, I’ve always thought, lyrical and awfully pretty when written out in calligraphy.  But I’ve never met another being – animal or human – in possession of it.

The two of us, with our mysterious names, were mighty close when I was a little boy.  Then she got sick.  She had what was then called “nerve troubles”, then she became addicted to some of the medicines that doctors gave her.  Finally, she was diagnosed with lymphoma and – when I was 21 and halfway around the world in the army – time ran out for the pretty lady with the pretty name.

By then, our relationship had gone significantly downhill.  I guess I blamed her for getting sick, and resented the fact that she was no longer the happy, nurturing person she had been when I was younger.  I foolishly saw her bouts of depression and her pulling away as something she had some control over.

It took writing the memoir that was primarily about my father – “Into That Good Night” – for me to sort out Mother’s and my differences, more than two decades after her death. Remember, I told you I was slow.

Anyway, we’re fine now, when I’m several years older than she was when she passed away.

Here’s a story about her, for Mother’s Day.

It was 1959. Miss Francis, my second grade teacher, had students treat the room on Fridays, one parent supplying enough goodies for not only the second graders but the first as well, since Miss Francis taught both groups in the same classroom.

When my turn rolled around, I announced to mother that I wanted to treat the room with rolls of Life Savers.  Assorted fruit, please.  To which she replied that she’d be making a couple of pans of her chocolate fudge with coconut and walnuts.

Now, there are two things you should know here.  First, almost all the mothers brought homemade things when they treated the room, cookies or popcorn balls or maybe cupcakes topped with gooey icing. Purchasing thirty or so candy bars or Hostess Twinkies would have cut far deeper into those women’s household budgets than whipping up a big bowl of batter and firing up the oven.  And, second, my mother was considered one of the best cooks in a town brimming with good cooks. She was justifiably proud of her talent, and the recipients of it looked forward to her creations.

The year before, when I had treated the room in the first grade, Mother had made Buckaroo Bars, one of her signature dishes.  The quartet of elementary teachers – Miss Francis, Miss Addie, Miss Lillie Bell, and Miss Mae – had gazed contentedly at the pans of golden sweetness with delicate edges of crispy crusts, multitudes of chocolate and caramel chips, and fresh pecans from our back yard.   They’d fairly drooled, those four good ladies, and Miss Lillie Bell paid the concoction her highest compliment.  “It looks like Quinda,” she’d whispered, as reverently as a nun in the presence of a miracle.

I was all of six, loved my mother dearly, and didn’t quite know what to make of someone saying she looked like a batch of brownies.

In second grade I dug in my heels and said I wanted Life Savers or nothing. Everybody brought home-baked things, I maintained, and I wanted to be different.  We argued, I cried, she sent me off to bed, and the next morning she said that she’d see me when she brought the fudge to school.

I’d told everybody to expect Life Savers, which hadn’t caused nearly the excitement I had anticipated.  Miss Francis had looked downright crestfallen.

Then, after lunch, I heard mother out in the hall talking to someone. Miss Francis told us to put our work under our desks and get ready for our treats.  I put my head down, preparing for my comeuppance, for my exposure as a liar.  When the treats were handed out, I opened my eyes to see Mother in the doorway, smiling at a roomful of children who would have preferred fudge but were holding packages of Assorted Fruit Life Savers.

It’s a simple story, but it touches on a great truth. Sometimes parents’ sacrifices aren’t big costly things at all.  Sometimes love’s tender offering can be as simple as letting someone make a bad choice.

Happy Mother’s Day.

(This first appeared as a newspaper article on some other Mother’s Day sometime or another)

Give me (and your reader) a break



You want to know what I miss?

I miss intermissions in movie theaters.

You remember those; at least some of you do.  When half way through the show the word “Intermission” would spread across the big silver screen, the theme music of the film would start to play, the house lights would go up, and you’d have ten minutes or so to stretch your legs and pay a visit to the rest room and the snack bar without missing anything.   Smokers could light up right there in the lobby.

The big blockbuster epics back then usually lasted upwards of three or four hours.  And by the time Ben Hur or Moses or El Cid or some other character played by Charlton Heston had been on screen for the length of an average flick, your rear end, leg and back muscles, and bladder were screaming for relief.  When I was a teenager and went to see one of the revival showings of “Gone with the Wind” in the old Texas Theater up in Palestine, I remember needing that break pretty badly.  By the time Scarlett O’Hara waved that shriveled turnip in the ruined vegetable patch and made her vow to never go hungry again – the last scene before the intermission – I was in complete agreement and made the same vow (I’ve pretty much stuck to it ever since) and got myself to the snack bar.

I don’t miss the smoke in the lobby bit, but the recent bevy of cinematic marathons currently in theatres makes me pretty nostalgic for intermissions. Plus there’s the fact that sitting down than long is unhealthy.  Getting up and moving around pretty often – at work, during long drives, in airplanes, or in other situations where held captive – is a good idea.  Even we diehard baseball fans know that.  That’s why we have the seventh inning stretch.  Of course some fans are so full of cheer and beer by the seventh inning they feel the need to sing badly out loud, but most of us just need to stand up and stretch.   We need a little break.

By its broadest – and only – definition that little break is all an intermission is.  It’s a pause between two much longer segments on either side of the respite that separates them.

A good example for writers is providing occasional page breaks, those white spaces that indicate a new scene or a shift in the storyline. Readers need a break every now and then as much as moviegoers do.  That’s why I try to provide that magical little open space often when I’m writing a book.  I also try to keep chapters as short as possible.  I figure when my readers are in bed at night and have just finished a relatively brief chapter that kept their interest, then they’re likely to read another short one before calling it a day.  But if an intimidatingly thick bunch of pages looms up before them the book is likely to get shut and the lamp turned off.  Short chapters keep readers reading.  And on a purely practical level authors need to keep their fans reading as surely as sellers of other commodities need to keep their customers coming back for more.  Granted, keeping your audience on board depends on many more things than doling out text in agreeably brief spurts.  But every little trick helps.

Well, if you’ll excuse me now I have several old movies recorded and need to make a choice. Let’s see, here’s “Exodus”, “In Harm’s Way”, and “Advise and Consent”, all made by Otto Preminger, my favorite director.  Each of them runs around three hours.

I recorded them from TCM, the channel that runs the original prints with the overtures up front and intermissions in the middle. Of course the pause or stop buttons on my handy remote control provides breaks whenever I need them, but I’ll try to wait for the official one with the theme music.  That way I can imagine watching the film in one of those long-gone downtown theaters and rushing out to the concession counter for a Dr. Pepper, popcorn, a hot dog, and a big box of Milk Duds.

Alas, in my house it will be a handful of grapes and a diet soda or mineral water.