The pen is mightier than the sword, and easier to use




Let’s start  with a trivia question.

In the movie “Casablanca,” how does Humphrey Bogart make his entrance? And extra points for what he is specifically doing. The answer will be provided in due course.

Today’s title came from comedian Marty Feldman by the way, but no points for knowing that. It should, however, have provided a strong clue about our topic: the tools we use to write things down.

I rarely read anything without a sharp pencil in hand. Because I am a confirmed and constant underliner and margin scribbler. Those scribbles, in an admittedly horrible handwriting that usually only I can make any sense of, might be the title of a poem or a novel that a passage reminds me of, or maybe a memo to myself to look something up. Sometimes a well-turned phrase makes me envious, so I underline it and make myself a note in the margin to use it in my own writing.

Consequently the books on my shelves are filled with messy marginalia. Not so much because I might actually go back through them and do the things I told myself to, but more because putting my own pencil to those writers’ words somehow brings me closer to whatever truth or beauty they’ve expressed there.

There’s something about holding a pen or a pencil that provides a degree of comfort and, I think, security. I’ve watched many a student about to take a big life-altering test — like a college entrance exam — lay out their sharp #2s precisely, like surgical instruments.

Holding a pen or a pencil makes us feel smarter, I guess, and more capable of the task at hand. Sort of like holding a hammer makes us feel more like a real carpenter.

Pens can do the same thing.

I used to have an old-fashioned fountain pen, a pricey model with a bladder that had to be filled up from a little bottle of ink. I bought it to celebrate the publication of my first book, justifying the extravagance by figuring that if I was going to be a real writer I needed a real fountain pen. After all, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen would hardly have been expected to scratch out their stories with second rate quills, now would they?

Not too long after I got it I dropped the pen and broke the nib. So I ordered another one, which cost nearly as much as the pen itself, and promptly dropped it again and broke the second one. At which time I determined that the gods of writing seemed to be in agreement that I was no Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. So I put the broken pen in a drawer and have since made do with ball points and felt tips. And pencils. Nothing nudges me toward creativity like the sight and feel of a freshly sharpened pencil.

Notice, next time you watch a panel of political pundits on television on Sunday morning or a panel of pigskin pundits before the football games on Sunday afternoon, that most of the panelists are holding pens while they pontificate. They never actually use them, but I’ll bet if those pens were taken away those knowledgeable folks would come off as less knowledgeable. Because holding a pen or pencil doesn’t just help us write. It helps us think.

Now for the answer to the trivia question. The first we see of Mr. Bogart in “Casablanca” is his hand, emerging from the cuffs of a white dinner jacket, putting a cigarette in an ashtray and taking up a pencil to sign a voucher that has been handed to him by an employee in his nightclub. He scrawls “O.K. — Rick” on the paper. Then the camera lifts slowly up to give us the sad-faced Bogie, ready to take on Nazis, old lovers and various other foes.

I’ve always thought it fitting that one of the best movies ever made should begin with the leading character lifting up a writing instrument. After all, every good story more than likely began with someone taking out a pen or pencil and scribbling down a lonely idea, or maybe a fragment or two of description or dialogue.

I think I remember reading that Dickens jotted down “best of times — worst of times” on the back of a menu. Maybe not.

I’ll have to think about it. Let me grab a pencil.

A lonely, lofty perspective



We come now to the subject of lighthouses.

Of course we aren’t exactly inundated with them where I live, on the Texas gulf coast.  The closest one to yours truly, over on Bolívar Point, has been privately owned for decades and isn’t open to the public.

As a member of said public, I want to go on record as saying I wish that it was.

That coal black, kerosene-powered beauty illuminated the entrance to the port of Galveston from 1872 until 1933, when it was determined that lights installed on the ends of the jetties provided the same service, and more economically.  Since then it’s sat unused, a constant reminder of a past era.  And I’d like to be able to visit it up close and personal.

I’ve always been infatuated with lighthouses.  And the room I am sitting in as I write this – the former bedroom of a daughter who grew up and moved away – that is now my office is proof.  If there is anything close to a specific theme among all these books, maps, mementos, mugs stuffed with pencils and pens, journals, and stacks of old manuscripts it is a lighthouse motif.  There are framed prints of lighthouses and ceramic miniatures of lighthouses and coffee mugs displaying pictures of … well, you get the idea.  One of my most cherished possessions was a thoughtful gift from a good friend: a framed drawing of the Brazos River lighthouse that was dismantled years ago, with a piece of the lens from the light matted beneath the print.

It would be nice now if I could tell you that my interest in those lonely sentinels comes from visiting a good many of them, climbing up into them, and standing long on their parapets and gazing out at to sea.  But the honest fact is that I have never set foot in a lighthouse or even, I’m pretty sure, stood in close proximity to one.

Part of the romantic notion I have must comes from old movies.  You know the ones, with crusty light tenders played by actors like Guy Kibbee and Lionel Barrymore, old salts smoking stubby briar pipes and outfitted in heavy, tattered parkas and short-visored captain’s caps.  They snarl and roar a good bit, matching their mood to the sea, and usually display a heart of gold to some waif that’s been left in their care.  In the process, they offer direction in the kid’s life, stretching out the lighthouse metaphor about as far as it will go.

And many a novel I’ve read has fueled this odd enthrallment.  The lonely tower on the edge of terra firma with the vast eternal briny deep stretched out to the far horizon has provided authors with perfect settings for their tales for centuries.  One recent offering I especially enjoyed was The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Steadman, and one I read in college by Virginia Woolf was titled, appropriately enough, To the Lighthouse. There were  many more good yarns in between; one of the best was Ray Bradbury’s fine short story “The Fog Horn”, which was set in a lighthouse.

And part of my fascination comes from wondering what it must be like to live completely removed from towns and society and have just one responsibility: to keep the light burning so ships’ captains can navigate by it.  The rest of the time, the way I’ve conjured it, would be spent reading books by the fireplace – the perfect lighthouse in my imagination has a big fireplace in the keeper’s cottage – or standing on a nearby windswept cliff looking at the ocean and pondering the meaning of life.

Realistically, a day and a half of such a routine would just about do me.  Beyond that, I’d get awfully bored and have to go off in search of those towns and that society I wanted to distance myself from.

Still, there’s something soul-stirring about those tall, handsome monuments to the past that once sent their illumination crawling out over the waves to bring vessels safely home. Almost all of them have stood dark for decades, having long outlived the people who kept their lights burning.

Maybe it was the symbolism offered by lighthouses that lured me into my paying such close attention to them.  Because they are, at their most functional level – purely useful.  And, given this frantic, oftentimes mean world we inhabit, what is more appealing, really, than something useful?  Something like a light in the darkness that can bring us safely through.

I’ll go on loving lighthouses.  I might even follow through on an old goal and write a story or novel set in one.  But if I do it would probably be a good idea to actually pay a visit to one, don’t your think?  I just hope it will have an elevator.


[Parts of this lighthouse piece first cast its beam in a Sunday morning newspaper column sometime in the dark past.]

Some real estate I’d rather put off using


A piece in the paper caught my attention a while ago, having to do with cemeteries and the sad though necessary business that is conducted there.

USA Today, a publication I usually only read in motels or hotels that provide free copies with the breakfast buffet, had a story about people putting their cemetery lots up for sale because that particular brand of property is fetching more than it did when they bought them.

The couple in the story – Clinton and Janet Lemons of Titusville, Florida – purchased their adjoining plots in 1978 for $1,500 and have set an asking price of $4.000 for the pair.  Which is still, according to Baron Chu, a secondary seller of plots, well below the national average of $3,500 per single plot.

The article didn’t mention what Mr. and Mrs. Lemon have as a backup plan for when and if they sell their plots.  They say their price might be negotiable.  Maybe they’ll snap up a couple of cheaper places on eBay or, which will surely add graves to its enormous inventory at some point.

I had never heard of reselling eternal resting places until I read that piece. Neither had I run across that unique job description – secondary seller of plots – before I picked up that copy of USA Today along with a Best Western bran muffin.

I don’t own a cemetery plot myself, though I suppose I should look into getting a couple for me and the Mrs.  I guess I figure that putting off that little shopping trip will somehow prolong the need for them.  Talk about your wishful thinking.

Actually, I had a plot at one time.  Back in the early 1980’s, when I hadn’t yet located my wife Karen, I arranged for a burial plot next to my parents’ graves up in a beautiful little rural burying ground called Shiloh, just outside Alto, in Cherokee County.  You didn’t actually fill out paperwork and put down money there; you staked out your place and informed the chairman of the cemetery association.  Then you were expected to make a monetary contribution to the general upkeep fund.

Maybe I didn’t make enough of a contribution, or maybe our communications got crossed up.  I don’t know.  But I do know this: the next time I drove up there to visit my mother’s grave – my father wasn’t in his yet – there was a fresh mound of dirt, a headstone, and some withered flower arrangements on what I thought was my plot.

I felt like one of the three bears when he discovered that someone was sleeping in his bed.

So, now that I don’t have an earthly spot reserved for my eternal slumber, I’d best quit putting it off and get myself a reservation.  But first off, I need to decide on burial or cremation. I have a sufficiently strong religious faith to be hopeful about the hereafter, but I also know I have a responsibility regarding this physical body I’ll be vacating.

Burial means a grave that will have to be tended and visited occasionally by family members.  It also means taking up space that can be used for better things and a pretty big outlay of cash for a place that will just be sitting dormant.

If I had a shot at a really good location, I might think about being buried.  But considering I only made Private (First Class!) in the army it’s a cinch that Arlington National Cemetery won’t be sending an invitation. And given the recent scandal involving the fired superintendent of that cemetery and how he and his staff managed to mismark over six thousand graves, it’s just as well. If I’m going to be under a headstone, I’d like for it to have my name on it.

Even though I’ve written a few books having to do with Texas history, I would be foolish to bet on the venerable state cemetery in Austin marking off a spot.

I might consider the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abby.  But I seriously doubt my scribbling will qualify me to rest in the company of Chaucer and Dickens. Besides, they bury lots of those writers standing up in the Abby, to leave room for future generations of dead authors.  If I’m going to be buried, I’d just as soon be reclining.  Call me lazy.

Anyway, I’ve got some decisions to make before I leave for what Mr. Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country.”

If I go with burial, I guess I can call the Lemons, over there in Titusville.  But this time I’ll require a signed deed, to keep my bed empty till I need it.

When a story is more than just a story

fort ord

Forty-five years ago today I raised my hand with a roomful of other young fellows in Dallas and recited an oath that delivered us into the United States Army.  Later that afternoon I settled into the first airliner seat I’d ever been in and clutched a paperback novel I’d just bought in the airport gift shop.  It was The Godfather, by Mario Puzo, which had been published a few years before and had just been made into a film that was destined to be widely considered one of the best two or three movies of all time.

Of course, I didn’t know how good the film was then, since I hadn’t seen it yet.

Truth be told, I didn’t know much, period.  I had just turned 20, had taken an unproductive first stab at college, and had been working as a clerk at a Gibson’s Discount Center in the automotive department, an assignment for which I was totally unqualified. Finally, Uncle Sam took notice of my less than spectacular accomplishments thus far and sent along my draft notice.

Jump forward to the fact that my stint in the service would turn me around completely, send me back to college (literally, via the GI Bill) and set me on a much more responsible path.  But the nervous young guy, unable to see the future, holding that book during that long-ago airplane ride faced a challenging and daunting reality at the end of it: basic training.

When the plane landed in San Francisco a bunch of us recruits were herded into an olive drab (a color we would get used to) army bus and driven down to Fort Ord, given bowls of lukewarm soup by a disgruntled private in the late night, and taken to an old Beetle Bailey type barracks.  When everybody else stretched out on narrow metal bunks (we’d get used to those, too) I found the only lighted room in the two-story wooden building, the latrine. Where I read the first chapter or two of The Godfather before turning in and getting a few hours’ sleep until a fireplug of a drill sergeant, in the wee hours of the next morning, charged into the big room bellowing out a blood-curdling promise that our lives would be a living hell for the next eight weeks.

It turned out he generally delivered on that vow, particularly, I recall, when prodding us through double-time marches in combat boots and full gear through the surging, cold (even in August), knee-high surf of the Pacific.

But what kept those weeks from being a total hell for me was, believe it or not, that paperback novel.  In the precious few minutes of reading time I could fit in every day between physical training, classroom instruction, late night inspections, early morning inspections, long marches to firing ranges, and literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of pushups I managed to get The Godfather read before graduation.

Then, when I was sent across Fort Ord to my specialized training school – it was determined I would be a 71B10, a clerk-typist (surely not a title used now; I suspect no typewriters survive in the modern military) – I had more time on my hands to read and make my way through something like two books from the base library a week until I completed the course and went home for Christmas leave.

Here’s the point of this little saga, not uncommon to countless folks of that generation:  Those books provided, for me, much more than entertainment.  They offered other worlds to go to when I needed to distance myself from the one I was actually in.

Years later, when I became a writer and a teacher of people who wanted to be one, I reminded my students that we can only tell stories, hopefully to the best of our abilities to relate them. We can’t know what an individual reader needs that story to be in his or her current and unique situation. But if it’s a good yarn, well-structured and well-told, it might just serve a purpose we can never envision.

A paperback novel I bought forty-five years ago today in an airport gift shop served as proof positive, for me, that a book, story, play, poem, or even a song can sometimes work a kind of magic that goes beyond mere enjoyment or enlightenment. It can be therapy. It can be a temporary escape pod.

I reread The Godfather a few years ago and discovered that it wasn’t particularly well-written, certainly inferior to the screen adaption and even other books by its author.  But that’s okay.  It was exactly what I needed it to be at the time.

Happy anniversary, young Ronnie Rozelle from Oakwood in your lonely airplane seat back on August 2nd 1972.  You’ll survive boot camp.  That book you’re holding will be a big part of the reason.