Blog

Transitions

 

bridge

Since this occasional diatribe is supposed to have something to do with writing, reading and wordsmithing I bet the title made you think I’m about to deal with the importance of providing good transitions in writing. You know, those little cleverly written bridges that link what you’ve been writing about to what you’re about to. So let me go ahead and do it concisely.  Transitions are very important, and oftentimes essential, to providing a smooth journey for your reader.  So use them.

But transitions loom much larger than in just what we write. Those metaphorical bridges pop up often in life, which is made up of countless transitions – some welcome, some not; some huge, some small – that serve as rites of passage along the way.  Some of mine have been momentous; others weren’t even noticeable, like water slipping quietly under a bridge.

Here’s a personal example.

Some folks claim that their first day of school was a big deal. But if mine was a transition, I was either not yet old enough or not yet smart enough to realize it.  My father was the superintendent of my hometown school, which housed grades one through twelve in one long building, and I’d been going up there with him since I was big enough to sit upright in the car.  So going one more time, and staying for the entire day, probably didn’t seem as odd to me as it did to the other first graders, who’d never been there before.

The move from second grade to third was a much more memorable step.  You see, in the Oakwood elementary school grades one and two were taught in a single classroom by Miss Francis, three and four by Miss Irwin, five and six by Miss Lillie Bell, and seven and eight by Miss Mae.

All I remember about my two years with Miss Francis was a lot of coloring and learning how to print, in our Big Chief tablets, the big letters that were pinned up over her blackboard.  They were on long piece of green card-stock, the upper cases rising up higher than the lower, and I guess we worked our way though enough words and sentences of the “See Spot run” variety to learn to use them.

When we moved next door to Miss Irwin’s room the letters over her board were in cursive.  And I remember thinking I was done for then. I already knew I would have to learn the multiplication tables in there because my older sister had told me, making it sound as ominous as the prospect of having to fight a bear.

Other transitions came and went. Birthdays, graduations, getting drafted, my marriage, the deaths of friends and family, anniversaries, and our daughter’s wedding were biggies.   But one just wandered silently up, like a thief in the night.

Back when I turned fifty I didn’t think much about it until I received an invitation from the AARP to join their ranks.  Because that letter represented a tangible transition, proof positive that I had somehow arrived in the foothills of the mountain range called Old Age, whose snow-capped peaks were still some distance off.  But they were suddenly close enough to be in clear view.

Then I looked around me at the school where I was a teacher and noticed that most of the teachers and administrators I used to work with were no longer there.  And, even more discomforting, that more and more of the students who stared at me from their desks were the sons and daughters of other students who once stared at me from the same desks.

I used to think, when my father was  younger than I am now, that it was a miracle that he was still walking around.  He was a good decade older than most of my friends’ parents, and I was afraid he would drop dead at any moment.

He taught, coached, and was superintendent at Oakwood from 1930 until 1966.  A tenure that I once considered forever.

When I retired a few months ago, fifteen years after the AARP sent their invitation, I looked around at my fellow faculty members – several of whom, including an assistant principal and  my department head, had been my students when they were in high school – I did some simple math and realized I had taught there for as long as my dad had worked in his school.

It seems one of the most important transitions in life is also one of the least recognizable: the passing of time.

It was the gifted author Isaac Asimov, who wrote gobs of books on a wide range of topics in his long live and was working on one the day he died, who probably said it best.

“Life is pleasant” he wrote,” and death is peaceful.  It’s the transition that’s troublesome.”

 

 

 

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Hemingway, haircuts, and a free shave

ishaving mug

Right after World War I, when Ernest Hemingway was working on his first novel, he made a few dollars a week as a foreign correspondent writing human interest pieces about being an American in Paris for the Kansas City Star.  He and his wife and young son made do with very little while he was honing the craft that would soon make him rich and famous, and those little checks from America were probably greeted with great joy.

In this dispatch titled “A Free Shave”, published on March 6th, 1920, he wrote “The true home of the free and the brave is the barber college.  Everything is free there.  And you have to be brave. If you want to save $5.60 a month on shaves and haircuts go to the barber college, but take your courage with you.”

It should come as no surprise that Hemingway’s short essays started out as reporting but all ended up as short stories, complete with dialogue.  They’re collected in a fine little book titled By-Line: Ernest Hemingway: Selected Articles and Dispatches of Four Decades, and that one about the barber college, full of vivid sensory description, made me think of haircuts I’ve gotten, not in Paris.

Up in Oakwood, the little east Texas burg that raised me, I got groomed every few weeks at Duncan Dorman’s shop. Actually cropped would be a more accurate verb since I made a slow progression from a burr to a flattop (which required daily applications of a dense gel called Butch Wax, so sticky that in autumn falling leaves would stick to my head), and finally graduated to hair almost long enough to hold a part.

Mr. Duncan was a tiny fellow, not any taller in his late sixties than I was as a preadolescent, and one of the kindest men I’ve ever known. After he tended to me, which took no longer than a farmer shearing a small sheep, he made a great show of splashing on plenty of bay rum.  Then he always wrapped my face in a steaming hot towel, only because he did it for my father and the other men before he shaved them.  It was wonderful, that towel, and I can feel its damp texture and smell the sweet, pungent bay rum even now.

One day Mr. Duncan unwrapped the towel and asked, in all seriousness, if I’d care for a shave.  I looked over at my father and he nodded.  So I did too.

Mr. Duncan proceeded to unfold his long razor and slide it along a leather strop several times. Then he lathered me up with a soft-bristled brush before ceremoniously scraping the razor’s sharp edge along my completely hairless face.

The men waiting for their haircuts kindly refrained from laughing as Mr. Duncan splashed on more bay rum. My father paid him for our haircuts, and I walked out of there proud as a peacock.

Later, when I was a first year teacher just a few miles north of Oakwood in Palestine I followed Hemingway’s advice and availed myself of free haircuts in the cosmetology class.  I was a Guinea pig, of course, and during my three year stint at that school I ended up with as many bad cuts as good ones.  But the fact that they were free offset any reservations born of vanity; my enormous eight thousand dollar yearly salary required stretching in every direction possible.

When I moved to the town I’ve called home for forty years now I actually began paying to have my hair cut, which was something of a shock to a thrifty disposition I inherited from my dad.  I made semiweekly visits to one shop long enough for it to feel like home. I even persuaded John, an excellent barber and as fine a man as Mr. Duncan, to splash on bay rum as a finale.

At some point my wife Karen suggested that I visit her stylist. Now, prior to that time I had certainly been aware that some men went in for such business, but I had never had any inclination to abandon the smoke-filled, talcum powder scented world of barber shops.  But I went, ended up liking the cut and the friendly young lady who administered it, and I became a salon patron.

There’s just no telling what my father would say about me paying more for a haircut than is charged at a barbershop.  But he would be perplexed at much that goes on in the modern world; paying for a plastic bottle of drinking water rather than turning on the kitchen tap would completely bewilder him.

But he’d be pleased that I managed to get a few free haircuts early on.  Not to mention that one free shave, that I didn’t even need, from Mr. Duncan Dorman.

 

A old friend that proved useful a second time

Starling

 

A few years ago as I was reading Katherine Graham’s Washington, the late Washington Post matriarch’s collection of various authors’ essays about the capitol city and its history, I came across an excerpt from an old book that means a lot to me.  It’s called Starling of the White House, the autobiography of Colonel E. W. Starling, a Secret Service agent who protected Presidents Woodrow Wilson through Franklin Roosevelt. It was one of the very first books I ever read.

My mother had brought it to Oakwood, our little east Texas town, along with several dozen other volumes from the left-over inventory of the book shop she ran in the front room of her parents’ house in Livingston during and just after the second World War.  My father, home from the South Pacific and back in his position as Superintendent of the Oakwood schools, had swept her off her feet and up into the country, along with and all those books.  A few years later, after I had made my grand entrance, I pulled Starling and a few other tomes down from the shelf and commenced what would become a lifetime of reading.

At the supper table, I recounted the heroic deeds of the brave colonel to my parents and sister and stated my intention of becoming a Secret Service agent myself one day.  Everyone managed not to laugh and, needless to say, I didn’t follow through on the plan.  I doubt my parents took that career goal very seriously, but they never advised against it.  If any American boy could grow up to be the president, I guess they figured, then he had the equal right to become the protector of presidents.

The next time I pulled the book down was nearly forty years later, when my old friend and college roommate Jim Willett, the retired warden of the Walls prison unit in Huntsville, asked me to help him with his memoirs. I had no idea how to go about writing another man’s story in his voice.  And then I remembered that was exactly what the author of Starling of the White House, Thomas Sugrue, had done with the Colonel’s life.

I revisited the introduction by Sugure, in which he set forth his goal of getting into his subject’s head and relating the events in first person, as if Starling were telling him the story over a glass of iced tea on the front porch.   And, after reading the entire book again, that is exactly what I did with Warden, down to and including prefacing it with a chapter of my own in which I introduce Willett, myself, and the prison and then get myself completely off the stage before Jim’s story begins.

So Starling, its pages brittle and brown as autumn leaves, served me well a second time.  It’s a solid yarn – too old fashioned for many modern readers, I imagine, who are given to plots splashed out quickly, with plenty of sex and violence and foul language the Colonel wouldn’t have abided.  Starling of the White House is about a good man with a hard job, who was humble, quiet, courteous, brave, and altogether devoted to his duty and to the nation that he loved dearly.  Virtues that some cynics would say are difficult to locate in modern society.  But I suspect they aren’t, if you look hard enough.  In fact, I found them all alive and well in my buddy Jim Willett.

I suspect, too, that if any of those things ended up in me – which is arguable, at best – it is at least partly because I found that book and read it so long ago. Good writing, especially about good lives lived well, has a way of rubbing off on readers.  I’m glad of that. It serves other functions, too, like when a writer doesn’t know how to go about telling a particular story. Like I didn’t with Warden, until I remembered a book that proved to be a useful model.

I’m confident that I’ll read Starling of the White House again at least once or twice, maybe several times, before I’m done with reading for good.  And I recommend it to you.  It was published in 1946 by Simon and Schuster, and you’ll have to search pretty hard for it.  It’s out of print.

But it shouldn’t be.

Most of this first ran as a newspaper column and then in a compilation of  articles titled Sundays with Ron Rozelle (TCU Press, 2009).  I wanted it to be called Over Coffee: My Little Corner of the Sunday Paper.  The one the publisher chose makes it sound like a devotional.  It’s not.

 

Let me tell you a story about a truck named Blue

I bought a pickup truck, sight unseen, at a high school volleyball game back when our oldest daughter was on the freshman team.  Which would have been in the very early 1990’s.  Which would have made it, which was no spring chicken in truck years even then, probably an early 80’s model.

I have no idea exactly how old it was, because I was never one of those guys who could point to just about any vehicle and rattle off the make and model.  Vehicles have always been purely utilitarian for me, tools to get me from point A to point B. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate the sleek appearance of a nice car, and its comfort.  And I miss that new car smell when it finally goes away as much as anybody.  But I’ve never been a fanatic about the various varieties of Mustangs or Thunderbirds or such.

So I didn’t really need to see Old Blue on the night that I bought him, since I didn’t really care much what he looked like.  What I needed was a dependable, affordable mode of transportation to get me to and from work.  Period.   My wife Karen’s car had just given up the ghost and we were suddenly a one car family.  So the Ford minivan that ferried our tribe around in went to her and I had to come up with a new plan for myself.

I explained my plight to a friend whose daughter was on the same volleyball team as my daughter that night in the gym, and he said he might have a solution to my problem.  He said he had an old standard shift Dodge Ram pickup he could do without. He named a price, I agreed, and we watched the rest of the game.

I don’t remember what I paid, but it was worth it.  Old Blue made many a round trip, over the next several years, between my house and the high school where I taught. That volleyball playing daughter, Kara, actually christened it Old Blue, because of its faded, robin’s egg hue.  I had never given a name to a motor vehicle, but Kara maintained that that one was unique, and deserved one.

She loved that pickup.  Her little sisters, in junior high and elementary, saw too many dents and dings and scruffy places to be much impressed.  If they actually ever climbed aboard and rode in Blue I suspect they hunkered down low so nobody would recognize them.  But Kara, ever the Romantic and champion of the underdog, saw real character in that truck.  She rode to and from school with me that year – before she got her driver’s license – and we cranked the windows down (Blue’s heater and air conditioner were iffy, at best), rested our arms in the windows, and sang along to “Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits”, probably the only cassette tape we ever inserted into the dashboard player.

One speaker must have had a loose wire; it sputtered often and sometimes took time outs.  We didn’t care.  We were more into the singing of “North to Alaska” and “Whispering Pines” and “The Battle of New Orleans” than into listening to them being sung to us.

Blue finally began to cost me more in repairs than he was worth (by the way, I realize that most vehicles are referred to as females, but Kara and I never thought of this one as anything but an old, delightfully cantankerous, rough-at-the-edges male).  I sold him to somebody that was better at tinkering with engines than me, which would have been practically anybody that presented themselves.

I miss that old truck.  I even miss its temperamental second gear that I constantly ground my way through, manipulating a gear shift as tall as one on an old city bus.

What I really miss is those mornings and afternoons with Kara, the breeze whipping over us through the open windows, both of us bellowing out Johnny Horton tunes.  Both of us laughing.  Both of us happy to be together.

These days Kara is about the age that I was when we got that truck, and she’s a teacher herself.  I don’t know what she listens to on her way to work in Houston traffic, but I’ll bet if “North to Alaska” came on the radio she’d smile and commence singing, maybe with the window down.

Sometimes we talk about Old Blue, almost like he was a real person in our past.  And it’s usually when we’re alone.   Because the rest of the family never caught on to the secret that only we shared.  That Blue wasn’t a truck at all; he was a kindred spirit, a fellow traveler on life’s highway.

 

Ahoy, Wordsmiths, a workshop is on the horizon.

 

bizaro

My next writing workshop will be in early January at the Brazosport Center for the Arts and Sciences.  I’ll also do one up in Brenham in June focused on memoir writing and will provide specific details about that one later.

Here’s the scoop on the one in January.

 WORDSMITHING   I0I:

A MASTER CLASS IN FINDING YOUR CREATIVE VOICE

Do you feel the need to tell your particular story or just have the desire to look at words and sentences differently? Do you want to make your writing as clear as the planning that goes into it? If so, then Wordsmithing 101 is for you, whether you are a beginner or a more experienced writer. The instruction is geared to good writing in both fiction and nonfiction. Plus there will be a voluntary opportunity for peer critiquing of participants’ writing, and everyone will come away with a booklet full of useful material.

The sessions are relaxed, no pressure, and fun.  I’ve taught lots of these, and have had positive feedback from participants; here’s a few comments from over the years:

I wish this had been the writing workshop I’d taken first.  I now have a better understanding of sensory description, attention-grabbing first sentences, mixing short and long sentences/paragraphs, powerful endings, knowing where the story really begins, and especially getting rid of clutter!  Ron taught all of it with great humor.  A delightful weekend!                                                                                                                 – Diane K.

 *  *  *

          If you’re working on a novel, a short story, or just wanting to write a better letter, Ron Rozelle is a good man to know.  He’s been there and can show you how it’s done.
Several of us were fortunate enough to study with him during his last trip to Brenham, and he made quite an impact on the group.  Many of us from that class continue to meet regularly to practice what he taught us and to critique
each other when necessary.
What makes Ron’s presentation so easy to digest is his years of experience in front of a classroom. 
He can write and he can teach – an excellent combination if you are wanting to learn the craft.  I highly  recommend that you take advantage of the forthcoming opportunity to sit with him and learn.  He will not disappoint.                   – Bob S.

*  *  *

I signed up for the Wordsmithing I0I with Ron Rozelle with a feeling of trepidation.  I was out of my comfort zone. Mr. Rozelle quickly put me at ease.  He is a great teacher – the workshop was informative,  fun, and entertaining.  I highly recommend this workshop for anyone who wants to improve their writing skills.                                        – Cindy N.

 

I enjoy these workshops as much as anybody in the room, and I look forward to a great three days in January.  I hope you’ll consider being part of it.

Here’s the schedule and registration information from the Center …

TheCenter

WORDSMITHING 101:

A THREE DAY MASTER CLASS IN FINDING YOUR CREATIVE VOICE

Thursday, January 4, 2018– 3:00 p.m.- 7:00 p.m.

Friday, January 5, 2018 — 9:00 a.m.- 3:00 p.m.

Saturday, January 6, 2018 — 9:00 a.m.- 3:00 p.m.

16 hours of instruction!

To register for this workshop, contact The Center administrative office during normal business hours at (979) 265-7661 or visit the website.

 Member price: $150            Non-member price: $175

break*fast (noun)

breakfast

Where do you stand on the subject of breakfast? Personally, I’m all in favor of it. Being a wordsmith devoted to words and their meanings, I especially like this one. It means, literally, to break one’s fast. To eat a little something — or a lot — after eating nothing at all during the night.

When it comes to breakfast I believe in variety. So one morning I might have a toasted whole wheat bagels — just a half of one; my wife Karen can rattle off the number of carbohydrates in a bagel pretty fast — along with a pile of sliced cantaloupe, bananas and strawberries. The next day might bring wheat toast and scrambled eggs. And when I’m rushed, it’s a cereal day. Grape Nuts, more than likely, or shredded wheat – two holdovers from the days when we had kids at home. That way I always had cereal available since they wouldn’t touch those.

Grace and Missy, our  generic cats, could care less about variety. They eat the same thing — dry cat food — for breakfast every day, and for dinner, too. Though Gracie, my constant shadow, isn’t opposed to a pinch of fried egg on occasion.

Back when I did some wandering around in Europe I quickly learned which countries laid out the best breakfasts. England won, hands down. A British repast of sausages — called bangers — and eggs and scones was hard to beat. A big dollop of beans came with it as well, which took a little getting used to for an East Texas lad. Up in Oakwood we generally ate our beans much later in the day. Germany ran a close second, with pan-fried potatoes and Bavarian bratwurst. France and Switzerland were at the bottom of my list. In those places, you might have only a croissant, some jam and maybe — if you’re lucky — a piece of fruit.

So give me England and Germany when it comes to breakfast. And, if I’m in New York City, I’ll take Sarabeth’s on Amsterdam Avenue. Specifically I’ll take their lemon and ricotta pancakes topped with fresh berries. My wife and I first went there on a friend’s recommendation, and we’ve sent no telling how many people there when they visit Manhattan. We’ve provided so many customers that Sarabeth’s really ought to give us a little kickback, or at least they could send us a jar of their boysenberry jam.

We’ve all heard, countless times, that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And I agree with it. I don’t think I could make it to lunch without breakfast. I’d crater; I’d fold up like a bad hand of cards.

Now, there are people out there who can go all morning without a morsel of food. My sister Janie, a retired schoolteacher up in McKinney, has a diet Coke for her breakfast every day. But she’s persnickety about it; it has to be from McDonald’s. I’ve told her for years that she would be doing herself and her health a favor by adding a sausage biscuit to her order. But she won’t. And Janie and I are at the stages of our lives where she is likely to keep on starting her days with just a cup of soda in spite of any suggestions from me.

Janie and I grew up in a house that had some particularly fine breakfasts on the table. Our mother turned out some world-class French toast and omelets. And our father’s specialty was pancakes, extra tender and fluffy, he maintained, because he used cold Sprite in the batter rather than water.

Even back then, I was so much a fan of breakfast that I could predict what leftover part of our suppers would reappear on the table the next morning.  For instance, if we had pork chops, I could expect one parked next to a pile of scrambled eggs in the morning. And, best of all, when we had cornbread in the evening, then the next day’s breakfast would be a thick slice of that golden treasure slathered with butter and broiled to crispy-edged perfection and drenched in syrup. Which went extremely well with either a sausage patty or a couple of slices of bacon. Add to that an over-easy egg or two, the runny part seeping up into the bottom of the cornbread.

Anyway, the lesson today is don’t skip your breakfast.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to poke around through our cupboard and see if we have any cornbread mix. I’ve talked myself into a definite plan for tomorrow morning’s menu.

[This showed up on breakfast tables in a Sunday morning column sometime or another]

 

Why my life will never come full circle

 

3361925040_eb077e4cbb_b

About this time nine years ago my wife Karen and I headed for the hills of East Texas in order to give Hurricane Ike plenty of room.  Of course, he followed us up there like a trailer hooked to the car. But, enough about that.

After the tempest erupted we drove into Palestine, the county seat of Anderson County, and I showed Karen the hospital in which I was born, a handsome old two-story brick building with impressive carvings over the entryway (that’s it in the photo), sitting nicely among majestic trees. It’s the sort of building you see in old movies. You know, the way hospitals and schools used to look when they had character, before they were replaced by modern, bland edifices that are all steel and glass.

We got out of the car and admired the place which hadn’t been a hospital for a long time. It felt comforting somehow, standing in the shadow of the structure where I first drew breath and bellowed out at the world (a habit that I’ve kept up).

Standing there felt satisfying and right.  It felt like coming home.

I was so moved that I called my sister Diane on my cell phone and told her about it. She listened politely and then told me that I wasn’t born in that hospital at all.  She said that I was apparently standing in front of the old I&GN Railroad hospital, which had nothing to do with us since our father hadn’t worked for the railroad. The building where I was born, she said, was several blocks away.

Diane had been nearly a teenager when I arrived, so she undoubtedly knew what she was talking about.  I tried to follow her directions but never found anything that looked like it might have once been a hospital.  Except, that is, for the one that was built a few months after my birth and was standing vacant amid weeds and bushes that were quickly consuming it. Palestine obviously goes through hospitals with an aggressive appetite.

So, the circumstances of my birth appear to be hazy.  Not the actual, biological part, since I have to assume I made my entrance in the same way that many billions of humans had before and since.  The precise geography is the crux of the conundrum.

I know I was born at six a.m. on the twelfth of May in 1952, less than a month before Queen Elizabeth – the second, not the first – was crowned in England and seven months before Ike – the president, not the hurricane – was elected.

My birth certificate states that I was delivered by R. H. Bell, M.D. in something called the Palestine Sanitarium. Which has always been a little off-putting, to tell you the truth, since I’ve always equated sanitariums with gothic mansions behind tall iron gates where lunatics and people with horrible diseases were stashed away.  But that’s what the public hospital in Palestine was called in that era, so that’s what’s written in slanting cursive on my official record.

In an attempt to locate the hallowed ground, I telephoned Deloris Stroud in Palestine.  Miss Deloris, now deceased, was the mother of Jim Bob and Tim, two of my boyhood friends, one of whom I had to conclude had been born in that sanitarium as well.  She said it had been on Neches Street, somewhere across from Dr. Bell’s house.  So he’d had only to step across the road from his front door to pull me into existence; he probably hurried over there to do it between cups of coffee after his breakfast.

Miss Deloris told me that hospital had been gone for years.  And why wouldn’t it have been?  Why should any of this work out to my satisfaction?

I might as well face the fact that I will never lay eyes on the exact location of my birth.  The single, faded photo I located on the internet is of a dismal, white stucco building not much larger than a two-story house, and not nearly as attractive as the railroad hospital. Nothing of it remains.

It’s a good thing that I’m not a member of that tribe on some island in the South Pacific that I once read about where old people try to make it back to the exact spot where they were born when it’s time for them to die. So, I guess, they can end up where they started out, sort of like getting off the train at the same station where you got on it.  Talk about wrapping things up neatly in a full circle.

If I was in that tribe, I wouldn’t know where to report when the time comes.

I teach writing workshops on occasion to people who want to pen their memoirs. Since that trip to Palestine I encourage them to have their facts, and their buildings, in order before writing a single sentence.

 

 

Oh, the tales we’ll tell

Harvey from space

Any stories that come out of Hurricane Harvey that strike lasting chords in readers will have to be just that: stories.

I don’t mean stories in the mold of the weakest, most incorrect definition of the word, which roughly means telling lies for fun and profit. I mean stories that fulfill the term’s purest definition: to convey a series of events which the reader can relate to and take something away from.

Neither do I mean to suggest that those accounts should be fiction, though some historical novels will emerge, where the data, the depth of water, force of wind, amount of rain and number of deaths will – if the book’s any good – be accurately interwoven with several characters who might not have actually existed.

All those facts and figures are certainly important, and will remain recorded.  But what we’re likely to remember about Harvey are countless images of suffering and sacrifice and bravery and compassion.  Many of them you might have witnessed up front and personal; others came via television and photographs in newspapers and on social media.  And others will come from those accounts, those stories – fiction or nonfiction – that will be written down.

If you intend to write one yourself, whether for publication or in a journal so just your children and grandchildren can someday know what happened in your own words, I offer a suggestion that you might find helpful.

Any disaster, especially of the magnitude of the one we just went through on the gulf coast, will, if rendered in mere facts and figures, likely be too staggering for readers to grasp and hold onto.

I learned this first hand. The first proposal of an idea for a novel set in Galveston during the 1900 storm – my first attempt at that difficult genre – that I sent twenty years ago to a publisher came back with a simple warning from a kind editor.  He told me that an overview of thousands of people perishing in a single night in the worst natural disaster in the history of the nation wouldn’t tell a story that readers could see, hear, feel, taste and touch.  But focusing on six or seven characters and following them through that night just might let the reader come along.

Whether or not the novel that I finally wrote and published did that is depends on individual readers.  But I can tell you a long front page story that spilled over into several more pages in the Houston Chronicle a couple of days ago which related the unique circumstances and actions of several very different Houstonians throughout the absolute hell that Harvey delivered is a perfect example of what I’ve come to refer to in my writing classes as The Thing and the Bigger Thing.

In that Chronicle piece, the thing – the focus – is that little cast of characters trying their best to make the best of a bad situation.  The bigger thing is, of course, the situation itself. The article is a perfect marriage of facts and the personal stories of those very real people.  I hope it will be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

I’ve read several books about the Titanic disaster, but the best ones focused on some of the passengers and not just on the event.  That’s also true for a couple of films, both titled Titanic, one made in 1977 that was very good, the other in 1953 that was, in my opinion, even better in terms of plot, conflicts, resolutions and depth of characterization.

I’ve also read my share of books and watched countless movies about World War II, which took place several years before I made my entrance. And, strangely enough, my strongest, most persistent image of that enormous event came from a tiny anecdote that I heard about or read that surely wouldn’t have impressed many folks.

One morning when legendary CBS Radio correspondent Edward R. Murrow and his wife were walking through the east end of London after a particularly bad night of German bombing they saw streets full of survivors standing among bodies and debris, comforting each other in front of their ruined homes. Mrs. Morrow noticed a sign over the entrance to a surviving pub that said, in large letters, “Courage”.  She began to sob at that simple word that was both a reminder and an instruction to a nation that she could only respect and weep for.

Murrow couldn’t bring himself to tell her that Courage was a brand of beer.

That, whether it happened or not, is for some reason my favorite example of The Thing and the Bigger Thing for that war.

What will yours be for Hurricane Harvey?  Whatever it is, consider writing it down.

 

 

 

An odd question in an opulent library

Crow library

 

So, there I was almost a decade ago in this enormous private library the size of a gymnasium, surrounded by what seemed like acres of pristine, leather-bound first editions on miles of polished mahogany shelves, a plethora of priceless paintings and sculptures by old masters and a couple of massive world globes made in different centuries cradled in ornate pedestals. The inside of the fireplace looked about the size of the apartment two other guys and I lived in back in college.

A platoon of tuxedo-clad servers carried silver trays laden with bubbly and hors d’oeuvres. And the librarian — kept on full time in a library that is not regularly open to the public to keep the massive collection cataloged and to make acquisitions whenever the odd Magna Carta or Shakespeare folio goes on the block — mingled and answered questions. He showed me the original letter that President Harry Truman sent to the Washington Post music critic who had panned his daughter Margaret’s piano recital. In that famous dispatch, the president said he looked forward to their meeting, at which time the critic would “need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes and perhaps a supporter below.” Not a great mincer of words, old give-um-hell Harry.

The occasion for my being there, along with a hundred or so other writers and their guests, was the mixer before the annual meeting of the Texas Institute of Letters, held in Dallas that year. Philanthropic real estate magnate Harlan Crow graciously allowed us to invade his library, housed in an impressive two story building adjacent to his beautiful home on Preston Road.

When I’d wandered around for a while — running my hand over the five stars on Eisenhower’s helmet, trying to make out the scrawling calligraphy on the original deed to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and opening one volume after another to gaze at the signatures of the world’s greatest authors — I wandered into a small side room to get a better look at a painting on the wall.

A friendly voice informed me it was by some famous artist or another; I forget which. The speaker was a man about my age, outfitted in jeans, sneakers and a white polo shirt,  in the process of mixing himself a drink in a plastic cup. The champaign I was sipping was in Waterford crystal.

I thanked him, and went back out where I was supposed to be.

Several minutes later he wandered up to my wife, my sister and me and introduced himself as our host. At which point Harlan Crow asked me something that I had never been asked before, and surely never will be again.

“Would you like to see my dead communists?” he wondered, with a straight face.

I said I very much would. So he led us through a couple of huge rooms, though his study, an exact replica of the White House oval office, and out to a sprawling back patio. He pointed off toward some perfectly manicured hedges and said to enjoy ourselves. Then he went back in.

We found, behind the tall hedges, an impressive collection of 20 or so statues, all of them obviously old, several as tall as two-story buildings. Lenin was there, and Stalin and Khrushchev, along with lesser tyrants of lesser regimes.

They were arranged along a pretty walkway in the center of which was a striking bronze tableau of four old peasant women sitting rigidly on a bench, their heads bowed. They were weeping.

Back at the house I asked the librarian about what I’d just seen. He explained that when the Soviet Union fell, Mr. Crow sent him into Eastern Europe to buy every statue of old leaders that he could locate. With the times changing rapidly, towns and villages were only too happy to be rid of them.

“And the old ladies in the middle?” I asked.

He smiled, and said they had commissioned that one. Because Mr. Crow knew that the entire collection of monsters wouldn’t work without at least one piece depicting their victims.

The whole place was amazing, even — and maybe especially — that odd menagerie of despots. And who’s to say that I wouldn’t spend my money that way if I had it. But, alas, I don’t.

I don’t own even one dead communist.

 

[To those of you who follow this blog who live in southeast Texas, there’s much I could say about the devastation and heartbreak that many of you are suffering through and the enormous outpouring of support and compassion that is not unexpected or surprising in Texas, and I suspect I’ll work my way through all I’m feeling with you and for you and tackle that subject later.  But right now this piece that ran back when I was a columnist (not a communist), having nothing to do with storms or floods, might offer a complete diversion.]