Protégé of Charlie McCarthy

This is/was supposed to be "about me," not that the sun will wink out if you've never heard of me. I should point out that I am up to Vol. XIII of my autobiography, YEARS IN THE WILDERNESS, with the current chapter being "Finding My Car Keys." I'm told it's a riveting read, especially the story arc "Finding a New First Name for Tab Hunter because It's Not Fitting for Someone Who's 80 Years Old to be Called the Same as a Diet Cola." (That's what my cousin Fresca says.) 

My therapist, Dr. Foxwhistle, says that title should be changed, but I've quit listening to a man who invested everything with a certain Mr. Madoff. With every revelation about that Ponzi scheme, Foxwhistle drove to the Dames Point Bridge (the tallest bridge in North Florida), climbed up on the railing, and jumped. However, he didn't have the concept of suicide quite in mind and kept leaping onto the roadway itself.

Foxwhistle found it significant that my childhood hero was Charlie McCarthy, who some people claim was only a dummy. I told Foxy that I liked that Charlie was a bit of a smart-aleck and that he one-upped Edgar Bergen time and again. Foxy argues that you can't really get a handle on life if you are fixated on wooden heroes. I don't know: George Washington and the cherry tree, plus the wooden teeth, Abe the rail-splitter, Woodrow Wilson, and Al Gore. I didn't get the rest of what Foxy was saying because it was windy that day on the Dames Point Bridge.

It all began years ago in Jasper, Ala. (home of Tallulah Bankhead, George "Goober" Lindsey of "Mayberry" and "Hee-Haw," and Butterbean, the fat boxer). I know it's rude to drop names like that, but it's a failing of mine. I never formally met Tallulah but did hear her tell her driver, "Run down that goofy kid with the Charlie McCarthy monocle." I may have been goofy, but I was fast.

Since I came from a newspaper and then a Navy family, we moved about the Southeast as my father was a troubleshooter for circulation offices for The Birmingham News, The Atlanta Constitution, and the Florida Times-Union. He would ride into a town that had lost its carrier(s), find new recruits, and head out again with people calling, "Who was that guy with the goofy kid with the monocle?" From Jackson, Miss., to Florence, Ala., to Vidalia, Ga., to Marianna, Fla., to Birmingham, Ala., we traveled as the job market dictated. Later, he ran the Westside Delicatessen in Jasper and worked for Rose's Bakery. Convinced that a great depression was returning, my father quit running a store and driving a bread truck and joined the Navy again as a photographer. During World War II when he was in the Navy, we either stayed in Jasper or followed him to Mobile, Ala., and Key West, Fla. In the 1950's, we went from Pensacola to Norfolk and back.

Dr. Foxwhistle asks, "Excuse the professional jargon, but do you think changing schools, and colleges, as much as -- what? -- 21 times accounts for your being crazy as a bedbug?"

I don't. Oddly enough, despite stories today of High School Horrors, I didn't counter any travesties among the teachers or students at my schools. I’m bad with names, but I kept a list of all of my teachers, from Miz Moody, Tipton, Lawhorn, and Johnson in the early years, to Miz McCabe, Miller, and McCloskey in the middle years, to Arch E. Manning in my junior year. Bad teachers may have existed back then, but I was not assigned to their classes. Schools in Vidalia, Jasper, Marianna, Pensacola, and Norfolk left pleasant memories, with Norview HS in Norfolk turning out to be my favorite high school. Someone may quibble about the judgment of a child, but I’ll give weight to it because I have a good memory of what we did in, say, the third or fifth grade. Many adults haven’t the faintest recollection about what occurred so many years before.

Since we lived paycheck to paycheck, when it came time to go to college, Pensacola Junior College (now Pensacola State College) was the best bang for our limited bucks. My father said it was cheaper to send me to PJC than to send brother John through the Escambia High band. I was used to being a shy kid whom few people noticed, but PJC's Dean Margaret Berrisford discovered I had been a cartoonist for Put It Blountly, the student newspaper at W.A. Blount JHS in Pensacola, and dragged me to Dr. George Goodwin's office to join the staff of PJC's Corsair. Within a term, I went from being a cartoonist to being the editor and working closely with Dr. Goodwin on each issue. I learned how to edit by sitting with him as we went over copy. He got me a job as a flunky (printer's devil, sweep-up kid, occasional writer) with William Barr's The Escambia News, which merged with Paul Driver's Warrington Sun. I wound up being a flunky sports writer under Leo Coughlin, assistant sports editor of The Pensacola News (now the News-Journal). Leo ripped my copy to pieces, and I felt slighted if I wrote a story for the news side and the editor simply scanned my copy about a high school graduation and put a head on it. ("Leo would've found something," a little voice inside would say.)

After graduating from Pensacola JC, I went to Florida State University because it was closest to home. FSU didn't have a journalism school, which certainly would have made me a better reporter by and by, but FSU rounded out my education with courses in English and literature. As the sports editor of The Florida Flambeau, I also covered Seminole football practices for The Pensacola News-Journal, plus any high school football or basketball games they wanted covered. Some weeks I was working 40 to 50 hours while taking 15 or 18 credit hours, and -- guess what? -- my grades suffered.

Academically, I had "club-itis," which is what happens when a music major gets more interested in the band than in his or her classes . . . or when the actor focuses more attention on a play than on classes. . . or when the student newspaper is more interesting than the classes. On the plus side, I loved to read and loved to write, so could pull the "gentleman's C," some B's, and occasional A's.

I was covering aspects of FSU football during the days of Coach Bill Peterson, who supposedly used a three-team approach in these pre-Bobby Bowden days of quasi-glory. I mainly covered the practices and then sat in the stands during our games with Furman, the Citadel, and other powerhouses of nonentity. Doak S. Campbell Stadium was rarely filled, except when we played the odious University of Florida Gators. The Florida Legislators had ordained that UF would have to play this former girls school (converted to coeducational to accommodate the returning soldiers from World War II).

The despicable Gators would wave sheets of pink paper and holler, "Yoo-hoo!" If the Seminoles made a decent play, some Gator would shout, "The girls are tough this year!"

We helped Southeastern Conference schools to fill out their schedule and thought it a moral victory if we lost our away games to Georgia or Kentucky by only 19-12.

Besides the Gators, the stadium in Tallahassee was also filled when Billy Graham came to town. He beat us 13-12. Who would have thought that a Baptist missionary would rely on a "Hail Mary" pass?

Is that true? Absolutely, I would only lie about really really big stuff. Trust me on any trifles.

My columns at this website provide the curious with information about my family, our history, our likes, and our dislikes, so I won’t duplicate the information here. Arnold Snow, a quiet copy editor at The Birmingham News, once said of our colleague Richard Pitner: "If you listen to him long enough, he'll tell you everything he knows." I think that's what makes a good communicator, or teacher: You're trained to go into a room and leave with them, in theory, knowing what you know. That's probably what is behind Henry James' observation (somewhere, don't ask me for the exact words) that a writer can't write smarter than he or she is. We may strain to be more profound describing someone like an Einstein or Da Vinci, but past that point our writing reveals us as we are.

Oh, a zinger at me from Arnold Snow. Like smart-mouth Charlie McCarthy, I was proclaiming one day, "I don't have any bad habits." The laconic Snow said, "Well, if you had ANY habits, it would be helpful."

After several years with a newspaper, working the 5 and 6 a.m. shifts (and even the 3 a.m. shift during Mac McCants' vacation time), I found myself writing 65 (the age of retirement) and subtracting my current age of 25, 26, 27. Thirty-eight years more of this? I liked almost everyone I worked with: Roger and Frances Thames on the Bessemer section, copy desk chief Fred Adams, assistant managing editor Wendell Givens, Bob Flynn, Richard Pitner, and dozens more. But the tedium was getting to me.

Despite my mediocre undergraduate grades, I decided to go off to graduate school, and, since our National Guard unit did its summer active duty at Camp Shelby, in Hattiesburg, Miss., I applied to the University of Southern Mississippi. They accepted the erstwhile clubitis sufferer on a probationary status, and I received my master's at the end of the year . . . while doing Army duty in the daytime and going to a Shakespearean Comedy class at night.

Initially, I thought I would teach two years and then work for newspapers two years. That, to me, would be an ideal existence. Unfortunately, the job market tightened considerably, and I was too cowardly or lazy to attempt my 2 + 2 plan. Consequently, I taught English Comp. I and II, plus assorted first-term experimentation courses that faddists came up with; then life improved when my repertoire include the humanities of the ancients and Middle Ages, then the Renaissance to the Romantics, plus American humanities and Northern European humanities.

An educational axiom is that a teacher teaches the way that he or she was taught. That probably was true for me in the early years, but I went from the chalk-and-talk approach to a modified writer-editor relationship. I demanded that students have their papers reviewed in the writing lab and then revise them. I then went over the papers, too, and they revised the draft and turned it in for a grade. Once I graded a paper, I insisted they do a “clean, corrected copy.” When I discovered word processing, I REQUIRED the students to do their papers on Bank Street Writer (later on Applewriter and then on WordPerfect or Word as they became available). This is the way you will write in the future, I told them, and verily verily it came to pass.

I was an early exponent of computer-assisted instruction. When I was a student, we did workbook exercises, reading the answers from our seat or going to the board to do them there. I discovered that the 60-70 grammar lessons in the PLATO system, for example, covered everything a teacher would want to stress in a developmental or regular college class. (PLATO stood for Programmed Learning and Teaching Organization . . . or maybe Opossum.) Students who were good at English could zip through the programs in 6-10 hours; someone who was just off the boat from a non-English-speaking country might spend 50 hours on the lessons; it let them deal with a real problem without tying up classtime (and perhaps embarrassing themselves). PLATO, like a Cadillac, eventually was replaced by SkillsTutor, more like a Ford Escort. It still was a good workout for students. Not surprisingly, many English teachers wouldn't go near such teaching aids, often saying, "Studies show that emphasis on grammar doesn't make someone a good writer." They often didn't stress grammar, partly because they really didn't know it themselves. Good grammar will make you a BETTER writer; word processing will make you a BETTER writer. It will take talent, skill, and revision to make someone a GREAT writer. If Somerset Maugham said he was in the first line of the second rank of writers, then most of us are not going to challenge Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or Dickens.

I think there used to be a law that teachers had to go to conferences and give or listen to papers discussing stanines, competencies, objectives, and rutabagas. I could be wrong about the rutabagas; maybe it was okra. These generally bored the hell out of me. I found myself writing my retirement age on a sheet of paper and subtracting my current ages of 35, 36, 37.

But then one year I went to a writers' conference at the University of Florida and discovered what made the year interesting. UF had such speakers as Peter Taylor, John Ciardi, Chaim Potok, Ken Kesey, Andrew Lytle, James Jones, and many others. One evening, when my wife and I heard Peter Taylor read "The Hand of Emmagene," it was as if a new world had opened. Actually, it was a reawakening of an old world, when Miss Iris Taylor Johnson used to read Walter Farley's The Black Stallion to us in the fifth grade in Jasper. We returned to the UF conference until it imploded, and then we discovered the Florida Suncoast Writers' Conference in St. Petersburg, which survived for about 35 years. A trip to my old stomping grounds meant I could go to Birmingham-Southern's Writing Today (now defunct, too, alas). Meanwhile, assistant dean Jack Surrency and his team established the State Street Writers and Poets Festival at my college, and I became involved in the third year, helping to expand it into the Florida First Coast Writers' Festival. I estimated that we eventually made it to the fourth-ranked writers' conference in Florida (behind St. Pete's, the one in Key West, and at times the Space Coast Writers' Conference).

A constant refrain at writers' conference is that you should write, write, write. Over the years, I did exactly that, but, unlike best-selling author Steve Berry whose agent sent out his manuscripts to be rejected 85 times before a big publisher accepted one, I lacked the persistence. After two rejections of an over-the-transom work, I was bored. I was also too bored to send out the 25-100 letters to obtain an agent. It was more satisfying to me actually to write a piece than to have it published by Random House. I also didn't think it was sporting for me, a Writers' Festival leader, to hit upon our speakers to get my own stuff published. That was probably stupid, but so be it.

On the plus side, when the idea for MOWBRAY AND THE SHARKS first came to me in the 1990s (in a dream), I had plenty of time to think of back stories: Okay, why can Mowbray see ghosts? What are his other special skills? As each "insight" occurred, I was able to go back and update MOWBRAY AND THE GHOSTS, MOWBRAY AND THE BARON, MOWBRAY AND BLUE MOUNTAIN, and MOWBRAY AND THE CATACOMBS.

This biography won't get into another aspect of hd3, his journey from being a Barry Goldwater supporter to being a leader of the school's union, the Faculty Federation. Besides being president off and on for a dozen years, I was either newsletter editor or one of its chief contributors for those years. The faculty vs. administration conflicts prompted spouse Michele Boyette to suggest that we write a mystery set on a community college campus. It quickly turned out that I don't know how to collaborate. By myself, I wound up completing GRIEVANCE WITH DEATH, about Edwina Heyward and Bill Tarleton and their colleagues.

Our vacation trips in Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, and Tennessee introduced us to the territory of the Muskogean tribes (Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles, Choctaws, and Chickasaws). My own family supposedly had great-whatever-grandfathers who married Cherokees (or possibly Creeks). Research into Scottish heritage reveals that many of the key Cherokees were half-Scottish. Psychologically, I have gone decades with the Creek-Cherokee connection in my mind: "Would they have lived under this bluff and walked along this trail?" Recently, a DNA test failed to reveal any American Indian DNA. Instead, I have 1-2% African blood (from the sub-Sahara region: Mali, Senegal, etc. I'm still processing that.)*  When I read somewhere that the Densons ("son of the dean [minister]") were a sept of the Macgregors, I discovered what SOBs the Brits and some other clans thought the Macgregors were despicable bastards, too. I wondered then what would have happened if a tricky SOB had sought refuge amongst a lost tribe . . . about the time the whites were trying to drive them out. That inspired McGREGOR AND THE LOST TRIBE and its sequel featuring McGregor, Benedict Arnold, and Aaron Burr.

 *We are all Africans since we originated in African and then began walking hither and yon until some of us located a Starbucks franchise.

Everyone should have a great storyteller in his or her life, and I was blessed to hear the stories of my grandmother Clare O'Rear Stephenson a.k.a. Mammy, of my father (Junior to my third), and a family friend Hazel Victoria Reid. I won't try to list the stories, chapters, or poems that they have inspired. I knew that my great-grandfather Oscar Price was a grand storyteller, but he was too infirm to render tales by the time I was paying attention. As an adult, I recognize there are some natural storytellers (and I'm not one of them). A colleague, the late Jon Wood Patton, was one of these; ditto for my late brother-in-law John Claxton. When a natural storyteller starts to talk, the room hushes up to listen. On the other hand, when I start to tell a story, eventually someone gets everyone else to hush up so they can hear the quiet guy for a change. Big difference, you see?

Ah, I bet you can't wait for Vol. XIV of my autobiography, YEARS IN THE PARKING LOT.