April 16, 2014
On realizing that I am a year older than my father when he died.
I am swimming in a dream.
Far out, beyond the last buoy,
Far from the noisy beach and shouting
Children and their bright toys,
What am I doing here,
Out in this murk?
The sea is smooth,
And the water dark.
March 9, 2014
By T.W. Burger
One of the interesting features about getting to what used to be considered “retirement age” is that you realize that you have seen an awful lot of this stuff before.
Take the current furor over raising the minimum wage to something over $10 per hour.
“It will destroy the economy!” scream critics of the idea, mostly well-to-do white people. “We’ll have to lay off workers,” they moan.
Excuse me. Couldn’t you guys (and it is mostly guys) at least come up with some original gripes?
I am about to turn 65. When I entered the work force, the minimum wage was $1.40, or $56 per week. It had just been raised from $1.25. Guess what the opponents said.
This is why I giggle when the well-to-do and fatheads like Limbaugh say that the poor would be better off if they would just manage their money. As in, “I wonder how I can fit this grand piano into this inflatable lifeboat I’m clinging to.”
The “manage their money” stuff comes to us from people who are standing on top of an ever-growing mountain of money.
My pay covered my rent, which was $50 a week, and my car payment, which was the same. After groceries and utilities, there wasn’t a lot left to “manage.”
Something is clearly amiss.
A young man, a freshman at Boston College who plans to major in economics, told me recently that in just about any economic system, most of the money and power ends up in the hands of the one percent anyway.
I’ll give him that point. In all those other systems, though, we usually call that one percent the bad guys, or words that mean pretty much the same thing.
So, how is it that our American one percent is anything other than the bad guys?
Yes, I’m being overly general. There are members of the one-percent who are good people who try to give back to the people who made them rich. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and a few others come to mind. I don’t think they are in the majority. Think of the Koch brothers and their ilk, and their efforts against organized labor.
Before my conservative readers jump on the “unions ruined everything” bandstand, even Samuel Joseph Wurzelbach, aka “Joe the Plumber has said he had no problem with unions….the problems arose from corrupt and greedy leaders.
When I was a boy in the 1950s and 1960s, My parents’ generation worked in factories, offices, and taught school, and most of them belonged to unions. The town where I was born boomed. Almost nobody in my family drove a car that was more than two or three years old. Everybody had a nice house.
Fast-forward. The big wheels at the local steel mill refused to update their aging equipment and siphoned of really big helpings of the income. The Japanese, with new factories and equipment, made steel more efficiently, and the industry here in the U.S. started to die. Finally, the local steel company was raped and murdered by a corporate raider who very nearly managed to make off with the former workers’ pensions as well. I think similar stories have been written all over the country.
The minimum wage has been raised several times since the late 1960s. Between 1978 and 2009 it increased eleven times, to $7.25. Guess what the opponents said.
Under the system that “floated all boats,” many of the smaller boats started to founder. In time, the storms worsened and increasing numbers of ever larger boats took on water and sank.
Yeah, there were rich people and poor people when I was a kid, but most of us swam happily in the middle, and the rich people were only 40 or 50 times wealthier than the folks in the middle class. Now, their wealth is measured at hundreds of times greater.
As I said…I’m no economist. If I had the solution, I would be both rich and famous. In any case, what I posit is this: Any economy in which all the wealth flows in one direction is stagnant, dysfunctional, and evil. I don’t know what to call what we have now. Most keep calling it capitalism because that title still has a cozy ring to it. But what we have is not that. What we have is broken[jam21] .
Back to minimum wage: The argument that a wage increase will kill jobs doesn’t hold water, not in the long run. Remember, Henry Ford famously paid his own factory workers more than most people made in similar jobs. He realized that if workers didn’t have any money, they couldn’t buy cars, and selling cars was sort of the whole idea.
I think that people having money to live decent lives and be able to better themselves was the whole idea overall. Has that changed?
© 2014 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:
February 27, 2014
By T. W. Burger
There he was, throwing everything out of whack.
He roamed from room to room, weaving erratically, and chaos followed him. Desks sat empty, pens and pencils lay willy-nilly where they had been dropped. Computers hummed vacantly to themselves. Electric typewriters buzzed, abandoned.
There was a kid in the courthouse.
I do not mean the slack-jawed nitwits with their hats on backwards, the ones I usually see up before one of the county’s judges. I mean a rug-rat, a cookie-cruncher, a toddler.
Cute as a bug’s ear, too.
Not that I’m an expert. I have always shied away from having kids. Too selfish, I suppose. Now and then, like when I saw this little guy bonking around inside a couple of courthouse row offices, I get this wistful feeling that, gee, wouldn’t it be nice…..
When that happens, I go visit someone who has teenagers and it goes away.
But there is a thing that happens whenever anybody brings a little one into the courthouse. I call it PMS, or Persistent Mommy Syndrome. (Boy, will I catch hell for this.) Most of the employees in the row offices are women. Anybody brings a tyke there had better be good at sharing.
Everybody comes over and pokes and coos. The reactions from the kids vary, but I think most of them respond like this one did: Bafflement followed by “died and gone to heaven.”
I watched, frankly, with something approaching envy. Virtually every woman in the place had to take her turn holding the little guy, bouncing him up and down and generally marveling at him.
The kid, of course, was just eating this up.
I made some wisecrack. One of the women suggested I was jealous.
“Somebody did the same thing to you when you were this little and cute,” she said.
Yeah. So how come it doesn’t happen now that I can appreciate it more?
Do not answer that question.
Years from now, as a grown man, this guy will wonder why it is that every time he walks past a courthouse he gets a big smile on his face.
If I were another kind of writer, now would be the time where this column would dutifully grouse and grumble about all those “man-hours” (an interesting term, all things considered) “wasted” fussing over some kid while the paperwork languished, boxes unchecked, corners unstapled, triplicate copies unfiled.
Sorry. You have the wrong guy. The paperwork can wait. Personally, I think the world could use more people with PMS. Maybe if more kids got that kind of attention, I wouldn’t be seeing so many of them standing before the fierce gaze of a judge.
© 2014 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:
February 20, 2014
Overall, I’d say my experiences in church have not been entirely positive. I blame this on the denomination in which I was raised.
I will not name it, but in a South famous for its Hellfire and Damnation types, in the land that bred Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker and other members of the “grab’em by the liver and make’em sweat” School of Theology, I managed to be born into a congregation devoted to boredom.
In my church, there was no joy, or any great terror. During the services, we did not sing the old hymns that everybody knows, but rather some of the newer, complex pieces. It was like singing an instruction manual.
In my church, as in others, Hell was something to be avoided. In ours, however, there wasn’t a lot of talk about lakes of fire and all that. I had the impression that our Hell was more like a bad neighborhood or tacky friends. Pastor Zack painted for us a sort of pastel damnation, where lackluster demons slouched around pestering the unlucky souls who had stumbled into the place, trying to make them read religious pamphlets.
Now, the tent revivals of the more colorful sects were something else again. I remember one in particular, though I do not recall where. The preacher was a stocky, sweating man with the shoulders of a professional wrestler and the eyes of a cherub who has imbibed too much Tabasco.
This preacher didn’t fool around with any suburban, split-level, air-conditioned Hell. No Sir. This man’s Hell was a wicked place, turbo-charged with fire and brimstone, cranked wide open with sin and misery, patrolled by lean, mean demons who loved their work.
In the cricket-laden nights you could almost feel the hot gusts of the flames in the summer breezes blowing in off the fields, almost hear the earth-crack with the shrieks of the damned.
Now THERE was a Hell you could believe in.
One left those tent meetings feeling small, contemptible and unworthy. A preacher like that could strip you of all your false pride and make you look again at the desolation you had made of your life. The feeling sometimes lasted for hours, and left you feeling purged, as though coming just that close to those flames had burned away a row or two of spiritual weeds.
Years later, in Mississippi, I was able to take part in what became a religious experience for a large number of people. It was an accident and, predictably enough, nobody thanked me for it.
I had rented the attic of the house next to my apartment to use as a studio. I had a chair and easel and a few odds and ends up there, nothing fancy.
The house was owned by a local architect named Phil, who regularly bought old houses and restored them. In this case, he had leased the bottom floor to a group of very religious, longhaired youths who wore tie-dyed shirts.
One weekend, the folks next door had a guest. He was a preacher, well known in their denomination, they said. A friend in the local police department said the person was a thief and a swindler, but the kids were convinced that the guy could all but walk on water.
That Sunday I sat in my studio working for several hours. After awhile, the rooms below filled with all manner of people come to hear the Reverend speak.
He didn’t speak. He bellowed. He shrieked. He damned. He exhorted, fumed and ridiculed. He made an awful lot of noise. So much so that I gave up trying to paint and stood, stretched, and walked across the attic in my heavy boots and clumped down the stairs and out the back door.
As it turned out, Phil and his girlfriend were downstairs, having been invited to the services by his tenants. Phil was of Italian extraction, and from an old-fashioned Catholic family, and was terrified.
“There were people having fits,” he said later, sweating, “They were talking in tongues, just like you read in the books, and they rolled around on the floor.”
I tried to explain to him the mysteries of the charismatic movement, but he stopped me.
“You should have seen the preacher’s face,” he went on, breathless. “He had been going on and on about the sins of the congregation. He raised his hand up and pointed toward Heaven, and also toward your room upstairs.”
Uh-oh, I thought.
“He said, real loud: `Lord, if I’m lyin` to these folks, I wish you’d send down a sign,”’ Phil said, beginning to laugh. “That’s when you decided to come clumping down the stairs in those clodhoppers of yours. That preacher’s jaw dropped almost to the floor. For a second there, I thought he was going to say: ‘Wait! I was only kidding!’”
I have no idea if my clattering exit from the space above the flock had any lasting effect. I know that the Reverend never returned to the little congregation on Central Street. I also know that the kids who lived in the house eyed me suspiciously from then on, as though there might be more to me than met the eye.
But, who knows? Maybe some doubter had his faith uplifted and nailed into place by the wooden hammering of my boots up there toward Heaven. They do say, after all, that the Lord works in mysterious ways.
February 5, 2014
Feb. 5, 2014
Feeling feisty after three cups of coffee, but not feisty enough to go out and take my chances on the ice, at least not until it starts to soften up some.
It looks as though we got about half an inch if ice on top of the snow that has been on the ground now and is looking tired, as though completely bored with the place but lacking the money or will to leave.
The glaze on the trees is a treat to the eyes, but it doesn’t do them a lot of good; I suspect we will have a lot of broken branches to clean up as soon as we can get to walking around without risking injury.
Out the kitchen window, I can see our row of yews, bent over as if suffering heavy grief.
It is a good day, then, for writing and reading, good music on the stereo (between power outages, anyway,) and perhaps some more coffee.
January 30, 2014
By T.W. Burger, (c) 2014
I was home.
Short and stooped with a proud nose below a high forehead, Virgil Rossi moved thoughtfully, stopping often to dredge up memories and to talk.
Virgil gave me my first haircut. He has been cutting hair in the same shop for 74 years.
It had been a long drive west through the mountains of Pennsylvania, in winter, the Turnpike looping through clouds of leafless trees smudged with evergreens.
I was home; not where I live, but where I began, the town where I was born but left when I was still small. I have ancestors in the ground there going back four or five generations, including my parents.
I sometimes visit their graves, not because I think that they are there; what is down there are ruins; spent machinery, abandoned vehicles, vacant houses, the occupants long gone. I go there to think, about them and me and my brother and how we all fit together, however poorly, in the scheme of things.
From the front stoop of the little barbershop I can look to the left to the stony hill where they lie, on a steep slope overlooking the Shenango River, where my mother and her father used to gig for frogs.
George Young Miller was a rough, profane steelworker with a fondness for liquor and a disdain for the soft college kids who came to work at the mill in summer. Martha “Bunny” Miller was a tomboy who used to beat up the boys who picked on her sisters. She got her nickname because as a little girl she was fond of pulling carrots from a neighbor’s garden and eating them on the spot. She spent WWII in the U.S. Coast Guard, and was once demoted for laying her immediate superior out on the barracks floor for bullying one of her friends.
Mom and I drove one another crazy, but she was one of the strongest people I have ever known.
My father was a grocer’s son, raised by his mother and grandmother. His mother was the grocer. She died in the 1970s with a lot of people still owing her money.
Dad’s father, the son of an itinerant fire-and-thunder itinerant Baptist minister, was a notorious drunk and womanizer who worked sporadically as a night watchman. I still have one of his pistols, a Harrington & Richardson five-shot hammerless revolver that couldn’t hit a wall if you fired it in the house.
Dad and I bought a box of cartridges once and set a Blatz beer can on the ground about 10 feet away. We used up the whole box and never hit the can once, though we dug up the ground around it pretty well. It was one of the few things Dad and I ever did together.
Dad’s father, Bill, disappeared for several years in the late 1940s. He showed up again on the mean streets of Sharon, wearing the same suit of clothes he wore when he disappeared.
I have only a handful of photos of him. His face reflected the various ruins he suffered. I went to his funeral at the age of three months. Mom said my father wept, but I don’t remember.
Dad went to West Virginia’s Bethany College on a basketball scholarship – he was president of his fraternity — but could not afford to go on to the graduate level. He married his first wife, had a daughter, joined the Navy, fought in the Pacific in WWII, and then went to work in a steel mill.
He divorced and remarried, had two sons, became an engineer through night school, and then went to work for a major corporation, which used him up and spat him out, as major corporations are wont to do. He was passed over for promotion any number of times because, as it turns out, night school engineering degrees are a lot less shiny and impressive as are those earned by younger men with the wherewithal to go to graduate school.
Until he had his first major stroke, he would sit alone in the darkened living room, chain-smoking Viceroys and staring at the wall. We never knew what he was thinking.
Just before she died, my mother said she wished Dad had been better at fighting. He didn’t even cuss well. Mom, however, could make the air crackle when the mood hit her just right.
The Rossi & Rossi Barbershop is a rectangular wood building maybe 10 by 20 feet, clad in gray asphalt roofing tile. Its front sits parallel to a chain-link fence that stretches out on either side and surrounds an old steel mill that looks abandoned.
The shop could pass for a guard shack if not for the sign and the traditional red, white and blue barber pole.
I had wanted to stop by the shop for some time for a haircut from Virgil.
He is the only Rossi left in the shop. His brother, Ralph, died several years ago.
Virgil is 89. I am 64.
He’s kind of a big fish in Sharpsville. This past December 10 was declared “Virgil J. Rossi Day” by the mayor.
My first haircut was a while back, probably 1950 or 1951. I sat in that shop, in that same chair, probably on a padded board stretched between the armrests of the Koken chair, and probably cried most of the way through the process. I don’t really remember crying, but I do recall sitting in the bay window reading comic books and sitting in that chair getting my ears lowered.
My dad, my brother, and I all had our hair cut there until we moved away in 1957 or so.
From the bay window, I would sit listening to the men talking about work, that place where my dad disappeared to every morning and from which he returned, weary, every afternoon between 4:30 and 5:00. Some of the men listened to baseball games on the radio, cheering or jeering. I think I learned some of my more colorful vocabulary there.
Virgil did not remember me, but then he had been cutting hair at that same space since 1940. Not at the same chair, though. He was working at one of the two “new” chairs that had been installed in 1950, a year after I was born. They were genuine Koken chairs, invented in 1900 by a German immigrant. The name brand is still around, but it owned by a Japanese company.
The old chairs had been in use since 1927, when Virgil’s dad opened the little shop a few blocks away. Some years later, the Rossi’s had the whole building picked up and moved to its present location. I think I remember hearing that it was hauled by mules or horses, but I’m not sure.
As I said, Virgil didn’t remember me. He asked who my father was.
“Ralph Burger. He played basketball for Sharon High.”
“Oh, Sweet Jesus!” He exclaimed. “Hell yes, I remember him.”
Virgil lives in the house where he grew up. He shares it with memories. Papa and Mamma Rossi are gone, as are his brother and sister.
“I come home after work,” he said. “I look around and I remember where they all sat. I look at the clock and it says 6:30. I say to myself ‘Virg, it’s time to go out to dinner.’”
He played clarinet and alto sax in the Carl Marks Band and the Joe Cann Band, when big bands were still the rage, and there were venues for them.
The bands are gone. He was the soloist in two of them, and for one he is the sole surviving member. The local venues are gone, too; Yankee Lake, Idora Park, and others.
He still performs in concerts for two local concert bands. And he still solos.
And he still works six days a week. He awakens, eats breakfast, packs a lunch, and walks to the shop. He has never taken a vacation. A friend called him from Las Vegas not too long ago, and asked him if he could take a month off and sit in for an ill clarinet player in a show band. He could stay with his friend.
“I had to say no, but it broke my heart,” Virgil said. “It was like a dream come true, but too late. And who would run the shop?”
He finished my hair and trimmed my beard; a little shorter than I had planned, but no matter. It will grow back.
He showed me photos pinned and taped to the walls; family. His first cousin, Carmine Orrico, better known as actor John Saxon, photos of the Mercer Community Band, a gathering of gentlemen of a certain age, including Virgil, arrayed in their chairs in matching white shirts.
Virgil allowed me to take some photos. It was a big day for me, a step back into a time when the world was a lot smaller, and I believed in Heaven, and the angels in the cemetery on the hill watched over me.
It was time to go. I had obligations, and I had already spent more than an hour steeping in my own history.
Virgil would only take 10 bucks for his work.
Trimmed, blown off, and newly-scented, I shook his hand and thanked him for the trip back to my childhood. He grinned and told me to come back any time, even if I didn’t need a haircut. I stepped out into the faded industrial street, part of me still basking in the 50s, when the town was full of jobs and new cars. My ’97 Olds wallowed in potholes as I turned the corner and headed back to the present.
November 22, 2013
Published in the Nov. 22, 2013 edition of The Gettysburg Times
By T.W. Burger
A friend, a journalist whose view I respect greatly, recently wrote a post on Facebook wondering why all of the stories on the media quoting people telling their stories about where they were when they learned that President John Fitzgerald had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas on Nov. 22, 1963.
I understand his question.
He’s right, in a sense. After all, where anybody was half a century ago is hardly news.
But my friend is young. In his early 30s, I would guess. He is to be forgiven his youth. He’ll be over it soon enough.
You see, JFK’s killing was already no longer news when he was born. It was history. When my friend was born, JFK had always been dead.
Some of us were there. Not “there” as in being present in Dealey Plaza when the three shots rang out. “Present” as in our world, our country, when those shots rang out. “Present” when our whole view of what the American world was like for people who grew up with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman and Dwight David Eisenhower, both old, white men, were the leaders of the free world.
People for whom JFK has always been a dead guy don’t realize, deep down, what we really lost, and how very different we, our country, was after that date and the several years after.
Consider this: JFK had his head blown apart by a nobody, just like that, in front of the whole world (thanks to Mr. Zapruder’s home movie); two days later, another nobody killed Kennedy’s assassin. Shortly thereafter, thanks to a possibly botched and certainly incomplete Warren Commission report, Americans became forever addicted to conspiracy theory. At this point, the only group that hasn’t been blamed for Kennedy’s assassination and Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald has been the Girl Scouts of America.
Consider this, also: Less than half a year before JFK’s death, Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi.
Seven months after JFK’s death, U.S. Army Reserve Lt. Col Lemuel Penn had his head blown off by a carload of klansmen as he was heading home from training exercises in Alabama, I believe. His murder took place 10 minutes from where I lived. I knew by sight the men who did it. This changed my own life in very profound ways, but that’s a topic for another column.)
Less than five years after John Kennedy’s death, Martin Luther King died, shot through the neck by another nobody on April 4, 1968.
Two months later, on June 6, 1968, Robert Kennedy died in a
California hotel kitchen, shot through the head by a Saturday Night Special wielded by another loser.
Presidential candidate and segregationist George Wallace was shot five times by Arthur Bremer, whose only goal was to become famous, on May 15, 1972.
Only a month later, burglars broke into Democratic HQ at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., an event that lead to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon on August 9, 1974, and the conviction and incarceration of 43 people, dozens of whom were Nixon’s top administration officials.
Understand: Those of us who were there and then were not necessarily naïve about politics and the convoluted forces at work among the powers-that-be, real or imagined.
But this was something else. Everything was falling apart. There were riots in the streets, for Civil Rights, against the draft and the endless and useless war in Vietnam, and sometimes simply out of a multifaceted rage. I remember a riot case thrown out of court because the judge ruled that if it hadn’t been for all the undercover police agents, there wouldn’t have been enough people to hold a riot in the first place.
So, it was not just a case of “where were you when” that informs our memories. It is a matter of trying to tell those who missed that time that a kind of terrible alchemy transformed We The People into something…different. That change cast this nation into a kind of madness for the next decade, and affects us even today. I firmly believe that the distrust Americans hold toward their government, while always there to some degrees, is now chronic and, perhaps, incurable.
So, no, “Where Were You? Stories are not simply low-hanging fruit for lazy assignment editors, though they are certainly that. Those of us who have those stories to tell want the rest of you to know that our nation was not always Bedlam.
October 13, 2013
BURGER TO GO
By T.W. Burger
I sat down on the remains of an old school desk in my garden and watched the rain assault the burn pile, and listened as it drummed on the hood of my slicker.
The pile has been growing for a couple of years; garden waste, scrap lumber, brush and small trees, a couple of tree stumps. I figured it would not do to allow the pile to get any larger, so it was time.
At the end of a long drought, and with the pile only about 10 feet from a whole field of drying soybeans, I needed a rainy day.
I got my wish. The forecast called for two or three days of steady rain. I figured that would do.
Getting ready to do physical work takes longer than it used to: A brace for the bad ankle, one for each knee, another one for the back, and the aforementioned bright yellow slicker.
The fire crept slyly around the wet pile at first, but eventually its hunger won out and flames reached up eight feet or more. While I kept an eye on it, I began the work of getting the garden ready for winter.
I stripped the few remaining tomatoes, most of them a bright green, and then pulled up the vines.
Thick smoke danced from the fire as it burned down. I stopped my work and hauled half a dozen wheelbarrow loads of trimmings and broken branches from a couple of other spots in the yard and heaped them onto the fire, which roared back into life.
The heat felt good, so I sat on the old desk for a bit, enjoying the warmth, soaked through everywhere the slicker did not cover and under the slicker I was soaked with sweat.
The tomato patch reduced to a rectangle of mud, I moved over to the peppers.
Orange habañeros and long red chilis glowed bright as sparks against the dark compost. I fumbled among the slender stems, careful to leave the still ripening fruit undamaged. I rinsed the dirt off the colorful harvest and laid them in a bucket, and then moved to the former broccoli patch. The groundhogs got to the broccoli before we did, but a kind of strange, hybrid gourd they left alone.
I suspect it was the result of a liaison between a zucchini or winter squash and a pumpkin. The fruits are bright yellow and knobby, but baked and mixed with butter and cinnamon, there is nothing better.
The garden is almost at an end. A few peppers and squash remain, and if the frost holds off for another week or so, we may get more.
The fire had died back to a sullen glow. I took a manure fork, flipped some unburned material over onto the coals, and piled the new debris on top. The flames found new enthusiasm.
I sat again, swirled about by aromatic smoke, pummeled by rain, sore, but content, my breath condensing in the cool air.
For the most part, the garden is a corpse, to be torn apart and composted or burned, piled with manure, and put into hibernation. There is still much to do.
But not today. I am done. My knees stiff, my back bent like Quasimodo’s, I hoisted my two buckets of color and lurched through the gray and brown garden to the warm house, a hot bath, some aspirin, and a touch of scotch.
As I started the house, the rain started to fall harder, coming down in sheets. I gave one more glance at the fire. It had become a few dark, smoking heaps, no flames visible. I began to think that I should have saved the wood for an ark.
© 2013 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
September 22, 2013
Not that I know that many famous people. In addition, I never really met Andy Sparks, though he did me a great favor and kindness, and that will do well enough as a definition.
Actually, the obituary was for Andy’s wife, the novelist Olive Ann Burns. In the text of her obituary, it said Andy had preceded her in death, as the phrase ran.
Andy was an editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a very large newspaper that boasts it “covers Dixie like the dew.” When I knew him, he was editor of the paper’s Sunday Magazine, Atlanta Weekly.
It was the summer of 1979 one of the other editors of the magazine had surprised me by calling me up and asking me if I would be interested in writing an article. Now, I had just the previous month received my first check for my first-ever paid writing job, and I would have sat naked on a nest full of fire ants before I would have turned down that offer.
It was to be one of those Wild Kingdom kinds of stories. I went to a barrier island off the coast of Georgia for four days and wrestled 300-pound sea turtles with a bunch of scientists from the University of Georgia, who were tracking the turtles with the help of a weather satellite, of all things.
Well, I did a lot of the wrestling. Turns out that most of the graduate students helping with the research were on the small side. I am not, and spent most of my days carrying heavy things around. Therefore, I got to wrestle the turtles. Not that I minded.
It turns out that conservation was at the top of a list of Andy’s Sparks’ special interests, which probably explains why he sent me on that assignment.
Andy expected me to do the interviews by phone and write the story that way. I told him I was going to try to get the scientist in charge, Dan Stoneburner, to let me go along as a member of his team. I said I would pay for my own gas to get to St. Mary’s Georgia, where I would catch a boat to Little Cumberland Island. I would sleep in a tent.
I told him the story would be much better. We both knew I was right.
To my surprise, he agreed. And he said he would cover my expenses.
My boss at the concrete plant let me have a long weekend so I could go. All told, it took about two weeks to put the story together. I was as nervous as a doughnut at a fat farm. I typed the final draft very carefully, using about a quart of correcting fluid – this was in the days before word processors, so I typed it on a 1923 Underwood — and sent it in.
A few weeks later, I had a check in my wallet for $700. I felt like a millionaire.
The following Monday was one of those dreaded Dog Days in Georgia, where the temperature flirts around 100 degrees and the humidity is not far behind. It was early, about 7:30 a.m., already in the 90s, and I was checking out my concrete mixer truck, banging on the tires with a hammer, checking the lights, as the big diesel warmed up.
At that moment, I hated that job. I looked up at Number 42, my big white DM Mack, rumbling there in the hot sun, and I wanted out. That $700 was burning a hole in my pocket.
I do not need this crap, I thought; I am a writer.
At that moment, the dispatcher yelled at me from across the yard. I had a phone call, he said.
“Hello?” I said, a little out of breath from running across the yard.
“Terry, this is Andy Sparks, ” said the voice. In my memory, it is slightly raspy, and very Southern, smooth as bourbon.”I know what you’re thinking. Do not quit your job. I know how you feel, but I’ve been through it, and you could starve to death before you get your next good assignment.
“Yessir, ” I said, and thanked him. I didn’t really believe him, but I also didn’t tell my boss where he could shove Number 42.
A couple of months later, I landed another assignment. That one paid $50. I grew a little fonder of Number 42. I have no way of knowing, of course, what would have happened if I’d walked away from my job, had not hung on until later, when events shifted just right and put me in front of a computer in a newsroom. Maybe things would have turned out about the same. Maybe I would have become something else, and never known what it felt like to wrestle with language, trying to meld sound and sense.
And I often wonder what made him call me. I was just one of what must have been hundreds of writers who offered their work up to the “big time” paper in hopes that somebody would notice it. After several decades and thousands of pieces published in all sorts of publications, it is easy to forget the thrill of seeing one’s name in a byline, of having people stop you in the street to say they read your words.
It is still magic, and a little scary, when I stop to think about it.
There are days, of course, when it can feel like a treadmill, or being nibbled to death by ducks.
At times like that, I think I ought to go do something else for a living.
I cannot for the life of me imagine what that would be.
Thanks again, Andy.
September 12, 2013
During my misspent youth, I spent some time driving trucks for the sanitation department in my hometown.
All kinds of trucks. Truck for picking up branches and brush. Garbage trucks. Even an old 1948 Chevy stake side truck that I drove around picking up road kill and smoking Tampa Nugget Sublime cigars. They were terrible cigars, but cheap, and they masked the smell.
So, the guy in charge of all this, fretting that we employees might spend winter days huddled in the cabs of our trucks, heaters blasting, encouraged us to brave the elements by having the trucks’ heaters and doors removed.
The trucks had the old-fashioned bench seats, upholstered with slick vinyl.
The lack of doors and the slickness of the seats made life very interesting on curves and corners, because the part of one’s anatomy that meets the seat is not very good at grabbing, try as it would.
The passenger side of the cab had a metal handle bolted onto the dashboard. It was called the ohell bar, because that is what you usually hollered when you had to grab it when the truck went into a sharp left turn. It worked pretty well, and we hardly ever lost anybody.
Since I drove, I could hold onto the steering wheel.
One chilly autumn day, my partner Frankie and I had what was officially called “brush duty.” This meant that we drove around town and picked up branches, shrubs, and leaves that residents had left at the curbside.
Frankie and I would pack the truck as full as possible to reduce the number of trips we had to take to the county dump. We always got a load of grief from the dump manager, an ugly fat man who had all the wit and charm of a snapping turtle. Frankie and I firmly believed he had never been within spitting distance of a bathtub, at least not in our lifetimes.
Mr. Personality did not like hippies, a category into which Frankie and I fit at the time.
Actually, Frankie fit into it better than I did, because he had overindulged in any number of recreational substances in the previous few years, and had become permanently, if cheerfully, muddled.
Understand that our destination was a dump in the old sense, where great mountains of garbage burned unchecked for days at a time, and rats scurried everywhere. In a job that subjected us to all sorts of smells; this smell was exceptional.
It smelled even worse than the manager, which took some doing.
Frankie hated the rats. He would not get out of the truck at the dump. I did not especially mind the rats, but then, I was not looking at the rats through Frankie’s chemically altered neurology. Judging by his reaction when he would spot even one, they must have been horrific, filtered through his Technicolor synapses.
Anyway, this one afternoon, Mr. Personality instructed us to back our truck down a long slope of newly bulldozed ground to a mountain of discarded brush and tree trunks.
No problem. I swung the truck around and started rolling down the hill in reverse, the big old V-8 gas-guzzler muttering away – it had no muffler — as we picked up a little speed.
“Hey, man, not too fast,” said Frankie, who leaned out the passenger-side door, keeping an anxious eye out for rats.
It was somewhere along there, I guess, that an enormous tree root sticking out of the ground ripped loose one of the brake lines. The old truck started to move along, muttering faster and faster.
I pushed down on the brake. The pedal hit the floor with a morose thunk.
The truck picked up more speed. “Frankie,” I started to say, when the left rear wheels dropped into a dip.
The cab of the truck rocked violently to the left. When it rocked back to the right, the slippery leather seat slipped right out from under me.
Actually, the entire truck slipped out from under me.
I found myself on my back, on the ground, the wind knocked out of me. I could still hear Frankie.
“Hey, man!” he said, still looking out his side of the truck. “Hey, man, hey man, slow…”
There was a long pause, then, “AAAAAAH!” I believe that was the point where Frankie discovered that I was no longer actually driving, or even in, the truck.
It slammed into the wall of dead brush and stood straight up, front bumper heavenward. It teetered for a moment, and then crashed back onto all six wheels.
I staggered down the hill, gasping for air, fearing the worst for poor Frankie. I expected to find him impaled on a tree branch or something.
Nope. Frankie was in the cab, both hands locked around the ohell bar. I do not believe any force on earth could have pried him loose.
“Frankie!” I wheezed. “Man, I figured you’d be slung out and all over the ground!”
“No way, man,” he said, tossing the hair out of his eyes. “Too many rats, man.”