Thank you, Andy Sparks

September 22, 2013

By T.W. Burger:
(An excerpt from my upcoming book, Never Met a Stranger.)
Some time ago, I was reading the Associated Press obituary file and I came upon the name of an old friend.


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.


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.”