Thank you, Andy Sparks
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.