One of my best friends, John Guthrie, is ninety-three years old. He was a platoon leader in World War II. His soldiers were engineers. He had a college degree. He came out of the steel mills of Pennsylvania. Many of the men in his platoon could not read. He was a leader, a problem solver, a thinker.
We have very little and a great deal in common. He is a dyed in the wool Republican. I am a yellow dog Democrat. We each believe strongly in the worth of our political parties. But we care more for the good of the country. We could argue without hatred, disagree without disregard for one another’s others values, and walk away without feeling diminished, or denigrate d knowing full well that the problems would be there week.
I was a barrack Marine not a blood Marine or a mud Marine. I did not serve in time of war. John fought in World War II. He knows the full meaning of sacrifice. He and I both know that our very future is held in the grasp of our educational institutions. We as a nation can no longer thrive or survive in a nation inhabited with poor readers who do not know the Constitution, who no longer believe in the worth of their dreams, and who turn away from the future fearful of failure and a diminished standard of living.
John at ninety-three is still leading, still thinking, still problem solving. I shall never live that long, or be that strong, or be as bright, or as industrious as my friend John, but I shall continue to think and to speak in defense of those ideas and ideals that encourage young people to seek the best education possible, to believe in the potential and the promise of our political system, and to respectfully honor the sacrifices and services of all the John Guthrie’s this country has produced for they represent the highest ideals of our democracy.
I have a new book being published soon by The Story Merchant Publishers, “The Other Side of Tomorrow”. It is set in Lake Charles and is mostly about Church Street. I was born on Church Street and grew to manhood there. The characters in the book are fictional, but they and the events are blends of actual folks and real happenings.
The story of how the book came to be is interesting. I had a dear friend Millie Myers who taught school with me at Frisbie Junior High School in Rialto, California. She was a great special education teacher, but she was also a gifted writer. She went to Los Angles every Tuesday night to meet with a writers group led by Dr, Kenneth Atchity. Millie’s husband Arthur had a heart attack and could no longer make the weekly drive to Los Angeles so I agreed to take Millie for a few weeks till his doctor released him to drive again.
On the first Tuesday Dr. Atchity allowed me to sit in the writers group under the condition that I must write something. Over the next six weeks I wrote six short stories which were well received. Dr. Atchity advised me to fashion them into a novel which I did over several more weeks. It was entitled A Pillar of Salt. It was never published, but it was part of what I called the Bayou Trilogy. Now, after 22 years, it has become “The Other Side of Tomorrow”. It is not the same book. It is a better story and better storytelling. What I have learned, among other things, is that I am more of a storyteller than a writer, but Church Street always makes for a good story.
I am waiting for the line edit of THE OTHER SIDE OF TOMORROW to be completed. As I wait I read, and write, and draw, and talk. Talk is an important part of the writing process with me. I am meeting with a group of friends and setting up a study group for young people just out of high school and drifting without purpose and young people advancing their lives through more education and work experience. I believe that if they could be made, can we really make young people do anything they don’t buy into, to see the value in telling and writing writing stories about their life experiences that they would become more aware of their potential, and invest their time and energy in defining and gaining their quest. Writing is to a great extent quest stories from the Bible to Harry Potter and back again.
We may of course fail. We may not listen intently enough. It may become more about our perceptions than their aspirations. I was for a number of years a writer pretending to be a teacher, principal, adjunct college professor. I learned more than the students I taught, the teachers I lead, or the student teachers I supervised. Teaching is a game of the heart. The teacher must love not just teaching. He or she must love all the children, not just the good students who do well, but the ones who fail because their interest, their integrity, their respect was killed off by poverty, by parents who lacked the resources to support the desires and dreams of those children, and by teachers like me who belonged to the system and failed to uplift those children and allowed them to accept the idea of their lack of value. I am also aware of the fact that they the children must expend as much emotional, and intellectual, and physical energy in the learning process as teachers expend when teaching. The bottom line is this we need to value all students. We need to value learning.
I am just back from a three-week journey back to my home. In the words of a friend of mine from my youth, Carl Warden if I am not mistaken, “I live in California, but Lake Charles, Louisiana is my home. I visited many old friends and family members, especially my sister, Pat, my cousin Bobby, and my dearest friends Dean and Bea Thibideaux. Thomas Wolfe was wrong you can go home again, and it is damned fine.
I played golf on a river course outside of Dean Texas surrounded by “hog wire” to keep feral pigs off the golf course. I teed a ball up in Texas and hit it onto a green in Oklahoma. I talked to World War II veterans in New Orleans at the World War II Museum. They were very proud, very humble men and women. I lived again the night I made the long train ride from New Orleans to San Diego.
I saw in Louisiana a vitality and energy that reaffirmed my belief in the goodness of her people, the undiminished potential of obtaining the American Dream if you commit yourself to the ideals of honest hard work, faith in your government, and as a very fine Methodist minister said one Sunday morning, “If you are the one who stops to lend a helping hand to one in need, you lift us all a little higher.” My son, Lance, may have said it better, “Don’t be a hater. Be a celebrator.”
I have been working very hard on five additional chapters for “THE OTHER SIDE OF TOMORROW”. I began writing it in 1992 as six short stories for Ken Atchity’s writing group. His clients would meet once a week and read and discuss their writings. My good friend, Millie Myers, was one of Ken’s clients. Her husband Art had a heart attack and could not make the weekly drive with her to Los Angeles so I agreed to drive her. At the first session at Ken’s apartment he told me that I would have to wait down stairs in the lobby unless I was writing and presenting. So, I agreed to write a short story, and he allow me to join the group.
Millie had always seen me as a writer/storyteller, but it was Ken’s encouragement, teaching, and belief in me that transitioned me into a writer. I wrote, over a period of several months, six short stories. Ken helped me to fashion them into a novel which I originally called “A PILLAR OF SALT”. It was my looking back. Most of the stories evolved out of my growing up on Church Street in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and stories I had heard from my father, a great story teller, and my mother, a story creator. As a child I did not see the beauty in Church Street and the people who made it such a vibrant stimulating place. I ran away from Church Street when my brother, Jerry, died while in the Marines in California. There were so many emotions then that I still can’t comprehend what took me away. I had read a lot of good books, and my life was as much fantasy in my mind as the actuality of my existence.
I had neither heard of nor read Wallace Stegner at the point in my life when I discovered that I wanted most of all to be a writer. It was Ken Atchity who introduced me to his great books and stories. The greatest of which to me was “CROSSING TO SAFETY”. You cannot write even a little unless you read a lot, and you cannot write at all unless you do as Ken said, write with schedule, purpose, and passion.
So here I am, 22 years down the road rewriting “A PILLAR OF SALT”, and finding that I have over the years changed in subtle ways. I began by writing about duplicity, mendacity, lies. I now believe that the great important thing is to try to understand and write about truth, love, and friendship. I having spent most of my like telling “The Irish Truth” and spinning stories out of my imagination and I find it very hard to deal with hard edged truth.
Another St. Patrick’s Day has passed, and once again I went out and read THE MAGIC STICK to kindergarten and 1st grade students in a number of schools. I started doing this in 1990 for friends of mine who were teachers. I put on my leprechaun suit and do a dramatic reading, storytelling which takes about twenty minutes.
Do not believe all the stories about how children have changed or been changed by video games and computers and of how books are becoming irrelevant in education as iPads and computers move to the forefront. Children, the ones I’ve met still love books and parents who read to them. There are of course changes in how teachers teach and what children are required to learn. Attention spans may or may not be shorter, but this truth is constant. Good teachers, no great teachers, at any age level are great story tellers. I have been in their presence as a middle school principal and as an adjunct professor in the education department at Chapman University. Those who teach and teach well capture the interest and imagination of their students and compel those students to expend as much intellectual, physical, and emotional energy in learning as the good teacher spends in teaching. The threshold to that exchange of energy is good storytelling.
I’ve been editing and writing short stories for about a month. I of course started writing short stories in high school and never really stopped. They are, as I believe Tennessee Williams said, never finished. When I was a kid growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, I listened to Mac’s Music Hall every week night. He bought groceries in my dad’s store. It was years before I fashioned stories around him out of my imagination and experiences. He in those stories became the amalgamation of several men, but even now as I read those stories years later they change and evolve into other aspects of themselves.
Amathis, one of the short stories appearing on my web site is one such example. One of my readers noted a ninth grade girl could not leap as high as a basketball hoop. I was for a time a junior high school principal. I assure you I saw it happen. The young lady’s first name was Laura. She was a volley ball player, but she could leap like a deer. She has not and I hope she does not commit suicide. I have had several good friends take that exit. I always measure it as a loss.
Amathis is a bleak love story. Heroes are hard to define in most of my writing. They are always flawed. I for a number of years thought myself to be a coward. That was one of my flaws. Joe David Brown wrote that true courage was only proved if you were alone falling in darkness with no one except you and possibly God, if you believed in God, to truly know if you were afraid. He was a paratrooper in World War II. I have fallen in darkness several times, sometimes fearful sometimes not. It was of course never from an airplane. I fear high places and some highly placed people.
THE MAGIC STICK evolved out of a series of classes I taught to elementary teachers on storytelling. Storytelling is or should be an essential part of teaching. After numerous requests I put into book form with the help of three very good friends. When you read it be mindful of Jack and the Beanstalk. Patrick, like Jack, overcomes his fear and goes up the tall oak tree just like Jack went up the beanstalk.
I recently read a statement attributed to Flannery O’Conner. It stated that we are redeemed through the suffering of others. I do not believe that in total. We are I think redeemed to some extent by our empathy with regard to the suffering of others. It reaffirms our humanity. I am not bright enough or glib enough to explain the whys and why not’s of man and god and suffering. I had a friend, a Presbyterian minister who said my books were studies in evil. They are in my estimation books about redemption.
The event and character I write about are products of my imagination and my life experiences. I have had friends back in my home town, Lake Charles, and out here in California ask me if a certain character was based directly on them. A couple even mentioned law suits. I am on the one hand pleased that they found a villain like Gilbow Brown so real and somewhat disturbed that they saw themselves capable of such unrelenting cruelty.
THE OTHER SIDE OF TOMORROW is a book about redemption. I have dropped all pretenses and set it on Church Street in Lake Charles, Louisiana where I grew up. People who read it will recognize or think they recognize certain characters and events. They will be mostly mistaken. The characters are blends of folks I have know from various point in my life fused into a character who fit into the story and on to Church Street. THE OTHER SIDE OF TOMORROW is about Buddy Ryan’s search for truth in the events that led to Jack Spivey’s death. He finds redemption through not just his suffering but that of those whom he perceives as his betters and his lesser. It is also a story of unrequited love with a bit of an O’Henry twist.