Over the years, kind professors and erudite editors have offered pointed advice about my literary efforts, but by far the greatest influence on my writing was a self-taught man who dropped out of school in the 8th grade to go to work for $3 a week at the railroad shop across the river. He went on to become a printer and arranged words and letters with his hands for more than 50 years.
He was my father. My earliest memories are of his reading me the funnies, tracing the Bops and Dadgums with his finger so I could see the sounds above the Toonerville Trolley and the Katzenjammer Kids. I became the mascot of the Danville Register & Bee composing room, and watched the majestic Linotype as he skimmed the keyboard and slugs dropped down that said backwards silly things he made up to amuse me. I first wrote, letter by letter, on the clunky L. C. Smith he kept in our back hall, each keystroke an inch down and back. He appointed me his printer’s devil as he and his twin brother, Mike, whistled over an old flatbed press to put together Etaoin Shrdlu, their gossipy hometown news sheet for colleagues far away in World War II.
His gift to me was not how to write, but why: his love for his work showed how much fun letters and words could be. They became my favorite toys, and they still are. I have never sat down to write, about a hometown baseball game or an election landslide, a Duke Ellington concert or a Klan rally, a missile crisis or a Civil War campaign, without him still there, smiling, watching me solve the puzzle. I feel a lift whenever I touch the keyboard, whether the boxy Royal portable he gave me when I finished high school, the Olivetti I bought from the Indian bookseller in Tu Do street, or this Logitech. Sometimes I want to flip my coattails up like Victor Borge, rubbing my hands together, plotting surprise, how to make this sentence, this chapter sing.
As you can see, that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it just hums. Mere fingers can do only so much with the latest Politburo shakeup or continuing budget resolution. Sometimes the words take off and can’t be chased down and made to behave. Sometimes a deadline is 12 minutes away, and hitting it on the dot seems what I was put here for. Sometimes it’s three years away, which is too far. But what a privilege to live a life with deadlines, near and far, as my father did, and to meet them by juggling my favorite toys. What a gift, not from heaven, but from the honest, cheerful journeyman to whom I owe everything.
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