Discovering the Writer in Me

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, during the late 1970s, I made a living of sorts writing for The Ithaca Journal, a small daily newspaper in Upstate New York. It was a Gannett-owned paper, published six days a week, in a time when newspapers were the primary source of news and information in small cities throughout the United States.

The sports editor there was a veteran of 35 years in the newspaper business named Kenny Van Sickle. He hired me the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college to work the evening sports desk and cover a high school football or basketball games on the weekend.

What he didn’t fully explain to a naïve sports fan who found writing easy was that most of those nights I’d work alone, answering phone call after phone call until 11 pm or later from high school coaches or their appointed student manager or parent “volunteer,” with information about their games. Then, the writing would start. I’d  pound out as many as 25 pages of double-spaced text, all heavily formatted with special symbols to talk to the “computer typesetting machine.” before I could go home, sleep a couple of hours, then wake for class the next day.

He never tried to explain to me that I would come to know the phone number of many, many bars and other haunts where these people, even some of the students,  could be found when they didn’t make the phone call I was expecting and needed to be tracked down for the information I sought.

I doubt he could have known how much I’d love the work and the writing and everything that went with it.

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Please be Advised

This piece was awarded First Place in the Essay category of the 2010 Ithaca College Literary Writing Contest.

“Please be advised your son is missing in action.”

“Please be advised your son has been killed in the service of his country.”

My grandmother lived 100 days past her 100th birthday and I will never know how many times she told her stories of delivering telegrams with grim, terrible news during World War II.

She was a small woman in physical size, but so strong. She commanded attention and respect when she entered a room, and her straight, direct way of speaking held your focus like a laser beam.

She was a railroad Station Agent, one of millions of women who did “men’s” work during the war. Receiving and delivering telegrams was one of the many duties she performed, but one task stood out from all the others.

“I hated that job,” she’d say, starting her story again. “But I was the only agent, so I had to do it.

“The whole town always knew something was up because I’d lock the station up at a strange hour.

“I knew people were looking out their windows, wondering ‘who this time’ as I drove away.

“I knew almost everyone of them,” she’d say, shaking her head slowly, her eyes sad. “Damn town only had 500 people, but every family had someone off to war.

“I had to get the sheriff to go with me”, her eyes locked on mine, and seeing something clearly from years ago. “Couldn’t be alone in case something happened.

“The family’d see you coming up the walk and open the door before you got there.

“You had to read the telegram to them, then make them sign for it.  Weren’t allowed to touch them—“ her voice trailing off.

“How the hell you supposed to do that?” she’d ask, anger and indignation in her voice. “Neighbors. Friends. Not touch them, help them?”

She’d smile her catch-me-if-you can smile and lean toward me.

“I broke that rule a lot.

“Damn govinment,” she’d say, sitting back and slapping her thighs with hands. “What do they know?”

“Hated that job.

“But I always thank God I never had to take a telegram with my name on it,” she’d say, voice quieter, like a secret was being shared. “Always worried one day I’d get one about Al Jr. when I was alone at the station. Wondered what I’d do if I found out him that way.

“But he made it home”, her voice strong again. “I had it good”.

There was always a tear in her eye when she finished.

“Get me a damn cigarette!” she’d bark, getting you to look away so she could wipe the tear from her cheek.

About…the End of the Dock

A week after I was born a small work party built a 20-foot by 30-foot cottage halfway along the eastern shore of Cayuga Lake, the longest of the chain of lakes known as the Finger Lakes that define the geography of Central New York State.

The cottage was nothing more than 2x4s covered in plywood and dotted with a few windows.  The roof was more plywood covered with a layer of roofing shingles nailed in place, the end of many nails visible from inside the cottage.  A few coats of heavy, oil-based exterior paint was a form of glue that seemed to hold everything together.  Inside a 2×4 frame was covered on one side with more plywood to form a bedroom; curtain served as the door.  A used gas stove and refrigerator equipped a kitchen.  A couple of old chairs, a small dining table and a pullout sofa filled the living space.

When the work was done my grandfather hung a small, hand painted sign that featured a glowing sun and the words christening this spot on Earth as Sunset Beach.  Anyone who ever watched the sun set from this beach understood instantly why he’d chosen that name for his retreat.

What he did not know as he hung his sign was this simple building and this small plot of land would become the one common experience, the one constant physical location, shared by four generations of his family and their extended families, even as life’s twists and turns moved people in different directions and to different, often faraway, places.

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Glass Bottles

Glass Bottles

As a teenager I collected glass objects that were unique and interesting to me. Prisms, figures, telegraph insulators…whatever…but mostly bottles. In the end, the collection became only bottles.

The bottles were occasionally cooking oil bottles or storage jars, but most often wine and liquor bottles. As others learned of this collection they gave me bottles they thought special or interesting and in time I had a fairly large collection.

After a while, I found my collection a bit dull, especially the clear bottles, and devised a way to add more variety and color to my display. I filled many with water, adding food color in different combinations to add life to the shelves that held my collection.

Like many things we do in our youth, the collection lost its appeal. I threw my collection away when I left home, and did so without a thought. I remain fascinated by the seemingly infinite variety of shapes and sizes and colors of glass bottles that continue to find their way to my eye, but now when I see a uniquely shaped bottle I find my mind drifts to another place and another thought. Read more of this post

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