A lot of the website bios I’ve seen are written in the third person. Maybe some of them were written by people other than the main character, so the third person is appropriate. It sounds a little formal, though, and since I am writing this thing myself, I figure first person makes sense and is friendlier.
Also, most bios are short and to the point. But in digital publishing there are no space limitations, so I see no need to write a succinct curriculum vitae. Instead I’ll tell anyone who’s interested something about where I came from and what I’ve done, leaving out anything that might be unflattering. The danger here is long-windedness, and I will try to avoid its curse. I am well aware of Pascal’s comment to a friend in which he apologized for writing such a long letter, because he didn’t have time to write a short one. On the other hand, there’s a fair amount to cover. And I take refuge in the fact that a bored reader is only a click away from something that might be more interesting.
I was born in a little Ohio town called Poland. It’s not far from the rust belt city of Youngstown, once home to several mighty steel companies whose plants ranged along the Mahoning River and kept it perpetually brown. The air in the valley was often the same color. Like many other such cities, Youngstown has fallen on hard times, to the point that Bruce Springsteen has even written a song about it. The mills are all gone. But Poland was and is more like the self contained farming village it was when it got started. It seems to have no relation to its grittier neighbor and retains a very real small town charm. Many of the houses date from the nineteenth century – white clapboard, painted shutters and slate roofs. Others are more modern of course, but the town ably represents prosperous Middle America — not wealth, so much, as comfort. Now that the economy of northeast Ohio is suffering, I don’t know what the people do there to remain prosperous, but they seem to be managing. Poland isn’t all that different from the way it used to be.
In the center of the village there’s a little park with a bandstand. It sits across from the library and next to Yellow Creek and just down from the middle school playing fields and the small stone American Legion hall that people sometimes rent for dances.
There are two churches in the village limits – Presbyterian and Methodist. In the summer the Presbyterian Church held a Strawberry Festival on the expansive front lawn. I don’t remember if the Methodists did something along the same lines, but it seems likely. It was that kind of village.
When I was growing up in Poland, there was an almost complete lack of ‘diversity.’ Certainly what diversity there was operated within a narrow band. No one seemed to be troubled by that. In fact, I’m sure most people would have considered the town’s homogeneity a virtue, when and if they thought about it.
In second grade my parents gave me a copy of a Palmer Cox Brownie book, one of the many he wrote. (The Brownies were elves of a kind, not miniature Girl Scouts like the one my sister became, though both kinds wore beanies.) One story in particular struck my fancy – the Brownies were on a quest to find two words that meant exactly the same thing, but each time they tried, they found there was a shade of difference between the words, until, that is, the final line when they came upon “Finis” and “End.” That story made a big impression. Words were not only interesting, but almost always unique in their meanings. Years later when I read Flaubert’s notion of ‘le mot juste,’ I thought he had nothing on Palmer Cox.
When I was about to enter third grade, my Dad was transferred. He worked for a steel company called Cold Metal Products. So Dad and Mom, my new baby sister, Nancy, and I piled into our shiny blue Hudson Hornet and set off down the Pennsylvania Turnpike for our new home – Morristown, New Jersey.
During the Revolution, George Washington twice had his headquarters in Morristown. He stayed there through two terrible winters, and the magnificent Jacob Ford Mansion where he lived is now a national park site. Nearby Jockey Hollow, an extensive woodland, is also preserved, as is Fort Nonsense – places where Washington’s troops suffered through conditions every bit as harsh as Valley Forge. Morristown nourished an interest in history, and I remember we boys played Revolutionary soldiers versus redcoats as often as cowboys and Indians. We stalked the detestable Hessians in Jockey Hollow.
Morristown was a great place for a kid in those days. I imagine it still is. There’s a lovely square in the center of town with a tall Civil War monument in the middle. The Seeing Eye was headquartered nearby, and every day you could see volunteers training seeing eye dogs by walking them around the park. These days there’s usually a guy selling hot dogs from a cart, New York style. He wasn’t there when I was a kid, though. But there was a Good Humor (ice cream) man named Charlie who drove through the neighborhoods every afternoon. He wore a white uniform, black leather bowtie, white officer’s hat, and he seemed to be at peace with his lot in life. His refrigerated truck was also white. He made regular stops and rang the truck’s bells to alert the kids who could wangle some spare change from their parents. The plutocrats among us — those who had paper routes — had no need to scrounge. I, however, was among the unemployed – or, as Doolittle described himself in Pygmalion, a member of ‘the undeserving poor’ — and I relied on the charity of my parents, or more precisely, my mother. Somehow she understood the unique appeal of a Good Humor bar, though I doubt she ever ate one herself.
I started third grade in Morristown, and that first day, as a new boy, I felt the usual hideous self consciousness as the other kids stared at me. I don’t remember any giggling or pointing, but there probably was some. Mrs. Murphy, aka ‘Whiskers’ was the teacher. Her nickname was well deserved. Whether she disliked using tweezers or whether she just didn’t give a damn, I can’t say. But she had a pretty luxurious crop on her chin. I only remember two kids from Whiskers’ class – Geoff, whose nose was always running and Larry, a black kid who had a dime-sized bald spot on the top of his head. I sat behind him in class and could hardly miss it.
Phil Gold’s shop was just down the street from school. It was run by Phil Gold himself, an elderly Jewish man who tolerated us boys because we were a small, but reliable source of revenue. Or, maybe he just liked us. Gold’s specialized in baseball cards, popsicles, candy bars and assorted treasures dear to the heart of any boy – Wee Gee squirt guns, wax moustaches, comic books. Economists call these things consumer non-durables, but to us they were essentials. Gold’s is still there, but now it’s run by Indians, and they sell lottery tickets, newspapers, cigarettes and so on, so they have lost the schoolboy trade, I hope.
That was also the year I became familiar with Robert McCloskey’s Homer Price. I still have a paperback version of that book on my bookshelves. It only takes a little paging through Homer Price to bring back those mostly wonderful days at the George Washington School, now demolished, sadly, and replaced by condos. Sic transit gloria. It’s too bad they tore down the school. Maybe it had something to do with asbestos. I like to think that was the reason and not that it was just too old.
Dad was the Cub Scout den leader for a while. I didn’t advance very far through the ranks, mostly for lack of trying. You had to learn things from a manual to earn badges, and that seemed a lot like homework. School was fine, but enough was enough. I liked my blue Cub uniform, though, because it reminded me of a Cavalry shirt and scarf. I also liked my official Cub Scout pocket knife. It’s still around somewhere.
Apart from school, the two main hubs of my life were the Community Movie Theater and, across the street, the stately stone public library. Both were in easy reach on my J.C. Higgins bike, and my mother was always a reliable source of Saturday matinee movie and popcorn money. I saw my first Horatio Hornblower movie there, and that started a life long romance with the sea and sea stories. That was reinforced each Sunday when I watched the still superb documentary, ‘Victory at Sea.’ Most of the books I borrowed from the library were age appropriate history, and, courtesy of my parents, I was beginning to amass a modest collection of the excellent Landmark Books. Designed for young readers, each one was a treatment of important historical events or characters.
The Community Theater is still there, as is the library and the square with the Civil War monument. Like Poland, Morristown is still recognizable, like an old friend who is happy to relive old times.
When I was in sixth grade, we moved again, this time to Short Hills, NJ, a fancier neighborhood in some ways, but less interesting. I went to school in nearby Millburn, a fine little town with a good corner candy shop and an in-town movie theater – twin symbols of civilization. I usually spent Saturday mornings tagging along with my Dad, who had a minor mania for do-it-yourself projects, a mania that has certainly skipped at least one generation. Typically, a Saturday morning involved stopping at the corner store in Millburn for a Mad Magazine (“$.25 Cheap!”) and a Chunky chocolate bar and then listening to Bob and Ray on the car radio, while Dad was shopping for hardware, or something. (If you have not listened to Bob and Ray lately, do yourself a favor, and look them up on the web.)
The summer before eighth grade we moved back to Poland, this time driving a green Buick Century – the kind with three decorative exhausts in the front fenders.
There was no division between junior and senior high at that time. We all went to the same lovely red brick school at the end of College Street. It had white trim around the doors and windows and a white cupola, and in the front there was a ship’s bell painted silver and mounted on a brick plinth. The bell was a memorial to a boy who’d been killed in World War II. Behind the school there was the football field with a cinder track running around it. Beside the track was a boulder with another plaque in memory of another boy who had been killed in that same war. For a small town and a small school there seemed to be lots of casualties in that war. My Dad and his three brothers were all in various branches of the army during the war, but all of them came home pretty much intact.
No matter where you lived in that little town you could walk to school, either carrying your lunch or buying it in the school cafeteria, where ladies in hairnets served up mashed potatoes or ham salad with ice cream scoops. There was a bakery only a block away from school, and sometimes when we didn’t care for the cafeteria menu, my friends and I would spend our lunch money on donuts. An alternative was Isaly’s dairy store, just down the street. There we’d split a box of Klondikes – a vast improvement over meatloaf and mixed vegetables. Our mothers never knew this. The donuts and Klondikes didn’t hurt us, and our mothers’ innocence didn’t hurt them, for as the Spanish say, ‘What the eyes do not see, the heart does not feel.’
These days there seems to be a school of thought that says the high school days are grim and stressful times, a dreary sojourn through rejection, confusion, acne and rebellion. I suppose that’s true for some. But that wasn’t how it was for me or, as far as I could tell, for any of my friends, male or female. Oh, some had the usual difficulties with their parents, and Clearasil was not unheard of, but these minor annoyances did not boil over into any genuine angst or anger. We were lots closer to Archie and Veronica than to The Blackboard Jungle.
The main stresses involved getting into college, and I must say that little high school was very sound in the fundamentals of English, math and science, to the point that a dozen or so students were accepted at prestigious eastern schools, while many others found their way into Ohio’s quite extraordinarily good private and public colleges.
There were social divisions, of course. But nothing serious. The major divide was between the college prep students and the guys who took shop and wanted eventually to work on cars for a living. The shop boys were called ‘the corner gang,’ because at lunchtime they’d stand on the corner just off school property and smoke. The divide wasn’t serious, though, because both college prep and corner gang boys played on the school teams and so enjoyed a camaraderie that overshadowed any stylistic differences. They wore black leather jackets and motorcycle boots; we wore button down shirts and khakis. That was the extent of it, and no one thought much about it.
The other stresses, of course, were romantic and sexual. Those were the days when both girls and boys feared the ultimate catastrophe – ‘having to get married.’ In some ways, that fear protected our little world’s innocence – much to the frustration of the boys and, I suppose, the girls, too, some of them. (Condoms were known, of course, but not universally trusted, especially after one of my friends discovered a package in the football coach’s glove compartment and gleefully punctured them with a pin. If it could happen to the coach, it could happen to anyone. Naturally, though, we boys, ever hopeful, all carried one in our wallets.) Despite these obstacles and frustrations, I remember with great fondness the girls I was in love with then. These relationships seemed to last about a year each, full of intensity and desire, mostly unfulfilled, but they are still timeless in memory, and the girls in their plaid kilts and knee high socks are unchanged, unchanging. Somewhere one of them has my class ring; somewhere, I have hers.
There were a hundred and twenty or so kids in each graduating class, so we had enough to field teams in football, basketball and track depending on the season. Those were the only sports offered. I played football and ran track. Our football team was only average my junior and senior year. But this was northeastern Ohio football, so our being average was respectable compared to the rest of the country, or so we believed.
Football Saturdays were glorious events, regardless of our record or prospects. We didn’t have any lights on our field, so all our home games were day games. That was as it should have been.
Those Saturdays, most of them, were golden autumn afternoons, with the faint smell of burning leaves in the air. The high school band played pretty well, and the stands were packed with friends and family. Norman Rockwell would have felt at home. But not every Saturday was a Rockwell painting. I also remember playing a game in the freezing rain and mud at Canfield, a bitter rival. Not only were the conditions wretched, but we lost. On the other hand, if Rockwell had been looking for cheerleaders to represent girls who were both wholesome and ogle-worthy, he could not have done better than our five. That may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. I remember how they looked in their sweaters and short skirts.
One of the inevitable halftime events at home games was the arrival of Mr. Granger on his boney old buckskin nag, Rocky. Mr. Granger was the harmless village lunatic, and he’d gallop Rocky around and around the cinder track, carrying a blue and white flag with a large P on it. He was treated with amused tolerance. He always wore a Boy Scout uniform and campaign hat. He’d been my dad’s scout master, so I’d heard his story. His only son had been killed in the war and his only daughter had run off with a travelling salesman and died after an illegal abortion in a Pittsburgh hotel room. If that’s not the exact story, it’s close. Until then, he’d been a respected and model citizen, but he lost his mind afterwards and retreated into an imaginary world that treated him better than the real one had.
Our high school English teachers were memorable, too. One, Miss McAllister, had been cruelly crippled by polio. Deformed and shrunken, she hobbled her way around the halls on a single crutch. But she was usually in a good humor and encouraged any of us who showed the slightest interest in literature. She was also a fiend on diagramming sentences – a lost art, I suspect, but one that is unsurpassed in teaching proper grammar –also a failing, if not already lost art, judging by the public airways.
Miss McAllister also took a keen interest in the shifting dating patterns of her students. This must have been vicarious romanticism, and when I thought about it that way, I felt sorry for her. Given her deformities, she had no romantic life of her own, nor any hopes of one. But if I felt sorry for her, she did not feel sorry for me and expected nothing but perfection when it came to diagramming compound sentences. She did not live much past forty, I heard.
The other English teacher was Miss Johnson. An inveterate smoker, she ducked into the teachers’ lounge every chance she got and always emerged trailing clouds of unfiltered smoke. She was thin and pop-eyed, and she had taught my dad and his three brothers and so regarded me with an expression that said ‘Don’t bother; I’ve heard it all.”
The only other teacher I remember well was Mr. Hudson. He taught chemistry to juniors and physics to seniors. His classroom was one of those miniature amphitheaters, and it smelled of chemicals and Bunsen burners. He had only two ties. He wore one the first semester, the other the second. Both went well enough with his only suit.
When I got the acceptance letter from Princeton, I was ‘over the moon,’ as the Brits say. It was the only place I wanted to go. I had gone for a campus visit the spring of my junior year and was shown around by Dick Coleman, the head football coach. It must have been a slow week for him, but I appreciated the attention. I remember my first glimpse of the campus in the May rain. It was green and beautiful and sent messages of quality, tradition and excellence that I could sense, but not completely decode, in part because I was overwhelmed. It was love at first sight. It’s a love that has lasted.
I doubt that Dick Coleman was very disappointed when he learned that freshman football and I were not meant to be. For me, there was too much else going on. I frankly had no real conception of the meaning of a liberal education when I arrived, and it took a while to sink in. About half the people in my class were from eastern prep schools, and most of them knew why they were there. I remember one of them discussing a possible course selection and hearing him say ‘It sounds like a good course.’ Good course? I thought the idea was to suffer through the work, do as well as possible and emerge with a prestigious degree that would unlock the various doors to success – yet to be defined, but understood as the general goal. Whether the courses were good or not was irrelevant. College in general and Princeton in particular were a means to an end. So I thought.
I realized after a while that a liberal education was an end in itself – or perhaps a means to a much larger end than simple ‘success.’ My Dad, who was a metallurgical engineer, was initially skeptical of my interest in Philosophy as a major (later switched to English lit.). He thought economics would be more useful. I had taken an economics course by then and understood that nothing could be less useful, to me at least. Over dinner one night Dad and I had a frank discussion about school, and at the end of it he understood what I was trying to say about Princeton and a liberal education, in general. I’ve always admired him for that. It wasn’t something that would come naturally to him. A child of the Depression, a WW2 vet and an engineer, he leaned toward the practical side of things. Besides, he was paying the tuition and was expecting to see some tangible benefits in the form of my going off the family payroll, sooner rather than later. There was some practical light at the end of the tunnel for him, though, because the plan after Princeton was to go to law school.
The Princeton years were four very fine years, and at the risk of sounding like a grumpy shellback, I think our class was the last of the old Princeton, a place that F. Scott Fitzgerald would have recognized. After that, the deluge. The Vietnam War came along and things changed irrevocably – and, obviously, not only at Princeton. The place today looks the same, generally. But it is manifestly not the same. I understand there is a long line of people who will say that all these changes are for the better. Maybe. But I would say to them — you weren’t there, then. But reasonable people can disagree.
After graduation I went off to the University of Michigan Law School. I went to class almost religiously for two straight weeks before understanding that nothing could be duller than the study of law. It made economics seem positively Shakespearean. To this day I am suspicious of anyone, including and especially politicians, who made it through law school. The most intellectually suspect of all are the ones who actually enjoyed it.
I switched into the graduate program in English with the idea of becoming a professor eventually. This was another surprise to my Dad, but he took it philosophically, because he was not paying my tuition. I was on the hook for that, through a combination of summer work and student loans. As a result I was among the undeserving poor again, and to make a few bucks I tried selling water softeners door to door. I trudged up and down Ann Arbor’s snowy streets but did not succeed in getting past any front doors. I thought my boyish charm might win through with at least one or two stay-at-home wives. (I had read of such things.) But no such luck. My career as a commission salesman was predictably short. I lasted just that one day – without earning a commission and without a meeting a bored wife in the mood for diversion. (I’d been misled again by fiction.)
Rather than languishing in poverty, meaning being without beer money, I answered an ad in the Detroit News. It was from an inner city school called Michigan Lutheran College. They needed someone to teach composition to night students. Detroit was only an hour away from Ann Arbor – a doable commute. They hired me, and I faced a class of forty or so, mostly adults, mostly black, all employed during the day and all looking to me to teach them something of value. It was a daunting task, because the Detroit public school system had already failed most of them. Their notions of grammar were quite different from what Miss McAllister taught.
There was also the problem of teaching writing without being able to assign reading. The dean or the Head of the English Department, I forget which, heard that I had assigned “The Old Man and the Sea” to the class with the idea of getting them to write about it. But the dean informed me that this term they were supposed to get writing; next term they would get reading.
We’re not in the Ivy League any more, Toto.
I enjoyed the experience and tried to do a decent job. I was an easy grader and most left the course satisfied at the end of the term. But I don’t think they learned much about writing. I liked the people and I admired their motivation, and the only one who deserved a failing grade was the instructor. That’s not false modesty; it’s an indictment of the public school system that failed to teach their students the fundamentals of their language.
I got a master’s degree in Ann Arbor and started on the PhD, but two factors caused me to run aground. First, I was getting tired of school to the point that the idea of being a professor lost much of its luster. Second, the Vietnam War was heating up pretty dramatically. One day I found myself at the Detroit airport to pick up a friend, and I noticed a pair of skinny kids in ill-fitting uniforms – obviously draftees — and it suddenly seemed grotesquely unfair that these two unfortunates should be shipping out, while I was sitting it out in the halls of ivy. So I applied for the Navy officer candidate program and was accepted. It would be Hornblower and Victory at Sea again, but this time for real. My mother was not happy about this decision, but then mothers never are.
I had a few months to wait for my OCS class, and in that interim there was a small snafu involving the draft. I had dropped out of school after signing up for the Navy and somehow the Army never got the word. (Shocking, I suppose.) So they sent me a change of draft status and an invitation to take a free physical. My Navy recruiting officer straightened that out for me and informed the Army that they would have to swallow their disappointment, since I was spoken for. For the next several months I had nothing to do but wait. My parents had moved back to New Jersey, so I tagged along for the free rent. I got a job with the Morristown Daily Record selling advertising to local businesses. It was the last real job I ever had, and I liked it, because it mostly involved driving around and listening to the radio.
And about that time it seemed like a good idea to get married.
Whether it actually was such a good idea, I’ve never really figured out. Though I don’t want to speak for the woman in question, I think it’s something we both still wonder about. In truth, neither one of us really was all that excited about the idea of marriage, and if things were then, as they are now, we would have tried just living together for a while and saving her father the cost of a wedding – and, later, the much greater expense of a divorce. But things were not done that way then, or if they were, we didn’t think of it. I put that down to a failure of imagination, mostly on my part.
So we got married, and I went off to Newport, Rhode Island for four months of Officer Candidate School. Then as a newly commissioned Ensign I was ordered to two months of gunnery school in San Diego, after which I would report to a destroyer, USS Walke (DD723). The Walke was a WW2 vintage destroyer that was being used to provide gunfire support to troops in Vietnam, mostly in the I Corps area (the northern-most sector of South Vietnam) and also to provide screens for the carriers operating in Yankee Station – the Gulf of Tonkin.
About halfway through gunnery school my orders were changed. A new ship was being built and they needed a weapons officer. Despite the fact that the job called for a Lt. j.g. (one rank higher than Ensign) they gave me the job. The Niagara Falls (AFS 3) was called a ‘combat stores ship.’ Significantly bigger than a destroyer and brand new – unlike the elderly Walke — the ship offered much greater creature comforts.
I spent nearly two years on the Niagara Falls, as a line officer standing underway watch, along with regular duties as a weapons officer and assistant navigator. The navigation was a source of great satisfaction. Though we had some forms of early electronic navigation, we paid no attention to that. We did celestial navigation, and those who have done it know there’s a very real aesthetic pleasure in finding your way across the Pacific by locating your position by the stars.
We spent seven months in the area of Vietnam, delivering supplies to ports and river bases and operating with the attack carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. There were some incidents that I remember well, but I will save those for another time.
I’ll also save any commentary on the Vietnam War itself – except to say that our rules of engagement were explicit: we were not to fire unless fired upon. That rule caused an anxious moment or two, but we followed it. What’s more, we did a good job at what we were sent there to do.
We were coming back from SE Asia and just about to enter Pearl Harbor when I got a message that my wife had given birth to a daughter. Jennifer was the name we’d agreed on, and Jennifer she became.
This pregnancy had been a surprise. But we were nothing if not responsible. Obviously you must look after your children, planned for or not.
The Navy decided to change the Niagara Falls homeport from San Diego to Sasebo, Japan. All the married officers were transferred to other ships, so that the Navy wouldn’t have to pay to send families to Japan. I was ordered to the USS Guam, LPH 9, which was a helicopter carrier. We carried 20 Boeing tandem rotor helicopters and Marine pilots to fly them as well as a thousand or so Marines and I think somewhere around 700 sailors. We were sent to the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean in the off chance that Castro would get frisky. In those days there was a squadron down there at all times, and we rotated from our homeport in Norfolk, Virginia.
We traveled in a squadron of five ships, and steaming in formation was interesting and challenging now and then. Being able to handle the ship – and being given the responsibility for the ship and all those men – was as satisfying as anything I’ve ever done. I was officer of the deck for general quarters (battle stations) which meant I was handling the ship with no one but the Captain to answer to.
I’ve accomplished a few things, so far, but looking back I can say that I am proudest of my service in the Navy, because the duties and responsibilities were emphatically not things that came naturally to me. It was a highly structured, highly disciplined organization, of course, whereas I liked going my own way whenever possible. The duties and responsibilities were based around math and engineering and mechanics – subjects I disliked. I liked reading novels and dreaming about someday writing one. Still, I found I was good at the job. I was even tempted to make a career, for I loved being at sea and handling the ship, and I felt flattered when my skipper encouraged me to stay in. But one night when I was standing the midwatch (midnight to four), I realized I’d be better off in a less structured environment. In fact, in the best of all possible worlds, I wouldn’t work for anyone. It was one of those defining moments, I suppose.
So when my three years of active duty were over I went out into the civilian world with the idea of becoming my own boss and only the sketchiest notion of how to do it.
There followed a period of trial and errors, mostly errors. But I realized that my talents lay in communications – both in writing and speaking – and those talents suddenly became in demand in the financial services market, for this was the time when the major banks and insurance companies were expanding their product lines. Industry by industry, they were all selling pretty much the same things, and they needed someone to develop and ultimately to teach their training programs. And they were happy to ‘outsource’ this business. What’s more, this was about the time that people were starting to use video as part of their internal communications, and I remember when an executive of a CBS division involved in this sort of work asked me “Do you think you can write for video?”
Well, there’s only one sensible answer to that.
So there followed twenty five years or so of working as an independent consultant, developing and actually teaching training programs to the major financial institutions around the world. The courses were varied but fell under the general category “How the world works.” You may wonder how I was qualified to address those weighty issues, and I wondered myself, more than once, but the basic answer was – you studied and, just as importantly, you figured out how to separate the essential from the inessential. In other words, all information is not of equal value. Finding that line was a key to developing the programs.
The business was wearing and stressful, in part because of the travel, but I got to thirty five or so countries, took advantage of the opportunities and am thankful to my clients who shipped me around the world in pretty fair style.
Along the way my son was born. He was a welcome addition to our ménage, and both he (named Colin) and Jennifer have rewarded my and my wife’s unstated and yet well defined understanding of our relationship.
During that time we lived in Buckingham, PA – one of the many little villages in Bucks County. I still think of it as home and regard my particular friends there as brothers – meaning, people I can rely on.
By the time the kids had grown and left home, my wife and I looked at each other and more or less said ‘Well, I think we did a good job. Now what?’ I’m quite sure that scene has been played in other households, so we were hardly unique. The truth is, we did do a good job. There are worse epitaphs for a marriage.
And around this same time I figured I had traveled enough and given enough seminars and written enough case studies and what have you. So at the casual suggestion of my son, I started writing fiction. I had moved out west – to southern Arizona in the beautiful ranch country south of Tucson, so it seemed reasonable to write something about that place and about the period that interested me most – the nineteenth century. The result was my first novel, which I called ‘Verity.’ I sent it to an agent, who read it in a couple of days and then, mirabile dictu, called me back and said he wanted to represent me. His name was/is Al Hart. Before switching to the agent business, he had been the top editor at Macmillan as well as Ian Fleming’s first American editor. I figured if he liked my stuff, it must be all right.
Al Hart sold the book to Kensington who published it as “Showdown at Verity” in a mass market paperback — with the predictably regrettable cover art. But it was a good start.
There followed two other novels featuring the same main character – Ethan Grey, a Pinkerton agent in the Old West. I figured the two most iconic characters in American culture were the cowboy and the private eye, so I made Ethan a combination of the two.
I also edited books on Zane Grey, Jack London and Mark Twain. Those books were published by the Lyons Press, who also published my book on fly fishing – fly fishing being one of my main distractions.
During this early writing period I met the woman who would become my second wife. Her name is Sondra Hadley, and she is, among many other things, a miracle of good nature.
I also got interested in some non-fiction and wrote a book about Ernest Hemingway’s adventures looking for German U-boats in the Gulf of Mexico. Scribner published that book and it was an honor to work with the same company that had published Hemingway all those years. Colin Harrison, the justifiably acclaimed novelist and editor, was my editor there, and it’s possible I learned a thing or two working with him. Sprinkled in and around that time were a couple of other novels – a story of the Battle of Quebec and a baseball fantasy – in which the Chicago Cubs actually make a run at the World Series.
Most recently I completed a book about the start of the Apache wars. Called “The Wrath of Cochise,” the book is non-fiction.
The subjects of my books indicate that I have varied interests. But you can’t be successful writing about things that don’t interest you. Or to put it another way, writing is (or should be) first and foremost a pleasure. The number of writers who get rich (or even make a living at it) is minuscule, but the number who do it anyway, because they love doing it, represents the happy (albeit sometimes frustrated) majority, I would think.
Scott Fitzgerald once said that there are no second acts in American life. Though I bow to no one in my admiration for him and his writing, I think he got that wrong. At least, I’m operating on that assumption.
Terry Discusses Ernest Hemingway's U-boat Patrols
Read Reviews from Readers
" As the author of THE HEMINGWAY PATROLS, Terry Mort knows his subject and has employed many print and on-line sources on Hemingway, his wives, his antebellum and postwar life and experiences, as well as related World War II subjects. "
"Simply as a narrative of Western warfare, Mr. Mort’s lucid, often beautifully written book is a pleasure to read. But he also poses questions that take his story to a deeper, morally challenging plane..."
" Historian Mort (The Wrath of Cochise: The Bascom Affair and the Origins of the Apache Wars) turns his eye to Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s 1874 expedition through the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota and Wyoming..."