May 2, 2014
Maureen and I attended the Southern Kentucky Book Fest in Bowling Green last weekend. Book fairs are always enjoyable, but this one was special. Two local supporters of the event, Chrystal and Ed Mills, treated the writers to a Thursday evening party, and the organizers, from Western Kentucky University, went to considerable lengths to make everything work.
My assignments included a panel on science fiction, and a presentation explaining how to ensure that a writing project gets rejected by the publisher. Techniques include overwriting, explaining too much, using unnecessary characters, starting with a weather report (Charlie Brown's celebrated "It was a dark and stormy night"), and so on. That one filled the room, which underscored my longtime impression that there's hardly a reader on the planet who doesn't also want to see his or her name on the cover of a book.
I can't remember a time when I didn't dream of the possibility. I think it started when I discovered the Big Little Books in our local five-and-ten. The books were small but, as best I can recall, thick, with alternating pages of art and text. They featured Tom Mix, the Lone Ranger, Alley Oop, Batman, Captain Midnight, and other heroes of those early years. I knew immediately what I wanted to do with my life.
An event like the book fest often gives me an opportunity to look at the work of people who want to start a career. Several efforts were quite good, and the writers ranged in age from senior citizens to a sixteen-year-old. There's a point to be taken from that: You can start at any time.
We went by car, which gave us a chance to listen to a few Jean Shepherd recordings of broadcasts from the sixties. Shepherd, for those who don't know about him, was the creator of A Christmas Story, but more importantly was a unique radio entertainer. Garrison Keillor, Jerry Seinfeld, and a host of others credit him with having had an inspirational effect on their lives.
We came home on I40, through the Appalachian Mountains into North Carolina. It's a dark, winding, low-speed-limit highway. At about 10 p.m., we had Shepherd on. It was just about the time of night that I used to listen to him back in the sixties.
He was talking about how unplanned incidents affect our lives. A guy looking for work as a stagehand walks into a theater, demonstrates an ability for acrobatics, is hired and added to the cast, and a few years later wins an Academy Award. Lyndon Johnson might have missed the White House had he not, as a student teacher with a long record of abysmal failure, been assigned to an impoverished Hispanic school where he excelled in inspiring students while simultaneously acquiring a sense that he could have an impact. There were similar examples in the lives of others –Herman Melville among them—in which greatness arrived because someone had been in the right place at the right time.
How many Melvilles and Johnsons, Shepherd wondered, never showed up because the life-changing moment never happened? How many of us would have achieved some ultimate dream had some minor incident simply gone another direction?
I couldn't help thinking of George Washington as a prime example. Early in his military career, Washington applied for a commission in the British army. The Brits declined because they apparently didn't favor colonials as officers. Had he been on the other side during the Revolution, would his name ring any bells with us at all?
For anyone who would like to learn more about Jean Shepherd, try Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd by Eugene B. Bergmann.