Readin’ & Writin’

March 2, 2012 at 5:17 pm (Uncategorized)

I developed my passion for reading and writing at a very early age. During elementary school I became a big fan of the Tarzan books as well as The Hardy Boys series. Whenever a new volume came out I would walk to Sakoff’s variety store in Cedarhurst and buy it. Shortly afterward I became hooked on Albert Payson Terhune’s dog stories. That should astound my siblings, who will find it difficult to believe that I actually used to like animals. Anyway, at one time I owned the entire collections of  those books and still possessed some of them well into middle-age. Alas, once Maureen and I decided to move to Arizona, most of my extensive library ended up in the Salvation Army collection bin.

In the 5th grade I wrote from memory the screenplay of Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers, one of my favorite movies. Following up on that I produced my very first short story, Attack of the Crab Monsters, an inept piece of trash inspired by the cheesy horror films of the 1950s, which I adored. I guess I became discouraged when everyone who read it laughed, thinking it was supposed to be a comedy. Hey, I was TEN years old, for crying out loud! After that my writing career languished for several years while I tried to disassociate myself from the putrid legacy of the “crab monsters”. But despite my youthful struggles with writing, I never lost my zeal for reading.

English Composition was my favorite subject in high school and one which earned for me my best grades. I even gave several oral reports featuring rudimentary cartoons I had drawn. That in itself seems a bit remarkable, since today I have virtually no artistic ability at all. I did, however, manage to keep up with writing of a sort by maintaining journals of local weather records and by tracking hurricanes for several years.

During the time I spent with the Army in Vietnam I did no writing at all, something I still can’t fathom. Here I had been in a war zone with countless fascinating events happening around me, and I kept no permanent records. Nothing. I’m at a loss to find a rational explanation for this. How I wish today that I had at least maintained a diary so that the memories of many names, places and events would not have vanished into the dust bin of my personal history. Very puzzling.

When I joined Kiwanis at age twenty-six, I found new purpose for my, for want of a better word, “skills”. Every Kiwanis club issued a weekly bulletin detailing the events of the latest meeting. This was usually a very dry, boring account that typically read, “Meeting opened by President John Smith at 7:02 pm with one verse of ‘America’ and an invocation by Bob Jones. The following members were present…” A real snooze inducer to be sure, but you have to realize that the Kiwanis organization and the Kiwanians themselves were both rather staid in those days. As a result, they became prime targets for a writer like me who had been blessed (or cursed) with a rather warped sense of humor.

Now you must understand that the bulletin was the primary means of communication for service clubs back then. There were no cell phones, internet or other electronic means such as we have today to keep the members informed. When I was asked to write the bulletin I quickly came to the realization that it would be completely useless if nobody read it, as seemed to be the case then. So I soon began to inject some life into our weekly newsletter in the form of bad jokes, plagiarized cartoons, good-natured insults and attention-grabbing language. Frankly, I wasn’t quite certain at first that I had done the right thing. But it quickly became apparent from the feedback, both positive and negative, that at least now our members were actually reading the newly-revised bulletins, despite becoming the targets of my frequent abuse.

At the end of my first year as editor, I was both stunned and delighted to learn that our club had won the New York State District competition for best bulletin. This was an honor we would earn five times during my tenure. And much to my surprise, I noticed that many other clubs within our Division were beginning to follow suit by making their bulletins more humorous – and thus by extension – more readable. I guess imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery. I like to think that I may have had something to do with helping to bring about this transformation, for better or for worse. And I must admit that the demands of producing a newsletter each and every week did much to improve my writing skills.

When I worked for the Bank of New York in the eighties, one of my responsibilities became writing a weekly marketing and business development newsletter. Now banking is as ultra-conservative a profession as exists, hardly an industry that one would expect to embrace my particular form of unconventional writing. Progress was slow at first. Some people liked what I produced; others did not. I convinced myself to concentrate on the affirmative and ignore the rest. That, by the way, is probably a good axiom by which to live these days. Eventually most people came to accept my approach, even if a bit grudgingly at times.

After moving to Community National Bank on Staten Island, I took over the Marketing and Business Development departments. The president of the bank asked me to resurrect the monthly internal magazine, which had lain dormant for several years. I had never been involved with a publication of that magnitude before. And as a virtual “one-man band”, I had to quickly learn the tasks of interviewing subjects, writing and editing the articles, as well as preparing galley copy for the printer. Fortunately for me the magazine was a big hit right from day one.

The president also entrusted me with the job of developing a bank wide business development plan. I accomplished this by drawing on my experience while doing the same at the Bank of New York. Part of that plan involved dividing the staff into two teams, the Yankees and the Mets, and creating a 9 inning (week) “World Series” competition. I wrote a humorous newsletter weekly to update the “score”. The program didn’t immediately take hold, but by the third week employees were waiting outside my office door on Monday mornings until I released the latest results. We even held a dinner at the end to reveal the winners. Great fun.

At some point during this period, I began writing my first book, The Torch, a novel based upon my experiences while serving with a military advisory team in Vietnam. It was at this time that I realized how short-sighted I had been in not keeping written records while overseas. I struggled to recall not only names, places and events, but the entire chronology of my year at war. Unable to remember many details from a perspective twenty years removed from the experience itself, I decided to write the story as fiction. This consumed the better part of a year, but when it was finished I wasn’t satisfied with the result. I then rewrote it as non-fiction before concluding that my limited role in the war failed to give the reader a broad enough view of what was occurring in Vietnam at that time. So I rewrote The Torch again as fiction, adding events that gave a better understanding of the war in its early years. That became the final form for the book.

I contacted a literary agent who agreed to work with my novel. After about

six months with no apparent results, I decided to find someone else to represent the book. It was only then that I learned how fortunate I had been to have had an agent accept me in the first place, and how difficult it was to acquire another. Unless you are a celebrity or a previously published author, it’s almost impossible to find someone willing to work with you. I never did acquire another agent. As a result, I self-published The Torch in 2004. I like to kid that the book never made it off the “Best Smeller List”, having sold well less than one hundred copies since then!

Now I have virtually completed my second book, Tossing the Sandwiches, a humorous and often poignant non-fiction story about growing up in a somewhat off-center family of Italian descent. Hopefully some misguided agent or publisher will take pity on this poor ink-stained wretch and accept my manuscript for consideration. If all else fails, I suppose I’ll just keep writing for the magazine I’ve worked with since 2009 out here in Arizona.

I have several ideas for additional books, so with any luck at all I’ll live long enough to complete them. If not, then at least a few innocent readers will be spared the indignity of being exposed to more of my somewhat outlandish writing! In the meantime I expect to maintain my voracious reading habits, often finishing two or three books each week as I’ve done for far more years than I care to admit.

And finally, for those of you who decide to read more of my work, please accept in advance my profound apologies!

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