It just struck me: I’ve been published for fifty years now. Good lord! How did that ever happen?
I keep a list of my published articles, not so much for ego or old-time’s sake as for reference. Ask any author and you’ll learn that it’s a whole lot easier to thumb through “the files” for THAT article than to research the subject again. There’s also the monetary factor—recycling articles doubles (or triples) your productivity. My personal best is three reprints for an article first published in 1977. One article, four checks. Love it.
Anyway, recently I was looking at my articles list and noted the first entry:
October. Drum Corps World. “Beaver State Beat.” $0.00
That was the first of ten entries for DCW, as I was a 15-year-old percussionist in my hometown’s American Legion drum and bugle corps. The Falcons had a lot of talent—one year at the state championships we won 60 percent of the medals for individual competition but finished near last in the corps field event. A year or so later one of our horn players finished third at the nationals.
Because I didn’t start flying until the next year, in ’64 drum corps and Scouts occupied most of my time. I subscribed to DCW and noted a dearth of coverage from the Pacific Northwest, so I contacted the publisher, offering to fill in the gap. His name was Joseph Something, and he readily accepted. No reason he shouldn’t since he wasn’t paying anything!
The year and a half of “Beaver State Beat” exposed me (corrupted, some might say) to The Power of the Press. The column was part news, part gossip, and part opinion. Well, OK, a lot of opinion. But suddenly a high-school freshman from Athena, Oregon, was considered Influential in the esoteric world of Northwest drum and bugle corps. People started deferring to me. Some phoned with Insider Information, which even at that callow age, I knew to treat with caution. Were the Cadets really dumping their music director? Was the Eagles’ drum major really ineligible because he’d passed his 20th birthday? People wanted to know such things.
I learned a valuable lesson, writing for DCW: when in doubt, waffle. My columns contained useful phrases such as “We hear that,” or “Reliable sources claim…”
Finally my drum corps participation came to an end. My last column was in May 1966, the last year I was active. By then I’d done about all I was going to accomplish. I’d placed three times in individual competition, winning state titles in tenor drum and rudimental bass, and besides, I’d started flying in ’65 and finished my Eagle Scout badge that year.
However, the overall experience was a positive one, other than a severe crush on an extremely cute blonde in the Seattle Thunderbirds color guard. Alas, geography worked against us. But I gained some confidence as a writer, learned life lessons about competition, and made some long-term friends. It’s been fun catching up with a couple of them on Facebook.
Looking farther down the list, I see that I’ve been published every year except 1967 and 1969. That’s understandable, because I graduated from high school and started college in ’67, and worked summers on the ranch and at the local airport. The interim articles were published in Northwest Flyer, the Journal of the American Aviation Historical Society and the International Plastic Modelers Quarterly.
I published 15 articles before I finally got paid for one, a magazine journalism class at the University of Oregon. The deal was: sell an article and you got an A. “Omens, Augurs, and Jinxes” sold to Air Progress in 1971—a whimsical study of aviation superstitions. The most memorable one dated from France in the Great War. A pilot was considered bulletproof if he carried a garter removed from the leg of a virgin in the dark of the moon. Honest.
It was a point of pride that I aced every writing class I took at OSU, the U of O, and later in Mesa Community College’s screenwriting course. But a then-and-now comparison invites broad contrast. I wrote my first six books and about 100 articles on a Royal Standard manual typewriter that my father bought before I was born. It’s still in the family but most of the vowels are worn down. When I was dragged into the computer age with a doorknob in each hand and skid marks on the floor, I devoutly did not want to change. But it was clear that the publishing world was inevitably headed over that cyber-cliff, so I adapted.
However, the discipline I learned on that Royal served me extraordinarily well. So did the most valuable class I ever took: freshman typing in high school. It was held in the unheated basement of the Athena First Baptist Church at 8:00 a.m., an hour before the regular school day began. I was oafishly proud to earn my 40 word-per-minute pin, a sort of compensation for never getting a perfect attendance pin owing to childhood asthma.
Far more importantly, composing on a manual typing writer forced me to organize, to focus, and to think ahead. After all, in those days Cut And Paste involved scissors and Scotch tape, if not actual paste. So economizing on words and time paid dividends.
Now I realize that a PC’s cut and paste function has tempted me to become less disciplined, even leaning toward laziness. It’s easy to become profligate with words, since they’re only electrons on a screen. Today writers can move entire pages or even chapters around to suit their fancy, and what took hours before can be done in minutes or less.
But whenever I catch myself tending toward laziness, I can revert to the early 1960s, recalling the tiny thrill of seeing my byline and the satisfaction of providing information and opinion to My Readers, however many they were.
That was 650 articles and 50 books ago, but moreover, it was FIFTY years ago.
How did that ever happen?