Before I was 24, I had dined in the U. S. Senate Dining Room at a table next to John Kennedy’s, shaken hands with former Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon and former Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, watched Bobby Kennedy interrogate witnesses in a Senate hearing room, crossed paths with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson on a Capitol walkway, attended a Republican National Convention and danced to Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s trumpet at a presidential inaugural ball.
Exciting moments and stunningly fortuitous, considering the family into which I was born.
My mother had completed a semester of college, but my father dropped out of school after the 7th grade, returning to night school after his marriage to earn a high school diploma. The first home of my childhood, in Miami, Florida, was comfortable but modest. My father’s income was equally modest. Although he was considered “management” as the number two guy overseeing a freight terminal, this wasn’t exactly a glamor job, nor a particularly well paying one. And with my mother’s chronic illness and inability to get medical insurance, the family income was often stretched thin.
As a young man, my father had been involved in Miami politics, working behind the scenes to help friends and party members get elected to judgeships, the county commission and state legislature. At least two of those friends went on to higher office, one to the United States Senate—which was a major reason why, when I was fourteen, my father was promoted from the obscurity of a freight terminal to become the corporate lobbyist for the national shipping company that employed him. The Senator’s influence was not the only reason, however. My father was an impressive man, well read, a leader in civic and church organizations, a public speaker and former officer in the National Guard and, during World War II, the United States Army. So the year I entered 9th grade, our family was living in Northern Virginia and my father was working out of a Washington, D.C. office.
If you’re wondering what these experiences have to do with my becoming a writer, the answer is almost nothing.
When I think about what I’ve written in the last thirty years, the short stories and novels published and unpublished, I find little in them influenced by the above experiences, despite their fun and fascination. In fact, this is first time I’ve ever mentioned these experiences in writing. For what I’ve come to understand over the years of my life is that what most influences a writer is what Faulkner termed the “problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,” the experiences that touch and hurt us, that awaken our senses to love and beauty, make us cry and hopefully sometimes laugh.
The most compelling experiences of my life, the ones that have truly influenced my work, possessed nothing of that Washington D. C. glitz and glitter. In fact, they were quite the opposite. And it is those experiences I’ll write about in the next few posts. Stay tuned.
Next up: House of Pain