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Life with Charley:
The Writing Life with the Writing Wife
by Charles McKelvy
So, I left you wondering last time if:
A. I would win the heart of the fair Natalie DeViney, and
B. If she would land me a job at Crain Communications, Chicago, perhaps covering something exciting, like modern plastics.
Well, A for sure, and, as for B, let’s just say that I did leave the City News Bureau of Chicago, in early 1977, for a reporting job at the Chicago Tribune’s suburban insert, the Suburban Trib.
In fact, I was racing a deadline at the Suburban Trib’s Hinsdale, Ill. bureau, when Natalie called from Crain Communications to say: “YES!!!!!”
Yes, of course, to my proposal of matrimony.
And, yes, we were wed at the First United Methodist Church of Evanston, Ill. on Saturday, August 13, 1977. Fittingly, the ceremony was delayed by the tardy arrival of a City News friend, who was to read a Shakespeare sonnet for us. I will not embarrass him by mentioning his name; I will say that he was red-faced when he finally appeared and rationalized his tardiness by saying he was “covering a weather story.”
Seems there could have been a tornado, or two, on our wedding day. And City News, of course, would be right on it, right?
Well, after the infamous “weather delay,” our wedding proceeded apace, complete with our being piped out of the chapel by the recently deceased Chicago Tribune reporter, William Wallace “Bill” Currie, in full Highland dress. Yes, Bill Currie was my “clout” at City News. He was the alumnus who put in the good word for me with the editors and thus enabled me to land a job there, after much persistant calling.
So there we were, a pair of newlywed writers, setting out on the grandest of literary adventures together.
I was already drifting into the roiling waters of fiction; I took the big leap in the fall of 1978 when the Tribune Company, of all institutions, made it possible.
What happened, you see, was this:
Natalie was offered a job as a business reporter at the “Big Trib,” the Chicago Tribune itself, at 435 N. Michigan Avenue. She had all the credentials the Tribune sought in a business reporter, years of reporting on pension funds for Crain Communications, and a BA in History from the University of Chicago. Natalie was, and is, one smart cookie; the Tribune gladly snatched her up.
But then my boss at the “Little Trib,” or the Suburban Trib, got wind of Natalie’s good fortune and made a call or two to the “Tower.” Suddenly, the Tribune was rescinding Natalie’s job offer on account of their nepotism rule. It seemed that my editor at the Suburban Trib couldn’t go downtown and work at the Big Trib, because her husband, whom she married after they were both employed by the company, worked there. Plus, she definitely didn’t like my attitude, especially when I cheekily referred to the Suburban Trib as “the world’s greatest insert,” a snide reference to Colonel McCormick’s insistence upon labeling his newspaper “the world’s greatest newspaper.”
Natalie, being smarter and better abled in journalism, was to have been paid a better salary at the Big Trib; she really wanted to go there. And I was really tired of driving forever and ever to cover the dismal doings of distant suburbs.
So I got this news flash one night after tossing and turning the whole matter over in my head: “McKelvy leaves Suburban Trib staff.”
“What if,” I said to Natalie, “I resigned from the Suburban Trib and you took the job at the Tribune? You’d be happy, and I bet I could get on unemployment and use that time to write the novel I’ve always wanted to write.”
“You’d do that?”
“You betcha. In a heartbeat.”
So, a few heartbeats later, I tendered my resignation at the Suburban Trib. I blithely informed my ashen-faced editor that I was sure she wouldn’t contest my claim for unemployment benefits. She knew we had a really good legal case against the Tribune Company; we knew there was no way we wee Davids were going to go after that big, old Goliath in court, so we called her bluff.
She bit, tersely saying: “We won’t contest your claim.”
And they didn’t.
So, while Natalie went off every morning from our third-floor apartment at Lill and Racine Avenues in what is called the “DePaul neighborhood of Chicago,” I dusted off my trusty Smith-Corona portable typewriter and banged out my first novel, Out of a Box.
All I remember of it was that it was highly biographical and a hoot to write. And, no, I don’t have the manuscript in my files. Truth be told, I don’t know what I did with it. Perhaps I even burned it in the fireplace of our next apartment, just east on Lill Avenue. It was no great work of wonder, but it unleashed in me a pent-up urge to write short stories and novels and plays and fictionalized accounts of life with Charley.
And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since the fall of 1978.
But I really had to work on Natalie to bring her around to the joys of writing fiction.
She stubbornly resisted for the longest time, insisting there was no money in writing fiction.
Indeed, there wasn’t. And, indeed, we made almost all of our money from our day jobs as journalists and freelance business-writers. Who knew, for example, that I would have a hidden talent for promoting mutual funds offered by Kemper Financial Services in Chicago? When our client there asked how I did it on such a consistent basis, I simply said, “I channel Bob and Betty Barrington,” Barrington being a wealthy suburb of the city. I put on my novelist hat every time I sat at the keyboard and cranked out copy, becoming one with those archetypical surburbanites I had fashioned in my head. I wrote to them, for them, and with them.
And thus we were able to buy our little “dump in the dunes” in Harbert, Mich. in October 1986 and move here full-time on June 27, 1987. Friends in Chicago said we’d be back in six months, but that never happened. Not that we don’t love Chicago and visit the Windy City often, but we’re a couple of stay-in-Michigan writers who are happily living the literary dream, together, one page at a time.
And, yes, we have been publishing our own fiction since 1988 when we founded the Dunery Press on a napkin at a Chinese restaurant in Toronto. But that’s a tale for another time.
I returned Sunday to the Chicago neighborhood of my early childhood: South Shore. Specifically, I checked in at the South Shore Cultural Center for a brief trip to the “necessary room.” It was ready and waiting, and, after a wee winkle, I took a moment to admire the wonder of the place. I remembered many happy visits in the early 1950s when it was known as the South Shore Country Club. Now, it is under the good, orderly direction of the Chicago Park District, and the place was busy on a Sunday morning as serious golfers set out on a lovely little nine-hole course that stretches all the south shore of Lake Michigan. I never played the course as a little kid, because, of course, we weren’t members of the South Shore Country Club. But we visited often as guests of members, and I remember watching those adults swing those clubs of iron and wood at little white balls. I also remember enjoying horse shows at a lakeside arena, and I fondly remember a formal Christmas dinner as guests of my father’s boss at General Refractories Co. The ghosts of the past and the golfing goblins of the present combined in my head Sunday morning to make this seventy-something senior a whole lot less senile.
Life with Charley:
The Write Woman
by Charles McKelvy
I left you in the lurch last time, didn’t I?
Yes, I was about to meet the love of my life, the fair Natalie DeViney, in the editorial offices of Crain Communications, in Chicago, in November 1976.
I certainly do, and now, as I continue this mini-series on my life as a writer, allow me to boldly state IN BOLD FACE JUST HOW MUCH MEETING NATALIE HAS MEANT TO ME, BOTH AS AN INDIVIDUAL, AND, AS AN INDIVIDUAL WHO SIMPLY MUST WRITE.
I am not overstating the case by presenting that last line in bold-faced uppercase. Not by a long shot, because I was 26 at the time and working night and day, mostly nights actually, for the City News Bureau of Chicago. I was living on work, work, and more work, with some sleep, lots of liquid refreshment, and copious quanities of fast-food thrown in for good measure.
What I lacked in my misspent youth was the love of a good woman.
I had had some near-misses, to be sure, but as Thanksgiving 1976 fast approached, I did not have a successful love-life to add to my gratitude list.
So enter my former City News colleague, Vince DiPaolo.
Vince—whom we dubbed “the Dip” at City News, where we happily assigned one another silly nicknames (mine, of course, was “Good Time Charley”)—had gone forth from our 24/7 news-factory on the 12th floor of that stately old building at 188 W. Randolph Street to write for one of the Crain Communications family of fine publications, Modern Healthcare.
Believe me, when somebody left City News for greener pastures, you stayed in close contact and bugged the heck out of her or him for admission to that organization. So even though I didn’t know diddly-squat about medicine, or so-called health-care, I reckoned that a move to Modern Healthcare would be a definite step up for this young reporter, plus a big, big increase in pay and reasonable daytime working-hours, plus benefits.
So as I labored in the City News vineyard harvesting the grapes of Windy City wrath for our major media clients, I bugged the heck out of departed City News reporters, especially Vince DiPaolo.
But they all kept coming up empty, until one day old Vince (he was a bit older, I suppose) phoned me with an unusual proposition: “There’s a woman at my sister publication, Pensions & Investments, who wants me to fix her up with one of my City News buddies. And since you’re always calling me for a job-lead, I thought I’d call you with a romance-lead. You interested?”
Hey, I thought, if this’ll lead to a cushy job at Crain Communications, I’ll go for it. So to Vince, I said, “Sure, sign me up.”
So Vince DiPaolo, the matchmaker from Modern Healthcare, signed me up to meet his colleague, Natalie DeViney, at the editorial offices of Crain Communications on a cold, damp Friday just before Thanksgiving, in 1976. I was due to work the “mid-watch” shift on the rewrite desk at City News that evening, so I opted for a mid-day meet-up with a woman Vince described as “good-looking but something of a women’s-libber.”
Fine with me, as I enjoyed the company of intelligent, liberated women. “Sounds great,” I said. “I’ll be at your office before noon to meet her.”
“And we’ll go to lunch,” Vince said, adding, “it’s on me.”
Hey, when you’re hauling in all of $110 a week at City News, you jump at a free lunch, any time you can. So, in review, I was looking at:
A) a free lunch at a signature restaurant,
B) a possible job-lead at either Modern Healthcare or Pensions & Investments, and,
C) oh, a chance to meet someone new and different.
Hey, I wasn’t doing so well on the dating front at that point, what with my nightly working hours and lack of spending money, so I was willing to give her a look.
And so, when I stepped off the elevator on what I hoped would be the lucky 4th-floor, I was immediately met by a beautiful woman who was red-faced with rage. “Where have you been?!?” she screamed at me.
Taken aback, I merely moved my mouth and prayed that something appropriate would finally come out. But it didn’t because I was too flummoxed to say anything. All I could do was turn around and hit the “down” button at the elevator. If this harpy is Vince’s idea of a blind date, I thought, then I’m outta here.
But then Vince himself hurriedly appeared at my side, and loudly whispered, “That’s not her. You’ll see her in a second.”
“Well, then, who is this?”
“Oh, Vince said, “she thinks you’re a messenger from City Bonded and that you’re late with the delivery she’s expecting. Isn’t that right, Elizabeth?”
The fair but furious Elizabeth backed off and allowed as to a case of mistaken identity. After all, I was a big old boy with a black beard and was wearing my infamous “rat coat,” or faux Air-Force parka; sure, I could have passed for a City Bonded messenger. Actually, any self-respecting City Bonded messenger would have been loathe to pass for me.
While this queenly Elizabeth went back to her cubicle to phone in a complaint to City Bonded, I heaved a huge sigh of relief and said to Vince, “So you’re going to get me a job here after this, right?”
“Dream on,” Vince said. “We’re not hiring right now. But I think you’re going to like Natalie. You ready to meet her?”
I shrugged and allowed Vince to tug me into the inner office, where up jumped the most beautiful, the most vivacious, the most amazing woman I had ever seen: The one and only Natalie DeViney.
I was, as Vince’s Italian ancestors would have said, Colpito da un fulmine. Yes, “struck by lightning.”
Who knew, right?
I certainly didn’t. All I remember about that free lunch I enjoyed with Natalie and Vince at Gino’s East was Vince saying, “I’m feeling like a third-wheel here.”
Yeah, Vince, you were. Because it was love-at-first-sight for both of us. Natalie knew she was love-struck because she couldn’t eat a forkful of her caesar salad; I knew I was head-over-heels for her because I couldn’t get enough of my eggplant parmesan.
And do you think those two smitten journalists were destined to be wed within a year and consigned to a wonderfully weird writing-life together?
Tune in next time for all the details.
(to be continued)
(Chicago, IL) As Joe Rochetto and I were cruising north on South Shore Drive on Saturday afternoon, I mentioned that we were directly east of the apartment building in which I spent the first six years of my life. Joe said, “Want to see it?” I said, “Sure.” And so he hung a left and before we knew it, I was staring at the stately, six-floor apartment building we referred to in the early 1950s as the Fairhaven. I was immediately taken back to the two apartments we occupied in that building on the corner, and I remembered taking my brother for elevator rides. Yes, those were the days of passenger-operated elevators, and I mastered the art of piloting those elevators when I was all of four. Yes, I became something of a terror in the Fairhaven, not only when I commandeered the elevator, but when I tore around the halls on my tricycle. And, so you know, the Fairhaven was within easy walking distance of Rainbow Beach, where my father taught me to swim. So imagine the flood of memories as we paused at the corner for a look at that stately building that appeared to have some vacancies. Hmmmmm.
Travels with Charley:
Travel by Great Northern Railway
by Charles McKelvy
“Looks like we’ll travel by train.”
Those were the memorable words of my scoutmaster for the Boy Scout World Jamboree 1967 at Farragut State Park on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille in the Idaho panhandle.
I was 17 that year, and I was so done with boring, old train travel. I was so much the modern jet-setter who could tell the difference between a Boeing 727 and a Boeing 707 at a glance. The distinctive 727, of course, had three aft engines, and the 707 had four, wing-mounted engines. And when I traveled I expected to hop on a 727 or 707 and be in Philadelphia or San Francisco in time for dinner. No more slow-poking across the countryside on some old rattle-trap of a rusted-out train. Train travel was for squares, daddy-oh!
And it sure looked in the spring of ’67 that our “Host Corps” troop of scouts from around the Midwest would—gosh darn it!—have to fly to the World Jamboree due to a threatened railroad-workers strike.
But then the labor dispute was settled, and our scoutmaster, an executive for a major Michigan manufacturer, was happily announcing that we were back to our original plan. We would take the “Great Northern’s greatest train, Empire Builder, from Chicago to Seattle for a side trip and then back to Idaho for the Jamboree.” And then, of course, back to sweet, home Chicago on the Builder.
Our scoutmaster said it was fitting that we should travel in style, because we were specially selected members of the elite Host Corps charged with “hosting” troops from abroad at the Jamboree. By virtue of my two-year struggle with German at Morgan Park High School in Chicago I was assigned to host a troop from West Germany. (Yes, there was also an East Germany back then, but they were commies and thus were not sending troops to the United States.)
“The days of the great passenger trains are numbered,” he said. “So this is a great opportunity for you lads to experience the best of America before you play hosts to visitors to our great land.”
And what better way in which to see our great land, and certainly that great swath between Chicago and Seattle, than aboard Great Northern’s Empire Builder?
None better, I can assure you.
I can assure you that yours truly, and his new Builder buddies, immediately discovered that the best platform for discovering America was in the front seats of the full-length dome lounge.
We staked our claims before the Builder had sped through Hinsdale, Ill., and we were so mesmerized by the unfolding panoramas that we had to be torn away for dinner in the diner and sleep in the sleeping car.
And, wouldn’t you know, but our Builder bound through the most majestic scenery of the entire journey on Sunday morning. Our scoutmaster had reserved the dome lounge for our religious observances, first the Protestant prayer service and then Catholic Mass. My new best friend, Dave Moody, and I stayed for both, claiming that we wanted to be truly ecumenical. All I know is that we were closer to God and to the beauty of His creation as we gazed at the Rockies from our front-row seats.
And, yes, I confessed to my innermost self that I could be both a jet-setter and a choo-choo-cuckoo. Fly when needed, but always opt for a scenic train ride when offered, especially on a legendary liner like the Empire Builder.
Outbound, we took the Builder to Seattle where we “camped” downtown in a hotel and rode the exciting new monorail to the Space Needle. From Seattle we took a day trip by ship to Victoria, British Columbia for a tour of North America’s most English of cities. Alas, we were not properly attired for high tea at the Empress Hotel, but they did allow our band of knobby-kneed Yanks to look in on the proceedings.
On our way back to Seattle we spotted a pod of killer whales, or orcas, and then after another night in a hotel we took the eastbound Builder to Sand Point, Idaho, where we were met by buses for transport to the Jamboree.
So much needs to be said about our life-changing experiences as hosts at the World Jamboree that I am going to save all that for next time. Except to say that I learned more German in those two weeks than I did during those two years in classrooms at Morgan Park. For example, when I greeted my troop from Bavaria, their scoutmaster cheerfully informed me: “They don’t speak a word of English.”
And so I soared like an adler, or eagle.
Also, I will tell you next time of the moving visit some of us made to the Israeli campsite for Shabbat. Mind you, the Jamboree occurred just weeks after the so-called Six Days War in which Israel defended itself from a coordinated attack by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. All of the Israeli scouts were veterans of that war of survival. But more on that next time.
Now we have to board the eastbound Builder in Sand Point, in the dark, for a brief trip to Glacier National Park. We were warned at Glacier to beware of grizzly bears; I and another scout already knew what to look for because we had accidentally gotten between a momma grizzly and her cubs while hiking up a trail on the far side of Lake Pend Oreille. Don’t ask, and I won’t tell, but, thankfully, I am here to tell you about it, lo, these many years later.
The Great Northern Railway inaugurated the Empire Builder in 1929 to honor company founder James J. Hill and to serve the national park the railroad had lobbied to create. So, of course, the Great Northern served us a delightful day’s worth of Glacier National Park. What was not to like, right?
That night, we caught another specially chartered train that was full of homebound Boy Scouts of America.
Our wise scoutmaster opined that we were riding “a troop train full of troops.”
They fed us cafeteria-style in a galley car that had seen service during World War II, and they deposited us safely, and on-time, at Chicago Union Station, where we departed chanting rugby songs we had learned from a neighboring Australian troop at the Jamboree.
Some 12,000 scouts from 108 nations had built friendship for ten days in the Idaho sun, and we had gotten there in style and comfort on the farthest thing from a rattletrap—the Great Northern Railway’s Empire Builder.
The Writing Life, part three
by Charles McKelvy
And so they sent me forth from Illinois State University in 1972 with a B.S. in English-Journalism.
Just in time for the war in Vietnam, right?
Right, and I did write a novel titled Holy Orders about how this writer dealt with that issue. Alas, it’s no longer in print, but odd copies are still floating around out there, so you can plug in, if you so desire.
But no need to really because the long and short of it was that I kept writing throughout, first as a student at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. Yes, right across Sheridan Road from Northwestern University where a childhood friend, Dave Casey, was attending the famous Medill School of Journalism. I hung out with Dave and his journalism pals more than I did with my fellow seminarians. Hey, my calling was suspect from the start, because old Uncle Sam had been calling me, and, well, you catch my drift away from the draft, I’m sure.
And, I’m sure you’ll be highly amused to know that I did end up in the U.S. Navy as—drum roll—a Journalist Second Class.
So, there I was hiding out at a seminary across the road from the school I had so longed to attend. Yes, to study journalism at the highly touted Medill School of Journalism as my Beverly buddy Dave Casey was doing. Alas, Northwestern deemed me unfit for admission, as did the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps. I had hoped to work my way through Northwestern as a naval cadet, but my test scores were not up to snuff.
So off to Illinois State University, where, I am happy to report, I received a fine education in writing and reporting, particularly for the yearbook and student newspaper.
But I was nonetheless jealous of my friend Dave and his fellow journalism students, and I wanted to go them one better, if such a thing were even possible.
Well, turns out that I not only dazzled them, but myself as well, when I queried the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine in 1973 about a possible feature on the locally famous Platt House in Morgan Park/Beverly. We kids had played army games in the house’s wooded back-acre, and we all knew that the house had been a “station” on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. I walked past the Platt House (now known as the Hopkinson-Platt House) twice a day for four years when I attended Morgan Park High School. I knew that the current owners, the Platts, were University of Chicago folk who were forever hosting foreign-exchange students and had a fire circle behind the house for evening discussions.
That’s what I pitched to the Tribune magazine. They swung at my fastball, and I went back to Morgan Park/Beverly and interviewed Mrs. Platt. I wrote a draft on my trusty Smith-Corona portable typewriter and hand-delivered it to the editors at the magazine.
They liked it enough to walk me through two rewrites, and then they published my piece in the Sunday paper and paid me handsomely. My journalism pals at Northwestern were emerald-green with envy. I mean, who was I, some nobody nobody sent, from “I Screwed Up,” or ISU, getting published in the Chicago Tribune Magazine?!? It just wasn’t right.
But I was all right with it, all right.
Because that whole experience was a pearl of great price for a young writer. I learned then and there that the one who gets published isn’t necessarily the one who goes to the fancy “J-School” or has the serious street-creds. No, the writer who gets published is the writer who persists and works and rewrites and jumps through whatever hoops the editors set before him.
That’s what I did, and so I got myself a mighty fine byline in a mighty respectable Sunday newspaper. Complete with beautiful photographs by a Tribune staffer.
I saved that article for the longest time; I just did a thorough search through my archives and, sadly, I came up empty. So I can’t excerpt it here for you now.
But I did come up with another of my feature stories that was only published after persistence and a willingness to follow an editor’s suggestions. I speak of a piece I wrote for Travel & Leisure magazine in 1987 titled, “Chicago by Water, a boat’s eye view of that celebrated skyline.” As with the Chicago Tribune Magazine, I began with a query, promising the editors an insider’s look at, well, at that boat’s- eye view of that celebrated skyline. Hey, I been aboard the Wendella for enough field trips and watery dates to know the ins and outs of seeing my native city from the river and the lake. Easy peasy, right?
Well, the editors said they’d be willing to take a look at my submission; they took one look at my golden words and decided I needed to put more of myself in the article. They noted that their renowned magazine was known for its colorful writing, so they bid me be more colorful, creative, and just plain personal the second time around.
So I followed their advice, gave the piece another run through my word processor, and fired off the rewrite, via modem. (Remember modems?)
Well, you already know from a former paragraph that I struck paydirt and got myself published in the widely read Travel & Leisure magazine. That was a highlight of my freelance-writing career; I always took comfort from it whenever I missed the mark with another publication. Can’t win ‘em all, right?
But I was right there in the August 1987 edition of Travel & Leisure, and I’ll do the next right thing by closing this chapter of my writing life with the opening paragraphs of my published piece. And please bear in mind that the names of some of the principal buildings have since been changed. Now, please enjoy my published work from so long ago:
Sure, Chicago has its share of big-city problems, but you’d never know it looking at the skyline from Lake Michigan. There are days out on the lake when the buildings seem simply magical. As you look west, from a vessel cruising by State Street and Madison Avenue, your vision is framed on the left by the Sears Tower and on the right by the John Hancock Building. Both are towering, black and a bit ominous, but they set off the wonders that lie between the graceful First National Bank Building, the Standard Oil Building, and, of course the city’s lovely green doormat—Grant Park.
From the lake you can watch the sun set behind Chicago, silhouetting its architectural treasures and setting the lake ablaze with flames of red, orange and yellow. The effect changes with the weather, the season and the moment, but it’s always wonderful.
I then went on at some length to describe the various tour-boats available to the public and even did a ride-along on the Fort Dearborn with the Chicago Architectural Foundation, noting:
This excursion is especially recommended for those without sea legs; it plies the Chicago River, which never gets rough. Passengers sit in comfortable chairs on one of the two decks and watch a parade of architectural landmarks, including the Merchandise Mart, once the world’s largest office building; the Sears Tower, still the world’s tallest building; and Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois Center, with its controversial design.
The Sears Tower, of course, is no longer the world’s tallest building, and at press time it was called the Willis Tower, but you catch my drift as I drifted up and down the Chicago River’s main channel and about two miles up both the North and South Branches. We passed under a total of 51 bridges; I learned more about Chicago architecture on that cruise way back in 1987 than I could ever have gleaned from any number of textbooks.
So, the point of this portion of my writing life is to show (not tell) that the writing bug that infected me back in elementary school fully infected every cell of my body by young adulthood. I was a writer through and through by the time I first met the love of my life, the fair Natalie DeViney, in the editorial offices of Crain Communications, in Chicago, in November 1976. That never would have happened had I opted for a career in baseball, banking, or butchering at the Union Stockyards. But that’s a story for next time, isn’t it?
See you then.
(to be continued)
With the explosive 4th of July holiday weekend being deposited into the memory bank, my thoughts naturally turn to winter. Labor Day is but nine weekends away, and then the gales of November will come early and soon the big lake we call Michigan, will start to freeze over. All will be blue, white, and very, very, very quiet! Ah, winter. Something to look forward to.
The Baroda Fireworks never disappoint, and they were right on point last night with a 4th of July Eve spectacle. A spectacle to end all spectacles. And we who are blessed to live in Berrien County, Michigan were thrilled to watch the annual show.
We joined our dear friend Mary Lober for lunch at her house in Otsego, Michigan on Wednesday. And for clarinet lessons with her grand-niece Alie. Alie, by the way, is making amazing progress and will do well when she plays with her middle school band this fall. Then, after we took Alie home, we headed for Otsego’s twin city of Plainwell for a walk along the mighty Kalamazoo River. And with all the recent torrents of rain, the river indeed was a ragin’.
Life with Charley:
The Writing Life, part two
by Charles McKelvy
So, we left my writing life last time at the formative stage.
That would have been in 1969, when I became a published writer in my Chicago neighborhood’s weekly newspaper, The Beverly Review.
But before I forge ahead with my writerly formation as an English-Journalism student at Illinois State University from 1968 to 1972, I need to back up to Morgan Park High School in Chicago and give a shout-out to Mrs. Veronica Gillolly, my sophomore typying teacher.
Mrs. Gillolly was a tough taskmaster; she demanded perfection as we banged away on those big, honking Royal typewriters. I struggled to get Cs every marking period and may have won a B once or twice, but never an A. Didn’t matter, because I was passing in a vital writer’s skill being passed on to me by a woman who really knew her keys, and then some. Oh, and I didn’t mind being one of the only boys in the class. And it was while taking Mrs. Gillolly’s typing class at Morgan Park that I went to an office supply store on Western Avenue and bought a brand-new Smith-Corona portable. I literally typed that baby to death. I only traded it in in recent years for a mint-condition Remington Quiet-Riter Eleven manual typewriter.
You do have a manual typewriter, handy, don’t you?
Then how are you going to keep your sanity during the next power outage?
All right, enough digression, and on with my progression in the writing life at Illinois State University. We called it ISU, and, yes, it was located in Normal, Ill. down there on old U.S. 66. And, yes, some wag with a can of black spray-paint climbed up on the water tower one fine evening and added the prefix “AB” to NORMAL. We figured he or she had to be an English major, right?
ABNORMAL was quickly edited back to NORMAL, but my development as a writer at ISU was anything but normal.
Take, for example, my winning first prize in a literary contest my junior year. I submitted what I thought was a short story about an encounter I had had during the summer of 1970 with a World War II veteran. I had actually met such a man while working as a pay-phone coin-collector for the late, great Illinois Bell Telephone Company on Chicago’s celebrated South Side. The job took me to more than a few taverns; it was while servicing the phone in such an establishment that I got to hear a colorfully inebriated patron’s fantastic tale of his exploits in the Army Air Corps over Japan in 1944-45.
His tale was so tall that I wrote my account as fiction and submitted it in the short-story division. But the judges deemed it worthy of top honors in the essay category, and so I won. My colleagues at the campus newspaper were none too pleased; I overheard them saying that they had given the award “to a real hack.”
Every young writer needs to hear that he or she is a hack, right?
I didn’t like it, but then I knew my colleagues at The Vidette didn’t like the crappy way I cropped photographs and sized headlines. So it was all water off a duck’s back for this ink-stained wretch.
Yes, by my junior year at ISU (which some say stands for “I Screwed Up”), I was developing the hide of a rhino. I was realizing that a real writer has to rise up under ridicule and rejection and exact revenge by continuing to write.
And did I ever really continue to write my senior year at I Screwed Up: I volunteered to write some of the copy for INDEX 1972, the poetically named yearbook.
Some, my eye!
I pretty much ended up writing most of it, except for the sports pages. Sportswriters always seem to be thick on the ground, but getting somebody to go out and actually interview the chairs of all the various departments and then actually pound out copy about, well, the Philosophy Department, that was another matter.
An unexamined life is unworthy of a man.
In existence at ISU since 1967 when it received authorization, the Philosophy Department is chaired by Dr. Kenneth Kennard, an individual who measures his department’s stature not in the number of majors it attracts but in helping students to experience “intellectual adventure on a broad plain of subjects.”
Noting that no cuts had been made in his department, Kennard saw Philosophy as a growing discipline at ISU. “In 1968 Dr. Kane and I were the only professors teaching philosophy. The following year we had three full-time and one part-time teachers. Presently we have seven full time instructors, and we would like to increase to between twelve and twenty.”
With regard to the philosophy faculty, Dr. Kennard explained, “We want only the most qualified people on our staff as we presently have. All of our faculty were trained in nationally ranked philosophy programs on the Ph.D. level.”
Concerning the requirements in philosophy, Dr. Kennard had this to say, “Because we do not limit students with the burden of restrictive requirements, the Philosophy major requires only twenty-seven hours. Students seeking a liberal background of knowledge are then free to explore a wider range of subject matter.”
Kennard explained that the Philosophy Department was in tune with the Administration’s concepts of a diverse education. “Within the realm of our present curriculum,” he said, “we have Philosophy of Religion, Asthetics, Philosophy of Science, Philosophy of Logic, and Social Philosophy. When the budget freeze ends we are going to search for qualified people to instruct Philosophy of Law and Oriental Philosophy.” Kennard concluded this statement by saying, “If we taught Philosophy without indicating its broader applications it would seem too abstract and formal.
“The University has been criticized because it does not impart moral and ethical values to its students as its traditional characteristics required it to do,” Kennard explained. “The state university has wisely opted to be amoral. Nonetheless, the University should urge students to develop their own morals and ideals. The Philosophy Department fulfills this vitally important role by teaching a person to discover his or her own basic values and convictions.”
Not the best writing I’ve ever done, but Kenneth Kennard contacted me after the yearbook was published and effusively thanked me for presenting his department in such a positive light. I told him I would have been a Philosophy major had I had to do it all over again.
While I received no byline or remuneration for those and other words I wrote for INDEX 1972, I did get to dress as a Prince Charles of yore and pose with the rest of the Index staff for a group portrait at ISU’s Ewing Castle. Another staffer insisted he was the king, but I was happy to be a prince-in-waiting. And I was absolutely thrilled to see so much of my writing in print.
So much so, that I have long reserved a place of honor on my bookshelf for my copy of INDEX 1972. My first book, right?
Well, we’ll get to my other books next time.
’til then, keep reading and writing.
(to be continued)
Life with Charley:
The Writing Life, part one
by Charles McKelvy
To paraphrase Eric Idle in the 1983 film classic, “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life,” “And so I became a writer.”
Eric Idle, so you know, was speaking of becoming a waiter. That was his character’s destiny in the funniest movie I have ever seen. But my destiny, as realized in Mrs. Harrington’s sixth-grade class at Alice L. Barnard Elementary School in Chicago in 1962, was to become a writer.
I thank the late Jean Harrington for awakening the writer within me, and for encouraging me to write. And, yes, to read.
Face it,fellow writers, we can’t write if we don’t voraciously devour books, right?
So I was infected with the writing bug in 1962 when I was 12, and I started writing. And writing a lot. I was also inspired and encouraged by the late, great Rod Serling, host of my favorite TV show, “The Twilight Zone.”
When I realized that Rod Serling was writing most of those wickedly wonderful episodes, why I resolved to be just like him when I grew up. Okay, I’m nothing like Rod Serling, now that I’m all grown up and actually growing old, but I thank him nearly every day for watering that writing seed that Mrs. Harrington planted.
And then in high school, I see this ad in one of the writers’ magazines I borrowed from the library advertising something sensationally super: The Famous Writers School. Founded in 1961 by Bennett Cerf, Gordon Carroll, and Albert Dorne, the Famous Writers School promised editing and coaching for aspiring writers from the likes of the aforementioned Rod Serling, who was listed as part of the “Guiding Faculty.”
Rod Serling was going to help me, a high-school freshman in Chicago, become a famous writer? You’re kidding me, right? No, it was too good to be true, but that didn’t stop me from “applying.”
I didn’t hear a word from the Famous Writers School for the longest time.
And then one Wednesday night, after I returned from my weekly Boy Scout meeting, my parents told me some man from some writers’ school in New York, or somewhere, had come a calling. For me, but I wasn’t home, was I?
No, but my parents set him straight and assured him I was getting all the writing instruction I needed at Morgan Park High School.
True, I had great English teachers all four years at Morgan Park, and the best of the best was my senior English teacher, Lorraine Roberts. Mrs. Roberts went so far as to compare me to Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko, and that really sent me off to the writing races.
So, yes, I was getting all the good orderly direction a young writer needed, right there at Morgan Park High School. Yes, within walking distance of my childhood home.
But I wanted that extra kick in the pants that a famous writer like Rod Serling could give me as a student of the Famous Writers School. But nope, Mom and Dad shut ‘er down and sent that slickster from that fancy, mail-order school on the East Coast, packing.
Good thing I wasn’t packing, because I was pretty upset about that. But I did what I always did as a kid: I stuffed those feelings into my writing. I wasn’t journaling or anything like that, but I was writing it all down.
Was I ever, and was I ever shocked, dismayed, and totally disappointed in 1970 when famous writer Jessica Mitford exposed the school’s questionable academic and business practices. Seems they fleeced a 72-year-old in California to empty her meager bank account so she could become a famous writer, too.
So much for my heroes, right?
You’d think that would put me off promises from famous writers on the East Coast for a good, long while. Well, it did. But I did fall for another scam, one from a “famous” literary agent, some years later, but we’ve heard enough out of my innocent, young writing-self.
What we need to hear now is how I set the writing hook in my mouth and swam off into the literary depths.
As I said, Mrs. Lorraine Roberts really got me going as a senior at Morgan Park, but I was, as yet, an unpublished writer, right? You can’t really count papers for senior English class as published work.
Writers need their work published as much as fish need their gills to function properly.
So imagine my utter delight when, during the summer of 1969, I became a published author, in, of all places, The Beverly Review, my neighborhood’s weekly newspaper.
Allow me to explain:
My dear brother Donald, just happened to be dating the editor’s lovely daughter Cynthia at the time (they would later marry and remain happily married to the present day). So I asked my future sister-in-law if I might have a word with her mother, Joan Johnson, about possibly contributing some “Tales from Taiwan” to The Beverly Review during the momentous summer of 1969. (Woodstock and moon landing, come to mind?)
Madam Editor was thrilled; she had me send handwritten dispatches from Kaohsiung, Taiwan all summer. She published them, along with the black-and-white photographs I sent.
And when I saw the “clips” I was totally hooked on writing.
A writer needs an audience like our begonias need a weekly dose of plant food. It’s in our DNA, right?
Right, and it would be right proper of me to finish part one of this three-part series on the writing life with my memory of my mother’s moving that The Beverly Review graciously published on November 27, 1996. They noted that I was a former Beverly resident, the author of several books, and a regular contributor between 1969 and 1977. What more does a writer need?
And now, gentle readers, you need to read “Beverly memories prove there’s no place like home” by yours truly:
She’s leaving home after all these years.
She being my mother and home being the two-story brick house on 106th Street in Beverly where I celebrated my sixth birthday in 1956 just after the family moved from a cramped apartment in South Shore.
Mom is moving in November to a single-story bungalow on 101st Street. It’s up the hill from Longwood Drive and right next door to my sister, Missy, and her family.
Mom is a 70-something widow with a bad hip and wants to be secure in her lodgings. The move makes perfect sense, and everyone agrees that it’s for the best.
But there remains, or remained, the business of saying good-bye to the old house on 106th Street.
As I said, we moved there in 1956 when I was 6 and my brother was 3. Missy was born the following year, in 1957, and my brother Donald and I sold cupcakes and charged admission to see her when Mom brought her home from the hospital. (Mom still reminds us that we charged more for the cupcakes than admission to see Missy, but then new babies were commonplace on 106th Street in those days.)
When we moved in, there were two blue spruces in the backyard that were barely taller than my brother and me. Now the first branches are beyond my reach. Yes, the oaks are all still there, towering over the yard and shedding their acorns and leaves.
Time was when we would rake the leaves into the gutter and flagrantly burn them. (Where I live now in Michigan, people still burn leaves the old-fashioned way, and it really takes me back to the old home.) Then, when 106th Street was enveloped in smoke, we’d ride back and forth on our bikes pretending we were World War II fighter pilots high over Germany.
In winter, we’d craft our version of a bobsled run out of huge snowballs and ample doses of water from a bucket. The run took advantage of the small hill in front of the old family house and descended right into 106th Street. When all was ready, we’d test our handiwork by mounting little Missy in a “flying saucer” and rocketing her downhill.
Mom would watch in horror from the other side of the big picture window that framed our living room, but Missy always made it safely to the other side of 106th Street. And we’d always post somebody to watch for cars. Or almost always.
There didn’t seem to be much traffic in those days, and people tended to drive slower than they do now. I guess there was less agitated monotony back in the ‘60s.
Anyway, we all did a lot of great living in that old house on 106th Street. I returned recently to help Mom pack and to spend a final night in my old bedroom.
The only things missing were my brother Donald; our late, great dog Cindy; the noisy night-shift at the now abandoned Chicago Bridge & Iron plant on Vincennes Avenue; and explosive arguments between the Lithuanian cop and his Irish wife who lived next door.
All was quiet and peaceful on my last night in the old house. But I lay awake half the night just the same, remembering and savoring and saying goodbye to the house where I grew up and became a writer, and curled up with book after book borrowed from my parents’ burgeoning bookshelves. I broke both wrists in the garage while trying to get a basketball down from the overhead door, and I ran my Lionel train around the ping-pong table down in the basement, all winter long. I left for the navy from our home on 106th Street, and returned there from Boy Scout camp and the World Jamboree, and Taiwan, and coasts east and west.
I last spoke words of love to my father in that house, up on the second floor. And, yes, Dad died in that house in September 1985.
We call houses “home” because we love them so.
And I loved every square inch of that great old house on 106th Street.
It seemed so big to me in the spring of 1956 when we moved there from that little apartment in South Shore.
And it seemed so big to me still in the fall of 1996 when I came home to say goodbye.
So big because it was my home for nearly 20 years, and so big because it will always be home in my heart.
(Stay tuned for part two)
So, there we were—Mark Barrett and Yours Truly—heading west on Dunes Highway in Burns Harbor, Indiana, when what should appear before us but a gray squirrel. We were on our way to the Monastery of the Holy Cross for Sunday Mass and our monthly oblate meeting in Chicago, so I wanted to be free of sin, and so I swerved to avoid said squirrel. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished, and naturally we hit a humongous pothole at speed. That resulted in a loud BANG!!! The “check tire pressure” light immediately flickered to life, and we started ridin’ that right, front rim. You know the drill. I hadn’t known it for quite some time, but it all came back, in large part because my good friend Mark was there to talk me through it and to help with the wrenchin’. Remember trying to get those machine-tightened lug nuts off? “Gotta put your body weight into it,” I heard myself saying more than a few times. And, yes, we got the blown-out tire off, the donut, or spare on, and we came about and crept home on Dunes Highway and Red Arrow Highway. We listened to Mass on the Catholic Channel and let Father Timothy at the monastery know of our adventures. Oh, and I did call the roadside assistance number we paid good money for. You know, the one promising 24/7 assistance for a host of problems, beginning with flat tires. To say they were beyond useless is to pay them too fine a compliment. Well, the gentlemen with whom I was speaking, did insist on addressing me as “Sir Charles.” I’m guessing he was directing his comments from a country far from our shores, but what do I know? I do know that we canceled the useless roadside assistance, posthaste. Hey, when you blow out a tire, reach for the donut. You have checked the pressure on it lately, haven’t you?
Who says you can’t go back? I, for one, plan on going back to the neighborhood of my early childhood, South Shore, this very day. I passed through the eponymous Chicago neighborhood two weeks ago on the way to the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Chicago, and plan to do the same again today. Perhaps a pause in South Shore might be in order. Anyway, here’s a photo I took while we were stopped for the light at 71st and South Shore Drive. Did a whole lot of livin’ in the early days in that vicinity, including my first train ride, on the Illinois Central, from that station.
I had my final check-up at Great Lakes Eye Care last week and was told in no uncertain terms that I do not need glasses. Not for reading, not for nuthin’. Well, except non-prescription sunglasses. We all should wear those, right? Well, it’s a brave new world thanks to my two, new multi-focal lenses. I’m lovin’ it.
We needed some more vegan kimchi, and friends wanted 15 pounds of brown rice, so we headed out to Berrien Springs, Mich. Thursday afternoon for a bit of shopping at the Oriental Supermarket. We enjoyed the drives there and back, but most especially with catching up with the ever-friendly owner. And, we spotted some other goodies to add to our order and thus returned with many tasty and healthy treats from the Asian lands. Here are few pictures I took, whilst in dazzling downtown Berrien Springs: