Saturday, April 30, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson

You know you are getting old when you know the most of the authors you read. Over the years, I have taken the trouble to send notes to authors that I particularly enjoy, and to tell them what I liked about their work. I do not expect answers but often get them. Occasionally I get comments from readers of my work as well. I appreciate the comments, usually noting whether my correspondents got the idea I was writing about, not so much whether he or she liked what I wrote.

One of the writers I knew as a boy was Hunter Thompson. I wrote the following when the news came that he had died.

A Writer Died

He was a nice little boy who gave no clues to his neighbors that he would turn out to be a well known writer, a comic strip character (Uncle Duke), a big-time user of drugs and alcohol, and finally, a suicide.

When my brother Robert and I babysat for Hunter S. Thompson, he was an ordinary kid with a nice mother and father on a middle class street in Louisville, Ky. His parents were friends of my parents. He had a younger brother and an older half-brother. It could be that the death of his dad, Jack Thompson, when Hunter was still a boy, had a stronger influence on Hunter than any of us realized. He grew into his teen-age years without a dad to give him direction. It was apparent that Jack had been a very forceful parent. His death may have left a large vacuum.

I was active in the Boy Scouts and tried very hard to interest Hunter in joining Troop Nineteen at a local Methodist church. But he never quite got enough interest to join. We went our separate ways and seldom saw each other. I was at least three years ahead of Hunter in Louisville Male High School, and only occasionally heard that he was getting in trouble. Rumors at the time were that he went into the military to avoid jail for some infraction of the law.

It was years later that I began to see the books that Hunter wrote and noticed that he was very talented. Occasionally I would send Hunter a note, praising his work. The last note I sent occurred after I had seen him on a television show. It began, “Wow, Hunter, you sure look like your dad!” And he really did, including the baldness.

Recently I found a book of Hunter’s called The Proud Highway, Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman. It was a collection of Hunter’s letters. Even a cursory reading of them indicated how he determined at an early age what his life-style would be, and perhaps how he would die. When Hunter was seventeen, he wrote, “So shall we let the reader answer this question himself: Who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived, or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?”

It seems evident that Hunter decided that drugs and alcohol and living dangerously for its own sake were “braving the storm of life.” There are many other ways to brave that storm, but Hunter chose the self-indulgent one that many other writers chose. In his letters Hunter tells how he literally copied the works of famous writers, not to plagiarize, but to see of he could discover the elements of their style. F. Scott Fitzgerald, an alcoholic, was one of Hunter’s favorites. So was Ernest Hemmingway.

I am a hack who writes occasional books and articles, but Hunter was a WRITER with real talent. Yet, it seems to me that Hunter squandered his talent. He produced only a fraction of what he could have written had he been more sober and disciplined. It seems that he was pursuing fame as a writer by living as he thought his favorite writers did.

It is no surprise to me that Hunter ended his life with a blast from a gun. What surprises me is that he did not do it on July 2. For that was the day Ernest Hemmingway ended his own life with a blast from a gun.

There’s no substitute for perpetual adolescence.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Planting Trees

This being my very first statement on my very own blog, I wondered, “What is my message to the world?” It turns out I have several messages and they will appear over time. I will begin with this important message: more older people should consider teaching in public schools.

Oh, I know, older people will say they have done their duty with kids (by raising a set of their own), but they could do even more for their society and mankind in general, by stepping into a classroom from time to time and taking over a standard lesson. It would be good for the kids, for the teacher and for themselves if they did.

I would not ask anyone to do what I have not done, so let me say that I have put in about ten years with kids from the sixth grade onward. And I treasure most of the time I spent in the classroom. Teaching is very honorable and very important. Teachers get too little praise for their efforts.

People in their retirement years who teach children are reminiscent of the Greek proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.” I was helped to ‘plant trees ‘ in one of the finest middle schools of the State of California and am grateful for the opportunity. I was also grateful to be counted among the teachers of this successful institution. I will never see these kids grow up to take their places in society, but I helped them grow.

Now, I will admit it was complicated to get into the classroom. I had to prove I had a degree from a reputable college; and I had to take a test (the CBEST). I was only 59 at the time and had not studied for the test at all. The hardest part was finding the correct room at LaVerne University where the test was offered. The actual test was no challenge. It was designed to be passed.

Next, I had to be fingerprinted by the local
fuzz. I had no record and I had been living at the same house for some years so my fingerprints raised no questions. Then I had to learn how to get along with kids. My wife, Evie, was a real teacher and a good one, so I had a fine role model. However, I was used to running factories where workers are hired to be big and tough, and where I was in charge of everything. Being a modest individual contributor in a school facility took some getting used to. So did dealing with young people instead of hardened adults.

On purpose I made changes in my life style a couple days of the week so I could teach kids. And I became aware of boys and girls whose morals were rock solid. These were the kids you could confidently put in charge of the entire operation. It was an honor to know some of these young people. I grew as a result of the experience of teaching.

Yep, older people should definitely consider working in school with today’s kids. My teaching days were truly golden. Besides, I learned a bunch of things.