Saturday, October 17, 2015

My lottery win comes with a typewriter



In all my fantasies of multi-million-dollar Lotto wins, in all my dreams of all the homes I'll buy -- one in a secluded lakeside cabin, another in a snowy Italian ski chalet and yet one more that kisses the white, foamy ocean in Key West, Florida, there remains a constant in the ever-changing scenery inside my mind.
It still looks cooler than an iPad.

Each place comes with a special room all to my own, with a large window to gaze at the lake, the mountains, the ocean or maybe nothing and everything. And in each room there will be a typewriter in the corner -- the black, manual Royal machine my wife bought me as a gift a few year's back. And just below the window, a desk with a computer and keyboard where I can sit and write.

Even with all the millions in the bank, all the property owned, and no need to get up to an alarm or count down to retirement, there is one thing I can't give up -- the option to stare at a screen, and tap a keyboard that strings letters into words and words into sentences and sentences into stories, thoughts and columns.

Writing is what I do and what I've always done. I wrote my first book about Elvis Presley when I was just 9 years old and he was only dead a few weeks. It was a masterpiece, at least according to my mother, who saved it all these years, God love her.

Writing has been my hobby, my mistress, my paycheck and my salvation.

As a boy growing up in Pittsburgh, I watched my Dad -- a hardened, grizzled city cop -- read the Post-Gazette in the morning with his coffee, and the Pittsburgh Press in the afternoon. And I learned to be like him.

I poured over every column by Mike Royko; read every line of "Dear Abby," and Erma Bombeck, even if I didn't always understand it, but usually did. I read in rapt fascination over the story of the boy-heroin addict from a Pulitzer Prize-winning story in the Washington Post, and then amazed again at the news story months later that it was all made up.

I fell in love with all the stories and how the writers turned their words and sentences into stories and life.

One day, I knew, I'd do it myself.

I did 20 years in the Air Force, deployed to some foreign places and war-torn countries, and I wrote. That was my job as a public affairs specialist. We called ourselves DINFOS Trained Killers, after the Defense Information School where we got our training. I wrote for base newspapers and news releases. I wrote scripts and speeches. Then I got called to the majors -- a job at European Stars & Stripes, and got to learn at the feet of the masters -- people who did this for a living much longer than me. They were good and I was bad. but they were patient and they nurtured me and let me learn.
I wrote for that paper for five years in Germany and Bosnia and Italy and Kosovo and never wanted to leave.

But the Air Force made me leave and I spent my last five years back in public affairs, in a job that wasn't as much fun, but still let me write. I counted the days until retirement, told myself I'd write for another newspaper and never go back into public affairs again.

It's good to have a plan, and one of my feature stories caught the eye of an editor at the newspaper in Kenosha where I lived, and still do today. It led to lunch and a part-time job at the Kenosha News a year before Air Force retirement and a full-time job after that.

It's good to plan, but plans don't always work out. My next step was going to be a syndicated columnist. But people don't read newspapers like they used to, and the internet and all its easy, cheap ads stole the publishing industry's thunder. With layoffs looming, I did what I swore I'd never do and returned to the public affairs fold again. I work for a government agency, and don't get to write as much as I need or want, but sometimes still do.

Sometimes I have no choice. Sometimes I need to write. It's what I find myself doing sometimes, late at night, to clear my mind before trying to sleep. Sometimes it's to type something funny, and other times it saves my life. When my oldest son was killed four years ago, writing everyday kept me from going insane.

As I write this now, I'm sitting at a bar at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel in Durham, North Carolina. I'm sipping a Red Oak micro brew beer. It's amber and cold and good. The Astros are playing the Royals on the television, and the winner will go to the American League Championship. It's a good game, but still couldn't stop the urge to pull out my computer and write.

It's the right kind of bar to have an iPad and drink a beer and write. A guy sat down next to me, and  a few pleasantries later, he's told me his life story. He was 17 when they sent him to Vietnam, 20,000 miles from home. He came home and had nothing in common with his friends. So he started a support group at his local college. It was therapy that saved his life. He drank his beer and I drank mine. I wished him goodnight, came back to my room and finished writing this piece.

I have no choice. I have to write. It's what I do.

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