I’d known from my earliest days that writing was my talent, that words were precious gems, that my pen and typewriter would become as indispensable as my arms and legs. Before I really attended school, I knew writing’d be my forte. I missed most of my kindergarten year with some weird chronic fever. I spent the vast majority of that time off thumbing through my family’s World Book Encyclopedia volumes. Slowly but surely, all those squiggles on the page became scrutable to me. I taught myself to read.
So it was almost predestined that words would become my life.
Whatever that fever was, by first grade it was gone and so I spent my days from age five through 18 in classrooms. I’d much rather have been anyplace else. Any place. The Prussian-style schoolrooms of my youth were, hands down, the least likely places a person of my temperament, energy, concentration, and discipline (or lack thereof) could thrive in. Sitting still, paying attention, keeping quiet, “applying” myself, obeying, following instructions — I had little capacity for any of those talents and abilities. That is, if they are, indeed, talents and abilities.
All I wanted to do was run, jump, laugh, yell, joke, tease, ride my bike, and hit a ball. And read. I was a voracious reader. I knew that encyclopedia. I knew what the atomic bomb was, who Einstein was, what Ancient Rome was, that Woodrow Wilson was a president, that the keeping of critters on a farm was once know as “animal husbandry,” that Churchill was portly, and the Empire State Building was the tallest in the world. I knew this stuff long before any of my classmates did because I devoured that encyclopedia, as well as the daily newspaper. We got the Chicago Sun-Times Monday through Saturday and the Tribune and American on Sunday. I read them all, skipping the middle sections (the obituaries and business). I knew who Castro was and Willy Brandt and Nikita Khrushchev and Dean Rusk and Alan B. Shepard. I knew trouble was brewing in the Dominican Republic and that Charles de Gaulle was pretty much a jerk.
Even my love of baseball was based on reading. I collected baseball cards and memorized every statistical line and all the colorful little stories on the back of them. It fascinated me that a fellow named Cookie Rojas, second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, actually wore glasses while playing big league baseball. How cool! I wore glasses, too. I learned Sandy Koufax was Jewish so I had to run to the J-volume of the encyclopedia to figure out what that meant. Houston built its Astros a domed stadium, so I had to do some digging to understand how such a huge edifice could stay standing.
And then, when I was 14 years old, the book Ball Four came out. It was an uncensored, straightforward look at the life of a big-leaguer. Ballplayers drank, chased women, had arguments with each other, felt they were underpaid, resented authority, divorced, remarried, gambled, went bankrupt, took “greenies” (amphetamines), and worried about what they’d do after their careers were over. The baseball establishment threw fits, saying it was all made up or that the author, pitcher Jim Bouton, had no right to write about such things. Me? I ate it all up. The more I read his book, the more I loved baseball.
Books have been my most treasured possessions all my adult life.
Now, here’s the irony. Because, as mentioned above, I wasn’t any teacher’s favorite student, I was constantly being punished. And the single most frequent punishment teachers threw at me was the dreaded 1000-word essay. I didn’t turn in my homework for the umpteenth time? Write a thousand words on why homework is important (now, nearly six decades later, I can complete that essay in two words: It isn’t.) A kid named Dennis Corso and I got into a fistfight during recess. He called me a dirty Jew. At the time I didn’t know what that meant but I could sense he wasn’t implying I was the coolest kid in class. So we blackened each other’s eye. The principal, who was a Jew, made us write a thousand words on a great Jewish person. I chose Benjamin Disraeli, British prime minister a couple of times in the 1800s. I knew of him from reading the encyclopedia, natch. I discovered that his old man had quit the faith when Benjamin was a kid. So, the first thing I ever really learned about Judaism was that people could become not-Jewish if they wanted.
Nevertheless, making me write a thousand words was as daunting as asking me to build a structure taller than the Empire State Building. If I recall correctly, I repeated a number of sentences several times to reach that magic number. I’m surprised the principal didn’t make me write a thousand words on why I shouldn’t cheat on 1000-word essays.
In any case, teachers and principals all did their best to make me hate writing. Writing, they taught me, was punitive and onerous. Writing is what bad kids had to do. It would be impossible to derive pleasure or satisfaction of any sort from the act of writing. And for a while I believed all those things. I learned to hate writing.
But by the time I was 21 or so, I realized writing was the thing I knew how to do best. And what was wrong with that? Hell, Jim Bouton‘s writing brought me huge pleasure. So did Wodehouse‘s and Bellow‘s and Lederman‘s and Allen‘s and Baldwin‘s and Lebowitz‘s and Royko‘s and…, well, the list can go on forever. Or at least a thousand words.
Now that I write for the sheer pleasure of it (and, throughout my adult life, for money) I want to throw a big finger back at all those who did their best to beat the love of writing out of me. Here’s my thousand words.