Day 4 - Origin of the the Species

I've had time recently to reflect on how I got to be where I am (or whatever) and that speeding train hurtling for the abyss led me to recall some of my earliest influences as a writer, and some conversations that led to me deciding to pick up the pen at a pretty early age.

I grew up in a pretty large family (for those who don't already know that) a combined family of "his, hers and ours" and I was the oldest of the "ours" bunch.
My father spent his entire professional career working in the media as a news photographer, so it was pretty common for me to be hanging out during the summer weekends at sporting events he was covering on deadline like the NHRA Spring Nationials or the weekend races at Mid Ohio (This was back when the Dispatch covered those events with real people, not just wire copy and AP photos).

One of my favorite activities (aside from following dad into the dark room watching him print photos) was to wander the editorial pool and see who was around. On weekends (even in the evening) the newsroom at the paper was often pretty deserted. The yellowed walls still dripped nicotine tar from the weekly smoke clouds of bullpen addictions, and the smell of coffee reeked from sitting on the burner long past the exit of its consumers.  Nicotine and burnt coffee suffused the air. It was like a decaying wonderland to an adolescent child who thought there was nothing cooler than being a cub photographer or investigative reporter.

On one of these weekends I was wandering the paper strewn chaos of the news department aimlessly, trying to pick up glimpses of nuggets or to discover some cool insight on the big story I'd read about tomorrow. (Honestly, for anyone who's never wandered an editorial newsroom - this was a fantasy - most of the chaos on reporters desks is mundane copy, reference materials and discarded ideas -  not riveting stuff - and it's pretty much the same even today with everything moving into computers and laptops)

I heard a grumble as I explored. The desks were not quite the cubicles they would become later in the 1980's and 1990, they more resembled older office desks pushed together in pods with typewriters, a dark brown plastic rotary phone and stacks of rubbish segregating and separating their occupant's domains.

When I looked over I noticed a lanky, haggard older man with a cigarette hanging loosely from the left corner of his mouth. His glasses rested down the rim of his nose slightly as his eyes focused on the bar of the typewriter before him.

He was cartoonish in his posture. His legs were too long for the desk, leaving his knees slightly propped at the level of the typewriter, and his back doubled forward a bit like an old granddad who was trying to read without his glasses. His elbows were pulled tight against his torso while his hands hung, slightly bent and prepared to strike at the keys like a preying mantis about to release fury upon a victim.

"Here now young master, why are you wandering through our editorial graveyard on such a wonderful evening?" He called.  His voice was jovial, kindly and thickly Australian. I'm not sure I knew what an Australian accent sounded like at the time - quite possibly this was the first time I'd heard one - but it had a friendly, lyrical quality to it I wasn't used to.

Now those who know me today probably will find this odd, but I wasn't always the socially gregarious lad - unafraid of conversation - that I've become. He startled me a bit, I hadn't even noticed him and his question had broken me from the search for the hidden news I was on. I recoiled a bit because I felt like I'd been discovered raiding the vaults of Fort Knox or digging through the library of Alexandria.

"My dad's developing the pictures from the races, so I'm keeping myself busy." I felt anxious. Was I violating some rule being in the newsroom unaccompanied? I mean this was The Dispatch newsroom, and I was just Tom's kid.

"Pictures? Ah, you must be one of Tom and Gail's kids. Steve? No, you're a little too young. Are you Shawn or Tom Jr.?" He moved away from his hovering pose over the typewriter and I heard a loud creak as his chair swiveled about. I also noticed him smile and relax, leaning back and stretching his long legs as he faced me.

"I'm Shawn. TJ's still back in photo drawing I think."

"Well then young Mr. Sines, why are you wandering the halls? I didn't mean to frighten you, it's just not very often that we receive young visitors like you back here on the weekend." He continued to smile at me, and as he looked me over I remember he pushed his glasses back up over the crest of his nose.

"I was bored." I replied. I was always bored. Boredom was my hobby when I was that age. If I didn't have a pencil in my hand drawing or a camera, you could rest assured I'd complain about being bored.

"I see." He seemed to consider the phrase a bit, then continued. "Do you read?" He asked.

"Yeah, but I don't have any books with me. We were at the races all day and I was out shooting pictures so I didn't take any books with me."

"Well I have a solution for that. Do you care for fantasy stories Shawn?" The questions sounded odd to me, I mean who didn't love fantasy stories. I considered regaling him with my reading history, of the nights I'd spent reading The Lord of the Rings or any of a number of countless books. I knew I should leave it at that, but even then I was not so good on the benefits of a brief discussion.

"Yeah, I love fantasy books," and then I went ahead and shared all those books, a mile a minute, not even pausing to listen to my own words as I tripped over one title in anticipation of declaring the next. When I was finally done the man smiled at me and nodded.

"Well it sounds as if you've got quite the base. But have you ever heard of a man by the name of Harlan Ellison? I imagine not but with your extensive reading history I hazard to ask."

"No, whats he write?" I'd never heard of Ellison. I didn't know at the time he'd written some of my favorite TV episodes or that he was probably not the type of writer a nine year old should read.

"A little of everything." The man turned again in his chair and opened a small drawer in his desk. Papers and other articles must have sensed their limited opportunity for escape and made a break for freedom at this opening, but he calmly pushed them back down and drew out a smallish trade paperback with a cool blue cover and passed it over to me. "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" was the book.

"That's a collection of short stories. I think you'll like them."

I stared back at him a little dumbfounded, apparently it wasn't the subtle sort of dumbfounded look because he laughed and nodded to me. "I give you this book on one condition though Master Sines. When you're done reading it, I expect we shall have a conversation about the contents." He sat forward again and winked at me before turning back to the typewriter and resuming his perched mantis position.

"Run on now young sir. We'll talk soon, but the beast needs to be fed and I am its keeper tonight." And I scurried back through the maze of desks back to the photo department, book in hand and began devouring the stories within.

Once I'd finished the book a few hours later, Dad was ready to head home. His prints were done, the photo editor had picked the shots and he was exhausted from working and managing his two youngest sons with our boundless energy. On the way out of the building, he noticed the book and asked who'd given it to me. I realized I'd never gotten his name, so I proceeded to describe the tall Australian man at his typewriter, and dad laughed - which was not something he did all the time, usually he was too busy to laugh at my comments, so on the way out I found myself led back to the tall man's desk and my father formally introduced us.

"Shawn, this is Ted. Ted Shackleford." Ted nodded and laughed.

"Are you done yet young mister Sines?" He asked me.

"Yeah, though I didn't quite understand some of the stories." I handed him back the book but he waved it off.

"That is why we'll have our conversation. Next time you're bored, put pen to paper and pick one of those stories and write me a note about how you felt about it, how it made you think or something that you found interesting. Then tell me what you didn't like or understand. Send that note in with your dad and I'll get it." He smiled, thanked dad for stopping over and went back to work.

My conversations with Ted lasted a few years, into my teens and as he and I talked through our letters to each other he worked to encourage my love of writing and reading. I probably would have ended up a writer in some form or another, but Ted was the first person outside my school or my family to really work with me, to read my work and encourage me to become a storyteller. His humor, candor and coaching were keys that got me through some rough times growing up.

Ted's been gone quite a few years now. Near the end of his life we'd grown estranged as I finished school, became a Marine and started a family of my own. When I think back to why I write, I give no small credit to the funny Australian man I met in that newsroom on a hot summer evening. I never knew Ted the man very well, but Ted the mentor left his mark.

Comments

  1. wtprewitt@comcast.net9:35 PM, July 26, 2011

    Ted was, indeed, one of a kind. But there were a number of other notables in the Big D. newsroom back them, when your Dad and I were young bucks aspiring to be the Bill Foleys and the Dick Ottes of their respective departments.
    Many a Saturday night we were regaled by tales from Ned C. Stout, or chided on points of style and grammar by Helen Wilson. They were great times with good friends gone too young, like Tom Fennessy. I count myself lucky to have been there -- Bill Prewitt, Dispatch 1973-1981.

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  2. Thanks for the insight Bill. I of course have some other interesting storiies about Ted I might share here in the blog in the future, and some of the Dispatch itself from my tenure as a staffer...

    I recall stories of Ned Stout, Ken Chamberlain, Fred Shannon, Joe Pastorek and a lot of the old photo guys as well.

    I'm sad to see how the world, and the newspaper industry as a whole has progressed in recent years.. maybe it's nostalgia for earlier times, but the stories I recall seem to point to more halcyon days with a different passion than I experienced.

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  3. Shawn, you must be good because I knew it was Ted Shackleford before you even wrote about the Australian accent.

    Ted was my mentor, too. He was near the end of his career and many nights was bitter in the long-past realization that newspapers have a habit of eating their young and spitting out their old. But he was always kind to me. When I was a cub sportswriter and wandered into the city-side room we must've struck up a conversation about Aussie-rules football at some point. A few weeks later, he went home to Australia and brought me back a Fitzroy jersey -- he called it a "guernsey." Made of wool and stitched logo in red, blue and yellow.

    A couple years after that I had been busted from the TV-radio columnist down to cops/courts reporter by Luke Feck because I'd roughed up a disc jockey who slandered my wife on the air. I was a lost lamb in that environ and Ted knew that. He helped me along until I escaped to Pennsylvania a year and a half later and rehabbed my career.

    Inside every bitter old news guy is an idealist. I think Ted was one of those guys. Thanks for writing about him. A memorable guy.

    David Jones, Dispatch 1981-89

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