It was my twelfth birthday. I blew out the candles and made a wish. If you would have asked what I wished for I might have told you: (a) to meet Jim Varney, and (b) to be a columnist.
I fell in love with columnists when I was young. For extra money my mother and I used to throw the newspaper at 2:30 A.M. each morning, and as a result I read the newspaper religiously. I came to idolize old-school newspaper men.
I bring this up because today is the birthday of this column/blog/whatever-you-call-it. And it has me feeling nostalgic. I’ll never forget when a small newspaper in Texas told me they were going to actually run a few of my columns, I got so excited when they sent me copies in the mail.
“This makes you a real columnist!” insisted my wife, waving the paper like a street-corner newspaper hawker.
And although I wanted to believe her, I didn’t. Because columnists, you see, are educated smart guys. They have multiple degrees, career accolades, and they drive Mercury Grand Marquis sedans. I drove a beater pickup. I typed 12 words per minute using only my index fingers.
Not long after that, I got another job writing short columns in Georgia. Whereupon I drove all the way to Savannah, carrying along a small manual typewriter. I wrote a few 500-word columns about baseball while seated at a KOA picnic table, eating a cold can of baked beans. I can’t remember feeling so happy.
“See?” my wife announced when she held a Georgia newspaper. “Now do you believe me? You’re a columnist now.”
Silly girl. You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken doo.
The hard truth is I’m not much of a writer. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not putting myself down. And believe me, I love writing. But I’m no fool, either. There are artists out there who are true poets. Me? I frequently write about the texture and viscosity of my dog’s drool.
In many ways I’m like the 20-some-year-old beat-up truck I drive. We’re both simple creatures. Not elegant. Not classy. But we are operational. And even though we have extremely high mileage, our engine still cranks on the seventh try.
Sadly, my poor Ford truck is totally falling apart. My broken passenger window, for example, has a trash bag covering it. My passenger mirror is shattered and is currently being held together by a combination of duct tape and the Will of the Lord.
Also, this truck has been through accidents, hurricanes, mechanical failure, disasters. My father-in-law once drove the truck into a telephone pole and smashed the front end to perdition. I myself have accidentally rammed this tailgate over trees, mailboxes, furniture, patios, and on one occasion, bikes belonging to innocent Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I’ve slept in the backseat during a New Orleans Mardi Gras debacle. I’ve ridden out an Alabama tornado while parked in a ditch. I’ve driven the length of Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Missouri. This truck has survived five dogs. I have cleaned this truck only once in its lifetime.
So I guess you could call this truck my twin. We’re both a little battered, unkempt, with truly enormous backsides. And we’ve both been through hard times.
I’m not going to give you my whole life story since I’ve written enough about my own history to sink the U.S.S. Wisconsin, but let’s just say my life hasn’t been a cakewalk.
My father swallowed a shotgun when I was a boy, I dropped out of school in seventh grade, I am mostly self-educated, and have lived in perpetual shame for my lack of schooling. I came from the wrong side of life, I have a significant overbite, and my dogs have higher pedigrees than I do.
And while I’m on a roll confessing: I freely admit that I forget to put the toilet seat down so that, often, in the middle of the night when my half-asleep wife uses the bathroom I am awoken by a giant splashing noise followed by threats on my life.
But oh, this small act of writing. You might never know how much it has changed me. It opened to me a universe I didn’t know existed. It introduced me to compassionate human beings. It introduced me to you. It has gotten me through a pandemic.
I have taken my keyboard to nearly every state on the North American Continent. I have written from hotels, Greyhound busses, the backs of campers, from 25,000 feet above the earth, from the Canadian border, and from the rim of the Grand Canyon.
I’ve interviewed too many terminal children, mothers with breast cancer, single fathers, and I’ve wept with survivors of those who died young. I’ve written about baseball, small towns, EMTs, cornbread, God, peanut farmers, Episcopalians, my father’s suicide, and even my old rickety truck.
I’ll never be accomplished. I’ll never be impressive. You can put me in a roomful of people at a cocktail party and I will always be the guy who once delivered newspapers with his mom. But I am still here, still burning motor oil, and this must count for something.
Although sometimes I wish I could travel backward in time to tell that 12-year-old boy something important.
I’d tell him that even though life will test him, he will survive. No, he might never meet Jim Varney like he once wished. But one day this boy will write these very words you’re reading now, and these words will represent his 2,317th column.
I guess my wife was right.