Our tabletop Christmas tree is long gone; packed away in the basement along with wreaths, ornaments and other seasonal decorations. A visitor to my writing place though might think I had forgotten to retire the colorful bits of frippery still adorning the top and edges of a nearby computer monitor. Actually, each “ornament” is a small square from a pad of “Post-It” notes, and each is imbued with a value which belies the few hand-written words printed neatly on its surface.
As I look back over the last year, I calculate that between the scripts for 50 radio programs, a similar number of newspaper and newsletter columns, and notes for two dozen classes and public lectures, I have written close to 80,000 words on a wide range of subjects. Because of the very eclectic nature of the subject matter I choose to pursue, the difference between the two venues in which I work, and the challenges implicit in the contrasting disciplines, I am always searching for new ideas and fresh fields of discovery. Many of the stories I have voiced on the radio or reduced to the written word as a columnist , and many of those I hope to explore in the days ahead, began on one of those “post-it” notes or on a 3X5 index card in a shirt pocket.
More than thirty years ago, I began to keep a “Happiness Calendar”, an informal journal – usually again, a collection of 3x5 pocket cards - of things worthy of remembering; things observed, overheard, discovered. Sometimes they would come in the form of a sentence or paragraph glimpsed in passing, or simply a word which triggered something more. The article I wrote about the “Forgotten Art of Listening” was born years before on a scrap of paper in my Happiness Calendar. So too was “History From Klootchy Creek”.
It is no exaggeration to say that researching, gathering, considering and finally converting to words, what is destined to become the theme of a radio program, a chapter in a book, or a column for NEIGHBORHOODS is an adventure. Looking back on just the past year, I can revisit the many “adventures” I have lived in my search for stories to tell.
One day while broadcasting, a caller came on the line to ask if I was the same guy who had written an article or two about planes and aviation in the SPECTRUM. Because of the few words shared by this humble man, I ended up visiting with, and getting to know Sam Wyrouck, who had flown an amazing 35 missions as a B-17 ball turret gunner with the 8th Air Force in WW II. From that chance phone call came the article called “Saying Thank You to The Greatest Generation”. More important, Sam has become for me a real hero and an admired friend.
Speaking of wartime history, I was researching for another project the strategic bombing policies of the Allied air forces in WW II – in particular the fire-bombing of enemy cities ¬– when, while considering the phenomenon known as a “fire storm”, I ran across a forgotten story of our own. There followed research into the personal accounts of Wisconsin victims of a naturally-spawned parallel event which became the article about the Peshtigo firestorm of 1871, printed on October 7, 2009.
My life-long love affair with the New England coast, and particularly the lighthouses of Maine, acquainted me long ago with the story of Abbie Burgess Grant who, as a young girl, became the heroine of the U.S. Lighthouse Service in the 1850s while living on a sea-washed islet known as Matinicus Rock. What earned Abbie a page in my “Happiness Calendar” was the sense of fulfillment I felt the day I finally found her burial site in a wooded forest sanctuary near Tenants Harbor, Maine. The article about Matinicus Rock found its way into print on October 21st.
There is a well-established article of faith known to all public speakers which points out that it is far more difficult to prepare and give a five-minute talk than a one-hour address. As a writer, I can also attest to a comparable dictum for authors. The columnist confronts the challenge of trying to say well and compellingly in a few words what might otherwise make a good short story. That and the matter of facing weekly deadlines, make this caper a unique balancing act. At this, the beginning of a new year, I can only say thank you to those who allow me to contribute this column and – especially – to those unnumbered readers for whom I write.