When I was putting together The Saturday Funnies column the other day, there was a particular quote that resonated with me. The great writer Jodi Picoult once said, "My dad used to say that living with regrets was like driving a car that only moved in reverse."
I love that and it’s true. Some hours later, as my dog and I sat in the dark, I thought a little more about that. If the Lord were to take me skyward this instant, so help me I would carry surprisingly few regrets. Oh, I would still be married, and you can take all of my 20 years with infections and other disappointments and toss them aside, but by and large I’ve had one heckuva ride and I’ll stack my blessings, opportunities given, and my warmest moments up against anyone.
Please, this isn’t any type of farewell or end song, but when it comes to regrets, as Jodi noted, I am so blessed that I have never struggled with reverse. My life’s game began early. In my family all of us boys went to work at age 12 – a dollar an hour every Saturday and all summer. By the time I got out of high school, I could run duct work, order concrete by the yard, drive any truck including those that bend in the middle and go “sssush, sssush,” and stack hay on a flatbed eight high with a cap.
When I was a senior in high school, it was time “to use my brain,” as my mother said, and I was placed in my family newspaper’s sports department. This was long before Internet and my job was to collect and correlate college football scores on Saturdays. I had every press box phone number in America and, by gumbo, our list was the golden standard.
I soon began to cover high school football games and fell in love with the craft. I had a bunch of people at the newspaper who guided me. Neat story: at the time we had a ‘proof reader’ who guarded the paper against mistakes. His grasp of English was incredible. After each edition, often he would sit with with me for about 15 minutes and critique my stories – the best writing teacher I ever had. He was kind and gentle, sincere and never forceful. Not until he died did I find out he was a high school dropout.
Oh, my goodness, back then I read every issue of Sports Illustrated cover to cover. I gobbled up the great writers – Twain, Faulkner, O’Henry, Hemingway, Kipling, and so many more – and ended up with my style of writing I have to this day. My dad was a great scholar, so he picked the books because he knew the very best ones and that’s what they call ‘learning from example.’
Incidentally, if you love to read as much as I do, get on the Internet and query what the best sellers were in 1953, or 1990, or any other year. You’ll find those stories are just as good today as they were when your parents read them.
Not to bore you, but I want my stories to flow in the way the greatest writers make you think you are reading a poem, one paragraph feeding the next. My confidence came from the fact than none of the greatest writers, from Shakespeare to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes) to the Southern genius Pat Conroy (‘Prince of Tides’) never took a journalism course either.
The truth is I hated every moment of college. I went to three different universities but by then I was writing. I was doing. All the pretend cannot match one day of seeing your byline on newsprint. I’ll admit I had a huge ‘in,’ obviously if my family fired me they’d still have to feed me, but I relished what I did and soon it began to show.
When I was in my late 20s, the offers began to come. Chattanooga was a medium market and the fact there was no Internet caused many good writers to never get a chance in the big leagues. Back then there were these “clipping services” and these companies would forward clippings of interest, or stories by certain people, to clients hither and yon. Soon, what I wrote passed under a lot of noses.
I had two, maybe three or four, stories appear in Reader’s Digest, and it was the biggest ego boost in the history of the world. But, just as big, I got a number of letters and phone calls from some of the nation’s largest newspapers and magazines, wanting to talk to me about coming to work for them. Wait, I loved where I lived and was happy. My kids were happy. My dog was happy. But one offer was so rich, including a TV deal, it was dang near obscene.
A couple of mornings after I had gotten the written offer, I sat in my grandfather’s office and told him I had an offer too good to be true. I could live in New York City or Denver. This was my big chance. There was a TV clause because they’d seen some old WTVC tapes and, while I would have to travel a lot to different locations, there would never be over three stories a week. Add the TV money and I could move up to a Cadillac in no time.
I shared the letter with my grandfather and he studied it. “Yes, this is a chance of a lifetime,” he said, “This crowd will be real lucky to get you. I know that better than they do. But there is one thing this letter leaves out. We are in a horrible battle with the other newspaper in town and our family needs you. I won’t dare hold you back, and will support any costs you have to move, but you are a big part of what our family needs to win, and I need you to stay here and help.”
Well, that was that. When I called to turn down the offer, I told the publisher “my family needs me more than you do.” Looking back, that realization was worth far more than any check ever would be. And in all the years I have watched, there are darn few in the United States whose families don’t urgently need one another, especially as you sit together at the dining room table today and toast dear old dad.
I’m betting without your father, you just might find yourself in a car that moved only in reverse. Make sure you tell him that.