If Lowell had known anything about corporate culture or management, he never would have hired me.
That’s because in most big companies, Human Resources professionals screen employment applications and perform résumé triage, putting each into a pile: Meets minimum qualifications; doesn’t meet them; maybe. Usually only the first pile goes to the interviewer.
I did not then have a bachelor’s degree, as the job required, so my application should have gone on the second pile, thence to the shredder.
But Lowell told HR he wanted to see all 200-plus applications. He found mine, with tear sheets of published picture stories and magazine articles, and barely glanced at my resume.
The job was associate editor of a profusely illustrated monthly employee magazine for a financial services company. Lowell was its editor.
My interview went well: We both smoked Borkum Riff in our pipes; we were both recently discharged from the Army, and both our wives were Asian. Lowell said this was “propitious.” (I didn’t mention that I was getting a divorce.)
On my first day Lowell explained that we would write four pieces each per issue, then edit each other’s stories. All copy then went to HR to check name spellings, and to Richard,a vice president and Lowell's boss.
Lowell then handed me six pages. “Peruse these,” he said. “Edit as you go.”
I wasn’t sure what “peruse” meant. Not wanting to seem stupid, I looked it up in my office dictionary, then went to work.
Carefully reading each page, I examined each word, each line, each paragraph, every comma, period and colon. I perused it.
An hour later Lowell stuck his head in my office. “Have you finished perusing my piece?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I replied.
He asked twice more, and twice I replied as before.
Just before lunch he marched into my office and snatched the pages.
“What is wrong with you!” he shrieked. “How long does it take to read a short story?”
“A few minutes,” I replied. “But you told me to ‘peruse’ it.”
“Yes, peruse it. Read it over quickly.”
“No,” I said. “Peruse does not mean to read quickly.”
“It certainly does,” he insisted, his face flushed.
“I looked it up,” I said. When I showed Lowell the dictionary, he stomped off in fury.
Lowell’s stepfather was chairman of a Fortune 500 manufacturer. Lowell attended prep schools and then a pricey private university, a campus better known for its football teams than academics. Then he was drafted into the Army; afterward, with his wife, he toured Europe trying to be a freelance writer. When his family shut the money tap, they returned.
Tally and rangy, Lowell was 25 but looked at least my age, 33. He favored tweeds and elbow-patch jackets and used $50 words, sprinkling his conversations with literary allusions and gratuitous wine commentary.
This was his first real job. A week after coming aboard as associate editor, the old editor left and Lowell took his place. Two weeks later, he hired me.
The company operated nationwide; each month one of us traveled to a different state, where we spent a week interviewing staff, doing research and shooting photos. I wasn’t making much money, but I enjoyed the travel.
I needed this job, so from the first day forward, conscious of Lowell’s pretensions, I humbled myself to him. He seemed satisfied with my work; when it began winning awards he found ways to share the glory. I didn’t mind. I was trying to put my life back together and learn enough to prepare myself for my next move up the career ladder.
Lowell was on a different journey. A few months after I started, his pretty wife gave birth to their first child. He soon moved out, took a bachelor pad and entertained a succession of girlfriends. He began locking himself into his office until lunch, taking no calls. He claimed to be working on his novel, but everyone in the office knew he was sleeping. Once a janitor found a pair of women's panties in his waste basket.
Meanwhile he gave me first one, then two, of his stories to write each month, in addition to my own four. Claiming that my expenses were excessive, he cut back my travel schedule. On the road I usually ate hamburgers and always took modest lodging, so I wondered if he was using our budget to fund dinner dates.
But I said nothing.
By then I was again single; after years in uniform and classes at eight colleges, I was anxious to finish my degree. From HR I learned that the company reimbursed tuition, books and expenses for work-related classes, so I enrolled in university editing and graphic design courses.
Reimbursement required Lowell’s signature — but he refused to give it. Why spend department funds when I could get GI Bill education benefits, he said. HR told him that education reimbursement came out of their budget, but as usual Lowell wouldn’t back down.
My graphic design class required that I turn in a camera-ready piece project. I created a fold-out brochure; it needed type, so I called Frank, the vendor whose company set our magazine’s type. When I asked the price, he said “Not much — I’ll bill you.”
Soon after that, Sherry, Frank’s saucy, irreverent, 20-something daughter and his company’s messenger, flashed our office secretarial pool to display her new breast implants.
Lowell caught a glimpse of the new Sherry and invited her to dinner. They went to a fancy restaurant; as the vichyssoise arrived, he made it plain that he expected her to spend the night with him.
Sherry laughed at him.
Lowell gauchely mentioned the price of the meal they’d just ordered.
Sherry threw her soup in his face and called a cab.
Around then our corporation bought a credit card firm, a competitor of American Express. Lowell was told to interview Ken, its president, and write a profile. That required a long, rush-hour drive back from Los Angeles in brutal heat — but Lowell had a dinner date, so he sent me instead.
While I was writing this profile, Lowell obsessed over Sherry’s humiliating rejection, which she had, of course, shared with our secretaries. To punish her and end the buzz that accompanied her messenger visits, he fired her father. We were Frank’s biggest account; trying to change Lowell’s mind, he reminded him of past favors, including several weekends that he’d allowed Lowell and various girlfriends to use his hideaway beach cabin. Frank also mentioned my school project; he’d never billed me for the type.
Lowell ignored him and hired a new typesetter.
When my profile was published, Ken was so pleased that he asked our CEO to promote me. The editor-in-chief of his company’s magazine, a rival of Travel & Leisure, was old, ailing and due to retire. Ken wanted me to come over, and after a six-month apprenticeship, take over for him. I’d get a small pay raise immediately and a big one when I became editor.
This was a terrific break: a leap from the employee communications backwater to the glamorous cosmos of a consumer travel publication.
Lowell was furious. The next day he berated me for misspelling a name, the sort of trivial error that we’d both made and that HR always caught. “If you spent less time perusing dictionaries, maybe you’d have time to check names,” he growled.
He’d never forgiven me for revealing his ignorant pretentiousness!
“That’s hardly fair, Lowell,” I replied. “I’m writing almost the whole magazine now, and —“
“You’re not a captain now,” he said, seething. “I tell you what’s fair.”
I saw then that bossing me around compensated Lowell for the indignity of having had to take orders from men like me while he was in the Army.
Then Lowell bypassed Richard, went to the CEO and demanded that Ken interview him for the position I’d been offered.
He got his interview. But Ken still wanted me.
Two days before I was scheduled to start, however, while working on a special issue commemorating the tenth anniversary of our Australian division, Richard sent for me. He shut his office door behind me.
“I’m sorry about this,” he said. “Lowell went directly to the Legal Department, so there’s nothing I can do.”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You accepted a vendor’s gratuity worth over $20,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s grounds for termination,” he said.
“What exactly did I do?” I asked.
“Typesetting. Some kind of fancy résumé you were having printed. So you were planning on leaving anyway?”
“That was for my graphic design class. Frank said he’d bill me.”
“It’s out of my hands,” said Richard. “Sorry.”
“What about my promotion? I was supposed to go to work for Ken.”
“Out of the question,” said Richard.
I was in shock. A security guard escorted me from the building.
At home I found a message on my answering machine: Jim, another company VP, was appalled at what happened. He’d found me a job with a competitor. The new position was considered management, offered a flexible schedule and paid much more than my former one. The only downside was a 75-mile daily commute.
I took it, of course.
A week later Lowell left a message on my machine: He, too, had been sacked. That was all — no explanation, no apology.
Then Richard left a message. I ignored it until he called twice more and begged me to meet him that night.
He got right to the point: “The special Australia issue — it’s imperative that we publish on schedule,” he said.
“I have a new job,” I said. “Staff of four, expense account, managerial title and much more money than I was making.”
“Can you work nights for us? Put out one magazine? And hire a new staff?”
“I accepted a vendor’s $20 gratuity. How could you trust me?”
“Our mistake,” he said. “But you’re the only one — and if you don’t, the Australians —”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You break my sword over your knee, cut the buttons off my tunic, pour out my canteen and chase my camel into the desert – and now you want to say, ‘oops’?”
“What’s it going to cost?” he said.
I thought about my long daily commute and my plan to start night school full time. I’d need a new car soon.
So I worked double shifts for a month, including weekends, to put out the Australia issue, and hired two friends to replace Lowell and me.
In return, my former employers bought me a new car.
Lowell vanished from my life. But more than 20 years later, by chance, I encountered the woman who actually took the job that Ken had offered me and that Lowell so desperately wanted. She’d spent three years as an apprentice editor at a beggar’s wages before she quit.
“The editor was old and sick,” she said. “But he was never going to retire. He wanted to be carried out on his shield.”
Despite his perverse intentions, his pretensions and his inflated opinion of his own talents, it seems that Lowell’s intervention saved me from a depressing career detour; getting fired put me on the right path.
All these years later, I remain in his debt.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
The elevator slid open and a man in handcuffs and blue jail coveralls stepped forward. Behind him came a uniformed officer, who pointed to the bench next to me. "Back in a minute," said the cop, and parked his charge in an alcove deep inside Parker Center, LAPD's Downtown headquarters.
I noticed that the inmate was cuffed in front and that his hands and nails were clean. Then I looked away. "Whatcha here for?" he said, and I turned to peer at him again, a slender man, probably in his twenties, clean-shaven, with short reddish blonde hair. I inspected the floor tiles and stifled my urge to reply.
"I'm down for receiving stolen property," volunteered this prisoner. "Bought some copper wire off a guy, turned out he stole it," he added. "What about you?"
I had lunched with a private investigator, who shared an anecdote about recovering funds ripped off in an insurance scam. He bragged that he had cracked this case after a police captain sold him confidential documents.
I hardly knew this PI, and I had grown up watching "Dragnet" and "Adam 12," believing that the police are my friends, that in Los Angeles, as perhaps nowhere else, the men in blue are above graft and larceny, that they are the finest citizens among us. And so later, chatting with someone whom I had known since high school, a man who had made a fine career in the LAPD, I had asked if such a thing was possible.
A week later a pair of detectives knocked at my door. They were from LAPD. From Internal Affairs. They wanted the name of the captain who had been bribed.
I didn't have a name. I didn't know which department the captain worked for, or even if he was LAPD or another force. And I didn't even know with certainty that there actually had been a bribe. But when I said as much, and explained that I had been talking to a PI about a book that I might write, these police who police the police began to float scenarios: Maybe I was the guy doing the bribing. Maybe I hired the guy who bought the documents. Maybe I had tried to bribe a police officer, but he refused.
Biting back my anger, I told them, again, what I knew, and what I didn't. They were not satisfied. I was invited to take a polygraph.
I had heard and read about polygraph tests, and knew just enough to be wary. The instrument measures blood pressure, respiration, and galvanic skin resistance — sweatiness. Those who favor it insist that these phenomena reflect the liar's inner anxiety, and that measuring them while responding to questions reveals deception, when present.
Those who don't believe in the machine say that while it may be that bodies scream "no, no, no," when their owners say "yes, yes, yes," interpreting the data is more art than science, that the real purpose of the "lie detector" is to frighten a suspect into confessing, and that as science its product is worthless.
I respectfully declined the LAPD's offer to prove my sincerity.
A week later, one of the detectives telephoned to offer me a chance to change my mind about the polygraph — and about what I had recounted about the cop captain on the take.
I declined again.
Later I started to think: I had done nothing wrong, committed no crime. I knew nothing that I hadn't shared with police. But how often does a writer get to experience a polygraph test? I dreamed of writing novels. Perhaps someday I might find such an encounter useful. Even if I never wrote about it, it would undoubtedly be an interesting experience.
When the detective called back yet again, I agreed to the test.
And so I was at Parker Center, listening to an inmate talk about buying stolen telephone cable. And going into shock: Many years earlier, my father, a junkyard owner, had been arrested for the identical crime. I was in Vietnam then, and never knew much about that incident. Dad had hired a lawyer. The matter evaporated.
Suddenly I was afraid.
My only previous brush with the law was a misdemeanor: Selling encyclopedias door-to-door without a license in a small town that wouldn’t issue said permits. But surely my father's felony arrest remained in some cop shop file. Could it really be coincidence that the first person I met at Parker Center was up on exactly the same rap, the only charge that my father had ever faced? I turned it over in my mind, realizing at last that what he was telling me, chapter and verse, was probably right out of Dad's case file.
I was getting the full treatment.
My mouth stayed shut until the Internal Affairs detective beckoned to me.
While I will never qualify for sainthood, I have never been much good at lying. No matter the temptation, I am quite unable to tell a woman that I love her if I don't. I am equally unable to withhold professions of sincere sentiment, even when I know that the object of my affections would rather not hear them. In ordinary conversation I tend to say whatever comes to mouth, without considering it for the merest instant, and so later I am often unable to recall my exactly words. Until well into middle age, when I learned that it was often better to be quiet than right, I found tact a challenge.
I feared no lie detector.
The room was small and worn, with faded lime-hued walls, the requisite one-way mirror, and a rumpled, balding operator who explained how things worked as he affixed a blood-pressure cuff at my biceps, a galvanometer sensor on my finger, a strap across my chest to measure how quickly and often my lungs filled. The detective read me the questions that he would ask and we began.
After preliminary queries — my name and age, used to establish a baseline of body responses, came the main event. And an unscripted question: "Your only reason for being here today is to help this investigation, is that correct?"
Not quite. I was there partly so that the police would stop bothering me, and partly for the possible literary value of the experience.
"Not exactly," I replied.
"Yes or no," said the detective. "Answer yes or no, please."
"Yes or no!"
Yes," I said. My body temperature rose. Perspiration oozed from my every pore. My heart beat wildly, and my blood pressure rose so rapidly that I grew dizzy. I fought for air.
The polygraph needles etched arabesques across the chart.
I have slogged through rice paddies with bullets snapping and hissing past my ears. I have spiraled down toward a landing zone while fountains of green tracers searched for our chopper as it jinked and side-slipped and zigzagged and shuddered from hit after hit. I have taken the witness stand in open court and had my motives and mores and credibility gnawed by a pit bull in a thousand-dollar suit. I have been about as afraid as it is possible to be, yet kept my wits and did my job. But in that small green room I was suddenly overcome with dread. Panic seized my body and refused to release it until the questions ended and the polygraph was turned off.
"Anything you want to say?" asked the sneering detective afterward. "Are you ready to give us the truth now?"
I tried not to be sore. The police were just doing their job, I told myself, and in their world everyone is a suspect, a sleaze ball who lies to save himself. But then, a few months later, the lid came off the LAPD toilet and I learned about cops manufacturing evidence, "testilying" about crimes that never occurred, shooting an elderly homeless woman who waved a screwdriver at them — whole barrels of bad apples ruining innocent lives in the name of blue power solidarity.
The more I think about those cops, the less sure I am of my feelings toward them. My only certainty is that I will never take another polygraph test.
And that is the truth.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
Rachel rapped on my screen door. “Hello!” she called. “Anybody home?”
Just back from my Sunday afternoon run, I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to see Rachel again, let alone now, when I was sweaty, thirsty and tired.
“Please,” she called. “I need your help.”
We’d met through the Personals. She was everything I’d ever wanted in a woman: pretty, sexy, sassy and smart. And responsibly employed. For me it was pretty much love at first sight. It took Rachel several dates, until I clicked with her young daughter and charmed her mother. We became a couple. Heaven!
For all of two weeks.
She dumped me with a message on my answering machine.
“This isn’t working,” she said. “I’m sorry. I met someone…. ”
She wouldn’t take my calls. Was never home when I rang her doorbell. Didn’t respond to my letters.
Rejection is every writer’s companion and far from my worst enemy. I was hurt, of course, but at 35, with a terrible marriage behind me, I knew I would recover. I’m not the stalker type, so I moved on.
Now, two months later, she was at my door.
I gave her a can of soda and took a seat on the couch next to her, admiring, as always, her alluring yet modestly attired figure.
“It’s good to see you, Rachel,” I said, putting an arm around her.
She pushed me away.
“I didn’t come for that,” she said.
I gave her an expectant look.
“I’m married now.”
“Why are you here, Rachel?”
“I wanted to say I’m sorry. I should have had better manners. I should have told you in person.”
“Told me what, exactly?”
“That you weren’t the man I needed. I need someone with a regular job.”
“I have a regular job.”
“You’re a free-lance writer.”
I gestured expansively. “I own this house. Me and the bank. My car is paid for. I eat regularly, pay my bills on time.”
“It’s a townhouse. Your Toyota is three years old. You always wear jeans. And you know what? That’s smart, because you never know one month to the next how much you’ll make. I really admire you. You’re very talented and you work hard. …”
Yadda yadda yadda.
“… but I need — “
“Somebody with a lot of money,” I said.
“No, no, that’s not right. I just need… more stability. And then I met Michael, and he was….”
“He’s in sales — and he does very well.”
“Let me guess. Drives a Mercedes. Lives in Beverly Hills.”
“Newport Beach. And it’s a BMW.”
She fumbled in her purse for a photo.
Michael seemed to have stepped out of a GQ ad: tall, movie-star handsome, immaculately groomed in Armani.
I’ve never owned a suit that cost more than $100, and I bought that one in Hong Kong. I’m average looking…if there isn’t too much light. And short. Very short.
“And now you’re living happily ever after?”
“I need to borrow some money,” she said.
I laughed. Surely some revelation was at hand. “Surely the Second Coming is at hand,” I said.
I was thinking Yeats. She was thinking something else and shrank from me.
“Michael’s in trouble,” she shrieked.
“What kind of trouble?”
“He’s kind of…. behind in his child support.”
“‘Kind of behind’?”
“A year or so.”
I beamed her my tell-me-more. She began sobbing.
“So he owes his ex-wife a bundle?”
“Three ex-wives! Five children!”
“You dumped me for a deadbeat dad—now you want me to pay his back child support?”
“It’s not what you think! Anyway, I didn’t know about all that until….”
Rachel wept uncontrollably. Tissue was inadequate. I got her a towel.
I let her cry, trying to savor the irony. It didn’t make me feel better about myself. Or about her.
When Rachel was cogent, I prepared my lance, then jabbed.
“Tall, dark and handsome, Beamer, lives in a waterfront mansion and dresses to make your heart go pitty-pat—but too cheap to support his own flesh and blood?”
Round two. Rachel cried for another five minutes, long past the point where I regretted my cruelty.
“The house— the car— the furniture— everything's leased,” she murmured. “He got behind… I had to make last month’s payments—He's in real estate and he hasn’t closed a deal since…”
“How much do you need. And what’s it for?”
Dabbing at her eyes, Rachel told me that police arrested Michael for failing to pay court-ordered child support. He told Rachel that one of his listings was about to close escrow; once out of jail, he’d get an advance on the commission. In a few days he’d pay everything.
Bail was $10,000; 10 percent to a bondsman in cash, non-refundable. So, two days earlier, on Friday evening, she’d written a check for $1,000 to get Michael out of orange coveralls and back into Armani.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“All my savings went for car payments and rent!”
I nodded to show that I understood. I didn’t.
“I couldn’t let him stay in jail,” she wailed. “I took $1,000 in cash from the posting drawer.”
Rachel worked for a large bank; she supervised “posting,” ensuring that each deposit or withdrawal was debited or credited to the proper account.
“Before we closed for the weekend, I wrote a personal check,” she explained. “To balance my books. Tomorrow I’ll have to deposit that check, but there’s not even a hundred dollars in my account.”
“Why would you do that?” I asked, incredulous.
“Michael said that he had emergency cash hidden in his office. He said he’d pay me back right away.”
“And you believed him?”
Round three of the waterworks show. I waited until she dried her eyes. She looked more vulnerable, more appealing than ever.
I despised myself for still wanting her.
“Where’s Michael now?”
“Showing a house,” replied Rachel.
“So—a divorce? An annulment?”
“I love Michael and he loves me. We’ll get through this .”
“He lied to you, manipulated you into embezzling—what’s wrong with you?”
“It’s really more of a misunderstanding,” she said. “We’ll work it out.”
You can’t make this kind of stuff up.
“And if you don’t return the cash tomorrow,?” I asked.
“They’ll call the police,” she said. “Even if I don’t go to prison, I’ll never get another good job.”
That kind of a misunderstanding. But I didn’t say it aloud.
“Why come to me?” I asked, relishing the moment. “Surely your mother could help?”
“Mom hates Michael. Says she always knew he was a phony, that I was a fool to fall for his act and that I should have married you.”
Oddly, this did not make me feel better.
“Your mother would let you go to jail?”
“She said she’ll help with a lawyer, but she wouldn’t give me the money because I deserve to be punished.”
Wow, I thought. Tough love.
“I’m only a free-lance writer,” I said. “I live in this crappy townhouse, wear jeans and drive a crappy old Toyota. A thousand bucks is a lot to me.”
Actually, at that moment it wasn’t: I’d just scored a major reprint sale and landed a lucrative brochure project. I was flush.
Rachel worked the ring off the third finger of her left hand. The stone was easily three carats, its myriad facets refracting sunbeams as tiny rainbows.
“Take this for collateral,” she said.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was a zircon. No pawn shop would give her as much as $50 for it.
“I don’t want your ring,” I said.
“I’ll open a savings account for you and deposit $50 a month.”
I thought about it for a long moment, then wrote her a check.
“I can’t let you go to jail,” I said.
“Thank you! I’ll pay you back! Every cent, with interest. Thank you!”
I didn’t think she would — but I was curious: Years earlier, my then-wife committed a serious crime; although I knew nothing of it until her arrest, she tried to wriggle free by blaming me. Though shocked and horrified, I still loved her. I couldn’t let her go to prison, so I naively offered to sacrifice my freedom for hers; improbably, this became the twisting path to my own subsequent liberation.
All this cost me my savings and a promising career as an Army officer. And of course, I couldn't be married to someone that I couldn't trust.
Now I was watching a replay, gender roles reversed: Michael betrays Rachel; she risks her freedom for his. It almost restored my faith in womanhood.
It was worth a grand to see how things worked out.
A week later the mail brought a bank book with a balance of $10. Not $50. A month later Rachel deposited another $10. She was trying. Ten more the following month and ten the next.
Then nothing. Her phone was disconnected. New tenants occupied the Newport house. Rachel left the bank, though why, how or when they wouldn’t say. I never heard from her again.
Many years later, when I wrote my first movie– the first that was produced – I made my villain a tall, good-looking, well-dressed serial killer with a flashy car. He seduces a needy woman, manipulates her into embezzling, murders her for the loot. Then he does it again. My screen lothario’s last victim supervises accounts posting for a large bank. She takes cash on a Friday afternoon, believing that her lover will repay her before Monday’s reckoning. Right.
At the climax my hero swoops in, shoots the killer, saves the woman — and turns her over to the cops for embezzling.
That screenplay brought way more than $1,000.
I love being a writer: Nothing in my life goes to waste and every story ends as I choose.
Writing well is the best revenge.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
On a stultifying October day in the Central Highlands, I sought refuge from the swarms of tiny flies and the pitiless midday sun in the almost airless shade of the press tent. Perched on a footlocker while pecking out a news release on my dusty portable, a sudden shadow fell across me. Looking up, I caught the silhouetted figure of a tall man easing past the mosquito curtain. He paused in the entrance while his eyes adjusted to the murk, and I saw that he was in late middle age and bearded—and therefore must be a civilian. He wore hiking boots and cargo pants, with a tailor-made jacket resembling the old style of Army fatigue shirts, but in a different shade of green.
Obviously, he was new to Vietnam.
"Hello," he said, spotting me and taking a step forward. "I'm John Steinbeck."
I had met Winston Churchill's grandson. I had dined with six Pulitzer Prize winning newsmen, played bodyguard, driver and factotum to S.L.A. Marshall, America's most respected—and feared—author of military histories. I had escorted actor Robert Mitchum around the division and in the field, chatted at length with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and ran interference for pop superstar singer Bobby Rydell. At 25, with three stripes on my sleeve, I was no longer in awe of celebrity.
Even so, I was startled. John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist? In Vietnam? In An Khe? In the First Air Cavalry Division press tent? In my office?
"The John Steinbeck?" I said, getting to my feet.
"Oh no," he chuckled. "John Steinbeck the Third. There must be quite a few John Steinbecks."
I giggled. Steinbeck sat down on a rickety field chair, and soon I was telling him where I was from, and about my duties. That I was a combat photographer who had recently been promoted into a job that required writing and editing, and that I was still feeling my way. So disarming was Steinbeck's manner that I soon tucked away all awe; we were merely two guys, one very young and the other aging, worldly but unassuming, sharing bits of our lives with each other. I offered him water from my canteen, and as he sipped I finally asked what had first came to my mind: What was he doing in Vietnam?
"I'm with Newsday," he said, and when I looked blank he said that this was a daily newspaper serving Long Island, New York.
"I never knew that you were a reporter, too," I replied.
"More of a special correspondent,” he explained. “Came out mostly because Mr. Johnson asked me to have a look around," he said, and then my boss, Major Phillips, arrived to whisk him off to meet the commanding general.
Half an hour later the phone rang: Nick Palladino, calling from Saigon. Until a few months earlier, he had worked for me. Then Nick volunteered for another six months in Vietnam for a chance to work for Armed Forces Radio & Television in Saigon. Nick was my personal back-channel to Saigon's rumor mill, and he was calling now to share another, more interesting reason for Steinbeck's sudden appearance: The novelist's eldest son, John IV, an Army broadcaster on Armed Forces Radio, was in hot water for smoking dope. Nick explained that young John had gone on the air, “stoned out of his gourd,” to rant about his unit commander and various other individuals whom he identified by name. He had taken the precaution of chaining the door to the studio shut; to get him off the air, the Army had to shut down the transmitter.
Scuttlebutt on the senior Steinbeck, said Nick, was that he had come to Vietnam to remind the brass that it was his son that they had arrested. (Many years later, the younger Steinbeck would write a salacious, self-indulgent book about his Saigon experiences in which he bragged about using marijuana in Vietnam but omitted mention of his arrest. He died in 1991.)
Steinbeck returned the next morning in the general's jeep, and Major Phillips told me that I was to show the novelist around, take him anywhere he wanted to go, arrange for helicopters, meals, billets, if available, answer his questions to the best of my ability, and above all, not let him get killed.
The general's driver took us to the Golf Course, as our enormous grassy helicopter landing field was known, and as we waited for a pilot, Steinbeck moved close. In a low voice, he said, "Two things. Don't introduce me by my last name. People don't recognize my face, but they will know my name. I didn't come all this way to talk about myself. I came to hear what they have to say about themselves, and the war."
I nodded, yes.
"And remember what I said yesterday about Mr. Johnson?" he asked.
"You said that he asked you to have a look around."
"Right. Now please forget that I ever said that."
Only then did I realize that the Mr. Johnson he'd mentioned was Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, and the one then in the White House.
If I never knew with certainty what brought Steinbeck to Vietnam, his visit to the Air Cav was easy to divine: We had pretty much invented helicopter warfare and thanks in part to Phillip’s predecessor, Major Charles Siler, and his wise guidance, we were the most publicized outfit in the war and arguably the most glamorous. In the Pentagon view, as our fortunes went, so would go the war. And just then, things were going well.
The first thing Steinbeck wanted to do was go on an air assault. He hopped a Huey with as much spring in his 65-year-old legs as the mostly teenaged grunts we rode with and we roared into the sky, headed for a jungle clearing hacked out of a mountain shoulder. We rode the third ship in; for once I was not playing door gunner. The operation was a dry hole, no enemy contact. Only Steinbeck seemed disappointed.
I soon realized that he was a brilliant interviewer; few of his subjects fully grasped that they were being ever-so-gently interrogated. He guided conversations with a few deft questions, listening carefully, saying little. He took notes, but usually later, rarely in view of a subject. I never saw what he wrote, but I suspect that he was out for atmosphere, looking to assess the moods and motivations of those fighting the war. Like the best reporters, he preferred the company of privates and noncoms, men whose occupations brought them the greatest risks. Back at base camp, he often joined a battalion or brigade commander for an evening of off-the-record conversation, an enterprise from which I was, alas, excluded.
I was still very much a novice writer; most of my published work was heavily edited. Nevertheless I clung to the expectation that I’d eventually learn better techniques. So one day, riding next to Steinbeck in a twin-engine Caribou, I screwed up my courage and asked him about writing. I found it terribly hard, I said. I was intimidated by the blank page. I feared making stupid mistakes. I knew that I should edit my copy more, that I should rewrite stories again and again before submitting them, but I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Worse, by the time I finished a piece, I was mentally exhausted by the whole process, sick of the material and anxious to move on.
He grinned. “It’s not brain surgery,” he shouted, over the roar of the twin turboprops. “It’s a craft. Not much different from carpentry.”
I frowned, not getting it at all.
“Carpenters make all sorts of different things," he explained. "Forms for pouring cement. Tables. Cabinets. Boxes. Even violins. Each requires a different kind of wood. Sometimes more than one kind.”
I shook my head, still not there.
“Think of words as wood. Choose different kinds of wood—words—for different kinds of writing. Short, simple words for news. Longer, more complex words for maybe a critical review or an essay. Get it now?”
Comprehension slowly dawned. I nodded, yes. But then what?
“Carpenters use all sorts of tools. Different saws for different kinds of cuts. Different planes, files, sandpaper, depending on the job, the finish required. Different kind of sealants—varnish or shellac or paint. Different types of nails, different kinds of hammers to drive them.
“Writers tools are techniques. Read different writers—many, many different riders. See how they use their craft to handle similar situations. Think of yourself as a carpenter, not an artist. If you make a mistake, fix it. Throw a sentence away, like it was a piece of wood that you’d ruined. So what — it’s just a piece of wood! Get another piece and go back to work.”
I sort of got it. It was a lot to think about. I wanted to talk more, to ask more questions, but I never again found the right moment in our time together.
When Steinbeck was ready to leave, I drove the section jeep to the Golf Course. Baking in the late morning sun, we watched his plane float down. Steinbeck shook my hand. "Thanks for everything," he said. "I mean it."
"Just doing my job," I replied.
"Then thanks for never asking me what I meant on page thirty-seven of Tortilla Flat or the last paragraph in Of Mice and Men. I appreciate your discretion."
I inspected imaginary mud on my boots. "I had to read The Red Pony in the ninth grade," I said. "Aside from that…"
Steinbeck threw back his head and roared. "They told me you'd been chosen specially for this job," he said. "I didn't understand how that worked, but I do now!"
My face was a boiled lobster. "I haven't been to college yet," I protested, and then the twin-engine C-123 taxied up, its fierce turboprops making conversation impossible.
We stood watching as the rear hatch slowly opened.
The first man off the plane wore a cream-colored safari suit, a bulky redhead who looked around anxiously, then approached me, the only sergeant not scurrying about.
"I've got to wee-wee!", he bellowed—just as the near engine shut down. Heads swiveled toward his famous and unmistakable baritone.
I pointed at a cluster of four-foot-long gray plastic shipping tubes angled up from a gravel patch. Once they had held aerial rockets. Now they served as a pissoir. A grimy strip of canvas, intended for user privacy, lay crumpled nearby, long since blown over by prop blast.
"There?" objected the redhead. "But everyone will see!"
Steinbeck hefted his bag and started toward the aircraft. He came back to shake the newcomer's hand. "John Steinbeck," he said.
"Arthur Godfrey," returned the redhead, unnecessarily.
Godfrey was the host of a variety show syndicated nationwide on radio and television, a man more famous, in that era, than many movie stars.
"And I've really got to wee-wee," he added.
In the months to come, safely stateside, I hunted up a copy of Steinbeck's The Log From The Sea of Cortez in a used-book shop. I found it fascinating; to this day its imagery lingers in my mind. As the years went by, I read Steinbeck’s novels, one by one, losing myself in the sweep of East Of Eden, feeling pity and outrage through The Grapes of Wrath and weeping over Of Mice And Men. I learned much about my craft from Steinbeck's lean, careful cadences and his use of apparently simple language to convey fine subtleties. Every now and then I came to a phrase or a thought that conjured up a moment that we had shared in Vietnam, the way he cocked his head to listen to somebody, or the look in his eyes when he contemplated a mangled body in black pajamas.
And when I came to some particularly humorous line, I often flashed on my last glimpse of Steinbeck, climbing the steep ramp of the C-123 as the pilot restarted the engines, then shaking his head in mirth while dozens of soldiers and airmen gaped at a fleshy, red-headed man standing at a piss tube, his clothing soaked by a propeller-driven hurricane of his own essence, a surreal vignette that became my personal metaphor for a war that I still struggle to understand.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.