A member of the A-Bomb Generation
I was born an Aquarius of Scottish-Irish (my father’s side, the Ewing clan)
and Prussian (my mother’s side, the Röeder corps) heritage in Chicago,
Illinois, during the last year of World War II.
arrived before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leveled beneath nuclear blasts,
I’ve always considered myself a true child of the Atomic Age.
was named after my late father, John, I was never called Johnny or Junior,
but always Jack, or Jackie when I was young.
California, here I come
When I was only a few months old, my family moved to Walnut
a pleasant childhood there beside my older sister and younger brother (the
second baby born in California on New Year’s Day 1951). My loving parents,
both teachers—my father in college, my mother in grade school—encouraged my
in a three-level house, with Mount Diablo framed in our picture window.
were pear and almond and black walnut trees, and grapes on vines in our
fenced yard. In front stood a 50-foot redwood tree perfect for climbing, and
in back lay an open field studded with strange-smelling eucalyptus. Off the
patio, a colony of tiny, bright-green frogs dwelled in the drip of a
back-door faucet, where iridescent ruby-throated hummingbirds came to sip
from trumpet-shaped flowers.
as pets a yappy dog called Lucky, and a placid cat named Tawny, that never
drew a claw.
Born to write?
My parents read to me daily when I was small, and I’ve been
immersed in stories and novels on my own since I was a kid.
precocious child, I learned to read at two years of age by playing with
wooden alphabet blocks. I was already starting to write by the time I
entered first grade at age four.
95-year-old mother still has a multi-stanza Christmas poem I wrote, in
pencil not crayon, during my first year of school, the paper now yellowed
and held together by adhesive tape. The poem is doggerel—something about
Santa coming down the chimney with a nasty cold—obviously inspired by
Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas,” but it scanned well.)
At about six years of age, I was diagnosed with
tuberculosis. I was so frequently subjected to chest X-rays into my teens
that I practically glowed in the dark from all the roentgens built up in my
body. In the beginning of my alleged illness, though I felt fine I was
forced to stay out of direct sunlight —wearing long sleeves and a
broad-brimmed hat even in summer—for a year, until I received a clean bill
examinations concluded that I had probably been misdiagnosed, and had never
contracted TB at all. Perhaps my youthful over-familiarity with hospital
examining rooms, doctors and nurses explains my reluctance to visit them
From sea to shining sea
In 1953, we moved cross-country to Tallahassee, Florida,
where my father, a former instructor at Armstrong College, had accepted a
teaching position in the Business Administration Department at Florida State
I hated to leave my friends and the comfortable house where
I’d grown up. Many personal belongings (my father’s numerous cartons of
clippings and my boxes full of rocks, fossils and petrified wood) had to be
sacrificed because of weight and bulk. Our cat was given away, to live on a
months traveling by car to reach our ultimate destination.
visited the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, and the Painted Desert, veered
north to see Mount Rushmore and other sites.
stopped for a time at the grandparents’ house in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
sojourned for a while at the other grandparents’ place outside Cincinnati,
made a beeline south at the end of summer.
when we couldn’t stand being cooped up together any longer, we arrived at
our new home.
I admit it: I hated Florida from the first day.
to California’s varied terrain, the new state was as flat as an ironing
people seemed strange to me, too. They smiled a lot, but talked ever so
slowly, their words all stretched out like warm taffy.
I made a
social faux pas at a gas station just over the Florida-Georgia line:
unaware of local customs in effect then, I drank out of a COLORED fountain
because I wanted to know what shade the water was and how it tasted
different from regular water. An angry station attendant explained the
meaning to me in colorful language.
It was a
bad start, and it never got much better for me in Florida.
years later, Florida’s changed and grown considerably, and my memories have
mellowed somewhat. But to a mountain-lover like me, it’s still an awfully
Home, sweat home
steep-roofed house my parents bought in Tallahassee was built in the 1930s,
it was said, for Prince Murat, a distant relative of Napoleon.
place sat on a half-acre of treed land on a quiet street, surrounded by
cookie-cutter post-war tract houses. The building, like all surrounding
houses, had no basement but rested on concrete pillars, several feet off the
ground with crawl space beneath. It had three screened-in porches, cherry
wood floors throughout, and a marble-floored bathroom. The previous tenant
had built in large cabinets to house a collection of 78RPM records.
house had a central heating system and a fireplace, but no air conditioning.
We sweltered for several years, until the folks invested in huge, noisy
window cooling units for practically every room.
meager savings from allowances were invested in my family’s first television
set, a black-and-white set on a spider-legged wrought iron stand, with
rabbit ears, bought for $25 at a garage sale. The TV provided hours of
A naturalist’s dream
mounds were nestled between the bricks of the front-door walk to our new
home. Garden spiders with evil-looking quarter-sized black-and-yellow bodies
lurked in bushes. Beneath the house were black widow funnels, making the
retrieval of lost balls a hazard.
small scorpions waited to sting the unwary. Cockroaches the size of your
thumb sometimes got squashed as you made your way barefoot to the bathroom
in the dark.
the daytime, birds were plentiful: blue jays, cardinals, orioles, red-winged
blackbirds, cedar waxwings, and mockingbirds that I never tired listening
to. At night, fireflies were as thick as the mosquitoes.
The creeping unknown
botanical front, our yard contained stinging nettles, camellias, azaleas,
and creeping kudzu. The centerpiece was a huge gnarled wisteria bush hung
with clusters of pale lavender flowers in season. You could practically see
the vines move as the plant grew out in all directions to strangle the
nearest of our more than 50 lightning-prone pine trees.
first week in the house, we were terrified by noises emanating from the
pulled down the retractable stairs, unfolded the ladder, and we all inched
up en masse to investigate—discovering a family of opossums playfully
dragging around an old roller skate by its strap.
day, Mom called somebody a neighbor recommended, and a black man arrived to
cheerfully capture the varmints. He remarked, as he left with a squirming
how tasty ‘possum was when cooked just right.
Making the best of a bad situation
tropical heat and humidity of northern Florida summers sapped my physical
were surprisingly cold, with a chill that struck to the bone.
the rainy season, daily storms were brief but fierce. Mold and mildew sprang
up everywhere in their wake.
managed to adapt somewhat to the weather, the flora and fauna.
Adjusting to the human inhabitants was a different matter. I had difficulty
fitting in from the start, and after a while, I didn’t try.
picked up a drawl or used local slang, and my lack of accent always marked
me as an outsider.
California, where I’d freely mingled with kids of many races and cultures, I
had trouble acclimating to homogenized schools filled with uniformly white
students who considered inferior those who weren’t. (The only Negroes in any
school I attended in Florida were janitors.)
Athletic, rather than intellectual prowess, was admired.
wasn’t part of my upbringing, so I refused to stand for the raising of the
Confederate flag or to sing “Dixie” in lieu of the national anthem.
learned early not to debate integration or the relative merits of the
combatants in the War Between the States among those, it seemed, who were
ruled more by emotion than reason.
Let me entertain me
few friends during my early years in Florida, so I became self-reliant.
Interested in lots of things, I collected: stamps, coins, rocks, fossils,
arrowheads, butterflies, seashells, baseball cards, matchboxes, postcards
and other objects. (I still maintain such collections, except for the
baseball cards. Unable, in an era where cards of all sorts made interesting
noises when attached to bicycle spokes, to foresee the sports memorabilia
market that would have made some of my cards valuable, I traded the cards in
the mid-1950s. The next-door kid swapped me for boxes of stamp covers from
all over the world that his diamond merchant uncle had sent him.)
voluminously: for more than a half-century, I’ve completed one book per day
on average). In my youth, I especially enjoyed short-story collections (Poe,
de Maupassant, O. Henry) classic adventure novels (Dumas, Verne, Wells,
Stevenson) biographies, and science fiction.
a lot, mostly poetry, because that seemed the best form for expression at
the time. I also completed short articles for school newspapers, and penned
stories I didn’t show to anybody.
Making the grade
Florida, I began fourth grade at age eight. I went to Kate Sullivan School,
a big, blocky ancient brick building with creaky wooden floors. It was a
long bus ride from our home.
remember much of the experience now, except for my starring role in a school
play as Lincoln, wearing a pasted-on beard and a cardboard top hat.
after classes began, I started taking drumming lessons, but quickly switched
to clarinet because percussion wasn’t very tuneful. I played an old Ebonite
instrument my father gave me that he’d played as a boy,
Moving up in the world
sixth to eighth grade, I moved next door to attend Elizabeth Cobb Junior
where Miss Whitehead, an English teacher, demonstrated the wonders of the
dictionary and drilled the eight parts of speech into us, for which gifts
I’ve never before publicly thanked her.
second clarinet in the school concert and marching bands (first clarinet was
a kid named Kenny Burns who could play like Benny Goodman) and also noodled
on tenor saxophone.
grades were pretty good, particularly in English, math and music. I
developed an uncanny ability to score well on standardized, multiple-choice
latter years of junior high, I became an entrepreneur. I made and sold
little trinkets constructed from straight pins, seed beads and pieces of
lanyard, shaped like tiny swords. These were worn on lapels or collars, and
indicated at a glance the status of the wearer: going steady (crossed
swords) or unattached (a single, lonely sword).
Attack of the hormones
hit me hard at age twelve: my voice dropped from tenor to bass, and I shot
up in height, growing more than a foot. Before my thirteenth birthday, I had
reached my final height of 6’1”, wore size 13 shoes, and had to shave.
I was a
scrawny kid then, with the metabolism of a hummingbird. After arriving home
from school, I could eat an entire loaf of bread with peanut butter and
jelly, and still wolf down dinner a few hours later.
in Florida at the time, you could begin driving at age twelve during
daylight when accompanied by an adult, I took student driving and got my
went mobile in 1957, tooling around in a 1948 black DeSoto, a huge car with
Fluid Drive and about 200,000 miles on the odometer. At age 14, I was
licensed to drive as an adult.
A fresh start
I entered Florida High School, a newer K-12 institution with perhaps 600
students, half in the upper four grades. (The school is now half-gone, and
what’s left—some classrooms and science labs—was incorporated into Florida
school was about a mile from our home. I usually took the bus to school in
mornings and walked home in the afternoon. I seldom drove to school, because
student parking hadn’t been provided for, and there were only about a dozen
available spaces, reserved for seniors.
building was mostly one-story, spread out in all directions, with
concrete-floored open-air corridors connected by pillared walkways. The main
high school section was a long two-story wing.
Facilities included band and choir rooms, an auditorium, cafeteria, shop, a
new gymnasium, and modern language labs.
Athletics were well provided for at Florida High, with a quarter-mile cinder
track surrounding a football field complete with scoreboard, high-rise
stands for spectators, and glassed-in press boxes. There were several
practice fields, a new baseball diamond with covered dugouts, three-wall
handball-squash courts, lighted tennis courts, and a putting green.
The Seminoles next door
school was adjacent to and encompassed on three sides by Florida State
University (once upon a time, Florida State College for Women).
classes in tumbling, clowning, wire-walking, trapeze and other circus arts
were conducted under a big-top tent next to out football field, and
university athletes used our track for collegiate competitions.
our practice fields was the FSU baseball diamond (I used to hang out at the
batting cages, where college players were happy to give me scuffed baseballs
and cracked bats that I repaired with glue and tape—I acquired quite a
collection of horsehide and timber.)
the baseball field squatted Campbell Stadium, where the FSU Seminoles
played. During football season, I climbed up and down the stadium steps
hawking various foodstuffs to patrons—hot dogs, soft drinks or boiled
peanuts. I’d earn from a dime (peanuts) to a quarter (hot dogs) for each
unit sold, plus tips. At big games, like the annual Florida-FSU tilt, I’d
collect as much as $25 for my efforts.
The low drama of high school
students at Florida High comprised a strange mix. Half were bused in daily
from communities surrounding Tallahassee (the state capital, then a city of
about 50,000) that were too small or too poor to have their own schools. The
other half consisted of the children of those who worked or taught at FSU,
like my younger brother, older sister, and me.
Regardless of where they came from, for boys flattops and white socks were
the order of the day. Girls wore blouses or sweaters, skirts and saddle
As at most schools, then or now, cliques formed.
jocks—husky boys with names like Buddy, Mac and Bubba—were at the top of the
pecking order. Our football teams did well: my senior year (1961-1962) they
went undefeated and weren’t scored upon until the final game of the season,
outscoring opponents 279-12. We generally cleaned up in football, basketball
and track-and-field, did so-so at baseball and lesser sports.
prettiest girls (often with double names, like Betty Sue, Mary Jo and Bobby
Jean, or with invented names like Tjawana or LaUna), usually dated the
jocks, wearing their tape-wrapped school rings on chains around their necks.
Good-looking girls often became cheerleaders or majorettes.
who sang or played instruments were in the middle of the pack, and scholars
came in at the bottom.
was a handful of pioneering geeks: scrawny guys with thick glasses and
pocket protectors, who wore tweed jackets and ties among a mostly dungaree
crowd, who hung around with girls who looked like them.
of the school’s relatively small population—our rivals, Leon High, by
contrast, had a couple thousand students—most individuals were involved in
several activities. The marching and concert bands I played in throughout
high school numbered over 100, comprising one-third of the student body.
marching band and orchestra, I sang in chorus, played in dance bands,
contributed to the school paper, and made rings and hotplates and serving
trays in shop.
participated in the Classic League (winning a contest with an original
rhyming poem in Latin), won speech contests in Forensic League, won a school
Twist contest, and regularly won medals playing solos and in ensembles at
regional and state band competitions.
assisted at the language lab, running instruction tapes and records for
various classes. Florida High was one of few in the country then offering
four years of Russian-language courses, and I completed all four years,
supplementing the final two years with college-level classes at FSU.
I was too skinny to play football, I ran a mediocre track (the mile), played
a year of basketball (I had a killer two-hand set shot I could swish from
half-court during practice) and consistently beat most comers in three-wall
was more interested in things academic rather than athletic. I was pretty
quiet and didn’t mix much.
claim to fame was a patented double-flipper technique that made me nearly
unbeatable at pinball at the Mecca restaurant on the FSU campus, especially
on Gottlieb’s “Super Jumbo” and “Diamond Jubilee” machines.
A new attitude
beginning of my junior year in high school, there was a new kid in class
named Mike, from New York. As fellow outsiders, we gravitated to one
another. Mike had a terrific, though odd sense of humor. He taught me to
look at things from a completely different perspective, and brought me out
of my shell.
Together, we began smoking a five-kilo brick of marijuana that Mike brought
back from a Christmas trip to Mexico in 1960.
started hitchhiking when I didn’t feel like driving.
more in classes, discovering I had a hidden talent for wisecracks, and
basked in newfound peer approval.
Encouraged by an English teacher, Stephen Dunning, I wrote reams of poems
and stories: I’d started publishing poetry in little magazines at age
thirteen, and first received a check for a short story in 1960. My theme
papers and book reports became more creative.
in 1962, I graduated, with a B average.
applied at colleges and universities across the country, in Canada, and
abroad, because I wanted to see places I’d never been.
my high school grades had been decent, and my scores on standardized tests
were top-notch, I couldn’t land a sufficient scholarship until I tried for
the College of Wooster, south of Cleveland, Ohio, where my father had
graduated in the mid-1930s.
Wooster, I’d get a two-thirds free ride (tuition and books cost about $1500
per semester) if I played in the marching band and sang in the church choir.
an irresistible offer to my cash-strapped parents, so in the fall of 1962,
the folks drove me up from Florida and dropped me off.
Little lambs eat ivy
a Presbyterian institution established in 1866, was prototypical:
ivy-covered brick classroom buildings and residence halls, a stone chapel,
Kissing Rock, a skating pond, a student union, and local, not national
fraternities and sororities. It was supposed to be in the same academic
league as Antioch and Oberlin.
students were from Ohio and surrounding states—I was one of only two from
Florida. There was a strong contingent of foreign, mostly Christian,
exchange students from all over the world, some of whom formed the nucleus
of a good soccer team.
off the old, dull me, I took a new nickname: Zeke.
classic and modern language major with a music minor, I signed up for 24
credit hours my first semester, including Greek, Latin, French, Spanish,
English composition, history, sociology, calculus and Physical Education.
Classes began at 8 a.m. and ran to 4 p.m. In addition to regular band and
choir practice, I also informally tutored my Greek professor, who was
teaching himself Russian.
too much for a 17-year-old kid, on his own and away from home for the first
The pressure builds
relax, I regularly dipped into the going-away supply of marijuana Mike had
fake ID (a matched set: genuine Florida birth certificate, driver’s license
and draft card, all of which agreed I was 21 years old), I sopped up 3.2
percent beer at bars and used book money to buy bottles of vodka or brandy
at liquor stores. I gambled. I dated.
my habit from about age eight, I seldom slept more than four hours a night.
managed to maintain a C average with a tough schedule. (Calculus was way
over my head, and a professor who explained mathematical concepts in a
strong Scottish burr made me feel he was speaking Martian. so I dropped the
course a month into the semester.)
enjoyed playing in the marching band, which, in keeping with the theme of
the school (sports teams were “The Fighting Scots”), wore kilts, sporrans,
spats and the full Scottish regalia, and featured a troop of bagpipers.
curious: the uniform included woolen under-drawers, in matching McLeod
plaid—a popular and showy pattern of yellow and black, with a thin red line
running through—that were welcome in cold weather when the wind blew. In
warm weather, they were itchy, and some band members went without.)
choir, I sang a bass solo, “I Wander as I Wander” during a pre-Christmas
Joining the brotherhood
the first semester, I pledged a local fraternity, one of seven housed in a
four-story, L-shaped building. Among the brethren was a contingent of
inveterate hosers called “The Night Climbers.”
allowed to join the pranksters, and we indulged in a variety of mischief:
stealing signs, rigging bells to ring in the middle of the night,
disassembling and reassembling a car on the roof of a building, that sort of
achieved near-legendary status and an administrative reign of terror for
hanging a skeleton on the cross and loading flour into the pipes of the
organ at the college chapel. (As a Protestant-endowed institution, Wooster
required attendance at chapel three times a week; if you were absent too
often, grades could be lowered. Luckily, a frat brother served as monitor
and signed me in, so I rarely went.)
the rush process, the brothers took us pledges to a strip club, the Roxy, in
Cleveland. We listened to baggy-pants comedians between acts featuring
plump, over-the-hill women sporting caesarean scars and breasts so saggy
they had to be held up with strings.
the show, we went next door to a porn shop. Thumbing through pulp paperbacks
with lurid covers, I decided I could write books as good as these, and
jotted down the address of one publisher, called Nightstand.
Returning to college, I wrote the publisher, and they sent me submission
guidelines. Certain common four-letter words, I learned, were forbidden
(“Blue Laws” were in effect in Ohio then). Descriptions of body parts and
sexual acts had to be couched in euphemisms, like “her quivering passion
pit” or “his throbbing manhood.”
with pot for inspiration, and Benzedrine and Dexedrine for stamina (uppers
were fairly easy to obtain, but marijuana was almost unknown at the college
then) I started writing on my old portable Smith-Corona. I was thankful for
the typing class I’d taken in eighth grade, during which I’d progressed from
two fingers to ten, and capable of sustained bursts of 60-75 words per
minute, with occasional gusts to 90.
weeks, barely stopping to attend classes or eat meals in the dining hall—and
Wooster had excellent food for breakfast and dinner—I produced a 50,000-word
novel, College Stud, as by Dirk Steele. (The novel, considering what
is available in print or film today, would probably earn an “R” rating).
it in, received a contract, and soon pocketed a check for $500, which seemed
like a fortune in 1962. I later received a dozen copies of the printed book,
which I gave away to guys I knew would appreciate the novel.
skipped classes almost entirely after that, except for exams.
next eight weeks I polished off two more novels for Nightstand, A
Freshman’s Confession and Soft, More, both as by Penny A. Worder,
and collected a cool thousand smackers for my efforts.
college, not amused by my long absence from classes, in April 1963 decided
they could do without my presence, and suspended me indefinitely.
writing, I’d forgotten to register for the draft after turning 18, so I
completed the task belatedly, and was immediately classified 1-A.
Heading for the border
then to face my parents who were certain to be disappointed in me, I sold or
gave away most of my belongings and shipped the rest home.
a knapsack to hold necessities, and stuck out my thumb. I headed south by
west, and arrived in Brownsville, Texas, in a week.
easily into Mexico, I made first for Monterey, where my sister had spent a
semester while attending college.
went west to Torreón, Durango, and Mazatlán, moved south to Puerto Vallarta
and Guadalajara, bent east to tour Chapultapec, Teotihuacan and Mexico City,
and dropped down to Acapulco.
I turned east through Oaxaca to the Yucatan, where I prowled a number of
Mayan ruins, an experience that stirred in me a lifelong interest in
antiquity and archaeology.
money was almost gone, I headed home for Florida, arriving just in time to
learn that my parents were moving north.
them for the long drive to New York.
I love New York
headed to upstate New York. My father, tiring of teaching after earning his
PhD at FSU, had accepted a position at a small Ag & Tech college in
Morrisville, 30 miles from Syracuse. It was as much of a change of pace for
me as Florida had been a decade earlier, but in a positive way.
was more variety in the terrain and the weather. The people were more
parents rented a house near the college for a time.
institution began to expand, and my father bought a large old house—150
years of age at least, one of the first homes in that part of Madison
County—with five fireplaces, that was to be torn down to make room for a new
dormitory. He paid $500 for the building, and had it moved a mile down the
road, where it was placed on a new foundation on a large, empty plot of
course of several years, my folks spent tens of thousands of dollars adding
a two-car garage, a glassed-in front porch, and otherwise modernizing
ancient plumbing and electrical wiring throughout.
The milkman cometh
meantime, for the rest of the summer I worked as a hand at a local dairy
farm for $20 per week, plus daily lunches.
day, I biked about five miles from my folks’ place to the farm, where I cut,
crimped, baled and stored hay.
more than 60 cows (by hand the first week because the Surge milking machine
cleaned sloppy, smelly summer manure out of troughs, and dumped it into the
“honey wagon” (the manure spreader) to fertilize the fields.
chopped field corn for silage.
learned the intricacies of the power takeoff, drove tractors, and operated a
variety of farm machinery.
lessons in welding and animal husbandry.
a grain truck, hauling oats into storage.
hard work, but somehow rewarding. The farming family—the owner, his wife and
six children from two to 22—were decent, plain-speaking, likable people. The
farmer’s 15-year-old daughter and I entered the square-dance competition at
the State Fair, and won red ribbons for second place.
tan and fit from slinging heavy milk cans and ninety-pound bales of hay, and
was never healthier or more content in my life.
Why not give Iowa a try?
summer waned, I decided to give college another go.
applied to, and was accepted at Parsons College, in Fairfield, Iowa. That’s
where my sister, three years ahead of me, had ended up, after starting at
President Millard G. Roberts (affectionately known as “Doctor Bob”) then
headed Parsons. It was an institution that had been founded amid the
cornfields in the gently rolling terrain of southeast Iowa as a traditional
Protestant college in 1875, and had a core of typical brick buildings to
prove it. (The oldest structure on campus was, appropriately, the blocky
Greek Revival-styled Ewing Hall.)
progressive Roberts had instituted numerous changes since taking over in the
high-rise and multilevel dormitories had sprung up to accommodate an
increasing number of students who, for one reason or another, had not
succeeded elsewhere. (During my tenure at Parsons, from 1963 to 1966, the
student population doubled from 3200 to about 6500.) Students, many of them
wealthy, hailed from virtually every state. There was a particularly high
concentration from the Eastern US, and from many foreign countries.
glass-and-wood Student Union had beer on tap, a Cordon Bleu restaurant and
other amenities. Around the campus were a modern library, chapters of major
national fraternities and sororities, and a new football stadium and
college was also on the trimester system, and operated year-round. During
its heyday in the mid-to-late 1960s, Parsons operated several satellite
campuses in other states, including Minnesota, Nebraska, and New Mexico. The
faculty was first-rate, lured with high salaries to Parsons from some of the
best colleges and universities at home and abroad.
Repairing academic damage
fortunately, was liberal with scholarships. I received a half-ride for
joining the marching band where, in addition to playing clarinet and sax, I
devised half-time shows at football games.
played tenor sax in a jazz-dance band, The Rhythmaires, which performed at
numerous gigs in Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, entertaining at nightclubs, on
radio and television. We traveled in a Cadillac hearse.
point average had suffered at Wooster (my 2.4 GPA from the first semester
had been cut in half the second semester, since I wasn’t around for finals,
and was flunked in most subjects except Greek, Latin, history and Phys.
Ed.), I knuckled down at Parsons, making the Dean’s List six out of seven
trimesters, and earned additional academic scholarships for my efforts,
essentially attending college for free the last two years.
generally took at least 18 credit hours per term, with a heavy concentration
of humanities and honors English composition, and acquired many more credit
hours than I needed to graduate.
participated in a few extracurricular activities while in college. I
contributed poems and stories to the literary journal Image., and
anonymous articles to the school newspaper, Portfolio. I was elected
as a student senator, and later served as resident assistant at a dormitory.
I played many intramural sports.
two years at Parsons, I lived in Turner House, a hotel converted into a male
dormitory. The building was in downtown Fairfield, conveniently located next
to a dingy pool hall run by an ex-boxer who served draft beer for a dime and
a tasty hot kielbasa sandwich, known as a “Big Dick,” for a quarter. I spent
a lot of spare time there, and became a pretty good snooker player. My
roommate, Judd Morris from Chicago, and I palled around together.
exactly where I was when President Kennedy was shot in 1963: at a tonsorial
parlor, getting a fresh crew cut, when the news came over the barber shop’s
spring of 1965, I was one of hundreds of Parsons students that flocked as
volunteers to Muscatine, Iowa, where the Mississippi was overflowing its
banks. We hauled and placed thousands of sand bags, and helped spare the
town considerable flood damage—earning “Mr. Muscatine” certificates of
Back on the keyboard again
of classes, gambling, dating, traveling and drinking, my main occupation was
English/creative writing major, I’d done a favor for a friend studying
science, and composed a term paper for him. Word got around, and soon I was
being offered money to perform the same service for others. Before I knew
it, I had a full-blown term paper writing franchise.
three years, I wrote about 20 papers a week on a variety of subjects for
students with more money than energy. I later supplemented my income selling
sets of fake ID, and in my senior year took final exams for underclassmen at
$50-100 a crack, depending on subject.
what I earned almost as fast as it came in, on weekend trips to Chicago,
Iowa City, Des Moines, Burlington, and other hot spots.
summers or on other school breaks I hitchhiked all over the country,
returning often to Mexico. Between 1963 and 1968, I made annual treks to the
San Francisco Bay Area, where I’d grown up, and watched Haight-Ashbury
Eventually, I graduated on time, in June 1966, with a solid B+ average and a
BA in English/creative writing.
Life after college
After a couple months of
travel, I returned home to New York.
I was lazing around one
November weekend, watching a football game on TV, when I felt an intense,
stabbing pain in my chest. I thought: I’m 21 years old, and I’m having a
It turned out to be pericarditis, a serious, but temporary inflammation in the lining of the
heart. I was in a Syracuse
hospital for two weeks, with morphine pumped in and test tubes of my blood
drawn out between regular EKGs.
After my discharge from the
hospital, I was told to take it easy for six months.
opportunity to teach seventh-grade English, as a temporary full-time
replacement for a woman on maternity leave, came along just weeks later.
By the time
the new mother returned a few months later, I’d already found another job.
Traveling in style
In early 1967, I rode trains
Syracuse to Portland, Oregon. Then it was by bus to Government Camp, and by
shuttle up to Timberline Lodge, at the mile-high level on the slopes of Mount Hood.
The lodge had a lot of
character. The WPA had built it during the Depression, and there were
touches of art throughout: newel posts shaped like native animals, a huge
multi-sided natural stone fireplace, and massive wrought-iron gates leading
into the main dining room, so well balanced they could be swung at the touch
of a finger.
I worked as front desk clerk,
usually the morning man, in my snappy seersucker jacket. I checked people in
and out, confirmed reservations, handled the switchboard, fielded
complaints, answered visitor’s questions, and sold postcards.
In my off-hours, I drank at
local bars, taking advantage of an employee discount. I learned to ski,
after a fashion, and took to snowshoes. I climbed Mt. Hood from different
directions with various groups. I careered down the mountain on everything
from cafeteria trays to toboggans. I took a four-day trail hike around the
mountain. Young women, both guests and employees, were plentiful, and easy.
I lived at
first at the base of the mountain, in an employees’ lodge. Later, I lived
with roommates in cabins or A-frames in other small woodsy settlements, like
Rhododendron and Zigzag.
morning, on the way in to the lodge, I’d check snow depth on poles in key
locations, so I could phone in skiing conditions (recorded live) to radio
stations in Portland.
Later, I was
made night auditor, and handled tens of thousands of dollars —from
restaurants, lift tickets and Sno-Cat rides, rentals, bars, gift, and ski
shops—in the course of balancing the daily accounts.
After seven action-packed
months I was ready for a change.
waned, I wrote to the administration at Browning
High School on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. I’d spent a couple
weeks, there in the spring of 1964, helping care for kids who’d lost homes
or parents in a far-ranging flood that had trapped me in St. Mary’s at the
entrance to Glacier Park. In the letter, I mentioned my degree in English
and inquired whether there were any teaching positions open.
By way of
reply, the school sent me a contract to teach two classes apiece of 9th and
arrived via train in late August, I agreed to also teach a class in remedial
math, to serve as sponsor for the school newspaper, and to lead the school
band, which had been dormant for a dozen years. The extra duties upped my
base salary from $4800 to $7200.
lodging in a singlewide in a trailer park behind a gas station.
several-week lag before classes started, I went in to work on the band
instruments, which were in a sad state of repair. I replaced corks and
springs on the woodwinds, oiled valves and hammered out dents in the
brasses, put new heads on drums. Promised a 75-piece band, I optimistically
ordered sheet music—mostly symphonic pieces and marches that I’d played in
school— and was negotiating for band uniforms.
started, only about 25 students came out for band. Most couldn’t play
instruments, so I started giving after-school lessons in reading music and
taught the rudiments of playing.
were disappointing: the band could eagerly and lustily play a fractured
version of the school fight song, but otherwise I felt as helpless as
Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man.” Eventually, I was forced to shut
down the band and instead I led a girls’ chorus, which performed well at a
number of school functions.
A teacher’s life is not a happy one
I tried hard
during my year at Browning High, but I felt irrelevant.
curriculum I was supposed to teach during the 1967-1968 school year
optimistically included elements of grammar, studies of American and British
literature with recommended texts, and composition assignments appropriate
for 9th and
problems with this plan from the start.
Some of the
thirty-odd students in each class were nearly as old as I was.
for this condition varied.
offered free hot lunches to students one-eighth Indian or more (ninety
percent of the school population qualified), a strong incentive for
perennially poor and hungry reservation inhabitants to attend classes for as
long as possible.
provided more shelter in bleak Western Montana winters than some reservation homes: the back
of a derelict car or a hovel thrown together from sheets of cardboard
reinforced by flattened cans.
students had worked on or off the reservation to help support families.
done time: drunkenness, resisting arrest, property destruction, car theft,
fighting, armed robbery, and mostly for the major crime of being born
couldn’t read, and the reading level among the literate averaged about third
grade. A couple could not write their own names and instead drew symbols as
signatures. (A great number of students had natural artistic ability, and
produced wildlife carvings, paintings, quill and beadwork, pottery and
Education by desperation
I threw lesson plans away, and reorganized my
classes along can read-cannot read lines.
In the first
groups, we worked on improving reading and writing skills, and their
abilities rose by a couple of grades by the end of the term.
second groups, I mostly read to them an hour a day—sometimes testing out my
own stories—and we’d discuss the work afterwards. Though it was difficult
persuading students to volunteer opinions, once someone made a comment about
a favorite story—White Fang or The Last of the Mohicans or
Journey to the Center of the Earth—everybody wanted to say something.
They’d surprise me with sharp, intuitive observations.
it was a frustrating experience. Though I grew to appreciate the kids, even
those that never said a word in class, and my admiration for Indians as
survivors swelled, my general lack of progress depressed me.
lonely in my trailer. Without a car, I got a heavy dose of cabin fever. I
started drinking to numb my senses.
picked up after the New Year, when a new math teacher, Andy, from Dillon,
entered the school. He was a hiker and climber, and owned a car. I was
itching to explore the great outdoors with a reliable companion. So together
we headed for Glacier Park (closed for winter) on weekends, hiked in from
the point where roads weren’t plowed, and climbed a mountain or two.
At the end of the school year, the
administration offered me a two-year contract to teach all of ninth-grade
But I’d had enough of
teaching, and longed to get back on the road.
With a pocket full of cash
saved from my teaching job—there wasn’t much opportunity to spend it in
Browning—I headed west with a girl I’d known from college days with whom I’d
maintained correspondence. Ahnika (formerly Judy) happened to be traveling
through town in her pickup on the scenic route from her mother’s place in Iowa to her new home in the Los Angeles
We drove as far as Spokane
the first night, and got a motel room, where we watched in horror the news
on TV that Bobby Kennedy had been shot.
We headed down the coast and
spent a couple weeks in San Francisco, shopping (I bought a black silk
Cossack shirt with gold trim, and Ahnika got a tie-dyed blouse),
panhandling, dropping acid, and seeing acts like Iron Butterfly,
Steppenwolf, Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane playing at places like the
More kid stuff
In L.A., I landed a job as
houseparent at a facility for emotionally disturbed Jewish children. For
several months, at $100 per week plus room and board, I lived among 16
intelligent, mischievous boys, aged 12 to 18. Their main psychological
problems stemmed from having wealthy, irresponsible parents who preferred to
warehouse their children rather than interrupt excessive lifestyles.
The kids were prone to
stuttering, bedwetting, tantrums, vandalism, and wandering off—especially
those that were heavily medicated.
I made breakfasts and
lunches, attended Sabbath services with my wards, and learned to recite
certain Hebrew passages. I endured numerous pranks—smoldering celluloid
stink bombs, short-circuited alarm doors that wouldn’t shut off, electrified
doorknobs, and other hi-jinks perpetrated by the creative minds of kids who
wouldn’t have been troubled if their parents had been normal.
The 24/7 nature of the job
got to me after a while, and I moved on.
With Brad, a
groundskeeper from the children’s home, I hitchhiked north to Oregon, and
wound up back at Timberline Lodge.
job at wasn’t available, so we both landed jobs on the lift crew. The work
involved lots of snow shoveling, climbing towers to chip ice off of frozen
gears and pulleys, lots of sitting in a heated, glassed-in booth pushing
buttons to start or stop the lift line, and long, cold rides on the lift to
and from the lodge.
The head of
the international lift crew—there were guys from Czechoslovakia, Canada,
Portugal, Greece, Spain, and Afghanistan—an Aryan, humorless type from
Switzerland, was a martinet who we called “Adolf..” After a couple months of
being ordered to shovel “dis vay, not dat vay,” I was contemplating other
uses for the shovel.
After surviving a bout of Hong Kong flu, I quit the
lodge and headed south again.
I meandered around San Francisco and Los Angeles for
a couple weeks apiece, looking for work. But jobs were scarce, and I
couldn’t hang around waiting for possibilities, so I invested in a bus
ticket to New York.
I got home
just in time to make the fall semester in the new Master’s degree program at
Oswego, a picturesque satellite in the State University of New York system
laid out along the shore of Lake Ontario.
majors from college, with a concentration in British literature, I landed a
position as dormitory resident assistant, responsible for the behavior of a
whole floor of spunky freshmen in a high-rise.
Most of the many term papers I
wrote during five semesters in grad school were for my own classes focusing
on Spenser, Yeats, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift or British history. I
maintained a steady B average and earned occasional A’s to lift my GPA above
the bare minimum required for graduate students.
facts now and then when writing for my professors: if I couldn’t find a
reference to support a thematic point, I made one up. (I could have made
them all up: teachers never checked resources.)
Times were a-changing
The late 1960s were
action-packed years, in upstate New York and elsewhere.
In July of 1969, like
everybody else I was fascinated by the Apollo Moon landing.
following month, I joined a half-million other music-lovers at the original
Woodstock Festival. I drove down in my clunker station wagon, filling it
with hitchhikers bound for Bethel.
I arrived a
day early—and from the inside watched a chain-link fence being erected
around the site (it was trampled late the first day of the concert) —and
left a day late. I felt privileged to be present for, and to participate in,
the last gasp of the peace-and-love decade. I was awed by the quality of the
music performed by some of the biggest names of the time (Joplin, Hendrix,
Crosby, Stills & Nash, et al.), and amazed at the quantity of reasonably
priced drugs openly available.
Now, here’s my idea …
Back at grad school in the fall, I noticed the atmosphere had
changed there too. The anti-war movement was in full swing. Protest groups
were forming, meetings were held, plans for disruption were formulating.
was working on my Master’s thesis.
rather than do as my advisor suggested—he opted for just another paper on
some obscure point in Shakespeare’s work—I would conduct original research.
I’d become interested in the outrageous British magus (and mountain-climber)
Aleister Crowley and, rather than dwell on his colorful life, would survey
his large body of written works: novels, poetry, and nonfiction books
dealing with the occult.
There was, I discovered, a
good collection of Crowley’s
oeuvre at the Rare Book Room of the New York Public Library in New York
City, so I headed via train down to the city during the three-week
Christmas-New Year’s break.
I rented a Spartan room at the
YMCA on 42nd Street,
and each day ran a gauntlet past hookers, topless joints, porn palaces, bars
and other temptations for the sanctuary of the NY Public Library.
recently studied the Book of Kells, I took time to admire the illuminated
manuscripts on display throughout the library for the holidays. In the
sanctuary of the Rare Book Room I quickly accumulated scads of Crowley notes
and quotes, constructed a sound outline for my thesis, and started writing.
On New Year’s Eve 1969, I
took a break, joining the throngs in Times Square to cheer the changeover to
1970. Afterward, I was swept along to parties and woke up in a stranger’s
apartment without remembering how I got there.
Students on strike
When I returned to the campus
after the holidays, the air was charged with revolt. The outcry against the
Vietnam War had escalated at other institutions around the country, and
foment swept over Oswego.
Demonstrations cancelled some
Fearing for their safety as
perceived members of the establishment, some older professors took impromptu
sabbaticals. Younger, hipper teachers joined the students in the uprising.
Buildings were captured,
papers and equipment trashed, then retreat was sounded in the face of
charging campus cops.
Students who’d ingested vast
quantities of readily available drugs pranced about the fringes of the
uprising, playing invisible Frisbee and voicing non-sequiturs.
The administration dithered.
Concerned parents converged
in droves to drive their sons and daughters home until the storm blew over.
Those remaining called for a
strike, and eventually it was enacted. The school semester whimpered to a
close, though it wouldn’t become complete and official until after the Kent
State incident in May 1970.
With my coursework virtually
completed, except for cancelled finals, and my thesis half-written, I was in
Mr. No-name finds a
I needed paying work
to tide me over, so I went to Syracuse and rented an apartment. The job
market was tight: all I could find was a spot at a candle factory. On a
piecework basis, I made 400,000 scented and unscented votive candles per
A couple months into the
waxworks, I saw a want ad for a radio copywriter, applied, and was hired.
than three years, I stayed at WOLF-AM, where I learned to think fast and
working day, I took information from as many as eight account executives,
and wrote thirty to fifty persuasive 30-second and 60-second spots for a
wide variety of products and services. I also voiced many commercials,
adding music and sound effects as necessary. As copywriter, I was
responsible for continuity: making sure the right commercial ran at the
didn’t pay much, but I found I had an affinity for writing to order. It was
a blast making up mini-epics based on a few facts. It was rewarding
listening to my ads just minutes after the page was pulled from the IBM
matter to me that I wrote anonymously. It was enough to receive recognition
where it counted: at raise time, and at advertising industry awards shows,
when I usually walked off with armloads of plaques and certificates of
through my tenure at the station, I was named Public Service Director. In
the position, in addition to my normal copywriting duties, I was responsible
for making certain we were serving community needs, a requirement for
I was also
given one-hour talk show to host. I interviewed community leaders,
politicians, heads of various organizations, and produced a pre-recorded
program. Called “Contact,” the show ran in the early morning and was
Arbitron top-rated in its time slot.
Officially an ad man
have stayed at WOLF indefinitely—I built up a remarkable collection of
perhaps 10,000 promo records handed out by company reps—but one day I got a
call that was irresistible.
advertising agency had heard my radio work, liked it, and wanted to hire me
for a considerably higher salary.
Silverman & Mower was a small agency when I joined them—just a handful of
people in a cramped office—that, thanks to landing a few key accounts, more
than quadrupled in size during the year I remained with them.
months, the agency moved from a nondescript downtown Syracuse building to
take over several floors in a new high-rise above a thriving bank.
started out doing out what I did best, writing radio copy, but soon expanded
into television scripts, print ads, catalog copy, press releases, and other
forms of marketing and public relations.
interesting and varied work, and my salary was such that I could afford to
get married (to an attractive undergraduate coed English major I’d met at
Oswego) and rent a nice apartment for us.
wasn’t completely happy.
thing, it was much more formal than the radio station had been. I was forced
to wear suits and ties, and such clothing seemed to stifle my creativity.
interior office, with sterile white walls where I wasn’t allowed to display
my work, had no windows and that further cramped my imagination.
I wrote, which when I started had gone directly to elderly Mr. Silverman for
approval, now, upon his retirement, had a whole chain of command to pass
through, and everybody left fingerprints on my work.
started getting terrific headaches and backaches and neck aches. I visited
chiropractors, dentists, optometrists, neurologists, and other medical
professionals, but nobody could find anything physically wrong with me.
Somebody suggested that tension might be causing the pain, and it made
So after a year at the
agency, I decided to quit.
Within a week, I wasn’t
bothered by aches any more.
wife worked as a legal secretary, I set up as a freelance copywriter, doing
business as Mr. E Enterprises. I landed a few small projects— a restaurant
chain, a bookstore, a couple of nightclubs, a pizzeria—but the work was
So to help tide us over
during lean times, I took on other part time work.
I ran legal documents
around town for a law firm.
as a nude model for drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, and anatomy
classes at Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College.
a process server, and nailed several thousand deadbeats around the county.
obtained a realtor’s license and sold a few houses.
managed a used bookstore.
managed a record and tape store.
spare time, I wrote poetry and short stories.
We didn’t liv
We didn’t live, but
Back to 9-to-5 again
I landed a job as copy chief at a small (8-12 people, depending upon the
workload), hot creative shop, PJ&L Advertising Agency (the initials stood
for my new boss’s first three names, Paul, John and Lee). It was a
completely different, and better, experience than my first agency.
agency head, rather than from the administrative side, was a copywriter
himself, and very demanding when it came to concepts, which improved my
a tight-knit, highly creative group with lots of energy that we poured into
our work for the Syracuse Symphony, Syracuse Cablesystems, Frink Sno-Plows,
Helluva Good Cheese, and other accounts on which imaginative approaches were
demanded. The atmosphere was relaxed. We laughed a lot, and agency members
often ate lunch together. At awards ceremonies, we cleaned up, particularly
in print categories, our strength.
couple of years, I began to grow restless: I’d wanted to return to the
Northwest—the aesthetic beauty of the mountains had done something to my
psyche. So, while my wife and I were on vacation out West in the summer of
1979, I dropped off resumes at agencies across Montana, Idaho and Oregon.
landed a job in Missoula, but it fell through. Then, in early 1980, I was
offered the position of Creative Director at an agency in Boise, Idaho, and
I accepted. I flew out and located a house for us to rent.
to leave behind all the good friends I’d made in New York—the agency folks
all pitched in to help load the stuff from our apartment into a U-Haul—but I
felt a strong urge to move on.
and I, with our two cats in a cage beside us on the front seat of the truck
cab, set out in early July, during one of the hottest summers on record.
Daily we pulled into a motel in early afternoon—sometimes having to smuggle
the cats to our room where pets weren’t allowed. We’d dine in a restaurant,
then hit the sack and sleep until midnight when we’d climb back into the
truck head for the highway.
all the driving, since my wife didn’t then have a license.
long haul from Syracuse to Boise, especially in a vehicle that had a
governor and wouldn’t go over 50 mph. But I managed to cover 400-500 miles
per day. We saw a few sights along the way: the South Dakota Badlands, Wall
Drug, Mount Rushmore, and the Chief Crazy Horse monument.
crawled through the mountains of Yellowstone in a driving snowstorm, trailed
by a line of cars that couldn’t pass us on the winding roads.
in the middle of July, we arrived in our new home.
The bland leading the bland
I was to be in the Northwest, I quickly became disenchanted with the agency
business in Boise.
originally looked forward to coming out because, comparing my portfolio with
the new agency’s, I’d noticed my stuff was a lot more dynamic, and I figured
I could really help the Boise agency pick up their game.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t
given the chance.
boss was a bland, humorless stick, a glorified salesman with a power
complex, who fancied himself a copywriter. He always demanded the dull and
obvious for his pet accounts, and didn’t really have a grasp of the
principles of good advertising, despite the fact he’d been in business for
more than 20 years.
managed to hang on for 18 months. Then, the recession hit, and agency people
began to be laid off. My hours and my salary were cut by 40 percent, and
finally I was laid off too in early 1982. When I left, the agency consisted
of the owner, his wife, his college-age son, and the accountant; it closed a
few years later, to become a fast-foot franchise.
immediately designed a business card to reenter freelancing, billing myself
as “The Wizard of Words.” I made the rounds of other agencies and graphic
designers, and began to pick up work.
Making a name in Idaho
next four years, I was kept hopping with a constant stream of work, most of
it either direct from a number of corporations, through agencies, or through
a couple of hot graphic design firms.
on a wide variety of projects with talented teams of creative artists,
illustrators, photographers, and others who did excellent work. Individually
and collectively, we won dozens of industry awards. I earned a reputation
for effective, attention-getting work at reasonable prices.
one of those agencies hired me as part-time creative director and
advertising consultant, primarily to work on political campaigns. After the
elections, I went back to full-time freelancing again.
the same agency hired me as full-time creative director. Though the
production staff was top-notch, the administration had become severely
flawed: they now considered the creative department as no more than a
necessary evil, and treated us accordingly. (This attitude, I learned, was
typical of Boise agencies.)
bosses decided to open a satellite office in Spokane, Washington, to pick up
trade in a new market, but inadequately staffed the new office. As a
consequence, we in Boise had to do their jobs as well as ours. The
experiment lasted a year, and cost the agency hundreds of thousands of
dollars, precluding regular raises for Boise employees.
three years, I’d built up a decent bank account, and not needing the various
twinges the job was beginning to cause, resigned.
Still working after all these years
1995, I’ve freelanced fulltime as “Jack Ewing Advertising Concepts and
Copy.” I’m happy, I’m relaxed, and I don’t intend to ever again be someone’s
work, as ever, is sporadic. I endure and, thanks to good luck and good
investments, I survive. To supplement my income, I’ve taught copywriting
classes at a local literary center.
paying jobs are scare—9/11 put a real crimp in the market for awhile—I
concentrate more on my fiction, and submit stories mostly to paying markets.
compulsive wordsmith who for more than thirty years has put in 8-12 hours at
the keyboard virtually every day, I’ve published about one story per month
on average since 1960. I also published novels in 1998 and 2000.
a friend and former video producer, Randy Fowler, for whom I’d written a
number of scripts, asked me to write his life story. The material intrigued
me—a talented drummer, Randy played for years on the nightclub circuit while
carrying heavy baggage: his father had sexually abused him as a child, and
his younger brother is actor Kevin Spacey. I agreed to take on the job.
90,000-word, profusely illustrated bio, Spacey’s Brother: Split By
Secrets, is the result. The book and its CD version are currently being
shopped. You can read more about it here.
two years, I’ve been a contributor to a new resource, the Literary Reference
Center, containing short bios of some 9000 authors who flourished in the 20th Century.
By the time Salem Press releases the reference late in 2006, I’ll have
written about 350 author bios, containing more than 175,000 words, about two
it may be, I’m eager to tackle the next writing project.
Web site created by Breck Graphics,
Randy B. Fowler, proprietor