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December 25, 2012

LONG ACQUAINTED


I decided to re-read the Sherlock Holmes story “The Blue Carbuncle” on Christmas Eve, having been reminded of the story’s Christmastime setting by Michael Dirda in his column at the American Scholar website (highly, highly recommended).

When I opened the first volume of my two-volume set of The Complete Sherlock Holmes I was delighted to also be reminded by the inscription that the books had been given to me on Christmas 1962 by my great-aunt, who came to live with us after retiring from running a print shop and stationery store in Ardmore (a story for another day).

How nice to think that I have had a fifty-year acquaintance with Mr. Holmes. I have known him in many incarnations, direct from the page and through the portrayals of Basil Rathbone in the movies of the 1940s and Johnny Lee Miller in the current TV series “Elementary.”

As I drew my pleasure from reading the story and handling the book, I remembered something else. It was at Christmas 1962 that I received my first typewriter, a green Smith-Corona portable with elite type. The keyboard has been my instrument ever since.

It was also that year, my junior year in high school, that my English teacher, Mrs. Rathgeber, first proposed the idea of a career in journalism.

So 1962 was a year of significance, for me at least, and I am grateful for the opportunity to remember that fact, thanks to that inscription from Aunt Helen.

But I also got to thinking: Now that I live in a digital world how can such a connection to the past occur today? How can another great aunt somewhere leave an inscription in a Kindle book for her grand nephew to read fifty years hence?

© 2012 Editorial Enterprises and Donald C. Sarvey

Click on the “XML” at the bottom of the page to set up a live bookmark to this site. To be notified of new posts, follow Don on Twitter at @donsarvey.
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December 23, 2012

IMMUTABLE POLITICS


Times change, but politics stays the same.

The plea for the patronage job, the request for the intercession of the powerful are today much as they were more than a hundred years ago.

This truth was brought home to me by a pair of letters among some papers of James Pollock passed down through my family.

The letters, written in 1869, plead with Pollock to restore the job of an elderly man who worked for the U.S. Mint, of which Pollock was director at the time.

Except for the references to Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, they’re not so different from what one might find today in political correspondence (if we still wrote real letters).

Some background: James Pollock was the man who put “In God We Trust” on our coins. Beginning in 1844, he served three terms in Congress, where he was a leading advocate for the construction of the transcontinental railroad (a copy of the transcontinental railroad bill is also among the cache of papers I have). After retiring from Congress, Pollock was elected governor of Pennsylvania in 1854 and resided in Harrisburg from 1855 to 1858.

In 1861, Abraham Lincoln, with whom Pollock served in Congress and with whom he had once shared the same Washington boarding house, appointed him director of the mint, a post he held until 1866. Ulysses S. Grant reappointed him director of the mint in 1869 and he held the post the second time until 1873.

Both letters to Pollock were written in the flowing script of a man named J.J. McElhone, who carried the title “official reporter of the U.S. House of Representatives.” The letters pleaded the cause of McElhone’s father, whom Pollock apparently had suspended from his job as a “conductor” at the mint.

The first letter indicates that McElhone had earlier visited Pollock in Philadelphia and that, in an attempt to win favor, McElhone had supplied some congressional documents Pollock had sought.

In the first letter, date4d May 19, 1869, McElhone wrote:

“You will pardon me, I trust, for again calling to your attention to the case of my father. He is a respectable old gentleman deserving alike well of his country and the Republican Party. During the war he gave to the Union cause the lives of two of his best children. He is too old to go into any business but cannot do without the income which he received as salary from the position he held a conductor in the mint. From this position he was removed by your general order. When I called upon you, you were kind enough to express yourself favorably in respect to his restoration. I hope you will find it within the line of your duty to so restore him at an early day.”

On June 4, McElhone wrote again:

“I have just learned that you have suspended my father’s reappointment. Of course, I regret it. I know that he voted for Mr. Lincoln twice; and that at the last election he voted for General Grant, for I was at home at the time. He is not and never was a professional politician, and although not so demonstrative as others, he was no less true as the most faithful. Two of his best children lost their lives in the Union service during the war, if that counts for anything just now as I suppose it does; and it would do well for the Republican Party to cherish such a man, for he has much influence with his own people.

“I can only repeat again that by his appointment you will do me a great favor, as well as others here, and at the same time do an act of justice to an old man who really needs the place.”

Unfortunately, there is no indication among the papers whether Pollock replied or whether he acceded to Mr. McElhone’s entreaties.

Perhaps one could make the excuse on Pollock’s behalf that 1869 was the year the transcontinental railroad was finally completed and he might have been preoccupied by seeing his advocacy of more than 20 years come to fruition.

Or perhaps, in further parallel to today’s politics, his budget might have been cut.

© 2012 Editorial Enterprises and Donald C. Sarvey

Click on the “XML” at the bottom of the page to set up a live bookmark to this site. To be notified of new posts, follow Don on Twitter at @donsarvey.
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December 14, 2012

AUDREY'S GIFT

My grandmother’s old friend Audrey was often invited when our family had ham potpie for dinner. Audrey loved ham potpie and because she had introduced my maternal grandparents to each other shortly after World War I, she had been a regular supper guest for a very long time.

Audrey was a constant and enthusiastic reader. She knew how much I enjoyed reading too, and she occasionally she brought along a book she thought I'd like.

“I tell you, I never laughed so much as I did over this one,” she said one evening, handing over a book before the potpie was served.

The book was entitled Minutes of the Last Meeting. The cover illustration was a caricature of several men, none of whom I recognized with the exception of W.C. Fields. I was a great fan of Fields. I'd taken his biography out of the library that summer and had been fascinated by his lifelong refusal to be subjugated by anyone’s notions of propriety. The author of the Minutes of the Last Meeting was identified as Gene Fowler, a man whom I had never heard of.

The book was more than interesting; it was captivating. It was full of funny, riotous escapades: the Hollywood goings-on of Fowler and a group of his friends. Many famous people, actors such as Fields, John Barrymore, Errol Flynn, and the artist John Decker, walked on and off stage in the course of the book.

What came through the pages and made a lasting imprint was the prankish, inquiring, sunny personality of the author, Gene Fowler.

What engaging company Fowler turned out to be. In his youth in Denver he was a friend of Buffalo Bill's. He was a star New York newspaperman for Hearst in the Roaring Twenties. He was an enthusiastic storyteller who went to Hollywood in the Thirties to write for the movies and became an author of novels, biographies, and memoirs.

He was the best of his kind, a brash, hard-charging, beat-the-other-guy-to-the-punch reporter from the era when they really did stick press cards in the bands of the their snap-brimmed fedoras and race in taxis to the scene of the latest grisly murder. It was a time that existed no more, was never coming back, a time long before newspaper offices became as sullen as insurance offices.

After I returned the book to Audrey, I looked for more by Fowler, but, sadly, this was one of the few times my little hometown library failed me. It had nothing of Gene Fowler's to offer.

The pleasant afterglow of Minutes of the Last Meeting stayed with me for a while but eventually began to fade. In what seemed like no time, college came and went, and then there I was on my first newspaper job.

The newspaper business was fun and exciting and stimulating. I think I had a knack for it, especially deadline writing. I took pleasure in seeing the hands of the clock inch toward the deadline. Half an hour left, down to twenty-five minutes, down to twenty. At that point I'd light a cigarette, take a couple of sheets of copy paper sandwiched with carbon paper, and roll them into the typewriter. Good times. High times.

During one summer's vacation, I stopped at a book store along a two-lane country road. Most of the sagging shelves were devoted to used and old books. There, stuck in a vise of wedged-in tomes, I found Skyline by Gene Fowler, a chronicle of his New York newspapering days. If a choir of angels in song had suddenly appeared in the air above me, I could not have been more thrilled. (Well, actually, I would not find that thrilling at all.)

After all the years, Fowler had reappeared. And he did not disappoint. I disappeared into the pages that very afternoon and did not reappear in flesh-and-blood life until the next morning. I smelled New York, felt the heat of its pavement, raced with Fowler to the next assignment, laughed at his deviltry and cleverness.

At the outset of my newspaper days in Boston, I once visited the old Record-American building and saw hanging on the wall a huge oil portrait of its former publisher, William Randolph Hearst. I remember perusing it as an interesting artifact of ancient history. Hearst was a figure of the dead past. But within Fowler's realm, blood coursed through Hearst's veins; he strode and strutted and bellowed and commanded.

Closing the pages of Skyline was like awakening from a feverish dream, leaving me uncertain, momentarily, where reality really lay. I had traveled in a perfect time machine.

Having found Skyline, I was now resolved to find more Fowler. The passion of the reader now merged with the passion of the collector. I stalked used-book stores wherever I found them.Year to year, the special shelf grew.

One of my favorites was A Solo in Tom Toms, a memoir of Fowler's early days in Denver. I found some of the biographies— Good Night Sweet Prince, the story of Fowler's great friend, John Barrymore; Schnozzola, the story of Jimmy Durante; The Great Mouthpiece, a biography of a New York lawyer named William J. Fallon. I found some of Fowler's fiction. Timber Line was one. Sometimes I would find copies of Fowlers I already had. I would keep the better one and give the other to a deserving friend.

One old friend remained unfound, however. Never did I happen to stumble upon a copy of Minutes of the Last Meeting. Of the Fowler canon, it was special because it was the first opening of the door. It had eluded me for so long that I wanted it all the more.

My own newspaper career came to an end. The last of five newsrooms in which I had roosted were history. The stories had begun to repeat themselves, and I feared becoming one of the many burned-out cases who trudged in every day simply because there was nowhere else to go. I saw that the business purposefully fed on the idealism of the young and when at last one wanted reward beyond bylines and recognition there was none to be had.

A job in association communications turned out to be frustrating so I went out on my own and became a freelance. Many friends considered me foolish, but it was a decision that turned out right for me, and it sustained me well enough.

One day word came that Audrey had died—two months shy of her one-hundredth birthday. I donated a book to my old hometown library in her memory. It was a small but, I thought, appropriate gesture.

One morning not long after, I was sitting in my office when the mail brought a thank-you note from Audrey's niece, herself a retired newspaperwoman. “Audrey would have appreciated your book,” she wrote. “She loved the library and she loved your family.”I read the note with a sense of pleasure, of bridging time and connecting with the past.

It was early spring. There was a warming sun and gusty breezes that threaded through the trees, swaying the branches and rustling the leaves in waves. I had a meeting scheduled after lunch on a writing project, but it was such a fine day I thought I ought to enjoy it. I decided to take a ride to soak in the weather and the scenery. I'd turn around and come back in time to get to my meeting.I drove for half an hour.

I was about to turn around and head back when I realized I was only a mile or two from a roadside used-book shop where I had often stopped to browse. What would another fifteen minutes or so hurt? I would still have time to make my meeting.

The shop occupied the first floor of a run-down house. Books were lined up on tiers of unpainted pine shelves and stacked in piles on the floor like teetering poker chips. I said hello to the woman at the sales counter just inside the door.“Do you have any books by Gene Fowler?” I asked without even thinking. It had become automatic, like a standard opening move in a chess match.

The woman smiled and shook her head. “Sorry,” she said. “I don't think so. But please feel free to look.”

The books were grouped by subject and arranged by author in less-than-perfect alphabetical order. I started with biography. Almost immediately I spotted a copy of Good Night, Sweet Prince, Fowler's biography of Barrymore. I had a copy, but I snatched it off the shelf anyway. I perused through mysteries, the Civil War, and regional history, and then jumped to the general fiction section. High up on a top shelf was a copy of A Solo in Tom Toms, misplaced as fiction. I already had it, but I put it in the crook of my arm along with the Barrymore book.

It was at this point that I knew. A rustle of quiet excitement passed over me, the sensing of an event about to happen.

I walked to the windows at the front of the shop. The books in this section were a jumble of odds and ends, items the owner apparently felt defied categorization. Here the shelves were low against the wall, running beneath the sills of the windows. Through the windows I could see the trees on the other side of the highway, their fresh green leaves waving at me in the wind, like a signal.

My gaze went to the top row of books and slowly cascaded down through the shelves.
It sat waiting patiently for me on the very bottom shelf. I slowly reached down and, almost ceremoniously, carefully withdrew Minutes of the Last Meeting from the row. It was a nearly pristine copy, with the original dust jacket.

I held the book in my hands for a moment, just touching it, inspecting it, comparing it with memory. Then I looked inside the front and back covers, just to be sure. They were blank. The name of the original owner was not there.

“How nice, you found something after all,” the woman at the desk said. She charged me five dollars for the three books.

I got back in the car. The thank-you note from Audrey’s niece was lying on the passenger seat. I picked it up and tucked it inside Minutes of the Last Meeting and laid the book on the seat. I rested my hands on top of the steering wheel for a moment and smiled, and then I turned the key in the ignition and headed back toward my meeting.

© 2012 Editorial Enterprises and Donald C. Sarvey
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