Wordman Sponsors “Red’s Army” in Heart Walk

HeartWalk2015May 30 was a beautiful day to join friends in support of the American Heart Association and its annual Heart Walk in Evansville. The event generated $64,500 for education and prevention of heart disease and stroke. The Wordman team, Red’s Army, raised $1900 for the cause. Pausing with me at the finish line are Myk, Mike, and Nurse Sharon. Our distracted mascot is White Knight, aka Killer.

“I ain’t gonna ride on no Yankee boat!”

Photo of Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. Flag on the moon.

By NASA/Apollo 11 (Buzz Aldrin and the U.S. Flag on the Moon) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ll never forget my first encounter with irrational reverence to the Confederacy. It happened in June of 1961. I was nine years old and had traveled with my family to Biloxi, Mississippi, a popular vacation spot on the Gulf of Mexico.

Like many locales along the southern coasts, Biloxi drew thousands from the north who wished to lose their summertime ennui in sunshine and sand. Unlike some of those locales, Biloxi’s appeal was purely wholesome. No rowdy bars, no carousing—Biloxi boasted mom-and-pop motels, family restaurants, and touristy distractions.

One such distraction was an excursion to Ship Island, a barrier island about ten miles off the coast. My parents primed me to go with the thought of scooping rare and valuable shells along the shore. Having gleaned but a few lackluster specimens on the public beach, I was ready to find the motherlode. I envisioned an abundance to rival the riches of King Solomon’s mines.

We drove to the harbor, bought our tickets, and joined the other day trippers on the pier waiting to board. Our vessel was a small ferry, well scrubbed and equipped with the requisite rope lines and round white life preservers. However, its most salient feature was the Stars and Stripes. Tethered to a spar at the stern, it danced in agitation against the breeze’s whip, resisting the lash with furious, noisy flapping.

I noticed a boy in our group who was about my age. His skin was tanned and he wore a white sailor cap. He was ahead of me in the cue, and he appeared unsettled. When the boarding started, he stopped short and backed up, like a donkey digging in.

“I ain’t gonna ride on no Yankee boat!”

The rest of us pretended not to notice his outburst, and we casually made our way around him to take our seats. As we did, a woman ushered the boy aside and gave him a hushed talking-to. Whatever she said effected a swift exorcism. It was as if his indignation was carried off by the very wind that had conspired with the flag to inflame it. We embarked without further incident, and the boy remained quiet, if somewhat sullen, for the duration.

Except for the relentless biting flies and soupy, inescapable heat, little else of that day stays with me. I don’t recall if I found any shells. I don’t even remember which of my relatives were along. But the image of that boy with the sailor cap, echoing a deep-seated bitterness, is crystalline. It clings, but not because it insulted my ideal of patriotism. To me, a “Yankee” was a player on the world’s greatest baseball team. Nor did it make me feel threatened—he was just a kid, quickly subdued.

What haunts me is the seeming randomness of his sudden anger. It was surreal, like a scene from a Hitchcock film, gulls diving from the sky to attack passengers on a ferry. Or an actor leaping from the stage of a theater to shoot a man in the audience.

I wonder if the fellow is still living. Was that day a turning point for him, a happy course correction? Did he escape the voices that pour the poison of inherited resentments into young ears? Or has he joined the misguided chorus?

I have no way of knowing. But I do know that those voices, muted of late, still exalt the Old South and its symbols. They use words like “heritage,” “tradition,” and “states’ rights.” When they do, I hear an adolescent in denial, screaming: I ain’t gonna ride on no Yankee boat!

It’s time the rest of us stop pretending not to notice.

20 Minutes and 20 Years

This story came to me from David, a creative director I used to work with. It’s part of the lore an ad man accumulates over years in this business of “thinking up things to sell things.”

One morning, a client dropped in at the agency, carrying a board under her arm. (Before desktop computers infiltrated advertising’s creative environs in the 1990s, commercial artists sketched layouts by hand and affixed the work to cardboard, i.e., boards.)  The receptionist summoned the account executive, who, by chance, happened to be in the office. An impromptu conference in the lobby ensued. The client wished to see a modification to a magazine ad, as quickly as possible. So, the account executive dutifully carried the board to the creative director and relayed the request.

A half hour later, revised layout in tow, the client was back in her car, satisfied that the ad reflected her request. Even better, the artist had made a subtle, secondary change that seemed to elevate the design to the realm of award-worthiness.

A week later, the account executive received a phone call. The client disagreed with the invoice. By her reckoning, the fee seemed high. The work took place while she waited a few minutes in the lobby. “How long did it take the artist to do this?”

She got her answer. “Twenty minutes and twenty years.”

Of course, this same story has taken many forms. Perhaps the best-known telling is from the life of American artist James (Abbott) McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). The artist sought damages for libel from John Ruskin, an art critic who publicly excoriated Whistler for his painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.

In court, Whistler testified the painting took two days to create. Ruskin’s lawyer asked: “The labor of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?” Whistler replied: “No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”

1024px-Whistler-Nocturne_in_black_and_goldNocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, oil on panel. James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Painting resides at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Estimated value, according to Artvest Partners, is $25M to $45M.

What was your first pet’s name?

I came upon this question yesterday in my security settings for an online account. It was in the list with What was your mother’s maiden name? and What street did you live on in the second grade? I suppose those are things you never forget. Your first pet, especially, gets a forever-place in your neural strongbox. It’s as indelible as the memory of the first girl you made out with. Or the teacher who humiliated you in class just for the hell of it. Or that scene in Jason and the Argonauts where the giant bronze dude rains havoc on the Argo and its crew when Hercules tries to abscond with stolen treasure. You don’t remember the bronze dude’s name, but you never forget that scene.Baby Snapping Turtle

Herman was a baby snapping turtle. Black beady eyes and a bumpy green shell about the size of a silver dollar. My little sister, Susan, adopted him during a fishing expedition with our dad on a Saturday in June. I couldn’t muster the Zen for sitting in an aluminum johnboat on a hot afternoon, and I had turned down the offer to join them. So my little sister, not I, was perched in the catbird seat when Herman swam alongside the boat and Dad scooped him from the water with the wide part of the scull.  She was still bubbling when, turtle in hand, she related the moment for me.  I could see her plucking the creature gleefully from the spruce oar, the way she might snatch the last Oreo from a plate. In that instant, she had become the owner of the world’s coolest pet. I was now the world’s most envious brother.

Susan and I were 17 months apart and practically inseparable. She knew me better than anyone did, and I knew her just as well. Dad referred to us as Heckle and Jeckle, after the mischievous cartoon magpies.  We liked being thought of as rascals. We often treated each other as such.

The writer and his sister Susan in 2006.

Heckle and Jeckle circa 2006.

I was determined to wheedle Herman from her. My first plea, a mishmash of psychobabble and outright begging, left her as unmoved as the iceberg that sank the Titanic. I upped the ante. A cigar box full of my own hand-drawn comic strips, my most treasured holding. She softened a little. When I floated a vaguely defined, joint-custody arrangement, she acceded. Herman became, nominally, mine. 

Our first order of business was to secure suitable lodging. We didn’t have a terrarium or even a big glass jar. But we did have an old, insulated metal bait bucket. It held about two gallons. We filled it about one-third with water and set a big shard of cement in it that we had excavated from somewhere around the foundation of the house. Herman could swim about and, we reasoned, crawl onto the cement to rest when he got tired of swimming.

We didn’t know what to feed him. By instinct, we gravitated to insects, tossing all sorts into his lair. I don’t remember how many species perished at our hands before we discovered the filet mignon: a shiny black beetle about a half-inch long. These thrived in the damp soil beneath the sill cock on the shady side of the house. We called them water bugs. They were fabulous swimmers, which enhanced the entertainment value of feeding time.  Herman would chase and attack with relish, clamping his small but mighty jaws onto the abdomen to effect a rupture of no less goo-inducing force than you would expect under the heel of a 230-pound accountant in wingtips.

By coincidence, a neighbor kid, Bobby, adopted a baby snapping turtle that summer, too.  I don’t remember his turtle’s name, but I do recall Herman was slightly bigger. I was strangely proud of the fact, like a father who attaches a measure of his own worth to a son’s physical stature. If there were tryouts for a turtle team, I told myself, surely my turtle would make the roster before Bobby’s.

Bobby suggested our turtles might like to spend the night together. In retrospect, that idea seems a little weird. But at the time it made sense. Overnights and slumber parties were fun for us kids. Why not for turtles? The next morning I walked the two doors over to retrieve my pet, and Bobby came out carrying both turtles in shoebox.

“Your turtle bit my turtle’s tail,” he said.

I peered into the bucket. Sure enough, the lithe, tapered point was missing. In its place was a stiff-looking stub.

“Sorry,” I said. We both laughed. After all, they were snapping turtles.  And mine was bigger.

As summer ebbed through the sticky days of July and August, my interest in bugs and turtles waned. I spent most of my waking hours a block from home, on the playground at Dexter School. I was part of a neighborhood throng, preoccupied with softball, tether ball, box hockey and horseshoes. Only occasionally did I peep into the bait-bucket and flip Herman a water bug before running off to play.

By the time Labor Day rolled past, and I was back in school, my parents had decided it was in everyone’s best interest for Herman to go back into the wild. Naturally, I protested.  Such an action seemed tantamount to murder.  What chance would a little turtle have in a big, heartless food chain? He’d be gobbled up faster than a toasted marshmallow at a Boy Scout jamboree. But the folks insisted. I believe the real, unspoken reason was my mother’s fear of keeping an animal indoors.

We set Herman’s departure for Sunday. It was a family event. Everyone loaded into the Chrysler. I sat in the back seat, bait bucket between my feet, acting as nonchalant as a warden escorting a condemned man to the chair. We drove west on Washington Avenue to U.S. Highway 41 and turned south. After about five minutes, we turned onto a gravel road at the approach of the bridge that crosses the Ohio River. When the car stopped, I got out, carried the bucket to the edge of a slough, and tossed Herman in. He landed with a little splash a couple of yards from shore and disappeared into the murky green. I stood for a few seconds, praying for his safety. Then I returned to the car and a chorus of consolation.  This looks like a good place for turtles. He’ll be just fine here. Don’t worry.

I looked out the window and a soft surge of guilt washed over me. It receded like ripples on the water which, as we slowly drove off, disappeared behind the cattails and brush. As the car turned onto Highway 41 and headed north, I wondered what we would be having for dinner. 



Thought for the Day

The clipping below comes right from my computer’s built-in dictionary. (It’s not my favorite glossary, but it is convenient.)

“As a verb, impact remains rather vague and rarely carries the noun’s original sense of forceful collision. Careful writers are advised to use more exact verbs that will leave their readers in no doubt about the intended meaning. In addition, since the use of impact is associated with business and commercial writing, it has a peripheral status of ‘jargon,’ which makes it doubly disliked.”


A Quick Quiz on Dates

Lately, I’ve noticed several advertisers making fundamental copy mistakes in the expression of dates. Automobile dealers, especially, seem prone to error. Here’s a short test. See if you can differentiate the correct and incorrect forms in the following examples.

  1. The book sale begins on January 27th.
  2. The sale ends on February 1.
  3. Holiday business hours extend from Tuesday, the 9th of December, through Wednesday, the 24th.
  4. Attendance during March, 2011, hit an all-time high.
  5. The June 1999 issue of The Atlantic is missing from the stacks.
  6. I read about the heist of historical documents in the December 1, 2014, issue of The New Yorker.
  7. The Reston Rose Society will hold its annual meeting during the week of May 16–22.
  8. Wildfires of suspicious origin increased dramatically from 2004–2006.
  9. I wonder if anyone living today was alive during the 1800’s.
  10. I can’t think of the ’60s without thinking of the Beatles.

1. Incorrect (January 27)   2. Correct   3. Correct.  4. Incorrect (no commas needed)  5. Correct   6. Correct   7. Correct   8. Incorrect (from 2004 to 2006)  9. Incorrect (1800s)  10. Correct