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A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
A weathered saying declares that travel makes you a better writer. Sayings erode with time, acquiring their bedrock veracity not only through sunshine, but snow, rain, and something you can listen to: the wind. And on the road it is not just what you see, touch and smell that aids your constitutional writing base, but also what you hear.
The vernacular of a region, or of a class of people, can greatly improve a narrative. I have read that Shakespeare introduced dozens of new words and phrases into the English language, but suspect they weren't new words or phrases to the ordinary, non-writing Englishmen and women of his day. I have borrowed excellent phrases of renowned writers and have used them in my books. From Walden, I borrowed Thoreau's metaphor, 'stuck like burrs to corduroy.' From The Life And Times of Sir Richard Burton I borrowed, 'they guarded their opinions like heirlooms.' Both of these phrases appear in my novel, Killing Frank McGee. In a book of rural sayings I found, 'jumpin' like a one-legged man at an ass-kicking,' and look forward to using it in some future work.
Old friends from a parochially Irish-Catholic Norwood Massachusetts have found their way into the novel. Chapter Ten of McGee begins, 'We're all the carpenters of our own cross,' a frequent saying of the late patriarch of the Lydon family, Dr. Roy Lydon. And working on the road, accompanied by fellow road warriors from all corners of the country, has proved a bounty of regional, interesting sayings.
I sat on a curb with Harvey Shankman one evening in the small town of Kendallville, Indiana, nursing cans of Budweiser as we watched a quintessential, small-town American Fourth of July street celebration. Shankman is a Brooklyn boy, endowed with that locations infamous caustic wit and sarcasm. The New York borough's charm is not universally appreciated. Harvey is known for incidents like this: at a plant in Buffalo, the owner came up to him as he was troubleshooting a machine, and inquired why the job wasn't done yet. Harvey looked up and said, 'Well, you obviously know more about this machine than I do. I'm going back to my hotel room - give me a call when you've got it fixed.' And he walked out. In Kendallville we sat on the curb telling road stories, and Harvey casually mentioned that he once 'threw up everything but the bones in my right leg.' The line appears in McGee.
Working with Paul Frigo in Jefferson City, Missouri. Frigo is a solid Midwesterner, from Wisconsin. He is sober, intelligent, earnest and hardworking, and a good guy to talk with. He is one of those individuals I consider interesting and interested, and lest his mild manner mislead you, ask him what he did when a tenant once threatened his wife in his absence. During our conversation in the plant I heard him say not once, but twice, '.I grew up without a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of.' I'd heard, of course, the 'growing up without a pot to piss in' forever, but had never heard the second part, '.or a window to throw it out of.' These lines appear in McGee.
And this week in Columbus, Ohio I spend with Jeff Hunter, of the north-central Tennessee Hunter clan. Hunter is one of those individuals blessed by a life filled with working on motors and cars and machinery of all sorts. He is very, very good at what he does, and a large part of his personality is his knowledge of this. His pronounced southern drawl contrasts with my sharp New England accent - he is Jeff Huntah to me, and Jaiffray Hunner to himself - and we introduce ourselves to the bartender as Mason and Dixon.
"I been readin' your travelogues, Don, we gotta do something to create a new one," Jeff says to me in the Holiday Inn bar. "We gotta go out and have us some experiences you can write about in one of them travelogues."
We discuss Shankman and Frigo, and what they have provided me. And Hunter then introduces me to phrases never heard in New England, and which are now filed for future use:
"Raised more hell than a jack in a tin stall," he drawls, and when he sees me jot down the saying on a napkin, adds, "I bet you never heard that wonnnn. Do you know what it means?"
"Everyone from where I'm from knows what that means. A jack is a donkey. And everyone from where I'm from knows they cuss and fight and beat up their stalls, so to raise hell like a jack in a tin stall is to make some racket."
When I tell him I'm editing an old novel called Victory Faust, which can use quaint, rural sayings such as that, Hunter warms to the task:
"You heard this wonnn? 'Raised more hell than a goat shittin' peach seeds'? You ever seen a peach seed, long with a pointy aind?"
I nod approvingly, jotting it down on my napkin. As I do I appreciate that traveling to different places and meeting different people certainly helps my writing. Why, even last week I met a guy in York, Pennsylvania named Dwayne Hanson. We had a somewhat raucous first encounter (we probably didn't need those last four rounds) in the Holiday Inn barroom with notorious and erstwhile salesmen Dennis Chojnacki and Mike Hayes. Hanson was visiting the plant in which I was working as a sort of corporate strong-arm, investigating the causes of that location's poor production record. The next day I heard on the street that the management at the plant was jumping like a one-legged man at an ass-kicking under his critical glare. When I broke for lunch and went outside, I found Dwayne Hanson on the steps,smoking a cigarette.
"Hey," I said, "word is you've got everyone pretty nervous in there." Hanson casually exhaled, gave a wry, confident smile and shrugged.
"Hey, there's no reason to be nervous if you're doing your job," he said. As I walked past him, I replied, "Unless you're walking point."
Later, I smiled considering my from-the-blue reply. I'll use it in a book someday. Strange where a writer can sometimes get his material, isn't it?