Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Preview of Chapter One

I'm still working away on Chapter One of my book.  Today, I thought I'd give you a preview.
It's still open to a lot of editing, but you'll get the idea of where I'm headed with it.

I've never written much that didn't have at least a twist of humor to it.  As I look back over some parts of my life, I realize that my memoir is going to need a joke thrown in here and there. 

There's probably not one of us who doesn't carry with us a little emotional baggage.  Our lives have all had some moments of sadness, embarrassment, anger or even downright disgrace that we'd just as soon forget but we can't.  They stick stubbornly in our minds and refuse to be erased.  

So when that happens with me, I try to make the episode as funny as I can.  I'd rather laugh than cry.

And now here's the opening of Chapter One, still subject to revision.




    There has never been any dispute that I was born on September 10, 1952 in Emmetsburg, Iowa. That was the simple truth.  What became the question was to which parents was I born?

    One story that circulated through the family was this:  one chilly morning my mother and father  found me in a basket on their doorstep.  This was exactly where they had left me the night before.

    In those days there was a milkman who delivered dairy products to our front porch every morning at daybreak.  To catch his attention, my folks had pinned a note to my sleeper.  It read, “Please leave 3 gallons of whole milk and 2 pints of cream.” (Cholesterol had not yet been invented.)

    He did, and wrote a note.  It read, “Thank you for your business.  Did you know you have a baby on your doorstep?”  Then he pinned it to my sleeper.

     Having thought better of this, he removed the note, but added, "By the way, the kid smells.  Your neighbors are starting to complain."  Then he re-pinned it to my sleeper.

    My sleeper was starting to look like a bulletin board and I had become a human pin cushion.  

     Shortly after the milkman's departure, the paper boy arrived.  He took aim from the sidewalk and the morning edition of the Des Moines Register whizzed through the chill air like a missile and landed on my head.

      So I entertained myself with news items about Ike Eisenhower's presidential campaign (it was only two months until the election), the sports page, and the funnies.  I also had a paper cut on my right hand and I am told this is how newspaper writing got into my blood.

      Now I never believed that story.  But for years, there was a trace of doubt that the couple who raised me were actually my birth parents.

      There were two male babies born that day in Emmetsburg Memorial Hospital.  One to Donald and Katherine Mullen Potter, the other to the Fuller Brush Man and his lovely wife, Mrs. Fuller Brush Man.

       If you are too young to remember, a Fuller Brush man drove around in a little box truck, canvassing the neighborhoods and showing housewives his gadgets.  He also sold them Fuller Brush products like mops and brooms and cleansers and--you guessed it--brushes.

      Fuller Brush exists today, but their products are sold online.  In my youth, online was where you hung the laundry on a breezy, sunny day.

      I have no idea what the name of our local Fuller Brush man was.  He would occasionally call on my mother, but when his truck pulled up in our driveway, Mom would quickly suggest a game of hide-and-seek  and the Fuller Brush Man was it.

      I would find wonderful places to hide:  a dark corner of the basement under the tank that stored the fuel for our winter's heat; behind the row of poplars that lined our back fence like tall, leafy sentries; or maybe under Dad's workbench in the garage.  The Fuller Brush Man would never think to look in any of these places.

      Truth is, Mom never gave him any business so he didn't stick around long.  When he was gone, she returned to her soaps and game shows on TV.  I stayed hidden until I was eventually called to supper.


This where I'm headed with this thing for now.  Thanks for giving it a look.

Copyright 2015 by Wendel Potter


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

In The Beginning Was Chapter One

I'm working on the first chapter of my book.  As I mentioned in my last post, it's to be a memoir of sorts, snapshots of my life's fonder memories.

Getting started has been difficult.  It's not just beginning the book, it's beginning the first paragraph, the first sentence, tinkering with the mechanics of each and every syllable, so the reader will be moved with such kinetic force that he will lap up sentence after sentence with a slavering hunger, begging for the next chapter and the next and so on right up until the very end, and then in a fit of angst, he may kill himself because it's over and there is no promise of a sequel.

Well,  perhaps I don't write with that kind of passion, but the process was that dramatic no doubt for greats such as Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and Mickey Spillane.

But grabbing the reader from the get go is imperative.  I am struggling with the first chapter.  

I thought, having a catchy opening sentence is important.  Let me start there.

So I came up with, "In the beginning was the word."  But later, while flipping channels on TV,  I heard a minister use this very line while reading from a large, important looking book. 

Drat!  Well, it looks like I can't use that line, it's already taken!   I was crestfallen.  

Wait!  That's it!  That's my opening:  "Help!  I'm crestfallen and I can't get up!"

But then, while flipping channels again (using the TV remote control is good exercise for writers:  it develops the thumbs so you can hit the space bar on your keyboard accurately and with gusto for long stretches and not lose thumb stamina), I saw some elderly lady lounging on her basement floor at the bottom of the steps and by golly if she didn't repeat my new opening line almost word for word, except she left out "crest".  

Who knows, maybe her show was sponsored by Colgate and they wouldn't let her say "crest".

Undaunted, I moved on to another idea. Why not introduce the chapter with a pithy quotation? This seems to work for other writers.  As a matter of fact, a guy named Bartlett started his book that way and ended up using nothing but quotations.  

The pithiest I could come up with was, "There once was a man from Nantucket."  However, it's important and only fair to give the pithy author of the quotation proper credit and after hours of searching the Internet, I'll be darned if I could find out who wrote it.  Google, my ass!

Finally, it dawned on me that I had written for a newspaper for ten years.  Had I learned nothing about the journalism craft?  Of course!  Just apply the basic principles of newspaper writing: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.

My first chapter will be called, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and will tell the story of my humble origins.  So this is my journalistic approach:

Who?    Me, of course.  

What?   My birth.

When?   September 10, 1952

Where?  Emmetsburg, Iowa

Why?     Mom's ovulation calculator misfired.

How?     I have no idea.  We never discussed it.

So the struggle is over and I am working on Chapter One:  Baa Baa Black Sheep

And when I have finished the final draft (of the chapter, not beer), I will report back here with sample excerpts.

In the meantime, I will keep you updated often on how Chapter One is progressing.

It's like writing a book with my family and friends looking over my shoulder.  

Thanks for reading and I'll meet you back here soon.

Copyright 2015 by Wendel Potter

Sunday, January 4, 2015

What Happened to Wendel's World and Why I'm Writing A Book

Welcome to Wendel's World.  I'm writing a book.

This month marks the 10th anniversary of my dismissal as a columnist for the Grand Island Independent, a central Nebraska newspaper.  My weekly humor column had nearly a 9-1/2 year runThen, on January 2, 2005, my final column appeared in the newspaper's Sunday Lifestyle section.  It went like this:

 "A Haircut in Wendel's World:  I Repeat, 'Do Not Repeat'"

Just before Christmas I was getting shaggy. As a matter of fact, I was getting so shaggy that the family was calling our dog Scooby.

It had been eight months since I'd had a "real" haircut. You know, where you go to a shop or a salon and sit in a chair with a sheet draped over you.

In the meantime, the Good Wife had been using her "home barber kit" to keep my hair trimmed. Come to think of it, I still got to sit in a chair with a sheet draped over me. In this instance, the only difference was that I could sit in my underwear and I got to kiss my barber.

But Christmas morning would mean that GW would be prowling around, camera in hand, snapping one picture after another as the family opened our presents. On film, me in the morning is bad enough. Me looking like a troll would certainly spoil the Christmas pictures.

So the time had come for me to turn to a professional. Since it had been awhile, I didn't kick about it and went ahead and showed up for the appointment my wife had made for me. (She also drove me there and shoved me through the salon door.)

I guess I hadn't realized just how long it had actually been until the haircut was over and it came time to pay. For some reason, the price of a haircut had gone up five bucks since I was last there! I began to wonder if the Middle East crisis and the price of oil could in any way affect cutting hair.

Since it was the Christmas season and only the second time I'd had my hair cut professionally in 2004, I didn't squawk. I didn't tip, either. But I didn't squawk.

It will, however, probably be another eight months before my next salon appointment. I've already started saving my pennies.

Now, the more I got to thinking about it, I decided there must be a reason for the price of a haircut to skyrocket. I concluded that it must have to do with the barber/stylist's degree of expertise as well as the extras they offer, the little things you used to expect free with a haircut back in the days when it only cost a dollar and a half.

So here's a few guidelines I've developed that might possibly save us all some money on our next haircut. Maybe they won't but it's worth a try.

First of all, when choosing someone to cut your hair, determine that person's professional status. Be wary of titles. Is your person a barber or a stylist? This will determine whether you will have your hair barbed or styled. Barbing is, of course, much cheaper.

What are the qualifications of the barber/stylist? Does she display diplomas and certificates at her workstation and always seems to be so busy when you walk in that you might have to wait an extra 10 minutes?

If so, she may be too pricey. Instead, ask for the barber in the corner with no customers, who's leafing through a magazine she obviously can't read. You can spot her right away: straggly hair, acne, ketchup stains on her smock and a hand-written degree from Kojak's Barber School in Tipperary.

"Where's Tipperary?" you ask.

"Oh," she says, "it's a long way."

Then again, saving money shouldn't always be your first priority.

But whichever barber/stylist you choose, be careful of the extras. Nothing is complimentary. For instance, if your person insists on shampooing your hair before cutting it, allow her to only lather and rinse. For God's sake, DO NOT LET HER REPEAT! That could be another buck right there.

Be careful when it comes to suggestions or recommendations. For instance, "Would you like me to trim your eyebrows?"
Oh, boy! There's a sucker punch! That's probably worth 50 cents a brow!

Tell her, "I have no eyebrows and please do not disturb the two caterpillars mating on my forehead. In the spring, I'll have a butterfly up there."

Offer to save your barber some time. Tell her that she doesn't need to use the little vacuum to suck up the loose hair.

I have learned from my dog how to shake myself off. Of course, I now turn in a circle three times before I sit down and I scratch on the back door when I have to pee.

But learning to shake yourself off could mean a few cents saved on your next haircut. On the other hand, it can be kind of exciting if the barber/stylist drops the vacuum hose in your lap.

You'll just have to decide for yourself how much those extras are worth to you.

As for me, I'm willing to try anything to save some money. However, for the next eight months, I think I'll stay home and kiss the barber.

And that was the beginning of the end.  For the next week, the newspaper received a vast number of complaints from the Grand Island hairstyling community.  You know, the typical "how dare he insult our profession?" kind of grousing. 

But what these folks didn't understand was that I played a character in my columns.  I was the crotchety, impatient and extremely frugal guy who was always trying to save a buck.  In other words, I played myself.  

Secondly, I was always the butt of my own jokes.  It makes for good comedy.

Now the reason these barbers and hair stylists didn't understand was because a good share of them had never read one of my columns until this one.  As a matter of fact, as I was to discover, many of those who squawked hadn't even read this particular column.  

I felt like I was caught somewhere between Joe McCarthy and Chicken Little, or had been transported back in time a few hundred years to Salem, Massachusetts.

I did, however, have a lot of written support from my faithful readers, so I never gave it any more thought and went ahead and submitted my column for the following week.

It never made it to print.  I was informed that I had been suspended.  Two weeks later, I met with the newspaper's publisher and his editor, at which time they informed me that they would no longer publish my column.

It was also made clear that this wasn't about the hairdressers of central Nebraska and their hurt feelings.  And it wasn't about losing advertising dollars.  The editor told me that the money the salons and barber shops spent on newspaper ads didn't really amount to much, anyway.

What seemed to be at the root of it all was a column I had written a few years earlier about Grand Island's Downtown Development group and the lame and wacky ideas these people had to renovate and boost commerce in a blighted area of the city that, to this day, has not recovered from the Big Box and Shopping Mall takeover.

When that column appeared, the phones at the newspaper office rang off the desk.  Merchants up and down "Main Street" were livid.  They wanted my head on a platter.  

And they thought it inexcusable that the newspaper had even printed the column to begin with. One of the advertising sales executives was threatened. 

But, there was a different publisher in place at the time and he went to bat for me.  He and I attended a special meeting of the Downtown Development folks and he told them, "I will not sanitize my newspaper.  Wendel's World is a humor column and should be regarded as such."

After the meeting, that publisher got me aside and said, "Don't be afraid to get back up on the horse."

That's the kind of newspaper publisher I respect and admire.

Obviously, it didn't end there.  Flash forward a few years and The Independent's new publisher, Don Smith,  tossed a copy of that column on the desk in front of me.

"I understand this is the only column you ever apologized for, " he said smugly.

I glanced at the copy and saw that it was the notorious "Downtown" column.  Just as smugly, I told Mr. Smith, "I never apologized for this.  As a matter of fact, your predecessor and I met with the board and he lent me his full support."

"That's not the way I heard it."

"Then you heard wrong."

And that was that.  I was shown the door.  My column had become extinct.

No amount of phone calls or letters from my local readers, or the 400+ emails (I had online readers from coast to coast and from Canada to Ireland to New Zealand) that flooded Don Smith's inbox would change his mind.

I had a good run, though.  The column began in 1995 after I had returned from a writer's workshop in California, where I won an award for comedy writing.

A gentleman named Ray Parker advised me to try my hand at writing humor columns.  So I followed that advice and approached the Grand Island newspaper with the idea.  The editor at the time agreed to give me a shot.

So for nearly ten years,  I wrote a column each week.  I gave readers a chuckle, sometimes showed my serious side, made friends, and was invited to speak at banquets and conventions.

Over these past ten years,  I've written columns for a blog site.  I've had lulls, but I never gave up writing.  My keyboard has just been a little quieter.

Now, however, it's time to do something I've wanted to do for decades.  Which is, to write a book.

Many of my columns were based on fond memories.  That's what this book will be about.
Fond memories in my life.

I grew up in a wonderful time...the sedate and flourishing 1950s...and came of age in the turbulent, exciting 1960s.  In the 1970s, I met the beautiful woman who would become my wife and my best friend.  The 1980s blessed us with our babies.

In 2012, we moved from Nebraska to Florida.  That move carries with it another story with a happy ending that may be a book in itself.

My mother used to get frustrated when she would try to remember something simple that didn't immediately come to mind and she'd say, "I should write things down!"

That's what I'm going to do before I get any older.  Write it all down. 

As I write it all down, I will share excerpts with you here on this blog.  I'll include snippets of some of the columns I've written in the past that relate to the chapters in my book.

I'm starting at ground zero and working my way forward through 62 years of life's experiences.  I hope you'll look in on this blog frequently.  And if you want to share some of your memories with me, please feel free to comment. 
At the beginning of "The Lone Ranger" series, both on radio and television, the announcer would intone, "Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear....the Lone Ranger rides again!"

That's what I want to do.  Return to those thrilling days of yesteryear.  Wendel's World rides again!

Thanks for reading.  My next blog entry will cover my book's first chapter, "Baa Baa Black Sheep", in which I discuss my birth and why my family thought I was switched with another baby at the hospital.  This notion has always upset me because the other family was more affluent than mine.

Copyright 2015 by Wendel Potter