J. D. Salinger and Me

A month ago, Jerome David Salinger died of natural causes at the age of 91 at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire where, reportedly, he spent half his life as a recluse.  J.D. Salinger, of course, is author of one of our era’s most heralded and cult-status books, The Catcher in the Rye. He popularized the term “to screw up” and embedded in our collective consciousness the idea of people being “phonies,” when the book’s protagonist Holden Caulfield says, “everyone but me is a phony.”  The book appeared in 1951 and popularized the notion of teenage angst, which Salinger seemed to invent.

I read his obituary with great interest because his passing opened a floodgate of memories, most notably reminding me of why I write.

The year was 1964.  I was a sophomore in Richard Samson’s English class at Lawrence High School.  I didn’t have teenage angst like Holden Caulfield.  I was happy rolling along with my friends enjoying a carefree life.  Mr. Samson, in my mind, was a cool and classy dude.  Everyday he wore slacks, dress shirt and jacket (not always with tie) and loafers that clicked when he walked.  It was Mr. Samson who first introduced me to writing.

Each day in class, he had us write in journals.  I found it curious and freeing all at the same time because he didn’t care what we wrote about, just as long as we wrote something.  At that age I didn’t feel like an expert in anything so I wrote about the only thing I really cared about which was baseball.  I wrote about the New York Yankees because they were my favorite team.  I pontificated about specific games and the heroics of individual players and I opined about the chances of this team or that having a shot at a division title.  It’s fair to say that my writing didn’t fall in the classification of award-winning journalism, or literary oeuvre.

One day, after class, Mr. Samson pulled me aside and said he thought I had promise and encouraged me to apply for the student newspaper my junior year.  It was his opinion that I could be the paper’s sports editor.  I recall feeling shocked and flattered.  I wasn’t even sure what a “sports editor,” did, but the title intrigued me.  He was the first teacher who ever showed any interest in me and the first who expressed the notion that I might have some talent beyond walking or talking.  It was thanks to that man, that class, that act of expressed confidence in me that propelled me on a life-long path of writing and journalism.

In addition to encouraging us to write, he also encouraged us to read.  I don’t remember where I first learned about The Catcher in the Rye but I asked if I could read it.  I thought the book was about baseball, that’s how much I knew.  Again, he took me aside.  He patiently explained what the book was about without giving anything away.  Then he said, “I think you’re ready for this.”  Obviously, he knew the book well, knew of its cult status, and knew of its controversy.  He also advised me not to talk about it openly with people until I had finished reading it and that he would be happy to discuss the book with me.  That’s all I needed.  I was hooked.  I had to read this curious book and learn its prurient secrets.

Of course, I liked the story immensely.  I thought it was funny and touching.  It resonated with me.  But, I never had the chance to discuss the book with Mr. Samson.

That following summer, he was killed in a horrible car crash on his way home from Leavenworth where he had been teaching classes in the Federal prison.  I felt a huge void in my life when Mr. Samson died.  It pains me now as I write these words and it brings back a deep sadness.  I remember visiting his classroom later that summer to pay him homage in my quiet and personal way.  While the school was open, his room was locked. I peered through the window of the door and hoped that I had made a mistake.  I hoped I would find him clicking around in there in his loafers preparing for the next year’s courses.  But, the room was empty.  There was no Mr. Samson, no students, no light, and no life.  The halls were dark as a dungeon and the emptiness of the school matched my mood.

My junior year, I enrolled in another English course taught by Conrad Downing, Mr. Samson’s replacement.  Mr. Downing also took over the role of faculty advisor to our student newspaper.  The first day of class, he took me aside.  Those days I was taken “aside” quite often for one reason or another.  At any rate, somehow, he knew that Mr. Samson had wanted me to be sports editor.  Perhaps Mr. Samson had written this somewhere, I was never sure.  But, Mr. Downing took a metal printer’s ruler and touched my shoulder like the King would with a sword to one of his knights, and he said, “I now dub thee, sports editor.”  Just like that, no questions asked.  I was floored and, of course, honored.

I liked Mr. Downing immediately.  He was the opposite of Mr. Samson.  Where Mr. Samson was erudite, thoughtful, pensive, and employed sophisticated humor, Mr. Downing always wore a tie.  But, he was far from being a stuffed shirt.  He was gregarious, outwardly funny, not ashamed to use puns, and readily laughed at his own jokes.  He was a likeable fellow and I enjoyed his company.

Mr. Downing was also a broadcaster.  Aside from teaching, he announced high school sports contests on radio.  He became the voice of the Lawrence Lions on our local radio station, KLWN 1320AM.  One day, Mr. Downing invited me to keep stats for him in the broadcast booth, which I readily accepted.  Before long I was adding color commentary for football, basketball and baseball games, and we became a team. I went with him everywhere.  He introduced me to Tom Hedrick, the voice of the University of Kansas Jayhawks and soon I was also keeping stats for him; and when Tom became the voice of the Kansas City Chiefs football team, I kept stats for all home broadcasts in Kansas City.

One day, Mr. Downing asked me help with stats and to be his color commentator for the state high school gymnastics meet.  Why in the world the radio station would want to broadcast a gymnastics meet on radio was beyond me, but we did it.  Without hardly any experience in the world of gymnastics beyond knowing the rings, high bar, tumble mat and horse, I had no clue of what I was talking about.  But, somehow, we rose to the challenge and we both made the competition sound interesting.  I described muscled young men in tight white shorts and undershirts contort and bounce and fly around the gym.  On the spot I learned to paint pictures with my voice.  It was a minor feat for radio, no doubt.  During one of the commercial breaks, the radio station owner, Arden Booth, called me and told me what a good job I was doing and he offered me a job.  I was to begin immediately that weekend.  And, suddenly, there I was, a senior in high school with my own Saturday night radio show.  I played easy listening music and read the news fresh off the wire.  I continued spinning records and reading news every Saturday night into my freshman year of college.

My favorite part of the job was to arrive early for the show.  I ripped the news from the AP teletype machine, organized it and read it at the bottom and top of the hour.  Following the news, I would introduce the announcer who preceded me.  His name was Herb Wurst and he spun country music hits.  I always introduced him this way: “And, now, ladies and gentlemen, here’s the best of Herb Wurst.”  He liked it and it stuck.  I just thought it was funny in a sophomoric way.

During my senior year of high school, I took an advanced English course taught by Robert Wright.  On the first day of class, Mr. Wright shocked us.  He told us we were all “A” students.  I was certain I had heard him wrong.  I knew most of the kids in that class and most of us were definitely not “A” students.  But in his mind, he said he considered us so unless we proved him otherwise.  This was a foreign concept to me, but I liked it.  Needless to say, he had my rapt attention.

Mr. Wright handed out a list of book titles and told us to pick one.  We were to read the book and give a written and oral report about the book’s story line, as well as about the author.  When the list came around I didn’t recognize any of the titles, but one stood out for me – The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham.  I liked the title.  It sounded “cool” and “edgy.”   I had never heard of the book or the author, but they both changed my life.  I have read that book a good half-dozen times since then.  It spoke to me like no book had to that point in my young life (even The Catcher in the Rye), or since.  I was mesmerized by the story of lost love, wealth, mysticism and faith.  In fact, I still have my note cards that I used in giving my oral report.  And, yes, I did receive an “A.”

The Razor’s Edge led me to learn more about Maugham and I soon devoured his other books.  I now have a collection of 10 books by and about Maugham.  He continues to influence my writing and thinking.

I went on to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas taking a circuitous route thinking I would pursue sports broadcasting.  But, my advisor encouraged me to consider advertising, which I did.  However, after meeting some of the icons of the ad business in New York City, like Holden Caulfield, I thought them all to be a bunch of phonies – probably an affliction of my youth.  When I returned to Kansas, I switched my major to public relations.  Nine years and three jobs later, I completed my graduate studies at the University of Denver with a masters’ degree in mass communications.

After 40 years in the business of marketing, public relations and advertising, I still yearn to write.  I’ve dabbled in screenplays, theatrical plays and poetry, and finally, have come full circle back to the novel.  Thanks to the encouragement of my dear wife, Marta; my good friend and award-wining writer Page Lambert; and colleagues in my writer’s critique group, I have finished my first novel, The Hot Tub Club; and am more than half-way through my second, The Called Shot. I also honor the Universal Truth, or God, that speaks to me when I write.  The art of writing is a humbling act and it touches me deeply.  I feel whole when I’m in that circle, expressing words and notions that I can only hope will resonate with someone else some day as it does with me in that moment when it comes through on paper or screen.

Of course, I will be the first to admit that I have a long ways to go.  As Robert Frost so eloquently wrote, “and many miles to go before I sleep.”  There are days and nights when I know in my soul I have what it takes and I just know, beyond any shadow of doubt, that my writing is brilliant.  There are other days and nights, however, when I’m convinced of just the opposite and feel certain that the world has never seen, read, or heard such tripe, trash and excrement as what I produced on the page.  But, I trudge on until the words make sense and become clear.

Perhaps that’s what this is all about, anyway.  Being clear.  The writing helps me to clear the cobwebs, blow out the carbs, to sort out the puzzles in my mind and heart.  I trust that this island of clarity will reach another heart, and perhaps influence another life in a positive way.  Should that ever happen, I would feel the greatest honor in passing along that smallest of gifts.

So, I come to the end of this essay and I bid adieu to Holden Caulfield.  So long Mr. Salinger.  I’m sorry we never met, but it feels like we did.  May you rest in peace.  You’re not with the phonies any more.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “J. D. Salinger and Me

  1. ZJ,
    I really like your blog it has so much feeling and emotion in it. It made me think of a teacher who took me aside which brought tears to my eyes. Hope you are doing well.

  2. Sally

    CZ – I think by the time I read Salinger I was too ancient to identify with teenage angst, more into Russian melancholy, which is far more deadly. But I think I got the idea. Enjoyed your blog – look forward to more.

    • Hi Sally,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my virgin blog and to comment. I really appreciate that coming from such an accomplished writer as yourself. By the way, I can’t say I’ve ever had Russian melancholy but it sounds like an exotic drink I may have to try sometime. Cheers, ZJ

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