Sunday, January 26, 2014

100 Percent Wiley, 100 Percent of the Time

From today's Times and News-Star

* The author is one of Mr. Hilburn's friends, fans, and (since-college) lifelong students. The two are pictured below, at Wiley's Retirement Reception (from LA Tech) in 2008. They are talking about fashion wear and how soon they can leave this party.

Wiley Wilson Hilburn Jr.
(Feb 20, 1938-Jan. 16, 2014)

In the mid-1970s in Wiley Hilburn’s creative writing class, a young journalism student turned in a paper that contained, most unfortunately, this phrase: “…the frost-kissed turnips.”

What Wiley wrote on his paper – he had some classics when he was advising students -- was this, though I paraphrase, but only slightly:

“You are from a big city in Arkansas. The only thing you know about greens is from crayons and the grass your daddy made you mow. You know little about frost and probably nothing about kissing. Three strikes. Write what you KNOW!”


That gentleman went on to become a fine photo-journalist, another in a long line of Louisiana Tech students who learned from the pen and the mind and the patience – and the good heart -- of Wiley Hilburn, a treasure for north Louisiana in general and for Ruston in particular.

Even though he’d been sick with cancer, his passing last Thursday, peacefully at noon at age 75, came as a surprise. He’d been frail since his cancer had been in remission, but still he’d meet us to eat, go to ballgames on campus, drink coffee with his buddies at the Huddle House. He was still All Wylie. But his immune system was so weak that he had little gas in the tank to fight the pneumonia, and after three days of holding on, he was gone.

I feel sorry for his friends and his family and sorry for his readers, who knew they’d always get an honest effort from Wylie, whose column appeared regularly in these pages for more than 30 years. Sometimes he was politically polarizing and sometimes, writing of pork soup and pomegranates and green-gabled roofs, he’d just hold up a mirror to your memory, cause you to stop and really see something, something important and needed, something you’d missed, though right in front of your eyes.

For most of us, our faults are irritating. Wiley’s were endearing: he couldn’t park, often wrecked his car, more often than that was late, laughed at his absent-mindedness and lacked anything even remotely resembling a sense of direction.

In other words, he was each of us, only better. And if he was your friend, you did not have one more loyal or sincere.

Practically, his instruction for writing was simple, yet hard to pull off:

Work at writing: no magic writing butterfly is going to sprinkle magic writing dust on you;

Write what you know. Your readers aren’t stupid; don’t prove to them you are;

Use significant detail: What did the guy look like? Did he fidget when he talked? What is the setting? The sounds and textures? The mood? What makes this place or this person different from every other?

And sometimes, a writer has to take his shirt off: the only way to make people feel less lonely is to show them that you’ve been there too. It’s about honesty, not self-loathing. But that’s your job. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it. Wiley was a man who, like Robert Frost, “was acquainted with the night.” He was not afraid to write in the dark.

Wiley endeared himself to his students, certainly to readers, by the way he shared the truth. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was honest, efficient and compelling. We students trusted Wiley because he proved to us he knew what he was talking about, and he proved to us he cared, genuinely, about us, whether we were Hemingway wannabes, frustrated athletes, aspiring business pros or “just wanting to pass journalism class.”

One day long ago in the parking lot outside Tech’s George T. Madison Hall, “Mr. Hilburn” encouraged me to get, well, a college major. He’d heard I had good grades in English. He offered me a spot on The Tech Talk. And he gave me the two best lessons I’ve ever had in writing, right there: “It’s hard work,” he said, and “let’s stick to writing what you know.” And then, thankfully, he said this: “I’ll help you.” He put me on the sports staff. He coached me up. He built my confidence. As busy as he was – with family, with writing, with teaching and with just being Wiley -- he showed me he cared about me. As it is with good writing, good living means showing, not just telling. Wiley was good at both, at the writing and, infinitely more important, at the living.

As enjoyable and influential as he was as a teacher, his greatest gift, at least to me, was that he was, through the years, 100 percent Wiley, 100 percent of the time. It takes knowing exactly where you live, who you are and who you love to pull that off, and still it’s harder than it looks. That’s why so few people do it.

Wiley did.


Monday, January 20, 2014

The Best Sheriff in the Whole Shootin' Match

From Sunday's Times and News-Star

He had nothing to do with the nickname given to him by his aunt, who said as a baby he was the color of a red snapper.

I never could call him “Snapp,” though I love the name. It fit. I called him either “Sir” or “Sheriff,” a couple of the many handles he had to earn through his 84 years, including U.S. Marshal, chairman of deacons, husband, daddy, confidant, diplomat, problem solver, loyal friend, honest man. Maybe the one that brought him the most sheer joy was granddaddy. He wore all those well.

While those names live on, the man who served an unprecedented six terms as sheriff of Claiborne Parish died on January 9, the end of a remarkable life of nearly a half-century behind the badge and out of the spotlight. Sheriff Oakes didn’t talk about himself unless pressed, didn’t hold a grudge and didn’t keep score.

As sharp as he was, he was terrible at recognizing social standing or color or rank. He lived in ways that illustrated how life is not about any of those things, nor about intellect, but about relationships. With him, honesty and people are what counted.   

Through the years, I’d think of him so much it surprised me, all because of a day he stopped his world to step into mine. One August evening in 1978, a brown Chevy Nova pulled into the driveway of the parsonage where the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Homer lived. An 18-year-old got out, covered in concrete and mud after a day working at Beacon Gas Plant.

Right after that the Claiborne Parish Sheriff’s car pulled in, and a man leaned over to the passenger door, opened it, and said, “Get in.”

I was the teenager; Snapp Oakes was the grownup. And the sheriff.

I asked him if he wanted me to go inside and rinse off. “Just get in,” he said. And not long after that we were pulling onto the campus of Louisiana Tech in Ruston, where the sheriff was explaining I’d enroll in school and work. It was a ride and a day that changed my mind and my life. It might have been a “nothing” weekday evening to anyone else, but for me it proved to be a pivotal few hours that set in motion a series of events that gave me some direction and purpose, maybe even a little confidence. How many other lives he changed on otherwise long-ago forgotten days, only Heaven knows.

It must be that God moves people into your life for the purpose of doing things for you that you, at that point -- and no one closest to you -- can do for yourself. The sheriff, my sheriff, knew what to do that day. On his own time, he made time for me. With nothing to gain. I didn’t grow up in Homer; he’d known me less than a year. The risk that I would embarrass him was greater than the chance he was taking on trying to help me. It takes humility and grace to perform like that, to be an important man who’ll stop his watch and give a boy an at-bat, a chance, one I’d done nothing to earn.

Probably because of the setting and culture and era in which I was raised, Sheriff Andy Taylor has been, since I can remember, a favorite character of mine. The more I watched “The Andy Griffith Show,” the more I sort of always wanted to grow up to be Andy. A lot of us my age did.

And I love Andy. But there’s this, too:

It’s one thing to figure out which old lady is shoplifting at Weaver’s Department Store in Mayberry, or solve in another 26 minutes the mystery of the loaded goat. But when things get dicey in real life, as they did sometimes in Claiborne Parish, especially in the 1960s, when your family is threatened and somebody suggests it might be better for all concerned if your house burned to the ground, it’s a bit of a different ballgame.

It’s been my privilege to meet so many area lawmen and lawwomen; the sheriff loved them all. Their jobs are among the world’s most challenging, and public service, my sheriff believed, was life’s highest calling. I’m grateful for all who serve.

But I think every law enforcement officer who knew my sheriff -- our sheriff -- would agree with me that not only Andy Taylor but also every other upright upholder of the law, whether in fact or in fiction, are all playing for second place behind “Snapp” Oakes, who is, and will always be, my favorite sheriff.


Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Getting a good read on 2013-14

From Sunday's Times and News-Star

Life’s too short to read bad books.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I would bail on books that, after reading 50 pages, made me feel like I was getting poleaxed by Joe Frazier in his prime. Some sort of misplaced pride issue or deep-seeded need to finish what I’d started.

This was very dumb. Now I’ll bail in a heartbeat. Had to leave only a couple by the road this year, and didn’t feel guilty a bit. Progress!

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can judge most based on past experience and on opinions from friends who you’ve discovered have similar reading tastes. I’d thought about reading “1491” -- about the Americas before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and because I was born on Columbus Day Eve – but was told by someone I trust that reading it was like trying to run up and out of a history ditch. Neg!

On the other hand, the best all-around book(s) I read this year was the Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson, the North Africa/Italy/Europe part of World War II. Read like literature. He’s working on a Revolutionary War series now. Sweet.

Some people read Atkinson’s work because they “had” too, and that’s the thing about how books affect people. A friend of mine’s father read “The Day of Battle,” Atkinson’s work on the Italian Campaign, because his father had served in Italy and was Division Ordnance Officer with the 92nd Infantry Division. This was a gentleman who grew up in northwest Arkansas, was a University of Arkansas engineering graduate, volunteered to return to active duty in 1940 as an Army Reserve 1st Lieutenant and, by the fall of 1944, was a Lieutenant Colonel who would retire as a “full bird” colonel in the Army Reserve.

He never talked about his experiences during his service in North Africa and Italy,” my friend wrote. “When I would ask questions about the 92nd Division, I usually got a two or three word reply and no other details! He left Shreveport for duty in North Africa and later the Italian campaign on April 1, 1943, on a Merchant Marine vessel. When he returned home in late November of 1945, I did not know who he was and sometimes referred to him to my mother as ‘that man.’”

War is hell, which some families know as others never can. A good historian can at least offer an educated shoulder to lean and to learn on.

“The Death of Santini” by Pat Conroy is the best “memoir” I read in 2013. It is depressing, at times dumbfounding, and a must-read if you love Conroy. He can be over-the-top here or there, but America has no more lyrical writer than this son of the Carolina coast.

“Light of the World” was my favorite fiction, the latest by south Louisiana-reared James Lee Burke, still my favorite at “earthy” writing, of the smells and sights and textures of Cajun country.

Re-read Paul’s letters in the Bible; plenty there to keep anyone occupied for a while, a while being defined here as “the rest of your life!” A book titled “The Insanity of God” by missionary Nik Ripken is not as convicting, but it’s still an attention-getter: few of us consider that Old Testament stories – only the names have changed -- are being played out overseas today. I’d recommend “Leaving Church” by Barbara Brown Taylor too, for beautiful and thoughtful writing.

“Wild Trees” by Richard Preston – I read his “The Hot Spot” about the Ebola virus years ago – “Winterdance” by Gary Paulsen (about the Iditarod), “The Big Burn” and “Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan are high on my pile. Still haven’t but must read “Rising Tide” by John Barry. And maybe “Isaac’s Storm,” by Erik Larson. And some Elmore Leonard and John D. MacDonald, to see what Travis McGee is up to on his houseboat in Slip F-18 in Fort Lauderdale.

And “Lord of the Rings”? Maybe this will be the year. But like you and most other book lovers, I’m already way behind…