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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The First Blogger


If you’ve read most of this blog, it’s not hard to find the most epic event of my life that completely turned everything upside down. Just search for the word, “father” or the phrase, “who died when I was six.” It’s almost obscene how many times they appear in here, so if you don’t know by now that my father died when I was six, you’re not paying attention or might want to get yourself screened for ADHD or blindness. If you do know and are sick of hearing about it, you have probably clicked your mouse on an X while muttering to yourself, “Yeah, yeah, boo-hoo, send yourself some flowers. You’ll feel better.”

Even I’m sick of reading it. I remind myself of this woman at work who, whenever she sees me (and I literally hide from her, so I try not to see her) reminds me of what poor health she is in, because she is an “insulin-dependent diabetic.” “Insulin-dependent diabetic” is her “My father, who died when I was six.” Boo- hoo. Send yourself some flowers. Maybe if you didn’t snack on sticks of butter and fried pork rinds during your morning break, things would be different.

So I’m going to tell you a bit about my father. Feel free to click the get-me-the-hell-out-of-here button at any time, as this might appear to be dripping with sentiment, especially towards the end.

My dad was one of the earliest bloggers. Even before there was a computer or an Internet, my dad penned an article for the now-defunct St. Petersburg Independent newspaper in the late 40’s and most of the 50’s. Sometimes he reported on fishy-smelling goings-on in city hall. He was an investigative reporter even before there was a term for it. Other times he wrote about conversations he’d eavesdropped on at the lunch counter he frequented, standing in line at the post office or bank, or conversations he heard on a bus or in a movie theater. I am sure there were people who came home from work or shopping and opened the evening paper, only to be mortified to read about something they’d been caught doing the day before. Or that day, even. Sure enough, their conversation, verbatim, had been documented by the columnist of A Matter of Opinion. And Lord, didn’t they look silly once it was in ink, punctuated with my dad’s style.

No one was safe from embarrassment or humiliation. When he brought it to light that despite frequent calls, no one from public works had picked up his green yard waste that had been rotting in the alley for six months, the mayor himself rolled out, towing a trash trailer, and afterwards got bogged down in the sandy alley because no one from public works had made a delivery of crushed seashells, either, to the alley to help pack down the sand.

And it wasn’t infrequent that he wrote about something that happened at home. He had made my mother somewhat of a minor local celebrity by documenting the behavior of The Lady of the House, which he always called her in the column.

My mother clipped most of his articles and kept them in boxes for years. When she would request duplicates, my father would bring home additional papers the next day. The funnier they were, the more copies of them were retained. Some were sent to my aunt in Denver, which eventually got mixed in with the others in the boxes.

I had no idea she had kept these until I was thirteen. (Do the math. How many years after my father died was this?) One summer I came home from my annual three month stay in Colorado with my aunt, and found that my sister Kathryn (who died when I was fourteen. No, no, that’s a lie. She’s still very much alive.) had taken all the articles, divided them into five or six categories and Elmer’s Glued them into enormous scrapbooks that, when stacked, were waist high. At that time I had little interest in them, because you had to read 20 or 30 of them to find one that was about the family, and I just didn’t have the patience for it.

My sister (who’s alive, remember?) maintained these volumes of scrap books for the longest time, and sometime in the late 80’s asked me if I wanted to hold onto them for a while. I did, promising myself that I’d read them all.

So they sat there for years until one day I opened them up and discovered the newsprint (which was 40 years old in some cases) had turned brown and started to crumble. In order to preserve them I spent a weekend at work, photocopying them one by one. Did I say work? I meant Kinko’s. It took forever. Eventually I reluctantly threw out most of the newsprint versions, and the new versions, printed two sided on copier paper, fit nicely into three fat three-ring binders. Much easier to handle for the reader, which some day I would be.

Then I moved back to Florida, to that boggy, damp environment and one day noticed that there were pages sticking together and sticking to the backs of the vinyl binders. It was time to get these on digital media.

I spent weeks feeding them through the scanner, creating gigantic PDF Files. Did I say at work? I meant at home. It was a slow, taxing process, but during that time I read a lot of them, got rid of duplicates, sorted them out into even more categories, and burned them all onto CD’s for family.

During that time I learned more about my dad than I ever knew, mostly good things. He stood up for civil rights at a time when it was unpopular to do so. I learned that he was also more tolerant and liberal than my mother would ever be, and I learned how he suffered during the war when he was stationed in New Guinea. I also learned that of all the articles we had saved, I was only in four of them. Four. IV. Four out of twelve years of writing. My mother was The Lady of the House; my sister Kathryn (still living last time I checked) was The Little Urchin, and in the four articles in which I starred, I was referred to as Son and Heir. In one I was sick, and in another the Little Urchin had fed me coins, the little bitch. For the most part, I wasn’t portrayed in the most flattering light. I was almost three when he started writing editorials across the bay for the Tampa Tribune, and the Matter of Opinion column had been closed down.

I know of my limited appearances, because after all the articles were scanned, I ran detailed searches. The Lady of the House was in dozens, scores, possibly hundreds. Then that darling Little Urchin and her zany toddler antics, like the time she was bitten on the butt by a goose, were all over the map. Son and Heir: four stinkin’ hits. Even worse, the freakin’ parakeet, Sporty, was showcased in at least 20 columns. Outdone by a bird. Simply by being the last born, I lost out of the fame lottery.

It had always been my intent that during my retirement I would go back to the St. Petersburg Public Library and check out the microfilms of the Independent and read every article my dad ever wrote. It was how I would honor him, by squeezing out the last letters of everything that was typeset onto newsprint. I would know everything I could know.

But after discovering the puny number of articles I was in—did I mention it was just four?— I was going to step up this investigation pronto, so Other Bill and I drove across the state, and I marched into the St. Petersburg Public Library and demanded access to the microfilms. At first I was so eager, I just wanted to start with the first ones. The first thing I wanted to do was find the first one and the last one he’d written. But that was tough to do, because the microfilm reader/printers were purchased, I’m guessing, during the Eisenhower administration, and they are placed under fluorescent lighting that make them impossible to read from. The only way to read them was to print them out, at a quarter a pop. And there were 12 years of these, or so I thought. I was there for several hours, and grew more and more frustrated. And broke. I went back to the drawers that held the films and discovered that there were eight years of missing microfilms, including all of 1957, 1958, and 1959, which were the only ones I could have been in. My heart sank. I checked with the librarian, but she didn’t know where they were, or if they ever had them.

When I got back home, I called the archives of the St. Petersburg Times, who took over the Independent in the 70’s. They told me they don’t make their archives available to the public, but I was determined to get around them. I would write my congressman. I would form a radical band of hotheads and name the group Journalism Justice. But before I did that, I asked them nicely to check the archives and see if they even had microfilms from 1952 to 1959.

They didn’t.

So I did research. I called the Tampa library, the library at the University of South Florida, anyone who showed up as having copies of the Independent, including the Library of Freakin’ Congress. All of those had either none, or just selected handfuls of issues that came out on historic days.

For whatever reason, no one archived the Independent for those years. The Times was the morning paper, and I guess for cost-cutting reasons, it was decided only to keep those. What they missed during the morning and afternoon would just be caught the next day. That was enough.

So what could I do, except accept defeat. Be grateful for what you’ve got, was one of my mother’s catch phrases, and I guess she was right. So, maybe the Little Urchin and the Lady of the House and that goddamned parakeet got more ink than I did, but none of them got anything like this, which I am including because no one can prove that they own its copyright anymore. Or that it ever existed, for that matter.

Spring Arrives For Small Boy

By William G. Wiley

The almanac makers say that the vernal equinox will not be around for a couple of weeks yet.

But obviously, they don’t know what they are talking about.

Actually, spring arrived a couple of weeks ago. And I have all the evidence to prove it.

That was the first day in many weeks when the sky was decently clear, the air balmy and the sun had a degree of warmth in it.

And that was the first day that Son and Heir, having arrived at the noble age of one in early January, had an opportunity to explore the world outside the immediate confines of the four walls which have more or less limited his activities since he arrived on the scene.

It was a good day to explore. And, as soon as he was released through the front door he let it be known that this was his world which he wasn’t about to share with anyone. None of this business of being held by the hand and guided about the premises. He’d been studying the outside scene from inside through those long cool weeks, and it was time for close personal investigation.

Ants Investigated

So he toddled down the front sidewalk working out an itinerary. The first thing that needed attending to was a herd of ants which had been thawed into activity and were busily scurrying up across the sidewalk lining up a food supply.

These demanded close inspection. He squatted down for a closer view and watched them for the better part of a minute before they needed a good poke.

He poked, smashing one ant while another climbed on his finger and made its way up his hand. He studied it closely as it circled his hand, and then waddled back to show it to me. I flicked it off his hand and he immediately lost interest in ants.

There were better things to do. Bird chasing, for instance. A mockingbird had flown down from the pine tree and began grubbing the lawn for whatever might be found there. Son and Heir descended upon him with arms flapping and the bird flew back into the tree, cursing angrily.

Blossoms Chewed

Then Son and Heir noted that the freeze had missed a couple of blossoms on a flame of the woods bush. He picked one, put it in his mouth and chewed it. It didn’t taste good and he spat it out.

So he toddled out to the front sidewalk and strolled up and down until it occurred to him that the cracks in the sidewalk might constitute intriguing avenues of adventure. He picked up a twig, sat on the sidewalk, and plowed the sand from the crack.

A neighborly cat came mewing by. Obviously it was in the need of patting. So it was patted. Then its tail was pulled. Then it was chased with great flappings of arms. The cat disappeared around the corner of the house, and that adventure was over.

Then came a game of trailing the hose. After picking up a hung of it the little boy noted that the hose didn’t end at the edge of the sidewalk, but trailed off through the grass. He followed it across the lawn and around the corner of the house. In a moment I heard him squawking and hurried forth. He had followed the hose into the azalea bushes, got himself entangled and couldn’t get out.

I brought him around in front again. He lay on his back, watching the clouds. A breeze came and dipped the fronds of the palm trees so the sun got in his eyes. He flopped over on his belly and poked his fingers in the grass. And when he turned so I could see full in his face, he looked like a squirrel. I hurried over to investigate. There was a good reason for his appearance. He’d tucked away a palm nut in either cheek. He gave them up with only a brief struggle.

Then he waddled back and sat on the steps in the sun with me. The warmth made him sleepy and nod.

We called it quits and went inside.

It was quite a day.


  1. My father lived until I was in my late 40s, but he never revealed anything about his youth or even expressed his real thoughts on life. He was a private kind of man. So your Dad's articles must be a wonderful view into the mind that was taken from you at such an early age. Do you think your writing style is similar? Based on the limits imposed by the era in which he wrote, I would say the styles seem like Father, Son and Heir.

  2. Jim, it wasn't until recently that Other Bill helped me to realize there are good things about losing a dad while I was young. For one thing, he forever is idealized in my mind. He's always a superhero. He never had the chance to really be my dad, but he also never had the chance to disappoint me, either. There are worse things, like having a "private" dad or an alcoholic dad or a homophobic dad.

    I think my dad was a more structured writer, and he had a much better vocabulary and ability to choose the right word. He never spent a day in college, so it was a natural talent for him. Thanks for you comment.