Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. With my four siblings, I had a good childhood. Our biological father died when I was five years old, and our mother supported us through her work as a seamstress. She remarried when I was twelve. Our stepfather was a miracle. He was caring, loving, and nurturing. He worked hard as a metal worker, and he adored his four step-children, and not once did he raise a hand against any of us.
My public-school life was unremarkable. I do remember though my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Boylin. She read to us every day. She read two novels: The Secret Garden and Last of the Mohicans. I loved every second. She firmly believed in my ability to learn. I went straight to the top of her class. I made top grades and I became captain of the baseball team.
In the sixth grade the teacher was determined to show that since I had been raised without a father, how could I be any good? She put me in the “dumb” row. She yelled at me. She spanked me every chance she got. And sure enough, my grades fell. I dropped to substitute player on the baseball team. Finally, I became the dumb child she had predicted. It took many years to recover from that.
I lived with my older sister, Mary, during my undergraduate years, at Middle Tennessee State University. We lived in a trailer on a walking horse ranch. College life was dull, but life on the ranch was great–rode horses, attended walking horse shows, groomed and fed horses. On the ranch I had a life. As a college student, I was a deer in the headlights. I had no clue. I was on academic probation for the first two years. If I flunked out, like all other young men, I’d be instantly drafted and sent to Vietnam. It was a good motivation to stay in school. I wasn’t anti-war, but I sure as hell didn’t want to get killed either. I lost several good friends in that war. By hook or crook I managed to stay in school.
First Job: Pubic school English teacher in Georgia
This one year, 1970, was living hell. I was not prepared to teach in rural Alabama where most white children hated most black children who had come into their schools via forced integration. And they all seemed to hate me, the teacher. The governor of Alabama at that time was Lester Maddox. The last two months of that job, I started the day drinking Malox straight from the bottle, like liquor. That was breakfast. By the end of the year, I had enough motivation to go back to college. I did. I earned my Master’s in English by 1972 and found a job as an English Instructor at Alcorn State University, ASU. Note: Alcorn is pronounced: All-corn, as in al-ways.
I taught at ASU, an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) for thirty-seven years. For twelve of those years, I served as Chairperson of the English and Foreign Languages Department. I loved my job. I loved teaching. Even now I remember how I always looked forward to that “first day” of class when I would meet my new students. As any teacher will tell you, each class has a distinct personality. I have always felt that teaching has kept me young…well, young in spirit! But, I have always felt myself to be one of the lucky ones who managed to grab hold of a career and hang on to it.
When I started work at Alcorn, October, 1972, I felt as if I had landed in paradise. I was teaching at an institution of higher learning. When I began teaching, Alcorn’s student population was ninety-nine percent African American. After a year of shedding southern white folks mythic notions of black folks, I settled in. I lived on campus, most people did in those days. In the seventies, I had a wonderful time. I taught classes, graded papers, held long conferences, sponsored the department English club, and after hours, there were football games, parties, jazz, blues, trips to New Orleans, beer, dope–it was the life I had missed.
I grew up at Alcorn. I read African American literature. Literature that in some cases, I didn’t even know existed. I listened to older African Americans talk about their lives in the fifties. America wasn’t great at all. I made life-long friends–one man in particular, a black man, Newtie Boyd. He has since died. Education was his life. He ferried kids back and forth to school from his home town, Morton Mississippi. He kept them in school. He genuinely cared. He and I were close friends. It was said by faculty that Paul Broome and Newtie Boyd prove that white and black men can be brothers. I keep that remark close to my heart.
The Final Degree
In the eighties, I got caught up with marriage, children, job, and eventually divorce and financial disaster! During the nineties, I went back to school on a faculty grant to earn my PhD in literature and theory from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. There I worked with so many wonderful people such as my dissertation director Karen Dandurand, a truly great woman and scholar, and Patrick Murphy, the professor who patiently pulled me through literary theory. Interestingly enough, it was during this time that my creative writing life exploded with activity. I think it’s mainly because I’ve never cared that much for academic research. I know. I know. There were moments when writing literary research that I became excited and all of that, but my great love was fiction. While at IUP, I wrote story after story. I read them at coffee houses, literary gatherings, parties. It was wonderful.
Retirement, Marriage, and Japan
Since life on earth didn’t end with the millennium, I kept writing. My career started winding down, and my writing life began. By the time I retired from Alcorn, I was serving as Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs—that’s code for “do everything the Vice President doesn’t want to do.” In 2012, I moved to Alabama and married a lovely Japanese woman. I’m currently trying to master Japanese. I will say this: writing is easier. We have visited Japan six times since we’ve married. My wife’s mother lives in Osaka. Essentially, I want to learn Japanese so that I can hold a modicum of conversation with people I meet and especially with my Japanese mother-in-law who is a most fascinating woman. She is eighty-three years old and gets about like a teenager! Currently she is engaged in her own project of riding every train in Japan. How amazing is that?
Sadako, my wife, and I plan to go to Japan in September 2017. Not only is the country lovely, but the people are patient, kind, and gentle. Most everything about Japan appeals to me. Here’s one example: One evening Sadako, her mother, and I were returning from a late evening meal at an Italian Restaurant in Osaka. It was around 10:30 at night. We had to walk a mile or so back to her mother’s apartment. I’m talking inner-city here. Half way there we passed several children playing on the sidewalk, laughing and talking. Once we got to the apartment, I realized I had witnessed what to me was a miracle. In a modern city of 10 million, second or third largest in Japan, children can play outside at 10:30 at night! Here in Decatur, a city less than a quarter of a million, parents won’t even let their kids go trick or treating without adult supervision.
In Japan, guns are outlawed. It’s that simple. The number of homicides in Birmingham, Alabama, in one month, outnumbers the homicides in all of Japan in one year. I’m not a gun lover. I don’t condemn those who do love firearms. But I must say, the force of the reality that I was walking in a gun-free society was stunning. It still is. And that realization helps me with my self-definition, as well as, my self-cultural definition. Who am I as a human and who am I as an American. It’s something to write about.
During my tenure at Alcorn, I wrote plays in the seventies and had a few of them produced on the university stage. Eventually I gave up playwriting as the medium of creative expression and turned to fiction. I love poetry but I’ve never thought of myself as a poet. In the late seventies, I attended a writers’ workshop at Bennington College, and there met John Gardner and Bernard Malamud. I had work sessions with novelists, Nick Delbanco and Frederick Busch, both of whom were wonderful writers and teachers. The Bennington experience did not translate into book sales or publications, but it was a turning point in my writing life.
I’ve published one story thus far. “Walter Lee Comes Home from Vietnam.” It was published in “The Sun Magazine” in 2013. Since then I’ve piled up a ton of rejections, but I’m still happily at it. I’ve got stories in the drawer…who doesn’t, right? I’ve got one completed novel, needing deep revision, and half novel, waiting patiently, and I’m currently two-thirds through a novel. I try to wake up around four or four-thirty every morning to write. It’s a good time for me-so quiet. I can write steadily for an hour or hour and a half, then have breakfast with my wife, Sadako. Once she’s off to work, I walk Cody, our black lab, then back to writing for maybe another hour or so. During the day, I might take notes or jot something down, but essentially most writing is done during the morning.
All my life I’ve been a heavy reader. I read tons of Asian poetry with an emphasis on Tang Dynasty poets of China. Poet Du Fu is my absolute favorite. I have read everything written by the Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata. His novel, The Sound of the Mountain, is, so far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest novels ever penned. I wrote my dissertation on Anthony Trollope and must say I still love his novels…all 47 of them! I’m a big fan of the Victorians. George Eliot is at the top of the list. I enjoy nineteenth century international writers. Tolstoy, Chekhov, Flaubert, Balzac. I’m a lover of the classics, but I try to keep up with current fiction. This past year a few favorites were: P. Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, M. Zusak’s The Book Thief, and A. S. King’s Ask the Passengers.
I enjoy movies, especially International movies. Technology has been a godsend in this arena. In the seventies and eighties, if you wanted to see a movie from Europe or Asia then, you had to travel to New York City to do so. Now, you can stream movies in through your computer. It’s wonderful. The most amazing thing though—I’m beginning to find it difficult to find the time to sit in front of a screen for a two or three-hours. I’d rather be reading or writing.
I came to photography late. My faculty gave me a camera as a parting gift. It was a huge surprise, and it started my love for nature photography. I lived in the country in Mississippi…deer in the front yard and all that…it was nice. I also had a pond so there were wood mallards, herons, hawks, owls–my life as a nature photographer was on its way. Nature has taught me patience.
Hmmm, I am a moderate drinker. I love to sit out on the patio late at night with a bottle of sake or wine or both and the temperature around 65 to 55, and with a log fire in the fire pit, and watch the moon rise from behind the trees. I’m also a part-time woodworker. My skill is scroll sawing. I’m also a part-time gardener. I try to plant two to three trees a year. I love trees.
Autumn is my favorite season. With the temp between 50 and 65 degrees, I feel as if I can sit out on the back porch and write forever. With the temp between 30 and 49, I can sit inside by the gas log fire and write and write and write. Yes, I’d love to have a “real” fireplace, but what can I say. We’re out in the country but it’s a modern house. Nevertheless, I’m insanely happy and fortunate so I ain’t complainin’.
Thank you for reading and please visit any blog post that catches your fancy!