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From Old Prose, Young Writer Takes Wing

August 12, 1993|T. JEFFERSON PARKER | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month

I am holding in my hands a small, two-picture frame recently given to me by my sister. On the left side is a photograph of me, age 9, dressed in my Trojans baseball uniform, glove on, smiling, buck-toothed.

More important is the picture on the right, which is my grandfather, Elmer Hoppe, who is also dressed in a baseball uniform, smiling, sitting on the running board of some antique truck. I don't know exactly when the picture was taken, but I'd guess the late '20s. He looks happy, relaxed, pleased to be in uniform.

Elmer died many years ago, and I never knew him well. But I do remember that his height, his impressive bald dome of a head and his quirky sense of humor drew me to him through that strange trust and magnetism that a difference in generations can encourage. He was an old man then. His hands seemed huge.

I love old men. I love the way they look, the way their bodies still suggest the greater strength that was once in them. I love the way they dress, that don't-give-a-damn attitude that combines dress shoes with shorts, bolo ties with tennis shirts, flannel plaids with deck shoes.

I love the way they occupy their space. See an old man on the sidewalk and I naturally yield to his position. When an old man sits in a room crowded with people, an odd and blessed stasis seems to emanate from him. Old men accrue heft.

Perhaps most of all I love the way they look back at you. Old men do not have time for superfluities. Old men are past the age where competition, jealousy and general meanness of spirit can fuel one through the day. They have experience, and some even have wisdom. Their eyes are calm and assessing. Their eyes--even if worn with age and helped by glasses half an inch thick--seem like jewels set in wrinkled bedrock.

Recently, by the usual conspiracy of luck and circumstance, I had the honor of spending time with two old men I like very much.

The first, Times sports columnist Jim Murray, I had never met. We were introduced at the Roundtable West book luncheon in Newport in July. If he knew I was writing about him under the heading "old man" he'd probably punch me out, but I don't expect to see him for another three years or so, and hope he'll have forgiven me by then.

He was sitting in a Bay Club restaurant booth, drinking coffee, when I met him. He shook my hand firmly and gazed at me with not-very-good eyes that still held me in a moment of pointed assessment as I sat down. He was telling stories of the old days to Burt Sims and Margaret Burke.

All attention, of course, was trained on the great Murray, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist legendary for his wit and skill of observation. Murray knew this. I could sense a slight uneasiness in him, a sense that he'd much rather be yakking with a ball player or a boxer, or hanging around the clubhouse looking for a story.

"So I'm supposed to talk for 20 minutes here?" he asked.

"Yes, Jim," Margaret said. "That shouldn't be hard."

He turned to me. "You want my 20? I've got nothing to say."

"Only if you take mine. I don't have anything to say, either."

"Big help you are. Used to be you wrote a book and that was that. Now you got to promote it. If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote their Gospels today, they'd have to do 'Geraldo.' "

"Oh, just tell them some stories, Jim," Margaret said. "They'll love it."

Murray did in fact entertain his audience superbly, mostly by grousing about how little he had to say. He spun out a few tales of stars and athletes, and that was enough. Then he sat down to sign books for the hundreds of people in line. Murray's line moves slowly because he talks to everyone, personalizes the inscription.

Since my line wasn't as long, I had a chance to just observe him for a while. I liked the way Murray's natural curiosity and keenness prevailed through his bad eyes and aging body. I admired the way he could be polite and wry at the same time. I admired his hands. The thought came to me that I would like to be like him when I grow up. When I left, he still had 100 people in line to meet him.

Not long after, I was privileged to have Donald Heiney over to my house for lunch. Heiney, well-known for establishing the UCI Writing Program with Oakley Hall, was a tallish, slender man who loved literature with a passion. He seemed at ease that day as we ate pre-fab salads from Ralphs, drank a bottle of Chardonnay and talked about books.

Heiney was one of those truly rare men who held to the quaint notion that the practice of writing was close to sacred. He lived for writing, and through it. For him, it was almost a calling--to put onto blank pages words that would invoke a world more intensely interesting at times than our own.

"I haven't really done anything important in my life," he quipped at one point, "except read thousands of books."

Self-effacing, Heiney was uncomfortable talking about his accomplishments. As I steered the conversation toward passages in his most recent book, "A Portrait of My Desire," that I consider amazing, he became quite shy.

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