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BILL PLASCHKE

It's a wonderful life of writing

An early Christmas gift of a notebook led to confidence and a career.

December 23, 2010|Bill Plaschke

"W-w-w-hat is this?''

As he tore open the brightly colored paper, the boy's heart dropped. It was flat, so it wasn't a baseball or a glove.

He ran his fingers across the blue vinyl cover, touched the white sheets of paper, slowly bit his lip to keep from crying. This wasn't a Christmas present, it was a school supply. It was a binder filled with blank pages. The boy looked angrily over at the balding man wearing a weary smile and a stray piece of tinsel on his shoulder.

"I-I-I can't play with this," the boy said.

"Yes, you can," the father said.

The awkward, stammering eighth-grader slapped Jackson 5 and "Gilligan's Island" stickers on the binder to at least make it look cool, then tucked it into the bottom drawer next to his plaid shorts and forgot all about it. The next time he saw it was March, three months later, as he headed out to watch a sandlot baseball game. He had earlier announced to his family that when he grew up, he was going be a sportswriter, using the universal language of bats and balls to connect to a world he couldn't easily touch. On this day, he had finally worked up the courage to practice covering a game.

"Wait," said his father, emerging from the boy's bedroom, holding that dusty blue binder covered in stickers. "If you're going to be a sportswriter, you have to have a notebook."

"Oh y-y-yeah," the boy said. "My n-n-notebook."

And so he toted that binder to the baseball game, to a high school track meet the next day, somewhere new every weekend, wiping the dust off his giant glasses and pulling chewed pencils out of his wrinkled shirt pocket and filling that binder, reveling in words that worked, shouting in a voice that didn't stammer, adding exclamation points for the drama, Bobby Kleinart hit the heck out of that baseball for a home run off the concession stands for Westport Chevron, boxes of Good N'Plenty went flying, what a play!

Soon the white pages became full, and so more pages were carefully added, more baseballs clearing the fence, more snacks falling out of the sky, words written by a nobody for nobody, words meaning everything, the binder and the boy growing together.

::

"W-w-what is this?"

The gift sat in the basement, unwrapped, shiny and cluttered and weird. It was an electric typewriter given to a ninth-grader who had no idea how to use it. This wasn't a Christmas present, it was a third-period class.

"I-I-I can't type," the boy said.

"But I can," his mother said. "Bring me your binder."

Its stickers had worn down into bits of shiny strips, and its vinyl was cracked and frayed, but the binder's pages still exhaled the cluttered breath of scribbled observations — the Ballard High cross-country team is one tough cookie! His mother opened to his most recent story, turned a switch, started a strange whir, and began pecking.

"W-w-what are you doing?" the boy said.

"Don't you want this in that newspaper?" the mother said.

Oh yeah. That newspaper. It was a neighborhood weekly that needed stories to fill the space between school announcements and mortuary ads. A month earlier, the boy visited their storefront offices, opening his binder, showing the balding old boss his stories, watching him slowly shake his head.

"Your handwriting is terrible," the boss said. "Did you know that newspapers use typewriters?"

He could not begin typing class until the summer, so his mother spent hours every weekend tapping his stories to life. He scribbled, and she typed, word for word, her third full-time job, sometimes falling asleep between paragraphs, but always finishing in time to say, "Great story" and "Let's go."

Then, together, in the middle of every Sunday night, the mother and the boy would ride through the darkened city to that newspaper's storefront, where the boy would slide that week's stories into a mail slot, then rush back to the car for the relieved drive home, the sportswriter and his ghostwriter.

::

"W-w-hat is this?"

The gift was covered in light blue tissue paper, held together with a frayed red ribbon. The young man opened it carefully, forced a smile, scratched his head.

It was a scrapbook. But it was an empty scrapbook. It was two covers of ornate brown leather held together by dozens of empty pieces of gray construction paper. It was silly.

"T-t-his is great, but w-w-hat's going in it?" the young man asked.

"You," his grandmother said.

So for the next seven years, she put him there, filling the scrapbook with everything the young man wrote, for now he was an amateur sportswriter being published in any newspaper that would have him. The grandmother carefully cut and pasted every volleyball feature, shuffleboard column and flag football game story, everything from the neighborhood weekly, the high school newspaper, and soon even from the tiny college newspaper. She underlined phrases in her careful handwriting. She drew her own exclamation points after words with more than one syllable. The book grew fat and messy as she grew old and frail.

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