Twenty feet from the Kennedys

The Kennedys, Johnson and Stevenson

12/6/1962 Kennedy Foundation Dinner in the Hilton ballroom. Left to Right:U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, President Kennedy, First Lady Jackie Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson

This is the story of how my father came to be twenty feet from President and Jackie Kennedy. Like all Southern stories, this one begins a while back. I’ll be brief.

My father’s father,Wilmer Sperry Hunt, came of age in the 1890s as the son of a doctor in poor little Ripley, Mississippi, where opportunities were scarce. When he was nineteen, Sperry, as my grandfather was called, was invited to Austin to live with his sister while he studied law at the University of Texas. After receiving his degree, he moved to Houston, opened a law office and married my grandmother, a bright, well-to-do girl named Lucy Brady, who once bragged to me that she had a (corseted) nineteen inch waist on the day of her wedding. Ouch.

Born in 1903, my father Wilmer Brady Hunt was the only boy of three children. By all accounts he grew up to be a funny young dandy who was as comfortable at a black-tie party as he was hunting and playing cards. In 1928 he too received his law degree from UT. He returned to Houston where he joined his father’s firm and married a lovely, artistic woman named Eugenia. Five years later, in the midst of the Depression, my father took over the firm, following Grandpa’s unexpected death. What I skipped over were the four years from 1921 to 1925 when Dad earned his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. My father took me to DC in early December of 1962. It was the only trip my father and I ever took alone.

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A Song of Mine – The Gulf of Mexico

Gulf of Mexico -- Sperry Hunt

This is a true story from my high school days.

The Gulf of Mexico
©2015 Sperry Hunt
1. The sun was in our eyes.
We couldn’t see the end.
You were my girl.
He was my friend.
I glanced away,
Dreamers do.
You waited for me.
He waited for you.

Chorus. Some dreams take you over.
Some dreams take you under.
Some just drag you where they go.
Some live in the heart forever.
Some change like the weather.
This dream drowned in the Gulf of Mexico

2. You called to me.
I did not come.
I didn’t even know.
What I had done.
I broke your heart,
Like dreamers do.
I didn’t even care,
I broke it in two.

Chorus

3. You turned to him.
He said let’s wait.
You were my girl.
He was my mate.
He left you there.
Said he really should go,
But he would return from
The Gulf of Mexico.

Chorus

 

 

A short story of mine

Arcola.jpg

Life from a Distance

Life from a Distance

© Sperry Hunt 2011

As with most men, Luther and I spent nearly an hour talking about half a dozen things that didn’t matter just to avoid the one thing that did.

It was a sunny morning last July. We sat in our rockers on the deck outside the Menagerie with our feet on the rails. The Menagerie was the rickety lodge he and I built on top of the White Cliffs. The grain silos, the schools and the houses of Beeville spilled out across the prairie a thousand feet below. The old drive-in movie screen listed toward the rim of the world where nearly every evening the sun sets into a pot of gold.

During the first half-hour of our conversation, we peeped around town through Luther’s telescope speculating on what we observed: Sam Black was late to work for the third day in a row. Coach Jacobs and Father Dupree drove out under the willow grove where the river bends. And, judging from the consistent vacancy in her driveway, Lucy Malloy hadn’t taken up with anyone a year after Roy ran off on her.

When Luther was too sore to put his eye to the telescope, he leaned back and spoke in short breaths for a while about the virtues of tying flies and coffee can stew. In the middle of his stew story, he turned away and said something I didn’t catch. When I asked him to repeat it, he wiped his eyes with the crook of his arm and turned toward a silver drape of rain sweeping across the highway to the east. “Back when this state was a territory, know what its motto was?” he said.

“Can’t say I do,” I said even though he’d often told me.

“I long to see what is beyond.”

“Is that so?”

“Yep, and that’s just the way I feel today.”

I squeezed his shoulder. The bones slid around like they were in one of those over-roasted chickens you sometimes get at the market.

Luther snatched up the shot glass of smoky, green juice he’d set beside himself earlier. He raised the glass once toward me and again toward the horizon before downing the contents.

A shiver of disgust roiled through him. Then he grabbed my hand, hauled himself to his feet and threw the jigger with all he had into a long arc. The glass sparkled past a wheeling hawk then tumbled down into the hay field waving like the ocean on Karl Schuster’s back forty.

Luther fell back into the rocker and winked at me.

“See you, Jake.”

I stared at him feeling that low-voltage, bilious sensation you get when your car spins on the ice.

“See you, Luther,” I said into his eyes.

He groaned once then slumped back against the slats peacefully, like he’d done a hundred times listening to a ball game.

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Breath In, the film

Breath In

I watched Drake Doremus’ 2013 film Breath In last night. I always enjoy seeing Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones, both of whom seem to be everywhere these days. I wondered what would draw them both into what seemed to be a tiny film. I was not disappointed.

The story is essentially a British forbidden love novel with all the right beats and few of the traps that D. H. Lawrence would have merrily strewn  through it. The actors were well chosen, and every effort was made to restrain what could easily have been a tawdry, melodramatic and self-righteous tale. Doremus, who also wrote the film, made sure that every character had a firm perspective and the romance was attributed at least in part to events in their lives at that moment. What happened could simply not have been avoided by real people, which should be said of all stories.

 

Hemingway and Radio

Hemingway and the Radio

Yesterday my good friend Maria Gunn sent me an article from the 9/14/2015 issue of The New Yorker. The article by John McPhee is called “Omission.”  Maria has been good enough to give me feedback on a piece of mine. I warned her that the work needs cutting, and she sent me this apres pot article.

In making his point about the importance of lean writing, McPhee rightly mentions the man considered to be its greatest champion: Earnest Hemingway. McPhee quotes, “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above the water.”

Clearly Hemingway was influenced by his years as a journalist. Writing to the point is the point of journalism. But I wonder if Papa wasn’t influenced also by radio, arguably the dominant medium of his time. The sparely written radio dramas of the ’30’s and ’40s were very powerful. Witness the national hysteria over Orson Wells’ 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. People who missed the disclaimer in the beginning tuned in to hear a string of fictional news casts about enormous alien war machines ravaging New Jersey. So terrifying were these terse accounts that a few people attempted suicide during the show, clear evidence of the power of omission.

The Trunk in the Attic

The Trunk in the Attic

I struggle with the complexity of the stories and the accessibility of language in my two novels. Will a young reader stumble on a word more common in the books of my own childhood than in hers? Will she finish a book with so many characters and twists?

The point I’ve come to is that while I certainly do not wish to confuse, bore or frustrate readers, I do hope to pass on some of the richness of detail I was fortunate enough to be exposed to not only in my early readings, but in my own childhood. My father, a character himself, devoured sea stories, and could quote Shakespeare and Walter Scott at the drop of the hat. My mother, a painter and poet, quoted the Romantic poets almost daily. My big sister Lalu is a marvelous storyteller herself and read me Thurber with a wicked giggle. My late sister Robin McCorquodale published several acclaimed books and sang mezzo soprano in New York. My brother Grainger Hunt sang rock-and-roll and played Henry IV on stage. My own literary influences were Shakespeare, Homer, Twain, Verne, Stevenson, Doyle, Wells, Hammett, Hellman, O’Brian, Chandler and McMurtry. I read them still.

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Good Stories

Ginevra de' Benci c. 1474

Everybody has an interesting story, but it’s generally not the one they’ll tell you first. How Bob kicked the winning field goal in the last high school game is interesting to Bob. It’s the story that makes Bob feel giddy as he anticipates excitement rising in your expression. To get a grand sense of this, read William Shatner’s or Donald Trump’s autobiographies. They’re stuffed with vignettes that portray them as brave, smart and very cool. (I actually enjoyed Shatner’s.) They’re the same stories you’ve been button-holed in the corner at a cocktail party to hear. There are one or two in this blog to be honest.

The good stories are the ones you pull out of yourself like arrowheads. They make you squirm. They’re embarrassing or shameful – so much so they’re likely to be embedded in fiction, or told as though they happened to someone else.

Those are the ones I want to hear, and write. Most of us, I suspect, have several. But, like I say, they’re hard to tell.

*The painting is Leonardo DaVinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci, c. 1474.

Editors

Maurice de Vlaminck Painting

I’m at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, OR this weekend pitching my new book. I must say the more editors I know, the more I like them. Publishers, bless them all, love numbers. Editors love words. They are the gardeners of books.

*Painting by Maurice de Vlaminck.

Art doesn’t change. You do.

Duane Allman Anthology

One of my favorite blues songs is Boz Scagg’s “Loan Me a Dime.” My favorite version – and there are many fine ones – is the one he recorded with the Allman Brothers in Muscle Shoals in 1969.

A decade later, I played along with the song a hundred times on my Strat in my Mill Valley basement studio . At each drop of the needle, I waited patiently for the vocal to end, so I could I could play along with Duane’s passionate but nuanced solo. Among the finest blues guitarists ever, Duane had that rare combination of flash and reserve I so admire. And this song is arguably one of his best solos.

Many, many years have passed. Now, when I play this same cut in my Seattle basement studio, I listen carefully to Boz’s heartfelt vocal. When Duane comes in, I often find myself starting the song over. Maybe it’s that I’ve heard the lead so many times, that it no longer holds my attention so closely. Perhaps it’s that I hardly touch that old Strat of mine anymore. I’m much more about my acoustics. Or maybe it’s because I understand more clearly what the singer means when he says, “Somebody loan me a dime. I’ve got to call my old time used-to-be.”

Cynics

Nay Sayer

Pity the crank. The nay sayer. The lone member of the opposition in all things.

Or rather don’t.

Pity doesn’t work. I tried. A cynic will try to entangle you in his nets, and drag you down saying, “See? I told you so.”

Remember the words of Oscar Wilde: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

Follow the wisdom of George Carlin who said, “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.”

I urge you, don’t be tempted to aid a cynic. He’ll turn you into a symbol of the success of his own failure, or the failure of success itself.

Editing Help from Brooke Wolff

Edit with Red2

I would like to acknowledge the professional editing help of Los Angeles writer/editor Brooke Wolff. I sent Brooke the entire manuscript of my pirate novel a month ago. Two weeks later she had finished the edit and returned it to me with enough red marks to keep me from making a fool of myself when I send the manuscript out to agents and publishers. In addition we had a ninety minute phone call to discuss certain aspects of character development, continuity and most especially how to more finely tune the book to my audience. Brooke felt the two main characters need to be two years older.

She was absolutely right. The story began as a middle grade novel. As I wrote, however, it morphed toward being young adult. What had happened was the characters began to act more maturely due to the circumstances of being with two boys their age on a pirate ship 300 years from home. At this point I could have stopped my forward progress and gone back to the beginning. But on the advice of experience, I worried I would lose momentum and possibly even the heart to finish it. So I kept going.

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Songwriting is the charmer’s art.

Clefs

Songwriting is the charmer’s art. When I first hear a song that moves me, I become thoughtlessly rude. My senses shift from whatever or whomever held my attention to the source. I am instantly captivated by a voice. A groove. A line of melody, A wave of harmony. Songs like John and Paul’s A Day in the Life, Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, Joan Baez’ version of Tom Paxton’s There But By Fortune, Pentangle’s version of Lord Franklin, Jackson Browne’s Our Lady of the Well, Jimi’s take on All Along the Watchtower.
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