in my childhood did I want to become a writer. Early on, I had a thing
for trees — tall, leafy ones. I climbed the highest ones I could find; then I
built houses in them. My father once asked, "Do you plan to become a
monkey?" That would have been fine, swinging from limb to limb. Or perhaps
become an explorer? I sought out drainpipes to investigate and once I got stuck
in one. The fire department unstuck me.
My mother, who wanted to be an actress on world stages but bore six children
and raised five instead, would stop in the making of a pie and dramatically
throw an arm into the air in a final curtain flourish, shouting,
"Excelsior! Excelsior!" Ever higher. Onward.
I grew up where the air was fresh and clean. The fields and creeks of North
Carolina were my playgrounds, I roamed as free as rabbits and birds and deer.
With three or four other boys I played Huck Finn and rafted down the Catawba
when I was no more than nine. Never once did my mother ask, "Where are you
going?" Off to explore, of course. A very religious lady, she trusted God
that I’d come safely home. Several times I came close to joining Him. With
another kid I once crossed an abandoned wooden bridge that had been built during
the Civil War. The earth was a hundred feet below and rotten pieces of wood kept
falling away beneath my feet. Exploration! A writer needs to explore, mentally
But the land was gentle, as were the people living in it. Mother said she
thought it was fine when I told her I’d gotten a paper route. I was up at four
in the morning to walk to the Vance Hotel and wait for the Greyhound driver to
toss off the Greensboro Daily News. Moving through the still darkness at
age nine, not once did I think of harm. Then off to school I trudged in knickers
and a cap.
A few years later, in Virginia, I would lie in bed listening to the ships’
whistles from the Elizabeth River. Sailing on the night tide, the vessels were
bound for exotic places around the world. I wanted to be aboard them, to be a
sailor, go to London and Conakry and Durban and Hong Kong and the Java Sea. With
the Second World War, that dream came true. I love to read and write sea
But well before December 7, 1941, something happened that turned my life
around. At thirteen, green as the creek bank rushes, ill equipped, I began
writing for money. Fifty cents a week was my reward for a page and a half of
double-spaced sports copy. I reported the week’s athletics at my high school
for the Sunday edition of the Portsmouth Star. Late each Saturday
afternoon I’d ride the streetcar to town. I was in awe of the sports editor,
who said I was the rawest recruit he’d ever had.
These were Depression times, beginning in the late 1920s, and we were a
rather poor family. My father didn’t have a steady job for six years. But
there are many long-lasting riches that are not material. I did all sorts of
things to make money: I plucked steaming chickens at a local grocery; delivered
dry cleaning and dental plates on my bicycle; crabbed Paradise Creek from a
homemade rowboat, selling the blues for a nickel each; worked as a "cornerman"
for a group of boxers, wielding a sponge and applying collodion to eyebrow cuts.
Not realizing it, I was training to become a writer, a worker in words. I tell
aspiring young writers to do diverse things, to go to as many places as
possible, to watch and listen.
My grades in high school were so bad (I never passed freshman math) that no
college or university would accept me. The newsrooms of five different papers
became my places of higher learning. I loved the excitement of writing under
pressure, the smell of fresh ink, and the rumble of the presses.
I look back on a lifetime at the typewriter, many typewriters in many places,
and marvel at how lucky I’ve been. On those keys I have two-fingered sports
and crime and love and death. I’ve pecked out books for adults and young
readers, as well as scripts for radio, TV, and feature films. I’ve been so
very, very lucky. Here I am, still learning the three C’s of good
storytelling: character, conflict, and construction. And I’m still pecking