Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Dollar Bill

Sometime in September of 1962, my high school English Composition teacher assigned us the task of writing an essay describing an unusual occurrence in our life during the previous summer or spring.  His purpose was no doubt to assess our writing abilities which would indicate the amount of work he was facing during the school year.
Barely old enough to legally drive and living in a relatively quiet area of the country, the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and a relatively quiet area of the century, I could think of nothing unusual or essay-worthy about which to write.  I was a farm boy whose summers were filled with unexciting work, e.g. hoeing, pulling weeds, feeding chickens and cultivating seemingly endless fields of beans and corn.  As any farmer will attest, the results of farming can be anything but dull, given the weather and the economy; however, the work toward that end is exceedingly dull.  Leisure time was filled with easily predictable pursuits, e.g. fishing and swimming in local ponds and horseback riding.
And so, I faced the daunting challenge of recognizing an event in my recent life that warranted treatment in an essay.  I could think of only one pathetically feeble event.  During the summer, while feeding the chickens, I found a dollar bill amidst the litter in the chicken house.  It was a crumpled bill covered in chicken manure and pine shavings, totally unusable in its found state.  In the essay, I described my wonder at finding the bill, the value of which at that time was not insignificant, and the process I went through to clean it and render it useful.  Visions of spending it on three gallons of gas or five cheeseburgers the next time that I was allowed to drive to town made the effort seem worthwhile.
Although my essay was not exactly a description of an earth-shattering or dramatic, life-altering event, I was horrified when Mr. Bloodsworth chose my essay to read to the class the next day.  He did not divulge the author’s name but, as he stood at the front of the classroom, reading the essay, I began to feel like the main character in a Stephen King short story, years before I heard of the author.  I cringed as I heard the expected snickers and whispers of my classmates who were, for the most part, city-dwellers, sixteen-year-olds who didn’t know a chicken house from a chicken coop or the value of a dollar.  I recall hoping that a fire drill would interrupt the class and terminate my misery.  No such luck!
When he finished reading the essay aloud, still without divulging the author’s name, Mr. Bloodsworth looked around the class, and without his gaze landing on anyone specific, advised the author to pursue writing because the piece showed promising talent.  In spite of the expected condescending reactions of my classmates, I took some enigmatic pride in his advice although, at the time, I was unable to comprehend its significance.
That is one of the events that, remembered decades later, imparted a measure of confidence in me to accept the challenge to write a novel.  And strangely, after starting, I somehow imagined the kernels of several more novels, not to mention several short stories. 

Does anyone else remember similar - or different - experiences in their young life that imparted the drive or confidence to write fiction?


  1. Bill, I can't point to a single event like the one you describe, but as soon as I started writing a blog (which I don't update often enough), a number of people, including complete strangers told me that I should write a book. Now I know that there's a lot more to getting published than that, but it inspires me and gives me confidence as I slog through my first fiction manuscript. So I know how you feel.

    How did you clean that dollar?

    1. Cynthia, you're challenging my memory. That was about a half-century ago! However, I seem to remember scraping off as much as possible with my father's screwdriver and probably took the bill in the house, finishing the scraping with my mother's butter knife. Yeah, I hope she doesn't read this. I'm sure I finished cleaning it at the kitchen sink and I seem to remember thinking that, if I ruined it, I was no worse off. My first - and only - experience with laundering money.