(Or Why Should You Read or Listen to Anything Here)

                  The first thing I use to tell my students is, “Don’t take instruction or advice from anyone unless (1) they’ve done whatever they’re teaching, and (2) you like and/or respect that person as a human being.”

Here’s the short version.

I’ve been writing novels, short stories, plays and screenplays for more than 30 years.  And all that means is that I have experience doing this — and all that experience means is I’ve had a chance to make all the mistakes possible and hopefully learn from them.  I was just an average student in high school and the guidance councilor, when hearing that I planned to go to college, called me and my parents in for a meeting.  She sadly announced that she believed it to be a mistake to squander my working class family’s meager resources on sending me to a university.  If I could get a job at the local tire plant, and keep it, that was about as good as anybody should expect.  My dad told the lady it was no strain on the family because we had no money for college and if I went I was going on my own nickel.  I’ve been a disc jockey, a director in commercial TV, a documentary and news director in the U.S. Army, and an educational TV writer/director.   With three college degrees, B.F.A., M.A. and Ph.D., I’ve also been a college professor for more than 36 years.  I’ve published a novel and a textbook, won some prizes for my novels, plays, and screenplays, and now I’m writing e-books for the web because I love it, not because I have to.  I think my guidance councilor died believing I had vastly exceeded my potential (I hope that isn’t what killed her).

The long version is this.

I was born as an infant two blocks inside Texas but grew up and went to school six blocks in Arkansas.  In my home town, Texarkana, Arkansas/Texas, our Post Office sits astride the state line.  A popular post card when I was a kid, and one you can still find if you stop along I-30 there today, shows a man standing on one side of the picture holding a bridle and a mule sitting down just across the line running down the middle of the street with the Post Office in the background.  The caption reads, “I’m in Texas but my ass is still in Arkansas.”

As a teenager I was active in my protestant church youth group, was elected a district representative from East Texas and attended state conventions at Texas Christian University for a couple of summers.  That’s how I decided I’d go to TCU for college.  My major when I started was philosophy. But since the professor lost me right after he called the roll each day, I decided to switch to Radio-TV-Film.  My goal was to go to seminary and be a minister, but I thought that understanding modern media would be a good idea.

One semester I had a terrible decision to make.  Which course did I hate the least — Advertising or Scriptwriting.  Scriptwriting won out (or lost out, depending on your POV) and bit my jaw and started writing.  When I got my first script back and got an “A” on it, no one was as shocked as I was.  I could do this?  Who would have figured?  In bonehead English 101 I used to get F’s over A’s — meaning “F” for grammar, spelling, and punctuation and “A” for contend.  My teacher seemed to like what I had to say, just not the way I wrote it.

Before I could start seminary or explore the possibilities of what this writing thing was all about, Uncle Sam decided it needed me to help win the war in Vietnam (you know how that turned out) more than I needed any more education beyond my B.F.A. I’d earned in June.  Hearing from my hometown draft board that my notice was in the mail, I beat feet to the Ft. Worth Army recruiter and signed up to make sure I’d at least get a shot at Officer Candidate School.  I got to drop out at the end of November in my first semester of grad school and U.S. Army paid for my very first airplane ride —- from Dallas/Ft. Worth to Ft. Dix New Jersey.

When I finished Basic Training and Advanced Infantry Training (boy, could I dig a foxhole), I left New Jersey where it was still cold for Officer Candidate School at Ft. Gordon, Georgia, where it was already hot as hell — or at least as hot as I thought hell was.  I was to have a better understanding of Hell and heat when I got to Vietnam.

I severely sprained my right leg falling into a gully with a full field pack and M-14 rifle which enabled be to spend three of my 16 weeks on crutches while I tried to keep up with everyone else in my class.  I had a Tactical Officer instruct me in the finer points of saluting with a crutch as well as doing push ups with my crutches laid over my hands.  On my way to the post hospital one morning I crutch saluted a colonel driving to his office and he damn near had a wreck laughing so hard.

With my butter bars on my shoulder, I was given the M.O.S. (military occupational specialty) of a TV/Film Director, spend two weeks in the Pentagon before I was put in a major’s slot at Ft. Bragg, N.C.  I was on the job there, administrating a 32 person D.A.S.P.O (Department of the Army Special Photographic Office) team when Ft. Bragg went into lockdown and one of the often held scrambles of the 82nd Airborne Division became a sudden deployment to Vietnam.  Unable to communicate with my command structure in Washington, I cut orders and attached a six man team to cover this significant military event.  Once the planes were 12 miles off the West Coast, the phone lines were opened and I called the Pentagon to inform my superiors what was happening.  I clearly remember a major trying to rip me a new one over the phone — “You, a goddamn second lieutenant signed orders and sent six men to Viet-fucking-nam?”  I told him they would return on the first available military flight back to the states, but my actions were what we learned in O.C.S. to call “good initiative – poor judgment”.  Within an hour my name was at the top of the list of officers going to Vietnam.

Two weeks later when the team returned and the brass of D.A.S.P.O. was basking in the glow of all the praise they were getting for the great motion footage and still shots my guys had taken, I had a nice hole in my arm big enough to carry cigars from all the shots I was getting in prep for my new overseas assignment.  I figured out right then that the Army was never going to be a career choice for me.

In Nam I was assigned to the 221st Signal Company.   This was the outfit tasked with covering the war with motion and still cameras.  Take it from me, when “shooting the war” means you have a camera and EVERYBODY else on both sides have guns, you change your pants A LOT!   If you ever seen the film, 84 Charlie MoPic, that’s what we did.

When my time in that war was done, I came home (diving under tables in New Orleans when a truck or car would backfire) and got reacquainted with my wife — my high school sweetheart who finished college in three years so we could get married (Nam didn’t really enter into our plans at all).  We moved to Ann Arbor where I was accepted in grad school in Radio-TV-Film and had a full time job as an educational TV writer/producer/director.  Our mission at the Univ. of Michigan TV Center was to extend the reach of the University of Michigan to the state and to the nation.

‘Won a couple of rather prestigious literary awards for creative writing, which was my minor, for both a novel and then a play I wrote there.  Wrote my dissertation on the history of GUNSMOKE, the 18 year running TV series at that time — it ran a couple of more years and somebody else got to write a dissertation somewhere on the whole history of the series.  I focused on the creation and the writing of the radio series that allowed it to have an eleven year radio run, transfer to half hour TV, then expand to thirty minutes and then endure a period of non-violence in U.S. TV and still not only survive but thrive.

My first teaching job was as Head of TV at The University of Texas – Austin in the Department of Radio-TV-Film.  The chair who hired me was Rod Whitaker who wrote The Eiger Sanction and The Loo Sanction before he moved on to full time writing.   I moved on, too — not getting tenure because I spent too much time teaching and working on productions.  The productions I did were not valued then but would get you tenure in a heartbeat, now.   The next department chair had only managed a fifteen minute documentary about sugar maple farming in Vermont and was much intimidated by the fact that not just me, but my graduate students were doing longer and better produced TV dramas in the well equipped U.T. studios.

Out of education on my ass, I tried for a couple of years to get Hollywood feature films off the ground.  With a partner I formed Texas Screenwriters, Inc. and came very close to getting a couple of productions off the ground — these were scripts I wrote and productions I was scheduled to direct.   But, in the end, it was all talk and the Austin of the late 70’s and early 80’s was not ready to be the film center it is today.

I took a job in deep (by God) South Texas at Pan American University in Edinburg teaching TV/film for both broadcast journalism and theatre.  After a couple of years I got a wild hair and drug my whole family with me up to Alaska where I had accepted a position teaching radio-TV-film at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.  But that only lasted a year before the oil crunch hit and the world class facility they brought me up there to build evaporated with the winter’s snow.  So, I returned to Edinburg — a wise department chair had told me she was going to keep the job open for a year because she didn’t believe I’d like it up there.  ‘Turned out that she was right.

By then we were well on our way to changing the program in theatre to theatre/TV/Film and broadcast journalism became an area within the journalism program — still all in the same Communication Department.  Pan Am, as we called it, became The University of Texas-Pan American — it helped raise the Hispanic numbers on the ledger for U.T. as a system but still kept the brown people out of Austin for a while longer.  I like to say that the only difference we noticed in the change was our stationary.  Down at my level that was largely true.

Over the years I moved up, academically on tenure track to Associate and then to full Professor.  I was Department Chair for eleven years before I decided I’d had all the administration I wanted and went back to full time teaching.  I know it’s hard to believe because usually when people leave a chair’s position they go up to be a dean or they go back to the classroom with their tails between their legs because they’d been caught peeing in the Fine Arts fountain or some other infraction.  I can honestly say that was not the case with me.

While I was teaching and chairing the department of Communication, we began P.A.S.T. (Pan American Summer Television) and made feature films, 15 in fact, with our students.   A couple of our films have been picked up by distributors, they’re listed elsewhere here, but we were mostly ignored because we were shooting on video tape instead of film and nobody wanted to see video made movies.  My how times have changed.

Over my years I learned how to direct for the stage and even wrote a couple of plays as I taught Scriptwriting for Stage and Screen and hosted an e-mail discussion list, SCRNWRIT beginning in the 90’s when you couldn’t have more than 8 letter in a listserv site name.  Part of what was posted there will appear here because we developed a damn good reputation and some excellent advice for screenwriters.   I say “we” because some very good people all over the country and around the world contributed their understandings and insights to what we were doing.

My daughter and son graduated from high school in “the Valley,” the Lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas.  My daughter is a physician in Wisconsin and my son is an M.B.A. working in the oil business out of Amarillo, Oklahoma and Denver.  My wife was a gifted and talented teacher of the fourth grade until she had a heart attack and had to stop about ten years ago.

Now, I’m retiring and working on the second act of my life — writing novels, this blog, and publishing my prose, plays and screenplay as e-books on the Internet.

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