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Memoir: Shake But Don’t Stir by Neal Barrett, Jr.

Sunday, November 3, 1929, San Antonio, Texas, a few short days after Wall Street went all to hell, I was “untimely ripped,” as that melancholy Dane used to say, and came bawling into the world. Mom barely made it, but hung on till she was 84. In his own subtle way, Dad never let me forget I nearly bumped off his bride. Every year, on November 3, he somberly announced: “Well, ____ years ago today you almost killed your mother. Happy birthday, son.” He kept this up until he died at 79. For all I know, he’s doing it still.

I can’t complain. I’ve had a happy, carefree life except for minor glitches here and there: pneumonia (twice) chicken pox, measles, surgery, bullies, dead cats, broken limbs, tragedy, death, chemistry, algebra, stutters and ticks, gorillas in the closet, marriage, two lovely kids, divorce, divorce, marriage, sports cars, whisky, crappy jobs—that cursed brown and orange bike. God only knows where Dad found that.

My father wanted a boy, but I’m not sure I’m the one he had in mind. He did college football, baseball, track, went on to play golf with the greats. I was a skinny little klutz. He broke his collarbone, got a letter jacket. I read Hemingway, Steinbeck, listened to Dorsey and Bach. Did we love each other? Sure. We simply weren’t good friends. We should have had a talk sometime.

Memoirs fake it a lot. The family reunion down by the river, the time a salesman ran off with Cousin Lou. Writer goes on six pages of snappy dialogue. All this from 1956. Recalls every word that anybody said. I can’t remember what I had for lunch. The dog ate Aunt Sarah’s chicken, 1982. Or was it Aunt Maude in eighty-four? Split the difference. Aunt Lou. 1987. Dog eats a burger. Who’s going to know?

You want someone to print this thing, keep it fresh. Remember what you can, make up the rest. Hit the high points. Even when you think you’re getting it all, you know, in your heart, you’re not. Truth is stranger than fiction, but truth tends to drag. Folks start to think about a nap.

It’s Christmas and I’m five. Grandma’s house, Fort Worth.

Dad gives me a rabid puppy dog. Grandpa nearly has a stroke. Dad and I have to take shots. He won’t tell me what happens to the dog. The phone rings. Neighbors in Oklahoma City. Robbers have cleaned out our house. What’s Mom all excited about? We can get new furniture, they didn’t take my toys.

The year after that. The boy next door is rich. Kansas City kidnappers screech up to the curb. Don’t know which one’s him, which one is me. Billy’s maid runs out, clobbers them with

a broom.

I spend a lot of time in the park. There’s an old man there who likes kids to sit on his lap. I stick with see-saws, sandpiles and swings. My buddy and I do Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, Superman, Batman, the Human Torch. Cub Scout caps with a hanky sewn on work fine for Foreign Legion hats. Third grade, fourth and fifth. Girls are looking different than they did. They have little bumps up there. Bumps and gangly legs. Funny, I never noticed that.

Radio is king. I listen to “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy,” “Captain Midnight,” “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “One Man’s Family.” “I Love a Mystery” at 10:15 every weekday night in the friendly orange glow of the little plastic radio beside my bed. I send away for secret codes, rings that turn your finger green.

In the thirties, I spend golden summers on my grandmother’s farm in north Texas. Great oaks and pecans, a creek over an ancient bridge. Graves, buried in rattlesnake weeds, names nearly weathered away. Corn and cotton fields. An outhouse, woodstove, kerosene lamps, my very own pony, named Tony. Memories of my grandfather walking through the garden with a salt shaker, pulling up green onions, eating his way down the rows.

Elementary school gives way to junior high. Up in my head place, nothing seems right. English is fine. Geometry sucks. I already know that I’ll write, that numbers are demons to avoid like the plague.

Adolescence kicks in with a fury, with a rage. Girls don’t seem to care. I learn, later, that they do. Just not the same as us. Boys get the urge to rut when they’re barely into smut.

Right in here, just to confuse the issue, we get into World War II. My uncle goes. Comes back fine. Dad’s too old by a hair. I pray that the war will last. I’ll get in the Air Corps and blast the Nipponese. Or, better still, join the RAF, and send those Nazis down in flames. Not long after this, we’re pals with both these folks, and mad at someone else. That figures.

I had a great-grandfather in the Civil War. He walked home like everyone else. No horses left alive. On the other side of the family, a Yankee officer set a great-grandmother’s broken leg when she was a little girl, and gave her a gold ring. I learn we go back six generations in Texas. Someone had a Mexican land grant in 1833. Gambled it away, maybe. Kings over Queens. I could’ve owned Laredo, Corpus and San Antone. Too late now.

I’ve got a picture of my great-great-great grandfather, born in the 1700s. I look a lot like him, or want to think I do.

Still in junior high… I’m writing stories now, on Big Chief tablets. At age 13, I’m sending poems to “The Saturday Evening Post.” Getting them right back. I use a pen name. Why? Who did I think I was? Would the guys at the Post really care?

At the time, we also take “Colliers,” “Liberty,” “Blue Book,” “Argosy” and “The Reader’s Digest.” Mom belongs to a lending library. I read The Burnished Blade, Prince of Foxes, The Egyptian, Captain from Castile. If Frank Yerby, Mika Waltari or Samuel Shellabarger wrote it, you can be sure I read it. On top of that, Dad knows Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the author sends him all his books. Autographed to him. There is no turning back. I am really hooked now. (No, I don’t still have them, don’t ask.)

Two things about this memoir deal: What you leave in, what you leave out. It’s a memoir, right? What happened to you. As best you can remember. Don’t you have the obligation to tell it all? But it’s not all family picnics; there’s the Dark Side, too. Boys look up girls’ dresses, peek in their windows on cold wintry nights. Boys are into wonder, boys are into lust. Wonderlust rules their bodies, rules their minds. They steal from the dime store, smoke cigarettes, get drunk, throw up. Dancing in the semi-darkness, boys get sweaty palms. Back in prehistoric times, l944, girls wore gloves to the prom, went home and wrung them out.

Boys have personality disorders from about age nine. Sometimes they get better. Around thirty-two. Girls go crazy too. If you’re a girl, you likely know about that.

So, you going to tell all this? Is it going in the book? Or just that picnic stuff and the scandals of Cousin Lou?

I get out of high school, 1948. Hitchhike down to Galveston, hang out with untidy folks, people of the street who are kinder than the people who are not. I sleep on the beach, now and then in fifty cent beds. I work at a shooting gallery, while my buddy runs errands for the Bearded Lady, the Midget and the Alligator Man.

Then, hit the road again, off to Hollywood. Dad’s in the radio business in Oklahoma City. Out west I get to meet Cary Grant, Victor Mature. Roy and Gene. Have lunch with Crosby and Hope. Haircut with Adolphe Menjou. I down hot dogs and beer at the roller rink, watch Sidney Greenstreet stuff himself into a phone booth. He’s likely still there.

Stay over with Tim Holt. The man was the fastest gun ever. A snick! a blur, and he’s done.

College was college. I fell in love. She did too. We both flunked out the first year. She went home. I stayed on. Made the Dean’s List year after that. She did better, too. I got tired of the funky frat life. So did a friend. We moved out. Found a better, easier life. He was my best friend then. Still is. After 59 years. We’ve both made it past 77 now and paid for every year. Fell in love again. Big church wedding. Two lovely daughters. My wife introduces me to cats. On to Germany, the Counter Intelligence Corps. Can’t recall exactly what I countered. Couldn’t tell you if I did. England, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg. A trip to Paris to find a job, stay in Europe after the war. Took around some columns I’d written. Art Buchwald was going strong, they didn’t need me. Bought a new yellow MGA in Kaiserslautern, Germany, l955. One of the first of these anywhere. Got it for $1,750. Drove it up to Bremerhaven one night to ship it home. All the way, listened to a great, stirring symphony. Didn’t have a radio. Hey, don’t ask. Got so deep in the thing didn’t notice I was about to turn into the Russian Zone. Saw the big watchtowers up against the moon.

My wife and I got lucky. The Army booked us on a liner home, the United States. Our three-year-old bawled all the way through those great French dinners.

The family went back to Fort Worth. I stayed on, tried to get a job in New York. Didn’t. Came home, went into the art business with a friend. If you were in Dallas those days, you saw our three-story gold mural in a building on Cedar Springs.

Sold two short stories at once in l959. Both came out the next year. Then another, and another after that. I began to see I was headed for a brilliant, ridiculously easy career. Okay, brilliant. Apparently, not all that easy.

Tragic years after that. I couldn’t put them in a memoir if I tried. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? That’s what surely ought to be in there if anything is. If you write your own, you’ll come to this point too…

The bad times got worse. And worse still. But, to set the record straight, I never stopped writing. Not ever.

Confusion reigns. Disaster and divorce. A series of crappy jobs greatly interfere with my real work. Spend a lot of time writing books and stories using the company typewriter, the company paper, the company copy machine—and most satisfying of all—the company’s time. Figure it was their contribution to the arts. And, considering the companies in question, they damn sure deserved to contribute something.

Take time out for a stay in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Two years. Sell a lot of work while I’m there. Our maid invites us to her father’s sixty-fifth birthday down by the river/laundry/sewer. No roof, no chairs. Greatest molé I ever had. Get a stomach bug. Wife carries me to the local hospital and the loving hands of two teenage nurses with no training at all. Popsicles melt in their little chrome dish as they try to give me an IV without pumping air into my veins. Likely would have died there without the help of writer friend Mack Reynolds and his wife. Would have stayed in Mexico forever, if my so-called agent had sent the money I made off my books. Back home, to Dallas. More crappy jobs. Finally, another fun divorce.

Still writing. Never stopped. Wrote a Western series. Wrote another one. Wrote The Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. Wrote a book on Daniel Boone. Wrote a historical novel about the first World War in the air, by Rebecca Drury. Wrote science fiction and prize-winning novels and short stories. Wrote a pictorial history of Texas A&M. Wrote a hundred year history of the YO ranch. Wrote mystery-suspense novels. Sold one of these to the movies for lots of dough. Wrote novelizations: Judge Dredd, Barb Wire, Dungeons & Dragons. In all, over fifty novels and hundreds of shorter works. Still running strong. A screenplay with Joe Lansdale to the “Masters of Horror” series on SHOWTIME. More screenplays on the way.

What else? An unbelievably wonderful marriage going on now thirty-three years. Add: A stepdaughter, two stepsons. A fishpond, rocks and plants, flowers and trees. Lunch with my wife and friends. Movies and books.

And, if I played it straight and followed the rules of the memoir, I would have to include a lot of pride in what I’ve done, a hell of a lot of praise for the writers I’ve known, and a great deal of anger toward many of the people in this business: agents, editors (not all of them, though) and assorted scalawags who seem to exist solely to plague the lives of writers who only wish to tell a good story and get paid something close to a decent wage for their efforts. We’d like to have our calls and emails answered at least on a quarterly basis, and receive royalty checks somewhere close to what our work actually earned. Now, before you say this is typical sour grapes, that you’ve heard all this before, let me remind you that I am deemed a successful writer, based not only upon my work, but on the fact that I have been publishing for forty-seven years, and survived in this insane career,existing with no other income for 32 of those years. So if I complain of conditions in this field, I do so with proper credentials.

Besides, going back to the beginning, remember this is my memoir, and I can pretty well say anything I like. Everyone else does, and you will too. And don’t forget there’s the Dark Side to such a task, and try to picture all the evil, nasty good times I haven’t told you about, partially because I can’t recall them all word for word, and because I wouldn’t reveal that stuff to you if you paid me to. However, as a professional, that’s always open to negotiation. I only grant First North American Serial Rights, and never, ever give away motion picture or TV rights, and you shouldn’t either.

Not ever…

Location

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P.O. Box 190106 Burton, Michigan 48519

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