On Tuesday, April 22, 1975, my creative writing class of eleven students clambered into our teacher’s van in front of New Smyrna Beach High School. Florida morning steamed sweat across our foreheads and the backs of our necks. Fish and salt and the herbal scent of someone’s shampoo suspended in bright air.
We headed inland to meet author Richard Bach whose Jonathan Livingston Seagull had spent 38 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List, appeared on Publisher’s Weekly top US seller in ’72 and ’73 lists, and was made into a movie in ‘73.
A couple months earlier Linda Reader, who had been tossed into teaching creative writing days before the semester began, had fired off a request for Bach to speak to our class.
Bach scribbled a speaking fee of $2,000 in the margin and mailed back the letter.
Irked, Linda scrawled that he had to be kidding, we were a small class in a public school with no money.
As the piece of paper shuttled back and forth between Winter Haven and New Smyrna Beach, Bach eventually relinquished his phone number and an invitation to visit his apartment over an airplane hanger in exchange for lunch.
Two hours later we emptied onto the Gilbert Field tarmac, laden with submarine sandwiches, milk, and a seagull cake.
Bach met us in front of the hanger that housed his two biplanes and warned us not to show his vicious pets any fear.
Dinah Martin’s eyes rounded to lollipops and she stepped behind David Jones. Dinah was a senior, the girl I’d dubbed most likely to become a real writer.
I shrugged. If nothing, I was queen of obnoxious pets, though vicious gave me pause.
We marched up a flight of stairs to Bach’s living quarters to our fate… a couple of Siamese kittens.
We lunched around the circular copper fireplace in the center of the room, played Ping-Pong, and lined up for Bach to autograph our books.
I stared at the sunshine, sailboat, sea, and soaring gulls the writer drew in my edition and the largeness of his kindness settled on me.
Janie Payne pointed to a painting of a medieval man on the wall, her curiosity beating out her normal quiet. “Who is that man?”
“Ebb Demont.” Bach said he’d found the portrait while traveling Europe and believed he’d discovered himself in a previous life.
As his comment filtered through the Catholic catechism in my brain, Bach switched topics. “There are people out there who are like us. We need to find our family.”
James Knox’s elbow jostled mine and my eyes shot to his, but he was intent on Mr. Bach. James, editor of the literary magazine Linda had dreamed up, dedicated the inaugural Kaleidoscope to Ebb Demont. At the end of the year, James referenced Bach when he wrote in my yearbook that he counted me part of his family.
Kyle Avery, likely goaded by best friend James, blurted, “Did you ever get any rejection letters?” His voice cracked at the end.
Bach laughed. He’d gotten so many rejections, he’d papered his office with them.
Wendy Phillips and I exchanged glances, neither brave enough to ask for a glimpse of his office. But we both remembered the comment. In fact, I’ve collected a fat folder of my own fails. Like Bach, I wear them as a badge, not so different from getting flipped off by a freshman during my fling as substitute teacher.
On the way back home, scrunched in the middle seat between Cheryl Hiers and Becky Blackwell, I breathed in the scent of orange blossoms that bloomed on either side of I-4—sweet, like the day had been.
I carried my navy blue dust-jacketed copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull from New Smyrna Beach to Lakeland, Florida, while I studied journalism at Florida Southern College. The novel transferred to Ashland (Ohio) University where I completed a BA in creative writing. I packed the book into a family heirloom cedar chest with only my clothes and a Bible and carted it from basement apartment to
marriage in half a house. Jonathan followed me through raising four children, migrations to Indianapolis and Phoenix and ten changes of address.
I read the book once. Maybe twice. Jonathan was a bird who loved flight more than food. This passion led to excommunication from his flock, visiting nirvana, and a return to earth to evangelize the like-minded. Richard Bach’s prose soared and dipped with acrobatic beauty. But the man—specifically, the three and a half hours he carved from his life for me and my classmates—caused me to crate Jonathan at every juncture of my life.
I didn’t consciously file April 22 in forever, but a few things lodged there anyway.
Not reincarnation—what I wouldn’t believe from Dad, I wasn’t buying from Bach.
But I agreed with the author’s concept of family. Not only James, but Linda became “my people,” along with a gnarled rope of damaged souls who wound down the decades.
I met Bach in the heart of his fame, but it was the flair with which he failed that filtered into my forever. He could have papered his office in canceled checks, but he chose to immortalize “Sorry, your work sucks.”
Dad’s disappointment papered the walls of who I was. I got Richard Bach.
Starting, like Bach, from a baseline of failure, I refuse to fear the familiar. I aim high.
This week I queried The New York Times, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly. Who knows, maybe one of them will buy an article. So what if they shoot me the bird? I’ve been rejected by publishers, newspapers, public libraries, literary organizations, and my alma mater. Small change compared to my father.
After ten years of rejection slips, I published four novels, dozens of newspaper, magazine, and blog articles. Two books wait in the wings. I discovered I love public speaking and sometimes folks show up to listen. Fan mail overflows its folder on my desk, baptizing the file of rejections.
Bach taught me to climb on the backs of my failures into bright air and battered dreams.
Linda taught for almost twenty years, then advanced into principal positions in Volusia County. In 1975 she raced one day ahead of us all year, she later told me, inventing wacky writing prompts and preparing an environment where we could create our best work.
James wrote over twenty nonfiction books. Jane kept company with Jonathan Livingston Seagull and countless books as a Volusia County children’s librarian. Wendy became a high school math teacher. And I hope that wherever Dinah and the rest of our class are, they’re creating.
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