Focal Point: Looking back, peeking ahead

Published on Saturday, 4 January 2014 21:27 - Written by By Dave Berry

“There is only one thing you write for yourself, and that is a shopping list.”

— Umberto Eco, On Literature


Words have impact. I try to never forget that.

I stew over each sentence, editing, tightening, rewriting. I fight with leads, I worry over transitions. For a journalist who lives and dies by the deadline, that can be a problem. At some point, you just have to let go.

Most writers begin their dance with words by writing for themselves, hesitant to put their finished prose into the public space. Millions of half-written novels die unfinished and unseen.

Journalists, by the nature of their jobs, write for the public from day one. Each can recall early scribbles, where rapidly constructed stories, half-sourced features, misspelled names and grammatical errors went out into the world — forgettable efforts, useful only in shaping later, better ventures.

Journalists deal in stories — stories we hope we can tell well. Maybe somewhat idealistically, we hope those stories make a difference. We want our carefully selected words to have some sort of impact.

It doesn’t happen that often.

So, it’s a happy moment when you get that positive response to something you write. I’m humbled that each of my first 10 Focal Point columns elicited a response. Not just the click of a “Like” button, but real correspondence, fully fleshed out letters in which readers introduce themselves and tell how they related to something in my writing and how they were affected by my words.

Then, with equal gusto, they tell their own enthralling stories. I love it. I try to respond to each note. And I’ll definitely share some of their stories with you.

After my first column, “We’ve got your back,” I heard from Art, a World War II veteran who offered encouragement, and Cliff, a Korean War veteran who hoped I would write about that conflict, and Larry, an Army veteran who served at Phu Bai and Da Nang, who talked about his “great sense of pride in that unwritten code and bond of past soldiers.”

Thanks for the encouragement, Art. Yes, Cliff, I will definitely delve into the “Forgotten War.” And, Larry, I’m glad we both made it home.

Joanna, who liked the “Three Soldiers” photo, suggested I would also like the nearby Vietnam Nurses statue and recommended I read “Fortunate Son,” by Louis Puller. Thanks, Joanna, I love the Nurses statue. And the book is now on my Kindle.

Dorothy related a story about a World War II vet who, while on a Brookshire’s Heroes flight, went to The Vietnam Wall and found the name of his son’s young friend.

Michael said he wished I had told readers where to find the Watkins-Logan State Veterans Home. He was right; the intent of the column was to encourage the community to visit the 80-plus veterans living there.

The home — at 11466 Honor Lane, off State Highway 155 just north of UT Health Northeast — encourages visits. If you want to arrange something special, like the hamburger and ice cream social Brookshire’s threw, call 903-617-6150. They would love to hear from you.

“Saigon, Sweat and Spades,” a light-hearted look at an experience in Vietnam, led to nice connections with other Vietnam veterans. I enjoyed corresponding with Roy, who served as a combat medic with the First Cavalry Division. “Welcome home,” was our mutual greeting.

Other columns created a range of emotions. The nuts and bolts of life” made Hattie cry. “The letter in the recipe box” had the same effect on quite a few. I hope “Run, Rabbit, Run” and “Cold Nights and Coyote Calls” made them laugh.

The Dec. 8 column, “One teacher’s impact,” about how my fifth-grade teacher made a lasting impact on my life, prompted Chris, a retired teacher and coach, to say I had captured a spirit all dedicated teachers try to bring to their classrooms. Thanks, Chris, I’m pretty sure you made a difference, too.

Irving, who lives in Henderson and reads his paper every day from back to front, saw the photo of kids playing on the old swing set before he saw the headline. He knew right away where it was taken. “You can’t miss that skyline that reaches forever. It had to be Kansas,” he wrote. He too had been tutored in a one-room Kansas schoolhouse.

Terri, another teacher, thanked me for making that phone call to my old teacher. I thanked him for being someone who helps shape the future. And James, an 82-year-old from New London, sent a note through his daughter about his years in the tiny Kansas town of Thrall, where he too was the “smartest (and also the dumbest) in my class” since he was the only one.

My column, “In search of the Batfish,” about the day in May when I escorted Navy veteran Jim Callanan through Washington’s Naval Museum in search of anything about submarines, prompted the biggest reaction. I lost track of how many veterans responded, and I found many others who knew Jim personally as a fine man through work and church, but few knew his personal war history.

My tongue in cheek attempt to retrieve “My two cents worth” from the Texas Comptroller’s office brought little response, except from the Comptroller’s office, which called and asked for a copy of the article. I’m hoping they aren’t working too hard to cut me a check for two cents. … But if they do, I’ll let you know.

My column “Snakes Are Not Funny,” about Gary Larson’s Far Side serpent cartoons, was fun to write. However, the most memorable correspondence came beforehand with the renowned artist’s refusal to allow me to reprint just one single cartoon panel. So I drew my own snake and made it suffice. I never heard a word about my lack of drawing skills.

My column about “Letter in the Recipe Box” and my wife’s Uncle Hugh, who went down with the USS Indianapolis just days before the end of World War II, prompted a number of great responses. I’m sorry if I brought tears at the breakfast table on a Sunday morning, but it also brought a note from Dr. Wright, who gave me contact information for a Texas veteran who survived the five days afloat in the Pacific. I’m hoping he’s willing and able to tell his story. If so, you’ll hear about it here.

So, what am I working on in the near future? I have a nice one coming next week on the Sky Vu Drive In Theatre in my old hometown. It’s really more about going home after decades away, a funeral for a good friend, memories and changes and what it means to be home. And, yes, we’ll visit there again under happier circumstances.

Later this month, I will address a group of Vietnam veterans in Palestine. I hope my experience as an Army journalist gives them a program worthy of their time. If so, I’ll share it with you.

I have a date in May with the Batfish submarine, on display on dry land in Muskogee, Okla. I want to sit where Mr. Callanan sat, stare into his radar scope, and in that way thank him for what he did 70 years ago.

We’ll talk about the New London School explosion, fly along on the B-17 Nine-O-Nine and escort another group of World War II veterans to DC.

I want to tell you about my “Angels of An Phong,” and Operation Babylift. I’ve promised to write more on wartime POWs, Korean vets, and I sure hope I can track down a young lady named Esmeralda, an Army MP from Chandler who served in Iraq and flew home beside me from Dallas to Tyler. If you know her, tell her to call me.

When I launched Focal Point, I said I would let the column take me where it wants to go. Some of those forays have already taken some surprising twists — and those words, those stories, have been the most fun and the most satisfying to write.


Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column runs every Sunday. Next week, we’ll go home to Kansas with “Sky Vu in my rearview mirror.” Thanks for reading.