SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska
Column - Commentary

A Belated Thank You


April 13, 2021
Tuesday PM

Ketchikan, Alaska -
We often seem to wait too long to let people know they have been important in our lives. 

jpg  Dave Kiffer

As a journalist I have written dozens of stories of people after they have passed on and the common theme is always how much others cared about them and the difference they made in those people's lives.

Yeah, I get the whole "never speak ill of the dead" approach, but it seems that, more often than not, there is a fair assessment of folks when people come to grips with the fact they are gone. Maybe we're just assessing the empty space they have left in us, but it is always good to know you have made a mark. Although, in these cases that revelation does come a little late, at least for the dearly departed.

I was thinking about that when I was chatting with one of my former high school teachers in the store the other day. I was taken with a sudden urge to tell her how important she was in the direction my life eventually took, but we were talking about vegetables and cruise ships and, well, it just seemed like too abrupt of a transition to make. Plus, we were both wearing masks and, well, it just didn't seem like the sort of conversation you have when you are wearing masks.

Speaking of which, I have noticed the wearing of masks seems to have had the effect of tamping down the "gossip" that I usually enjoy when I am out and about. You would think it would be the opposite because (1) we are masked and therefore somewhat undercover and (2) physically the mask should make it harder for our words - much like our viruses - to spread far enough to reach the ears they are not intended for. 

But then again, this is Ketchikan where (a) we know everybody and (b) we have all had the bad experience of saying something negative only to discover that a not distant enoujgh relative of the person we are dissing is within earshot. Oh well.

So, apparently, the masks physically remind us that we "should not speak ill of others in public." Gosh dang it all.

But I digress.

Anyway, I had another conversation with a different person the other day and they asked if I missed "playing music" during the pandemic and I said "of course." Music has been a major part of my life since before high school (which was a fer piece back in time, the girl I was in love with back then has grandkids who have graduated from college!). 

But the truth is, there have been times in the past year, I haven't missed it as much as I thought I would.

Having the gift of music means that you also have the responsibility of sharing it as well. Sometimes you find yourself making music less for your pleasure but more because it is expected of you.  It certainly felt that way when I bailed out of music school many moons ago and I didn't play for a time, but fortunately, I eventually returned to it. And that was a good thing.

Now,  I pretty much play when I feel like playing, although in a small town you still sometimes find it easier to say "yes" than otherwise.

Music is important to me. But it is no longer everything.

Back in the music school days, my teachers would try to discourage me with the old saw "if you can imagine yourself doing anything besides (music) do it."

The idea being that making a living at it would be so hard that you really should consider "any other options."

One of my friends back then actually said that he could not stop making music any more than he could stop breathing. I thought that was a little overdramatic at the time, but I understand it now.

He, by the way, went on to serious music career in New York City, so he wasn't being overdramatic after all.

But for me, it is more accurate to say that writing has always been the same as breathing. As much as I loved music it would never be how I would "create," how I would justify my time on earth. For me, that outlet has always been writing.

i grew up in a lower-class family but one that was literate. My mother and father always had books, magazines, newspapers in their faces. Even at the dinner table, we always reading. When I was a little kid, I would read the back of cereal boxes. I used to memorize the ingredients of Captain Crunch and Lucky Charms. And Sugar Frosted Flakes and Sugar Pops (which still have plenty-o "sugar" just not in the titles).

So, I read a lot and, from an early age, I wrote a lot. Back in elementary school, if a teacher asked me to write a one-page report, I usually wrote a three or four page one. Once a teacher asked me - clearly in self-defense - to limit an assignment to "a single paragraph" and I wrote one that was two pages long. Yes, even then I. Could. Not. Shut. Up.

The good thing was that I always had a lot to say about whatever the topic was.

The bad thing was - in those days when penmanship mattered - I had such horrible handwriting that I would have probably even been drummed out of medical school. I know for a fact that sometimes my teachers would look at a couple of pages of my scribbling and just give me an "A" because they knew from my incessant in-class chatter that I was up on the subject even if my writing itself was incomprehensible.

Speaking of which, having horrible penmanship did benefit me when I was a journalist many years ago. Over the years, I developed a personal "shorthand" that was not shorthand at all but a series of scribbles and chicken scratch that was only decipherable to me if I got back to the office ASAP and transcribed it immediately. Even I could not figure it out if I looked back at it more than a few days later. I still take notes that way. It's like using invisible ink.

So, one time, I interviewed a guy who was in jail awaiting a murder trial and, after the story ran, the DA called me and said he was going to subpoena my notes. From a journalistic standpoint this is a bad thing. You don't want anything acting as a deterrent to reporting. My editor decided to fight the request for a while, but eventually a judge - who clearly didn't understand the point of the First Amendment - ruled that I should turn over my notes. I wasn't worried. I had used everything useful in the story itself.

There was no unprinted confession or details that would point towards one in my notes. So, I met the DA and showed him my notes and he asked lots of questions about the chicken scratches and basically, I said I couldn't read them because months had passed and I had interviewed dozens of people since them and, frankly, I couldn't remember all of what the alleged murderer had said (he was eventually acquitted). Which was all true. But very unsatisfying to the DA. That line of investigation came to an abrupt stop.

But I digress, again.

Back in elementary school, I quickly learned that girls liked you if you wrote poems, so - using my painfully best penmanship - that was my first "creative" writing. I also learned that - Cyrano like - the other boys liked me to write poems they could re-copy and give to the girls they liked.

So "writing" was clearly there, although I would never have called myself a "writer." Such a thing would just not have been done in 1960s-70s Ketchikan. It was generally expected that I would grow up to be a fisherman or work at the pulp mill. That was about it.

But let's jump ahead to high school, shall we? (A large "whew" on the part of you longsuffering readers).

I have had a lot of great teachers in my life and I always hesitate to single any out because, well, I would still be writing into 2077 if I tried to cover them all. And if you single one or two out, it seems like you are being unfair to all the others. They certainly deserve more than "participation" medals in the story of my "raising."

But there was a reason, the other day, why I suddenly felt the urge to blurt out my appreciation when I was talking to Margo Miller, and her husband Dick, in the store the other day.

Writing is the one thing that I know now I can't live without, but - as I said - I grew up in a family where it was not thought of as something you "could do" when you grew up. Which is odd, because, as I said, my family read voraciously. It stands to reason that they could have not have done so, if there weren't folks out there "writing" all that stuff.

I did a lot of writing for Mrs. Miller when I was in high school (fortunately the typewriter came to both our rescues). 

More importantly, at one point, after reading something I had written, she said "you know you could do this."

"I just did it," I replied, as even then "snark" was my default mode, although we didn't call it that yet.

"No, really," she said. "You should write. You are good at it."

At the time, I was so obsessed with becoming the next great jazz saxophonist, I blew her suggestion off.

And yet, even as I was stumbling my way through the Los Angeles music world, I found myself also writing; music reviews, travel pieces,  and, yes, more poems. Soon, short stories started to come out and so many false-started novels that Ithe  could do a 500-page book of just first chapter dead ends.

When my professional music aspirations finally, mercifully, failed, the writing was still there and has remained there for nearly a half century. Journalism, history, poetry, whatever. When I write, I am transported. I go into the zone. just like the "zone" that I go into when I play the saxophone, only the results from the writing zone are always better. And that writing zone is always there for me.

I can only hope it will be there for how many years I have left. It is truly more important than breath.

Thank you, Mrs. Miller.

I have now been teaching, in one form or another, now for nearly 30 years.

I hope that I have reached one person, the way you reached me.





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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.

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