Growing up, my family was very solidly middle class. When my classmates were getting brand new cars for their sixteenth birthdays I was saving money earned at McDonalds to put down on a 1965 Dodge Coronet. It wasn’t a classic, it was a clunker, but it got me to and from school.
The closest thing we had to a rich relative was my Uncle Bobby, a pilot for United Airlines. He owned a house on the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale, a boat that he and his family used to go back and forth to the Bahamas, and a small plane. He owned all of the Time Life book sets that were advertised on television—The history of World War II, the history of the Vietnam War—and didn’t just own them, he read them. Hell, I think he memorized them. He was the smartest man I knew.
He was also the most pompous man I knew, but since he was so smart, I figured he was entitled to the pomposity. My sister, two years older than I, disagreed. “He’s a jerk! He’s an asshole! He’s so arrogant!” Her opinions didn’t keep her from joining us when he invited us on boat trips, plane trips, or cookouts at his house where we enjoyed swimming in his pool or playing with his scuba equipment.
When my sister graduated from high school Uncle Bobby summoned her to his house for an inquisition. That’s how she put it. I thought he invited her over for dinner. She went and submitted to his right wing bullying. She knows what side her bread is buttered on, though.
She kissed his ass.
And came home with five hundred dollars and his best wishes when she started at FSU in the fall.
I don’t know what he hoped she’d spend the money on—books? Tuition? She told me later it all went for weed. She once got on the bus to take her from the dorm to her first class, but was so stoned she just stayed on the bus as it made its circuit, not getting off until nine o’clock that night. She dropped out of FSU at the end of the term. (She’s now doing quite well, btw, and has a masters degree.)
Two years later I graduated high school. Uncle Bobby invited me to his house for dinner. Me, who, rather than thinking him a jerk, admired him.
Me who, rather than thinking him arrogant, thought he was the smartest man I knew.
Me who, rather than thinking him an asshole, thought of him as my hero.
At dinner he asked where I was going to college.
He already knew that, having spoken to my parents. He’d researched Eckerd, a liberal arts college in St. Petersburg, with a fine reputation. He nodded his head approvingly, though he wouldn’t have picked a liberal arts college had he been the one doing the picking.
“Have you selected a major?”
“Yes, sir. Creative Writing.”
He nodded again. “Journalism is a fine career.” He waxed poetic about Woodward and Bernstein.
I agreed with him that Journalism is indeed a fine career and that Freedom of the Press is a sacred institution. “But I’m not majoring in Journalism. I’m majoring in Creative Writing.”
“Journalists get jobs at newspapers. TV stations. Morley Safer is a journalist. You know who’s a creative writer? The guy pumping gas on State Road 84.”
I laughed to be polite. I reminded him that Hemingway and Shaw were also Creative Writers. I pointed to his bookshelves and named some of the authors on the fiction book jackets, creative writers, all.
When dinner was over he excused himself and went to his study. When he came back he said, “Congratulations on graduating high school. I wish you the best of luck in your college career.” He handed me a folded slip of blue paper.
I thanked him and, even though I knew that etiquette dictated I wait until I got home to look at the check, unfolded it and took a peek. “Ten bucks? Glenda hates you and she got five hundred bucks for kissing ass. I like you and get ten stinking dollars? Here’s some journalism for you: Glenda was right. You’re an asshole!” He snatched the check out of my hands.
Not only did the lousy bastard stiff me for not kissing his ass, he called my parents and told them I was an ingrate, selfish, and destined for failure.