Perhaps I would like to be a man of letters when I grow up.
In a sense, I already am. After all, I’m a published author, educated with higher learning; I had the long nights when I wished Greek was only a salad in my world, put Hebrew into my rearview not once, but twice.
My father was a man of letters. Much more literally, to be precise. I initially noticed this during a separation I was having with my first wife. I’d moved back home, couch surfing might be the best way to describe it, and on this particular day, my father was pecking away at an electric typewriter, even though he had an actual computer at his disposal.
“Why don’t you use the computer?” I asked.
“Because it’s a pain in my ass,” he replied.
“If you’d just learn to use the computer, that might be a lot easier for you,” I offered.
“Not now, son,” he muttered while pinging away at the keys with a focus meant in the same capacity as hammering a roofing nail, “I’m busy trying to be a pain in someone else’s ass.”
Dad finished, checked it, handed the paper to me, and said, “Read that. Tell me if it makes sense or if I need anything.”
It was a letter to the County Commissioners, informing them that he was preparing to file suit. This would be set in motion should their disheveled utility workers dare to again enjoy their lunch breaks on his property next to the No Trespassing signs he had well placed.
“I might have let them get away with it, but those lazy assholes can’t hit a 55-gallon trash can five feet away.”
“How do you know?”
“I got pictures. You really think I’m gonna threaten a lawsuit without knowing I have their gooses cooked?”
“Still cooked. And they’re gonna be tough old birds when I’m done with them.”
Apparently, this episode came to pass when a group of county workers parked in the front yard of the old house he used for an office. There were four No Trespassing signs in plain sight because he did not want to be bothered by anybody. They stopped, ate their lunch, caught a nap, threw all their trash on the ground, and took off.
They were not aware that my father was inside the house at the time, and my mother had been off with the car doing errands for him. This event allowed him to pursue further talent in photography.
“Why didn’t you just ask them to leave?”
“I’m an old man. I didn’t have my shotgun. All of ’em twice my size. It’s like fighting eight people. I ain’t stupid.”
“Looks good,” I said, returning the letter. He signed it, folded the paper neatly, sandwiched some photos inside, placed it into the envelope, and sealed it with a long exaggerated lick. It seemed to satisfy him as he took a contented deep breath.
“He just likes pissing people off,” my mother explained, taking the letter from him and dropping it into an already built stack.
We had another discussion on the topic about a month later, and he told me, “You just need to learn to write letters. Write a lot of them. If you don’t like something, write a letter. If you get mad at the powers that be, write a letter. Tell ’em what you’re mad about and how they can make you happy. Give ’em a chance. You don’t have to be a dick about it, but you do need to be persistent.”
“Does that work?”
“Ask Nathan Deal. It took twelve letters, but I got what I was asking for. And they were even nice about it. When people are nice, I’m nice.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“You have to be willing to write a lot of letters. I’ve written just about everybody, from utilities to bill collectors, to all my elected officials, as well as some that just ticked me off. I even wrote Bill Clinton a time or two.”
“You wrote President Clinton?”
“Yeah, he pissed me off about somethin’ or another. I think I mighta been a little rough with him. But he was nice about it. I had your Mummy send him a birthday card. Remember, be persistent until you get what it is you need.”
“Twelve letters?” I snorted in disbelief.
“First, they send ya a form letter back. You go through that a couple of rounds, and by the sixth or seventh letter, they call you. That’s nice. And they tell you that you can’t have what ya want. So you write ’em more letters. They’re the ones that hafta file that shit. By the twelfth letter, they understand you’re not bullshittin’. They’ll take you out for a steak dinner and give you a set of steak knives just to get you to shut up and go away. They keep forgettin’ that part of democracy, so I just gently remind ‘em.”
“So that’s how you’re gonna handle things,” I poked.
“Look, son, they spent my first 60 years making my life increasingly harder, I’m just taking the next 20 years to make ’em clean up their mess.”
He paused in thought, and as a burst of recollection flashed over his face; he exclaimed, “Did I tell you what happened with the county?”
“No. You mean the trash thing?”
“Yeah,” he grinned gleefully, “I got a call from their supervisor, you know, the guy with the white hat? He came down with that crew, made ’em apologize and pick up their trash. And that’s what the right letter does.”
“Any more problems?”
“Ah, they come by pretty regular now,” he purred, looking satisfied. “I don’t care if they come by, just as long as they’re clean about it and use the trash can. But not them cops.”
“What do you have against the police?”
“They try that sneaky stuff, sittin’ in my front yard and clocking people. I had to have a conversation with one of ’em. Broke the old boy’s heart when I told him I knew Butch.”
Butch was the local sheriff.
“Did you write a letter?”
“Hell, no. I eat breakfast with Butch every Tuesday. I told Butch if that dude popped up again, we were gonna play Smokey and the Bandit. I was gonna have his shit towed by old Bruice with him in it. Take a picture of ‘im with those sad droopy eyes, lookin’ like a bloodhound. Ain’t been back since.”
A little over a decade later, Dad called to happily tell me that he received a passport hand-signed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Yes, it was. The document had a wax seal and everything.
“You gotta learn to write letters,” he admonished me again, “If you shake the tree, the good apples fall. All the rotten ones are already on the ground.”
And with that, I may have some letters to write.