Memoir exercise: An essay on influence and calling

By Allan Roy Andrews

I can’t be too far from water. I may not see it, smell it, sail on it, or swim in it, but I have to know that it’s there. Sometimes I think a river or a lake just won’t do. Chesapeake Bay, which lies about one mile from my house, is OK, but it would be much better if it were the ocean.

This longing for the nearness of the sea is a warped gene I apparently inherited from my father. His father was a schooner captain, as was my mother’s father, and as a young man my father went to sea aboard a cod-fishing schooner, serving mostly as a cook. He hated it, and when opportunity presented itself to leave the bleak future of a fisherman’s life in Newfoundland—compounded by a worldwide Depression—he relocated to New York City and became an ironworker. His work was far from the sea, but his consciousness was not, and our residences during my boyhood were within miles of New York Harbor or the Long Island Sound. I recall him once saying he could never live in the Midwest because he had to be close to the ocean. I didn’t realize it as a boy, but I recognize now that I instinctively knew what he meant.

We are shaped for good or ill by our parents, often in ways we don’t realize. I recall once sitting at dinner when I was in my mid-thirties (my father died when I was 32) and I leaned back and placed my hands over my face and eyes and let out a sigh. I had no more made the sound when I shrieked, “Oh, my God!” (prayerfully, not swearfully). I had caught myself in mid-gesture and recognized that I was repeating movements I had seen my father make hundreds of times, usually at the end of a good meal.

Asked in any academic or social setting if I thought my father had influenced me or had anything to do with my “calling,” I would offer a scoffing negative. The idea is absurd. My father was not, as I have become, a worker of the mind; he was a man of manual labor. He discouraged my pursuing his line of work. Not because of any fear; he just wanted his sons to know a better way of making a living than he had known. If he needed a business letter written or a simple math problem solved, he always asked me to handle the work. Despite this difference, as I have grown older I have recognized the subtlety of inheritance.

Desiring to be close to the sea is a good example of what I’m talking about. My father could hardly swim, and I did not learn to swim until I was in my sophomore or junior year in high school. Neither my father nor I have ever owned a boat. I jokingly tell people that my family is one of the half-dozen families living in Annapolis, Maryland—the sailing capital of the East—that does not own a boat. We live in a “water privileged” community, which means there’s a boat slip accessible to us (for a fee), but as far as we’re concerned water-privileged could mean we have flush toilets.

When I was a boy, I was convinced I would one day join the Navy. In high school, I explored the possibility of Navy ROTC. I learned some harsh things in my investigation: one is barred from Navy ROTC if one does not possess perfect vision (I don’t), and the ROTC manual even shocked me by asserting that one could be disqualified because of “extreme ugliness.” The Navy has since abandoned such a criterion, and I learned much later that perfect vision is required only of pilots and line officers and it can be measured as corrected vision. However, after that flirtation with Navy ROTC, I never thought of being a sailor again.

Both of my older brothers joined the military soon after high school. The oldest went into the Army; the next went into the Air Force. Ironically, they seem to have missed the be-near-the-ocean gene: The oldest settled in Indiana; the other in Ohio. I alone stayed in college and never served in the armed forces, and except for a brief sojourn to study and break into journalism in the Midwest, I’ve stayed within striking distance of the Atlantic coast. Eventually, I was called (I have a mild aversion to this phrase, but more on that later) to go overseas as a journalist (to the Pacific Ocean coast), and as God’s sense of humor would have it, I spent a decade of my adult life as a civilian editor for the Pacific Stars and Stripes, the Department of Defense newspaper that circulates on military bases overseas and on all the ships at sea. After that experience, I probably knew more about the ins and outs of the military than did either of my veteran brothers but nothing about the sea except to note that Japanese use every part of a fish.

I am surprised when I reflect on those who influenced me during my youth; many seem to have been niche players. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, an ardent Dodger fan, and my imagination and calling in those days was to one day play professional baseball. My favorite player on the Dodgers was a strong, silent outfielder named Carl Furillo. Decades after my meager baseball talents forced me to settle as a fan (alas, still a Dodger fan), I realized that Carl Furillo, often referred to as a “blue-collar” player, had strong hands, a thick neck, and the square features of my father. In a 1989 eulogy by Carl Erskine, one of his teammates, Furillo was described as a mixture of iron and velvet.

That’s how I perceive my father. He could reprimand his children or grandchildren with a bellowing “Don’t do that!” A microsecond later, he’d lower his voice to a compassionate whisper and say, “Don’t do that, my love!”

My Sunday School teachers sensitized me to faith; my elementary school teachers implanted a love of the English language; my high school teachers led me to the delights of art and drama and journalism. Once again it appears God has some cosmic comedy script he is following in designing my eclectic life. I became a journalist. Somewhat ironically, my high school graduated its last class in 2004 and has been since turned into a city magnet school called—I smile each time I say it or write it—The New York City Secondary School for Research, Law, and Journalism.

Two areas of my life drew lots of praise and encouragement when I was a boy: My singing and my writing. I’m not speaking of creative writing, but of my skill with a calligrapher’s pen. I won praise in art class for my lettering and script ability. I grew up in an age during which one of the mainstays of elementary education was instruction in penmanship; in fact, everyone in my family, my father, mother, sister, and brothers, each had a distinctively beautiful handwriting. To this day, my children (whose penmanship deteriorated with their age) mock the compulsive possessiveness I show for my collections of pens.

Later, after a failure as an engineering student, I took my mechanical drawing skills and experience and began working as an apprentice draftsman.

Throughout that time, I was more captivated by the master draftsmen’s skills with lettering. I read lots of books about the alphabet; I read entire tomes on the shaping of letters; in short, I taught myself to be a calligrapher. I’ve never worked at it professionally, but during my second stint in college I became the poster-maker par-excellence for whatever event on campus needed hasty advertisements. My children as pupils took a certain pride when I inscribed their names on brown lunch bags. They frequently had to convince other students that the names on their lunch bags were not stamped or pre-printed.

Regarding singing, I probably could have been trained as a boy treble. I sang solos often in church, and at the age of ten I sang on the radio. A half-year later, I was a featured soloist in my sister’s wedding (and 23 years later, as an adult tenor, I sang the same solo selections at the wedding of my niece, my sister’s daughter). My mother made overtures about sending me to school to study voice with a boy’s choir. But sports were my passion and there was no way I could be made to sing instead of playing ball. I still love to sing, but to me it is an ancillary joy, something I enjoy for the pure pleasure of it. I tend to shun pressures to sing in church choirs or to join seasonal entertainment programs.
[This memoir was originally composed for an online class in spiritual memoir writing using a prompt on influences of my “calling.” It has been revised and adapted for this essay.]
I confess that at a point in this memoir-writing exercise, I found myself paralyzed in answering. That moment came when I encountered the writing prompt’s follow-up question regarding a time when I found myself “longing” to help a person or creature.

I’ve probably spent more time pondering this question than any other aspect of the assignment, and I have to say I can’t recall such a longing. The word longing, in fact, seems totally foreign to my reflections. Oh, I’ve known selfish longings for romance and fame and reward, but I think the question is probing my soul’s desire to serve others, and I confess that this language of longing has little meaning for me in that context. I want to say that those who nurtured and influenced me instilled a kind of Nike ethic if you will. Longing seems counter-productive. The operational and pragmatic phrase becomes “just do it.”

I think I have a similar sense of any “call” in my life to become a prophet, priest or journalist. I’ve always thought a calling had more to do with matching one’s skills and talents to the job at hand rather than describing any mystical or spiritual setting apart. This is not to say I don’t believe that God calls or sets apart; however, I’m not certain we are always able to grasp the intentions of God when we are placed in life situations that demand our just-do-it responses, if I can borrow that phrase again.

Even the response of putting words on paper in an effort to complete this exercise ultimately came down to my responding to a just-do-it urging.

I’d have probably felt a lot more comfortable with it if I’d been somewhere near the ocean.

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