I’m a big fan of Charles Willeford. He was writer of quirky, weird, often terrifying and funny books and stories. THE MACHINE IN WARD ELEVEN remains a favorite, and his Hoke Moseley books are tons of fun. Like a lot of writers who came of age during the depression, he got his schooling on the street and riding the rails, it was a true school of hard knocks before he did a long stint in the US army, where he served with distinction as a tank commander during the Battle of the Bulge.
Recently, one of his two memoirs returned to print. I WAS LOOKING FOR A STREET is about his early years and rough youth. His dad died of TB when he was two, and his mom succombed to the disease a few years later. Raised by his grandma, Willeford was sent to an industrial school for boys, learning some early trade craft and farming skills, before being cared for by his grandma full time. The idyllic childhood under her care was at first livened by the arrival of his con man Uncle Jack, who he had to share a cot with and who slept with a pistol under his pillow, and his Aunt Ethel, whose husbands kept killing themselves. But when the Depression hit heaviest, and grandma lost her job, Willeford took to the road to save her from having one more mouth to feed.
I’m finishing up his time as a “road kid”, learning the clear distinctions between being a “bum” and a “hobo”, and the dangerous adventures in the relief camps of the New Deal era. There’s a point where he’s sleeping in an abandoned prison that hobos and bums have been using for shelter, and he decided to create a new identity for himself. A hobo had told him a man better have a destination if he’s going to survive, so he picked the Chicago world’s fair. And since you could get arrested for being a bum without a job, he created an imaginary job waiting for him at the World’ Fair at the baseball/milk can toss that his fake aunt had got him. The new ID would allow him freedom from becoming like his dead father, and saved his grandma any grief if he got caught by some ax-handle-wielding railroad bull for sneaking into a box car. He created a detailed back story for his new ID, complete with sexual hijinx, fake memories of growing up in parts of LA, and a complex family history:
“What I was doing, although it was many years later before I realzied it, was manufacturing the basic background for a fictional character as a novelist must do in a preparations for a novel. The novelist knows hundreds of small details about this major characters that he never puts down on paper, but the fact that he does ‘know’ these things about his imaginary character enables him to write about them with authority. I was never called upon to relate very many of the details I made up about Jake Lowey, but thinking about them and planning how to use them if needed strengthened my self-confidence. In fact, the seventeen year old Jake Lowey was a pretty tough kid.”
I always love reading about writers who came of age before the rise of MFAs and workshops, because it reminds me that there is never “one best way” to become a writer, and that there is a great tradition of odd ducks and screw ups and strange travelers who took to the written world in a different fashion, and created great work in their wake. Plus, am I wrong to love this man’s fashion sense?