as a small boy I never could get past a hornet’s
nest without throwing something at it.
Most anything would do—sticks, rocks, pop
bottles, shoes—but my projectile of choice was a
liked the risk/reward ratio, and the lack of
are harder to throw—you have to stand closer. But
face to face with the biggest, meanest hornet’s
nest you ever saw, you can do some damage with a
now my arm is shot. Oh, I still keep a lookout for
hornets’ nests, to be sure, I just don’t throw
bricks at them. I
throw words instead. It’s
what political columnists do.
love of words came to me as a child—spoken words.
I didn’t grow up in a household with a lot
of books—but I did grow up around extraordinary
talkers—gifted talkers, a gallery of
them—artists who painted with spoken words, with language.
and their clever usage were the coin of value in my
house—finding new ones akin to putting jingle in
my pocket. It still is.
The use of them, though, was not a frivolous
thing, not a lightly taken exercise for me.
It still isn’t.
in my childhood, the debates were loud, fast, and to
the death. Kill
shots were celebrated.
We played for keeps.
It’s why I always saved new words, why I
stored them against some future use.
know it’s warped, but to this day, I read
players, pitchers, gloves clamped in their armpits,
always work the slickness from new baseballs before
they throw them. The
use their naked hands and do it with some intensity.
are best done that way, too—rubbed, and
understood, measured for fit and feel and balance.
You never want to throw a word until it’s
me, I’ve done it. They
nearly always miss their mark and ricochet into the
Twain said the difference between the right word and
the near-right word is the difference between a
lightning bug and lightning.
interest in politics—no, not just interest,
something insatiable—started early, too.
Like so many interests did for me, this one
began with newspapers.
I know this is an exaggeration—it must
be—but I cannot remember not reading a newspaper.
a child, I read standing up.
I don’t know why.
Same thing with those debates. We always stood to talk, to challenge, to
probe, to parry, to move in for the kill.
I was about six, or maybe seven—I was born in
1952—my folks pulled off something magical. They bought a subscription to Life
magazine—just in time for the run-up to the
distinctly remember, as a kid, standing shirtless in
the sun, nothing on but shorts, barefooted, dust at
our mailbox warm and powdery…
mailman dawdles, sorting through envelopes and
car is an easy idle, put-putting smoke.
The sun is blinding.
It is hot. Finally, he hands me the magazine.
Kennedy is on the front.
Without taking a step, I open it and begin to
love this smell, this ink, these thin pages.
A single drop of sweat puckers a spot on the
page that I am reading.
The mailman rattles off. Mama is yelling at me from the shadows of the
look up at her. “At least bring it in the house!”
just for the record, I am a Democrat, but John
Kennedy was not my hero.
Winston Churchill was.
Kennedy fascinated me, like he did so many of
my generation, but he couldn’t tote water to
was the difference? There were a million of them.
I only have space left for one.
It was that lightning bug and lightning
lit me up.
February 14, 2005