The Bell Curve: My best editor still one tough Marine

I won't be making it to North Carolina this Fourth of July. I can't remember how many years that has been a part of my life. But I can best guess this by recalling a vision of my stepson, Erik, on our first Carolina Fourth.

He was tall and gangly for his age, which must have put him at 11 or 12. He didn't hang out much with the old folks. Mostly he sat with a spiral notebook and pen, writing his first novel. That must have been almost 20 years ago, and he hasn't yet finished it. But he's written a dozen plays and movie scripts since. And, meanwhile, I gratefully accepted the Carolina habit as my birthday gift. I got there by way of Chicago. There was a nest of writers-to-be living and working in Chicago after World War II. We were young — mostly in our mid-20s — and many of us had started families. So we were trained early on that we couldn't indulge ourselves with artistic prose that didn't bring in immediate money. It was a powerful bond that has stayed with us and will forever.

One of our bondsmen jumped ship early on by exchanging his writer's byline for an editor's eye shade. His name was Clifford Hicks, and the magazine he helped edit was "Popular Mechanics." Although most of us hungry freelancers were liberal arts majors who didn't know a screw driver from a chisel, we wrote well. So there must be thousands of artifacts around the country made from directions and descriptions in PM often written by technical illiterates like me. But Cliff was always there to save us. Even then he was the best editor I ever worked with.

It was only because of his urging and prodding that I broke though Life Magazine's wall of exclusivity around the seven original astronauts and wrote the first book about them. He also sent me driving across the country with my family — by then grown to five — to discover if it was possible to replace expensive motels with cheap campgrounds en route. Since my kids hated camping and my wife held me grimly to the banning of motels, there was a lot of tension on that trip. But there was also a week in Newport Beach, which mollified my family and got us one step closer to moving here.

That move took place in 1959, the same year that Cliff wrote his first children's book. It was called "First Boy on the Moon" and it won an award as Best Juvenile Book of the Year. It also signaled a new career for Cliff that gave birth a year later to a book that introduced a schoolboy inventor named Alvin Fernald whose adventures now fill 10 books and have inspired two Disney movies.

While Cliff was thus becoming an author, a new owner was moving PM to New York. So Cliff— by then the editor-in-chief — polled his wife, Rae, and their three sons and got a unanimous rejection of New York. Instead, the Hicks family chose to transplant their Marshalltown, Iowa, roots in a wooded, hilly patch of North Carolina surrounding a tiny lake, where they built the house they have lived in ever since. And where their invitation to me and my family to spend July 4 with them many years ago turned into an annual event that — I am reluctantly acknowledging — like all things beautiful, has a beginning and an end.

But they also leave behind a cornucopia of unforgettable memories that somehow always seemed fresh, even while we were building new ones. There were the vicious games of hearts for a buck a corner, where Cliff changed the rules whenever he was losing. The band concert where veterans were invited to stand when their music was played. And did. The magnificent pan fried chicken that Rae served on the evening of the Fourth. The delightful talk during the Happy Hours that took place at precisely 5 o'clock every evening.

The unwritten rule that we wouldn't press Cliff — a Marine infantry captain who led two island assaults in the South Pacific — for his war experiences. And the night he opened up, on his own, after two —or maybe three — martinis. Cliff wept as he remembered his best friend killed by a sniper while they were sharing a fox hole. Then his grief in the telling turned to anger that people settled their differences in such barbaric ways.

There was the fire engine leading the patriotic parade in Brevard, a few miles distant, and the wonderfully greasy food dispensed at booths along the way. The trip across the state line to visit the grizzled South Carolina store keeper whose only apparent means of support was selling fireworks once a year and who remembered my name from earlier visits and gave me a pyrotechnic gift because it was my birthday.

I almost didn't make it to Carolina last July 4, when Cliff suffered a heart attack and a stroke two months before we were due. But our hosts wouldn't hear of canceling so the heart games and Martinis flowed as usual. Cliff even finished writing a new book just before we arrived.

But this year is different.

When I offered to come if I could be useful, Cliff said: "Rae's got her hands full with one old man; She doesn't need another one."

God bless honesty of which there is an ample supply here.

Cliff's prognosis is not good, but this isn't the first time, and I hesitate to sell him short. As Rae says, "He's one tough Marine."

Meanwhile, my daughters, denied the opportunity to help celebrate my birthday all these years are planning one they hope can become regular. All I have to do is stick around awhile longer.

So I will be twice blessed on my birthday this year. With friends and kids like these, I don't need fireworks. But I do hate to disappoint that fireworks salesman in South Carolina who remembers my name.

JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.

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