I retired on January 15, 1987, and within about two weeks I began writing these columns. Now, this is No. 1,300. At the rate of 50 columns a year, that works out to 26 years. Actually it's a few months more than that because over the years there have been times when I did not have a column. Such as when I was out of the country on vacation, or in the hospital. I figure there have been 1,365,000 words written and published during those 26 years.
I have never had any formal training in journalism. In high school, I always got good grades on written assignments. Except for the time my teacher held up one of my papers and told the whole class that I had used a certain word three times on that one page and that it was spelled three different ways and all three were incorrect.
Her point was, "If you don't know how to spell a word, look it up in a dictionary." My problem is that no matter how I spell a word, it seems to be correct to me, so I don't need to "look it up."
When I worked as foreman in a machine shop, there were times when I would be asked to do some kind of report and quite often I would notice that the subject matter didn't even pertain to my department. When I asked why was I doing those reports, my boss said I was the only one who could do them the right way.
I have known for a very long time, that writers often have a distinctive style all their own. When Ernie Pyle was writing about wartime, his style, the words and phrases he used, and the way he put his reports together, were easily recognized as those of the one and only Ernie Pyle.
I have been told that reading one of my columns is like having me standing right there, talking.
I've been asked many times where do I get the ideas for my columns? The answer is, everywhere and anywhere. Something someone says, or something I read, or while I'm doing something, a thought just comes to me. I think about it and gather a lot of interconnected ideas, and before I know it, I have enough material for a column. This being my 1,300th column is just one example. A newspaper article about scams is another. The death of a friend and a commercial for a cruise line are two more.
Why I write is a bit more difficult to explain. When I retired, the people I had worked with asked if I had plans for what to do in retirement. I told them I was going to write a book about all the odd people I had working for me, and that they would be in it. I had been thinking about doing something like that and when the opportunity presented itself I grabbed it.
I think the most important reason I continue writing is because I know there are people I have never met who are reading my columns. I know that because once in a while one of them tells me so. It doesn't matter if it's to make a comment, to add a bit of information, to share some thoughts, to say they enjoy what I write or to criticize.
One reader corrected me when I wrote about the GB racing plane flown by Roscoe Turner. I had called it a BG. Another reader told me where the Spruce Goose is now. I got several comments on my column about potato dumplings, including a recipe. Another lady sent me a recipe for pineapple pie.
When I wrote about an old-time friend and some of his Irish stories, I got a phone call from his daughter saying how much his family enjoyed knowing that his storytelling was being shared by my readers. A column about another old-time friend resulted in a call from a family member wanting to know the source of my information. He was surprised when I said it was all from the lady herself. He said the reason for his call was that much of what I had written was news to some family members.
A column comparing All Saints Cemetery with Calvary Cemetery brought a response from a reader who didn't agree with me. I've had many readers tell me about how my memories are almost exactly the same as theirs.
When I first got my hearing aids, I wrote about the experience and a short time later met a man and his wife who wanted me to know how they felt when they read it. They thought what he was going through was strange and unusual and when they realized what I had written was exactly what was happening to him, it made a big difference to both of them.
When I wrote about jobs that no longer exist, I included a photo of a railroad crossing including the crossing guard. That man was identified by a member of his family. They did not know the picture existed. It was a police photo of the scene of an accident. The excitement of finding the picture of their dear departed grandpa brought the family closer together than ever.
I've heard from several people who knew me from long ago and just wanted to say how much they like my columns.
When I mentioned my birthday in one of my columns I got a bunch of Happy Birthday wishes and enjoyed every one of them, especially those from younger readers.
Writing about the Great Lakes Exposition, I mentioned the midway attraction that featured a real octopus. It was real all right. Real dead. One reader said that made him laugh. I'd like to know what my columns do for other readers. I wish I could meet every one of them.
Straka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.